“Would you care to repeat that?”
“I can’t believe I spoke the words the first time…” said Phillip with a laugh as he leaned against the wall. He hooked his thumbs into his pockets and repeated the words. “The Keepers have reason to believe that there is a Halfling somewhere in town.”
Paul leaned back in his chair pensively, the ensuing silence broken only by the crackling of the fire. When Sepphira had explained it to him, he had been more than a little shocked. Halflings were indeed creatures of myth. Not even the oldest vampires had run into one and Phillip had met one as old as 600! But when he looked at Paul, surprise was not the expression he found but concern.
As far as Paul’s full range of emotion went, that face could as well have meant surprise. However, Paul wasn’t head of the Council for nothing. Which is what led Phillip to his next conclusion instead.
“You know who it is, don’t you?”
Paul didn’t reply but he didn’t have to.
“What are you thinking?” It came out more as a demand than a question. Paul sighed and turned to face Phillip.
“I am thinking that we have an opportunity here. Halflings have lived among us before and they can do so again.” Phillip’s expression almost made him laugh.
“You’re thinking of letting a Halfling live among us? If the stories are true, there was a reason for the purge, remember?”
Paul sighed and moved towards the window.
“I have read the texts so I know what is a stake.”
“Then you also realise that this is madness!”
“And yet something is coming, the likes of which we have no idea. Without a plan, without a contingency, we are thwarted before we even begin to fight.”
“And what if the Halfling fails?”
Silence greeted this question.
“You put me in this position and now you’re about to drag me into your mess. I don’t know what’s going on in that ancient head of yours but you had better start making some form of sense really soon.” After a long silence, Paul turned to face Phillip. This was the calculating man that Phillip had known and done his best to avoid. And yet, now that he had decided to take on the mantle of Regent, he would have to work closely with Paul.
“The Halfling has yet to come into their full power. That the Keepers are only noticing it now is proof that they are emerging.”
“If I am correct, they can be trained; taught to wield their power for the better.”
“And if they cannot?” asked Phillip raising a brow. Paul was stubborn but he was no fool and this experiment was as foolish as they came. They both knew it. It could end up saving or destroying them all.
“Then, Your Grace,” said Paul with a cold finality that chilled even Phillip, “they will be destroyed.”
April laughed as Zahra, feeling the rush of excitement, pulled her into the group of dancers and they were at once swept up in the revelry. Someone grabbed Zahra’s arm and swung her around by her elbow. She laughed as the first one let go of her only for her to catch the hand of another dancer. Finally, after a lot of confusion, she ended up in the arms of her first dance partner, Malcolm. He gave her a bright smile and proceeded to pair up with her for the next set.
In her village, she had been one of the best dancers among her peers. Hadi had complimented her on it a few times and she had offered to teach him. Hadi was not the best dancer but, he had remarked teasingly, that he loved watching her because she was so mesmerising.
The musicians began another lively tune and the memory was lost in the thrill of the moment. Her partner was quite skilled and although these dances were strange and new, she felt she could grow used to them. It had been a very long time since she’d enjoyed herself in other people’s company. April stood off to the side clapping with the audience and cheering Zahra on. She was clearly not one for dancing.
After the music had begun, Zahra had joined in reluctantly and then more enthusiastically. Many of the others complimented her zeal and her energy. It had been so very long since she had let herself feel music again, the rhythm calling to her very being. She hadn’t realised how much she had missed it so she laughed and swung joyfully by her partner’s arm.
In the shadow cast by the doorway stood a lonely figure peering into the revelry. He considered going inside to find his quarry but to do so would be to put an end to the festivities and he would rather not have that. He scanned the room, eyes going carefully over every person in the room until he spotted her.
Her usually braided hair was loose. She had held it up quickly in a careless fashion and a few strands came loose as she swung back into her dancing partner’s arms. It was a fascinating dance but he was much more content to watch her – and not so content to watch her in the arms of another. Phillip caught himself frowning.
When he had seen her in the inn all those weeks prior, he’d thought her an interesting creature to say the least. She looked radiant with the morning sun streaming in through the curtains behind her and onto her skin, the rich colour of cacao. What would her voice sound like, he wondered? What would she look like angry, flustered, pleased? The dark blue gown she had worn then had been unflattering – by choice? Not likely.
She had looked him right in the eye and he would be damned if he’d let her see all the things that innocent gaze did to him. So he had played with his enthrallment a little, holding her there entranced while he got the chance to appreciate her form, her beauty, the way the sunlight played on her features. She was a glorious dark angel if ever he’d seen one.
Ever since he had begun to think of it, he had not been able to avoid the idea of actually taking her for his wife. There were already so many tensions between him and his neighbours for freeing his counsin's slaves. It was no secret that he valued their freedom and neither was his neighbours’ disdain of him. Marrying her would mean breaking yet another rule of society. Would he listen to the sage advice of the little voice telling him to stop, he wondered with a smirk, when he so rarely did anyway?
Sitting there at the inn table, clothed and obviously fed, she hadn’t looked like a slave. Judging by the mean-looking brutes at the table nearby, the girls with her hadn’t been free. It had been a mystery – up until she had practically dropped into his arms on his first day at Larenby. And she’d had a visible effect on him. Seeing her from a distance was one thing. Seeing her up close, being so close he could touch her was quite another.
He peered back into the room and was startled to see her striding his way, towards the barn door. Her most recent dance partner (the Malcolm she had spoken of earlier no doubt) offered to walk her out but she graciously declined. Phillip stepped into the shadows away from the light trying to avoid any obvious line of sight. He was a master of stealth; he could hide away and watch her from a safe distance.
“Strange hobby you’ve taken up old chap,” he muttered to himself.
He knew he should leave. He hadn’t done anything particularly wrong but he was unwilling to interrupt the party or her enjoyment of it. His indecision cost him a lot of time however, for no sooner had he made up his mind to leave than the door swung open behind him. He spun around to meet her surprised stare. He supposed it was better than fear but he really hadn’t meant to be caught.
A noise came from inside the barn, as if someone was making to follow her, and she panicked herself. Before Phillip knew what was happening, she had run up to him, grabbed his hand and was dragging him away with her towards the other side of the barn, closer to the property’s tree line. When they got there, she pushed him up against the wall and peered around the corner, probably checking to see that they weren’t followed.
She sighed in relief, her chest heaving from the exertion and then she laughed. It was a beautiful sound, one that warmed him somewhere deep inside. Then she glanced back at him and realised their current position, with her still pressing him against the wall. Her hands slowly fell away from him. He caught her fingers in his, something significant and somehow inevitable slowly changing between them.
Just like before, in the inn all that time ago, the world seemed to drift away. Time stood still and all that remained was them and this moment. The noise seemed to fade and the crickets in the night time no longer seemed so loud.
His fingers grazed the skin of her cheek and she felt her stomach flip over. She was standing too close – and yet not close enough. This man was basically a stranger to her and she shouldn’t be taking liberties such as these with him. His hand around hers was cool but comforting. She didn’t want to leave this place or him – and that thought scared her more than she could imagine.
But when he leaned in, he only rested his lips on her forehead. Zahra shut her eyes, partially against the barrage of emotions flooding her senses; fear, anxiety, excitement, longing… nothing made sense any more. Nothing needed to.
That one simple kiss conveyed what he wanted to say, even as the expression on his dimly lit face said much, much more.
“You should return,” he whispered after a long moment. It was enough to break the spell he had created around them. She took a step back and pulled her hand away, the moment lost. She cleared her throat but finding she had nothing to say, bobbed a curtsy and went back in the direction of the barn’s entrance.
Phillip stood there a moment more, looking up at the stars as they twinkled in the patches of sky he could see through the canopy. He listened to the sound of merriment and laughter and smiled to himself. He hadn’t planned on this but now there was no doubt in his mind. She was the one he wanted. And if he had anything to say about it, he was going to make sure he got her.