Chapter 18 of Eva’s Secret
The Cat: Tuesday Evening, September 6, 1513
Tabita had developed the habit of going to the hammam in the evenings to keep company with the old man. Mustapha was like no human Tabita had ever known. He made no noises except cat-noises. And because he did not speak, he noticed far more than most humans. He also purred a great deal in the manner the humans called salat.
He needed to purr a lot, because Mustapha was ill. His aura was full of pain. But he never let it show, and he never let it change the way he acted toward others.
The regular cycle by which the hammam was made to belch forth steam was the same as Casa de Pazia’s hammam: the day before Church-bells day, and the day before market day. Tabita enjoyed watching the humans cleaning themselves. Even without the pleasant stimulation of tongue-stroking, the ritual made them happy. Females bathed in the morning, and the males in the evening. Last of all, and always alone, came Spots.
Tabita whisked beneath one of the benches against the wall. In the case of this dominant lion, she preferred not to be observed. Not that Spots was very observant tonight. He was plainly tired, and he was covered with even more white spots than usual.
Mustapha came out with the bath implements.
“How are you feeling?” Spots asked.
Spots stripped off his cloth coverings. “I see Mario Hussein has assigned Enrique to help you. Is he around now?”
Mustapha shook his head, then put it to the side and laid his cheek against both hands in a gesture of someone asleep.
“Gone to bed in the men’s dormitorio. Good.” Spots took his hair out of the tie. “I’ll need to do my hair, it’s full of paint. That woman Cerra gave me has had me whitewashing the office.”
Mustapha grunted in a way that expressed disbelief.
Spots laughed. “All right, she didn’t make me, I chose to help. I couldn’t stand to sit and do the accounts while she was working so hard on the other side of the room. Anyway, it was overdue. The ceiling had gone gray from candle-soot, and now it’s white, the light is doubled.”
Mustapha silently offered to shampoo Spot’s hair. He shrugged. “All right, I’ll let you do it. My arms are tired. Odd, I can wield a sword for hours, but wielding a brush against the ceiling has made me sore in odd places.”
Mustapha took the soap and turned Spots’ head into a mushroom of foam, his fingers working into the kinky hairs.
Spots relaxed visibly. “That does feel good. Eva has been filling my ears with homilies on the healing properties of massage. To listen to her, you’d think it was a panacea for everything from toothache to toenails.”
Grunting agreement, Mustapha doused Spots’ head with repeated buckets of hot water until the shallow pool’s surface was a mass of foam.
“I wish it could help you.”
Mustapha made a dismissive noise that said the topic was closed.
Spots sighed and rubbed his hair dry into a wild bush while the old man spread a sheet over a tall padded bench.
Tabita heard somebody approaching at a run, the steps coming down hard—a big man bearing a heavy burden.
Thump! Thump! Someone banged the door with a booted foot.
Mustapha opened it, and Lope hurried inside, a great cloth bundle in his arms. Tabita smelled who was under it: Elias! And he was very sick.
“Took dinner to camel-yard. Lying on the ground.” That was the longest sentence Tabita had yet heard the big man utter. “Camel chase.”
“It couldn’t have been Fatima, she only threatens. And maybe bites, but she’s got no more front teeth. Lay him down here on the padded bench.”
Lope deposited Elias with clumsy gentleness, pointing to a lump on Elias’ head. “Fall down.”
“He must have slipped climbing the tree to get away from her, and hit his head against the trough. You did well to bring him to me. Now guard the door. There’s no risk of him escaping, but I don’t want anyone else barging in.”
Mustapha put his hand on Elias’ forehead and jerked it off in a motion even Tabita could read as ‘hot!’
“That’s odd, a fall shouldn’t make him feverish.” Spots bent over Elias, an ear to his chest. “Heartbeat is fluttery. Mustapha, you’d better check him over.”
While Spots dressed, Mustapha stripped off all Elias’ clothing. Tabita wrinkled her nose. It was filthy.
But the old man paid no attention to that. He ran light searching fingers over every part. When his examination was done, he rolled Elias onto his side and held up the left arm so that Spots could see. Elias had a great half-healed wound on his ribs, and another on the inside of his arm. Tabita saw that the edges were stitched together like one of Eva’s needle projects, but much more crudely done.
Spots whistled. “He must have just dodged a double-sided blade aimed at his chest to get matching cuts on torso and underarm. A spear, looks like.”
Mustapha pressed the bottom edge of the arm wound, redder than the rest. Tabita could smell the putrid odor of pus.
“He’s gone feverish. Damn!” Spots hovered over as Mustapha gently sponged away the ooze. “Will he live?”
Mustapha looked doubtful.
“That slimy Tunisian Sahma sold us an injured man!” Spots snapped. “If de Pazia dies, I will be the one who bears the blame. Baltasar has made the successful completion of this transaction the test for keeping my new promotion. If I had known about that wound, I would have had him shackled to a bed instead of left to the mercy of Fatima.”
Mustapha brought a bucket of clean water and several cloths and washed Elias from head to toe while Spots watched.
Tabita saw that Elias was regaining consciousness. “I’m not leaving Granada!” he yelled. “Mama, don’t let Aliya go! Iago de Pazia, damn you to hell!”
“He’s delirious—and he’s starting to convulse!” Spots grabbed one side of the sheet that covered the bench, and Mustapha the other. Together, they wrapped it around Elias and held him still until the thrashing subsided.
Spots released his side. “What am I going to do with him? I can’t leave him here with you, his identity has to be kept secret.”
Mustapha’s lips formed a word: Eva.
Spots nodded. “Of course, she’s his sister. And besides, Eva knows a lot about healing. She worked with the Little Sisters of Mercy for years. As it happens, she even has the makings of a poultice that is quite effective at drawing infection.”
Spots went to the door. “Lope! Come help me carry him to the office.”
Eva tossed in restless sleep.
She was reading her mother’s letter. “You shall not marry a religious fraud. He shall not be Saracen.” The letters on the parchment rearranged themselves. “Especially not Cerra’s sin.”
Immediately Baltasar Cerra was there, as though conjured by his name. They were in the office, but it was filled with magical implements, skulls lining the shelves where books and scrolls had been. Maloliente stirred something in a brass retort that gave off sulfurous fumes. “By my magical arts, I have seen through your pretense. You aren’t a virgin, Eva de Pazia. Don’t try to deny it.”
Eva wanted the ground to swallow her.
“So really, you are worthless. I’ll have to sell you to a brothel, where you will suffer as your lies deserve.” He grinned at her evilly. “But I have decided to keep you, for the moment, and leave the devising of tortures to my majordomo Alcazar here.”
Eva saw that Baseel was standing behind Cerra. Around his neck was a golden slave-collar, from which dangled a chain. Cerra jerked on it and he jumped forward. “He needs a new woman to serve his pleasure. I fear he is rather hard on them.”
To her horror, she saw Baseel’s face change, the scars melting away as the features shifted to resemble those of Cerra. She cried out.
“This does not seem to please her, does it, Baseel?” Cerra’s tone was one of amusement.
“One can only hope that Elias de Pazia will not abandon his sister to Alcazar’s intemperate lusts.”
Cerra waved a negligent hand. “Take her downstairs and rape her. She won’t feel a thing—her own father broke her in.”
The horrible Cerra-faced version of Baseel gripped her shoulder. But instead of dragging her off, he shook her. “Eva! You must come with me!”
Eva opened her eyes to see Baseel’s face leaning over her, his hair standing out from his head in every direction like a black-maned lion. He had her shoulder in his grip, and he shook her again.
Every muscle in her body reacted in instinctive terror. Eva bolted up and crouched pressed into the corner, arms crossed before her to ward off attack.
Baseel pulled back, and she saw, in the dim candlelight, that he was wearing only a djellaba.
This is it. He’s going to carry out his threat.
“Stop it!” Alcazar snapped. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Angry words burst out of Eva. “You can’t hurt me! I don’t feel anything there anymore!” As she realized what she had just blurted out, Eva gasped in horrified mortification. All of that, her loss of sensation from inner thigh to crotch, was connected to her shameful secret. Was that normal for victims of incest? Would Alcazar be able to deduce her awful history?
Nausea overwhelmed her and she threw up.
Alcazar snatched her straw-tick away, peeling off the vomit-splattered coverlet. He gathered the mattress in his arms, sending the soiled blanket her way with a disgusted sweep of his foot. “When you are done being sick, go to the kitchen and fix more of that hot paste you put on my toe, then bring it up to the office. Your brother is in need of your healing skills.”
Something was wrong with Elias! The nausea was gone in an instant. Eva flew to the kitchen and blew the banked coals in the brazier into a fire. While the resinous pine burned to ash, she ran back to her room, bundled her unruly hair into a head-rail and put on her dress and shoes.
Eva prayed for Elias as she pounded the comfrey into the earth and ash. What could have happened, there in that little enclosed courtyard? Was the camel more ferocious than the Borgia?
She ran up the stairs with the steaming poultice. Lope stood stolidly on the landing outside the door, which he opened for her. Eva looked around the room, the ledgers and codices still piled on the furniture which just that afternoon they had pushed to the newly whitewashed side in order to do the other. The room still smelled of drying lime. Moonlight streamed though the open doors to the balcony.
“Over here.” Alcazar’s voice came from the little ell which would be directly over the kitchenette. There he had placed Eva’s mattress and bedding. The form lying on the pallet was wearing nothing but a pair of oversized linen braies.
Eva ran to him. “Elias?” She put a hand on his forehead—fever, and he was shaking with ague.
“Lope found him lying on the ground tonight, this huge bump on his head. We think he fell out of the tree in the courtyard and hit it on the stone trough. Probably because his arm gave way.” Alcazar lifted Elias’ left arm to reveal an angry, puckered gash, inexpertly stitched, and another across Elias’ ribs just below it.
Eva saw and smelled the infection at once. She applied the hot poultice to both the arm and his ribs, and with the majordomo’s help bound the two in place with a strip wound around the chest.
Elias roused. “Mama?”
“It’s Eva, Hermano mio.” Eva held a cup of water to his cracked lips. “Try to drink.”
He sipped a little, then fell to retching, unable to hold it down, and passed out. Eva noticed Alcazar working at the foot of the mattress. “What are you doing?”
“I’m affixing an ankle-cuff and chaining him to the wall.”
“You think he can escape?” Fury rose in her breast. “This festering wound—it’s more than two weeks old, which means it’s been sapping his strength all that time! And the blow to the head—don’t you understand, he may not last out the night!”
“I understand perfectly how perilous his situation is,” the majordomo was stern. “That’s why I’m going to let you tend him here in the office. But whether he lives or dies, leaving Elias de Pazia unfettered in the same room with Casa Cerra’s papers is a risk I will not take. Or would you prefer to treat him outside with the camel?”
Gone was the camaraderie of the last two days. Now Baseel had become entirely Maloliente’s creature. Without a farewell, he left the room.
Eva lay down next to Elias and wrapped her arms around his wasted frame, giving him what comfort she could. Jesu couldn’t let her brother die, could he? Not after miraculously saving him—and besides, there was the vision, a call on his life.
And the inside voice that was yet outside whispered: Everyone has a call. But not every call is answered.
Eva curled herself around Elias’ back, pressing in despite the burning fever that consumed him while her tears dripped into their shared pillow. What would she do if Elias died?
She awoke damp with sweat—not her own, but Elias’. Praise God, the fever had broken!
Eva rose and slipped down to the kitchen to heat more poultice. When she returned, Elias was awake and lucid. He jerked his head toward the door. “Is there a guard?”
“No. That’s why you are fettered.”
“Then we can talk.” Elias gave the ghost of a smile. “I told you I needed to rest. But this illness isn’t altogether a bad thing. I can’t be sold until I’m healthy.”
Eva held his head up and put the cup to his lips. “Was it the camel?”
He managed several swallows. “No. I fell climbing back into the courtyard. But it was worth it, because I made contact with my helper and now we have your escape all set up. More water.”
Eva held the cup to his lips again, encouraged. Elias was young and strong. He had bounced back from worse falls.
He finished the cup and lay back so Eva could attend to the messy business of changing the poultice. “Here’s the plan: Every market-day Tomás will bring in some produce. You are to locate him, and then drop your basket in front of his barrow and exclaim ‘Saint Basil!’ He will send his boy for my accomplice, who will spirit you away.”
“But they won’t let me leave the compound.”
“You are going to become the majordomo’s personal cook, remember? And I have decided to become fearful of poison, so I will only eat from my sister’s hand that which she herself has prepared. It will take a few weeks to get everything ready, and by then you’ll have the majordomo agreeing to anything you ask. Nobody could really suspect you, Eva—not once they know you.”
Eva was not so sure. “But why would Alcazar let me go to market? I could just order what I need, like I did at Casa de Pazia.”
“You want to examine the ingredients yourself. You’re very picky.” Elias smiled. “And if you take an escort, why would he refuse? Disarm his suspicions. Win him over. Just be yourself, Eva.”
She had been herself when Alcazar awakened her unexpectedly just a few hours ago. Eva had a vivid recollection of Baseel’s face when she cowered away in terror. And then she had thrown up.
“I’ll try, Elias. But I don’t think the Majordomo likes me very much.”
The week passed in a whirl of activity. Eva prepared Elias’ food in the little kitchen, although the only things she knew to cook were couscous with vegetables and fish soup. But she also took daily lessons with Jose. Moroccan cooking was not a simple skill. There were so many ways to ruin a dish!
Elias continued to improve, although he steadfastly refused to cooperate in his sale. This infuriated Alcazar, who became silent and short-tempered.
Only when they were alone and Eva massaged his feet did he loosen up. Then Alcazar the majordomo became Baseel, a different person entirely. Every night Eva circled the cuff of scar tissue, praying silently and half-pretending that she was draining Maloliente’s poison away from his heart.
Wednesday a caravan came in from Casa Cerra Almeria. Mario Hussein was trying to find places to house all the extra men and animals, while Baseel kept a sharp eye on the unloading and inventory of the goods.
“Ya, Eva!” Jose the cook had returned with Enrique and another helper laden with their purchases. “I got you a chicken from the market today. A nice fat one.” Jose beamed as he held out a live hen. “You have to let it hang for at least a day after slaughter.”
“I—I can’t kill it,” Eva stammered. “At home, the men always—”
“You’ll have to get over those fine-lady sentiments if you are going to get anywhere in cooking. But you must do it quickly, because if there is suffering, the animal’s spirit gets even by making the meat tough. Now watch.” Jose took the hen and efficiently whacked off the bird’s head. “Now don’t be squeamish, you must gut it and hang it up by the feet in the little kitchen.”
Eva hastily put the still-wriggling body in her basket with the onions. But to her horror, the headless chicken convulsed wildly, flipped over the edge of the basket and hit the ground running.
“Go catch it, quick!” Jose yelled. “She might take it into her head to fly away! Take it into her head—har, har!”
To his whoops of good-natured laughter, Eva chased the headless chicken around the corner into the alley between buildings that led to the stable-yard. She stooped to pick it up.
Heavy boots stopped in front of her. “Well, well! You’re still here. I guess your brother didn’t want to pay for you after all.”
Manuel! Eva straightened, beating back the familiar feeling of panic. “You never found him to give the message.” She put the now quiet bird in her basket. “I must be going now.”
He blocked her way. “Still all cold and haughty, are we? But now I’m the one with the higher status. You’re nothing but slave labor.”
“I don’t mind labor.” Eva turned away.
Manuel blocked her. “And how about the auto-da-fé? Did you mind that?”
Eva flinched at the memory of that terrible day.
Manuel leered at her and probed further. “What, didn’t you like seeing your pervert of a father roasting in the fire like a rabbit on a spit? I enjoyed it immensely.”
Eva backed away from him. “Manuel, your mortal soul is in peril.”
Manuel laughed. “As a Jewess, you are a fine one to lecture me on the state of my soul!”
Manuel thrust his face into hers. “I was the one who turned him in. I’ve known for years that Iago was a secret Jew.”
“You told the Inquisitors?”
Manuel misunderstood Eva’s shocked expression. “Yes, it was me that brought your great Casa down. And it required persistence! I had to take it straight to the offices of Cardinal Cisneros. I got no results from telling Fray Salvador, even though he saw the evidence. But the stupid priest wouldn’t turn the de Pazias in.” Manuel gave a hoot of derisive laughter. “He told me I should pray for old Iago’s withered soul instead. Imagine that!”
Fray Salvador had given her the same advice! So it was not her betrayal that caused the downfall of Casa de Pazia.
“The word in the stables is that you are no longer housed in the women’s quarters with the sale virgins. As if anybody would give a hundred reales for such as you!” Manuel threw her against the granary wall. “Which reminds me that I have not fully settled my score with you for breaking your promise not to tell about the cat.”
Eva tried to get away, but Manuel placed an arm on either side of her to prevent her escape. “As I recall, Veronica accused me of violating your modesty.”
“Let me go!” Her basket was jarred out of her hands and the chicken and onions rolled on the ground. Two or three of the new men from Almeria stopped to watch, but instead of helping, they only egged Manuel on. “Let’s see you do her in broad daylight!”
Enrique stuck his head around the corner, but when he saw what was going on, the kitchen boy ran away. Eva did not blame him. What could a child do against a brute like Manuel?
Eva cringed against the wall. Manuel tried to kiss her, but she jerked her head to the side.
“Ho! You think I am not good enough for you? A Jewess, and an ugly one at that!” He lifted her skirt. “Now I’m going to violate a lot more than your modesty!”
His groping hand slid up her leg; it had not reached the places where the feeling was gone.
No, not here, in the open! She thought frantically. I will die of the shame!
“Jesu, help me,” she prayed. “Help me bear without hatred whatever you do not turn aside.”
And with that prayer, Manuel was jerked away from her. Eva heard the crack of a fist on bone and the thud as Manuel went sprawling into the dust. She dived behind a nearby handcart and vomited repeatedly.
Dimly in the background, she could hear Alcazar. “Whatever the rules are in Almeria, while you are on these premises you will treat the women workers with respect. Do you understand?”
Eva did not wait to hear Manuel’s response. She picked up her basket and fled to the safety of the majordomo’s apartment. Once in the kitchen, she fell to her knees, still trembling. After her heart had stopped pounding, she was able to think of the other thing that she had learned.
A huge weight lifted from her shoulders. It was Manuel who had been the cause of her father’s downfall! Even though she was still guilty of conspiring to bring her father to poverty, it was wonderful to know that it had not been her foolish action that had sent him to the stake.
Eva rested her forehead against the bricks of the wall and thanked Jesu that she had been given to the majordomo. Far from being the disaster everyone pitied her for, it had been divine provision. Baseel was a man who took care of his own household. And besides, Jesu had put her right next to Elias.
Baseel came in late and immediately stretched his legs out for a foot massage, a routine he appeared to enjoy even though no further treatment was necessary. Eva rubbed in embarrassed silence, remembering the state he had seen her in that afternoon and wondering if he thought she had done something to invite Manuel’s attentions.
“What, no sub-vocal prayers for my Saracen soul tonight?”
He had noticed that? Eva turned beet-red, but a quick glance showed that the majordomo’s mouth quirked up. He was teasing her!
“It’s just—this afternoon—I didn’t do anything to encourage—” she trailed off awkwardly.
His face darkened. “I never thought you did. That was one of Andres’ recent hires. The caravan goes on to Seville tomorrow, but before it leaves I’m going to find out who he is and where he was from.”
“His name is Manuel Ortiz, and he was the head of our guard.” Eva felt a sudden anger at the way he had grabbed her today. “He was getting even with me because he thinks I was a tale-bearer about something he did. Manuel will try to bully and manipulate his way to power—he’s competent, but he’s cruel.”
“He worked for Casa de Pazia?” Baseel put his feet down and sat up. “So that was the one!”
Did the majordomo already know who turned her father in? Eva glanced up again and saw that Alcazar’s face was a thundercloud, his eyes sparked lightning.
“Quite aside from his insubordination this afternoon, and the information you just gave as to his character, if Manuel Ortiz knows the de Pazia family by sight I can’t leave him running about Granada—especially not with your brother here. Get me my writing case.”
Eva brought the marquetry box to the table. Baseel wrote a short quick note. Then he went to the rack where his armor hung and unsheathed his sword.
Eva was alarmed. “What are you going to do?”
Baseel took a whetstone from its pocket in the sheath and ground the edge of the blade. “The note is to Garcia, the caravan leader. I told him to send Manuel aside to receive a message at a certain inn at tomorrow’s siesta stop. It is still unwise for a Moor and a ‘New Christian’ to be called in front of the magistrates, especially as Cerra is trying to demonstrate that he is a loyal and law-abiding citizen of Spain. So it is better Manuel meet his fate well outside of Granada, with no witnesses.”
Eva recoiled in horror. Alcazar was planning to kill Manuel! “No, you can’t do this! It’s wrong!”
Alcazar looked up from his task with a frown. “Do you think I am going to sneak up and stab him from behind? It’ll be a fair fight.”
Until now, Eva had only thought of Manuel’s death. Terror gripped her as she pictured Baseel’s. “But he might kill you!”
“Just because I know languages and numbers does not make me a soft-handed clerk like your fool of a brother.” Baseel returned to honing his sword with long susurrating strokes that made the air smell of hot steel. “I was born a slave, it is true. But I learned early how to defend my goats from predators, and Cerra had me train as a man-at-arms.”
“But Manuel is an experienced fighter, a veteran of Cardinal Cisneros’ campaign against Oran.”
“You need not worry on my behalf.” Baseel wiped the blade with a rag and slid it back into its sheath. “Bandit attacks are a fact of life in our business. Before I was promoted, I was one of Casa Cerra’s caravan leaders. And now I am majordomo, I do not intend to allow an upstart braggart like this Manuel to challenge my authority.”
“So you’d take a life needlessly all to save face?” Eva found herself shaking with anger born of fear. “There’s no need, the whole compound is already afraid to cross you!”
“Except you, apparently.”
“I am afraid of sending someone to hell. Manuel. Or you.”
“Is not my life in the hands of Allah? Besides, I do not believe in your religion where all is forgiven for the cheap price of a confession. Manuel’s angels have been recording his deeds. If the good outweigh the bad, Allah the merciful may allow him to enter paradise. I say he is the better off dying while the innocence of childhood might yet outweigh the evil he has done as an adult.”
“Don’t do this, I beg you.” Eva got down on her knees before him. “Please don’t add another death to those already on my conscience!”
“Oh, get up!” Baseel crumpled the note with an Arabic epithet dredged from the gutter. “The sister will not allow the most practical of retributions, while idolizing a brother who lives and breathes for vengeance. May Allah deliver me from this plague of de Pazias!” The door slammed behind him as he went out again, even though it was late.
Eva went to bed and wept into her pillow. Elias had given her the task of winning him over, and she had completely antagonized him.