Spring had just sprung at Xavier’s castle, almost a century after the conquest of the Kingdom of Navarre by Carlos I of Spain, already known as “The Caesar” back then. In a time between the Renaissance and the Baroque, the Castilian-Aragonese cultural influence alongside the severe military hand of the Habsburg dynasty would give wings to one of the largest and most complex empires in the history of mankind, an empire whose political dynamics would mark our human lives forever.
Sitting in the great dining room that night of bright stars were us, the last descendants of the Azpilcueta family, also living in between worlds. Although Cardinal Cisneros had ordered the total destruction of our home as a form of punishment after losing the war in 1516, the good Catholic works of our famous family member Francisco Javier, a Jesuit missionary, had eventually prevented the catastrophe. Our guests could thus copiously celebrate the baptism of the first son of my eldest brother, Aitor, father of the Basques, heir to the castle and to all the lands that bathed the sun of the Sangüesa region.
“Ici c’est l’avenir des seigneurs de Xabier! Félicitations, mon ami” – a made-up teenager was approaching the presidential table, drunk already.
“Eskerrik asko, merci, dear César. And congratulations again for your marriage …” – my brother Aitor, nicknamed in the region as “the beautiful” (just as Philip of Hamburg was vulgarly known for his sexual pursuits) got up to hug the young Frenchman, releasing two loud claps on the back in this process – “… I hope God blesses you and Francisca with many children, just as he already blessed your good father…”
Both men laughed in unison. That quinceañero was neither more nor less than Cesar de Borbón, Duke of Vendôme, public bastard of the French king Henry IV “the good King”. A very friendly courtier, the young Cesar was on his way to Madrid, a buoyant city where the European high society entertained itself tasting the exotic fruits of the New World. A legendary conspirator as well, the rogue Bourbon prepared an alliance between the lords of Albret and the lords of Javier, an alliance with which the French intended to threaten the Spanish hegemony in the border territory of Navarre.
” Mademoiselle Estíbaliz of Xavier. Lilith!” – the French made a gallant bow in front of me, while a servant approached him discreetly to deliver a bouquet of dark red flowers.
” Mon Duke. Welcome to our house. And thank you again for my birthday present last year. Dulcinea has been a blessing …”
As a bribe, Cesar had sent my brother Aitor a precious white mare of the Lipizzan breed from the other side of the Pyrenees, in the summer of my 19th birthday. At the same time, Mikel, my other brother (and my favorite) had given me a copy of the first edition of El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha, a book which I jealously still keep under key in my Upper East Side apartment, to the envy of all collectors and historians of this planet. Naturally, I had decided to baptize the mare with the name of the invisible female protagonist of the Quixote at that time.
“You’re very welcome, mademoiselle. I hope I can pamper you with an even better gift this year…” – César looked sideways at Aitor, who smiled with complicity. I noticed an acute pinch in my stomach – “Meanwhile, I would like to kindly ask you to accept these beautiful flowers, whose name is undoubtedly inspired by the beauty of your very own.”
I took the bouquet in my hands, cautiously. I stroked the bulbs, admiring the delicacy of the fleur-de-lis, emblem of the French royal house. The petals were bathed in the reddish colors of Spain for the occasion, though. Very subtle, Cesar. Very subtle.
At that moment, the oak doors of the dining room wide opened. Mikel entered the noisy room followed by a religious man wearing a full beard and dressed in a carmine cassock. The cleric cast both, a sober and elegant presence. There was silence. My parents, who were nonchalantly talking with the Carranza and the Oyárzun at that time, quickly approached the presidential table to welcome our most special guest of the evening.
“Alonso de Salazar y Frías, sir” – Salazar made a full reverence in front of my father – “… here to serve you”.
“Monseñor, please. We are the only ones to serve, here. Please, do sit down and enjoy this feast with us… we are so very honored!” – my father, a fat brown ogre, became a little white lamb in the presence of that wolf without fangs.
“Of course” – Salazar sat next to my father and my brother Aitor – “… I am very sorry that I did not make it in time for the ceremony. I have nonetheless been told that Miguel was formidable at his première baptizing the little one … “
“You can call him Mikel, his name in Basque if you like that Monseñor. It is as we affectionately call him at home…” – my mother knelt down to kiss the gold ring with a ruby, separating her golden mane with the left hand at the same time.
“Mari, Madame of Muntzaraz. It is true what they say: as beautiful as the goddess Venus …” – Salazar, 46, with an exquisite formation at the University of Salamanca, had accessed the Spanish Inquisition in the previous year and would be incorporated to the court of Logroño, La Rioja, sometime in the summer of 1610 – “Anyway, whether Mikel or Miguel, his second son is named after the great tower of this castle, madam. And also after the greatest archangel of the Lord. God bless you. “
“Archangel? What is the difference between an archangel and an angel, Monseñor?” – I asked, sincerely.
“And you must be …” – the Inquisitor watched me from top to bottom with curiosity. My hair, previously platinum, now of ashy color, and my gray eyes contrasted with the luminosity of the blond and blue colors of both my mother and brothers, the beautiful lions of Navarre. Almost 20 years of age, it was considered that “I was late” to marry according to the standards of the time; my mother, who was engaged at 16 to the lord of Xavier and ripped from Urkiola to give birth to her first child a year later, had done everything in her power to safeguard my freedom for as much time as possible.
But we were running out of time. The murder of the good French king on May 14 would only (and inevitably) accelerate the secret plans of my brother Aitor and the Duke Bourbon.
“Estíbaliz, Monseñor” – my aita (father, in Basque) hugged me to introduce me to the priest. That was a rather strange move, I must say; my father never hugged me. – “Our youngest daughter; our summer honey. She arrived 5 years later than the boys. It was truly a miracle. Mari prayed so much!”
“Lilith, Monseñor, is her abbreviated name. It’s what we affectionately call her in the intimacy …” – my ama (mother, in Basque) hugged me as well. I smiled; my mother hugged me very often.
“Lilith … interesting, very interesting” – I noticed how the Inquisitor’s face took the same gesture as the one that was taken by Miriam, Samuel’s eldest sister, the day I met the man of delicious hazel eyes in the city of Pamplona the previous year.
I could also perceive how my father was tensing up in his chair – “… Monseñor Salazar, is there anything wrong?”
Alonso sat at the table and began to eat casually. Celebrating the taste of the pig, he proceeded to tell the story of the demon Lilith in full detail, in a didactic and superb tone, under the expectation of my father and the concern of my mother. Lilith was, according to Hebrew folklore, Adam’s first wife. Created as his equal, Lilith was born from the same mud as the First Man (unlike Eva, mother of all women, who would later be created from a mere rib). Dominant, lustful and independent, Lilith would soon leave the Garden of Eden and break free. Joining the Archangel Samael, she would breed hundreds of night demons that would stalk men from the beginning of time till eternity…
“Monseñor, there is nothing to worry about!” – my brother Mikel, dressed in a dark brown cassock, spoke both sweetly and slowly – “… my sister Estíbaliz is the most Catholic and pure of all the maidens present at this party.”
I love you, Lilith. I want you. I love you so…
A shiver ran down my spine while a feeling of guilt darkened my heart.
“Damn Jews and their folklore…” – my brother Aitor was somewhat disturbed; he had taken his glass of wine with energy and drank it all at once – “… Monseñor, with all due respect, I think we should not pay attention to the tales of enemies of the Church since all of us present here know these are ungodly and untrue. “
“Very true, Aitor. However, we all also know that in this country there are still undercover infidels … in this sense, I would avoid using the diminutive of Estíbaliz in public. Anyway, the only goal with my humble piece of advice is to protect your sweet sister of all possible evil … never to blame her. “
“Thank you Monseñor, for your kind concern” – I took Salazar’s hand, showing myself submissive – “As for me, you may call me Diana if you prefer…”
Both Salazar and my father laughed softly at my clever reference to the wild goddess of Roman mythology. Everyone knew that Xavier’s heirs were good hunters, and both my outfit that day and my disheveled hair showed the masculine customs inherited from my older brothers. On the other side of the table, my mother watched the scene attentively while pretending to help Salma, my brother’s wife, putting the newborn baby to sleep.
“Speaking of undercover Jews, Monseñor… when expelled from Castile and Aragon some of them came here, to Navarre. Many of them pretended to convert to Christianity in order to safeguard their businesses and not to have to leave Spain a few years later.” – My brother Aitor poured himself more wine – “… it is my suspicion that a couple of families in Pamplona maintain their faithless rites and traditions. Shall you have some spare time, it would be a pleasure to take you to the city to investigate this matter…”
I noticed how the pinch in my stomach had turned into a punch; I tried hard to hide my fright. My mother got up and sat next to me, pretending to take advantage of the conversational time between men to carelessly braid my hair.
“I would love to, but I don’t really have time on this occasion. You see, I have actually come to Navarre on a mission entrusted by the Inquisition…”
I sighed, relieved. However, I became stressed again as soon as I felt how my mother sought for my hand under the table.
“… as you may know, Judge Pierre de Lancre carried out a process in Lapurdi, French Navarre, last year. It was a successful mission in which about 80 witches were burned. Well, Spain wants to take the lead, as well. We have received reports from Zugarramurdi of the holding of secret meetings of witches and I want to return to Rioja in July with an elaborated report that corroborates the existence of such covens… “
” Akelarre” – my mother murmured.
The table entered a silence of a few seconds that, for a brief moment, seemed like hours.
“Yes, I understand that these sorcery meetings are called just like that in the Basque language.” – The religious served himself more wine. He took a sip and set the cup aside, softly and elegantly – “… how does a lady of your stature know about such an activity, Madame de Muntzaraz?”
All the diners at the presidential table fell silent again while the party continued in the main hall; the gypsies and the minstrels had begun to play music in an ascending rhythm and some drunks were already urinating in the corners. Even the caste maidens were dancing without respecting protocols of good manners anymore.
I decided to take the lead of the conversation.
“Monseñor, just as you know about Jewish folklore, for mere intellectual curiosity and for your personal protection and that of your relatives … so we also know about the activities of the infamous Basque witches” – I smiled sweetly – “… as my brother Aitor says, the undercover enemies of the Church are everywhere these days. In this sense, we are fortunate to count with your presence tonight and with the permanent protection and wisdom of my beloved brother Mikel. “
Salazar laughed softly and the atmosphere relaxed again. My mother squeezed my hand, resting her head on my shoulder; I began to scratch her forehead with the tip of his nose, slowly and affectionately.
“… well, permanent …” – Mikel fixed the sleeves of his ecclesiastical tunic – “Monseñor, I am pleased to inform you that I will soon join the Jesuits and travel to foreign lands to spread the word of the Lord.”
“Great news! Foreign trips enrich the soul, young man, and the love for adventure runs in your veins. Will he head to Asia, just like your ancestor?”
“I was actually thinking about traveling to the Americas, Monseñor. There is a mountainous area south to the Viceroyalty of New Granada, in the Captaincy General of Venezuela, which draws my attention, and …”
“The Vascones and their mountains!” – Salazar laughed. The wine was beginning to make an effect on him, without a doubt. From then on the conversation would flow without any sort of tension until dawn. Our guests would happily dance the rest of the evening, chatting in Spanish, negotiating in French, loving in Basque and reading in Latin.
Shortly after the cheeses and sweets had arrived at the table, Salazar pulled out a Bible from his robe and spoke patiently about the three great archangels of Christianity, which had nothing to do with Samael, Lilith’s evil lover: Miguel was the protector of all men (1). Gabriel, the advertiser of good news (2). And finally came Rafael, the healer (3). My brother Mikel and I listened carefully while the Inquisitor illustrated his teachings with some selected biblical excerpts:
Then war broke out in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back.
8 But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven.
9 The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth and his angels with him.
Revelation 12: 7-9
At the same time, Aitor (vainly) tried to capture the Inquisitor’s attention again in order to continue the conversation on the subject of infidels, his favorite one. Clearly uncomfortable in the presence of gypsy artists (and in general, in the presence of all things not Basque and/or purely Catholic) Aitor had been married against his will years ago with Salma de Prada, a noblewoman from the ancient Kingdom of Granada, in a gesture from my father to establish our future and the good name of the family in the Kingdom of Castile. Older than him and of clear Arab origin (although very devout and Christian), the sophisticated Salma of dark hair had not found her place in the austere and stoic Navarre of cold stone castles, pagan forests, and nocturnal fires. I personally found her both cultured and enigmatic. In this sense, I had already made multiple failed attempts to approach her in order to learn more about her customs, her exquisite taste, her hygiene and her good practices in general, practices which were far more advanced than ours at that time. However, the melancholy had trapped the beautiful Salma, who after two miscarriages and a girl named Leyre, had finally fulfilled her vital mission with the birth of baby Xabier, the new heir of Xavier’s castle.
Already somewhat drunk, Aitor lost his patience after an hour or so and proceeded to flirt with a maid who had been making eyes on him all night. Tall and extremely handsome, my older brother called for almost as much attention as my mother, a fairytale princess that the Navarrese nobles tried to conquest from moon to moon, from party to party. Watching the panorama, Mikel retired early to the family Basílica to collect the remains of the baptism ceremony and to pray for all of us. At the same time, my mother excused herself to go read to her chambers, while my father sat at the Villahermosa table to play chess. Salma sighed, and calling a nurse to take care of the baby, left the dining room to take a hot bath with vanilla, a southern custom that still surprised our castle’s servants.
I left the main hall and headed towards the north wing. It was not really advisable for a lady to walk the halls of the castle at night, especially in the context of a party of such caliber. The darkness was almost total, the noise constant and the moans recurrent. However, Xavier was my home, and I knew it very well, almost with my eyes closed; indeed, it took me only 5 minutes to cross the kitchens and only 5 more to reach the stables. There I found Dulcinea, who turned her furry ears in my direction as soon as she saw me. I hugged her sweetly.
“As stated in Don Quixote, I also want to rely on the power of time, which usually gives sweet exits to many bitter difficulties …” – my voice broke – “… but really, I don’t know how we’re going to get our of this one, Dulcinea … “
And there, hidden between the burnt grass and the dirty water, I released my emotions and broke down to cry. An hour would pass; maybe two. I said goodbye to my mare with a mischievous kiss on the snout and headed towards my chambers, feeling somewhat better. However, my peace would quickly be truncated; I was just climbing the steps of the tower when I heard some shouting in the distance.
“You’re a whore!… But you’re going to pay for it! Now! …”
I ran out of breath: it was my father’s voice. I took the deviation to the right and hurried towards the chambers of Xavier’s lords. There I found, to my absolute surprise, the hunting figure of my brother Aitor, who instead of being in bed with one of our maids already, was listening to our parents behind closed doors instead.
“Aitor … what’s going on here?” – I whispered.
“What’s going to be on, Lilith? They’re arguing, as always. Where is Mikel?”
We heard the thud of a punch, and my mother’s body stumbling against a piece of furniture and then falling to the floor.
“W-we have to do something Aitor, let’s get in! Aita is going to kill ama!”
The conversation was still going on inside the bedroom – “… bad woman. I knew I knew, I knew … and today I got the confirmation. Deny it!” my father shouted, drunk, again and again. My mother could be heard crying and imploring incoherently.
Aitor grabbed my arms and made a signal with his index finger to command me to shut up; I stood still, against my will.
“We’re not like the Villahermosa, Mari! I don’t raise bastards under my roof! Now, tell me whose Lilith’s father is or …”
But we didn’t listen to the conversation any further. Aitor released me and I fell onto the stoned floor; we both ran out of breath for a few seconds.
“I-I’ve asked you something, Estíbaliz. Where w-where is Mikel?”
“H-he told me he was going to pray a few hours ago …” – I started to cry on the floor, just as my mother was doing on the other side of the door.
“Praying, of course” – Aitor cleared his throat – “… he’s so useless.”
My tears were cut off immediately. I looked at Aitor full of despair and resentment; I did not like the superiority with which he often spoke of Mikel, the only saint among us. I got up clumsily, and with a cloudy mind, decided that the best and only option in such a confusing situation was to take the lead of it.
“You … you are the one that is useless, Aitor.”
I pushed him away from my side and opened the wooden doors, finding the illustrious lord of Xavier with his cotton shorts halfway down and his hands on my mother’s neck, who was kneeling on the floor, badly wounded and with her hands in a prayer position. She looked at her children, full of terror; I noticed how Aitor was already slipping down the tower stairs behind my back. Useless. I fixed my eyes on my father’s and felt a sharp mixture of fear and horror. However, I only saw hate back in his. It was the moment. I prepared myself, and, taking a run, I charged over the lord of Xavier.
I don’t remember anything else. I woke up the next morning in my bed, with my mother curled up against my back, hugging me. I heard the violent fall of April’s rain somewhere in the distance.
“Laztana, my love …”
Mikel stoked the fire in the fireplace and looked at me sideways with a gesture of concern. I also remember the pain and the blood, and I remember the beautiful Salma slowly preparing a vanilla bath for me, with absolute tenderness.
A week later, the lord of Xavier went out on a hunting trip with the gentlemen of Carranza; he would never come back home alive. People talked about a fatal accident, a massive mass was organized, an amalgam of plañideras were hired, and Aitor became the new lord of the castle. And although my fairytale princess had spent all those days and nights pressed against my body at the top of Miguel’s tower, I had no doubt about it:
My mother had murdered my “father.”
And that fact would mark our lives … forever.