My eyes darted to the signs that hung by the doors, signs that I had memorized long ago. They were written in two languages, though I could only read one well. There was two titles: Slaves are Required To:, and Slaves are NOT Permitted To:.
In bold letters at the bottom: Disobeying any of the Laws of the Slaves will result in immediate punishment, as seen fit by their master.
My eyes shot back down to the floor and I passed through the open archway that led into the shop.
I clutched a small note in my hand, sealed with a wax seal. I waited for a long time as the shop owner helped the Zahil customers, though none stood by the counter. Finally, as the shop emptied, I was approached and greeted with an outstretched hand. Dropping the note into his hands without looking up, I saw his feet scurry away into the back.
He arrived again and a box was put in front of me. Bowing my head further forward, I backed away and left the shop.
As I walked through the crowded street, I didn't dare raise my eyes, though trips into town were rare and I longed to see the buildings and the shops.
The haves and the have-nots, that's how I thought about it. They were allowed to have everything-the Zahil, they had everything. I eyes stared down at the rough fabric that covered by body. A brown slouchy burlap material, impossible to shape, but my mother had managed to make me a decent dress that went just past my knees.
There were a few moments in my past-a very few moments- when I caught glimpses of beautiful fabric that shone like the sun against the water, sparkled like the stars in a sea of darkness. Of course, my master had lots of beautiful and colorful fabrics that I saw when I washed them, or sorted them into their many rooms.
Slaves are not permitted to wear any color other than brown, or any fabric other than burlap.
The manor came to view in the distance and I carried the parcel, a small box wrapped in brown paper, into the manor. I allowed my neck a moment to stretch, glimpsing around the room nervously. Two curved staircases ran up either side of the room. The door was deep mahogany with stained class windows that shattered into a thousand colors. The floor was black and white checkered with red carpeting on either edge of the steps, white marble in the middle. A chandelier of what looked like gold and diamonds glistened and lit the room with a hint of yellow haze.
I should have taken the slaves entrance, I thought hesitantly as I made my way up the stairs, quickly now. I was new to house duties. My breath was ragged and my heart raced until I reached the door to my master's office. I took a moment to collect myself outside and then I knocked gently.
"Enter." The master spoke in my language. The slave language. Slaves are not permitted to learn the language of the Zahil. Though anybody could pick up a few words here and there.
I opened the door slowly and averted my eyes down.
"About bloody time," he said as I handed him the parcel. He snatched it from my hand and I felt his nails scrape against my palm. I waited a moment, for him to dismiss me. "Well, are you going to stand there all day or go finish your work, girl?"
He was my owner, Master Harrison.
I bowed my head and exited them room, closing the door silently behind me.
Dusk fell and I hurriedly finished my chores, trying to catch up for all the lost time of going into the city. When I made my way to the wash room, I found that the clothes were already folded into their basket. A smile caught me unaware and I glanced behind me.
His honey colored eyes peeked out from the shadows.
"Kassim," I said, and he finally stepped forward. "You shouldn't be in here," I whispered frantically, glancing toward the door. He had dark hair and golden skin from his work in the sun. He was the most handsome man I'd ever met, and he was my age.
He gave a toothy smile, "I did it for you, Azalea." He kept looking at the door too.
"Thank you," I breathed, and ushered him out the back. "I'll meet you later, by the willow."
He tried to say something else but I heard footsteps and I closed it quickly, making my way over to the laundry Kassim had folded. I admitted, he'd done a nice job, and I only had to refold three things.
Maebelle appeared at the doorway. I breathed a sigh of relief. "Did I hear you talking to someone?" She asked. I shook my head in a lie and she gave me a disapproving stare. I wasn't sure if it was for the lie or because she'd seen Kassim, but she didn't say anything either way.
Distributing the laundry quickly, I found myself exiting through the same door that'd I'd pushed Kassim out of less than twenty minutes later.
Behind the manor, hidden in a grove of planted trees, I could see the edges of small homes peaking out. I made my way toward them, away from a large garden, laced with paths, a fountain that seemed like a mile within.
The walk took almost five minutes, but I didn't mind. I took the time to wipe my face on a clean handkerchief, brown, and pull my fingers through my hair. The sun had sunk lower now, and it was hidden behind the mountains, but its light still hit part of the sky.
When I finally approached the village of small shacks I saw a large fire was already alit and a few people sat around it.
"Aza!" a little girl shouted, sprinting over. Suddenly, she was attached to my leg. It had become my nickname from some of the younger slaves. Sis. Short for prayaza. Sister.
"Sunny," I smiled down at her and looked around the campfire, but I knew the person I was looking for wouldn't be there. I detached Sunny and made my way to the willow, to find her brother.
I didn't see him as I approached but he sprang out from the shadows, embracing me in a hug. Hugging him back tightly for a moment, I pulled back to look at his handsome face once more.
Kassim was a slave too. I'd known him since the master bought his family almost ten years prior.
There were a million bad things about the master, but if I thanked him for one thing, it would be for keeping my family together. I knew other slaves weren't so lucky.
Kassim was looking at me with those honey-colored eyes, the fire in the distance glinting off them. I melted.
"I got something for you," he began and I could see the glint of excitement in his eyes.
"For what? My birthday's not for a week."
"An early gift. I couldn't wait any longer." He pushed forward a brown parcel, wrapped with some brown string. He had tied a bow from the string that looked like a flower and I knew he had spent a long time on it. I kissed him on the cheek. "You haven't even opened it yet."
"I know it will be perfect," I said, carefully pushing the string off the sides, preserving the flower.
I slowly peeled back the brown paper, and I gasped. I looked up at him. I wasn't sure if I should kiss him again or scold him. My fingers glided toward the gift.
A silken red ribbon. I gently picked it up, as though it were made of an eggshell. "How?" was all that escaped my lips.
Kassim gave his signature smile and I knew he wouldn't tell me anything. "Do you like it?"
"I love it." I hesitated, not wanting to ruin the moment, but I couldn't help myself. "But what if somebody discovers this?"
Slaves are not permitted to have something like this. Color. Silk.
"Keep it secret," he said, kissing my cheek.
I nodded. Of course I would. I found myself captivated by it, and I stared at it for a long time, letting it glide gently beneath my fingers. "Thank you."
I felt the pins digging into my waist but I ignored them. Pinned underneath my dress was the red silk ribbon Kassim had given me. The smooth fabric grazed against my skin and felt like heaven next to the burlap.
"Girl," the master said. "Come.
I followed him out the front of the manor where a horsed carriage sat outside. A slave opened the door for him and I took my place next to Maebelle on the back. Once the master was inside the carriage, she gave me a small nod.
I kept my gaze down as the hot sun beat against my skin. We passed the turn to the town and I glanced at Maebelle.
The city. We're going to the city. My brain chirped with excitement. I couldn't believe how lucky I was, to be made a house slave and be taken into the city. Maebelle was in her fifties and some gray hair mingled with her dark brown hair. I knew Maebelle had been to the city many times. She talked about it in hushed whispers to the younger slaves around the fire. Everything about it sounded grand. The many carriages, the bustle of people coming in and out of shops. The buildings that soared into the sky. Everyone bartering for lower prices.
I watched as the flat desert terrain passed, feeling my skin start to burn. Though the redness hid behind my golden tan, for now at least. There was a rare tree now and again, usually a patch of cactuses, and the mountains very far in the distance in the clear cloudless sky.
Several hours later, Maebelle nudged me. I glanced up and turned my head slightly. In the distance, square and dome rooftops of sky high buildings appeared. It looked glorious against the landscape. Mostly gray buildings, but a few of them stood out with red or green or blue.
We entered the city and I allowed myself quick glances at the many shops, my eyes absorbing the color. New colors that I'd never seen before, shimmering like the golden sun. I looked away and back down to my burlap dress. Depression overcame me for a second. I could never wear something like that. Even if I somehow managed to get the fabric-which was far too risky- I could never wear it outside.
The people that walked on the street were a rainbow of color. The men wore vibrant greens and blues, and the ladies wore lovely pinks, purples, blues, yellows. Their dresses were poufy and long, the bodices shone with jewels. Some wore hats, some wore their hair in fancy braids.
The carriage stopped and I carefully hopped down with Maebelle. We followed the master over the cobblestone streets-the streets in the town near the manor were dirt, trampled down my horses and footsteps. We stopped in front of a shop and we were told to wait outside.
I stood by a man of about thirty who also wore burlap.
It was easy to find the slaves in the sea of color. They all wore the same material, shaped into crude outfits.
I was thankful that the outside of the shop was drenched in shade, my skin getting a break from the powerful sun.
When the master exited, he tossed a large parcel at Maebelle. The carriage driver was carrying yet another large parcel and the three of us followed the master back to the carriage.
We stopped at many more stores and the sun carried itself across the sky.
"Wait here," he told Maebelle and the driver. "Come," I wouldn't have known he was talking to me but he grabbed my arm and dragged me toward the store. Once inside, he tossed me aside carelessly. "Wait," he said in a hallow tone and I stood there as he walked away.
I glanced up at the shelves nearest to me. Hanging on dowels were scarves, made of riots of color and I couldn't help myself. My hand stealthily grabbed the one with the most colors. My hands glided against the fabric and I longed for it.
The shop door opened and my hand slid away. My body crept back against the wall, away from the shelves. The man that entered strode by, stopping at the fabrics. Behind him walked four guards, heavily armed and wearing red tunics and blackened armor. He selected the very same one I had just touched and went to the front of the store, by the counter.
As they passed by me, I knew. Royalty.
The shopkeeper was in the back with the master. I allowed myself to glance up at the Zahil Royalty that had entered. I could only see the back of his head, but his hair was light blonde and his tunic was black, with silver trimmings. He waited at the counter and suddenly, unexpectedly, he snapped his head around, looking at me, catching my eyes with his. They were the color of a stormy sky, like a clear pool of water, grey, but a blue undertone, standing out in browns and reds of the shop.
My eyes shot down and I held my breath, praying that it went unnoticed.
A moment later, my master exited the back room, carrying a small parcel that was surprisingly heavy. He thrust it at me and I followed him from the shop, feeling the gaze of the Zahil man behind me.
When we arrived back at the carriage, he took the parcel and entered the carriage. I watched the sunset above the city and mountains in the distance as we road away, and I enjoyed the little color the Zahil couldn't take from me.
I don't know what made me do it. Despite all of the rules, and the punishment for not following them, I stopped in front of the master's door. It was cracked open-it was never left open. I peered inside.
Inside, I could see the master's head leaning over a desk full of papers, and the corner of a fire burning inside of a white marble fireplace.
He eyes shot up to me, and I immediately backed away from the firelight that slipped out from the room, into the darkness.
"Azalea," he said.
Azalea. Not girl.
I moved back into the light. "Yes, master?" I asked in a whisper, though I knew he could hear me.
"Come in, please." Please. I opened the door soundlessly. "And close the door."
I did as ordered and approached his desk skeptically. My cheeks burned red with embarrassment, and my heart pounded with anxiety. Am I in trouble?
The master stood up and approached me, and then he was right next to me. His hand rose to my face and he stroked my cheek gently. I cringed slightly, expecting to feel nails. His hand stopped when he felt my shiver.
He grabbed my shoulder and pushed me against the desk roughly. I knew his plan and I panicked. As he reached to lift my skirt I spun around, sprinting away from the desk toward the windows. He blocked my way to the door and I looked up at him in panic.
"Stop," he ordered. "Don't move."
I was panting, watching as he approached me menacingly. He reached for my skirt again and I was frozen with the order. His hand grazed against the skin on my thigh.
My hand shot up to his face with such power, I watched as the three lines grew red and a drop of blood. My eyes widened and I dared not look at him. I ducked by his grabbing arm and shot out of the door, sprinting toward the village faster than I had ever run in my life, tearing the hem of my burlap dress on a nail on the corner of the stables.
What have I done? I thought in panic as I reached the front door of my home.
Inside, my two brothers were already sleeping. I heard whispers coming from my parents curtained bed and I made my way to my cot opposite my brothers' bunk bed.
I drew the curtain shut silently, afraid to move, afraid to breathe.
I knew that Kassim was waiting for me by the willow, but I was frozen there, sitting in my cot, not knowing what would come next.
As the hours passed, I grew more and more comfortable. I'm in the clear. Certainly, the master would have done something by now, if he meant to.
When I awoke, my head was leaning against the adobe wall of the shack and I had a kink in my neck. My eyes were still heavy with sleep and I knew I hadn't been out long.
It was a forewarning, I realized, as three loud bangs sounded at the door.
Outside the dawn was rising and I heard the hurried footsteps of my father going to the door. My eyes wide and my heart racing, I heard the door open.
"Master," he said quickly, and I heard the sound of our table near the doorway and a clatter of metal and wood. "Get the girl," he ordered loudly. I knew everyone was awake now. The whole of the slaves would hear his thundering voice.
The curtain of my bed snapped open and two Zahil guards stood at the edge of my cot. They grabbed my arms tightly, snatching me from the bed, dragging me out the door. I was screaming loudly for help, from anyone. I saw their eyes piercing out from their doors and curtained holes that functioned as windows.
My eyes glanced at the master, meaning to shoot him an apology, but as I saw him, my eyes narrowed into a glare as I saw the scratch marks on his face.
Dragged behind a carriage, my wrists tied in thick rope, my feet staggered with fatigue against the gravel. I fell to the ground and the carriage didn't stop. I tried to scamper up quickly and a sharp prod hit my back, knocking me back to the gravel. I managed to stand up, my legs, arms and chin oozing with blood.
The sun beat down on me from high noon and I knew I'd been walking for several hours.
In the distance, I saw the city. The city I had thought was so beautiful earlier that week.
Happy Birthday, me, I told myself grimly, knowing I was to be taken to the gallows. Or sold to a new master. I wasn't sure which was worse.
In the city, I was put in a wooden cage near the bazaar. The guards threatened the other slaves with spears until the door to the cage was latched shut once more.
In the small prison, there was more than twenty slaves, stuffed in together. Baking in the heat of the sun as the heat beat down through the open roof. I glanced around at their faces, some of them looked back at me.
I frowned, knowing I may never see my family again.
A Zahil was saying something loudly on the wooden stage, gesturing to a male slave. Talking him up, trying to get a good sale.
My hands were fastened once more in the thick rope, tied to the people in front of me. We slowly moved forward.
We weren't people.
We were livestock.
On the stage was a stone, splattered with a color I cringed at. Blood.
What if I'm not bought? I found myself worrying, knowing what happened to slaves that didn't get bought.
We are commodities.
The woman in front of me was released from her ropes and I took another step forward when some slack loosened from behind me.
I didn't listen to the prices. I didn't want to know...
How much am I worth?
My ropes were released and the auction started. I looked down at the ground and kept quiet. I wasn't sure if I was trying to get bought or deter anyone from buying me. Maybe that block was better. I was thinking of what my master had tried to do to me. My former master, I reminded myself.
The price kept going up and the auctioneer grabbed my chin, lifting my face to the crowd. When he released me, I let it drop in shame. I am livestock. I am a commodity.
I heard the numbers, trying to keep up with the quick Zahil. I could only hope I was bought by a nice master, a good master, and I realized how pathetic I was for hoping for anything.
I'd never see Kassim again.
"Come on, how about two hundred?" The auctioneer shoved his dirty fingers in my mouth, prying it open. "Good teeth." I felt like my price was high for somebody who had struck their master...but that was the point, they didn't want me to be bought.
I felt the tears welling up in my eyes but I didn't let them fall. I didn't blink because I knew they would slide out. I won't let these people get to me. I won't let them see me cry.
A price was finally reached and I was shoved off the stage, the next slave taking my place. Two guards dragged me to the buyer, tying ropes on my wrists once more, burning the already raw skin.
I didn't want to look at my new master; I waited as he circled around me, still holding the end of the rope that was attached to my wrist. He tugged at it and I followed him until he reached a carriage. He tied the ropes to the back and I saw several others, newly bought, already tied to the back of the carriage.
We were tugged along through the heat, my feet blackened from walking on the dirt for so long. I hadn't been wearing my sandals when I had been taken and I looked jealously around at the other slaves feet, secured in brown sandals.
We were heading to the center of the city. To the palace. And the extravagant carriage in front of me insured my thoughts. We passed by miles and miles of green grass, trees and flowers, in the center of the city, and at the center of the gigantic garden, very far in the distance, was the palace. Towers and turrets made it look like a castle.
I was shoved in the slave quarters and was told to wait with the other slaves. We all looked at each other anxiously, our eyes asking unspoken questions, hoping for the best. They were all girls, around my age. And I suddenly feared what none of their eyes spoke of, I cringed.
The door opened and the curious atmosphere died. Two men entered and I dared not look up. I saw their feet as they inspected us until the feet finally stopped in front of me. I waited from them to move along, to the next girl, but they stayed.
"See at me," a voice ordered gruffly. Did he mean look at him quickly and back down, or look at him indefinitely? He was Zahil, and did not fully understand the meaning of see. I did as ordered, and when I looked up I was met with piercing gray eyes. I nearly gasped in recognition.
It was him.
When did my luck run out? I thought sorely as I looked back down.
It was the Zahil that had met my gaze in the shop.
Two guards dragged me from the room and I knew.
I was going to be killed.
I lay on a bed that seemed to be made of feathers and I clutched myself desperately to cover my naked body.
My blackened feet and dirty body had been scrubbed clean by other slaves, and much to my embarrassment, a woman looked at me to ensure I was pure. It was then that I realized my burlap dress was thrown aside, and the red ribbon inside was all but gone. They had left me there in the dark room. There were no windows or other furniture, merely a bed. I heard the door latch when they had left.
I don't know how long I waited in the darkness, but when the door opened my eyes squinted from the light that streamed in and a dim light came on. A shadowy figure entered and the door closed behind him; I heard the same click as before. He had locked the door. I clutched my body tighter, gazing at the figure defiantly.
He approached the bed and I jumped away from him, toward the farthest wall.
He changed his course and continued slowly to me. His steps were slow, diligent, his movements gracefully intended. It was him, the Royal Zahil.
I backed myself into a corner, my eyes still adjusting to the dim lighting. He reached me and I found no escape from the room as I looked upon him.
His hair was icy blonde, disheveled and messy. His eyes pierced mine for a moment, gray pits. I could not deny that he was attractive. More attractive than Kassim, though I regretted the thought. I remembered my place and my eyes shot back down, to his feet.
He stood there for what felt like an eternity, until finally he spoke.
"What is your name?" his voice was a growl and I quivered underneath it.
"Azalea," I mumbled.
"Do you know why I like to buy disobedient slaves?" he growled again, and my eyes shot up to his face in horror. He grabbed my hair and my head was painfully tugged to the side.
I shook my head as best as I could against his grip.
He dragged me by my hair to the bed and I felt tears welling up in my eyes. He tossed me onto the bed and I scrambled to the other side, as far away from him as I could. Off of the bed and to the other wall.
This time he approached me quickly this time, grabbing my arm with such strength I cried out and he threw me back onto the bed.
I didn't give in.
I'd rather die than lose my purity.
He sprang onto me with inhuman speed before I could get away.
I knew what was coming and I flung my arms at him, my legs kicking frantically. He grabbed each of my wrists in turn until I was pinned down. He drew my wrists into one hand and I started to scream with all my might. I was helpless and vulnerable as his eyes grazed over my body. A chill ran over my naked body and I craved some kind of coverage.
I felt him pushing against me and I screamed louder as I felt his skin touch against me, his hand freeing his pants. It pressed against me again and I felt a new rush of strength, one of my wrists freeing from his grip. My untrimmed nails scathed across his neck and for some reason I looked to his face.
A fury overcame it and a second later my hand was pinned again. He still pressed against me, my body quaking with fear as I felt him begin to push.
"It's because I like to break them," he growled and he pushed into me roughly. My insides burned with pain and tears crept out from my eyes beyond my control. "See at me." It was an order. I turned my head to the side, I wasn't going to let him see my tears. But his free hand grabbed my chin roughly and forced it to face him.
I looked in his eyes in terror as he pushed himself in again, hard, his grip tightening at my wrists.
I let my tears fall freely as he looked at me with savage eyes, slamming into me again and again as I cried out in pain. I closed my eyes and tried to move my head the other direction, but his strong grip wouldn't allow it.
After what felt like forever, he stiffened and slowed, hovering there for a long moment and I felt something warm leaking from me as he pulled himself out. Releasing my hands, he got off of me.
I was free from his grip, but I didn't run. I curled myself into a ball on the bed, seeing his figure looming over me in the darkness. Thick red blood oozed onto the white feathers of the bed.
As he exited the room I watched as he waved his hand at the light and it flickered off and a wave of magic hit me.
The thing that the Haves had that the Have-Nots didn't, wasn't just wealth, or power.
It was sorcery.