“How is our baby coming along?”

Ignoring Nelani, First Lady Bathsheba leaned towards Merab and spread a hand over her belly. Her long nails glittered, pomegranate-red, with silver swirls of nail art.

It hit Nelani that while everyone else on the Soul Side farm dressed as if they didn’t have much money, First Lady looked wealthy. The jewels in the clasp at the front of her turban might even be real diamonds.

And this house, screened from the other buildings by a row of fever trees and a high palisade fence – it was so luxurious. The floor was tiled in pearly white, and scattered with thick, bright rugs, and the curtains looked like silk.

“I thank First Lady for asking.” Merab sounded oddly formal, keeping her head bowed. “Our baby does well.”

“And this is the new girl?” Finally, First Lady looked at Nelani, dismissing Merab with a wave of her hand. “From Tonga, they tell me?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Nelani was distracted by the way Merab was backing out of the house, as if she was a lowly servant forbidden to turn her back on her mistress.

“You must call me First Lady.”

So much for being equal members of one great family. For the first time, Nelani wondered what she had done, what she had got herself into.

“First Lady,” she murmured obediently.

“Tell me, are you a humble child?”

“I … I think so.” It wasn’t something she had ever thought about.

“And a virgin?”

Nelani gasped, shocked by such a personal question.

“Ma’am? I mean, First Lady?”

“Obviously Father Abraham’s worthy girls can’t be contaminated,” First Lady said. “You’re pretty, you speak quietly and seem docile, so we just need to know that you haven’t let some boy spoil you.”

Spoil her for what? Nelani suddenly had a very good idea what, and it made her feel sick. What should she do? Play it safe for now, hide her growing disturbance, until she was out of this scary woman’s presence. And then?

“I’m a virgin.” Her voice was flat.

“Then follow me. I’ll take you to Father.”

“Now?” It came out as a yelp.

“Don’t be afraid. He just needs to see you for a moment to be able to choose your new name. Then there will be a naming ceremony, in a week or so.”

Yes, Nelani had sometimes wished for a different name, as part of turning herself into the sort of person others would notice. But now, ‘Nelani’ seemed like a perfectly good name.

She followed First Lady into a room that looked to be partly a study, partly a chapel. There was lots of stained glass and gleaming wood, smelling of lavender furniture polish. The man standing beside the massive desk wore a dazzling white suit, but no shirt under the jacket. A huge,, dark red gemstone on a cord shone against his bare chest. He looked to be in his forties, Nelani judged.

“Sweet child.” Warm and rich, his voice caressed her. “Who have you brought me, Bathsheba?”

“One Nelani, Father.”

Father Abraham’s eyes roamed over Nelani’s face, and then her body. This must be what people meant when they said something made their skin crawl.

“Henceforth to be called Deborah,” he announced.


Tell us: Now that Nelani is seeing the truth about Soul Side, do you think she’ll be able to walk away?