The room was dim, as most rooms in the estate were. Shutters were drawn against the harsh heat of the day, and inside, the shadows lent much needed respite. Soft footsteps crossed the hard-packed floor, and the black-eyed man sat on the side of the simple bed tucked into the corner of the room. He smiled as he reached out and brushed back dark hair from a sweaty brow.
"It's all right, Asif," he murmured. "You have fulfilled your duty, and I release you into the arms of the Savior."
Asif gazed up at the man who had been his responsibility for the last thirty years of his life. A life he had devoted to the duty of his line. "He awaits," he choked out, his vision darkening.
The man smiled, the expression tender, almost loving. "He always waits."
An hour later, the man stood before a semi-opened shutter, the heat wafting into the sickroom. Asif was gone. Forty years, and he was alone once more. He sighed, shaking his head. Asif's brother had died two years before, but he knew there was a child from Iyas' second marriage, and that lone child's wife had just given birth to twin sons.
Which meant the first son could now be called upon.
Hadi was twenty-four. He'd been sure to follow the young man's life closely, knowing it was only a matter of time before Mirah's fertility treatments would prove fruitful, freeing that branch of the bloodline to continue serving him. He wasn't certain Hadi would fully appreciate his birthright, but Asif—as all the others before Asif—had found a measure of happiness with him in his solitary life. Surely Hadi could do the same.
He left the room, heading to the kitchen to make several phone calls before preparing the estate to receive its new resident.
The music was a pounding force, driving the pace of the men and women who graced the custom, hourglass runway, their porcelain faces reflecting the passion and style of the haute couture designs they modeled. The pageantry was exquisite, the audience taken in by the scene as, one by one, the models gave true life to the beauty and imagination of the designer. Every detail was on display, scrutinized by the fashion elite of Milan seated in the front row, who nodded occasionally and murmured amongst themselves. If those who walked on the stage knew the importance of certain figures in the audience, they showed none of their apprehension or awe, walking and striking their poses like true professionals, unfazed by the dazzling flashes of admiring photographers.
One would never know from the glitz and glamor of the main room that it was a frantic race backstage. Shouts rang out over murmurs and voices speaking in rushed Italian and French. Clothes were strewn over chairs, pulled from racks, and nearly ripped from bodies as they returned from the runway for their quick changes before putting on their fiery, serious expressions and passing the curtain once more. Straps of heeled shoes snapped, hair designs came undone, seams tore, and hisses of pain could be heard from those who lost their footing or collided in the sea of flesh and fabric.
It was pandemonium. Complete and utter chaos.
And in the midst of it all, Hadi thrived on the indescribable rush of the show, his hands swiftly repairing a carelessly ripped strap before addressing an unsightly hole along the beautifully beaded brocade that trailed behind a female model, accidentally trampled by the backstage traffic. The repairs were swift, perhaps even shoddy, but timing was everything in this world, and the show could not stop for any reason.
He was not a designer, not by a long shot. The role he played was far less glamorous, though it earned him the respect of his peers. It never bothered him to know that others took the credit for the custom-beaded overlays or the fine embroidery he stitched into the couture dresses. The small, metallic additions he made to a line of menswear or the accessories that graced hair styles for a single show were never printed with his name in bold letters. What mattered in the world of detailing were the names of the designers who respected you, and of those, Hadi had slowly compiled a list through hard work and dedication to his craft.
"Hadi!" A voice from a distance yelled for him over the din, drawing closer.
"Busy!" he shouted back, not even lifting his eyes from the quick lacing he had to mend. When the voice yelled again, he shook his head and concentrated on his current task, finishing quickly and all but shoving the male model to the front of the line. Looking around the crowd, he saw that the rest of the models were either waiting for their final turn on the runway or beginning to line up for the finale with the designer.
"Hadi!" This time, the voice was just behind him, and he turned, the question in his eyes needing no words. "Your phone has been ringing since the beginning of the second cycle." His look of annoyance made the man hold up his hand defensively. "I wouldn't have bothered if I hadn't seen the tag on the screen. The caller is from France."
Hadi's eyes widened, and he quickly snatched the phone from the man. There was only one person who would have called from that country so late at night. The screen showed seven missed calls in the last half-hour. Seven! A quick glance around the room revealed no emergency demanding his attention, so he quickly retreated to a relatively quiet corner. Just as he was about to key in the number, the phone vibrated in his hand, the jingle seeming quiet compared to the noise of the music and bustle. Pushing the button to answer, he pressed the cell phone tightly to his ear, plugging his other ear with a finger.
"Mother? What's going on? Are the twins all right?" he asked loudly in French.
It was surreal, the way everything seemed to stand still for those few moments, the barely audible words registering slowly just as the music of the show faded and the backstage area was filled with congratulations and cheers. His face was pale as he nodded, the gesture unseen by the one on the other end of the line. "Yes," he said, his voice a bit subdued, a stark contrast the the celebration that went on just feet away. "I will get there as fast as I can."
Flipping down the thin half of the cell phone, Hadi took a deep breath and released it. The clean up for the show would have to be handled by his subordinates.
He had a plane to catch.
"What do you mean, I have to move to Algeria?" Hadi demanded, his eyes wide as he gripped the arms of the chair. His mother had insisted that he sit down, and now he was almost glad he had taken her advice. "I'm sorry that I missed the funeral, but I got here as quickly as I could, and I–"
"This has nothing to do with your late arrival," Kazim interrupted in a firm voice, effectively silencing his son. "You know that your grand-uncle, Asif, lived happily in Algeria for decades. Part of our family heritage lies there, which is why you grew up speaking fluent Arabic. A close friend of our family lives there as well, and it was Uncle Asif's responsibility to care for this friend. Now that Asif dwells with Our Lord, our friend needs a new keeper."
"And I am that new keeper? Just like that?" Hadi stood from his seat, outraged. "No disrespect to this friend, Father, but I have a life of my own! I have worked years in Milan, making contacts that most in my line of work would dream of having. I can't just pack up and leave without a trace!"
"You are the only one, Hadi," Kazim revealed, his eyes glimmering with a mixture of disapproval and pity that made Hadi all the more uncomfortable. "The keeper must be a male of our family line not bound by the restrictions of married life. You are the next in line after me. I had hoped Asif would live a bit longer so I could take the responsibility upon myself, but the twins, Hadi. You must understand..."
Hadi clenched his jaw tightly. His father had newborn twins to care for. He could not, in good conscience, deprive his brothers of the love and upbringing he knew they would enjoy with his parents. But his life in Milan, his work, his friends... Was his life not worth equal consideration? He felt his anger seep from him, replaced with a sense of dread and sorrowful resignation. "Please, Father... do not ask this of me..."
Kazim sighed, not untouched by his son's plea. Closing the distance between them, he placed his hand on Hadi's shoulder. "I am afraid it is out of my hands. You must do this... for the honor of our family and the protection of the one who awaits you in Sétif."
Family honor. Tradition. Though Hadi lived a life unlike those of his relatives, he could never turn his back on his family. He could not dishonor them all, no matter how much he treasured what he had built for himself in Italy. He felt helpless, caught in a snare from which there was no escape. It was not fair, to have spent years setting the foundations to a life that would no longer be lived as he had so carefully planned. Then again, who decided what was fair? Fate and Fortune seemed to be conspiring against him.
His thoughts cycled, though he knew it was useless to waste time begging further or prolonging the inevitable. Still, there were tears in his eyes as he bowed his head respectfully, submitting to his father's will with the simple gesture. "How long do I have?" he whispered, dejected.
"He is without a keeper, Hadi. You must leave as soon as you are able."
Struggling to keep his dignity, Hadi simply nodded his understanding, not daring to raise his eyes to see the pity he knew to be on his father's noble face. "I will make the necessary arrangements."
Friends, workers, employers, designers, the landlady. He had a hundred different people he would have to contact. Painful as it would be, he would make it work.
He had no other choice.