SALVAGE OF EMPIRE

24. New Clothes

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

When Vhen Rani arrived, Julin almost didn’t recognize him. He didn’t have his gray cloak, but instead wore workman’s overalls and a skullcap over his black curls. His owlish face gave him away. Julin saw him from across the street as the unlicensed geniit approached the clothiers. Vhen stopped at the door, looked inside, then looked about. He immediately spotted Julin, flashed the high sign, and entered the shop. Julin could hear the faint jingle of the bell on the door from where he was.

Julin spouted off a string of curses. He didn’t want to help Kolteo and Romik; he wanted to get away with Vhen and Sari and leave all this mess behind him.

Standing still in the cold had caused his muscles to stiffen up. His leg had started aching, a deep, burning ache. He did his best to shake all this off as he hobbled back across the street. He was still cursing under his breath, but if he was needed in a fight, he wouldn’t shrink back from it.

As he approached the store, he realized that he’d never gotten his sword and gun back. They were probably still sitting in a rucksack at the bottom of the river Turga, forgotten in the moment of escape. He balled his fists. Guns and swords weren’t necessarily an asset in close quarters anyway, and he knew how to brawl bare knuckles if it came down to it. Even armor has its chinks.

His heart pounded in his chest. He barely felt his leg now.

He opened the door. The bell jingled.

Vhen, pretending to look at clothes, had positioned himself near the farthest Enforcer, who was watching the front. That left the near one for Julin. Kolteo was still conversing with that one.

Strange that Kolteo and Romik looked relaxed and unworried.

Kolteo looked over at him and smiled. “Julin, finally. I was beginning to wonder where you were.”

Julin took an awkward half-step forward, uncertain.

Kolteo’s smile widened to show perfectly straight teeth. “Julin, I’d like you to meet our escort. This is Private Macey, and the one about to get jumped by your friend back there is Private Crad. Macey, this is my brother-in-law, Julin.”

Macey’s helmet nodded at Julin, and the external speaker sounded, “Pleased to meet you, sir.” The cold and terrible sound of the Enforcer’s scrambled voice clashed with the words. He stepped forward and extended a gauntleted right hand.

Still in shock, Julin shook the proffered hand automatically. “Uh, yeah, good to meet you too.”

Vhen, his cover blown, laughed heartily. “Here I thought we were here to rescue you, Director. But I see you know how to make friends.” He nodded at the bottle of brandy that Kolteo still cradled.

Kolteo chuckled. “I know a few things, I guess. Your face, for instance. Rani, isn’t it? You’re Altolcz’s man now, but I remember when you wore a uniform and served under Grand Admiral Terch.”

The two men shook hands, and then introductions were made all around.

Kolteo quickly took charge. Romik had a list of everyone’s sizes, and Kolteo assigned them out to himself, Romik, Julin, and Vhen. “Nothing flashy. Dark and muted colors. Practical materials, in layers for hot or cold weather. We may be wearing these a while.”

Once clothes had been picked out, Kolteo sent Julin into the back room, where the proprietor had been hiding ever since he’d seen the Enforcers and vagabonds entering his store. “It’s alright,” Julin assured him. “We want to pay for our clothes.”

The proprietor was a thin, tall, pale man, balding, with an immense nose mounted above a bushy mustache. He took his place behind the counter and surveyed the motley crew before him. “Will this be all together?” he asked in a trembling, reedy voice.

Julin and Kolteo looked at each other. Kolteo cocked his head towards Vhen. Vhen smirked owlishly. “I had a feeling,” he said, and produced a wallet chit. “It’s all on me,” he told the proprietor.

After Vhen had paid, the proprietor sat cowering on a stool in the corner behind the counter, looking like a man about to be beaten with a stick. Kolteo, Julin, and Romik took turns in the dressing room.

Julin felt like a new man in the fresh, dry clothes as he waited in the front with Vhen and Kolteo. Romik was changing in the back.

Macey and Crad were standing nearby, quiet and imposing. Julin frowned, watching them. For ten years, he had considered that black armor the symbol of a mortal enemy, and now here he was, gadding about with more and more of them.

As he was watching them, Macey put his hand to the side of his head and stepped away to the back of the store. Must have gotten a call.

Romik joined them, looking surprisingly dapper. “Why Romik,” said Kolteo, “you almost look like a respectable citizen.”

Romik grinned, and stretched out his arms, looking down at himself. “You think it’ll do?” he asked.

The company stood assembled, waiting at the front of the store. “We’re just waiting on Macey,” said Kolteo.

Finally, Macey joined them at Kolteo’s side. “Sir,” the external speaker sounded. “Could we step out in the street?”

Everybody filed out the front door and stood in a huddle. Macey removed his helmet. Julin was shocked at how young he looked.

“The word’s gotten out, sir,” said Macey. “Major Mus himself has ordered all CP Enforcers in the district to converge on Crad and I, and there’s a kill team on the way. We need to lose sight of you quick, sir.”

Kolteo frowned and knit his brow. “Marrem…”

Vhen spoke up. “I have my car around the corner.”

Kolteo’s head snapped up, his eyes hard. Julin felt suddenly frightened. He shrank back, just an inch, under the baleful gaze. Then Julin realized Kolteo wasn’t staring at him, but at some point in the middle distance.

Kolteo’s gaze swiveled to the two Enforcers. He spoke, his voice icy as the wind which had started to blow. “Macey, Crad, take up a position across the street to watch us. On the double. You too have been far too helpful, and I’ve been lazy. Thank you for everything. I hope it doesn’t get you killed.”

Macey smiled. “It’s been a pleasure, sir.” He donned his helmet.

“For the Emperor,” said Kolteo.

Macey and Crad echoed in unison on their external speakers, then turned and jogged across the street.

Kolteo ignored them as they went, and instead focused on Vhen. “Lead us to your car. Quickly.”

“Aye, sir,” said Vhen, automatically. He chuckled as he turned and led the way. Following him, the group moved off at a brisk pace.

Julin hobbled after as best he could, but he quickly fell to the rear. In the dressing room he’d ripped up more of his old pants to change the previous bloody dressing. The wound had looked uglier than he remembered. Now it throbbed and burned as he tried to keep up.

They turned the corner. Julin saw a sky car lowering down from above, apparently on automatic controls. Julin saw bullet holes in the outer panels and recalled the last time he’d been in this sky car. He wondered how Pielo was doing.

“Halt!” An amplified Enforcer’s voice sounded from behind.

“Thirty yards!” called Vhen. The doors on the sky car opened as it settled on its repulsors just above the pavement.

“Halt, or we’ll shoot!” A shot rang out, and Julin heard the bullet whiz over their heads. He hunched down as he ran, as did the others. A warning shot. He hoped that was Macey and Crad playing it up to make it look good.

Vhen leaped through the passenger-side door in an impossible maneuver that left him sitting ready in the driver’s seat. Kolteo took the passenger side.

Romik barreled into the back even as the sky car was beginning to move forward. Julin, hobbling along behind, almost despaired. Then Romik’s hand shot out, Julin grabbed it, and Romik pulled him in bodily.

The car banked and lifted. Shots rang out from below, but nothing struck the car. Then they were high above the street, rising up and merging into traffic.

The car was silent then for a minute except for the sound of their heavy breathing from the sudden exertion.

Finally, Vhen spoke. “I don’t think we’re being followed. I’ve switched the transponder, which should fool them unless they have a car I’m not seeing.”

“Don’t be too sure,” said Kolteo. “Take all the precautions.”

Vhen glanced over at him and grinned. “Oh, I will.” Then he looked back at Julin. “Where to? Don’t tell me you’re still at Dorgio’s.”

Julin grinned. Subtle, but Vhen was demonstrating that Julin was in charge now. “We are, I’m afraid.”

Vhen looked back out the windshield. “You should have called me earlier.”

“Yeah, sorry, I’m not used to having air support.”

Kolteo spoke up. “Rani, can you obtain some antibiotics for us, no questions asked? Sari’s very sick.”

Vhen frowned. “I probably can. I suspect Julin will be needing them as well soon. He hasn’t been resting his leg like he should.”

Julin laughed. It came out strained. “What ever gave you that idea?”

Vhen just tapped a finger on his temple.

“Alright,” said Kolteo, “take us where we can get medicine, and then back to Dorgio’s.”

Vhen shook his head. “We’ll go straight to Dorgio’s.” He glanced at Kolteo. “Taking precautions, of course. I have a better idea.”


Continued in:

Our heroes return to Dorgio’s… but will they be in time to save Sari?

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