The sun was setting over Picara Town and while many of its citizens were heading back home to have their dinners, Divania had just begun her work.
Kneeling on the coarse and scratched wooden floors, she let out a sigh. Her hands were red and aching from scrubbing the floor and she frowned as she went over all the duties she was presented with today.
There were the six rooms to clean at Red Rock Inn, which included scrubbing more floors and making the beds.
Then there were the sheets that needed to be removed and collected for the chambermaids to come in the mornings and wash them. And then there were the pillows to fluff...
Divania bit back another sigh of complaint. The last thing she needed was the innkeeper to see her whimper and be ousted from the only work she had managed to find in this town.
Gone were the days when she was the one who used to be waited on. She used to have maids who would bring her slippers when she got out of her bed and help her get dressed. There used to be another maid who would make her bed and fluff the pillows.
All that luxury was now in the past and better left forgotten.
She was here now, in a small town where no one knew who she was, and where the only time she saw the sun, was when it was setting.
Divania brushed away the sweaty tendrils from her forehead and wished she could tie up the blue ribbon that had slipped down her long curly hair. But her hands were wet and soapy and the last thing she wanted was to spoil her hair. The one feature she admired about herself was her hair, and due to her circumstances she wasn't given the privilege to wash and care for her hair as often as she wanted to.
Mr. Dorge, the innkeeper, walked over to her and tapped her on the shoulder. He was, a man in his forties, widowed, with just one son, who she had learned was a soldier.
"Sir?'' She asked and got to her feet.
While standing, Mr. Dorge wasn't much taller than her, but his broad shoulders made him look imposing.
"Divania, I wanted to inform you that my son shall be arriving tomorrow. He'll be taking over the business. I want you to arrive first thing in the morning and prepare his room."
Divania swallowed. "Er...I'm afraid that is impossible, sir."
"How so?" Mr. Dorge asked, his moustache quivering with the beginnings of rage.
"I...er.." Divania wrung her hands and looked down at her feet that were encased in shoes made of cloth that was dirty and worn out. "The reason I'm unable to make it in the mornings is because I must nurse my ailing aunt who was kind enough to take me in."
Mr. Dorge looked at her curiously. "I had no idea of your predicament."
"My aunt is gravely ill," Divania continued to lie. "She relies on me to conduct her daily activities and it is only after she dines and falls asleep that I'm able to come here to work."
Mr. Dorge looked on at her with pity in his deep brown eyes. Divania assumed he must have been quite a handsome man in his youth and attracted a lot of women with his taut jawline, straight nose and thin lips. His skin was bronzed from taking long walks out in the sun and the short beard he kept was neat.
"Alright then, make sure you are here in the evening," Mr. Dorge said. "My son would want to explain your duties to you."
Divania nodded quickly. "Thank you, sir. I'm much obliged."
Mr. Dorge left her with a casual nod and Divania got down to her knees again, adjusting her white apron over her lap.
Looking out the window, she saw that the sun had already set, leaving behind hues of blue and purple. Some dark grey clouds were approaching, warning of rain and quite possibly a storm.
She picked up her brush again and started to scrub.
Mr. Dorge had left muddy shoe prints on the floor that would require even more scrubbing. With a small sigh, she picked up her bucket and walked out of the inn, dumping the dirty water down the gutter that ran down the side of the road.
Wiping her brow, she made her way to the water pump and found her friend Marta sitting atop a wooden fence, smoking in the shadows.
Marta was the only friend Divania made when she came to this town, though she despised Marta's addiction to tobacco. Marta was older than her; evident by the silver strands in her otherwise raven hair. Her green eyes had lost their lustre and her skin was dotted by age spots.
Marta never told her, but Divania had a hunch that she had been married, judging by the indentation and lighter band of skin on her ring finger. Though why Marta had kept it a secret, Divania couldn't fathom.
Marta took another puff from her cigarette, watching, as Divania got up on the fence beside her.
"Want a smoke?"
Divania looked down at the cigarette dangling between Marta's thick fingers and shrugged. She hated the very smell of cigarettes, yet, it seemed the only way to bond with her otherwise aloof friend.
She took the cigarette and put it between her lips and drew a puff. Blowing out the smoke, she handed it back to Marta.
"Hear about the change in management?"
Divania nodded. "Mr. Dorge was just telling me. I thought his son was in the military. Did he leave?"
Marta pushed back a curl behind her ear. "Discharged after being injured." She puffed leisurely before looking at Divania's thin cotton dress that fell just above her ankles. "Aren't you cold?"
Divania shook her head. "No. I don't see you shivering."
Marta twisted the side of her lip. "I've had to drink and this," she turned the cigarette with her fingers. "Is helping."
Divania looked up at the stars and the crescent moon. "I wonder why Mr. Dorge is retiring."
"He's dying," Marta spoke with such nonchalance, as if dropping dead was such a banal thing to do, that Divania widened her eyes in surprise.
Marta dropped her cigarette and then jumped down from the fence to crush it under her feet.
"Uh-huh. He's been coughing out blood and having spells of dizziness," Marta told her. "You haven't noticed how pallid he's become?"
"No," Divania spoke, and put a hand on her chest. "That is awful."
"He's a proud man," Marta said, leaning against the fence to gawk as a horse carriage drew up in front of the inn. "You won't tell anyone anything, but I've been scrubbing the bloodstains from the basin every morning. And once he simply collapsed as he was speaking to a patron and upon revival blamed it on dehydration."
"Oh dear." Divania felt her heart go out to the first man who had offered her kindness and work when she had been so alone and scared in this new town.
"The family is cursed, I tell you," Marta spoke with the air of a worldly person. "First the father is succumbing to illness, then the son gets injured at war. There's been gossip of the son losing a limb."
"That is unfortunate," Divania replied.
"The day I started working was when my husband left me," Marta said so suddenly that Divania was taken aback. At last, Marta had revealed her secret, though it may have more to do with her inebriated state rather than finally trusting Divania enough.
"You don't believe Mr. Dorge had anything to do with that?" Divania replied in a small careful voice.
"I do believe in curses. I think we would benefit from staying away from this family." Marta pulled her apron tighter around her waist and tied it. "Looks like we have new patrons to attend to."
"I'll get the water," Divania said and jumped down from the fence. She watched Marta walk inside the inn and frowned. Suddenly, she heard the rumble of thunder overhead, felt drops rain hit her and she hurried into the inn after Marta as the rain started to pour down in buckets.
Of course she believed in curses too. After all, she'd had to face it first-hand.
The following day, Divania crept out a little early before sunset. The sky had amassed thick grey clouds that allowed no rays of sun to escape. However, the wet ground was an indication that it had rained earlier while she slept and probably would again that evening.
She took the longer route to the inn, passing by the suburbs that were lined with pretty little villas with lush green lawns. The clean earthy smell of the after rain, combined with the damp grass, lent a refreshing fragrance to the air that she delighted in.
Walking carefully over the puddles, so as not to get her skirt wet, Divania spent leisurely time gazing at the thirsty birds drinking from the puddles and the children running around their yards. A couple passed her by and she noted the way they entwined their fingers as they walked and chatted. For a moment Divania felt envy at the way the man and woman, who looked no more older than her, acted as if they hadn't a care in the world.
Divania walked faster, immersed in thoughts that wondered if an existence without worries was even possible.
By the time she had left the green foliage of the suburbs and entered into a barren path that led to the inn, she grieved the end of her leisurely stroll and slowed her pace, wishing just for a moment that she was back home, in the comfort of her room and perhaps in her childhood where the terrible occurrence had befallen her, would not have happened yet.
However, she couldn't stray any longer and had to get to work. It was getting darker and the street lanterns were starting to be lit. She veered to the side of the road as she heard the sound of approaching hooves. A carriage drove past her, splashing the lower part of her skirt with mud.
Divania let herself reminisce and count the dresses she used to have before she could afford only one plain one. Years ago, a speck of dirt on her dress meant that it was to be discarded immediately. She almost laughed at the absurdity that had been an unspoken rule at that time.
Arriving at the inn, she walked around to the water pump, certain that the day maids had emptied the storage. She started to fill the wooden buckets when the kitchen door on the side, burst open and Marta emerged.
Her friend looked wildly excited, going by the wideness of her eyes and the way her hair was even more ruffled.
"There you are!" She spoke with enthusiasm. "So much has happened. The new owner has arrived and created so much fuss. You're here early."
"Yes, I am." Divania set aside a filled bucket and pulled an empty one near the pump.
Marta walked to her side and put her hands on her hips. "Mr. Dorge's son is really something. He enters the inn as if he's the king of the land and starts lecturing us all on how we must run the inn. As if we've been doing feeble work for the past ten years!"
"I joined six months ago," Divania said calmly as she worked the water pump.
"You wouldn't be so calm when you meet him, I can tell you that," Marta spoke as if she was offended by Divania's lack of interest. "He talked about efficiency and how we weren't managing our time well and spent it on meaningless gossip."
Divania smiled inwardly. Wasn't that exactly what Marta was doing?
"He wants to see you and Rose right away, of course. The minute you step in, his words." Marta raised an eyebrow.
"Then I shall do so." Divania picked up the buckets and started towards the door. A thought occurred to her and she turned. "Does he retain all of his limbs?" She asked alluding to the conversation they had last night about their new employer losing his limbs in war.
"Mostly," Marta said, perching up on the fence and removing a cigarette and matchbox from the pockets of her apron. "But not his heart."
Divania nodded and hid a smile from her peeved friend. She walked in through the kitchen door and set the buckets down.
The kitchen was bustling as the cooks stood over large pots, preparing a fragrant stew for dinner. Divania got out of the way as quickly as possible and headed into the halls.
She gasped as she entered a brightly lit room. There were more candles and lanterns than usual set all around the room, and she paused as she felt her breath being taken away. For a moment, a very tiny fleeting one, she remembered what it had been like to be home and be surrounded by decorative lanterns and flowers that perfumed the air. The glass on the windows were scrubbed clean and she couldn't spot a speck of dust on them, not even on the hard to reach corners. The floors beneath her appeared to be polished and when she looked up again at the chandelier, she saw that it too, had been cleaned and that every candle was lit. The corners of the room were rid of cobwebs and the tables on which the diners sat were so clean, she reasoned they could eat from it rather than the plates. The music that was playing tonight was softer and she could hear a woman singing in the most melodious voice she had ever heard.
Divania was sure she had entered another world or another inn. Perhaps she had fallen face first in a puddle and was now dreaming.
She looked up at the balustrade, and saw a tall man dressed in a black coat and trousers, looking down at everyone. Even from a distance, she saw the deep frown on his face that made him look almost beast-like.
She heard a muffled curse from somewhere behind her and turned to see the four day-maids walking toward the door, fuming as they buttoned up their coats.
"Good evening," Divania greeted politely, intrigued by what they were discussing. Usually the day maids had always left in a cheerful manner and light chatter, but today they seemed aggrieved and seemed to be moaning.
"It might as well been," the oldest in the group muttered.
"Oh dear, what happened?" Divania asked. The four women looked weary, yet there were flames of dark anger burning in their eyes.
"Our new boss is what happened!" Janita complained. She appeared the angriest of them all as she put out her hands for Divania to inspect. Blisters on reddened skin, speckled her hands while the tops of her fingers had formed wrinkles from using water to clean all day long.
"We've had to scrub from top to bottom...every inch of this damned place! Yet the tyrant seems less than pleased," Janita complained, rolling her eyes.
"Yes, I reckon there is hardly any work for you, now that we've laboured all day," Rita, the youngest in the lot, added. Her hair, usually tied neatly in ribbons, was tousled and wet from sweating.
"I'm sure he'll find her something," the oldest one spoke. Divania had yet to learn all their names considering she would arrive when the day maids would be almost out the door. The oldest one in the group looked to be in her fifties with a few dark grey strands in white hair. Her grey eyes were doleful and her usually chubby florid face looked thin and pale.
Divania glanced up and saw the man she had seen earlier speaking to Rose, a night maid. Rose was a spinster with long curly, coppery red hair. She was petite and though she was well beyond her thirties, she looked like an adolescent girl.
Rose was timid and it didn't surprise Divania to see her nodding quickly at everything the man was saying. She had her hands clasped in front and she would keep squeezing them every time Mr. Dorge's son furrowed his brow.
Then Rose was turning her pale face and studying the crowd below before spotting her, and pressing her lips together. She raised a hand and pointed at her and just for a second, Divania felt an ominous twitch in her chest as the man stared down at her with a scowl.
"We are leaving," Janita spoke behind her. "Before that madman plies us with more torture."
Divania nodded and stared back defiantly at the man who was frowning down at her. She felt no apprehension as she matched his steady gaze, even though she had heard such fearful things about him. He could give her all the orders he wanted but she cared less for his attitude.
Rose beckoned her as the new owner finally tore away his gaze and walked into a room that had belonged to his father.
With her head held high, Divania walked to the staircase and looked up to see Rose almost in tears.
"He frightens me," she confided, once Divania joined her. "He injured his leg and needs to walk with a cane, but his pride is hardly disabled."
"What does he want?" Divania inquired.
"Said he wants to meet the maids." Rose shrugged. "Then he said something about assigning new jobs that befit our skills. And if we are not efficient he would remove anyone deemed unworthy working at his inn. His inn, that is what he said."
"Well it is," Divania said, still unperturbed by the man who everyone seemed to fear. "It is his father's and therefore could be legally passed on to him."
Rose put a hand on her forehead. "Oh how I wish Mr. Dorge was still running things. I'm running a fever from just listening to his son's lecture."
"Did he want to see us? We mustn't keep him waiting."
"I would like to," Rose said, narrowing her eyes. "Just to make him lose his arrogance. But he may lose his patience as well and have us terminated from our jobs."
"Let us go then." Divania walked over to the door of Mr. Dorge's office and opened it. "May we come in?"
Mr. Dorge's son was examining a painting hung over a low bookcase and turned to her in irritation, as if she had just interrupted his deep thoughts.
"I haven't told you to open the door." His voice was gruff and irritable.
"Shall I close it then?" Divania put on her most earnest face.
His frown deepened and he picked up the cane leaning against the wall and used it to walk over to the desk. Seating himself he gestured for her to enter.
Divania walked in, her head held high and her eyes not revealing any emotion. Behind her, Rose followed and closed the door behind them.
The office was immediately plunged into silence, now that the banter from the patrons downstairs was cut off. Divania had been to the office before and always thought it very gloomy with its grey walls and shabby brown curtains on a rather small window that she reckoned never allowed enough light during the day. She hadn't been here during the day of course, but she imagined that the office would never have looked cheerful. And now with the new owner's presence, the office looked and felt downright grim.
"I am Rayne Dorge," he introduced himself. "Of course you shall be referring me to as Sir. Now that I am taking charge, I shall be making changes to ensure this establishment runs smoothly. My father may have been too lax and made the employees lazy. I assure you I will not be adopting the same attitude."
Rose let out a small sound but Divania didn't look at her, instead keeping her gaze heavily on the man before her.
Rayne looked to be older than her with his dark hair and eyes. He had inherited his father's taut jawline and high cheekbones but apparently not his kindness.
Rayne appeared to be cruel and she blamed it on the war that he had been in. Even in the lowlight of the single lantern burning on his desk, she saw the small white scar on the right side of his chin.
There were several reddish ones on the side of his neck and small healing cuts on his hand.
When Divania looked up at his eyes again, she saw that they had become darker with rage, indicating that he had noticed her studying his scars and injuries.
For a moment, there was no sound as he appeared to be contemplating on whether to reprimand her for studying him or ignore the matter entirely and get back to discussing job descriptions.
Beside her, Rose moved her foot slightly, causing a small whooshing sound on the uncarpeted floor.
Rayne looked at her in irritation and then back at Divania.
"You don't look like you're from here."
Divania felt her breath caught in her throat. She swallowed before replying. "I am not."
"Then where are you from?" It was his turn to study her from top to bottom. Clearly he had noticed something that she hadn't been too careful to hide. "I've travelled much," she answered. "I only came here six months ago."
"That I have learned from my father, as well as a sick aunt you are caring for," Rayne was trying to intimidate her but that would be the day she would let any man ruffle her.
She answered carefully. "Yes."
"I suppose the reason my father employed you for work during night-time was because you're not a very able maid and the day maids would accomplish the majority of the work."
"There is always something to do," Divania replied calmly.
"Yes," Rayne spoke haughtily. "However, I am more interested in what else you can do. Since there isn't much cleaning to do during the evening, how else can you make yourself useful? The cooks could use assistance."
"I don't cook," she answered plainly.
"How can you not?" Rayne asked in surprise. Apparently all women were supposed to learn cooking at a very young age and she could even feel Rose's judging eyes on her. "How do you care for your aunt if you do not cook? Don't tell me she has go manage the kitchen even in her state." His tone was condescending and Divania felt a tiny bit of her confidence crumble. Her lie would be exposed if she wasn't too careful.
"I manage a watery soup and cut out slices of bread--the only food my aunt can digest," she explained.
Rayne rested his elbows on the table and clasped his hands. "Do you sing? We could use some entertainment for our customers."
Divania blinked. She used to write poetry, play an instrument and was a decent singer, but she could reveal none of that for fear of her past being revealed.
"I'm afraid not."
"Do you sew?" Rayne asked in a tone that showed he was clearly losing his patience.
"Your parents must have spoiled you," Rayne shook his head. "How does a woman, not married at your age yet, even survive without such basic skills?"
"I've always believed that it is not what you do but what you can do, that counts," Divania said, pushing her chin up.
Rayne raised an eyebrow. "Spoken like an arrogant woman. Is that why you are not married yet?"
Rose gasped at Rayne's venomous words but Divania was unperturbed.
"Are you using your position to ask me this question knowing fully well that I cannot retaliate in the same manner?" Divania spoke so quickly and calmly that Rayne was taken aback.
He rested his hands on the desk and that was when Divania saw the ring on his finger, though she couldn't tell if he was married or engaged.
"Carry on with whatever you are doing at the moment," he said without meeting her eyes. "I'll see if I can find you something else you can do." He put great emphasis on 'can' and Divania smiled at him.
"I'll get back to work then. Come, Rose."
Divania walked out the door and closed it once Rose had followed her.
"That...was...I was scared," Rose confided.
Divania smiled sweetly at her. "I wasn't. Not even for a bit."
The next day brought light rains and by the time Divania set out, the clouds were separating, ending the rain spell of the day.
As sun slowly made its descent, Divania thought it wise to stay in the shadows of the houses and trees. There were still large puddles to cross over and she grew miserable when the water seeped through her scuffed and ragged shoes.
Another jump over a puddle caused a tear in her dress to stretch further, making a hole the size of her fist near the torso.
Divania bit back her groans and reached into her apron pocket for a small spool of thread and needle.
When Rayne had asked her if she could sew, she hadn't lied when she said she wasn't adept with a needle. Marta had taught her a basic stitch to mend her clothes, however, she was still clumsy with the needle and more often than not, her friend would be the one to stitch her dress for her.
Not wanting to arrive late at the inn, Divania bowed her head and started to stitch the tear while walking at a steady pace. At the sounds of a horse approaching she quickly veered to the side of the road, pricking the needle accidentally on her finger.
Letting out a tiny gasp, she looked at her finger and saw a tiny drop of dark red blood. She immediately put it into her mouth and sucked, feeling her stomach clench as she did so. Closing her eyes, she felt the metallic taste spread over her tongue before the tiny drop made its way down her throat.
Divania opened her eyes, gasping as she realised she was standing out in the open, sucking her finger. She quickly removed the finger from her mouth, glanced all around her, saw no one looking in her direction, then resumed stitching her dress.
Walking slowly, she glanced up once and saw the side of the inn before returning to the task of mending her dress. She stopped near the tree that shaded the inn and ended her stitch, pulling threads in a knot. Once the thread snapped, she put the spool and needle back in her pocket and studied the stitching on her dress. Tugging on it lightly, she was satisfied when the threads didn't come apart. Smoothing her apron and dress, she looked up at the window and saw Rayne standing by the window, peering down at her.
For a moment she hoped he hadn't seen her mending her dress or he would assume that she did know how to stitch and dispense her with a load of clothes that belonged to the patrons.
She stared back at him and then put up a hand in greeting. Rayne stepped back and closed the curtains. Divania smiled at her small victory and headed to the other side of the inn to fill the buckets.
She was making her way to the w ater pump when she saw the group of day maids standing out near the entrance, dressed in their coats and shawls, sipping tea from small cups. They looked sated and she noticed not a frown on any of their flushed faces.
Divania walked over to them. "Hello."
"Hello," the women replied almost in unison.
"You all look pleased today," Divania said. "I hope you haven't had to work too hard today."
"Oh, he wasn't so monstrous today," Janita said. "He gave us regular breaks, made sure we had time for lunch and before we left, he insisted we had tea."
"That's quite a turnaround," Divania remarked, wondering if Rayne was up to something.
The side door to the kitchen opened and Marta walked out, already lighting a cigarette. Divania left the women to chat amongst themselves and went over to her.
"You're here on time as always." Marta took a puff and went over to sit on her favourite spot at the fence.
"How was your day?" Divania asked. "The others seem rather pleased today."
"They should be." Marta offered her the lit cigarette but Divania declined. "Our new employer has been nothing but charming today, asking us how we all were and giving us respites."
"Not a complaint against him?" Divania asked and looked around at the day maids who were heading home.
"I sure don't have any," Marta supplied. "He promoted me. I'm now in charge of all of you."
"Doesn't mean I'm going to berate you over petty things," Marta said, giving a crooked smile. "Just making sure you all do your jobs well."
"Do you get more pay?" Divania grinned.
"A little more." Marta winked. She took another puff and sighed. "Rose still hasn't come. She's always late."
"Will you have to inform Mr. Rayne?"
Marta waved a casual hand. "No. Only if she comes very late. I'll let a few minutes slide."
"I should get to work, then. Now that I know you have an eye on me," Divania jested.
Marta watched her carefully, unsmiling before she took another smoke. "He asked about you."
"He wanted to know where you're from. I told him I didn't know." Marta paused, waiting for her to divulge information but Divania only smiled.
"He's very curious." She side-stepped.
"Hmm." Marta looked disappointed but didn't pry. Divania had told everyone what she had told Rayne, that she had always been travelling a lot to call any place her home. Now there was no going back on that lie.
Hoping to dissuade Marta from asking anymore personal questions, she made her way to the water pump when she was called back.
"I forgot. Mr. Rayne wants to see you. He said he had a special assignment for you," Marta said.
Divania sighed. "Right away?"
Marta nodded and Divania walked through the kitchen doors, trying not to sulk.
The cooks greeted her with a brief nod before returning to cutting vegetables and meat while stirring an aromatic broth in large pots. The smell of freshly baked bread wafted through the air and Divania found herself reminiscing about her home. She had always been fond of baked goods, especially the assortment of breads her baker made. Every evening she would sit at a lavish supper of olive breads, spiced vegetables and a variety of meats. The best part of her meals would be the desserts that included puddings, cakes and sweets made of jelly and nuts. Her cooks used to be the most innovative and adept and there had never been a day when she hadn't slept on a full stomach.
Then the event had occurred and she was now in circumstances where her hunger was never sated and her thirst was never quenched.
She enjoyed taking a whiff of the supper the cooks at the inn were making, but realising that she no longer had a craving for good food, she moved quickly into the hall where the diners were seating themselves on the long tables.
A nocturne was playing as she made her way to the stairs and she stretched her neck to see a scrawny man, dressed in a brown jacket and trousers, seated at the piano.
She had never seen him before and imagined he was a new recruit. Wondering if more singers were hired as well, she climbed the stairs quickly and then paused by the door to the office.
Suddenly, she didn't want to leave behind the soft music playing on the piano and the idle chatter of the patrons, to go into the eerie quietness of the office.
It may be cloudy and grey outside, but the office, she thought, is gloomier.
She knocked twice and waited to hear Rayne's voice bidding her entry. When
did, she opened the door and walked in.
"Good evening," she greeted sweetly.
Rayne nodded and gesticulated with his hands to close the door behind her. She did and immediately regretted the loss of jovial sounds coming from downstairs.
He studied her from top to bottom before resting his eyes near her stomach, obviously taking note of the casual stitches she had made on her dress.
"Do you not own any other dresses?" He asked.
Divania brought her arms forward and clasped her hands. "I can barely afford the basic necessities on the wages I'm given," she said. "Most of my earnings are spent on food and..."
"And taking care of your sick aunt," he added.
Divania turned her attention to the painting of the older Mr. Dorge, hanging on the wall. It had been commissioned by an upcoming artist whom she heard, was putting on an art exhibition during the annual festival.
"Yes," she replied.
Rayne didn't speak for a moment and even though her eyes were on the painting of the former owner, she could feel his curious eyes on her. She wondered what she had given away about herself to invoke such curiosity in him.
"Well," he said, finally. "If you complete this errand, I'll pay you extra and you can buy yourself a new dress and shoes."
"What must I do?"
Rayne pushed back the curtains and looked outside where the sun had just set, leaving the sky an inky blur.
"As you know," he said, turning back to her, "the annual Picara festival is coming up. I've planned a special feast to attract more patrons to the inn. The cooks have been instructed to make their most special delicacies and the wine has already been ordered. The cooks have planned the menu and apparently require an assortment of special spices. I understand that a shipment of various spices is arriving tonight. I want you to pick up the small order I've already placed."
"You want me to go down the docks? If we wait until tomorrow, the shops will be stocked with spices and we could get them then," she said.
"No, I need to get my hands on it right away before the other eateries do," he replied, annoyed that she had offered a suggestion instead of obeying him immediately. "It's a very special spice, according to the cooks, that is an essential ingredient to their meals."
"Alright. And you insist that I must be the one to collect it?"
Rayne gave her a wretched smile before resting his elbows on the desk and clasping his hands. "Is it an errand you cannot undertake? Are you afraid to walk out in the dark?"
Divania pulled up her chin. "Of course not. I'll go right away."
"Good," he said, resting his hands on the table before turning around and peeking through the curtains again. "The ship is called The Blue Mermaid. I've spoken to a stevedore who will give you a package. His name his Saul."
Divania nodded and then swallowed. She clasped her hands tight and then released them before Rayne noticed her discomfort.
She had heard of the ship before, and it took everything out of her to not let out a surprised gasp in front of her employer, who would no doubt be mystified. She should refuse to go on this errand but that would only amuse Rayne who would henceforth consider her a coward.
No, she had to go.
Chances are that none of the crew members would recognise me anyway. She reasoned with herself.
It was dark and she didn't look like the person she used to be. Her predicament would be her veil. No one would imagine her to be wearing a dress with more holes than Swiss cheese, and anyone who looked at her shoes would think them to be ugly rags rather than footwear. She would have to tie up or conceal her hair, however. A long time ago, she had been praised for her luxuriously silky auburn hair. And in this town, it seemed that she was the only one with a different hair colour that was unique to the place she hailed from.
"I shall leave right away," she said.
"Wait." Rayne opened up a drawer and removed a small pouch of coins. "You must pay Saul. He knows exactly how much is in it."
Divania bit back on the retort to his unspoken accusation that she would steal the money. She put out her hand to receive it and Rayne stared at her again. The candle flame on his desk flickered but he took no notice of it or made an attempt to protect it from the wind that had made its way through the slightly ajar window. His dark eyes bore into her deep brown ones before heading down to her hands that, though had suffered from the excessive scrubbing she had to do, still had a daintiness about them. He put the pouch in her hands and his fingers briefly touched her palm.
Wincing slightly, he pulled back. "You're cold."
Divania slipped the pouch into the pockets of her dress. "I don't feel it. I'll take your leave now."
Rayne turned away again with a frown. "It's drizzling outside and it may turn into a downpour. Do you have something to shield yourself?"
"I'll be fine."
Rayne frowned at her and then pointed behind her. "There's an umbrella hanging from behind the door. Take it."
Divania wanted to say that she didn't want to borrow any of his things, but swallowed her pride. The less she engaged with him the better. Before she turned around, she noticed that he was no longer wearing the ring she had noticed yesterday.
Keeping her curiosity to herself, she picked up the umbrella from the hook, opened the door and walked out, relieved to hear the music again.
Letting out a breath, she ambled downstairs, taking two steps at a time before pausing to look at her reflection on the circular mirror hanging from the wall. Her hair was loose and the blue ribbon
she had used to tame her hair was hanging in an unfussy knot.
Making her way to the basin near the kitchens, Divania plucked out the ribbons and started to awkwardly plait her hair. She never knew making her hair would be such a challenge but she couldn't afford the luxury of hiring a maid anymore, or ask any of the maids around to help her considering they were busy with their designated tasks.
She huffed in frustration when her tendrils immediately started to come loose from her plait. Her eyes searched for pins any of the women patrons may have left on the basin and let out another sigh when she couldn't find any.
Divania straightened and looked at her reflection, her eyes glistening with frustrated tears caused by her inability to perform the simple task of tying up her hair to conceal her identity from the men she was supposed to meet.
It was then that she noticed Rayne's reflection. He was talking to a woman whom she had heard sing last night. Dressed in a red flowing dress, the woman had her dark hair loose over bare shoulders. She was laughing at something Rayne was saying and put a hand on his jacket.
Divania frowned. Perhaps the singer was the reason Rayne wasn't wearing a ring anymore. Rayne took the woman's hand and kissed it before walking past her. With his cane, he navigated himself around the busy tables, when he looked up and Divania saw him looking at her in the mirror.
She didn't give him a chance to react; no doubt he would be smug when
saw how she couldn't even perform a simple task as tying up her hair.
She clutched her hair from the base of her neck, twisted it and tied
a ribbon around it. Grasping the borrowed umbrella, she quickly made
her way out of the inn and found herself being perturbed by the
darkness surrounding her.
It shouldn't have scared her, but walking to a part of the town she had always avoided, unnerved her.
The streets were barely lit with lanterns and at a distance, she spotted colourful lanterns hanging from poles at the square where the preparations for the festival had begun. How she longed to be surrounded by lights and music again.
As Rayne had noted, there was a light drizzle that didn't require the protection of an umbrella, so she walked, carefully avoiding puddles and dreading making her way to the darker part of the town.
She looked at the couples strolling down the street, hand in hand and so much in love that they were oblivious to the dark and drizzle around them.
Divania walked faster. Lately it seemed that whomever she laid eyes on, were deeply in love. Or perhaps it was her imagination or secret desire...
The pungency of the salty water and fish, assailed her nostrils and she wriggled her nose in disgust.
Lost in her thoughts, Divania had made the short journey to the docks without even realising it. As she walked down the pier, she found herself gazing at the large ship before her with the bold white letterings on the side- 'The Blue Mermaid'
Beside it, on the docks, she spotted a group of five men, one of whom was leaning against a wooden crate while the others played cards.
Opening up her umbrella, only so that she could conceal somewhat of her face, she headed down the ramp.
Inching closer, she bit down on her gasp as she recognised one of the crewmen who was idly chewing on a toothpick. Only when she moved closer that she could smell the tobacco and realised that all of them were smoking hand-rolled cigarettes.
Divania wanted to go back and make some excuses to Rayne, but he would only be smug and she would have given him a reason to believe she was incapable and cowardly.
Taking a deep breath, she walked faster and made her way to the group of men.
"I'm looking for Saul," she spoke, her voice pitchy.
The man leaning against the crates straightened and looked at her from top to bottom, a smile of delight forming on his face as he realised she was a woman.
"That's me." He took another puff from his cigarette while the other men, stopped playing cards and turned to her. Clearly no woman had ever presented herself at the docks to speak to stevedores.
Divania brought the umbrella forward so that he couldn't see her face. Up close, and even in the lone lantern, she had recognised him. She had never known his name all those years ago, but he had been a notorious skirt-chaser who didn't know not to pursue women who didn't belong to his rank.
Divania had never thought that one day she would have to speak to him about a favour.
"I believe you have a package for Mr. Dorge?"
Saul rolled the cigarette between his fingers while exchanging a glance with his fellow crewmen.
"Sure." He tossed the cigarette into the sea, then walked around the crates and rummaged. "Mr. Dorge sent a woman? In the dead of the night to retrieve his parcel?"
Divania didn't reply but she noticed the others forgoing their card games in favour of gawking at her.
Saul came up from behind the crates and handed her a small wooden box. "I believe you owe me?"
Divania took the box and held it under her arm while she reached into the pockets for the pouch.
She brought it forward, but Saul didn't take it. He appeared to be trying to make out her appearance in the dark.
"Your voice is familiar."
Divania swallowed and pushed her hand further so that he would take the coins and she could be on her way.
"Do I know you?"
Divania started to put the pouch on top of a crate, when he suddenly grabbed it and let his hand graze over her hand.
Divania pulled her hand back when he made a lustful sound.
Turning on her heels, she walked away, furious that she had to speak to a scoundrel like Saul. If she was still at home, men like him would be imprisoned for even looking at her. Clenching her fists, she cursed the fates and walked up the ramp, letting out a small curse even for Rayne who had made her encounter a beastly person such as Saul.
It was when she had calmed herself down a bit and found herself on a desolate ill-lit road, that she heard a splash behind her.
She slowed her pace and felt her mouth go dry. When she heard footsteps behind her and the stench of tobacco, she stilled.
She was being followed.