chapter 19 of Eva’s Secret
Things had been going along quite well for several days, although the slow pace of this human courtship ritual was enough to try even a cat’s patience.
Eva made her interest very plain. She groomed Spot’s feet. She serenaded him with the twang-box. And tonight, she even brought him a chicken.
He had rejected it with harsh words, even though she begged him on her knees. Then Spots had gone stomping off, and now Eva was very sad. The dominant lion refused to mate with her.
Perhaps he knew that Eva had not killed the chicken herself. A male might be reluctant to take on a mate who was a poor hunter.
And of course, a chicken was not so delicate a morsel as a mouse. If Eva presented Spots with some nice fat mice, then perhaps he would be more receptive to her overtures.
That night, Tabita risked hunting in the stable-yard, where mice were most plentiful. The curs were not nocturnal, so it was unlikely that they would notice her. But nevertheless, Tabita was silent as a shadow, knowing that it was worth her life if any of the three awakened while she was in their domain.
She was rewarded with immediate success. Proudly, she bore her trophy back to the camel-yard. Elias’ lair was vacant, of course; he was upstairs. Tabita slid through the ash-pipe. The door between the kitchen and the entry was closed, so Tabita could not take the mouse directly to Spots’ sleeping-place. But that was just as well; he would know that Eva could not have hunted it while she was sleeping. Tabita would wait until he left in the morning, and then put her offering on his pillow. He would find it during siesta, a delightful snack to enjoy when he woke up.
As for herself, Tabita had always been careful not to be seen by Spots when she was in his lair. So of course he would believe the gift was from Eva.
Casa Cerra: Monday, September 12, 1513
“Eva!” Matron beckoned to her as she was taking a basket of Baseel’s laundry to be washed. Several women hovered around the cleaning-area, an air of friendly conspiracy about them. “We have something to go with your new clothes.”
“What new clothes?” Eva dumped her basket into the wash-trough.
“Did you not know? The majordomo, he say to me, ‘Is all la Granadina’s clothing like this?” Matron swept a disdainful hand over Eva’s stained gray Spanish surcote. “And I say, ‘Andres, he did not let her bring much.’ Like that, I say, so he know it is not how you choose to dress. And he tell me, ‘get her something more womanly. I cannot take her about like that. Be sure to provide at least one pair of pantalones in the style of old Granada.’ So you see, you are making good progress, even though he is grumpy to us as always.”
That was only the normal business between master and servant. After his rape, Eva had chosen her dowdy clothes as a silent rebuke to her father, but the rest of their employees had worn de Pazia livery. It reflected poorly on a household if their servants were ill-clothed.
“We women know what really keeps a man happy, no?” Josemona winked at the others. “But how can a girl learn, if someone does not teach? And who, since your mother is long dead?”
“It is also because you were rich,” Matron explained. “We have heard that the Spanish do not let their ladies learn about such things. They think the dowry money is enough.”
Eva was completely bewildered. “What do I need to learn?”
“How to please Alcazar, of course! Everyone wants to see you succeed, so we bought you something to help.” Analina brought out a small stoppered flask.
Maria Aliya, who worked in the kitchens, chimed in. “It was expensive, but we all put a few coins in. Even Jose the cook gave!”
“Thank you,” Eva accepted the flask and looked around at the beaming faces. “What is it?”
“A special oil.”
“It’s an afrodisíaco!”
“The most powerful!”
“But not the kind you put in his food. This is for the woman, you must apply it just before.”
“Yes, men love it when you go wild.”
“You mustn’t just lie there like a dead fish.”
“And old Simon the apothecary says that it is when the woman responds that she will conceive!”
Realization began to dawn on Eva. “The clothes!” she cried. “I must stir them!” She grabbed the wooden laundry paddle and worked Baseel’s shirts. She kept her face in the steam. It would explain the beads of sweat and the bright red flush.
Of course they all assumed Baseel was sleeping with her. It was just that Eva automatically blocked such thoughts—not that they surfaced often.
Oh, Jesu! Everyone is speculating! How could she even look at Jose the cook again?
The Cat: Thursday September 15, 1513
Tabita was waiting for her share of what Eva was cooking when she heard a horseman come into the main courtyard. Shortly Giant, as Tabita thought of the big, quiet man who usually occupied the little room right outside the door, stuck his head in the entry. “Messenger from the señor come for Alcazar,” he told Eva.
Spots appeared from behind the curtain, and Tabita whisked out of view. Whenever she caught a mouse, Tabita only ate part. The rest she left on Spots’ pillow—the bottom half, with the precious pre-digested grains only to be found in mouse guts. And if he were to think Eva was the source of his little treats, a good hunter who would be a worthy mate, then better she remain unseen.
“I’ll receive him in Baltasar’s quarters.” He grabbed a cake from the pan Eva held. “How is your brother doing?”
“Elias was very ill. It takes a long time to recover from an infected wound, even without a blow on the head.” Tabita felt Eva’s unease; that meant what she said was a little untrue. Eva was bothered about things like that.
Spots frowned. “I need him out of the office soon.” He radiated jealousy. Not of Eva, but of Elias. Tabita knew Elias was equally jealous of Spots. Whenever Eva and Elias were together, Spots was there, too. Elias didn’t want him to be there, but there was nothing he could do about it.
The tension between them was a hindrance to Eva’s wooing. It made Spots angry that he was not as important to her as Elias.
Spots closed the door a little too firmly—that was one way you could tell when the humans were annoyed. Eva put the food on a tray and ran it upstairs. She pulled the door almost shut. “He’s gone, but only for a minute.”
“Good. Did you take the note I gave you and put it behind the loose brick in the tack room?”
“Yes. And Elias, yesterday I asked the majordomo if I might go to market with Jose next week, and he said if I took Matron along, I could!”
Tabita heard Spots come in the entry, although he stepped so quietly her human pride-members did not notice. She meowed an alert.
Elias was not listening. “Excellent! It’s the best protection you could have, Eva. The more he likes you, the safer you are.”
Tabita meowed again. Spots was coming up the stairs.
“I don’t know, Elias. Sometimes, he’s so nice. And sometimes, it’s like he can’t stand the sight of me.” Tabita rubbed up against Eva to get her attention. Spots was standing on the landing, right outside the half-open door. “Are you sure that—that he won’t carry out his threat?”
“Of course I am. I had years to watch Casa Cerra’s tactics. Has he made any move against your virtue?”
“No. He doesn’t ask for anything. I try to please him, and sometimes I think I’ve succeeded. And then other times I think he’d rather I weren’t even there.” Eva gathered up the breakfast tray.
Eva opened the door to find Spots standing outside it. “My patience is at an end!” he snarled. “Cerra has sent for me, and you as well. Go dress in the pantalones, you will ride astride. We leave in an hour. And now go! I have something private to tell your idiot of a brother.”
Tabita preferred not to be trapped in the office with an angry male. She darted across the room to where the balcony doors were open just a crack and squeezed through. Below was the camel-yard where she had first found Elias.
The miserable beast saw the balcony door move and ran over, emitting a breathy roar. Tabita could not even hear what Elias and Baseel were saying, but a quick peek around the curtain made it clear that they were hissing and spitting at each other.
As soon as Spots left, Tabita returned to Elias’ side. He radiated fury—but mixed with that was the unmistakable scent of fear.
On the road south of Granada, Thursday afternoon
The scent of dry grass baking in the late-summer sun mingled with the sharp smell of horse-sweat. They had ridden at a fast walk all day, with only an hour allowed midafternoon for siesta in a grove of scraggly cork trees.
Eva pulled her veil across her mouth to keep out the dust kicked up by the big black horse ten feet in front of her. The sun winked off the majordomo’s armored back and steel helmet. He sat his horse bolt upright, yet moving with it as though he grew out of the high-backed saddle. A leading-rein stretched from the back of that saddle to the halter of the mule Eva rode with far less ease. She shifted in her seat, vainly trying to ease her sore buttocks.
All friendliness was gone from Alcazar’s manner. Since overhearing her conversation with Elias this morning, he had remained aloof, speaking to the other two men-at-arms and looking past Eva whenever he happened to face her direction. Nevertheless, Eva’s saddle had been thickly padded, and despite her inexperience, the mule he assigned her was a soft-gaited animal.
Cerra must have sold her. That would account for Alcazar’s sudden withdrawal even more than his anger at what she and Elias had been saying. How much had he overheard?
The sun was setting when they pulled into a inn at a roadside hamlet. The innkeeper hurried out. “Ah, señor Alcazar! Welcome back to Mondújar. We heard you have been promoted to a higher post!”
“Yes, but my duties will still keep me coming and going, so you will not forget me.” Alcazar jerked his head back towards Eva. “The woman will be sharing my room.”
Sharing his room? Then Alcazar was going to carry out his threat. Eva’s stomach churned.
She managed to swing her numb leg over the saddle to dismount, but when she got both feet on the ground, she found that unaccustomed use had so cramped her muscles she had to hang onto the stirrup to keep from collapsing.
A hostler came to take the majordomo’s horse, leering at him suggestively. “Ah, now you are made majordomo, you must bring your own personal whore!”
Another hostler joined in the banter. “She looks too saddle-sore to be of any use.”
His fellow made a crude gesture. “Maybe she’s worn out from a different kind of riding!”
Eva ducked her head, going scarlet with shame. It did not escape the first joker’s quick gaze. “Nay, she’s blushing like a virgin. Never you mind, wench, I have it on authority from the tavern-maid here that he’s so small, you’ll hardly notice!”
“And if you turn around, then you won’t have to see his face!” the second one replied, the two of them engaging in a crude burlesque to demonstrate, howling with laughter.
“Enough!” Alcazar snapped, his expression taut. “Are my animals to stand uncared-for?” He grasped her arm, his rough manner belied by the gentle firmness of his grip as he helped her walk. Eva’s embarrassment was allayed a little by the thought of his. How often had his scars been mocked? At least she did not have to bear a lifetime of that.
Eva’s heart sank when she saw the room they were shown to had only one large bed. Alcazar pointed to the pitcher and stand. “You may have a few minutes to wash. I will bring food.”
Eva dipped a cloth in the basin and washed away the road-dust, mentally rehearsing every comforting thought she would muster.
She was grateful for the lack of sensation on her inner thighs, although she suspected that she was chafed raw in that area. Maybe if it looked bad enough, he would take pity on her. Anyway, she must get used to it. Women everywhere had to endure sexual relations, whether they wanted them or not. At least she would not be able to feel anything.
It is better than if I were given to Manuel. It can’t be worse than my father. It doesn’t last very long. Most women have to endure this. But her stomach heaved at the prospect.
She started up as the door opened. Baseel entered, carrying a pot of something that smelled like mutton stew.
In spite of all she had rehearsed, now that she was presented with the awful prospect, the blood drained from her face. He stared at her, wordless, his expression one of displeasure.
He is kind! She reminded herself frantically.
But the steaming smell of the food made her nausea worse. She clapped her hands over her mouth and ran for the slop-basin, tripped on a loose floorboard, and went sprawling face-first into the bedpost, where she stifled her retching in the coverlet.
“Can you not refrain from soiling the linens?” Alcazar hauled her bodily off the edge of the bed and dropped her on all fours on the floor.
When her stomach stopped heaving, she rose trembling. “I’m so sorry. I’ll clean it up.”
“Use the towel, I’ll send for more. And extra blankets so you can make a pallet for yourself on the floor. You need not fear any advances on my part.” His low voice was loaded with scorn. “In fact, I have never met a woman I am less interested in bedding.”
Someone knocked on the door, and the majordomo opened it to find the hostler with their saddlebags. He took them and shut it firmly. When he spoke again, his voice was low, but emphatic. “That last is to remain our secret. When we meet Baltasar Cerra tomorrow, you will do your best to keep up the pretense that you are, as the hostler so delicately put it, my personal whore. If you give him any hint to the contrary, we may be forced into a more intimate acquaintance than either of us desire.”
He sent a saddlebag in her direction with a vicious kick. “I am going to eat in the common room. It stinks in here.”
Eva set about the tasks slowly, trying to absorb what she had just learned. Elias had been wrong about it being a bluff. Baseel had actually disobeyed Maloliente on her account. And yet—
The realization slammed into her. Baseel Alcazar was no rapist, but that did not mean she was safe. If Baltasar Cerra did not value her supposed virginity—if he had already given that up—
Elias had not cooperated, and now she was being taken to Malaga, the port from which Leonor had been shipped to North Africa.
Matron’s words came back to her. “Leonor here, she will be a rich man’s wife, they pay high for pretty young girls who are untouched by a man. But you are not so pretty, not so young. And to have commoner’s hands also! It is well you are virgin or Cerra might sell you to a brothel.”
And although he might sympathize with her plight, Baseel Alcazar was in no position to do anything to prevent her sale.
Friday September 16, 1513
The next morning, Eva’s muscles were so stiff and sore that she moved like an old woman. Baseel glanced up from the washstand. “That must hurt.”
Eva put a hand to the side of her face where she had struck the bedpost and winced.
He studied her. “Don’t try to hide that beneath a veil. It may turn out useful to our little pretense.”
One of the Casa Cerra men knocked at the door. “Majordomo, the saddlebags?”
Baseel handed them out while speaking to Eva in a harsh tone. “That black eye will teach you not to cross me in the future.”
Eva was bewildered. She had gotten that by falling—oh yes. She would have to remember to keep up the pretense she was the majordomo’s ‘personal whore’—she winced even thinking of the label—until they got to Malaga.
This morning there was no sign of the bitterness that had surfaced last night. Baseel supported Eva by one arm as she limped downstairs and lifted her into the padded saddle.
He adjusted the stirrups a little shorter. “Put more of your weight on your legs, it will take the pressure off your sore trasera.”
Eva tried. But her legs were sore, too.
An hour from the inn, they reached the junction where the track to the mountain village of Lanjarón met the main road to the coast. Baltasar Cerra was waiting for them with a party of several more men. “Ah, Baseel. You are in time, we have just finished breakfast.”
Alcazar immediately became all business. He rode by Cerra’s side giving an account of affairs at the Granada compound and receiving the merchant’s every word with deference. Maloliente himself. Eva watched Cerra’s influence transform Blanca’s fairy-tale prince into the wizard’s pupil.
Riding behind the pair, Eva could hear everything. That they did not care about that was the plainest indication that she was no more to them than the animal she rode.
“Well, Baseel, you have risen quite high for a former slave. And I hope to see you rise higher, perhaps even to my second-in-command. But let us not tell that to Andres or Raoul.”
“I am better with accounts and numbers than Raoul, and manage the staff better than Andres. Tell me what skills they have that I lack, and I will strive to best them.”
“Pragmatism. Self-interest. Your prickly façade does not fool me, nor anyone else with a sharp eye—as the brother of your current woman surely has. Speaking of which,” Cerra continued, “I suspect you are going too easy on the sister.”
“By Allah, nobody would call my treatment of her easy!” Baseel retorted. “I have made her labor from dawn to dusk—whitewashing, mending, laundering, scrubbing floors, cleaning everything. I beat her until she weeps. The whole compound hears her wail at night.”
“And that has not moved him? Does he care nothing about her welfare?”
“At the beginning, he was furious with her, because the stupid girl told him she turned their father in. He told me she deserved whatever I did to her. I hoped he would change his mind after hearing her screams—not to mention several days being chased around the courtyard by the camel.”
Baseel’s reply brought a smile to Eva despite her misery. Imagine trying to tame Elias with an animal!
“And yet in three weeks, he has not produced a resume.”
“The last two hardly count. He couldn’t even hold a pen. And the blow on the head—your investment was very nearly lost entirely.”
“What is this?” Cerra’s tone sharpened.
“I wrote you as soon as it happened. Didn’t you get my message?”
“It must have come just after I left Malaga. Tell me everything!”
“Tuesday night, the week before last, Lope found him unconscious with a huge lump on his head. We decided he must have hit it on the stone trough after falling out of the carob tree. And that was because he was burning up with fever.” Baseel guided his mount around a large rock in the road. “Mustapha looked him over and found a half-healed spear-wound between his ribs and left arm. Given about a week before you bought him, I would guess. It had been festering for some time.”
“So Sahma bin Qadir sold us damaged goods!” Cerra let out a string of words that were not part of Eva’s vocabulary. “He claimed he didn’t want the risk of getting a fugitive out of the country with the Inquisition searching every road. I take it he survived?”
“I moved him to the office, shackled, of course, and gave his sister the task of nursing him. She is very attached to her brother.”
Eva heard a wistful note in Baseel’s voice. He is so alone.
“Which is how I learned that his indifference was nothing more than a front.” Baseel raised his voice slightly, although Eva was sure he already knew she was paying attention. “I overheard them yesterday morning, and it seems that our slave is too well acquainted with Casa Cerra. This whole time, he was under the impression that my threat was a bluff, because our the usual practice is to preserve a girl’s virginity against a future sale.”
“Elias de Pazia is a strange blend of naiveté and intelligence. You disabused him of his mistaken assumptions on that count?”
“As soon as I understood the problem, I made it plain that asset is no longer relevant. And we left immediately. By now, he’ll be in a sweat.”
“It would serve him right if I sold her.”
‘If’ he sold her? Did that mean that Cerra had not sent for her because there was a buyer, but merely to confirm her status as ‘personal whore’ to the majordomo?
“She wouldn’t bring enough to justify the trouble.” Baseel gave a forced-sounding laugh. “She has none of the graces you would expect of a gently-raised girl. Her hands are ruined, she’s sunburnt, And she has inherited Iago’s beak of a nose, an unfortunate feature at best.”
Eva heard the statements with acceptance. She never had aspired to be a coddled rich lady, and nobody but Elias ever called her beautiful.
“Well, how about selling her to Blas’ brothel? He’ll take an ugly woman if she’s young and lusty.”
Eva’s breath caught in horror.
“Lusty, my trasera! Eva de Pazia is the most unsatisfactory bed-partner I have ever had to suffer through. Blas would poison your wine if you sold him that one! She acts like sex is her personal martyrdom. Since you cursed me with her, she has prayed ceaselessly for me to repent, wicked sinner that I am. By Allah, she would turn a satyr soft!”
Was that how Baseel saw her faith? Eva felt as though he had punched her in the stomach. Tears started in her eyes, and the blood pounded in her ears.
“How you suffer in my service!” Cerra laughed. “Well, now our slave knows his assumptions are so much air, he will no doubt do as we ask in exchange for finding his sister some obscure husband. Will he be recovered before the mistrals start?”
Eva was not entirely sure what mistrals were, but she knew that they interfered with shipping. She must ask Elias to explain—especially when they started.
“Youth and a strong constitution have returned him almost to full health. And credit should be given to his sister, who has cared for him diligently. The nuns at the hospice trained her well.”
Baseel’s words brought a small glow of satisfaction to Eva.
Maloliente pressed on with business. “But you must hire someone to keep house. Someone who can keep her mouth shut. I have the perfect candidate in mind: Aldonza.”
“The flamenco dancer from Sancho’s taverna?”
“Yes. Don’t deny you have lusted after her—all the men do, she’s a hot piece.” Cerra nodded with satisfaction. “Yes, I think she’s just the woman to warm your bed.”
Baseel shook his head. “She wouldn’t want the job.”
“Oh, I think you underestimate her pragmatism. Now that you are majordomo, she will look at you with new eyes. Besides, I am authorizing you to pay her twice what she makes at Sancho’s.”
Baseel’s demeanor brightened at his master’s praise. Or maybe it was the prospect of this ‘hot piece’ in his bed. Eva did not want to know more about Aldonza, or Cerra, or Baseel Alcazar. She tried not to look at the two backs in front of her.
Fortunately, Baseel changed the topic to something about the Toledo steel trade. Cerra made points here and there, while his majordomo almost fawned on the merchant in his eagerness to please.
Eva could not keep from dwelling on Blanca’s fable. Maloliente was winning the struggle for his victim’s soul. She loathed him.