Natir woke up with a bucket-load of water poured all over her face.
Startled, she tossed her head up as swift as lightning and saw Diva standing over her, bucket in hand.
Natir slowly dropped back down and burst out with a wild laugh that made Diva raise an eyebrow.
“And good morning to you, too, Diva,” she said, still laughing.
Diva splashed her with what water she had left in the bucket, but it only made Natir laugh crazier.
Natir couldn’t explain it herself; she had simply woken up feeling wonderful for no apparent reason, so much so that she was acting drunk.
With her cup of life filled with satisfaction to its rim, she turned on her side and said through her giggles, “I don’t care. I don’t care. Do what you want, there’s nothing that can ruin my mood. My gods, I don’t remember ever feeling sooo good… I love you, Diva. I really, really love you.”
Diva rolled her eyes.
“I love this cold. I love this barn. This sky. And this hay—” She took a handful and brought it next to her face. “It smells like bird shit!” she said with a laugh escaping through her nose. “But I love it, I love it.”
A rooster came close, picking up seeds.
“And this rooster!”
Diva’s jaw dropped as she witnessed Natir pull the struggling bird to her chest to pet it.
“Look at you, look at you, your comb has the exact same color as Alfred’s beard. I love it! What are the chances—Awah!”
The rooster escaped after scratching Natir’s hand and causing her to fall into another seizure of uncontrollable laughter.
Diva tried to signal Natir to get up, but Natir caught a glimpse of a rag, barely visible from between the hay.
“My clothes!” she yelled with drunk joy as she pulled out the rag and waved it in the air. “Look at what happened to my clothes! How will I go back like this?”
Natir threw it away from herself, and rolled on her back to look up at Diva. While slightly rocking her legs together and feeling her tummy with her hand, she teased: “I think we made a baby last night.” She winked. “Jealous?”
Diva tilted her head back with hopelessness. She threw a sheet she had brought with her over Natir and headed back into the house, signaling Natir to follow.
* * *
Natir lay in the tub with Diva by her side, washing her. She was hyper and her smile seemed permanent. It just refused to go away.
“—and he was much better than last time, I must admit,” she continued her never-ending, one-sided conversation. “A bit brutish maybe, but I’m not complaining. Oh curses, look, I got another bruise right there! How many is that now? I’m covered with bruises!”
Diva was annoyed, blowing a huff every now and then. She didn’t seem that irritated by what Natir had to say, but Natir was restless. It was interfering with her work and made it look like Diva was trying to bathe an unruly nine-year-old.
She grabbed Diva’s hand, then leaned toward her and whispered, “You know, just between us, I think it was the kisses that got to him—he just couldn’t get enough of them.”
Natir threw her hands behind her head and relaxed back with a great sigh.
“Not to brag about it or anything, but I’ve been told that I have very soft lips. I’m just that good at it! It’s a gift, you know, either you’re born with it or you’re not.”
Diva rose an eyebrow. Having already been together, it was obvious that Natir’s egotistical remark had no leg to stand on.
Diva stood up, shaking her head, and peeled off her clothes.
“What are you doing?” Natir laughed.
Diva stripped down to her loincloth, then, smirking down at Natir, she got into the water. The two women then tried to communicate with hand signals.
“What? Your eyes?” Natir interpreted. “What about them…? Oh! Look? You want me to look. All right, look at what? No? Not me? You? You look at me? I’m sorry, I don’t get it. You look at me, or I look at you, which is it?”
Diva rolled her eyes. She tried to deliver her the message again, but it only made Natir more confused.
“You know, this will only end up like last time, I’m sure. So, if you can just tell me real hush, it will save us both a lot of trouble. I swear I won’t tell anyone: you have my word.”
Diva silenced her by suddenly grabbing Natir’s head with both hands and staring into her eyes. She then ran her forefingers in a circle around Natir’s face.
“My face? Okay, I get it, what about my face…? My face. And, look. Okay, and the next clue is… Eyes? Not my eyes. Your eyes… I’m sorry, I can’t make sense out of this—”
Natir was shocked when Diva held her face still and leaned in toward her. Diva moved slowly, commanding Natir’s head with her hands to turn just at the right angle as she gave Natir a kiss so tender, it ignited Natir’s nerves into a tizzy.
When Diva backed off, Natir was enthralled. She figured out what Diva was trying to do: she was mentoring her.
“You move slowly, and you wait until you see your reflection in the other person’s eyes, before you shut your eyes and kiss?”
Diva offered her a smile to indicate that she had gotten it right.
“That was… that was really nice. Where did you learn how to do that?”
In response, Diva slowly led Natir’s palm to her chest then placed her own open palm to the center of Natir’s chest while gazing straight into her eyes.
Like an unexpected revelation, Natir’s moment of uncertainty was short. She watched, stunned, as Diva took a deep breath then shut her eyes in utter surrender. She suddenly looked so peaceful and so perfect, like the mythical maidens of the forests and the lakes.
Natir followed her lead.
A sensation close to bewilderment inhabited Natir’s chest, and her body was suddenly so light that she could almost swear she was one with the sky, feeling the rhythm of Diva’s heartbeat ever so steadily beneath her palm, calling her into the calm until all other sounds vanished into perfect quietness, save for their hearts beating as one.
Natir wasn’t sure she could put Diva’s answer into words herself, but she didn’t really need to in order to understand what Diva was trying to convey.
It was deep.
It was silent.
And it was very personal.
It was the kind of thing that transcends the physical into the realm of spirituality and can only exist between two persons, never a third. And she was directing that answer, that feeling, towards Natir alone as if she were the single most special existence in the world.
She was sincerely trying to connect with Natir…
Caught off guard, Natir slowly took her hand back and looked away. She was unprepared for something so serious, so out of the blue; this was exactly as Alfred explained it when they were first introduced to one another: Diva was never shy to declare what she wanted and to go after it. She almost had no restraints when it came to that.
After a little pause, Natir looked back at Diva and decided, in the heat of the moment, that she did want to open up to this woman, just as Diva repeatedly offered to open up to her.
“You know, Diva, the thing is… No, never mind.”
Diva cocked her head to one side and waited patiently.
Natir struggled to find the right words, but she couldn’t. So, she faked a chuckle and resumed the verbal side of their conversation from where it had stopped.
“Yes, so, about that… I think you already know half my life was wasted in the pleasure house. You’d think that you know everything about it before the first day is done, but no one ever taught me anything like what you just did, before.”
Diva suppressed a laugh. She shrugged innocently and signaled the start of the next lesson.
* * *
Natir was given a woolen dress instead of the one she lost. It was just the kind of clothes a slave was expected to wear: cheap and ever so handed down.
Diva didn’t seem particularly happy to see it on Natir. In fact, she seemed forced to choose it for her.
Natir suspected that it was meant not to draw Cahal’s attention to any special connection between her and Alfred, and that it probably had something to do with the lecture Agatha said she intended to give Diva about it, too. Nevertheless, Natir was content with it. Anything was better than the rags she had on her the night before.
“Oh, there you are!”
The only person in the hall, Tarania, welcomed Natir and Diva when they came in.
Tarania put her knitting tools aside and approached Natir. “If I knew you two were going to be taking your sweet time, I would have slept more.” She stood before them and added as a devious hint, “I trust that you enjoyed yourselves?”
“Um, yes. Thank you.”
Tarania said to Diva, “I’ll take it over from here. You can leave us now.”
Once Diva had left, Tarania smiled sweetly at Natir and took her hand. “Come this way.”
Natir was confused. Instead of heading to a corridor at the wing of the throne, which was the only place to go in the direction Tarania was heading, she took Natir to the throne itself.
It turned out that there was an unseen room right behind it. It was small with a very cozy atmosphere, the furniture was covered with furs and cushions, and it even had its own fireplace, which made it uncomfortably hot.
Natir peeked over her shoulder. The entrance was small and cloaked with curtains, giving the room much privacy, which was probably the purpose it was intended to serve.
She guided Natir to a table. “Have a seat.”
“I don’t think I should—”
“It’s all right, just have a seat.”
Natir sat down and nervously followed Tarania with her eyes as Tarania wandered towards one end of the room. Her mind raced as she tried to figure out what Tarania intended from isolating her in here.
“I was going to ask: what were the two of you thinking, spending the night out in the barn like that?”
The topic alerted Natir.
Now that Natir thought about it, she wasn’t even sure who Tarania was and the kind of relationship she had with Alfred. Whatever it was, to see a younger woman entering the scene couldn’t possibly be something Tarania would appreciate.
Natir gave it a good chance this encounter was heading in a bad direction.
“But then,” Tarania continued, “the nonstop screaming told me that you probably couldn’t wait long enough to get to the door, much less a room! Seriously now, did you even bother restrain your voice at all? Some of us were trying to get some sleep.”
Silence was the smartest answer Natir decided on.
Tarania returned with a couple of fancy wooden bowls and set them in front of Natir.
She asked Natir, “You didn’t catch a cold, did you?”
“What? No, I’m sure I’ll be all right.”
Tarania stared into her eyes for a little bit then she smirked ever so slightly as she straightened back up and removed the lids.
Natir’s eyes flickered from the surprise.
“He said to make sure you eat something before you go on your way.”
She couldn’t believe it. It was like a dream come true. One bowl was loaded with olives. Big, shiny, black olives the size of forest nuts, soaked in a mixture of herbs and olive oil. The other was full of honey to its rim.
There was a strange feeling in her chest, a throbbing in her heart the likes of which Natir had never known before. The playful wishes that laughed on her lips the other night, like they did a thousand nights before, were not a mere breath in the wind. Not anymore… A man had listened to her. Alfred was really listening to every word she had said.
“Interesting combination.” Tarania regained Natir’s face. “Something I need to know?”
Natir was still in shock. She answered with nothing but the flicker in her eyes.
Tarania chuckled at Natir’s expression.
“Probably not.” She patted Natir’s shoulder and leaned toward her. “Take your time, no one will bother you in here. But a word of advice: you might want to try them one at a time, ’cause I honestly don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone ridiculous enough to mix these two together.”
As Tarania strode out of the room, she added, “Oh, he also asked me to tell you: you won’t be disappointed.”
* * *
Natir did not get to see Alfred that morning.
Nevertheless, she walked out the door with her head in the clouds. She was in such high spirits that she didn’t even notice it was drizzling until she was back at Cahal’s place.
She breathed deeply, rubbed her cheeks to wipe the smile off her face, and walked inside.
Aina hurried out and hugged Natir’s leg.
Natir carried her daughter, kissing her, exchanging quick loving words, rubbing their noses together and causing Aina to laugh before she put her down and quietly announced, “I’m back, sir.”
Cahal, who was just about to finish dressing and seemed to be getting ready to leave, peered at her from over his shoulder.
“Is that the same dress you wore on your way out?”
He approached her.
Natir extended her arm to give him the coins, but he grabbed her hand instead and pulled her sleeve up to reveal her forearm and did the same with her neckline to expose her shoulder.
He circled around her, inspecting the bruises on her legs, arms and neck. “What’s up with the bruises?”
She replied, a tremble in her voice, “Yes, Alfred, sir.”
“Did he beat you?”
“No. I mean, yes. Sort of.”
“Sort of? Sort of what? Did he beat you or not?”
“Yes. Yes, he did, but it was nothing excessive or… it wasn’t like a real beating or anything, he was just rougher than before.”
He hummed and turned his back to her, brushing his beard with his hand.
“My dress was torn, so I was given this one instead… It’s not what it seems like, really.”
Cahal signaled her to stop talking and turned his face to Joyce. “Joyce, take—” He stopped midsentence.
Natir looked over her shoulder and saw that Joyce had already taken Aina with her and headed out before Cahal even finished instructing her to do so.
Joyce shut the door behind her, leaving the two of them alone.
Natir became very worried. She didn’t think much of it earlier, but now it was clear that the only excuse she had to explain the state of her body had backfired and that Cahal intended to cause trouble over Alfred’s supposed mistreatment of his slave. She tried to deescalate the situation before things get out of hand.
“Sir, please, I swear he did it unintentionally. I’m fine, really. It’s not like he seriously beat me or anything. He was just fooling around, that’s all. It’s nothing worth causing any trouble about.”
“No. This is perfect. It can help a lot.”
He paused, leaving his vague statement to linger in the air while he thought it over some more. Then Cahal turned to Natir and unfastened his belt.
With doubt and fear in her chest, Natir approached him very slowly.
Suddenly, he whipped her with the belt across the face. Natir cried out in shock and pain, and fell backwards.
“Stand up,” he commanded.
Her face reddening, she held her cheek as she looked up at him with terror in her eyes. “Sir. Sir, please. I beg you. I didn’t do anything.”
“I know, now stand up.”
“Then why? Please, please—”
Cahal waited for her to stagger to her feet and ordered her: “Don’t cover your head.”
He sent his belt at her again. Natir couldn’t help it. She screamed and instinctively threw her arms up to protect her face.
It enraged him. “I said don’t cover your head!”
He swung the belt down on her again and again, aiming for her face.
“Don’t cover it, don’t cover it! Slave, whore—don’t cover it, you dumb, good-for-nothing, fuck meat!”
Natir crumbled to the floor, crying with pain beneath his strikes. She tried to escape on her arms and knees away from him, but he stepped on her ankle and pinned her down.
The force he put against her bone was monstrous. It felt as if her ankle were about to shatter under his shoe as he continued to whip her nonstop, beating her like a dog and yelling filths in her ears.
The pain he inflicted on her was unreal. Her mind went blank and she screamed with the full strength of her voice, begging him to stop, begging him to let her do anything he wanted, she didn’t care what, so long as it didn’t hurt he could do whatever he wished with her. But he continued to whip her no matter what she said, hardly hindered at all.
In desperation, she blindly threw her arms back, hoping to block the deluge of pain.
Her futile attempt sent a wild laugh from Cahal’s mouth and he whipped her even harder, cracking the belt against her back and her hips and her legs, amused to the core by the way she yelled and begged and cried out with her body twisting on the floor in every way like a fish out of water, completely helpless to dodge the blows or protect herself.
With tears soaking her face and saliva coating her chin, her words turned to pathetic growls of misery and she continued to helplessly paw at the floor as all she could think of anymore was to escape the pain.
A strike landed against her spine like a splash of boiling water. A blood-curdling howl ripped from her throat as her body jerked and trembled like a woman possessed.
Her ankle was suddenly freed.
She escaped but was quickly cornered by the wall where she curled in on herself and screamed to no end as the whipping continued like it had never stopped.
By the time he was done with her, he had turned Natir to a hysterical mess of quivering flesh and non-stop sobs.
“Stand up. Stand up, I said.”
Wincing from the fiery pain in her back, her feet scrambled at the floor for several moments before Natir was able to stand up and support her weight again, crying miserably with a hand on her face and the other to her chest.
Cahal grabbed her by the hair and jerked her body to him.
“You will never speak the words you’ve just said to anyone. Whenever someone asks about your bruises, you tell them that it was Alfred who beat you last night. That’s the only answer you’re allowed to speak. Do you understand, you dumb pleasure-house’s whore?”
“Yes,” she sobbed.
“Where did you get these bruises?”
“Sir...Sir Alfred beat me last night.”
“It was Sir Alfred. Sir Alfred beat me last night.”
“Good. And don’t you dare forget it.”
Cahal rushed to the door, opened it and yelled out for Joyce.
* * *
Joyce stopped by another shop, chattering away with the salesman whom she apparently knew well, while Natir stood quietly next to her, face down and holding the things they had bought in her arms.
As the conversation drifted left and right, the salesman nodded towards Natir and asked, “What happened to your friend? She’s all beaten up.”
Joyce moved aside, as it was now Natir’s turn to speak.
Natir spluttered the only lines she was allowed to say: “Sir Alfred beat me last night.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. After he was done with my service, he just did.”
As Cahal had ordered them, Natir and Joyce toured the market, not speaking to one another and repeating the same scene at several shops before they headed back.
It was all too obvious to Natir what Cahal intended to do. He was gathering witnesses for the purpose of causing trouble for Alfred and embezzling a compensation from him.
After they returned, Cahal questioned Joyce about their visit to the market then ordered her to take Aina and tend to the goats outside.
The hut was empty but for Cahal and Natir, who stood quietly in her place the whole time, afraid, with her head dropped like a narcissus blossom.
He pulled himself a chair next to a table and poured a drink.
“Step closer, Natir.”
She obeyed, never raising her face.
“It looks like you did well, for once. Now let me hear your voice tell me: Who am I?”
“You are Cahal, sir. Cahal the Toic. A man among men. You are my master. My pride. And my owner. Everything that I am belongs to you. I exist only to appease you, and my place is at your feet.”
“And what does that make you?”
“Your slave, sir.”
“And your daughter, what is she?”
She swallowed. “She’s your slave too, sir.”
He pointed with his cup at her, “So, what’s there to stop me from killing you right now?”
Natir jolted but quickly regained her composure. “Nothing.”
“Speak up, I can’t hear you.”
“Nothing. You own me, sir. You do with me as you please.”
Natir bit her lip with bitterness. “The same.”
“Good to know you’re not just tits for squeezing. It’s important you have the brains to understand that much at least. Now open your ears and listen carefully to what I’ll say next because I have important work for you.”
“Yes… What would you have me do, sir?”
Her chest heaved as he approached her. He whispered in her ear. “The next time Alfred asks for you, you will kill him for me.”
Shocked to the core, Natir recoiled backwards. She did not see this one coming. Her eyes flew wide open and her hands raced to cover her mouth.
“You’ve done well making nice with him. Gaining access to his bed and earning his trust and all,” Cahal said as he headed back to the table, “and I’ve been very patient and let the two of you play around and lick each other’s genitals all you like, but now that all the right elements are finally in place, the joke stops here and your real work begins.”
Without thinking, the words escaped her mouth: “I can’t.”
His face darted towards her and his hand missed the drink.
“Well, I guess that’s the end this topic then.” He suddenly slapped the cup off the table toward her face, shouting, “Did it sound like I was asking, you dumb whore?”
Natir covered her face as the drink splattered all over her and the cup smashed to the floor. She removed her arms and saw Cahal already in front of her. His hand clung to her neck, choking her.
“You will do as I order you, slave, or did you think that I bought you to entertain my little brother? Huh? You think I bought you to shake your hips on his lap every other night and squeeze his cock between your legs? What, did you really think no one would notice how much you’ve been enjoying this? It’s written all over your slutty face every time you come back, you cheap streetwalker.”
He pushed her onto the floor.
“Like it or not, playtime is over,” he said, panting with rage, “and you will do as you’re told. It’s just how it’s going to be.”
He headed back to the table to fetch himself another drink.
“I can’t,” she stuttered under her breath, rubbing her throat. “I can’t. This isn’t something that can be done.”
He paused to look back at her.
“Even if you order me to do it. Even if I could somehow pull such an impossible task off. It still can’t be done. He’s the earl. There’s no way they won’t find out that it was me who did it. I… I will die. We will die. They’ll hang us both.”
“Ah, yes, about that.” He calmly resumed pouring his drink. “Who said that anyone will need to think twice to find out who did it or that I would have anything to do with his murder?”
Confused, Natir looked up at him and pushed the wet bangs off her face.
“Well, I never said that it has to be done in secret.” He turned to her with a smirk on his face. “In fact, it would be great if you can do it with a witness or two present at the time.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m the elder brother. I am the rightful earl of the Toic. I have the traditions and the law of inheritance on my side. Half the names that weigh anything in this horrendous place support me. Alfred, on the other hand, has nothing—not even an heir to pass the earlship to! In fact, if it wasn’t for Gull’s stupidity and the Marvyn brothers switching sides at the last moment, then he would have never gotten the throne in the first place. He tricked them, he tricked everybody! But that’s a story of the past, and things have changed since.”
Cahal approached her, offered Natir his hand, and helped her up.
“Alfred made two mistakes, and it caused him to lose the support he once had, fast,” he explained. “He failed to bring an heir, and that left the farsighted worried about their future. They will not take his side a second time. Then, to make things worse, he fell under the spell of his slave-whore and made it his mission to push her son on us as his successor! A child! An idiot with no right to such a title and is no better than a toy manipulated by his mother. No Toic will ever accept him as earl or even dream of favoring him over me. There is nothing easier than moving him out of the way. So, if Alfred dies, who do you think the next earl will be?”
“Exactly. There will be no one left to challenge my claim.”
Her chest heaved with worry.
“You had years to execute your plan,” she said. “Certainly, you must have had access to other women who shared Alfred’s bed. So why now, and why me? I’m no killer, I… I will easily mess up everything.”
“Wrong.” He patted her cheek. “You are the perfect killer. What matters most is not how steady the hand that holds the knife is but the story that lay behind that hand: an outsider who only recently arrived here. A slave with a low, whorish past who no one knows a thing about, where she came from, or what she’s thinking. Oh, what a dangerous and untrustworthy thing did our earl invite into his bed in a moment of lust—and not only that, but he also carelessly abused and beat her. Then, one night, the bitch snaps! She kills him in a moment of madness, and the convenient story ends there.”
Natir’s eyes widened. She stumbled back, looked at her hand then back at Cahal. “You needed an outsider? An outsider who Alfred is interested in?”
He smirked and motioned with his cup. “So you see, it’s just as I told you: all the right elements have finally come together, and I cannot waste my chance.”
“You’re telling me to keep your involvement a secret, watch you take the throne, and that you’ll pardon me and set me free later?”
“Not quite. You will be caught, and you will confess your crime, and you will be hanged for it.”
“But then… you’re ordering me to die.”
“True. But if you won’t do as I order you then I will have to kill you just the same, and the fact that I just told you all about my plan should be enough to assure you that I will. This is no joke, and I cannot take any risks. So you see, it’s the same for you either way, but what makes all the difference is this: What will become of your daughter afterwards?”
“Aina?” Natir’s chest tightened, and she could scarcely breathe.
“Yes. You finally understand what I’m saying. It makes things much simpler, doesn’t it?”
“Please, she’s only a child, she’s got nothing to do with—”
“Then do what you’re supposed to be doing. Obey your master and kill Alfred!” He had been shouting, and he softened his voice and said, “Then, as reward for your sacrifice, I will sentence you to a quick death and keep Aina a slave of mine.”
Natir’s eyes flickered with darkness. She could not believe the eerie situation she found herself in.
“What better future can the likes of you hope for her anyway,” Cahal continued, “other than to know she will be in the service of an earl?”
“Please no. Please no—”
With his voice full of venom, Cahal hissed, “You will accept the fate I offer you. There is no other choice. If you won’t, then I swear, I will cut you open, put your little whore alive back inside your belly and sew it so that you’ll feel her choke in your flesh until you both die.”
The image he drew in her mind was so terrifying it made Natir tremble from head to toe. Her mind blanked from the shock and her lashes fluttered rapidly like those of an insane person.
“What’s it going to be?”
She could barely control her hands for how hard they were shaking as she reached out, took the cup her offered her and drank from it, accepting his offer.
His wine burnt her tongue. It tasted so bitter, like forcing poison down her throat.