“Can you smile a bit more?” the photographer asked. His camera flashed up before Khadia could comply. It felt like she’s been sitting here for half the day. She didn’t know how long it’s actually been. She wasn’t allowed to move her head to see the clock. During these photoshoots, she would entertain herself with the taste of the lipstick, though she had already been scolded for that today because it had to be reapplied. Her tongue was the only muscle that didn’t have to pose for the camera, so it could dance around in her mouth freely.
“Alright, that should do it. Thanks for your time, Miss Rashedi.”
Khadia was too tired to respond so she just smiled, not the camera kind. The relief of being done made it easy. She turned her head to see that it was evening. The daylight faded from the world outside. At first, boredom had stretched the hours to days. It seemed that effect wears off with use. Her father drove her home. She washed off the make-up in the bathroom and put on pajamas. She avoided passing the windows as she went to eat with her family.
Her beauty was her capital. Her family’s capital. Her photos sold for good money. Money they gave to the Raindrops in exchange for their safety. Blackmailing, they call it. Luxurious, they would call her life. A few decades ago, she would’ve been starving in the streets with everyone else. The Raindrops had pulled the city out of poverty. The death toll was numerous, but the survivors were grateful. They say that the surface world had it even better. You would be given all this, without a price. But the mafia was in control on the Flipside, and they wouldn’t abolish the thing that is keeping them in power: money. If all is provided to everyone, you can’t ransom it off to them.
Not that Khadia understood the political situation of her home. She never even had the time to learn to read. She was never instructed to learn, and to her that was the same as having no desire to. She had to provide for her family. She can’t jeopardize that by learning, by playing. She was a doll to be shown off. If she wanted a different life, then why did she go and be born pretty?
“Well, I’ll be…” this man gasped as he saw her on a show night. He wore a white suit and carried a half-empty glass of champagne. Khadia was at eye-level with his rose-adorned shirt pocket, so she had to look up to see his eyes. She was used to keeping her head at odd angles.
“You look so much more stunning in natura.” he whispered as he stepped closer, completely ignoring whoever he was talking to before. His awed expression changed to an embarrassed smile as he said: “Sorry, that sounded so cliche.”
“At least you don’t sound like you’re used to saying it.”
“Victor Stadtman.” He held out a hand. “Pleased to meet you, Khadia El Rashedi.”
“And here I thought I’d get to introduce myself for once.” Khadia shook his hand, though she struggled to fit hers around it.
“So, enjoying the night?”
She wasn’t to say she didn’t care for being here. She wasn’t to say she only feigned interest in him to keep up her approachable image. Not that she cared to speak her mind either.
“Really? I’m sure you’ve been to many more of these than I have and I’m already bored to tears by these.”
“Then why did you come?”
“To meet people. The special sort of people.”
Khadia didn’t care to decipher what he meant. “Did you find any?”
“Well, I wasn’t looking for you until I saw you.”
“That’s certainly unusual.”
“People aren’t looking for me at these places. All that I have to offer can be more safely enjoyed from afar.”
“I’m not so sure about that.”
Victor watched the crowd for a moment. He had something genuine about him. His hair and beard was wild, at least when compared to the others here and he certainly was the only one with a nose piercing.
“See that guy over there?” he pointed at a man switching feet as he stood by a plastic plant. Khadia hadn’t been taught to recognize him, so he must be feeling more important than he was. Victor took a tomato slice from the buffet table and flung it onto that man’s bald scalp. He shrunk together as he stiffly wiped the slimy slice off his head. He looked around confused, but none of the crowd had seen Victor throw it. It’s like he had known the second all would be facing away in advance. Khadia was more stunned at this feat, but when he turned a childish grin her way, she quietly laughed into her hand. The bald man glared at whoever happened to stand closest to the salad bar at the time but was too meek to go confront them and cause a scene.
From then on, Khadia always looked forward to seeing Victor in the crowds of parties and would even meet him outside of them, when she had time. With a life this dull, it was easy to fall for someone that made you laugh. Even when he revealed to her that he was working for the mafia that was blackmailing her family, she kept trusting him. He said, he would fix it. If they were to marry, her family would be off limits. Instead of being extorted, they would benefit from the mafia’s business. She gladly accepted his ring. If it meant she could laugh every day, she’d gladly associate with the Raindrops.
The next show, they wouldn’t appear separately anymore. Victor would take her as his fiance. And this show, he was hosting himself. Her arm was wrapped around his as he lead her through clapping guests. They were the same kind of people that always attended these parties, but they were noticeably different ones. Victor didn’t contrast to them as much anymore. Well, he had been in charge of the guest list this time. Before he would step on the stage to hold a speech, he turned to her and whispered: “You look so beautiful.”
He took the microphone out of the stand as the light dimmed and the doors were closed.
“Good evening ladies, gentlemen, distinguished guests. I have to be honest, this is the first time standing here. First of all… I’d like to apologize to the man in the hat alone at that table over there. Sorry about that tomato incident a month ago. That was me.”
The crowd laughed as the man pulled his hat down.
“I’m glad you still came. We couldn’t do this without you… until tonight. Because tonight, we will stand on our own feet. I have a big announcement today. Well, several in fact. Let me start off with this one. Would the beautiful lady in the first row please join me on stage?” he placed the mic back into the stand and reached out a hand to help her up. Khadia has never shown such a genuine smile to a crowd.
“I’m sure you all know Khadia El Rashedi, from magazines, television, even from halls such as this one. Always there, but never close enough to touch… Well, that’s about to change.”
Khadia was a bit confused, but Victor put his hand on her shoulder and she felt she shouldn’t worry. His hand wandered to her neck, put a finger under her choker. The hairs on her neck stood up. A weak pull, and the choker ripped under the strain.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” he said.
“Don’t worry.” she said. Then there was a metallic snap. She raised her hands to her neck but she knew without feeling it. A collar. Victor took out the mic again and pulled on the chain to parade her around. Khadia saw no surprise among the guests. Just on the girls they brought.
“What?” she stammered but Victor ignored her.
“Long enough has Raindrop been withering and dying under poor leadership. Tonight we will leave that husk behind and emerge from it, as Song did, as Morgue did. A family with a strong grip on the community. A power to be reckoned with. Raindrop earned thousands with her image. We’ll earn millions with her flesh.”
Khadia saw other girls in the crowd have collars forced on them. Some were finally knocked out of the surprise and had to be wrestled to the ground. Shots pierced through the masses. Screams that were soon muffled.
“What’s going on? Victor?” Khadia asked again. His name finally made him respond.
“God, are you dense? You will be these people’s sex toy from now on. That clear enough for you?”
“That isn’t you!”
“No offense but you’re dumb as a brick. I could make you believe I’m Santa Claus.”
“Help me! Someone help me!” she shrieked in despair. But she only saw amusement. She thrashed and threw herself around but the chain would remain stuck in Victor’s oversized hand. Her weak limbs soon tired themselves out and she sank down, arms too stiff to wipe her tears.
Victor continued his speech: “We’ll be known as the Violent Style. The ones not too afraid or too uptight to get our hands dirty. This world truly is decaying if no one is willing to indulge our fantasies anymore. But no more. No longer would magazines tease us with these faces and then the frustration when the paper wouldn’t bleed when we cut it. Never let us peek at what’s be-”
Victor was taken aback. He had never heard Khadia’s voice so loud before. Not with such anger.
“You’ve all seen me crying here, right? You’ve heard me beg? And you just stand there smiling with dull eyes.”
“Be quiet, bi-”
“And you!” Khadia snapped her head towards the man holding her chain. He instinctively took a step back. She stood up and grabbed his shirt, pulled his face down to see her eyes, then pulled him further down onto his knees. He dropped the chain as he tried to free himself from her grip.
“I’ve sacrificed so much for you but you all just keep taking and taking and taking!” her voice grew louder and louder until it could be felt in the bones.
Some made for the doors but they would not open.
“No! No one leaves. You’ve had your chances to avert this fate!” The hall froze in place.
Khadia turned back at the face below her.
“Now. You’ve taken more from me than any other. This last thing I’ll give you freely. It’s much less than you deserve, but frankly, I’ve wasted enough time on you.”
“How do you do this? I know for a fact you don’t have a Promise! You never learnt magic and-”
Her right fist pushed his head all the way down to the floor. The sound of his skull shattering was drowned in blood and brain matter. It took the crowd a moment to realize what she had done. Though even in panic, she would not let them move. She stepped down from the stage, her hand dripping a trail behind her. She wouldn’t even lay a hand on the people, they just crumpled up like paper as she walked past. Within a minute, 121 people were reduced to unrecognizable pieces of meat on the ground.
Khadia reached the buffet and wiped her hand with a napkin as best she could.
“I’m sorry if I scared you.” she said to the remaining guests.
“I saw you struggle against them. Saw you plan in your mind how to bail me out. That’s all that I asked for.”
She went up to help a girl leaning against the wall by a toppled flower pot. She began to cry as soon as she stood.
“I’m sorry! I wanted to stop this but my Promise is useless in battle.”
“It’s okay. I wouldn’t have asked if I knew I could do… this.”
“What was that?”
Khadia stared at the still reddened hand. “...I just felt like…”
Another woman limped over to them. She had been the first to act but was subdued with a gunshot. “I heard that some people can develop Promises out of nowhere.”
Khadia wiped away her tears, then held out a trembling hand between them.
“I’m Khadia. Nice to meet you.”
The girl took her hand, trembling even more. “I’m Toum Fen Zi.”
“Jules.” the other one sat down on the floor.
Toum Fen Zi sat down too and overlooked the carnage around them. “What now?”
Khadia turned around. “Well, tonight was going to be the inauguration of a new arm of power…” Khadia looked at her doing. “...My family has suffered under the Raindrop mafia. I want an arm that can wrestle theirs. I want an arm that won’t exploit the weak, like me. The naive. And if I have to kill to stop them… If I walk that path… would you follow?”
“I will.” Toum said, tearing up again and rubbing her neck.
“So will I.” Jules smiled.
“Then so be it.” Khadia picked up the snapped choker from the stage. She whispered to herself: “The blue tears I cry, the red blood I shed. They will paint my smile violet.”