Darkship Revenge – Snippet 13

François didn’t look shocked.  He tightened his mouth so much that it looked as though he were trying to make his lips invisible.  “I suspected you might have been away, ‘demoiselle.”  His eyes narrowed too, and he made a gesture with his head, as though pointing his rather sharp chin at Eris.  “Judging by your company.”

I almost corrected him and said I was Madame, as befitted a married woman, but I didn’t, because he was going on, “The Good Man, so called, got deposed and executed for his crimes against the people.”

For a moment the room swayed and it seemed to me like darkness crept from near the walls to press in on me.

“Mademoiselle!”  It was Louis, and he’d held my arm near the elbow.  I didn’t think I’d almost passed out, but I must have swayed, from his gesture.

“I’m fine,” I said, steadying myself, and standing on my own two feet.  “I’m fine.  I just didn’t know.”  Poor Simon.

He’d been somewhat of a pest.  If I understood what Kit had said – after he’d found these things out from the memories of the man he was cloned from – Simon’s own original had been created as a spy, a chameleon who could fit in anywhere, unnoticed, who could penetrate all levels of society and the most closed of conspiracies.

And Simon’s own history, with his father becoming incapacitated when Simon was very young, and Simon being required to step into the work of government, while at the same time keeping the insurgence against the mode of government alive, had caused him to develop a fake personality, a face he wore in public, which I had reason to believe concealed a much deeper and thoughtful young man.

But for all his flaws – and sometimes I wasn’t sure where the flaws ended and Simon began – he had been one of my earliest friends and one of my first lovers.  Even the last time we’d met we’d flirted and to be fair to him, he’d given me and Kit and our companions, all the help we needed in getting what we needed from Earth.

“Well, now, ‘demoiselle, we all had our own, private feelings for the Patrician.  And that’s how they should remain.  Private.”

François was watching me closely.  I nodded.  I shook Louis’ grasp away from my elbow.  “Indeed,” I said.  “Indeed, we must be loyal subjects of the ah — Emperor Julian.”

François smiled approvingly. He made some kind of head gesture at Louis, who disappeared into the shadows, and, if my ears were tracking right, into a corridor somewhere near the back of the shop.  “Now,” he said.  “Before we open the door, demoiselle, how may I help you?”

I took the extra broom from my back and laid it on the counter.

He looked at it, nodded, then ran his fingers over it, as though studying it by Braille.  “It’s not one of the standard commercial models,” he said.  “Nor one of the military models.”

I kept my mouth shut.  I really had no need to confess to the theft of an air-to-space, much less precisely to where I’d stolen it or why.

“On the other hand,” he said, largely – I think – speaking to himself.  “It is not one of those rescue brooms that fly only down, right?  So.  Let me see what I can give you for this?”

He bit the corner of his lip.  It was said among the broomers that François Lupin had a computer between his ears.  A highly specialized computer that could calculate to the last centime exactly how much he would get for an item, and then offer you half.

But when he spoke I was shocked.  “How about two hundred Beaulieus?” he asked.

I raised my eyebrows.  “Beau –” The currency not just in Liberte but over most of the hemisphere was narcs, which was an abbreviation for “narcotics” which had been a form of currency in the Turmoils, before the Good Men had taken over and restored peace.

“It tracks more of less with the old narcs,” the man said.  “Because they were only replaced a week ago.  It’s a thousand Beaulieus to the ounce of gold,” he added, helpfully.  “Give or take.  Emperor Julien has placed us on a gold standard.”  I noticed once more he touched his forehead with his fingertips when talking about the emperor.  It really gave me a creepy crawly feel up the spine, but I turned on the calculations instead.

One thousandth of an ounce per narc give or take and depending on fluctuations, had indeed been the price of gold in the old days.  I knew because I often bought raw gold to have it fashioned into jewelry that was exactly what I wanted.

Given that, 100 was unusually high for a broom with its brains beaten out, which made it clear it was stolen.  I must have murmured something about high price, which just shows you I wasn’t functioning.  I’m not in the habit of arguing against myself.

I didn’t realize I’d done it, till I saw François smile widen, with his lips still closed.  “Well, Demoiselle,” he said, his voice slightly hoarse.  “It is what you can expect when war is so widespread that all flyers and brooms go up in price, as the military are buying them.  He looked at the broom on my back.  “If you sell me that one too, and your suit, I can raise it to four hundred nar — Beaulieus.”

I shook my head.  The entire situation was making my skin crawl, and I did not want to leave myself without the means to escape this place as soon as possible.  I did not know anything about the Emperor Julien, his rule, his domains, or even his policies.  But I knew anyone who talked loudly about how much they defended liberties, let alone anyone who named a currency after himself, was not a benevolent or lax ruler.

“One broom,” I said, my own voice hoarse.  “And what is the price in gold?”

“One tenth of an ounce,” he said.  “Would Madame prefer it in coins?”

I was Madame now.  And Madame was not outfitted to check the gold composition of coins, and wasn’t completely stupid.

I ended up selling the broom for a tenth of an ounce, deposited in the Interplanetary bank, an old and respectable institution at least 300 years old and if anything a little stodgy.  The deposit was in gold, but retrievable in any currency of my choice by means of a fingerprint, a voice code or a typed number code, both of which I memorized.

When I asked how much of that I’d have to pay for a packet of diapers – the smell was really near unendurable, and I suspected the screaming was about to resume – they told me it was no charge, and brought out from the back a dusty, ancient but sealed packet of newborn sized diapers, and even threw in a shoulder sack to carry them in.

I changed Eris in a little room at the back of the shop, one that contained two cots and a tiny cooker, and where I couldn’t avoid the suspicion that father and son lived.

And I left wondering if I’d sold the broom so cheap that it warranted throwing in freebies, or if Gallic courtesy had taken over.

I thought of this to avoid thinking of what had happened to Simon.  Or of what might happen to me and Eris, in a world where no one had any reason to be well disposed towards us.

Kit? I mind called.

But there was no answer.  Which only meant I had to find him, if I had to turn the Earth upside down and give it a good shaking.