Percy came for Zahra bright and early the next morning. Tess and two maids came to get her. They both gave her very sad looks (no doubt they’d been part of Mary’s audience) as they helped her gather her things. When the room was spotless and all of Zahra’s things were packed, Tess sent the maids away then turned to her.
“It hasn’t been very long since we met and chances are, we shall not meet again soon. However, I shall give you one piece of very valuable advice. Use your ears and your eyes,” she said touching Zahra’s ears then eyes in turn, “and you won’t have to try very hard to find answers.”
This surprised Zahra somewhat, unused to such kindness from strangers. Tess was a kind old woman, she’d surmised, if a little strange and very secretive. She handed Zahra a small bag of vials, for her wounds and a few for some of the more severe scars she’d said. Zahra took it gratefully. It was a gift from an elder and in her homeland or here, it was a precious thing. She smiled and the old woman hugged her then they left the room together.
Percy, flanked by the two strong men who had carried Zahra here, stood in the front room where she’d first been brought. She was clean and dressed, in simple clothes, but clothes nonetheless, and with a single change in her bag. Her hair had been washed and combed and she stood up straight, proud to be seen as another human being and not some animal.
He stood there staring at her for all of a moment making Zahra want to blush and look away. She saw the heat in his eyes that died the moment Tess walked into the room behind her.
“She’s not a piece of meat Percy. Show some respect.”
“You wound my pride,” he said, pressing his hand to his chest in mock surprise with a laugh. Clearly Tess was something of a mother to him too. “I am merely admiring the woman. What’s wrong with that?”
Tess rolled her eyes at him and sat at her desk. Percy went over and placed a bag of coin in front of her.
“Your payment, as agreed.” Tess opened the bag, picked at the contents for a moment then took out five coins and pressed them into Zahra’s hand.
“As I live and breathe! Tess parting with hard-earned money?” said Percy incredulously. Tess ignored him, patted Zahra’s shoulder then walked back into the building. He smiled at Zahra as he ushered her before him.
“She must really like you. You’d better keep that safe where nobody can steal it from you,” he said then busied himself with getting a coach ready. Kindness from one foreigner was strange; from two was something of a miracle. The two burly men behind them got into one of two coaches that were outside waiting for them. Percy helped Zahra into one and then shut the door behind her. Inside, she found three other girls in similar clothes, all clean and proper, but all showing fear in their eyes.
No doubt her own showed the same kind of fear.
On the opposite seat sat the large man and Zahra took the space next to him. A lot of mystery surrounded the road ahead. There was no telling what really awaited them when they got to their destination. She thought briefly about Mary’s story and shook her head. There was no way it could be true… it couldn’t really. Could it?
It was a quiet ride through the city and when they had left that behind, they were greeted by miles and miles of field as far as the eye could see. Zahra, practically bored by the company in the carriage leaned over to get a better look out the window. The sun was out and shining brightly. The grass in the meadows gently swayed in the breeze. Birds chirped in the trees around them and for the first time in a long time, Zahra was at peace.
“She doesn’t even know how to conduct herself. How does she expect to serve the elite? I told you a slave would make an awful servant.”
Zahra froze at the frosty tone in that voice. She was tempted to turn right around and give the speaker what for, but she saw no reason to spoil her good day. She looked up at the clouds and relaxed once more smiling as she remembered how she had run in similar fields with her friends in her youth. They sometimes hid their treasures in the long grass and came back to look at them every now and again. These were usually toys or valuables or some such thing.
“Ethel, no,” whispered the girl closest to her.
“Hey you. Slave girl. Get back in your seat,” said Ethel ignoring the other girl. This time, Zahra did whip around to glare at the speaker. A haughty miss with sun-darkened skin and light brown hair streaked with amber looked at her with her arms crossed. Her bright green eyes flared with anger and her stern tone told Zahra all she needed to know about her - she must have been one of the aristocracy wherever she came from.
Zahra, however, was not one to be cowed. She glared right back at her saying nothing. The air in the carriage was suddenly thick with tension. Where this... Ethel... had seemed, if her tone had been anything to go by, to be full of high-born confidence before she now visibly showed signs of nervousness. She had paled by a degree, much to Zahra’s amusement. The other girls stayed silent watching the exchange. The man was unmoved.
Zahra’s face broke into a smirk and the girl visibly paled. Clearing her throat, she looked resolutely at the carriage wall behind the man. Her lips flapped open and closed awkwardly. She so much resembled the fish she had once seen in the pond outside the Galagher’s house that Zahra almost laughed - almost.
“You shouldn’t gawk so. You’d think you’d never seen the open country before,” continued Ethel trying to regain some composure; this girl really intimidated her for some reason, “and that is not how a servant should behave.” Looking for support, she looked right at the man. “You tell her, she’s your charge.”
The look she got in return almost made Zahra laugh. A suppressed chortle escaped which she hastily covered up with a cough and
Her reaction was even more comical. He wouldn’t be following her commands any time soon. She turned and studiously observed the scenery, her smile visible made all the more obvious by the dimple in her left cheek.
There was only so much scenery you could get in however, before it all became boring. Field after field rolled by for hours on end and Zahra was still stuck with the two silent servant girls, the hateful Ethel and their quiet guardian.
Finally, the sounds of a busy village broke the monotony. It would seem that they were close to their destination. One of the girls clutched her skirt wrinkling it beyond salvaging. Zahra spared them all a glance before looking out at the village. It wasn’t like hers but it wasn’t as big as the city they had left behind or as noisy. There were a lot more horses and people and the structures were more simple and homey.
It reminded her of her home and brought back some of the sadness she had worked so hard to push away. The carriages stopped at one of the buildings at the end of the village and all the girls were let out. They were led into something of a boarding house where they would be sharing a room and then they were left to their own devices.
As Zahra lay on her bed, exhausted by the journey, she felt the eyes of the others on her. Ethel piped up again loudly speaking about Zahra as if she weren’t in the room.
“She should have just been sent back to the hole she crawled out of. I mean, look at her! She certainly won’t be popular among the masters, that’s for sure. And she’s savage… who would want a savage serving them tea?”
“Are you intending on seducing your way out of servitude then?” asked a girl from the bed opposite Zahra’s. The servant sputtered at that.
“Why I never! And why on earth would I do that? I am a princess in my country! A royal. And you dare speak to me in this manner?”
“I apologise, your highness,” said the girl almost immediately, “I only assumed that if popularity would mean so much to you in regards to the masters, you were thinking of using it to your advantage. I apologise if this is not so. However, I would also like to point out that we are, none of us, in our own countries and hold no titles except that of servant. Whatever ranks we held before will do us no good here. You and I are on the same level with nobody higher than the other. The sooner you understand this the sooner you may resume your duties properly as a servant.”
Ethel sputtered again at this, huffed and spoke no more. One or two of the other girls rushed to her side making soothing noises as Zahra sat up and looked at her defender. A girl with pale skin and bright red hair sat there smiling at Zahra. Zahra couldn’t help but smile back. Her name was April, Zahra later learned. Satisfied, the girl stood and walked to the window where she looked out at the village and the fields beyond. The boarding house being one of the only tall buildings around gave an unobstructed view.
Zahra wondered what circumstances would lead the foreigners to selling one of their kind. She clearly had their colouring and some “breeding” as Tess had called it. Whatever the circumstances were, she had been right in saying they did no good to any of them. After a rather bland afternoon meal, they were led back to their room and locked in. Zahra didn’t mind that the food tasted of nothing. Sometimes, on the plantation, the slaves would be starved for days at a time let alone be provided with three hot meals in a day.
In the evening, they were again led down to have their supper. Percy spoke to her a bit making a joke here and there which earned her looks from Ethel and some of the other girls. Afterwards, were taken back up to their room with instructions to sleep. As far as things went, they were being treated very well.
“And she dared surmise that I was a trollop! Seduce the masters indeed! When here we have our very own resident strumpet already flirting with the very man who is to sell us. Ha! What a joke.”
“Shut it Ethel,” said April from somewhere near the door.
“But it’s true. You saw it yourself. Giggling and tittering here and there as if she were a lady being wooed.”
“If that was the case, she wouldn’t be here, would she? You know he wouldn’t hesitate to take her if he wanted.” Zahra froze at that but said nothing. Memories of her ordeal with her former master came back to her and she shuddered. Her skin crawled with the memory of his filthy hands on her skin. It felt like a permanent brand, an indelible mark on her that she could never erase no matter how much she scrubbed or bathed.
She was certainly not eager to have the experience repeated; it had been painful and awful. Nobody should ever have to go through it. She felt a twinge as she remembered her unborn child but quickly pushed the thought aside clutching the front of her gown. The child was no more and that was all there was to it. It would do no good to dwell on the past now.
“And why are you so quick to defend her anyway? It’s not like she’s one of us. She’s only a filthy slave. He can have her for all I care."
Zahra stood and glared at Ethel so suddenly it made all the other girls turn to stare at her. The other girls had all been trained together so they knew Ethel well. Zahra had been added to the group at Percy's behest so she did not know Ethel as they did.
"Say that again," she ground out, flame burning behind chocolate brown irises and etched into every feature of her beautifully wrathful face.
Ethel sputtered and her mouth flapped open and closed again. She paled and a collective shiver went through the room. Zahra was a picture of pure rage. Ethel and her big mouth had gone too far this time.
April suddenly yawned loudly and fell back onto her bed.
"Serves you right," she said turning over, "you should have learned to keep your stupid mouth shut." Everyone looked at the non-chalant April waiting with bated breath.
“Don’t be too jealous and just go to sleep,” she added flopping back onto her pillow and getting comfortable. Ethel huffed again and got in bed making a lot of angry noises in the process. Zahra smiled as they all eventually settled down to sleep. She had been defended twice today by a girl she was sure she would be friends with if they weren't to soon be sold.
She could defend herself just as well if not better, but this world was still unpredictable and she couldn’t take for granted that she wouldn’t end up a slave again. April had probably saved her this time by diffusing the situation. If there was a fight, Percy, despite his good nature, might not look too kindly on her after all. Her people were called savages - she would not give them a reason to call her the same.
The bed she was given to sleep in was a bit lumpy but the sheets were clean and the blankets were warm. Compared to any other time in the last year or so, Zahra thought as she drifted off to sleep, she had more little mercies to be grateful for.
Something startled Zahra awake in the middle of the night. She gasped and her eyes flew open. She was disoriented for a moment thinking herself still on the Galagher plantation then remembering the hospital she had stayed at thought herself back there… but no, this was not the same bed. She blinked and looked up to find a shadowy figure looking down at her.
She couldn’t quite make out the figure’s features but they were distinctly masculine. The only thing she could seem to make out were his glowing amber eyes. She sat up suddenly very afraid for her life. Other figures stood over the other girls’ beds and as soon as she blinked, they were all gone. She clutched the front of her dress peering into the dim light to make sure her eyes were not fooling her. Turning back, she noticed that the figure that had been standing over her was also gone.
She quickly crawled back under the covers terrified that they would return. What was that? Who were those people? She couldn’t have really seen someone right there in her bed, could she? She chanced a look from the covers and saw only the room and the sleeping girls. Nothing was amiss. What exactly had she seen? Then she remembered Mary’s story and shuddered. Could the story have been true? She had dismissed the monster tales and strange deaths as idle gossip and exaggeration but… could it really be true?
Or maybe she had dreamed it all?
Her eyes flew open as she awoke again thoroughly confused. As soon as she had thought the word dream, she’d sat up, her mind foggy as if she were just now waking from a deep sleep. There was nothing there, no people standing over beds and no dark forbidding figures…
Maybe she really had dreamed it all. Zahra lay back down and shut her eyes thinking of happier thoughts in an effort to push the nightmares away. Maybe Mary’s story had affected her a lot more than she’d thought. Plumping her lumpy pillow and rolling over onto her side, Zahra slowly fell asleep once more dreaming of home and Hadi and all the happiness she had once known.