A gradually brightening light shone through Zia’s eyelids, stirring her mind to wakefulness.
Feeling something lodged in her mouth, trying to spit it out revealed that she had been gagged. She tried to move her arms from behind her, but they were restrained. She tried to move her legs, they were also restrained. She realised that she was tied securely to a chair.
Looking around, the room looked a barely furnished mud hut. She faced the round wooden table in its centre, which were well worn and covered with cuts into its surface. Another three chairs placed around it, all empty. Each corner had a basic bed, with a questionable level of dirt and stain upon them.
The source of light had been the opening of the room’s door. Before Zia could focus on who had entered, pitch blackness closed in again as it closed.
“Light the forsaken torch, Heydar! It’s darker than a devil’s soul!”
A commotion was heard, as well as some curses. Before long, sparks began to provide some respite from the all-encompassing dark. After a time, the sparks caught on some material and began to light the room. The flame grew to illuminate the thick-wicked candle it crowned, and bathe the room in a pale orange light. Mixing with the brown hues of the walls, the room seemed even dirtier.
The pair who had stolen the faces of Nakht and Akh, now unmasked, stood across the table from her. Their voices told Zia that neither was the one pretending to be Amon. The candle was placed in a holder, and hung from a hook in the roof. They placed a pitiful offering of food on the table, some flat bread and some old-looking vegetables. The one with the face of Akh looked upon the meal with disgust.
“The cursed inn-keeper has some nerve to charge us for this; it is little better than animal feed. Why can’t we just kill the fool, Heydar?”
Heydar rolled his eyes. “Because we hardly need the attention it would draw, Kadir. You think Sayeh would let you go unpunished for it?”
Kadir sniffed in annoyance as he picked through the vegetables, throwing the items that looked inedible on the floor. His associate watched him with bemused disdain.
“We spend all that time crossing the Arabian Desert, and you turn your nose up at the first set of vegetables you see? You could at least save the items you do not want for our guest. It appears she has woken up.”
The finicky man looked across to Zia. A malicious glint came to his eye.
“Lady Sayeh is not here. It would not hurt to have a look at her face.”
Heydar shook his head. “Do not be foolish. You know that she claims first opening of any goods we steal.”
“Are you not curious at all? We did receive a handful of lashes each because of her.”
“And Lady Sayeh got twice what we did. That alone should ensure we respect her right.”
Kadir dismissed the food, moving around the table to sit next to Zia. His gaze moved greedily over the tagelmust obscuring her face, before focusing on her dark brown eyes.
“Fine, you be a coward, Heydar. I shall gaze upon what we have suffered for.”
He leaned forward to lift the cover over Zia’s face. As he finished doing so, she threw her head forward with all the power her bound form could muster. The crunch of her forehead connecting with his nose echoed around the room, as did his howl of pain. Eyes clenched shut, and with his left hand trying to stifle the blood flow, his used his right to blindly land an open handed slap across her face. The force toppled her chair, causing her to issue another grunt of pain as she landed on the floor.
The bloodied Kadir, his nose now flattened against his face by the previous impact, grabbed one of the arms of the chair and turned it over. Zia now had her back flat against the ground, and had no way to defend herself as the injured man loomed above her, drawing back his right fist to return the favour to her nose. The punch began its descent.
The strike did not land, as Heydar had managed to move quickly enough to restrain the wounded man’s arm. The pair struggled as Kadir tried to break the grip of his associate, who hooked his arms under the other’s armpits to hoist him to his feet.
“Do not be a fool. You deserved that flat nose of yours for overstepping your bounds.”
“She will pay dearly for this injury.”
“The mark that slap is bound to leave will have you in Sayeh’s bad graces already. To do worse will get you killed.”
The muffled moans of pain directed the pair’s gaze to Zia. Her exposed face caused both of them to gape in shock.
Heydar managed to mumble, “What sort of dark sorcery is this?”
Kadir said nothing, his eyes close to popping out his head.
There was a creaking sound as the door begun to open. The two men lifted Zia and the chair from the floor, setting it correctly. They quickly replaced the face cover of her tagelmust, before moving to a seat nearer to the plate of food. A cloaked figure moved into the room, carrying a set of food that looked much more tantalising than the unsightly fare of the two men.
The female voice Zia had come to know issued forth from beneath the fabric. “That inn-keeper is getting bolder with every visit. He had the nerve to threaten a call to the Roman patrol if I did not double his regular fee for our disguised lodgings.” The figure sat at the table, removing the hood. Amon’s features were still in place.
The measured gaze turned to the men, a curious look greeting Kadir’s readjusted nose.
“What happened to you, Kadir? The flattening may be an improvement, but the blood is unsightly.”
The man picked sullenly at his insipid meal. “Our honoured guest did not wish for me to remove her gag. She must not be hungry.”
The impostor Amon looked to Zia, giving an amused chuckle before starting to eat her meal.
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