Coercion

About two sisters who left their country just before war broke out.

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3. Dinner

One of the suitcases was waiting on the bed when I left the bathroom. I opened it and pulled out a red cocktail dress. Pausing as I did up the zip it occurred to me how odd it was that my mum had packed such a nice dress in with all the other clothes. But Mum had always been good at knowing what to pack whenever we went away.  A knock on the door distracted me and I quickly finished doing up my dress and grabbed some plain ballet shoes from the suitcase.

“Yes?” I said opening the door.

It was Ida. “Wow girl, don’t you look stunning.” She grinned. “What a beautiful colour.” Reaching out, Ida touched the red material. Her expression was so childlike that I felt sorry for her. Did no one in Driskova own anything bright? At that time Ida was wearing a plain black dress. “Wait a moment,” I said turning and rummaging around in the suitcase. “Here, I want you to have this.”

Ida watched in awe as I wrapped a pink and green floral print silk scarf around her neck. “Oh my . . .” Her hand was shaking as she lifted it to touch the scarf. Tears filled her eyes and she drew me into a hug. Her head came up to my chest. “Thank you so much. I will treasure it always. Come on, we’re going to be late.” Ida linked her arm through mine and we walked slowly down the corridor.

There was no one else around so I asked, “Ida, why was I naked when I woke up? Why did the doctor make me go to sleep?”

Clicking her tongue she replied, “They were just examining you. It’s nothing to worry about, dearie.” Ida patted my hip absently.

But I was worried about it. It wasn’t like I was from another planet, just a different country. I didn’t understand why anyone in Driskova needed to examine me. “There was a woman in my room. She had long hair and was smoking.”

“That would be Prudence.” Ida sighed. “I should have known that old witch would want to see you. Try not to do anything to upset her.”

We stepped into a lift, which descended several floors, before going outside. Blinking at the brightness of the sun I raised a hand to shade my eyes. Breathing deeply to fill my lungs with fresh air I gazed around. We were surrounded by tall, grey buildings, so many that I felt kind of claustrophobic. There weren’t even any trees.

“Welcome to Driskova.” Ida cackled. “Beautiful isn’t it? Wait until you see Marshall’s mansion.”

Did she mean that his mansion was even more of an eyesore than the buildings around us? I wasn’t sure that was possible.

A sleek looking car pulled up in front of us and I shivered as a cold wind whipped at me, tossing my hair over my shoulders. The driver got out and opened the door for us. Ida made me get in first.

“Where is the President’s mansion?”

Once the driver was back in the car he drove us down a long road which slowly wound up a hill.

“Do you see that?” asked Ida pointed a wrinkled finger out the tinted window at a gothic looking building perched on the peak of the hill. “That’s where we’re going.”

Pressing my hand to the cold window I watched as we approached the mansion. It was a cross between an old castle and a house. Parts of it were covered in a dark green plant, which was the first sign of vegetation that I had seen so far. The car stopped in front of a huge imposing gate and a soldier peered at us through the glass window.

“Evenin’ Ida.” He smiled. “You have fun tonight.”

“Will do, Jimmy.” Ida chuckled. 

Jimmy opened the gate to let us through. The drive took us through gardens filled with trees and bushes. But as it was autumn I couldn’t see any flowers. Eventually we reached the mansion and a man that had been stood waiting on the steps opened the car door for us. Bowing low he waited for Ida and me to get out before leading us through the massive wooden front door and inside. I couldn’t help but gape at the obscenely high ceiling and the sparkling chandelier.

Laughing at me Ida yanked me after her and the butler with a surprising strength. “Come on, girlie. You’ll have time to look around later.”

We walked through to a sitting room where twenty or so people were gathered. I recognised Marshall, who was now wearing a suit, Prudence, who pursed her thin lips at me, and Herman, who didn’t even glance at me. Amelinda was also there and she ran over to me, drawing me into a hug. Her dress was silver and shiny.

“I missed you,” she said quietly.

Kissing her hair I felt everyone’s eyes on us. “I missed you too.” I was feeling extremely confused. Why had Marshall organised a dinner for two Melsalian girls? It didn’t make sense.

“Briar.” Marshall grinned and strode over to greet me. He pressed his lips to my cheek and introduced me. “Everyone this is Briar Rhena.” He then proceeded to introduce me to everyone individually, which he must have already done with Amelinda.

Most of the people there were elderly like Ida and Prudence, and it turned out that they were members of a council called ‘the Elders’. It seemed that they were the ones that made the important decisions and that Marshall was just the poster boy. The Elders all gathered around me, pinching my cheeks and muttering their approval. Prudence smirked and poked me in the ribs saying that I was too skinny. The other guests were either from the military, who found it amusing that my country had been attacked, or were scientists, who blathered on about my parents’ work.

After a while we moved through to a huge dining room and sat around the extraordinarily long wooden table. Marshall was at one end of the table and Ida at the other. Amelinda and I were sat either side of the President. Fortunately the food was a lot better than the grey mush Ida had brought me.   

“You’ll never get that back you know,” Marshall told me smiling.

Following his gaze I saw Ida showing off her scarf. From her joy anyone would have thought that she had just won the lottery.

“It was a gift,” I replied as I drank my wine. It tasted different to Melsalian wine but was still pleasant.

“That was very kind of you, Briar. I haven’t seen my mother so happy in a long time.”

My eyebrows rose in surprise. “Ida is your mum?”

Marshall nodded, sipping from his glass and then got distracted by Herman who asked him a question about something military related.

When we had finished the tangy dessert we went through to the living room where some of the guests gathered around a table to play cards. Others sat on the bouncy looking sofas. While everyone was distracted I took the chance to slip away. I would have taken Amelinda with me but she was half asleep on one of the sofas, probably a result of all the wine she had drank. I explored the mansion for a while, noting that there wasn’t much in the way of technology. After a while I found myself on a balcony overlooking the substantial gardens. It was cool but the alcohol in my system lessened the chill.

“You should see it in the summer.” Glancing over my shoulder I found Marshall stood in the doorway, two glasses of wine in his hands. “Mind if I join you?” he asked smiling.

“Of course not,” I replied.

He walked over and handed me a glass. “Did you enjoy dinner?”

“It was delicious, thank you.” I sipped at my drink. “It was very generous of you to hold a dinner for my sister and me. You didn’t have to.”

Marshall rested an arm on the stone balcony. “We rarely have visitors in Driskova but when we do we make sure to welcome them.”

“Marshall . . . can I call you that or do I have to say ‘Mr. President’?”  

“Marshall is fine.” He chuckled.

Brushing my hair from my eyes I said, “Okay, Marshall, how did you know that Amelinda and I were coming? Did our parents contact you?”

“Your parents sent a message saying that they were sending you to us.” Marshall shifted his position and stared out at the night.

“Did they say anything else?” I asked hopefully.

His brown eyes were kind as he turned to face me. “Yes, they said that they would try to join you as soon as possible.”

What if they didn’t? What if they were dead? Would Amelinda and I be stuck in Driskova for the rest of our lives?

A tear ran down my cheek and Marshall brushed it away. “I’m sure that they are on their way here at this very moment, Briar. You mustn’t lose hope.”

“Thank you,” I whispered, giving him a sad smile.

“What for?”

“For looking after us; you don’t have to.”

Marshall frowned. “How could we refuse to grant two young girls sanctuary?”

Other countries would have. After all Amelinda and I were nothing important. So why had we been allowed into Driskova? Surely it hadn’t been out of the kindness of the Elders’ hearts? Prudence didn’t strike me as the kind of person that would willingly help a stranger for nothing in return.

“I trust that you will be very happy here.” Marshall smiled draining his glass.

I hesitated a moment before saying. “I don’t mean to sound rude, but I hope I’m not in Driskova long.”

Laughing he replied, “I know you must miss your home, but no one knows how long the war will last. You should prepare yourself for the worst.”

My eyes narrowed. What? One minute Marshall was saying that I shouldn’t lose hope and the next he was telling me to prepare myself for the worst. I hoped he didn’t write his own speeches.

Confused I gazed up at the moon. It was bright in the sky and I wondered if my parents were alive to see it wherever they were. A voice distracted me and I twisted around just in time to see Amelinda being carried down the hallway towards the front door.

“Wait!” I cried running after her.

Wrapping a hand around my arm, Marshall pulled me back. “She’s fine, Briar. They’re just taking Amelinda to her new home.”

“New home?” I repeated. “What do you mean?”

His voice was soothing as he replied, “We decided that the easiest way for Amelinda to integrate into school life would be to live with someone else her age.”

“Who decided this?” I asked hotly. “You and the Elders? Don’t I get a say in this? She’s my sister!” My chest constricted in fear. They were taking Amelinda away from me. “No!” I yelled struggling against Marshall’s grip. “You can’t do this.” My knees suddenly fell out from under me but Marshall caught me.

Wrapping an arm around me he said, “We’re only trying to help you both. It’s for the best.”

My vision was blurry and I felt nauseous. “What have you done to me?” My lips felt too big for my face.

“Prudence thought that you might put up a fight. It’s just something to calm you down. Come on, I’ll take you to your room.”

I was powerless as Marshall practically lugged me through the mansion. Whatever it was that had been in my wine had paralysed my muscles, making even speech impossible.

“Here we are.” Marshall beamed opening a door. We went inside and he switched the light on before laying me on the bed. “Do you like it?”

The room was big with French doors leading out onto a balcony. The bed was larger than necessary and there was a walk in wardrobe as well as a dresser, on top of which was an elegant mirror. Surprisingly the walls weren’t grey, they were cream. A black loveseat was positioned next to a bookcase and a coffee table.

“I’ll have your suitcases brought over first thing. I have some meetings in the morning but I should be able to show you around the city in the afternoon. You should try and get some sleep. Goodnight, Briar.” With a smile Marshall left the room, switching the light off and the darkness swallowed me up.

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