XVIII. FOR EVERY ACTION*
Deja heard Zaron and Tallia fight, then the silence and after it an uncertain knocking followed by the concubine's voice.
- Come in: it is open.
She answered with a shaky voice. Tallia entered without making a sound.
- He's gone.
She confirmed with a low voice and Deja hid her face in the pillow she has been hugging.
- What's happened Deja? And don't tell me nothing because I never saw him so angry before and I've seen him angry more often than anybody.
Without speaking the girl undid the remaining buttons of her blouse and took it off, showing the older woman the dark bruises marring her upper arms, bruises that had the shape of a male's hands.
- Was he the one to do something like that to you?
The concubine asked with wide eyes.
- No, not him and that is the reason he is so furious.
Deja said with a subdued tone of voice. Tallia sat on the bed with her.
- Tell me everything.
She commanded sounding alarmed and worried.
- This morning one of my bodyguards, one I have known for years, before Zaron conquered Issa… he approached me. I did not know what he had in mind, I never would have suspected… he seized me, kissed me and when I rejected his advances he shoved me and I fell, acquiring another bruise on my hip.
- That man is dead.
Tallia stated with a flat tone.
- Zaron will kill him.
Deja replied anxiously.
- If Zaron was to react, then everybody will know. They would say I have been unfaithful, people will believe him to be my lover…! Promise me you will not tell it to anybody, promise!
Tallia struggled with herself.
- Let me speak at least with Pearl: she's wise, she'll know what to do.
- Only Pearl!
- Zaron found out? That's why he was so angry?
- I was the one to tell him.
The queen lamented.
- I was angry because another stole my first kiss, the one I intended to give to him. Zaron had not reacted as I thought he would.
- How did you think he would have reacted?
The concubine whined.
- Rakian men are very protective and jealous in regards to their women! You're lucky he didn't get angry at you accusing you of unfaithfulness!
The girl covered her face with both hands.
- That is exactly what happened: he implied he considered me responsible for it, that if someone else thought he could touch me with impunity it was because I had led him on somehow! I denied, I told him that he hurt me, that he gripped me so hard he bruised me because I was rejecting him… Zaron believed me, it seemed he was sorry for debiting me. I have been such a fool! I told him I am in love with him, that I would have never looked at another man because I loved only him and then I kissed him. And he kissed me! Ostin gave me a kiss on my lips but Zaron kissed me for real, like a husband kisses his wife and for a fleeting moment I was happy… I believed he loved me as I love him, I deluded myself into thinking he wanted me as I want him. Then instead he became aggressive again and demanded to see the bruises, it was as if he wanted to see the proofs I rejected the guard, he touched me and he tried to undress me to look under my clothes. It was then that I run away. He… he promised me he would never do it again, that he would never again raise his hands on me… I thought he loved me…
Tallia was horrified.
- He hit you? When?
She asked faintly and unbelieving.
- No! He never hit me, ever. But when we were back in Issa, the first time, for my thirteenth birthday, I left the palace without telling him and when I came back he was very angry. Once alone in our rooms he gripped my arm, yanking at it and yelling, scaring me greatly. Afterward he asked for my forgiveness swearing it was not going to happen again and he kept his promise until today. Now he did not harm me, he did not even leave a bruise but he was so angry Tallia, so angry… It was like he was a different man altogether. I told him I am in love with him and he said nothing, nothing at all.
She clung to Tallia gripped by a fiery disappointment, letting the woman comfort her. She didn't even noticed Pearl peering into the room nor the hand wave made by Tallia to tell the other woman to go away, that they would speak later.
Tallia remained with her until she calmed down enough to fall asleep, keeping vigil and singing a sweet lullaby, brushing lightly her hair lightly the way she did with her daughter Elina. When she was sure Deja was deeply asleep she went to Pearl and told her everything. The older concubine got angry on the girl's behalf and her fury was icy. Zaron said he didn't want company that night but they would speak and he was going to understand how despicable his behaviour had been.
She knocked firmly at his bedroom door: she wanted to confront him, not for him to slit her throat believing her an intruder.
Zaron opened his door promptly. It was well into the night but he was still awake and with his day clothes on. His expression was upset and Pearl felt some of her anger leave her at that sight.
- I asked for some solitude Pearl.
- Are you going to let me in?
She replied. He moved away from the threshold, inviting her to enter without words. The concubine skipped out the pleasantries.
- What were you thinking Zaron? What the hell have you been thinking this evening?
Her tone wasn't aggressive but nevertheless her words cut like a knife. He smiled humourlessly.
- I wasn't thinking.
He sat heavily on the bed, bowing his head and looking at his opened hands resting on his knees.
- How is she?
- If by "she" you mean Deja then she went to sleep believing you're furious with her, that you think her responsible for what happened and that you don't love her at all.
Pearl's words were cold and sharp, full of reproach.
- I've been wrong, so wrong… How can I gain her forgiveness?
- Why Zaron? Why did you hurt her in such a way?
He raised his eyes, looking alarmed.
- Hurt her? I tried not to grip her too tightly but when I Iose control I am unable to reign in my strength…
She shook her head in denial.
- You hurt her feelings, not her body. She told you she was in love with you and you tried to take off her clothes. Really, Zaron, what have you been thinking?
He moaned, desperately.
- I was thinking about that boy touching her, kissing her and taking what I, wanting to show my respect of her, don't even dare to desire. I lost my mind…
- And so you tried to take her by force?
Pearl concluded for him and Zaron flinched and watched her full of horror.
- No! It's that what she thinks? I wasn't going to… I just wanted to see the bruises he left on her, I just wanted to understand how far he went with her… I needed to know exactly where he touched her because…
He closed his eyes in shame.
- I wanted to touch her where he touched her, to delete from her memory any recollection of another man's touch upon her. I wanted to be the only one, the only one for her. Did she think I intended to use her violence?
Pearl reassured him.
- That is what I thought. Deja correctly interpreted your intentions and got indignant about the fact you didn't trust her. That boy had just kissed her, an innocent kiss moreover: on the lips.
Zaron gripped his short hair in desperation.
- You mean to say I got it wrong? When she told me that another man took what belonged to me I thought he… I went mad, Pearl. What happened to me?
She placed a comforting hand on his shoulder.
- You're in love with her.
She told him softly but firmly.
- In love? Now you're the one who's mad.
He said without meeting her eyes.
- Deja is just a child.
He repeated aloud what had become his mantra.
- Deja is almost sixteen Zaron. And tonight you kissed her as a lover would and you touched, or tried to, as a man touches a woman.
He vehemently shook his head.
- I've been wrong, wrong! I have to make her understand how wrong I have been. Do you think she'll ever forgive me?
She sighed, resigned.
- She's in love with you, of course she'll forgive you. It will take time and a lot of apologies from you but eventually she will.
He jerked at the words "in love".
- And do you think she'll look at me with fondness again? I couldn't bear if she was to fear me…
She tightened her grip on his shoulder.
- As I said, it will take time.
The following morning Pearl went to the queen's apartments very early, so much she was the one to wake her up. While Deja was still yawing and rubbing her eyes, Pearl sat at her bedside.
- Deja, we have to fix this disaster.
She stated firmly but with kindness.
- Inside the Palace, tongues are wiggling for the fight you had with Zaron in the hallways. They're talking about his anger and speculating about its cause. We need to create a sensate rumour before someone links your row to the head of your bodyguards rushed flight.
- What do you suggest?
The girl asked quietly, she was so tired that she was ready to follow whatever advice the concubine would recommend.
- I do have an idea but much hung on the discretion and faithfulness of your Issian maid, the one servant who's the closest to you above everybody else.
Deja woke up completely and frowned.
- Larissa has my trust. Not only she is faithful but she is more than discreet.
- The rumour she's to spread about is that you had a miscarriage.
Deja flinched and brought a hand to her throat.
- Listen to me,
The other woman placated her, taking hold of her hand and gripping it.
- This way we kill two birds with one stone. I'll put around the news you were pregnant but didn't tell Zaron about it and when you had a miscarriage he found out and got angry because you didn't tell him anything. This way we'll explain his anger, your anger and why you'll be walking on eggshells around one another for some time, additionally we'll put to rest the rumour about your barrenness.
Deja covered her face with both hands and after a moment she nodded her consent.
- Do as you want, Pearl. I trust your judgment.
- Thank you but this plan will work only if your Larissa will lie for you.
Deja laid back on the bed.
- Do speak with her, please. I am… exhausted. All I want is to stay inside the harem until those ugly bruises disappear.
The girl brushed her arms left uncovered by the nightgown she put on the previous night by herself because she hadn't felt like having to explain what happened to Larissa.
- It's a good idea. Usually a ten days rest is called for in those instances. Then we'll see.
The concubine took her leave and went to confer with the Issian maid who was waiting outside her mistress' bedroom door.
When Larissa entered the room, Deja opened an eye and looked at her from under her covers. The older girl seemed deeply disturbed, her lips pressed in a tight line to show her disapproval.
Deja called her from her hiding place.
- Did Pearl speak with you?
The maid nodded, keeping busy picking up Deja's dress from the floor.
- Will you do as she asks?
Larissa nodded again.
- Are you angry because we asked you to lie?
The queen inquired with a sorrowful voice. Hearing her tone the maid went to her mistress' bedside, looking worried.
- No, my queen! How could I ever be angry? You know I would give my life for you! But… what's happening?
Deja came out from the bed, uncovering the bruises on her arms to her scandalized maid's eyes.
- There is another one, bigger and more painful, on my left hip that I got when he threw me on the floor…
She said faintly.
- He? Your husband?
Larissa asked, her voice filling with horror.
- No. Why everybody always think he had to be beating me?
The girl lamented.
- Another man did this. Fortunately nothing worse occurred. You are seeing the extent of what he did to me. But if It became public knowledge that another laid his hand on me, my reputation…
Larissa shook her head, upset.
- My lady! You have been attacked, how can your reputation be in question?
- People are merciless.
The girl remarked bitterly, lowering her head.
- And they always want to think the worst. They would whisper that I somehow encouraged my assailant. Even my husband thought so. That is why we had a row yesterday…
Deja lifted her head, looking Larissa in the eyes and added in a desperate tone of voice.
- You have to do as Pearl instructed you! You must! If you care for me you will protect me once more, as you always did in the past. Tell me you will do it!
- Of course my queen. I'll do anything for you!
Deja hugged her with transport.
- Thank you! Thank you!
The rumour implemented by Pearl circulated fast in the court, a gossip so daring and terrible that quickly replaced all others and Zaron became the subject of many condolences that he choose not to answer to, opting for a rigid silence and showing an unyielding expression to his courtiers. He had already made a spectacle of himself the previous night, yelling his fury in the hallway as he run after his blameless wife.
That night he had dinner at the harem, after making sure with Pearl that his presence was welcome. Elina, upon seeing him, burst into tears and he felt like a monster for having frightened his littlest daughter. The child hid behind her mother's skirt and Zaron bent his knee in front of them, to get to her level.
- My dearest,
He murmured to the scared child.
- It's me: your daddy. I was angry yesterday but not with you, never with you my sweet. Come out, come out before I start to cry too.
Elina peeked from beyond Tallia's leg and then hesitantly she drew nearer to him. Zaron smiled to her and then he nearly cried for real but in relief when she threw her small arms around his neck and hugged him, kissing his cheek. He lifted his eyes to look at Tallia but he understood, from her stony expression, that he wasn't going to be forgiven anytime soon. But all dark thoughts were wiped away when Kirsis and Palif too crashed into him, to be hugged and kissed as Elina was. Zaron kissed all his daughters on the brow, thanked them and then he got up to face his concubines.
- The way I behaved yesterday was unjustified. Please forgive me for bursting into the harem bellowing and for pushing you, Pearl.
The majority of his girls nodded and smiled, showing their acceptance of his apology. Only Pear lifted an eyebrow, in a provocative manner.
- Where is Deja?
He asked tentatively.
- She will join us for dinner.
The elder concubine answered and then they sat at the dinner table where the queen caught up with them after some minutes.
Deja was wearing a Rakian dress, she resolved to wear only Rakian style dresses until the bruises faded completely, and her expression was defeated. She didn't meet her husband's eyes that were silently beseeching her to look at him and sat at her usual seat while the children and the concubines inquired after her health.
- I am feeling better.
She answered them in a subdued tone.
- Do not worry: it will pass.
Zaron observed her during the meal, pleading silently for her to look at him, at least once. When finally she did it, she seemed unable to withstand his sight because she got up hurriedly and fled to her rooms, followed by Zaron's pleas for forgiveness.
The next evening Zaron refused to go to the harem and Pearl had to go to get him, begging and threatening him until he was persuaded to persevere.
Even if Deja wouldn't speak to him, little by little she started to glace at him at meals from her seat, the one furthest away from his. Zaron was reviled by this because there was no fear in her eyes, only a sorrow and a deep hurt. He would have liked to talk to her privately but she rebutted all his attempts to do so and refused to meet him without the concubines and the children to act as barriers between them. Their monthly appointment to dine and sleep together came and went and Zaron, who hoped until the very last for her to change her mind and join him, chose to dine and sleep alone rejecting his concubines' company. Tallia too had yet to forgive him and she was the only concubine who had yet to visit him at night since his fight with Deja. At least he faced the concubine as he didn't dare to do with his wife, going to her rooms and asking Elina to go to aunt Oscia and play with her sister while he had a chat with her mother.
- Tell me what to do to get you to forgive me, Tallia.
He said to her, exasperated.
- Forgive you, my khan? Whatever for? I'm only a concubine, I'm here to serve you and nothing more. Do you wish to lay with me?
She started to undress mechanically with a blankly expression and Zaron stopped her, taking her hands.
- No! That's not why I'm here and you know it! Why are you punishing me?
Finally she showed some emotions, ripping her hands from his hold with anger.
- You know why.
She hissed, filled with rage.
- Why I'm here, Zaron?
He didn't answer and she urged him.
- Why Zaron? Be a man and answer me!
- For me…
He said, confused.
- For you! Yes!
She replied, beginning to pace around the bedroom nervously.
- To give you what the others can't: an outlet for your most violent urges. My skin is tough and I'm used to the clients' abuses. You at your worst seem tender in comparison. But tell me: how can I carry out my task, how can I be a shield for my sisters, bearing the blunt of your anger, if you reject me?
Tallia's words raised in volume as she spoke but in the end her voice broke and she angrily dried a tear from her cheek. Zaron was left speechless and felt a terrible guilt building within him.
- Tallia… you don't have to… The way I behaved with you until now… it was a mistake, my mistake. You, to me, are so much more than that. You are my friend, the mother of one of my beloved daughters. You are straightforward, honest and fearless and those are qualities I always appreciated, no admired in you! You are special and unique and I can't bear to see you degrade yourself like this! I care for you, Tallia. I want things to go back as they were, better than the way they were.
Tallia trembled recognising the honesty in Zaron's words but then she turned her face from him.
- Even if I can forgive you there is Deja. You'll have nothing from me until she forgives you.
- And I hope with all my heart she'll forgive me soon. Peace, Tallia?
The woman nodded and let him hug her but she stayed stiff and unyielding. She would forgive him completely only once her young friend would.
Once her voluntary exile in the harem ended, Deja again started to show herself at her husband's arm for public occasions. Apparently everything was well between them: in front of the court the queen interacted with him but she always displayed some kind of reticence and coldness. The smiles full of warmth, the seemly casual touches the couple once traded, were absent. The khan lavished his wife with kindness and attentions but she still appeared tired and distant. At least in public she spoke with him even if she took advantage of the government session she accompanied him to in order to be as silent as possible. She still had to resume her morning walks and the meetings with her Issian advisors: she wouldn't be able to justify the Rakian attire she had been forced to adapt.
Even the birth of Famira's daughter didn't cheer her up: she was glad for her friend but it was painful to see the obvious love she shared with her husband and that baby who was its living proof.
Zaron chose to let her have all the space she needed, standing out of her way and waiting for his wife to be ready to reconcile with him. He was always near but respectful of her need for time. However he gave a time limit to his wait: Deja's upcoming birthday. At Issa they were going to share the bedroom and he wasn't going to keep on pretending there wasn't a problem. They would address it even if it meant to fight again. He was resolute in getting her to speak with him again even if just to scream at him. Furthermore he was looking forward to deal with the cause of that disaster: the boy who dared to try insinuating himself between them and who fled to Issa at his wife's orders.
Therefore, when the time came to board the aerostat that would take them to Issa, Zaron was filled by a strong determination. He led his wife inside, the only one to travel with him because he left all his concubines home, despite Pearl's unfavourable counsel. He was going to devote all of himself to Deja and he was going to mend the rift between them, whatever the cost, even if it meant begging forgiveness on his knees.
Deja felt happy again seeing the white walls of Issa and her father who was waiting for them, as usual. She let go of her husband's arm and hugged her parent with enthusiasm, something she had stopped doing while in public. Her father looked older: the wrinkles around his eyes were deeper and the hair on his forehead thinner. However the smile was the same as always, like the way he smelt: comforting and familiar. Aborn had been anxious to be alone with her and when Zaron finally let her leave his side with obvious reluctance he took her to their annual feast for two, walking so fast that they were nearly running.
- I heard the news, my dear child. It is …terrible. How are you faring?
Aborn asked her as soon as the servants were dismissed. His daughter seemed to deflate.
- It has been a farce, father. There was never a baby. How could it be if my husband refuse to touch me?
She replied bitterly. Then she diverted her eyes, turning to a window and looking outside.
- Something unpleasant occurred. You know by now I dismissed lord Ostin, commanding him to return to Issa.
Her father nodded wordlessly. Ostin reappeared suddenly, reporting the queen sent him away but without disclosing the reason of their discord.
- Ostin believed he could… force his attentions on me. He kissed and held me without my consent and I rejected him.
Aborn went first pale and later purple with rage and then he started to get up from his chair releasing choked sounds of fury.
- Sit father.
The queen ordered him harshly.
- This is an order. You, just like Zaron, are not going to do anything to that fool. Am I clear?
Deja's voice was peremptory and full of authority and her father sat back at once, taken aback at hearing that tone of command for the first time addressed to him.
- Think about the scandal, father. Moreover nothing bad happened. The worst he did was to leave bruises on me impossible to explain and that compelled me to stay hidden inside the harem for weeks. That had been the reason why we spread that terrible rumour: to explain my absence and the rage that gripped my husband when he learned what occurred. We had a horrible fight. Only verbal, I want to point out before you jump to hasty, and wrong, conclusions. We still had to reconcile.
Deja sighed, closing her eyes with a tired expression on her face.
- I am… disheartened. I need you to comfort me, not to berate me.
Aborn spread out his arms and his daughter took shelter in his embrace, as she hadn't done in years, letting him cradle her on his lap even if she was so tall she had to place her head on his shoulder instead of on his chest as she once was used to.
Deja had felt no fear, no hesitation in sharing the royal quartiers with Zaron and when that evening they were left alone at dinner and later on in the bedroom, she behaved customarily: she tried to look at him as little as possible and she answered in monosyllables to his attempt at conversation.
He faced her in the bedroom, when she came out of the queen's changing room, placing himself between her and the bed.
- We need to talk Deja.
- This cannot go on. It has to end, here and now.
She looked at him, meeting his eyes fleetingly. Zaron's demeanour was grave but he didn't seem angry, far from it: he seemed… desperate, tired and disheartened as she felt. She lowered her eyes quickly because watching him filled her with sorrow. His face, so dear to her, was like a blade driven into her heart. She squeezed her eyelids to push the tears back.
- We have nothing to talk about Zaron.
- That's not true! We can't go on neglecting the problem hoping it will solve by itself! I miss you my little darling… please talk to me.
Zaron beseeched and finally Deja looked at him, meeting his pleading eyes.
- I miss you too…
She admitted faintly, hugging herself. Zaron stretched out his hands toward her, palms up, and drew near slowly.
- I have been a fool and I behaved as a beast. I never really believed that what happened was your fault. I held and touched you for the wrong reasons and I regret it so much. I got angry when instead you needed care and attentions but the right kind of attentions…
- And which are the right kind of attentions?
Deja screamed in his face, closing her hands in fists.
- I had no need for a father who would pat me on the head and tell me everything is going to be well. I already have a father! I needed a husband to make me feel loved and wanted!
Zaron was relieved she chose to finally face the situation, her screams were preferable to the defeated silence and the resignation she displayed before. However the issue she chose was deeply unsettling for him.
- Deja… you are still too young…
- Ostin didn't share your opinion! And for a moment I thought that you too… when you kissed me, as I wanted to be kissed by you, only by you!
Zaron had to reign in his fury when she mentioned the boy's name, he gritted his teeth and tried to calm down.
- I was wrong Deja, you are still too young. Too young for me.
- I am always going to be too young for you Zaron! When are you going to accept it? I…
The girl shook because she was going to say something that would make her vulnerable, she had already exposed herself to him admitting she loved him that terrible night and his reaction hadn't be the one she had hoped for.
- … I love you and I desire you and I am consumed by jealousy every time you bed one of your concubines because you want them, only them and never me…
Zaron drew back, distancing from her.
- Please don't speak like that…
- Why do you not want me?
She cried again. Zaron covered his face with both hands and then he looked upwards, to the ceiling, desperate.
- It's not true.
He finally admitted in a broken tone.
- I do want you, that's the problem!
Deja was speechless, all her anger, all her sorrow for the repeated rejection form the man she loved melted away at his words.
- You… really?
She asked, full of hope.
- Then why? I want you too. Why do you keep on refusing me? Why?
He stumbled and sat on the bed.
- Try to understand my little darling… You are young, so young… Whereas I am… I can't, please don't ask me to…Give yourself time to grow up a little more. Please.
In these words, in that defeated tone, Deja finally recognised the reason for her husband's reluctance. It wasn't her, it wasn't because she was too young or not ready for him yet. For some reason he wasn't ready for her. Silence protracted between them and then Deja went to him and caressed hesitantly his hair and his shoulder. Zaron emitted a trembling sight and took her wrist bringing her palm to his cheek, opening his eyes and looking straight into hers.
- I concede. We will do as you say, husband of mine.
He smiled warmly, relived.
- But on a condition…
Deja returned his smile shyly.
- You will never call me "little" again. We are the same height by now. I believe I can do without that epithet. You can carry on calling me "darling" if you want. In fact, I must admit to love hearing you call me that.
He kissed her palm.
- As you wish, so it will be. My darling.
Then he drew her into his lap, placing a hand on her waist to support her and the other one on her head.
- Do you agree to follow my pace, Deja?
He asked in a hoarse voice, caressing her hair. She bit her tongue because wherever their bodies were touching she felt her flesh on fire and the flame of desire begun to burn in her belly. She nodded, unable to speak aloud.
He kissed her brow sweetly then both her cheeks, her eyelids and Deja found out how hard it was to keep still and not to meet his lips with her own. Finally he kissed her mouth, like she had dreamed and wished and with a moan she unclosed her lips, letting Zaron's tongue slip inside to meet her in a sweet caress. The kiss was too short-lived for her and when it ended Zaron guided her head to rest on his shoulder. Her heart beat madly in her chest, her breath was laboured and a smile, impossible to hold back, brightened her face.
* About the title: I translated from Italian as it was even if the original in English is different. It is the 3 law of Newton that in Italian is: "For every action there is a reaction equal and opposite (equal in magnitude but opposite in direction)". I thought it nice but in English doesn't sound right….
- Remember your promise, my darling.
He reminded her hoarsely. Deja rolled out of the bed, grumbling her dissatisfaction but she did as he asked, putting on her nightgown and slipping under the covers to wait for him. He joined her and drew her against his chest, trailing kisses along her shoulder and making her moan softly. Zaron laughed quietly.
- Sleep, my dearest. Sleep.