Shackled Exemption

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CHAPTER 30

A four year old Asfand was sitting by the threshold to the veranda and watching Anser being pampered by his mother. Their vision always made him wonder. That woman who was his mother, was always gushing over him. She fed him with her own hands, dressed him nicely in expensive clothes and did everything he wanted. She was always smiling at the sight of him. Everyone did everything for him.

But not for Asfand.

Although he was the child of the same home and first born, he never received similar love and attention or something even close to it. He slept in barn, wore torn and discarded clothes of Anser, ate the leftovers and worked with servants. He was not even allowed to enter main part of the haveli and no one was allowed to engage with him in any way. Unless baba saeen was here. Only then he was allowed to have everything that Anser had.

But only for a short period.

Baba saeen never stayed in their ancestral haveli and Asfand never knew any world outside this hellish place. Asfand had known him for only seven months. He only knew he was his grandfather or something, but the old man never looked his way like a grandfather was supposed to. He never looked at anyone. He was always by himself. So, his visits didn’t make much difference to his life, except for temporary improvement in his living conditions.

“Asfand?” He looked at the woman who was smiling at him. Just like how Anser’s mother smiled at him. She was beautiful, almost angelic and something about her presence filled his innocent heart with warmth he never knew. “You are Asfand, right?” He just nodded. The woman came and sat next to him on the step. “You have grown so much since last I saw you.”

“You know me?” The woman frowned at his question. “I don’t know you.”

“You can call me Saeen Begum or Noor Bi.” she patted his head affectionately. “You were so small when I last saw you. A small baby.” Asfand only blinked at her and his inquisitive silence broke her heart. “Why are you sitting here like this?”

“I don’t know” He shrugged innocently. “I have nothing to do these days.” She frowned at his answer. “You won’t tell anyone if I tell you?” Something about her presence made him feel safe and nice. She nodded with an encouraging smile. “I’m not allowed to talk to anyone or enter main haveli. I’m only here because baba saeen has come. But uncle has said to not move around and dirty the place.” Noor Bi pulled him in her arms.

“I’m sorry mere chaand. I’m really sorry.” Asfand just blinked. For his innocent mind that was forced to bear the thoughts of such cruelty, this was very difficult to comprehend. “Would you like to come with me?” She stood up and extended her hand. Asfand took it and got up as well. “I’m taking you to meet someone.”

“Who?” Asfand was curious and his curiosity only made her smile. They walked towards the west part of haveli. It remained desolated and now Noor Bi knew why.

“To meet a fairy” They stopped outside a door and Noor Bi opened it without knocking and consent. There, on the bed, sat a lone woman. Her head shot up when she sensed a presence beside her. But her wide frightened eyes slowly glistened with tears of sorrow and joy when she saw them.

Asfand looked at her and then at the woman beside him. She was smiling at them. A tender and affectionate smile.

“Asfand! Meet your mother, Qudsia.”

Asfand rolled on his back with a grunt. His hands reached to ease the sting under his closed eyes and another irritated groan left his lips when the heaviness in his head threatened to take form of a massive headache. His eyes opened to the familiar ceiling of his room and for a whole minute, he watched it without blinking.

“Another dream.” He just couldn’t understand why he was having them.

His memory from last night was foggy and not knowing what occurred only made him more aggravated. Asfand rubbed his hand down his face tiredly. A presence lingered over him but he couldn’t tell how much of it was real and how much was a mirage.

“Saeen?” Shafiq knocked on the door reluctantly which pulled Asfand out of his thoughts. He got up and ordered him to come inside. It must him who brought me back to my room. “Salam Saeen.” Asfand watched the tray he was holding. There was a glass of juice and a steaming cup. He doesn’t need to know what it contained. The smell was strong and all too familiar. “I was ordered-” His tongue froze when Asfand looked at him across the rim of the cup. “You are to take these first.” He extended the small plate with two pills towards him.

“Last I checked, you worked for me.” Shafiq paled. “And if I remember correctly, I never told you to follow orders on me from anyone. What is this?” Asfand grabbed the pills rather roughly.

“Dua bibi” His raised hand stopped. “She said to make sure you didn’t drink the coffee before taking these medicines and drinking this juice.” Shafiq couldn’t make of his master’s expressions in the moment. His blankness scared him.

“Where is she?”

“I would have never thought Dar-jee would go this far where he would involve you.” Dua signed the files and handed them back to IGP Ashraf. She never thought Haider and Mir Jahangir would go to this extent regarding her safety. But it was expected. “You don’t have to very unnecessary. I hate causing trouble to law.” The old man chuckled mirthfully.

“I’m fulfilling my duty as a friend and your uncle. My loyalty resides equally to my duty and bonds.” Dua smiled. “It’s a cruel world and those are cruel people. Every armor to your defense won’t be enough Ms. Sahi. It’s a battle of blood once you stepped out. You can never be too careful.”

“Wise words.” Ashraf nodded in silence. “But won’t this contradict your statement? You will be betraying your duty in one way if you choose your friendship.”

“Wasn’t I already?” Dua knew what he meant. “It is inevitable. If you intend to deal with crime like that, you can’t keep yourself from committing one or two in the process. We are humans after all. We ought to be selfish creatures.”

“Xian will come meet you soon.” Dua looked towards the stairs in time when Asfand made his appearance. He looked like the man she always knew. In control and power.

“Haider asked me of a favor Dua.” Ashraf looked at the young lad as well. A displeasing look crossed his expressions when their eyes met. “He was concerned about your safety regarding-”

“Don’t worry.” Dua tore her eyes away from Asfand and stood up with a smile. “I have certain things under control.” Ashraf stood up as well. It was time to leave. “Thank you for coming by.”

“Pleasure is all mine.” He patted her head affectionately. “Before anything, you are a child to me. I will do whatever I can to protect my family.”

“I don’t want anyone to get hurt on my behalf.”

“That is not for you to decide.” Ashraf dropped his hand when Asfand approached them. “Asfandyar Sherzai! A pleasant surprise it is to meet you like this, since you don’t give us a chance to serve you” Asfand scoffed lowly. He knew what kind of services IGP was talking about. And having him in his own home alerted him to many events that could unfold. “Many congratulations on your marriage. I wish you a blessed and prosperous life.” He just gave a curt nod while watching his wife from periphery. “I will take my leave Ms. Sahi. Let me know.” Dua nodded and Ashraf left.

Silence prolonged between them as they stood in their spots like statues. Dua was facing away from Asfand while he was watching her like a hawk. She was avoiding him and he was trying to find out. Only one mutual thought was swimming in their minds among many.

Why?

Without saying any word, Dua grabbed her bag to leave but her path was blocked by none other than her husband who was now glaring at her angrily. She didn’t want to have any conversation with him. In fact, she didn’t want to have anything to do with him. Her intention was to leave right after waking up but things kept adding on one after other.

And here they were, facing each other in silent accusation.

Asfand grabbed her arm and pulled her back to him. “You should have known better before coming back that it would be impossible.” Dua could break free with a simple jerk but she didn’t try to put up any fight with Asfand. She didn’t want to. Not right now. “Haider is not babysitting you anymore?” his grip became firm on her arm.

“Don’t concern yourself over matters that are of no concern to you Mr. Sherzai.” His glare turned to an intense stare. Dua didn’t know how much of last night he remembered. She was hoping on the negative because she didn’t want things to turn awkward between them. It was a mistake on her part to stay behind and she could do nothing to rectify it.

“Asfand!” Asfand didn’t even acknowledge Safan and it didn’t surprised him. When it comes to his wife before his eyes, anything was possible.

But Safan was surprised to see Dua. He thought she would have left last night but she stayed. She chose to stay when she had no reason to.

Whatever the reasons or how much bitterness, he always found their interaction interesting. Like right now. Dua was fruitlessly trying to break free without turning violent. He knew she was not weak and she could easily push Asfand off her but she chose not to.

Same went for his friend. Asfand knew his wife all too well and still chose to mess with her whatever chance he got.

But he crossed the line this time.

No matter how much hate he bore for women, Asfand never raised hand on them. But, he did in the heat of the moment and worst of all, to his own wife. Safan was not sure if Dua was going to forget it. Knowing her, it was another add up to her already long list.

If not for the bitter reality of their live, this marriage might be what they needed the most but it didn’t seem like that now. Not after what has been occurred.

“You have company” Dua spat lowly when Asfand showed no signs of listening to anyone or leaving her. His unfaltering gaze on her was grating her nerves and she couldn’t take it anymore. With one jerk, she broke free of his hold and after throwing him one icy glare, she walked past him to leave.

“No need to come out personally. We are not that foggy minded.” Dua looked at the old lady in astonishment. She was the same age as her Dar-jee and was smiling affectionately at her. Her head was wrapped in a floral cloth and she was holding a black rosary in her right hand. Though old, she had so much glow and beauty on her face. She didn’t look native. She bore the traces of exotic beauty in her crystal blue eyes. “You must be Dua, my Asfand’s bride.”

“Noor Bi” Asfand rushed forward. Dua watched him in stunned surprise when he took her hands in his and kissed them before touching them to his eyes.

He respects this woman. No, he loves this woman.

The way his face lit up at her presence was more than enough proof. And how she was showering love on him by kissing his forehead and cheeks showed that he meant the world for her.

“How are you here? You should have informed me. I would have sent the escort.”

“Hush!” She palmed his cheek with a smile and motherly affection. “I knew you would fuss over, that’s why I didn’t tell. Mera chaand! How are you?” Asfand grabbed her wrists delicately and kissed her palms in answer. All this while, Dua watched him silently. “I wanted to give you a surprise visit in return for the surprise you gave all of us.” Noor Bi looked at Dua with a warm smile. “It’s a beautiful surprise and I’m very happy for you.”

“When did you return from your trip?” Asfand completely dodged what she said. He didn’t want Noor Bi involved in this mess. If she came to know of the truth, he knew his ears will suffer the most. “Has baba saeen returned as well?”

“I had to cut my trip short, all thanks to your uncle.” Her voice held a disapproving edge. “Your baba saeen will come back after completing his hajj. You know how strict he is when it comes to principles.” Asfand nodded in silence. “And this is the sole reason I came back without telling him anything about what your uncle is doing. If he knew about Ushna’s engagement to that man’s son, I don’t know what he would have done.” Just then a young girl walked after Noor Bi. Dua recognized her immediately.

“What is she doing here?” Asfand was not pleased to see her cousin sister. Ushna flinched at the sharpness of his tone and partially hid behind Noor Bi.

So I thought right. This girl is a mouse.

But what surprised her more was the hostility Asfand bore towards his sister.

“Asfand!” Noor Bi chided. “Is this any way to talk to your little sister? You always scare her yet she loves you the most.” Asfand looked away in annoyance. “She went through a lot. Least you could do is show some humanity, or should we leave? I don’t want her to face same treatment here that she faces at her father’s hands.”

Safan sighed under his breath while looking at them. This was unnecessary trouble at their hands. He knew how complicated things were going to be once Noor Bi knew the whole truth.

“You have become like him Safan. I’m disappointed in you. I thought your company will rub on Asfand but here you are, behaving like him.” Asfand groaned and Safan just blinked. “Here I always thought this child was different from rest but he keeps on disappointing me.”

“Noor Bi” Ushna tugged at her shoulder pleadingly. “Don’t say this. Asfand Bhai didn’t-”

“You don’t side with him.” Ushna looked down when the scolding took a U-turn. “And where are your manners? You are meeting your Bhabhi for the first time and you haven’t even greeted her. What am I to do with you children?”

Asfand sensed her hostility even when was appearing calm. It was bound to happen and he didn’t even want to think how Dua was going to involve Ushna in her revenge. If her sister wasn’t spared, how can she let their daughter go as well?

“I’m sorry Noor Bi” Ushna looked towards Dua and took a hesitant step forward. “Aslam-o-alaikum Bhabhi.” A tornado burst inside her upon seeing Ushna.

She is the daughter of Afroz Sherzai. Sister of Anser Afroz Sherzai.

This was enough to spike her disgust and hate towards this girl who was looking at her innocently.

How can she be innocent? When she bear such vile blood in her veins?

**********

Xian has been watching Dua since she arrived in the morning. She was quieter than normal and the reason to her silence was yet to be confirmed. Though he knew what it might be. When he went to pick her up along with Ida at Asfand’s estate, he saw two ladies. One of which was Afroz’s daughter.

It won’t take a genius to decipher what might be going through her head.

“What are your orders?” Dua kept rotating her chair from left to right without looking up from the files under her hand. “Police are looking for their bodies. The prime suspects involve Khan and Baig-”

“She doesn’t look older than twenty-one, no? I wonder if she studies in university. Or do you think she is home-schooled?” Dua was calm but he knew better. “What major do you think she would have chosen? Something simple maybe. Something which doesn’t involve too much interaction and exposure. She looks too scared of her own shadow.”

“You need to put a temporary halt to your actions. They already suspected you and if you made any move right now, they-”

“I don’t plan to do anything.” Dua closed the files and leaned back in her chair. “We will just lead the police to the clues.” Xian nodded. “Strike when the time is right. Rest IGP will handle. Once they are involved, we will move further down the list.” Dua pushed the files towards Xian. “They have one end of the government, we will use other to annihilate their rule from within.”

“Ma’am!” Iram knocked before entering. “I’m sorry for interrupting.” Dua nodded once she was standing before her with Xian. “A lady named Noor-ul-Ain is at the reception. She insists on meeting you.”

“Escort her here.” Xian looked towards Dua in question when Iram left to do the task. “She doesn’t seem related to them and I want to know why Asfand is so respectful towards that one woman when he hates the gender so much. I need every weakness in my palm.” Dua twisted the crystal ball under fingers. “Every god damn nerve that can incapacitate him or them forever.”

The door opened after a brief knock and Noor Bi walked inside with her evergreen smile. “I hope I am not disturbing you on anything.” She nodded towards Xian in a greeting. Dua stood up and rounded her table to meet her.

“Prepare for the meeting” Xian nodded and left. “Bring us refreshments Iram and make sure we are not disturbed.” Iram nodded and left as well. “Please have a seat.” Noor Bi followed Dua to the lush couches and sat across her. “What brings you here?”

“You left without saying a word that day.” Dua twisted her ring furiously. “Your eyes say it all beta. Everything that your tongue is not.”

“You seem like you know me.” Noor Bi smiled at her question and hummed thoughtfully.

“I have known your name. Now I know your face.” Noor Bi was finding her confusion adorable. She could tell Dua wasn’t expecting her to switch to English. “I’m old but I’m not illiterate child. This is a false notion in the minds of many that feudal families lock their women like animals in a barn. Just because they behave barbaric, doesn’t mean they are actually barbaric.” Dua didn’t reply to this. “I have been living with Sherzai for forty years child. I have known them ever since I was able to make sense of things around me.”

“Who are you to them?”

“You can call me many things. For children, I’m like their fairy godmother, for the elders of that family, I’m respectable Saeen begum and for people, I’m a concubine to Sardar Altamash Sherzai.” Noor Bi chuckled at her surprise.

“I was kidnapped by the very man after he came to visit my family in Iran. Or what I call it to tease Altamash. He took a liking to my beauty and asked for my hand in marriage. But he was already a married man and bore three children. I was a proud woman so I refused. It was bruise to his ego and he thought kidnapping me will heal it and make me succumb to his will. It didn’t. I refused to be his even after being snatched away from the life I always knew.” Noor Bi smiled sadly while reminiscing the past.

“Her wife didn’t live long and the children were so young. I took a liking to them without knowledge and before I knew it, they all grew up before my very own eyes. Even the generation after them. I don’t know how long I will live to see another fruit grow.”

“You never married?” Their conversation was put to a momentarily halt when Iram escorted their high-tea inside. Once she left, Dua turned to the old woman again. “Why didn’t you try to leave? Why didn’t your parents look for you?”

“My father was a man of pride. He wouldn’t have looked for me even if he wanted to. Even if it killed him every moment. Once I crossed their threshold without their shadow and blessing, I was dead to them. Respect meant everything to men like my father and Altamash in those times. It still does but the times are drastically changing. Now women know that they are not just an object to be treated however.”

“You respect that man? The one who ripped you off everything?” Noor Bi smiled meaningfully. “How can you even stand to live with him, let alone hear his name? You seem like an intelligent woman. Why?”

“He might have been egoistical but he was never cruel towards me. I thought I would be raped and sold but that never happened. He never touched me and never tried to force me. He wanted to give me his name to save me from ill-fate of society but I chose not to. I couldn’t and I wouldn’t. My dignity doesn’t allow me. I don’t want to become a second woman to anyone and I never did. But he did earn my respect over time.” Noor Bi closed her eyes and sighed.

“Time is a great healer but still the scars stay.” They fell silent. “I know what history you bore with my Asfand. I know what happened in the past.” Dua didn’t blink. “We were not present when that injustice was being served, nor we bore any knowledge of it. But when we did come to know, it was too late. Blood was shed and hatred was planted for many generation that would follow. And my Asfand only nurtured it by repeating one mistake from past. By imposing this marriage on you against your will.”

“What brings you here Noor Bi?” She smiled at how ruefully Dua tried to dodge the conversation. Noor Bi knew of the events that occurred between Asfand and Dua. The animosity between them could be sensed from afar. One could very clearly see what their bloodline insinuated between these two.

But there was something else that other failed to see.

One thing that her old eyes saw the moment it landed on these two children. It was like a call from her Allah and she felt like she was chosen by the Almighty himself to fulfill this duty.

She came here with a purpose and she was determined on achieving it.

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