She comes upon him like a rising drumbeat; his soul moves to her before his senses are fully aware. He has seen her in full only once, and then only from behind. She hovers, a dark spot at the edge of his sun-dazzled vision, always gone by the time he turns his head to look at her.
Toledano's senses are not dull. Seven years as a mercenary in service of the Iberian kings have cured him of that, just as they taught him to bend his emotions to serve his will. He has long believed that it is unwise to simply restrain the heart. It must be trained, controlled, channeled to a higher purpose. A well-tempered heart is stronger than Damascus steel.
His old rival, Kamil al-Tarsusi, who served with him fighting corsairs in Morocco, always disagreed with him on this. The heart, al-Tarsusi always said, was a dangerous beast that waits for a moment of weakness to betray its master. The last time Toledano saw him, he was charging across the deck of a foreign pirate ship, silver hair streaming behind him, his face composed as ever even as his curved scimitar flashed death in every direction. His blade spoke years of bitterness trapped within its wielder, anger and dark longings and despair he had never allowed himself to feel. But even al-Tarsusi's flawless swordsmanship was not enough to defeat a hundred men alone. They took him prisoner aboard that dreaded ship known as the Golden Valkyrie, captained by a mysterious golden-haired man who wears a red mask over his face. Some rumors say that he is a god incarnate who can conjure swords of light to strike down his foes, and others say that he is actually a woman, but all agree on his legendary cruelty. Toledano knows better than to hope that al-Tarsusi is still alive. It is a bittersweet victory for his philosophy.
And yet, in her presence, his rebellious heart stirs unbidden.
Red dust rises in puffs around his boots as he enters the Alcaicería marketplace. On either side of the cobblestone road, silk merchants vie for his attention. A cornucopia of voices rises from the rainbow-hued crowd, mingling with the sound of tin cookware, horses' hooves jousting down on the Bibarrambla, and to the east, the rushing waters of the Hadarro. The city mirrors the river, bright and hurried and tumultuous up close, smooth and flowing and ever-constant from a distance.
Passing under a narrow, arched gate, he emerges into a small open square with a well at the center. He steps around a peddler's stall, where a thin wooden pole bends under the weight of a dozen glass lanterns, like some bizarre tree laden with fruit. He is occupied with thoughts of his latest contract, guarding a shipment of spices on its way to Seville. It is easy money; in his mind he is already spending it.
He does not see the girl until suddenly, quite by accident, he has cornered her.
He has one second, maybe two, to take her in. She is dressed in Romani fashion, a loose white blouse and long, ruffled red skirt, with a black shawl tied around her waist. Hair like lacquered ebony is wound around her head in a tight braid. In her arms is a wicker basket full of lavender blossoms. Eyes the same color as the flowers widen in surprise as she turns to look at him. With utmost care, she sets down her basket, her gaze never breaking.
And then she bolts. By the time he blinks, she has vaulted backwards onto a staircase that leads from the square up to the street. All thoughts of spice-trading vanish from his mind. He takes the stairs three at a time, arriving at the top just in time to see the edge of her skirt vanish around a corner, into a shadowed alley. Barrels of water are stacked precariously along both walls. She has climbed on top of them and hops from one to another with catlike grace, high over his head. This infuriates him, because he is reminded of his old household cat, a lean, scraggly creature that had great affection for his half-brother Xander, but seemed to delight in clawing his face. Then again, most everyone in that house liked his brother better than him. He squeezes between the barrels, cursing softly, and finally pushes his way out onto the sunlit street on the other side.
For a moment, it seems he has lost her. A small sound from above alerts him. She is on the roof. Sensing that he has detected her, she leaps to the next building, shimmies down one of the columns that decorate the second story, drops onto an awning, and from there swings down onto the street well ahead of him. For the length of two heartbeats he stands blinking in astonishment, and then the chase is on again.
She leads him east, past the corn exchange and through the Zacatín, where clothiers and hat makers and silversmiths sell their wares, and into the narrow streets of the Caldererias. They weave between craftsmen's workshops and tea houses decorated with bright silk hangings. This section of the marketplace reminds him a great deal of Morocco. The air is thick with the scent of incense and hookah pipes. Overhead, the sky is cluttered with banners, flags, lamps and the occasional clothesline. Sunlight filtering through casts flashes of light and shadow in every color over Toledano's face as he plunges through the tangle of people. Now and again they will pause to stare or shout in annoyance when he jostles them. She seems to slip through the crowd without effort.
Their path curves to the south. They come to another staircase, leading through a long, dark tunnel down to the road along the river. She slides down the banister. He follows in the more conventional manner, his footsteps a hollow clamor off the stone walls. The passage is just long enough for his eyes to grow accustomed to darkness, so that he is blinded when he returns to the light. Once again it seems he has lost her.
There she is, riding on the back of a farmer's cart. Its owner notices her at the same time, and shoots her a wary glare. She brazenly lifts a melon from his produce and darts off again. Bellowing in anger, the farmer abandons his horse and the rest of his goods to chase the girl, shaking a meaty fist in the air as he runs. His shouts attract attention from passers-by, and a few join in the pursuit. Their furor draws more, and soon people are leaning out of windows to see the commotion. She laughs at their attempts to catch her. She is flying; her feet only brush the ground to taunt the earthbound fools who think they can lay a hand on her. And in spite of himself, Toledano wills her onward. There is a bit of that spirit in him, too, a bitter pride that scorns the world. Few know better how cruel and capricious this world can be than Juan Petro Toledano Amador, who at the age of eleven was cast out of his ancestral home with nothing but the shirt on his back and a name—his mother's—that marks him as less than nothing. And so, for that brief moment, united by their common contempt, he and the girl are kindred spirits.
Besides, she is his quarry.
There is a shade of irrational jealousy in that thought that surprises him. It is not exactly possessive—as little as he knows about her, he knows beyond certainty that no one will ever own her. But that same deep sense tells him there is something unsettled between them, though they have never exchanged so much as a word. She knows this too, and so she flees from him.
The mob follows her for maybe half a mile until she reaches the baths attached to the Mosque of the Walnut Tree. There, in the shadow of the Puente del Cadí, the pale red bridge that leads up to the Alhambra, she stops abruptly. Her skirt flutters around her as she whirls to face the farmer and his company, a strangely mesmerizing motion that is over before Toledano has time to grasp it. The farmer is already reaching out to seize her. Undaunted, she blocks by placing melon in his palm. Fury turns to bewilderment when she gives his hand a reassuring little pat and pushes the fruit toward him. One flutter of her dark lashes and all is forgiven. He stares in wonder as she flits away. The disturbance has served its purpose. Curious onlookers and would-be vigilantes form an impenetrable wall in Toledano's path. As confusion and indignation dissolve into murmurs, the girl slips by them and down a narrow side street behind the mosque. Just before she disappears from view, she glances back, straight at him, and smiles.
Toledano's blood turns to fire. He attempts in vain to shove his way through the knot of people, but the mindless crowd engulfs him. Caught up in their current, he is forced back against the low wall that separates the road from the river gorge below. At that moment the star-shaped vents on the roof of the bath house open, venting clouds of steam into the air. Oppressive heat closes in on him, sweaty bodies jostle him from every side, a thousand voices assault his ears, and every second she is slipping away from him. He despairs of reaching her. He has felt this before…
A sort of madness takes hold of him. He scrambles up onto the wall and makes a wild leap into the branches of a cypress growing on the riverbank. As a child he was a troublemaker, and many afternoons found him hiding in a tree to escape a disgruntled nursemaid or teacher. That skill serves him well today. He climbs until the slender boughs barely support his weight. With a quick swing of his legs, he launches himself out over the river, turns a backflip in midair, and skids into a landing on the dusty flagstones of the bridge above. The stunt was more practical than spectacular, a means of controlling his momentum. Someone below applauds nonetheless. Normally he would pause to take a bow, but now his mind is fixed on that conniving vixen who is escaping into the labyrinth of the Albaycin. The image of her smug face goads him.
This time he has the high vantage point, running along the top of the city wall. He has always liked high places; they remind him that above every injustice crafted by man, every unpunished crime and secret sin, the eyes of God are always watching. The cool breeze ruffles his flaxen hair and clears his head. Up here, he has space to stretch his legs and time to collect his thoughts, and for the first time since this chase began he questions his motives.
He arrives at the inevitable conclusion that he is a lunatic. There is no explanation for this driving desire, this need to find her, aside from instinct and déjà vu, and Toledano would like to believe he is too rational a man to be ruled by such things. Yet the pounding rhythm of his boots against the stone ramp does not slacken. Sharp eyes the color of an ocean sky at daybreak never cease to scan the streets for a sign of her.
It is not simply her beauty—though she is the most beautiful woman he has seen in a very long time—nor even his frustration at not being able to catch her, that drives him onward. Certainly she is not the only thing that awakens these odd, misplaced stirrings of nostalgia. Sometimes the scent of the wind will cause it, or a snatch of music, or the way the sunlight filters through the trees on a balmy summer afternoon. In the past he felt it quite often when conversing with Xander. At times the lad would look up at him with solemn green eyes and call him "Brother," and he would get the feeling that they had been brothers for much longer than this lifetime. Xander was naïve, petulant, and far too aware of his own genius, not the sort of person Juan Petro was apt to admire. But they resonated together, two harmonics of the same fundamental ideal, and in those moments he knew that the younger man, too, heard the echo of the sacred oath that binds them from beyond the dark gates of memory, from before the dawn of history, from the very beginning of the world.
His stepmother—no, his father's wife, that is the only relation he will ascribe to her—would never understand this. Words like loyalty and brotherhood had no meaning to that vapid malefactress; she and her high-born friends saw only the taint of his mother's poison blood. Their whispers haunt him. Bastard. Half-breed. Son of a Gypsy whore. Ignoring his dead father's will, they drove him from his family's land and thrust everything that was rightfully his into Xander's unwilling hands. They stole from him more than just his inheritance. They took his identity, everything he had always known about who he was and who he was destined to be.
And yet, to be lord of the Toledano estate was never his true destiny.
Something sharp and urgent tugs at the corner of his memory, something immeasurably important, something he cannot believe he has forgotten, for it was once his entire reason for being. Desperately he reaches for it, but it recedes from his awareness like a taunting mirage. Like her.
A flash of crimson below draws his eye. There she is, strolling down a narrow corridor between the whitewashed buildings. Perhaps she thinks she has lost him. Perhaps not, for her pace quickens as if she can feel his gaze. He seizes a long silk banner hanging from the wall and rappels down to the street. Halfway to the bottom, friction catches up to him, every nerve in his hands screams that this was a foolish idea. The instant his feet touch the ground he is off in a full sprint again, blowing on his burning palms and cursing his own stupidity. Soon he finds the street where he saw her. Following it through twists and tunnels, he passes through a pointed archway into a broad plaza lined with myrtle trees.
He pauses, searching. People are milling about the square. Here a fortune teller hands out sprigs of rosemary, there a few philosophers are engaged in scholarly debate, there a group of children chase a runaway chicken. In a shadowed alcove tucked into the western wall of the square, a vihuelist and dancer perform an impromptu fandango. There he finds her… and there he finds her weakness.
She cannot resist the dance. It calls to her; her feet unwittingly mimic the other woman's steps. Her eyes gleam with a hunger and half-mad longing that he knows well. The dark, insistent chords and sparkling arpeggios are to her what she is to him. Even as he strides toward her she stands mesmerized, though she must be aware of his approach. For the first time, he notices that she has no shoes. Her toes wiggle in the dust.
Suddenly he realizes he has misread her. Her steps are not light because she scorns the ground beneath her, but because she cannot bear to waste a single step on ordinary walking. Perhaps she holds some disdain for crass and sullied feet that trample it unaware, but the earth itself she loves. She feels its pulse, and it compels her to motion.
This world has taken everything he once had, so he has despised it. This world has given her little, so she takes nothing for granted.
Their eyes meet and she smiles again, a cryptic, beckoning smile. In that moment he knows she is not running from him. Despite all the trouble she has given him, she wants him to follow her. And she knows he will, though they maintain the pretense of pursuit. When he draws within arm's reach, she tears herself away from the music and springs into motion again. Once more they enter the winding avenues of the residential quarter. Here the streets are far less crowded, and he keeps pace with her easily, though the place is a veritable maze of stucco walls and arches, stone stairs and brick patios.
The houses gradually thin as their path snakes up the hill to Sacromonte. Having only traveled through the wealthy districts where his work takes him, he has never been to this place before. The cobblestone road gives way to gravel, then dirt. Trees grow fewer and shorter as they climb. In their place, scrubby bushes and prickly pears dot the rocky soil. She takes him along the crest of a tall ridge, where the view stretches for miles in every direction. The sun sinks low over the western hills, gilding the city with light and casting a burnished glow on the rosy walls of the Alhambra. It is a sight that could take Juan Petro's breath away, had he any left after the trek. It brings him some solace to note that her stride is faltering as well.
Presently she veers off the road and darts through a small copse of trees. He is forced to slow down and pick his way through their tangled roots. By the time he finds his way to the other side, she is out of sight again. Without warning, the ground beneath him gives way, sending him sliding down the slope in a cascade of loose pebbles. A sharp ledge drops away not far ahead. He scrambles to regain his footing, but something hard catches his foot and sends him tumbling head-first over the bluff. He lands face-down with a muffled grunt.
Rubbing a bruised nose, he sits up and searches for what tripped him. It is a chimney. Now he realizes there are doors in the cliff face, dozens of them opening out onto the hard-packed dirt road where he has landed. A few pottery vessels sit on shelves dug into the soft clay of the hillside, shaped out of the same earth that was carved away for their storage. Here and there a basket or a bundle of dried wildflowers hangs over a doorway. In other places their living counterparts cascade down from the sod roof to trail along the uneven walls. Smoke curls from unseen hearths within the subterranean dwellings.
He turns in a slow circle, taking it all in, and when he turns around again she is right in front of him. The world holds its breath.
It occurs to him then that amid all the running, he never worked out what he would say or do when he caught up to her. She may not even speak Spanish, and in spite of his heritage, he knows nothing of the Roma tongue. But words are not needed. A trio of middle-aged men (uncles, perhaps) emerge from one of the earthen homes and seat themselves on stools behind her. One produces a homemade lute, while the other two have brought drums of varying sizes. One by one, people emerge from the cave houses to watch. But the young woman's gaze remains fixed on Juan Petro alone. She has untied the woven black shawl from around her waist and draped it over her shoulders. Standing motionless with her arms crossed, she resembles a giant bat with folded wings. On some silent cue, the musicians begin.
The throbbing of the drums seeps up from the ground and into her heels, first with rhythmic tapping, then a slow twirl that makes her skirt blossom around her, then low kicks and dramatic stomps. The drums grow stronger and more intense as the lute joins them. Her hands sway in sinuous waves, then snap together to clap in time with the accented beats. She grasps the edge of her skirt and swings it from side to side in a hypnotic motion.
Just as Juan Petro has often struggled to channel his heart, she struggles against the rising passion of the music, fights it even as she embraces it. Her body is not enough to contain it, and soon it spills over from her eyes into his. A shuddering chill shoots from the back of his neck down to his toes. His heart lurches in his chest; he thinks maybe it has stopped for a second only to restart in time with the drums. Her feet weave an ancient, wordless story in the red dirt. Her hips sway, her arms stretch heavenward, she is overtaken by the haunting, transcendent beauty that is only born of anguish. She is painfully, vividly conscious of how fleeting life is. In the depths of her eyes, he is struck by poignant sorrow, and somehow he knows that she too hears the echo of a long-dead melody, she too is chasing the memory of a memory. She seeks it in the dance as he seeks it in the streets, as they will seek it in one another. And though they may find some happiness in that, their deepest longing will remain unanswered.
In this lifetime they will not remember.
It is 1478, and twilight falls on the Emirate of Granada. The wedding bells of Isabel and Ferdinand toll a death knell for the Moorish kingdom. Before this century draws to a close, the armies of the Reconquista will take this city. The proud old empire will crumble, taking with it years of history and culture. It is the end of a golden age that poets and dreamers will lament forever after. In the wake of conquest will come hardship and civil unrest, oppressive laws, corruption and insanity, and the dark days of the Spanish Inquisition. But out of that darkness will come a light that future generations will call the Renaissance. Rebirth. At the end of the war, there is always hope and rebirth. The same tortured heart that seeks in vain his reason for being tells him to believe that.
But tonight, in this song, there is neither yesterday nor tomorrow. There is only this moment eternal, where two souls are moved to the state of grace that the artists call duende, at once solemn and ecstatic, triumphant and despairing. As the dying sun sets the sky ablaze with a final flash, the dance concludes on a sharp, echoing drumbeat.
Long after the final note has faded, long after the people have gone and the glow of dusk has yielded to the twinkling of stars above and lamps below, Juan Petro Amador and Renata Marquez Rosales stand together in the shadows, feeling the spirit of that moment recede from their bodies back into the earth. Time will turn them to dust and history will forget them, but nothing can take this away from them. In this hour, for better or for worse, they live.