She was supposed to be a good Christian woman, to keep her voice down, to not dare speak her mind, to get married and start a family; but sixteen-year-old Zaira, a beautiful and headstrong morisco girl in sixteenth-century Andalusia, has ideas of her own. With the Catholic kings having reclaimed rule over Granada, the region is in a state of flux. Moriscos are going missing, pulled from the streets in the dead of night. Those suspected of not bending the knee to Christian rule suddenly disappear. Over time, and secret meetings in abandoned houses, Zaira learns that it is the sinister and powerful bishop of Granada, Thiago, who is at the heart of it all, a man tasked with rooting out and crushing the illegal practising of Islamic faith once and for all. What follows is a battle of tensions, as Zaira strives to lead her people to freedom. But then, one night, when Zaira's meddling goes too far, she too goes missing…
A thrilling adventure of romance and redemption, The Prisoner of Thiago is my first novel.
As soon as she left the house, Zaira reached behind her back for the ribbon, sliding it down her hair and loosening the tight plait her mother had woven just an hour ago. She did not untie it completely —that would cause far too much fuss later—but instead teased her fingers through each twist, as though playing a flute at the back of her head. A slight breeze helped her along, freeing the shorter tendrils around her face, and Zaira knew she would spend the rest of the day pushing the unruly dark hair from her eyes. But better this than the plait pulling quite so painfully at her scalp.
Away from the scrutiny of her family, Zaira felt herself relax. She began to swing her empty basket backwards and forwards as she walked, and let go of her skirts, so their hems trailed in the dust. It wasn't as though anybody was paying her any attention, she reasoned, and it was too fine a morning to worry about being careful or elegant.
Granada had been unusually overcast of late, and so she was pleased to see the sun again. Today, its light was bright enough to penetrate even these narrow streets, gilding the russet-coloured stonework of the buildings on either side and making the cobbles underfoot shine like pebbles in a shallow stream.
Not that Zaira could really stop and appreciate her surroundings; now she was nearing the market, the streets were getting busier, and she was being swept along in the tide of people heading through the city. It felt as though the whole of Granada was here. Small groups of traders were gathered in corners, inspecting one another's wares and swapping handfuls of silver real, which clinked in their pockets.A young boy was pulling at a rope, struggling to move a goat almost as big as he was, while a girl of about Zaira's age sashayed through the throng with ease, a sack of what looked to be flour balanced on her head. Old men were slumped at the side of the street, bent in pairs over damas boards or else simply watching the world go by from their arched doorways, while, above Zaira's head, women were hanging out of upstairs windows, shouting gossip to one another as they hung up the laundry.
Then, every so often, the people were forced to squash together, for some nobleman or religious official would cut through the crowd on a horse. As Zaira pressed herself against a wall to let the latest Don or Marqués pass, she gaped at the rich dark velvet of his doublet, and the large and rather ostentatious ruff around his neck. She supposed a man like this—whoever he was—favoured horseback as much to protect his clothes from the mucky ground as to remind everybody of his status, although being quite literally above the crowd probably did no harm to his evident sense of self-importance.
Still, Zaira thought these aristocrats and bishops might be missing out a little. For from those lofty heights, could they even hear the jokes being cracked and the songs being sung amid the chattering and rumbling of the crowd? Could they catch the aroma of fried fish or fresh fruit amid the smell of their horses, and the rising stink of sewage? Could they stoop to pick up an orange that had rolled out of somebody's basket, as she did now, or reach out and touch the silky petals of some Bougainvillea? No, they could not, Zaira decided, plucking a few of the bright pink flowers from the nearest wall and tucking them into her loose plait, and therefore they did not know Granada as she did.
Zaira turned to see a short and porky middle-aged man glaring at her basket, which she had been waving about with such abandon it seemed she had almost hit him in the face. She apologised, and gave him what she hoped was a sweet smile, but he did not seem charmed. On the contrary, his frown only deepened as he pushed past her.
'Stupid little Morisco,' he snarled.
Zaira's smile faded. She had a sudden urge to throw something at his wobbly rear end, which was fast disappearing up the street, and her hand curved around the orange she had found. She raised her arm and closed one eye for a better aim, but then thought better of it: why waste perfectly good fruit on a pig like that?
'Stupid fat Christian,' she said, although quietly..
Still, the encounter had dampened her mood, and she did not feel quite as carefree as she had a moment ago. To put a little distance between herself and the unpleasant man, Zaira turned down a side street, and then another. She did not really know where she was going, and was therefore pleasantly surprised when the road opened up onto a hillside, and she found herself looking at a view of the city.
Her basket fell still as her gaze roved over red rooftops, and towards the vast Alhambra Palace, which—from this angle—seemed to stand taller than the hazy green mountains in the distance. What an imposing sight it was, Zaira thought, walking forward and scrambling onto a low wall for a better look; the Alhambra's boxy walls and indented battlements looked eternal, and utterly impenetrable, though of course they weren't—the flag fluttering from the Torre de la Vela was evidence of that. From this distance, Zaira could only see splodges of red, white and yellow, but she had seen enough of the castle-and-lion banner around the city to recognise the flag of Castile and León.
Were King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in the palace right now, she wondered. It was strange to think that beyond those thick walls they might be enjoying the same sunshine she was; indeed, it was strange to think of them there at all. Zaira was not worldly, but she was educated enough to know the Alhambra was a Moorish symbol, and had been home to the Emirate of Granada for hundreds of years. It might now belong to the King of Aragon and Queen of Castile—or los Reyes Católicos—but this still seemed odd to her, when elsewhere in the city all evidence of Islamic culture was being stamped out.
The crumbling old wall on which she was sitting was pleasantly warm, and so Zaira kicked off her shoes and stretched out, cat-like. Then, reaching into her basket, she retrieved the orange she had managed to resist throwing at the rude man, and began to unpeel it. The fruit was so ripe its juice dribbled over her fingers, and after she had popped the first segment into her mouth and discovered it sweet and refreshing, she gobbled down the rest so quickly she hardly paused to breathe.
There was a tree growing over the edge of the wall, and once Zaira had finished eating, she leaned against it, yawning. She thought she could fall asleep right here, in this sunny spot, and doze until lunchtime. But as her eyelids began to close, she remembered there would be no lunch if she didn't go to the market, and then she would be in trouble—again. So with a groan and a stretch, she threw the orange peel into a nearby bush, wiped her sticky fingers on her skirt, and resumed her walk.
She reached the market several minutes later, where the sights, sounds and smells of the streets paled in comparison to this bustling plaza. The square was crammed with stalls selling every kind of food imaginable—breads and cheeses, fruits and vegetables, meat and seafood—while dotted between them was the odd stand displaying pots or textiles or even little wooden carvings, most of which looked to Zaira to be of the Virgin Mary. Around the busiest food stalls, the people was so tightly packed that Zaira, who was small and slight, could hardly see what was being sold. But, as always, she found if she clutched her basket to her chest she was able to slip through the gaps between elbows, and nudge her way to the front of the stands without anybody noticing and pushing her to the back of the throng.
But what had her mother asked her to buy here, Zaira wondered, ducking under a string of chillies hanging from an awning. She had dawdled and daydreamed so much since leaving home she had completely forgotten. Tomatoes, was it? Onions? That was the sort of thing she was usually instructed to get, along with potatoes and peppers, eggs and a maybe leg of lamb. She thought there might have been something else today—some other vegetable perhaps?—but try as she might she could not recall what it had been.
Deciding not to worry about it too much, Zaira began to select food at random, watching keenly as it was weighed, and then haggling for a few good-natured minutes over each item, just as her mother had taught her. Before long, her basket was heavy with vegetables, cheese and a loaf of bread, and she was particularly pleased with an aubergine she had found, the skin of which was so smooth she could practically see her reflection in its shiny dark surface.
While she dithered over a stall of sausages, Zaira spotted a friend and fellow Morisco, Mouna. Her instinct was to wave and run over, but then she stopped herself: what was it her father always said? Don't attract unnecessary attention. Zaira supposed gabbling away to Mounain this very public place probably wouldn't go unnoticed, so she turned away instead, and reminded herself they would see one another soon, at the Madrasa.
At least it wasn't Faro, she thought, her heart quickening at the mere thought of him. It would have been much harder to see Faro and not exchange so much as a word—a glance, even. She gazed down at her basket and smiled, imagining she was fetching all this food for him, and not her family. Faro would let her buy whatever she wanted, Zaira knew, and he would not scold her for taking her time, or loosening her hair.
She sighed dreamily, and as she inhaled once again she caught the scent of something fresh, lemony, and so deliciously nostalgic she looked around, desperate to know what it was. Her gaze fell on a bunch of bright green herbs with relatively large flat leaves, which was tucked at the back of the next stall.
'What's that?' Zaira asked the stallholder, who also looked Morisco.
'Coriander,' he said, but quietly, so she hardly heard him over the noise of the market.
'Coriander,' she repeated, trying the word out.
She thought perhaps her mother had cooked with it long ago, when they were still living on the farm, because why else would it smell so comforting, so familiar? On a whim, Zaira decided she would buy a few sprigs, but when she asked the stallholder how much it would be, he shook his head. He took her heavy basket from her arms, lifted up a few of the tomatoes she had bought earlier, and tucked the coriander underneath. After a moment's thought, he covered up the aubergine as well.
'For you, Belleza, it is free,' he said, handing the basket back to her, 'as long as you are careful.'
Zaira laughed, assuming he was making a strange joke, although she didn't understand what it was. Why did she have to be careful with a herb of all things? And why had he put it in the bottom of her basket, where it would be crushed by the other food? But the stallholder didn't smile; on the contrary, he looked suddenly sad.
'Run along now, Belleza,' he said, his gnarled old hand momentarily covering her smooth young one. 'You stay out of trouble, now.'
Trouble, thought Zaira, ambling out of the plaza the way she had come, her gait slightly lopsided from the weight of the basket; why did everyone seem to think she was so prone to mischief? That man had been a total stranger, and it was as though he had seen something wayward in her face. It wasn't fair. She did what she was supposed to, more or less; she never deliberately disobeyed her parents. Granted, she didn't always concentrate on what they said, and her mother and father did sometimes seem a little disappointed when she forgot her table manners or drifted off during her lessons. But she tried to be good, and she certainly didn't go out of her way to find trouble.
Noise brought Zaira back to the present: she could hear shouting and crashing in a nearby street, sounds far removed from the familiar hum of the marketplace. She slowed her pace and peered down a lane to her left, but could see nothing out of the ordinary there. But what was going on beyond her view? She knew she had to be back home soon—she was probably late already—but Zaira didn't see any harm in simply having a look at whatever this commotion was. So, adjusting the handle of her heavy basket, which was digging into the crook of her elbow, she turned off the main street.
It wasn't difficult to locate the disturbance. Zaira had been walking for under a minute when she came across a small crowd gathered in a narrow lane, some of them murmuring among themselves, all of them facing the other way, watching something she couldn't see. Just as she had in the marketplace, Zaira hugged her basket close and squeezed through these onlookers, and then her skin prickled with unease as, beyond them, she saw three members of the Santa Hermandad.
They were unmistakable, even at a slight distance: each man's white tunic was emblazoned with a blood red cross, identifying him as a member of the holy brotherhood. Zaira shifted her weight from foot to foot; she should go back. Her father had always told her to give them a wide berth, this military force that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had introduced to keep the peace. Yet what they were doing was so odd, Zaira couldn't tear herself away.
The three hermandades were marching in and out of a modest little house, carelessly dragging chairs, tables and cabinets into the street. Some smaller items, such as stools, they threw from the doorway, so the wooden object collided and splintered against the cobbles. This, Zaira realised, was the source of the crashing noise, but she couldn't understand the reason for this strange scene: the holy brotherhood seemed to be deliberately destroying all this furniture—but why?
Her unvoiced question was answered presently when a fourth uniformed figure emerged from the house, heaving with him a small middle-aged man. The hermano tossed the civilian towards the ground as carelessly as if he too had been a piece of furniture, but although the man stumbled, he quickly righted himself and made a grab for the nearest chair.
'Please!' he cried, clasping its wooden backrest. 'I beg of you—this is my livelihood!'
But the nearest guard wrenched the chair from his grasp and began to whack it against the cobbles until the wood cracked and one of the legs broke off. Then he tossed it away like a piece of rubbish.
'You are not entitled to a livelihood, Morisco.'
At this last word, Zaira tensed: she had to get out of here. But the crowd was pushing at her back, whispering and muttering, and she found herself pinned in place, though whether by friends or foes she wasn't sure.
The joiner, meanwhile, was stooped over the broken chair, his fingers shaking as he reached out to inspect the damage. But before his hands could touch the beautifully-crafted woodwork, one of the hermandades had aimed a kick at his legs, and the man overbalanced and fell.
'Leave him alone!'
Now a woman was being pulled from the house—presumably the joiner's wife—and she was putting up a fight. She wriggled like a fish as the hermano shoved her through the doorway, so much so he lost his temper, and smacked her hard across the face with the back of his hand. Zaira's fingers curled into fists. The woman spat blood onto the cobbles.
It seemed two young children had been forgotten in the confusion, but they too waddled out onto the street now. The older child, a boy of around eight, was crying, but it seemed his sister, who was perhaps a couple of years younger, hadn't grasped the gravity of the situation, for she was calling out to her parents over and over.
'Enough!' cried one of the Santa hermandades, a rat-faced man who had so far avoided contact with both the family and furniture. 'Get that man up and bind his hands.'
'No!' cried the woman, struggling in the other guard's arms.
'Please!' wailed the joiner, whose hands were being tied behind his back. 'Please, have mercy! How are we supposed to survive without a business—without a profession?'
'That is not my concern, Morisco,' said the man who seemed to be in charge. Then, to his men, he called, 'Take him away!'
'No!' screamed the joiner's wife once more. 'What's happening? Where are you going?'
She now seemed more fearful than defiant. While the joiner continued to plead with the Santa hermandades, she struggled to reach him, her voice growing higher and louder as they began to pull him away. But she was held back by the same guard who had smacked her, and he was threatening more violence and even arrest if she didn't keep still. Meanwhile the woman's son was trying to clutch at her skirts, bawling in fear and confusion.
Everybody had forgotten about the younger child. Unable to reach either of her parents, the small girl was backing away, some defensive instinct compelling her to get as far from the brutal scene as possible. She slipped in the gaps between the cobbles, her stocky little legs almost giving way, and when she managed to keep her balance, she appeared to make a decision, and began to run straight towards the crowd.
'Hey!' Zaira knelt down and put out an arm, stopping the child from plunging under the feet of the throng. 'Hey, stop!'
The little girl's dark eyes were rolling around, her gaze unfocused; she was panicking. Zaira held her firmly by the waist.
'Hey, look at me,' she said, waving a hand in front of the child's face. 'Come on, you're all right—look at me.'
It seemed to take a great deal of energy, but the girl's eyes finally found Zaira's. Then she burst into tears.
'You're all right,' said Zaira, still holding her tight. 'Everything's going to be all right.'
But she wasn't sure this was true—not for this little girl, not for her family.
The joiner's wife, meanwhile, had realised her youngest child was missing, and was struggling harder than ever, her expression as wild as her daughter's had been a moment ago.
'Go,' said Zaira, nudging the sobbing child back towards her family. 'You have to stay together, go on!'
Obediently, the girl staggered back towards the fray and grabbed her brother's hand. Their mother cried out in relief. The Santa hermandades shook their heads and snickered.
Zaira straightened up, and found she was shaking with anger. She could not believe what she had just seen, and still did not understand it. All she knew was that her earlier irritation with the man who had insulted her was nothing compared with this, and she wished she had a thousand oranges—no, a thousand sharp rocks—to hurl at those so-called peacekeepers, the wretched men who were now marching away with the joiner, leaving his work and his family broken in the street.
Then suddenly, someone seized her wrist. Zaira gave a yelp of shock, assuming one of the Santa hermandades had crept up behind her, but when she was pulled around to face her assailant, she found herself looking up into the familiar and thoroughly disapproving face of her older brother, Ramiro.
'Rami!' she gasped, trying to wrench her arm from his grip. 'You frightened me!'
'What are you doing?' he hissed, keeping hold of her and pulling her back into the crowd. 'What's the matter with you?'
'What's the matter with me?' Zaira finally managed to free herself. 'What's the matter with you? Look what you've done to my wrist!'
She pulled up her sleeve and showed him the patch of skin he had gripped, which was now pink.
'You'll live,' he said, although he looked a little repentant. 'Come on, let's get away from here.'
'Rami, did you see what just happened? Did you see what they did to that family?'
'Zaira, come on!'
He took hold of her elbow, although more gently than before, and guided her out of the lane and back onto the main street, where people were still coming in and out of the marketplace, entirely oblivious to what had just happened.
'Let go!' cried Zaira, shaking Ramiro off once more.
'All right, all right…'
Her brother held up his hands in surrender, the action suggesting he was taming a wild animal. Zaira scowled.
'What are you doing here, anyway?' she demanded, as they began to head homeward.
'What do you think? I've been looking for you—you've been ages.'
'No I haven't!'
'Yes you have. Mama was getting worried.'
Zaira sighed theatrically. 'She's always worried. How did you even find me?'
'I searched the marketplace, and when I didn't find you there, I looked for trouble.'
Under normal circumstances, this might have touched a nerve with Zaira, but now it reminded her of the terrible scene she had just witnessed.
'Rami, I saw a man being arrested back there,' she said.
'We'll talk about it later.'
But Zaira wanted to talk about it now: 'He was joiner, I think, and he was dragged into the street with his family and all his work and—'
'—And then he was taken away, just because he was a Morisco.'
'Zaira!' Ramiro rounded on her, his expression both fierce and desperate.'Keep your voice down, for goodness' sake!'
It was the worry in his eyes that finally quelled her. They continued on in silence for a few minutes, during which Zaira reflected on what she had seen, her mind full of questions: where were the Santa hermandades taking that man? What would they do with him? What would happen to his family? And had he really been arrested for simply making a few tables and chairs?
Ramiro ran a hand through his hair, which was as curly as Zaira's, although its short length meant it was generally far tidier. 'I'm sorry,' he said gruffly. 'I didn't mean to hurt you. I just worry about you, that's all.'
She said nothing, but was secretly gleeful he had apologised.
'But I see you've been to the market,' Ramiro continued, gesturing at her basket, 'so there's no harm done, really and— Is that coriander?' All at once, his face seemed to harden at the sight of the green herb poking out from under the tomatoes. 'Oh, Zaira! Don't you understand anything?'
'What?' she cried, outraged. 'What have I done now?'
But Ramiro had had enough. 'Just— just stop,' he said. 'We'll talk about it at home. Until then, try and tidy yourself up.'
He reached behind her head and pulled the Bougainvillea from her plait, throwing it onto the dirty ground.
'Ouch!' cried Zaira, for he had yanked out a few strands of hair with the flowers. Then, full of rage, she thrust her basket towards his chest so forcefully she half-winded him.
'Instead of criticising what I've bought and pulling at my hair, why don't you carry this, it's heavy.'
'Gladly,' snapped Ramiro, sliding the basket along his arm as though it weighed nothing at all, and then, like the stallholder, covering up the fresh herbs with various vegetables.
Zaira did not bother to question this behaviour. Free from the weight of the basket at last, she marched back down the street as fast as she could without running, determined to keep three paces ahead of her brother all the way home.
When Zaira and Ramiro arrived home, they discovered their mother waiting in the doorway. Hebaface was creased with worry, and after she spotted Zaira she clutched at her heart with relief.
'Come in, come in,' she said, ushering her children into the house.
As she ducked through the ornate old archway, Zaira shook off Heba'sattempts to guide her over the threshold—she'd had enough of being manhandled by family members today. Once Ramiro was also inside, Hebaclosed the heavy wooden door behind them, blocking out the bright midday sun and leaving the hallway suddenly cold and gloomy.
'What's going on?' she asked, rounding on her children. 'Zaira, what have you done to your hair? And what's this stain on your dress? What happened?'
'Mama, stop!' cried Zaira, pulling both her plait and her skirts—which she now saw were stained with orange juice—out of her mother's reach.
'Nothing happened, Mama,' said Ramiro, stooping to kiss Heba on the cheek. 'Zaira was just dawdling, as usual. You worry too much. I'll tell Father we're back.'
Zaira frowned as he handed her the heavy basket and left her to cope with Hebaalone. She thought Ramiro had decided not to mention the unpleasant scene between the holy brotherhood and the Morisco family on purpose, so as not to further upset their mother, although perhaps he had simply forgotten—after all, he hadn't seen it with his own eyes. Nevertheless, Hebacontinued to look concerned as she studied Zaira, apparently searching for some outward clue as to what had kept her away for so long.
Zaira submitted to her mother' scrutiny with only a small huff of frustration. Hebawas as short as her, and they had the same heart-shaped face, but that was where their similarities ended. Middle age and two children had made Hebaplump, while years of (in Zaira's opinion, unnecessary) worrying had lined her face and threaded her hair with grey. But even aside from these superficial details, there were more fundamental differences between them: Heba never had a hair out of place, her clothes were always immaculate—even after she'd been cooking—and she was reserved, cautious and patient. Sometimes, Zaira could hardly believe they were related at all, let alone mother and daughter.
'I don't know what the problem is,' she said, as Hebabegan to fuss over her dirty skirt once again. 'I went to the market and I bought food, just like you asked. Look!'
She offered the basket to her mother.
'Oh, Zaira, this isn't what I asked for,' Heba sighed, inspecting its contents. 'Where are the carrots and the mushrooms? And didn't I tell you to buy fish? And— Oh, Zaira!'
'What? Oh, not this again…'
Zaira folded her arms as her mother pulled out the aubergine and coriander, furious at the amount of nagging she was being subjected to. But fortunately, at that moment, a diversion arrived in the form of Halima, who said, 'See, Heba, didn't I tell you she'd be just fine?'
Zaira, brightening at once, hurried to embrace her grandmother. Halima smiled and patted her on the cheek.
'What's not fine is that Zaira has brought back these!' cried Heba, holding up the offending vegetable and herb.
'I don't understand—' Zaira began, but her mother interrupted her.
'Zaira, this is Moorish food. The Christians know we use it in our traditional cooking, just as they know our faith compels us to use olive oil instead of lard.'
'So we're different to them, I already know that. I don't see—'
'You're drawing attention to yourself, Zaira—to all of us. What if the hermandades had seen you with this? What if they had begun to doubt you had truly converted? What if they had started asking questions about your family, about your father's business?'
Zaira swallowed, now relieved Ramiro had kept quiet about what she had witnessed; if her mother knew how close she had been to members of the holy brotherhood this would have been much worse.
'I didn't realise,' she said at last. Then, though it pained her, she added, 'I'm sorry.'
Hebaraised her eyebrows, evidently surprised by this unusual contrition from her daughter. Halima looked between them, and then smiled.
'Good girl,' she told Zaira. 'And there's no harm done, 'll know for next time.'
Hebalooked as though she wanted to say more, but Halima was easing the aubergine from her hands.
'Now, what are we going to do with this, eh?' she wondered aloud. 'We could roast it with some spices, maybe make some chermoula. Or I haven't had maqluba for a while…' Then, as Hebatried to object, she said, 'Oh, there's no point wasting it, dear. The holy brotherhood aren't going to charge into your kitchen, and if they did while you were cooking maqluba, I'm certain they would beg you for a portion…'
Halima winked at Zaira, breathed in the scent of the coriander, and then began to hobble away. Then Zaira's grin faltered: Ramiro had reappeared.
'Father wants to see you,' he said.
Knowing she had little choice in the matter, Zaira followed her brother down the hallway. Their house, which was tucked away in one of Granada's few predominantly Morisco neighbourhoods, had touches of Moorish character, from the tiles on the floor to the keyhole-shaped arches above the doors, but otherwise Zaira found it plain, and far too cramped. On the farm, the rooms had been large and full of light, and she'd only had to go outside to breathe in fresh air, and look over miles and miles of mountainous scenery. In comparison, this poky dwelling was restrictive, almost claustrophobic, which was why she always seized any opportunity to go out into the city.
When Zaira had learned the family were to move to Granada, she had initially imagined they would live in one of the grand Moorish houses her grandmother had always described, with a central courtyard opening up to the sky, and perhaps a fountain, or even a garden, at its heart. But back then, she had been too young to realise quite how much their circumstances had changed, almost overnight, and now she knew this house had been chosen precisely because it was ordinary and inconspicuous, as well as for its low rent.
Zaira's father, Turab, was in his workshop, which was situated at the back of the house. As she entered, she was struck by the rich, woody aroma of the leather sheets hanging over every available surface. Again, this room was far smaller than his workshop on the farm; here, his tools were cluttered over one small desk, and he was practically boxed in by all his half-finished Cordoba leather.
Turabdid not reply. He was bent over a leather panel with a ruler, scoring a geometric design into its surface with a scalpel. His nose was inches from his work, and his tangled dark hair had fallen into his eyes. Zaira, knowing better to interrupt him when he was working, stood in the doorway and waited.
Eventually, he laid down his tools, although his eyes were still on his work, and his finger traced the line he had just drawn. 'Zaira, I would like you to explain why you were so long at the market today,' he said.
Delighted at the chance to finally explain herself, Zaira hurried into the workshop and launched into the story of the joiner's arrest. Her father let her talk without interruption, and though he continued to stare at the leather, Zaira could tell he was listening intently.
'—And then they just took him away, and didn't even tell his wife where they were going!' she concluded, a few minutes later. 'Oh, Father, what's going to happen to them?'
Turablooked up at last. 'Zaira, you were told to go straight to the market, buy the food your mother requested, and come straight back again,' he said.
'Yes, I know, but—'
'You shouldn't have left the main street, and you certainly shouldn't have been anywhere near this incident you describe.'
'No, Zaira, listen,' he said, firmly. 'You worried your mother—you worried all of us, in fact—and if you can't be trusted to run a simple errand, in future you will have to be accompanied by Ramiro.'
'Yes, I think, from now on, your brother should chaperone you around the city.'
'Oh, Father! I'm sixteen!'
'Exactly!' In his frustration, Turab'scalm demeanour wavered. 'You are a woman, but you act like a child! No matter what we say, you seem unable to understand the dangerous position we are in as Moriscos.'
'Did you not listen to my story?' she cried, flaring up. 'I understand it perfectly well!'
'Mind your tone,' he warned her.
'I'm sorry, but Father, I do. That Morisco man was thrown out of his house and arrested just for owning a business.' She looked around at the sheets of painted, gilded and embossed leather draped around the workshop. 'That's what I'm worried about, not being back from the market a few minutes late.'
At her concern, Turab seemed to soften. He reached out a hand, and she took it, feeling his calloused fingers between her own.
'Then it appears we are both worried about one another, you and I,' he said, gentler now. 'But you need not fret on my account, Zaira. I keep my head down, as should you.'
He rubbed at the back of his neck, as if kneading a crick there, though she presumed he was speaking figuratively.
'But it's illegal…' she said.
'Only if it doesn't suit them to keep me in business. But I am fortunate enough to have powerful clients—powerful Christian clients—and they do not care who makes the Cordoba leatherthat decorates their walls and chairs, they only care that it is beautiful.'
He gestured proudly at the embellished leather in front of him. Zaira was not reassured.
'But that joiner—'
'I fear he may have drawn attention to himself in some other way, to have been treated so badly.' Then, before she could protest, her father added, 'I'm not saying it's right, what they did. I'm just trying to make you see that if they closed all Morisco-run businesses today, this city would fall apart.'
Zaira considered this, and knew he was speaking sense. But still, she could not un-see the joiner's chair being destroyed in front of him, his wife being hit across the face, the fear of his children…
'It's not right,' she said, stubbornly.
'No,' agreed her father, 'it's not.'
As they were seeing eye-to-eye for once, Zaira thought the conversation was now nearing its end, but as she moved to leave the workshop, her father kept hold of her hand.
'Zaira, sit down for a moment, will you? I want to speak to you about another matter.'
She lowered herself onto the edge of a nearby stool, assuming he was going to start talking about her trip to the market again. 'Father, I really don't need Rami to chaperone me, I can manage by myself. If it makes Mother feel better, I'll run the whole way there and the whole way back.'
Turabdid not smile. Indeed, he didn't seem to be listening to her, but instead looked as though he were steeling himself for something.
'Zaira, I think it's time we found you a husband,' he said.
Zaira almost fell off her stool, so stunned was she by this sudden change of topic.
Her father sighed. 'You heard me. As we just discussed, you're a woman now, and you should be settling down and starting a family of your own.'
'But—' Zaira broke off, for once having no idea what to say. 'But I don't want a husband! Not yet, anyway...'
'Fortunately, it's not entirely up to you,' pointed out Turab.'Look, before you work yourself up about it, all I'm asking you to do is meet a few potential suitors and—'
At last, she had pushed him too far, and as he shouted her name he banged his fist against his work desk, causing her to jump.
'This is exactly why you need a husband!' he continued angrily. 'You are wilful and outspoken and disobedient! I don't know what to do with you anymore. I just hope that, somewhere out there, there's a man who'll have more success controlling you than I ever have!'
Zaira's vision blurred, although whether with tears of anger or hurt she didn't know. Her father let out another long exhalation, and when he spoke again, he seemed to have his temper in check.
'Zaira, please, I'm your father, have a little faith in me. I'm not going to marry you off to someone you don't like.'
'I don't want to be married off at all!'
And, before he could say another word, she had leapt up and run from the workshop. She pushed past Ramiro, who it seemed had been listening from the hallway, and ran up the stairs two at a time. When she reached her room, she slammed the door shut behind her, flung herself onto the bed, and burst into noisy, furious sobs.
Zaira cried until her head began to ache, and then she rolled onto her back and stared at the ceiling of her bedroom, her tears ceasing as quickly as they had started. Was the idea of marriage so very bad? Some of her friends from the Madrasa had been married for a couple of years, and they seemed happy enough. Perhaps it would give her more freedom, having her own house, where she could be away from her needling mother and overbearing father and brother. Yes, it might be a little better than this, marriage with the right man.
Only, her father would never pick the right man, Zaira thought, lifting her arms above her head and then dropping them onto the bedsheet in frustration. He would choose someone sensible and hardworking and reliable, which were surely qualities he himself had looked for in a wife. Her father would never choose someone wild and passionate—he would never choose Faro.
There was a soft knock at her door and Zaira, anticipating her mother, snapped, 'What?'
'It's me, dear,' called Halima. 'May I come in?'
Zaira immediately sat up, slid off her bed, and opened the door.
'I thought it was Mama,' she mumbled, embarrassed.
Halima gave her a disapproving look, but chose not to reprimand her. Instead, she waved a plate of apricots and almonds under Zaira's nose and said, 'I brought you a snack, seeing as I'm assuming you're not coming down for lunch?'
'Thanks,' Zaira muttered, taking the plate.
She expected Halima to leave, so was surprised and not displeased when her grandmother followed her into the room and sat down on a chair in the corner, the back of which was covered in some of Turab's Cordoba leather.
'Come here, dear, your hair looks a fright.'
Obediently, Zaira sat cross-legged on the floor in front of Halima, balancing the plate of fruit and nuts on her lap. Then she leaned against her grandmother's bony knees, and felt her plait being unravelled.
'You have bits of petal in your hair, did you know that?'
'Hm?' said Zaira, through a mouthful of apricot. 'Oh, yeah, it's—'
'—Bougainvillea, I see that,' said Halima.
She reached for a wide-toothed comb and began to ease it carefully through the ends of Zaira's knotted hair. Zaira, who was used to her mother yanking at her tangles, found her grandmother's touch soothing, and shut her eyes.
'Father wants to find me a husband,' she said.
'But I'm only sixteen!'
'I was only fourteen when I married, and I turned out just fine.'
Zaira didn't know why she felt disappointed: no matter how much Halima cared about her, she never contradicted Turab'sdecisions.
They sat in silence for a while and Zaira felt herself relax as the comb and Halima's fingers massaged her scalp. She began to regret getting so upset—and in turn upsetting so many family members. She knew they were only looking out for her, and that they always had her best interests at heart. And she knew they loved her, even when she didn't make that easy.
'I just wish I didn't do everything wrong all the time,' she said.
Halima chuckled. 'You don't do everything wrong, dear. If anything, you're just a tad impulsive.'
'That's not how Father put it,' said Zaira, who was still smarting at being called wilful, outspoken and—what had he said?—disobedient. 'And I'm not doing it deliberately. I mean, how was I supposed to know not to buy coriander!'
'You weren't, but now you do,' said Halima firmly, although she sounded as though she were trying not to laugh.
Zaira could not argue with this. Her grandmother was always reasonable—sometimes maddeningly so, and she was always worn down by Halima's calm, fair manner in the end.
'I suppose I should apologise,' she said, 'to Father, to Mother.' She was undecided on Ramiro.
'I think that would be a good idea,' said Halima mildly.
'Later though,' said Zaira, who was enjoying this time alone with her grandmother. She lifted the plate of apricots and almonds above her head, waiting until Halima had selected a few, and then said, 'Grandmother, will you tell me a story?'
'What sort of story, dear?'
'I don't know,' said Zaira, now feeling her request was a little childish. 'Something true? Something from before… all of this?' She gestured around at her room, although in her mind's eye she saw the joiner's family.
'All right,' said Halima, dividing Zaira's hair into three thick strands as she prepared to plait it once again, 'I'll tell you how al-Alhambra came to be.'
Zaira wriggled against her grandmother's legs to find a more comfortable position. She knew this tale, but had not heard it for a long time.
'It happened hundreds of years ago, back in 711 and less than a century after the death of Muhammad,' began Halima. 'One Spring day, a Muslim general named Tariq ibn Ziyad set sail from North Africa with seven thousand Berber warriors. They travelled across a narrow strait, and docked on land dominated by a great rock, that we now know as Jabal Tariq—rock of Tariq.
'At that time, this land was a former Roman province named Hispania, and it was ruled by the Visigoths, who had crossed the Pyrenees and occupied it during the breakup of the Roman Empire. Its capital was called Toledo, and it was a powerful Christian kingdom, before Tariq came.'
Zaira smiled in anticipation: there was something uniquely exciting about hearing a story where one already knew the outcome.
'It is not believed that Tariq came to these shores with the intention of being a conqueror,' Hamila went on. 'It is more likely he meant to raid and plunder the coast, and then return to North Africa. But those ambitions changed when the Visigoth king, Rodrigo, learned of the Muslims in Hispania and marched south. He brought with him a vast army of around thirty thousand warriors—which far outnumbered the Berbers—but, miraculously, the Visigoths were defeated in battle, and Rodrigo was killed.
'In the wake of this stunning victory, Tariq marched north, and by the end of the year Toledo had surrendered. Reinforcements from North Africa arrived, and then the Muslims rapidly extended their control over this land. In just three years, the Christians were forced into the mountains, and Visigothic Hispania was no more.'
Considering how they lived now, Zaira could hardly believe she was hearing a true history. The idea of Muslims being such a powerful force—it sounded like a fairy tale.
'The Muslims called this territory al-Andalus, land of the vandals,' continued Halima, 'while Christians called their conquerors moros, Moors. All over Christendom people despaired at the catastrophe that had occurred in Hispania.'
'But it wasn't a catastrophe, was it?' asked Zaira, turning around. 'Al-Andalus was a great land, before Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand came.'
'That depends on who you ask,' said Halima, helping herself to more apricot. 'But if you mean for Muslims, yes, this was a great land. Al-Andalus became an outpost of the Islamic empire. As the Muslim population expanded through conversion and immigration—our own ancestors came over from Syria around this time, don't forget— the region's Roman and Visigothic cities began to change. Mosques and minarets and palaces sprung up, as did public bathhouses and exotic gardens with palm trees and ornamental ponds. Then there were the sights and smells of the souk, and new crops like sugar, rice, and lemons began to arrive… A Caliphate was established, and its capital, Cordoba, soon rivalled the magnificence of Baghdad and Damascus.'
'A golden time,' said Zaira, who still found it almost impossible to imagine.
'As I said, if you were Muslim, yes. Not so much for the Christians forced to live under Muslim rule.'
But Zaira didn't want to think about them. Never in her lifetime had Christians been marginalised or repressed. Christianity had always been the dominant faith—so much so that she and her family had been obliged to go through that charade of conversion upon their arrival in Granada. So technically, she was a Christian herself, though Zaira felt nothing but contempt for the religion, and nothing but distrust and dislike for people such as the holy brotherhood.
'How can you bear it?' she asked, looking up at her grandmother. 'How can you stand to know what we had—what we lost?'
'You forget, I have had a lot of practice over the years,' said Halima.
She looked suddenly sad, and although Zaira knew the comment hadn't been meant as a slight, she regretted her words. For whatever small inconveniences she suffered, it was nothing to what her grandmother had endured, the most appalling of which—as far as Zaira knew—was being forced from the home of her ancestors by the Christian authorities.
Yet it bothered her too, because although Halima seemed so different to her Zaira knew, deep down, they were the same. She could sense her own spirit in her grandmother, no matter how reasonable Halima appeared to be, and sometimes Zaira longed to shake her; to find a way of letting out that verve and rage and fire, which, somehow, she knew was locked away in her grandmother's heart.
'I wish we could go back, to before Granada fell,' said Zaira, in a last-ditch attempt to summon some spark within Halima. 'I wish we could find a way to live as we did then.'
But her grandmother shook her head. 'You must put these thoughts from your head, Zaira. The past is done, there's no use looking back. This is how the world is now, and we must find a way to fit in.'
'But why?' said Zaira, bitterly disappointed. 'Why should we accept it?'
'Because, dearest girl, we are Moriscos, and I fear—for us—it is only going to get worse.'
Zaira stifled a yawn, stretched out her legs—which were prickling with pins and needles—and told herself to concentrate on what the imam was saying. This wasn't easy: it was late, gloomy, and the hard floor on which she was sitting was uncomfortable and cold. But she had risked a lot to sneak out tonight, so she blinked hard and forced herself to listen.
'Now, as you know, al-Fātiḥah is the first chapter of the Quran,' said Nabil. 'Al-Fātiḥah is recited in each prayer cycle, and often at the beginning of everyday events, so it is a good surah to commit to memory. And I wonder, seeing as I recite it at the start of each of our lessons, whether you might already be able to repeat it back to me?'
There followed a shy silence. The imam, who was a small, bird-like man with a grey beard and twinkling eyes, smiled around the classroom.
'Come, we'll say it together,' he urged. 'Join in if and when you can.'
In the name of Allah, the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful.
All praise is due to Allah , Lord of the worlds—
The Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful,
Sovereign of the Day of Recompense.
It is You we worship and You we ask for help.
Guide us to the straight path—
The path of those upon whom You have bestowed favour, not of those who have evoked Your anger or of those who are astray.
As the class finished reciting more or less the same words at more or less the same time, the imam clapped his hands together in delight.
'Excellent!' he cried. 'Very good indeed!'
Lessons in the madrasa always took place after sundown, when the streets of Granada were dark and quiet—it was safer that way. Once a week, Zaira and her classmates slipped down a shadowy alleyway at around ten o'clock at night, knocked on a battered old door, and were admitted into a dilapidated and seemingly abandoned building.
They met in a room on the first floor, which was clearly not designed to be a school. It was the largest space in the building, but it was still not nearly big enough to comfortably accommodate the forty or so children and adults who turned up to the madrasa every week. There was no furniture, aside from Nabil's little rostrum at the front and a vast bookcase at the back, so all the students were forced to sit on the floor, their elbows and knees touching those of their neighbours. It was draughty, the chill exacerbated by the lateness of the hour, and sometimes difficult to hear, because the thick stone walls tended to swallow the sound of the imam's voice.
Still, Zaira could appreciate Nabil did his best with what he had. The imam always positioned several candles around the room, which added a little more light and warmth to the unassuming glow of the two oil lamps at the front. There was also a bright, multi-coloured carpet separating the students from the cold stone floor; this had been gifted to the madrasa by several economical Morisco women, who had made it by weaving together the threads of old clothes. And recently, Nabil had even managed to acquire a few tattered cushions, which were always claimed by the students who arrived first—and therefore never by Zaira.
Best of all were the books. After Isabella and Ferdinand had taken Granada, the old madrasa had been torched. Yet somehow—miraculously—Nabil had managed to smuggle out many of the most precious manuscripts it had housed, and they now filled the back wall of the classroom. Most of these volumes were Qurans in naskhi, kufic or Andalusi script, and beautifully decorated in different coloured inks and gold leaf. But there were also books of devotional poetry, much of which was by the Sufis of al -Andalus, and works of Arabic philosophy, science and history. Zaira had not studied any of these volumes in much depth, for although she could read a little Arabic she did not always have the patience or concentration to sit down and apply herself to the task. Still, it comforted her to have them in the classroom; to know that these works had survived, and that their lessons and wisdom could be used by men like Nabil to teach new generations about Islam and the culture of Arabic-speaking lands, even if it had to be in secret. With that in mind, the discomfort of the makeshift classroom seemed to pale into insignificance for Zaira: they had books, they had a teacher, and they had a roof over their heads—what did the rest matter?
'Another chapter I'd like us to think about today is a lovely little surah that promotes the importance of doing good deeds,' Nabil was saying, opening up the Quran he regularly taught from. 'I'll read it out first, then we can discuss what it means, and perhaps—if we have time—we can try and learn it by heart:'
We have appointed a law and practice for every one of you. Had God willed, He would have made you a single community, but He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you. So compete with each other in doing good. Every one of you will return to God and He will inform you regarding the things about which you differed.
When the imam finished reading, he looked up with a beaming smile, as though he had never read anything quite so delightful. 'Now, would anyone like to comment on what they think this surah is about?' he asked.
As a discussion began, Zaira fidgeted again, and accidentally kicked Mona, who was squashed up next to her. She whispered a quick apology, and then her gaze slid to the right of Nabil's rostrum, where she had been trying to avoid looking all evening, for there sat Faro, the other reason she was finding it difficult to concentrate on the lesson.
As Nabil's nephew and helper in the madrasa, Faro was sat at the front, on hand in case the imam needed a particular book or a drink of water. He had positioned himself in a dark and discreet corner, and was watching his uncle silently and almost without moving, so most people had probably forgotten he was there at all. Not Zaira, though, and now she had failed in her resolve to avoid looking at him, she found she couldn't stop staring.
He was tall, even sitting down, with broad shoulders and a straight, strong-looking torso. He had an angular, bony face and quite a large nose, which Zaira thought exceptionally noble. His beard was trimmed fairly neatly, but he had let his hair grow longer than was conventional, so it hung down past his ears. Zaira marvelled at how powerful he looked, doing nothing more than sitting there and listening to his uncle, and how handsome he was, even cast in the strange shadows that pooled at the corner of the room…
She gave a start: Nabil was looking directly at her, as were most of her classmates and—to her horror—Faro. She felt a blush spreading over her face, and sincerely hoped the room was too dim for anyone to see.
'Sorry?' she said, wondering how long she hadn't been paying attention.
'Zaira, are you still with us?' Nabil said, not unkindly. 'The rest of us were starting to learn the surah, but you weren't joining in.'
'Yes!' she said. 'I mean, sorry—I am still with you. I'm just a bit tired, that's all.'
It was a feeble excuse, one that nobody in her family would have fallen for, but Nabil nodded sympathetically.
'It is very late to be learning lessons,' he said with a sigh. 'I wish there was another way… But we must make do. Why don't we repeat these verses a few more times, and then we'll call it a night?'
There was a murmur of agreement, and then everybody began to recite the surah once more. Zaira sat up a little straighter and tried to chant along with the rest, although she had daydreamed for so much of the lesson she didn't know any of the words. Then, as soon as Nabil turned his attention to one of the younger children in order to help him with his pronunciation, Mona elbowed Zaira in the ribs.
'Faro was looking at you just then,' she whispered.
'Mona, everyone was looking at me,' Zaira hissed back.
'No, but he kept looking, even when everyone else had looked away.'
Zaira said nothing, but felt a flush of pleasure. Mona, who was around her own age, had a tendency to be soppy and rather silly, and therefore it was wise not to set too much store by her romantic observations. Nevertheless, it suited Zaira to imagine Faro could not quite tear his gaze from her, so for the present she chose to believe Mona was telling the truth.
Eventually, after about five more minutes, Nabil brought his hands together and wished them all goodnight and a safe journey home. But while Zaira and the rest were preparing to rise and stretch out their stiff limbs, Faro had already walked to the centre of the rostrum.
'Uncle, I was wondering if I might address the group, like we talked about?' he said.
An unusually guarded look passed over the imam's face, and for a moment Zaira thought he might refuse Faro's request. But Nabil was a fair man who believed in the right to speak freely, so he gave his nephew a little nod and stepped aside.
Zaira looked to Mona in excitement: this was unprecedented. The imam's nephew might mutter a few words each lesson in his role as assistant, but he never directly addressed the students as a collective. And as far as Zaira knew, Faro was no scholar, so she could not imagine he was about to start reciting verses from the Quran—what was this about?
For a few moments, Faro said nothing, and simply stood there, taking in the sight of his audience. His dark eyes glittered in the candlelight, and his expression was serious, almost harsh. Then he cleared his throat.
'Forgive me for delaying your bedtime still further, but I hope this will not take long,' he began in his deep, rasping voice, before introducing himself for the benefit of those who did not know him. 'And forgive me, Uncle, for intruding upon your lessons with other matters, but this is the only time we are all together now, we people they call Moriscos.'
He spat this last word, as though it tasted sour. Nabil watched his nephew as intently as Faro had watched him a few minutes ago.
'My uncle welcomes all to this madrasa,' Faro went on, gesturing at his audience, who were both male and female, young and old. 'Now, though, I address the adults among you, and I ask you this: what has happened to us?'
A murmur of confusion, even irritation, rippled through the classroom. Zaira and Mona exchanged a puzzled glance.
'Look at where we are,' said Faro, gesturing at the small, dark classroom. 'Really, look around. Remind yourself of this place you snuck out to tonight, this cold, dingy room in a crumbling, forgotten building. Is this a worthy setting to learn about our faith? Is this an appropriate space in which to recite the holy word of God?
'I mean no disrespect to my uncle by speaking like this,' Faro continued, 'Imam Nabil has fought hard for this place, for our community, and—under the circumstances—we feel fortunate to have this madrasa. But I urge you to remember this: we are not fortunate. If we were, our children would be able to learn these lessons in proper schools; our imam would be able to teach without fear of retribution; we would all be able to worship in the beautiful mosques this city once boasted, which have now been taken from us, filled with crosses, and converted into churches.
'If we were fortunate, we would not have been lined up in those churches, splashed with so-called holy water, and declared Christian Moors—Moriscos— as though we could forget our faith and history and identity in an instant. If we were fortunate, we would be able to own land, businesses, and we would not have to hide or repress who we are every time we leave our houses.
'So I ask you again: what has happened to us? I think, since the fall of Granada, it is becoming increasingly easy to accept all of this as normal, but it is not. We Muslims—and yes, we are Muslims, no matter what they call us—we Muslims are a good and glorious people. We once dominated al-Andalus, as we continue to rule countries to the East, and yet here, now, I fear we are starting to accept what the Christians tell us to do, and who they tell us to be. We feel fortunate—fortunate!—that we have found a hovel to creep to in the dead of night like frightened little mice, when we should have so much more—when we deserve so much more!'
Faro paused for breath. The room was very quiet, although Zaira had barely noticed; her heart was drumming so hard she thought Mona would be able to hear it.
'I know what my elders are thinking,' Faro went on, in a quieter voice now. 'Who is this young man who stands before us and presumes to know how we think, who we are? And it is true, I am young: I was born just a few years before the fall of Granada, I have known no other rulers but Isabella and Ferdinand, and no other rule but Christian. Yet I see quite clearly this is wrong, and so I stand before you now, youthful as I may be, to urge you to join me, so together we might wrest back our rights, our religion, our land, and everything else the Christians have taken from us.'
At this, several people tried to speak at once, but Faro held up a hand to stop them.
'Before you say anything, I must confess: I do not have a plan. I am not a scholar, like my uncle, or even particularly clever. But I have a heart, and a conscience, and while I do not intend to lead this fight—or whatever it may turn out to be—I could not live with myself if I didn't at least start the conversation. So this is what I suggest: when you leave tonight, think about what I have said. Then, this time next week, after Imam Nabil has finished teaching, those of you who are able and willing should stay behind, and we will continue this discussion. Because—again, forgive me, Uncle—memorising verses and chapters from the Quran will not change anything. If we want to hold our heads high in al-Andalus once more, if we want to live as we did before the fall of Granada, we have to show the Christians that we are still here—and that we are angry.'
Faro inclined his head, gave a little bow, and then stepped off the makeshift stage. Then the room erupted into noise. Zaira could hear chatter, applause and even tutting among the sound of people getting to their feet at last: evidently, Faro's speech had been met with both approval and some displeasure. In response to this hubbub, Nabil raised his arms, perhaps wanting to say a few calming words, but people were already heading towards the door, so instead he called, 'Remember to walk quietly through the streets! Go in pairs or small groups! Be safe!'
'Zaira? Come on!'
Above her, Mona was tugging at her arm, and Zaira discovered she was the only one still sitting on the floor. Embarrassed, and with her friend's help, she scrambled to her feet, although this seemed more difficult than usual; her limbs felt floppy and useless, like those of a rag doll.
'Mona!' she said, as breathless as though she had been running. 'Did you hear—?'
'Of course I heard!'
'Wasn't he just amazing!'
'I suppose…' Mona laughed. 'Zaira, I have to go. My father will be waiting outside, and Faro's already made us late…'
'Hm?' said Zaira, who was now staring over at Faro. He was talking to a small group of people, all of whom looked to be similarly young. 'Oh, yeah. Bye, Mona.'
Zaira waved vaguely, and felt—rather than saw—her friend leave her side. Then she began to walk towards the front of the classroom, pushing against the tide of people going in the opposite direction. She had to get to Faro. She wanted to tell him what his speech had meant to her—although she hardly knew how she was going to put this into words—and she was desperate he should know she felt exactly the same.
Then someone tapped her on the shoulder.
'How are you, Zaira?' asked Nabil.
'Fine, thank you,' she said, forcing herself to stop and be polite to the kindly old imam.
'You were a little distracted tonight,' he noted.
'Sorry,' she said, automatically.
'There's no need to apologise, child, I am merely concerned about you. Is everything all right?'
'Everything's fine,' said Zaira, wondering how many times she had to tell him this. 'As I said, I'm just a little tired.'
'Hm,' said Nabil, and now he looked less convinced than before. 'How are your family?'
'Oh, they're fine too.'
'I've not seen them in a long time,' the imam continued. 'Your brother doesn't come hereanymore.'
When they had first moved to Granada, she had attended this secret school with Ramiro. They had been closer then, she and her brother; Nabil's lessons had brought them together. But around a year ago, Ramiro—influenced by their parents, no doubt—had decided to stop coming to the madrasa, and soon after Zaira was forbidden from attending.
'According to Ramiro, he's learned all he needs to know from the madrasa,' Zaira continued to Nabil, her tone scathing.
'Well, perhaps that is true,' said the imam. 'I cannot pretend I am planning on turning you all into scholars—I simply wish to pass on the basics of Islam and Arabic, so we do not lose sight of our faith and heritage.'
'Yes, I know,' said Zaira, impatiently, 'but Rami's just using that as an excuse. The real reason he doesn't want to come to the madrasa anymore is because he's—'
'—Afraid,' interrupted Faro, stepping into the conversation. 'Your brother is afraid.'
Zaira wasn't sure what she had been intending to say—she found it difficult to remember with Faro standing there, looking directly at her—so she simply nodded. Nabil, on the other hand, shook his head.
'Cautious would be a better word, I think,' he said. 'You must remember, Faro, attending the madrasa is a choice, not an obligation. We must respect those who feel it is too great a risk, especially when they already have a good knowledge of what I am teaching.'
Faro made a dismissive noise in the back of his throat. 'But this is just what I'm talking about, Uncle! We live in a time of great risk, there's no use hiding away and ignoring that fact! It would be far better if those of us who were afraid—or, all right, cautious—joined our number, then we might be stronger, and more able to offer one another protection.'
He seemed to be working himself up into another speech—one which Zaira was keen to hear. Nabil, however, turned to her and said, 'Is there someone waiting for you outside?'
'Um… not really.'
The imam looked pained. 'Zaira, do your parents know where you are?'
She looked down at her feet, which seemed to be answer enough for Nabil.
'My child, you must tell them—I cannot condone your being here without their permission!'
'Why are you scolding her?' demanded Faro, and Zaira felt gleeful he was leaping to her defence.
'I'm not scolding her, Faro—'
'If she's here and her family's not, you should be praising her—she must have more guts than all of them combined!'
'That's enough, Faro,' said Nabil, much to Zaira's disappointment. 'As usual, you are speaking with your heart and not your head, and it is making you impractical. What about her safety? She is a young woman out late at night, and there is nobody to even walk her home…'
'Well, I'll do it, then,' said Faro crossly.
Nabil hesitated: clearly, this was not what he'd had in mind. Zaira, however, seized her chance and said, 'Thank you, I'd really appreciate that.'
'There!' said Faro to his uncle. 'Problem solved. Come on, Zaira.'
He took hold of her elbow, causing her whole arm to erupt into gooseflesh, and Zaira, hardly able to believe what was happening, called, 'Goodnight!' over her shoulder to an uncertain-looking Nabil.
Her heart was pounding as she and Faro descended the stairs of the old building and stepped out into the alleyway. She had known him for a number of years now—since she had first attended the madrasa, in fact—and although she tried to talk to him whenever possible, she had never been alone with him like this before. A small, wary voice in the back of her head told her he was only at her side now because of the disagreement with his uncle, but it was quickly quashed by a louder, more optimistic opinion: Faro had offered to walk her home because he was gallant and brave, and because perhaps—just perhaps—he returned her affections. The thought made Zaira shiver in anticipation: maybe, at last, this was it.
In silence, they emerged from the alleyway and onto a wider street, down which Zaira pointed, indicating the way. It was a still, quiet night, and felt much warmer here, outside, than it had in the classroom. Most of Granada seemed to be asleep, for there was no lamplight coming from any of the windows, but the half-moon above was very bright, and it shone on the cobbles under their feet as though designed to illuminate Zaira's path home.
So all in all, it could not have been a more perfect setting for— Well, for what, exactly? Zaira didn't really know. She had no experience with wooing—or rather, being wooed. Which was not to say she hadn't thought about the very man walking beside her sweeping her into his arms and declaring his love. Only, in all her imaginings of this situation, Faro had taken the lead, and had been as passionate about her as he was about his politics. Whereas now, the real-life Faro seemed lost in his own head; in fact, he hadn't said a word since they had left the classroom.
Deciding to hurry things along a little, Zaira said, 'Thank you for offering to walk me home.'
Faro shrugged. 'It's not far, is it? Anyway, it gets me out of there—and away from Nabil.'
'Yes,' agreed Zaira, reflecting this was not the best start.
'He just frustrates me so much!' continued Faro. 'It's all very well preaching peace and tolerance in that little classroom, but look at what's happening outside, in the rest of Granada—in the rest of al-Andalus. It's like he can't even see it!'
'Yes,' said Zaira again. Then, wanting to draw his attention back to her, she continued, 'I liked your speech. I mean, I didn't like it,' she quickly corrected herself, hearing how foolish she sounded. 'It was very impressive, that's what I mean. It was inspirational.'
'Thanks,' grunted Faro, not sounding especially grateful. 'I doubt it'll do much good, though—I'm fairly certain my words fell on deaf ears.'
'That's not true!' said Zaira, surprised he thought this. 'Plenty of us are unhappy with the way things are going. People agree with you.'
'I agree with you,' she insisted, 'I can see what's happening. Only the other day I witnessed something terrible between the holy brotherhood and a Morisco joiner and his family.'
'Really, what happened?' asked Faro, finally turning to look at her.
Pleased she had caught his attention at last, Zaira described the scene she had witnessed near the marketplace. She spoke for several minutes, trying to remember every detail of what had happened, and could not help but exaggerate her role in the story as she described how she had saved the little girl from getting lost or crushed in the crowd. But if Faro was impressed by her instinctive lunge to protect the child, he did not let on. Instead, his voice quivering with emotion, he asked, 'And what happened to the man?'
'I don't know,' said Zaira. 'They wouldn't say where they were taking him—they wouldn't even tell his wife.'
Faro made a strangled noise, which he quickly swallowed. His hands were balled into fists and he was shaking. Zaira, trembling a little herself, was so in awe of his barely-repressed rage she could hardly bear to look at him; it was like trying to stare at the sun.
Instead, she glanced ahead, and saw, to her horror, they had almost reached her house. Inwardly, she cursed herself for wasting so much of this walk on the joiner and his family—she hadn't given Faro any opportunity to divulge how he felt about her. Deciding she would have to delay the moment of parting, she beckoned him into a side street, where she leaned against a wall in way she hoped showed off her figure, in spite of her dowdy clothes.
'I thought you lived down there?' Faro said, nodding at the bigger street they had just left. 'Why are we stopping?'
'Faro, I have to tell you something,' she blurted out.
Zaira hesitated. She knew she couldn't just tell him how she felt—that wasn't how this worked, and it certainly wasn't respectable. No, the man had to do it; he had to be the one to instigate the courtship, the romance—whatever this was. But, for some reason, Faro was being reticent, and they were running out of time. They might not get another chance like this, on their own, in a quiet moonlit city that seemed to exist just for them. And if even if they did, Zaira had never been good at waiting.
Then, as Faro looked expectantly at her, she had an idea.
'My father wants me to get married,' she said, sure this would prompt some reaction, hopefully jealousy.
Faro's thick eyebrows came together, and then he laughed. Zaira stared at him, crushed: this was not the response she had been hoping for.
'What's so funny?' she demanded.
'Aren't you a bit young?' he said, still grinning.
'Are you?' He sounded genuinely surprised to hear this. 'How quickly time passes! It seems like only yesterday you were a little girl, hiding behind your brother in the madrasa.'
Zaira scowled: she hadn't been that young when she had first come to the madrasa, and she had certainly never hidden behind Ramiro.
'He really should stop being such a coward and come back,' continued Faro, presumably referring to her brother. 'We could use more young people like him, if we're going to do something.'
'Right,' said Zaira shortly: this conversation was not going at all to plan. Then, determined to persist, she said, 'But Faro, my father wants me to start meeting suitors.'
'Well… There you go,' said Faro, looking slightly bemused now. 'Good luck to you, I suppose.'
Zaira could have screamed. What was the matter with him? Could he not see how much he meant to her? Could he not tell she ached for him? Could he not understand that they were the same, she and him, and that wherever he went and whatever he did, she wanted to be at his side?
'Faro,' she said, taking a step towards him, not sure what she was going to say, only that she had to say something. 'I— I don't want to meet any suitors. I don't want to be married. Not to some stranger, at least…'
She made herself look directly into his eyes, which were very dark, willing him to understand. This close to Faro, she was painfully aware of her own body, and how little and awkward it was, in comparison to his. But still, some force was pulling her forward, compelling her towards him, and she dared herself to reach out and touch his arm—longing for him to touch her in return.
Faro stared at her hand on his sleeve for a moment, then up at her, and comprehension seemed to dawn in his eyes. He took a step backwards, so her fingers fell uselessly to her side. Then he opened his mouth to say something, seemed to think better of it, and glanced towards the main street instead.
'I should be getting back to the madrasa,' he said quietly. 'Nabil will need help clearing away. In fact, he'll be wondering where I am…'
Zaira felt as though she were about to cave in on herself: he had seen, he had known, and now he was leaving. Heat rushed to her face, and she tried to speak, but nothing came out.
'You can walk the rest of the way by yourself, can't you?' asked Faro. 'It's just around the corner there, right?'
'Yes,' she managed to squeak. Then, 'Thank you for walking me. I didn't— I mean, I don't—'
But Zaira didn't know what she was trying to say, and her garbled words only made it worse. As he watched her, a small smile broke through Faro's serious expression, and he seemed to take pity on her.
'Little Zaira,' he said, 'I am fond of you, you know.'
He reached out, and for one heart-stopping moment she thought he was going to pull her towards him at last. But he merely picked up the end of her long plait and gave it a gentle tug, as though teasing a cat by pulling on its tail.
'Well, goodnight,' said Faro, turning away.
'Goodnight,' Zaira managed to whisper back.
As he disappeared into the main street, she felt winded, as though he had kicked her in the stomach. She wasn't entirely sure she even understood what had just happened—what she had done wrong—only she was fairly certain men didn't express their romantic intentions by pulling on women's hair. No, that was something Ramiro might have done; it was action of an older brother reminding his little sister of her place.
Zaira wanted to sink to the ground, curl up and disappear completely. She could not bear the shame and confusion and disappointment currently coursing through her. How would she be able to face him again? How would she able to return to the madrasa?
She stood there for a long time, her horror freezing her in place. Then somewhere nearby an owl hooted, and the sound returned Zaira to her senses: it would have been unwise to linger out here, on her own, in the middle of the night, even if she had not been a Morisco. The fact that she was made it downright foolish, and a poor way to repay Faro's gallantry.
So Zaira forced herself out onto the main street once more, and dragged her feet the short distance back to her house. With a practiced sweep of her hand, she felt for the loose cobble by the door, pulled it up, and retrieved the key she had shoved underneath earlier that evening. Very slowly and carefully, so as not to make any noise, she slipped the key into the door, turned it, and winced as the lock clunked and the door creaked open.
All was dark and quiet inside the house, and after Zaira had padded inside she closed the door behind her with painstaking slowness. Then, suddenly exhausted, she slumped forward and rested her forehead against the closed door, paralysed all over again by how disastrous the night had been.
'I was wondering when you would show up.'
Gasping, Zaira whirled around, her chest tight with shock. She peered into the shadows, and it did not take long for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, and for her to identify the figure sitting on the stairs. In any case, she recognised his voice: it could have been pitch black, and Zaira still would have known that the person waiting up for her—checking up on her—was her brother.
Zaira scored a line around the skin of the pomegranate with a knife, and then pulled. The fruit made a crackling sound as it broke apart, like burning wood. She placed one half on the table and then regarded the other with a sigh, before beginning— once again—to pick out all the little red seeds from the white pulp.
It was dull, painstaking work, easing each tiny drop of fruit from its flesh and flinging it into the clay bowl beside her. But then, every task she had been set over the last few days had been similarly inane: sweeping, darning, scrubbing at the grating between every tile in the house—that had been the worst. Her hands were currently pink with what she had taken to be pomegranate juice, but perhaps they had simply been rubbed raw by all of these chores.
Almost a week had passed since Ramiro had caught her coming back from the madrasa, and Zaira could not remember enduring a period of time quite so miserable. She had begged her brother to keep her secret, but Ramiro—traitor that he was—had told their father what she had done the very next morning.
Even now, Zaira winced to remember the scene that had followed in Turab's workshop. She had never known her father to be so angry, and although he had never raised a hand to her, Zaira had trembled when faced with his fury. Turab had shouted at her, seemingly for hours, cursing her foolishness, her recklessness, her lack of respect… It had gone on and on, and now Zaira reflected on it, she wondered whether he had taken her disobedience particularly personally, because the discovery of her trip to the madrasa had come so soon after their heart-to-heart of a few days previously.
Whatever the reason, she was now in complete disgrace. Until further notice, she had been banned from leaving the house—even with Ramiro as a chaperone—and instead she had been set these endless, tedious tasks. Worse still, none of her family were talking to her. There seemed to be some agreement between them to act as though she didn't exist, which at first hadn't bothered Zaira, but now it was beginning to sting: she felt like a ghost in her own house. Sometimes, her mother or grandmother might tell her to start on a new chore, but her father and brother had not said a single word to her since that fateful morning. Not that Zaira cared about Ramiro—she was too furious with him for his disloyalty—but it pained her to be ignored by Turab.
No, that wasn't quite true, Zaira thought, flicking another few pomegranate seeds towards the bowl with the point of her knife; her father had spoken to her once. It had been the day before yesterday—or so she thought, it was difficult to keep track of the days when she wasn't allowed out—and Turab had walked into the kitchen while she had been washing clothes in the sink.
'Zaira, there is someone I would like you to meet next week,' he had said. 'His name is Yafi, he is the son of a wool merchant, and by all accounts he is a very pleasant young man. I have invited him round to the house, so I expect you to behave yourself for once, and not shame me any more than you already have.'
'Yes, Father,' Zaira had replied, looking into the soapy water and feeling utterly dejected. Then, wanting to ask more questions about this Yafi, she had turned around and said, 'Father, how did you—?' but stopped when she discovered Turab was already gone.
Zairapushed hair from her eyes with the back of her hand to avoid getting her forehead sticky with pomegranate juice, and considered—not for the first time—what this suitor of hers, Yafi, would be like. Hearing him described as "a very pleasant young man" did not endear her towards him, and she had no feelings whatsoever towards wool merchants—or, indeed, their sons. What if Yafi was smelly or ugly or stupid? What if he was ridiculous? She didn't think Turab would make her marry the first man she met if she didn't like him, but he was very angry with her at the moment, so maybe he wanted to find her a husband and get her out of the house as quickly as possible.
The trouble was, Zaira reflected, even if Yafiwas handsome and clever and smelled perfectly normal, she knew she wouldn't want to marry him. In fact, he could be completely perfect but, for her, would always have one unalterable flaw: this Yafi, whoever he might be, was not Faro.
Zaira experienced a now-familiar feeling of humiliation wash over her as she thought of Faro. Another, unintended consequence of all these punishments doled out by her father was that, shut up in the house with no one to talk to, she was forced to dwell endlessly on what had happened—or rather, not happened—in the alleyway with Faro.
It was torturous, replaying and unpicking that scene while she swept and scrubbed and chopped. Awful details kept coming back to her: the way she had leaned provocatively against the wall; the dawning comprehension in his eyes as she had reached out for him; and, worst of all, the way he had pulled at her plait as though she was just silly little girl. Oh, how could she have made such a mess of it all? It was bad enough she had been so obvious, so eager, but to have acted so for nothing… Zaira shuddered anew. Her father might think she'd shamed him, but that was nothing to how much Zaira felt she'd shamed herself.
What was she going to do? It was almost impossible to think straight, when she couldn't even go on a walk to clear her head. If she were being honest with herself, she knew Faro had now got the message, so either he had bolted because he needed more time to consider her as a romantic prospect, or because he wasn't interested at all—and Zaira was afraid it was the latter.
How was she going to face him again? She was desperate to make him realise what she was truly like, and how good they could be together, but whenever she thought about seeing him once more her insides squirmed with embarrassment. How was she ever going to pluck up the courage to talk to him again, when she returned to the madrasa?
If she returned to the madrasa, Zaira silently corrected herself, for at the moment being able to go back to the secret school seemed very unlikely. It was so unfair: Mona was allowed to attend, and she hardly cared about being Muslim, or about standing up for the rights of Moriscos. Mona's father walked her there and back every week, but Zaira could only imagine Turab's response if she asked him to perform a similar duty… It was just so frustrating: not only was Zaira now going to miss her regular lessons in Islam and Arabic, she would also be left out of whatever action Faro was planning against the Christians. If only her family had heard him speak the other day; then, perhaps, they would be able to appreciate how important it was to fight for their Muslim identity, in spite of the danger. But they hadn't heard because they hadn't been there; instead, they had been hidden away, like always. Zaira sighed. Maybe Faro was right—maybe they were all cowards.
The little red pile of pomegranate seeds in the bowl beside her was maddeningly small, considering the amount of time Zaira had been sitting here. She was just beginning to wonder whether this might be the worst chore yet when the sound of approaching footsteps made her turn: Halima was entering the kitchen. Zaira turned back to the pomegranate and said, 'Good afternoon, grandmother.'
She did not expect Halima to reply, but it still hurt when she didn't. In fact, Halima's silence cut much deeper than that of the rest of her family, considering how close they usually were.
Out of the corner of her eye, Zaira watched her grandmother sit on the opposite side of the kitchen table and begin to cut up an onion, presumably for the evening's dinner. Then, suddenly sick of being ignored, Zaira burst out, 'Oh, I wish you would talk to me! I know what I did was wrong, but this is unbearable! I feel as though I'm going mad, shut up in this house with nobody to talk to! I can't stand it, and I certainly can't stand any more of this!'
In her frustration, she threw the half of pomegranate she had been deseeding onto the table top, and blinked hard, trying not to cry. Calmly, Halima got to her feet, walked over and picked up the abandoned piece of fruit. She examined it for a few seconds, then—still without speaking—held it upside down over the bowl, and gave it a few sharp taps on the hard skin with the blade of the knife. In an instant, every remaining pomegranate seed dropped out into the bowl.
Zaira's mouth fell open. 'Why didn't anyone show me that before?!' she demanded, despairing of how much time she had just wasted.
Halima said nothing, but her mouth twitched as she resumed her seat on the other side of the table. Zaira scowled, and picked up the other half of the pomegranate, bashing it over the bowl far harder than Halima had done, and marvelling all over again as the seeds simply fell out.
'You know, I've been thinking about the pomegranate, seeing as I've been at this so long,' said Zaira. 'I know it's the symbol of our city, and you can see it on flags and artwork, but wasn't the fruit first brought over by the Moors, from North Africa? And didn't you tell me designs featuring the pomegranate decorate the archways and mosaics of the Alhambra? That makes it a Muslim symbol, right? So I suppose, what I'm wondering is why can you still find pomegranates all over Granada? Why are we still allowed to eat them, but not coriander? Why have Isabella and Ferdinand allowed this Moorish fruit to remain, when so much else has been discouraged?'
Zaira looked over at Halima, hoping she was so used to answering her questions she would forget to stay silent. But although her grandmother was smiling slightly, she did not satisfy Zaira's curiosity about the pomegranate.
'Oh, please speak to me, grandmother!' begged Zaira, flopping forward onto the table, which was sticky with pomegranate juice. 'I'm so bored! You don't know what it's been like, stuck here with nothing to do and nobody to talk to… Can't you tell a story? It doesn't have to be to me—you could tell one to yourself, as though there were no one here, and I could just happen to listen to it. Then you wouldn't be contradicting Father. Oh, please, grandmother, please!'
Zaira hadn't been sure this would work, but Halima was now grinning at her and shaking her head, as though she couldn't believe her granddaughter's nerve. Then, moving another onion onto her chopping board, the old woman cleared her throat.
'The last time I told a story, I related the true tale of how Muslims came to this land,' she said.
'I remember!' cried Zaira eagerly, delighted her grandmother had said something at last.
'Almost accidentally, Tariq and the men who followed him conquered most of Iberia, and created al-Andalus,' continued Halima, as though she hadn't heard Zaira—evidently, as suggested, she was going to tell this tale pretending nobody else was in the room. 'But power is a difficult thing to hold onto,' she continued. 'Over the next few centuries the Christians gradually began to reclaim their land, and for a while there was a kind of balance between the Muslim and Christian kingdoms of Iberia. They managed to coexist alongside one another, primarily because their rulers were more interested in their own personal struggles for power than in fighting for their faith. But this fragile equilibrium could not last, and so this is the story of how the Muslims lost this land.'
Abandoning her work on the pomegranates, Zaira sat back in her hard, wooden seat, delighted for a distraction at last.
'It started in what the Christians call the thirteenth century,' said Halima, 'with a coalition between three of their biggest states: Castile, Aragon and Portugal. This union proved calamitous to the Muslims, for under the flags of Castile, Aragon and Portugal, the Christians began to seize back Iberia, until only our own homeland, the Emirate of Granada, remained in Muslim control.
'For over two centuries, it stayed that way, and Granada continued to enjoy independence as a Muslim state, despite being surrounded by Christian kingdoms. But then, in 1469, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Leon were married, further strengthening the alliance between their kingdoms, and this—along with the Fall of Constantinople in 1453—was the beginning of the end for Muslim-ruled Granada.'
'Wait, what does Constantinople have to do with anything?' Zaira interrupted; as far as she knew, the famous city was half a world away.
'For many years, Constantinople was the largest, wealthiest city in Europe, not to mention a crucially important place for the advancement of Christianity,' said Halima, still acting as though she were speaking to herself rather than Zaira. 'So when it fell to the Ottoman Turkish Empire, Latin Christendom was deeply shocked—in fact, it feared for its own survival. In the wake of this disaster, the Papacy wanted another crusade—a quick, Christian victory to restore face—and there were Isabella and Ferdinand, ideally poised to conquer Granada, the last outpost of Islam on Iberian soil.
'But Christian monarchs knew Granada was no easy target. The Emirate was full of walled towns and cities, fortified castles, and it was surrounded by rugged mountains. Wisely, Isabella and Ferdinand decided to take their time assembling their forces, and as a result many flocked to fight under their banners, including a huge number of foreigners. They were inspired to battle with us so-called "infidels" because the Pope had promised them absolution for theirs sins—and the plunder of this fight was undoubtedly another attractive prospect.
'Unfortunately for us, the Emirate did not have the same kind of reinforcements from North Africa,' continued Halima, 'and therefore its cities began to fall, one by one. By the summer of 1491, our celebrated capital was surrounded, and Boabdil—the last Nasrid ruler of Granada—could have looked over the walls of the Alhambra and seen the Christian army camped right outside his city.'
Zaira frowned as she traced a line in the wood of the table with her finger. A few minutes ago, she had been so eager to be entertained, she had not cared which story her grandmother had chosen to tell. But now Halima had started this one, which Zaira knew only too well, she wondered whether she might have preferred to hear something less contemporary, less true. Her grandmother knew countless stories from all over the world—tales of sultans and palaces, genies and magic—so why had she chosen this one?
'The siege of Granada lasted for a long time,' went on Halima, oblivious to Zaira's thoughts, 'and there were many incidents over that period that changed the course of the war, but I will mention just two. The first, which occurred during the summer, was that the Christian camp nearly burned to the ground in an accidental fire. But if that sounds as though it were a major setback for Isabella and Ferdinand's forces, it was not: in response to the fire, the Christians quickly set to work on a makeshift town near Granada, building it into the shape of a cross, and calling it Santa Fe. The Muslims, meanwhile, trembled at how quickly their enemy had been able to regroup after the disaster.'
'And the second incident?' prompted Zaira, who could not remember from previous tellings.
'The second incident was another fire—or rather, fires—although this time they were started deliberately: Ferdinand's troops rode through the mountains around Granada and burned all the crops and orchards they could find—sometimes they torched villages too. The point was, the besieged city's food supply was destroyed. The population of Granada, which at this point had swelled to include all of the people seeking sanctuary from the war-torn countryside, was starving. That winter, every person within the city walls, whether they were Muslim, Jewish, foreign merchant, Christian captive—was forced to eat horses, dogs, even rats. For Boabdil and his councillors, this was the last straw, and they started negotiations for surrender with the Castilian royal secretary.'
Zaira exhaled. This had all happened before her family had moved to the city—just before she had been born, in fact—so it was difficult for her to imagine Granada under siege. She herself had never gone hungry, either here or on the farm, which had fortunately escaped Ferdinand's burning, and she couldn't fathom the idea of having to eat rats to survive. But she supposed Boabdil had had little choice but to surrender to the Christians in order to save his starving people, although that didn't make it any easier to hear again.
'The negotiations took place in secret,' continued Halima, 'and after about a month Boabdil signed an agreement for the city to be handed over. The next day, when the residents of Granada woke up, they were shocked to see a large silver cross and new flags flying from the towers of the Alhambra. This was the first time most people knew: Granada had fallen.
'Meanwhile, Ferdinand and Isabella were watching from nearby Santa Fe. As the flags went up, there were cheers of "Castile!" and "Queen of Granada!" Isabella, who as you know is very religious, knelt in prayer, and the whole army followed her example.'
'Never mind her,' cut in Zaira, impatiently: she didn't want to hear about pious Isabella. 'What about Boabdil? Tell the bit about him.'
'Ah, the famous scene,' smiled Halima, who seemed to have finally forgotten she was not supposed to be speaking directly to Zaira. 'Well, that very day, dressed in his finest, Boabdil rode out of the Alhambra palace on a magnificent horse, and descended the steep hill with his relatives, knights and servants. He drew alongside the royal couple, who sneered at him, calling him el rey chico—the little king—and he handed Ferdinand the keys to the city. Ferdinand then passed them to Isabella, while a herald declared that the great Christian monarchs had won the city from the infidel Moors. Then Boabdil, the last Muslim ruler of al-Andalus, rode away towards his exile in the mountains, pausing just once to look back and let out a great sigh of regret for the kingdom he had lost.
'And that was the end of Muslim Granada,' concluded Halima. 'Not a single Muslim was seen on the streets that day, as Ferdinand and Isabella journeyed up the Alhambra, and then rode through the city to honour their soldiers. Indeed, it was a dark day for Muslims all over the land, as church bells were rung across Europe for Isabella and Ferdinand's victory. They were declared the heroes of Christendom, and the Pope gave them the title of los reyes Catholicos—the Catholic monarchs.'
'But, again, never mind all that,' said Zaira, who had heard enough about Ferdinand and Isabella and the Pope and all of Christendom to last her a lifetime. 'You left out the best part. The bit about Boabdil's mother.'
'Of course!' replied Halima, looking amused. 'How could I have forgotten Aixa? Well, the mother of the last Muslim ruler of this land was a fearsome woman. It is worth remembering that the surrender of the city was unpopular, and violent protests sprung up in response to the rumours it was about to happen, which is why Boabdil negotiated in secret. Aixa too thoroughly disapproved of the idea of surrender—it is believed she would have fought to the bitter end to keep the city, and sacrificed women, children, old men and anybody still living to defend Granada from Ferdinand and Isabella.
'But it was not up to her, so, bitterly, she rode alongside her son as he met with the victors, and was forced to watch him hand over not just the key to the city but his pride and legacy too. Then Aixa followed Boabdil into exile, first to Alpujarras, and more recently to Fes, over the water. But it is said that as he rode away from Granada that day, with tears pouring down his face, Aixa turned to her son and said, "You weep like a woman for what you could not defend as a man."'
Zaira, who had been anticipating this part of the story for around ten minutes, sniggered into her pomegranate-stained fingers. 'I know I shouldn't laugh…' she began, before giggling once again.
'It's just a legend,' said Halima, who looked gleeful nonetheless. 'She might not have said it at all. Who knows, perhaps Aixa patted Boabdil on the shoulder and said, "There, there, never mind, dear." But that's not quite as memorable, is it?'
'No,' agreed Zaira.
'And here's something else that may or may not have happened, in answer to your earlier questions,' said Halima. 'According to some stories, when she began her campaign for Granada, Isabella stood with a pomegranate in her hand and declared, "Just like the pomegranate, I will take over al-Andalus seed by seed."''
'You've never told me that before!' said Zaira.
'I'd forgotten about it, until you started talking about pomegranates earlier.'
'So she took it? Isabella and Ferdinand adopted the pomegranate as a Christian symbol?'
'Actually, it was already a Christian symbol by then,' said Halima. 'Over the years, Christians have come to regard the fruit as representative of Jesus Christ's resurrection and the promise of life after death. I've heard many famous painters have included the pomegranate in their work, and of course it remains on our city's coat of arms, which is Christian.'
'So everyone's conveniently forgotten the pomegranate came from North Africa, from the Moors?' said Zaira, suddenly cross all over again.
'And from the East, like us,' Halima reminded her.
'Same difference!' cried Zaira, which made her grandmother laugh and shake her head.
The sight of Halima's mirth, not to mention the knowledge that everything was all right between them once more, made Zaira's heart swell. Suddenly, she couldn't keep still any longer, so she pushed back her chair, leapt to her feet, and crossed to the other side of the table, where she flung her arms around Halima's neck.
'Oh, I missed you grandmother!'
Halima chuckled and pulled Zaira's arms more tightly around her shoulders. 'Dearest girl, I missed you too. But we're only trying to keep you safe—you do know that, don't you?'
'I know, I know…'
'We live in uncertain times. That story I just told you is not even two decades old—it almost happened within your lifetime!'
'So you see how everything can change, practically overnight?'
'Yes, I see,' Zaira assured her, but she wasn't really listening; now Halima was talking to her again, she wondered whether her period of punishment might be nearly over, and when she would able to go outside again.
She received her answer soon enough. A few minutes later, her mother and brother entered the kitchen, and looked surprised to find Zaira and Halima gossiping at the table.
'What's this?' asked Ramiro.
'What's what, dear?' asked Halima, feigning confusion.
'Zaira's supposed to be doing her chores,' said Heba, looking anxious.
'She's done them,' said Halima, pointing at the bowl of pomegranate seeds, 'and she chopped all this onion as well, without even being asked.'
While Heba and Ramiro inspected the onion as though it were somehow defective, Halima winked at Zaira, who grinned back at her.
'Yes, well,' said Heba, straightening up, 'very good. Thank you, Zaira.'
'You're welcome, Mother.'
It was the first time that week Zaira had been thanked for completing any of her chores, and she felt absurdly grateful.
'Good,' said Heba, with a little nod. 'Now, lunch. I'll take those seeds for a syrup. Ramiro, could you maybe fetch me some water? And Zaira, wipe that pomegranate juice from the table, please… Then you can cut the bread. No, Halima, don't get up—the children will do everything.'
They each set to work on these new tasks, and by the time lunch was served and Turab had joined them from his workshop, Zaira was chattering away as usual. Turab looked at her, then at his mother, and then he rolled his eyes.
'Well, I suppose it couldn't last forever,' he grumbled, as he sat down at the head of the table, 'although I must say it was peaceful while it did…'
'Bread, Father?' asked Zaira, smiling sweetly at him as she waved the loaf under his nose.
'Just you behave yourself from now on, my girl,' he said, taking a piece of bread and waving it at her warningly.
'I will, Father,' she assured him. 'I promise.'
She meant what she said—but then, she always did. Because, no matter how much her family might think otherwise, Zaira was never disobedient on purpose. She hadn't gone to the madrasa to upset them; she'd gone to learn about Islam, and Arabic, and, yes, she had also gone to see Faro—although at least they didn't know about that. But Zaira recognised she had an unfortunate habit of attracting trouble, so over that lunch, when she was so happy Halima, and her parents, and even Ramiro were all speaking to her again, she promised herself she would do as they asked; she would keep her head down, she would stop drawing attention to herself as a Morisco, she would even meet these suitors. She would be good—or, at the very least, she would try.
There was something different about tonight. Zaira couldn't identify exactly what, but it was unsettling. She was wide awake, in spite of the late hour, and her senses seemed heightened; the smell of the books, the sound of Nabil's voice, the touch of Mona's knee against her own—it all seemed sharper than usual. Even the stale air of the classroom felt strange—heavier, somehow—as though it were swelling into something solid. But perhaps that was just the weather, Zaira thought; maybe rain was on the way.
The madrasa was much the same as usual: it was still dark and cold and candlelit; Zaira and the other students were still squashed together on the colourful old carpet; Nabil was still stood on his little rostrum, imploring them to learn their Quranic verses. In fact, Zaira did not think she had missed much at all in the few weeks she had been away; there may now be some surahs she did not know by heart, but she tended to forget them shortly after the lessons anyway.
Perhaps Faro was different, she thought, her gaze straying towards him. As usual, he was sat cross-legged in the shadowy corner, but tonight he was not watching Nabil. Instead, Faro was staring at a spot on the floor just in front of him, and one of his feet was twitching up and down, as if he were impatient for his uncle to finish the lesson.
Zaira was impatient too. She might not have been distraught over missing a few hours of chanting verses each week, but she itched to know how much support Faro had managed to rally in that time—and whether a plan had been formulated to tackle the repression of the Moriscos. Indeed, Zaira was so eager to know what was going on, it overrode her embarrassment at seeing Faro again; tonight, after the lesson, it would be the first time they came face to face since she had humiliated herself in the alleyway by her home, and now Zaira was determined to put that incident behind her. From now on, she would do everything she could to prove to him she was a mature, self-possessed woman, and a boon to his cause.
Voices on the street outside prompted Nabil to put a finger to his lips, signalling the class should pause in their recitation. As one, the silent students listened: the people outside were men, and talking in Castilian, but this was not necessarily cause for concern—after all, the whole of Granada was full of Christians now. These particular individuals were probably just on their way back from a taberna, and after a few moments their voices faded, and the street was quiet once again.
Still, reminded of the potential danger of attending the madrasa, Zaira felt a twinge of guilt: she was not supposed to be here. Over the past few weeks, she had tried her best to be an obedient daughter: she had kept her temper; she had not made a fuss when Ramiro had walked her to the market and back; she had even met that suitor, had been, just as her father had described, 'very pleasant', and perhaps it was for this reason Zaira had known at once she could never marry him. Yafi had been too nice, too trusting, and even Turab had seemed to know Zaira would run rings around him. No, she thought now, her eyes back on Faro; she wanted someone who stood out from the crowd—who stood up for themselves—and someone who would challenge her.
She thought it might have been that afternoon with Yafi that had convinced her to return to the madrasa. His visit had felt all wrong. Her mother had forced her into her best dress, plaited her hair even more tightly than usual, and under her father's wary gaze she had spent the entire meeting watching what she said and what she did, repressing her instincts in an attempt to convince Yafishe would make a good wife. It had been almost deceptive, and she hadn't felt like herself at all.
Here, though, in the madrasa, all was right again. This was where she belonged, among her own people. So it wasn't just for Faro she had returned—although he had certainly been a factor—it was for everything: the faith, the lessons, Nabil, the community. And, given some time had passed, and her family's vigilance had relaxed, tonight it had been only too easy to sneak out once again.
She wondered whether Faro had missed her; she assumed he had noticed she had been missing these past few weeks. Perhaps, following that scene in the alleyway, he had been anxious to see her again—to tell her he had made a mistake, and beg her for another chance. Zaira found herself idly imagining and scenario in which a love-struck Faro insisted on walking her home again, and they returned to that little street by her house, and this time he pulled her into his arms…
Zaira jumped. So did everyone in the classroom. The noise was so loud it reverberated through the building, and Zaira felt as much as heard it, rattling her bones.
In fright, the students looked to each other, to Nabil. A couple of people gasped, and a child at the front burst into tears. Zaira's heart was pounding. She had never heard a cannon go off before, but her grandmother had once described the great weapons the Moors had brought to al-Andalus, and she imagined this was how they sounded— but surely it could not be cannonfire?
'Everybody stay calm,' said Nabil, although he himself looked worried, 'I'm sure it's just—'
But they did not hear the rest of what he said, for it was drowned out by more banging, and then an almighty crash. Zaira was reminded of the sound the joiner's chair had made as it had been thrown against the cobbles, although this noise was far louder, and she now realised what was happening: somebody—or rather, some people—had been battering at the door below, and it seemed they had finally succeeded in breaking it down.
There were shouts, and the sound of running footsteps from downstairs. Faro leapt up.
'Uncle—' he began.
Nabil shook his head.
But Zaira knew why the imam stood unmoving: there was nothing to be done. Even if they had time to run, there was nowhere to go, especially considering how many of them there were. They were trapped, and for a few long seconds Zaira, Faro, Nabil and all the students of the madrasa could only wait, while the voices and footfalls grew louder, and the stairs groaned under the weight of many people running up to the first floor.
'Stay calm,' Nabil urged his students once more, for people were beginning to whimper and look around wildly for some previously unseen way out. 'Hush, and be still,' the imam went on. 'Trust in Allah—remember, He is always with you.'
But again, Zaira could hardly hear what Nabil was saying over the noise. She turned towards it, twisting around so she was facing the back of the room, and seconds later a stranger appeared, skidding to a stop in the doorway.
'They're in here!' he shouted. 'They're all in here!'
Until that moment, contrary to all logic, a tiny part of Zaira had hoped everything would be all right. The racket downstairs might simply have been the beginning of a particularly violent storm, and the people running into the old building might just have been drunks. But really, that was as much of a fantasy as her imaginings of passionately embracing Faro, and as soon she saw the stranger in the doorway, all her hope evaporated. Zaira did not even register anything of his appearance; in that moment, all she saw was his sword, and his white tunic emblazoned with a blood red cross.
Within moments, he seemed to have multiplied: suddenly, there were three, seven, fifteen members of the holy brotherhood in the corridor, jostling at one another to peer into the classroom. The students shrank back, edging away from the door and towards the rostrum, where Nabil stood, still clutching his Quran. Nobody seemed to know what to do. The Santa hermandades appeared reluctant to cross the threshold—perhaps they had not been anticipating so small a room, and were worried they would not fit—so for a few strange, almost comical moments, everybody remained where they were, in a frozen tableau.
The new voice in the corridor was unlike the shouts and grunts the Moriscos had heard so far. It was quieter, cooler, and somehow ten times more authoritative. There was a great deal of shuffling beyond the doorway, as the holy brotherhood rearranged themselves, and then a new man swept through their midst. He strode through the doorway, and headed straight down the centre of the classroom so quickly the Moriscos were also forced to scramble aside to create a path.
He was tall, thin, and around fifty years old. His grey hair and pallid complexion bore a stark contrast to his eyes, which were very dark, and glittered like jet stones. His cassock was crisp and white, but it was embellished by a fascia sash and overcoat woven from rich gold thread. A large gold cross hung from a chain around his neck.
He did not look at any of the Moriscos as he glided through them, but the long skirt of his robe brushed against those next to the makeshift aisle. Its material grazed Zaira's arm, and she was surprised by how cold it was; she felt as though she had been touched by a ghost, and she shivered.
Another figure was following in the pale man's wake, and it was difficult to imagine a more different pairing. The second man was thickset and brawny, with long muscular arms and a heavy tread. His dark hair was plastered to his wide, blotchy face with grease or sweat, and he wore neither clerical robes nor the uniform of the holy brotherhood, but a dark doublet and hose that were slightly worn and stained. Zaira thought he looked dangerous, and as he passed, she leaned back against Mona, some instinct telling her to keep as much distance as possible between her and this person.
Meanwhile, the pale man had reached the front of the room, and stepped up carefully onto the rostrum, where he towered over Nabil.
'Good evening,' he said, his tone friendly, as though this had been a pre-arranged visit.
'Good evening,' replied Nabil, stiffly.
'Do you know who I am?' asked the newcomer, so softly he should have been inaudible, yet somehow Zaira caught every word.
'I am assuming, by your outfit, you are a bishop,' said Nabil, with commendable sincerity, 'and I am guessing, by your reputation, you are Bishop Thiago of Granada.'
'Correct,' said the other man, bestowing a chilly smile on Nabil. 'So, in future, you will refer to me as Your Excellency. Now, are you not going to introduce yourself, or have you forgotten your manners?'
Nabil reddened. 'My name is Imam Nabil —' he began, but before he could go on, the Bishop put a hand to his throat. The rings on his fingers sparkled in the candlelight.
'Imam?' he repeated, as though he had never heard the word before. 'Oh no, no, no—you must be mistaken. There are no imams left in Granada.'
He was playing with Nabil, Zaira realised, like a cat might toy with a mouse before gobbling it whole. Nabil too seemed to know this, for he attempted to speak plainly to the bishop.
'Your Excellency, with the greatest respect, we mean no harm here. This is a peaceful gathering, for the purpose of education, and—'
'What sort of education?' interrupted the Bishop.
Nabil straightened a little. 'We have been learning and discussing verses from the Quran. It is a purely academic and peaceful pastime.'
'But it's illegal,' said the Bishop, feigning confusion.
'As I said, we mean no harm, Your Excellency. We are simply trying to preserve our faith.'
'Your faith?' repeated the Bishop, with a puzzled little smile. For the first time, he addressed the students, who had been sitting watching this exchange in petrified silence. 'Forgive me, but I was under the impression you were all baptised Christians—I thought you now belonged to the one true faith? Is that not why we call you Moriscos? Is that not why we allow you to stay in this city—in this land?'
Nobody dared to answer him either way, although it did not seem as though Bishop Thiago expected a response. Instead, he plucked the Quran from Nabil's hands and began to flick through it the wrong way, tutting as he took in the sight of the Arabic verses he could not read.
'I must say, I find this is very disappointing,' he remarked, before looking up and holding out the book to the man who had followed him into the room. 'Gael, do something about this, will you?'
The dark-haired man snatched the book, opened it at random, and began to rip out several pages at once with his huge hands. A gasp rippled around the room as he dropped the beautifully-decorated sheets of calligraphy to the floor, as though they were nothing more than the discarded skin of a fruit or vegetable. A few people began to murmur angrily, and, unseen behind the bishop, Faro stepped forward, his fists clenched. But it was Nabil who objected the loudest.
'Have some respect!' he cried. 'That is a sacred book!'
'Spoken like a true infidel,' said the bishop, wiping his hands on his cassock, as though the Quran had stained his skin. Then he looked up, his expression hard. 'You are all infidels,' he cried, 'and you are all under arrest for attending this illegal meeting, for reading illegal material, for blasphemy, for heresy, for flouting the generous terms set by our great and noble King and our dear and devout late Queen, who allowed you to remain in this city, when you should have been flushed out like the rats you are. Hermandades!'
Somehow, over the last few minutes, Zaira had forgotten about the members of the holy brotherhood waiting in the corridor. But they made themselves known again now, bursting in like water gushing from a geyser, and the room erupted into chaos. At least twenty white-robed men fell upon the Moriscos, grabbing at any part of them they could reach, and then pulling, pushing, dragging and kicking them towards the door. The students began to scream in fright and pain, and most of the children were sobbing and crying out for their parents, and for Nabil.
'Take them out,' said Bishop Thiago, whose quiet voice was somehow still audible over the hubbub.
Zaira watched in horror as a woman was hauled through the doorway by her hair, and another hermano stepped over her with a little boy slung over his back like a sack of potatoes. Instinctively, she looked to Faro for guidance, but—perhaps because he was putting up a fight—he was being tackled by two members of the holy brotherhood, and Zaira winced as one of them struck him in the face.
She turned to see Mona being lifted off her feet. Zaira shot towards her friend, but then somebody seized her arm and twisted it painfully behind her back.
'Get off!' she cried, thrashing against his grip. 'Let go!'
But it was no use: she, like all the other Moriscos, was being herded towards the door, in front of which there was something of a queue, as dozens of people were trying to exit the relatively small room at once. Zaira was one of the last, and though she was still struggling against her captor, she could hear what was happening on the rostrum.
'Gael, you accompany the Imam here to the plaza,' said Thiago, overenunciating Nabil's title with deliberate sarcasm.
The thuggish man gripped at Nabil's arm. 'What about the books?' he asked, his voice deep and rasping. 'Do we come back for them?'
The bishop considered this. 'No…' he said slowly, his lips curving into a smile, 'make them carry the books.'
Zaira's guard suddenly released her, and as she rubbed at her shoulder, which had been pulled the wrong way, she looked around in confusion. The members of the holy brotherhood still remaining in the room had temporarily abandoned their captives to pull all the Qurans and other precious books from the shelves lining the back wall of the classroom. Zaira watched her captor, a wiry youth who didn't look much older than her, return with an armful of tomes, which he then forced into her hands. They were so heavy her knees almost buckled under the sudden weight, and she barely had a chance to recover herself before the hermano jabbed her in the back with the hilt of his sword and growled, 'Move, Morisco!'
It was difficult enough going down the dark staircase at the best of times, but now Zaira found it virtually impossible, unable to see her own feet and staggering under the weight of the books. But the hermano behind did not seem to notice or care she kept almost tripping, for he kept prodding and jostling her until—mercifully—she had reached the ground floor without injuring herself.
The abandoned old building in which the madrasa took place had always been dilapidated, but as Zaira joined the line of people waiting to leave it, her mouth fell open as she surveyed the damage done by the holy brotherhood. The large and previously solid door was now lying on the ground just beyond the entranceway, riven into two splintered pieces and surrounded by fragments of wood, metal and stone. The Moriscos and their captors had to pick a path through this rubble on their way out to the street, and Zaira was not the only one who stumbled as she was pushed through what remained of the doorway.
She thought perhaps the Moriscos would be gathered together outside, to await their fate—whatever it might be—in one place. But as Zaira emerged into the night, she discovered the Santa hermandades were still driving their captives on, and she was forced to join a long line of Moriscos and hermanos that already snaked beyond the end of the street. Somebody was passing out torches to selected members of the holy brotherhood, but the flickering light seemed to illuminate nothing but their white robes, making the red crosses look black, and casting everything else in shadow. Zaira felt as though she were part of some strange, religious procession, but not being Christian she had no idea of its rules.
It was quieter out here, on the street. Aside from their trudging footsteps, and the crackling of the torch flames, there was little noise now; all of the shouting and wailing and crashing had ceased. Perhaps they had all fallen into a rhythm, both the Moriscos and the Santa hermandades alike. Perhaps both sides shared a deep-rooted reticence to wake people up—to disturb the peace of the city. Or perhaps, for the students of the madrasa, the magnitude of what was happening was finally sinking in, stunning them into silence.
This was how it was for Zaira: as she walked wordlessly towards the unknown, she was numb with shock and fear. She was unware of how much her arms were aching under the weight of the books she was carrying, nor how much she was shaking, even though the night was mild. She felt far more afraid now than she had a few minutes ago, when she had been in the centre of all that commotion in the classroom. Back then, she'd had no chance to think, and had simply acted instinctively, defensively. But on this slow trudge into the unknown, she had time—so much time—to swell on what had happened, and what was still to come.
If only she hadn't gone out to the madrasa tonight; if only she'd listened to her family. She wondered what her father would say, when he found out what she'd got herself mixed up in. Probably nothing, because she doubted Turab would ever speak to her again after this, and she couldn't exactly blame him—this was precisely why he had always been so strict with her.
Suddenly, someone knocked into her arm and Zaira, assuming it was her guard, quickened her pace. But the person who drew level with her was taller, darker, and her heart gave a leap of hope at the sight of him, though he looked a mess: Faro's dark hair was unkempt, and the lower half of his face was wet with blood from where he'd been punched.
'It's just me,' he breathed, as he walked beside her.
'Keep moving!' snapped one of the two members of the holy brotherhood still trailing Faro. 'No talking!'
Faro turned to glower at them. 'Will you at least let me take her books?' he said. 'Look at her, she's a young girl—she'll collapse!'
Ordinarily, Zaira might have objected to being called a young girl, but her arms were trembling from carrying the pile of Qurans for so long; if they had been anything but sacred texts she thought she would have dumped them outside the madrasa.
One of the Santa hermandades gave Faro a grunt of assent, and he leaned sideways to relieve Zaira of the tomes. He seemed to take a while to get to grips with the thick spines, and for a moment she thought the books were slipping in his hands. Then she sensed his face next to hers, felt his breath tickling her ear, and smelled the metallic tang of blood.
'The first chance you get, run,' he whispered in urgent Arabic. 'Whatever happens, just go.'
'What are you doing? Hey, he's saying something to her!'
One of the captors aimed a kick at Faro, who stumbled forward, but managed to stay upright—and keep hold of the books.
'Leave him alone!' cried Zaira, emboldened by Faro's presence.
She felt a hand grab at the collar of her dress, dragging her backwards and away from Faro, and a voice hiss, 'I think we'll let your novio go on ahead…'
Faro was pushed onwards, and though Zaira willed him to turn, to look back at her, he kept walking.
Not long afterwards, Zaira began to realise where they were going. They had been walking for around ten minutes—though it felt much longer—and the narrow winding streets of the Morisco neighbourhood from which they had come were opening up: they were heading towards the centre of the city. Here, the streets were wider and neater, and the buildings were taller and newer, for much of the Moorish architecture, including that of the mosques, had been torn down.
Zaira sensed the fire before she saw it: there was an eerie glow shimmering above the tops of the buildings up ahead, the air was sour with the smell of burning, and the people in front of her seemed to be dissolving into a haze. But still, she was not prepared for the sight of it, as she was shoved around a corner and into what she now recognised as Granada's biggest plaza. The bonfire had been built right in the centre of the square, and though they had often lit fires on the farm, Zaira had never seen one this big before: it dominated the space, stretching so high its thick smoke looked as though it were trying to suffocate the stars.
Many people were also gathered in the plaza, most of them cast in silhouette by the bright blaze. The thirty or so Moriscos were being lined up on one side, but there were also more Santa hermandades present than Zaira had ever seen—than she had even known existed—as well as curious onlookers who had been roused from their beds, perhaps fearing a less controlled fire.
Zaira's guard pushed her towards her people, and she quickly found Mona, whose face was streaked with tears.
'Have you seen what they're doing?' Mona whispered.
Zaira followed her friend's gaze towards the fire. Until now, she had thought it might just be some part of an outlandish Christian ritual they would be compelled to witness, but now she saw the true purpose of the flames: all of the Moriscos still carrying books were being relieved of their burdens by the holy brotherhood on their arrival to the square, and the Santa hermandades were taking the priceless, sacred objects towards the bonfire and tossing them into the flames.
Zaira stared, unable to take in what she was seeing. Book after book after book was being thrown onto the fire: poetry, philosophy, history—and all those Qurans. The blaze swallowed every one of them, sometimes sputtering as an especially cumbersome volume dislodged its kindling, and sometimes flaring into swathes of bright blue, green or purple light as the coloured inks in the manuscripts melted. But the fire always recovered, and in the end every book curled up, blackened, and turned to ash.
'How could they? How could they?' Mona whispered, again and again.
Zaira didn't know. She didn't understand any of this. She couldn't fathom how these men could be so immoral, so cruel. And she couldn't believe the books were even burning. Surely holy words could withstand earthly flames? And surely Allah could not be looking down on this, allowing it to happen? Zaira could not understand why He had not split the sky and struck down these wicked men.
Feeling almost faint with nausea, she forced herself to look away, and discovered Bishop Thiago had now swept into the square. Somehow, he seemed to glow just as brightly as the fire behind him, and as he raised his hands upwards, the flames seemed to mimic him, sparking upwards into the darkness.
'Tonight, you witness a glorious event!' the bishop declared, and now he did have to raise his voice to be heard over the roar of the fire and clamour of the crowd. 'In the years that followed the holy liberation of this city from the infidels, we confiscated and destroyed thousands of manuscripts, for they were profane and blasphemous works! I always feared there were more of these texts within our walls, and tonight we have discovered them, as well dozens of Moriscos who are still in the thrall of this wickedness! But see how easily these books burn! Watch how the quickly the fire cleanses our city of these impure words! I have pledged to rid Granada of sin, of immorality, of—'
The cry was loud and shrill. Zaira, who had been listening to Bishop Thiago in mute shock, saw Nabil being dragged into the plaza by the thug, Gael. The imam's face a mask of anguish as he beheld the fate of all his books.
'You're evil!' he shouted again, pointing at the bishop. 'This is not holy work! What God would command this?'
Zaira turned to see Faro pushing his way through the Moriscos, and on his blood-streaked face was an expression she had never seen there before: fear.
But Nabil couldn't hear him —indeed, Zaira didn't think Nabil was aware of anything at all, other than his own fury. She had never seen the imam like this before. He seemed to have lost control completely: his taqiyah had come off, his robes were askew, and he was ranting with such fervour even the brutish Gael seemed to be struggling to keep hold of him.
'You dare to call yourself a man of God!' Nabil roared, fighting his way towards Bishop Thiago. 'You dare to stand there and talk of liberation, of cleansing! You are no holy man! No person of faith—no true Christian—would do what you have done tonight!'
'I am growing tired of this,' said the bishop, looking down his long nose at Nabil, who was still squirming against Gael's grip. 'Earlier you gave the impression of being a peaceful, prudent man, but now I see you are just as feral as the rest of your kind.'
'Those books were priceless treasures!' shouted Nabil. 'They contained a wealth of wisdom beneficial to all, not just Muslims! They were important, beautiful manuscripts, they were—'
'You need not be parted from them!' cried the bishop, who looked angry now: ugly blotches of colour were staining his pallid complexion, and his dark eyes were glinting with malice. 'Gael! Hermandades!Why don't you reunite the infidel here with his precious manuscripts?'
Three members of the holy brotherhood hurried forward to help Gael keep Nabil under control. Once they had subdued him, they then looked to the bishop, who gestured towards the bonfire, confirming he was in earnest.
'No!' yelled Faro, pushing forward, but one of the Santa hermandades guarding the Moriscos raised his sword, and the point rested over Faro's heart.
'No…' Zaira echoed, although she wasn't even sure she was saying the words aloud. 'No, no, no…'
But there was nothing to do but watch as Gael and the three members of the holy brotherhood heaved a still-defiant Nabil towards the fire. The blaze was so powerful now Zaira could feel its heat from where she was standing, and the five men approaching the flames were pink-faced and already drenched in sweat. Nabil was whimpering, his anger having finally given way to fear, and as Gael shoved him towards the threshold of the fire, the three hermandades backed away, unable to withstand the heat any longer.
'Do it, Gael!' called the Bishop, his face full of savage glee. 'Do it!'
Gael ran forward, throwing all of his considerable weight against the small, birdlike figure of the imam. Nabil fell, and the flames were upon him at once, surging over his body like many vicious creatures tearing at helpless prey. Thrashing and shrieking, the imam tried to get up—tried to get away—but Gael aimed a kick through the flames that sent him plummeting right into the heart of the fire. He was no longer visible then, but his screams echoed around the square for a long time afterwards, mingling with the smell of burning flesh.
Zaira didn't have time to react—she didn't even have a moment to digest the horror of what she had just seen—because suddenly there was a surge of movement and noise all around her. Her first sickening thought was that the Santa hermandades were coming for them, and that she would be next to be thrown onto the fire, but then she saw Faro charging forward, shouting at others to join him, and she realised: the Moriscos were fighting back.
Zaira was buffeted around as her weaponless, furious people propelled themselves headlong into the shocked Santa hermandades, most of whom had not had a chance to reach for their swords. She tried to steady herself, and threw her arms over her head to protect it from the mass of men now battling on all sides. She could hardly see for the blades and fists and figures blurring in front of vision, but she thought she could see fighting beyond the fire, and realised the whole of the plaza had exploded into violence.
Then someone knocked into her, and Zaira lost her balance, skidding under several people's feet. She threw out a hand to protect her face, her elbow scraped against stone, but she hardly felt the pain searing up her left arm. The impact of the fall had knocked the breath from her body, and as she lay there on the ground, gasping, she felt woozy, and little pinpricks of light began to obscure her vision.
'The first chance you get, run… Whatever happens, just go.'
That was what Faro had told her to do, and now, Zaira realised, was her chance. She wasn't going to help the Moriscos by staying; as much as she wanted to battle alongside them, she was too small, too weak. Zaira knew she would be no use in tackling any of these big, armed men, but she was good at slipping through gaps in a crowd, and if she was careful, perhaps she could escape this fray relatively unscathed.
She was desperate to go home. Until tonight, she had always thought of the farm where she belonged, but now she yearned for that little house nearby where her family were sleeping, blissfully unware of the bloodshed unfolding in the centre of the city. It was her sanctuary, her refuge, and if she could only get there, everything would be all right—or at least, everything would be better.
So Zaira blinked hard and eased herself into a sitting position with her good arm. But as she gazed around, the impossibility of her situation struck her all over again: everywhere she looked, people were shoving, punching, kicking, stabbing… She didn't know how she was going to get through it, yet she couldn't stay here, where she was likely to be trampled.
Then she saw it, glinting just ahead: a torch, lying on the ground, its flame still gasping for life. Zaira crawled towards it, reached out, and then staggered to her feet, brandishing the burning stick like a weapon. It made a whooshing sound as she waved it in front of her, and all around people began to back out of her way.
Within moments, Zaira had cleared a path through the crowd and, still clutching at the torch, she ran towards the edge of the plaza and threw herself down a side street. The hubbub seemed to fade as soon as she turned a corner, but her heart was still hammering. She wasn't sure of the way home from here, but that hardly mattered: she just had to get away.
Footsteps sounded behind her. Zaira turned to see a tall figure hurrying along the street, presumably running away just as she was. Not knowing whether he was friend or foe, she stopped and held up her torch for a better view. Suddenly bathed in the beam of the flame, he froze too, and Zaira saw who it was: Bishop Thiago. Then she registered two things: first, he was alone and unarmed; second, and he was regarding her—and her torch—with fear.
For several long moments—or perhaps it was just a few seconds—they both stood stock still, staring at one another. The bishop's black eyes seemed to bore into hers, and she had the strange impression he was trying to hypnotise her. Then slowly, deliberately, he raised a hand, and in the air between them traced two lines, one vertical, one horizontal.
Zaira didn't know why he'd done it. Was he trying to calm her? Frighten her? Or was he simply attempting to protect himself? Whatever the reason, that cross he'd drawn—which seemed to shimmer as vividly as her torch—caused something inside her to snap. Zaira whole body pulsed with fury, and in that moment it did not matter that she was young and small, female and Morisco, and he was one of the most important men in the kingdom; all that mattered then was that she was armed, and he was not.
Zaira raised the torch higher, and began to advance upon him, her pace quickening as he started to back away. His eyes were round with fear, and hers were stinging from the smoke and the sudden rush of air on her face. He shouted something, but she couldn't hear what it was over her own scream. They were close now, and as she tightened her grip on the torch, she thought of Imam Nabil, and swore to herself Bishop Thiago would suffer the same fate…
But then it was behind her: the figure, the phantom—whatever it was. Suddenly, something was pulling her away, and though Zaira twisted to try and aim the flame at this new enemy, she wasn't quick enough. She saw a shadow out of the corner of her eye, and then her head exploded with pain, and everything turned dark.
As she drifted back to consciousness, Zaira's first concern was the pain in her head: it felt as though someone were holding a chisel just above her right ear and determinedly hammering into her skull. She groaned, and without opening her eyes, raised an arm to prod gently at the source of the pain. This slight movement made her wince, and she realised her head wasn't the only thing hurting: her arm and shoulder were also throbbing; indeed, her whole body felt tender and sore. She shivered. Whatever she was lying on, it was cold and hard, not like her own soft bed at all. So where was she?
Then it came back to her, all at once: the holy brotherhood in the madrasa; Nabil and the bonfire; the riot in the plaza.
Zaira's eyes snapped open and she lurched into a sitting position, her head pounding in protest. Cupping the right side of her skull with the palm of her hand, she blinked. Her eyelids were sticky—it seemed to take a long time for her vision to clear, let alone adjust to the gloom—and when Zaira saw where she was, she wished she hadn't opened her eyes at all. She had known she was not in her own bed, but she had hoped—for some reason—she might be slumped in a corner of her house. She had even thought she might still be lying in that side street, which was the last place she could remember being, before she had lost consciousness. But it was much worse than that, Zaira realised, peering around: she appeared to be in a prison cell.
It was a small square space—about half the size of her bedroom at home—with thick stone walls that appeared to be slightly damp. The door opposite Zaira was made of dark, solid wood, and a barred slot at the top revealed nothing beyond, at least from this distance. There was another window, also barred, on the wall behind her, but it was positioned high above her head, and even if she'd had the strength to stand, Zaira knew she wouldn't be able to reach it. But as she gazed up now, she could just make out a sliver of star-speckled sky beyond the bars, and a misty glow of what she thought must be moonlight. It was night time—but which night? How long had she been here?
Trying to quell the panic rising inside her, Zaira continued to inspect her surroundings, which was easier now her eyes were adapting to the darkness. The only thing separating her from the stone slabs of the floor were a couple of threadbare blankets. She drew one around her shoulders now, as much for comfort as for warmth, and tried to ignore the mouldy smell of the worn wool. Aside from these blankets, the only other objects in the room were a wooden bucket, presumably in which she was supposed to relieve herself, and a dish of water.
It was only then Zaira realised how thirsty she was; her mouth was so dry she could hardly swallow. Holding onto the side of her head once more, as though it were in danger of falling off, she eased herself out of the blankets and crawled towards the dish, grimacing at the pain in her skull. The water had obviously been there for some time: its surface was filmy, and there were specks of dirt or perhaps even small insects floating around the edges. But Zaira didn't care. Leaning down awkwardly on her elbows—one of which seared with pain—she put her face to the dish and drank deeply, lapping up every last drop like an animal at an oasis.
When she straightened up once more, Zaira felt marginally better. She was still thirsty, but her head was a little clearer, if still painful. There was no food here, she noticed, and though she wasn't hungry now, it occurred to her she hadn't eaten for a long time—at least a whole day and night. Once more, she reached gingerly towards her head injury, and discovered a large bump above her right ear, the tangled hair around it crusty with what she thought must be dried blood. What had happened? She could recall a blinding pain, just after she had run at Bishop Thiago, but she couldn't remember anything else.
Pushing back hair from her eyes, Zaira decided to inspect her other injuries in an attempt to piece together the events of the previous night—or whenever it had been. Her sore shoulder, she remembered, was a result of the rough handling of the hermano who had dragged her from the madrasa, and her aching body must be due to the fight she had put up, as well as carrying all those books and being jostled about during the riot. There was a nasty wound on her left elbow, which looked in danger of becoming infected, and Zaira flinched again as she evoked the memory of it smacking against the ground when she had fallen in the plaza. She was also, she noticed, still in the same clothes she had been wearing when she had snuck out to the madrasa, although now they were stained and torn, even a little singed.
What was her mother going to say, she wondered, plucking at her dirty skirts. Then she realised how absurd she was being: Heba would be far more concerned her daughter had been locked in a cell for however many days. In fact, now she came to think about it, did her family even know she was here? However disobedient she'd been, however much trouble she'd caused, they'd still be worried—more than worried—she had been missing for so long.
It was the thought of her grandmother's anxious face that gave Zaira the strength to heave herself to her feet at last. She staggered towards the door, seizing hold of the cold metal bars above her head for support. Peering through them, she could just make out the stone wall opposite, and a long dark corridor running to either side of her cell, but that was all.
'Hello?' she called, into the darkness. 'Hello!'
Her voice echoed down the corridor: hello—hello—hello... As it faded, Zaira strained her ears for the sound of a reply, but all she could hear was a faraway dripping, and her own short breaths coming quicker and quicker.
'Is anyone there?' she called.
There—there—there… She pulled at the bars, trying to rattle at the door, but it didn't move, and only let out a small creak of annoyance when she threw her weight against it. Then, suddenly losing her temper, Zaira kicked at it, swearing as pain shot through her right foot—one of the only places she had managed to avoid injuring herself recently.
Calm down, she urged herself, hobbling away from the door.
But this was no easy task: the more she thought about it, the more she realised she didn't know anything at all. Where was she? How long had she been here? What was going to happen to her?
She had just lowered herself back onto her blankets when she heard the clunk of a door being opened nearby, the jangling of keys, and the sound of approaching footsteps. She scrambled to her feet once more.
'Hello!' she cried, returning to the door. 'Is anyone—?'
Then she shot back as a large hand appeared between the bars and dropped something into the cell: a chunk of bread. It rolled over her feet and onto the floor, collecting grime—or perhaps it had been dirty already. Zaira ignored it.
'Wait!' she called, for the figure in the corridor was now departing. She pressed her face against the bars. 'Please! Where am I? What's going on?'
But it was no use: she heard more jingling of keys, the opening and shutting of a door, and then all was quiet once again.
Zaira let out a long breath that almost turned into a sob, although she didn't think she had the energy to cry properly. She picked up the bread from the floor and returned to her corner of blankets for a second time, easing herself down onto the hard ground, shaking with cold and pain and dread.
She turned the hunk of bread over in her hands a few times, brushing at its blackened crust in an attempt to clean off the dirt. She didn't really intend to eat it, but after a while, motivated more by boredom than hunger, Zaira began to pick it into pieces and pop each morsel into her mouth. It was stale and dry, and it made her thirsty; she wished she hadn't drunk all of her water earlier. But she ate the whole thing, and felt a little stronger. She then tried to tell herself she hadn't been forgotten: somebody had come when she had called, and though it was just stale bread, she was at least being fed something. But this was small comfort.
She sat there for a long time, waiting for somebody to come back—for something to change. But nobody came, and nothing happened, and after a while Zaira's shaking grew so violent she wrapped herself in both blankets and hugged her knees to her chest. Then, resting her chin on her good arm, she resumed staring at the locked door, and continued to wait.
By the light of the small window, Zaira counted she had been in the cell for five days and six nights. But she wasn't sure that was accurate, first because she didn't know how much time she had missed when she'd been unconscious, and second because she slept so sporadically she thought she might have become confused and miscalculated the days.
Her fitful sleep was full of nightmares. The holy brotherhood chased her through her dreams, and her unconscious mind replayed Nabil's horrific death again and again. She often woke up drenched in sweat, her heart pounding so hard she feared it might burst. She thought she would be haunted by the imam's fiery demise for the rest of her life—however long that would be. And what had happened to everybody else in the plaza? What had become of Faro, who had led the riot? Had Mona gotten away? Zaira hadn't seen her friend in the struggle, and she clung on to the hope Mona had made it out—as she herself should have, if she had only left the bishop alone…
Worse than the nightmares were her dreams of home. She thought her sleeping mind was trying to soothe her, because she kept dreaming of her family: her grandmother combing her hair; playing a game with Ramiro; her father walking through the house or even the farm at her side; her mother teaching her to cook. These visions should have brought her comfort, but when she awoke to realise they were just memories and wishes—that they weren't real—Zaira felt a hundred times more wretched than if she'd had a nightmare, and she would curl up under her threadbare blankets and cry.
Once in a while a guard would come into the cell to change her bucket and give her more water and a bit of food—usually bread and sometimes a few soggy vegetables. At the beginning, Zaira had always tried to talk to these men, begging them to tell her where she was and what was going to happen to her. But they had never answered, and when in her desperation she had clutched one of them by the arm, he had struck her across the face, and now she was too wary to speak to any of them.
Aside from this fresh bruise on her cheek, Zaira's injuries were healing. The bump on her head had gone down, although it still throbbed every so often, and her various aches and pains had lessened. The only cause for concern was the oozing sore on her elbow: it was definitely infected now.
Other than that, and despite the limited scraps of food and the interrupted sleep, Zaira felt stronger, and was able to spend most of her waking hours pacing up and down the little cell. On one occasion she found two metal rings nailed into the wall that she thought might be designed for shackles. At least I'm not in chains, she told herself, and then laughed aloud at the stupidity of this optimism. Then, because her mirth sounded eerie in the cell, she quickly stopped laughing, and hoped she wasn't losing her mind.
Because something inside her—something that had nothing to do with her body—was weakening. She had never been so isolated in her life, and could only wonder at how much fuss she had made when her family had not been speaking to her the other week (had that really been so recently?) Her loneliness felt like a physical ailment, like something growing inside of her, shutting her down, piece by piece. It was sapping away her spirit, so that as the days wore on, she paced less far, cried less frequently, and most of her time was spent lying in a tangle of blankets, staring at the wall and thinking of nothing.
She was thus occupied when she heard the now-familiar clatter of the door and jangle of keys that signalled a guard was about to come in. Zaira did not bother to get up. She didn't even move as the door of her cell opened, but stayed where she was, her back to the door. She waited for the sound of her bucket and dish being replaced, but it didn't come, and instead there was a soft thunk as something else was brought in, and placed nearer the door.
'Get up,' growled a voice. 'You have a visitor.'
Zaira struggled into a sitting position and turned around, looking up at the guard in amazement. Nobody had spoken to her the whole time she had been here, and now someone was coming to see her?
'Who?' she asked, her voice cracking from lack of use. 'Who is it?'
The guard was standing next to a chair that he had evidently brought into the cell for the purpose of this visit, and which seemed to take up a lot of room in the small space. He did not reply to her question straight away, but as she continued to gaze up at him he snapped, 'Shut your mouth and tidy yourself up.'
Zaira flushed. It was hardly her fault her dress was soiled, her hair was greasy, and her skin was coated with dirt: she had received no other clothes nor water to wash with since waking up here. But there was no time to point this out to the guard, because she could now hear multiple sets of footsteps approaching, so she hurried to her feet, attempting to smooth down her hair and her dress before her visitor arrived.
Her first thought was that it would be her father. If he had managed to find out where she was, he would not leave her here, however angry he might be. Then she considered it might be some official, who was here to listen to her account of what had happened on the night of the riot—she longed to be able to explain herself to somebody, even a Christian. Or maybe it would be Faro, bursting in to rescue her. This seemed unlikely, because if he hadn't been caught or killed in the plaza, he would probably be putting as much distance as possible between himself and the authorities. But still, Zaira could not help but hold onto a little hope…
The footsteps grew louder, and then the door was opened wide by a horribly familiar thuggish figure. But Zaira barely looked at him: instead, all of her attention was fixed on the tall, white-robed man now sweeping into her cell and causing her whole body to break out into gooseflesh. His gaze slid over her, and then he sat down in the lone chair, folding his bejewelled hands in his lap.
'You could have given her a wash,' said Bishop Thiago, and it took Zaira a moment to realise he wasn't talking to her. 'She looks like a little savage.'
The guard bowed low. 'My apologies, Your Excellency… We are not used to such— such eminent visitors here.'
'Clearly,' said the bishop, producing a handkerchief from his cassock and holding it to his nose. Then he added, 'That will be all from you, thank you.'
The guard hesitated. 'Are— Are you sure, Your Excellency?'
'My manservant is in the corridor, as you can see. In any case, I think I am more than a match for a small girl.'
That's not what you thought in the street, when I ran at you with a torch, thought Zaira, but she knew better than to say this aloud. The guard departed, and Bishop Thiago stared at her, his black eyes so focused on hers he didn't seem to blink. There was no fear there now, only cold fascination.
What was going on? If it wasn't usual for him to visit this prison, why was he here now? Was she the only one receiving a personal visit? Questions bubbled inside her, but while she longed to know what would happen to her, but she did not dare do anything but stand there and submit to his stare.
'Do you remember who I am?' asked the bishop, eventually.
Zaira paused, still unable to believe he was here, and addressing her directly. But there was no one else: the guard had gone, and Gael was in the corridor.
'Yes,' she whispered.
'Who?' he asked, leaning forward a little.
Again, she hesitated, wondering if this was some sort of trick or test. 'You are Bishop Thiago of Granada.'
'Good,' he said, with a nod, as though she had repeated a lesson he had taught her. 'Good. And I know who you are too, Zaira …'
How did he know her name? She wanted to ask, but wouldn't give him the satisfaction. The bishop smiled, as though he had expected this.
'Zaira,' he repeated softly. 'A striking name for a very striking young woman.' His expression did not suggest this was a compliment. Then he surprised her by asking, 'How is your head?'
Instinctively, her hand reached for her bump. 'Better,' she muttered.
'I thought perhaps Gael had killed you,' said the bishop, conversationally, 'but clearly there has been no lasting damage.'
Zaira, not sure how to respond to this, looked past the bishop and caught Gael leering at her from the doorway. So he had been the one to knock her out. She had thought this might be the case, but he had moved so fast she hadn't even seen him.
'Tell me, Zaira, do you recall what happened before Gael hit you?' asked the bishop.
This was definitely a trap, Zaira thought, for she could hardly admit she had charged at the powerful man before her with a flaming torch.
'No,' she said, 'I don't remember.'
The bishop raised his untidy eyebrows, his expression one of polite surprise. 'You have no memory of the brawl that broke out in the plaza?' he asked, neglecting to mention the burned books or the death of Nabil.
'What a pity… Well, you won't have heard, but we were able to contain it fairly quickly, and a significant number of arrests were made. There are still a few perpetrators at large, but they will be caught. We have already hanged the ringleaders.'
Zaira made an involuntary noise of distress: Faro must be dead, then. Noticing her anguish, Bishop Thiago smiled.
'You seem distressed, Zaira. But are you not a converted Christian? I would have thought you'd be pleased to hear those treacherous infidels had been soundly punished.'
She forced herself to look back into his eyes, hating him. He was playing with her, just as he had with Nabil back in the madrasa.Defiance sparked inside her: if she were doomed to die, she would spend her last days and hours as herself, not as his toy.
'What am I doing here?' she asked, abruptly.
'All in good time,' he said. 'You still haven't answered my question: what happened before Gael hit you?'
'I told you, I don't remember!'
'Excuse me, I should have said, you still haven't answered my question honestly. God loathes liars, Zaira.'
She didn't know what to say: they both knew what the truth was, but it wouldn't do her any good to admit it. So she said nothing, and they sat in silence for a long time, neither of them moving. In fact, the bishop was so still, he might have been a statue carved from cold, white stone.
'All right, as it has been a little while, I will remind you,' he said at last. 'During the riot in the plaza, you tried to attack me with a torch.' Again, Thiago neglected to mention he had been running away at the time: apparently, he had a habit of omitting information he didn't think showed him in the best light. 'Now, why did you do that, Zaira?' he asked.
She detested the way he kept saying her name, and she had no idea how to answer any of his questions; he was older and far cleverer than she was, and talking to him was like walking through a field of snares.
'I'm waiting,' he said, his voice now holding a dangerous edge.
She decided to settle for the truth. 'I ran at you because I was angry,' she said. 'You killed Imam Nabil.'
Bishop Thiago shook his head, and for a moment she thought he was going to deny it. 'Tsk, tsk, Zaira,' he chuckled. 'Did you not listen to me in that little hovel you used for a school? There aren't any imams left in Granada.' He shook his head, as though she had said something very foolish, and then continued, 'Nevertheless, I appreciate your honesty: you were angry, so you attacked.'
Now she had confessed, Zaira began to tremble. 'Am I to be hanged too?' she asked, her voice loud with false bravado: it would be a little better than Nabil's death, but not much.
'That's an interesting question,' said the bishop, once more sounding like a teacher. 'You should be, of course. You did not just attack another person, you attacked me—a member of the clergy, a man of God—and if you weren't aiming to kill me, you at least intended serious harm. So yes, you should be hanged. In fact, I should probably throw you onto a fire, like your infidel leader.'
Zaira blanched: it was almost impossible to keep her nerve, remembering how Nabil had writhed and screamed in the flames.
'But something gives me pause,' went on the bishop, rising slowly to his feet. Zaira, fearing he would come towards her, willed herself to keep still, but he merely walked around his chair, his tone now thoughtful. 'Do you know, when you ran at me in that street with your fire, I thought you must be the Devil, or one of his helpers? Isn't that strange?' Bishop Thiago looked amused by his own mistake. 'I thought you were a witch, a creature from Hell—I thought God was testing me as he had never tested me before. But then, after my loyal manservant protected me, I saw you for exactly what you were: a girl. A wild, raging, sinful one, perhaps—but a girl nonetheless. And it intrigued me, that I made that error. You intrigue me, Zaira SURNAME. I have thought a lot about you this past week, and I have wrestled with what to do with you. You deserve death, certainly, but because you are young, and all alone, and because I find you so very interesting, I wonder if I can make an example of you in a different way.'
Dread had been gradually trickling through Zaira during this little speech, and suddenly she didn't want to know what he had in store for her. So, desperate to change the subject, she said, 'I'm not alone. I have a family.'
'Ah yes,' said the bishop, apparently pleased she had brought this up. 'Well, I'm afraid you don't have a family, not anymore. At least,' he added, seeing her horrified expression, 'not in Granada. You won't have been aware of this, but your father—Turab, is it?—came to me a few days ago. Didn't you wonder how I knew your name? He heard what had happened in the plaza, he suspected you'd been involved, and he pulled a lot of strings to get an audience with me.' The bishop's long fingers closed around the back of the chair and he leaned over it, so as to better see her reaction to this story. 'He begged me to spare you, Zaira. Your father offered me all that he had, in return for you: his paltry savings, his Cordoba leather—even his own life, in place of yours. But I couldn't accept that, could I? What sort of justice would it be, punishing him for your crime?'
Zaira took a shuddering breath, and as her vision blurred she did not even care the bishop would see her tears. The thought of Turab, offering himself in exchange for her, his reckless, foolish, disobedient daughter—it was almost too much to bear.
'But nor could I allow your infidel family to remain in my city, once I had made the connection between him and you,' continued the Bishop.
Zaira wiped a sleeve over her face. 'What do you mean?' she asked, her voice quavering.
'Have you heard of Constantinople, Zaira?'
'What?' She shook her head, confused by this sudden change of subject. Then she remembered her grandmother's last story. 'I mean, yes, I have. Constantinople is in the East, it fell to the Ottoman Empire.'
'Very good,' said the bishop, nodding with approval. 'I am pleased you are at least a little educated. Because you are quite right: Constantinople, a once glorious city, was conquered by the Ottomans half a century ago, and is now lost to Christendom. But even under infidel control, it is not without its uses, and so I decided to send the families of those involved in the riot there—including your own.'
Zaira stared at him. 'You're—you're going to deport them? But you just said—it was my crime!'
'Nevertheless, they cannot be trusted to remain in Christian Granada, not after what you did. And I'm afraid, they are not going to be deported, Zaira,' he said, with a insincere attempt at pity, 'they have already gone.'
'Gone?' she repeated, swaying on the spot. This was too much to take in—she had not even said goodbye.
'The ship left two days ago,' confirmed the bishop. 'It's a long journey, so they won't be there for some time. I hear you have a grandmother, Zaira; I do hope she survives the voyage.'
This jibe about Halima—and the thought of her elderly grandmother forced onto a long and dangerous sea journey—suddenly quashed Zaira's fear, and fury erupted inside her.
'You!' she cried, not even able to think of a word for him. 'How could you?!'
She staggered forward, but suddenly Gael was there, at the bishop's side, and Zaira froze, her head throbbing.
'See how she resists, Gael!' cried Bishop Thiago, clapping his hands together in apparent delight. 'See how she always resists!'
In response, his manservant merely grunted and, perhaps sensing the threat had passed, lumbered back towards the doorway.
'Don't you want to know what's going to happen to you, Zaira?' continued the bishop.
She looked up at him. He was still—perhaps for his own protection—stood behind the chair. Did she want to know? She wasn't sure she cared anymore. Despite his big speech earlier, she still presumed she was to be sentenced to death, and maybe that was fine. Because now, what kind of life would she have, with her family half a world away?
The bishop was looking at her expectantly, and she was too weary to defy him anymore. 'What's going to happen to me?' she asked, dully.
He gave her his widest smile yet. 'You're going to be saved,' he said.
She looked to him, to Gael—who was now watching with some interest—and then back to the bishop. 'I don't understand…'
'You will come and live in my house,' said Bishop Thiago, suddenly all business. 'You will be a servant, first and foremost, and you will work hard, and without pay, to atone for what you have done. Then, when I have the time, I will take charge of your spiritual education: you have been baptised, but it is clear you are no Christian, and I wish to change that. You are to be my project. I wish to prove—to myself more than anyone—that a violent little infidel such as yourself can be transformed into a good Christian woman.' He took a step towards her, and Zaira tensed as he reached out, the tips of his bony fingers just making contact with her jawline. 'I am going to redeem you, Zaira,' he said quietly. 'By any means necessary.'
She swallowed, desperate to push his hand away, but only too aware of the threat beneath his words. Then, all of a sudden, Bishop Thiago seemed to tire of her. He let go of her face turned around, and swept towards the door.
'Where's that guard?' he asked Gael.
Moments later, Zaira's gaoler came puffing back into the cell. 'Your Excellency?'
'I am done here,' the bishop announced.
'Very good, Your Excellency.'
'I want her delivered to me as soon as possible. Only clean her up first, for goodness' sake, she can't set foot in my house in the state she's in. Sort out her arm—it looks like it's about to fall off—and give her a good scrub and a new dress. I wouldn't be surprised if she had lice.'
'Of course, Your Excellency.'
'Don't cut her hair, though,' said Bishop Thiago, quickly. 'I like her hair.'
'Very good, Your Excellency, very good…'
Zaira stopped listening to what they were saying, and only realised they had left when, a long time later, she blinked and discovered she was still standing in the same spot of her cell, only now she was alone. She might have thought it had all been a strange dream—or rather, a nightmare—but the bishop's chair was still there, and the longer she looked at it, the more it seemed to contain the essence of the man who had been sitting there. Zaira lunged for it, attempting to smash it against the ground as she had seen that hermano do to the Morisco joiner's chair, but it was too solid, and merely tipped over with a clatter. She gasped in frustration, and then it suddenly all seemed to hit her at once, harder than even that blow from Gael: imprisonment in the house of that evil man, learning to be—what had he said?—a good Christian woman; Faro dead, along with many of the others; and her family—her family!
A low, desperate wail escaped her, and she stumbled, her back hitting the stone wall of her cell. She slid down it until she was crumpled among her blankets, staring wide-eyed at the ground. What had she done? She had thought, minutes ago, there could be no worse fate than death, but now—considering what awaited her—Zaira wasn't so sure.
Zaira plunged her arm into the bucket, withdrew the dripping cloth, and trailed it across the floor in front of her, drawing shiny arcs of soapy water over the terracotta tiles. She had already swept the whole of this corridor, and scrubbed at every line of grouting, the rustle of the little brush setting her teeth on edge. Now, all that was left to do was give the floor a final wipe, which would have been a relatively tolerable task, had she been allowed a mop. But for some reason—perhaps it was feared she would not be thorough—Zaira had only been handed a bucket and cloth that morning, so here she was, hours later, still on her hands and knees.
As she reflected on this discomfort, she became aware of the tightness in her back, and straightened up, pulling back her shoulder blades and causing several joints in her spine to crack. Enjoying the noise, Zaira moved her neck, her arms, her fingers, reaching down the corridor in an attempt to stretch out her stiff muscles.
It was far brighter now than it had been the last time she had looked up, and Zaira guessed it was around midday. Sun was flooding in through the windows and central courtyard, which was open to the sky, warming the floor so it dried quickly, and in uneven patches. The brightness not only highlighted any dirt Zaira might have missed, but also details of her surroundings she had not previously noticed: the ornate floral carvings in the stone archways above her head were all identical, she now saw, yet the pillars on either side of her were not, and both red and grey marble had been used in sequence to line the long walkway.
Zaira had been in the bishop's house for exactly a week now, and was still getting used to the opulence of her new surroundings. It was, without doubt, the largest and grandest building she had ever beheld—more of a palace than a house. She was not permitted to wander freely through the residence, but from what she had seen so far it was full of richly-decorated high-ceilinged rooms, wide hallways bordered with elegant archways, and a wealth of paintings, sculptures and carvings. The subject matter of these artworks was, unsurprisingly, almost exclusively Christian, but Zaira thought she detected a Moorish undertone to some of the architecture; in the geometric pattern of a wall of tiles, for example, or a vegetative design in a wooden beam. She supposed this was also to be expected, for the building was old, and predated the Fall of Granada, but it gave Zaira a little comfort, to know she was not the only Muslim who had ever lived within these walls.
But this, along with her dazzling surroundings, was the only consolation she could find in her current circumstances, and when she thought of them in that context they felt utterly insignificant. Seven days ago, not long after Bishop Thiago's visit to her cell, Zaira had been taken to see a large, sour-faced woman, who had commanded her to strip, and then doused her with cold water and scrubbed at her skin with a hard brush until it had stung. Afterwards, Zaira had been given a woollen tunic, an apron, and a scrap of linen to tie back her hair, and the wound on her elbow had been treated and bandaged up. Then, itching as the coarse new clothes rubbed against her raw skin and squinting against the bright sunlight, Zaira had been walked from the prison to a magnificent, pink-hued house in the centre of Granada, and as she had passed through a discreet servants' doorway on one side, she remembered wondering when—if ever—she would leave this building.
In the short time she had been here, Zaira had already grown used to the strict routine imposed on her by Sancha, the housekeeper. She was required to wake while it was still dark and cold, and eat breakfast with the other servants in the kitchen. Then, when the sun had risen, she started cleaning. She wiped and dusted, swept and scrubbed, scoured and polished all morning, until she was allowed to return to the kitchen for a little bread and water, and then she started work again until sunset.
It was a gruelling routine, and by the end of the day Zaira would hardly have the energy to lift her dinner to her mouth, let alone drag herself up to her little room on the second floor. She had never worked so hard in all her life: none of the chores her mother had ever given her—even when she had been in disgrace the other week—had been anything like this. In just a few days, Zaira's arms were sinewy, her skin smelled of soap and vinegar, and her hands were cracked and blistered.
The other resemblance her new existence bore to that period of punishment imposed on her by her family was that nobody spoke to her. Back then, it had been because her parents, her grandmother and Ramiro were disciplining her for disobedience, but here, Zaira thought the silence of the other servants had less to do with what she had done (they probably didn't even know) and more to do with who she was. Although Sancha the housekeeper was required to give her orders, all the other servants regarded Zaira with aversion, even fear. They moved away from her when she sat down at the large kitchen table to eat her meals, they watched her suspiciously out of the corner of their eyes, and they whispered about her when they thought she was out of earshot. Zaira knew she was the only person in the house who had not been born a Christian, and though no one said it to her directly, one word seemed to follow her wherever she went: Morisco.
Now, as Zaira wet the cloth once more and slopped it over a new swathe of tiles, she reminded herself she wasn't interested in talking to any of her fellow servants, and she doubted time allowed for particularly close friendships to blossom anyway. But still, it was a lonely existence; a little better than the week or so she had spent in the prison cell, granted, but not much. Zaira had always had a fairly thick skin, but the constant bombardment of sneers, narrowed eyes, and whispers of Morisco, Morisco, Morisco was difficult to stand. She wondered how long it would be before she started to believe what they thought of her; that she was not just different, but somehow defective too.
For this reason, in spite of her loneliness, Zaira craved time by herself, and her favourite time of day was after sunset, when she could leave behind all the gawping and whispering and climb the stairs to her room at the back of the house. It was tiny space—no bigger than the prison cell—but it at least had a bed, albeit a narrow, lumpy one, and there were no bars on the window.
Each night, before she fell into an exhausted sleep, Zaira would pray. She had identified where Mecca was by the rising of the sun, and though she had no prayer mat, no Quran, and was struggling to remember Imam Nabil's lessons, she did her best. Of course, the call to prayer did not ring out through Granada anymore, but Zaira didn't need it to know she was worshipping at the wrong time, and no doubt in completely the wrong way. She only hoped Allah could tell she was truly trying, perhaps for the first time in her life; the knowledge that she could at least talk to Him was making her feel a little less alone.
'You missed a spot.'
Heart thumping, Zaira turned. She had thought she was alone, but discovered the bishop's burly manservant, Gael, behind her. He was leaning against a pillar with his arms folded, watching her. How long had he been there?
She twisted around so she no longer had her back to him, but didn't pause in her work, and neither did she reply.
'I said, you missed a spot.'
Still, Zaira ignored him: she knew she had been thorough, but it would do no good to point this out. She kept her gaze determinedly on the tiles and continued to wipe, the right side of her head twinging as it often did when he was near—although whether this was real pain or just the memory of it, Zaira wasn't sure.
Perhaps realising he was getting no rise out of her, Gael left his pillar. Zaira tensed as she felt—rather than saw—him walk towards her. Then, when his boots were in her eye-line, Gael stopped and kicked the front of one foot against the tiles, and then the other. Mud from the bottom of his shoes fell onto the floor in large, dusty clumps.
'Oops,' he said, with a rasping laugh.
For a few moments, he walked over the mud, mashing it into the tiles, and then he departed, a trail of dirt following him along the corridor.
Zaira waited until he had turned the corner and then, surveying the mess he had made, sighed and thrust her cloth back into the bucket of soapy water: perhaps it was better to be ignored, after all.
Gael had been like a second shadow to her over the past few days. He had a nasty habit of creeping up on her, and was surprisingly stealthy for a man of his bulk. It unsettled Zaira, to suddenly find him looming over her as she dusted a shelf or polished a candelabrum. She suspected he had been told to keep an eye on her, because although she worked under the same conditions as the other servants, she was not permitted to leave, and was therefore more of a prisoner here, even a slave. She dreamed of running away, but did not yet know the vast house well enough to pick an effective route out, and was only too aware that Gael would be expecting her to attempt escape. Therefore, though it felt completely unnatural to her, Zaira forced herself to be cautious, patient, and to bide her time.
Of Bishop Thiago himself, Zaira had seen virtually nothing. Once or twice, she had caught a glimpse of his pale, ghost-like form gliding through the hallways, but she had managed to avoid him by ducking behind some furniture or slipping behind a pillar. Being small, Zaira had always been good at hiding, and she didn't think the bishop had seen her yet, although she doubted she'd fooled Gael, who was usually following at his heels.
She had even begun to hope the bishop's threat to oversee her spiritual education and transform her into a good Christian woman would remain unfulfilled, for Zaira had received no word about if or when these lessons were to begin. Thiago was presumably a busy man, and as far as she knew he was usually shut away in his study or out of the house, so perhaps he had even forgotten about her. This kindled a little hope in her heart: if the bishop was no longer interested in making her pay for attacking him, perhaps everyone else—including Gael—would lose interest in her too, and then she might be able to find a way out…
Footsteps clacked along the tiles and Zaira paused, dreading the reappearance of the thuggish manservant. But the tread sounded too brisk to belong to Gael and, sure enough, it was Sancha who rounded the corner.
The housekeeper was a short and slightly dumpy woman in her early fifties, whose grey-brown hair was almost as untidy as Zaira's. She was always bustling about, and a little prone to clumsiness, for in the past week Zaira had already seen her drop a plate and nearly trip over her skirts. Sancha was also the only one who ever spoke to her, and perhaps for this reason Zaira could not help but like her a little, even though their conversations only ever involved her chores.
'You,' said Sancha to Zaira now, which was at least better than Morisco. 'Finish that later. I need someone to dust His Excellency's study.'
'Now?' Zaira asked.
'Yes, now.' Sancha let out a long-suffering sigh. 'I have just been told Señor Pablo is to visit this evening—can you believe it?'
Zaira, who had no idea who Señor Pablo was, said nothing.
'Why nobody informed me of this earlier, I do not know!' huffed Sancha, more to herself than Zaira. 'The study is tidy, but it will need to be dusted before the meeting, so off you go, off you go.'
Zaira, stiff from being on the floor for so long, got to her feet with some difficulty, and said, 'I don't know the way.'
Sancha sighed again. 'Fine, come on,' she said, irascibly. 'Follow me. Hurry.'
The housekeeper led her down a series of corridors, towards what Zaira thought was the front of the house, for it received the most sun, and contained the grandest rooms. Then, pressing a cloth into Zaira's hands, Sancha nodded at a door, said, 'In there, go on,' and scuttled away.
Zaira knocked, and even when there was no answer, pushed at the door very cautiously, dreading the bishop would be inside. But all was still and quiet within the office, so much so that if it hadn't been for the dust particles hovering in the air, glinting as they caught the midday sun, this might have been a room frozen in time.
Zaira's first impression was that the bishop's study was an orderly but very busy room; there seemed to something to look at wherever she turned. Predictably, the space was dominated by a large, dark desk in the very centre, upon which books and papers had been neatly stacked, alongside several quills, an ink pot, a stick of wax and a wooden sealing stamp. There was also a bookshelf behind the desk containing almost as many volumes as there had been in the madrasa, although there were no Qurans here.
Aside from the desk, the other major feature of the study was the fireplace, which was so large Zaira could almost have walked inside it without bending down. A poker, brush and shovel hung next to it on the wall, but Zaira had no use for them today: no fire had been lit, and as a result the room felt colder than it was. The vast tapestries depicting angels, crosses and various Christian scenes and a luxurious-looking red carpet did not quite disguise the chilly stonework of the walls and floor.
On the same side as the door stood a sizeable shrine watched over by a statue of the Virgin Mary, but perhaps the most striking decoration in the study was a huge painting hung on an otherwise bare wall. Zaira stared at it for several moments, mesmerised. It showed Jesus Christ on the cross, and there was something disturbing about how realistically his suffering had been portrayed: the agony of his expression; the glint of blood on his hands, feet, and where his forehead had been pierced by the crown of thorns; the darkness of the rest of the painting, as though the artist had intended to depict death itself, closing in. Zaira knew very little about the crucifixion—about Christianity generally—but she shuddered as she looked upon this artwork, and forced herself to turn away.
What she saw next drove everything else from her mind: on both sides of the window, embossed with intricate, swirling gold designs, were panels of Cordoba leather. Zaira hurried to the section on the right, and reached out to run her hand over the bumps and swells of the material. Then she leaned forward, breathing in, and its scent hit her so powerfully she let out a little moan of distress: the wall smelled of her father, of his workshop—of before. Zaira laid her palms and the side of her face against the cold leather and closed her eyes, trying to imagine she was back home.
For the past few days, she had tried not to think of her family; she found it too painful. It was impossible to imagine never seeing them again, and yet even if she escaped this place, how would she ever find them, halfway around the world? The bishop's taunt about her grandmother not surviving the journey to Constantinople kept echoing through Zaira's mind—as he had no doubted intended it to—and she didn't know who she was more furious with; Thiago, for ordering her family's deportation, or herself, for prompting him to do so.
Zaira clutched at her stomach, guilt and shame writhing inside her like a ball of snakes. Perhaps he had lied to her, she thought: maybe her family were still living in Granada, and Bishop Thiago had told her they'd been sent away so she wouldn't run back to them. Or perhaps he had lied, and they were dead. Zaira moved her hands back to the wall, curling her fingers against the leather, as though she intended to claw her way through the panel.
What had her father said, all that time ago? I am fortunate enough to have powerful Christian clients… they do not care who makes the Cordoba leather that decorates their walls and chairs, they only care that it is beautiful. It seemed doubtful someone like the bishop would allow Morisco craftsmanship in his house, but perhaps he hadn't known. Zaira's heart ached at the idea that her father—the man who had tried to protect her to the very last, even at the expense of his own life—might have created this very panel, and his fingers had moved over the same surface as hers did now. Maybe, in this small way, he was here.
Sometime later, a distant noise in the house startled Zaira back to the present. She jumped away from the wall, and wiped away the tears she had left there, and the ones on her face, with the corner of her apron. Then, after looking for where she had left the cloth, she began to dust.
Zaira worked from the window back towards the door, so the last feature she came to clean was the shrine. She had not paid it any attention before, but now she inspected it properly, she appreciated what a prominent feature it was. The white-clothed altar, in front of which lay a line of embroidered red prayer cushions, was cluttered with candles, flowers and three glittering gold crosses. The statue of Mary depicted the mother of Jesus with her hands crossed at her chest, and she was looking off into the distance, her stone face caught in sorrow. She looks almost as miserable as me, Zaira thought, running her cloth roughly over the statue's head.
But it was the structure of the reredos behind the altar that was most impressive: both sides grew taller as they met at a point above Mary's head, so it looked a little like the outline of a church, and the panels themselves were constructed from lattices of dark wood, the shape of which reminded Zaira of honeycomb. But no sooner had she stopped to admire the craftsmanship did she let out a sigh: this was going to be a nightmare to clean.
She set to work, poking a cloth-clad finger through each little hole in order to rid it of dust, and after a few minutes began to notice something strange: it was cold inside the reredos, as though there were a draught coming from somewhere behind it. Frowning, Zaira moved to the place where the edge of the wooden altarpiece met the wall and put a hand to the gap. She hadn't been imagining it: there was a definitely a chill there.
Zaira slid the tips of her fingers between the wood and stone, although very carefully, for she could not imagine the trouble she would be in if the whole shrine toppled down. Hardly daring to breathe, she inched the reredos away from the wall, pausing every so often to check the table was not being pushed too far forward. Then, when it was big enough, she squeezed her face into the opening she had made and peered inside. The shrine did not, as she had expected, back onto just solid stone wall; instead, there was an arched doorway behind it, about the size of the fireplace. It was very dark beyond this hidden entrance, therefore Zaira didn't think it could lead to the hallway just beyond the study: so where did it go?
'Are you done?'
Zaira almost fell over as Sancha burst into the study. She whirled around, but fortunately the housekeeper's gaze was roving around the room, checking everything was clean.
'Yes,' said Zaira, taking advantage of Sancha's diverted attention to push the reredos back in place with the heel of her foot. 'All finished.'
Zaira thought about the secret doorway all afternoon. What was it for? Who knew about it? Where did it go? For surely it must lead somewhere; if it had just been a cubby-hole, why had she felt that draught coming from behind the reredos? She thought she remembered Halima once telling her big houses and castles sometimes featured hidden passageways, in case they were subject to attack. Had the Moors who constructed this residence included some sort of secret tunnel, in case their enemies had come knocking? If so, considering what had happened to Granada since, they'd shown great foresight.
The more Zaira mulled it over, the more she began to wonder whether this archway might also offer her a chance to escape. The front door of the house was manned by servants, and Gael would be expecting her to make a break for it via the smaller side door though which she had entered a week ago. But what if there was another way, one she had not been supposed to find?
By the time she had finished her evening meal, Zaira's curiosity about the mysterious doorway was all-consuming. At night, the house was very dark, lit only intermittently by oil lamps, and each servant was given a small candle in a brass holder to illuminate their path to bed. Now, at the foot of the backstairs, Zaira's hand curved around her flickering flame to prevent it from going out, and she hesitated. Would anyone notice if she didn't immediately go up to the second floor? Was anyone even around to see a small figure and a lone speck of light creeping into the yawning shadows?
Decision made, Zaira turned away from the staircase and instead padded back towards the front of the house, listening hard and casting a look over her shoulder every so often for Gael. She retraced the route Sancha had showed her earlier, towards the bishop's study. It was brighter here, for there were more lamps hanging from the walls, and Zaira was tempted to blow out her candle, which was slowing her progress. But reasoning it might be unwise to be without her own light, she resisted the urge, and swapped the brass holder to her left hand, shaking off the hot wax that had dribbled over the fingers of her right.
She did not sneak all the way to Bishop Thiago's study, but stopped when she reached the wall that ran parallel to the front of the house, and that she thought would eventually lead to that room she had dusted earlier. Zaira stretched out a hand and placed it on the stone, as though by touching it she might be able to tell what lay beyond, but of course it only felt solid and cold.
She looked from side to side, trying to decide on a route. Then, because the candle was now to her left, she turned that way, and walked alongside the wall, the fingers of her right hand trailing along its rough surface. She didn't know what she was looking for. A similar kind of archway? An actual door? Another shrine? Perhaps there were shrines dotted all over this house, each one blocking a mysterious entranceway from view. Or perhaps there was only one way in, and it was positioned in the bishop's office—although that wouldn't make it an especially practical means of escape, Zaira thought.
She followed the bare, dense wall for several minutes before she started to feel a little foolish. What was she doing, creeping around in the middle of the night? On the off chance that archway had been more than just an architectural anomaly, surely it would be easier to explore this during the day, even if there were more people around? And, if she were being truly honest with herself, Zaira thought she was probably getting carried away in her desperation to leave this house, imagining there were routes out that did not exist.
At the end of the corridor was a tapestry, and Zaira told herself she would follow the wall to it, and then return to the backstairs and go to bed. But as she drew closer, and saw the exquisite embroidery, she stopped to admire the scene hanging before her: in the tapestry, four women were gathered around what looked to be some sort of cave, to the side of which sat a large and flat round stone, like a door off its hinges. The light glittering from within the cave told Zaira this was a depiction of some Christian story, and she thought Halima might have told her about it once, for it felt vaguely familiar.
Trying to remember, Zaira held her candle nearer to the tapestry, and then leaned away as the flame suddenly twitched back at her, almost burning the end of her plait. Why had it done that? She frowned and reached out for the material of the tapestry, which was coarse and unexpectedly chilled. She gave it a prod, and instead of feeling hard stone behind it, the hanging melted backwards, into something hollow.
Her heart thrumming, Zaira felt for the edge of the tapestry and pulled it to one side: sure enough, concealed behind was a low archway, almost identical to the one in the bishop's study. She glanced behind her once more, and then—careful to keep her candle away from the rough, woven material—ducked into the darkness beyond.
Zaira's first thought, as she cautiously straightened up on the other side, was how glad she was she had not been stupid enough to blow out her light. She was, as she had hoped, in a passageway of some sort, and one that would have been pitch black, had it not been for the halo of light from her candle. Her second thought was that this hidden walkway almost seemed designed for her: it was very narrow, not quite wide enough to extend her arms out to either side, and if she stood on tiptoe she could feel the ceiling just above her head. Assuming he knew about this place, the bishop would have to shuffle through it on bent knees, and Gael would have even more trouble, considering his bulk.
This thought buoyed Zaira—for despite her slight build, it was still an oppressively small, dark space—and she took her first few tentative steps into the passageway. She tried to tread lightly, for her footfalls were loud against the stone, and after she collided with a cobweb, took to waving her free hand in front of her face as she walked; evidently, no one had dusted in here for some time.
She inched through the darkness for a few minutes, breathing in great gulps of stale air in an attempt to keep her nerve. She felt as though she were in labyrinth and, unhelpfully, her mind began to conjure eerie stories her grandmother had told her of similar settings. Where was she going? What if she got lost? And, though she knew it was impossible, was there some monstrous beast lurking somewhere in this dark maze? Over the past week or so, Zaira had experienced moments of pure fear and abject horror, but this feeling of low-level dread was entirely new.
All of a sudden, she heard the murmur of a voice and froze: perhaps she wasn't alone after all. But then, as she stood there, heart pounding, she reasoned that the noise was coming not from ahead but to her left. There was also no mistaking that soft, silky tone. Placing her candle carefully on the ground, Zaira crept forward in the darkness, until ahead she discovered—as she had hoped—a surface punctured by many little lights. With her left hand she felt for the stone archway near her head, ducked once more, and eased herself into the back of the reredos of Bishop Thiago's shrine.
Zaira would have felt triumphant, had she not been so concerned with staying hidden. She squinted through the trellis of wood, not daring to get too near, lest she be spotted—although, given the bishop's study was bathed in candlelight and she was crouching in complete darkness, this was probably unlikely. Thiago was stood up, and had his back to her, so she could not see his face, and Gael was slumped in a chair by the window playing with a small dagger—it was a relief to identify his whereabouts. But Zaira had a good view of the visitor—Señor Pablo, Sancha had said—who was sat behind the bishop's desk.
He was a fairly young man, certainly no more than thirty years old, with a round and rather shiny face and thinning blond hair. Zaira thought there was an air of wealth about him, as he was slightly overweight, and his clothes were very bright and clean. He was looking up at Bishop Thiago with a blank, almost gormless expression, and Zaira concluded he either wasn't listening, or he was and he didn't understand a word of what was being said. Intrigued, Zaira tuned in to the bishop's voice.
'… All I'm saying, Pablo, is that it's imperative you remember our little arrangement. King Ferdinand is a busy man, and does not always have the time to inform everybody of his… intentions. Yet it is vital that I, along with other important members of the clergy, be kept well-informed of the king's plans, his ambitions, even his moods. And that's where you come in, Pablo—that's what makes you so important.'
Through the reredos, Zaira watched the younger man's sheepish smile turn to an expression of caution. 'But— but will His Majesty mind, my talking to you like this?' he asked.
'Oh, of course not,' said Thiago, soothingly. 'My dear boy, you have to realise you are doing the king a great favour by confiding in me. Otherwise he would spend most of his days repeating himself to every clergyman in the land, and what a bore that would be! If I were you, I wouldn't even mention our little conversations to him.'
'No?' said Pablo, uncertainly.
'Well, not unless you want to waste the king's time,' said Thiago. 'But that would be very disrespectful, wouldn't it? When he's such a busy and important man. You wouldn't want to waste his time, would you, Pablo?'
'No!' cried Pablo, looking stricken at the thought. 'The king's time is precious!'
'What a very wise thing to say,' said Bishop Thiago, as though talking to a child. 'How lucky King Ferdinand is to have you. If only all his courtiers were so understanding, so loyal.'
Pablo looked bashfully at the floor, apparently delighted to be on the receiving end of so much praise. Behind him, Gael smirked and scratched at his groin with the hilt of his dagger. Thiago took a step towards the desk, bearing down on his guest.
'Now then,' he said, his tone suddenly brisk, 'why don't you tell me exactly what was discussed, when you and the king went riding last week?'
As Pablo began to talk, Zaira eased herself away from the reredos and backed into the murky passageway once more. She had no desire to stay and listen to King Ferdinand's secrets, although it was interesting to know how keen Thiago was to hear them. More interesting still was the idea she could spy on the bishop if she wanted to, although she would have to be careful: she sincerely doubted he was unaware of the tunnel running through his own house, behind his own shrine. In fact, he had probably chosen that room for his study so he would have the extra protection of the passageway. It was exactly the sort of thing he would do, she thought, recalling him dashing away from the riot in the plaza.
In any case, she was not going to stick around and lurk behind shrines when there was a possibility she could escape this house tonight—especially now she knew exactly where the ever-vigilant Gael was. So, picking up her candle once more, Zaira hurried past the archway that led into the bishop's study, and continued on into the passageway.
It seemed easier now, heading into the darkness. Finding the back of the shrine had confirmed she was going in the direction she had intended, and the intriguing conversation between Thiago and the courtier Pablo had pushed her grandmother's scary stories from her mind. In spite of her better judgement, Zaira began to hope that might be the last time she would ever have to see or hear Bishop Thiago, and that if she kept going just a little longer, she would be free not just of him, but of this nightmare she'd be living since the night the madrasa had been discovered.
Excitement caused her to quicken her pace, and when the ground beneath her feet suddenly sloped downwards Zaira tripped and almost dropped her candle. Calm down, she told herself, slowing to a walk once more; it would be disastrous to lose her light here—she might never find her way out again.
Aside from its abruptness, the descent of the path was encouraging, as were her observations that the passageway was becoming damper and draughtier. Zaira had been walking for a long time now, and she thought she must have travelled beyond the boundary of the house, so perhaps this tunnel really was leading to some kind of liberation.
When her route took a sharp incline, she began to run again, in spite of her candle. She could sense it now, the world beyond the passageway; she could feel its breath ahead of her, exactly as she had felt the chill from the archways behind the shrine and tapestry. She held her light at arm's length, and ahead—just as she had known it would be—was the door.
It was not large, but because it dominated the end of the tunnel, it seemed vast—the biggest door Zaira had ever seen. There was a faint glow around its edges that was not light, exactly—for she knew it was the middle of the night—but more an absence of the total darkness through which she had just walked. This weak haze, along with the breeze of outside, pulled forward, until she fell against the door, fumbling for a handle or latch.
'Please,' she whispered, making contact with something so cold it might have been ice. 'No, please…'
She lowered her candle, illuminating the trembling fingers of her free hand, which were scrabbling at an empty keyhole, a drawn bolt, a padlock.
'No!' she cried, not even troubling to keep her voice down, for who was going to hear her all the way down here? 'No!'
She pulled at the padlock, heaved at the bolt, stuck her little finger through the keyhole, and when that all came to nothing, threw her whole weight against the door, just as she had in her cell. She pounded against it, again and again, punching and kicking at its solid surface until, exhausted and sore, she staggered backwards, panting.
Freedom was right there, beyond this door—she was sure of it. She wanted to press her candle against this barrier and set it alight, and perhaps she would have done, had it not been so damp, and had she not feared the subsequent smoke billowing into the tunnel would suffocate her before she could escape. But would that be so bad? Her disappointment was excruciating. She wished she had never found this wretched passageway: as bad as it was in the house, it would feel ten time worse after tonight, having entertained hope of leaving.
Zaira stood there for a long time, staring at the pale outline of the doorway, imagining it was growing lighter, although it was hours until morning. Then her candle made a sputtering noise, and she glanced down to see it had almost burned out, and the pool of wax in the holder was spilling onto the stone floor. The struggling light returned Zaira to her senses. With one desperate last look at the door, she started back into the passageway, her hopelessness temporarily quelled by a fear of getting lost down here in the dark.