With her hands wrapped firmly around Alfred’s upper arm, there came in a woman so beautiful she could beat the charms of most other women with her eyelashes alone.
In the glory of her twenties, her figure was divine and her lightly tanned skin was smooth and tight. Her eyes were of the color of emeralds, and her braided, dirty-blond hair was so long, its ends nearly kissed her knees. A long, wine-red dress hugged her voluptuous curves, revealing just the right snippets to eager eyes, and she boasted earrings of shiny copper-chains and a matching bracelets on her upper arm and her left ankle.
The woman’s makeup impressed Natir no less. Her blue eyeshades had black dots scattered over them and on one side of her face it ran down to the edge of her cheekbone, while on the outer corners of her eyes she struck little lines of darker shades.
“I’d like you to meet someone very special,” Alfred said. “This is Diva.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said Natir.
Diva seemed unimpressed by Alfred’s choice. She responded by throwing him a dubious look then strolled towards Natir.
Natir noticed that Diva had only two tattoos: one, a beautiful barn-swallow on her right arm; the other, the Toic’s tribal mark —telling Natir that Diva was once a free woman.
A little smile bloomed on Diva’s lips. With the tip of her fingernail she struck a line tracing the figure of Natir’s breasts. She held her finger just short of contact, though, as if worried she might catch something if she actually touched the fabric.
Confused, Natir looked down at what Diva was doing. She faked a smile and offered, “I’m Natir.”
Diva slowly circled her.
Natir chewed on her lip as her anxiety increased. She knew she was being examined, and she felt sure that it was not in a good way. In fact, Diva looked as if she was trying not to laugh.
“Um, do you want me to—”
Diva surprised her, causing Natir to go silent, when she suddenly dropped, sitting onto the bed.
She planted her hands behind her on the mattress. Her eyes, as her smile, were to Natir’s face, but her foot reached out and traced the marks on Natir’s feet with her toes, as if silently asking her what caused the marks.
Embarrassed, Natir regretted that she didn’t at least try to rub the marks off when she’d had the chance.
“It’s the shoes,” she explained. “They’re rough and, um, well, it’s just shoe marks… Really, it happened before… I’m sorry, I’m not sure what you want me to do?”
“Don’t be worried,” Alfred interjected, looking very entertained by the women’s interaction. “Diva doesn’t talk.”
“Oh!” She hastily apologized to Diva, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize.”
Alfred chuckled, “No. It’s not like that.” He approached them while Diva erotically pulled her feet up and leant on her elbow. “It’s not that Diva can’t talk, it’s just that she never talks to anyone.”
“She only whispers, to me.” He reached out and held Diva’s chin and looked into her eyes. “Her voice belongs only to me.”
He kissed her, and then headed towards a table. He filled two cups with wine as he explained, “She is my ears. Well, one of many, actually. It’s how a clumsy man like myself can stay on top of things. I must listen to everything.”
Alfred handed a cup to each woman.
This was absolutely out of the ordinary for Natir, so she was unsure if she should take the cup.
“You don’t drink?”
“What? No, I do. I mean, I can, sir, but, I’m so sorry, I’m not familiar with the room and it’s my duty to serve your—”
Alfred silenced her babbling by grabbing her wrists, one at a time, and putting her hands on the cup.
“Then drink. Relax. It tastes better when you’re relaxed.”
He left to get himself a drink as well.
Relaxing was the last thing Natir could do right now. She stood, stiff as a log.
Diva, on the other hand, played with the cup in her hand. Her eyes never left Natir. Her gaze was unlike any Natir had had from another woman before. It was openly voracious and gave Natir the same feeling she would have had from a man stripping her with his eyes.
Natir treated herself to a badly needed gulp. Then she cleared her voice and interrupted the silence.
“I...um, I wanted to thank you for helping me the other day. For letting me keep my daughter, and also for feeding her all this time.”
He glanced her way then resumed what he was doing.
“She feels very excited about going to see you every morning. She leaves in a hurry and doesn’t come back until midday with the food you’ve given her. She likes it so much that sometimes she refuses to have anything else. She looks so happy when she’s eating it.”
“And you? Does it make you happy?”
Natir didn’t expect such a question. In a small voice, she confessed, “It makes me worry.”
“Sorry. I meant yes, of course it makes me happy, and I’m truly grateful to you.”
“No, Natir. That’s not what you were about to say.”
“Forgive me, I misspoke.”
He turned towards her, cup in hand. “Finish what you had to say. Why does it worry you?”
Natir stared at the floor. “Because… Because I don’t know when will it stop. When you might lose your patience with her. Or Cahal, I mean, my master, when might he forbid her? And I worry because I don’t really know where she goes every day. I’m not allowed to leave the house and she can only give me a very vague description of your place.”
“Well, now you know where she goes, so you got no more reasons to worry about that,” he said, raising his cup. “As for me, I don’t imagine myself losing patience with little Aina any time soon. She’s a very sweet girl and I enjoy watching her run around. Trust that she’s most welcome in my house any time she feels like it.”
“Thank you. It means the world to me.”
Alfred smirked as he came closer. He stood in front of Natir and stared into her face.
“Tell me something—” He drank, then he put his cup, as well as hers, on a table. He gently made Natir raise her arm to her side. “Why do you think I helped you?”
“I don’t know.”
He turned away. “Well, you are allowed to guess.”
Alfred returned with a chain and stood behind her this time. He fixed her arm back in position—keeping it fully stretched to her side, as she had lowered it—then wrapped the chain once around her forearm.
“We’re all allowed to guess,” he finished, whispering in her ear.
Natir stole nervous looks back at him and at the chain he hung loosely on her arm.
She stuttered, “Because you were… you were being kind to me. You’re a kind man.”
“A kind man?” He headed to a wall where shields and weapons were hung. “As it happens, I do like to think of myself as a kind man. But, no, that’s not why I did it. So, what else do you think it could have been?”
“Because it was wrong, and she’s just a child.”
“Right and wrong? Ah, you mean fairness? No, I don’t think that I had that kind of a motive either.”
He returned with a sword and attached it to the chain.
“Priests preach fairness,” Alfred said, “and I’m no priest. Yet, I did what I did, so there must be a reason.”
“You took pity on me?”
“Pity?” He chuckled. “But you’re a slave! Slaves get no pity. They get the whip. And it works wonderfully.”
He patted the bottom of her arm in a way that told her to keep it straight, then he left her again.
“I...I don’t know why. But I’m truly grateful.”
“Think. I’m sure you can do better.”
He picked an axe off the wall this time and again he attached it to the chain, carefully keeping the weight balanced.
“Because… Because you want me?”
“If that’s what it was about then I would have simply raised Cahal’s bid.” He paused to look around himself, searching for more items to add, then took a dagger from a nearby stand and attached it to the chain as well. “And then I would’ve bought you myself. No?”
Natir’s chest heaved with worry for how strange the situation had gotten but she was too afraid to ask.
She guessed again. “You want me to be your ear? An ear on Cahal? I—”
“I have many already,” he interrupted. He had already added another axe and two copper cups to the load and helped Natir keep her arm in position when she lowered it a bit. His eyes were to the chain as he added more weight, filling the cups with coins as he spoke. “So, many, in, fact, that I can barely keep up with their whispers. And my errant half-brother is a joke. I have no serious worries about him.”
It was getting really heavy. She dared to ask, “What...what are you doing?”
He signaled Diva to join them.
“I don’t know about what Cahal said of you, fire. But,” he slowly ran his hand along the full length of her arm, “you’ve got a very strong arm. Strong like a man’s.”
He took the chain off her arm and made Diva raise hers instead. The moment he put it on Diva’s arm, it immediately dropped to her side under the heavy weight, scattering everything onto the floor.
“I… never noticed. I mean, no, it’s normal. We were a family of farmers, I used to help with the plowing.”
He retrieved his cup.
“Back then, when I first saw you, you remember? At the center of all the ruckus and screaming you made, I looked to see what was going on, and there, in the middle of the market, I saw a young woman fighting off two grown men with a child to her chest… It was very amusing. You sure made those two sweat before they took Aina from your arms. Then I saw you holding on to Cahal, and he was hitting you, hitting you for real, and yet nothing he did could’ve shaken you off. And the whole time, all that I could think of was: now that’s a woman with a good arm.”
She looked at her arm and back at him. “You helped me because I have a good arm?”
He shrugged. “It’s as good a reason as any.”
“Besides…” He suddenly came in front of her with his free hand holding her from between her thighs.
Natir gasped, the flare-up sensation of being touched so intimately and without a warning had sent Natir standing on her toes. She shut her eyes and held her breath as he dropped his head onto her shoulder while fondling her under the skirt, skin to skin.
He whispered, “That makes it two good things about you. Doesn’t it?”