Continued from 24. New Clothes.
The story begins with 1. The Director.
The sun was beginning to set on Siben as the sky car passed through rush hour traffic on the way back to Dorgio’s. The number of cars in the sky this time of day always astounded Julin. At first they seemed to the eye like swarms of buzzing flies. But they were more orderly than that. In every direction one looked there were thick lines of black specks. They stretched out into the distance until the eye strained to see more, but they were lost in the never-ending, soaring heights of the world-city’s skyscrapers.
Julin knew that the slideways would be packed this time of day as well, and he was more than happy to be here, riding in comfort.
Vhen had set a route that took them far past their true destination, and he now let the traffic controls guide them. He sent Kolteo and Romik to the back of the car to post watch for any tails, and he called Julin to sit up front with him.
Julin’s leg was getting stiff, but he managed it without too much wincing.
Vhen watched him, but said nothing about it. Then he spoke in a low voice: “I’ve not yet had a chance to apologize for your treatment at the offices. Mister Altolcz asked me to convey his deepest regrets as well.”
Julin waved his hand. “Yeah, well, I walked into it with my eyes open. Don’t worry about it.”
Vhen nodded. “Also, I must thank you for caring for Pielo. You probably saved his life. He is at the hospital and will recover.”
Julin smiled. “I’m glad to hear it. It’s the least I could do.”
“He is a good friend and ally. I can’t imagine losing him.”
The words touched Julin. His throat felt thick, and a deep ache welled up in him. He blinked and chuckled to himself, pushing the feeling down. “I wish I could say that about somebody.”
“Or that somebody could say the same of you?” Vhen smiled.
Julin didn’t say anything, but watched the city go by. Lights were starting to come on all around them. He’d forgotten how beautiful Siben could be.
“Julin, Mister Altolcz has taken a keen interest in your story, especially now that Director Ais is with you. He says that, now that the preliminaries are out of the way, he would like to be of assistance. Those were his words.”
Julin smirked. “I suppose Kolteo is part of the package?”
Vhen shrugged. “For now, I suppose, yes.”
Julin sighed and sank back in his seat. “Right now, my main concerns are to clear my father’s name and keep my sister safe. If I have to do those things with the Director at my side, so be it.”
Vhen nodded. “Well, Mister Altolcz and I can help with at least one, maybe both of those goals.”
“Can you get us off of Siben somehow? I don’t think we’ll ever be safe here again.”
Vhen considered it. “It is not easy to leave the center of the Empire when the Empire wants your head. But with Mister Altolcz’s funding, if anyone could do it, it’s us.”
“I expect Kolteo will be hard to convince. He might let Altolcz pay for some new clothes; that’s a minor debt, easily repayable in time. But smuggling us off of Siben? He’ll expect a trap.”
Vhen nodded. “My analysis precisely.” He tapped the black, curly locks at his temple, and smiled owlishly. “That’s why we’re heading back to Dorgio’s.”
Julin frowned. “Why’s that?”
Vhen looked out at the city lights before them. “To convince him that I, at least, can be trusted.”
They arrived back in the vicinity of Dorgio’s without incident. Vhen perched the sky car high up on a building that connected to the tunnels.
“If anybody followed us, they’d have to be very good, working in a team,” said Kolteo, as he stepped out of the car.
Vhen smiled. “Hopefully I haven’t attracted that kind of attention yet.”
Kolteo frowned. “Don’t be too sure, though I’ll admit, Altolcz’s stunt certainly threw us off your trail.”
Vhen looked at Julin and raised his eyebrows, as if to say, “See?”
Kolteo continued, “Still, we can’t let ourselves get comfortable.”
They helped Julin out of the car. He could only walk with an exaggerated limp, so Vhen and Romik supported him on the way to the elevator.
In the elevator, Kolteo began to fret about Sari. “Vhen, I’d like to know what you plan to do. She needs medicine. She needs a doctor. Looks like Julin’s going to as well. Dorgio’s may be safe for now, but he’s not well-equipped.”
Vhen smiled indulgently. “All in time, my good man.”
Kolteo didn’t like that. He closed in, right in Vhen’s face. “Now you listen to me. I don’t care who you work for. I appreciate the help back there, but I don’t trust you, and I trust your boss even less. Playing the mystery man isn’t going to help you.”
Romik tensed, watching the two men, looking ready for anything.
The corner of Vhen’s mouth quirked up. He stared cooly, unblinking, at Kolteo. “I don’t trust you, either. But you don’t intimidate me, and neither does your bodyguard there. I’m glad we have this understanding now.”
Kolteo said nothing, but didn’t back down. Julin frowned.
Vhen continued. “Because I don’t trust you, I’m not going to reveal my plans ahead of time. Nothing I can say will make you trust me. You will simply have to watch me closely until I can prove to you that I am here to help.”
“That’s fair,” said Kolteo, still not backing down. “I’ll be watching you.”
“And I, you,” said Vhen, still calm.
The elevator slowed and stopped. They were still high above the ground level. The doors opened. A man in business attire started to get on, but stopped when he saw the tableau.
Vhen looked past Kolteo. “You’ll feel better about taking the next lift,” he said in a calm, cheerful tone.
The man nodded vigorously and stepped back. “Yeah, yeah, good idea.”
The doors closed. They continued on their way.
Kolteo snorted derisively and turned away. He folded his arms and looked impatient.
Julin sighed. He was concerned about Sari as well. Their mission had only been half-successful, it had taken quite a while, and he had clearly over-extended himself. If he wasn’t more careful, he’d be lying sick on a couch across from his sister.
Finally, the elevator reached the mixing floor. Kolteo went ahead to the ground-level elevator while Vhen and Romik helped Julin hobble on behind.
The elevator ride to the ground level passed in silence. Then they had to find the stairs down and the tunnel entrance. At last, they entered the cool, dank air of the tunnel.
Julin started to give directions, but Vhen stopped him. “Save your breath. I know the way.”
Soon, they were standing before Dorgio’s blast door. Vhen went to knock on the door, but Julin stopped him. “There’s a secret.”
He rapped on the blast door with his knuckles: rat-tat, rat-tat, rat-tat-tat.
They waited. Julin knocked again with the same pattern.
Finally, the blast door whooshed open. Petrishes was there in his black tunic. He smiled in relief when he saw them. “Sorry, took me a minute to find the door controls.”
Vhen and Romik helped Julin through the door. “Where’s Dorgio?” he asked.
Petrishes looked sheepish. “We had to lock him up in the back room. He wanted to leave.”
In the living room, everything was much as they’d left it. The other armsmen were standing around. Sari lay on the couch with a blanket covering her, apparently asleep. Her face was flushed, her forehead looked damp.
Vhen and Romik set Julin down in a folding chair and helped him get his leg propped up. It throbbed and burned like fire.
After conferring quietly with Petrishes, Kolteo swept into the room and went straight to kneel by his wife’s side. He gently stroked her forehead. She stirred and muttered something incoherent.
Cottack knelt beside him and spoke in a quiet voice that Julin could only just hear, “She’s about the same as when you left. No real change.”
Kolteo nodded. “At least she can sleep.”
Vhen paced about the room, investigating it with a quick eye. “Is there only the back room?” he asked.
Julin nodded. “Yeah.” He wrinkled his brow. “What do you need?”
Vhen smiled. “Just a few minutes to myself.”
Julin frowned. What could he possibly need that for? “Uh, sure. You can let Dorgio out. I’ll vouch for him.”
A moment later, Dorgio was out past Vhen, fighting mad and a steady stream of curses at the ready. He deflated a bit when he saw Julin with his foot propped up. “Oh, it’s you,” he said, making a wry face. “Yeah, well, did you get my money?”
Julin shrugged and hooked his thumb at the back room, where Vhen had quickly disappeared. “Your money just went back there. You’ll have to stick around a few minutes.”
Dorgio folded his arms, sat down in one of the chairs, leaned back on two of the legs, and stared hard at Petrishes, who regarded him in return with stoic indifference.
The armsmen had all been standing about, looking uneasy with nothing to do and nobody to guard. Now with Kolteo back, they still had nothing to do. Romik broke the dis-ease by passing out bundles of clothing to each man. “Once he’s done back there, whatever he’s doing, you all can change.”
Finally, after about ten minutes, Vhen reappeared. He had a small, peaceful smile on his face. “I’m sorry to keep you all waiting,” he said, when all eyes turned to him. He strode over to the couch and knelt down at Kolteo’s side. “How is she?”
“Not good,” Kolteo responded. “She’s burning up. I think she’s sleeping, but fitfully.”
Sari broke into a deep cough that racked her body and curled her into a ball on the couch.
Vhen looked at Kolteo. “May I touch her?”
Kolteo frowned, but nodded.
Julin had trouble seeing what happened next from where he was sitting, but he saw Vhen place his left hand on Sari’s head, his right hand on her chest. He bowed his head.
Silence fell upon the room. All eyes were on Vhen.
Julin didn’t actually see anything, but he had the impression of a warm, intense, white light emanating from Sari. He blinked in surprise, but there was nothing.
Then, Sari drew a sharp breath and sat up. Vhen and Kolteo both fell back as one. Sari’s eyes were clear, the flush already fading from her cheeks. She looked at Kolteo, then Vhen, with puzzled eyes.
“What are you doing?” she whispered.
Continued in: 26. Council of War…
Vhen reveals himself… but will our heroes accept his offer?
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