“He’s staring again,” whispered April as they scrubbed the sheets the following morning. It was still early and the Masters were in bed as usual with the exception of Phillip, who stood in the shade casually watching Zahra and April at their chores. Zahra had tried studiously to ignore him but it didn’t seem to be working.
“You’re imagining it,” she said and put a freshly washed sheet in the clean bucket. She knew he was watching too, of course, but that was just it. Why was he watching her? April was pretty with her red hair, freckled skin, if a bit brown from the sun, and bright green eyes. She would have been the obvious choice for one such as him. Former slaves like her didn’t normally get attention like this and it unsettled her.
She hadn’t really had enough time with her mother and aunts to learn the rituals of male and female interaction. The wedding preparations had still been underway when they were attacked and her life was stolen from her. If things had gone as they had intended, she would have gone through several important lessons on how to please her husband and how to be a good wife. She would also finally have learned of this secret world of lovers that Hadi had always seemed to know something about.
And now, here she was, glorying in another man’s attention with no clue as to how to proceed. If she had any good sense, she wouldn’t proceed. Good sense seemed to have been drained from her that night in the parlour however and she, more often than not, found herself sneaking glances at him as well.
She sometimes thought about her life back home and all that she had left behind and wondered what her future looked like here, in this household. She couldn’t possibly entertain the idea of being a woman married to one of the masters, having their heirs and living in the lap of luxury. She was no longer a naïve young girl with a head full of dreams. Well, maybe one or two, but those she kept locked away in her heart.
She picked up the full bucket of laundry and began the journey to the hanging lines on the other side of the fence. That meant that she would have to walk right by him. And she would do it too. She couldn’t draw attention to herself and she couldn’t shirk her duties. She would have to continue ignoring him like before. She gave him a small bow of acknowledgement and walked by him on her way to the lines.
He smirked, gave a small nod in return and after she had taken a few steps, began to follow her. She shook her head and shifted the heavy bucket in her hands. She wondered how many more of these trips she would have to make. The bucket was ridiculously heavy and her arms already hurt from all the scrubbing but they had only just begun. There was still the dusting and polishing to be done. It was a lot of hard work but satisfying in the end, far removed from the conditions on the Galagher farm. She shuddered to think what might have become of her if she had stayed there.
She took one more step and put down the bucket to catch her breath then rolled her shoulders to ease the strain in her muscles. She was about to pick up the bucket again when it was lifted out of her hands. Phillip continued forward barely struggling with the heavy pail and she was too stunned to move for a moment. What was he doing? When she caught herself, she raced after him.
“You… please sir, you shouldn’t be doing this.”
“Doing what, helping?” he asked not giving her a backward glance.
“Yes, if Ms. Delaney were to see, I would be in trouble.”
He glanced at her then with his deep blue eyes and winked at her.
“We’ll just have to make sure she doesn’t find out then.”
That stopped her again. A wink, April had explained, was something shared between two close people – friends or lovers. Sometimes, it also indicated romantic interest in another person. That couldn’t mean any of those things, could it? She wasn’t that close with him and for him to wink at her… was he interested in her? That would explain the staring but… he couldn’t! It wasn’t possible and yet, there it was.
She felt her skin heat up and had to shake herself before she could move again. When she did, she raced after him again only to find him already having put down the bucket and striding towards the large tree nearby. He leaned casually against it and turned to watch her again. He gestured towards the clothes pile with a smile and settled in. Zahra shook her head and began hanging up the clothes.
It was rare for this entire area to be deserted but on this occasion, the other servants were preparing for the celebration that evening. It was another tradition of the household, cook had mentioned, where the servants were allowed to celebrate the upcoming harvest feast in the barn at the end of the property. The lady of the house, Madame Lavinia, had Ms. Delaney organise it every year. The Masters didn’t much care for the feast but they would not hold the staff back from their celebration.
Her mind wandered. Occasionally, there would be gatherings on the Galagher farm but they were always secret and far from the household. These gatherings were only for slaves however and towards the end of the day when the masters had gone to bed and then it was for the occasional prayers and encouragement in hardship. She had only known that kind of gathering and wondered what this one would be like. There would be food and music, she had been told. Some of the servants and farm hands would help with that too.
Elisha, the stableman who seemed to have caught April’s attention, would also play an instrument – something with strings. Zahra smiled thinking about him and April as she hung up another sheet. He seemed to be interested in her as well so it seemed it was to be a love match. Unlike it would be with some people she could mention, April aimed practically – for someone within her reach. Zahra mentally chided herself again as she picked up yet another sheet.
She wasn’t aiming for anybody. And she resolutely refused to glance Master Phillip’s way. Just as she finished with that sheet, April came to the yard hauling her heavy bucket and she let out a great big sigh.
“Ach! These buckets are bloody heavy!” she complained as she tried to catch her breath. Zahra stifled a laugh and surreptitiously indicated the audience they had under the tree. April smiled sheepishly, curtsied at Phillip who was watching them blatantly now, and turned to quietly do her work. They giggled at each other from behind the sheet until Zahra held a finger to her lips.
“Come on, you can’t tell me you haven’t noticed. I think he actually might have feelings for you.”
Zahra rolled her eyes. Whether he did or didn’t wasn’t the point. That it was heavily frowned upon was exactly the point. They could never work.
“Okay, fine. I’ll drop it. Malcolm did ask you to dance with him tonight though. So will you?” Zahra only shrugged in response.
“I don’t know. I might. But you know others don’t dance like I do.”
“Ah, too slow and structured for your tastes I gather?” April laughed and Zahra smiled.
“If you saw our village dances you would have known. It was colourful and beautiful and lively and wonderful… I wish you could have seen it.” Sensing a heavy feeling of nostalgia and homesickness coming on, April quickly changed the subject to her upcoming dance with Elisha. He hadn’t asked her yet but Zahra was sure he would.
Laughing and speculating about the dance, they finished with the laundry and headed back to the washing basins to tidy up. Phillip, who had heard the entire exchange with his superior hearing, crossed his arms and leaned his head back against the bark with a frown. She was thinking of dancing with another man – a servant at that.
It shouldn’t matter to him but damn it all, it did. More to the point, he had made plans with Lucas that evening. They were going to gather information in town and maybe find out who was causing a stir among the vampires. He definitely couldn’t be there with her even though he wanted to. Maybe if he helped out and then hurried back, he could still make it.
A dance, eh?
The alleys in town were dark and deserted. One would think that absolutely nothing happened in this town - except Phillip and Lucas knew better. They decided it was better to go separately instead of together to draw less attention. The moon was out so chances of being spotted were high. While Lucas headed uptown to a well-known vampire haunt, Phillip made his way down town.
It was less quiet here for that time of night. No doubt a few of these people here would be fair game for a stray vampire here and there. Phillip grimaced as he passed a garbage heap. Certainly not his cup of tea. His heightened senses brought everything in full focus and it had taken a while to adjust to the world anew. He walked briskly past it to the house with a broken wooden sign. It was just as his informant had described.
Nobody paid him any mind as he rapped on the door then let himself inside. He stepped off the wooden landing onto a marble floor, completely different from what he expected. The rest of the room spoke of grand opulence he had not expected either. The sconces on the walls lit up a plainly furnished but very tasteful room. Did the outsiders know this place existed, he wondered? Most likely not or they would have attempted to break in. Or perhaps they already had?
At the opposite side of the room stood an elegant wooden counter with a bell on it and an elegant door behind that, slightly ajar. Beside that and further behind the counter was a set of steps leading to the upper rooms. A tall potted fern stood off to the side, the only decoration besides the uninspiring painting of some flowers on the left wall and the plush-looking settee on the right. He walked casually to the counter and rang the bell twice.
A small woman came from behind the elegant door, rosy-cheeked, round eyed, slightly plump and pretty as a picture with her neat golden curls. She smiled brightly, her eyes darting briefly to his scar. He sometimes forgot he had it until he met a complete stranger and they noticed it.
“Good Evening Sir, welcome to the Golden Circle. How may I help you then, are you here for a reading? Perhaps I may interest you in a charm?” She was so perky, Phillip couldn't help smiling back at her as he replied.
“I’m actually here for another matter. I was sent to meet the Madame on matters of the Garden?”
Her smile grew brighter and she came around the counter giving him a little curtsy when she was in front of him.
“Ah, yes. The Master said you would be coming. Please, come this way.”
She walked up to the painting and waved her hand over the bottom of the frame. It glowed briefly and then the entire wall swung inwards and the woman indicated that he should enter. The passage opened to a set of winding stone steps illuminated by torches. Phillip followed them downwards as the secret door shut behind him with a definitive click.
At the bottom was another door, this one unguarded and much heavier and sturdier than the others. He rapped on it again and let himself in. This room was much more grim – gothic was the word Lucas would use. With its cold flagstones and stone walls, torches on every wall illuminating a sort of altar before which knelt several hooded figures, it reminded him of a dungeon and an old church at the same time. The figures at the altar stood to face him when he entered.
“Your Grace,” said the hooded figure before all the others. She let down her hood and the others followed suit. All of the women before him had distinctive white hair and dark eyes. Many would call the witches and they were hunted many times by humans who didn’t understand their abilities or their value. In that, he and they were somewhat alike. But Phillip knew them by a different name now.
“We welcome you to the Order of the Keepers. I am Sepphira, Overseer of the Keepers in this community.”
Phillip gave her a bow and the other Keepers bowed in return, retreating modestly to let their leader meet him.
“I was sent here to…”
“We know why you have come. As Keepers, we hold all the knowledge you seek. You are, of course, free to explore our lore as much as you would wish, Your Grace.”
“Thank you,” said Phillip frowning more at the title than at being interrupted. It would take some getting used to. Still, he had accepted the duty and now he had to learn just how to perform it.
And these women were his teachers.
One of the Keepers stepped up to the Overseer and whispered in her ear. She nodded and turned to Phillip as the Keeper stepped back. He raised a brow in question.
“Before we begin your training, Your Grace…”
“Phillip, please.” The Overseer raised a brow and looked as if she might scold him for even thinking such a thing.
“Before we begin your training, Phillip,” she said emphasising his name with only a minute hint of disdain, “we must give you urgent news. We understand that you will have much to learn and there is much in this troubling time to concern you but one of the Keepers has learned of something of utmost importance to your position and to your kind.”
This sounded interesting and much like something Paul might want to know. The Overseer paused a moment as if wondering what to tell him then she met his gaze.
“We have discovered a creature long thought to have been lost in time. Most of them were killed at the beginning of the last millennium and the rest were thought to have died out – the stories have been passed down among the Keepers for centuries as legend.”
“What is your news?” asked Phillip growing a little impatient. The answer, however, was not one he was expecting.
“There is a Halfling among us,” said the Overseer gravely.