SALVAGE OF EMPIRE

11. Shan's Emporium

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

As the two women walked to the sky-car perch, Sari’s mind raced. Everything moved too quickly, and she had to pace herself not to walk ahead of Ciah. She needed a plan to ditch her friend somehow. She silently thanked God that she had packed her purse ahead of time. Her thoughts began to coalesce. Yes, that would work.

As they climbed into the waiting sky-car, she chanced to look up and saw an armsman climbing into another sky-car just a few perches down. She hadn’t noticed him there before. Had he followed them?

She sat down on the bench across from Ciah, smiled at her, then said to the sky-car, “Car, take us to Shan’s Emporium. 5000 block, I believe.”

“Yes,” said the car, “515054 North Mori Street. Please make yourselves comfortable.”

Sari watched out the back window. Sure enough, the other car left its perch and followed. She sat back in the bench and considered this.

The car banked around a corner, and she glanced out the back again. Yes, there was the other car. It was tailing them!

“Sari,” said Ciah, “you’re acting strangely again.”

Sari glanced at her. “Am I?”

“You’re watching something out the back window.”

Sari watched the car. “I think that sky-car is following us.”

Ciah giggled and looked out the back window herself. “I don’t see anything unusual.”

“No? Watch this. Car, take the next left.”

The sky-car dipped below traffic into the turn lane and turned left. The tailing car followed faithfully.

“See?”

Ciah rolled her eyes. “Oh pooh, Sari, how can you tell it’s the same car? They all look the same to me.”

Sari sighed. “Car, let’s get back to our original plan. Shan’s Emporium, please.”

She watched as their car made the turns to get back on course. The tailing car followed each one.

Ciah tried to lighten the mood by babbling cheerfully about the various happenings around their social circles, and Sari feigned interest. Only a few days ago, she might have listened with real interest. But that large and unfathomable something that she had sensed that morning now haunted her thoughts. She desperately wished to speak with Julin, to press him with a thousand questions. Then she would interrogate Kolteo. How was he mixed up in all of this? Why had he hid Julin’s return from her?

The sky-car slowed and nosed up to the perch at Shan’s Emporium. Their tail passed and turned right. To circle the block, she guessed.

The women debarked, crossed the promenade, and entered Shan’s Emporium. The lights were dim enough to lend atmosphere, but bright enough to see the wares: the finest fashion from across Siben and beyond arrayed on racks and mannequins and artful displays. Soft music played.

“I need to find a gown for Friday’s Grand Reception,” said Sari. Ciah lit up, in her element now, and Sari gratefully followed her lead. She glanced about from time to time to see if their tail had arrived.

Sure enough, minutes later, she saw him peering in from the promenade.

The next time Ciah pointed out a dress, Sari smiled. “Yes, I think I’ll try that one.”

The male attendant, who had been hovering obsequiously, sprang into action. “If madam will come this way, she will find the dressing rooms.”

Ciah continued to browse while the attendant led Sari away. The dressing rooms were tucked away behind a false wall. The attendant hung the dress so as to display it on the dressing room wall, then he left her in peace.

Sari quickly opened her purse and removed shoes, skirt, and blouse. She took the skin cream from the masquerade kit and selected a darker skin color, the color of coffee with some cream. Then she opened the vial and, with the full-length mirror to help, applied the cream to her face, neck, arms, legs, and feet. She had just enough. The cream grew warm when it came into contact with skin, and soon her complexion grew darker and darker.

While the skin cream did its work, she took out the hair cream. She kept her natural color but selected a frizzy curl. She quickly worked the cream into her hair which began to curl immediately. She had no time to do it properly—the previous summer, she had spent a full hour getting it right. She looked in the mirror. Her hair was atrocious, but she barely recognized herself now.

She put away the makeup and donned the practical clothes she had set aside: a comfortable blue blouse without billows or puffs or other ornament and a knee-length brown pleated skirt, with pockets, that she could run in if necessary. She smiled, thinking of all the times as teenagers that she and Julin had ventured out together into the ground levels of the city. “Slumming,” they’d called it. She’d learned the importance of good clothes then.

She started to stuff her old clothes into the purse, then thought better, and hung them up. She took the crystal from the purse and put it in a skirt pocket. Then, she set her purse on the floor—it would be too recognizable to take along—and went to the door.

She peeked out. The attendant was nowhere to be seen. She opened the door slowly and stole out.

“Madame?” Sari nearly jumped out of her skin. The attendant had been waiting on the other side of the door and now wore a puzzled expression on his face.

Sari shushed him with an upraised hand, then drew him close to her. He was slight of build and a full hand shorter than her. “Listen,” she said in a low whisper. “I’m playing a trick on my friend. I love the dress. Please have it delivered with my other things, and send me the bill. Give me five minutes before you come out.”

Mouth agape, the attendant nodded. Sari turned, took a deep breath, straightened her blouse, smoothed her skirt, and walked confidently out from behind the half-wall.

With an unhurried pace, looking straight ahead, she left the store, walking right past the watching armsman, who took no notice of her. Once she had turned the corner, she quickened her pace and made her way to the sky-car perches on the other side of the building. This time, no one followed.

Soon she was near the river at the address Julin had given her. The sky car wouldn’t descend, so after perching it, she took the elevator down. She hadn’t taken a lift to ground level in, well, years, now that she considered it. Half-way down, on the mixing floor, she had to get out and switch to the ground-level elevator. The paneling here was dirty, the buttons (it had buttons) were grimy, and the light flickered. She sniffed, wrinkled her nose at the musty odor, and settled in to wait.

Finally, at ground level, she stepped out. The lobby also showed long years of neglect. It was cold down here. The building heat must not be working. Outside, people trudged up and down the street, most in heavy coats. Sari had forgotten the winter, and had not thought to bring even a light jacket. So much for practical clothes! She shivered in her blouse and hugged herself as she circled the block, looking for Julin’s meeting-place. A diner of some sort.

She found it but stopped in her tracks. Outside stood two black-armored Enforcers, helmets off, casually smoking.

She was too late.

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