Copyright 2019 Maggie Lynn Heron-Heidel
Chapter Two: Chance Encounters
The press conference grated on my every last nerve.
Standing beside my father… Er, no. Standing just behind him as always, I grimaced as the ten would-be suitors lined up for the press. That is, the ‘would-be-dead’ suitors as I called them.
Only one had even looked at me over the last half hour, telling exactly why they were all truly here. Money. It always led back to the grandeur of money and fame. Oh, and death. Apparently they all craved that. The only surprise so far was that instead of ten men, it was nine.
The tenth was a woman. Now there was a female competing for my hand. You just couldn’t make this crap up.
My father looked them over with pride. Pride over what I wasn’t sure, but pride all the same as he read out from the teleprompter, “Today marks the start of the new Tourney cycle.” I ground my teeth together as he continued, “We honor those who have previously competed and encourage those who have come to compete in this round. My daughter is excited by the prospect…“
That was it. I tuned out. While he was content speaking, his greying hair gelled to the point it didn’t move, I was squirming inside.
Seeing one of the contestants looking at me (and thankfully of the male variety), I met his eyes. He licked his lips and I was instantly repulsed. I looked away, dying on the inside as I realized that though I wanted nothing to do with him, he’d soon be dead. But as I felt a nudge, I realized that I’d been spoken to.
“Anna,” my father said, completely calm despite the media frenzy going on in front of us with all the reporters and their microphones. “Do you wish to speak a few words of encouragement?”
Hell no but I knew better than to refuse the direct order. I was expected to speak. The punishment if I refused wasn’t worth it. My pre-prepared speech was waiting on the teleprompter.
I forced myself to smile, going to the podium. Hands clenching on the side of the flat surface, I began, “Thank you, Father. What would we do without your courageous leadership?”
We’d probably all go on just fine but I didn’t dare intone that. He merely simpered, buying my fake display of affection as I smiled at him. His green eyes were filled with nothing but satisfaction as I added, “And the bold battle that these men are about to undertake, all for the chance they can beat the odds…”
What a load of crock. Still I continued. “I’m humbled by their devotion to our city. Much like the forty men in the last competitions…“
I stuttered as I read the words they wanted me to say. I kept fumbling as I read in my mind, ‘Their bravery was considerable. We remember the past contestants with fondness’…
The words stuck in my throat. I couldn’t mock the dead and that’s what these words were: a sham. My knees felt weak and my hands trembled. I couldn’t do it.
Elena stared at me from the audience, eyes narrowing. Though my mother’s expression didn’t waver due to her Botox, I could see pure fury kindling in her eyes. Even the upbraiding I’d get from her wasn’t enough to dissuade me. I cleared my throat, averting my eyes as they began to tear up. “My speech isn’t – can’t see it well. Sorry. Thank you.”
Even if I appeared ungrateful, somewhere in the heavens there were forty men who’d understand why I was rattling apart. All the saints and angels were party to my panic attacks whenever the Tourney commenced.
I headed offstage and behind the curtains to where the working people were: the caterers. A few looked up and quickly went back to ignoring me. But I wasn’t the only one who’d come in.
“What was the hell was that?!” my mother demanded, stomping up to me as I turned. He beige pantsuit clashed fabulously with the mottled red rising in her cheeks.
Better to lie than ‘fess up, so I said simply, “Teleprompter malfunctioned.“
“I was farther away and could read every word,” she seethed, absolutely scandalized because I hadn’t done as told. Her hair was even quivering, despite the hairspray coating her blonde-dyed locks. “Why did you deviate?! You embarrassed us!“
Now bored with her, I reached for a Danish on a tray that would be heading out to the social after the conference. She smacked my hand, snapping, “Don’t you dare! Not after the ice cream last night! You need to fit in the sample sizes you’re given.“
“I worked out for three hours before the ice cream,” I grumbled. “Didn’t have any breakfast…“
She wasn’t listening. Elena stepped up to me, examining my face with unnerving proximity. “And dark circles! What have I told you?! If you can’t sleep, take a sedative! Your appearance-“
“I won’t take a pill just to suit your standards,” I hissed, smacking her hand away. “I couldn’t sleep because I was attacked! Adrenaline rushes with that kind of experience; not that you’d know.”
“At least you didn’t get any bruises,” she sniffed, still inspecting me. “The designers would’ve been livid if their creations were marred by your appearance.“
That stunned me. My mother had sunk to yet another new low. Fussing over my appearance when I could’ve been killed? Just classic.
Deciding to change subject before I lost my cool, I muttered, “Did any of them ‘fess up as to why they tried to abduct me? Motives?”
She shrugged with an apparent lack of interest. “All I know is the firing squad took care of them.” Snatching a carrot stick from one of the trays, she plopped it in my hand. “You need to mingle with the guests for the press to see. And for God’s sake, straighten your lipstick!”
She stomped off in her Jimmy Choos, leaving me to groan. I looked at the silver serving tray beside me, noticing my reflection. “Yeah, except I’m not wearing any lipstick.”
I traced my bare lips, the reflection mirroring the movement. I saw beauty, but it did nothing for me. None of it was mine. Even my eyes held contact lenses which changed my normally topaz brown eyes to blue. Every part of me was forcibly changed. Apparently I looked too much like the locals to be pretty in their eyes. Nothing about me was ever good enough.
I straightened my dress, wincing considering it was three sizes too small even though I was already a size two.
Feeling weak from not eating was the norm for me, especially since Mother had denied me access to the kitchen a month ago. All meals were delivered to me now unless I was eating out. A measly quarter of a grapefruit every morning, a salad without any dressing for lunch, and then whatever the cooks felt like torturing me with at night was how I sustained myself.
Heading out to converse with the wolves, I re-emerged from behind the curtain. Immediately a reporter snagged me, demanding, “Anna! What are you wearing?”
“Clothes,” I said dully, not in a tolerant nor forthcoming mood. “Do I look nude to you?”
He didn’t catch my cynicism. “And your thoughts on the vigilante crisis?”
That caught my attention. “Crisis?”
He nodded, gleeful that he’d get my unfiltered thoughts on the subject. “The rise of citizens engaging in police-like behavior. What’s your opinion on this dangerous new trend?”
Noting the word ‘dangerous’ and already knowing my father’s opinion on the matter, I replied, “Well, considering a vigilante came to my aid last night, can’t say I’m opposed to them.”
Take that and stuff it in your peace pipe, Elena, I thought to myself. My mother would have a fit when she learned of this, but after this morning I didn’t care.
“Came to your aid?” the reporter prompted, almost salivating at the idea of getting himself another story.
I nodded, not going to add much further. “I was attacked and my driver murdered. The police didn’t come fast enough, so the Lynx arrived before they did. The facts speak for themselves. There’s no opinion on the matter. It’s simply what he did.”
He just stared at me, completely astounded by my candor. None of us aristocraps, er, excuse me, aristocrats ever let on about matters such as that.
Before he could ask anything else, I waltzed away. Really starting to feel faint, I needed to find somewhere to sit while the spell passed. My stomach was churning and my head spinning, but I couldn’t let any of the guests see. Either way, I needed to eat something more than a carrot stick.
Getting to the main table where a servant was manning the buffet, I reached for a piece of toast. I was angered as he blocked my hand with his tongs, saying, “Sorry, miss. Orders are that you can’t partake. Would you care for some water?”
“Water?” I asked, smelling my mother’s interference a mile away. He was watching me with some fear, obviously worried that I’d make a scene. My mother would have him fired in an instant if he deviated from her wishes.
I didn’t even stay to hear his reply. Apparently in Elena’s world, two carrot sticks were enough to live on. Either way, I needed to find somewhere to sit. It was either that or fall down, and I’d never hear the end of it if I did.
Heading for the garden behind the tents, I made it to the patio. I breathed deeply, trying to stifle the feeling of being out of control of my own body. I got hypoglycemic often enough, but this was far worse than the usual.
“Sorry, miss,” a familiar voice said, leading me to stop in surprise. Then the owner of the voice stood, having been sitting for a minute and drinking something. Alvin caught sight of me and then relaxed, making me wonder what he was doing here. “Oh, it’s you. Thought you were my boss…”
“Alvin,” I said weakly, greeting him as I put a hand on the railing to steady himself. While I was surprised to find him here, I didn’t have the energy to question it much. “What’re you doing here?”
He ran a hand through his hair, saying animatedly, “Catering company. Work two jobs. Hey, are you okay? I still can’t believe Haynesworth let you venture outside on your own.“
He cut himself off, reddening under my eyes and knowing he’d said too much. Heads usually rolled when people spoke their minds. “Sorry. I babble. You okay?”
“No worries,” I said even more softly, seeing that all the garden chairs had been removed. And if I sat on the ground, my skin-tight skirt would most definitely split. “I’m fine.“
“You don’t look fine,” Alvin said worriedly, looking me over with unease. He took a hesitant step closer. “You’re kinda pale-“
“I get hypoglycemic when I don’t eat,” I said, closing my eyes and trying focus on the warmth of the sunshine.
Apparently Alvin was more astounded than I’d thought. He came up to me, saying, “So you’re the one who my boss said couldn’t be served from the buffet. I thought he was kidding when he said the daughter wasn’t allowed to be fed what the other guests are eating.“
I grimaced and focused on standing upright. The world was spinning something terrible. He stood right next to me now, asking further, “Why can’t you eat?”
“None of your concern.”
“It will be if you pass out,” he said, eyeing me up and down with concern. “You’re not doing a good job of-“
That was it. I lost the battle against my body and my knees gave out on me. Most fortunately, Alvin caught me before I hit the ground. He wavered a little bit, not sure of his own strength before lowering me to the ground. He supported my shoulders as I struggled to stay conscious. “Hey, stay with me! I got you-“
My head lolled on his shoulder a little, but I felt him shifting under me. He was talking fast to himself as my eyes fluttered, me failing to keep them open. “No, can’t get her food from in there, so-“
I heard crinkling, then my lip was touched. After a second, I realized it was a small straw. Alvin nudged me, instructing me, “Drink. To hell with my job. I’m not going to sit ‘n watch this, doing nuthin’-“
When I didn’t respond fast enough, he prodded me again. “Anna? Anna?! Come on, drink!”
I dimly took a sip, realizing it was grape juice. I took another as he murmured over me, sounding relieved. After another few minutes, I started to feel a tad stronger, taking a deeper sip. I put my hand over his on the juice box and he sighed with relief, letting me have it entirely.
“There we go,” he said with a great deal of relief as I chugged it down. “Depriving their own daughter of food. That’s a new one.”
I just nodded, hitting the end of the juice. I didn’t feel resilient enough to move yet, but the terrible feeling of losing grip was gone. Alvin kept me against his shoulder, just watching me with worry. “Thank you.”
“Good thing I always keep a drink on me,” he said, rubbing my shoulder. “Got kidney problems, so I know the feeling. Consider this my second attempt to save you, though this time more successfully.”
I shifted out of his grip slightly, seeing him blush. “I can usually handle the strain-“
“They do this to you often?!” he questioned with some horror.
I didn’t answer that. Something told me Mother’s paranoia over my diet was only going to get worse, though it’d only escalated to this level recently. “You’re very kind.”
“Hardly,” he stuttered, further embarrassed by my compliment as I watched him. “We’re all human. It’s not like I could let you pass out.”
I nodded, sensing I’d better not praise him too much. His blushing was starting to look painful he was so pink. “Won’t you be in trouble for taking a break?”
“No. If I tell my boss what happened, he’ll be kissing my ass,” he said with some amusement. “His worthless bum would be the one on the line if you were hurt.”
I sat back, looking at him even more closely. Out in the direct light, I realized he looked even younger than the night previous. “How old are you, Alvin? Shouldn’t you be in school?”
He shrugged, looking less happy. “Seventeen. Had to quit. A man’s gotta eat and so does my family…” He looked down. “But I’ll admit it does stink. I was up for a scholarship to the fancy schmancy prep school before that… Yeah.”
“Which school?” I demanded.
His chest puffed out with a bit of pride. “Tennison Prep. Biochemistry scholarship.”
Thinking on it for a minute, I murmured, “I’ll do you a favor. Consider your scholarship reinstated. I know the headmaster. He’d kiss my undercarriage if I demanded him to.”
He just stared at me. “You’d do that?”
“You save my ass; I help yours,” I said, sitting up more.
He looked like he might practically levitate off the ground he looked so happy. Then he deflated just as quickly. “I can’t. My mother runs an orphanage. We depend on my job as well on my brother’s.“
“If you spend a semester at this school, you’ll be able to support your whole family permanently,” I said sagely, knowing it was true. “You’ll be able to get a job anywhere.”
His jaw worked up and down while he thought about it. He looked at me then, just staring at me with an unrecognizable emotion. “All this because I gave you a juice box?”
I smiled, happy for once that I could do something. A phone call I could manage to do without inciting my parents’ wrath. “I guess it’s your lucky day.”
“Oh, my gosh,” he gushed, putting his hands to his cheeks in delight. “Wait ‘till Mami hears! She’ll want to crown you for sainthood! I know I do.”
I chuckled, making it to my feet. He immediately launched to his, going to steady me. I patted his hand, amused by his attitude. While he was seventeen, something told me that Alvin was still more boy than man. Nor did I want him to lose his kind, generous nature.
“Quit your job,” I said, straightening my skirt. “I’ll give the headmaster a call this afternoon. But I’d better head back in before I’m missed. What’s your full name?“
“Alvin Jose Rodriguez, biochem student,” he said so fast I barely caught it, monitoring me like I might drop again at a moment’s notice. He walked beside me, keeping one hand slightly extended in case he needed to grab me again. “Can’t I do anything for you? I mean, I still feel like I only gave you a juice box!”
I shook my head, waving him off. “A juice box is enough for me.”
He stood stymied for a second. “Why?”
I smiled at him, ducking my head as I went back to the people inside and glanced back over my shoulder. “Because no one has ever cared enough to give me one in this place before,” I said softly.
His face fell, hearing the sadness in my words. His lips parted, but I forestalled him by putting a hand on his shoulder. “Thank you, Alvin.”
He just stood stricken as I left, heading for the main area. I didn’t think he ever expected that to come out of me. Nor did I think he would let it go. Maybe he’d learn from it and keep far away from the world of the aristocrats in the city. He seemed like a smart guy.
As Tiny unfortunately found me, dragging me back to the main stage for the continued press conference, she thrust me out in front of the curtain. I saw my father sitting alongside Elena, both apparently waiting. I avoided both their eyes, sitting quickly beside them.
Elena was drinking vodka and it was only ten AM. Father was chatting with the press, laughing jovially as if there wasn’t a problem in the world. Apparently I hadn’t been missed.
But as I saw Alvin surface in the midst of the crowd at the very back and wave at me, I gave him a little wave back. He grinned with a wink and disappeared, hopefully heading home for good.
“Who was that?” Elena hissed under her breath, having seen the exchange. “You cannot be seen waving at civilians. Then they’ll think you’re dishing out preferential treatment amongst them.“
Once again, I tuned her out with a half nod so she’d think I was listening. I looked at her hands, eyeing the martini glass. “Mother, it’s not even noon.”
Judging by the look she shot me, it was already five o’clock somewhere. She looked me over with some disgust. “That suit is too tight on you.”
Oh, here we go. “It’s a sample size 00. Of course it is.“
“It should fit!”
“On a skeleton perhaps,” I grumbled under my breath.
“Of course my daughter is eager to meet all the contestants,” my father proclaimed to the press, making me inwardly groan. He nudged me, smiling with a jovially fake edge. “I certainly would be if one of them was a possible spouse. Right, sweetiekins?”
I didn’t even reply, just flashing a small, tight smile at the row of chairs where the contestants sat. No one reacted.
Taking my cue, I rose to head for where the meeting would take place. I knew the drill. While this end of the event wouldn’t be televised, it was always the most frustrating part of the competition. Every time it was held, I tried fruitlessly to convince the contestants to back out and go home. I’d failed over forty times now.
My heels clacked against the marble floors, heading into the main house. The walls were richly green, the smell of paint still lingering from my mother’s last remodeling. All the new art was trendy, expensive pieces. Every single one held no beauty for me.
Tiny followed, reading off orders that I barely listened to. All of it was pure nonsense anyway. But as I made my way into the meeting room, I rolled my eyes. In one corner sat an extensively stocked bar. One I was sure wasn’t for the contestants. I gathered Elena had decided I was allowed to drink but not to eat. Real smart. As it was, the teensy juice box Alvin had given me would likely hold me until lunch, but I was starting to feel weak again.
Then again if she was complaining I didn’t fit into this outfit, who knew what they’d serve me next. Maybe a bouillon cube would be my next meal.
I nodded dismissively to Tiny as she trounced off, trying to mentally prepare myself for the contestants. While no one ever listened to me, I still would try. Then at least when they were all dead, I could console myself by saying I’d tried to warn them.
Pouring myself a water from the bar as she disappeared, I dumped four lemon quarters and a maraschino cherry into the glass. Better to get as much sugar in my system as possible, even if it was unbearably sour… and while Tiny was out of the room so Elena wouldn’t hear about it.
Hearing the door, I turned to my first suitor. It turned out to be the lone woman in the competition.
In heels, she stood tall against the height of the door, looking absolutely bored out of her mind. I dimly remembered having seen the overly quaffed woman before, murmuring, “Munson. You’re the daughter of the diplomat Brandon Munson. Are you Charline?”
She nodded, stepping forward. His eyes were set on me, though they didn’t match the tone of her next statement. “Yes. And you’re even more beautiful than the last I time saw-“
I put my hand up, already reaching my limit. “Save it. Tell me why you’re really here. You already possess power and money, and we both know you’re no lesbian.”
Charline smirked, looking relieved on some level that she didn’t have to suck up to me. “So you’re a really straight to the point kind. No pleasantries, no nothing…” I’m sure my eyebrows went up as she continued, clasping her perfectly manicured hands together, “Fine. I’m up for a reality TV series and need the attention. The exposure from the games will launch my show.”
Oh, brother. I sat, sipping on my drink before saying with some humor, “You’re willing to die for that?”
Charline stuck her nose in the air with confidence. “I won’t die. My father wouldn’t allow it.”
Man, this one was deluded. Her hair looked like it’d come from a bleach bottle, so maybe that’s what’d fried her brain. “So you’d marry me and pose as gay just to get a TV show?”
She shrugged, unbothered. “A high-profile divorce isn’t bad for ratings.”
That statement left me to look at the bar behind me. Maybe having a few wouldn’t be a bad idea for the rest of the afternoon, because something told me it was going to be a very long day.
God help me.
Nine suitors plus a reality star wannabe were headed for death. Not one had listened to me. And now back in my room as the sun began to set, I was absolutely exhausted.
None of the men cared for me and instead were after the money and glory. I could see it. They knew I knew it. Two of them had outright laughed in my face when I suggested they back out of the games.
Thankfully I had some privacy for now. I stripped off my itchy designer dress and put on comfortable sweatpants. Taking my makeup off, I let my hair down. Under my foundation was treatment serum, the stuff practically bleach for my skin at my mother’s insistance.
I took my contacts out, at least happy that I’d managed to make the call for Alvin. Bright and early tomorrow morning, a representative of the school would head to his address. He’d get his scholarship after all.
Looking at myself in the mirror, I sighed. I hoped he’d do well. Personally, I enjoyed living down in that end of the city. It was the suburbs; poor people but lovely in spirit. When I’d been at the school my dear aunt had lived in the area.
Thinking of her wouldn’t do me any good now, though. The dead were something to be envied in my eyes. They didn’t have to lie every day for fear that their father would be deposed. Or worse, fear of being persecuted if they didn’t. If I disobeyed too much, there was always the fear that the people who controlled my father would have me shot.
Even the way I spoke was altered. Because I sounded too ethnic, having spoken with a Spanish inflection due to all the time I spent with Auntie Lola, they changed me. They altered my appearance and hired a speech coach for me.
But I refused to change myself entirely. I may have been forced (quite literally) during the day to sound the way I wanted, but once in the privacy of my suite, I did whatever the hell I wanted and sounded it, too.
Living by my own rules was completely out of the question once out of my suite. If I ran anyway, I’d be hunted down and forcefully drugged.
With the threat of being put into a comatose state by sedatives and anti-depressives, much like Elena, I generally did as told. It just wasn’t worth fighting. Either way, my life was a total farce.
Giving in to the urge, I went to the decanter on my desk and poured myself a glass of whisky. The PA system sounded off with an annoying tone and I groaned. “What?”
“Come downstairs,” Tiny snapped into her end of the line, making me curse. “There was a last minute entrant. You need to come meet him and be photographed.”
“Can’t it wait?” I whined, looking longingly at the couch I wanted to curl up on. “I took off all my makeup already.”
“No,” she said snottily. “We’ll have no time tomorrow.”
“Then send him up here,” I growled, in no mood for her obnoxiousness at this hour. She started protesting, so I snapped, “When I said I have all my makeup off, I meant it. If you want me to meet him tonight, it’s the only way I’ll be seeing him. Either send him up or I’ll meet him tomorrow. I don’t give a damn either way.”
A pause followed, Tiny thinking the idea over. “He’ll be up in a minute. We’ll get the photo tomorrow.”
Knowing Tiny would likely blame the photographer and get him fired for this purely to save her own ass, I just hung up. I took a sip of whiskey, preparing for yet another money-crazed moron to be thrust into my company.
I ran a hand through my hair and then abruptly stopped, feeling how dry it’d become. It was like straw it’d been bleached so much.
Hearing my door open and the hall guards outside speaking to someone, I sighed. But it quickly caught my interest as I heard some excitable sputtering, a new male voice yipping at them.
“Eh! When you said you’d search me, I didn’t give permission to stick your hand down there! Geez! No wonder you snicker at all us chicos!”
Getting the drift whoever was coming in was quite the character, and likely someone from the other end of town, I was highly amused as the newcomer proceeded to tell them all off in Spanish. The double doors opened, revealing a somewhat shorter figure. The fellow threw his arms up, back still to me as he yelled at them.
As the guards snapped the doors shut in his face, I dryly asked to the fellow, “You didn’t joke that you had a bomb in your pants, did you?”
The fellow turned to me, almost doing a doubletake as he looked me up and down. Unlike the others who been groomed to come see me, he was done up in a ratty looking set of jeans and a black T-shirt. He hoisted the jeans up in the back. “Apparently didn’t need to. I thought I was meeting the Presidente’s daughter.”
Sighing inwardly and realizing he didn’t recognize me at all, I muttered, “I look different in person. Most people do off the TV.”
He gave me a really weird look. “So they change your eye color?”
At least he was observant. That might keep him alive longer. I gestured at my couch, disregarding the question. “Sit. May I offer you a drink?”
He shook his head, warily coming further in the room as he glanced around. Deciding to forsake manners since he was completely uncooperative, I sat down with my glass of whiskey in hand and crossed my legs. “So… your name?”
“Joe,” he grunted, sticking his hands in his jean pockets and not moving any further into the room. “Joe Arenciana. But everyone calls me Kit. But I’ll bet your secret service people already told you that.”
I snorted, noting that whoever Kit was, he certainly didn’t seem fond of me. If anything, he appeared to resent his being here on some level. His lip remained slightly curled in a sneer as I replied, “No. As of five minutes ago, I was only aware of ten kamikazes. You’re the eleventh. Please sit.”
He did ever so warily and on the farthest end of the couch from me, monitoring me as if I were a wild animal. Not with fear, but with a great deal of loathing. I looked him over, seeing he was clearly of an ethnic variety my father didn’t overly endear himself to. Latino, perhaps with some Indian somewhere in his ancestry.
While he was attractive, that quality was heavily marred by the hawk-like look in his eyes. Their cherry wood tones were dark and hateful, making me wonder why he’d come. I could swear we’d met before, though I knew not where or when.
Then he looked away. “Sorry. This is all a bit hard to take. I’ve seen you in person, but you look and sound entirely different now.”
My eyebrows went up. So he noticed my accent differed from when I was out in public? “I gather your disappointment with me isn’t enough to discourage you from competing?”
“Hardly,” he retorted, sitting back a little. “You seem less plastic now, but I’m not fooled. Makeup or not, there’s much you can’t fake.”
Intrigued by his attitude, I replied, “Well, Mr. Arenciana, you’ll be the first contestant who hasn’t lied through their teeth and attempted to spin me a tale of love at first sight. Or second in your case, if you’ve seen me before.” I put my glass on the table in front of me. “I’ll still ask why you’re here to compete, though I suspect I know the answer. Tell me, is it the –“
“The money,” he said without hesitation.
I paused, trying to decide what to say next. “The idea of death doesn’t bother you?”
One of his eyebrows went up. “Who says I’ll die?”
“I do,” I said frankly, not bothering to BS him. I stared him down. “I’ve watched forty others bite it. I expected another ten, not eleven. Is money really worth dying over?”
“Yes,” he said firmly, making my heart sink. “I need it for mi tia’s cancer treatment. Without it, she’ll die.” I sucked in a sharp breath as he shot me a reproachful glare. “I gather that’s a shock for you elites, not immediately getting medical care. But we lower class peoples need-“
“Cancer?” I asked softly.
He squared his chin. “It’s either compete for your hand or watch her kick the bucket. So si, it’s for the money. Is that honest enough for you, chica?”
His biting tone told me what I’d already suspected; he detested me. I sat thinking for a second. “How much do you need?”
“Ten grand,” he said, seeing my eyebrows rise and taking it entirely the wrong way. “I know that seems like a small amount to you, but to us-“
Making a decision, I stood and headed for my desk. He cut off, watching me with disdain. “Is this a dismissal?”
Opening my simple keepsake box, I pulled out my most prized possession. The simple gold cross was battered, worn and the setting on the lone diamond in the center almost broken. But I knew what I had to do. It’d be enough to save Kit and his family.
The diamond was loose and I’d planned to have it fixed. Instead I whacked it hard on the counter and the setting gave in and cracked. The stone broke off. Taking it in my hand, I went back to Kit. He’d been watching me with open confusion. I sat beside him, extending the stone to him. “Take this. Pawn it and get the money.”
He just stared at me for a second, then at the stone.
“¿Que?” He then translated it to English, thinking I didn’t speak the language. “Um, what?”
“This will be enough to cover it,” I murmured, extending my hand closer. “Take it and go. Then you won’t have to compete.”
He didn’t move one millimeter. “You’re giving me a diamond?”
I shrugged. “I’d give you more jewelry to help her, but then my people would wonder what happened to it. They’ll ask questions and I can’t…” I shook my head, thinking of the consequences. Nothing was mine. “Just take it and get her all fixed up. If you can, take what’s left over and get out of this province. Healthcare is better elsewhere. This city-“
Before I could finish, he pointed angrily to my whiskey on the table. “How much have you had?”
I looked at the ground, trying not to lose my cool. “Only a sip…“
“No!” he said flatly, shoving my hand away with something akin to disgust. “I don’t want to be accused of theft tomorrow when you’re sober!“
That was it. I’d finally had it with his attitude. I stood in one fluid motion, my fist clenching over the stone as I snarled, “Do you have any idea what it’s like to watch forty men die?! You may think I’m a selfish bitch, but I’m ‘egotistical’ enough to not want eleven more graves filled because of me! Take the damn jewel! If it means one less funeral for me to attend, then it’ll be worth it!”
I shook my head and turned away. “I’m not drunk. I’ve tried to talk every single man whose gone into these games out of it, but none have listened. I spent the whole afternoon trying to reason with this new batch of lunatics…“
Oh hell. Now I was starting to lose it. My voice shook as I walked away from him. “I don’t usually drink at all. I hate the damn stuff, but it’s either that or…“
Or cry myself to sleep, knowing what was coming in the morning: more death. I wiped my cheek of the one tear that had escaped, facing him and seeing Kit now completely baffled. I stuck my hand out to him. “Take the damn jewel, get out, and don’t come back. It saves both you and your tia. Go.”
He stared at me for a minute more before coming to stand in front of me, looking dazed. His eyes were different now, no longer filled with blazing hatred. But they were full of what I thought was sympathy and I hated that. I squared my chin under his study, refusing to back down.
Kit looked at the stone in my palm and ran a hand through his hair. “That’ll pay for a lot more than her treatment. I don’t need – we don’t – look, there’s got to be something else,” he stuttered, completely astounded by my generosity. “Something less valuable to you.“
“It’s all I have,” I admitted, shaking my head. I laughed humorlessly and put the diamond on his palm. “Nothing else is mine. The designers take back everything at the end of the season. My Auntie Lola would want it to be yours. She’d be happy to know she helped someone from beyond her grave.“
He just stared at me instead of at the stone, somewhere between wonder and incredulousness. That and looking me over with a speculative eye. He was obviously rethinking his opinion of me and not in a way I liked. I averted my eyes, shifting back on my heels. “Please don’t look at me like that. I know I don’t match what they make me look like on TV-“
“No, chica,” he said, his voice taking on a more soft, cordial tone. “I’m not judging. When I said…“ He looked at the diamond. “You’re beautiful. I hated that you were even more perfect without makeup. I wanted to think all of you was phony.”
I went to turn away, but stopped as he asked me, “It’s all an act, isn’t it? I came in here thinking I was dealing with just another lousy bureaucrat. I’m sorry.”
I forced myself to laugh, facing him again. “Don’t be. And don’t fool yourself. I’m everything you thought I was. I just don’t do well with guilt.”
Kit clearly didn’t believe me. “It’s too late to convince me of that, Anna-“
“Aiyla,” I corrected sharply before I could stop myself. “That’s my name.“
Realizing I’d just given away a very important detail to a civilian, I cut off. None of them were supposed to know my name. If word of this got out, I’d be in a huge amount of trouble. Fortunately for me, I was sure Kit wouldn’t be believed if he told anyone.
“Aiyla,” he repeated, testing it out. The strangest expression crossed his face, one of recognition. Then it was gone. “It suits you. Are the same people who made you into someone else the same ones who changed your name?”
He was way too smart for his own good. I took a step back, knowing better than to answer that for both of our sakes. He’d been here for far too long. Questions would be asked if I kept him for a minute more.
“Our time is up, Mr. Arencianna,” I said, adopting my brisk tone again. I clasped my hands together. “You should get that to your tia.”
He looked at the stone and then put his hand in his pocket, hearing his dismissal. “Si. She runs an orphanage, so you really did just make an impact. I just don’t know how I’ll ever repay you.“
Heading to the door abruptly, I held it open for him. “No need. Just get your tia well and help her with the orphans. There are far too many of them in this province.”
It wasn’t called Murder City for nothing. Dejado Atrás was known for its grim life expectancy, depending on where you lived in the ghettos.
He came to me, still dazed with what I’d done. “Can I at least shake your hand?” I shook on it and he gripped my hand as I tried to pull away, looking into my eyes. “Gracias, Aiyla. I will not forget.”
“Don’t mention it.” I forestalled him as he went to object. “I mean it. I’ll get in trouble.”
He nodded, looking troubled. “I’ll only tell mi tia. She can keep a secret. But you won’t stop me from telling everyone how nice you are, leaving out the details. It’s the least I can do.”
We stood looking at each other for a few more seconds, Kit seeming loath to leave. Then he shrugged. “Don’t get too drunk, chica.”
I nodded, lips twitching toward an emotionless smile. “Adios.”
He smiled at me, this time with a little warmth and sorrow. “Hasta luego.”
As he stepped out, surprisingly troubled looking, I shut the door behind him. Going to my glass of whiskey, I picked it up for another swig.
Looking at the amber liquid, I found I had no urge to drink it any longer.
And that’s it for this week’s edition! Feel free to share the links to these chapters as you please. I’m still awaiting Spotify to approve the podcast edition of the seies, so bear with me! Hopefully by next week, not only will you have a new chapter, but also an audio of it as well.
Any predictions for me? I do so love when people guess what’s coming next!
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