Diva left the room where Natir sat with Aina; she stood on her toes and put her arms over Alfred, who had been waiting outside.
“She’s calm now,” Diva whispered. She kissed him, and went on her way.
Alfred, smirking and not saying anything, entered the room and crouched in front of Natir.
Natir told Aina to go play; Natir was calm, but she looked devastated and never took her eyes off the floor.
Once Aina left, Natir said in a small voice, “I’m sorry I snapped like that. It was too much for me. I can’t take that kind of game.”
Alfred matched her tone, “What makes you think it was a game?”
“I don’t know. But I know you want something from me. And now, after what you’ve shown me, I worry that I may not have it.”
“Do I want something from you?”
“You brought me here. You dressed me. You helped me keep Aina. You’re feeding her. And you paid just to help me escape a whipping. That’s a lot. No one does all of that for no reason. You want something. So please just tell me what it is.”
He patted her hair. “I asked you last night, what do you want? You spoke of food. You spoke of your daughter. You gave me all the wrong answers.”
“Is that really what you wish to hear?”
“Would I have asked otherwise?”
“May I...forgive me, I know that I’m only a slave, and slaves are not allowed to do this, but may I please look you in the eye?”
He answered with silence, so she raised her face to him. “Ask me again.”
“What do you want?”
“To be free. Me and my daughter, and I’ll manage, somehow.”
“Another wrong answer.”
“Please, you are their earl. You can easily do it.”
“It’s the wrong answer.”
“It’s not. Last night you said that I should ask for what I want—what I really, really want that will make me happy. This is the only possible answer.”
“Because if it was true, then every free man, woman and child would be happy. And the world would be filled with so much happiness it would make me puke. So now let me ask you, Natir, did you see such happiness outside these walls? Did you see it in the people’s eyes? In the market? On the Thieves’ Tree?”
“Then what is the answer? What is it that I should want?”
He kept looking into her eyes.
She countered, “What about you? What do you want?”
“I want exactly what everyone else wants. I want what makes me happy. And you want it, too. So you see, they are not two questions but one and the same.”
“Then what is it that makes you happy?”
He chuckled. “Can’t find the answers on your own, or maybe you won’t even try, so you soften your voice and try to talk it out of a man who already did? This is just so womanly.”
“My happiness, yours, and everyone else’s are not the same, are they? Otherwise everyone would have found it long ago.”
He pointed his forefinger at her. “That’s a very good answer. You’re learning to use your head.”
“Then you should have no problem telling me about yours. It makes no difference anyway.”
“I shouldn’t, but I will tell you.” He leaned closer until he was practically breathing straight into her mouth and said, “It makes me happy to make.”
His answer baffled her even more. She asked, “Babies?”
He burst out laughing.
Alfred clapped his hands to his knees and stood up. “Well, you are stuck with me until next morning.” He headed to the door. “We’ve got time to try again. But go bathe first, you smell like sex.”
* * *
Diva led Natir to a room where she had prepared a bath for her.
Natir almost gasped with joy.
The mere sight of the steam coming from a wooden tub full of hot water, prepared just for her, made her want to hop up and down like a child overtaken by excitement.
She could not even remember what it felt like to be in a real tub after years of taking casual chances to bathe in cold lakes and streams only to walk out smelling like a fish or sitting in castoff old buckets, cleaning herself with wet rags, careful not to use more than her fair share of water, all while listening to the women next in line urging her to hurry up.
Whichever shooting star it was that had made this dream come true, Natir wanted to gift it a kiss wet with gratitude.
She undid her belt and took off her sandals in a hurry, aching to jump into the tub. Just as Natir was about to remove her clothes, she noticed Diva stripping as well.
Natir felt anxious about what this could mean. Above all else, she didn’t feel like sharing the bath.
Diva was living under this roof, and she seemed to be very much spoiled by her master. Natir was sure that Diva could prepare herself a bath every single day if she wanted to. And yet, there she was, about to greedily intrude on Natir’s rare moment of joy.
It felt unbearably unfair.
“You know, Diva. About last night—” Natir began. She was in the process of improvising a plan to keep Diva out of her tub and hopefully get rid of her all together.
Diva stopped undressing, and turned around.
“I’m not really into that kind of thing, you know? It’s… How do I say this? I never shared a bed with a couple before.”
Now Diva gave Natir her full attention, devouring every word Natir said and occasionally nodding her head like a good student.
“More specifically, I’ve never been with another woman before. But it was okay, you know, because it’s not like either of us had a say about it, right…? I mean, it’s not that you’re not really something, ’cause you totally are. I mean, wow! You, you were amazing, and I never thought I’d meet someone who’s sooo into it and, um, all the moves and the things you did. Wooh! That was really something and, hah, the candle’s burn-marks will remind me of that for days to come… So, um, I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you’re into that kind of thing then it’s fine, really. But I’m not… And right now, we’re the only ones in here… So we don’t really have to… ’cause no one is telling us to do anything.”
Diva remained stone-silent, with no indication of alarm or excitement on her face.
“You’re honestly not getting where I’m going with this?”
Diva rolled her eyes. She smiled a silly smile as she set her dress aside and grabbed Natir’s hand, leading her to the tub.
“Wait. Weren’t you listening?”
She pulled Natir’s dress off her and nodded for her to get in.
Natir obeyed nervously. Once she settled in the tub, Diva suddenly put her hand on the back of Natir’s head and forcefully dipped her in.
Natir was taken by surprise. Her upper half sprang out from beneath the surface. She spit out a mouthful of water and gasped for a breath.
With one hand holding firmly on to the rim of the tub and the other wiping water off her face, Natir looked back at Diva in shock.
Diva stood on her toes next to a shelf, reaching up for something. When she returned, she held a pot full of a brown paste that had a strong fragrance of pine. She set it down and knelt on the floor behind Natir. She patted her shoulder in a way that told Natir Diva wanted her to lean back.
Natir still was cautious, so Diva had to pat her shoulder again. She obeyed and let Diva position her as she liked.
Natir ended up resting her shoulders against the wood and tilting her head back so that she was totally submerged in the water, except for her head, as Diva began applying the paste to Natir’s hair.
Now that what Diva had intended to do all along became clear to her, Natir finally relaxed. Diva had merely intended to wash Natir’s hair for her but had been concerned her clothes might get wet. That was why she had undressed down to her loincloth.
“You know, this would have been a whole lot less stressful if you would’ve just said it.”
Met with silence, she looked back towards Diva. “You really never talk to anyone?”
Diva smiled sweetly. She turned Natir’s head back to position and resumed her work.
Natir let out a breath and then muttered to herself, embarrassed, “Thanks for letting me make a complete joke out of myself.”
Natir thought she heard Diva chuckle, but it was probably all in her head. Nevertheless, just the thought made Natir smile.
As she glanced down at her body in the water, Natir’s smile was replaced by a vexed look as she inspected herself. She ran her fingers over the burn-marks on her belly and thighs, and then over the restraint marks on her wrists which had been caused by Diva’s vicious foreplay the night before.
“By the way, from your experience, how long do beeswax burns last?”