THE ISTHMUS OF MAKAVIA lay between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. Owned by an enormously wealthy family, Makavia was built as a tourist Island, with a cryptocurrency-based economy. It looked more like a cloud of gold dust floating in space. A certifiable labyrinth divided into two; the city of Khana and the city of Lusher.

Amara lived in Khana, the west of Makavia; the less fashionable of the two. Where there are, among other natural curiosities, twisting alleyways and cobblestone streets. Its charm was effortless. Like an older man who lived a little and when he speaks you hear the mellow wisdom of a thousand years of experience.

It was a matter of chance that she moved to Khana. Blu, her second cousin once removed, married into a rich Moroccan family. After their wedding, they drifted here and there restlessly, enjoying their wealth. A year ago, they settled in Makavia, after buying a string of hotels. Over the phone, Blu said it was a permanent move. And so, it happened that on a warm windy morning Amara got on a plane to Makavia to visit her estranged cousin and never left.

The night sky was aglow with bright city lights. Amara strutted down the busy Pike street in a body-hugging black dress and high heels. It was October. The month of subtropical heatwaves and shockingly humid evenings. At barely 10:00 p.m., the cars on the roads ran in their predictable grid pattern. Everyone tried to get home before the moon was serious about being up.

”Hey, baby? ” A strange man, sat at the steps of an apartment building, called. ”How much for the night? ”

She extended her middle finger toward him and kept strutting. Someone else whistled at her, she rolled her eyes. A handsome man, walking toward her, winked. As he glided past her, she turned to get a good look at him, walking backwards. He smiled, revealing deep dimples. She smiled back and continued walking.

At the corner of Pike street, her favourite street vendor sold the perfect Shawarma. She stopped to grab a bit to eat.

”Hey, Sal? ”

”There she is. ”

Sal was a man of rare, sweet nature. He was a sturdy, straw-haired man of forty with a thin swallow face and a narrow beard. After her move, he was the first person she ate a Shawarma from and had never left since.

”Im starving. Can I have my usual, please? ”

”Of course. I always have the best for you. ”

He played with his knives, chopping a chunk of meat, dicing it and then folded it neatly into a crispy wrap and a clean foil before handing it to her.

”You
e a beautiful man, Sal. ” She handed him a few crisp notes. ”Have a goodnight. ”

”You look beautiful, Amara, ” he called back. ”Have a goodnight. ”

She continued her strut. Before crossing the road, she paused to admire a quantity of grotesque carving lavished over a new building, above which, had a name The Moon Prince. Construction had been ongoing for a few months. Now, the building stood like a royal palace. The windows were so large that they reminded her of a store-front, reflecting light as well as any mirror and so incredibly that the streets seemed brighter. It was starting. The rich were slowly encroaching, taking over the island as predicted. It churned her stomach.

The notorious Tequila Mockingbird was a solitary building in the middle of the stir of society. A fifteen-minute walk from her place. Amara rested her hand on the rough paintwork that coated the door and pushed. The hinges squealed as though they were a warning, but their plea was silenced by a wall of noise. Conversations swirled in a dirty cloud of smoke; the stagnant stench of cigarettes hid within the fetid odours.

She scanned the room for her date. He sat in a corner booth hands on the table and eyes fixed on a table of people behind him. Slowly, she made her way to him.

”Saint? Are you Saint? ”

A playful smile had drawn into a hard line across his face. ”Yes. Im Saint. ”

”Hi? Im Amara Zaoui. Blus cousin. ”

He got up swiftly, stretching his hand to her. Slightly rough, they held Amaras as he stared deep into her eyes. ”Hello, how are you? ”

”Very nice to meet you. ”

”Yes. Y… you too. ” He stumbled on his words as he subjected her to watchful eyes. ”Uhm…please, have a seat. ”

Saint had neatly arranged dreadlocks; thick and lustrous. His moonshaped eyes had flecks of brown that danced in the light. Not even the effeminate swank of his clothes could hide the enormous power of his body. You could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin clothes.

Looking around, Amara let herself soak in the ambient music. It was a bar, but everyone attempted to appear proper in their high-end suits and dresses. Their booth was next to the serving counter. On the wall, there was a big purple sign written: you can sit with us. Across, there was a group of young women in their thirties collapsing with helpless giggles.

”What brings you to Khana, Saint? ”

”Im here on a business trip. I work for a conglomerate in Lusher thats looking to expand into Khana, ” he explained. ”Im spearheading one of their projects. ”

”I don think Ive ever met anyone from Lusher before, ” she said. ”What is it like? ”

”Its as opulent as they say. ”

A half an hour chopper ride from Khana, Lusher, east of Makavia, was the perfect hideaway: remote, beautiful and only inhabited by a certain type of people. The one percenters. They were referred to as the old money; bathed in unearned opulence from cradle to grave.

”How long are you in Khana for? ” she asked.

”For a week. ” He took a gulp of his drink. ”Blu mentioned that you were a waitress? ”

”Yes. I work at hotel Afrique. ”

”Shes your cousin? ”

The question annoyed her. Amara knew why he had asked it, the intent was laced in the articulation of his words. Although they were related, they looked very different. Blu was every mans desire; a beautiful willowly woman with a racially ambiguous face cut right from the pages of mens magazine. A walking sex symbol.

Not used to rejection, Blu had forced her to go on a blind date with a respected businessman from Lusher working for one of the most influential families in Makavia. A man predicted to be a billionaire in a few years.

”Who knows, ” Blu had said. ”You might marry a wealthy man like I did, and never have to work a day in your life. We can spend every minute together. ”

A nightmare. Amara didn care to turn into one of those people who thought that being rich was a personality trait. She desired the freedom to do what she loved, rather than the concept of ”working for a living ”.

”Yes, ” she answered shortly. ”We
e cousins. ”

”You
e not what I expected, ” he said.

There was a shyness to her, hesitation in her body movements and a softness in her voice. ”What did you expect? ”

”If Im being honest you, you
e just…too… too… ” he worked to articulate.

”Fat? Ordinary? ”

”Those weren the words I was going for. You
e different, ” he soliloquised in an undertone of peevish displeasure. ”When Blu said she wanted to hook me up with her cousin, I expected someone that looks like her. ”

His words landed in Amaras gut as shrapnel. Since they were children, everyone compared her to Blu. Everytime, she fell short. The unworthy. Gathering every scrap of self-control, Amara said, ”Im sorry to disappoint you. I love her, but Im nothing like Blu ”

”A shame. ”

”Ready to order? ” A bartender interrupted.

”No. ” Amara forced herself to be cordial instead of causing a scene; it was smarter, less humiliating even when her insides burned like they were on fire. ”I was just leaving. There is nothing here for me. ”

The confidence she walked in with earlier wilted. As she stood, she sensed all the eyes that bore into her. Had everyone been listening to their conversation? Her heavy feet pressing against the ground was a distraction not better than the eyes watching her try to disappear.

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