Natir waited in the barn for Alfred to follow.
She paced back and forth, feeling eager to have a conversation with him and hopefully correct this wrong turn of events.
He seemed to be taking his time.
Cold wind blowing in her face, she leaned against the rails and spaced out.
The shadowy sight of the Thieves’ Tree and its hung heads, lightly swaying in the dark, was as unpleasant as ever and brought a churn to her stomach, yet she could not ignore it nor resent it anymore… not with any sincerity.
A breath escaped her, and she rested her cheek on her forearms.
It didn’t matter anymore if she hated it or not, it was still part of a place which she heard her own lips call “special” just a short while ago. A part of a memory she held dear. And a part of a better whole that overshadowed its evil.
It was just like Alfred. Perhaps it was just like all men. She could only accept or reject them with all their good and bad.
She heard footsteps and quickly spun around.
To her disappointment, it wasn’t Alfred whom she had heard coming but Tarania; Natir frowned and crossed her arms over her chest, ready for a second quarrel.
“You are a child,” Tarania started.
She entered the barn, careful where to step, and picked a spot in front of Natir.
“What caused the sudden change? It was Volk, wasn’t it? Tell me exactly what foolishness did he fill your head with to make you act like that.”
“Volk got nothing to do with it, and I saw no change.”
“No? Just the other day you were on your knees, kissing my hand. Now you talk back to me like this.”
“That was before I found out you played me for a fool and pretend to be something you are not when, in fact, you’re exactly the same as I am: a slave.”
Tarania inhaled fire into her lungs. “Exactly the same? You put me and your low self on the same scale?”
“Is there a reason why I shouldn’t?”
“I see.” She paced around. “So that’s what your stupid show was all about? We’re of the same breed, we’re both women, and I’m the one holding the man who rules our world in my arms. So you thought of starting a little competition! Shake your hips and seduce him with a few lewd words like a little slut, and let the better woman win. Is that it?”
“Oh, no, we need to get this straight. First of all, it was you who started it when you stood between me and Alfred. Second, I was merely returning the favor for what you did to me the other night.”
“And what was it that I did the other night? Please do enlighten me.”
“You set me up with an idiot like Volk! My gods, you must be so desperate to get me out of your way to pull such a low trick. I bet you thought it was hilarious, didn’t you? Well guess what, it won’t be half as funny when you see how easy I will replace you.”
Tarania gritted through her teeth, “There is no woman alive that can replace me. If there is then it’s certainly not going to be you. The fact that you spoke the words you just did proves just how different we are.”
Natir giggled. “Is it really the cold causing you to shake under your dress like that?”
Her eyes widened. “Did you just threaten me?”
Natir took a step in and glared into her eyes. “Allow me to clear the fog off the mirror for you. You are afraid. And why shouldn’t you be? You’re withered, old, and childless to him. No, Tarania, there is no competition between us. I will step over you like grass any time I feel like it.”
“You will stop right there before you spout any more nonsense and listen to me, you idiot! Does it look to you that Alfred is in need of a cock warmer? A womb to bear his children? Is he short on beautiful women to fill his bed with? Or did he ever do or say anything that even remotely implies such things?”
“What?” She chuckled. “You sounded pretty bright just a moment ago! Why did you lose your voice all of a sudden? The fact is, you don’t know what you’re talking about. You don’t know what Alfred is up to. You can’t even see an inch before your nose, can you?”
“No, he told me—”
“He told you what?” she cut her off. “Come on, finish what you had to say. We both know everything that has happened, so tell me exactly which part of it looked like a couple’s union preparations to you?”
“That’s not what I—”
“Do you even know why I have come here myself instead of sending a couple of dogs to give you the beating you deserve?”
“As if you could!”
“BUT I CAN. I can, and if it was any other woman then that’s exactly what she would have done. But I chose to honor what you did in there instead… You’re really something, you know that? No talent, no brains, and rush to act without thinking. Peasants like you are a copper a dozen, not even worth my breath. But you have guts. And I respect that. And now, you will return the curtsey by shutting your mouth and listen.”
She turned her back on Natir, went for the dead torch on the wall, and spoke as she worked on it.
“Yes, it was me who decided to give you to Volk, but the reason why I did it is nothing like what you have in mind… Alfred is the earl, and while that may sound like a lot of fun to simpletons like you who think it means he can do whatever he wants, the truth couldn’t possibly be more different… An earl is a man with responsibilities. He is someone with his whole clan’s eyes upon him, and they love nothing more than to gossip about him at every dinner—”
Frustrated by her failed attempts, Tarania huffed and handed the torch over to Natir. “Here, you do it.”
Natir took the torch and worked on it.
“Let us see what pigs’ shit you made us step on for the sake of this stupid argument. Couldn’t you pick any better place? You got the whole yard in front of you.”
Natir rolled her eyes. She lit the torch and hung it on the wall then turned back to Tarania.
“So, tell me,” Tarania resumed, “when the earl’s brother and only contestant to the throne dies in a shadowy accident and his pretty slave ends up in the earl’s arms, exactly what kind of gossip will that bring?”
“So you sacrificed me for the sake of what people might say?”
“For the sake of what freemen might say, yes, and it’s dangerous enough to call for caution. Even an earl can only test his people’s patience that far, and killing Cahal takes that privilege to the limit.”
“How convenient for you.”
“Try not to distrust me that much, what I told you is the truth.”
“Yes, well, from what I heard it’s not Cahal’s incident that tests their patience but forcing your son on them.”
“That is no business of yours, and you will not bring my son into this, understand?”
“How then do you expect me to believe a word you say?”
“That is your problem and I couldn’t care less if you believe me or not. Bottomline is: you are dead wrong. I may disagree with what Alfred thinks he sees in you, but I am not the one standing between you two, for the simple reason that I love to see Alfred enjoy what he’s so passionate about, I truly do. But no matter what, I cannot allow him to blind himself from the reality of the world we live in… It’s just too much too soon. Cahal’s blood is yet to dry and things need time to cool down. He can always have his fun later… So now you’ve heard it all. Think of it what you wish, but the next time you pull a stunt like that again, I promise you that I won’t be so understanding.”
With that said, Tarania turned her back to Natir and headed to the house.
“I want to see him,” Natir shouted.
She stopped, not looking back. “And until the time is right, know that I will keep advising against it. Someone has to be Alfred’s head when he loses his. And besides,” she moved on, “according to him, you need time to learn to stand on your own. So, what’s the difference?”
As Tarania disappeared into the house, Natir cursed and threw the torch into the yard.
She wiped her face with her palms, exasperating.
“I wouldn’t let her get to me if I were you.”
Shocked to hear Keelin’s voice, Natir searched for her and found her sitting with her back to the fence, drinking straight from a jug.
“She’s just another failed creation. What a waste of Alfred’s time.” Keelin finished with a sigh.
“How long have you been eavesdropping on us?”
Keelin got up and smirked with a drunk look on her face.
“Failures. All of them are nothing but failed creations. As will you be. But look at the bright side.” she threw the jug to Natir and left, laughing, “Why hurry to fail, right?”
* * *
With gloom painting her face, Natir walked around the house, intending to go back inside through the main door.
She was surprised to see Volk waiting for her outside.
“That was stupid,” he said, eyes shooting daggers at her. “Follow me, we’re going back home.”
Natir rested her back against the wall, hands joined behind her.
“So that’s the story of the enmity between you and Tarania?” she said, causing him to stop. “She stole your daughter’s place.”
“She did not steal my daughter’s place.”
He returned to her and grimaced. “No. Because my daughter never claimed it in the first place. Diva is an idiot. A woman with her looks can have any man she wants. She can have any earl she wants. But Alfred, he bewitched her. He...he poisoned her mind.”
She said coldly, “Is that what really happened?”
“What else do you want me to call it? He turned her into a servant, a mere sex object in his bed, when she could have had it all for herself. What’s worse, is that she’s serving a lowlife slave-whore beneath her level, who just so happens to have enough brains to claim the empty seat my daughter didn’t, and use it to advance her bastard son on us.”
“You were on Cahal’s side on this. And he was your friend. Why then did you side with the man you say is abusing your daughter, at the end?”
He hissed, “Everyone was on Cahal’s side on this, it’s only common sense. But Cahal was not fit to be earl, it would have brought calamity upon us all, and I had to prioritize that above all else.”
“And now that he’s gone there is nothing left to stop Tarania from achieving what she wants. That’s why she chose you to keep me for Alfred, because what better way to celebrate her good fortune than to tie the two of us together just to rub it in your face and devalue me even more—”
A shriek escaped her as Volk suddenly slapped her across the face.
“Never insult me like that again. Never forget what you are,” he said with rage and rushed his steps, “AND NEVER RUN LOOSE ON YOUR OWN LIKE THAT AGAIN.”