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Aristide didn’t hear the bell of his telephone over the racket of radio and ticker tape and typewriter keys. Even if he had, he wouldn’t have answered. That was what secretaries were for. Because he hadn’t had the benefit of a warning ring, Daoud caught him unawares, head sunk low to a ledger, spectacles sliding down his nose.
“Ari,” said Daoud, and when Aristide finally heard his name it had the air of a third or fourth repetition.
“Sorry,” he said, blinking as his vision adjusted for the top half of his bifocals. “What is it?”
Aristide took off the new spectacles and pressed the heels of his hands into the aching muscles around his eyes. Damned new prescription. Damned old body. “Tell them to ring again tomorrow. I’m ready for a drink.”
Daoud’s lips crimped to one side, tugging the line of his beard askew. “It is His Highness. Prince Asiyah.”
Attention pulled him taut as a piano wire. He set his pen aside with unwarranted care. “All right. Send it back.”
There was every chance this was the warning Aristide had been ready for since last autumn, when he and Merrilee Cross sent their first cargo of tar to the newly pacified port of Amberlough. Asiyah wasn’t vice or port authority by any stretch, nor was he precisely a confederate of Cross-Costa Imports or any of its multiple subsidiaries. Still, he had in the past let hints fall for an old friend. Perhaps out of pity or guilt, since the information Aristide originally cajoled from him led to neither profit nor satisfaction. Cyril DePaul had not appeared from the jungles of Liso.
Or perhaps this wasn’t about the tar, but an order to cease skimming Porachin aid shipments. Aristide had done his best to keep that from royal or intelligence attention.
It had started small. Defeated at his original purpose and pushed south by fighting once war began in earnest, Aristide brought Daoud south and settled in Rarom, near the airfield. There was a seedy little bar where the pilots liked to drink and soon Aristide had a good rapport with Wedi, who kicked a carton or two his way when she thought they might not be missed.
Merrilee came down from Ul-Mejj when he started to cut in on her market. By then her city was on the front line anyway, so they set up their company in his backyard. Fewer unexploded shells.
They did well for themselves, redistributing rice and tobacco amongst the highest bidders. Police and royal agents largely looked the other way if their palms stayed greasy. But a prince would be another matter, especially now that the war was over and the royal family had face to save and laws to impose in the land they had reclaimed from republican control, where Porachin aid was sorely needed.
Aristide was prepared for a friendly tip. He was prepared for a royal summons. He was not prepared for what followed Asiyah’s pleasantries.
“I have some news about a mutual friend,” he said.
Their shared acquaintances fluttered through Aristide’s mind like a handful of shuffled business cards. Pulan? Lillian? He kept in contact, if irregularly, with both of them by post, and sometimes by radio call if a special occasion warranted, though those were expensive and a pain in the rear to organize. Usually it was letters, and occasionally a telegram. In fact, Lillian had cabled him last week, with an invitation to an event he had flatly refused. He wouldn’t cut the ribbon on a memorial so she could curry favor with Gedda’s ministerial candidates. Not that memorial, anyway.
“Sorry,” he said, realizing that Asiyah’s silence had dragged into expectancy. “Who is it?”
“I cannot say on this line.”
Which meant clandestine work. Conspiracy. Espionage. Aristide had less to do with foxes than with thugs these days. Pulan, Asiyah could have mentioned on the telephone. If not her, then …
As if the final tumbler of a stubborn lock had given way, the realization snapped into place with metallic clarity. It had been five years, but perhaps the jungle had given up its prize after all.
“Where?” His fingers tightened on the receiver; resin creaked at the seams.
“There is a flight to Dadang tonight,” said Asiyah, and Aristide realized he had answered for a different, more pedestrian value of the word.
“No,” he said. “Where did you find…?” It wasn’t that he remembered not to say the name. Only that he couldn’t.
“Pack a bag,” said Asiyah, “and be at the airfield by nine o’clock.”
* * *
Aristide was not afraid of many things. He’d been in fights and ended them. He’d walked cliffs slippery with rain and sleet in darkness uncut by electric lights. He’d fended off wolves and foxes and folk bent on doing violence to his person. He’d gone hungry, slept in the street, sunk a knife into another man’s belly, and put a bullet through somebody’s skull.
He still hated flying.
By the time the Mgenu-330 picked itself up from the tarmac—three hours late, thanks to the weather—he had gotten therapeutically drunk. This had the effect of muting his terror when the little aircraft hit turbulence just after takeoff, but also increased his nausea when they banked to turn and the earth sank below the windowpane.
The flight was longer than he would have liked it to be. He should have stayed sober enough to get some work done—there were letters to write, both business and personal. Daoud had gawped at him when he said he’d be back in a few days, and come up with a raft of protests that mostly boiled down to reluctance over dealing with a testy Cross on his own.
But Aristide wasn’t sober by any stretch, and terror combined with monotony put him into a numb contemplative state.
Five years he’d been in Liso. When he arrived in Oyoti, drenched by the first monsoon of the rainy season, he’d been so sure of success. Foolish. He could acknowledge that now. If he hadn’t let himself get soft, he would have known it then, too. And it wasn’t just lush living in Porachis that had dulled his edge; considered retrospectively, his wits hadn’t seen a whetstone since he signed the deed for Baldwin Street.
He had achieved all the things he hoped to. Wasn’t it what he had always told himself? When I’m rich I won’t have to worry about that. He’d whispered it to himself until it was true, and then—stupidest of all—bought into the myth. Aristide Makricosta, king of the black market, monarch of the demimonde. Untouchable, untamable. Even the FOCIS’s Master of the Hounds couldn’t run him down, when it came to it, and instead turned belly-up beneath his teeth.
He hoped he’d learned his lesson. He would have liked to believe he was past arrogance now, only the thought itself smacked of the same.
Two years steaming in the equatorial rain forest, chasing phantoms through a war-torn jungle, had taught him to be leery of even the smallest trace of confidence. Anything that looked promising was likely to lead to disappointment. Anything that billed itself as a sure wager would inevitably end in embarrassment. Aristide had relearned caution in his later years, and greatly resented the lesson.
Yet here he was plastered into a seat ten thousand feet above the ground—oh, perdition take that particular line of thinking—on the strength of a single phone call.
He clutched the armrest as the plane banged through another patch of rough air, and reassured himself: This was not some cutthroat warlord baring rotten teeth, parting with dubious information at an inflated price. This was Prince Asiyah Sekibou, intelligence baron, just this side of an old friend. The last person Aristide knew who had seen Cyril DePaul alive, the last to speak to him, to hear his radio transmissions, and he was asking for nothing at all.
That roused Aristide’s suspicions. Asiyah wanted something from him. But as many stones as he turned searching for some reason the prince might be lying—a trap, a ploy, a plot—he found he could not convince himself it was anything less than the truth. That certainty took the bottom out of his belly more surely than the airplane’s sudden change in altitude as the pilot brought them down toward Souvay-Dadang International.
* * *
Asiyah was waiting on the tarmac in the back of a black auto that would have been discreet at the curb, but was less so parked in the midst of a dozen airplanes.
Dawn had just begun to breathe into the east, paling the cobalt sky where it was not already bleached by the lights of Dadang. A bald woman in aviator sunglasses she did not need held the rear passenger door for Aristide, then got into the driver’s seat and put the car in gear.
“It’s good to see you,” said Asiyah. He did not look as if he had been to bed; stubble textured the skin of his jaw, and there was a small stain on the front of his wrinkled red tunic, as though he had spilled—
“Coffee?” He offered Aristide a green metal thermos.
Aristide took the flask and cranked the lid open. A blast of bitter, fragrant steam cleared his altitude-stuffed sinuses and blunted the edge of his headache. It caught in the back of his throat and made him start to cough: a phlegmy hack that had latched onto his lungs about a year ago, which no mentholated cigarette or mustard compress would dislodge. He should see a doctor, but after his last appointment he was honestly afraid to. Like the plane, it put ice in his belly that even the barrel of a gun would not.
He poured coffee carefully into the lid of the thermos, which doubled as a cup. “Did you expect I might be drunk?” he asked, in between cautious sips.
Asiyah shrugged. “I only thought you might need something.”
Aristide poured a second cup and swallowed too quickly, to keep from saying something tart, which his disheveled state would instantly belie. When he had finished, he screwed the lid back into place and, addressing the thermos rather than Asiyah, asked, “Well. Where is he?”
Copyright © 2019 by Lara Elena Donnelly