“Good day, Sisters,” he said, bowing slightly to her though his dark brown eyes never left hers. “How are you enjoying the festivities?” His voice had a wonderful bass to it.
Aisha felt her jaw slacken in shock. He was the gentleman—the one who had seen her use her magic. Had he come up to reveal what she was?
“It’s rather too extravagant for me,” Dema said, “but it has its purpose.” Her eyes darted between them, and Aisha gave her a slight shrug. Better for her to think Aisha had no idea what was happening.
“Oh, yes,” he said, raising an eyebrow, “nobility finally gets a chance to show their devotion. Rather unfortunate they can’t do so any other day, don’t you think?”
Aisha felt laughter bubbling inside of her. There was a playfulness to the way he used his voice–he mixed his tones and inflections that picked him out from the monotone of speech slurring in the room.
There was nothing of the intimidating nature that went with nobility. While his clothes and jewelry said he was part of the upper class, everything else contradicted it. The constant smile fit his face and he stood, more like leaned, with his hands planted on the railing behind him and all but sat on it–none of the impassiveness that was in the others as they shifted on their feet and gazed around the room, feigning to listen to conversations with a friend or colleague. He stood with his weight firmly in one spot. And he kept his eyes on her and Dema. It was as if nothing else was in the room. No one had treated her like that since she had been taken from her home five years before.
Aisha spent most of the brief conversation between Dema and the man looking at her sandaled feet. She played with the hem of her sleeves and scratched her nose more times than was necessary. Her mind raced for excuses to get a moment alone with him. She had to know what he had seen. What would he do with his knowledge?
“Aisha?” She looked up and found Dema looking at her, her brows drawn together. “Weren’t you going to lay down? You look pale.”
“Don’t tell me you’re ill, Sister?” he said. Was that concern or mockery?
“Yes, I think it’s the heat,” was all she managed to say. She hated herself for not being able to meet his eyes again.
“Then some fresh air will do you good.” She let her eyes flicker over him and saw that he was offering her an arm. It would be improper for her to walk off with a man she had just met. People would talk. But it was also her chance of having a moment alone with him.
Before she could think too long about it, she placed her hand on his arm. “Perhaps it will.”
She heard Dema clear her throat loudly beside her and jumped a bit. “Why don’t we go for a walk then?”
The gentleman flashed a mischievous smile, “If you’re worried about me, Sister, I can assure you that my fiance is more than capable of keeping me in line. If her maid gives her a chance.”
Dema hesitated for a moment. Before either of the women could protest, the gentleman swept Aisha around and strode down the steps.
He had a way of sliding through the crowd–finding the easiest way to navigate around clusters of people that made them invisible as they drew closer to the doors. Or at least they would have been if she hadn’t kept bumping into people. His fluid movements made her stumbling ones seem worse than usual. He must have noticed, for he moved his hand to her back and started to guide her through the crowd with the ease of a dancer.
Aisha tried to focus on her feet as she moved. All her other thoughts centred around what would happen once she found herself alone with him. In her experience, it was not a good idea to run off with a strange man. Though she hated crowds, there was a certain kind of protection in them. Why was it suddenly so hard to breathe? Was she even doing it, right?
As they got dangerously close to walking outside, Aisha found herself pulling back from him. He stopped before the doors and raised an eyebrow at her. “Problem, Sister?”
“What about your fiance?” It was worth a shot. If she could have at least one other person there, probably one that would if nothing else, be a witness might be better than being alone. Yes, it would mean possibly revealing her secret to one other person, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that there had to be something off about this man. No one kept an easy smile like that unless they had something to hide.
He turned to her with a look of mock humility. “Sister, if my fiance ever finds out I went on a walk with someone as pulchritudinous as you, I would be stuck grovelling for forgiveness until the end of time.”
Aisha blinked. What had he called her?
Her momentary confusion was enough for him to guide her out of the Temple and into the fresh breeze coming off the river.
Aisha felt something within her lighten as she took a deep breath through her nose. She was still mesmerized by the sight of water. Some of the outer colonies lived near the river’s edge, but she had grown up where there was little more than sand to fill her tummy.
“You should be more careful about leaking.”
Aisha’s head snapped up. “Excuse me?”
He pulled back his cloak and pulled out a metal bar. The ends were twisted as if they had been crushed and there was an odd pattern of dents in the centre. It took her a moment to recognize it as part of the banister from the Temple–the part she had melted.
“How did you get that?” Her voice was shriller than she would have liked.
“Lifted it while I was charming your friend. This unshapely cloak is at least useful, if not altogether fashionable.”
All she could do was stare as he casually hucked the bar into the river. It made a sad sploonk as it sank.
“So, do I have to keep calling you ‘Sister’, or is Aisha convenient? You’re welcome to call me Seti if you find that proper.”