Phillip stood at his window the next morning looking out over the lawn mired in thought. The sun had only just begun to rise and the sky turned slowly from grey to pink. He hadn’t slept all night, which was no big surprise for a vampire, but for once, he had no desire to engage peaceful slumber either despite the weakening effects of daylight. There was a lot on his mind after his discussion with Paul.
He eyed the box on his desk with a frown. It nudged at a memory long forgotten. He shook his head and took a deep breath. What could it all mean? He pressed a hand against the cool glass shutting his eyes in frustration.
A woman, laughing with a few others and miming excitedly, came into view from between his fingers splayed on the glass. Lavinia had mentioned that she would let the servants have the day off. Every so often, after they had been paid, Lavinia let the servants go into town for a day. It was a tradition she had learned from her parents before her and one that she insisted on carrying on in her household.
He was about to turn away and shut the curtains when he saw her.
The maid he had caught in the middle of a faint the other day was being pulled forward by another one with bright red hair. Her bonnet hid her neat dark braids and shielded most of her facial features from view but he knew it was her. Her dark blue dress swished as she moved and although she was being dragged along, she didn’t seem to mind. She let out a laugh and flashed her companion a grin saying something witty, no doubt. Her friend stopped and shook her head then smiled and carried on dragging her towards the gates.
She intrigued him. Something about her just drew him in somehow. And now that she was heading out and no longer under the rules of propriety set about by Roberta Delaney, Housekeeper and general supervisor of conduct at Larenby Manor, maybe he might be able to engage in a bit of mischief after all.
He glanced at the sky. The sun had risen a fraction higher. By noon, it would be near unbearable but he could make sure he was back well before then. It definitely wouldn’t do to risk sun poisoning even over a little conversation with the most fascinating creature he’d seen in a long time… well, almost definitely. Smiling to himself, Phillip turned and grabbed his coat as he headed out the door.
Zahra walked along the busy street warily. She hadn’t been on a street since she’d been purchased last by Percy and the experience didn’t exactly leave her with warm feelings. She could be captured and sold again. She could be kidnapped and forced back into slavery. Much as she had kind masters and new friends among the servants, she was still loath to place her faith in this place. She couldn’t let her guard down for a second.
“There!” April’s cry drew her attention and the girl sped off in one direction dragging Zahra along. She had been doing this since they had left their rooms and while Zahra had put on a show of reluctance, April’s excitement had been infectious. Despite her misgivings, she was a little curious about the place that was to be her home for the next inconceivable amount of time.
The town was just beginning to wake all around them and her fellow servants flocked excitedly to this shop and that. The shop that April dragged her to was one with a beautiful lace dress in the window. It was in the latest fashion with cap sleeves and a bodice embroidered in dark green filigree. A few gems, tastefully sewn into the fabric winked in the morning light adding a certain air of elegance. The skirts were made of white tulle and overlaid with more lace embroidered in the same green thread.
It was beautiful she had to admit. It didn’t have hundreds of flounces and folds and bows like some of the dresses she’d seen. It was definitely much more than her meagre pay offered. Even with the coin Tess had given her, it wouldn’t make very much of a difference. Besides, who would sell anything to a person of colour like she was? And even if she could somehow manage to purchase it, where would she wear it?
A small smile tugged at her face.
“Isn’t that the most beautiful gown you’ve ever seen?” said April wistfully on a sigh, “can’t you just see yourself dancing the night away in a dashing young man’s arms in that dress?”
Zahra couldn’t really see herself dancing at any point. She hadn’t learned to dance like they did here. Dances in her village were more lively and engaging and far more colourful than anything she had seen in this land so far… no, she couldn’t see herself dancing here; but there was no use telling April that. She did wonder what it would feel like to have such rich material on her skin.
It probably felt like heaven. But the back would be exposed, no doubt, and wouldn’t everyone be so thrilled to see her scars. They were indelible marks she could never escape; cruel gifts she had received over the last few months. She turned away from the dress before her thoughts dragged her down a path she did not intend and her gaze was drawn to a small shop at the far end of the street.
The structure was made of darkened wood and a sign hung above the entrance with a symbol she didn’t recognise. The door was open but everybody seemed to avoid it. April noticed the direction of Zahra’s gaze and nudged her.
“Let’s go see!” she whispered with glee and dragged Zahra off with her in the direction of the shop.
The interior was dimly lit, having only one small window by the entrance. Sunlight filtered into the room and it took a while for their eyes to adjust. The room they entered featured all manner of things; lamps, a table and chairs on which sat several books and an assortment of figurines. A small chest of drawers sat near what looked like the counter. On the counter and near the rear were several pieces of jewellery; earrings, bracelets and necklaces in every imaginable colour. Behind that were shelves stacked with other random bits and bobs.
A woman swept into the room just then, her arms laden with books. She was simply dressed in a cream blouse and maroon skirts and her long dark hair was plaited into a single braid down her back. Zahra stepped forward to help as she began to sway wildly towards the delicate china not two feet to her left. April did the same and between the three of them, they managed to set the heavy books away. The woman laughed as her load was lightened.
“Oh thank you, thank you so very much. That would have been a disaster. You know, those cups don’t look like much but it’s actually very valuable. Come to think of it, I should put them away,” she said and turned away from the girls without even looking at them. Zahra and April looked at each other and stood quietly waiting for the woman to return. When she did, she was carrying two small boxes, one in each hand.
“Now, I know this isn’t much but for helping me I want to give you a little something.” Finally, she looked up and seemed a bit taken aback when she looked at Zahra.
It wasn’t that she had never experienced this before. Many of the servants were surprised that she had been chosen as a maid at all. The masters had, evidently, never had a servant with dark skin before. Still, Ms. Delaney had made sure that none of that had affected her life there. Aside from a few curious glances and a bit of suspicion, she was mostly left in peace and had even managed to befriend a number of them.
This, however, was different.
The woman took a step back staring at Zahra as if she had seen something she didn’t trust. She’d had people hurl insults at her, spit at her feet and in her face whenever she passed and been beaten for standing up for what she believed in… but she had never been looked at with this particular emotion. When Zahra recognised it, she was very surprised. This woman feared her. The realisation made her tilt her head in confusion and the woman jumped a little at the motion.
“I don’t… please don’t hurt me,” she said backing into the shelves behind her and rattling some of the bottles on them. All three women jumped at the noise in a room suddenly gone quiet. Zahra and April shared a glance. She was just as confused if not more.
“I serve The Order. I am loyal. Please…” she begged and fell to her knees. Now it was Zahra’s turn to take a step back. The order? Loyalty? What on earth was this woman talking about?
“What are you…?” began Zahra but she didn’t get to finish. The woman scrambled to her feet and without a backwards glance, she darted behind the counter and fled through the door to the back room shutting it firmly behind her. The ensuing silence was deafening.
“What was that about?” April came to stand beside her as they looked at the door the woman had retreated past.
“I’m not sure I want to find out,” said Zahra. Taking April’s hand, she hustled her back out of the shop and into the street. It took a moment for their eyes to adjust to the daylight. The sun had already risen and the street was busier than it had been only minutes before. The door slamming behind them and the click of the lock made them jump and turn back but, deciding it was better to be ignorant in this case, they hurried along to another shop on the end of the street.
Zahra had been right in her earlier summation of the people here. She still got suspicious looks and if April were not with her, she was sure she would have had a much tougher time taking a look around. For the most part, she kept her hands to herself and walked demurely by her friend but her gaze missed nothing. She had learned to keep alert. And whatever the woman in that shop had been babbling about had set her on edge.
Which was why it was surprising when, as they exited another shop, Zahra managed to bump into a man. He was big and stocky with a fierce scowl on his face as he barked at her.
“Watch where you’re going, filthy black wench!”
She’d heard worse. Truly she had and this was not reason enough to get into a fight. She would have loved so much to smack that smirk off his face. But she held her peace. He would probably beat her into a bloody pulp and save for April, nobody would bat an eyelid. She bowed slightly and stepped aside to let him pass with a muttered apology. Unfortunately, it seemed that he wasn’t in a particularly generous mood.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you, girl! Darkies these days don’t have any respect for their betters. I should teach you a lesson right here!” He grabbed Zahra’s arm and raised a hand to strike her. She gasped as his hand made contact with her face with a force that sent her to the ground. April made a small noise in alarm. This was quickly turning into something else. From where she had landed, her palms and cheek stinging as much as her pride, she heard a crowd forming around them. People had stopped to watch the black woman get hers.
It was tiring in truth. She was far from her people and her home. She had only wanted a pleasant stroll with her friend through the market, maybe make a few decent purchases and go back to her servitude in peace. Even this simple wish was denied her because of where she had come from; because those men, all that time ago, had thought to make their earnings by stealing her from her home and selling her here. She’d had no say in the matter and she was tired of it.
Before she could fix her enraged gaze on the man, a pair of boots came into view as they stepped between her and the man.
“Is there a problem here, sir?” asked the man she now recognised and resolutely would not face. It wasn’t a question so much as a threat – every word was spoken with such fierceness, even Zahra quivered. The man said nothing for a long moment. She couldn’t see the full exchange but the man stepped back finally.
“Keep the bitch on a leash,” he said and spat near where Zahra still sat on the ground. April rushed to her and helped her up before Phillip could turn to face her. She was in the middle of dusting herself off, when a hand rested against her cheek. Her startled gaze met his concerned one as he leaned in to inspect her face and a spark ran all the way down her spine realising the intimacy of the contact. She blinked at him, her mind going completely blank. When his eyes landed on her mouth, he suddenly cursed and the moment was lost.
It wasn’t as bad as all that, she was sure. She had tasted a little blood but this was nothing. Now if it had been Mr. Galagher, she wouldn’t have been able to stand let alone walk after he was through. If it wasn’t for Phillip, she would probably not have made it past the hour.
All the same, she turned her face away from his hand - his warm comforting hand - and resumed gazing at the ground. She bobbed an awkward curtsy then and then she and April made their way back down the street. She’d had enough of the town for one morning but she urged April to go on and look into some other shops. Perhaps she could tend to her lip before Ms. Delaney heard of it. She would be in trouble enough for her carelessness and she didn’t want to scare the children or upset the masters. She still had some of Tess’ balm and herbs. Perhaps she could use that, she thought as she finally walked through the gates leading back to Larenby Manor – now her haven as well as her home.
She had just turned into the door leading to the servant’s quarters when a cool hand touched hers and Zahra jumped at the contact, immediately pulling her hand away and taking a step back. Phillip’s concerned gaze met hers and he cursed silently running a hand through his already tousled hair. How had he caught up with her so fast? Or maybe he had followed her all the way?
She looked at him, the question in her eyes.
“Are… are you all right? I didn’t mean to scare you.”
Zahra regarded him guardedly. They had not interacted at all in the last few weeks despite the proximity in which she worked around him. Except for the time he caught her mid-faint and the conspiratorial wink in the library, they had barely seen each other – and even then, they had not spoken even one word to each other. That was the only reason, she told herself, that she was so flustered now.
It had nothing to do with the dark stubble on his chin or the concern she saw on his handsome face. It had nothing to do with the strong hands that had held her that day or the chivalry with which he had stood up for her. It was not the fact that she felt drawn to him despite their obvious differences either, she reasoned.
“I… I’m fine.” She said finally turning her gaze respectfully to the ground as she should have from the beginning. She heard the step he took towards her but any more backing up she would have done was suddenly interrupted by the wall. She glanced at it in surprise and then at him, her eyes alight with something akin to fear. How had he gotten so close?
His cool hand rested on her cheek, raising her face for his appraisal. He grimaced slightly at the cut on her mouth but then his stare caught hers and the rest of the world slowly faded out of existence. For a long moment, they stood there, neither one daring to move. His expressive blue eyes shone with some emotion she could not quite place and she swallowed hard.
What was happening? Her insides felt as if they were tumbling over themselves and the steadily increasing thrum of her heart nearly blocked out all sound. Could he hear it? A ray of sunshine rose over the nearby hedge and he drew his hand away from her cheek and took a step back clearing his throat.
“I’m glad it’s not serious,” he said in a low voice then he looked at her once again, a slow smile forming on his face, “I wouldn’t want you fainting on us again.”
If she wasn’t so confused by his behaviour, she might have smiled.
“Thank you,” she muttered in a curtsy. He seemed satisfied with that and dismissed her as he headed in the opposite direction. Zahra stood by the wall for a moment more trying to make sense of the events that had just occurred. She shook her head once at her foolishness.
He was just concerned over her and wanted to see what was wrong. It had been kind of him to come between her and her attacker although he probably did so more in loyalty to the mistress of the household than for her sake. Even that was rather unexpected. Most people wouldn’t look twice at a woman of her colour being mistreated. She raised a hand to where his had rested and a small smile touched her lips. As she did so, the corner of her mouth stung reminding her why she was there in the first place.
It was best if she kept out of his way, she decided as she opened the door to the servant’s quarters. She was little better than a slave and had no business thinking about expressive blue eyes holding concern over her well-being or deep voices tinged with worry vibrating through her entire being. Despite Phillip’s rare show of kindness, this world was still cruel and she had better remember that. Her life could well depend on it.