"W

ell?”

The question echoes around the small, dark cell. The cat jumps from the window ledge. The scribe scratches out the word.

Aster stares at him, unseeing, trying to find air that she can suck in, that will keep her chest rising and falling, her heart pumping.

Innocent.

Guilty.

Innocent.

Guilty.

What to plead? What did Papa plead? If she could corroborate his words, then maybe there’s a chance that they will be released. What would Papa say? But she does not know the depths of Papa’s mind, every day he surprises her.

“I am not guilty of Judaizing,” she says quietly.

“How do you defend yourself against the evidence?” Ramon asks. He pushes back his chair, and stands. Behind his back, he hooks together his thumbs. He will see to it that no torture is performed on these accused.

“I…” She swallows, and looks up at him. He nods, acknowledging her quandary.

 “I… we… believed that Neemias is a Jew. And we were simply introducing him to his heritage.”

“He had undergone holy baptism. One who has been baptized is part of the Christian faith.”

 “No!” she cries out. “One who is born a Jew remains a Jew. We were simply returning to him what he had lost.”

He stops and stares at her. “So you do not deny that you were teaching him the tenets of your faith.”

She swallows, trapped. “I do not deny it.”

“And do you know the punishment that is meted out to those who transgress the laws of the Holy Inquisition?”

She does not answer.

“Death. By burning. Let the flames come and purify all that has been tainted.”

Friar Pere rubs his fat hands together in glee. He leans forward and once again studies the map unfurled upon his desk.

“Now this is a work not just of science, but of art,” he declares.

Neemias just nods. Friar Pere throws one arm around his shoulder, and his finger hovers over the parchment. “See the colors. They must have used lapis lazuli for the sea, the way it sparkles. And the calligraphy of the place names. The brushstrokes — sure but delicate. An enviable piece, indeed.”

Beside them, the boy Bernat, bouncing on his heels.

For several moments more, Friar Pere gazes at his new possession. Then he walks around the perimeter of his study. “Where to hang it, eh?”

He turns to Neemias and gives a throaty chuckle. “Oh, I know, this was intended as a gift to the Bishop of Paris. But what a man doesn’t know does not hurt him. And to relinquish a treasure such as this….”

He points to a gap between his bookshelves. “If I hang it over there, it will be protected from the sun.” His tongue clucks against the roof of his mouth. “But then we will never see the sea sparkle. And that would be a loss indeed. What say you, Neemias?”

Neemias says nothing.

Friar Pere turns and walks toward him. He places both hands on his shoulders. “Now, this is regrettable of me, indeed,” he says. “Here I am, gloating over my treasure, and I have neglected you. And you have been journeying for days.”

He sits down on his large velvet chair and settles his feet onto his footstall. He folds his hands over his bulging middle. “And how are you, Neemias? I have been worrying and praying for you all this time. And your mother… surely, she must be joyous indeed to have her son back home. How long she prayed for you, she was so distraught when you left, although she understood, of course, she understood that it was all for love, that you did it to protect her…”

“I have not yet seen her.”

“Oh, no, no no no. This is no good. My dear boy, I am surprised at you,” Friar Pere says, eyes wide with surprise. “You must go back to her immediately.” (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 599)