“Why did she have to leave like that?” Little Iman wondered. She lost appetite for her own meal and continued to stare at the door of the kitchen. Although she still was a child, she could tell from Ralia’s unease that something wasn’t right. Ralia had acted in a way that proved that she was hiding something. Iman had a feeling that the other girl may be in some kind of trouble.
Soon, Aisha’s visit came to an end because Umar had other important things to attend to but she promised to return soon enough.
“I enjoyed your visit thoroughly. You must find a way to return to the castle.” Umar stared into her eyes as he whispered those words.
Just as Umar had enjoyed her company, she had loved the time she spent with him. Aisha had come to realize that Umar wasn’t like the other rich men that she had encountered. He was totally different. Although he had a goldmine, he remembered humble and compassionate.
Also, he was a very hard working and intelligent man. Only few men could devote their time to studying the various kinds of diseases that always plagued animals. Umar didn’t just create time for study; he carried out research and tried to procure a quality form of treatment. He was a man of substance. He was the kind of man that would continue living without any hassle should his wealth come to an end. And these attributes about Umar made Aisha reconsider her plan. What if she allowed herself to fall in love with him? What if she focused on being his wife purely out of love and admiration and not because she wanted to swindle him like the other men she had been married to?
“Thank you. I must take my leave now; there is a lot of work to be done at the bar.” She lowered her head before him before leaving for her carriage.
Umar found it difficult to pull his eyes away from her. He couldn’t wait to see her again, to spend more time with her again…
“Aisha!” He bellowed.
Just when she had reached the door to her carriage, she paused and swirled round abruptly.
“Yes?” She swallowed while searching his eyes.
“May I come to the Cattle Song Bar tonight? I promise not to do anything untoward.” Umar begged.
A lazy smile took over her taut facial features. She offered no word to him. Aisha nodded, before climbing into the carriage. A sweet feeling consumed her heart as she realized that Umar was warming up to her, bit by bit. In a little while, she would become the mistress of his heart.
Tanko had been in the bar howling instructions to the boys who worked with him. Like always, he expected a large number of people at night. Although drinking was forbidden in Israr, Tanko could get away with it because he had connections with the lawmakers. When it came to Tanko, they were willing to look the other way.
“We have run out of wine.” One of the servers hurried to Tanko’s side.

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“How? You should’ve mentioned this earlier!” Tanko tossed the rag he carried in his hand upon a table next to him. Quickly, he pulled a pouch from his pocket. It was his money pouch and many gold coins were stacked in it. After giving the servant some money, he turned around and noticed that his sister’s carriage was just outside the bar.
A smile played on his face as he recounted his experience at the ranch. He had been able to get information from the old man and it would help Aisha in her plan. At first, he had not wanted to be a part of her strategy to milk Umar of his mine, but he had a good thought about it. Opportunities hardly presented themselves twice.
“You return sister,” he walked towards her. From the look on her face, Tanko could guess that everything had gone well. Aisha looked confident and content. He was assured that she had left a mark upon Umar’s heart.
Aisha pulled in a breath before scanning the faces of the men in the bar. She had the sudden desire to take liquor. She felt like celebrating what seemed like a win.
“I have left my mark upon his heart. Soon, he shall come running towards me like fish to bait. I assure you of this.”
Tanko rubbed his palms together as he watched her face for more.
“Has he spoken anything of marriage?” He inquired.
“Surely, that would be too early. Umar is smitten with me. I can feel it. Fatima no longer has hold on him. I will tear what is left of them apart until he is intoxicated with my love.”
At this point, Tanko thought it wise to share the latest information with his sister. He explained to Aisha that he had changed his mind and was willing to support her fight for the gold mine.
“But you must not shed blood this time.” He quickly warned.
Aisha caressed the emerald rings on her fingers thoughtfully as she listened to her brother. Her brother wasn’t wrong in his advice. She had a secret that no one else could discover. Aisha had been married three times to different men. Each emerald finger represented a husband.
“What is it about the ranch that I must know of?” She pulled her hands away from the ring and adjusted her falling scarf.
“The ranch has fallen. Animals have caught the disease but there is no money to cure them. From what I hear, Fatima’s father borrowed a lot of money. He tried to bring the ranch back to life, but it had died a long time ago. The ranch only dwelled in its past glory. We can use this information to our advantage.”
At first, Aisha didn’t see the need to associate herself with Fatima.
“Brother, you have done well by trying so hard to collect this information from me. But I do not need it. My eyes have beheld Fatima. She is nothing compared to me in beauty. It is just a matter of time before Umar completely forgets her.”
Tanko knew that his sister had a point, but he quickly reminded her that they were in a battle field and in such a condition, overconfidence was a sin.
“Men may be moved by beauty, but when it comes to matters of the heart, beauty is the least that love desires. Fatima may want to get Umar back because of her condition. Umar is a wealthy man. He has the means to save her family and the ranch. He has a goldmine and he could help her procure the necessary treatments for the animals. Do not underestimate her. I say that you ponder on the information and look for a way to use it against her.” He advised.
Aisha knew that her brother was right.
“You have a point. Now, tell me. How was your meeting with Laila?”
Tanko’s heart skipped when he heard this. He felt confused by the reaction of his heart. Laila had insulted him without remorse. She had pushed him away at the ranch. He was supposed to despise her more. He was fighting a way with her sister, Fatima.
“You are not saying anything,” Aisha observed the lost look in her brother’s eyes when she had mentioned Laila’s name.
Tanko shrugged, “It went fine.”
Aisha allowed the throaty laughter to ring in his ears.
“You lie. If I didn’t know you better, I would assume that you had a thing for that girl.” Immediately after she said this, she walked away from her brother. She needed to get some rest and prepare for the night. Aisha couldn’t wait to see Umar once again. She had found someone that was worth loving and she intended to keep him for herself.
An uneasy feeling swept over him as he thought about Laila. He had swindled a lot of people and cheated them without remorse; but he couldn’t reconcile the guilt that washed over him as he thought of working with Aisha against Fatima. Why was he even thinking about her?
“I just hope that witch does not have any spell on my back!” He murmured under his breath. He had not been with a woman for a very long time. This had to be the reason for his odd attraction to Laila. He would find himself a woman of virtue and release the seeds that were buried inside of him. Tanko decided that he would do that night.
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Fatima had tried her best to ignore everything that had taken place, starting from the death of her favourite horse to the presence of Aisha at Umar’s house. She was still in the dark mood when she recalled what Laila had told her. All these years, she had been living a lie. Everyone on the ranch had kept the truth away from her. It was difficult for her to accept things now. How could she reconcile the fact that they had been living on borrowed money all these years? Clearly, Laila wasn’t lying. It all made sense now. The animals were sick and no one could do anything about it.
Sweat gummed her cheeks as she stirred the steamy pot of cabbage soup. Cooking was a way to distract herself from things. After her discussion with Laila, Fatima had decided to cook different meals to get rid of the depressing thoughts. But the more she cooked, the more images of Umar and Aisha’s laughing faces plagued her mind. If her thoughts could ignite a fire, then the whole ranch would have been destroyed by flames.
“You shouldn’t stir cabbage soup so hard,” Laila started. Her smooth voice broke the silence that Fatima once enjoyed. Laila knew that her sister was in love with Umar, but she was too proud to admit it. She also knew that Fatima was unhappy now that the debt issue had been shared with her.
Laila moved to a corner with ceramic bowls. She quickly washed her hands in it and moved to join her sister.
“The joy of cabbage soup is tasting the cabbage itself. If you stir too much, the pieces would melt away.” Gently, she collected the wooden spoon from Fatima and began to stir the pot on her own.
Fatima wiped her wet hands against her dress.
“You should stare away from me. All of you!” Fatima bellowed.
“I know that you are angry that I and Faiza did not tell you about father’s debt but you must understand why we did it. There are reasons people do things. There are good reasons and bad reasons. Our decision came from a good place.”
Fatima couldn’t blame her sisters much. She had no right to be angry with anyone, but she was just upset. She felt left behind.
“You both made a fool of me. How long would it have taken you to confess?”
Laila smiled, “I don’t know how else to make you understand that we are really sorry. But you know now, and the decisions that you will take after now will affect not just us, but everyone on this ranch.”
Fatima bit her lip. She felt frustrated. Where would she begin? How would they all clear the debts before them when the ranch wasn’t producing money?
“What are we going to do?” Fatima whispered.
Laila stopped stirring.
“You have to convince Umar to return your love. You must marry him. He is the only one to save us.”
Fatima shook her head, “I admit that I share in his affection, I was too afraid to let him know. But I cannot marry him out of desperation. What if I ask for a loan? He will surely give that to me…”
Laila strolled towards her sister and touched her face lightly.

To be continued…

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