The Cat: Tuesday September 20, 1513
Tabita watched with concern as Elias lowered himself over the edge of the roof. She was afraid he might fall again. Humans were not like cats; they could not twist and land on all fours and take no harm from a drop many times their own height. The wall that faced the camel-court on the uphill side was at least three times Elias’ height, and when he had fallen two weeks ago, the ground hitting his head had almost killed him.
Of course, his wound was healed now, but the left arm was still not as strong as the right. Elias used the better arm to hold the edge of the roof while his foot groped for the peg he had driven into the soft adobe bricks. It found and held.
The pegs had taken Elias three days to make and install. He had started several days ago, the morning Elias came back to the camel-court after quite some time in the paper-filled space above the lair Spots and Eva occupied. The day Elias and Spots had a hissing-spitting fight, and he took Eva away. Something that happened in that fight made Elias angry, frightened and very troubled.
As soon as he got back to the courtyard he broke an end off a branch of the carob tree and shaped it with a tiny knife, the kind used to sharpen feathers. The piece was half the thickness of his wrist and the length of his foot. It took a long time.
While he was about this, Elias talked softly to the camel, just like he used to do with the horse. Tabita wrinkled her nose. Grass-eaters seemed to like this constant stream of chatter; it calmed and reassured them. Grass-eaters were stupid.
But Fatima seemed smart enough when it came to knowing what Elias wanted her to do. Whenever he had to rest from his peg-making, he would train her.
Elias fed the camel pods from the carob tree whenever she pleased him. Fatima was so eager to get these that Tabita tried one herself to see what the appeal was. The pod was chewy and had a pleasant, faintly musty sweetness, but there was no nutrition in it that a cat could use.
Fatima already knew to be guided around the courtyard by a rider’s knees—nothing special in that. She quickly learned to come at his breathy whistle, the one most humans did not seem to hear. Elias taught her to get up and down with hand signals. And with a whispered command, she would stand where he told her to for longer and longer periods.
Tabita would not do that on command. But then, she was a pride-mate, an equal partner. Grass-eaters were only slaves.
Before dawn on church-bell day, Elias finished the first peg. Balancing on Fatima’s shoulder and reaching as high as he could, he used a rock to drive the peg into a crack between the bricks. Then he rested.
The next night, he drove a second, higher peg in by hanging onto the first. At the last stroke his weak arm gave away, and if the camel had not been standing there to break the fall, he might have been very badly hurt.
But the night after that, by pounding a third peg in place, Elias was able to climb out of the courtyard. He went crab-wise up the short roof, and Tabita, watching from a high branch in the carob tree, saw him loosen the dovecote grate and go through.
Tabita returned to the kitchen by the soot-pipe, and out the tiny window to the guard-room roof. It was early, but Fray Pablo’s horse was just coming in the front gate. That was expected; since Tabita had first come, the day before Market-day was always Fray Pablo day. When he dismounted, Tabita leaped onto his saddle-seat, safe from the curs as he led the animal to the same stall and set up his stools in the adjacent two stalls.
Elias had spoken to the priest, low and urgent: Eva was the subject, although Iago de Pazia was mentioned with even more venom than usual, along with somebody named Cerra. Then Fray Pablo diverted the people of the household, giving some kind of lecture in the front court, while Elias slipped into the feed-room below the dovecote.
Tonight Elias had merely gone up and down the wall. It was a new variation on the exercises Elias always did to keep himself strong and flexible.
Fatima stood patiently in her place below the peg-ladder, and Elias lowered himself onto her neck. He rode her over to the den, then slipped off and crawled inside. Tabita joined him there.
He was lying on his straw pallet, shaking with fatigue as he massaged the scar under his arm. And then, at last, he fell into uneasy sleep.
Tabita curled in the crook of his elbow and licked the healing gash on the inside arm while kneading the fresh scar tissue on his ribs. Elias was doing everything he could to promote rapid recovery except the one thing that was most important: he did not purr.
Elias used to purr. And for a short time, after that long ago fall when his heart stopped beating and then started again, he had purred a great deal. But then something had happened at the all-male place he lived, and Elias had stopped purring altogether. When all the other males at Holy Cross did the purring rituals he still made the noises, still went through the motions. But when he was alone, Elias did neither.
Tabita contrasted this with Spots, who purred in the manner called salat—but only when there was nobody around to see.
Tabita kneaded and purred for her damaged pride-mate.
Malaga-Granada road: Friday September 23, 1513
Eva woke drenched in sweat. In her dreams a priest had been pursuing her through trackless brush. As she shook off the fog of sleep, she realized that she had forgotten to tell Baseel about the armor the Franciscan was wearing beneath his cassock. He might be a bandit in disguise!
She sat up, every muscle protesting. Her pantalones and tunica, washed and dried, were folded on the end of the bed. Her new guitarra case was on the table. The light told her it was barely dawn, but the room was empty. She was alone.
A cold hand clutched her heart: Baseel had left without her! Eva did not take the time to question her sense of desertion; she forced her aching limbs into her riding outfit so that she could run downstairs.
Baseel came in as she was fastening her shoes. “Good, you are up. We have another long ride today. By midmorning the road will be easier, though. We will leave the mountain trails—and the danger of bandits—behind us.”
“There is something I forgot to tell you last night,” Eva said. “While I was sitting against the wall, a Franciscan arrived, but as he walked past me I heard the chink of a mail shirt.”
“Yes, Fray Pablo de Caceres. He’s the priest who has been coming to shrive Casa Cerra for the last month,” Baseel replied. “That heavy mail coat is his version of a hair shirt. And he carries a sword too. He was a knight of Calatrava before he joined the order, and now he’s one of those ‘fighting priests’. Here, eat this meat-pie, we won’t stop for anything until noon.”
Eva discovered that she was ravenous. “What is he doing here?”
“That has me puzzled as well. This morning he requested permission to accompany us back to Granada. Which seems very suspicious, considering he must have just come from that direction.” Baseel frowned. “I’m worried that he might be sniffing around for Elias. Fray Pablo is one of Cardinal Cisneros’ retinue.”
Cardinal Cisneros! Spain’s Grand Inquisitor himself! The meat pie suddenly tasted like mud. Eva swallowed her bite with difficulty.
“Perhaps he suspects Baltasar Cerra has their fugitive, and that we managed to smuggle him off to Malaga. Or maybe he thinks to worm information out of one of our men by riding back with us.” Baseel leaned out the window. “Ho—Ortiz, loosen the girth on that mule!” Then he turned back to Eva. “I found you a shawl, and I want you to wear it Saracen-style, over most of your face. And don’t forget that you are now EvaMaria Perez. This is a matter of life and death for Elias. If the Inquisition gets wind that we are hiding your brother, Cerra’s orders are to kill him and dispose of the body—and I have no qualms about doing it, if his presence endangers my people.”
A chill ran down Eva’s spine. One mis-step on her part could kill Elias, trapped between the Inquisition on the one side and this man—whom she had almost forgotten was Maloliente’s creature—on the other. “Manuel knows I’m Eva de Pazia.”
“Good point, I’ll send him ahead to scout out the road.” Baseel tightened the buckle on his cuirass.
The country opened up a little once they left the inn. Eva’s soreness eased as her muscles warmed. She looked around at the landscape, open areas interspersed with steep rugged montañas, scattered with unexpected outcrops of huge rocks, and tumbled lumps of lichen-covered boulders. Southern slopes abounded with aromatic brush, while the north-facing slopes were forested with mixed broadleaf and conifer trees.
Fray Pablo pulled alongside Eva’s mare. “Señora, I have not yet made your acquaintance. I am Fray Pablo de Caceres. Perhaps you have heard of me?”
“I know few people, Father. I am EvaMaria Perez.” Eva hoped that the road dust would explain her insistence on keeping her shawl across the lower half of her face.
Casually, as though he merely wanted to converse, Baseel let Kohli drop back so that the big gelding was between Fray Pablo and Eva. “Father, I’m curious as to what would bring you to this rugged place, only to turn and go back again?”
Fray Pablo seemed taken aback for a moment, but he recovered quickly. “The Cardinal received information that a rare Hebrew document might be held by a certain hermit who lives near last night’s inn, and I was sent to examine it.”
Baseel frowned. “Why does His Reverence Cardinal Cisneros want writings in Hebrew? Wasn’t he the one who burned all the books of the great library of Granada in the square before the cathedral?”
“Books on religion and philosophy. The church made an exception for Islamic works in medicine, mathematics, and science,” Fray Pablo corrected. “And of course none of the Old Testament volumes were burned. You see, in spite of his duties to shepherd his flock and his celebrated military victories in North Africa, the Cardinal’s life work is to produce a polyglot Bible.”
“Who are the polyglots?” Eva did not really care, but she wanted to keep the conversation away from herself.
“Polyglot means many languages. Our Complutensian Bible, when finished, will show the sacred texts in the language they were written in alongside the official version.” Fray Pablo warmed to his subject with the fervor of the true believer. “In the case of the Old Testament, this requires three columns: Greek and Hebrew down the sides, and Latin in the center. The Cardinal likes to call it ‘Christ between two thieves’. Of course, working from the oldest original texts that we can acquire is of utmost importance.”
Fray Pablo looked directly across at Eva. “Before this I was working with a young man at Holy Cross who was most gifted with Hebrew, one Elias de Pazia. Would you have heard of him?”
Eva’s heart began to thump so loudly she was afraid Fray Pablo could hear it. But Baseel was completely nonchalant. “Of course I have heard of him—everybody in Granada was at the auto-da-fé where they denounced the family’s Jewish subversion. Elias de Pazia died by plague. The hand of God, if I recall the sermon correctly.”
Just ahead the trail narrowed into a ravine, and the horses had to go single file. The north-facing side was thickly wooded. Baseel loosened his sword in its sheath, examining the slopes that loomed over them, clearly worried.
Even Eva could see that this was an ideal place for an ambush. Huge boulders frequently occupied the middle of the ravine, where they had come to rest after tumbling from the rocky outcrops above. The trail snaked over or around them as needed.
At a sharp bend in the dry creek bed, a newly fallen boulder blocked the road. The caravan halted, the eight mules and their five guards bunching up behind Eva, Fray Pablo, and the majordomo.
Baseel dismounted and waved one of the men-at-arms to come with him. Cautiously, with drawn swords, they climbed up the ravine wall until they could ease by the boulder.
As soon as they were out of view, Fray Pablo leaned toward Eva and spoke rapidly, keeping his voice low. “Listen, Eva de Pazia, and do not react. The real reason I came is because your brother told me that you had been taken to Malaga, possibly to be sold.”
Was he trying to trick her into admitting she knew where Elias was? “Father, I don’t know what you are talking about. I have no brother.”
“I know you must be careful but I can prove—” He broke off as the two men came back, slipping down the steep bank.
The majordomo spoke softly. “Keep as quiet as possible—we don’t want to attract attention. Unload the mules; we will have to squeeze them through one by one and re-load them on the other side. Jose, you and Alvaro stand guard as the packs come through. Juan and Paco stay at the rear until all is done. Father, you can stay with the señora?” He gave Eva an apologetic glance.
Fray Pablo nodded, and Baseel led Eva’s horse up the slope, stamping down the disturbed earth to make a better footing for the rest.
As soon as they were alone on the front side, Pablo continued. “Elias sent me to Malaga to buy you back if necessary. Imagine my relief when this morning I learned you were at the same inn, returning with the Granada-bound caravan.”
The first man-at-arms led his mule through the narrow spot, one of the pannier-bags on his shoulder. Behind him came another man, similarly burdened. Once back on sound footing, they went to work roping the mule’s bags to either side of the wooden pack-frame.
Fray Pablo’s tone changed, speaking as though in light conversation. “I have a friend, a young lady of about your age named Blanca. Three weeks ago Tuesday she introduced me to her charming cat, a tortoise-shell she called Tabita. And to my surprise, I found the creature in my saddle-bag later that afternoon.”
That was the day before Tabita had found her! Eva ventured a hesitant question. “Father, have you ever—have you ever dealt in slaves?”
Fray Pablo’s answer removed any doubt. “Only once, recently. The circumstances seemed to excuse my action but on reflecting on the harsh words Saint Paul wrote against those who deal in human flesh, it has so struck my conscience that I intend to undo the deal as soon as the opportunity affords.”
The two men were busy helping another mule down onto the trail. Eva leaned forward and whispered. “Please, the majordomo mustn’t suspect you know,” she begged. “He has orders—”
The men came close again, although they were so busy re-loading the mule that they paid no attention to Eva or the priest. Fray Pablo nodded. “I understand this is a life and-death situation. If the wrong persons were to discover our whereabouts—”
At that moment Baseel came leaping from the other side of the boulder. He grabbed Eva by the neck of her tunica and the waistband of her pantalones, lifted her bodily from Fea’s saddle and flung her face-down among a smaller group of rocks beside the trail. Eva’s ribs were bruised by a rock the size of a cow-skull, complete with a horned protuberance.
“Stay down!” He snarled, and then was gone. For a split second, Eva thought he knew what they had been talking about. Until something whizzed over her head and she heard a thunk of metal on wood.
She looked up and saw a spear-shaft quivering in the trunk of an oak three paces beyond her. Shouts echoed from the other side of the fallen boulder.
Bandit attack! Eva heard the clang of sword on sword, the scream of an injured horse. Too terrified to move, she put her head down and covered her ears.
If the bandits took her, she would suffer far worse than anything Cerra had devised. Eva began to pray in deadly earnest.
Prayer for herself became prayer for Baseel. So what if she was killed? She would be in heaven with Jesu. But Baseel—he would be in hell! Eva lifted her head to look for him, and saw the majordomo on the level top of the boulder, fighting with a man equally armed. Baseel leaped to avoid a sword-swipe at his legs and brought his own blade down, only to be blocked by the swift upward parry of his opponent.
Her heart was in her mouth as the two stabbed and hacked at each other. Please, Jesu, please Saint Basil, spare him! He hasn’t had the chance to believe—how could he, when the church is so corrupt?
A soft curse in Spanish came from below her. Eva became aware of a man crouching by the trunk of a huge old oak, the tree shielding him from the fighting. He was not one of Cerra’s men—a bandit, then. What was he doing, so still there?
Then she noticed the stave sticking over his head—he had a bow! The position of his arms showed it was at full draw, aimed toward the fighters on top of the boulder. He was waiting to kill Baseel!
Just as the archer had a clear shot Eva threw herself at him, slamming into his shoulder with all her weight. The man fell forward; she heard the snap of an arrow leaving the string, saw it fly as though in slow motion. But the trajectory was now towards the base of the great rock where more men struggled. It hit a man’s raised arm, and he dropped his sword with a cry.
The archer rose beneath her with an enraged bellow, and Eva was flung to the side. He threw away his weapon, useless now, its string broken, to pick her up like a rag doll. She flew backwards and hit the ground with such force that the world spun around her. Eva waited for the killing blow.
A distant shout sounded, and Eva heard the archer run off. The shout came again. Slowly, the wind knocked out of her, she pushed herself upright to look. Over the brow of the hill opposite rode Manuel, charging down on the fight without regard for his horse.
The man fighting Baseel atop the rock must have been the leader, for he yelled at his men: “Retreat!” He ducked under Baseel’s thrust and leaped down from the rock.
But the majordomo had no intention of letting his opponent go free. Baseel launched himself into the air like a madman, his sword held downward in a stabbing position. He landed almost atop the bandit leader, and the force of that landing felled the man and spitted him in the same motion.
Eva felt hot and cold sensations all over her body. Although she had held the hands of many victims of violence as they breathed their last, she had never seen a man die in battle. She could not turn her eyes away as Alcazar jerked his sword out of the man’s chest, and a fountain of blood, bright red and pulsing, sprayed him in its wake.
Alcazar turned and saw Eva standing transfixed. “Get on your horse!” he ordered. “Paco! Finish loading those mules!” And then he charged off, up and around the boulder to the other side.
Paco glanced her way. “Need help señora?”
Eva shook her head. “I can manage. You have enough to do.”
Paco did not ask twice. The two mules already brought over danced and backed, the smell of blood making them nervous, and he and the other man were hard-pressed to get them loaded.
Fea came to Eva, her ugly, obedient head hanging patiently. Eva almost stepped on the dead bandit leader.
She looked down at the face. A handsome face, and nothing written on his features to indicate whether he had been evil or good in life. His expression was not peaceful or resigned, as was usual for her hospice patients; rather he looked surprised, as though death was something that happened to others, not himself.
Eva bent down and closed the dead eyes, and, as they did at Hospice Santa Ana, said the brief prayer for the dead while making the sign of the cross on his forehead.
“Angel of God!” Eva turned and saw the speaker was lying beneath a tangle of dry tree branches that had been crushed by the fall of the boulder. “Beautiful lady, help me! If this wound is not staunched, I die!”
Stooping beneath the broken foliage, Eva saw a man clutching his arm. Blood soaked the sleeve above and below an arrow-shaft that protruded from just above the elbow. Bright red blood.
With practiced haste, she tore off her shawl and twisted it around the arm just above the arrow. As she tightened the makeshift bandage, the pulsing flow slowed and stopped.
“Eva!” Baseel pulled her out of her brushy cover. Blood was splattered and smeared all over him. “I told you to get on your horse! Our attackers may be regrouping even now.” He almost threw Eva into Fea’s saddle. “Where is your shawl?”
Eva’s stubborn courage drove out everything else. “Saving a man’s life.”
Baseel looked under the fallen branch and saw the wounded bandit. He stooped swiftly and jerked the shawl off. “Leave him to his just deserts. He was trying to kill us.”
“No!” the man clutched his arm, which was turning bright with fresh blood. “I warn’t going to kill nobody, just share a teeny bit of old man Cerra’s wealth.”
Eva started to say something, but Baseel cut her off. “Don’t listen to the ladrone. If he lived, he would be back to thieving and murder as soon as he was able.”
Eva was shocked at the majordomo’s callousness. “You don’t know that! People can change their ways.”
“Yes, I’ll change, I’ll repent of all my bad deeds,” the bandit begged. “Doncella, merciful lady, don’t let me die!”
“At least he should be shrived.” Fray Pablo was there by Fea’s side, his own cassock bloodstained.
“There’s no time,” Alcazar was getting angry. “I killed El Asesino, but I saw his brother, El Jabalí get away with most of their men. They’ll be regrouping as we speak. What is it, Ortiz?”
“Majordomo, one of the mules got a slash in the gut. And they got one of the panniers. Pepper, I think.”
“Then strap the other one on the back of Pepe’s saddle, his horse can carry another seventy pounds. Kill the mule, he’ll not recover from a gut wound.”
Eva looked around then and saw that the seven sound animals were now all on this side of the boulder, the men re-loading the last of them.
“Line them up and move them out!” the majordomo shouted. “Father, are you coming?”
“There is a soul at stake,” Fray Pablo said, very calm.
“Then stay and shrive him at your own risk.”
“My days are in the hands of God.”
Eva looked back as Fea fell in behind Kohli. Fray Pablo knelt at the dying bandit’s side. They wound up through the ravine and came out on top.
She looked back and could just see the back of Fray Pablo’s horse below them. And then she looked ahead, where Baseel’s armored back was splashed with the blood of a man he had killed—even though his victim had acknowledged defeat and was trying to flee!
Of course he did not care if the poor wounded man died unshriven—beneath his Catholic pretense, Baseel Alcazar was a Saracen through and through.
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.
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.
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.
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.
16. Lay of the Land
Tabita was concerned. She had seen this pattern once before. It started with nights where Eva screamed in her sleep, and woke shaking. Then the days would be filled with frenzied activity until she collapsed into exhausted sleep, only to begin the cycle again on waking.
It had started with that mating that was so completely wrong, because she was not yet fertile.
But now Eva was fertile—had been for years. And there was the scent of her vomit on the sleeve of the spotted man. Perhaps some good would come of all the activity. Eva was overdue to produce a human kitten.
One thing was sure, and that was that she was making this place their new lair. It was a fine thing for Elias and Eva and Tabita to be all together in the same place again. The only puzzling part was that Eva did not seem to know that Elias was living on the other side of the wall that surrounded Eva’s big new lair. And as for the cozy little lair where Elias slept through most of the days, it went right up to the unused cooking-room.
At night, when the curs slept, Tabita roamed the larger space, checking out the lay of the land. There was the central courtyard, of course. On the downhill street side was the ornate façade of oily-voiced man’s lair. It was closed now, and smelled like it did not receive much use.
Next to that was the hammam, where the old man who spoke cat lived in a little lair in the back. There was no smell of dog in or behind that building. And beside it, green with the drain-water, was the herb garden. Beyond that, the two-story building that ended at the east city wall was the woman-building. It smelled quite safe; the dogs had never been allowed across the threshold. They were also excluded from the courtyard behind and downhill from that, where the people-pelts were soaked, wrung and hung to dry. Such a lot of work the poor humans had to do, all because they could not lick themselves!
The eastern edge of the well-courtyard was the inside of the city wall. Tabita had been on the outside of it once; she knew exactly where this place was, because the wall stepped inward fifty paces or so as it ran down the slope from the Sacromonte to the Darro river, and the inside of that step provided a narrow L-shaped garden around two sides of Eva’s new lair. The third side, uphill and adjacent to the stable-building with its store-room topped by the dove-cote, was where Elias lived in a smaller patio with his cranky camel.
Closing the main court on the uphill side were two storage buildings. Between them was an alley, and at the end of it the stable-yard. This was the curs’ primary domain: it reeked of their foul unburied scat and urine. Of course it also smelled strongly of horse and mule. The open space was larger than any of the other courts. On the most-uphill, farthest side, it was lined with open-fronted stalls, while the nicer, closed-fronted stalls ran down the sunrise side. At the nearest end was the little room she had followed Elias into, full of barrels and bags of fodder. And above that was the dovecote.
Between that end of the stable-building and the wall of the feed-storage was a tall, stout gate. Tabita’s unerring sense of direction told her that this led to Elias’ courtyard, the space he shared with a cranky old camel.
The street side had a two-story building identical to the women-only place. It was definitely the men’s lair; they had marked all the walls with their urine. And between that and the central court, completing the circuit to the street gate, was the big eating-room. Tabita liked to hunt this kind of building, because they always had a cooking-place at one end; and mice could also be found on the patios outside, getting crumbs from around the beehive-shaped ovens.
Once, when Eva was scrubbing the floor of the kitchen, Elias had urged Tabita to go through the ash-pipe to attract her attention. But Eva had only laughed at Tabita, thinking she was playing a game, and kept on scrubbing.
Tabita went back and tried to tell Elias that he could use his words, because Eva was alone. But she had no way to express it that he could understand.
Tabita could see that Elias was keeping his presence very secret, but she did not know why. If Spots had been the dominant lion, he was now gone. Eva was energetically removing any trace of his scent from the lair. She covered it over on the walls, and with many applications of water she vigorously scrubbed it from the floors. Not even the mat where Spots once slept was left unmolested: the straw marked with his spoor was dumped with the rest of the stall-sweepings.
It was plain that Eva had become top lioness. The people were her servants, just like they had all been at Casa de Pazia. They ran back and forth at her bidding, doing the perplexing busy-work that occupied the human day. That was what happened when people got around Eva. She never hissed, or threatened, or did anything Tabita recognized as a dominance behavior, but she always came out on top. And if there was any doubt, her status in this new place was confirmed when all the other females participated in a ritual of bathing and grooming Eva in the hammam. Definitely dominant, and she, Tabita was the nearest pride-mate.
On the afternoon of the fourth day—cathedral-day, by the extra bells—Eva finally had her new lair arranged to suit her. She relaxed in her favorite way, by twanging the strings on a wooden box and miaowing plaintively. That was why she did not hear the mule train arrive in the main courtyard.
Spots was back. People scattered before his scowling face, hastening to do his bidding. Tabita saw him come in the entry, very quietly, and stand staring around the room. Eva was so lost in her music that she noticed nothing.
Then he opened the front door again, and instead of going out, shut it a second time with more force than necessary.
Casa Cerra: Sunday afternoon, September 4, 1513
The entry door shut with a bang, and Eva jumped up to find herself facing the majordomo. One glance at his unsmiling visage replaced the mental construct of ‘Baseel’ with ‘Alcazar’.
Eva’s stomach dropped to her toes. Suddenly the overhaul of his private space did not seem like such a divinely inspired idea—especially helping herself to his treasured instrument. “For-forgive me!” She held the guitarra in front of her like a shield.
“I see that like Pandora, you could not resist opening the box.” He walked over to the chest and sat. “But your nosiness must not go undisciplined.”
Eva’s stomach heaved. Tonight—
He softened the statement with a ghost of a smile. “Your punishment will be to entertain me. Sing that piece I just interrupted, from the beginning.”
Dismay filled Eva. Psalm 82 was the last thing she would have chosen to sing under these circumstances! But she sat down in the window-seat again, ducked her head and prayed for courage. She picked through the opening bars, and to her surprise, her voice came out almost normal.
“God stands in the midst of the mighty,
the small gods are weighed on his scale:
‘How long will you judge so unrightly?
How long will the wicked prevail?’
The poor and fatherless defend,
The needy and afflicted tend,
From wicked hands deliv’rance send!”
She ventured quick glance to see if the majordomo was taking this as a musical reprimand. He was leaning against the wall on the cushioned bench, legs stretched out, eyes closed.
Eva sang the refrain.
“They do not know him;
they will not understand.
They walk in darkness,
though the Lord shakes the land.”
Alcazar remained motionless. Eva hoped he was going to sleep. He must have ridden all day, to have gotten back from Malaga so soon. Maybe he was too tired to want her tonight. She softened the music until it was almost a lullaby.
“The Lord says: ‘You all are made god-like,
as children of God the most High.
But no mortal soul avoids death’s strike,
The mightiest princes still die!’
Arise, oh God, to us descend,
come judge the earth, our evil mend,
Yours are the nations in the end.”
The last chord faded away. The fearsome majordomo appeared to have fallen asleep. In repose, it was easier to see Alcazar as Baseel, the young slave who poured hot tea on himself so an unknown child beneath a table could get away. Eva took the opportunity to study him.
When she unfocused a little, the light-and-dark pattern of his facial scars ran together in a uniform blur and the features were easier to see. His hawk-nose bespoke Arab ancestry, while the dark skin tone was all African. His hair, more curly than crimped, was sweat-damp and pressed tight in a circle corresponding to a felt helmet-liner; the remainder was severely clubbed back and tied off, except for a single escaped curl that straggled down beside his right ear into the close-trimmed beard. His chin was pressed into the same stained gambeson he had worn last time. Eva sniffed. That could certainly use a wash. He must have just removed a cuirass.
Her eyes paused at the bottom edge of the gambeson, at the codpiece of his plain breeches. Eva’s peace deserted her; she slid her gaze quickly past and fixed them on his knee-high boots, still covered with the dust of the road.
“Jesu,” she prayed silently, “You said that if anyone lacked wisdom, she should ask and you would give it. Please tell me, what do I do now?”
Her eyes went to Tabita, sitting under the table. Would Jesu once again answer her through her cat?
Tabita rolled onto her side and began licking her hind paw, taking a great deal of trouble over it. At the same time, a thought popped into Eva’s head, complete and urgent: Wash his feet.
She shook herself. She was going loco, hearing voices. Although a thought wasn’t exactly a voice. Tabita finished with the left hind and started on the right.
“Jesu, if that was you, I can’t do that! He has boots on.” Eva didn’t know if this silent conversation counted as prayer. “And besides, he might think I was inviting him to—to—”
Wash his feet. The thought recurred, definite and compelling.
Taking a deep breath, Eva knelt before Alcazar, grasped the right boot in both hands, and tugged it off.
He sat up, surprised awake. “What are you doing?”
She dropped her eyes blushing furiously. “I thought you’d be more comfortable in slippers.”
He grunted. “Just go easy on the inside.”
Eva got the boot off and saw that the woolen stocking was stuck to Baseel’s big toe. Carefully peeling it away, she saw the surrounding cuticle was inflamed.
“You have a badly ingrown toenail! Surely this is painful?”
He shrugged. “Mostly I ignore it. Every time I cut it out, it just grows back.”
“But look at this—Suor Lucia would call it proud flesh. If you do not tend it, the bad humors will go up your leg.”
“Galen’s theory of four humors is so much rot,” Baseel retorted. “I have the original Arabic treatises of Ibn Sina—your doctors know him as Avicenna—and he is the best medical authority there is.”
“I don’t know Galen or Ibn Sina, but I know what to do for an ingrown toenail.” Eva went to the entry and brought the towel, pitcher, and slop-basin, setting them down.
She washed both his feet, letting her fingers trace the backwards E below the inside left ankle. She hoped Alcazar was not one of those men who could face an army of cold steel but became like children at the removal of a splinter. “I’ll need your eating knife, if it’s sharp.”
He gave it to her, handle first. “You’re not planning murder, are you?”
“No, but it will hurt. Try not to move.”
He remained rock-still while she dug the overgrown nail from the swollen flesh and cut away the dead matter. “Now let it drain into the basin for a minute, I’ll get something to help it heal.”
Eva ran to the women’s dormitorio and begged some wine, rosemary oil, and a small roll of bandaging linen from Matron.
She returned to find the majordomo still in place. He had picked up the guitarra and was trying the chords from her song.
She washed the foot, dried it, and treated the toe with wine and oil, Suor Lucia’s unfailing recipe. “It was-e good for the Zamaritan, it will-e do for us,” she used to say. Eva smiled at the memory as she bandaged a tiny pad of linen beneath the nail to keep it from growing back into the inflamed area. “Isn’t that better?”
“Yes.” He set the instrument down. “And now I have to ask—whatever happened to this place?”
“I didn’t let anybody in.” She hoped he wouldn’t think that she hadn’t respected his privacy. “Except—well, I had help with the carpets.”
“Mustapha, of course.” Baseel spoke with a gruff fondness. “Tell me, was he the one who opened the chest?”
Eva did not want to place the blame. “You’re not angry?”
“Just so long as you don’t tell the staff that what I keep in there are books, not skeletons.” Baseel got up and looked through the bedroom drape. “And you did everything else by yourself?”
“Oh, no, not even a fifth part, I only did what couldn’t be taken outside, the whitewash and the floors. The women did the laundering and sewing and mending, and you already know Mustapha did the carpets, and the stable hands polished everything and Enrique weeded and stuffed.” Eva dropped her eyes. “Everybody assumed I was working on your orders, so they all pitched in. But I never actually said you had ordered anything.”
“We’ll let them think that I did. Better for discipline.” The majordomo looked around, puzzled. “Where did all these furnishings come from?”
“You said I could use whatever was in the storeroom.”
“All this was in the storeroom?” Baseel opened the door and inspected room in question, now almost empty except for Eva’s hay-filled pallet on the most-mended carpet next to her humble box of clothing.
Eva hurried to explain. “The things were neglected and dirty and needed mending, but we made do. Those spangles on the cushions cover moth-holes. The metal implements were dented and tarnished, but the stable-hands put them right. Jose’s son came to mend the table and polish the woodwork and he turned the packing crates into these little stands.”
“I stand in awe of your powers of persuasion.”
Eva was not at all sure what he meant by that. “Do you like it?”
He flashed her a smile that transformed his face. “Very much.”
Eva felt her heart skip a beat. He liked it! All the work over the last four days came together into a feeling of euphoria so strong that, quite paradoxically, she felt tears starting behind her eyes.
He returned to the table and sat. “Now as to your brother, or I should say, the scribe, Baltasar Cerra and I have discussed at some length what will present him in the best possible light. What we need is a résumé, a document in his own hand, which sets forth every skill he has mastered. Most important, of course, will be samples of his writing in Latin, Greek, and Arabic.”
“My brother can read and write Hebrew, too,” Eva said proudly. “He was translating a new work on Proverbs for the holy fathers.”
Baseel nodded in approval. “There are many Jews who have fled Spain and are influential men under Sultan Selim, who welcomes their talents. That definitely adds to his worth. And persuade him to mention how grateful he is to be saved from the Inquisition. Even though he will be a slave, his greatest value lies in his willingness to serve.”
It was like a bucket of ice-water had been thrown in Eva’s face. Somehow, once she had decided on her course of action, she had completely put out of her mind that Casa Cerra had enslaved her brother.
Alcazar read her change in mood. “You will also have much to gain from your brother’s submission. In return for full cooperation, before he is on his way to his new owner he will see you free and your future provided for. And in the meantime, I will not force you in any way.”
Eva’s heart swelled with hope. Perhaps—perhaps she could stay here in Granada, and work with Suor Lucia and the Little sisters of Mercy in their hospital! But then she remembered her decision. “Elias must not be a slave. He is called to serve God.”
“Do not be put off by a word. Eva de Pazia, look at me.” Baseel waited until she lifted her gaze, and he met and held it. “We are all slaves to something, and all have a work laid out before them. What matters is not the name, but the value placed on us by the master we serve. And he can still serve God as a slave. Weren’t many of your early church fathers slaves?”
“I don’t know.” Eva dropped her eyes. “I’m not educated, like Elias.”
Baseel picked up a pewter vase and examined the mended handle. He spoke a little slowly, reminiscing. “I once knew a man who was born and died a slave. And yet he understood that his whole purpose in life was to be God’s slave. In fact, his name was Abdullah, which in Arabic, means ‘slave of God’. In serving his master well, he served his divine master.”
He put the vase down, and his tone changed, became somehow sardonic. “Think of the number of heathens your brother could reach as an influential scribe in an Ottoman household. Who is to say that this was not God’s intention from the beginning?”
Was that true? Eva remembered her vision, all the people and the little rabbit-camels. But against that was her terrible mistake, and all the destruction that had resulted.
She shook her head. “If God is calling Elias to this, then Elias will hear from God, not from me.”
“You don’t think that God could speak through you?”
“No. I’m not learned. Everything I have done, I ruin,” Eva said miserably. “I don’t trust myself to make the right decision.”
“Others trust you. You seem to have impressed all my staff—in under a week.”
“It’s because they think I’m somebody I’m not.” Eva hung her head. “They don’t know the evil I have done.”
“Nothing you might possibly have done can compare to real evil,” the majordomo scoffed. “For that, you need people in authority—especially spiritual authority. Last week’s auto-da-fé, for example—there’s real evil.”
“Yes, that was real evil, and I participated in it!” Eva cried out, pierced through with guilt. “I was the one who turned my father in to the Inquisition.”
Alcazar was speechless at this admission, and suddenly Eva could not bear that he should think she had wanted Iago de Pazia burned alive. “I thought the Inquisition would take all his wealth and status. I didn’t know they would torture and burn him!”
The majordomo spoke in exasperation. “So you are taking on your shoulders the responsibility for Abbe Matias, the Inquisition’s need of money, the whole rotten mechanism of the Catholic church? Don’t you think they are the ones who will answer to God?”
“I only know that I will have to answer for what happened to my Father. Jesu says that if you want something in your heart, it’s the same as if you did it. I hated my father, and I wanted the Inquisition to ruin him.” Eva hid her face in her hands and burst into tears. Between sobs she gasped out the rest of her guilt. “Bishop Rojas said—sniff—the Inquisition would correct the sinner—sniff—and turn him to true belief. —sniff— But they wouldn’t let him repent. —sniff— And now he’s in hell, and it’s my fault!”
“Compose yourself and blow your nose.” Baseel pulled the linen scarf off the nearest small table and gave it to her for the purpose. “The God of the universe does not allow corrupt men like Abbe Matias to decide the destiny of the souls he created. If Iago de Pazia truly repented, then Allah, the merciful, the just, has already taken it into account. And now if you don’t mind, I’m going to get out of this gambeson.” He retreated through the curtain into his room.
Eva mopped her face, her sobs subsiding at this novel thought. Could a Saracen’s theology be sounder than a Bishop’s?
Yes, the little voice inside her replied. Bishop Rojas was no Talavera.
Eva got out the delicacies that Jose the cook had supplied and arranged a plate with a cold mutton pasty and a carrot-raisin pudding.
Alcazar reappeared, wearing a Moorish djellaba that reached his ankles. Eva noted that no outline of breeches or codpiece showed against the soft cotton folds of the robe. Her stomach clenched at what Elias’ refusal to cooperate would mean for herself.
He sat at the table and held out his hands for Eva to pour water over, then ate in silence. She served him, thinking it over. All right, granted that she had no say in the eternal destiny of her father’s soul. That still did not absolve her of the responsibility for the rest: the horror of his last moments on earth, all the servants at Casa de Pazia who had lost their livelihood, and worst of all, the predicament Elias was now in.
Finished with his meal, Baseel bowed his head and said, “Omein.” Then he turned to Eva. “You look like you have been thinking. Well?”
Eva took a deep breath. “If what you say is the whole truth, then Elias will take what you offer. He’s brilliant, and he will know what is right to do. But I’m too ignorant and dumb to understand all the consequences. Elias would have taken care of the Conte, except I had to go tattle on Father.” Eva’s knees went weak. She sank to the chair, hands clasped together, swallowing hard. “Whatever you do to me, it would be no more than I deserve.”
The Majordomo slammed his fist onto the table. “So you would cast me in the role of the brutal antagonist! What—don’t you feel any responsibility for my soul?”
Eva gaped. Had he somehow overheard Blanca’s fairy-tale?
Alcazar rose abruptly. “Before we go any further, we shall see what the scribe has to say about that.”
The majordomo passed through the curtain to the entry and opened the front door. “Lope!”
“Majordomo?” From the quickness of the response, Lope must have been on duty in the little guardroom just outside.
“Bring the current occupant of the camel court up to Cerra’s office. The usual security measures.” He held open the curtain for Eva. “You wanted to see your brother?”
15. the Awful Alcazar
Casa Cerra: Thursday, September 1, 1513
Eva started by arranging the things neatly. First, she had to remove the carpets piled over and under the rest of the bric-a-brac. Eva hauled the largest out to the salon, where there was more floor space. She spread the rug flat over the one already on the floor, grateful that the main room was so sparsely furnished.
She got on her knees and rolled the carpet toward the far wall, sneezing at the dust that puffed from its woolen fibers. At the last turn her nose bumped into the huge chest that squatted against the wall. Eva straightened and looked at it more closely. It was made of dark wood, almost black, wrapped around with iron bands. Double latches, one at each band junction, warned her against any prying. It had a malevolent air about it.
Eva stood and looked around. The room was large, but Alcazar had not bothered to furnish it with much. There was a bench, one chair and a small table. Stacked in the corner were two round leather poufs of the sort they called ottomans. The majordomo clearly did not expect to entertain guests in his quarters.
There was a window seat with a moth-eaten cushion. Eva opened the shutters to see a narrow enclosed space between the building and another wall, so high that Eva supposed it must be the city rampart. What was once an intimate little garden was full of dry weeds and a few tenacious bushes. Further down the same wall was another window—that must open onto the bedchamber.
She went back into the store-room to drag out the next carpet. Beneath it was a nest of mice, two of which Tabita got while the others escaped—for the minute. They had chewed a hole the size of her hand in the carpet. Eva took it by the corner and hauled it to the salon for rolling.
Eva moved bales of fabrics, shaking them out, folding and stacking according to the amount of damage. A round table with one leg broken had been upended against the back wall. Eva shoved it off a crumpled carpet and saw that the top was beautifully inlaid with mother-of-pearl marquetry. When she dragged the carpet away, she found four matching chairs.
“Miaow.” Tabita pawed her skirt. The cat rose on her hind legs to present her with Eva’s share of the hunt: the bottom half of a mouse.
“Why thank you, Tabita!” Eva accepted the gruesome gift with enthusiasm. “I’ll just take this to the kitchen for cooking.”
The kitchen was the little room off the entry where she had found Tabita last night. There was nothing in it except a counter along one wall with a hearth built into it. Beneath that was the hole Tabita had emerged from, and next to it a long-handled hoe for shoving ash down the pipe. Eva used it to shove the half-eaten mouse.
On the way back through the entry, she noticed the stairs that ran up to the office for Casa Cerra. Beneath them was a small door. Eva opened it and saw that it contained a commode and covered pot. She sniffed. Men! They splattered. Why, oh why, couldn’t they just sit?
A wave of memory hit her: Iago de Pazia, chasing her into the guarderobe next to her bedchamber. She hated him! And then another, fresh as yesterday: the crackle of flames and her father’s screams.
No! Eva hurried back to her task, stacking the packing crates, rolling carpets, arranging dusty bric-a-brac into piles to be cleaned or thrown out. After two hours, Eva was breathing hard and coughing at the dust, but the room was beginning to take on some form of order.
There was a knock at the door. Eva went to open it, and found Jose the cook.
“The majordomo has left with the caravan. So I brought you a good breakfast. Where shall I put it?”
“I’ll take it. Alcazar forbade me to let anyone in his rooms.” Eva reached for the tray, realized her hands were filthy, and tried to wipe them on her apron. “I’m sorry I’m so dirty, I was cleaning.”
Jose put the tray on the bottom step. “To give you work, today of all days! Alcazar is a foul beast.”
His sympathy brought fresh tears to Eva’s eyes. “It’s all right—I don’t mind having work to do. It keeps me from thinking about it.”
He examined her with solicitous concern. “Is there any way I can help?”
Jose seemed so eager to be useful that Eva had an inspiration. “Wait.” She ran into the salon where the round marquetry table was propped on its side against a wall. With a little difficulty she was able to roll it through the entry-drape to the door. “Can you find somebody to fix this table leg?”
“I will call my son, who is a carpenter in the woodworker’s street. And while he is here, he can tend to anything wood that needs polishing and refinishing. Shelves, stools, chests?” Jose peered around her, trying to see through the crack in the entry drape.
Of course, the chest. Everyone wanted a look at it. Eva thought of Alcazar’s warning: “—you will tell the staff nothing—absolutely nothing—of what does or does not happen behind this curtain. Is that clear?”
Eva thanked Jose and saw him out. If the ominous chest should need work, Alcazar must arrange for it himself.
She ventured into the bedroom and was at once assaulted by the scent of mold, coming from the large mattress on the bed. Goodness, they must have stuffed it when the hay was not completely dry! And the cushions on the window-seat, too!
There were hardly any furnishings in the bedroom either. There was a clothing chest, still left half-open, one sleeve of a doublet hanging out. Eva tucked it away, noticing that the majordomo’s clothing was plain but of good quality. Next to the large four-poster bed stood an austere little table with a lamp and books on it. Eva picked one up.
It was poetry, written right-to-left like Arabic on battered parchment that had plainly been rubbed out and re-used. Eva wondered if this was the same handmade copy that Cerra had found his new purchase reading, back when Baseel was only a goat-boy.
She put it back, feeling a little ashamed, like she had seen him naked when he did not know there was anyone watching. She picked up another book, this one in Spanish, but it was hard to read. And no wonder; the light from the window was lost in the dimness of a ceiling stained dark from candle-soot. It would be much easier to read, day or night, if the room were properly whitewashed.
She took another turn around the apartment, storeroom to salon to kitchen to entry. The whole place needed a whitewash. At Casa de Pazia, Eva saw that every room was painted once a year. This place looked like it hadn’t been done for a decade. Whitewash was a messy job, one that would keep her mind too occupied to think about yesterday. Besides, if she was exhausted then tonight there would be no nightmares.
As she stood, the scent of fresh bread made her suddenly ravenous. She washed her hands in the basin, sat on the stairs next to Jose’s tray and lifted the lid to find a new loaf, a hard-boiled egg and a small pot of crushed olive tapenade. Eva ate, planning the familiar task.
Rain or even dew would be very unusual at this time of year, so a day or two outside would do the apartment contents no harm. The furniture could go out to the central court to be polished and sanded. The rugs, too must be beaten outside. The drapes had to be taken down, or they would get splattered—they should be washed, if Matron wouldn’t mind running the laundry cauldrons another day.
No sooner had Eva stepped into the central courtyard than Mario Hussein came hurrying over. “Eva, are you all right?”
Her face must still be puffy from last night’s weeping. “I am fine.”
“Well, you have time to recover, now. The pack string left this morning for Malaga. The majordomo won’t be back until Monday at the earliest.”
Eva heaved a sigh of relief. Five days, at the least, would give her enough time. “Mario Hussein, do you know where the supplies of whitewash are?”
“He has set you to that?!” Mario Hussein gave Eva no time to explain that the idea was her own. “Painting walls is not a task for a gently-raised girl. I will send two of my stable boys to do it.”
“I have to do it myself. The majordomo doesn’t want anyone in his apartment,” Eva explained again. “Just have them mix the whitewash and bring it to the door. But there are carpets I can drag as far as the entry. Could your boys hang them and beat out the dirt?”
“Ah, carpets! For that we will need old Mustapha. He is our expert rug restorer.” Mario Hussein turned and called to a youth. “Paco! Bring the carpet washing frames to the hammam, they are kept in the last stall on the right.”
“Oh no, that is too much,” Eva protested. “I know Alcazar didn’t expect—”
“We will surprise him.” Mario Hussein winked at her. “If he is pleased, he will go easier on you. Do not worry, Mustapha will start at once, and with this hot weather they will be dry before the majordomo returns.”
“Thank you.” And Eva also thanked Jesu, who must be working on all these people, that they should show her such surprising favor. “Where can I find cleaning things?”
“Matron will know. I am sure she will help, too.”
Eva crossed the court to the women’s dormitorio.
“Oh, cariña, I am so sorry!” Matron enveloped her in a motherly hug. “I would have spared you, if I could. But Cerra’s orders must be obeyed. Was it so very bad for you?”
Eva thought about the flames, the smell of roasting flesh. “It was the most horrible experience I have ever endured.”
“It is always bad, the first time. But after that, it gets better.”
Eva did not want to think about any future autos-da-fé. “Matron, I need cleaning things, a broom, buckets. And I will need the wash-cauldrons heated. There is so much to be laundered, the mattress and cushion covers, the drapes—it will use up all the drying-lines.”
“What a monster that man is, giving you all that work after putting you through a night like that! Wait here.” Matron bustled off.
Eva was puzzled. The auto-da-fé was yesterday afternoon, not at night. Less than a minute later, Matron was back with Analina.
“Now that Aliya-Noor is off to her new husband, we have more time,” Analina said. “Do not fret, we will help you. If Alcazar is happy, we are all better off.”
Soon the laundry cauldrons were bubbling. Matron had everyone from the women’s dormitorio running back and forth as Eva handed out whatever could be washed: cushion-covers, mattress ticking, unbaled fabrics from the store room, and last, after she had tacked canvas up as a temporary screen, the heavy drapes from the entry doorway.
Jose’s son appeared with an apprentice, and Eva brought the furniture into the courtyard to be mended, pumiced or polished according to need.
Mario Hussein’s stable-boys brought smoking buckets of whitewash and bore the carpets off. Soon the rhythmic ‘thwock’ of rug beaters echoed from behind the hammam.
The apartment was almost empty. Eva took up the long-handled whitewash brush and began with the salon. Even though she was used to helping at Casa de Pazia, this task made all her muscles scream with protest. She gritted her teeth and leaned into the effort as a penance. It kept her thoughts of yesterday at bay.
She kept the windows open to air the acrid fumes. Outside, in the narrow strip of garden, Enrique the kitchen boy was cutting weeds.
Eva finished her bucket of whitewash. She set it on the window-seat. “Enrique,” she called. “Could you take this to Mario Hussein and tell him I need more mixed?”
The boy paused, hand on the handle. “Señorita Eva, I wish to tell you a thing.”
Eva stretched her tired arms. “You don’t need to call me señorita, Enrique. I’m just a slave.”
“You are a good woman. Me, I am a thief. But I steal no more!” Enrique looked at her earnestly. “I get caught.”
Eva remembered the screams from the courtyard that first day. “Are you the kitchen boy who was whipped?”
He nodded. “I want for you to know something about Alcazar, so you do not be so afraid. The majordomo, when he first take over three weeks ago, he check the spices and find out I steal them. He ask, would I rather be whipped, or thrown back to the streets. The old majordomo, he would not have asked.”
“And you chose the whipping.” Eva’s perception of Baseel changed. That was a kindness, although it still did not absolve him of the severity of the beatings, or that he took pleasure in laying it on with his own hand.
“Yes. The majordomo, he tell me, very secret, that the louder I yell, the lighter he hit. So I scream very loud, and he crack the whip—an expert he is, with that whip.” Enrique shook his head in admiration. “It make much noise, but only sting a little. It was for example to all, you see.”
“Yes, I see. Thank you, Enrique.”
“You will not tell?” Enrique looked at her anxiously. “This is very secret. I break a promise for you.”
Eva reassured him, and then went back to work with all her strength, keeping the horror of the auto-da-fé at bay with activity. Her urgency infected everyone, and they weeded and washed and fetched and carried for her, anything that they could do without actually entering the majordomo’s quarters.
Evening saw every room in the apartment coated with drying whitewash. “You must sleep in the garden, tonight. To breathe the fumes will unbalance your humors,” Matron declared. She waved a lumpy apparition past the door.
“I stuffed this mattress with grass hay,” Enrique’s voice issued from under the lump. “No stiff straws will poke you tonight.”
“The ticking is clean, so I brought this manta to put under it.” Analina snapped a canvas square onto the now-bare strip of garden.
Enrique flung down the mattress. “It is extra fluffy, like sleeping on a cloud. Here, señorita Eva, you must try it!”
Eva stretched out willingly. She meant to thank them. But the next thing she knew, Tabita was kneading her chest, and it was dawn.
Eva knelt in prayer. Again she confessed her guilt, and again she heard the gentle voice: Be clean.
She splashed water on her face at the center well and went into the quarters. Early light, bouncing off the pristine walls and ceilings, illuminated the years of grime that had built up on the floor tiles.
All Friday Eva scraped and scrubbed. Her efforts revealed tile mosaics. Even the memory of the burnings could not damp her pleasure in the traditional zellige patterns.
In between buckets of scrub-solution, she gave an appreciative ear to Jose the cook’s garrulous carpenter son where he worked in the courtyard. He showed her the secrets of delicate marquetry work, then expanded on how best to sand and oil the plainer pieces. Her admiration inspired him to new heights; by afternoon, he was converting the empty packing-boxes into tables and stands.
Throughout the day, the piles outside the door grew: laundered sheets, cushion-ticks, and bolts of fabric. Analina and Josemona did wonders patching the moth-eaten fabric from the storeroom with spangles and designs, stitching them into cushion-covers and tablecloths.
The stable-boys, not to be outdone by all the busy stitchery of the women’s dormitorio, took on the discarded metal pieces from the storeroom trove. They heated a forge and soldered split seams, repaired handles and reattached broken legs. Hammered copper and ornamented brass vessels had dents smoothed, then they were polished with sand until the pitchers, lampstands, braziers, trays and water-vessels sparkled. There were basin-and-ewer sets for her room and the big bedroom, and one in the entry, too.
Eva admired each effort and creation when she hauled the buckets out to exchange dirty water. Jose the cook set up boards and trestles in the central court and provided simple, hearty fare for everyone. He set aside special morsels for Eva, and stood over her insisting she try them.
Just before night fell, she finished the last of the floors. Eva dragged her newly-filled mattress back into her little room and collapsed onto it without even taking the time to undress.
She slept so soundly that the sun was well up before she opened her eyes. Saturday! There was still so much to do!
The heavy drapes were dry at last. Standing on a chair, Eva re-hung them in the entry arch and the bedroom doorway. It took all her strength to lift each end of the rod and drop it into the bracket.
Enrique proved to be an exemplary mattress and cushion-stuffer, making sure that the hay was completely dry and carefully removing every cocklebur, filling cushions to plump softness but packing the leather poufs tight as a drum. The canvas manta beside the door was piled high with his efforts, waiting along with the shining furniture for the carpets to be laid.
After dinner that night, Old Mustapha took her behind the hammam to see what had been done. Three large carpets and eight smaller ones lay on drying racks. In the sunset light, the colors were so jewel-bright that Eva refused to believe these were the same rejected rolls she had sent off with the stable-hands. Mustapha grinned widely and showed her the places where he had patched the mouse-chewed holes.
Matron put her head out the back door of the hammam. “Mustapha, we will need more wood on the boiler; the women have used all the hot water and there must be some for Evita!”
Mustapha nodded and led Eva into the hammam. There she found the women of Casa Cerra in various states of undress.
Josemona followed her shocked gaze toward the old man shuffling off to the boiler-room. “Oh, Mustapha? You needn’t worry about him—he’s a eunuch, didn’t you know?”
“Come on, Eva, after all the cleaning you need a cleaning!” Analina urged.
“Yes, you have worked the hardest. We have arranged a massage, too!”
She was too tired to protest. Who cared if they saw her toe? Eva let them undress her, chattering like magpies: Usually we women bathe Friday, but the hammam pool was full of carpet frames and boys scrubbing—here, pour another pitcher on her hair, these bits of dried whitewash are so stubborn—but don’t worry, Evita, we don’t mind the extra work—move over, Analina, I have to get her back—now at least all the hardest tasks are done—Get the dirt under her nails, here’s a shaped stick—even Alcazar, the brute, will have to be pleased when he gets back—oh, these cracked fingers, we must rub in lotions—
They had even brought her fresh clothing. Eva blessed their thoughtfulness as she tied the waist-string of the clean braies. She picked up the chemise when Matron stopped her.
“No, not yet the chemise—even the braies are not needed, but we know you are body-shy. Come lie here, face down. Always, Mustapha starts with the knots in the shoulders.”
They pushed her onto a cushioned bench. Eva felt the gnarled hands on her upper back. A distant part of her mind wondered how it could be so relaxing to have a stranger handling her in this unclothed state.
But it felt wonderful. It was hard to believe that one so old and stringy could have such strength. Mustapha rolled and pushed and pulled every joint and muscle until Eva felt like jelly.
She did not remember falling asleep.
She woke to the distant sound of cathedral bells. Eva was still lying, face-down, on the massage bench; someone had thrown a light cover over her. She sat up, still counting. Ten strokes—later even than yesterday! Thank Jesu that Alcazar was not here to see how lazy she had become!
Eva dressed and made her way out the back door to check if the carpets had finished drying. The frames were gone.
Mustapha must be waiting for her to take them into the apartment! Eva ran across the center court, deserted except for a lone guard at the gate.
“Good morning, Juan Omar. Where is everybody?”
“A very good morning, señorita Eva. They are all gone to church. After Wednesday, it was thought advisable to make a good show.”
Eva looked toward the canvas-covered stacks just outside the majordomo’s door; they were unchanged from yesterday. “Where are the carpets?”
“I helped Mustapha take them into the entry. I thought you must have asked him to.”
Eva found the old man unrolling a carpet in the bedroom. “Mustapha, thank you for your help, but you must leave. Alcazar told me no one was to know—”
He looked at her and shook his head, smiling. With his hand, he sketched a small child, and then grew him to adult size.
“You mean—you’ve known the majordomo since he was small?”
He nodded, put his finger to his lips, and winked.
What could he mean?
They rolled the most worn carpet out in Eva’s small room. Last was the largest carpet, the one that had come from the salon. Working each on a side, they unrolled rapidly towards the wall. The last several inches lapped against the great chest.
Mustapha motioned that she was to lift one side of it while he lifted the other, so the carpet edge would lie flat.
Eva picked up her corner. This thing was heavy! Her tired muscles shook, and the handle slipped from her grasp, yanking the old man’s grip loose as well. As the chest thumped onto the carpet, a strange, deep moan issued from it.
Eva started back in horror. Could Alcazar really have something living locked in that box?
Mustapha saw her reaction. He undid the two latches and raised the lid. Inside, stacked two layers deep, were books! And tucked along one side, in a specially-built compartment, was a long cloth-wrapped bundle whose shape was familiar.
Mustapha tapped the bulbous bottom gently. It emitted a little moan—the reverberation of strings and wood.
Eva should have recognized the noise the first time. “A guitarra!” That was what Mario Hussein had been so worried about?
Mustapha nodded, grinning.
“So there never was a woman in the chest. Why would he want the staff to think so?”
Mustapha raised one eyebrow.
“But Mustapha, he’s wrong! It isn’t fear that makes people work for you, it’s love.”
Mustapha nodded his agreement. He put his hands together and fluttered like wings, first on his right shoulder, and then on his left. He waited to see if she understood.
“A good angel sat on the right shoulder, and a bad one on the left?” Eva knew that Saracen belief.
He looked very grim, then touched both fists to his heart and pulled them apart.
“You mean—there’s a battle for his conscience.”
Satisfied that she understood, he held a finger to his lips. Don’t tell him what I told you.
Eva thought of Enrique’s secret. “The louder you yell, the lighter I strike.” And Alcazar’s stern warning: “—you will tell the staff nothing—absolutely nothing—of what does or does not happen behind these doors.”
After Mustapha had helped her move the larger items inside, Eva set herself to decorate in the most pleasing way possible. Cushions, wall-hangings, lamps, wash-stands and ottomans were pushed from here to there until Eva was satisfied with the effect.
This place was lovely. The polished wood and metal reflected the purity of the walls and the bright patterns of the rugs. The acrid scent of whitewash had faded to a background with the clean new hay and dried-lavender smell of the cushions, tinged with lemon-oil and beeswax.
It was done, and she had a day to spare. Maybe several.
The staff insisted that Eva share their after-siesta meal in the big hall off the compound kitchen. It was the first time she had been there, and they treated her like the guest of honor. This was so much better than a banquet, nobody dressed up and everybody friendly and laughing over the simple fare with the camaraderie that came from shared labor.
Eva loved them all, but she deflected their praise. They were so kind to her, while she was a fraud. If they really knew her sordid history, they would shun her completely.
Jose the cook sent her back with a hamper of wine and non-perishable food to have ready to hand. Eva arranged them in the little kitchen and on the sideboard in the salon. And then she sat with nothing else to do.
She must not think of the auto-da-fé. She must not think of Elias’ predicament. If she only had her guitarra, she would play.
Oh, how she missed music! The great chest drew her like a magnet. Really, what would it hurt? How would he ever know? None of the staff would tell, she was sure.
Eva took a deep breath and lifted out the bundle. She carefully unwrapped a plain, worn instrument. It was strung just like her own, although the neck was wider. But the wood was polished and cared for, and the fingerboard and the front beneath the sound-hole showed the wear of much use.
She stroked the strings and was surprised to find it was in tune. The majordomo must have used this very recently.
Eva sat down on the window seat with the instrument in her hands. Burdens and cares rolled away with the familiar chords. She lost herself in the ecstasy of music, unmindful of the passing time.
She began to sing, and the words became a prayer for Alcazar.
No. She might address her new master as majordomo, or Alcazar, or señor. But he had also been a young slave who helped a ten-year-old escape her father’s wrath.
The person she prayed for was named Baseel.