Zahra hardly slept that night and when the sun came up the next day, she dragged her weary body out of her pallet and got ready for the new day in a daze.
April glanced over at her friend again. After she had gone out for some air the night before, Zahra had come back into the barn looking rather dazed. She hadn’t been able to speak, hadn’t joined in the dancing; she had only asked to be taken back to their quarters as the party wound down. And now, even as she scrubbed the pot in her hands, her mind seemed a million miles away. April was worried about her. What had happened? When she had tried to ask about it before, she had gotten an incoherent reply.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” she asked now.
Zahra took in a deep breath and then looked down at her hands. She had scrubbed clean a straight line in the bottom of the greasy pot and no more. Ms. Delaney would have her head if she didn’t pull herself together.
Why had he been there that night? Why had she grabbed his hand like that? It had been more or less spur of the moment. There she had been, looking for a break from the fun, when suddenly, there he was. She had been surprised at his presence and thoroughly confused. Was he there for her?
Then someone made as if to follow her, so she just grabbed him and ran, the prospect of being discovered together adding a sort of thrill to the whole situation. But they hadn’t been doing anything wrong in the first place. So why had she run?
And then he had mesmerised her again with those deep dark eyes just like that time in the inn. And when he had leaned close, she hadn’t resisted. She had swayed towards him too expecting an entirely different manner of contact than he had given her. But when his soft lips touched her forehead, her whole being had seemed to light up.
The meaning of such a kiss ran deep for her people; respect, honour, love. Her mother kissed her forehead as an expression of affection. Her father did it to bless her before an important event and so had only done so on her initiation in the presence of all the village. Hadi had done it to show his devotion to her.
Phillip had no knowledge of her people or their customs so why had he done it?
And now that things had seemed to change so irrevocably, what would happen? Surely they wouldn’t proceed beyond this irrational attraction. To do so would mean a whole host of problems and yet… and yet all the reasons she had for abandoning this foolishness had seemed to fade in that moment. How was she ever going to face him again?
She sighed heavily and jumped when April clapped a hand on her shoulder.
“You scared me!” she cried frowning.
“And you’re scaring me! Come on then, out with it. What’s happened to you?”
Zahra glanced at cook to find him watching them. He looked away but Zahra knew he was listening. He would tell Ms. Delaney if he found out and he had very sharp ears.
“Not here,” she whispered back and continued with her chores. She didn’t see April for the rest of the day however, their assigned chores being in separate ends of the house. That gave her plenty of time to think.
What would she lose, really, from allowing this one little thing in her life? That same life, for one, she thought with a deep sigh as she carried her cleaning supplies into the library. The room was quiet and empty. The Masters were away tending to other matters and wouldn’t be around for a while. She could clean up here in peace and perhaps browse through Master Paul’s collection while she was at it.
When Tess had found out she could speak the foreign tongue, she had taught her to read a little - as an added skill she had mentioned Zahra would need. Now, with the library at her disposal and with her growing vocabulary, it had been a little easier to piece things together. The letters made sounds and the sounds put together made words.
She had only gotten past the first two paragraphs of the other book when Master Phillip had walked in last time. She’d had to abandon the book or risk being accosted on account of her talent. She put down her supplies and went about arranging the desk and the shelves. She dusted and polished as she was meant to finishing in record time. When she was through, she made her way back to the same shelf running her fingers over the spines of the books.
What stories would these pages hold? Did the Masters know them all? Could she learn their secrets if she came here and stole a few minutes at a time? She stopped at the same shelf as she had been before but did not find the book she’d been looking at. The words in it were strange and difficult and it looked as if it had been well worn. Perhaps it was one of the Masters’ favourites. She had no right to mourn its absence but she had wanted to continue her reading. She touched one of the others with a smile. Maybe one day she could get to buy a book of her very own.
“Looking for something?”
The softly spoken words may as well have been clamouring bells for all the impact they had on her. She clutched at her chest trying to calm her frantically beating chest as she faced Phillip, leaning casually against a shelf at the end of the isle.
“I… I apologise, my lord. I did not hear you enter and… I apologise.”
Remembering herself, she quickly clasped her hands in front of her, bowed her head and bit her lip. How had she managed to get caught? Had she left the door open? In her daze she may have. She had been very deep in thought so she must not have noticed him entering.
“I was assigned the cleaning for this room. I apologise if I have disturbed you.”
She bowed again and made as if to rush out of the aisle and through the main door but his cool hand on her wrist stopped her. He was unusually cold to the touch but that didn’t register with her at the moment as much as three very important things did.
The first was that they were very alone.
The second was that her heart rate picked up again for a very different reason than before he had touched her.
The third was that she was still not fighting him – and had absolutely no inclination to.
So when he pulled her back into the aisle and trapped her against a shelf, she only stood there, their gazes locked. Her heart thrummed a steady rhythm, wild and untamed as the dances she had grown up with. She was frightened, but not of him. She realised with a bit of surprise, that she trusted him. He wouldn’t hurt her. It wasn’t something she had verified – only something she felt. This man would never hurt her.
In a last ditch attempt at breaking this very enchanting moment, she made as if to speak.
But all sense had left her. All that remained was a jumble of letters and noises she could never piece together. And then he began to lean in close again, a smile playing on his lips. Her entire body felt it. He was attracted to her, of that there was no doubt. Creator help her but she was very, very attracted to him also. She shut her eyes again waiting for the touch and when it came, it was again to her forehead.
Her eyes flew open and met his sincere blue gaze. She could lose herself in his eyes for eternity. This time, as he leaned in, he sought her lips, and she willingly gave them.
The kiss was electrifying. Her senses completely awakened, every part of her body alert and alive. His hand rose to cup her cheek and then her neck. He pulled away slowly to look at her. She blinked once, then twice, then her gaze fell to his lips again. He did not wait for a second invitation.
Her arms rose of their own volition and wrapped around him, tentatively at first and then desperately. She was falling deeper, faster than she had imagined. Their breaths were one, their beings were one. She could not think, could not reason. His other hand wrapped around her middle drawing her soft curves into his hard muscles and she gasped. He took the opportunity plundering her mouth until she thought she might die.
And when he pulled away again, it was with banked fires behind his irises. She had no doubt that her own burned as bright. His breaths came as fast and laboured as hers. She felt every heave of his chest against hers.
Her foreign name whispered in such reverence grated on her. She would come to regret a great many things, she knew, but right then nothing mattered more than this. She would not let that name mar her moment. Not with him.
“Zahra…” she said softly. He leaned away from her a little in question. Laying her hand on his arm, the one trapping her against him, she looked up at him again and explained. “The name given me by my parents is Zahra.”
A smile lit up his face as he leaned his forehead against hers. She wasn’t sure where to look so she settled on his shoulder. She had only told April, Tess and Maude her given name. They were the only ones she had trusted with such an honour and those women she counted as her friends. But now she had also given him this power over her deepest soul. He knew her given name and that was the equivalent of welcoming him into her family. She wondered if she was mad to do so. Yes, she decided with a smile, she must be.
“Zahra,” he said near her ear in a low murmur. It sent a million shivers down her spine and her eyes slid shut again.
“I could die for this,” she managed to respond in a strained whisper, her fingers curling around his arm.
“I won’t allow it,” he murmured against her neck. She gasped but did not push him away.
“Can you stop them?” she asked. This was important and before she lost all concentration, she needed him to understand.
“I can and I will.” His hands rose to cup her face. He kissed her again and leaned his forehead against hers. “Zahra, I will never let anything happen to you.”
She wanted to believe him. But with that one promise, the spell was well and truly broken. He could not protect her merely because he wished it. She was the property of this house and what was done with the property of the house fell to the Masters. He was but a guest. He would leave soon and with him, any fleeting hope of happiness she had.
He realised when she was beginning to pull away. She did not believe him.
She had to believe him. He would have to make her believe him. But he could not force her. And so he simply pulled her into his arms, resting his chin on her shoulder.
“I will protect you,” he said with such conviction that she almost believed him.
After a moment, he let her go and she went to her supplies. With a respectful curtsy in his direction, resulting in a wink from him, she left the room. Her skin still tingled where he had touched her. Her lips felt slightly raw. Her soul felt alight – warm and very bright. She wondered if anyone could tell what had just transpired between them.
This was a minor reprieve – a brief moment of happiness she may never get again after his departure. As long as she reminded herself that it would not last, she was sure she would be fine. She smiled despite her insecurities. If she was going to tell April, her friend would have to be sworn to absolute secrecy. Nobody could find out or it would jeopardise her future in ways she dared not imagine.
Two figures made their way to the furthest end of the street keeping to the shadows. They could not be discovered. This was much too serious of an issue to ignore. A drunk kicked a piece of wood out of his way cursing it as he went. The couple ignored him and moved on to their destination.
There were eyes everywhere and there was no telling whether they had been followed or not. However, they had done this before. They knew how to get to their destination. The taller one rapped on the door of a house and together they entered. The shorter crossed the threshold and the taller one scanned the outside before shutting the door behind them. Nobody seemed to be following. They had managed to arrive without incident.
“Who are you?” asked a voice in the darkness of the room.
“Friends,” replied the shorter. She lifted her hood and the taller one removed his hat as the room’s occupant lit a candle.
“Sepphira,” said Paul with a bow in her direction.
“This was reckless of you Paul,” she said with a frown, “what will you do if you were followed?” She turned her attention to the woman beside him.
“We need to speak with you. We would not have come otherwise,” said Lavinia. Sepphira did not need to ask why. She could already sense it.
“You… you’re a… but…”
Lavinia smiled and nodded.
“Yes. I am a Halfling. We needed to speak with you about this. Paul thinks…” she paused and glanced at her husband, “he thinks you can help us.”