SALVAGE OF EMPIRE

9. The Party

Continued from .
The story begins with 1. The Director.

As the sky-barge left its eyrie perch high above the city, bathed in the red-golden light of sunset, all the high-caste party-goers cheered. All but one. And as the sky-barge settled in the River Turga, sheltered from the drizzling rain by force shields, the band started up and all the most important people of this most important city on the most important planet in the Empire, Siben, all of them began to dance beneath the lights of the city. All but one. Sarisharle Ais, tall and proud, olive skinned, raven-haired, striking in an emerald green evening gown that matched her eyes, stood alone, bereft. Her husband, an important man, Director Kolteo Ais, had said he would come, but he had not.

Later that night, when the sky-barge left the river and returned to its perch, Sarisharle, or Sari, as her few friends knew her, stood near the gate, ready to debark. Shame and embarrassment flushed her cheeks and made her narrowed, green eyes glassy. She had suspected this time would come, when her husband’s attention would wander to some younger paramour and neglect her. She had seen it happen countless times among the important men. Had he become just like the others? What other explanation could there be for his distance and all the late nights at work? And now this.

The young attendant came and opened the gate, then tipped his hat to her. She ignored him, as was proper, and stepped past him onto the skyscraper deck. She walked quickly to the far railing, past the doors that led inside, away from the crowd of party-goers, where she would not have to face them. The lights of the city shone out before her, and she took in a sharp breath at the height. No matter how many times she looked down, she could never get used to it.

Footsteps behind her alerted her to someone approaching, a man’s shoes and gait, and she turned to face the shadowy figure. He was back-lit by the bright lights across the way, tall and menacing. Beneath her evening gown, she slipped her feet out of the high-heeled shoes she wore, ready to flee. The man stopped three paces away. Even shadowed, she could see that he was not dressed in evening wear, but looked disheveled and unkempt. She lifted her chin, covering her fear with haughtiness.

Then the man laughed. “Sari! You haven’t changed a bit! Still putting on airs.”

She covered her mouth with her hand. She recognized that voice! “Julin?” She had not seen her brother in, what? Ten years, at least.

He stepped forward, and now in the dim light she recognized his lopsided grin, dark and careless hair, and warm brown eyes. “In the flesh. You still remember me, then!”

“Oh, Julin, of course!” She took a step, and they embraced. “Oh, how I’ve missed you,” she breathed against his shoulder. He stood a full head taller than her. She had forgotten how much she loved the careful strength of her older brother’s arms.

He patted her back, then held her at arm’s length to look at her. “And I’ve missed you. It’s been a long time.”

She stepped back, for the moment, all her fears and suspicions forgotten. “Where are you staying? You should come to our apartment for drinks. Kolteo is working late, but he’ll be home soon.”

Julin’s smile flattened to a grim line. “I can’t. I can’t even talk long. I’m being followed, and they’re sure to catch up to me any moment.”

He jammed his hand into his pocket and pulled it out with something small and crystalline. “Please, take this, and keep it safe. Don’t tell anybody about it or about meeting me. Not even Kolteo.” He hesitated. “Especially not Kolteo.”

She took the crystal automatically, not understanding. “But what is it?”

“The truth,” he said firmly. “Sari, I found the Lost Fleet. I found Father’s ship. This is the flight recorder, with the ship’s log, everything. I can clear his name.”

She stared at him and again covered her open mouth with her hand. “You…”

They heard a shout from across the rooftop. Julin whipped around. “They’re here. Keep that, and guard it! I’ll call you tomorrow.”

He looked at her, gave her one more glimpse of that lopsided grin, then threw himself in a full-bodied leap over the railing.

Sari grasped the railing in a panic, leaning over the edge to watch him. Julin fell, spread-eagled, angling away from the building. Then, he tucked his arms and legs in, and when he spread them again, dark wings had appeared from somewhere. He glided away, soon lost to view among the towers and lights of the city. She smiled in relief and wonder. Her brother had always been full of surprises. But wings?

Footsteps pounded up behind her. She turned to face three men, two in black armor, the third…

“Sari! Are you alright?”

She looked into the gray eyes and patrician face of Kolteo, her husband. She brought her hand to her mouth, then her chest. Her heart pounded. She quickly gathered her wits. “Yes, oh, yes, I’m fine. Who was that?”

Kolteo grimaced. “A very dangerous man. Maybe the most dangerous in the Empire right now. Did he speak to you?”

“He asked me if there was another way off this roof. I didn’t know, and then he jumped.”

“Did you get a good look at him?”

Sari shook her head. “No, his face was shadowed.”

Kolteo went to the railing and looked over then slammed his fist down. Leaning on the railing, he looked down at his feet and sighed deeply. After a moment, he looked up at the two black-armored enforcers, and said in a commanding voice, “Thank you, gentlemen; that’s all for now. We won’t be hunting any more tonight.”

They bowed and turned silently away.

Kolteo sighed, then gathered Sari in an embrace. “I’m sorry this involved you. I hope he didn’t frighten you.”

Sari leaned into the embrace and rested her chin on his shoulder, looking up at the cold and cheerless stars, gripping the crystal in her hand. “Only a little. I’ll be fine.”

“I’m sorry I missed the party. This came up suddenly.”

“I understand,” she said, not understanding in the least.

“How was it?”

“Cold. The music was nice.” She turned her head to look at him. “Will you take me home?”

“Yes, of course.”

She fumbled in her purse then, pulling out her mirror only after depositing the crystal flight recorder down at the bottom beneath her makeup. She made a show of checking her hair, then replaced the mirror and offered her arm to her husband.

Arm in arm, he escorted her to the doors, down to where his personal sky-car was perched.

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