Hazina sobbed uncontrollably. Her face pinched, eyes gushing, and a trail of watery mucus clung to Nala’s neck. Nala pulled back from Hazina’s crushing hug and Hazina only squeezed her sister tighter.
Nala felt guilty, but she smiled at her older sister – blotched cheeks, hair messed and the front of her dress matched Nala’s shoulder – drenched.
Even the most beautiful people have their moments of homeliness, thought Nala as she returned Hazina’s hug.
“You have returned!” Nala wailed, the other girls stealing furtive glances at the loud embrace. “You have returned,” she repeated again, each instance vocalized up an octave.
Nala internalized the acknowledgement that Hazina must have spent an agonizing night worried about Nala. The dampness of her clothes indicated the tearful outburst was merely the tail end of Hazina’s sorrow. Nala saw the primal reaction by Hazina at seeing what could have only been a ghost walk through the door.
“You have returned!”
“Hazina,” Nala mumbled, raising her voice to be heard over the loud sobs. “I promised you that I would be fine, did I not?”
Hazina didn’t reply, but continued her whimpering.
* * *
Early morning had subsumed star light. The sun rose, unaware and uncaring of the events that had transpired only hours before. Nala tired to hold on to fragments of sleep, but an energy permeated the room. Whispers and vacant stares made any meaningful sleep impossible.
Nala opened her eyes to see Baba’s eyes fixed on her. An amalgamation of emotions played across her face: credulous wonder, and a smattering of suspicion were the brushes she used to paint a mask of awe.
Baba saw Nala return her stare. “You survived an entire night with the Champion Standing,” Baba whispered, and looked to other disbelieving eyes. “You have returned with no worse for the episode.”
Nala rubbed her wrists under her blanket, not wanting to admit her own fragility.
“How…” Baba scooted closer to Nala. “How did you achieve this feat?”
Nala looked around the room and saw that Baba’s bewilderment was shared. Hazina sat next to her sister, her hands touching and caressing her as if the tactile contact could prevent some glorious dream from ending. Nala told her of the arrangement with the Champion Standing, but at that moment, Nala ignored the legendary status that the girls wished to bestow upon her.
Nala confided in the girls. She told of the events in his bedchamber. She smiled when she described his rapt attention and scowled as she relayed his persistent questions. As far as Nala was concerned, his inattention to the story she told was all the more reason to kill the man.
She relished at the idea that Hazina was, for the time being, safe, and Nala would do whatever it took to keep her that way. She would try and try again until the monster had been slain.
He even had the audacity to declare that he expected a more detailed story the next night. Nala scowled as the guard led her away. During the long walk back to be reunited with the rest of the slaves, a single emphatic thought consumed her:
I will kill the Champion Standing.