Darkship Revenge – Snippet 12

Everyone gave me a wide berth, and I walked more or less aimlessly, but taking stock of what was available, as well as thinking through my next move.  I needed to know if Simon was safe and still in control, but if he weren’t that might be a perilous or even deadly move. The easiest thing would be to listen to people talk, but that wasn’t going to happen on the streets.  It might very well happen while shopping for diapers, or looking for food.  But for that I needed money.

I knew where to go. Look, my lair did not engage in the normal criminal pursuits of broomer lairs, but it was impossible to exist even as a semi-recreational broomer lair – without getting into battles with other lairs.  And in those battles we often took spoil, which was mostly brooms.  So we needed a place to dispose of stolen brooms.  And I’d in the past had occasion to dispose of other spoil.  Or at least of things I’d stolen from my father’s house, in order to finance my lair or a new broom.  Mostly things no one but me even remembered existed, like one of those musty, old books in the library, printed in twenty first century paper with ink that was fast fading.

Most of the places we traded with were in Syracuse Seacity, but we had places of resort in other isles and continental settlements, at least within our broom range.

In Liberte the place was Lupin and Sons.  Its door looked like a gash in the base of one of the dimatough columns that supported the next level.  From the fact it was much taller than most normal doors, it probably had started out as a bubble in the dimatough, with an opening.  Well, two openings, because next to the strangely shaped door was a strangely shaped shop window.

The shape of the shop window did not begin to be as odd as its contents.  In higgledy piggledy fashion, the display showed off – if you can call it that – anything from tarnished silver candlesticks to brand new, shining burners that looked like police issue.

In the center of the shop, holding pride of place, was a stuffed squirrel outfitted in miniature broomer kit, with a burner in its hand.  By pride of place I mean that it was upright and could easily be discerned from its surroundings.  It was, however, covered in a thick layer of dust and a dusty cobweb linked its tufted ears to – presumably – the distant, darkened ceiling of the shop window.

Its dull glass eyes seemed to look me over banefully as I passed by, to enter the shop.

The man behind the counter was old François and his helper was his son Louis.  They were both thin and I presumed they had both once been dark haired.  The only way I’d ever known them, François’ pony tail was all white, and there was a distinct bald circle on top of his head.

They looked like perfectly respectable merchants, except for a slight look of … expectancy.  Behind their eyes lurked the sort of alertness that indicated they were looking for something or waiting for something.  People said no one tried to rob Lupin’s twice.  People – and by people I mean broomers – also said that in the basement of the shop there was a powerful hidden incinerator that was used to dispose of more than damaged merchandise.

As a matter of curiosity, I’d often wondered if there was any truth or if these were rumors carefully set about to make sure that no one tried anything funny the first time.  It didn’t matter.  I’d never been willing, or in fact interested in, trying anything new the first time around, and I surely wasn’t about to do it now, with Eris dependent on my staying upright and breathing.  If I died heaven only knew what they’d do to Eris.

An unexpected, disturbing image, of a stuffed Eris in the shop window, in a miniature broomer suit, holding a burner, made me shudder, and I realized both men were looking at me expectantly and also with a scared expression.  The expectant made sense.  They probably remembered me.  The scared?  Not at all.

I kept my eyes and ears open for any movement behind or to the sides of me, but there was nothing.  The crowded little shop – with brooms hanging from the ceiling, used furniture and books cramming the corners and for whatever reason a batch of white rats in a cage – looked perfectly still, and sounded perfectly still, except for the rats and the men behind the counter.  And trust me, if there had been anyone else there, even just breathing, I’d have heard them when I was listening that intently and that alert.

The last time I’d used the code that told Louis and François that I was a broomer with something illicit to sell, it had been “At the orders of Marat.”

Now in the old days, the password had changed every few months, and I was never absolutely sure how it was changed or how it was passed down.  We just knew it by word of mouth.  Mention in any broomer bar that you were going to visit Lupin’s and someone sooner or later told you the new code.

Only I’d been away from Earth for well over six months.  I was sure it had changed, but not how.  So I approached the counter and gave the old sign.  “At the orders of Marat.”

Pierre’s watchful, laid-back look changed.  He blinked.  I had the impression he’d bit his tongue.  He said, in something less than a whisper, “Louis, secure.”

I tensed.  For a moment I thought he was telling his son to secure me, which even with Eris strapped on and brooms on my back would not go well at all well for him.

But Louis slid quietly around me, as I tracked him, and closed the door, then threw a switch somewhere in the shadowy edge of the walls.  I wasn’t sure what the switch was, or even if there was one, but I was aware a distant hum had quieted.

François gave me the once over.  “Well, demoiselle, now we should be safe.  I should tell you never to say those words again, and not in public.  We are good citizens, and good subjects of the Emperor Julien, allors.”

If my eyebrows climbed any further, they would become part of my hairline.  “Emperor Julien?” I asked.  My voice cracked a little.  I didn’t know anyone named Julien, and really, Emperor?  It didn’t sound like someone who served under the sphere of the Good Men.  The highest title I knew they allowed as king, and mostly because the British, an ancient, proud and quite possibly mad race had refused to surrender their ancient pomp and dignity.

“Emperor Julien Beaulieu,” he touched his forehead, in what seemed to be some kind of gesture.  “The protector of Liberte, grantor of our liberties and keeper of our people.”

Uh uh.  There was one thing I knew for sure.  When someone called himself the grantor of anyone’s liberties, those liberties were long gone, if indeed they had ever existed.

I tried to look calm and uncaring.  It didn’t help that Eris chose this moment to wake up and give me a look like she was astounded at my incompetence.  All right, so I was probably reading that into her wide-eyed look.  But I felt incompetent, and was afraid of getting us both killed.  “What happened… I’ve been away… ah.  Out of the reach of news.  What happened to Good Man St. Cyr?”