Continued from 9. The Party.
The story begins with 1. The Director.
The next morning, after breakfast, Sari saw Kolteo out the door with a forced smile and a kiss. “Good-bye, darling.”
He paused and looked at her curiously. “Sari, about the other night…”
Her smile evaporated. She shook her head sharply. “You need to go.”
He drew back, stung. When she said nothing more, he turned and went.
When the door had shut, she turned back to face the luxurious, quiet, empty penthouse apartment. She went to the window, looked out at the city and the buzzing sky-cars. Then, she began to pace beneath the high and airy ceiling. For the first time she allowed herself to think about the previous night.
She let out a long, shuddering sigh. She had lost hope of ever seeing her brother again. And there he had been! She had embraced him! The events of the prior evening had set her mind whirling, and still it spun.
She steadied herself on the edge of the beige davenport, and looked around at her life: a pile of expensive furniture, tastefully arranged to complement the expensive people who came to visit and artfully drape themselves across it. She had spent pleasant weeks, all told, planning and acquiring all the pieces. She found herself suddenly disgusted with the emptiness of it all.
What had happened last night? The meaning of it all hung just out of reach: Julin’s sudden re-appearance, the recorder crystal, the news about their father, and Kolteo’s sudden entry onto the scene.
That at least gave her some reassurance: perhaps Kolteo was not unfaithful. But what was he then?
Something large and unfathomable stood ready to crash down on her, and sweep away everything she knew and understood.
She took a deep breath and nodded slowly. She would not sit and wait for it to come, whatever it might be. She straightened herself, standing tall on steady legs.
She went to the bedroom and began packing a large purse with lightweight, practical clothes. After a moment’s thought, she added a quick-change makeup kit from the previous summer’s masquerade. Finally, she tucked the recorder crystal into an inner pocket. She placed the purse on the table near the door. There. Now, she was as ready as could be.
The door chimed. Sari smoothed her skirt, straightened her blouse, and went to answer it.
It was her friend Ciah. Sari welcomed her in and bade her sit down. She smelled of roses, Ciah, her good friend. They had shared so many heart-to-heart talks over the years. Ciah, of slender build, with silky brown hair framing her porcelain features. Ciah, who had ignored her at the party last night. Ciah sat, poised on the edge of the chair.
Sari offered tea. She had long ago forbidden the servants from coming before noon, so she drew the water and measured out the tea herself.
When they were settled, Ciah said, “I hear that your brother is in town. Have you seen him yet?”
Sari sat with her teacup halfway to her lips. After a moment, she recovered her wits and took a sip. “I had not heard that! Who told you?”
Ciah smiled. “Maceya’s husband saw him at the spaceport and recognized him. Word gets around.”
Sari nodded, trying to summon her enthusiasm. “That’s wonderful news. I’ve not seen him in years.”
“We’ll have to throw a party for him. I wonder why he hasn’t contacted you?”
Years of shared experience pressed on Sari. She desperately wanted to tell Ciah everything, but sudden caution stayed her. She looked down into her cup. “Oh, it doesn’t surprise me. He was always caught up in his own plans. You know how men are.” The last came out sounding more bitter than she had expected.
Ciah wrinkled her smooth brow. “Is something wrong, Sari?”
Sari looked up. “No,” she said, too suddenly. “Why?”
Ciah leaned forward. “You’ve been acting strangely, Sari. Really, you’ve been practically no fun at all lately. Why, last night, you barely said a word to anybody!”
Sari sat straight up and set the cup down in the saucer in her lap with a clink. “I’ve had a lot on my mind.”
Ciah nodded with finality. “You have heard about your brother. The rumors have been swirling for weeks now about him.”
Sari opened her eyes wide. “Weeks?” she said in unfeigned surprise. “This is the first I’ve heard of it.”
“They say he found something, some terrible secret, out in the Periphery.”
“That’s… that’s ridiculous.”
Ciah smiled, her eyes twinkling. “You would know.”
“I don’t!” Sari protested.
“Sari, everyone knows he went looking for something to clear your father’s name.”
Sari’s face flushed. She held herself rigid. “I’ve asked you before not to speak of that.”
Ciah pouted, knitting her brow. “Well it’s true, he did. And why else would he be back unless he found something?” Her face cleared of doubt. “Wouldn’t that be exciting?”
If you only knew, thought Sari. She was saved by the chiming of an incoming call. She excused herself and took the call in the bedroom on her compact mirror.
“Sari?” The voice crackled in her ear, but she recognized it as Julin’s. Oh, Julin. All the questions I have for you.
“Oh, hello,” she said. “Listen, I have company over at the moment. Can I call you back later?”
Julin chuckled. “You always loved to play spy games when we were kids. Now’s your chance.”
“Uh-huh,” said Sari.
“Meet me in an hour at…” he read off an address, ground level, near the river. “I’ll treat you to lunch. Bring the crystal.”
“Alright,” said Sari. “I’ll call you then. Thanks for understanding!”
She took a minute to be sure she had the address memorized, then returned to the parlor. “My aunt,” she said apologetically to Ciah. “She calls me every week. I’ll call her back later.”
Sari immediately took control of the conversation, steering it toward inconsequential things. Ciah relented, and they conversed pleasantly as they finished their tea.
Sari glanced at the time, then smiled widely at her friend. “Well, thank you for coming over. I absolutely have to get out to get some shopping done before lunch.”
Ciah clapped her hands. “How splendid! May I accompany you? I’m at loose ends until this evening.”
Outmaneuvered, Sari could do nothing but smile and invite Ciah to accompany her. She put the tea service on the counter for the help to take care of later, then set the strap of her purse on her shoulder. “Shall we?”
As they left the apartment and talked companionably on the short walk to the sky-car perch, neither woman saw the armsman shadowing them at a distance.
Continued in: 11. Shan's Emporium
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