Aisha was not pleased with his response. If she was going to live in this house when they got married, she would need servants, just like old times.
“Little wonder why this pearly house is full of dust. Who does your cleaning and cooking?”
Umar explained that he was a very busy person and he hardly stayed at home. Besides, his little cousin was there to do all she could for her age.
“For her age you say?” Aisha’s brows knotted in surprise.
“She is just a girl,” was all he was willing to offer. Aisha did not like that. From the look on his face, this cousin of his was well cherished. The little girl already had a place in Umar’s heart and she didn’t want that.
Aisha decided to get rid of her irritation concerning the arrangement of things here. She still had a lot of things to do. Winning Umar’s trust was one of them. She needed to portray herself as a submissive woman who could be shoved around and given orders. Men liked that. She had been married to a controlling husband, and she didn’t hesitate sending him back to God.
“You look tired.” She abandoned her tour and covered the distance between them. She touched his face lightly and stroked his beard. Umar was a hairy man, just the way she loved her men.
Umar shrugged, “The consequences of too much drinking.”
Aisha threw her hands into the air, “That is not true! Having a little strong drink does no harm. You are just stressed from yesterday but now that you have me, everything will be fine again.”
Umar loved the sweetness that flowed from her tongue. Aisha never seemed to run out of perfect words for a particular problem.
“What can I offer you?” Umar collected her hands and led her towards a colourful pillow upon the carpet. He meant for her to sit there. The pillow was one of his costliest furniture. He had purchased it at the Great Market of Araba.
Gently, Aisha released her weight upon the pillow.
“You offer me queenly treatment. Does this mean anything?” She peered into his face.
Umar chuckled, “You are a very smart woman Aisha. I treat you this way because you are special to me. I must get you something to wet your throat.” He quickly rushed into the adjoining chamber which was the cooking place.
Little Iman had been shredding the herbs which he had collected from the forest some days ago. A new disease of cattle was in town and Umar was working on a cure because the existent medicines were losing their potency fast. She hummed a song while her slender fingers worked through the leaves.
“You must drop those and prepare my guest something to eat.”
Iman almost dropped the tray that she carried on the ground. She was startled.
“You have a guest? Is it Sister Fatima?” Iman asked. Her face radiated pure joy as she thought of her older cousin’s best friend.
Umar sighed, “No. You must never mention Fatima’s name when this guest is around. She is very special to me and I do not want to hurt her in any way.”
Iman was confused.
“Is she more special than Sister Fatima?” Umar was tongue tied. He didn’t know the right words to speak. He couldn’t afford a straightforward answer now.
“Can you ask me questions later?”
Umar stepped out of the kitchen swiftly after that. Iman dropped the tray on the ground and decided to check this new guest for herself. She had always dreamt of her cousin getting married to Fatima. Iman loved Fatima because she always took her for horse riding in the Israr valley. Most times, her cousin wasn’t aware of it because he was against it. To him, Iman was still too young to do many things. But Fatima had shared a different opinion. Iman loved Fatima as the older sister that she never got to have. Many times, Fatima had showered her with gifts. How could someone else be more important than Fatima?

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“I must see this guest for myself.” She smacked her hands together and stepped out of the kitchen.
Aisha’s eyes were still on the paintings when a strange scent filled the air. It was the scent of wild flowers and Fenugreek. As she turned her head towards the direction of the smell, she found a little girl that shared a slight resemblance with the man she was set to marry.
“You are welcome.” Iman’s smile was shaky.
Aisha regarded the little girl with cruel eyes. Iman reminded her of her days of innocence. Yes, she had been a little dove, untainted. But Ralia’s evil mother had pushed her into the streets and the shadows that lurked in dark times were no friends; even to the street dwellers. Iman lived with a good man who loved and cherished her.
“Do you not know how to address properly?” Aisha kissed her teeth.
Iman felt hurt. No one had ever spoken to her this harshly since the death of her parents. This woman was nothing like Fatima and Iman didn’t appreciate her presence.
She didn’t know what answer to give Aisha. Fortunately for her, the door to the first chamber opened and a sick looking girl that was about her age moved in.
“What are you doing here?” Aisha rose up swiftly.
The manner and the speed with which she rose to her feet terrified Iman. How could someone be so beautiful yet harsh?
“I …I” Ralia was stuck. Her head was spinning and her body was warm. A fever had come.
“Speak fool!” Aisha snapped at her.
“I think I am sick.”
Iman felt sad for the poor girl. She was deeply touched, so she decided to help her.
“I can offer her some of my cousin’s herbs. She will be better before food is ready.”
Aisha had wanted to reject the offer but she quickly reminded herself that she needed to create a good impression before Umar and all the members of his household.
“Very well then, go have the herbs.” She turned to Ralia.
“Thank you.” Ralia bowed her head and trailed behind Iman.
Once they reached the kitchen, Iman first introduced herself before asking after her health.
“Ralia.”
“Your eyes seem very pale.” Iman leaned forward so that her slender body towered above that of Ralia. Ralia had not eaten for a day and a half. She couldn’t tell anyone that Aisha was starving her. The wicked witch would have her killed and she would never see her siblings anymore.
As if Iman read her thoughts, she moved backwards and asked.
“I have some honeycakes. Would you mind having some?”
Ralia smiled, “You are very kind Iman.”
Iman liked Ralia already; both girls were going to be best of friends.
“Here, have some.”
Ralia was immediately touched by the kindness from the other girl; she couldn’t remember the last time that someone was that nice to her. Tears sprang up in her eyes as she dug her teeth into the soft delicious cake. She found it difficult to believe that there were still good people in the world
“It seems you are new in town.” Iman watched the girl closely. She noticed that Ralia shared a resemblance with her mistress.
Ralia pulled her lips away from the cake and smiled.
“What makes you think so?” She chuckled. She had stayed with Aisha in many places, she hoped that Israr would be their last bus stop.
Iman shrugged, “You sound different. It is almost as the sound of the traders at the famous market. You also have a resemblance with your mistress.”
Without thinking, Ralia blurted out, “She is not my mistress. She is my cousin.” When she realized the impact of her confession, she dropped the honeycake into the plate next to her, smacked her hands together; thanked Iman for the meal and hurried out of the kitchen. This action confused Umar’s cousin.

To be continued…

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