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Thursday, August 01, 2013

THE TATTOOED WITCH - THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS

AS MANY WRITERS DO with their books, I've decided to follow their example and post the first two chapters of my debut novel, The Tattooed Witch on Suzenyms. If you want to read a bit further, Amazon has posted a larger sampling (almost four chapters) on their site. Welcome to medieval Spain in a parallel world. Welcome to magical tattoos, gypsies, witch burnings, and flamenco. Steep yourself in blood, passion, love, and survival. This is the world of Miriam Medina as The Tattooed Witch.

Chapter One
Host Maligno

            In the furthest corner of the gilded bed chamber belonging to Alonso de Santangél, High Solar of Granad, Miriam Medina stood as still as a porcelain vase. Only the occasional blink of her eyes and the even, slow rise and fall of her breasts betrayed her presence although the priests in the room knew she was there. She had watched the dawn come, had marked how the sun spilled through the crenellated glass, how it had cut bright patterns across the floor. Her assistant’s tunic clung to her like a damp tent, as heavy as the velvet drapes on the windows. Sweat trickled between her breasts. A potted oleander bush, heavy with blossoms, shielded her from view. To her reckoning, she had been banished to her corner for five hours now. In this place, Miriam Medina knew it was better to be ignored.
            She breathed through her nose and tried not to gag. Beneath the powdery scent of the oleander, the room stank of old men. She could smell her own sweat, too. The heat of the day was not the only cause. The priests had rounded on them when she and Ephraim had arrived. Their open hostility startled her so much that she had stepped on her father’s hems. A woman! In the High Solar’s chamber? What are you thinking, Doctor Medina?
She is a drudge, nothing more, her father maintained. They both knew it for a lie. And then she had been banished to this corner as if she were no more than a child. So demeaning, considering Ephraim knew her true capabilities.
You’re at a loss, Papa. One touch and we’ll know what ails the High Solar.
No. It’s too dangerous.
But you said so yourself—you don’t know what ails him!
I have my suspicions.
And they are?
They don’t matter. I will deal with it.
And if he dies, what then? They’ll blame you. And then, what will happen to me?
It had been an unkind thing to say, a selfish thing to say, but it had been the only way to move him. Against his better judgment, he had agreed. 
You’ll do nothing until I call you, Miriam.
Yes, Papa.
You’ll stay out of the way and not dare to move.
Yes, Papa.
And if I call you—that’s ‘if’ Miriam—you’ll determine the trouble. Then you’ll return to the house and stay there until I come home.
It wasn’t fair, this pretense they were expected to maintain. She considered the room full of priests. These old men—they lived one way but preached another. Wasn’t it Sul who had said, ‘Hide not your light beneath a bushel, but place it on a candlestick, so that it giveth light to all the house?’ Hers was a unique gift, but if she ever displayed it openly, they would accuse her of congress with demons.
If he would just call me. She closed her eyes to suppress her impatience and ignore her thirst. In spite of the sunshine, the bed chamber was littered with enough candles to light a nave. What the High Solar needed was darkness and solitude. Ephraim had suggested it, but the priests insisted that their patriarch needed the blazing protection of Sul all about him. It mattered not if the heat contributed to his demise.
A small page in white livery appeared in the doorway. He held a steaming bowl of broth in his hands. Earlier, Ephraim had turned away Alonso de Santangél’s breakfast. The monks had tried to feed him, but he had spit up the gruel. Clear liquids only, Ephraim maintained.
With a nod, Ephraim beckoned the boy forth and accepted the broth. The monks in front of her shifted, affording her a better view of Alonso de Santangél.
She caught her breath.
Without his robes of office or a miter upon his head, he was a much younger man than she had assumed, about thirty years of age. A tonsure of blonde hair ran about his head like a crown. He had the face of an angel—beautiful in a stern sort of way, although at the moment, the visage was marred by pain. His bare chest was well muscled for a man of the cloth. He looked as if he spent his days scything grain.   
He was handsome! The realization came as a shock. What business did a Prince of the Church have in being so attractive? And what business did she have in finding him so? Surely, it was a sin to think of him that way, although there were far too many sins as it was.
A flush rose to her face. She had seen naked men before, surreptitiously, through slatted shutters. None of Ephraim’s patients had impressed her—all flabby bellies and flaccid penises, but this one; he would be different, as perfect as any sculptor’s model, his thighs well-formed and his loins…she took a deep breath, thankful that the priests’ backs were turned to her.  
She set aside her attraction with a rigid self-control. She had studied the body’s drives in Ephraim’s medical books. It was logical to feel this way. She was a young woman reacting to a striking, albeit ineligible, man. She eyed the priests about her. At least Alonso de Santangél wasn’t old and dried out, as these others were.
Ephraim set a spoon to his lips. She held her breath—please, Your Brilliance, keep it down!—and chided herself. She was reacting like one of those stupid girls who pressed themselves against the bricks and swooned whenever a conquistador who rode by. Would she be so worried about the High Solar if he weren’t so good looking? She knew the answer to that. She would not.
Alonso de Santangél accepted another spoonful, and then abruptly, he choked and coughed. She bit her lip. All around her, monks muttered in dismay. Ephraim thrust the bowl to the page and reached for a cloth. He leaned Alonso de Santangél to his side and helped him wretch up what little he could. Bloody spittle bubbled from his lips. She held herself tightly, knowing she could not rush to his bedside to help.
A Luster monk approached to help. Ephraim waved him off. “Leave it.” He glanced to where she stood at the back of the room and beckoned her to come. “My assistant will clean it up.”
She blinked. Gods, had she heard him right? He motioned to her a second time, so she dropped her gaze and strode through the priests with her hands clasped. Let them think she was no more than a servant reserved for the most odious of tasks. Alonso de Santangél loomed into view. He is wonderful, she thought as she drew alongside him, like Sul after the Passion. Without a word, she dropped to her knees and thought of the Goddess Lys in her incarnation as the Pietà, Mother of the God. With great care, she swabbed Alonso de Santangél’s face. His flesh was a mottled red. Her attraction fled as fear for him took its place. She wanted to cradle him, to ease his pain. He lifted his suffering gaze to regard her. His eyes were as blue as a summer’s sky. It took all of her strength to refrain from laying a soft hand against his cheek, to reassure him that she would do all in her power to help him. She caught a hint of sweetness beneath his breath. That was wrong. Why should his breath smell sweet? Abruptly, he choked and gagged. When he subsided, she wiped his chin and allowed the tip of her forefinger to touch his face.
A tongue of fire shot through her, burning her throat and turning her stomach into a molten churn. She fought the grey that engulfed her and swallowed. Her legs buckled, but since she was already on her knees, no one noticed. She curled her finger back into her fist and forced herself to breathe.
Trembling, she wiped his mouth as gently as she could, keeping her fingers clear. She couldn’t afford to lose herself. Gods, what had he been given? She ran through the list of possibilities. Alonso de Santangél watched her with sunken, wild eyes, his pupils like dark beetles scuttling in a grave. One thing was certain; she and Ephraim couldn’t leave him alone. Someone in the Solarium had done this, perhaps one of the priests in this room. She tucked a strand of her black hair into her kerchief. Her fingers twitched. Ephraim watched them intently.
Poison, she signed, knowing the awful truth of it. Monkshood or oleander.
Her father’s eyes narrowed. He glanced at the soup. He reached into his bag and withdrew an envelope—medicinal charcoal for toxins.
“Take that away,” he told the page, indicating the bowl of broth, “and on pain of death, don’t touch it.” He stared hard at the lad, knowing the proclivities of young boys. “From now on,” he told the breathless assembly, “no food or drink passes the High Solar’s lips that I don’t prepare.”
“But what is wrong with him?” demanded the Solarium’s Exchequer. He looked like rabbit about to bolt for its hole.
Ephraim tipped the charcoal into a cup of water and set it to the High Solar’s lips. “It’s a sensitive matter, Luminance. When His Brilliance is stable, I’ll share my diagnosis with you in private.” Her father was no fool; the last thing he would do would be to air their suspicions publicly. He coaxed Alonso de Santangél to drink. To Miriam’s relief, he kept it down.
“You must have some idea,” the Exchequer pressed. “Is he contagious?”
“No. What ails him isn’t due to any humor of the air, nor is it a god-sent punishment. He is sick through no fault of his own.” Ephraim eased Alonso de Santangél to his pillows. “I want this room cleared. His Brilliance needs peace and solitude if he’s to recover.”
The Exchequer frowned, less bothered now that he was unlikely to catch a plague. As the priests grumbled, Alonso de Santangél captured her gaze. His eyes bore into hers as if she were his last link to life. His fingers trembled. He lifted a shaking hand as if to touch her.
A harsh clatter of boots came from down the hall. The tramp grew louder. Miriam pulled her gaze from Alonso de Santangél to see what army had arrived. A stark figure in black and white stood framed in the chamber’s doorway. She ducked her head to hide. Gods! Ephraim had said that the Grand Inquisitor had left for Madrone that morning, but here he was.
Flee, her instincts told her. Run and don’t look back.
This was the man that all of Esbaña feared as much as they did a god-sent pestilence. In three major cities, thousands had died smelling the stink of their burning flesh. La Puraficación de la Fé, he called it, a purification of the faith. He had given the town one week to come forward and confess its sins in an Edict of Grace. Most people attended. She and Ephraim had not; Ephraim’s grandfather had been Juden until the family converted fifty years ago. The conversions made little difference to the inquisitors; they didn’t believe them. Now, it was too late.
“What is this?” Tor Tomás demanded. He swept into the room, his boots striking hard against the marble. No one said a word as he stopped before her. She lifted her head to meet his gaze, hoping she looked as benign as a lamb. His eyes were a strange color, so yellow as to be reptilian. He wore no tonsure as the other priests did, but had shaved himself bald, as if to impress Sul with his greater sanctity. His head resembled a cracked egg. A thin line cut across his face—an old scar, she realized. His only other ornamentation, other than the official Brand upon his chest, was a tiny hoop in his left ear. He looked more cutthroat than priest.
Ephraim cleared his throat. “This is my daughter. She cleans for me, nothing more.”
“Monk’s work.”
“I take the sputum to my residence to study, Radiance. She knows how to collect it.”
Tor Tomás dismissed the excuse with a wave. His fingers were long and thin, the nails uncut. Something dark and ruddy rimmed their bases. “She has no business here. She taints the very air.”
“Forgive me, but I beg to differ.” Ephraim stood his ground.  “Even the medical college in Zaragoza allows that women have their place. I can vouch for my daughter. She’s received no schooling, save for what little I’ve shown her. She’s no threat to anyone, least of all, the High Solar. I would not have her here, if she were.”
“How long has she been here?”
“Since early morning, Radiance.”
“And why did you bring her?”
“As I explained, she collects.…”
“You’re lying. You brought her here because you thought she would be needed. Why is that, I wonder?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“You weren’t at the Edict of Grace.”
“I’ve been with His Brilliance all week.”
“That doesn’t excuse your daughter.”
The silence was palpable. She felt the weight of the priests’ scrutiny fall upon her. In seconds, someone would point a gnarled finger at her and accuse her of witchcraft.
“She is unmarried,” Ephraim said quickly. “I don’t allow her to travel or stay alone without a chaperone.”
She walked through Granad as she pleased, although mostly to visit the market to buy supplies for the house or their pharmacopoeia. If the priests asked anyone who knew them, they would uncover the lie.
Alonso de Santangél groaned. The focus in the room shifted. Tor Tomás pursed his lips. “How is the patient?” he asked dryly.
“Not well. I’ve administered a tincture,” Ephraim said.
“You prepared it yourself?”
“Of course. I wouldn’t trust any woman to handle it.”
She closed her eyes. Another falsehood. Fortunately, the Grand Inquisitor didn’t question it. He studied Alonso de Santangél for a moment and then snagged his cheeks between his thumb and forefinger. “He doesn’t look well,” he said, handling him as he might a melon in the market.
The High Priest sputtered to life. His arms shook as if he had no more strength in them than a man twice his age. His hands flailed. He wheezed and choked.
“Radiance, please.” Ephraim set a restraining hand on the Grand Inquisitor’s wrist.
The inquisitor released his fingers as if he had touched something foul. He locked his strange yellow eyes with Alonso de Santangél’s blue ones. The two men regarded each other with such loathing, that anyone with a whit of understanding could not fail to notice.
“This is terrible, my Brothers!” Tor Tomás announced suddenly. “Your Patriarch is dying!” He pointed at the Exchequer as if to accuse him of negligence. “Luminance, you can’t allow him to leave this world without administering the Holy Unction. I have with me, a shipment of wine from Madrone. Let a cup of it be used for his last rites.”
“Radiance, there is still hope,” Ephraim began.
Tor Tomás dismissed him. “You’ve done quite enough, Doctor.”
“But I can save him! Wine is the last thing he needs right now. He needs.…”
“He doesn’t need absolution? What kind of heresy is this?” He glared at Ephraim as if he had suggested they drain the high priest’s blood from his veins.
“I don’t mean that! Of course, we all need absolution….”
“Step aside, Doctor Medina. You aren’t the only one who knows impending death when he sees it. Our brother doesn’t need a physician. He needs a priest.” He snapped his fingers. A Luster monk rushed forward with a goblet of wine in his hand.
“Not that.” Tomás waved him off. “The rare vintage I brought from Madrone. Ah, there it is.” One of his retainers stepped forth with a bottle in his hand. The man was as huge and as grim as block of granite. His black and white habit barely passed his knees. Tomás tossed the goblet’s original contents to the floor and ignored the gasps of shock from the clergy. He broke the bottle’s seal.
Ephraim stepped forward. “Please! Not yet, I beg you!”
Tor Tomás ignored him and poured fresh wine into the cup, topping it to the brim. “Great Sul!” he cried, holding it aloft for all to see. “Your shining son, His Brilliance Alonso de Santangél is soon to depart from this world. Let him not descend to the perpetual darkness you reserve for all sinners! Lift him up, Holy Sul! Grant him an eternal place at your side, ever radiant and ever strong, free from the stagnant waters of mortality!”
Miriam watched as the sun caught the rim of the glass. The harsh scintillation blazed like a star. Tor Tomás brought the goblet down and passed his hand over it in blessing. From where she sat, she saw a pale powder fall from his fingers. Before she could speak, the inquisitor pressed the cup to the High Solar’s mouth. Alonso de Santangél raised frantic hands to prevent it from touching his lips.
Stop! she wanted to cry, but Ephraim had already done so. The Grand Inquisitor ignored him and pried the High Solar’s mouth open. Alonso de Santangél had no strength to prevent it. He swallowed—one gulp, two. Wine splashed over his face and gushed from his mouth; there was no way he could not drink. He choked, gagged. In defeat, Miriam folded in on herself. The sacrament went on forever. The priests and monks looked on with distress but did nothing to prevent it.
Finally, the goblet was done. The wine had spilled down the side of the bed and had stained the sheets. Splotches of it spattered her face. She watched dully as Alonso de Santangél went into convulsions. His death was violent and hard, as one might expect for a man in his prime. She closed her eyes, couldn’t block the sounds of his agony. She wanted to clutch him, send her apology flying after him: Your Brilliance…Alonso!  Forgive me! I couldn’t stop him! I’m so sorry! Her throat tightened into a knot, her limbs stiffened into stone. She couldn’t afford to weep. The priests in the room watched in uneasy silence, their expressions grim. At the last moment, she opened her eyes to capture a last shred of Alonso de Santangél before he died. To her horror, he stared at her as a drowning man might, as if she were the last tenuous hold he had on life. She winced, wondering if those blue eyes registered what she was—a girl of seventeen, smitten for the first time and at the worst possible moment in her life, a girl devastated by his dying. With a violent shudder, his head slumped to the side and he gave up the ghost.
She wanted to scream. Tears streamed down her cheeks, but she made no sound. Alonso de Santangél had been stolen from her. Now, he was inextricably lost. The clergy lifted their hands and made the starburst of Sul. Their leader, His Brilliance, Alonso de Santangél, and youngest patriarch to ever have served the faithful in Granad, was dead.
Ephraim helped her rise. She stood, feeling broken, as if some of part of her had fled. Ephraim looked as if he had shrunk inside his robe. He set a trembling arm about her shoulders and drew her away. They passed through the chamber like phantoms in a bone yard.
As they reached the doorway, a strident voice called out, “Stop them! Don’t let them escape!”
Ephraim dug his fingers into her arm. She had been waiting for the Grand Inquisitor’s shout, as had he. A tramp of footfalls rushed up behind them.
Her father stepped in front of her to protect her from the guards. “Why are you stopping us?” he demanded. “We’ve done nothing wrong!”
Tor Tomás confronted them. “Done nothing wrong?” he repeated. “I disagree. You bring a woman into the High Solar’s presence. You allow her to approach him on his sick bed. He dies. You and your daughter are under arrest for the murder of Alonso de Santangél, High Solar of Granad.”


Chapter Two
Potro

They were forced down a long hall and pushed down a narrow set of stairs. Unlike the main floor of the temple with its white marble facades, there was no ornamentation here. The walls looked as if they had been hewn from bedrock. They passed thick doors with barred windows, all monks’ cells at one time, but judging from the moans emanating from them, not now.
“What is this place?” Miriam demanded. They had come to a large door.
“Interrogation Room.” The large monk shoved her into the vault. He was a barrel of a man, at least twenty stone’s weight and over six feet tall. He slammed the door behind her.
She grabbed the grill. “Where are you taking my father?” she shouted. They marched Ephraim down the hall. She strained her neck to see, but the dark swallowed him.
She spun on her heel. The chamber was large. Numerous torches had been set into the walls. Three chairs stood behind a table with quills, ink and vellum. On the far side, a wooden pallet rested on thick legs at a forty-five degree angle. Lines of rope dangled from its sides. Across its width, slats of wood lay. Each slat terminated with a large screw.
Her heart lurched in her chest like a bird caught in a net. Not taking her eyes from the contraption, she forced herself to breathe.
A potro. She had never seen the damage it could inflict, but she had heard of it. As the screws tightened, the ropes bit into one’s flesh. Bones broke and tendons popped. People said whatever they were told to, to relieve their pain. But why torture her if the Grand Inquisitor was already convinced of her guilt?
The answer flared in her mind like a spark on tinder. He might accuse her, but by law, the Crown required confessions. Thus, the vellum and the quills.
A tramp of boots came from down the hall. She backed away from the door as if it might attack her. The same beefy guard who had imprisoned her earlier opened it and stood to one side as the Exchequer and another priest filed in—a secretary to record her confession, no doubt. Before she could run, the guard grabbed her and marched her to stand before her judges as they took their seats. She cringed as Tor Tomás appeared in the doorway. He paused as he beheld her, his snake’s eyes bright.
She flinched. The guard held her firm. His touch was anything but reassuring, but there was something unexpected in it—he wasn’t the brutal thug she thought him to be. He was unhappy with the proceedings. Why? As he released her, the fleeting impression was gone. The secretary smoothed the roll of vellum, took a quill and dipped it into an inkwell. The Exchequer stared at her, his expression sour. As for Tor Tomás—he lounged in his chair, but his glance burned.
A hot flush rose up the back of her neck. His regard was not that of a cold, desiccated cleric arguing the finer points of canon law. He stared at her as the men in the square did, their lust as obvious as the bulges in their hose. She held her head high and ignored him, a foolish stance, but it hardly mattered what she did. From the faint smile touching his lips, he knew it, too.
 “Your name?” The smile disappeared. He was all business now.
She met his gaze boldly. “Miriam Medina.”
“Medina? A Juden name, is it not?” The Exchequer glanced between the secretary and Tor Tomás as if he had just realized it. They waited for her to confirm it.
She lifted her chin. “My family is devout. We are Conversos.”
“As all Conversos claim to be. Still, your father kept the family name,” Tor Tomás pointed out.
“As we are required to do, by law.”
“Miriam is also a Juden name. If your family is so law-abiding, why did your parents choose a Juden name for you?”
She said nothing.
“Do you and your father attend the Solarium regularly?”
“We pay our tithes.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
“We maintain a shrine to Sul at home. We can’t always attend services. My father is often called to assist the sick.”
“Your mother’s name?”
“Mari.”
“Not a Juden name. Her surname?”
“I don’t know it.”
All three blinked at her. “How can you not know it?” Tor Tomás asked.
“She died when I was three.”
“Even so, I find it hard to believe that you wouldn’t know her name. Surely, your father told you. How did she die?”
“An illness of some kind, I think.”
“You think and your father’s a physician.” He turned to the Exchequer and secretary. “Maybe he poisoned her, too. What were the details of her death?”
“I don’t know them.”
He set a long finger to his lips. “Was there some scandal involved? Some reason your father would disassociate himself from her? Was she Juden, as well?”
“We are Conversos.”
“Yes, yes. How old are you?”
She glanced away. “Seventeen.”
“Seventeen and unmarried?”
“My father never arranged it.” Ephraim had, but she had refused all three suits. Every time she had tried to talk to the mayor’s son about the town’s growth, he said her interest demeaned her—she was too pretty to be concerned about such things. The head of the Silk Guild’s nephew rubbed his thighs and spoke to her breasts. The third was a widower three times her age with a daughter two years younger than she. After one too many pats on the knee, she told him he was a lecherous old panderer who should marry someone his own age and leave her alone. He called her a shrew. After that, the suits stopped. She decided she didn’t need men and would remain a spinster all her life.
“You’re a virgin?”
She frowned. It was no business of his.
“Answer the question!”
“Yes!”
He regarded her without saying anything. His gaze drifted to her breasts and lingered on her hips. Her face grew hot. He shifted in his seat. “How did you kill Alonso de Santangél?” His voice returned to normal.
“I didn’t kill him.”
“But your father did.”
“My father hasn’t killed anyone.”
“Yet you practice medicine alongside him. Perhaps you made a mistake.”
“I didn’t….” A trap.  “I do not practice medicine. I only help him clean.”
“Perhaps you assisted in killing the High Solar.”
“I didn’t murder him.” She regarded him through narrowed eyes. He had dropped the powder into the wine. The certainty that he had killed Alonso de Santangél resounded in her heart so loudly that it might have been a bell tolling from a tower.
“Am I allowed to ask you a question, Radiance?” She didn’t wait for him to answer. “Does the god speak to you directly?” The Solarium taught that only saints heard the voice of Sul.
He nodded stiffly, unsure of where she was going. “He sends me impressions.”
“Then if the god speaks to you truly, you know who really committed the High Solar’s murder.”
His eyes flashed. She had accused him covertly and he knew it. The Exchequer didn’t notice. He waved his hand in dismissal. “This is getting us nowhere. She isn’t about to confess unless we put her to the question. Set her on the potro and be done with it. We have a Requiem to arrange.”
The small flush of victory curdled in her gut. She wanted to bolt, but the guard was behind her. Tor Tomás held up his hand and smiled coldly. Why had she been so rash? He would punish her even more severely, because of it. “Not yet, Luminance.”
She swallowed. He was breathing more heavily, now. “With one so young, we must be…indulgent. By all means, go and arrange the High Solar’s interment. Take Brother Diego and the guards with you. I’ll finish the interrogation on my own.”
Her heart hammered in her chest while her head yammered warnings. If they left, there would be no witnesses. What were those marks on his fingernails? He could be capable of anything. She didn’t want to be alone with him.
The Exchequer fidgeted. “I wish it were so easy, Radiance. Unfortunately, we can’t go. The Crown expects us to stick to proper procedure. With the High Solar’s demise, it falls to me to act as spokesman for the Solarium. Granad must remain above reproach. As protocol dictates, I will stay awhile longer.”
Tor Tomás bit off the words. “If you recall, Luminance, I established those procedures. Under their most gracious majesties, I have the authority to change them at will.”
The Exchequer remained unruffled. “Of course, but revisions take time. We’d have to assign a scribe to pen them, and then send them by the fastest horse to Madrone. I wish we had that luxury, but we have a funeral Mass to perform. We can’t leave Alonso for long. Not in this heat.”
Tomás leaned back in his chair. “Let us continue with the questioning. Do you bear any birthmarks or unusual blemishes?” The hooded snake of some new emotion lifted behind his veneer. He was calm again.
She did bear one birthmark, a tiny dark crescent that lay between her breasts like a curl of hair. A moon mark, Ephraim had called it when she was little. She hoped her tone conveyed a lack of interest. “No.”
“You’re sure?”
“I am sure.”
“What about tattoos?”
Tattoos were associated with forbidden knowledge. She didn’t have any, but her mother had had. She scoffed. “Of course not.”
He smiled at her, a serpent cornering a chick. “So, you know what tattoos are?”
“I’ve seen them.” Why had she been so brash earlier? It would have been better to play the fool.
“Where?”
“On a man who visited my father. A sailor. The mark was infected. My father treated it.”
“What did it look like?”
“I don’t remember.”
“How did he treat it?”
“A…a poultice.”
“What kind of a poultice?”
Too great of an understanding of herbs would confirm her knowledge of medicine. Maybe it was too late for that. She had convinced him she was no fool. Drat, her blasted tongue! “I don’t know.”
“Again, that dreary response, you don’t know. Let’s leave her for now, Luminance, and speak with the father. Barto, watch her.” He rose from his chair. The henchman nodded.
The three priests filed from the room and closed the door behind them. The guard was her one chance. She approached him as she might a tame bear. “Your name is Barto?”
He frowned at her and looked away. It was against the rules to speak with prisoners.
“Please. They’ll hurt me. You know this.” She plucked up her courage and set a hand on his forearm.
“Get off!” He pulled his arm away, but it was enough. The touch confirmed what she knew. She reminded him of someone.
“Do you have family somewhere?” If she could appeal to that sense of connection, she might turn him.
He refused to look at her. She thrust a finger at the potro, as if to accuse him of setting it there. “You’d let them do that to your sister, Barto?”
“I don’t have no sister.”
“Your mother, then?”
 “She’s dead.”
“I’ll be dead if you don’t help me! Please! You must!”
He turned his back on her.
He was too big to straddle. She would have to talk her way around him, to coax him. Who did she remind him of? He wouldn’t have a wife. As part of the Grand Inquisitor’s retinue, he wouldn’t have the means to maintain a mistress, either. “Please, I’m innocent, Barto. I…I am only seventeen! I’m too young to die! You must believe me! I didn’t kill the High Solar!”
He looked pained.
“Please, I beg you! Do what’s right and let me go.”
He laughed. “And have my cojones torched for it?”
He might as well have slapped her. Fury found its way up from her throat like coals spewing from a pit. “So, you’d let them burn me instead?  What kind of a man are you? You’re a coward! You’re all cowards! I hate you!” She flew at him, rammed his chest with her fists.
His face twisted with anger. He shoved her aside. “I ain’t no coward! Shut up!”
A harsh staccato came from down the hall. Someone running. The door to the cell burst open and Tor Tomás rushed in, breathing hard.
His face shone with triumph. “Your father claims he never treated anyone with a tattoo! Which means you lied to me, Witch! I suspect you know all about them, that you’re hiding a few yourself! Hold her, Barto. Let’s see what kind of a creature she really is.”
She drew back in alarm. Her heart pounded in her ears. “I don’t have any tattoos!” she insisted. If they stripped her, they would find the birthmark. They would put her on the potro. It was only a matter of time before she told them everything—how she did more than assist Ephraim, how she prepared his potions, and worst of all, how she sensed others with a touch.
“Don’t stand there like a fool! Seize her!” Tomás’s words set Barto into motion. She backed away from him but kept her eyes on the two of them, looking for a break in their front. With Barto on her right and Tomás on her left, they hemmed her like hounds on a doe.
Her fingertips bumped the far wall. She made a mad dash past Barto, but Tomás lunged and caught her in his horrid hands. He swung her around and slammed her into the table. Quills flew through the air. His eyes were feral, he stank of wine. He pushed her down, grappled her breasts. She screamed and kicked him only to win a blow to her head. The pain stunned her. She choked in shock.
“What are you hiding, Witch?” His lips nuzzled her ear. His lust felt as greasy as blood. He drew back his arm and struck her again. The blow shuddered through her cheekbone. She bit her tongue. She gasped and turned her head away, fearing another strike. Something hard prodded her between the legs. She didn’t have to guess what it was.
“Stop!”
She couldn’t see who had shouted, but whoever it was had enough authority to stay him.
“This is highly untoward! There is no need!” The Exchequer was discomfited by the display of violence. “You can let the girl go. The doctor has confessed.”
The words rang in her head. Ephraim had confessed? Why would he do such a thing? Papa, what have you done?
And then she knew. The answer flattened her like one of Tomás’s blows. Ephraim had lied to save her. Oh, Papa, she thought, you haven’t spared me. You’ve only made things worse!
“He’s admitted his guilt, although he maintains his daughter is innocent. I see no need for us to proceed further,” the Exchequer said.
“There is a need.” Tomás’s weight crushed her. She lay trapped between his arms. “She’s a witch. She has a tattoo, I think. At least one, maybe more. I was about to search for it.”
“Be that as it may, there’s still the Mass to perform. You can leave her for now. Once we’re done, you can deal with her as you see fit. She isn’t going anywhere.”
His mouth brushed her ear. “I want you to think of something while I’m gone,” he whispered, like a lover suggesting favors. “Have you ever heard of a device called ‘the Pear’, little witch? It’s an interesting tool, shaped like its namesake. One inserts it into bodily cavities, like so.” He drew away from her and held his hands as if in prayer. And then he spread them into a ‘V’.
She knew what had caused the blood stains on his fingers.
“Are you coming, Radiance?” The Exchequer waited at the doorway.
Tomás ignored him. “I can’t wait to see how my toy affects you. But of course”—he touched his crotch briefly; she doubted that the Exchequer saw—“you can always beg for the alternative.”
He smoothed down his habit. His intentions were clear, his plans for her delayed, not done.
Her legs threatened to give out from beneath her. As Barto locked the door behind them, she slid to her knees and lay where she fell. Her cheek throbbed where Tomás had struck her. She barely noticed it, chilled by his words. He would return in a few hours and rape her, perhaps do worse things. She turned her face into the flagstones, choked to keep from crying, and utterly failed.

*

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