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.
Armistice returns to 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—available May 15th from Tor Books!
Lillian stood in the antechamber of Regional Affairs for five full minutes, telegram pinched between cramping fingers. She knew if she held it in her hand she’d make a fist, and crumple it. Smoothing the paper would add an indignity these proceedings wouldn’t bear. Or which she, at least, refused to.
The door finally swung open, and Lillian jumped.
“Counselor Flagg will see you now,” said the secretary, smoothing her skirt. “So sorry for the delay.” She gestured Lillian across the threshold, then shut the door behind her. It closed with a firm, metallic clank. Other offices in the chancery had locks; none of them were quite so formidable, and most of them had keys instead of combinations. Lillian wondered how often they changed the series of numbers. Wondered if anyone had ever been locked in.
“Ah, Ms. DePaul.” At his desk, Flagg’s aide stretched his arms above his head. “We do not see you down our long, dark hallway often.”
“I’m the press attaché, Mr. Memmediv. I conduct most of my sabotage from behind a podium.”
He had a nice laugh: deep and soft, accompanied by a smile that made his eyes crinkle up. She almost mistook it for genuine.
Vasily Memmediv had arrived later than the rest of the Ospie staff, which made Lillian trust him less. Not that she trusted the Ospies all that far—she just knew where she stood with them. They’d cleaned out all her old colleagues when Acherby took power; those that hadn’t abandoned their posts when they heard the news. Replaced every single one of them with someone who would toe Gedda’s new line.
They’d even fired her, until they figured out she had a useful secret. She had been off the job for all of three days, which she spent trying to get her brother on the telephone, trying to determine if she should go home or stay put. Then she had a knock at the door.
That was the first time she met Maddox Flagg. He’d handed her the thick dossier with Cyril’s photograph clipped inside the cover, a shocking red stamp across his face: deceased. Most of the names and dates were blacked out, but he’d left her enough information to frighten her. The next file he took from his briefcase was her son’s. Refusing her reinstatement as press attaché had not been an option.
Six months ago, Memmediv had shown up, already snug inFlagg’s good graces. Lillian wasn’t privy to much that went on in Flagg’s office, but she had an imagination.
Acherby’s interventions on the border between the Kingdom of Liso and the North Lisoan Republic had stirred the pot of international relations, especially longtime royalist ally Porachis. The counselor needed more foxes on his staff. He and Memmediv must have shared some bond of clandestine professional association, because Memmediv’s area of expertise was purely domestic, and he spoke Porashtu like a primary school student.
Lillian was good at narratives, which was why she was good at her job. Though that wasn’t why the Ospies had kept her when they ousted everyone else. She was very good at what the old guard had paid her to do, and the Ospies—neck-deep in ill will at the time over the expulsion of several dozen Porachin immigrant families from Gedda—needed her touch.
“And,” Flagg had said, seated across from her at her own coffee table, “there is the small matter of Stephen. You’re sending him to school this fall, correct? Cantrell? His tuition will be paid in full by the government. As a token of our thanks for your hard work.”
This was not what he really meant, which was something more along the lines of Your son is a jess to hold you, and we will keep it punishingly short to see that you do as you are told. Or, she thought as much, until she learned it was not about her role in the corps, but about Stephen’s father’s family.
“He is being recalcitrant,” Flagg told her. “We would like you to provide a good example.”
More like, We would like to keep you close so we can hold a knife to your throat if he balks. Putting her back behind the press podium was just the hard sauce on the pudding.
Memmediv pulled her from the mire of her past. “Is that for us?” he asked, inclining his head toward the telegram.
“Oh, no,” said Lillian, shaking off her old anxiety to more easily bear the new. “I do need to speak to Flagg about it, though. The secretary said that he was—”
“Ready for you, yes.” Maddox Flagg emerged from his office, which was a locked fortress within a fortress. Gray-haired and gray-eyed, with a pallor that tended toward gray in the wrong light, the only thing that saved him from utter monochrome was the red rim around his eyes: the consequence of a lifetime spent sleeping in three-hour increments. High, hollow cheekbones and an aquiline nose lent his entire expression a drawn, disapproving cast. Lines seamed his narrow face, ironed in by a calculating squint under a perpetually furrowed brow.
“Can I offer you coffee, Ms. DePaul?”
“No, thank you,” she said. Flagg took the strongest coffee in the foreign service. If she drank it now her heart would probably explode. “I need to show you something.”
He took the telegram with an air of bemusement that only increased as he read. “Is she serious?”
“How would I know? I’ve never spoken to her in my life.”
“Really?” Flagg’s bloodshot gaze caught her over the edge of the paper. “You’re quite cozy with some of the royal family.”
“Not that branch,” said Lillian crisply, hating him.
“And she sent this to your home?”
“She did. This morning. Well, around half three. So perhaps she stayed up late last night. Maybe she was drinking?”
Flagg snorted. “No doubt. But I imagine it didn’t affect her judgment in this particular matter.”
“Would someone mind explaining?” Memmediv kicked his feet up on his desk and crossed his arms behind his head.
“You know Satri’s film,” said Flagg. “That swipe at us she’s dressed up as a historical drama?”
Memmediv grinned. “I like the pictures. I think it looks good.”
“Ms. DePaul has apparently merited a last-minute invitation to the premiere. Which is—”
“Tomorrow,” said Memmediv, and whistled. “What did I tell you, huh? Satri’s smarter than she looks.”
Lillian nodded agreement. “She wants one of two things from us, sending this at such late notice. If I say no, she can accuse us of cowardice. Worse, she can claim I’ve been prevented from attending. Gedda’s public image takes a blow. Who would stop me seeing a picture about my own grandmother?”
Grimacing, Flagg asked, “And the second option?”
“If I say yes and scramble to prepare, she hopes that we’ll embarrass ourselves somehow.”
“After Moorehead’s gaffe last month,” said Flagg, handing back the telegram, “you must endeavor to be faultless. We can’t lick any more of our own boot leather in front of the Porachins.”
The Geddan defense minister had recently expressed his support for troops in Northern Liso in their endeavor to spread democracy south of the partition. His defense—which would have come too late even if he’d led with it—was that his support was merely personal and moral, rather than official, military, or financial. Lillian had been holystoning the deck behind him, trying to smooth the splintered diplomatic relations his idiocy had left behind. The Porachin press had not been receptive; pundits were convinced Gedda was preparing to fight a proxy war in Liso. Lillian was fairly certain of the same thing, but it wouldn’t do to say so.
“So I’m going to the premiere?” she said.
“Unless you can write an ironclad statement excusing your absence.”
“I’m very good, Counselor, but I still do use language to make my points.” Lillian bent the telegram in half and ran a sharp crease along the fold: a concession to nerves that was neater than balling it up in her fist. “I’ve found it’s a tool that will work just as easily for others as it does for me. No matter what I say, she’ll twist it.”
“The invitation says ‘and guest.’” Flagg tapped his chin. “Mr. Memmediv, have we got any good-looking fellows to send along with her? No one too exotic. Not one of those playboy foxes we run,nobody who shows up in the tabloids too often. Someone respectable, who will keep an eye on her.”
“Counselor,” said Memmediv, with an ironic tinge, “what kind of operation do you think this is?”
But Flagg let his aide handle all the humor in Regional Affairs. “A functional one. Find somebody.”
“Why don’t I go?” He took a cigarette from his case and lit a match. A habit not endorsed by the OSP, but behind that locked steel door, who would know? “I’m due a little holiday.”
Lillian expected Flagg to strike that down out of hand, but instead he cocked his head and considered the prospect. Intensity narrowed his eyes like iron filings following a magnet.
Lounging behind the desk, cigarette dangling from a languid hand, Memmediv didn’t look like a chancery drudge. He didn’t even look particularly like a fox. He was suave, in an innocuous kind of way: middle-aged, sallow-skinned and bleakly handsome. Flagg must have seen the same thing, because eventually he shrugged. “You did say you like the pictures. Ms. DePaul, what do you think?”
“My professional opinion?”
“It’s the only one that matters.”
Which meant Memmediv was going whether she liked it or not, as long as it wouldn’t cause problems for Flagg. “Most people who know anything about the diplomatic corps will know a little bit about what he does and who he works for. That will make them wary, which might be good. It’s also a very subtle threat, to me and to Porachis, but one you can make without causing a scene. Besides, you know you can trust him.”
* * *
When Lillian left the chancery that evening, there was a car waiting at the bottom of the steps. Pedestrians and other motorists gave it a wide berth, wary of the diplomatic plates. Lillian suspected there was an extra several inches of deference—or disgust—added for the gray-and-white Ospie flags on the bonnet. As she approached, the driver opened the rear door. Its sweep revealed a pair of knees in pin-striped, steel-blue trousers.
Her stride only faltered for a moment, easily attributable to an uneven flagstone or a rock in her shoe. She recovered almost instantly, and slid into the backseat.
“Counselor,” she said, cool and even. “Are we going somewhere?”
“It’s hot. You’ve had a long day. I’m giving you a lift home.” He said it in a curious monotone that meant it was not true, or not wholly.
“Is this about the film premiere?” she asked, once they had pulled away from the curb.
“In a manner of speaking.” He paused, considering the street as it slipped by outside the window. “How well do you know Vasily?”
“Not well, sir. In fact, given his background I was rather curious that you brought him on at all.” It was more than she would have dared, if he hadn’t been the one to bring it up. “I understand the mandate of your office isn’t exactly the same as the rest of the mission’s, but…”
Another man would have done something to hide his reluctance:smoothed his trousers or examined his nails. Done something besides stare with raptor-like intensity at nothing in particular.“He requested the post,” said Flagg at last.
“Why? He doesn’t seem to have an abiding interest in Porachin politics, or even rudimentary knowledge of the culture.”
“New cultures, new countries: that can all be learned. But Memmediv and I have some history together; we worked under the same supervisor during the election, three years back. He was instrumental in the party’s success in Amberlough.”
She’d used the euphemisms so many times in press conferences that they no longer grated.
“I knew he’d be good at the job I hired him to do,” said Flagg. There was a caveat hanging on the end of that, unspoken. She could feel it in the air like an electric charge, the smell of smoke. All was not well in Regional Affairs.
“But,” she said, because he clearly wasn’t going to.
Regret passed across Flagg’s face: the shadow of a fast-moving cloud. Lillian was amazed to see him express any kind of emotion; it drove home the gravity of the situation.
“He requested the post,” Flagg repeated. “I was flattered, which in retrospect was stupid. His motivation has always been domestic; his family lost everything in the Dastyan Solstice riots thirty-odd years ago. Their business, their home, social cachet. His father was an alderman, and ended up serving time in prison. Memmediv was just old enough to understand the ramifications, but too young yet to fight. His affiliation with the Ospies during the election was based purely on Acherby’s campaign promise of returning Dastya to Tatié.”
“And Acherby’s moved very slowly on that.”
“You needn’t pander to me. This business about an armistice with Tzieta is a slap in the face to people like Memmediv. To them, that border, that port are the most important issues of any politician’s platform. Tatié’s been fighting for its own harbor for decades. Acherby promised to end their struggle, and he did: by making it unnecessary.”
Tatié had gone Ospie on the strength of Acherby’s allusions to military strength, to state solidarity, to ending Amberlough and Nuesklend’s shipping monopolies. He kept that promise by dropping the state border tariffs. But there was no push to reclaim the old capital of Tatié, granted to Tzieta in a fifty-year-old treaty many Tatiens still refused to acknowledge.
But why expend the effort of reclaiming that port, reasoned Acherby, when goods could flow freely throughout Unified Gedda?Dealing with domestic terrorism and a proxy war was probably more than enough to keep Acherby busy. So there were peace talks now with Tzieta, to the chagrin of many Tatiens who’d spilled blood into the cracked dry soil, hoping it would yield them a harbor. To the chagrin, she supposed, of Memmediv.
“When Vasily felt the regionalist government had failed him, he betrayed them and threw in his lot with us. Now that the OSPis slacking in the yoke…”
“You’re worried he’ll throw in with someone else. But who is there?”
“Tatien separatists,” said Flagg. “There have been some murmurs of secession.”
“He’d be a fool. The militia has gone federal.”
“On paper. Do you really think he volunteered for this trip to Anadh because he likes the pictures? You can’t be entirely ignorant of Pulan Satri’s past.”
“‘Past’ being the operative word. It was my understanding that once her father died she put all his assets into the studio.”
“That doesn’t mean she isn’t meddling. It just means she’s learned to keep secrets. Or that others keep them for her.”
“I assume you have eyes on her.”
He closed his own. “It’s largely fallen under Memmediv’s purview. Another job he volunteered to take. And now you’re invited to her film premiere, last minute, and he raises his hand again.”
It had been slowly dawning on Lillian, during this conversation, that they were not headed for her neighborhood, but out of the city. Equatorial evening had faded fully into night. They wound along the water, passing rice fields ready for the winter flood. Darkness pressed against the windows of the car.
Lillian sank more deeply into her seat to hide the stiffness of her posture. Her hands she folded demurely in her lap, letting tension gather in her forearms instead of in her fists.
“Are we taking the long way around?” she asked lightly.
Flagg didn’t match her jocularity. “If what I suspect is true, I can’t trust my networks, or anyone in the office. No one who works in proximity to Memmediv.”
“Which is why we’re having this conversation on the move, and not at the chancery.”
“And the driver?” she asked, to delay what she knew must be coming.
“Doesn’t speak Geddan.”
“But you trust me,” she said.
“I know exactly what you have at stake.”
It took everything she had not to growl, tear at her hair. She bit the inside of her lower lip, catching the raw spot she resorted to when unwise words or actions threatened. “I’m afraid I’m not particularly close to your target.”
“That can be changed,” said Flagg. “Beginning tomorrow night.”
The bottom went out of Lillian’s stomach. “I’m a journalist,” she said, “a press secretary. Not a prostitute.”
“You are whatever I need you to be!” Flagg rarely raised his voice, and the sound rooted Lillian to her seat. “He has given me an opportunity and I will not waste it.”
“How can you suggest this?” she demanded. He went to temple every week. She’d seen him with a streak of ash on the back of each hand at high holidays, when he attended small-hours services in order not to miss work. He didn’t drink or smoke. As far as she knew—and she certainly didn’t want to know farther—he was faithful to his wife. “You’re a good Hearther.”
“Yes, but you aren’t,” he said. “You should have no qualms. And, even if you do…” He reached into his jacket and produced an envelope, already opened.
Lillian stared at the glued-down edges of the flap, the raw edge where the paper had met a blade.
“It’s almost Solstice holidays,” said Flagg. “I assume you’d like to see him. And he’s heartily sick of Gedda.”
Lillian removed a few folded sheets of letter paper. Stephen’s handwriting had improved since the beginning of the year. He despised practicing his penmanship, but here every serif and stem stood out crisp and straight against the grain of the paper. It was the written version of his best behavior, and it pled for a reward.
The line of Flagg’s mouth shifted subtly. In someone with a stronger affect it would have been a smile, though not a kind one.“Negotiations with Tzieta are due to wrap up around Solstice if everything goes according to plan. I’d like to put a stop to this interference before then. If Memmediv succeeds in supplying weapons to the separatists, it will put paid to any possibility of an armistice. Gedda cannot sustain conflict on three fronts. We can’t mop up the Catwalk, grapple with Liso, and fight a civil war.”
“So it’s on my shoulders,” she said. “Keep the peace, see my son?”
“If you have something for me by the end of Cantrell’s autumn term, I might have something for you.”
She put the letter into the inner pocket of her jacket, where it crackled against her breast.
“Oh, and Ms. DePaul,” said Flagg. “It would be… deeply embarrassing if your assignment came to light. I’d like to clean up everything quietly, and keep an appearance of order. As far as my superiors at home are concerned, you’re still just the press attaché, and Memmediv still my loyal deputy.”
“Of course,” she said, and wished that it were true.
Excerpted from Armistice, copyright © 2018 by Lara Elena Donnelly.