April- 1503 Castle Algarinjeo- Granada, Al-Andalus.
My childhood home of Castle Algarinjeo stands elevated on a plateau overlooking the city of Granada, it is so high up that on a hot day there is always a cool breeze. As a child I used to stand on the highest battlement and watch the winds whip the baked red earth into swirling towers of dust. To my innocent eyes I imagined that I could see pictures in the dust; the dark, kohl rimmed eyes of a Moor, the large diamonds and pearls of my mother's favourite necklet, the pockmarked face of Celio, my scampish playmate whose parents worked a small farm on the estate.
Today, I had come up here to hide from the formidable new duenna, Juana who my mother had foisted on me only a few days ago. I was not in the most gracious of moods, old Chaya, my half Moorish ninera who had been with me since I was a babe in arms had been taken from me and told to care for my infant brother, Ferdinand. Mama had told me to not be a silly girl and that I had no need for a nurse, I was almost eleven and should be thinking about becoming a lady and learning the wifely arts. I sighed hugely, put my grubby chin on the cold stone of the battlement and thought back to the last fight we had about Juana.
"But Mama, I don't want a duenna, Chaya can look after me better than anyone!" I had protested and stamped my little foot in anger. My mother did not look at all impressed and snapped shut her gilded Book of Hours to show her annoyance.
"Atalaya, you are not a child anymore and don't need a ninera. Chaya will be sent to the nursery to look after Ferdinand and Juana will be here in a few days to see to you and that is final," Mama had replied in her soft but steel tempered voice.
I knew that I was treading on very dangerous ground by being so openly defiant in front of my devout mother but I could not help but voice my displeasure. "Papa said I don't need a de cabra tonta who will only come here and fill my head with silly affectations; he said he already has enough women like that." I finished defiantly and put my grubby hands behind my back, hoping that my immaculate mother would not notice and berate me further.
It was a mistake; I should not have been so openly rude. The last thing I remember seeing before my mother's heavily ringed hand hit my mouth was her dark, feverish eyes glittering in anger. The resounding slap echoed throughout my mother's chamber, I put my hand to my face and felt warm blood coming from my burst lip, "I will not tolerate your disrespect girl, that little outburst has only proven to me your need for a governess. You will go to the chapel immediately and confess your sins to Padre Felip and do whatever penance he gives you. Now get out of my sight."
I had felt angry tears rush to my eyes; my mother had never struck me before. I fled from her chambers, seeking the strong arms of Chaya, she would soothe my choking sobs and find one of her Moorish remedies to heal my cut lip. At that moment I felt nothing but hatred towards Mama, I did not understand anything about her or really know who she was, to me she was a remote figure, the Marquessa de Algarinjeo, mistress of this castle and confidante of Queen Isabella, her childhood friend.
Chaya had wiped my leaking eyes and put a cold compress on my swollen lip. I curled up on her lap like a cat whilst she held me and recited the poems she had learned in her childhood.
"May The One who granted the imam Mohammed
With the beautiful ideas to decorate his mansions be blessed.
For, are there not in this garden wonders,
That God has made incomparable in their beauty and a sculpture of pearls with a transparently light,
The borders of which are trimmed with seed pearl?"
The hushed voice of my ninera spoke of the beauty and wonder of the Alhambra palace, I dearly wanted to go there to see the wonderful Moorish gardens for myself, but my mother had disallowed it and said that it was a place where heathens had lived and no good catholic would even set foot inside its sin stained walls. This had puzzled me because I knew for a fact that my mother and father had stayed at the Alhambra in attendance on the king and queen after the expulsion of the Emir. I wanted to ask that if no good catholic would set foot in the palace, why had Ferdinand and Isabella themselves resided there for so long? Did that make them sinners too? I had asked my father this and he had merely ruffled my hair and told me not to take anything my mother said too seriously, but still even he would not take me to the Alhambra.
Chaya tailed off and I turned around on her lap, "why did you stop ninera?" I asked pointedly wondering why my nurse was looking into the distance so sadly.
"I shouldn't be reciting these poems to you nina, your madre would not be happy."
I pouted, "I don't care what mama thinks, I like your Moorish poems, is that the one by Ibn Zamrak, about the lions on the fountain?"
My ninera smiled, the creases in her weathered face made her look even kindlier, "you have a quick mind nina, it has been years since I told you that one."
I had smiled smugly and cuddled even closer to Chaya inhaling her comforting scent which always seemed to smell like a mixture of spice and medicinal herbs. "I wish I was a Moor and lived at the Alhambra and had servants and always got to see the lions in the garden."
Chaya laughed, it was a warm, rich sound, "don't let your mother hear you say that nina."
"You once said I was your Moorish princess, why can't I be one? It's not fair!"
"Life is sometimes unfair nina, you are a Catholic lady of Spain, not a Moor, even if your hair is as dark as crows wing, your skin the colour of amber and your face as luminous as the full moon."
I giggled as I remembered the flowery description from one of the tales that Shahrazad had told her husband, the sultan Shahryar over one thousand and one nights to save the women of her city. Chaya had recounted them to me and I had my favourite characters, clever Morgiana from Ali Baba and beautiful Princess Badroulbadour from Aladdin. Above all I idolised Shahrazad for her bravery and cunning, I often played "Arabian nights" when I was alone which was often for I had no female playmates I wished to divulge this fascination with Moorish stories to. My idol had a sister, Dunyazad whilst I had none, but I dearly wished I had.
"Is it true what my mama said ninera?" I asked nervously, not wanting confirmation of this dreaded change in my life.
Chaya looked infinitely sad and suddenly I wondered how old she was, "it is true nina, your madre came to me this morning and told me I am to see to your brother in the nursery when your duenna arrives."
I found myself growing angry again, I did not want a duenna or anything else, I only wanted Chaya. Who else would love me or tell me such magical, forbidden stories of far –away lands where magic was real, jinnee's lived in lamps and horses flew through the air. "I love you ninera, maybe I should pray to Allah of your stories rather than the Virgin and the saints."
My ninera suddenly looked panicked, "hush Atalaya, and never let your madre or Padre Felip hear you say such things, you know it is dangerous, especially with the rumours of dark deeds against those who would defy the teachings of the Holy Church"
There was something odd in her voice that I could not comprehend but I was no fool, I knew my mother hated anything Moorish and her piety was such that I sometimes thought she should have taken the veil and wedded Christ instead of papa.
"I won't let them hear me say anything except for how much I love the stories of the bible, don't worry ninera, I would never do anything to get you in trouble."
Chaya held me close, "I'm going to miss you my little nina, be good for your duenna and even though I won't be with you all the time, you can still come and see me."
I felt tears running down my dirty cheeks, it seemed as if my happy life was being turned upside down in one day and it was all my horrible mother's fault, how I loathed her at that moment.
As I came out of my miserable daydream I thought about the day that Juana had arrived, she looked to be in her late forties, was dressed all in black like a crow and had a huge jewelled crucifix the colour of blood hanging round her neck. I disliked her immediately and did absolutely nothing to endear myself to her. Every lesson she spouted from her thin, withered mouth had an underlying religious theme; she constantly reminded me that I was to model myself on the example and sacrifice of the saints and that by simply being born female I was cursed with the sin and lust of Eve. I had received many slaps and punishments over the last fortnight simply because I could not keep my over-zealous temper and innate cheekiness in control. Mama had told me that I was to cease learning Latin and the classics from Padre Felip and that my education would now comprise of study into the saints lives, music, and embroidery.
This morning, the seething stalemate between me and Juana had come to a head. I had been lying fast asleep in my chamber when I had been rudely shaken awake by my maid, Catalina. I had complained and peeked through the velvet bed curtains and saw that it was still dark outside. My maid looked embarrassed and had muttered something about it being on the orders of Dona Juana. I had been dressed in an atrocious, itchy gown of sackcloth and then dragged down to the chapel where the evil duenna had been waiting for me with Fra Lazaro, the thin, ascetic Dominican friar who served as mama's personal chaplain. The chapel was dark, save for two candles burning on the high altar which flickered ominiously against the brightly painted statues of Christ and the Blessed Queen of Heaven. I had swallowed nervously, I hated going to the chapel and only attended Mass daily because Mama made me.
Juana had forced me to my knees on the cold, flagstones in front of the altar whilst Fra Lazaro started reading in Latin from the Book of Genesis, specifically the Fall of Eve in the Garden of Eden. My duenna had made me remain in the same position for over three hours and had said she would make me do this every time I disobeyed her as it was clear I had the mark of Satan upon me in my misbehaviour.
When she had finally let me go, the sun had risen high in the sky and I had missed the morning meal, my legs were aching and I had had trouble staggering back to my chamber. Whilst Catalina had dressed me for the day in stiff, black brocade I silently decided that I had had enough and so when she had finished with me I had stolen an apple from the kitchens and come up to hide on the battlements.
"Dona Atalaya,"called a thin voice, disturbing my miserable contemplations. It seemed as if I had been found, I turned round defiantly expecting to come face to face with the old crow but seeing only Celio's wide, grinning face instead, I breathed a sigh of relief.
"Celio, you burro! I thought it was Juana!" I gasped in exasperation.
My dirty playmate, hopped agile as a cat from the open trapdoor round the stone battlements finishing to perch next to me. "I am Juana, a Jinee came and granted me a wish and I said I wanted nothing more in all of Spain than to be transformed into your duenna, so he clapped his mighty hands, told me to close my eyes and here I am."
I rolled my brown eyes, Celio thought he was so funny, "if you were Juana, Celio then I think I would push you off this battlement right now and end your miserable life." And I lunged at him with such speed that even he looked a little alarmed.
"Play fair Talaya! Isn't that what Chaya would tell you that heroines from the Arabian nights do?"
I shrugged miserably; I did not want to be reminded of my ninera, least of all by Celio.
Celio's dirty face, tanned by the sun and only a shade darker than mine looked puzzled for a second, the suddenly brightened, "Don't be miserable querida, I came up here to make you feel happy"
I rain my fingers through my tangled, black hair, it had been tightly braided by Catalina but I had pulled the pins out as soon as I had climbed onto the battlements. "What could possibly make me happy with that bruja breathing down my neck all day?"
My friend shuffled closer to me and slipped his calloused hand into my soft one, "how would you feel about a little trip out of the castle and into the city?"
I was shocked and more than a little disbelieving, "what city?" I asked stupidly.
"Granada, you burro!" laughed Celio.
Now I did not believe him at all and I showed this by folding my arms huffily and moving away from him, "you are the burro Celio, there is no way I would be allowed into the city, mama would sooner I married a Moor than let me go into Granada unescorted."
Celio leaned lazily against a pillar, his dirty brown curls ruffled in the light breeze, "so you don't want to go and see the Alhambra?"
That got me. I wanted to go to the palace more than anything, to see the fabled Court of Lions was a dream I had harboured for my entire life. I turned to my friend, my dark eyes wide with disbelief, "you know I want to see the palace, but it's not going to happen, I'm stuck here and its over there," and I pointed over the battlement to the horizon where the Alhambra could be seen glowing hazily against the noon sun.
"Oh Talaya, you make me laugh, do you know so little about your own castle?"
I fiddled with the gold ring my father had given me for my last birthday, "of course I know about the castle, my father built it right after the Moors were defeated."
"Yes, but you don't know its secrets do you?"
I thought about this carefully, Celio was right, I only knew the parts of the castle where a lady of my rank were allowed, I had seldom gone to the guard house, the stables or anywhere there would be my father's men. "Maybe you are right, but what has that got to do with anything?"
Celio's face split into a wide grin, "knowledge is the key to freedom, tomorrow morning we are going to sneak out and spend the day in Granada."
My playmates charm was infectious and I could not help but laugh with him, "whatever you say Celio."
"You'll see Talaya, meet me behind the armoury tomorrow morning before sunrise, and whatever you do, don't dress like that."
I looked down at my black dress with its gold embroidery and silk ribbons, "what's wrong with it?"
It was Celio's turn to roll his own brown eyes, "It won't do Talaya, not if you want to blend in with the people of Granada, you look like a lady."
"I am a lady, burro," I countered hotly.
I could tell Celio was beginning to get impatient with my petulance," you know what I mean Talaya, you won't even be able to take a single foot in Granada if people know you are the daughter of General de Trevelez."
I considered this for a moment, he was right of course, but then Celio was always right, it was maddening, I seldom got the better of him. "Fine, I'll have a look, I'm sure I can find something sufficiently ragged, I wouldn't want to show you up."
"It will be worth it Talaya! I promise you," and before I could say anything else, my friend had kissed me on the cheek and scampered away across the battlements, the sound of his laughter still echoing on the air.