She was being hunted again. Strange figures chased her through dark underbrush. She had seen the glint of a gun and then there was a shout – she had to run or they would kill her. Then up ahead, a figure stood, solid and still. She ran towards it then past it. She shut her eyes as she tripped and looked up at the unmoving figure. A man.
He turned to face her, two glowing eyes staring at her through the darkness. A monster.
But he did not pursue her like she feared. He turned back to face the men that were chasing her and then he charged. She shut her eyes imagining what would happen next and not daring to look when a hand touched her shoulder and she leapt up with a scream.
Her eyes opened, her heart beating frantically from the terror of her nightmare. Beside her sat a worried April and Ms. Delaney was in the corner giving orders to another maid to fetch a fresh basin of water. Zahra met her gaze and thought she saw a look of relief cross her features but it quickly disappeared replaced by a scowl.
“What happened?” she demanded coming to Zahra’s side as April stood. Zahra couldn’t answer. She’d been in mourning since her dream with Hadi and she hadn’t been able to eat much and the nightmares made sure she got very little sleep. These were not things she could explain to the head maid. She wouldn’t understand.
“I’m sorry,” she said finally. Ms. Delaney sighed.
“I did not ask for an apology. I asked you what happened. If you find it that difficult to explain, then say so.”
Zahra bowed her head and still said nothing.
“Very well. I shan’t ask again. I would like you to keep in mind, Rose, that you are not a slave any longer. That will change if you don’t take care of your health better. I am not running a sick house.”
“Yes Ms. Delaney,” she said softly.
“April, you stay with her and make sure she’s fed and gets some rest. Rose, I expect to see you up and ready to work tomorrow. Is that understood?”
The girls nodded and April curtsied as Ms. Delaney walked out of the room. The moment the door clicked shut, April, who had taken a few steps back as the head maid approached, rushed back to Zahra’s side taking her hand and pressing a palm to her forehead.
“How do you feel? Are you alright? You scared me half to death!” Zahra managed a smile when April threw her arms around her and gave her a big hug.
“What happened?” she asked wearily. April poured her a cup of water from the pitcher sitting on the low table nearby and handed it to her. Zahra took a sip.
“That’s what I’d like to know,” said April crossing her arms over her chest, “I was coming to fetch you since you didn’t look well when I saw you being carried up the main hall to the living room. I was so afraid!”
Carried? Who had carried her?
“Mind you, if I was the one being carried by such a handsome man, I don’t think I would have minded,” she giggled. When Zahra’s brows rose in question, April smiled and scooted closer lowering her voice so only they could hear, despite being the only people in the room.
“You fainted in front of one of the Master’s guests. I heard that he caught you and he’s the one that carried you all the way to the living room.” April sighed and spread the covers over Zahra’s legs.
“I was worried about you, you know. We all were. It was… nice to see. I haven’t been cared about in a long time…” her voice broke off and then she rubbed her nose, “let me go see about getting you something to eat. You get some rest. I’ll be right back.”
And then Zahra was alone with all her questions and all her thoughts. Ms. Delaney’s questions were stern but not unkind. She had a right to worry about the staff. If Zahra’s health was going to be in question, she couldn’t work and if she couldn’t work she was no longer useful. She looked down at her palms, calloused and rough from all the work she’d done over the last year or so. She looked around the room.
She had a solid roof over her head. She was getting three hot meals a day. Her masters were not cruel or heartless. She shuddered to think what the Galaghers would have done if she’d fainted on their farm. She might have been tossed into the river to drown and be carried away by the current. Medics were hard to come by and a weak slave was a bad investment. The only other time she’d fainted it hadn’t been for long and she had been near Maude. That was also when she’d discovered she was pregnant.
She drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. She had lost so much. How much more was she going to lose? Her home, her family, Hadi, her child… This was a land that took and took and took and even when she had nothing more to give, it still asked more of her. The tears that fell then were those of resignation.
“Be brave, my love,” came the words echoing from a boy in a dream. Hadi had told her to be brave. This, sitting here in a small room, sobbing and making herself sick with grief – none of this was bravery.
If she was brave, truly brave, she would face whatever came her way head on, no matter how afraid she was. She would have to harden her soft heart so that she wasn’t hurt any more no matter how much pain came her way. She would have to fight like a daughter her father could be proud of. She was the daughter of a proud warrior and it was time she acted like one.
A yawn interrupted the grand plans she had for her life. After she slept and fought off the demons in her dreams, she would begin her life anew. She was a servant now, not completely free but that could change. Her luck had already begun to shift and she had advanced from her slave status. Maybe she could somehow earn enough to buy her freedom. Then she would decide whether she wanted to go back to her land or forge a new home here.
She lay her head back on the bed and slowly shut her eyes and for the first time in days, she slept soundly dreaming of a beautiful dark-skinned boy with a mischievous smile.
“Well, at least we got an interesting welcome to Larenby,” said Lucas loosening his cravat and sitting in the chair in Phillip’s room. Phillip was standing at the window looking out into the moonlit night. The stars were out and shining brightly. It was beautiful tapestry. Out here, far from so many lights and distractions, there was quiet and there was beauty,
“How do you suppose she’s doing?” he asked thinking of the girl that had fainted in his arms when he walked into the house. She was probably ill but Lavinia would have that taken care of. She was never one to abide by human suffering. The housekeeper was the same as always, prim and proper without a hair out of place – until she'd seen the maid in his arms. She had rushed to get her away from him and he had insisted on setting her down somewhere comfortable instead so she led him into the living room and he lay her on the settee cushions.
He hadn’t really gotten a good look at her face before then but now that he did, a slow smile crept over his face. It was the same girl from the inn they’d visited. What on earth was she doing here of all places?
He was shooed away when Lavinia came in and Paul led him and Lucas up to his study for a drink. That was the last he’d seen of her. The day had gone by and there was no trace of the girl with the enchanting dark eyes.
“Hey,” said Lucas stepping up to Phillip’s side. Phillip nearly jumped out of his skin.
“Did you hear me?”
“Sorry, wool-gathering." He sighed and turned to his friend, "What is it?”
“I asked you what you thought of this whole rogues in the night business. I heard there was some trouble in these parts – some daring vampires out there causing terror. Paul must be pleased,” he said sarcastically.
“I don’t know. The more the others know about us, the more dangerous things become, don’t you think?” Lucas made a face.
“Humans are afraid of what they cannot understand. And we are not something they understand. Honestly, maybe striking a bit of fear in them will do them good.”
Phillip said nothing. He didn’t really want to strike fear into anyone. When people found out that there were vampires, there were rumours, then stares, then came the fear and the trouble. It was part of the reason he'd found it difficult to face his new existence. His little part of the world, his farm, was different from that. Where some slaves feared his true nature, some accepted him for what he was. And he was a fair employer. That was more than they could ask for in other places.
“Well, enough of that. Fancy a walk down to the stream tomorrow? I rather like these grounds and I want to see how much it’s changed,” said Lucas finishing off his glass. Phillip nodded. He needed the distraction. Besides, with the path his thoughts were currently taking, especially concerning a vision in maid's uniform, he would probably end up in a lot more trouble than he and Lucas had ever imagined.
The next day, they went out into the bright sunshine smuggling Terrance and Marie with them. It wasn’t good to keep children cooped up inside on a nice day like this, Lucas had insisted and Phillip had agreed with him. So, while Lavinia tended to something else, the four ran out across the lawn, the sun warming their skin. It was exhilarating, they had to admit. While they couldn’t stay out in the sunshine too long, a little wasn’t going to hurt them. Phillip knew they would have a hard time explaining this to Lavinia but they did it anyway.
Terrance perched happily on Lucas’ shoulders and Marie in Phillip’s arms as they walked through the trees surrounding the property. This was a shaded area where the path was well shaded from the worst of the rays. It was tranquil. Birds chirped happily in the trees and Terrance happily pointed out a squirrel in the branches. It was cool and the air was fresh - it was near perfect.
“Where did you go this time, Uncle Lucas?” asked Terrance happy to be involved in a bit of mischief. Marie had sulked a bit since she was old enough to know the rules about staying indoors, but she'd come along anyway not wanting to be left out. Now she was smiling and eager to hear the stories as well. Uncle Phillip and Uncle Lucas went on all sorts of adventures she wished she could join them on. Lucas laughed and told them about a trip he’d made to an eastern country where he’d seen a real live tiger.
He grabbed Terrance off his shoulders and swung him into his arms mimicking a large tiger attack. The boy laughed.
“Did you see it Uncle Phillip?” asked Marie.
“Of course. It was big as a horse. I was the one that stopped it from eating your uncle Lucas,” he added proudly. Her eyes shone with excitement and then she began to bombard him with questions.
“Was it really big? What did it look like? Were you in the jungle when you saw it? Was it a really big jungle? Did you see other animals? How did you save Uncle Lucas? Are you really strong? Could you lift the house?” Phillip laughed at all of her runaway thoughts. He was happy, of course, to answer all of her questions. Marie had always been curious and this time was no exception.
“Lucas!” came an agitated shout from the general direction of the house. Lucas snickered behind his hand and Terrance smiled uneasily. Phillip grinned and Marie looked worried clutching his shirt a little tighter in small fists.
“Lucas you bring my children back inside this instant!”
That only made Lucas laugh harder and, ducking his head as if he could hide, he made his way even more quietly through the brush. Phillip smiled at his friend and followed him through the bushes. They came out at the back of the house and raced for the structure. If they could get back inside before Lavinia saw them, they could find a way to talk her down. Lavinia was a kind woman on the best of days but if she was in a mood, she could very well turn vicious.
When they neared the back door, Phillip put a hand to his lips and Lucas nodded. The four of them made their way along the walls avoiding any windows through which they might be seen. Then Phillip pushed open a small wooden door, half hidden by the bushes and long forgotten and they went inside. There was more than one of these passages on the property and Lucas had madesure they found them all one boring afternoon.
Phillip had to admit, juvenile though it was, it was a lot of fun. And, as a result, they could get around the house without alerting anyone. They shut the door behind them and Marie giggled as they made their way up a set of stone steps winding this way and that until they got to a room on the other end of the first floor – behind the library.
With luck, Paul was not inside and they could sneak through here to the nursery and nobody would be the wiser. They crept quietly across the carpet and made it to the door. When Lucas, Marie and Terrance had gone through, Phillip looked up and noticed a maid standing there watching them, eyes wide a duster in one hand. Not just any maid – the pretty one he’d caught the other day.
He pressed a finger to his lips as her eyes flashed with recognition. When she nodded, albeit almost imperceptibly, he winked at her and left the room.
Zahra flushed and pressed the backs of her hands to her cheeks. She’d been given library duty since she was not yet recovered and dusting the shelves didn’t require much effort. She was surprised that Ms. Delaney was so thoughtful. Zahra honestly hadn’t known what to think of the head maid when they had met.
Then, as she moved to the far bookshelf to begin cleaning there, she’d heard voices and muffled footsteps, thinking that maybe intruders had come in. The guests and the children came into view as she stepped from behind the shelves. Then she caught and held his gaze – the gaze of the same man from the inn. She still couldn’t tell the colour of his eyes. Something about him was different. Where he had intently stared at her before, now his eyes held a mischievous gleam.
Then he silently gestured that she should keep this secret and exited the room before she could even think to react.
He needn’t have worried. She wouldn’t have told anyone. Who would believe her about people appearing through walls anyway? She put down her duster and fanned her cheeks. And why had it suddenly gotten so hot?
“It’s not funny,” said Lavinia huffily. Lucas was doubled over with laughter as she smacked his arm.
Phillip looked passably contrite although she hadn’t directed most of her fury at him. And he was only smiling at Lucas’ amusement in his defence.
“There’s a reason I don’t take them out into the sun. It’s dangerous.”
“Oh come on. It was only for a moment. It won’t kill them.”
“Ah, but it could. Paul, you tell them since they obviously won’t listen to me.”
Paul had wisely kept out of it and rose now to kiss his wife’s forehead placating her somewhat. No wonder she had married him. He was the only one on the entire continent who could get her to calm down with a single touch.
“It’s alright my dear. The children are unharmed.” She huffed and turned back to Lucas. He wiped a tear from his eye then took her hand.
“I’m sorry Vinie,” he said affectionately using the nickname he’d given her as children, “but, maybe you can show me around and tell me all about the new flowers I saw in the garden.”
This made her perk up. For a vampire who didn’t much care for sunlight, she had the most delightful flower garden and sometimes took walks in it with Paul under the cover of a wide umbrella, of course. So off they went leaving Paul and Phillip behind. This was bound to get a little bit awkward.
As a pure blood vampire, one born of vampire parents as were Lavinia and Lucas, there was some bad blood, so to speak, between him and Phillip – who was not a vampire born but a shared blood vampire. He had been upset with Lucas for sharing blood with a human but then again, Lucas did as he liked.
Lavinia had finished that argument by formally welcoming him into their home – and Paul never denied his wife what she wanted. So he had eventually come around and they had learned to be civil around one another. Now, however, Paul stepped up to Phillip with a serious look in his eyes.
“I need to speak with you,” he said. The weight of whatever he had to say was etched in Paul's features. He looked worried, angry, resigned and intent all at once. If it was a Council matter, this could be serious indeed, even though Phillip had no intention of mixing in with vampire authority and he had told Paul so.
“Before you refuse, I need to tell you that this is a matter of great importance and I... we are putting a lot of trust in you.”
“Why?” asked Phillip crossing his arms and narrowing his eyes. Paul had never really been good with hiding his dislike for Phillip and frankly, Phillip didn’t think so highly of him either. It was clear as day that they only tolerated each other – enough not to kill each other but honestly, there was no love lost there.
“Because despite our awkward history, you are a good man, Phillip. And I'm not the only one that thinks so.”
That took the fight right out of him. But the look still remained. This must be serious if Paul was relying on a mere half-blood for whatever ‘very important thing’ he had to say. So Phillip nodded and together, they headed up to Paul’s study away from prying eyes and curious ears.