Continued from 27. Morning at the Café.
The story begins with 1. The Director.
As Sari looked up at Altolcz, an intense revulsion welled up in her. Something about the man set off alarm bells in her head. She pushed the feeling down, but she could not help the way her lip curled as she drew back in her seat.
Altolcz chuckled, and sat down across from Sari without invitation. Vhen posted himself over Altolcz’s right shoulder. She suddenly felt trapped. Why was she sitting across from him? Kolteo or Julin should be here. Both men were eyeing each other, oblivious to her.
Kolteo spoke, finally. “Thank you for joining us here. I have it on good authority that their breakfasts are excellent. Won’t you order something?”
As if on cue, the waiter appeared. “What can I get for you?”
Altolcz looked up at him. “A bottle of wine, please. Your finest port wine.”
The waiter frowned. “Er, I’m sorry sir, we don’t have any wine.”
Again, Altolcz smiled in a way that sent shivers down Sari’s spine. “Then you can send out for some, of course.”
The waiter’s frown deepened. He looked around at the room full of patrons, then back at Altolcz. “I’m sorry sir, we’re short-staffed this morning.”
Altolcz nodded. “Of course. I hope you don’t mind if I provide my own then?” He held up a hand and snapped his fingers.
Two of the men who had come in just before him rose from their booth. One produced a wine glass, the other a bottle of port. The one set the glass down in front of Altolcz. The other poured, then set the bottle down in the center of the table. They returned to their booth and their coffees.
The waiter observed all this solemnly, then said, “What can I get you to eat, then? I’m afraid we’re out of cavertsuku as well*.*” His voice dripped with sarcasm.
“Two eggs over easy. Bacon. Toast, dry.” Then Altolcz shut off his attention to the waiter like a switch and turned his eyes to Sari. “Can I offer the three of you any wine? I’m afraid you’d have to provide your own glasses; the help here isn’t very good.”
Sari saw the waiter roll his eyes as he turned away to visit the booths. She demurred, as did Julin.
Kolteo regarded him haughtily. “A bit early, isn’t it?”
Altolcz took a sip of his wine. “That’s what Vhen here tells me. I find it quite pleasant.”
He set the wine down. “Now, the food is ordered. Let us get down to business.” He looked at Julin, then Kolteo. “Thank you, Mister Terch, Mister Ais, for appointing Madam Ais as your spokeswoman.”
Both men started to speak at once, but Altolcz held up a hand. “I understand there’s been some disagreement between you as to how to proceed with me.” He smiled. “Vhen has apprised me of your situation, and I agree, it is perilous. Appointing a neutral third party in a case like this is wise.”
“But we didn’t—” began Julin.
Altolcz cut him off again with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Don’t be silly. Why else would you sit her between the two of you, across from me?”
Then he fixed Sari with his intense blue eyes. “And thank you, Madam Ais, for being willing to act as spokeswoman for these two men. I’m sure it can’t be easy to balance their claims on your affection.”
From long practice at hundreds of dinner parties, Sari gathered her scattered wits and smiled demurely. “Of course, Peer Altolcz. Where shall we start?”
“Brass tacks,” said Altolcz.
Sari frowned, not recognizing the expression. He continued, “The three of you seek my help. My original offer, however, only applies to Julin.” He looked at Julin. “I’m still willing to help you destroy your brother-in-law and restore the name of your father. Please be assured of that.”
Kolteo bristled beside her. Altolcz held up a finger, still looking at Julin. “However, you appear to be well on your way in that project. I find it interesting how things have changed since the last time the three of us were in a room together!”
Julin found his voice. “I can still give you the location of the Lost Fleet and news of the Emperor’s fate.”
Altolcz wagged his finger at Julin. “Ah, ah, ah! You neglect your spokeswoman.”
Sari realized then that he was serious about her as spokeswoman. Whatever game he was playing, she needed to steer this conversation.
She found her poise and spoke. “Peer Altolcz, we’re all happy that you have agreed to meet with us this morning, but I’ll kindly ask you to desist in provoking Kolteo and Julin, and I will object to any further attempts to sow discord.”
Altolcz again smiled disconcertingly. “Of course.” He nodded to Kolteo, then Julin. “My apologies.”
Kolteo grunted. Julin merely nodded.
Sari took a deep breath and continued, “You know our situation, so I don’t need to tell you much more than that we would greatly enjoy your assistance in getting us away from Siben, out to the Periphery. We have information to offer in exchange that you would profit greatly by.”
Altolcz waved his hand as if shooing away a fly. “To be frank, I care very little about the fate of our dear departed Emperor. Everyone knows in their hearts that he will not return. I am looking for drama. Dreams, Madam Ais.” His eyes glittered.
Sari was surprised to find that she understood this, even agreed whole-heartedly. All her life she had dreamed of adventure and excitement, even as she settled for the endless soirees and dinner parties of high society.
She smiled. “Then if you do not help us, the drama ends. We cannot escape Siben on our own. We can continue to hide in the tunnels, and it might have been exciting at first, but let me tell you, that excitement fades quickly. The best drama is in us escaping Siben. Otherwise, the story ends.”
Altolcz was staring up at the ceiling, his chin resting in his hand. “Yes, it’s true. And if you stay, you’ll be caught, likely executed. There’s pity in that story, but not much else.”
Sari felt herself caught up in the argument, while a detached part of herself wondered at her words: “But there’s still pity here. You still have the loyal son and daughter,” she gestured at Julin and herself, “desperate to clear the name of their falsely-maligned father.” She gestured at Kolteo. “And you have the fall of a man from a great height, and what he must do to survive in the face of betrayal, with all the Empire arrayed against him.”
Altolcz smiled, less disconcertingly, even warmly, his eyes distant. He was muttering to himself, “Filial loyalty. Revenge. Riches-to-rags. Fish out of water. Betrayal. The Underdog. Yes, yes, I do like it. It’s a good formula.”
The food arrived then. At the smell of it, Sari’s stomach churned in hunger. Go slow, she told herself. Kolteo and Julin tore lustily into their food, and Altolcz was not to be outdone. The conversation flagged while they ate.
Vhen stood impassively over Altolcz’s shoulder, and Sari felt pity for him. But he caught her eye, smiled, and winked. She felt better.
His breakfast half-finished, Altolcz looked up and wiped his mouth with his napkin. He sipped his wine. “I happen to have a ship in port right now, the Militov, that has room in its billet for passengers. Her captain owes me a favor. Several, actually.” He grinned wickedly. “I’ve asked him not to take on passengers until I give him leave. He would have room for the three of you and several, er, retainers.” He cocked his head at the armsmen in the booths behind him. “Oh, and Rani, of course. I would send Rani with you.”
Sari smiled as well. “That’s very kind of you to offer, Peer Altolcz. What do you ask of us in return?”
Altolcz stretched his lips into his ghoulish grin again. “Mister Terch must find his own way to disclose his secret. I will not help him with that just yet. And *you,*” he looked at Kolteo, “you must find your own way into the spaceport.” He paused. “I might have felt inclined to help you even with that, but not after your men shot up my offices.”
Kolteo said nothing. Why was he being so quiet?
Julin, however, was not having it. “Now hold on,” he said, “I thought we had a deal.”
Altolcz ignored him. “Madam Ais, please inform your party that I will only deal with the spokeswoman on the matter at hand. Separate deals may be negotiated separately.”
That was silly, she thought. He’d just been speaking directly to Kolteo. The whole thrust of the conversation bewildered Sari, but she smiled her difficult-guest smile and ignored it. “This ship,” she began.
“The Militov. Her master’s a man name Vulcano. Ced Vulcano.”
“The Militov. You said that Kolteo must find his own way into the spaceport. Can you clarify? Does that go for all of us, or only him? Can you offer any of us safe passage?”
Kolteo’s eyes sparkled. He was enjoying this. She gave him an annoyed look.
Altolcz considered this new wrinkle, gazing into his wine. Then he looked up at Vhen. “What of it, Rani? You think we can get some of them in without tipping off the Imps?”
Vhen smiled. “Oh, certainly, sir. Smaller groups are easier to work with.”
Sari asked, “And how much room is there on the Militov, in all?”
“Six berths,” said Vhen.
Sari nodded, and looked at Altolcz. “I’ll need to consult with my, er, party, to consider your offer and your requirements. Will you excuse us?” She looked pointedly over Altolcz’s shoulder.
He smiled a courtly smile. “Of course.” Scooping up his plate, silverware, and wine glass, he moved over to sit by his men with his back to Sari and company. Vhen followed.
Sari glanced at Julin. He looked like he’d swallowed a lemon. Then she looked at Kolteo, who now had a wide smile. “Well,” she said, “I don’t know if that went at all like we’d hoped.”
“Sari,” Kolteo said, “You were brilliant.”
She looked at him in surprise. “Was I?”
“Yes, you latched onto that drama bit, right where his heartstrings are attached. I wouldn’t have caught on, I’m afraid. And your counter on the spaceport? Well played.”
Julin broke in, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. This is a disaster. ‘Here’s a ship, but I won’t help you all get to it?’ What kind of game is he playing? And the other bit?” He looked Sari right in the eye. She knew what he meant.
“Julin,” she said, “remember what father used to say? ‘He who goes begging mustn’t inspect the horse’s teeth’? Besides, Vhen says he can get some of us on. It’s Kolteo who has to find his own way.”
Julin stopped, considered this, and smiled. “Alright, good point, sis.” He looked at Kolteo. “Good luck with that.”
Kolteo smiled. “I’m not going to need luck. I already have a plan.”
“What about your men?” asked Julin. “We can’t take them all.”
Kolteo shook his head. “I wasn’t planning to. Some of them have families here on Siben. Romik’s with me for sure. I’ll only take volunteers with me into exile.”
Sari looked from her husband to her brother. “We’re agreed then?”
Both men nodded.
He looked back from his seat, took one more bite of toast, then rose and sauntered over with his wine glass, which he’d hardly touched. “Yes?”
“We’ve agreed to accept your offer.”
He smiled his unnerving smile again. “Excellent! May I propose a toast then?” He raised his voice, calling out to all the patrons in the restaurant, “A toast! A toast!” Heads turned to look at him. A few people smiled and raised cups of coffee or juice.
The mousey man held his wine glass high. “To our dear, departed Emperor!” he called. “May he ‘ever find his way home again!”
“To the Emperor!” returned several patrons. Everyone who had a glass raised it.
Altolcz waved his wine glass in a semi-circle, sending a small libation down to the floor. Then he brought the glass to his lips and drained it to the dregs.
Continued in: 29. Mt. Pesh…
Kolteo makes a desperate gamble… can he and Romik infiltrate the impregnable Imperial stronghold?
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