Chapter 14 of Eva’s Secret
Casa Cerra: Wednesday evening, August 31, 1513
Eva regained consciousness with a jolt. She was slung, stomach-down, over a donkey. The beast’s neat little hooves came to a halt. Under its belly she could just see the threshold of a door.
“Where should we put her?” That was Mario Hussein.
“Set her down in the entry.” Baseel’s voice echoed from somewhere inside the door.
Eva felt herself hefted over a strong shoulder. “I’m awake now,” she mumbled.
Mario Hussein carried her through the door into the same entry she had traversed last night and set Eva on her feet, steadying her until she stopped swaying. “All right now? You’ve had a bad afternoon.”
Eva’s fuddled mind tried to grasp whatever he was trying to tell her. Then she remembered the horror of the auto-da-fé. The Inquisition had burned her father at the stake.
Mario Hussein spoke respectfully. “I’ll have Matron send her things over to the majordomo’s quarters.”
The majordomo’s quarters? She remembered Cerra’s orders. The horror of her fate did not touch her now; she simply felt numb. Nothing mattered. Elias was dead.
Baseel guided her through a curtained arch and pushed her onto a chest against the wall. A clay goblet was pressed into her hands. “Drink.”
It was a brusque order that brooked no disobedience. Hands shaking, Eva drank. Sweet wine flowed smoothly over her tongue. A part of her consciousness automatically cataloged the faint burnt-caramel taste of Madeira, and she felt a mild surprise at the quality; this must be from the majordomo’s special stores. Eva discovered she was terribly thirsty. She drained the cup.
As the effects spread through her blood, Eva could view herself dispassionately. She was alone in the world. Mama was dead. Fray Hernando was dead. Her Godmother, Condesa Francisca, was dead. Elias was dead.
But if Elias was dead, she was no longer any use in capturing her brother. Eva turned this thought over in her mind and found it hardly mattered what happened to her. “What will Baltasar Cerra do with me now?”
“That depends on many things.” Baseel stood in front of her, arms akimbo. Eva stared straight ahead at his middle, focusing on the sweat and rust stains on his padded cotton gambeson, the scarred fists resting on either hip. “Let us begin with you telling me the particulars of your much-publicized elopement.”
There was no reason to hide anything, not anymore. “I didn’t want to marry. So Elias sent Conte Niccolo a note in my name, begging him to come at night with a litter and take me away to Venice. He pretended to be me by dressing in my clothes—”
“No, my brother. Elias knew that once my bridegroom had the money, I would—that is he would—be abandoned at the first chance, and he didn’t want me stranded outside the city.”
“So your dowry is on its way to Venice with Conte Niccolo?”
“Hmm. The Inquisition hasn’t found it yet, and they’ve searched high and low. I am tempted to believe you.”
Why shouldn’t he believe her? Eva dared a quick glance at the scarred face, but it was impassive, hard. “Who knows you are still in Granada?”
“Only two old servants who helped me hide.” And Blanca. Eva did not want to think about her friend’s involvement, so she rushed on with more specifics. “It was arranged that I should go by Maria Perez, that was Mother’s name. I was to leave last week with a group of nuns from Tordesillas. Their convent agreed to accept me as a lay sister.”
“A lay sister is nothing more than a glorified servant. Why would you rather have been a laborer than a Contessa?”
Eva ran a finger around the chipped edge of the goblet in her hands. “God doesn’t care about ranks or titles.”
“But Iago de Pazia did.”
“I knew I’d never be allowed to take the veil. But I hoped—that is, my mother’s last wish—” Eva hesitated to use her mother’s term ‘religious fraud’, since most of Cerra’s household were secret Saracens. “—she wanted me to marry a sincere man of our own faith.”
“Sincere Jews are hard to come by in Spain nowadays,” Baseel said drily.
“Oh no, mother was a devout Christian!” Eva was startled at the very idea. “And the Conte wasn’t, not even a little. He said if you were stupid enough to believe in such things as gods, he preferred the Roman ones!”
Baseel began to pace, hands behind his back, thinking. At the end of the second circuit, he paused. “So you didn’t like the suitor your father picked for you, and your brother was willing to give up your dowry to get rid of him. He must love you very much.”
He did. The numbness that had gripped Eva began to crack.
“That’s encouraging. It means you should be able to bring him around to our point of view.”
Eva gaped at him. “But Elias died last week. I heard the man—the plague—the body—”
“You shouldn’t believe everything you hear.” Baseel dismissed it with a gesture. “Abbe Matias must have been convinced when he made the announcement last week. He had some elaborate mumbo-jumbo about demonic battles and sorcery—you heard some of it this afternoon. But your brother made the mistake of returning to the city last Saturday, where he was recognized.”
“Then he’s alive!” Joy suffused Eva’s being.
“He is at the moment. Abbe Matias is turning every stone to find him. On his own, he is unlikely even to make it out of the province of Granada.”
“He’s never on his own.” Eva declared. “God will supply his help. Elias has been given a divine mission.”
“Baltasar Cerra would be amused that you see him as an agent of God.” Baseel removed the empty goblet. “If my master had not come across him three days ago, the Inquisition would have burned him next to your father today.”
Eva sprang to her feet, ablaze with hope. “You know where Elias is?”
“He is being kept—very secretly—in a place where the Inquisition will not search.” Baseel gave her a measuring gaze. “I trust you understand how sensitive that information is.”
“May I see him?”
“All in good time. Sit.”
Baseel pulled up a chair and straddled it opposite her, scrutinizing her expression. “The best hope your brother has for a future is to seek safety under the influence of the Ottoman Sultanate. And Baltasar Cerra will help him get there. But my master did not become wealthy because of his charitable nature. He has taken the considerable risk of hiding your brother from the Inquisition because he expects to reap a generous profit. Any of the great eastern trading concerns will pay a high price for a man of your brother’s experience and education.”
A price? It sank in on Eva: Baltasar Cerra wanted to sell her brother as chattel! “Elias a slave! Oh, no, anything but that!”
“Anything but that, in his case, would be an agonizing death.” Baseel said coldly. “Your brother, for all his learning and intelligence, knows nothing of making his way in a world without privilege and position.”
Eva choked down fresh tears, sniffling. “But—but what does Baltasar Cerra need with me, if he already has Elias?”
“A slave of your brother’s ability and learning is worth a fortune—if he is cooperative.”
Eva saw where this was going. “Elias isn’t cooperative.”
“He is not.” Baseel sighed tiredly. “Unfortunately, his lack of acceptance will not change the fact of his slavery, only the condition of it. Uncooperative, your brother is just another rebellious body, useful only for chain labor or the galleys. Whereas the life of a learned slave can be much better than that of a freedman. I speak as one with experience.”
A sob rose from deep within as Eva was overwhelmed by a fresh wave of guilt. She was the one who had done this to Elias. The innocent would reap what she had sown in her selfish bid for freedom.
“Before Cerra gives up that much profit, we are prepared to persuade Elias with—harsher measures.”
Eva had forgotten that she had been assigned to serve the majordomo’s vicious appetites. For the first time she noticed a bedroom through a second arch, only partly concealed by a drape. She put a hand to her mouth to stop the nausea.
“You needn’t throw up just yet.” Baseel went to a small door in the corner of the same wall. “For now, you will sleep in the storeroom.”
He stood aside for Eva to enter. It appeared to be used for storage: the dim light from a single high window showed boxes and bales, all tumbled helter-skelter about the floor amid broken chairs and discarded bits of furniture.
“I’m sure you can find something to make a pallet with. I must accompany the señor to Malaga tomorrow, along with Aliya-Noor and certain other fruits of today’s religious event. Bringing order to this mess will give you something to do with yourself until I return. Whatever you find in here is available to your use.”
Despite his brusqueness, Eva did not want Baseel to leave. His manner suggested that he had more power than just an accountant; perhaps he could even provide her some protection against the fearsome majordomo. But she must prepare herself for the worst. “When will Alcazar come?”
Baseel stared at her. “Who do you think I am?”
“Baseel.” He frowned at her familiarity, and Eva hurried to add, “I overheard señor Cerra call you that.”
“Then let me introduce myself.” He gave a small bow. “I am Baseel Alcazar. You will address me as either Majordomo or señor Alcazar.”
Eva’s mouth dropped open. This was the man all the servants feared? The man who whipped the kitchen boy with his own hand? Her eyes fell on the chest against the wall.
He followed her gaze. “Oh, the servants have told you about my secret woman? And no doubt my alchemical experiments, and my dealings with the devil.”
“Yes—I mean, no!”
“Well, EvaMaria Perez, if you don’t want to suffer the same fate she did, you will think of a way to persuade your brother. Whom we will refer to, from now on out, as simply ‘the scribe’.” He scowled. “And now I must attend to certain business in the city. My absence is to remain a secret. In fact, you will tell the staff nothing—absolutely nothing—of what does or does not happen behind this curtain. Is that clear?”
Eva found she was trembling in shock and relief. “Y-yes.”
But Alcazar had already gone through the curtain into the entry. She heard the door open, and latch quietly, like a man who was involved in secret things.
Eva could not help thinking of Blanca’s fairy tale: “And if the spell was not broken by the end of the thirteen years, then Prince Basil would become just like Baltasar Cerra, and the devil would claim his soul too.”
Stop it! Eva told herself, That was just a made-up story. A stupid, little-girl fantasy!
But a part of her brain was doing calculations more rapidly that her conscious mind could follow, and the realization slammed home with a stomach-churning lurch.
The thirteen years were up.
The Cat: Early Thursday morning September 1, 1513
Tabita stretched slowly, working each stiff limb. Her old bones had not liked hanging from a torch bracket for half an hour. Her foreleg muscles screamed with pain up at the joint of the shoulder, where they had been torn by the sudden jolt.
Elias twitched and moaned in his dreams, but he did not wake. The cat smelled him over carefully. He was not well.
She forgave him his slowness earlier that night in responding to her squall for help. She could hardly hold their handicaps against her pride-mates: human ears were too dull to differentiate all but the crudest sounds one from another. Tabita did not think they could hear bats at all.
Not that there were any bats in this cozy lair. It was just deep enough for Elias to stretch out fully, and just high enough for him to sit with Tabita in his lap. Right outside couched the cranky camel—she could not get into this small space, for which Tabita was grateful. Camels were not pride mates. And their concept of ‘clean’ was no better than a chicken’s—completely powdered in dust.
She turned to lick the sore spots, and her tongue felt bald patches where the yarn-harness had ripped out fur. Elias had seemed very pleased to get it, though, so Blanca’s strange pouch must have carried a message to him. The humans had many mysterious methods of conveying information which could be useful, Tabita granted them that.
What was that noise? Tabita sprang up. She stood perfectly still, every sense alert. Outside, ordinary night sounds and smells combined with the scent of camel-dung. A feather-light draft stirred her whiskers. It came from the deepest end of the little den, where old ash and burnt bits of wood made a pile. Above the pile was a hole that smelled of a disused cooking-hearth.
And then the sound came through the hole, distant, but perfectly clear: it was Eva screaming! Tabita stuck her head in the hole, and discovered that it was much the same kind of pipe as the one to the hammam, only wider and less tall.
Tabita wriggled her way through and came out below some kind of hearth-grating. She was in a small cooking-room, long unused. Beyond the door, some distance away, she could hear Eva sobbing.
But there were no other sounds: no blows, no voices, in fact, no noises but Eva’s. Eva must be alone. Tabita relaxed. Eva was plagued by disturbed sleep, and the pattern was familiar. Who knows what had happened in the week poor Eva had been left to fend for herself?
Tabita pushed on the door, but it did not open. She slipped a paw under it and tried to pull it towards her, but that did not work, either.
She must call Eva to let her out of this place. Tabita started to howl.
It was not long before the door flew open. Eva! “Miaow?”
Eva let out a shuddering breath. “Tabita?”
Tabita would have jumped into Eva’s arms for joy, but she was too sore for that. No matter, Eva swooped down on her and gathered her up. Tabita did not care that her injured tendons were wrenched by the move; she had her pride mate, her mistress, her friend back again.
“Oh, Tabita!” Eva started crying again, but they were tears of happiness. “Thank you, Jesu! Thank you, God!”
Eva carried her back to her new sleeping-place, a straw tick on the floor of a cluttered dusty room. She buried her face in Tabita’s fur. “Oh, Tabita, I asked Jesu to help me, I asked him what to do, and I didn’t know how he would answer. And he sent you!”
“Miaow.” Tabita licked the salty tears off of Eva’s chin. The happy tears tasted different from the dried misery tears.
“They wouldn’t let me go to confession, Tabita, and I need to tell someone the evil thing I did. Of course God knows, but I need to speak it out. I need someone to listen. If Saint Francis preached to the animals, I can confess to one. What do you think?”
“Miaow.” Tabita made her agreement sound, although she wasn’t sure what this was about. But after these episodes when Eva screamed and thrashed in her sleep, it calmed her to stroke Tabita. She nudged Eva’s hand with her head, suggesting that a good stroking would help.
Eva complied. “I have sinned. I was the one who turned him in, Tabita. I thought the Inquisition would just fine him, take everything. I never thought Father would be burnt at the stake. They didn’t even give him the chance to repent, and now his soul is in hell! Oh, Tabita, I saw his burning face in my nightmares; he is burning in hell now, and he comes to accuse me!”
Eva clutched Tabita hard, and her bruised ribs hurt. She gave her mistress a nip to get her to loosen her hold.
“Tabita, I’m hurting you! I’m sorry!” Eva started to cry again. “I’m poison, Tabita, I hurt everyone who gets near me. I’m a selfish, selfish person. I wanted out of marriage so badly—not just because of Mother’s letter, but because of what he did to me. Not because of the act itself—it’s disgusting and degrading, but it can’t hurt me any more, I haven’t been able to feel anything down there for years, thank God. No, it was because I didn’t want to be exposed to the shame and the ridicule. Because it doesn’t matter if Jesu doesn’t think less of me because of what Father did, everybody else will. Even Fray Hernando didn’t try to brush that over. I’m ruined until I get to heaven.”
Eva blew her nose on a scrap of fabric, then resumed her monologue. “And the waste of it all is that I didn’t need to turn Father in to get out of the marriage. Elias already had a plan for me to elope. So by turning Father in I brought down Elias, and for no good reason. Of course Iago de Pazia would pull Elias down with him, he always hated my brother. Why didn’t I think of that?”
A response seemed in order. “Miaow?”
“Because I’m stupid, that’s why!” Eva answered her own question with unnecessary vehemence. “I’m stupid and ruined and even worse, I’m a liar and a perjurer. Every time I recite the paternoster, I say, ‘et dimitti nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris.’ I know cats don’t know Latin, I don’t either, really, but I know that means ‘and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.’ How many times I’ve said that, and the ugly truth is, I haven’t forgiven Father for what he did.”
The stroking hand paused, and Tabita pushed with her head again. “Tabita, I’m so mixed up! I hate him, and I feel guilty because he died unrepentant, and I hate him for that, too. And I hate the Inquisition, and I hate myself!”
This last ended on a wail of pain. Tabita felt that Eva had rambled on long enough. She needed to purr. Tabita began a little rumble to help her pride-mate along.
“But you love me, don’t you, Tabby? And Jesu sent you back just when I needed comfort. You’re proof that Jesu loves me too.”
It took several minutes of earnest purring before Eva’s aura began to soften. Her voice was calmer when she spoke again, but still troubled. “So now here is the problem. They have Elias, and he won’t do what they want, so Baltasar Cerra will use me to get him to be a good slave. And if I can make him agree the majordomo won’t hurt me.” Eva stroked Tabita for several minutes, smelling thoughtful.
“Everything the majordomo said makes sense. Elias doesn’t have any other way out of Spain. And he wouldn’t be out of God’s hand, of course, he’s dedicated his life to Jesu. But if that is all true, why do they need to use me? Elias is lots smarter than I am. If this were the best way, he’d take it.”
She heaved a sigh. “He has a plan. I can’t guess what it is, but Elias always has a plan. I’m not going to try to persuade him of anything. Alcazar can do whatever he wants to me.” Eva shuddered. “I may not be able to feel anything down there, but it still makes me so sick. But for Elias I can put up with anything. After what I did to him, it’s no more than I deserve.”
After Eva cried herself to sleep, Tabita slipped out to explore this new lair. Everywhere was the spoor of the spotted male—except in the room where Eva slept. So they were not mated yet. And the part of the lair which contained Spot’s nest was empty.
At dawn, the compound came awake. Tabita was in the biggest room when she heard the door open. She crept to the heavy drape that separated the big room from the entry and stuck her head out just enough so that she could see without being seen. Spots strode in with another man.
“Wait a minute, Maria Hussein, I’ll be right back down.”
“It’s Mario now, señor Alcazar.”
Spots pounded up the stairs without answering. He was dominant. Mario took the metal body-shells from the rack where they had been hanging.
Spots pounded back down the stairs, a pair of saddlebags over his shoulder. Eva slept on; Tabita could hear the slow breathing of deep sleep.
Spots dumped the saddlebags on the floor and stood to let Mario strap the metal shells to his chest and back. The lower-status man ventured a hesitant comment. “The auto-da-fé was very hard on the girl.”
“How I treat my woman is no affair of yours!” Spots snapped. “I have given her plenty to occupy herself in my absence. She is to have the freedom of the compound, but you are to make sure she does not go beyond the gates. Is that clear?”
“And one more thing: I want you to assign somebody to help Mustapha. He’s getting too old to manage the hammam by himself. I can’t think why Andres didn’t see to it long ago.”
The slam of the door as the men left woke Eva. Tabita heard her breathing change and slipped back to her mistress’ side. Eva lay still, listening to the bustle outside: harness jingling, the impatient stamp of many hooves. Tabita knew those sounds meant a caravan of horses and mules was being loaded.
Feminine wails echoed, muffled by the thick walls. Eva stroked her cat. “That’s Leonor, poor girl, they’re taking her off to Malaga. I’ve been so impatient with her. But after yesterday, I understand.”
Eva knelt, her face to the dirty floor in abject submission. “Jesu, give me a penance! I know I can’t work my way to salvation, but I must do something to expiate my sin. Please, give me something difficult.”
She remained in that position, repeating herself. She seemed to be waiting for a response, so Tabita uttered a long-drawn-out “Liaoooww.”
Eva’s head came up. “Did you just say limpia lo?”
“Liaoooww.” Just then, Tabita became aware of an annoying bit of soot on her fur. It seemed extremely important that she get it off. She busied herself removing it.
“That’s as plain as it gets. Limpia lo—clean it!” Eva’s tone changed; she was talking to herself now, not Tabita. “Why shouldn’t God speak through a cat? Fray Hernando said that once he used a donkey.”
She scraped the floor before her with a fingernail. “Look—there’s actually tile under the grime. And the mess!” She straightened and looked around her with new interest and determination. “Tabita, for a penance I’m going to clean this place from top to bottom. The majordomo did say it would give me something to do until he got back.”
Tabita felt a glow of satisfaction. Once more, her efforts had pulled Eva back from the brink of despair.