After all the girls had completed their morning preparations, they were led downstairs to the dining area. Zahra tried to stifle a yawn. She hadn’t had much sleep after what she had witnessed… or had dreamed. She couldn’t be sure which it was. April caught her gaze and smiled at her and she smiled back.
Percy was already waiting for them when they arrived. He clapped his hands and with a flourish, ordered that the food be brought out. He made a whole show of picking up trays and serving the girls, flirting with one or two here and there and causing a few smiles despite their situation. Zahra wondered what kind of man Percy really was.
He didn’t seem to be mean or evil but he sold people. Perhaps he did it differently, offering to feed and clothe and take care of the girls but he didn’t seem to have any qualms about selling them either. He winked at her when she caught his gaze and then proceeded to walk up to her with a plate of fresh bread. Ethel glared at Zahra seeing the exchange. Zahra resolutely ignored her. The tea was hot and the meal, though plain, was satisfying.
What was to be their fate, she wondered as she bit into her bread? Here they were all dressed in plain gowns of dark blue or brown, looking lovely as could be but not their very best. They weren’t going to a picnic or to see a show or even to church on a Sunday morning. They were to be sold. Perhaps that was why Percy was being so boisterous, to try and take their minds off what was to come. Or maybe he thought nothing of selling another human being and was just being his usual self… who could say?
Zahra bit into her bread a little more solemnly and sipped her tea. She didn’t really like the taste of the tea. It was like hot water with a drop of flavour. Why these foreigners would want to drink this was beyond her. Their future was still uncertain. Despite that, they smiled and they laughed. Even Ethel eased her glare somewhat. It returned every time Percy showed even a modicum of interest in Zahra. Maybe she really had taken a fancy to him.
Taking another sip of her tea, Zahra took the opportunity to look around the inn. They hadn’t really seen much of it the day before. Their fates hung like a pall over their heads. The attitude at breakfast had loosened it somewhat, but not by much – not for her anyway. The inn was small and neat. It was well-maintained with polished floors, clean windows, neat curtains and a vase of fresh flowers at each table and at each end of the bar.
The innkeeper and his wife were a kind couple. She was slender and pretty with a quick smile and he was burlier and surlier but not unkind. Together they ran the place like clockwork, bringing out food, clearing plates, wiping tables and ushering more guests seemingly with no effort at all. The maids they had hired did not slack off either. Some patrons had come in for breakfast so there was something of a rush and everyone was busy. From where Zahra and the girls sat, they would bother no one and no one would bother them.
Their silent guards wouldn’t stand for it anyway, thought Zahra. They were large brutes of men; scarred, fierce and imposing but they didn’t harm any of them. They said nothing and kept to themselves. Even now they sat at another table not far from the one the girls all shared. They looked a bit out of place but nobody complained. Who would?
It was a typical morning and Zahra who rarely got a chance to see such a thing was fascinated. If her circumstances had been different, would she walk into such an establishment on the arm of some handsome gentleman and sit with him to dine? Would they order cheese and ham or sausages with their bread? Would they have coffee or tea? She didn’t know if she would like coffee. She’d never had any before. What would that taste like?
Would her companion gaze into her eyes as that handsome man was gazing at her now?
She did a double-take realising that she had caught someone’s attention and hastily looked away, somewhat embarrassed at the attention. Maybe he wasn’t really looking at her? There was nothing behind her but a wooden wall; and she had checked to make sure. Maybe she was just imagining it and happened to catch his gaze by accident. She looked at the girl nearest her. Maybe he was looking so intently at her instead? The girl hadn’t noticed at all.
She chanced another look and with indrawn breath, realised that he really was staring at her. He was seated at a table with a large mug of hot liquid in his hand. Coffee, she decided. He didn’t look like he would enjoy this weak tea. His dark haired companion was more interested in the morning paper than the rest of the inn. The man himself was interested in her and seemed very content to stare. He was a large figure of a man. If he stood, he would be tower over her, not that his companion was any smaller.
A lock of his dark brown hair fell over his face and he didn’t bother to brush it away. Dark brows framed a pair of deep-set eyes whose colour she couldn’t quite make out from this distance. A pale scar ran diagonally from his left cheek across his chin and down his neck disappearing into his shirt indicating that he’d probably had a close brush with death at some point.
He wasn’t wearing a cravat as the nobility would have and the first two buttons of his shirt were opened giving him a roguish air, if the unruly lock of hair and the intensity of his gaze (not to mention the staring) were anything to go by. She could see that he hadn’t bothered to shave in a while and Zahra found herself wondering what it would feel like to run her fingers across his stubbled cheek - a thought she quickly discarded.
Here was a man who did as he wished and bother the rules. He was probably as dangerous as he looked – a pirate like the men who had stolen her from her home? A soldier? He smirked and Zahra thought she saw him wink at her.
The man lifted the cup to his lips, a simple action, but one that made Zahra flush. How on earth did he make something as simple as sipping look so deliciously wicked? She found that even though she was thoroughly embarrassed at his unwavering attention, she really couldn’t look away. The sounds and the people in the room dimmed and altogether faded away and it was just the two of them, in this moment, with a world of unspoken wonders between them.
Then his companion tapped his shoulder and gestured to something in the paper. He looked away and the spell was broken. Zahra cleared her throat and looked resolutely down at her fingers.
What had just happened? She had never really shown any interest in any of the people she met around her, not to that extent anyway. She shook her head clearing a few cobwebs and looked down at her plate. She bit into a bit more of her bread but found that she had trouble swallowing. Maybe she shouldn’t gain his attention. She was not in a position to pursue anything nearing a relationship anyway. Her life was unpredictable and there could be danger at every turn… no. She would not, could not encourage it. She would not look at him again.
And for the remainder of breakfast, she firmly avoided his gaze. Finally, after the meal and when they were led back up to their room, she chanced a look in his direction against her better judgement. She needn’t have worried.
The man and his companion were already gone.
“Who was that?” April plopped onto Zahra’s bed next to her and whispered conspiratorially so only she could hear. She had startled Zahra out of her thoughts and it took a moment for her to reply. Apparently that was a moment too long for her.
“I saw him watching you. He was very handsome don’t you think?”
“I… I don’t…” sputtered Zahra uncharacteristically at a loss for words. Oh the wonderful things that gaze had done to her senses!
“Aw, it’s alright,” said April nudging her, “girls like us don’t get attention like that. Bask in it while you can,” she added with a wink.
Zahra smiled and then laughed for the first time in a long time. April reminded Zahra of her friends in her village. She seemed to be unmoved by the colour of her skin. Maybe there were foreigners like this as well. They were few and far between though. None of the other girls came near her and there were murmurs and giggles and hushed conversations that centred around her dark skin and her hair being “dirty.”
And yet here was April. Her skin was as pale as they came with a smattering of freckles across her nose. She had short red hair and an easy smile that touched her dark green eyes. Together they must have looked an odd pair. Zahra hoped she went to a good place.
In the evening, the girls were instructed to pack up their belongings – not that there was much to begin with – and then they were herded out of the room. Percy finished up with the innkeeper as they were ushered back into their travelling coaches and when he had finished, and climbed into his own coach, they rumbled off to the next location. The ride was short and tense. Even Ethel looked pale and her face was pinched.
They turned off a dirt road and Zahra noticed a large stone building with covered windows looming ahead. It looked a bit like the church the priest had built in the town not far from Zahra’s village. The windows of that building had been decorated in coloured glass and the heavy wooden door open at all hours of the day – to welcome the flock, the priest had said. It was warm in the dry months and in the cold and wet ones.
This building was much older than that one, more forbidding and much, much larger. The horses’ hooves clip-clopped on cobblestones and the carriages all came to a halt.
The girls were ushered in, the pall dispelling whatever camaraderie they had shared that morning. Percy stepped down and went in ahead of them, knocking the heavy brass knocker on the door. The echo rang out on the inside with ominous thuds. Zahra wiped her hands on her dress and stepped down from the carriage. The small shawl she had been given was wrapped around her shoulders and she clutched her bag a little tighter.
She had a feeling she would learn her fate soon.
The door was opened by an elderly man. He had a frown on his face and Zahra wondered if they had perhaps woken him. There was a brief exchange between the two men then the man at the door looked beyond Percy to the girls. With a muttered retort, he opened the door wider admitting the company.
Inside, flaming torches burned along the walls every few paces. There was a long dark red carpet at their feet which muffled their steps as they walked down the hall. The walls were lined with all sorts of paintings; of a flowered field in the spring, of a brook with a smiling girl splashing her feet, of a ship with bright red sails on a sunny day cutting through the water leaving foam in its wake, of a little boy and his dog playing near a river or a lake, of a large and imposing man whose eyes seemed to follow their movements …
Zahra swallowed and looked away. What was this place? April took her hand surreptitiously and she was grateful for the comforting warmth. They went down one corridor and then another. They walked past countless doors with Zahra wondering what lay behind each one. Monsters? Sleeping people? Religious items not meant for common folk to see? Prayer rooms? She would never find out.
They stopped at another large door at the end of the final corridor and the old man pulled a set of keys from his pocket. The door opened with a click and he opened it to reveal a large well-lit room. A chandelier hung from the ceiling and the large windows were open to the night sky. Moonlight filtered in through silken blinds framed by heavy velvet curtains tied back with silver cord. In the line of light beyond the glass doors to the right was a flower garden with pink or white roses in bloom. What would this room look like in the daytime, she wondered? Beyond that lay moonlit darkness and dim shapes that Zahra couldn’t quite make out.
Several people stood in the middle of the room, chatting and laughing. They turned when Percy and the girls walked in and all eyes were on them. Zahra felt as she had that first time when she had landed in this strange land, stripped naked for all to see with no chance to cover her nakedness. They appraised the group silently, some smirking, some whispering among one another. At least this time she could maintain some dignity even if she could not avoid this fate.
The girls were led to some chairs arranged in a row and instructed to sit. Some of the men and women in the room came towards them, inspecting them, then they walked away laughing or discussing something in hushed tones. It was somewhat humiliating but, thought Zahra, it could really be worse.
Percy left them and went off to mingle with some of the people there. He was as high-spirited as ever and had the ladies laughing and giggling in a matter of moments. The girls said nothing.
Even though they weren’t told anything, they knew already. These were their future masters. These were the people they were to be sold to. These were the “special clientele” that Percy had been referring to when he had spoken to Tess.
Zahra noticed one man in particular. He looked impatient and his dark hair, though long, was neatly tied back. The clothes he wore seemed richer than the others and he had a hard look about him. He greeted Percy and his gaze flickered briefly in Zahra’s direction, then he looked away clearly preoccupied.
She was sure she had seen him somewhere. He looked so familiar but she couldn’t place where she would have seen him before. Maybe he had been a guest at the Galagher Farm House… but she had not been a house slave. She had no knowledge of the guests there since she didn’t run into any of them. None of the men came out to the fields and even if they did, they were too far off to see and Zahra had been too preoccupied with doing her work to notice anyway.
Maybe he had been at the auction? No… that didn’t seem right. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that he was somehow familiar. A large woman bustled up to them dragging her husband with her and pointing at one of the girls.
“That one will do nicely, don’t you think?” she said in a loud enough voice for all to hear. Her husband looked the girl over for a moment. The girl’s hands trembled in her lap and she looked down.
“Yes, dear. I think so too.” He smiled at her and led her to Percy who beamed and clapped his hands. They shook hands and then he signalled to one of the silent guards. The group came back towards the girl and she was made to follow the couple out to the garden and into the darkness beyond.
It had begun.
The carriage ride was quiet and awkward. Zahra’s new master, the impatient man she’d seen earlier, was silent for the whole ride and looked uninterested in the passing scenery. April sat next to her in the silence. He had chosen them both. Zahra thanked the Creator for that little bit of mercy. At least she wouldn’t have to face whatever troubles lay ahead on her own. There was much to think about. A lot lay before them.
But neither of them would be alone.