Darkness in Zaragoza
Under a sliver moon, 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.