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Archive for March, 2020

Chapter 3 of Eva’s Secret

3. Under the Table

10-year-old Eva, Granada’s Silk Market, 1506

Eva was not exactly forbidden to be there. But she and Blanca were definitely not supposed to be out alone and unaccompanied by doña Teresa Pacheco, the poor but genteel relation who served as Blanca’s duenna.

“Are you sure that doña Teresa will be gone for another hour?” Eva whispered as they hid behind the wall that surrounded the flat roof of her father’s warehouse in the old Silk Market.

“Don’t be so worried, you silly goose!” Blanca giggled. Their duenna thought they were waiting for her in the Cathedral nearby, saying prayers for the souls of Blanca’s dead brothers and sisters. “Even if she’s not, she won’t say anything. She’d be the one in trouble, leaving us like that.”

Blanca would not get in trouble, but Eva surely would, if her father found out. Still, he would not restrict Eva’s visits with her friend; Iago de Pazia was flattered that the daughter of a Count should be willing to spend time with a merchant’s daughter, even a very rich one.

“I must have been wrong about the day. Blanca, let’s go back.” Eva was hot. Her dark blue velvet was smothering, its rigid bodice pinched, and the stiff leather of her best shoes pressed on her extra toe.

“No, look! Here he comes!” The clop of hooves in the street below announced Elias, riding Fez, the new Arabian stallion that was part of the latest de Pazia shipment. The horse was groomed until his red-bay coat shone. He held his black tail high and arched his neck, tossing his head against the bit. Elias appeared to sit him with perfect ease.

“Oh, Eva, your brother is sooo handsome,” Blanca sighed. “Look, your father and his customer haven’t come out yet, couldn’t you just wave at him so he would look up at us?”

Eva knew the intent expression of concentration on Elias’ face meant Fez was barely under control. “No, it’s risky. There are too many eyes in the silk market today and we don’t want to attract attention.”

“Maybe I could talk my father into buying me a new palfrey. Then Elias could come and show me all your father’s stock, one at a time!”

“Oh, no,” Eva said quickly. “Father would never sell the Governor any of the horses Elias shows.”

“Why not?”

“Those are the ones that are too high-spirited. It’s just when my brother rides them, he makes them behave. But they’re dangerous.”

This information only served to increase Blanca’s admiration. “He’s as brave as El Cid!”

“Shh! There’s my father and the man who wants to see the horse.” The two girls ducked down below the parapet, listening to the bargaining below. The dickering went on and on, while Elias trotted the sale animal in a tight circle. Eva could see its eye showing white, and a scrim of sweat-foam starting along the lines of its elaborate chest-band.

The deal finished at last, but still they stood out in the street. Now the discussion was over delivery of the goods. The buyer purposed to take the horse at once, while Iago de Pazia argued that Elias should ride it to the purchaser’s estate later in the day.

“We need to get back,” Blanca whispered. “If we sneak down the stairs while they are still haggling, maybe we can make it to the Cathedral before doña Teresa returns.” The tall door of the Royal Chapel was visible just over the colorful awnings that hung in front of the shops and market stalls that ringed the square.

Their skirts bunched to keep from brushing the whitewashed wall, both girls tiptoed down the stairs to the alley. Turning away from the loud business transaction, Eva and Blanca slipped unnoticed around the corner of the building. The narrow alley behind the shop opened onto the cathedral square.

“Come on!” Blanca broke into a run. She burst out of the alley almost on top of an elegantly-dressed nobleman. Unable to stop in time, Eva crashed into Blanca, knocking her into the man’s arms.

“Maria Blanca Mendoza y Pacheco!” Eva recognized the stern voice: don Luis Mendoza, Blanca’s oldest brother! “I have been looking for you! Your duenna said you had left her in the Chapel.”

“Luis!” Blanca was dismayed at finding herself in the grasp of her least-favored brother. She took a moment to settle her skirts—and, Eva knew, to invent a plausible excuse. “We went to see the beautiful things Eva’s father just got in from Constantinople. The de Pazia shop is right across the square from the Cathedral, so—”

“No matter how close it is, you should have waited for doña Teresa.” Luis took her arm firmly. “You are coming home with me.”

“But Eva—”

“—can go home with her father,” Luis finished. “I will escort your young friend back to her family business. An early end to your visit is a small enough punishment for this prank. I can’t imagine what señor de Pazia will think of us, letting his daughter go about unchaperoned.”

Eva cast a despairing look at Blanca. Her father would be furious that she had done anything to displease the powerful Mendozas.

At that moment Elias came around the front of the building. “Oh, here is my brother! You don’t need to bother, don Luis, Elias can take me back to the shop, it’s only one door down, you won’t have to trouble yourself,” she babbled.

Elias took in the situation and, quick as ever, he bowed. “Don Luis! I just stepped away from the girls for a moment. Please forgive that I let your little sister out of my sight. It was entirely my fault.”

Luis was taken aback; twelve-year-old Elias was not really mature enough to pass as any kind of guardian. Before don Luis could respond, Elias gave a courtier’s bow, taking Blanca’s hand and kissing it like a hidalgo grandee. “Farewell, señorita Mendoza. As your brother is no doubt in a hurry, we will send your purchase to the Alhambra tomorrow.”

Eva watched in admiration as Elias handled the encounter like another grown-up, making knowledgeable compliments on don Luis’ mount as he lifted Blanca onto the saddle in front of her brother. By the time don Luis rode off, he was mollified.

As soon as the Mendoza siblings were out of earshot, Elias addressed her in an angry whisper. “Eva, what are you doing here?”

“We were on the roof. Blanca wanted to watch the horse sale.” Eva hung her head.

“We’d better not let Father find out about this.” Elias considered her velvet dress and inadequate shoes. “You can’t walk far in that. I’ll run home and get another horse, and you can ride pillion. You’ll have to hide in Father’s shop.”

They had reached the front of the shop next to their father’s and her brother pretended to be interested in one of the lengths of cloth hung out for sale. Eva needed no warning to keep the billowing layers of yardage between herself and their father, now finishing the paperwork of the horse’s pedigree. Fez was attracting all the attention in the market square, prancing and pawing in circles while the buyer’s servant held his reins.

Elias pointed to a covered table deep inside the open front of the de Pazia shop. “Hide under there, and make sure to arrange the tablecloth after you,” he whispered. “When I come back, I’ll give our whistle. After you hear it, wait until everybody is distracted, then unbar the back door and slip out as quietly as you can.”

The horse reared up and flailed with his forefeet. Eva took advantage of the distraction and quickly moved from behind the neighbor’s display of fabrics into the open front of her father’s shop. She dived under the richly covered table while everyone was busy with the stallion. One of the items displayed on the top fell off. There was a small divide between the two embroidered cloths that covered the table, and Eva reached a hand through it to pick up the expensive jeweled vase, carefully replacing it on the surface over her head.

There was a crash in the square. Eva put her eye to the crack between the table-covering and saw her father run outside. Stacks of merchandise partially blocked her view, but between the bales and displays she could see the street. Fez’ shrill whinny was followed by a ring of horseshoes on cobbles, the thud of hooves striking baled cloth, the splintering of wooden awning-poles. A flash of polished red-bay hide shot past Eva’s restricted view, soon blocked by frantic figures of shopkeepers and assistants trying to divert the frightened stallion.

Father was shouting for Elias. She had gotten him in trouble again: her brother was off getting a horse to take her home while the sale animal trampled the silk market. Iago would be furious.

The hue and cry moved further down the square and Eva, who had lifted the cloth to see better, quickly dropped it as her father and two of his shopkeepers returned. The fabric hung a little crookedly so that a narrow v-shaped opening gave a view into her hiding place beneath the table. Eva did not dare adjust it with her father looking into the shop, no doubt checking the contents to be sure nothing of value had been snatched during the brief time his attention was outside. Eva quaked when he came to the table and rearranged the vase, but although he looked straight at her he did not seem to see her. She thanked Saint Basil that the underside of the table was in shadow and she had worn the dark blue dress and mantilla instead of the cream-colored lace.

“The fool! I told him not to take the horse today, but he insisted. On his head be it!” Iago sat down at his elaborate desk in the rear of the shop. Eva heard his quill scraping on the accounting sheets he kept so carefully. “Where is that useless son of mine? Get back to work.”

The shop-boy returned to polishing the expensive merchandise, while the guard lounged outside. It was so quiet in the shop, any movement would be heard. Elias’ whistle would attract her father’s attention at once. If only a customer would come!

Cross-legged was not the proper posture for prayer, but Eva did not dare shift into a kneeling position. She folded her hands and prayed earnestly to Saint Basil to send a distraction, help her escape notice, help Elias hurry back, and get her out the back door without Iago de Pazia ever being the wiser.

Saint Basil answered: Eva heard the guard greet a customer at the shop entrance. From the respectful note in his voice, it was someone of consequence. Her father rose and exchanged courtesies with the newcomer, addressing him as Baltasar Cerra.

The man replied fulsomely, his accent identifying him as Moorish. Another man—or, judging from the timbre of his voice, a youth—seconded the greeting, his tone deferential. No doubt a servant of some kind.

Eva begged Saint Basil to let them stay and keep her father occupied until she made good her escape.

They accepted the offer of tea! Paco the shop boy hurried to the back to boil water. The guard spread a silk carpet on the tiled floor, and Eva discovered to her alarm that the area selected for her father’s hospitality was directly in front of her hiding place. Iago waved his guests onto the rug while the seats were brought.

The two newcomers paused a few feet from her table. Eva got a good view of the bottom of Cerra’s robe, a typical Granadan burnoose, while the younger voice’s bare legs confirmed her guess of his servile status. The lace pattern of her mantilla played tricks on her eyes, distorting the skin on the man’s muscled calves. Eva tipped her head just enough to see his feet below the edge of her veil and discovered that the dappled effect was not the fault of her mantilla. Rather, every exposed inch was pitted with indentations, each pit stark white against deep brown skin. It was the worst case of smallpox scarring she had ever seen, worse even than old Blas, their gardener.

The guard rolled a gilded leather ottoman onto the carpet, and the bare legs stepped out of the way, closer to Eva’s table and just inches from her nose. Eva hardly dared to breathe as she stared at his scars. The only place that was free from the white pits was a band of callus that ringed the leg nearest her. The cause of it rested loosely against the ankle: an iron slave-cuff which showed the weld-marks of many enlargements. Eva realized that the enlargements, together with the callusing, meant that the wearer had borne it since childhood.

So the man was a slave. Eva was fascinated. She herself did not know anybody who was a slave, although the institution was common enough in Granada. Her father held that slaves were lazy workers and untrustworthy, while Blanca’s father had freed all the slaves that came with the Alhambra. The only thing Eva knew about slaves was hearsay and stories.

One of her favorite stories about Saint Basil involved a slave who was trapped by the devil. Eva wondered if her patron saint had sent this slave, whose status was made so obvious by his ankle. Half-ashamed of her presumption in asking for so much, she silently prayed for a sign.

No sooner had she finished than the slave shifted his feet so that the inside of his opposing leg was visible. To her astonishment, several scars on the slave’s ankle ran together to form a familiar shape—the backwards ‘E’ which was once her childish signature!

Her little gasp was covered by the thump of a second ottoman dropping onto the carpet. Her father waved an ink-stained hand. “Please, be seated.”

To Eva’s intense relief, Iago de Pazia took the closest ottoman, facing away from her hiding place. Cerra, a short, fat Moor, settled onto the ottoman opposite, where he was mostly blocked by her father’s back. In the middle of the carpet, Paco unfolded a wooden tray-stand. As he moved out of the way, Eva saw that the slave had seated himself cross-legged on the carpet next to his master–and eye-level to her where she sat under the table. Fortunately, his attention was directed to the conversation between her father and Baltasar Cerra, who were engaged in the boring banalities that always preceded a discussion of business in Granada.

Eva was surprised at how much older the slave looked than his voice sounded. Was it those lines that scored the high forehead? But they were a trick of the scar-pattern, not wrinkles. Although there was nothing youthful about the strong furrows that bracketed his long, prominent nose. They disappeared into sparse facial hair, framing full lips, stippled by yet more scars. That mouth was the one feature that seemed young—young and somehow vulnerable. It was a face made prematurely old by suffering, Eva decided.

Paco reappeared with the round brass tea-tray laden with the silver tea-service. He settled the huge tray onto its wooden stand with hardly a rattle of the objects thereon. From a paper cone he sifted freshly chopped mint leaves into the high-domed Moroccan pot, and the air filled with astringent steam.

The slave’s image wavered in the steam. Eva had a moment of unexplained recognition—he was familiar, and yet strange—like the time that she had not quite recognized Ramon, the head groom, because he had cut off his long beard.

That was it—the beard was too short! Beneath the disfiguring marks, the slave’s elongated features bore a striking resemblance to the painting of Saint Basil in her book of hours.

Paco reappeared with an ewer of water, a linen towel and the brass basin. Cerra and Father held their hands out while rose-scented water was poured over them.

Her father dried his hands. “And now, what is the business you wished to see me about?”

“A matter of three French horses—destrier material.” Cerra finished with the towel and draped it over Paco’s arm. “They were offered to me in a group purchase with some new pack-mules I acquired for my caravans, but as you know, I do not sell livestock.”

Paco took the used towel and basin away, but as he turned, Eva saw him covertly make the sign against the evil eye in the pockmarked slave’s direction. He saw it and his lips twisted in a small wry moue. Eva’s ready sympathy was aroused, and she was indignant at Paco’s rudeness. She wondered how long the slave had borne the scars, and how often, in those years, he had endured stares, ridicule or avoidance just because of something he could not help.

“Casa de Pazia does not handle livestock, either,” Iago was saying. “We only broker horses if they are the finest examples of equine breeding. And just because these animals are French does not make them destrier material. Have you seen them yourself?”

“No. I act on the word of my man, here.” Cerra turned to the pockmarked slave. “I have brought him so that you may question him personally as regards the quality of the horses.”

“I thank you for the offer, but I cannot make a business decision on nothing but the word of a Saracen slave.” Though she could only see the back of his neck, Eva could well imagine the disapproval on Iago de Pazia’s face, because that look was so often directed at herself.

Eva saw the slave’s features go still at her father’s blunt words, in the same way Elias did when he did not want others to see that something had stung.

“As to the first, he is no more a Saracen than you are a Jew.” Cerra’s tone was one grown-ups used when they did not quite mean what they said. “We are all baptized Catholics now. And as to the second, I can assure you that I do not keep fools by me. Baseel is one of my protégés.”

His name was Basil! Eva’s hands flew to her mouth in surprise, attracting the slave’s attention. He looked straight at her where she sat in the shadows. Her heart almost stopped. Would he give her away?

”Well, at least he had the wit to choose a different baptismal name,” Iago was saying. “Half the native population of Granada is now named either Maria or Jose. Without regard for gender.”

Eva moved her hands down and clasped them together, a silent plea not to be revealed. Cerra laughed. “Yes, my stable-manager’s Christian name is Maria. Although we call him Maria-Hussein to differentiate him from Maria-Omar, who leads one of my mule caravans. But that is the fault of the priest who baptized them, for these older Moriscos speak only Arabic, and accepted whatever name the priest suggested. But Baseel is of a different cut.”

The slave gave a little smile—Eva could not be sure if it was for her, or for her father, whom he addressed. “My master gives me too much credit. I am merely fortunate that the Berber name bestowed on me at birth happens to sound the same as a Christian one. Though I believe that the Saint of that name is more popular in the Greek church.”

“There, you see?” Cerra said. “I judge people, like you judge horses. Baseel came with an estate in the Alpujarra mountains, a part of the grant the Catholic Kings gave Boabdil when he surrendered Granada.” Cerra sipped his tea. “I overheard someone speaking court Persian, and on coming very quietly to investigate, found Baseel here quoting Rumi to his goats.”

“People did not find the sight of me welcome.” Eva felt relief wash over her. The slave was on her side. “And in any case, goats appreciate poetry more.”

 “How does a goat-boy come to read Persian?” Her father’s question showed that he was intrigued.

“Ah, there is where my investigation paid off.” Cerra became visible as her father poured himself more tea. “It seems that Baseel was born in the Alhambra, in the service of Muley Hassan, the old sultan. But that is something I have never asked. Baseel, how did you learn court Persian?”

“Until I grew too old for such company, I was a kind of mascot to the sultan’s harem,” Baseel replied. “One of the women was from Baghdad. She taught me just so that she could speak to someone in her own language. Or so she said.”

“Many a street beggar has picked up a polyglot of tongues.” Iago shrugged. “To be useful to business, a man must not merely speak a language, but read bills of lading and write orders for merchandise.”

“Indeed, that was what made me realize that I had here a lad of rare initiative. For he was reading Rumi from a book made of re-used scrap paper, copied by himself. Baseel, tell señor de Pazia of your languages.”

“I am fluent in Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, and Persian. Also, I speak a dialect of Berber, although there is no written form; and I can read and write Latin, but I do not speak it.”

“Hmmph.” Eva could tell that, despite her father’s dismissive noise, he was impressed. “But you are unwise to put so much trust in a slave, whatever his learning. A free man works well because it is in his own interest to do so, but a slave’s efforts are forced. Whatever he can get away with, a slave will do, and one with initiative is the more dangerous for that. Given the chance to gain his freedom, he will desert you.”

“An interesting theory. Let us test it.” Cerra turned to the his slave. “Baseel, if you wish to leave my service, I will write you a certificate of manumission here and now.”

Baseel thought a few seconds before he answered. “No matter how free a man may be, he is still a slave to his belly. If you had not given me this chance to use my talents, a face such as mine would have little prospect of employment.”

“There, you see?” The merchant’s voice had the quality of one who was smiling. “But I will give him his freedom anyway, in due time. Baseel is a hawk, to be trained to the lure, and when their feathers are fully fledged, the hunter unleashes them on the chosen prey with confidence that they will return to the glove.”

At that moment, Eva heard Elias whistle in the alley behind the shop. He must have ridden hard to have returned so quickly!

Eva re-positioned herself onto her hands and knees. She started to back out, but her foot bumped a rear table leg. The objects overhead jiggled. Eva froze, waiting for her father to whirl around. But at that moment, Basil made to rise, and his knee bumped the edge of the tea-tray. It went over with a clash of silver pot, cups, and sugar-coffer.

He jumped up. “My apologies, señor! Forgive my clumsiness!”

Iago de Pazia had also risen, spluttering as he held his robe, now soaked with the still-hot contents of the teapot, away from his body. The gangling young slave bent over to retrieve cups from the floor. Eva turned and rapidly crept out towards the back, but not before she saw Basil’s eye close and open again in what was unmistakably a wink.

She unbarred the back door and slipped out, thanking her patron saint.

Casa de Pazia: August 23, 1513

“Señorita? Here is the paper and a quill. If you will write to your relatives now, I will make sure that they receive it.”

Casa Cerra had nothing but good associations for Eva. She took the pen and sat down to write Elias, in care of Nurse Veronica. She addressed him only as ‘brother’—Elias had warned her to name no names.

Hermano mio, Casa Cerra kindly offered to shelter me until you could come get me.

Your loving hermanita. Written early Tuesday morning, August 8.

And then, because Nurse could not read, Eva drew the little cat that was her special signature.

She gave it to the waiting Andres. “Take this to the farm of Tomás in Maracena. He will get it to my people.”

“It is as good as done.” Andres blew the ink dry and carefully folded the paper. “And now, let me escort you to our women’s dormitorio.”


Chapter 2 of Eva’s Secret

This isn’t the cover on the current kindle edition.

2. Undelivered Letters

Casa de Pazia, early Tuesday morning, August 23, 1513

Eva stood in the room, her emotions a confusing turmoil of relief alternating with shock. Relief at the last-minute rescue from Iago de Pazia’s fury. Shock at the soldier’s rough brutality as they dragged him away, nothing like the behavior she expected of the church. The whole affair, coming as it did in the middle of the night, lacked only a Judas.

Eva felt an overwhelming need to pray. She opened her bundle and took out the portable prie-dieu that had been her mother’s. The cross-shaped upright was curiously adorned with segments of stamped tin, bulging out from the wood like cylinders sunk half their width into the battered pine. Eva fitted this into a socket in the worn kneeler that served as both base and stand.

She knelt, hands clasped and head bowed. She said the Pater, and the Ave. But over and around the rote sentences, her mind kept seeing Paloma’s face when she heard it was the Inquisition at the gate.

That had terrified her more than even Iago de Pazia in a rage. Why?

Pounding noises echoed from the direction of Father’s counting room, as though somebody was hitting the walls with a sledgehammer.

Eva tried to shake off her doubts. She must trust the church. The Inquisition had been set up to guard souls from heresy. Perhaps when it was new to an area, as it was to Granada, a few mistakes were made. But they would be set right when everything came to light. Elias said that Cardinal Cisneros was a righteous man.

Where was Paloma with the keys? How long did it take to open the pantry?

Had the priests caught her?

Ridiculous thought! Why would anybody but her father care if the servants stocked their home pantries with the food once meant for her marriage feast? And if it was true that their quarterly wages would not be paid after the Inquisition seized the assets—not that she believed Paloma’s dire prediction was correct, for of course the church would be fair—how could anyone object to the debt being paid in kind?

Eva’s eye fell on the household account book where it rested in its niche. She might as well remove the three most recent pages, the ones containing all the records of the extra supplies bought especially for next week’s wedding banquet.

She tore them out. Her mother’s old prie-dieu had a space in the kneeler to store a devotional book where Eva kept some sheet music, a sermon of the late Bishop Talavera’s, and a letter from her mother. On impulse, she removed the letter, wrapped it in the account pages, and put the packet down her bodice, just in case she had to flee without the ugly old cross.

She pressed her hand over the place where her mother’s last letter rested. She had read and re-read the short missive so often, the contents were written on her heart.

 Dearest Friend,

I trust you will receive this, although as you know, it is safer if I name no names. I have given up hope that I can change my husband. There is no help for one who loves only money and does not fear God. And yet I cannot leave without some thought to the fate of the children I leave behind.

My son is well-instructed, but my daughter is as yet ignorant in our faith. So I bequeath her to your care, knowing you will be diligent in her religious instruction. To that end, I am leaving her my prie-dieu. Tell her she must keep it close, and never part from it; it is an heirloom passed from mother to daughter for centuries. When you judge she is ready, reveal to her the true meaning of the cross.

Please, my friend, do not let my child be given in marriage to a religious fraud such as I had to endure. Choose for her a sincere man of our own faith, and if her father balks, you well know what threat will force his hand.

Farewell, faithful friend. I will remember your kindness to me and mine, and will ever bring your name before heaven’s throne.

Maria de Pazia had not signed her name, but when Eva had stumbled across the unsent letter, she had recognized her mother’s distinctive backwards-slanting hand at once.

The letter steadied her. Mama would approve of what Eva did to get out of that marriage. The man her father had chosen for her was not merely an unbeliever; Conte Niccolo was a blasphemous idolater who worshiped at the same altar as Iago de Pazia: greed.

Paloma slipped in the door and closed it behind her. “It’s good we acted at once. The staff got out with the supplies just before they started to inventory the wine-cellar. The big priest say we are dismissed. The casa is to be cleared.”

“But surely you can come back on quarter-day to collect your wages?”

“The majordomo asked. I hear him. They say back, ‘You collect when we are done.’ But they know and we also that there will be not one maravedi left.”

“That is wrong!” Eva went to the large chest that held her clothing and flung it open. “See, I left my fancy gowns, and they have pearls and gemstones sewn on. You can distribute them in lieu of wages.”

“No, we must leave it as it stands, cariña. The pantry supplies are enough. Food we eat, but jewels and rich fabrics we must sell, and might be taken for thieves.” Old Paloma closed the coffer firmly. “Now quick, think of what else before they reach this room.”

“They will come into my bedroom?” The very idea of intrusion made Eva begin to shake.

“There are valuables.” Paloma pointed to Eva’s bundle where her guitarra’s leather case showed through the cloth. “We better hide that.”

Eva snatched up the beloved guitarra and clutched it to herself. “They can’t take what is mine!”

“The Inquisition put up a paper on the gate, and I know already it will say: ‘whatever was Iago de Pazia’s is now ours.’ And a big red seal of the Inquisition.”

“But—I’m not even supposed to be Eva de Pazia, I’m—” What was her new name? “—Maria Perez.”

“That don’t matter.” Paloma lowered her voice. “I seen how they do, the priests and their familiars. First, they confiscate all the goods. Oh, they say if the person can prove they’s not a heretic they’ll give back, but they always find reason to keep most. So if you want to see your mother’s guitarra again, we have to hide it, pronto.”

Eva’s eyes fell on the carved wood that covered the lower half of the walls. “There, beside the bed. One of the panels is loose. Behind it is a hollow in the thickness of the wall.” Eva’s fingers found the shallow indentations in the carved relief and lifted the section. The rail that held it to the wall at waist-height had shrunk with the years, just sufficiently to allow this particular board to move enough to clear the tiled floor-base.

Paloma drew in her breath. “So large a cavidad—and in the base of the outer wall, too! Cariña, you should have told your father, this should be filled in before the bricks above crack.”

Tell her father? It was fear of her father that drove Eva to carve out this hidey-hole years ago, laboriously scraping the adobe bricks night after night, carrying the crumbles out in her chamber-pot every morning. “It doesn’t matter now. Hand me the guitarra case.”

Old Paloma pushed the guitarra to the furthest corner. After the board was fitted back into place, Paloma turned to Eva’s clothing. “You should change into a work dress. This is a rich woman’s gown—what servant would have nine yards to her skirt?” Paloma pinched the fabric. “Nine yards of heavy silk at that.”

“Blanca said this gray was perfect for my stay at the Carthusian charterhouse.” Besides, Eva couldn’t leave it—Blanca needed to return the gown to her older sister’s clothes-press before Maria de Mendoza noticed it was missing.

“But it’s safer if you pass for a servant. And even a lout who don’t know clothes can see you need a maid to get into that. It laces behind.”

“Well, I will say I am Eva de Pazia’s companion. See, this isn’t new—in fact, it’s quite worn.” Eva confided the most important reason for keeping the upper-class garb. “A servant wouldn’t wear a mantilla. I have to cover my face if any of our people see me.” And they’ll find out I didn’t really elope.

“Well, it do seem threadbare about the edges,” Paloma conceded. “It might pass as a castoff given to a duenna.”

“But what about Tabita?”

“In the morning, I’ll come back and get those things on the quiet, like, ‘cause they tap the walls to see if there’s treasure hid somewhere. The señor’s study is what has them busy at the moment.” Paloma flinched at a crashing sound, as though something had given at last. “Those of us who came from Old Castile try to forget it.” Paloma shook her head dolefully. “And as for Granada—well, they’ve never seen an auto-da-fé. But they will soon. There’s been an announcement that one will be held Wednesday after next.”

Eva puzzled over the phrase: auto-da-fé meant act of faith. Why would that be a bad thing?

Paloma opened the door a crack, peeped out, and then shut it firmly. “I remember Fray Torquemada, preaching in the square before Toledo cathedral. His eyes burned. Fair possessed, I thought he was. Didn’t like it, and neither did my man. But there’s those that did. There’s been a lot of jealousy against your people, see, because Jews seems to always get rich. And when they convert, they get richer.”

Her people. Eva digested this. Were the Jews ‘her people’?

“So. My father rented his bit of land from a Converso family—they kept kind of separate, like, even though they converted generations ago. But they was fair landlords, better than the Avilas, who had the land on the other side. And then the neighbors spread about that our landlord was Judaizing—I don’t altogether know what that is, but it has to do with them being secret Jews or something. And the Inquisition soldiers arrested him and his son, and took them away, and the next thing they know, they’re off to serve in the galleys and the Avilas are our new landlords. And the family’s women in the street and no one to help them. A bad affair.”

Eva jumped at the slam of a door two rooms down—Elias’ room, on the rare nights he was home. Paloma dropped her voice to a whisper. “After that, nobody trusted the family that did the talking. But we daren’t say anything, because we didn’t want the same to happen to us.

“Almost ten years later, it was, that Granada finally fell. And the treaty said there would be no Inquisition anywhere in the new province, on account of so many Moors. My Jose, he thought that the church would be too busy converting the Moors, seeing as the new province was full of them. And he knew Bishop Talavera didn’t like the goings-on that Fray Torquemada begun. So we emigrated here.”

“And now the Inquisition is here in Granada.” Eva wanted to cry. She had not known it would be like this.

“It was too good to last. Gracias a Dios, Jose is in his grave these five years, may he rest in peace.” Paloma crossed herself.

The Cat

Tabita backtracked her night’s journey, disappointed. Eva could not return to Casa de Pazia. But if she remained at the infertile place, then she might miss the whole purpose of life: to bear young. Tabita understood that the humans matured much more slowly than cats, but her mistress and pride-mate had been sexually mature for at least three years now, and in all that time, she had done nothing to produce a human kitten.

At first, Tabita thought Eva was merely picky. Human mating went on everywhere, even on the grounds of Casa de Pazia. Eva could have coupled with any of several prospects; so long as they were healthy and virile and could complete the act of mating, what else did you need from a tom-cat?

But longer acquaintance with human habits explained Eva’s reluctance. With their slow-growing young so vulnerable, and for so long, a human female had to choose a mate who would be around to hunt for her while she raised their kittens, starting the next and then the next before ever the first was mature. And Eva would not want a mate who had to divide his prey among several females and their offspring; Tabita saw too many starving children on the streets.

She smelled mouse. There it was! The rodent slipped under an entry gate. Tabita pressed herself flat to the bricks and was able to follow. She slid quietly along, looking for where the prey might have gone.

She had entered the courtyard of a residence. There were herb beds all around and among the brick paving, and the mouse-scent was very strong in one corner. Aha! It had holed up in a miniature brass teapot tumbled among the mint. Sooner or later, it would have to come out.

Tabita settled down to wait. She observed the place she was in. There were more tiny cups scattered about, and a doll. These were objects indicating the presence of human kittens. In fact, the smell of infants and toddlers was in evidence throughout the plants—the human kittens were indiscreet about urination. Several different children used this patio, both male and female from the scent. This was the lair of a very fertile pride.

The mouse decided it was safe and came out. It never knew what happened. Tabita took her meal to a quiet corner.

She alerted at the sound of a shuffling step. An old man came out of one of the doors that faced the patio. He settled stiffly on a bench, brought out a string of beads, and began to speak, very soft: “Allahu akbar—”

Tabita relaxed. She knew this noise-making. Some of the humans would make them regularly, at sunrise and sunset, and several times in between. Usually they got up and down, but it was plain that this man was too old to do that.

A woman, equally old, came out of the door and settled next to the man, one hand rubbing his back. “Tahir, is it your kidneys again?”

 “Ah, Safa, I did not mean to wake you.”

“Prayer is better than sleep,” the woman said.

Tabita considered the elderly pair. They were beyond the age of fertility, so these infants that populated their lair must be the second or even the third generation.

The woman spoke the words in unison with her mate as she rubbed his back. Their aura began to change, peace surrounding them. This was the human equivalent of purring. Tabita purred with them. Purring brought healing.

Eva purred a lot, too. Hers took a different form, but she would get the same aura, and it did her good.

You could always tell when people really purred because their aura changed. And you had to wait for that to figure out if they were truly purring, or just going through the motions.

It was another wrongness about humans that some could go through the motions and make the purring noises of their kind without really purring inside. Those humans were generally not safe to be around—unless they were a member of your own pride, like Elias.

Tabita cleaned her whiskers and went her way, back to the stone pile on the hill. She had to go all the way around the building before she found an open door: the big gathering place where the males and females met to purr together. And they were filing in now, each from their separate lairs, chanting together, as they always did several hours before sunrise.

The sound was pleasant to Tabita’s ears. She crept along behind the row of men—some really purring, and some not—and across to the rows of women, most of them sincere. It was very peaceful. Their combined auras filled the place. And yet there were no kittens. All that purring had not managed to heal their barrenness.

Eva was not among the women, so she must still be in her stone cell, sleeping. Tabita slipped through a little door into the women’s side.

Elias lived in a barren place just like this—only there were not any women where he lived. And they all purred in this fashion.

In the Albaicin, they purred like the old couple, with the sounds Allahu akbar and the bowing motions. The Albaicin was crammed with children. The humans there were not all well fed, it was true, but they were bursting with fertility.

Tabita decided that she must somehow lure Eva away from here. And they must find her a male who purred as the successful old pair purred.

Casa de Pazia, early Tuesday morning, August 23, 1513

Footsteps stopped outside the bedroom door. A man’s voice: “This would be the room of the daughter of the house. The one who eloped.” The door opened, and the speaker entered. In the light of the pine torch he carried his steel breastplate gleamed. Behind him came a short priest, carrying one of her father’s ledgers and a pen.

Frantically, Eva pulled her mantilla down to her chin.

The man frowned. “Who are you?”

“E—Eva,” she stammered without thinking. And then she remembered she was supposed to be somebody else.

“Don’t lie to me. Eva de Pazia eloped with Conte Niccolo di Argenta last Friday.”

“I—I—“ Eva could not remember her new name. But Paloma pushed between them.

“Do you think our mistress sleeps alone, with no lady to guard her virtue?” Paloma demanded. “This is Eva Maria Perez.”

“I am Andres.” The armored man thrust his torch into a cast-iron bracket on the wall. “You sound young. I was told Eva de Pazia’s duenna was an elderly widow. And Moorish, besides—related to the noble de Venegas.”

“Doña Barbola didn’t want to go to Venice.” That was the truth, at least. Eva gathered her wits together and ventured a small invention. “They promised to arrange a marriage for me in Italy. But Eva ran away and here I am, still unwed.”

The man spoke more deferentially. “Then you are a maiden? Of good family?”

“I’m a cousin on her mother’s side. We were both named after my grandmother, Chava Abramavel.” That much was true.

“A Jewish name,” the short priest commented. He opened his ledger, set it on the wash-stand and brought out an ink-pot and pen.

“My parents converted before I was born,” Eva hurried to explain. “Mother was very devout.”

“I don’t doubt it. Did she pray every Friday at sunset?”

“Oh, yes,” Eva remembered the solemn ritual. “And she lit candles on our altar.”

Andres nodded, smiling. “She probably said the Latin words, like this: Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam.”

Eva relaxed at the change in the man’s tone. “Yes, that was how it started. But I don’t have any Latin, so I don’t know what it means.”

“Oh, I know what it means.” The man bowed. “Señorita, I do apologize for bursting in on you like this. I am not with the Inquisition per se, but only on loan, as it were, until they have sufficient staff of their own.”

The short priest, who had been scribbling rapidly during the conversation, took that moment to draw Andres to the open ledger. “Señor, will you check the inventory and sign that the contents of the room are accounted for?”

Andres read aloud. “Silver pitcher and bowl, yes, ivory-inlaid rosewood wash-stand—I’d say worth twenty reales, as a set. Two tapestries—don’t put from Brussels, that’s a guess. The carpets are Persian, though, best quality. Velvet bed-hangings, yes, feather bed, linens with cutwork, yes, silver-backed grooming set, hmm, jewel-box—empty, is it? No doubt in the Conte’s hands, the Inquisitor is furious about losing the dowry.”

He turned back to Eva. “Are those four chests full of Eva de Pazia’s gowns?”

Eva nodded. “She left most of them behind.”

Now the priest produced a stick of sealing wax. “I’ll put a stamp on the latch to prevent tampering. We can’t do a proper inventory in the dark. The gowns will be worth plenty.”

“Good.” Andres added his stamp to the ledger and shut it. Eva hoped now they would leave. Tabita would never come near with all these strangers about.

The priest took the book away, but Andres remained. “Señorita, is your family nearby?”

Eva remembered the farm that was their mother’s dowry in a town north of Granada. Just last week Elias mentioned that he had transferred the deed to the current managers, Nurse Veronica and her husband Tomás. “My family has lands in Maracena. I will go there.”

“Ah, but that is several miles outside the city.” Andres frowned in genuine concern. “I can’t leave you here tonight, not with all these newly hired men-at-arms ransacking the Casa. It isn’t safe.”

Paloma spoke up then. “I have a daughter in the city. Eva can go with me.”

Andres snapped his fingers, as though an idea had just occurred to him. “I have something better! The merchant house I work for is hardly a half-mile from Casa de Pazia—though not nearly so prestigious a street, it’s a large compound. My master keeps a dormitorio for the women servants, and a room in it has just become available. The women’s dormitorio is well-guarded at my master’s orders. He’s very strict about morals.”

Eva was dismayed. “But how will Tabita find me?”

“You need not worry your family at all.” Andres pointed to the writing stand. “You read and write, yes? Simply pen a letter telling where you are, and I will deliver it to Maracena myself. It may take me a day or two, but I know my master would be happy to offer you his hospitality until your father or brother could come and fetch you. Although our fare is plain and the room small, nothing so fancy as what you are used to.”

“And who is this master of yours?” Paloma demanded. “If he is so careful of his female servant’s virtue, he will be known in the city.”

“Indeed he is, and well-known to the master of this house,” Andres replied. “I serve Baltasar Cerra, of Casa Cerra, and until recently I was the majordomo of his Granada operation.”

Casa Cerra. The name brought conflicting emotions. On the one hand, the owner figured as the evil wizard in a made-up story Blanca once invented as a childish amusement. But pretending aside, Baltasar Cerra was a successful merchant, an associate of her father’s, and, most in his favor, the master of a certain young man who had once helped Eva out of a terrible fix.

 


chapter 1 of Eva’s Secret

This isn’t the cover on the current kindle edition.

1. Abandoned
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!”
The Cat
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.