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Authors: Mitchell James Kaplan

By Fire, By Water

BOOK: By Fire, By Water
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For Annie

The world owes all its onward impulses to men ill at ease.
The House of the Seven Gables





Darkness in Zaragoza
July 1487


, Luis de Santángel, royal chancellor of Aragon, trudged down a narrow street toward the center of the capital, his high boots softly clopping against the cobblestones. A silk surcoat covered most of his tunic and hose. Abundant chestnut hair, tinged with gray, fell to the top of his back. Beside him shuffled Abram Serero, shorter than Santángel, with rounded shoulders, a thick chest, and a close copper-red beard.
They stopped before a stone building. Santángel pulled open the massive door. Fumes wafted out, cold, musty, rancid. Overwhelmed, Serero stumbled backward.
At the bottom of the stairwell, the chancellor clanked a metal ring. A man coughed. A key rattled. The door grated as it swung open.
The warden of the ecclesiastical jail, a dwarf in a formless robe, held a fat candle. Santángel handed him a pouch. “This is for your discretion. Show us to his cell.”
The warden counted the coins. He raised his eyes and peered at the chancellor as if to discern his features.
“Please refrain from gazing at me.”
“Certainly, my lord. I meant no harm.”
The two visitors lowered their heads and descended into the dwarf’s bedchamber. A jug of wine sat on the beaten-earth floor. A blanket dangled from the bed, a niche in the wall.
The warden led them through another archway and down narrow corridors. He opened a door into a cramped cell where Luis de Santángel’s brother Estefan—his brother who was not, in truth, his brother—lay on the dirt floor, a gaunt and squalid heap. The chancellor fell to his knees. Estefan’s eyes, beneath their lids, twitched.
“He is a brave man,” said the dwarf. “He didn’t give in.”
“When did he last eat?”
“I leave what I can. A piece of cheese. A crust of bread. But the rats finish it before he gets to it.”
“Thank you.” Santángel glanced at Serero. “What are we to do? He can’t ask God for forgiveness.”
“He need not ask for forgiveness. We can still pray. Perhaps he will hear.”
Abram Serero began chanting softly, in a rich baritone, a prayer recited every year on the Day of Atonement.
Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibarnu dofi, hevinu
. We have been guilty, we have betrayed, we have stolen, we have spoken falsely, we have caused others to sin.
Luis de Santángel watched his brother’s face. Estefan, more than any other man, had witnessed the chancellor’s struggle, taken pride in his precarious triumphs, cringed before the demons that haunted both their lives. He had cautioned Luis about the perils of their secret identity. Yet he was the one held captive in this place. Luis de Santángel gathered his reeking, emaciated brother into his arms and rocked him gently.



Rome, Six Years Earlier


Luis de Santángel and his translator, Cristóbal Colón, through the wide marble hallways of the papal palace. “First, endeavor to put him at ease,” said the chancellor. “Speak of all you know and share. Then, as soon as he’s comfortable …”

“I shall disappear behind the mask of my purpose.” As he walked, Colón pushed his wavy mane, the color of wheat mixed with ashes, back from his forehead. His face, lined and tanned, appeared to be a few years older than Santángel’s. At thirty, he was in fact two years younger.

Their Turkish escort stopped at the door of the pope’s bedroom. Cluttered with candelabras, tapestries from Arras, sculptures of saints and angels by Luigi Capponi and Andrea Bregno, paintings of the Annunciation and the Nativity by Perugino, and a large gold birdcage filled with canaries and finches, this single chamber served as the pope’s throne room, dining room, and washroom. A food taster stood by his bedside to check each plate and cup for poison. A clerk sat at the desk, jotting notes on every word uttered. Two guards watched the door. Although the palace boasted more than a thousand rooms, the pope received cardinals, kings, princes, and their most influential advisors without rising from bed.

“Luis de Santángel, chancellor of Aragon, and Cristóbal Colón, a ship’s captain, who will translate for him.”

“Show them in.”

Under a velour blanket, magenta and cream, the pope’s stomach protruded like a rat in a snake’s belly. His face, with its small eyes, long aquiline nose, and recessed chin, reminded Santángel of a falcon. The chancellor and the ship’s captain knelt at the pope’s bedside.

“You have voyaged a great distance,” remarked the pope.

“Tell him about yourself,” Santángel encouraged Colón, in Castilian. “We’ll have plenty of time to talk about me.”

Colón turned back to the pope. “Voyaging great distances is my life. But my heart remains in Liguria, where I grew up, and where Your Holiness spent so much of his youth. My uncle Nicolo, he knew you, many years ago.”

The pope frowned, searching his memory. “Colón …”

“In Castile, yes, I’m Colón,” explained the captain. “But in Genoa, I’m Christoffa Colombo, son of Domenico, the weaver.” The two names, though similar in sound, were vastly different in meaning, as both men knew.
meant “colonizer,” while
meant “dove.”

“Ah, yes. Nicolo Colombo, the cloth merchant. A talented man. And honest, or so it seemed.”

“Talented, yes,” confirmed the captain.

“But not so honest, perhaps?” The pope’s eyebrows swam into his forehead.

Colón glanced at the chancellor. “My uncle, he cheated nearly everyone. He borrowed my father’s inheritance, then lost it. The magistrate Giambattista Fregoso—”

“Yes, yes, I knew his brother,” rasped the pope.

“My uncle sold him wool for a coat. Fregoso found the same fabric down the street for a third of what he paid. But the magistrate, he was no fool, Your Holiness. He got his revenge.”

The pope smiled, savoring the gossip. “How?”

“In those days, the two men were seeing the same prostitute.”


“Donna Sofia, in the Gobbe.”

“Yes, yes.”

“Let us say Fregoso paid her well. She gave my uncle a moment he never forgot.”

The pope laughed heartily, his double chin wiggling. His face turned scarlet. Luis de Santángel was pleased to witness the warm feelings developing between the two.

“And how is your father?” the pope resumed, to Colón. “I believe I met him once.”

“I have no idea,” replied the captain. “Haven’t spoken with him in years.”

“Why not?”

“If you’ll pardon the expression, Your Holiness, he’s a goatish, addle-pated lout.”

The pontiff’s laughter degenerated into a fit of coughing.

“How can I help you, Chancellor?” The pope recovered, turning his eyes to Santángel.

“Most Holy Father,” began the chancellor in Castilian with as much confidence as he could muster. “I hesitate … I hesitate to impugn an institution that was created by, or with, the sanction of the Holy Church.” He inhaled deeply, steeling himself.

Colón translated fluidly. Glibly, perhaps, reflected Santángel.

“And which institution might that be?”

“The New Inquisition,” replied Santángel, “which Father Tomás de Torquemada has established in Castile, and which he hopes to import to Aragon.”

“He hopes to?”

“We have our
. Our legal councils. So far, we have prevailed. But without the support of Rome, we won’t prevail for long.”

“Please, continue.”

Santángel noted the pope’s interest. He suspected the pontiff held little enthusiasm for Torquemada’s enterprise. Unlike the traditional Inquisition, the New Inquisition in Castile refused to divide its spoils with Rome, instead sharing them exclusively with Queen Ysabel.

“As you well know, Your Holiness, this New Inquisition ignores almost all forms of heresy, except one—‘judaizing.’ And that one it pursues with a zeal we’ve never before seen.”

BOOK: By Fire, By Water
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