The men of the Batata clan, the prince Kwen and his noble father Banjo sat in discussion with their kind host Ikaka Habu and his first son Danga and his younger brother Ochico. The only others present in the private chamber were the servants who poured wine while guards stood at the door.
“As you know, Ikaka, this is more than a courtesy visit. As much as I have enjoyed every moment of festivity since we arrived, it is time now to discuss a few matters of business,” the thickly built Banjo began soberly.
Ikaka nodded in agreement. “Since there are no more wars to fight, I find myself dedicated to only one more cause – of making money. I’m always on the lookout for more ways to broaden my purse.”
The men in the room chuckled and Banjo replied, “Money, power – respect. Men like you and me thrive on such vitals. And if there was a man I could trust to join me in any venture that would lead to the accumulation of all three, it is you, my dear friend.”
Once again, Ikaka nodded deeply. “You honor me, brother. This venture you speak of, I am eager to know the details. Oil, precious stone, gold?”
“Slaves,” Banjo said, stretching out an arm for his cup to be refilled by the hovering man-servant.
Ikaka shared a blank look with his two sons Danga and Ochico, before turning to Banjo once more, waiting for the other man to continue.
“Our people have traded slaves since time began. Servants bought with cowries or gifted by their families or owners. Debtors, outlaws or war prisoners end up serving beneath the heel of their betters. It is a culture handed down from our ancestors. Now I have found a way that you and I can trade in them to bring vast wealth to our clans than ever before imagined.”
“I’m listening,” Ikaka said, eyes narrowing.
Danga’s ears too were sharpened to hear how slaves could bring such untold riches as Banjo seemed to suggest. Slaves were the cheapest commodity to be had in their lands. Hell, his clan was almost swimming in them. The poor grabbed at the chance to serve richer lords, giving them the enviable opportunity to have free food and board and honest work for the rest of their lives. Some were born servants and continued in the tradition. Some were bought and sold or put down to serve in reprisal for a convicted offence. Very rarely could a slave draw a high cost, except perhaps if well-trained in some well needed skill. Such as prized fighters, who earned their masters great wealth in the wrestling square when many clans stake untold cowries on the winning champion.
And then Danga couldn’t help thinking of one ‘slave’ that had cost their clan more than a usual price. In exchange for debts of lands and cowries, the Habus had agreed to accept the token from the Kuku clan of their youngest virgin daughter. To think Danga had personally overseen the transaction only for his efforts to be foiled by Saleya, wresting him of his rightful prize Ola. As usual, just thinking of her made Danga flinch in thwarted fury before he pushed the delectable picture of her from his mind.
To Danga’s surprise, Banjo did not speak of slave trade among their own people. Instead, he told of strange colored people landing on their shores from distant regions. Men pale of skin and bearing gifts of wonders. Powerful men offering great riches to the leaders of tribes willing to trade in a commodity of which their people had no lack of – slaves.
“What do you think of this trade my father speaks of?” Kwen asked quietly as he leaned forward to speak to Danga seated beside him.
“I am yet to form an opinion on the matter. Have you seen the strange folk interested in trading in our people?”
Kwen shrugged. “I happened to set eyes on a few as they visited the palace where my father was attending court. They paid tribute to our king and brought presents of such I’ve never seen. They did set up a meeting with our clan, the Batatas being of royal connection and almost equal in influence in the region. The meeting was brief with only my father in attendance with them. I will say this; they are nothing like you’ve ever seen. They differ from us like night from day. White of skin, eyes like colored stones and even stranger attire.”
“And their women?” Danga asked interestedly.
Kwen smirked. “I should have known that would be of interest to you. However, I saw no female of their kind among them. I have no doubt their women will be just as peculiar in aspect as they.” Kwen’s grin widened as he leaned even closer. “I am eager for this discussion to come to a close so I hope your father comes to a quick decision whether to join the venture or not.”
Danga’s eyebrows lifted. “And what’s the hurry?”
“I may have a surprise waiting for me in my bed chamber before the night draws closed,” Kwen said, a mysterious smile on his lips as he raised his cup to drink. “I made suggestion to Saleya how comely I found her personal maid, Ola.”
Danga, who’d been more interested in listening to his father’s conversation with Banjo, snapped his head to stare at Kwen, who was smirking. Danga huffed. “Saleya would never agree to that. I told you; the girl is out of bounds. That witch insists the little petal is much too valuable to her bouquet of serving girls.”
“Ah, but I’m sure Saleya will find Ola has many ways to serve,” Kwen murmured blandly. “We aren’t kids playing in the sand anymore. Saleya understands the importance of indulging the whims of esteemed guests bearing the Batata name.”
For a moment, all Danga could see was flashes of red. And yet he could feel no true fury against Kwen, who could not know how things really stood regarding Ola. When last Kwen had spoken of an interest in her, Danga had made no mention that he too, had once had stake in claiming Ola for position in his bed. And now, if Saleya so chose, Ola would fall right into Kwen’s waiting laps.
A humorless smile crossed Danga’s lips as he said mildly, “I too, understand the importance of keeping the esteemed Batatas in good spirits. You are our guest, Kwen; you deserve to be pandered to with only our most valuable and comely of subjects.”
“I have no doubt she is of value indeed,” Kwen murmured, sending Danga a speculative glance which Danga ignored. This would have been his opportunity to speak his mind, and let Kwen know how things stood.
Instead, Danga returned attention to the meeting at hand. Saleya had seen to it that Ola could never be his. Danga had set it from his mind long ago. What did it matter if Kwen ended up with the spoils? The handsome bastard always did have the luck of the devil. Besides, if truly he had made his interest known to Saleya, the wife of Ikaka Habu would see to it that no request of an honored guest would ever be disregarded.
The men continued to speak for more than an hour, as Ikaka finally decided that he would be interested in giving the foreign visitors a chance to state their intent as soon as opportunity presented itself.
Banjo looked pleased. “When you hear what they propose, you may then join me in deciding if this is something we could partake of without great cost to ourselves yet with much yield upon conclusion. They are strangers, and yet do not seem to be of much harm. They offer gifts of strong drink, weapons and items crafted in ways we have never before seen. They come in their big floating houses to seek trade with the men of standing in our lands and I feel that through you, your region will flourish from trade with this pale-skinned men.”
“I’ve never been known to turn my back on a profitable business speculation. We will talk of this further. But now the time for more feasting and drinking draws near,” Ikaka said, his hard face broadening with a grin. “I did promise I would make each night of your stay a festive one, Banjo. It’s not every day a brother in arms of old visits my homeland. There is much wine, food and comely flesh to be had this night – according to your appetite. Shall we?”
Ikaka rose courteously, and the two older men chuckled, arms around their shoulders as they broke up talks to leave the room. Danga stood and glanced at Kwen, who was watching him with curiosity.
“You don’t seem in much of a feasting mood. You mustn’t carry that thunderous scowl of yours to the banquet hall as it would scare off my poor sister. You still intend to seek Oiza’s hand?”
The last thing Danga wished to discuss was Oiza but he reined in his emotions. “That intentions stands firm. Though naturally I wouldn’t want to repel her with my foul disposition, as you say. I intend to be of a more positive outlook when I show up for the supper feast. I take it you will not be joining us?”
“Oh, I fully intend to but will of course make my excuses once it is respectable enough, and return to my chambers in hope to find a desired bedtime present waiting. It would indeed make my night if this is so.”
Danga nodded briskly. “I’m glad you have found us hospitable as is worthy an honoured guest in our home. We will speak later, Kwen.”
* * *
Danga found himself well in control when he appeared for the feast. He scanned the room and met Oiza’s warm smile as she sat with the women. Danga’s keen gaze noted that Ola was not present but there Saleya was, her eyes even more defiant and taunting as usual while the smile on her face stayed sweet.
Danga ignored her. He could not remember what he may have done to incur her hatred. There had been a time they may have been close and he could swear he’d offended her in nothing. If anything, he should have been the one feeling slighted when she’d agreed to marry his father for whatever reason. But it hadn’t really mattered then and Danga couldn’t help wondering if that had anything to do with all this. Why did they seem to spend so much time fighting?
Danga vowed to not dwell on such questions and focus on enjoying himself. And yet the sumptuously prepared food tasted like ash on his tongue and the wine ran down his throat like bitter medicine. Kwen was a jovial and jocular as ever, patting Danga’s back as he teased Danga as unmercifully as ever. Danga forced a smile here and there but he was beginning to suspect that his cloudy brow could not be hidden for long.
A part of him was glad when Kwen suddenly murmured to him that he was leaving the feast soon. “I wouldn’t be far behind. I will call the night early this time. I have some accounts to balance that can’t wait till tomorrow. I bid you a good night.”
“You are most kind, friend,” Kwen said with a broad grin as he squeezed Danga’s cheek playfully. “Now smile! You mar that fierce handsomeness with your beastly glower. See how my sister’s dusky skin pales in worry that she might be the cause of your dark mood.”
Kwen turned Danga’s jaw in the direction of the women seated across the room filled with music and banqueting. Oiza caught Danga’s eye and then looked away with a giggle to speak in the ear of one of her cousins seated next to her, both girls’ eyes dancing.
“Oiza seems unperturbed by such concern,” Danga said drily, drawing his face away from Kwen’s playful grip. “As she should remain. Your sister knows I could hold no grievance where she is concerned.”
“Would that such could be said for other women,” Kwen retorted, that shrewd look coming on his face again as this time, he swept his gaze in direction of Saleya who was busy ordering the servers to send trays of food to the other guests at the feast.
Once again, Danga chose to ignore Kwen’s loaded comment. Danga felt it was prudent to continue to show tact in matters regarding a family member no matter how loathsome her attitude. Whatever else was going on, Saleya was his father’s wife. He wouldn’t show animosity even to a close friend like Kwen who might understand. Instead, Danga played it cool, and when Kwen exited the hall, Danga waited only a few minutes before leaving as well. The crowds had swelled as many who enjoyed the free flow of food during feasts thrown by the Habu clan had showed up in their numbers.
Thankful that his father was too busy entertaining his important guests to notice, Danga left the noisy hall.
The sounds of merrymaking followed him as he walked out into the moonlit compound, about to head straight for his quarters when he heard someone call his name. Looking over his shoulder, he glimpsed Saleya’s face emerging from the shadows as she glided forward, the skirts of her rich attire swirling around her ankles.
“What do you want?” he asked calmly, thinking of a hundred reasons why he couldn’t linger and talk with Saleya. Top of which was to avoid the temptation to wrap his hands around that slender neck of hers and squeeze till she begged for mercy.
“Funny way to greet your dear stepmother. I should think my welfare should be of greatest concern,” she murmured, stopping a few yards from him.
“It is great concern for your welfare that prompts me to warn you to stay out of my way, Saleya. Especially from tonight.”
She merely smiled at the dark look on his face. “Why tonight? Oh.” Her eyes widened suddenly, a look of innocence coming over her face. “You’ve heard. About Ola. Naturally you must have noticed she was not at my side tonight. By now, she has been primped to within an inch of her life to make her worthy indeed of a prince of the Batata tribe. Obviously after tonight I will be in need of a new handmaid but then, it is a loss I can dare say I’ll gladly endure to gain the goodwill of the son of Banjo Batata.”
“You don’t have to explain yourself to me,” Danga gritted out. “I can tell you did it all with a sense of duty.”
She merely smiled at his mocking words. “Duty, yes. Necessity, definitely. I always knew that when the time came, I would give my servant girl to someone worthy. I am glad it is Kwen; he at least has always known how to treat a woman.”
Danga had heard enough. Turning sharply on his heel, he made to stride off when he felt a soft hand touch his arm. He let out a growl and the next minute, he’d grabbed both Saleya’s wrists and slammed her against the wall in a dark corner. His eyes were blazing down into hers, her arms pinned high above her as he brought his face so close he could see the tiny pores on her smooth brown skin.
“Don’t. Ever lay your hand on me,” he snarled, teeth barely moving. “Don’t speak to me, don’t even look at me. I don’t care if you’re my father’s wife. As from tonight I don’t even want to know if you exist.”
Saleya wriggled in his hold, her expression stormy. “So what did you want me to do? She caught Kwen’s fancy – how is that my fault?”
Danga chose not to point out that the very reason Ola was available to catch anyone’s fancy was because Saleya had kept her from Danga and his brothers’ clutches.
“I told you; keep your explanations. They mean nothing to me. You mean nothing to me,” he growled warningly.
“Of that I am well aware. No one and nothing means much to the stone-cold Danga. You never considered anyone’s feelings but your own.”
Danga lips curled in a sneer as he regarded her fiery expression. “Feelings? What feelings? Surely you’re not talking about yourself. You’re as cold-blooded as you say I am. You go out of your way to vex me and still expect me to play the loving step son. If I were you I’d think twice the next time you feel the need to push me.”
Saleya merely laughed in his face. “Do you think I’m the helpless token girl you can send cowering with just one dark bending of your brow?” she mocked. “You don’t frighten me.”
“You don’t know what I’m capable of,” Danga told her, now so close he was almost crushing her against the wall. He heard her gasp, her skin flushing as his heat invaded her space the same way her scent invaded his. His eyes sharpened, narrowed.
Her chest heaved like she’d just run up a mountain path. A dark gleam turned her eyes almost black in the moonlight, and her full lips parted as her soft breath teased his nostrils.
Something in her face, in the swell of her breast against his chest…No. Danga shook his head, blinking. A mist stirred around his senses and then cleared in a ‘whoosh’. Danga could feel a dangerous flare of awareness rise between them and his breath snagged in furious denial. No.
“I’m not afraid of you,” Saleya said, ever defiant. Though now, beneath the layer of anger there was a potent vibration that resounded in the bubble surrounding them.
Suddenly, the sound of laughing girls running out from the banquet hall broke into their spellbound shell, and Danga let Saleya go abruptly, shaking his head. “Stay away from me.”
Her spiteful voice made him pause just as he would have turned the corner.
“You should be happy,” Saleya sneered. “Once Ola is no longer a virgin I will have no need to keep her. And by the time Kwen is finished with her, she can become the bed slave of any of the Habu brothers.”
Danga swirled around once more, his expression thunderous. “You really think I or any of my brothers would take up Kwen’s leavings?” His low growl sounded more dangerous than a roar of a lion.
Saleya shrugged carelessly. “You are childhood friends – soon to be brothers once you wed the comely Oiza. This wouldn’t be the first time you or Kwen have passed girls between you.”
Suddenly, Danga smiled, humor tinting his expression even as she saw her frown in confusion at his response. But he merely shook his head at her as understanding only now began to dawn. “Goodnight, Saleya. Sheathe your claws to fight another day.”
And with a mocking chuckle, he strode away into the shadows without a backward glance.
* * *
Danga’s scowl was dangerous. Did Kwen choose to rub this in his face?
He’d been through his second cask of wine when a servant had appeared in his quarters to say that prince Kwen sought his presence. Now what? Danga set down his cup with a crash and tried to keep from fuming. Kwen was like a brother to him but the man should know better than to summon him tonight of all nights, especially when…
Danga drew in a steadying breath and willed the murderous rage from his head. He’d only gone to prove to himself that he wasn’t so done with his responses to anything that had to do Ola. Months of ignoring her, acting like she meant nothing had only shown one thing – he may never be free of his need for her. It would eat at him forever and now there would be nothing he could do about it.
Danga had to remind himself that Kwen was not just a friend but an honoured guest. He ground his teeth one last time before sweeping from his quarters, and headed for Kwen’s chambers in the guest wing of the compound.
Kwen was waiting with a friendly smile, arms raised as he handed a cup of drink to Danga once he appeared.
Danga told himself Kwen looked much too smug for his tastes. Both hadn’t tumbled in the sand since they were teens – perhaps it was time they took up their long-standing rivalry and at last test who could switch who to the floor the fastest.
“I trust Ola’s virgin wares left nothing to be desired,” Danga murmured, tipping his head slightly with a thin smile. He would not look to the side of the chamber where a curtained doorway led into the inner room.
Kwen’s grin widened and Danga truly wanted to fell him then. “I wouldn’t know. As I have not taken the time to taste them,” Kwen said mildly. “I left such juicy task to you.”
Danga’s brow furrowed and then cleared as he stared uncomprehendingly at his friend. “What do you mean?”
Kwen chuckled and grabbed Danga’s shoulder in a warm grip. “We men must learn to best women in their petty little games.” He smirked as Danga’s eyes narrowed. “I found out from Ochico and your other brothers and they told me of how Saleya snatched the token girl Ola from underneath the very weight of your thighs. And refused to give her in exchange for many slave virgins offered, ones more experienced in tending a mistress than the daughter of a farmer. I hear how Saleya has long played your father against you, just to get your goat.”
Danga still didn’t speak, eyes no more than slits as he now took his first gulp from the cup of wine he gripped. At last, he prodded the silent Kwen, “And?”
“And, I decided to beat Saleya at her ploy. I requested for Ola, knowing Saleya would be so girlish as to fall for the prospect of further angering you by giving your best friend the very girl you desire so badly.”
Danga’s scowl returned. “I don’t….”
Before he could finish, Kwen drew him by the arm to the adjoining door and quietly lifted the curtain aside. Danga’s eyes were drawn almost at once to the girl kneeling by the bed, head bowed low and hands resting palm up on her thighs. She looked up for but a second before her lids fell again, but still Danga found his breath hitching at the sight of Ola, submissive and waiting.
“I didn’t touch her,” Kwen said quietly at Danga’s side, the ever-present smile slanting his lips. “Though I swear I was sorely tempted for just a nibble. She is indeed a luscious platter to be savored bite by bite.”
Danga drew in a sharp swell of air. His mind went blank for a moment and then he realized – she was his. Finally. Somehow, he’d bested that infernal irritant Saleya. Ola was his to claim now – and this time there would be nothing to stand in his way. Finally.
“Many thanks, Kwen,” Danga murmured deeply, glancing at his long-time friend. “If only for helping me outsmart that damnable woman I call stepmother.”
Kwen smirked. “Did you really think I would wish to claim Ola for myself?” He shook his head, playfully reprimanding. “Once I knew how the story went of how Ola was given as a token by her family to your clan – and how she was snatched from you to Saleya – it was easy to think of a way to get the lovely little bird back into your grasp where she originally belonged.”
Suddenly, Kwen guffawed, his white teeth flashing. “Saleya had bested me one too many times when we were younger. It delights me to have so effortlessly fooled her while still managing to please my best friend. You are pleased, I hope?”
This time, Danga did not bother to try to deny anything. “More than words can convey. Saleya tried to place a wedge between us and at the same time anger me to distraction with the knowledge that she had given away the prize that has been long deprived me.”
“Well, deprived no longer. Ola is yours.” Kwen’s infectious grin widened as he swept his hand with a flourish in Ola’s direction. “As it was meant to be. Now, I’ll leave you and join your brothers in a night of immoderate enjoyment of drink, food and women. I fear the revelry has started without me and can linger no longer, my friend.”
“Then I will not keep you a moment more,” Danga murmured, cup raised to his lips as his eyes trained on the girl meekly presented within the chamber beyond.
He heard Kwen’s laugh grow distant as his friend exited the chamber and made for the noisy hall across the compound where his brothers were gathered.
And then, placing his empty cup on a nearby surface, Danga swept aside the curtain and strode silently into the adjoining room.