Continued from 26. Council of War.
The story begins with 1. The Director.
Despite being married to a military man for nearly ten years, Sari realized now she had not spent much time with the men of his command. They prepared for the night’s rest in a very different manner from her typical evening toilette. While she brushed her hair with a brush borrowed from Dorgio’s back room (what else did he have back there, she wondered?), she watched and listened as the men made their own preparations.
They had brought a small card table in and set it up. Kolteo and Romik sat down to clean and oil their guns, something the other men had apparently taken care of while she slept. She had never taken interest in guns before, only thinking of them as dangerous and frightening. Now she watched in fascination as Kolteo sat ramrod straight while his gun came apart in his expert hands, laying the mechanisms bare.
Yet he didn’t even seem to be paying attention to what his hands were doing, for Petrishes was filling them in on their jargon-filled “tactical situation” while he worked. Petrishes and Cojareson had established a perimeter of “whiskers” in the tunnels. Jaker had the first watch. This sort of talk went on for a bit, with Romik or Kolteo occasionally asking clarifying questions. Then they turned to Kolteo’s plan for the morning. The other armsmen, sans Jaker, joined them around the table, and they spoke in hushed tones so that she couldn’t hear.
To Sari, the armsmen looked comical in their civilian garb. She approved of the quality of the clothing, and it was cut well enough for not being thoroughly tailored, but still they had the air of play-actors wearing costumes. Even in innocuous garb, the way they stood, the way they walked, cat-like with a hint of a crouch, the way they continuously looked about them and watched each others’ backs, the way they worked together so quietly and efficiently, often without more than a word or a nod, anyone could see they belonged in black armor with deadly weapons at the ready.
Julin and Vhen had sequestered themselves in a corner of the room. Julin, sitting hunched with his arms folded over the back of his chair, spoke in quiet and earnest tones while Vhen listened wide-eyed. Did the man ever blink? Sari was surprised at how quickly Julin had latched onto this strange man. It didn’t seem like him.
Julin had changed in the years since he’d left. He still had his characteristic lop-sided grin and devil-may-care attitude, but now harder, sharper, and more brittle around the edges. The change made her uneasy.
Dorgio poked his head into the room from the back, looked around, then disappeared again. But Kolteo saw him. “Dorgio! Come have a seat. I need your expertise.” The armsmen made room at the table.
“Y-yeah, alright.” Moving like a mouse surrounded by cats, Dorgio sat down quickly. He rubbed the back of his neck. His smile looked forced, his face practically green.
Sari had been surprised to see Dorgio again—she hadn’t even thought of him in years. He’d always been small, but he seemed to have diminished with age since she’d known him as Julin’s childhood friend and constant companion. So much had changed in ten years. Had she changed? She supposed she must have, though she felt herself more or less the same. Perhaps Julin would see the change in her more clearly, as she recognized the change in him.
Her hair brushed, her face washed, her teeth cleaned, she stood by the old couch and looked at the men. No-one noticed her. They would be at this for hours, she guessed.
She spoke, raising her voice, “I’m tired, and I’m going to bed. Do you all mind if we turn off some of these lights?”
Kolteo turned to look at her. “That’s fine, my love.” He looked over at Jaker and jerked his head, then turned back to the discussion. Jaker rose and went about the room, turning off Dorgio’s collection of lamps, until the room was lit by only one dim lamp, which he set on the table.
“Thank you,” she said. Jaker gave her a tight-lipped nod, then went back to the discussion at the table.
“Good night,” she said, quietly, almost to herself, then lay down on the couch and tried to get comfortable. Blessed sleep came quickly.
Morning also came quickly, even suddenly, and Sari woke to the quiet, electric bustle of men preparing for battle. She sat up to take it all in. Armsmen were checking rifles and sidearms one last time. They stowed them in improvised holsters that someone had put together the night before. Long overcoats covered all, hiding the compact rifles surprisingly well. Kolteo moved among his men, speaking quietly to each. He seemed to not even notice that she was there.
Julin saw that she was awake and came over. “Morning, sis,” he said. “We’re leaving soon. You should get ready.” He set a bundle of clothing down beside her. “Kolteo asked me to give these to you. You can change in the back.”
“Thank you.” She glared across the room at her husband, but he took no notice. She looked back at Julin. “What’s going on?”
“We’re going to meet Altolcz. Vhen’s gone to fetch him. We’re meeting at some café nearby that Dorgio recommended. You should go get dressed.”
He showed her the back room. It turned out to be a sort of hallway with a series of alcoves filled with shelves overflowing with things. Dorgio was back there, and Julin chased him out. “Change in the last alcove. I’ll stand guard up here.”
Sari went to the last alcove, which turned out to be Dorgio’s closet, with a full-length mirror and an ironing board. Sari unwrapped the bundle of clothing, and was surprised to find tasteful, practical clothing, layers appropriate to cold weather, that had been selected by someone who knew exactly what she liked. Kolteo. The clothing had been stored carelessly, of course, but she couldn’t help but smile. He could be so thoughtful when he put his mind to it. She honestly didn’t know what to think of him, so she made herself set it aside. There would be time to consider later.
The blouse and knee-length skirt she ironed as quickly as she could. She had watched a servant do it many times and had practiced it herself when she was alone in their apartment. The results were passable, though it took longer than she’d planned.
Julin called, “Sis, you done yet? We need to leave soon.”
She quickly braided her hair to get it out of the way and set the gray-green knit hat on her head at a jaunty angle. She smiled in the mirror. The sweater fit perfectly, and the long gray finely-woven woolen cloak was thick and warm, not scratchy. She loved it.
She swept out of the back feeling beautiful and confident. Julin grinned when he saw her. “Alright, worth the wait, sis.”
Everyone was standing around when Sari stepped out. Not prepared for the sudden attention, she hesitated, drawing back a half step, but Kolteo looked at her and smiled widely. “You look lovely, Sari.”
She walked forward and looked down at the new clothes. “Thank you for the clothing, Kolteo.”
“You’re welcome. We need to go. Will you walk with me?”
She looked him in the eye and shook her head. “I’ll walk with Julin.”
He looked disappointed, but he nodded. “Certainly.” Then he turned. “Alright men, let’s move out.”
Dorgio stood by the door, looking as if he were going to count to make sure they all left.
Kolteo stopped in front of him. “We’ll be back later for the rest of our gear. Thank you for your hospitality.”
Dorgio smiled a grim little smile. “Yeah, don’t mention it. Thanks for the donation.”
Kolteo smiled. “Don’t mention it.”
Then they were off. No one talked much. They weren’t long in the tunnels, and soon ascended to the street level lobby of a nearby building. They loitered there while Kolteo sent the armsmen out in pairs a few minutes apart. When it was time for Cottack and Romik to go, Kolteo looked nervous. He looked at Sari and Julin, then at the armsmen. “Go ahead,” he said to Romik. “See you there.”
A few minutes later, Sari, Julin, and Kolteo emerged onto the street. Sari walked in the middle, with Julin and Kolteo on either side of her.
The sun was out in a cloudless sky, though the street was shadowed by the tall buildings on either side. The air had a sharp crispness to it, but the wind had no bite except against her face, bringing a rosy blush to her cheeks. Despite their circumstances—no, perhaps because of their circumstances—she felt more alive than she had felt in a long time. Anything could happen now. The world seemed fresh and new, full of unknown potential, and she had to suppress a joyous bubble of laughter that threatened to spill out at every new sight, every person who passed them on the street.
Julin watched her with an amused look in his eye. She noticed and smiled at him. “What?” she asked.
“I think, whatever it was he did, Vhen did more to you than just take away the pneumonia. You’re radiant this morning, and you’ve never liked mornings as long as I’ve known you.”
“Oh.” The comment gave her pause, but not for long. The joy that whelmed up in her swept away any anxieties. Certainly, they had their problems, but she felt confident that each one could be overcome in its turn. She smiled. She felt light and carefree, in fact she had to suppress a sudden urge to skip. She giggled quietly to herself. Julin was right, this was odd, but quite pleasant.
Kolteo had been walking quietly beside and just ahead of Sari. Finally, he spoke. “The café should be a block further up. We’ll go in and order breakfast. Vhen and Altolcz should get there about ten minutes after we arrive.”
“I’m half-starved,” said Julin. “We never did eat last night.”
The café was at the corner. Outdoor furniture was stacked up off to the side. A pity it was so cold; she might have liked to sit outside.
She spotted Atrilkol, Cottack, and Jen at the other street corners.
Inside, Cojareson and Petrishes, Jaker and Romik sat in pairs in booths near the door, nursing cups of coffee, pretending not to notice anything, noticing everything, looking for all the world like storybook gangsters in their long overcoats and hats.
Come to think of it, that made Kolteo the boss, Julin his lieutenant, and her, what was the word, his moll? Again she had to suppress laughter that threatened to bubble over.
They took a table in the center of the café. Kolteo pulled out the middle seat facing the door for Sari. She sat down, and Julin and Kolteo sat down on either side of her. A flustered-looking waiter appeared with a pot of coffee. Sari ordered juice and Chrada sausage with fried eggs.
Not much later, two pairs of well-dressed men entered the café and took booths next to Kolteo’s armsmen. Then the door opened again, and Vhen appeared, his eyes squinting, with an unassuming, mousey man just behind him. Altolcz. An odd pair they made, in a strange alliance.
Julin and Sari started to stand, but Kolteo stretched his arm across the table, hand down. They stayed in their seats.
Vhen stepped aside and Altolcz stood in front of the table. His intense gaze affixed each of them in turn. His lips stretched in a thin smile that showed too many teeth. “Mister Terch, Director Ais, Madam Ais.” His voice was silky smooth, nearly a purr. “Good morning. What a pleasure it is to run into you!”
Continued in: 28. Altolcz Proposes a Toast…
Our heroes meet with Peer Altolcz… but will he betray them?
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