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By Lara Elena Donnelly
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2017 Lara Elena Donnelly
All rights reserved.
At the beginning of the workweek, most of Amberlough's salaryfolk crawled reluctantly from their bed — or someone else's — and let the trolleys tow them, hungover and half asleep, to the office. Amberlough City, eponymous capital of the larger state, was not home to many early risers.
In a second-story flat on the fashionable part of Baldwin Street — close enough to the river that the scent of money still perfumed the air, and close enough to the wharves for good street food and radical conversation — Cyril DePaul pulled himself from beneath a heavy duvet of moiré silk. The smell of coffee was strong outside his nest of blankets. An early spring storm freckled the bedroom windows with rain.
Though this was not his flat, Cyril slipped from bed and went directly to the washroom without hesitation. He ran a wet comb through his hair, brushed his teeth with cloying, violet-flavored toothpaste, and borrowed the dressing gown hanging on the bath rail. Despite Aristide's penchant for over-warming his rooms, the last of winter lingered in the tiled floor. Cyril left the cold mosaic of the washroom behind and gratefully took to the plush carpet running the length of the hallway. Its tasseled end debouched onto the parlor, where he met the maid balancing an empty tray.
"He's at the little table, Mr. DePaul," she said, without so much as a blush.
"Thank you, Ilse." She had charming dimples when she smiled.
At the far end of the parlor, where it joined with the dining room, the corridor belled outward into a breakfast nook bracketed by windows. An elegant, ochre-skinned man sat at his ease in one of the gilded chairs. Reading spectacles rested halfway down his dramatic nose — narrow at the top, wide at the base, deeply curved: as if a sculptor had put her thumb between his eyes and pulled firmly down. His thin lips were arranged in a pout practiced so often in the mirror it had become habitual.
He held the society pages of the Amberlough Clarion against one knee. The rest of the paper — all the crosswords done, and still damp from the storm — was scattered among a silver coffee service set out for two, and dainty plates of almond pastry. As Cyril sat down at the unattended coffee cup, Aristide snapped his paper and said, without looking up, "Finally. I was beginning to wonder if you'd d-d-died in your sleep."
"And miss the pleasure of your company at breakfast? Never." Cyril poured for himself, luxuriating in Aristide's affected stutter, and the soundless slip of coffee against the shining glaze of his cup. "Are you finished with the front page?"
Cyril reached for the paper and grimaced when the wet ink left streaks on his palm. "Been up long?" He asked the question casually, but over splotchy headlines he catalogued Aristide's appearance with strict attention: satin pyjamas under a quilted dressing gown, the same set he'd — almost — worn to bed. His tumble of dark curls had been swept casually over one shoulder, but they still showed traces of damp. A flush lingered across his cheeks. He'd left the flat already this morning, but changed back out of his clothes. Something illicit, then, and Cyril was not supposed to notice. Obediently, he ignored it, just as Aristide ignored his scrutiny, and his question.
"Eat." Aristide pushed one of the pastries across the table. "Or you'll be late to work. I shiver to imagine C-C-Culpepper in a fury. She's frightful enough as it is."
"I know, I know. I'm not supposed to know." He reached two bony fingers into the breast pocket of his dressing gown and removed a slip of paper, folded in half. "And neither should she, right?" Without looking at Cyril, he handed over the cheque. "Discretion, as they say, is p-p-priceless."
Cyril made the payoff disappear up his sleeve. "You don't have to remind me." The money was a symbolic gesture, allowing for plausible deniability. "But I'm glad when you do." Ignoring the pastry, he drained his coffee cup and stood. "Clothes?"
"Ilse p-p-pressed them. They're hanging in the wardrobe."
Cyril dipped down to kiss Aristide on the top of his head. His hair smelled of rain, salt, and smoke. Somewhere on the wharves, then. Probably the southern end, near the Spits. Bad part of town — smugglers docked there, in the wee hours.
Aristide grabbed a fistful of Cyril's fox fur lapel and pulled, forcing him to bend deeper, until they were face-to-face. "Cyril," he purred, and there was menace behind it. "You haven't got the t-t-time."
"Ah," said Cyril, "but don't you wish I did?" He kissed Aristide again, on his pursed, displeased mouth. After half a moment's resistance, Ari gave in and smiled.
* * *
The rain was done by the time the Baldwin Street trolley stopped at Talbert Row. Cyril disembarked and joined a bedraggled wave of late commuters all headed for the same transfer.
Wedged at the front end of the trolley car, between the driver's partition and a dozing woman in a loud plaid suit, Cyril took the Clarion out from under his arm — he'd bought his own copy at the Heynsgate trolley stop — and propped it against his leg. The headliner was a story about a train station bombing in Totrajov, a disputed settlement on the border of Tatié.
Of the four nation-states in Gedda's loose federation, Tatié was the most fractious. The only state to maintain a standing army, it had been locked in a bitter territorial conflict with the neighboring republic of Tzieta for generations. Lucky for the rest of the country, federal funds and energy only went to mutually beneficial projects — infrastructure and foreign policy and, particularly relevant to Cyril, national security — so the decades-long skirmishing hadn't drained the national treasury, just nearly bankrupted an economically precarious Tatié.
By and large, Amberlinians ignored their eastern sibling except as the subject of satire, and an occasional creeping nervousness vis-à-vis Tatien firepower. Though it wasn't strictly good form, Amberlough's covert operatives kept a close eye on Tatié. The best of navies was no good against a landlocked, militarized state, and they weren't the most cordial of neighbors.
Tucked neatly under the gruesome account of the bombing was a smaller headline on the upcoming western election. Parliamentary elections were all offset by two years, and this year it was Nuesklend's turn. In the accompanying picture, outgoing primary representative Annike Staetler stood next to a young woman with marcelled hair and deep-set eyes. The caption read Staetler endorses Secondary Kit Riedlions, South Gestraacht. Below that, another picture, of a pale, flat-faced man in rimless spectacles, looking down from a podium swagged with bunting. Caleb Acherby stands for the One State Party in Nuesklend.
Poor Staetler. She'd been good to her constituents, and they would have had her for another eight years if she'd let the state assembly dissolve Nuesklend's term limits. Cyril hadn't been at the luncheon where Director Culpepper and Amberlough's primary parliamentary representative, Josiah Hebrides, went to work on her, but Culpepper had come back in a foul humor, filled with apocalyptic premonitions. Staetler was a staunch ally against encroaching Ospie influence in parliament. As long as regionalist Amberlough and Nuesklend stood against unionist Farbourgh and Tatié, things stayed at a deadlock. If Acherby took the primary's seat ... well, he'd always been the brains behind the Ospie cause. He'd had to wait through two election cycles, unable to run for office outside his birth state. Now it was his turn, and he'd have a long todo list.
He'd probably calm things down in the east, and feed the starving orphans in Farbourgh, but at a crippling cost to Gedda as a whole. Acherby's aim was unification: the loose federation into one tightly controlled entity. The manifold diversity of Gedda's people into one homogenous culture.
Sighing, Cyril opened the paper to the center and folded it back on itself, hiding Acherby's severe expression under layers of cheap newsprint.
He was deep in a conservative opinion piece in favor of further increasing domestic border tariffs — the same tariffs Aristide had been neatly avoiding in the small hours of the morning — when the trolley cables caught and the gripman bawled out "Station Way!"
Cyril disembarked to walk what was left of his commute. The gutters ran fast; bicyclists and motorcars splashed oily water across the footpath as they passed. Behind the marble edifice of the capitol, masts and smokestacks striped the sky above the harbor. Seabirds wheeled and shrieked, peppering the green copper dome of government with their droppings.
Amberlough's branch of the Federal Office of Central Intelligence Services hid on the top three floors of an unassuming office building, just across Station Way from the capitol's sloping gardens. Like everything in the FOCIS, the office had its own facetious nickname: the Foxhole.
"Morning, Mr. DePaul," said Foyles, from behind his racing form. Foyles had presided over the lobby as long as Cyril had been working in the Foxhole, and probably twice again as long as that. Deep wrinkles creased his face, and the tight spirals of his hair stood out in striking white against his slate-dark skin.
Cyril half-waved at him and stepped into the lift, standing back while the attendant shut the grate. He didn't need to tell her his floor.
The lift paused once, at three, where the clerks and auditors held court amidst the clamor of ringing lacquer telephones, heads bent over pencils and adding machines. Floors four and five were sleight of hand — espionage to ensure the security of the Federated States of Gedda — but three was where the true sorcery happened. The bursar's team made eye-popping embezzlements into minor calculating errors. Bribes and payoffs disappeared into endless columns of numbers and names. Agents were paid in secretive exchanges, the intricacies of which could escape even authorizing division heads. The accountants were, to a person, discreet, clean-cut, and scrupulously polite. They terrified the rest of Central.
The attendant scissored the lift grate open and stepped back for a new passenger. A young man in a shabby suit got on, ducking his head of bright copper hair. He smiled at Cyril without making eye contact. Against his chest, he held a sheaf of papers under a fat leather datebook, arms crossed tightly over it all like a shield. Cyril ticked through his mental files, checking names against faces, stories against facts.
Low-level auditor. Been in the office two years. Uncommonly straight, for an Amberlinian: He'd never tried his hand at extortion. Painfully fair, with a winning tendency to blush when embarrassed. Embarrassed very easily. What was his name, again? Lourdes. That was it. Finn Lourdes.
They'd only spoken once or twice — Finn had visited Cyril, just out of hospital, to express Central's sympathies, and deliver by hand a comfortable bonus and promise of promotion: Culpepper's blood money.
They ran into each other sometimes in the halls, now that Cyril was settled behind a desk. And anyway, Cyril wouldn't be working on the fifth floor if he didn't have a mind for details.
Across town, near the train yards, a few thin rays of morning sun burned through the clouds and fell through an open window, warming the freckled arms of Cordelia Lehane.
She pushed her hands through Malcolm's hair. He normally kept it slicked back in a ducktail, but now it stuck up at all angles. Last night's pomade greased her already-sticky fingers. He turned his face, swarthy against her winter-pale skin, and his stubble rubbed her belly. Sunlight struck threads of gray at his temple. Cordelia traced one strand, her finger sliding through the sweat gathered at his hairline.
"You're the best thing that's happened to me in an age," he said.
She half-smiled and shoved his face away. "Go on," she said. "I ain't."
He pressed his face into the softness of her, between hip bone and navel. The pressure made her bladder ache, but she didn't tell him to stop. The pain mingled with the tingling comedown of sex.
"I'll prove it," he said, and pushed her thighs apart.
He didn't lift his head. She grabbed his hair and pulled his face up. "I'm dying for the toilet," she said. "Give me half a minute."
He laughed and let her go, rolling over onto his back to fill the space she'd left. "You're a treasure," he said.
"Even treasures gotta piss sometimes."
When she went to flush, the pipes groaned and shuddered. "Queen's sake. Ring round a plumber once in a while, why don't you?" She rinsed her hands in water that came out reddish brown with rust.
"Can't afford to. The washrooms at the theatre've got to be done over this month."
"Maybe you ought to move in there." She came back to bed and flung herself across the sheets. A breeze, fresh with high tide brine, rolled through the room. Cordelia shivered and moved into the warm curve of Malcolm's body.
"You don't take care of yourself," she said, but she didn't put much into it. Half a shake of the head, a rueful smile. "You'd sell your own ma if it'd bring in a bigger crowd."
Malcolm cuffed her gently on the side of the head. "My old man, maybe. But never Ma. She was —"
"The jewel of the peninsula, I know." She rested her face on the hard curve of his bicep, staring up at his seamed, stubbled face. "The finest dancer in Hyrosia."
"She would've loved to see you," he said, drawing a calloused hand through her hair. It caught, but she didn't complain. Malcolm's eyes changed when he talked about his mother: The flint went out of them. "My mother would've loved you," was as close as he ever got to "I love you."
But everybody knew — especially Cordelia — that Malcolm only loved the Bee.
His mother had given up her stage career to come north and marry. And it had gotten her nothing but accounting books and two sons dead at sea, killed by Lisoan pirates somewhere south of her home country. Her youngest, Malcolm, she'd kept at home despite her husband's squalling. Malcolm heard all her stories, saw all her tintypes and mementos. Promised her she'd have a stage to walk again.
When she died of fever, he took what she'd left him and abandoned his father's shipping company for the boards. All his love for Inita Sailer went into making a go of the Bumble Bee Cabaret and Night Club.
"How's the new routine?" he asked. "Speaking of dancing."
She shook her head. "I got it all down, but the orchestra's having trouble."
Malcolm sat up and threw his legs over the edge of the bed. "I'll ask Liesl about it." He picked his watch up from the bedside and flipped it open. "Better be getting over there. Got a delivery coming in for the bar."
"Ytzak can take care of it," said Cordelia, wrapping her arms around Malcolm and tangling her fingers in the dark hair across his chest. She tried to pull him back into bed, but he resisted.
"No, he has the morning off — said his ma's sick, but you know he's courting that razor who plays bass in Canty's band, and he was a little too eager to run out last night."
"So drag him in," said Cordelia, hooking one leg over Malcolm's thigh.
He laughed and pinched her, but stood nonetheless. She let him go and collapsed against the bedspread, giving him her best pout.
"You learned that one from Makricosta," he said. "You know it won't work on me." Pulling a threadbare cotton undershirt over his head, he added, "You're welcome to hang around here, if you like. But I won't be back before curtain, almost sure."
Cordelia sighed. "You gonna ask me to run to the cleaners for your swags again?"
"Be a swan?" He swooped in and kissed her cheek. "Tell Kieran to put it on the account."
"You owe him half a fortune this month already."
"He knows I'm good for it. Especially once this new show's up and running." Malcolm slipped his braces over one shoulder then the other, and hooked his jacket and hat down from the back of the bedroom door. "Later, spicecake."
"Remember to talk to Liesl!" she shouted after him. The downstairs door slammed, rattling the bottles of hair tonic and cheap cologne on Malcolm's nightstand.
Cordelia fluffed a ratty pillow and leaned back, staring at the cracked plaster ceiling. The Bee did a swift trade. Malcolm only lived in such a shambles because whatever he made running the theatre went right back into it.
Not that she was complaining. Every stage-strutter in Amberlough wanted a spot on the Bee's pine boards. Malcolm paid his performers better than any place in the city — still a pittance compared to salaryfolk, but Cordelia padded her pockets out with dealing a little bit of tar on the side. It wasn't pretty work, but it was steady and it turned a profit. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly. Copyright © 2017 Lara Elena Donnelly. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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