((So this ficlet is thanks to another Wendig Challenge. The instructions were to go here, find a phrase that tickled your fancy, and write a story/fic based upon it. My choice was actually “The More One Has, The More One Desires” but, well . . . I played. Enjoy!))
“Hire the Moors,” his brother said. “They work twice as hard for half the gold.” He didn’t need to hire cheaply; he was the eldest, the titled son and heir of his ancestral lands. Money came easy, and with it, power, too – his sanguine birthright ensured he’d live and die as any privileged Spaniard ought. But as he considered himself an intelligent man, he could justify a bout of opportunism when it fell into his lap, thus the fleeing refugees from Granada were offered decent pay and housing should they prove themselves able laborers. Nigh two dozen Moors found honest employ beneath his roof, and for a half year, they settled well into their duties.
Mostly, they lived beneath his notice; they had their strange little culture and their strange little God. They dressed oddly, ate oddly, and spoke oddly, too. For that matter only ten of them knew the native tongue, and he had to communicate to them through their appointed leader, a giant of a man named Ahmad. The language gap could be tedious from time to time, but as his brother promised, they were hard workers, they’d proven themselves as capable (if not more so) than any Spanish peasant. If using an interpreter meant his household continued to be run with efficiency, so be it.
One morning in late spring, quite by accident, he stumbled across the Moors’ prayers along the southern hill. Upon hearing their reverent chants, he stood transfixed, listening to the men’s voices chorus as they knelt and bowed. He couldn’t help but think the devout Isabela and Ferdinand would have vapors knowing such barbaric ritual occurred in one of their duchies. They’d begun their purge of the heathens, calling upon their priests to carry out a grand inquisition in their names, assuring that only the true faith spread throughout the lands. And though he loved his monarchs well, he saw no need to call attention to the worship for now. Allowing his people their small eccentricities made him a good lord, an agreeable lord, and they would remain loyal to such a man.
Should the crown demand he intervene, he would do his duty as a countryman, but not until such a time as he absolutely had to, or so he claimed.
He turned back to the house, intent to go on his business and put the scene behind him, but one of the Moorish women happened to pass by, her veils covering her from head to toe save for the rectangular slit cut above her nose. That was when he saw her eyes. Years ago, when he was young and his father still lived, he’d traveled the world with a scholar. They’d visited Greece to study ancient history, and along their course they’d sailed waters the color of good aquamarines. He’d seen nothing like it since, yet that was the memory the girl’s eyes conjured. They seemed to pop from her face, the effect made all the more startling by the dusky skin framing them, as if to say “see how brightly they shine against the dark”.
He stared because frankly, how could he not, and the girl bowed her head, sketching a bit of a curtsy before skittering her way inside. How long he stood there and gawked at where she’d just been, he couldn’t say, but it was the sound of a bleating lamb that tore him from his reverie. He shook his head as if to dislodge the remembrance and made for the house, trying to dismiss his reaction. He’d seen pretty eyes before, these were only remarkable because of her pallor, it was nothing so consuming.
Except, of course, it was.
He tried to put her aside by writing letters, one to his brother, one to his wife and children at their country estate. It took twice as long as usual because his mind kept wandering to the girl’s eyes and, by association, the rest of her. How old was she? Was she a maid or a matron? He hadn’t spied wrinkles, so he figured her on the younger side, but it was almost impossible to tell. Also what of her skin? She was dark but not as dark as some of her brethren. Was she all African or just part? Did she speak his language? If so, had he addressed her in the past and simply been too preoccupied to notice those eyes? And what of her shape? Her clothing kept her shrouded in mystery – was she voluptuous and curved at the hip? Thin like a boy? Or perhaps more round all over, like a sweet peach.
What had been a momentary distraction escalated to full-on enthrallment in a matter of minutes, and he left his seclusion to find Ahmad, whom – when in conversation with his brother – he referred to as his Moorish Steward. The large man was in the back of the house, barking orders to a few skinny young boys trying to drag a goat along behind them.
“Ahmad, who is the girl with the blue eyes?”
Ahmad peered at him, his hand moving to cover his heart. “She is Zahara, named for the city in which she was born. Has she displeased you, my lord?”
“Quite the contrary. Is she a maid?”
“Yes, Sir. She helps prepare your meals.”
He nodded and left the servants to their goat, saying her name over and over in his head, trilling the r to ridiculous lengths. Before he could think better of it his feet led him to the kitchens, a foreign place if there was one in a home he called his own, and the men and women inside stopped, so startled by his appearance they collectively froze. He was a stranger here, among the lesser.
He cleared his throat and scanned the sea of faces, finding those captivating eyes hiding in the shadows at the back of the room. He pointed at her and motioned her close, adopting a smile for her benefit.
“Zahara, come please.”
He rushed the name, and felt an oaf for not giving it the music it deserved. The girl kept her head low as she approached, her hands folding together in front of her. They too were uncovered, though he hadn’t noticed before, and the skin there was gold and rich, like good spice. He reached for her elbow and led her along, to the study down the hall. He guided her inside and shut the doors behind them. When he turned to address her, she looked near to kneeling before him, and he tutted, reaching out to put his hands on her biceps.
“No, please. I just want to see you. Your eyes . . .”
She made a soft sound, something almost guttural, before lowering her gaze and trembling. “I cannot. It is not modest.” She spoke his language, but it was heavily accented, enunciation put on all the wrong syllables. Still he found it – and her – enchanting, and he reached a hand up to stroke the backs of his fingers along the veil at her temple.
“Please. I must.”
“My lord . . . ”
“No, I must.” He would not be denied. He had never been so, nor had his father, or his father’s father. The noble blood that flowed through his veins assured him of ultimate sovereignty within his domain and she, like the couch behind her or the desk behind that, belonged to him. He bunched the thin fabric in his fingers and jerked it aside. He had to see what lie beneath, to solve the mystery that was this Moorish girl. She tried to cover herself, whimpering a plea for mercy into her palms, but he jerked her hands away, taking his fill of her countenance. He scanned her from forehead to chin and back again, looking once, and then twice, his tongue slicking over his bottom lip.
A minute passed, perhaps two, and he nodded, letting the now-sobbing girl go to collapse in a heap by his feet. He relinquished his hold on the veil, watching it flutter to the ground like a dying butterfly.
“You may go,” he said in dismissal. She wasted little time retrieving her scarf, sniffling and mourning for something lost though he’d never understand what. When she ran from the room, throwing the doors wide and retreating for the sanctuary of the kitchens, he approached his desk, sitting in front of it and frowning. His fingers tapped on the polished top for a long while before reaching for a quill and parchment. A string of words came alive at his behest then, each letter shaky and more than a little untidy.
Your Most Gracious Queen And Lady Of Spain . . .