Continued from 22. The Bank.
The story begins with 1. The Director.
Meanwhile, Julin was just getting off the line with owlish Vhen. He’d gone back to catch the slideway again, figuring those were the safest public terminals to use, and now he was returning to meet up with Kolteo and Romik.
He was surprised to discover what a relief it had been to talk to Vhen, and to know that he was on his way. When he stopped to consider it, he barely knew the man, and yet he felt that Vhen was his only friend in the world right now. Ever since he’d met the man in the dark tunnel outside Dorgio’s—what was it, two days ago?—from that moment, Vhen’s support had become a comfort to Julin, who had traveled lonely paths for ten years. Vhen had known his father well, better in some ways than Julin had, and his father had tasked Vhen with completing Julin’s training. Whatever that meant. Julin found now that he yearned for Vhen’s support and advice. He’d told him everything that had happened, briefly, but completely. He’d had to stop himself from getting emotional at one point. The fatigue was truly getting to him.
Julin shook his head. So much had happened in the past few days, and not one thing had gone according to his own plans. He pulled the data crystal out of his pocket and turned it over in his hands, watching the play of light over it. Ten years he had spent searching for this. Ten years, and now here he was, realizing his life’s ambition. Or was he? Was it even possible to clear his father’s name now? Would anyone care? Or would all his efforts be overshadowed by the shift in power?
He realized now that his plan had hinged on using a scandal to push the high and mighty Director Kolteo Ais off of his platform. But because of Sari, Kolteo had stepped away from power on his own terms. Now Julin had no leverage. Kolteo was already running for his life, and what was a scandal compared to that? Julin had forced the issue. He had ruined Kolteo, in a way. That was revenge enough, wasn’t it?
And what was revenge, compared to restoring his father’s good name? News of the Emperor’s demise, and the plot against him, was still his secret to divulge. Altolcz’s offer of patronage could prove fortuitous. Altolcz controlled almost all the news and entertainment across the Empire, and he himself was a storyteller. He would know how to use Julin’s secret to greatest effect.
And with Altolcz as his patron and benefactor, Julin wouldn’t have any need for Kolteo. All he needed to do was get Sari to safety, and he could be free of Kolteo altogether.
Even better if he could convince Sari to leave Kolteo for good, once she was well. Certainly, after their arrest, she could see his ugly side. Now, without the benefits of his riches and high place, and with danger growing at every turn, what reason could she possibly have for staying at his side?
Julin stood up. His stop was coming now. He started walking down the colored belts, slower and slower until he was standing on the solid ground of the platform. Yes, he would do everything he could to get Sari away from Kolteo.
He returned to the street level of Siben. The cold wind bit at him, and he shivered. He’d spent too many years in warm, climate-controlled environments out in the black of space. Too many years away from the vagaries of the weather. He found now that he hadn’t missed it.
Past the bank, he headed for the clothiers to meet up with Kolteo and Romik. And Vhen. He had given Vhen the meeting place too. Once they had all assembled, they could return to Dorgio’s in Vhen’s sky car, quickly and in style. No more of this mucking about in tunnels.
He walked quickly with his long stride. The pace helped keep him warm, but the wound on his leg burned at every step. He glanced down and saw that the dressing was showing red again. He gritted his teeth and pressed on. Maybe Vhen would be able to find him another dressing like Dorgio had given him. Maybe he could rest in a sky car and keep off his leg, instead of this constant plodding around everywhere.
He just had to make it to the clothiers. Then he could buy some clean dry clothes that weren’t ripped to make dressings. Then he could hitch a ride in Vhen’s sky car. Maybe then he could even get some sleep. Everything would get better once he’d met up with the others. Especially Vhen.
As he reached the block he was looking for, he slowed, favoring his hurt leg. This was a lower-class shopping district, and he smiled at the thought of Kolteo in this setting. The clothiers would naturally sell rough, durable, inexpensive clothing, not the soft and expensive fabrics that a man of Kolteo’s position would favor.
But Julin’s smile fell away when he reached the door of the clothiers and saw the two Enforcers in their black armor inside. He cursed under his breath and kept on walking past the store, trying not to limp too much. Why were they here? It wasn’t fair. He glanced in through the window and caught a glimpse of Kolteo. He was talking to one of the Enforcers. Julin quickly turned his face away and kept going.
He went a little further, then crossed the street and found a closed storefront where he could loiter in the doorway. It offered some shelter from the wind, too, though not enough. He shivered and stared across at the clothier’s. What should he do?
A nasty thought crept its way into his mind. If Kolteo and Romik were arrested, that would be convenient for him. He and Vhen could head back to Dorgio’s, retrieve Sari, send Kolteo’s armsmen off to rescue their boss, and let the sparks fall where they may. He would help Sari start over somewhere out on the Periphery. She would be sad at first, but she would thank him in the end.
The wind picked up, and he huddled a little deeper into the shelter of the doorway. First, he needed Vhen to get there. He settled in to watch and wait.
Earlier, still in the grocery market, Romik’s two tokens weren’t enough, so the armsman pocketed the tokens and threw down his wallet chit on the counter instead. “Just debit, then,” he said, holding out his thumb to approve the transaction.
Kolteo was appalled at the cost, let alone the taxes, but swallowed his pride. Romik said nothing.
They approached the doors of the market with four cheap shot glasses in a bag and a bottle of fine Carothocan brandy. Not top shelf stuff—Kolteo would never have brought it to a party—but Romik approved.
The Enforcers waiting by the doors each took a step back when Kolteo and Romik emerged. Kolteo smiled widely. “Men, I saw an alleyway nearby. Let’s have a chat.”
The men in their black helmets looked at the bottle of brandy, then looked at each other. After a moment, an external speaker on one of the helmets sounded in the scrambled, anonymous voice of an Enforcer, “Lead the way.”
Kolteo led, idly wondering what they might be saying to each other over their private comms. The Enforcers’ helmets were soundproofed and locally linked to one another, giving them privacy when talking to each other and lending to the impassive image of the silent, implacable force of Imperial law.
But the men inside the armor were just men, and sure to be thirsty after a long, boring day on civil patrol.
The alley was just wide enough for two armored Enforcers to stand shoulder to shoulder. Kolteo led them in a ways from the street, then handed the bag to Romik. He opened the bottle and produced a shot glass.
“Do you know who I am?” Kolteo asked.
“Uh, yes, sir,” the speaker sounded.
Kolteo poured a shot. “You’ll have a hard time drinking this through those buckets.”
The Enforcers exchanged glances, then they both removed their helmets, revealing two fresh-faced, handsome young men in crew cuts. Neither one could possibly be a day older than twenty.
Kolteo handed the glass to the one who had spoken, then poured another. “You two have names?”
“Uh, yes, sir,” said the talker. He paused. “Uh, I’m Macey and this is Crad.”
Kolteo handed a glass to Crad. “My first assignment was Civil Patrol too. Boring as all get out. How much longer you two have?”
“Six months for me,” said Macey.
Crad finally found his voice. “I’ve got another year.”
Kolteo nodded as he poured for himself and for Romik. “I appreciate your service.” He raised his glass and gave the traditional toast, “To the Emperor, and all who serve!”
The other three raised their glasses, echoed, and all of them drank.
The alcohol burned its way down Kolteo’s throat, and he suddenly realized just how hungry he was. No time for that now. “Private Macey, I’m curious, why were you two following us?”
The young man flushed. “Uh, there’s a bulletin out for you, sir. Private Crad here recognized you, so we reported in and were told to keep you in our sight.”
Crad swallowed. “I’ve been a fan of yours since I was a kid, sir. Hearing all the stories about you was the reason they didn’t have to come and press me. I volunteered.”
It was Kolteo’s turn to flush. “Is that so?”
“Yes sir,” Crad continued earnestly, “I remember seeing the news reports about the Alcorande rebellion, how you saved your platoon, sir, and my Da said, ‘There’s a hero for you, son.’ And…” he trailed off, glanced at Macey and Romik, and shrugged.
Kolteo smiled, tight-lipped. That had been fifteen years ago. “We all serve as best we can, soldier.”
Crad nodded. “Yes, sir.”
Kolteo straightened and tugged on the bottom of his tunic. “I’ve got some bad news for you, men. There’s a coup going on. Just started this morning. Quiet so far, but you’re going to start hearing things soon. One of the Directors has been killed. I barely escaped with my life, along with Romik here and a few others. I’m afraid another Director is setting up to try and seize the Imperial throne. And worse, there’s a traitor in the Corps. Whoever he is, he’s cut me off and turned the chain of command against me.”
The two Enforcers goggled, wide-eyed at this news. “What can we do, sir?” asked Macey.
“Your orders are to keep us in your sights?”
“Well, so far, you’ve just been following orders. We’ve got another errand to run, so keep us in your sights, but stay close, and let me know what you hear, will you?”
Kolteo couldn’t help but grin. “And get those buckets back on your heads, or you’re going to scare the citizens.”
Romik took the shot glasses away from them before they could drop them in their fumbling. A moment later, the nervous young men had disappeared, covered up by the faceless, fearsome masks of the Enforcers.
Both speaker grilles sounded, “Ready, sir.”
Kolteo nodded, serious again. “Move out, men. Good hunting.”
The Enforcers emerged from the alley, followed by Kolteo and Romik, who took the lead.
“To the clothiers to pick up Julin?” said Kolteo.
“As you say, sir,” said Romik.
Continued in: 24. New Clothes…
Julin has a choice: will he abandon Kolteo and Romik to the Enforcers?
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