The Last Song
C HAPTER 1
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 23, 1491
“W hat do you see? Is there a handsome stranger in my future?”
The slave girl’s fingers tightened around my hand, but she remained silent.
“Tell me what you see, Mara!”
The slave raised her head. Her dark eyes glimmered in her ebony face. “Nothing, mistress. Nothing at all.” She dropped my hand.
“Tell Doña Isabel her future!” my friend Brianda said sharply.
Reluctantly, the girl took my hand again. Her index finger traced the center crease running down my palm. She shuddered. “Your life line is short, my lady,” she stammered. “It means unhappiness and hard times in your future.”
A shiver ran down my back. “Tell me more.”
“Have you lost your senses, Mara?” Brianda cried. She pointed to the door. “Out with you!”
The slave girl fixed her gaze on the floor and curtsied deeply before backing out of the room.
“Unhappiness? Hard times? What can she mean?” I took a deep breath to steady my voice and shrugged to show that I didn’t really care.
“Isabel, forget about the slave. She knows nothing. My mother says that all slaves are ignorant heathens.”
“But they are well-versed in the black arts. Did you notice how nervous she became when she looked at my palm?”
“I don’t understand why you even asked the slave about your fortune. Your papa will find you a fine cavalier to marry.”
“I thought that it would be fun to have her read my palm. Papa won’t be looking for a husband for me for another year, not until I turn fifteen. He always says that he and Mama can’t bear the idea of losing me yet. He promised to choose someone I like.”
“Oh, I wish that I wasn’t younger than you! I want my father to find somebody for me too.”
“He will. Be patient. You’re only thirteen.” I grabbed her arm and pulled her toward the shrine of the Virgin Mary in a corner of her bedroom. I, too, had one athome. “Let’s pray to the Virgin for our happiness.”
“Look how beautifully I decorated the altar in the Virgin’s honor.”
Two tall vases blooming with white roses sat on either side of the Virgin’s portrait, which hung on the wall. The holy mother was gazing with love at the Christ child in her arms. I crossed myself and sank to my knees. So did Brianda.
I closed my eyes and began to pray. I prayed for health and for happiness. I felt at peace – as I always did when I addressed our savior’s mother.
The door to Brianda’s room swung open and my slave Sofia appeared. “Doña Isabel, it’s getting late. We must return home,” she said. “Your lady mother will be angry if we aren’t back before the setting of the sun.”
My cloak covering me from head to toe, I followed Sofia as she used her elbows to cut a path through the throng clogging the streets of Toledo.
“Hurry up, young mistress,” Sofia urged. “We must still stop off in Butchers’ Row. Doña Catarina wants me to buy a slab of mutton and two large hens for your supper on the way home. We should have left Doña Brianda’s house earlier.”
“And miss having my fortune told? Never!”
“You’ll never change, young mistress. You are as full of mischief as when you were a babe.” She stopped and adjusted my cloak. “The servants told me that Doña Brianda’s slave read your palm. Mara learned her art at her mother’s knee on the Dark Continent. What did Mara say?”
“The slave spoke nonsense. She is a foolish girl.”
“Don’t listen to her then!” She pointed to the left. “Here is Butchers’ Row. It won’t take long to buy the meat.”
The din of the arguing, shouting, bargaining people in Butchers’ Row was deafening. I used my right elbow to shove my way through the crowd, and I lifted my skirts with my left hand to keep them out of the sludge on the streets, but it was useless. I gave up and let my skirts drag along the muddy ground while I buried my nose in my sleeve. The smell of blood was heavy in the air. I was overwhelmed by the stink of animal carcasses hanging from hooks in the butchers’ stalls and by the stench of unwashed human flesh. My knees buckled and I reached out in front of me to grab Sofia’s arm.
“I’m going to be sick!”
She put her arm around my shoulders and helped me over to a stone bench. “Sit here while I conduct my business with Garcia.”
I was too busy fighting the gorge rising in my throat to pay attention as she haggled with the young butcher. The argument
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