This story is by Erin Riha and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Horace’s surprises are never good. But then, our shrewd Benefactor isn’t in the business of delighting us. Icy rain and gale force winds pelt the gratuitous wall of oceanview windows. The glass rattles, suffusing the last dregs of our dinner party with toxic dread.
Horace reigns at the head of the ironwood table. To his right sits Michi, her eyes tranquil and beatific mouth firm, then Agni, simmering beneath garnet-red hair piled high like a torch. I’m between Horace and Lamisa, whose delicate hands rattle in her lap. I want to squeeze her and tell her it’ll be okay. But that’s implicitly forbidden and, I suspect, the reason for tonight’s extravagance.
The girls selected to attend the National Women’s Institute wield more power than most men in their career political appointments. Benefactors like Horace groom girls as if they are prize Thoroughbreds to manipulate power in their favor. Our cohort of eight had been whittled down to four, but in the end there could be only one nominee.
Yesterday, Lamisa failed. Cooking is not her strength, though I’ve never understood why cooking is part of our training.
Her soufflé caught fire and she dropped it. Michi and I doused it, but the damage was done. The heirloom Osterstani tile was scorched beyond repair and gentle Lamisa took her beating.
When she missed dinner, Agni and I snuck her what we could. Michi tended the visible wounds.
“You shouldn’t risk this, Theena. I’m your competition,” Lamisa had said around a chunk of bread and painful sobs. One layer too many, I watched her break.
“Risk what? ’Competition breeds competency – collusion breeds complacency,’” I barked, mocking Horace. “If collusion means we win, I’ll take complacency.” Michi and Agni nodded, solidifying our alliance against Horace’s divisive patriarchal tactics.
So now we wait, in fussy gowns he personally selected, for an explanation. Or a sentence.
“Wine, please,” he drawls. Four glasses of Swendish Blütvine arrive via a flimsy servant. The crystal rattles like the windows, but the gold-plated tray lands unharmed.
“I pride myself in being forthright with my Beneficiaries,” he begins, pinching the thin stem of the right-most glass and swirling its contents. “Your duty is to recoup my investment… or repay your debt.” I bite my cheeks as his fingers flutter to the second glass. Nobody repays their debt. You’re either accepted or indentured.
“Success favors those who help themselves.” His small, reproving eyes settle on Lamisa, who presses her lips into a tight line instead of shrinking into her chair. “Likewise, you’ll fail by enabling your competition.” I match his stare, unblinking, fighting the cold sting of oxygen. Turning, he meets Michi’s cool and Agni’s ferocious gazes in turn.
Together, we present a unified front. For now.
His fingertips slink to the third, then the fourth glass, toying with each base and spiraling the wine. Letting go, he reclines, his left arm outstretched as his fore and middle fingers tap a steady pulse against ironwood. Wind rattles the windows, flickering yellow light from the brass chandeliers over the fussy, dated decor.
“One of these glasses contains Thallium – a rather unpleasant end,” he says, a vulturine curve wrenching the corners of his mouth into something handsomely malignant.
“Yeh gunnah kill us?” Agni asks, her bug-eyes more white than blue. Horace sneers at her lazy tongue.
“No, you simple fool. I’m not gunnah kill yeh. That’s your choice.”
“Our choice, Sir?” Michi asks with calm skepticism.
“It’s your choice, Michi, because you may choose whether to imbibe.”
“Perhaps we’ll abstain tonight, Sir,.” Cocking my eyebrows, I sit straighter against the threadbare velvet chair. He sees my threat and jerks his chin in hawkish understanding.
“Should you abstain, you will be requartered with the servants and begin repaying your debt.”
“If we all drink –“ Agni’s voice sputters, but we know what she’s thinking. Someone forfeits or someone dies.
“So, plead your cases. Explain why you should remain my Beneficiary.” We are silent. “Or, why another shouldn’t.”
I squint at the red wine. Horace snorts.
“It’s impossible to identify the poison on sight. Now, make your cases.”
“Surely you know our strengths and weaknesses, Sir?” Michi asks, interlacing her long fingers atop the table.
“Of course. But do you? What makes you better than Agni? Agni –why are you weaker than Theena?”
“I’m not,” Agni snaps, her mouth bowed in a caustic frown. A smile snakes across Horace’s lips.
“Oh? Tell me. What makes you stronger?” Agni’s eyes flicker to mine, then retreat.
“I’m not crippled by kindness,” Agni spits, a trembling lip betraying her bravado. I bite my cheeks, holding back a curse at this first loss.
“Care to counter, Theena?” His question is a dare, the battle lines are drawn. I will not participate in his patriarchal war game.
“Agni is entitled to her opinion,” I say, clipping my consonants and squaring my shoulders. His smile cracks but his focus remains on Agni, who stares at the table.
“Anything more, Agni?” She doesn’t answer as Horace’s tapping quickens, a veritable war drum. “Agni, that’s a serious accusation. Better a warrior than a liar.”
“She helps Lamisa. With everything. Lamisa would fail if not for Theena.” His chin dips in a satiated nod.
“You know the rules, Theena,” he tsks.
“Sir,” Michi interrupts, “is it not our duty to treat others with goodness and decency?”
“Your duty is to repay my investment through acceptance to the Institute, and net a profit through influence in your subsequent career.”
“Even if it damns us?” Michi’s voice wavers, her eyes round, liquid amber.
“Your soul is not my concern,” he spits, “but should you not meet your contractual obligations, your corporeal life remains mine. Possibly serving trays of wine.” Michi squeezes her eyes shut and exhales, hard.
“Lamisa is inept at cooking, housekeeping… her studies are atrocious. She is pretty, but she’s failing.”
Look at me. Just look at me, both of you! Remember who our enemy is.
“Yeah,” Agni says. “She can’t barely even do her maths.”
“She can’t barely even do her maths?” Horace goads Agni, leaning over the table. Lamisa’s breaths come quick and shallow. “How is she still here? We’re about to submit applications!”
“Theena’s her crutch,” Michi says. Her eyes finally meet mine, glassy, as if saying, I’m sorry, this is survival.
“Yeah,” Agni says, not granting the same courtesy.
“Lamisa, what say you? Your cohorts think you the weakest.” Lamisa digs her fingers into the scratched ironwood arms of her chair.
“Agni cheats,” Lamisa mumbles.
“I do not!” Agni shouts.
“She copied off Michi’s history test.”
“You were watching me? Probably cheating yourself!”
“You nearly fell off your chair,” Michi says. Red blooms across Agni’s cheeks as a war of words explodes. Her vitriolic battle cry overwhelms Lamisa’s soft, pleading defense while Michi’s stoic alto crackles into a storm of spine-crumbling acid. Horace’s fingers crescendo, hammering in rapid-fire staccato, the maestro of his battlefield. I follow the taut line from his drumming fingers up his arm and meet his cold eyes, emboldened by a satisfied, predatory grin.
“What say you, Theena?” Horace’s eerily calm voice subdues the maelstrom.
“You’re going to poison one of us?”
“I’m no monster. I’ll accept one resignation.”
“And if no one resigns?” I ask. He shrugs and the drumming stops.
“Then a family buries their daughter.” This is the choice: fall in line or someone dies.
“Give me a glass.”
His pupils flare but he smoothly pushes the third glass to me. Michi’s eyes narrow on my glass and she says, “Me as well, Sir.”
“Yeah, me too,” Agni says, panic edging each word. He pushes the first glass toward Michi, the leftmost to Agni. I study the wine, willing the hidden poison to reveal itself.
“And what is your choice, Lamisa?” Lamisa’s hands tremble. Does she think this is another test? If we won’t risk poison we won’t survive the Institute? Her eyes meet mine, a fatal miscalculation, confirming the girls’ accusations. Agni curses under her breath.
“Yes, please.” He coasts the second glass toward her. As it crosses my place I know, without a doubt, it’s poisoned. And I know I have one shot to stop Horace, to save Lamisa, to sever his control. The glass is too close – he doesn’t think I’ll do it.
It takes an impossibly quick second for me to snatch the stem on Lamisa’s glass and drink it.
“No!” Horace yells, swatting the glass. It flies from my grasp over Lamisa’s ducked head, shattering against the wall.
“You stupid fool!” he shouts. “You could’ve won everything!” Heavy, panicked steps pound from the room, in retreat, as Michi and Agni rise. Or they seem to. Everything pulses and wobbles. Lamisa hovers over me.
“Why?” she asks. She’s blurry, but alive. I sense the others over me. My tongue is heavy and dry, but I force the words.
“Stop fighting…” I don’t know if they understand, so I close my eyes and breathe one last word before the darkness.