Chapter 20 of Eva’s Secret
Malaga: Wednesday September 21, 1513
Last night, Baseel had given curt orders that she was to dress for riding and be ready early. Eva inhaled the clean scent of sun-dried linen from her Moorish pantalones and tunica, freshly laundered by the wash-women of Casa Cerra Malaga. Despite a lifetime of seeing women in this style of dress, and three days wearing it herself, the unfamiliar garb felt like a disguise. But then, so far from anyone and anything she knew, everything felt like a disguise.
Eva sank to the marble floor in prayer. Since they arrived here on Saturday night, she had been alone in this room, unless you counted the few hours Baseel Alcazar spent sleeping after coming in late. And leaving at the crack of dawn.
A faint clatter of dishes outside the door meant that one of the servants had dropped off her morning meal. Here in Baltasar Cerra’s palatial new Malaga compound, as in the older Granada compound, Alcazar insisted his quarters remain strictly private.
He had barely spoken to her in that time, although he had otherwise been considerate. Over Eva’s protests, he set up a pallet on the floor and made Eva sleep in the bed. “I must be up and about early,” was his explanation. “Meanwhile, you will not leave this room.”
Sunday Eva had not minded. After three days of riding, she had been grateful to do nothing more than lie about in bed. Muscles she had not known she owned were sore, and Eva heartily wished that the numbness between her thighs extended around to her backside.
Baseel came back late Sunday night and seemed surprised that Eva was waiting up to massage his feet. But she was hungry for company.
“Could I go out and see the compound? I won’t say or do anything stupid.”
“Absolutely not!” Baseel’s answer allowed for no argument.
“Then I could spend the time mending.” Eva hated being idle. “Your gambeson needs patching.”
“I’ll find you some sewing things.” And with that, he rolled out the pallet on the floor and went to sleep.
A woman had delivered the requested items with her breakfast, and Monday Eva stitched and patched.
Tuesday was hammam day here as everywhere, and Alcazar had grudgingly given permission for Eva to join the women so long as she remained veiled coming and going. Eva had soaked in the hot pool for hours. Their female masseuse was much rougher than Mustapha. But the second day after an exertion ended was always the sorest, Eva told herself at the time.
This morning as she dressed, she noticed bruises where the woman had pounded her ribs.
The door opened on Alcazar. “Andres and the señor left this morning,” he greeted her. “We’re leaving tomorrow, and I want to see how you manage with the horse I picked for you on the ride back.”
“I was just getting used to the mule I had on the trip out.” Eva’s relief that she was going back to Elias was tempered by dread of the coming journey.
“That one only works the coast road. We assign our animals to the same routes. They do better when they know they are heading for a familiar stall.” Baseel led her down the corridor and through a gate to the stable-yard. “I need you to be prepared for tomorrow. The route we’re taking is much more rugged, through the mountains. I selected an animal that will see that you stay on her back.”
The horse the groom led up was a ewe-necked, hammer-headed pinto mare with one blue eye. “This is Fea,” he introduced her. “She’s as obedient as they come and she can do the trip from Malaga to Granada in her sleep. The perfect horse for the job—hardworking, wise and sturdy but so ugly nobody would think of stealing her.”
Eva timidly stroked her forelock, thinking that she and the horse had much in common.
When Baseel gave Eva a boost into the saddle, she overbalanced and would have fallen down the opposite side if Fea had not side-stepped to compensate.
Eva reddened as the stable hand guffawed. “Are you sure you want to take this woman on the mountain route, Alcazar? We could send her by wagon on the next journey up the coast. Andres would see to her comfort.”
“I’m sure he would, but I have need of her in Granada,” Baseel snapped.
Alcazar the majordomo was back in full force. He urged his mount into a trot, and Fea followed obediently. The mare’s gait was a spine-jarring misery that revived all the sore places on Eva’s bottom. But to her relief, they pulled to a walk just out of sight of Casa Cerra Malaga. Baseel motioned for Eva to come alongside.
“That last was for Cerra’s benefit,” he explained. “The real reason you must come with me tomorrow is that once out of my sight, someone might molest you. Andres has different rules for his people, which is why I made you stay in our room until he left.”
Eva felt suddenly lighthearted. All these last days, the boredom, the confinement—they had been for her benefit, not because Maloliente had completely taken over his pupil!
Baseel scrutinized her posture as they headed out onto the streets of Malaga. “Remember I told you to put more weight in the stirrups? It also helps take pressure off your seat if you stay on by squeezing a bit with your thighs. Did you never have a riding master?”
“When I was ten, my father insisted I take lessons. But they were in a sidesaddle, and I was terrible at it,” Eva confessed. “Until this trip, I never rode astride.”
“That’s a stupid convention of the rich—just to prove they are rich, I think. Ordinary people can’t afford a to buy special saddle only the family women can use.” Baseel turned up a street that began to climb. “It’s bad for the horse, too, having the rider’s weight off to one side. And that twisted way a woman must sit has got to be hard on her spine.”
“Astride is much easier on my back,” Eva agreed. It was about the only part below her shoulders that didn’t ache.
They wound along the street. Eva looked around her with interest. “Oh, how beautiful the sea is!”
Baseel smiled. “Have you seen the Alcazaba?”
“I’ve never been further than ten miles from Granada,” Eva admitted. “Except one trip to Guadix. It was dusty, and I rode terribly.”
“Then we will combine your riding practice with a tour of Granada’s second most beautiful city.” Baseel took her from one street to the other, pointing out the landmarks and telling her how Malaga had beaten off the first attack by the Catholic kings, only to fall five years later. Eva listened and looked, but in between noises of appreciation, she was working on her great dilemma.
How was she to bring any understanding of Jesu to this man? She could not do it with reason, because Baseel was much more learned, not to mention more intelligent, than she was. The church, which was supposed to bring unbelievers to Christ, had done nothing but drive him closer to hell. The only thing she knew to do was to pray for him—and Baseel found her prayers repulsive.
“And here is another thing for which Malaga is famous.” Baseel dismounted and lifted her down. He tied off the horses and led her through the door of a shop. In the sudden change from the bright daylight, Eva could not see, but the smells of wood were pervasive: oak, with its hint of sour milk, the acrid tang of cured walnut, and the peppery scent of mahogany. As her eyes adjusted, she saw rows of instruments hanging along the wall, everything that could be made of wood—guitarras, lutes, rebecs, cornets and flutes.
The proprietor set down the instrument he was working on and greeted them with the dignity of an artiste. “How may I help the señores?”
“I am in the market for a guitarra.” Baseel turned to Eva. “I am sure that your ear is better than mine. You must pick the one with the best tone.”
The guitarra-maker brought down his instruments one at a time. Eva was in raptures. She examined each one, plucking the strings and listening, until finally she narrowed it down to a beautiful specimen with mother-of-pearl and ebony marquetry defining the edges and delicate carved filigree over the sound-hole. “This one is best,” she whispered to Baseel. “But it might be too expensive.”
The craftsman asked a high price indeed. Baseel bargained with skill until they settled on a figure half-way between asking and offering. Then the man placed it in a triangular wooden case and presented it to Eva with a bow. “Although I could have sold it for much more, the pain of my loss is eased by the knowledge that such skilled hands will put my work to good use.”
It was graciously said, so Eva did not enlighten him until they were out of the shop. She smiled at Baseel. “He thought you were buying the guitarra as a present for me.”
“I did buy it for you.” Baseel boosted her onto Fea. “I can’t pass up the chance to learn from a maestra, and passing my old guitarra back and forth between us is inefficient.”
“I couldn’t accept such an expensive thing!” Eva protested as he gave her the box.
“It’s not a gift, it’s fair payment for lessons.”
“You don’t need to pay me, I love to show you.” A sudden inspiration struck her: this was the answer to her dilemma! “But most of my repertoire—especially the harder pieces—are psalms and Christian music. You won’t mind?”
“Why should I mind?” He grinned. “Music is the language of the universal God, whatever name one may call him by.”
Eva grinned back, her spirits soaring. She was going to teach Baseel every psalm she knew. And she was going to keep praying for him, whether he believed in it or not.
Malaga-Granada road: Thursday September 22, 1513
It was not yet light when the caravan left the Malaga compound early next morning. Although she was glad to be going home to Elias, the return journey was an ordeal. Eva retired into the background to escape notice as the majordomo gave last-minute instructions. The early hour, the bustling men-at-arms and the smell of the pine torches reminded her of that fateful night when the inquisition had struck and her life had come crashing in.
She tried to dwell instead on her new guitarra and the consideration Baseel showed in the face of Cerra’s orders to abuse her. She watched him as he worked. But he took no notice of her this morning. The majordomo, armed as on the outward journey, was busy going up and down the string overseeing the loading of the goods.
A familiar voice behind her made her jump.
“Here is your mare, señorita.” When she turned, the bald head shining in the torchlight was her old nemesis, Manuel. “Let me mount you, my lady.”
The mocking deference and his sly double meaning, combined with the memory of his recent assault, overwhelmed her already low defenses and she was suddenly sick with fear. She leaned over the bush behind her and lost her breakfast.
Manuel’s tone suddenly changed. “I was only offering to help the lady into her saddle, señor.”
“Leave her alone! And get to the back of the string. You’re rear-guard today.” Eva felt a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Eva? Are you ill?”
“It has passed.” Still shaken, she let Baseel help her into the saddle. “I get queasy when I am frightened.”
“Was Manuel threatening you?” He swung up onto Kohli. ““I warned him not to bother you again.”
No! She did not want to be responsible for a fight to the death. Why did so many men have only one solution when it came to dealing with each other?
“Was he?” Baseel demanded, as they pulled in place and waited for the caravan to file out the gates.
“He was perfectly polite,” Eva said firmly. Then, seeing Baseel’s unconvinced expression, she felt compelled to explain. “He didn’t do anything this time. It was only the memory— Just the idea of— some things—always makes me sick to my stomach.”
“Oh. And here I thought it was me.”
Eva could feel her cheeks grow hot and was thankful for the dark. “That was before I knew that I didn’t have to worry about— about—”
He cut her off abruptly. “Your place in the line is behind the two men riding in the van. The mules we are taking are hand-picked for this route; like your mare, they know it from one end to the other and are used to following her. Just don’t interfere, and she’ll take care of you. I have to be free to move up and down the caravan if needed.”
With no further fanfare, the torches were doused, and they pulled out of the gate. Nobody spoke as they wound through the streets of the city; an air of tense secrecy prevailed. To Eva’s surprise, they turned north out of the city gates, leaving the wide, easy coastal road.
The men relaxed as they reached the ridgeline to the north. Baseel came back from the front of the line and pulled Kohli in beside her. “How are you doing with Fea?”
“Fine.” The mare’s gait was rough enough to churn butter, but Eva did not want to complain. She changed the subject. “Why are there so many more men on the trip back?”
“We are transporting spices. These men are among Casa Cerra’s best fighters.” Baseel squinted into the rising sun, alert to every boulder, bush and tree.
Eva understood. Some spices, the ones that came from beyond Cathay, were worth more than their weight in gold.
Baseel seemed satisfied for the moment. “Any who are watching will think they went with the señor and Andres yesterday. They will not suspect we would take this route—the montañas de Malaga provide a perfect cover for bandits.”
“If the mountains are dangerous, then why not take the coast road?”
“Last week, there were several sightings of corsairs. Sea bandits. They move faster than the brigands in the mountains and because they can transport them quickly across the strait to Tangier, captured men add to their profit in the slave market.”
Eva looked at the grim armed riders in front and behind them. “Would the pirates be able to take these strong men as slaves? What for?”
“Most would die fighting, but some would be captured. They would put them at oars in the galleys, for one. Fresh rowers are always needed. And digging in the mines.”
“But how could they manage them?”
“Chains, of course. Iron is stronger than flesh, and the lash an effective motivator.”
Eva pictured the cuff on Elias’ ankle while he recuperated. “How can you say slavery is not so bad?”
“I said it was not so bad for one of your brother’s talents. Scribes, interpreters and accountants do not have physically demanding labor, and mind, unlike muscle, does not respond well to chains and whips. Which is why a certain level of consent is required.” Something caught his attention at the back of the line. Baseel turned Kohli and spurred off.
When he returned, his expression was worried. “I caught sight of someone behind us, possibly a scout for El Asesino’s band.”
“Who is that?”
“The leader of a band of brigands I have had past dealings with. The word is they have shifted their operations to this area. Should I give the signal, spur the mare and hang on. Let her pick her own way and she will take you to the inn where we will stay tonight. It is where she was bred.”
All the men were nervous and edgy as they rode through the steep brushy terrain. The mules kept at a fast walk; they stopped at midday only long enough to water the animals and relieve themselves—always with swords in hand—and then continued on without a siesta, taking a little food in the saddle.
Despite following all she could of Baseel’s riding instructions, as the day went on Eva became so miserable that it was all she could do to simply stay on the mare. Just as the sun was setting they saw a tiny cluster of buildings, one of them a walled inn which was a veritable fortress.
Everyone was relieved when the string pulled in the gate. The men fell to unloading the mules with practiced efficiency while the inn’s hostlers came for their horses. The majordomo directed the operation.
“Put the packs in the center room upstairs; I will sleep there with my woman. Three of you will take the room on the right, and three the left. Diaz, set up a watch rotation to sit in the hall.”
Not wanting to be a bother, but desperately wanting to get out of the saddle, Eva managed to get her left leg over and slid down. When her feet hit the ground her legs buckled and she fell in a heap. Fea, glad to be shut of her rider, trotted off to find somebody to remove her tack and feed her.
Eva, completely mortified, could do nothing more than pull herself over to the wall and hope Baseel would notice she was missing.
Just then a Franciscan rode in on a lathered horse. Unnoticed in her spot against the wall, Eva saw that he wore something that looked like a short sword across his backside beneath his cloak. And as he walked past her, she heard the distinctive metallic rustle of a mail shirt. Why would a priest need to go armed?
“Eva!” Baseel came over. “What are you doing there?”
“I can’t walk,” she admitted. “At least, I can’t get up.”
“That’s to be expected. The trails we covered today are some of the hardest miles our caravans travel.” He leaned down. “Grab my neck, I can’t lift a dead weight without some help.”
Eva had never held any man close other than her brother. She clasped her arms around Baseel and he scooped her from the ground with a grunt. Even in the nervous embarrassment of being pressed close to his chest, she felt sorry for the work she was causing; she weighed more than twelve stone. Nevertheless, he carried her into the inn and up the stairs. Baseel dropped her on the bed with his last strength.
One of the men was lining up the leather pack-bags containing the precious spices. The room was filled with their aroma: cloves, cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg and cardamom.
“Get out,” Baseel told the leering man. “And close the door.”
“I’m sorry, I’ve made your cuirass filthy.” Eva looked with dismay at the smear of manure she had acquired from her inn-yard crawl.
“It’ll clean. While I get us something to eat you can wash and change into your chemise. I’ll send up the innkeeper’s wife with water.”
Eva had to hang onto the bed-post to manage even the ordinary task of getting out of the pantalones. The señora of the place bustled in without knocking, but the can of steaming hot water she bore made Eva forgive that.
“Here, cariña, let me help. These roads are so dusty by the end of summer.” The goodwife saw her tunica and pantalones. “Ah, yes, your man told me these would need cleaning. And of course, you must have them tomorrow, you can’t ride in a skirt! Well don’t you worry, I’ll do them at once, and in this weather they’ll be dry by morning.”
She bustled out with the articles, and Eva pulled on her chemise. It was a state of undress that she would have considered scandalous just a month ago, only one layer of fabric between her skin and male eyes. Such conventions now seemed ridiculous. What would he see? The voluminous chemise covered her from neck to ankle.
Baseel brought back some meat-pies and a basket of oranges. “We came too late for dinner, so these will have to do. But first, I have to do something about your condition.”
Eva blinked. “What condition?”
“Your soreness. Tomorrow we have another thirty-five miles to cover before these spices are safely in Granada. You have to be able to ride—unless you want me to leave you here to be a tavern-maid.” Baseel smiled at that last so she would know he was only joking.
Eva cringed inside at the thought of another twelve-hour day enduring Fea’s punishing gait. “I’ll manage. See, I’m fine.” She tried to rise and found that her abused muscles had seized up.
Baseel pushed her back onto the bed. “That’s not ‘fine’. I don’t have Mustapha’s skill, but I can at least knead your leg muscles so they don’t freeze up on you. Just don’t get queasy on me, it’s entirely platonic.”
More big words. “What does platonic mean?”
“It describes a fraternal relationship.” Baseel must have seen her blank look, because he added, “Like between siblings. Now lie on your stomach so I can get all the places that are saddle-sore.”
Eva was so tired that she barely felt embarrassed when Baseel, working through the heavy linen folds of the chemise, squeezed the muscles of her legs between his big hands. “Does that help ease the soreness?”
“Yes, but it hurts, too.” She felt him work methodically up and down each limb, first the left side and then the right. “How do you know what to do?”
“I learned growing up as the son of the harem laundress.” Baseel started on her sore buttocks. “All of us children took turns massaging our father. He had a bad leg that pained him after a day of hard work.”
“Ow! Please, don’t push so hard,” Eva begged.
“It’s what you need. Make a noise if you want to.”
The kneading burned like fire every time he pressed down with the heel of his hand, and she could not help whimpering. The bed began to shake, and she realized that Baseel was laughing silently.
Annoyance filled her. “What’s so funny?”
Baseel lowered his voice so that only she could hear. “The men in the rooms on either side will be listening. Baltasar will have at least one spy among them. He should be satisfied with the report he gets.”
Eva put her face back in the covers and moaned—this time in sheer mortification.
After they ate, Baseel asked her to play her new guitarra for him. Several times, he stopped her to ask for a demonstration of this chord or that.
“You should take the new one, and I’ll just borrow the one you have.”
“My big fingers don’t fit on these skinny little frets. See?” He strummed a few notes, producing an awful discord. Eva started to apologize, but he cut her off. “I’m fond of the guitarra I have. My father bought it for us with money he scraped and saved from his private vegetable patch.”
It was encouraging to hear that Baltasar Cerra was not the only influence on Baseel. “Tell me about your father. What did he do?”
“My father was the under-gardener for the Generalife. Have you ever been there?”
“Yes, Blanca and I used to visit the de Venegas family there. The gardens are beautiful.”
“My father laid them out. He loved to work with his hands in the soil with growing things. But he always wished he had learned to read, so he could study the Holy Qur’an. He had a little patch of vegetables that were his own, and from it he eked out enough to pay for my oldest brother to be taught by a local scholar.”
Baseel grinned. “Farid hated every minute. He bribed me to sit in with him and do his lessons. Until my father found out, and let him off, which is how the reading and writing instruction fell to me. I would copy the lessons—mostly verses from the sacred writing—onto the back of used paper my mother would beg from the harem women, and at night I would read them aloud to my father. He always strove to model his life on that of the Prophet, peace be upon him.”
“Did your father have other wives?” Eva asked.
“No. Abi said that the Prophet allowed a man to take more than one wife only if he treated them all equally, and that no other woman could rival my mother in his heart.” Baseel chuckled. “My father liked to study birds. There was a pampered and petted peacock on the grounds, who used to strut around showing off in front of his harem of peahens. My father used to compare the peafowl to the pair of robins that came every year to make their nest in the peach tree. He said a peacock could afford to take many wives, for his females did all the feeding and guarding of the chicks. And what did he care if any died, seeing as there were so many?
“But the wise little cock-robin took only one wife, and both parents worked to find enough worms for their young. My father showed us how much more praiseworthy the robins were, for Allah is worshiped best when a creature does all it can to produce and raise its own offspring.”
Baseel grinned again. “We children knew that the peacock was really the old sultan, Muley Hasan—that was Muhammad XI. And the robins were my parents. Abi had very strict ideas about how Allah expected a righteous man to treat women.”
“And that’s why you disobeyed Cerra’s orders concerning me,” Eva said, half in wonder. If only her own father had been like Baseel’s!
“Better the señor doesn’t find out. He’s jealous, in his own way.” Baseel put the guitarra back in its box. “My father was the man named Abdullah I spoke of before. Despite his social station, he saw himself not as a slave of the Sultan’s, but of Allah.”
“My father was not a slave, and he beat my mother mercilessly.” Eva found herself putting her deformed foot behind her leg, although her stockinged feet were hidden under the long chemise. “You must miss him terribly.”
“I try not to think about him.” Baseel rose from the chair and began to line up the pack bags full of spices in a compact row. “It’s just as well that Abi died before Cisneros forced all the Muslims to be baptized. He would have called me a hypocrite. But then, he lived and died a slave. Baltasar Cerra has raised me high, and I intend to rise higher. My only master is ambition.”
And yet, Baseel had refused to rape her because this good man, his father, had taught him how a man should behave towards women.
Baseel arranged some blankets atop the spices. “For me. With this cargo I take no chances.” He waved her to the room’s comfortable four-poster. Before Eva could protest, he put a finger to his lips and jerked his head towards the door. “I am going to check the watch.”
Eva gratefully slid into the bed. Some time later, Baseel came in quietly. Still in his clothes, weapon to hand, he stretched out on the lumpy cargo panniers and was soon snoring softly.
In spite of her exhaustion, Eva’s aches made it hard for her to sleep. She lay awake enfolded in the pungency of the spices, listening to Baseel’s breathing. Starlight silhouetted his hawk-nosed face with its uneven skin; his hand tightened on his sword-hilt in some militant dream.
She reviewed her blessings and realized that even with this man in the room—actually because of his presence—she felt more secure than she had in a long time.
Was it just five days ago that they had left Granada? So much had changed. Last week, her safety had hung on the false belief that Cerra valued her presumed virginity.
This week, it rested in the decency of a man whose father knew himself to be a slave of God.