I’m naked except for the towel.
She smiles at me and buttons up her shirt, cream and crisp contrasting with her dark skin. Her flair-legged pants are a burnt orange, and a matching blazer hangs on a chair nearby. Leaning on the chair is a slender cane of dark wood, topped with a carved lioness head.
The bedroom is between lives, in transition between uses. The adjoining wall has been knocked out and the next room has plastic sheeting on the floor. Paint cans of umber and sepia and sky blue are unopened, but the wallpaper has been torn down. This room is stocked with boxes, full of documents and clothes and curios. Some are spread around the makeshift folding-table desk below a boarded window. One file folder has been stuffed with papers and weighed down with a shiny pocket watch.
“Are you alright, Alex?” One brow is raised. “We’re going to be late to the meeting.”
“Yes, the meeting. Your meeting? You didn’t forget, did you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Where’s Abel?”
Pause. It’s just the two of us.
“Where am I?”
“Your apartment?” Now she looks concerned.
“And who are you, exactly?”
“Alex, did you just reorient?”
“Oh shit, you did. It would be today. Typical, really.”
She runs a hand through thick, curly hair. “Alright. Let’s try again. You’re Alex.”
“Yes, mysterious woman.”
“Valeria. Your proconsul.”
“Is that like a secretary?”
She gives a quick snort, stifling a laugh. “You should be so lucky. We’re about to go to the consul meeting. Your consul meeting. Of your senior advisors.” She sighs. “You’re the Electus. Of Free Fortune. None of this is ringing a bell?”
“Not a thing.”
“Shit. We fight a whole war for you and you don’t even know it happened, do you?”
I think my face has the answer.
My face. She doesn’t seem bothered by my face. I put a hand to my cheek; besides scruff, it’s smooth and unscarred. The rest of my body is fine as well, if a bit on the lean side.
“We don’t have time to play 20 Questions,” Valeria says. “I’ll try my best to answer your questions soon, but we both have to get ready. I’m gonna go put my face on, you should read the brief and… get dressed.”
Dressed. Right. Valeria walks past me, puts a hand on my shoulder. I try not to flinch. “I’ll help you get through this. Trust me.” She walks past and closes the door behind her.
A set of men’s clothing lies in wait on the bed. Violet shirt, crimson pants with a matching vest, icy blue tie. A long-tailed jacket with the same violet and crimson in lozenges. The same harlequin jacket I was wearing moments ago. The lapel holds a pin in the shape of an angel with upraised wings. Comfortable black shoes, not too shiny, not too scuffed. The belt and holster, with the metal rod waiting on the beside table.
Everything is tailored, and slipping on this costume feels natural. The pants and jacket have stretch more than normal clothing, flexible and freeing, designed for movement and action. In the left pocket is a roll of coins. The other holds a small glass bottle of carnelian pills.
Okay, now that I’m not naked, time for some answers.
The dossier begins with a cover page.
“Alexander Motley, Electus of Free Fortune. For Your Eyes Only.”
Whatever that means. Keep reading.
“Item One: Reconstruction. Damages, casualties, supplies, untapped resources, infrastructure.
“Item Two: Readiness. Troops, munitions, proposed training regimens, recruitment strategies.
“Item Three: Relations. Fortune residents, conglomerate holdings, foreign states, trade options.
What follows are lists of names, spreadsheets, analytical graphs, pie charts. Maps of the same region with different overlays, some with roads and pipelines, some with troop deployments, some with geopolitical borders. Letters from dignitaries stamped with crests. Drafts of legal and diplomatic agreements, sections highlighted or excised. Numbers and names spin in my head as I try to fit it together.
One piece stands out. The title proclaims “CASH.” I skim. “Catalytic Agent for Supplementing Humanity.” Ominous. “CASH research, development and production has until now been concentrated in Prosper Tower. With Regency defunct and food in limited supply for the short-term, general access to CASH-based nutrition supplements is critical. The consuls recommend decentralized and unregulated—uncontrolled—CASH production. The consuls also recommend preparing CASH clinics to monitor use, prevent abuse, and treat any withdrawals or overdoses that will unfortunately and inevitably arise.”
My eye is drawn to a handwritten comment in the margins. “Can’t lose control — keep central. Only leverage we have. — Val.”
Valeria has returned, with deeper eyes and firmer lips.
“Not really. Thanks anyways.”
“We’ll talk on the way to the Tower.” She takes my hands in hers. “I know you’re confused. Uncertain. Unmoored. I’m asking you to trust me for now, follow my lead.” She takes up the cane. “Now let’s go. Your fans are waiting.”
We descend to a bluster of construction, workers carrying shelves out and furniture in, tearing down old wallpaper and painting a new coat. Same building with Abel a few minutes ago, but the space is bare at the moment. No manic symbols, no looming clocks.
The square is even busier, people rushing through on their way to more important things. Until they see us. The crowd stops. Turns. As one, they salute, taking three fingers and touching closed eyes and forehead.
“Alex.” Valeria whispers and nudges me with her elbow. “Move. Try to look… elect.”
Breathe. Broaden. Stride like you mean it. And wave, they love that.
“Uh, I’m just on my way to work. Don’t let me get in the way of your business.” I give a gentle wave.
A couple people laugh, and the hubbub starts up again. Valeria walks a couple paces ahead of me, and we set off towards the Tower shining over the rooftops, bright and aspirant. The streets get wider as we get closer, following a more direct route than Abel led me on. We get looks and whispers the whole way.
“Who am I to these people?”
“Hero, savior, visionary. You fought a war for them and you won. You’ve given them a new chance at a better life. You offered them a brighter future. They took your offer, and we get to build that future now.”
“What future did I promise, exactly?” Smile and wave.
“The standard material. Prosperity, dignity, freedom. Nice and vague, good for slogans.”
“You make me sound like a salesman.”
“Every great leader is. Faults aside, even Arius knew how to make a hard sell.”
We arrive at Prosper Plaza, where the abandon I saw is now merely chaos. All the overturned carts and kiosks are upright and stocked. Vendors cry and bark and sing their wares as they dash this way and that between stands making trades and deals and buying and selling and bartering and pleading and it’s all just a little much. Lustrous fruit and pungent vegetables and gaudy clothing and probably counterfeit jewelry. And the sky is clear, blue and beautiful.
I check my pocket watch. Five minutes to eight.
The bustle continues inside the vaulted, open air lobby of Prosper Tower. Men and women in t-shirts and frayed jeans hammer, hang and harry, shouting commands to each other, darting to offices and staircases with file folders, flags, cardboard boxes and couches and tables. Those with free hands salute us — me — as we pass to the single, caged elevator across the lobby.
Valeria closes the doors and pulls the lever. We start grinding upwards.
“Listen Alex. You’re about to walk into a room full of strangers, but they all know you as a friend. Fake it ‘til you make it.”
“That’s terrible advice.”
“Hasn’t let you down before.”
We emerge to applause.