Armistice: New Excerpt
By Lara Elena Donnelly
Armistice returns to Lara Elena Donnelly’s ravishing 1930s Art Deco-tinged fantasy world of the Nebula Award-nominated Amberlough with a decadent, tumultuous mixture of sex, politics, and spies.
In a tropical country where shadowy political affairs lurk behind the scenes of its glamorous film industry, three people maneuver inside a high-stakes game of statecraft and espionage: Lillian, a reluctant diplomat serving a fascist nation; Aristide, an expatriate film director running from lost love and a criminal past; and Cordelia, a former cabaret stripper turned legendary revolutionary.
Each one harbors dangerous knowledge that can upturn a nation. When their fates collide, machinations are put into play, unexpected alliances are built, and long-held secrets are exposed. Everything is barreling towards an international revolt … and only the wiliest ones will be prepared for what comes next.
Cordelia sat through the customs inspection nailed inside a crate, breathing into her bunched-up shirt to muffle the sound. She couldn’t understand the words—blood pounded in her ears, and besides, they weren’t speaking Geddan.
It went on for hours, felt like, and then there was a long stretch of silence, broken by bangs and curses and the groan and scrape of metal against metal. Unloading the real cargo. By the time Josippa took a pry bar to Cordelia’s hidey-hole she’d soaked through her clothes, fear-sweating.
“Stinks like a sauna in here.” Josippa tossed the length of metal to the floor of the newly empty hold. The clang echoed. “Come on, out. Sun’s down and there’s some women that won’t go away. I think they’re yours.”
“You sure they ain’t hounds? Foxes?”
“They’re neither of them a beast of any description. If I’d a guess to venture I’d say they’re the other end of your line, but I’m not in the business of guessing things I’m not supposed to know. Helps me to speak honest with the harbormaster about my cargo.”
Cordelia stood and twisted her spine until it popped. “Yeah, what were you, working out a marriage contract with your customs folk?”
“You haven’t whined a teaspoon since we took you onboard. Don’t start now.” Josippa opened up the hatch on an evening sky, purple turning black, burnished by city-glow.
It had been hot inside the hold, sure, but it kept right on being hot on deck. A breath-warm wind off the ocean swept over her skin, leaving behind a salty film. Factory reek mixed with harbor dross, all of it cooking into a putrid stew.
Josippa took a deep breath through her prominent nose. “Ah, Berer. Almost as good as Dastya in the summer, and here it lasts all year ’round.”
“Where are these women?” Cordelia peered cautiously over the side, down at the dock, but didn’t see anyone. At this late hour, most everybody seemed to have gone home.
“Down the street,” said Josippa. “I told them I’d bring what they were looking for later. Made it sound very mysterious. I just needed them out of my underclothes long enough to unload. And the harbormaster was starting to look leery.”
“You’re a treasure,” said Cordelia.
“Maybe I can pawn myself. You paid me spit on tin for this and told me it was silver.” But she smiled when she said it, and led Cordelia down the gangway.
Smoke from half a dozen hookahs hung in veils from the low ceiling of the coffeehouse. There were other folk around, sucking on the ends of hoses, but the low light made it tough to pick out details. Cordelia was grateful for that—it meant nobody would get a close look at her.
Not that she was so recognizable, anymore. She’d hacked away most of her scarlet hair early in the game, leaving a tumble of curls longer on the top, styled in a ragged high-and-tight. Easy to cover with a cap, colored red with whatever she could get ahold of—sometimes just watery paint. It gave her scrappers a little bit of hope, a little bit of the home they remembered. Since she’d blown up the Bee sometimes it felt like her six-inch square of bright red curls was all that remained of old Amberlough. In three years, the Ospies had managed most of what they set out to do, and Cordelia—lagging behind a little bit—had gone from opportunistic arsonist to organizer. Joachim, Zelda’s man, had been hers for a while, and he brought along some useful friends. In turn, they brought some of their people. Word spread in whispers, mostly through theatre folk and black-market scullers with greasy palms. It was Opal, who used to work as gaffer for the Diadem, who said Let’s call ourselves the Catwalk; we get things done unseen, and then light it all up when we please.
It was her idea to hit the trains, too. All the grain and fruit and fabric and coal coming down from the north. The goods shipped into Amberlough’s harbor meant for the rest of the country. Kill the railroads and you killed commerce. Kill commerce and you killed the country.
When they started to need code names—when their pictures went up after they blew the tracks at Lindenbarr and one of Joachim’s old sparks tried to collect some scratch by singing about them—they called Opal “Gaffer” and laughed about it. Joachim was “Stagehand.” Cordelia, with her bright red patch of curls, was “Spotlight.”
Now, she wasn’t anybody except her new fake name—Nellie Hanes—and the red hair was long gone. She’d dyed it brown in Dastya, in the sink of a public washroom.
“Ladies,” said Josippa, opening her arms to two women in a shadowy corner of the coffeehouse. Their table was bare: no hookah, no coffee, no food. “My apologies for the delay.”
“Captain Bozhic.” One of them stood. “We have been here for three hours. What is going on?” She talked like a swell, though this close Cordelia could see well enough to clock her dusty clothes and her hair coming out of its pins. Stood straight, though, and had that gimme-what-I-want attitude.
It had been a long time, and they’d only met the once. She wouldn’t have known the woman in the street. Didn’t really know her now, except to know she should. Only knew her name because Luca’d told her: Sofie Cattayim.
“You asked about your package,” said Josippa. “I brought you your package. Here she is, and I’m glad to be done with her.” The captain clapped Cordelia on the shoulder, hard enough she almost staggered. “She’s a nice sort but not worth so much worrying.”
“What on earth?” said Sofie, but Josippa had already turned away and headed for the door. Robbed of that avenue, she rounded on Cordelia. “Who are you?”
So she didn’t recognize Cordelia, either, and hadn’t had someone like Luca to give her memory a shake. Cordelia wondered if she even remembered handing off those earrings, if she knew who all she’d scratched.
“It’s hard to explain,” she said. “Maybe somewhere … well. Not here.”
The swell’s companion, who so far had kept her peace, clicked her tongue slow against her teeth three times. “Oh, Luca, ye’ve visited a proper trial upon me this time, haven’t ye?”
The swell jerked her head around, losing a pin. “What?”
“She’s right, Fee. We’d better hie back home before we ret this out. Come away.” She unfolded from her seat and ushered Sofie out of the booth.
“Mab,” said Cordelia. “Right? Mab Cattayim.”
“And at the moment wishing I was anyone but, and Luca not my nephew after all.”
“What’s going on?” snapped Sofie.
“Home,” Mab insisted, and gently pushed her toward the door.
* * *
Cordelia had landed in Berer because one of the boys helping to hide their cell in the Culthams had an aunt, he said. Dead to him, on account of marrying outside the people, but she wrote to him every now and again on the sly, and she was hale and hearty enough for Cordelia’s purposes. Which were, as Opal put it, “get as far from Gedda as quickly and quietly as possible, or they’ll put you away somewhere there ain’t no sun.”
Luca’s aunt had an old marriage, he had said, to a Nuesklen girl and a foreign boy, who’d been arrested when they ran off together but then slipped the hounds with the help of some runner in Amberlough City. Aunt Mab had paid the man all she had and half again to get out with her husband and wife before the Ospies got a good grip on the country.
After comparing some dates and descriptions, Cordelia realized she knew who he meant. She’d helped Ari ferry a few people out of Amberlough—moving money, doing deals down at the docks—and this one she remembered. Zelda’s attic, the police in the street, and those stupid earrings she should have pawned straight off.
She’d let Luca think she was going. Let him send the letter, and let Opal bundle her into the back of Luca’s father’s truck, but she’d planned all along to lie low in the eastern foothills of the Culthams, just over the Tzietan border, until things cooled down and she could creep back.
But things didn’t cool down. They blew up, and then they burned, and there was no safe way back in. So in the end, she did what Opal and Luca had been expecting her to do all along.
“How is he? How is Luca?” The street was quiet—it was late, and the neighborhood was mostly warehouses. Mab still kept her voice low.
“I don’t know,” said Cordelia. “They sent me out before the … before it happened.”
“Massacre,” spat Mab. “Call it like it is. Be nice if somebody would, since they won’t say on the wireless. ‘Successful raid’ my right tit.”
“But they were harboring members of the Catwalk,” said Sofie. “The CIS thought the Chuli were—” Then she stopped, in the middle of the footpath, and stared at Cordelia. “Mother and sons. Now we are too. Aren’t we?”
Cordelia didn’t answer. That didn’t mean it wasn’t true.
The Catwalk had hit a few rail lines in and out of Amberlough in their first year, and word spread the way word like that always did—quiet but quick, always with a fat dollop of Who, me? Just making conversation. They ended up with radio operators in a couple of different cities, cells of scrappers here and there. And then a free agent—a Chuli woman—blew the depot in Farbourgh and the Catwalk got credit for it. Suddenly Cordelia’s people were linked in the press with the small but fierce resistance in the Culthams, where Geddan farmers were seizing ancestral grazing grounds for their own, unhindered by pro-Ospie police.
So when Amberlough got too hot for Cordelia, that was where she went, Opal and some others with her. To make that newspaper alliance real.
It lasted a good long while, and drew a fair crowd of people ready to fight, before the CIS caught on (the Central Intelligence Services—the Ospies had dropped “Federal” from the acronym as soon as they had a firm hold on the reins) and sent some terriers down the hole after them.
“Mab,” said Sofie. “Aren’t we?”
“I dinnae know,” said Mab, tone flat. “And I dinnae plan to ask, either. She’s a friend of my family, in a tight spot.”
“Your family,” hissed Sofie. “I’m your family. Nadia is your family. They tossed you out on your rear. And now they send you her?”
Sofie pointed at Cordelia, finger shaking. “I won’t bring her into the house with our daughter.”
“The Ospies killed Chuli kids, Fee.” Mab held her hands open, pleading. “Three of ’em, under the age of ten. It doesnae matter who’s hiding under the wagon or in amongst the flock, nor how poorly you aim. Ye dinnae shoot a kid and call it plumb.”
That had been the day after Cordelia went into the back of the truck. She’d been bumping over the border, probably, when the militia went in to ask a few questions about the Catwalk, prompted by the CIS. Got sass back from the wrong person, they said. Said they were afraid for their lives. Who knew what had really happened—the militia claimed the Chuli had showed their weapons first, which likely meant a crook or an antique rifle to keep off wolves. None of the Chuli from the camp had been given any column inches.
“I’m not saying it was right,” Sofie went on. “I’m saying they had reason enough to go in, and now they’ve got a reason to keep going in, again and again.” Sofie’s lips were thin, her face white. “You heard on the wireless. So many arrests they haven’t got room in the jails; they’re keeping them penned like sheep, in the open.”
Cordelia hadn’t heard that bit of news.
“You talk as if I dinnae know,” said Mab.
“More than you’ve let on, I think. How often has Luca written you? Is that where the petty cash has been going?”
Mab’s jaw flexed, and Cordelia could see the tendons standing out in her neck. Rough living in the Tzietan foothills, foxes on her tail, might have been preferable to this.
“Home,” said Mab again, this time in a voice that brooked no argument.
* * *
They fought all night. Cordelia slept through most of it. She was used to shouting by now, and to anger, and any number of loud noises in the dark.
Their rooms weren’t large—a bedroom and a dine-in kitchen with a sofa, above a shop that had been shuttered when they arrived. Given the oily stench in the air, the downstairs neighbors likely served a good fry-up. Cordelia had the bed; the women stayed in the kitchen so they could tear each other up and down in a kind of privacy.
When she woke in the wee hours, it was to a small, warm pressure and the sound of muffled weeping. Mab and Sofie’s little girl, Nadia, had left her cot in the corner and climbed into bed with Cordelia. Snot shone on her upper lip. She clutched a doll made out of a stocking, with yarn for hair and a ribbon tied around its neck. Snot shone on that, too.
Cordelia, the younger sister, had never been good with kids. She’d been the one getting her rear wiped and raggies changed, not the other way around. Awkwardly, she petted Nadia’s dark tangles of hair.
“They fight like this a lot?” she asked.
Nadia shook her head. Then, after a pause, nodded once.
“Where’s your dad, huh?” Cordelia asked. The bed was too small for three, and she’d seen no sign of the husband.
Nadia shook her head again.
Cordelia sighed and scooted over, making more room for the snuffling kid, then dropped back into a dead sleep.
In the morning, when she staggered out of the stifling bedroom, Mab sat at the table, smoking a pipe behind a newspaper. Her back was turned to Sofie, busy with a knife at the counter.
“Mornin’,” said Mab, flicking the top half of her paper down.
Cordelia nodded, and lowered herself into the chair opposite, keeping a wary eye on Sofie. There was tension in her shoulders, in the line of her neck below her gathered hair.
“Nadia still sleeping?”
Cordelia nodded again.
Mab sighed and set her paper flat on the table. “Sofie and I’ve talked and we cannae keep ye.”
She was starting to feel like a jack-in-the-box, head bobbing back and forth at the end of a spring.
“It’s hard enough in Porachis right now for us,” she went on. “We haven’t got the right papers to stay and work, and there’s little enough love for Geddans these days. I do better than Sofie most of the time, thanks to my coloring, and with folk who’re up on the news from abroad. The massacre at Tannover dinnae play well here, not for the Ospies. Porachis already had half a wad saved up in her cheek to spit at Gedda on account of the Spice War. Just waiting for a reason to let it fly, now.”
“You saying it’s gonna be hard for me too?” asked Cordelia.
“We know some folk around; if we hint at what you’ve done, where your sympathies lie, might be we could help you find some work. There’s the queen’s hostel you can stay at: three nights free by royal mandate, and not too dear after that. Though your skin and talk might get you some rough treatment there.”
Cordelia stopped listening. Not because she didn’t care, but because she’d seen Mab’s paper, open to the roto. She stabbed one picture with her finger. “What’s this?”
Cut off mid-sentence, Mab took a moment to catch her balance. “Sorry, the roto?” Then, following Cordelia’s stiff finger to the page, she said, “Ah, Makricosta? Do you know ’im?”
Cordelia pulled her finger away, leaving a smudge on the glossy page. “He’s why I’m here, if you go at it the long way.” They really didn’t recognize her. Good.
“Showed up not long after we did.” Mab tapped her pipe out on the edge of the table. “Funny, it was. We paid him so much to get us out, and ’ere he comes running after.”
A bowl of yogurt landed on the table hard, splattering. Sofie followed it with a plate of bruised, roughly chopped figs. “Sometimes, Mab Cattayim, I wonder your jaw doesn’t fall off from all the loose talk you let fly.”
“It’s not as if they can arrest him for it now.”
“It isn’t him I’m worried about.” Sofie flung a pair of spoons onto the table.
Mab picked one up, looking amused. “Anyway, who’s she gwine to tell?”
For the first time since Cordelia came into the kitchen, Sofie really looked at her, mouth screwed into a one-sided frown.
“I’m going out,” she said finally, and snatched a handbag from the back of the third, empty chair.
After the door slammed, Mab sighed and sat back, chair creaking. “That’s a break that’ll take some time to knit.”
“Sorry,” said Cordelia.
Mab waved her off. “Don’t you take my blame.” She scrubbed her hands across her face. “I just meant to help.”
“If you sent Luca money,” Cordelia said, “you did. Helped him and us. Might have gone to pay off a hound, or fed us for a night or two.”
“Nights that we went hungry, most like. Blessed stones, I should’ve told her.”
“Should’ve asked,” said Cordelia. Then, “Sorry. Not my place.”
Mab shrugged and let her head drop. The paper was under her nose, and she soon found a change of subject. “Makricosta, though. You recognized his face.”
Cordelia slid the roto closer for a better look at the picture.
He’d changed. Cut all that curly hair off, first of all, and there was silver in it now, thick at his temples. In the photo, he had a short Porachin woman with big hips hanging on his arm. Cordelia wondered what that was, but couldn’t tell from the caption. Porashtu script was all curling lines and dots and dashes, nothing she could read. “You understand this?”
“Getting better,” said Mab. “Reading the paper helps.”
“Overgrown blush boy always did put his big nose where it didn’t belong.” She touched the ink of Ari’s face and wondered if this was a hex or a blessing. “What’s he doing here?”
“Working in the pictures, down in Anadh.”
“Pictures, huh?” She hadn’t thought about that. Hadn’t thought far beyond landing in Mab and Sofie’s nest. But the pictures were big in Anadh—much bigger than they were back home, where they’d never quite caught on—and now she was being pushed out and had to trust her own wings. “It’s easy to get work like that?”
“In Anadh it’s hard to find work doing anything else, even if you are Geddan. See Phoebe Francis here?” Mab tapped the face of an older woman, pale, with white or blond hair wrapped in a neat bun above a stern face. “Born abroad, but her parents were Nuesklen straight through.” Mab picked up a fig. “Anyway, that’s what I glean about Anadh. Fee and I don’t travel much. But it’s a big town, bigger even than Myazbah—that’s the capital. Lots of folk from all over the world.”
“Is it far?”
Mab shrugged, ate the fig. “Couple of hours down the coast, by car. It might be I know someone who could take ye, if ye want.”
She wasn’t sure she did, but where else was she supposed to go?
Copyright © 2018 Lara Elena Donnelly.