Chapter 17 of Eva’s Secret
17. Brotherly Love
Casa Cerra: Sunday afternoon, September 4, 1513
Eva hurried after him up the stairs and waited on the large landing while he unlocked the door. The office, which was the size of the salon and master bedroom combined, had not noticeably changed from last Tuesday evening, but Eva now saw it with entirely different eyes. It badly needed whitewashing. And the drapes on the double doors that must lead onto a balcony—full of moth-holes! Dust filled the air as Baseel shoved a stack of papers to the side of the largest table. Eva sneezed.
Sniffling afterwards, she caught a foul smell, and realized that no one had cleaned her vomit from the planter. Did anyone even water that palm? It was a wonder it survived!
“Will the señor let me clean this room?” she asked. “After I dusted the rolls and papers, I would be careful to put everything back just the way it was.”
“From anyone else, especially the daughter of a rival merchant house, I would take that as a clumsy attempt to spy out Casa Cerra’s secrets.” The majordomo quirked an eyebrow at her. “Eva de Pazia, I do not know what to make of you. Are you really as naïve as you sound, or a diabolically clever female?”
“I need something to do, that’s all,” Eva mumbled, twisting her hands in the folds of her skirt. “Ask Elias, he’ll tell you.”
The entry door below creaked open, and two people came up the stairs. The chink of chain and the halting steps told Eva that they had Elias in leg-irons. She held back her tears of guilt; she must be strong and not influence her brother away from God’s will.
A huge man, who must be the same Lope that had been ordered to bring her brother, ushered in a figure completely shrouded in a hooded djellaba.
“Lope, wait at the bottom of the stair, and shut the door.” Alcazar unfastened the wrist-fetters. “Scribe, there is someone who would like to see you.”
Elias put back his hood. His cheeks were hollow, a sparse bristle of beard covered his chin, and there was a new scar on his lip. “Eva, what are you doing here? You were supposed to be safely out of Granada a week ago!”
“Oh, Elias, I went back to get Tabita and ruined everything!” Eva ran to embrace him. Beneath the djellaba he was thin and dirty, and he smelled of camel-dung, but Eva cared nothing for that.
He hugged her back, ducking his face into the head-rail that controlled her bushy curls. His stubbly cheek was hot and harsh against her ear. Eva heard the barest whisper: “Late tonight, be at the other side of the ash-dump pipe. Put the cat through, so I know you’re there.” Then he straightened and said in a normal voice, “Give over, Eva. You’re making my ribs ache.”
She pulled back to look at him, a little hurt at his brusqueness. Elias brushed his chin with the back of his hand in a private gesture that meant not in front of Father and his eyes flicked in the direction of the Majordomo.
Eva gave a sideways look and was startled to see that Alcazar wore the expression of a starving man watching a banquet. He caught her gaze and scowled. “Don’t use his name, unless you want to see him burn. This is the scribe.”
Turning to Elias, he snapped, “You see that we do, in fact, have your sister. Now that your doubts are resolved, perhaps our discussion as to your future will be more productive.”
Eva hurried to say her piece. “Hermano, forgive me! When you told me the plan to get me out of the marriage, I had already turned Father in to the Inquisition.”
“Eva! Why did you do such a stupid thing?” Elias was angry. Justifiably.
“I’m sorry Elia—scribe. I didn’t know about the tortures, so I never thought that Father would implicate you.”
“So I have you to thank for my fall from grace!” Elias thrust her away roughly.
Eva felt his rejection like a physical blow.
“That will be enough!” Alcazar interrupted. “Go to your room.” He almost pushed Eva out the door. She stumbled down to her barren little room, almost blinded by tears. She had never heard Elias speak to her in such tones.
But then, she had never before ruined his entire life.
Tabita nudged Eva where she lay curled up and crying on her bed. Something had happened behind the closed door upstairs that had plunged Eva into the depths of despair. She had not been harmed physically. No one had even raised their voice loud enough for the cat to notice, and she had listened right outside on the landing.
Tabita replayed the events of the afternoon and evening.
Perhaps Spots was upset over changes in the lair. Tabita had hidden where she could watch him carefully, staying close enough to see his facial expression, smell his emotions and check his aura. She feared he might be angry at Eva’s removal of his scent. But her wailing with the twang-box appeased him, because he allowed her to groom his feet.
Then they had an exchange about Elias. Eva became distressed, and Spots reacted with comforting noises and body positions. After which the discussion had turned toward mating—no words that Tabita recognized, but whenever Eva smelled like she was about to throw up, mating was the topic.
And Spots had become furious. He pounded the table and marched Eva upstairs. Next, Elias had been brought in, all chained up. And then the three of them had been behind the closed upstairs door until Spots had pushed Eva out, and she had gone downstairs to collapse in her bed, weeping.
Tabita would very much have liked to see and smell—or at least hear—what was passing between Spots and Elias right now. Very faintly, through the heavy planking that divided the upper space from Eva’s lair, came growling sounds from Spots, to which Elias hissed back.
However Eva’s need, at the moment, was greater than a cat’s curiosity. She nudged her head under Eva’s hand again. Right now, what Eva required was to engage in some serious stroking.
Eva sat up and gathered Tabita into her lap. “I have to stay awake, Tabita. Elias said to be at the other side of the ash-dump at midnight.”
She sat and stroked. Tabita purred. Eva purred in her own way, invoking the names Jesu and Paternoster and even Avemaria. They heard Elias come clinking down the stairs, and then leave with his heavy-footed escort. Spots remained above them for some time longer, and then he too went to his lair.
After some time, Eva got up. “Tabita, can you go see if Alcazar is asleep?” She stroked her. “I know you understand some of what I say. Tabby, go check on the man.”
Eva carried her out into the largest room of the lair, and set her down facing the curtain behind which Spots slept. Tabita understood that Eva needed reassurance on that subject, because she was unable to hear the deep, regular breathing that meant he was not even dreaming.
Tabita slid between the curtain, waited long enough that Eva would be reassured, then came back. “Mew,” she vocalized very softly.
Eva picked her up again and went through the entry to the little cooking-place. She closed the door firmly, placing a brick in front of it. A precaution; the scraping noise would alert her if Spots woke and came prowling. Tabita would have let her pride mate know about the danger long before the brick moved, but Eva did not really understand what Tabita could see, and smell, and hear, and sense. She was not very bright, but she was Eva, and Tabita loved her.
Then Eva gathered Tabita up and stuffed her into the ash-dump. “Go, Tabita! Go find Elias!”
So that was what it was about! She could have just said that, Tabita understood those human sounds. She slid through the ash-scented pipe until she emerged a few feet lower in Elias’ lair.
He was waiting. “Good kitty!” He put his mouth to the pipe. “Eva! Can you hear me?”
“Yes, Elias! I’m right here.”
Tabita hopped into the pipe and ran back up to Eva. This was a fun new pastime, playing shuttle between pride-mates. Maybe it would cheer Eva up.
Elias did not enter into the spirit of the game. His echoing whisper was serious, urgent. “You are alone? No one will hear?”
“Yes, although you should speak softer, the pipe magnifies your voice.”
“Yes, it does yours as well. What is on your side of the ash-dump? A fireplace?”
“A small indoor kitchen. The pipe empties the ash from a raised hearth atop a brick work surface. And there’s a little oven above it, built into the wall.”
“Is there a door that closes?”
“Yes, it opens onto the entry they brought you through. Where are you?”
“I’m in a narrow, low-ceilinged kind of den off an enclosed patio where they keep me penned up. It’s the only place Cerra’s slaves-in-training can get away from the crazy camel he puts them in with to soften them up.”
Tabita wished that Elias would say cheerful things. That last made Eva tear up again. “Oh Elias, I’m so sorry—”
“Hush Eva, I’m not angry with you. I just had to pretend to be in front of Alcazar.”
Tabita saw Eva’s aura brighten with her relief. “But what I did—it’s the reason for you being a slave now!”
“Eva, you’re not responsible for the Inquisition. Anyway, nobody captured me, I arranged to be sold to Baltasar Cerra in particular. Blanca and I have worked out a plan to get you safely to your convent and I have to be on this end; you’d never manage it yourself.”
“I can’t just go and leave you trapped here!”
“I’m not trapped. Once the hue and cry for me dies down, my agent will buy me back again.”
“You didn’t need to do that for me. I would have made the best of whatever God does not see fit to turn aside.”
“Eva, you should learn to be more selfish, it would be easier to help you.” Elias’ ghostly laughter came through the grating. “Just trust me, and do what I say. I was a merchant’s son before I was a novice, and I made a special study of our rivals. That’s why I can be so sure of what Baltasar Cerra plans for both of us. He takes educated youths and gently-bred virgins from the Inquisitors and exports them to his select list of clients.”
“Churchmen deal in slaves?” Eva was shocked.
“Not all of them. It’s quite illegal, but the greedy ones are happy to make a profit, and others look away because once-well-off children starving on the streets gives the church a bad name.” Elias’ tone became serious. “But we can discuss all that another time. Right now, I want you to understand that Alcazar’s threat to molest you is a bluff for my benefit. Only virgins sell for Cerra’s prices. I have to pretend I’m so angry at you I don’t care. That’s why I acted like I did. I wanted to warn you first, but your reaction had to be real.”
“Oh, Elias, I was so miserable at the thought that you hated me!” Finally, Elias had said something to help! Tabita hoped that he would continue being comforting. Eva needed it.
“I could never hate you, hermanita. You’re all the family I have.” Tabita purred. But Elias became suddenly serious. “I’m sure Alcazar questioned you. Did you tell him anything about me?”
“I told him you could read and write Hebrew.”
“I wish you hadn’t done that. What other languages did you tell him I know?”
“I didn’t tell him—he told me. I was to persuade you to give samples of your writing in Spanish, Latin, Greek, and Arabic.”
“Good. Eva, as of now, I can’t read or write Arabic.”
“But everybody born in Granada knows Arabic!”
“Of course, but everybody doesn’t read and write it. But if anybody asks, just say you aren’t sure. I’m not going to tell them right away, I’ll use it to sour the deal if Cerra finds an Ottoman buyer. It reduces my value as a scribe if I’m illiterate in the lingua franca of the Saracen world.”
“But Elias, the longer you stay in Granada, the more chances the Inquisition might catch you and burn you!”
“Don’t you realize, hermanita, that Cerra’s compound is the safest hiding place from Abbe Matias and his minions? Thanks to the secret deal between them, Baltasar’s premises are the only places that won’t be thoroughly searched. For now, I’m just going to refuse to cooperate.”
“But why not? It would make your life easier.”
“Because they won’t sell you until they have a buyer for me, and we need to play for time. Your escape will take a week or two. Abbe Matias has to become convinced I’m no longer in Granada—and he has some strange ways of knowing things.” Another laugh. “Besides, I need the rest. It’s been a frantic two weeks. And for entertainment, I’ve started training Cerra’s slave-breaking camel to do tricks.”
Tabita swished her tail in annoyance at the fond tone in Elias’ voice when he spoke of the mangy old menace he shared the courtyard with. The he-horse had been rival enough, but this camel!
“Be careful, Elias! Remember the Borgia nearly killed you, before he settled down.”
“Don’t worry, we’ve already established a rapport. Fatima is old and wise, with a delightful sense of humor. She already understands that I need her to be her usual ferocious self whenever my keepers come to check how things are progressing. Which brings me to how we are going to continue to communicate.”
“But we’re doing that now.”
“Yes, but it was only luck I got the chance to whisper in your ear. I’ve spent a week here, knowing you were somewhere in the same compound and racking my brains on how to get in touch. Now that you’re being kept in the majordomo’s quarters we have the kitchen pipe, but there is still the matter of how to signal that we need to talk to each other.”
Eva picked Tabita up and urged her back down the pipe. “What about using Tabita?”
“She’s not always available, and she doesn’t stay put.” Tabita knew she was the subject of discussion, and felt bad that she was somehow found wanting.
She nudged Elias’ hand, and he stroked her. “I tell you what: I have plenty of camel dung to hand, which the Berber nomads use for fuel, so that’s a good excuse to have it in a kitchen. I’ll form little balls of the stuff and poke it up through the pipe as a signal we have to talk. And you can roll them back down if you aren’t alone.”
“What if I need to talk to you?”
“Shove anything else down the pipe. I’ll see it when I come back, and if I didn’t put it there, I’ll know it had to be you. Like the half-eaten dead mouse you gifted me with on Thursday.”
“Oh, I forgot about that! It was from Tabita’s hunt.”
“You should start using this room often. Cook for the majordomo. Win him over.”
“I only know how to cook a few things. What if he doesn’t like them?”
“Get the cook to teach you Moroccan recipes. And win them to your side as well. Though if I know you, you already have.”
“It isn’t me. The servants here—they’re all really good people.” Eva thought of Matron, Analina, Josemona, Mustapha, Mario Hussein, Enrique, and Jose the cook. “But they are afraid of Alcazar, because he won’t make any friends.”
“Well, he’s not going to befriend me, for sure. I’m going to be unreasonably stubborn, so you need to make up for it by being extra-cooperative.” Tabita felt Elias begin to tremble; his skin was hot and dry. She smelled infection. “And now, go to bed, we’ve been talking too long.”
Casa Cerra: Monday morning, September 5, 1513
When Eva rose the next morning, she had no time for prayer; she could hear the majordomo in the other room. Hastily she twisted a head-rail around her unruly auburn locks, pulled the loose gray surcote over her chemise, slipped indoor shoes on and hurried out into the salon.
Alcazar was sitting at the table eating. The aroma of hot bread told Eva that Jose had delivered breakfast.
“I’m sorry, I overslept,” she apologized.
“So I see.” He poured something steaming into a small clay cup and held it out to her. “Here, try this. It will wake you up.”
The contents were dark and mysterious, and gave forth a wonderful smell. “What is it?”
“It’s kaffe. An infusion of roasted beans, ground fine. It’s a stimulant Berbers have used for centuries.”
He sounded friendly, and Eva wanted to win him over, as Elias had instructed. She swallowed the hot brew. Bitterness shriveled her tongue! “It’s wonderful,” she choked.
“No, it’s burnt. Jose’s assistant over-heated the beans, but the energizing effect is the same and they are too expensive to waste.”
“You don’t have to have your meals sent from the common kitchens.” Eva ventured. “If I can have supplies stocked in the little kitchen, I will cook for you.”
“That won’t be necessary. Besides, I can’t imagine a rich man’s daughter has had much practice in the culinary arts. Drink up.”
He was right about that last. With a sinking heart, Eva drained the cup right down to the gritty sludge in the bottom. If she wasn’t cooking, what excuse could she give for spending time in the kitchen?
“Don’t look so glum. Whatever your brother says, you aren’t answerable for the Inquisition. And he is an ass.”
“He’s not!” Eva said hotly. “He had every reason to be angry with me.” But he wasn’t, thank Jesu!
“If my little sister were still alive, I’d do anything it took to save her. Even being a slave again.”
Elias was doing everything; he had arranged this whole capture. But the majordomo must not suspect that.
She leaped on the subject of Baseel’s sister. “I’m sorry you lost her. Was it recent?”
“I was the only one of my family to survive the smallpox epidemic of 1501.” Baseel shrugged.
Twelve years since he had any family! Eva thought of the starving expression on Baseel’s face when he watched her meeting with Elias. “You must have loved her very much.”
“It was a long time ago.” Alcazar shut the door on his private past. “Your brother has no business blaming you. He knew all about what was going on, and you didn’t. He doesn’t deserve such loyalty.”
Beneath Alcazar the majordomo was Baseel, the bereaved brother. This Eva understood. It was a key to winning him.
Baseel set down his kaffe. “I have decided to let you clean the office. Baltasar will not object so long as I keep an eye on you. And I may as well spend the day working on the books, seeing as I cannot go anywhere on business wearing babouches.” Alcazar put his foot up on the other chair. “After what you did to my toe last night, my boot won’t go on.”
To her dismay, Eva saw that the treated digit was red and puffy. “Oh, no! I’m at fault, I should have applied a poultice to draw out the festering matter. I can prepare it quickly—it’s a simple mix of fuller’s earth burned together with resinous pine and moistened with pounded comfrey. May I?”
The majordomo grunted, which Eva took for consent. She hurried to get the ingredients. If she could not use the excuse of cooking to be in the little kitchen, she could use it to prepare poultices.
Jose gave her what she requested from the stores. “Such a savage mood, the majordomo is in! I feared he might be angry about everyone’s nose in his living quarters.”
“No, he loved what we did with his apartments. Last night we even played together, a little. And he was very sympatico.” Until he didn’t get his way with Elias, Eva reflected. “But he woke with an infected toe.”
“So that is it, is it?” Jose nodded. “I saw him limping this morning.”
Eva seized on the turn of subject. “Jose, can you teach me to cook what he likes?”
“I could. It will be hard work, and you must pay careful attention,” Jose drew himself up with the importance of his profession. “But if that’s what will keep the majordomo happy, it will be better for us all.”
“And I can teach some dishes, as well!” Maria Aliya, the kitchen maid, had been listening. “The señor knew what he was about, giving Alcazar such a woman. Though we are all sorry this had to happen to you, Evita,” she added as an afterthought.
Eva lit a fire in the little kitchen’s brazier. While she waited for the pinewood to turn into fine ash to be ground with the fuller’s earth, she pounded the comfrey into a pulp and pondered on Jose’s comment.
Alcazar let no one close to him. Except Mustapha, who was left over from his childhood. Before he had become so noticeably marked. From long ago, Eva remembered the wry expression on the face of Cerra’s slave when the shop-boy gaped at his scars. They were fresh then, but small wrinkles had formed around them now.
Pity for Baseel pierced her through. Twelve years of insults, pointing, and unkind stares! No wonder he did not care to risk more rejection. And the only reason she was here was, not because Baseel wanted a woman, but because Cerra had ordered it. And that only because Maloliente the evil wizard thought it would put pressure on her brother.
Stubborn determination rose in Eva. It would not go Cerra’s way, not if she could help it. Mustapha had as good as said that there was a battle for Baseel’s soul. She, Eva, was inside Alcazar’s walls now, whether he wanted her here or not. She was going to serve him. She was going to use the opportunity to do more than disarm him: she was going to save him.
Eva sieved the hot ash and fuller’s earth into the comfrey, added water and waited until the bubbling stopped, and carried the bowl up to the office.
The door was open and Alcazar seated at the table, papers spread out before him. Eva pulled a round leather ottoman to one side of the table. “Put your foot up, I need to apply this before it cools.”
He stuck the affected foot out to the side without looking up from his figures. Eva went to work, gently massaging out the festering matter and cleaning it, then binding the hot poultice on with more linen strips. “As it cools, it will draw out the impurities from the blood.” Eva flexed the arch.
“Now what are you doing?”
Eva’s fingers traced the backwards E on Baseel’s left ankle. “Massaging your foot to speed the process.”
“Your grip is like a vise! Where did you get hands like that?”
“Suor Lucia, at the hospice where I volunteered, was very emphatic on the subject of foot massage. She taught us that all of the ills of the body might be aided by massaging the feet. She said—not that it was doctrine, she said, just an idea she had—she said that was why Jesu washed his disciples’ feet, and told them to do the same.” Eva brought out a small flask of olive oil. “We used a little lubrication to help the skin. Suor Lucia said Mary Magdalene rubbed Jesu’s feet with precious oils.”
“Who am I to argue with such a model as Isa Masih?” Baseel’s tone was ironic, but nevertheless he turned in his chair and put his other foot up on the ottoman.
It was better not to mention that Suor Lucia had taught them to do more than massage; while they worked, the sisters were to repeat prayers for the subject’s health. Eva prayed silently as she rotated the ankle to loosen the tendons. The ridged scar left by the childhood slave-cuff was the only place not dimpled with close-set pockmarks.
“Rub that. It itches,” Baseel said.
“Scars often do.” A memory popped into her head: two weeks ago after the betrothal banquet, sitting with Blanca and listening to their made-up story: “While the slave prince lay raving in delirium the evil wizard fastened on the magical bangle he had made. It sank into the flesh until it looked like nothing more than a ring of scar tissue. And then Maloliente waited patiently while the magic began its evil influence, changing the victim ever so slowly, working up from the ankle until the evil spell would blacken his noble heart.”
“But a woman could break Maloliente’s spell,” Eva prompted.
“Yes, a woman who loved him could drain the effect back down, like sucking a serpent’s venom from the bite. And she would do this by circling the magical cuff with her hands and praying to Saint Basil with each circuit. Only thus could the enchanted prince be released from the spell. And if that were not done by the end of the thirteen years, then he would become just like his mentor Maloliente, and the devil would claim his soul too.”
Eva worked on the other foot. That was a stupid fairy tale. Baltasar Cerra was not Maloliente, although everyone was a sinner in God’s sight. And Baseel was not an enchanted prince, and he was not under any spell. He was only a scarred, lonely man whose soul hung in the balance.