The Circles - Book Seven - Chapter 14

The Circles - Book Seven - Land of Treachery
Chapter Fourteen
Two Lovely Captives
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

As the sun pushed over the rim of the horizon, driving back the night's ebony darkness, the rugged rock spines and undulating dunes of the desert were bathed in brilliant hues of gold, red, yellow and orange. Shakh Zarkfir stood at the opening of his tent and watched as the night turned to day. He yawned and stretched, trying to shake loose the stiffness in his back and shoulders. He had not slept well the night before, awakening unrefreshed from a restless sleep. He heard a noise behind him and turned to glance back into the tent, where his body servant Âmul had just placed a tray containing his breakfast.

"Master?" The young man coughed nervously, clearing his throat. "Your food will grow cold if you do not eat soon."

"In a moment, Âmul," Zarkfir replied absently and then turned to gaze at the sunlight as it lit up the distant horizon.

"As you wish, Master." Âmul bowed his head, folded his hands across his middle, and assumed the pose of the obedient servant as he waited behind his master's place at the table. The lord looked haggard this morning, his face tense and strained, his dark eyes sunken and shadowy. He was unsure of the cause of his master's present distress, unless he had returned to mourning for his beloved. It had been weeks since Zarkfir had sent away Jatagan the poet, once the nightly companion of his bed. Âmul was certain that he would eventually know what was troubling his master, but in the meantime, the food on the table sent up delicious aromas which tantalized his nostrils. His stomach rumbled unpleasantly, and he hoped that his master would not hear the embarrassing sounds.

Giving one last look at the brilliant purple streamers which streaked the dawning sky, Zarkfir turned and walked into the tent, barely noticing Âmul. The shakh sat down on a comfortable cushion in front of a low table and let his eyes drift over the food. After Âmul had washed his master's hands in a bowl of rosewater and dried them with a soft towel, Zarkfir broke off a piece of flatbread and dipped it in a bowl of hummus. He turned next to a platter of grilled chicken and began tearing the meat from the bones with his fingers. He smiled when he saw another platter that contained grilled eggplant, and scooped up the vegetables with a piece of flatbread. Taking another piece of bread, he drizzled olive oil over it and placed it in his mouth, along with a thin slice of cucumber. Pleased with his breakfast, he pushed the trays back and took a sip of water from an earthen cup.

"Would Master care for anything else?' Âmul asked. "Some fruit or pastries?"

"No, I am quite satisfied. You may have what remains after you have served tea." Zarkfir noticed the pleased smile on the servant's face as Âmul washed and dried his master's hands. "I am expecting guests this morning; you will see to their comfort.

"Certainly, Master." Âmul smiled, trying to hide his curiosity. "How many should I expect?"

"Two," Zarkfir replied tonelessly.

"Your brothers, my lord, Shakh Husu and Shakh Kangtar?" Âmul questioned, hoping to gain some inkling of the identity of his master's guests. Shakh Zarkfir seldom had company for breakfast, and so Âmul wondered at the occasion.

"No, Âmul," the shakh answered. "My brothers are taking breakfast in their own tents." He could see that the servant was on edge with curiosity. He slowly sipped the cup of tea that Âmul had just poured. He was in no great hurry to see the women.

"I see, Master." Âmul wondered who the lucky fellows were. Although he had never been called to his master's bed, Âmul always wondered how it would feel to have the heat of Zarkfir's powerful body pressed against him, his strong hands stroking over his chest and stomach. In his fantasies, those hands ventured lower and lower until Âmul was moaning in ecstasy. He had never lain with another man before, and it was well known that Shakh Zarkfir was a wildly passionate, yet tender, lover. Perhaps, perhaps...

A pang of unexpected jealousy tightened his stomach muscles, and Âmul tried to guess which two men in the camp that his master had chosen to be his lovers. He thought of the handsome twin sons of Bosnauk the potter. "Those two, with their big brown eyes and effete sighs and glances, have probably lain with half the men in this tribe! What a pair of whores! They are unworthy of my master!" Âmul tormented himself with thoughts of those two sharing his master's bed. But then a stab of guilt struck him, and he realized that he was wrong for thinking this way. He should resign himself and be glad for his master. Poor Shakh Zarkfir had suffered terribly when Jatagan had betrayed him. Âmul could not begrudge him some happiness.

"Considering the speed with which news travels through this camp, you probably have heard about the two slave girls my brothers and I brought back yesterday." Zarkfir looked at Âmul, and momentarily wondered why his servant was beaming so broadly. "Aye, I suppose you have." He paused. "I will be talking briefly to the two of them this morning. If there are any more of those pastries my esteemed mother sent to me last night, serve them... a little cheese and fruit, too, perhaps. I do not expect the girls will be here long." He waved his hand, dismissing his servant.

"Yes, Master." Bowing, Âmul went to brew more tea and prepare a tray of food. Could his master be interested in the captured slave women? It was long past time that Shakh Zarkfir married and sired sons to his name. Âmul's mind was filled with fantasies about his virile lord who enjoyed both men and women.

A few minutes later, Kaira escorted Elfhild and Özlem to Shakh Zarkfir's tent and motioned for them to follow her. Standing shyly in the open entryway, she waited until Shakh Zarkfir acknowledged her with a nod.

"Master," the handmaid bowed, never taking her eyes from the carpet, "my mistress said that you wanted to see these two."

"Yes, Kaira." He gave her a kind smile, thinking she felt ill at ease. "I will not keep them for long."

"If Master has no further need of me, I am to return quickly to the tent of my mistress." How Kaira wished that Shakh Zarkfir did have need of her! She blushed profusely under his gaze. She had long been half in love with the handsome shakh, and had always hoped that there could be something between them someday. "A futile hope," she thought sadly, for Zarkfir had never shown any interest in her.

"You may go, Kaira. Please give my felicitations to the Lady Shabimi," Zarkfir told the girl, scarcely looking at her, for his eyes kept straying to Özlem. "Welcome to my dwelling, Özlem and Elfhild," he told them as Kaira bowed her way from the tent. "Please be seated. My servant will soon have some refreshments for you."

"Master is kind," Özlem replied, her eyes hidden by the sweep of her dark lashes as she bowed her head.

"I pray that Master's morning is pleasant," Elfhild told him as she and Özlem sat down cross-legged at the table across from the shakh. Frightened and disoriented, she wanted to keep in Zarkfir's good graces. Last night in Shabimi's tent, the other girls had tittered and giggled as they discussed the handsome desert prince, making Elfhild blush at their candid speech. Suggesting that she might be Shakh Zarkfir's choice for a first concubine, they had teased her unmercifully. Although the girls meant well, Elfhild found no comfort in their giggles and gossip, for she was still mourning for the death of Esarhaddon. Now she and Özlem were in Zarkfir's tent, and perhaps the man was about to invite them both to his bed. She felt a shudder of dread when she saw how his sultry eyes roamed over their bodies.

The shakh smiled at the two girls and then looked up as Âmul returned with a tray of refreshments. Padding almost noiselessly in his soft slippers, the servant set the tray down on the low table in front of the guests and then poured the tea.

"Ladies, please have some refreshments," Zarkfir ordered them. Leaning against the colorful cushions at his back, he watched them eat as he sipped his tea. "While you dine, I have a few questions for both of you. I will start with Özlem first." Seeing her concerned expression, he smiled reassuringly at her.

"Yes, Master." As her eyes met his, Özlem suddenly felt short of breath, and the heat of the desert seemed much hotter than before. "I will answer all your questions as best I can."

"That is all I require from you." Zarkfir studied the girl as she ate, and was pleased to see that her manners were impeccable. With her long dark hair and soft eyes, she was truly lovely, and he delighted in the sight of her. "From what you have already said, I know that you were the slave of Shakh Esarhaddon uHuzziya. While neither my father nor I have ever had dealings with the man, his reputation is known far and wide throughout Mordor. What did you do while in his service?"

"I was part of a small musical ensemble that traveled with the caravan to entertain the master and his men." There was a note of pride in Özlem's voice. "I played the santur."

"A beautiful instrument," Zarkfir replied, impressed by her claim. He wanted to ascertain how important she had been to her late master, for this would determine her worth as a slave and how much reward he would be offered should an agent of Esarhaddon come to claim her. A trained musician was considerably more valuable than a menial servant, so Zarkfir stood to obtain a substantial amount of coin.

"Yes, my lord, I think so, too." Her soft, demure voice became slightly louder as she emphasized her love for her craft. "When I play the santur, I feel at peace, and I hope that I can impart similar feelings of serenity and joy upon my listener."

Zarkfir listened with rapt attention as Özlem discussed her deep and abiding love for music. He noticed how her eyes shone when she spoke of the santur, and he smiled to himself. While music was not his forte, he appreciated the skill and dedication it took to become a musician, the hours of training and practice required to coax beautiful melodies from curious looking instruments with seemingly little effort. There was a certain magic to be found in music, and he was thoroughly convinced that all singers, bards, and musicians were natural magicians at heart, for in Music was the world created.

"Can you play any other musical instruments?"

Though she did not understand the purpose of this interview, Özlem was flattered by Zarkfir's interest in her and her abilities. She could tell by the expression on his face and the posture of his body that he was hanging on to her every word. She found herself wanting to impress him, to tell him things that would cause him to hold her in high esteem.

"I can play the lute, my lord, as well as the goblet drum, but the hammered dulcimer is my passion." She felt that hot desert heat warming her cheeks again, and knew that she was blushing.

Intrigued by Özlem's many accomplishments, Zarkfir contemplated everything she had told him, and found himself wanting to learn more about this beautiful, talented woman. He determined to procure a santur for her use, for he longed to hear her play. But he had to remember his original purpose to interview her, to establish her worth to the late Esarhaddon uHuzziya, for this would determine the amount of the reward that he could expect for her safe return. That is, if he decided to part with this enchanting little musician.

"What did you do when not with the caravan?" he asked, almost hesitant to change the subject, for it might break the spell.

"I lived at Shakh Esarhaddon's villa in Nurn, where I was part of a larger musical ensemble that he kept to entertain merchant councils and other important guests," Özlem explained. "When my services as a musician were not needed, I was an assistant to the Mistress of Music at the House of Huzziya School of Industry."

Zarkfir nodded, his mind reeling at the number of achievements that this woman had attained in her relatively short life… she was an accomplished santur player, a member of two musical ensembles, and a teacher's assistant in an exclusive school. Suddenly he felt a profound sense of unease. He was a lord of sheep and goats and lowly shepherds of the desert wastes, and she was an elegant, sophisticated woman from the opulent land of Nurn. Surely she must think that he and his people were simple.

"How long were you in Shakh Esarhaddon's service?"

"Five years, my lord."

"And before that?" He leaned forward, his dark brown eyes filled with wonder and curiosity.

Özlem hesitated. If she told Zarkfir about her sordid past, he would surely look upon her with scorn. In her own land of Harad, tribesmen such as the Dolrujâtar were often rigidly traditional, holding fast to time-honored customs and shunning all that their tribe deemed forbidden. A woman such as her would be considered less than dirt, and no decent man would ever desire her as a wife or concubine. Yet there was something about this devastatingly handsome man that made Özlem feel compelled to tell the truth. Perhaps it was his demeanor, so dauntless and intense, or perhaps it was the innate goodness she sensed in him that compelled her to let down her guard. She considered lying, but what was the point? She could never change her past, no matter how many falsehoods she told.

"My lord, I was born in a brothel in Harad; my mother was a prostitute." Özlem saw the expression of dismay on Zarkfir's handsome face and looked away in shame.

Zarkfir frowned. He felt his heart sink, stricken by shock and disappointment. Why did a girl this beautiful, who looked so naïve and innocent, have to be cursed with such an unseemly past? He had never been around a woman of ill repute before, but he knew they were frowned upon by the Dolrujâtar.

"Then, Özlem, you are telling me that you were a whore like your mother?"

"No, no, my lord. While I am the daughter of a whore, I never became one. My skill at the santur saved me from that fate." Not entirely, she thought with shame. The first tender years of her womanhood were spent entertaining men with perverse lusts, but after she discovered the santur, she was elevated to the position of musician. But Zarkfir did not need to know all that. It was bad enough that he now knew of her questionable parentage. How could this respected young shakh who was heir to the leadership of the tribe ever want to be near a woman such as her?

"When the brothel keeper died, all of the women were sold to pay his debts," she continued in a flat whisper, all of her previous exuberance having left her voice. "One of Shakh Esarhaddon's agents happened to be at the slave auction in Kaskal that day. He purchased me and took me up north to Nurn, where I became a student at the School of Industry."

"I see," Zarkfir replied, feeling somewhat relieved that Özlem had not followed in her mother's line of work. He decided to change the subject. "With Shakh Esarhaddon dead, who now manages the House of Huzziya's caravan?"

"His healer, Tushratta, serves as second-in-command for this journey," Özlem replied.

"I cannot say I have ever heard of the man," Zarkfir replied, stroking his beard reflectively. "No matter. Perhaps I shall contact him, or perhaps he shall contact me."

"What… what are you planning on doing with us?" Özlem asked hesitantly. With Esarhaddon dead, she did not know what would be her fate. Would she be sold on the auction block? Her hands shook slightly as she took a small sip from her glass of tea. She would not mind so much if she could continue being a musician, but she feared being sold to another brothel. She would do anything, anything Zarkfir or his brothers asked of her, if only she did not have to return to that life!

"I am still deciding. Perhaps I will keep you, perhaps I will give you to one of my brothers, perhaps I shall return you to the House of Huzziya for a reward." Zarkfir knew that his words might sound curt, but he needed time to think, to process everything that Özlem had told him. He turned to Elfhild, who had remained respectfully silent during his conversation with Özlem. "I can see by your coloring and hair that it is unlikely that you come from Harad."

"I am from Rohan, Master."

"Rohan, aye, I should have guessed," he told her. "And did the Shakh own you, or are you one of the slaves whom he sells on commission for the Tower?"

"Master, my sister and I were part of the booty from Rohan, two of the many thralls of Mordor. Shakh Esarhaddon was not unkind to my sister and me, but he was planning to sell us in Nurn," Elfhild told him sadly.

"Then where is your collar?" He cocked an eyebrow, regarding the girl suspiciously.

"The uruk raiders filed it off when Özlem and I were captured," Elfhild explained. "You can still see the white line where the sun did not color my skin." Lifting her hair, she gathered it into a loose bun on top of her head so that he could see her neck.

"Such a pretty neck to be hidden by a band of iron!" Shakh Zarkfir exclaimed in disgust. "None but the most recalcitrant of slaves should wear a collar!" New slaves were always escorted to Nurn in collars and chains, but Zarkfir disagreed with the practice when it came to women and children. He felt that such harsh restraints were cruel and unnecessary.

Elfhild released her hair, the golden tendrils spilling over her shoulders. "I hated the collar, Master. It was a constant reminder that I was no longer free, only another wretched slave." She looked down, her face clouded with gloom.

"You will not wear a collar while you are in my camp," Zarkfir told her emphatically. "There are few slaves here who have the iron around their necks, and then only those who are runaways or troublemakers. The Dolrujâtar generally reserve collars for their hounds."

"My lord is most gracious," Elfhild murmured. Since she had been a captive of Mordor, she had almost forgotten that there were still kind and merciful people left in the world. If she did not miss her sister so much, she might be content to linger among these desert nomads for a while.

"Now that I have learned of your circumstances, Özlem and Elfhild, I would have you tell me how you ended up as prisoners of the Sand Orcs. I already know some of the tale from speaking with my mother, but I would hear a more detailed account."

Özlem repeated the same story which she had told Lady Shabimi, summarizing the various misfortunes which had befallen her and Elfhild, from the gruesome slaughter in Esarhaddon's tent, to their arrival at the lair of the Sand Orcs. Zarkfir gave her a sympathetic ear, remarking every now and then about how brave both she and Elfhild were, or cursing the treacherous goblins and orcs. She noticed that he seemed especially interested in Kafakudraûg Cavern, for he asked many questions concerning the number of goblins she estimated lived there, the layout of the caves, and the position of the entrances in relation to the various chambers.

"It seems the orcs took an especial dislike to you, Özlem," Zarkfir remarked, observing the cuts and bruises which marred the girl's face. "Is there any particular reason why you were the target of their animosity?"

"It is the custom of King Thaguzgoth to appoint goblin maidens whom he fancies to be his cupbearers and food tasters. Unfortunately, the king took a fancy to me." The tone of her voice and the way she phrased her words was thick with implication; she hesitated to reveal the nature of her torment at the loathsome hands of the orcs. Her body still ached from the abuse she had received.

"Could you be with child?" Zarkfir asked gently, divining the meaning of her words.

"Possibly, my lord, but it is too soon to tell." Blushing, Özlem looked down at her tea glass. She felt a shiver of dread as she wondered if foul orcish spawn was growing in her belly. If she were pregnant with such a monstrosity, would Shakh Zarkfir order her killed?

"Özlem, you will never have to bear such a stigma." Zarkfir reached across the table and touched her hand with his fingers. "The midwives know ways to get rid of the unwanted."

"Master, you would do that for me?" A tremulous little smile touched her lips. His caress was like fire, igniting her blood and sending it racing through her veins. How could a man whom she hardly knew have such an effect upon her?

"Have no worries; all will be well." He patted her hand and then turned to Elfhild. "Did the orcs abuse you as well?"

"No, Master. They left me alone for the most part."

His brow furrowed, Zarkfir studied the Northern girl intently. "How could this be? Mercy is not a virtue that orcs possess."

Elfhild fidgeted uncomfortably. "They thought I was insane, and it is the belief of their people that those afflicted by madness have been blessed by – by the Lord of Darkness."

A look of utter bewilderment transfixed Zarkfir's face. "Why did the orcs think you were insane?"

"It is quite a long story, Master." Elfhild wondered how she would explain it and make sense. "There was a moment when I lost all hope, and I was taken by a fey mood. I had just seen a young boy brutally murdered, and Durraiz told me that my master met the same fate at her hands. All seemed lost, and I saw my future as a slave to the orcs, subjected to endless torment. This was more than I could take, and I mocked the she-orc, caring not if she slew me; in fact, I welcomed death. However, instead of provoking Durraiz to kill me, I frightened her instead, and she concluded that I had been driven mad by the gruesome sights which I had witnessed."

"All that Elfhild says is true," Özlem confirmed. "She has a natural talent for acting, and she performed in plays with her family at local fairs in her own land." She ignored Elfhild's hostile glare and continued speaking. "I encouraged her to keep acting the fool in the hopes that the uruks would deem her a harmless lunatic and let down their guard around her. I had hoped that she would be able to escape when they were not paying attention, and then alert the caravan to my location. Although my plan for Elfhild to escape did not work out the way I had envisioned, at least she was able to avoid most of the orcs' cruelty."

Zarkfir felt his mind reeling with these new revelations. "It is obvious that the two of you are very clever."

Özlem could not help the smile which turned up the corners of her lips, and she touched her face, discovering that it was blushing again. "Even when we were prisoners of the Sand Orcs, Elfhild did not stop looking for a way out. Since the orcs thought that she was mad, she could go where she pleased, for they humored and feared her. She spent every day of our captivity exploring the cavern and its many corridors and passages. However, all of the exits she could find were heavily guarded."

"Is this true, Elfhild?" Shakh Zarkfir turned to the girl, marveling when she nodded in affirmation. "How did you avoid getting lost?"

"I took a piece of charcoal I had smuggled from the hearth and marked the passages with drawings of flowers," Elfhild explained, recalling all the rough sketches she had scratched onto the rock walls of the cave. "You see, I cannot read or write, and these symbols were my only way of finding my path back to the kitchen. The goblins thought my drawings were magical, and they never cleaned them from the walls."

A strange, eager light filled Zarkfir's eyes. "If I provided you with parchment, ink and brush, do you think you could make a map of Kafakudraûg Cavern?"

Elfhild looked at the desert prince in surprise. "Yes, Master, I think I could," she replied, amazed that anyone would have such regard for her abilities. "However, there is much of the cavern that I did not explore. I could only show the main passageways to the king's hall."

"What about the ventilation shafts? Do you remember where any of them were?" Zarkfir asked, leaning forward towards her, an intense expression on his face.

"Yes, Master, at least some of them anyway. There was a smoke hole leading from the kitchen hearth, and one in the great hall. A few others, too." She closed her eyes, sorting through her memories of the cavern. To remember that dreadful place again was agony, but she tried to concentrate upon the cave itself rather than the horrors she had seen there.

"Elfhild, this information could be incredibly valuable to the Dolrujâtar," Zarkfir told her, barely concealed enthusiasm filling his voice. "Long have the Kafakudraûg raided our flocks and herds, striking in the night and then retreating back to their holes. At one time, our tribe grazed our animals west of the Nurn Road, but the continuing predation of the orcs has forced us to retreat further and further east. However, with the information you provide us, our warriors might be able to gain the advantage and flush the devils from their accursed hole."

"I do not understand, Master. Why are the Dolrujâtar and the Kafakudraûg not allies, since they both dwell in the same land?" Elfhild hesitated to ask the question, but her curiosity had gotten the better of her.

"The fact that two peoples dwell in the same land is not a guarantee for friendship," Zarkfir explained gently, amused by the girl's naïveté. "Not even the Lord of Mordor cares much for the Kafakudraûg. They have long been rebels and troublemakers, knowing no loyalties except to themselves. The Great Eye would look upon the Dolrujâtar with favor if we thinned some of their numbers, especially since the army is busy with the war."

"I see," Elfhild nodded, trying to understand. Mordorian politics seemed highly confusing, not to mention rather terrifying.

"I want you to make a map of the cavern for me." Zarkfir gave her a wink and a smile. "There might be a few silvers in it for you."

Elfhild's eyes widened. She remembered the silver coin that the Seneschal of Minas Morgul had given her, and how wonderfully shiny and pretty it had been. She felt the stirrings of greed, but thought that perhaps she should decline out of politeness. Most likely the prince would insist upon paying her anyway; such was the game of courtesy, or at least that was how it was played in Rohan. "Thank you, Master, but I wish nothing. If this map helps you destroy the fiends, I will be more than repaid for my efforts." She thought of the pain and humiliation Özlem had suffered at the bastards' hands. "Kill them all," she thought vengefully.

"This conversation has been most enlightening, but now I must attend to other business. My servant Âmul will escort you back to Lady Shabimi's tent."

As the two women departed, Zarkfir reflected upon all that they had told him. He was uncertain what to do about the Northern girl. She was a slave of Mordor, and as such she was directly owned by the Lord of the Tower, at least on paper. It was a crime punishable by death to keep such a slave without paying. However, she had explored the cavern of the Sand Orcs, and could provide the Dolrujâtar with invaluable reconnaissance. Should he send a messenger to the slave caravan, proposing that there be a meeting to discuss her return? There was much to be considered.

And then there was the matter of Özlem. Her master was dead, and he was uncertain what would become of her should he return her to the caravan. But did he really want to be rid of her? His eyes delighted in gazing upon her beauty, and his ears took joy in hearing her voice, thick with a northern Haradric accent. Özlem was shorter than most Dolrujâtar women, with a petite frame, modestly sized breasts, and wide, voluptuous hips. Beneath all the bruises, her skin was a soft brownish beige, tanned a deep golden by the desert sun. Accentuated by kohl, her wide, round eyes were doe-like and luminous, her irises a cool brown so dark they were almost black. Her long hair was a glistening raven, falling to her lower back in a cascade of gentle waves.

Zarkfir wondered if he could be falling in love. He still longed for Jatagan, but his beloved was gone forever, and there were no others in the camp who excited him the way that the temperamental poet had. Perhaps he could ease the pain by pursuing a romance with Özlem…?

Yet she was the daughter of a whore and had grown up in a brothel. Although she had claimed that she had been employed for her musical talents and not her skills in the sensual arts, he doubted very much that she had escaped unscathed from such a terrible life. Why did a girl this beautiful, who possessed both intelligence and talent, have to be cursed with such an unseemly past? It would be far better if she were an innocent maiden of lowly but honorable birth, an appropriate companion for the son of a desert chieftain.

"What a fool I must be," Zarkfir thought, "to think I could ever love such a woman!" But somehow the idea excited him. He had longed chaffed under the strict tribal conventions that demanded that life must be lived under rigid tradition. His father and mother constantly found prospective brides for him, but he had always rejected them with one excuse or another. He was a man in his twenty-fifth year, and he should be free to pick his own bride! He laughed to himself. What if he took Özlem as his concubine… no, not as his concubine, but as his wife? His parents would take offense aplenty to him marrying a foreign slave, and they would be absolutely mortified if they discovered that he had rejected the brides of their choosing in favor of the daughter of a whore! He would never tell them about Özlem's past, though, for the knowledge would be devastating, and he refused to do anything that would hurt her. It would be their secret, and his private jest.

But perhaps he was being too hasty. He often was when it came to matters of the heart, letting sentiment take precedence over wisdom. Özlem might want nothing to do with him, although he rather doubted that, given all of the furtive glances she kept casting in his direction. He resolved to know more about this lovely foreigner before coming to a decision concerning her fate. The House of Huzziya's loss might just become his gain.

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