Continued from 25. Return.
The story begins with 1. The Director.
One moment, Sari had been in the confused, muddled misery of a fever dream: horrid people were chasing her, and the walls were all wrong, and she couldn’t see to breathe.
The next moment, a pleasant warmth and a white light passed through her, like when, after a long winter, the wind changes and brings with it the first warm breezes of the spring.
She did not hear, but simply knew, a still small voice speaking to her: “Your sins are forgiven, child. Rise up, and go in peace.”
And then she found herself sitting up on a strange couch, with strange men standing around staring at her, and there was Julin, and before her were Kolteo and another strange man, and she realized that this man had touched her. Puzzlement mixed with indignation, and she found her voice.
“What are you doing?” she whispered.
The man had such a comical expression on his face, like a bewildered owl, that she wanted to burst out laughing, but she controlled herself.
The man seemed to collect himself, and he smiled. “Please forgive me, ma’am. I was trying to help you. How do you feel?”
“I feel fine,” she said, and took a deep breath. Then she realized what she was saying, what she was doing, and she did laugh this time. “Why, I feel fine! What’s going on? Who are you?”
The man rose to his feet, stepped back, and bowed at the waist. “I am Vhen Rani, ma’am, and pleased to make your acquaintance. I am of the Geniit, and I regret that the rules of my order do not permit me as of yet to disclose to you the nature of what has happened to you. I am required to tell you that it is not I who have healed you, but I have served merely as a conduit for a greater power.”
Sari wrinkled her brow. Something in the man’s manner seemed very familiar to her now.
Then she noticed a sudden change in the room. Two of the men in black tunics had produced guns from somewhere, and they were training them on Vhen Rani, who still wore the same calm smile.
Kolteo also rose to his feet. He finally spoke. “Stand down,” he commanded.
The men lowered their guns to point at the floor, but still at the ready. One spoke, “Sir, he’s a Geniit, and obviously unlicensed.”
“And yet he has helped us immeasurably. Put your weapons away. I will not be so ungrateful.” Kolteo bowed slightly to Vhen Rani. “Thank you, Mister Rani. You have taken a great risk in revealing yourself to us.”
Vhen Rani inclined his head in acknowledgement. “I thought the benefits too great, and the risks mitigated by certain factors I’ve observed.”
Kolteo put his hand on Sari’s shoulder then, and the touch brought back a flood of memories from the past two days. It threatened the peace she felt. She brushed his hand away. She looked up at him with narrowed eyes. “Don’t touch me.”
Kolteo’s face fell. He swallowed, and said, “I was merely going to ask, can I get you anything?”
She nodded once. “A glass of water, please.”
Kolteo glanced across the room at one of the men in black tunics. The other man turned to go into the back room.
Sari stopped him with one word, “No.” She looked at Kolteo. “You get it.”
Kolteo looked as if he were about to say something, but to her surprise, he didn’t. Instead, he left the room without a word.
Emotions roiled inside Sari, but the peace pressed in all around them. She pushed it all down in her mind and rose to her feet. She was surprised to find that her legs felt strong and steady. She remembered the endless tunnels now, and feeling so worn and exhausted. All the fatigue had been swept away, like a dream upon waking.
She saw that Julin had his foot propped up on a chair. She went to him then and knelt by his side. “Julin, you’re hurt.”
Julin grinned. “Yeah, I guess I’ve been over-doing it a bit.” He looked over at someone standing in the corner. “Hey, Dorgio. You have any more of those fancy military dressings?”
Dorgio, of course. She remembered him. He looked just as she’d remembered him, except for the sour look on his face that twisted just a little further at her brother’s words. “Yeah, maybe, if I ever see any money. Why don’t you ask your friend over there with the sparkles?”
Sari looked up at Vhen Rani. “Mister Rani,” she said, “can you…?”
The man smiled, but shook his head. “I’m sorry ma’am, but Julin must mend on his own. I’m afraid I can’t explain why, but I’m confident that he will heal rightly in the end. He simply needs some rest.”
His words and manner satisfied her, and she stood.
Kolteo returned then, with a glass of water. He handed it to her, his eyes searching hers.
“Thank you,” she said, simply, and took a sip. When she considered it, she had snapped at him reflexively. She remembered the tight ball that had been building up in her chest over the past few months, and especially since he’d arrested her and Julin. It was gone now, inexplicably. She missed it. She ought to be furious with him. She wanted to be furious, but the fury could find no purchase.
For the first time in… well, she didn’t know how long, but for the first time in a long while, she felt at peace. That was fine. She could use peace, and the level head that came with it.
Vhen Rani had spoken, breaking her out of her reverie. He was speaking to her husband.
“So, I suppose I have your attention now. I have a proposition for you from my employer.”
The men convened a council of war. Kolteo, Julin, Vhen Rani, and Romik sat on chairs. The other armsmen stood around them. Dorgio leaned his short frame against the wall and looked nervous and sour.
Sari hovered between Julin and Kolteo, staying back just out of the way, but watching and listening closely. She was very curious to hear more of what this Vhen Rani had to say.
“Let’s get down to business. Rani,” said Kolteo, taking charge, “you had a proposition to convey from Altolcz.”
Altolcz. Sari knew that name. She’d met him at a party once. A detestable man. Liked his wine. Very rich, in fact, a Peer.
Vhen Rani nodded. “He wishes to see you both, and offers safe passage to his offices, free from interference by your pursuers.”
“To what purpose?” asked Kolteo.
Vhen Rani turned to look at Julin. “He wishes to help you, Julin, under the original terms. No changes in timeline.”
Julin grinned. “If he still wants to help me bring the Director down, he’s late to the party.” He cocked his head at Kolteo, who looked annoyed.
Vhen Rani smiled. “Mister Altolcz is as up-to-date on the situation as I could make him at the time. He wishes to help you clear your father’s name and escape from Siben.”
Kolteo perked up at this. “He would defy the Empire and help us escape? I didn’t think he had it in him.”
Vhen Rani shrugged. “You will have to ask him about that when you see him. I can only relay what I’ve been told.”
Kolteo frowned. “No, I don’t like this. Men like Altolcz cannot be trusted.” He looked at Julin. “Would you trust a man who already betrayed you once?”
Julin looked thoughtful. “Not usually. But usually they don’t tell you they’re going to betray you ahead of time.”
Vhen Rani interjected, “Perhaps my employer’s approach in this matter would bear some explanation.”
Kolteo gestured at him to continue.
He sighed. “I understand Mister Altolcz can be a confusing and difficult man to work with at times, but if he says he’ll do something, he’ll do it. That’s ironclad.” He looked at Julin. “He told you he’d betray you, and he did.” He looked at Kolteo. “He told you he’d bring Julin to you, and he did.” He smiled. “He didn’t tell you that Julin would be primed and ready to run, with a car ready on the roof to take him away. He’s still upset about your man shooting up his office though.”
Kolteo nodded. “See? And that’s the thing. What else isn’t he telling us? Once you know a man is a double-crosser, you don’t work with him. Not on his terms, at least.”
“Yes, I see your point,” said Vhen Rani. “He’s not your typical double-crosser, though. It’s… well, it’s difficult to explain. But this is what he does. He detests being underestimated. He puts you on edge, then he plays it straight.”
Vhen Rani chuckled. “He has a file to help him keep track. I’ve seen it.”
Kolteo shook his head. “I still don’t like it. I say we find some other way of escape that doesn’t rely on crazy double-crossers.”
“Now hold on,” said Julin, leaning forward. “You’re not the one in charge here. I’m the one dealing with Altolcz. If you’re nice to me, I may let you in on that deal.”
This annoyed Kolteo supremely. He hid it well, but Sari recognized the signs, how he fidgeted with his hands.
Julin went on, addressing Vhen Rani. “Would you still help us if we told Altolcz to go jump in a river?”
Vhen smiled forlornly. “I would convey the message personally, if you asked me to, and return unemployed. I’m afraid I would be less able to help at that point, though just as willing.”
“Do you think we should trust Altolcz, and accept his help?”
Vhen looked him in the eye. “Yes. I very much doubt that we would all escape Siben alive without his help.”
Julin sat back in his chair and spread his hands. “That’s good enough for me. I’m in.” He looked at Kolteo. “You in?”
All eyes were on Kolteo then. He looked a long time at Julin. Sari recognized that look of disdain. What if he said no?
Then, unexpectedly, Kolteo looked up at her. “Sari, you’ve barely said a word, but this affects you too. What do you think? You’ve met Altolcz.”
Sari sucked in her breath and brushed back a wisp of hair. What did she think?
After a moment, she said, “I’ve met Altolcz. I don’t like him either, but if what Vhen says is true, he will deal truthfully with you and Julin both from here on out.” She paused, thought a moment, then went on, “If a man can’t be trusted to act in our best interest, he can at least be trusted to act according to his nature and his habit.”
A corner of Kolteo’s frown twitched at that. He’d said nearly those words in her presence uncountable times.
Sari continued, “And I don’t know that we need to trust Altolcz. I trust Vhen here… oh,” she paused, catching herself, and looked at him. “Please excuse me, Mister Rani.”
Vhen Rani smiled. “Vhen is fine, ma’am.”
She nodded. “Thank you, Vhen.” She looked at Kolteo. “He at least has shown himself true.” She gestured at herself as proof.
Kolteo nodded. “Thank you, Sari. You’re right.” He looked over at Romik. “Romik?”
Romik shrugged. “I was taught never to trust a Geniit, but they that taught me that never knew any.” He looked at Vhen, and nodded. “I don’t know about any Peers, one way or the other, but I’d take you at my side in a firefight any day.”
Vhen smiled. “Thank you. You do me a great honor, Chief.”
Kolteo sat back with a defeated air, but Sari recognized his satisfied little smile. “Alright, Rani,” he said, “you get your chance. We’ll meet with Altolcz.”
Vhen took a deep breath and looked relieved. “Thank you, Director. I’ll contact my employer.”
Kolteo held up a finger. “You’ll do no such thing. Not yet. We’re not going anywhere or doing anything until we’ve all had a night’s rest. And we’ll not be visiting Altolcz’s offices. We do this my way, or not at all.”
Continued in: 27. Morning at the Café…
Our heroes prepare to meet this new benefactor… but what will he require of them?
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