chapter 1 of Eva’s Secret
Granada, Spain: late Monday August 22, 1513
The urgency that carried Eva across Granada drained away, and she began to shake with a chill, although the night was warm. Coming back here was a terrible risk. But she could not face the future without Tabita. Loyal Tabita, who did her best to mother, protect, and provide for her people.
Eva indulged in uncharitable thoughts toward the bad-tempered cook who had thrown Tabita out of the charterhouse kitchen. And not just out of the kitchen, but into the street, where she had no way to get back to her mistress. Of course, the cook could not have known that Tabita was there with Eva. It was only for a few days, until they could travel north to the convent of the Poor Clares in Tordesillas.
Eva had been assured that the Poor Clares would allow cats. Apparently the Carthusian nuns were less tolerant. Poor little Tabita, put out into the night in a strange place! Where else could she go but back to Casa de Pazia?
Across the broad street from her stood the elaborate ironwork gates of the home Eva left only five days ago, thinking that she would never have to pass through them again. By returning tonight, Eva was putting the whole escape plan at risk.
That was not Tabita’s fault. How could a cat understand the complicated business of Eva’s pretended elopement? Her high-born friend Blanca Mendoza, who contrived the scheme to rid Eva of her murderous Italian bridegroom, had stressed how important it was that everyone be convinced Eva de Pazia was gone forever.
Blanca’s brilliant plan had gone off without a hitch. Conte Niccolo had jumped at the offer to elope instead of going through with the public wedding—so long as Eva brought the dowry with her.
Eva’s disappearance was no doubt already being used as a cautionary tale. She imagined parents shaking their heads and telling their marriageable daughters about the foolish de Pazia girl who was lured from under her father’s protection by a smooth-talking man. They would invent tragic endings for her story: abandoned to starve somewhere along the road, or tossed overboard and drowned on her way to Venice.
It was certain that Conte Niccolo and his retainers would never dare show their faces in Spain again. So if nobody else saw her, then nobody would find out that Eva, under an assumed name, had really gone into retreat with Granada’s Carthusian nuns until the travel arrangements were ready for her to go be a lay sister with the Poor Clares, far to the north in Castile. A new start–except that she was bringing to it the same old secret.
Nobody knew, of course. No convent would take her—nobody would have anything to do with her if they knew the awful truth. Even impulsive, generous Blanca, who cared nothing that such a great gulf of class lay between them—even Blanca might withdraw in revulsion.
Only Tabita could be trusted to love Eva unconditionally. And so Eva had risked a visit to Casa de Pazia tonight, because a cat would always return to her hunting grounds.
Eva set down her lumpy bundle and adjusted the mantilla pinned to her head-rail, checking again to make sure she had left enough in front to cover her whole face if needed. She peered around, looking for a small feline shadow. The night was still, except for the chirp of crickets, the croak of frogs from the river Darro whose brushy thickets ran beside the street that faced the palatial Casa de Pazia.
It was at least three miles from the Carthusian charterhouse to Casa de Pazia. What if that was too far? Tabita was no longer young. Maybe she was even old, as cats went.
How old? Eva used her fingers to count the years backward. She remembered the day she had been given Tabita—a day she would never forget.
Casa de Pazia, 8-year-old Eva
It was right after Christ-Mass, December of 1504—the day Queen Isabella’s body arrived in Granada. Eva was eight, then, and her brother Elias had just turned ten. She remembered Nurse Veronica holding her up so that she could see King Ferdinand ride past these very gates at the head of the funeral procession that bore his late wife’s casket to its resting place in the Alhambra Chapel.
Afterwards, Eva had to wait in the salon until it was time for the memorial service. “Now don’t make a mess of your best clothes,” Nurse admonished. “And leave your shoes on, by all the saints!”
“Couldn’t I change to another pair?” The stiff brocade was rubbing painfully against Eva’s little toe. “These new ones hurt.”
“Just bear with it a little longer, cariña. Your father would notice if your shoes didn’t match your gown, and we don’t want that, do we?”
That was as close as anyone came to mentioning her terrible defect. Eva sat down. Beneath the cover of her stiff skirts, she pried the irritant off, right foot against left, keeping her hands innocently in view. She was well-practiced in this secret disobedience.
Nurse Veronica brought the sewing basket. “Here, why don’t you finish the piece your mother set. She’ll be back from her stay with the Condesa today, and you want her to be proud of you.”
Eva picked up the embroidery with a sigh. Mama would never be proud of her. Even without the deformed foot, she looked too much like her father, with his frizzy reddish hair and freckles that sprang up on her olive complexion at the least touch of the sun. And worse, she had inherited his most prominent feature. Eva’s mother used to sigh and shake her head when her daughter was brought to her. “What can we do about that nose? It is a good thing your father is rich enough to buy you a husband!”
A tear of self-pity ran down the offending part and splashed onto her embroidery. Eva was not pretty, and try as she might, she could not be clever. Not like her brother Elias.
Mother doted on her firstborn. Which was only to be expected. Elias was a strikingly handsome boy, dark-haired and dark-eyed like his mother. But Eva adored him because he was her protector against Father, and she was his special little sister.
As Nurse left, Elias came in the salon from the direction of the stables, his good clothing still bearing the faint scent of horse.
“There you are, Evita! I have a late Christ-Mass gift for you.” Elias withdrew something small and fragile from the breast of his best green doublet and deposited into Eva’s hands a minute ball of fluff.
“Oh Elias!” Eva cupped her fingers around a tiny orange-and-black kitten. “Won’t he run away?” All Eva’s attempts to catch one of the wild barn-cats’ kittens had been failures.
“It’s a she.” He smiled at her pleasure. “This one is too young to run anywhere–see, her eyes are barely open. Just keep her close, and she’ll bond with us. So you will always be the top lioness in her pride.”
“She should be proud! She’s so pretty!” Eva stroked the walnut-sized head as she cradled the kitten against her.
“Not proud, hermanita.” Elias used his favorite endearment for her, ‘little sister’. “Pride. It’s what you call a family of lions.”
Eva tried to feel big and brave, like a lioness. “Where did you get her?”
“You remember Manolo?” Eva nodded; she had once met the head trainer for the Alhambra. “Well, after we had seen the Queen’s casket into the chapel I stopped to see the new colts, and we found this litter at the back of one of the stalls. Notice anything special about her?”
The kitten mewed and started to climb up Eva’s bodice, tangling its minuscule claws in the gold brocade threads. Eva carefully detached the little paws. “She has six toes!”
“On every paw. Though Manolo says that’s not so uncommon in cats.” Elias flashed one of his rare smiles as he skirted the forbidden subject.
The kitten wriggled into the square neckline of Eva’s too-large new gown, snuggled down and went to sleep. Eva felt the tiny heart beating against her own and a surge of protective love filled her. “I shall call her Tabita, and she will be my special friend.”
“She’ll be a lot of work,” Elias warned. “I just fed her, but you’ll have to do it again every three hours. She’s too young to be weaned.”
“Then shouldn’t we take her back to her mother?”
Elias took the household ledger from its niche and sat down to add figures before answering. “We can’t. The litter was abandoned.”
“Poor thing!” Eva kissed its little striped nose. “Why would a mother just leave her babies?”
“Some mothers care more about themselves than they do about their offspring.” Elias’ reply was so curt that Eva wanted to ask why, but he bent his head over the account book on the table, mouth pressed in a firm line which said the subject was closed. Eva picked up her embroidery and worked in silence.
Through the carved wooden screen of the window that opened to the kitchen patio, the delicious aroma of fresh bread meant that cook was taking the day’s crusty loaves from the large beehive oven. Eva finished the border of the altar-cloth she had been working on and sat fidgeting, wishing she could run out and show Old Paloma her new kitten. Beneath her skirts, she surreptitiously rubbed her extra little toe against the normal foot.
Eva would far rather be out there helping, instead of stuck in here in these tight, uncomfortable clothes, waiting to play her role of dutiful daughter in the dreary pageant that her father insisted on maintaining: a perfect, pious, and successful merchant family. She heaved a resigned sigh.
Elias heard. “You should practice your calligraphy.”
Eva pouted. “So long as I can write enough to run a household, why should I worry about my penmanship?”
“Because an elegant hand reflects your upbringing. Queen Isabella made it the fashion for noble ladies to be learned.”
“We’re not noble!” Eva protested. “We’re not even remotely hidalgo.”
“Well, you’re going to marry a noble. A connection by marriage to a hidalgo family is Father’s next step on the social ladder. That’s why he keeps building up your dowry.”
A number of recent comments that had gone over her head suddenly made sense. “I’m only eight!”
“Doesn’t matter—even a betrothal confers status. But don’t worry, the wedding waits until you are old enough.”
Eva contemplated her impending social elevation in dismay. “I can’t be like Blanca, riding and hawking and dancing and talking about olden-time books. You’re the one who is good at all that. You can have my share of the money, and then you can marry Blanca.”
“Brides bring dowries to their husband’s family, not the other way around. Like the lands Mother added to Casa de Pazia.” Elias made a strange choking sound, quickly stifled. “You should be glad Father has a use for you. It’s a protection, of a sort.”
He turned his back, but Eva caught a sweep of his arm and realized he was wiping away a tear. “Elias, what’s the matter?” Eva had never before seen her brother cry, no matter how hard the beating.
“Nothing.” And then he abruptly changed his mind. “Maybe it’s better if you are prepared. Mother’s horse wasn’t in the Alhambra stables. Manolo said she left last week, the morning after the Governor’s dinner.”
A choking lump filled her throat, and Eva realized that she had always dreaded this. Her frantic thoughts sought other possibilities. “Maybe she decided to visit her friend Pilar.”
“No.” Elias’ flat statement left no room for argument. ”She left us.” He angrily dashed away another tear.
Nurse put her head in the door. “Your father wants to see you in the great hall. Hurry, don’t keep him waiting!”
Eva hastily shoved her offending foot back into its shoe, not stopping to tie the latch-strap, and followed Elias out the salon and across the formal courtyard. Nurse held open one of the double doors to the great hall and stood aside, letting them go in alone. She gave Eva an encouraging pat on the shoulder, and Eva saw that Nurse was afraid for them.
The door slammed shut on Nurse, and the children whirled to find their father. Iago de Pazia stood in silence, glowering down at his offspring, his expression ominous.
Eva’s glance darted around the huge rectangular room, checking for other ways out. She looked to the servant’s door at the back. It was too far; she could never make that before her father caught her. Closer, facing the main doors, the great fireplace yawned, with its huge chimney. If Eva could only turn herself into a bird and fly up the flue, out to the street—but that was foolishness.
“You wanted us, sir?” Elias nudged her with the hand away from their father. Eva realized he was drawing her attention to the ladder which led to the newly-built minstrel’s loft. It had a door leading to the second-floor corridor.
“Do you know where your mother is?”
“We know she’s been visiting at the Alhambra,” Elias’ face was carefully blank, but under their father’s scrutiny, Eva gave a little whimper.
Their father turned on her. “So you did know! She gave you a last, loving goodbye, did she?”
“Eva only found out a few minutes ago.” Elias stepped between her father and herself. “And that’s only because this morning Manolo told me Mother’s horse wasn’t in the palace stables.”
“So she has a week’s start,” Iago snarled. “Much good that will do her. She can run, but she can’t hide forever. I have contacts who will track her down.”
“It wouldn’t be good for business if this were known, sir.” Elias spoke smoothly, sounding like one of Father’s customers instead of a ten-year-old. “Why not just give out that your wife went to visit a distant relative, and later pretend she died of a fever? It would save face for Casa de Pazia.”
“I’ve spent ten years saving that woman’s face!” Iago raged. “But no more! When I find her, I’ll kill her!”
“You wouldn’t want to be accused of murder.” Elias was trembling in his effort to keep himself under control.
“You have her cunning.” Their father advanced on Elias, who backed away, pulling Eva with him. “But it won’t save your whoring mother. No court would deny the right of a husband to take vengeance on an adulterous wife.”
Elias turned and pointed Eva toward the ladder, mouthing a soundless command: “Go!” Then he whirled on Iago. “You lie! Mama would never commit adultery.”
Eva bolted for the ladder as her brother drew Father’s anger. “You’re inventing threats because you’ve always been crazy with jealousy. And without a shred of reason!”
Eva scrambled upwards, feeling her untied shoe loosen as she went. It came off at the last step. The offending footwear called attention to itself as the wooden heel bounced off every rung, rolling across the floor at the bottom until it came to rest at the edge of the great hearth.
“No reason?” Iago de Pazia scooped up the shoe, custom-made to hide her deformity, and shook it under Elias’ nose. “Six toes! The mark of a woman’s intercourse with an incubus.”
Eva could tell that it was a horrible accusation, although she did not understand the terms incubus or intercourse. But she understood that she, with her horrible foot, was the cause of their family’s misery. She wished she had never been born.
“Bishop Talavera says that is an ignorant pagan superstition! And Mother said that an extra digit runs in her family.”
“She told you that, did she?” Iago’s tone was venomous. “Such a loving, true mother! But she didn’t tell you she was abandoning her children. Her children, and none of mine. The faithless puta!”
Eva cringed. The p-word was so foul, it could never mean Mama!
“You talk about faithless!” Elias pointed at him, shouting now. “You’re the reason Mama left us, because of your lack of faith! She couldn’t live with your hypocrisy, prating first one creed and then another, pretending to honor God. You sold your soul for money. And I see you whoring after status! Puta yourself!”
Then Elias ran. Iago, purple with rage, snatched up the iron poker from the fireplace and hurled it after the fleeing boy.
The heavy missile struck Elias in the back of the head, and he fell almost directly beneath her.
Eva stared horrified at her brother’s prone body, watching as bright red blood spread through his black hair.
Her father rolled Elias over with his foot. Now she could see his still face, the olive skin going white, and her heart almost stopped. That blow must surely have killed him.
“God, don’t let him be dead,” she prayed. “Please, please God, I’ll say the whole rosary every day if you just don’t let him be dead!”
Iago de Pazia looked at Elias, his mouth set in fury. Then he kicked the poker, making it skitter across the tiles toward the hearth. “Nurse!” he bellowed.
Veronica appeared at once, as though she had been stationed right outside the door. “He fell from the loft.” Iago lied. Why, Eva did not understand. Nurse must have heard everything. “Have him taken to the Blue Chamber. And fetch a priest.”
And with that, he strode from the hall.
As soon as he was gone, Eva flew down the ladder. “Oh, Nurse!” she cried. “Father murdered him!”
“Hush, cariña, the hakim will be here soon,” Nurse soothed. “Jose went for him already. We will do what we can.”
Weeping, Eva flung herself into Nurse’s arms. A minute cat-howl came from the area of her bosom and Eva remembered Tabita.
Casa de Pazia, late Monday August 22, 1513
Eva was pulled back into the present by the same sound, faint in the distance. But this was no kitten-noise of distress; it was a cat-mating screech.
Eva groaned inwardly. Of course: Tabita was out with some street-wise tom, and afterwards, she would roam with him, sharing in the hunt. It might be morning before she came back home.
And what would Eva do until then? Eva’s exit, like her mother’s, was a blow to her father’s pride—and with all the wedding preparations in hand, a very public insult.
But then maybe he was gone, off hunting for her as he had hunted for their mother while Elias lay unmoving between life and death.
That had been a horrible three days. Eva had prayed the promised rosaries, but God was too busy and the Virgin had little power. Like Eva’s own mother, also named Maria, Jesu’s mother ignored her.
At last, in desperation, Eva had turned to the book of saints she had received that Christ-Mass. The heavy volume was to be part of her dowry, painted by somebody famous, and every page picked out in gold leaf. And there, on the first page, she found Saint Basil.
Nine years later, Eva knew by heart the quote that was written opposite the saint’s idealized image: “The bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear mouldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes. The acts of charity which you do not do are so many injustices you commit.”
At last, she had found something real that she could bargain with for her brother’s life. Right then and there, Eva promised to dedicate herself to helping the poor, if the great saint would bring her petition before the powers of heaven. And within minutes of that prayer, Elias awakened.
She had kept that promise. Ever since, Saint Basil had been her favorite intercessor, the more so because he was the patron saint of the powerless. Eva had always been powerless. And now, she thought, she would be poor as well.
It was a relief.
She bowed her head and asked Saint Basil to protect her from her father. Then she crept toward the ornate ironwork gate and called softly. “Ernesto!”
There was no response. Eva pressed against the wall just to the side, out of view, and threw a pebble between the bars of the gate.
After a few minutes the guardroom door opened, and to her relief she heard Ernesto’s arthritic step, stiff from sleep.
“Ernesto! It’s me, Eva.”
Ernesto shuffled up to the gate and peered through the ironwork. “Señorita Eva?”
His astonishment was justified. Eva had never been out alone at night before. In fact, she had never been out alone at any hour. “Let me in, before somebody comes,” Eva begged.
“But you’re on your way to Venice!” Ernesto scratched his head. “Friday it was, you eloped. All the wedding guests your father has invited, the big show. Granada is buzzing with it.”
“Conte Niccolo deserted me.” Which was true, after a fashion.
“May Shaitan infest his beard!” Ernesto unlocked the gate and let her in. “But señorita Eva, your father and the men-at-arms came back just an hour ago! Four days they scour every route to the coast for nothing. Now the master’s in as black a mood as I ever seen—and I seen plenty señor de Pazia’s rages!”
“I’m not staying.” Eva sank onto the bench in the guardroom and marshaled her thoughts. Who would Tabita allow to pick her up? “Go get Old Paloma and bring her here. Not a word to the other servants—it would put them at risk.”
Old Paloma entered, followed by Ernesto. The faithful servant ran to embrace her.
“Evita, cariña! Ernesto told me how the Conte abandoned you, that bad, bad man!”
“Vieja Paloma!” Eva hugged her back. “It’s for the best, I didn’t want to marry him any more than he wanted to marry me.”
“But the shame! Your father is right to be angry—though not at you, cariña, the master should know you’d never plan something like that on your own. It was your bridegroom used doña Barbola to trick you into going, wasn’t it? We never trusted her in the servant’s quarters, she was too good for such as we. Never let us forget that she was a Moorish noblewoman, and how lucky for you that she had agreed to be duenna to a merchant’s daughter.”
“No, Paloma, doña Barbola doesn’t know anything about it. I sent her to visit family the night before. It was Blanca who helped me.” Eva silently blessed her highborn friend. “She pulled strings with her cousin who is Abbess of the convent where Queen Juana worships. They will accept me as a lay sister. The travel arrangements are all made. But this evening, Tabita turned up missing.”
“Ah, that cat isn’t one to stay cooped up.” Paloma nodded, understanding. “She’ll come home, a cat always does. Come, the best place for you to wait is your old room. Nobody will go there now that they think you’re gone to Venice with that dreadful Conte. May he rot in hell!”
Old Paloma took her bundle and led the way across the formal courtyard. The doors that separated it from the private patio creaked, and from the direction of the street came a clatter of hooves and a clash of armor. Through the branches of the olive tree in the center planter, she saw the door of her father’s room open.
“Who’s there?” Iago de Pazia stood in his night-dress, outlined by the light of a candle in the room.
Eva pressed herself against the wall of the wide colonnade, but even in the shadows she could feel her father’s eyes boring into her.
And then she heard a pounding on the front gate. “Open!” a deep voice shouted. “Open in the name of the Inquisition!”
Tabita crouched under a clump of weeds, watching the two drunks weaving down the dark street. There was something wrong with humans. Not always wrong, but one never could tell when the wrongness would come out. That was why she allowed only Elias and Eva to be human members of her pride.
They were not entirely free from the wrongness, either, though she had not understood that at first, when her human litter-mates were all that kept her from starvation. But so far as Tabita was concerned, her handicapped pride-members were her responsibility because she was naturally superior.
They had the advantage of size, it must be admitted—but it was wasted by clumsiness, stumbling around on only two feet, and being so slow to react. At least most of them; Elias was quick enough. But their feet had no claws, which is why those with more awareness of their species’ shortcomings kept them covered, as Eva usually did.
One of the drunks stopped to defecate in the gutter. Tabita wrinkled her nose in distaste. Humans did things like that, and many of them did not even cover their scat. The drunk finished and the pair of them staggered off. Tabita continued on her way, following her internal compass in a straight line, obstacles permitting, between the square stone-built pile where Tabita had endured four long, tedious days cooped up with her pride-mate in that whitewashed cell. But enough was enough. The place appeared to be a kind of asylum for human reproductive failures. No place for Eva.
It was she, Tabita, who must lure Eva back to her home hunting grounds. Casa de Pazia had not produced any mating prospects lately, either. But at least Eva was top lioness there.
A rat scuttled from a nearby refuse-heap, but tonight Tabita let it go. There were plenty of vermin here in this area, where the skinny humans lived. It was another example of the inferiority of the two-leggeds, that they should let their young go hungry when surrounded by so much food. But they were poor hunters, too slow to catch a mouse, and without proper teeth to administer the killing bite.
Tabita came down the last slope and saw the back wall of the home-place, where it abutted the slum. It was half again as high as Elias. She crouched at the bottom, gathering her muscles for the leap.
At that moment, a cloth-wrapped bundle came flying over. Tabita jumped aside as it thumped to earth, giving off a gust of food-and-clothing smells. A figure appeared at the top of the wall, whom Tabita recognized as one of the stable-hands. He lowered another bundle, this one clanking with the sound of breakable objects, and then jumped down. Then he held up his hands to help his mate, the fat woman who worked in the dairy-shed. The two moved in hurried silence and they reeked of fear.
Something odd was going on here. Tabita was on guard at once: this was not the way humans came and went from Casa de Pazia—except for Elias, who used the back way when he wanted his movements to go unnoticed.
The couple gathered their bundles and ran off. Tabita made her leap and gained the summit only to be nearly hit in the face by the leg of a ladder as it was placed against the other side. Cook was already pushing her two children up it, while her scrawny husband steadied the base. They too were carrying bundles and stank of fear.
Tabita leaped down as the husband went up. “Take the ladder!” Cook hissed from the other side. “We don’t want the Inquisition to find out how we left.”
Inquisition was a new sound to Tabita. They said it as though speaking the name of a monster.
Below, Tabita could hear shouts of male voices, unfamiliar voices. There were torches in the courtyard and formal patio. Clearly the whole house was in an uproar. The fear was infectious, but she set herself to go investigate.
She reached the main gate just in time to see the dominant human-lion going out. Iago de Pazia, scantily covered, was being dragged between two men in metal-wear. He was protesting in a blustering voice. It did not impress his captors any more than it fooled Tabita. Eva’s father did not hold dominance over these men.
They spoke roughly, invoking the name Inquisition. Tabita did not know what sort of creature Inquisition might be, but one thing was clear: Casa de Pazia was no longer a safe place for Eva.