“You really should, Villa.”
Francesc Fábregas picks up his cup and starts spinning the red liquid in it. His friend, to whom the words were addressed, shakes his head.
“You know I’m against it, Francesc. If we support it, it will never end.”
“It will never end whether you support it or not,” Francesc replies calmly. “There is a reason for it. It’s a good investment.”
“In what sense is buying a slave a good investment?” Villa frowns.
“Look at your servants. You pay them every week. You feed them, you have them live here. And in the end you have one running away with a few rather valuable things. No chance of catching him, of course, and even if you did, you will have a hard time proving that he stole it, because he obviously already sold all of it.”
“It was one servant. The others I would entrust my life to.”
“Didn’t you say exactly the same thing about that Portuguese boy?” Francesc smirks. “I can’t blame you, he looked really innocent, this... Fábio.”
Villa furrows his brows at the sound of the name.
“If I find him he will regret that he was even born.”
“I doubt you will ever find him. I’d say he’s already on some Portuguese ship heading somewhere he can sell your jewels for more than he could sell them here.”
Francesc puts the cup back on the table and crosses his arms.
“With a slave, this can never happen to you. It’s much more easier to catch them if they run away, but most likely they never will. Trust me, I know. Besides, you pay once to their owner, to them you pay nothing. Tell me of a better investment.”
“It’s not human. It’s against...”
“The Pope allowed it, Villa!” Francesc laughs. “He encourages it! ‘Saracens, pagans and any other unbelievers can be reduced to slaves’, so it stands in the papal bull. Tell me about humanity, those are not even worth your pity.”
Villa keeps frowning, the wine going bitter in his mouth. He knows that in a way, Francesc is right. He is right because Villa cannot afford another servant to rip him off. Right now, he also cannot afford to pay the money he would have to pay any of the servants he could get in the city, and he for sure isn’t hiring another Portuguese.
“Maybe you’re right,” he sighs finally.
“For sure I’m right. My father has been keeping slaves for years. It works perfectly.”
He looks around him, admiring the decorations of the room. The old maps on the walls, miniatures of ships, shelves full of books and old documents. He knows Villa’s obsession with the sea and everything nautical. A bit strange for someone who hasn’t even go aboard in his life. It’s also his biggest weakness that cost him a lot of money when he financed some voyages that led only to damnation. Francesc tried many times to talk Villa out of supporting those fools who thought they would find some islands made of gold, but without success.
Villa is a fool. Always will be. But maybe that’s why Francesc likes him.
~ ~ ~
Villa doesn’t like markets. It’s a paradox, because it’s what he makes his living of. All the foreign merchants need to exchange their coins for the local currency, or people pay them with the transfer orders of funds, so the merchants have to withdraw their money at his place. This all makes him a good profit, and since he made sure the other money changer in this part of the city would be ruined, the merchants now have no other choice than to go to him, no matter how high his rates are.
The slave market is even worse. Villa is ashamed of even setting his foot in there, of becoming a part of it. But he really has no other choice. He needs to save his money somewhere, and he knows well that his friends and business partners, including Cesc, wouldn’t leave him alone until he proved that he is no rebel.
The owner of the slaves is a man in his late forties. Villa has never seen him before, which is strange considering that all the merchants usually come to him before going to the market. But if this one came only to sell, there was no need for him to exchange coins yet. Just from looking at him, Villa would say he is a good businessman. The sparkle in his eyes when he sees a potential customer approaching confirms it.
Villa takes his time, waves the man off when he wants to give him some “good advice”. Those pieces of advice are always good for the seller, not for the customer. Villa actually doesn’t need any advice, because he doesn’t really know what he’s looking for. Anyone who won’t run away with my money.
"This one," he says finally.
The owner blinks in surprise. The one Villa is pointing at is a young boy. He looks tiny compared to the others, even more because of his posture. He’s keeping his head down, like he’s watching something on the ground, but Villa would say that he’s actually focusing on not falling down. It’s well past noon; if he’s been standing there under the merciless sun since morning, he’s probably still on his feet by the pure power of will.
“Are you sure?” the owner asks carefully.
Villa looks at him.
“Are you selling goods or trying to repel customers?” he asks.
“No, no, of course, my lord, I’m not doubting your reasons, whatever they are…”
His voice is ingratiating and slimy. It makes Villa feel sick to the stomach.
“Then don’t. I said I wanted this one.
The man bows slightly and grabs the boy’s arm. Villa would expect him to startle because he wasn’t looking at them so he couldn’t expect it, but there is no reaction at all. The owner pulls him closer and the boy almost falls. Villa moves unwittingly as if he wanted to catch him, but the boy somehow regains his balance.
“Head up!” the man barks and pushes the boy’s chin up.
It’s then that Villa realizes that the boy’s eyes weren’t lowered. They were closed all the time. Now, for a moment, they open like two dark pools and Villa wants to cross himself, run away or tear his shirt off, all at once. Of course he doesn’t do any of that. He just stands there like he was bewitched. It’s like he’s just seen all the emotions of the world concentrated in those eyes. It’s too much to take and he lowers his eyes. He feels the most insignificant that he’s ever felt in his life. He, David Villa, just lowered his eyes in front of a slave.
“He can be yours for three hundred reals.”
The pragmatism of those words brings him to his senses. He chuckles.
“You cannot be serious.”
“He’s not worth three hundred reals.”
He gains his confidence. He’s used to dealing with merchants, in fact he’s a merchant himself. The man would be stupid if he didn’t want to rip him off, but he would be stupid if he let himself be ripped off by such barbarian.
“He’s not even worth two hundred,” he adds.
“Two hundred and seventy reals, because you’re a honorable man...”
Villa shakes his head and crosses his arms, inspecting the boy in front of him, careful to avoid his gaze this time.
“One hundred and fifty,” he says.
The man purses his lips.
“I can ensure you, my lord, he’s worth much more than he looks. Two hundred and fifty.”
“I honestly doubt it,” Villa retorts. “Two hundred is my last offer. It’s more than generous.”
The man thinks for a while, then nods curtly.
“He is yours.”
Villa beckons to one of the men responsible for issuing contracts and lets him write a transfer order of funds.
“You can withdraw the money in your own currency tomorrow,” he tells the man.
“Where?” the man asks.
For sure he’s never been here.
“At my house,” Villa replies calmly. “I am the only money changer in this part of the city.”
~ ~ ~
Once the deal is done, Villa doesn’t actually know what to do. He has servants, but only those who work under a contract. Villa is meticulous about contracts. Probably it’s a professional deformation, but he needs to have everything written and signed. He’s never had a slave nor has he ever thought about having one.
He’s not even sure if the boy actually understands him. His face is not of the common ones here after all.
“Do you speak Catalan?” he asks, trying hard to hide his uneasiness. “Or Castellano?”
The boy nods calmly.
“Yes, my lord. Both.”
“Good,” Villa sighs. “What is your name?”
Now the boy looks surprised. Like the fact that Villa wants to know his name astonishes him.
“David, my lord.”
Villa laughs. The boy blinks in surprise.
“We have the same name,” Villa says. “Nobody calls me by my real name, though. They call me Villa.”
There is no reaction from the boy whatsoever. He just keeps marching next to Villa for the whole time it takes them to get to Villa’s house. Normally, Villa would hire a carriage, but he’s so distracted that he only thinks of it when they are two streets away.
~ ~ ~
Villa opens the door and they walk in. They stand in the hall. Villa glances over to the boy, but he doesn’t lift his eyes from the mosaic on the floor.
“Sergio?” Villa calls.
There is no answer. Maybe this is why people keep slaves, Villa thinks. Because if all servants were so carefree like Sergio, people would rather do everything on their own.
It’s not until the third, already angry call that a young boy appears on the stairs.
“You called, Señor?” he asks with a wide smile.
“No, it was probably just the wind that you heard!” Villa snaps.
Instead of apologizing, Sergio’s smile grows wider, and he approaches them, now with certain curiosity. Villa points to David.
“Take him to the kitchen, give him something to eat and... just take care of him. Then show him the house.”
“Excuse me, Señor...” Sergio says hesitantly.
“Was there anything that wasn’t clear in what I just said?” Villa stops him.
“No,” Sergio says. “Sure, I’ll take care of him.”
“I hope so. He cost me two hundred reals.”
Sergio gasps audibly, but then collects himself. He wraps an arm around David’s shoulders in almost a protective way.
“Come with me.”
~ ~ ~
“I’m Sergio,” he says when they reach the kitchen. “You’ve probably heard it already, though. Same as the whole city.”
David gives a small smile but remains silent.
“And your name?”
Sergio nods and starts rummaging through the pantries, cursing under his breath.
“It’s that Xavi – that’s the cook – had to leave for two days because his mother was sick, and honestly, I can’t even boil water without doing something wrong, and I don’t know where he puts what, so probably don’t expect a warm meal...”
David gives him a surprised look. He wouldn’t expect a warm meal in his wildest dreams.
“I normally don’t work inside the house,” Sergio continues and David is wondering if he stops talking at least in his sleep. “I take care of the garden and the horses and things like that, but no sane person would ever let me come close to things you can break... oh, maybe there is still some of the pork tarts left... they’re good even cold.”
David’s eyes flicker from Sergio to the equipment of the kitchen, but he doesn’t move an inch.
“You’re not very talkative,” Sergio notes.
“We... we were not allowed to talk unless our master asked us something.”
Sergio gasps and then rolls his eyes.
“I’m not your master, silly, I’m just a groom.”
He finally finds what he was looking for and after a while also locates a plate. When it lands in front of David, he loses the ability to speak again. First, the serving of what Sergio called ‘pork tart’ is so big that it equals the amount of food David has seen in the last four days. And second, it’s not the food he’s used to seeing on his plate. It’s something he would serve his master as the main course. Under the thin crust of dough, there is chopped meat with some spices. David can feel the tears stinging his eyes.
“Hey!” Sergio’s voice makes him gather his wits a little bit. “I know Xavi’s cooking is like art, but this is for eating, not for staring at.”
David smiles shyly and reaches for the plate hesitantly. Sergio figures staring at him wouldn’t make thing easier, so he turns around and heads to the door.
“I’m going to run you a bath and find you some clothes.”
He’s gone before David can process the words “run a bath”. He looks around carefully and then finally pulls the plate towards him before someone can take it from him.
~ ~ ~
When Sergio returns, he finds David on the same spot, but at least the plate is empty. He smiles.
“Was it good?”
David nods, then opens his mouth like he wanted to say something, but closes it again. Sergio chuckles.
“And you haven’t yet tasted Xavi’s chopped liver. Or the pastry he makes every Sunday.”
“What does your master eat?” David asks quietly.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean... when you eat this...”
“He eats the same thing,” Sergio says.
“You can eat the same things as your master?”
“Well, of course!” Sergio laughs. “He couldn’t eat it all by himself, if he did, he’d be really fat already. Xavi always makes plenty. He used to cook for a rich family that had seven children, so...”
David keeps looking at him.
“Oh, the bath!” Sergio says, slapping his own forehead. “Hurry up or it will be cold!”
David bites back a surprised scream. If it’s not meant to be cold, then it has to be warm. He pinches himself, half expecting to wake up on the market. But he is still in the house and there is still Sergio’s voice sounding from the hallway. Maybe, after all, it’s not a dream.
~ ~ ~
Sergio opens one door that leads to an almost empty room. There is a huge tub filled with water. On the table next to it, there is a brush and some soap.
“Don’t drown in there, hey?” Sergio grins. “Looking at you I think you could actually go for a swim in that tub.”
David gives him another of his shy smiles and tests the water with his hand. It is, indeed, warm.
Sergio leaves him there and goes to search for the clothes which he – again – forgot about. When he returns, David is wrapped in the clean sheet Sergio left for him, damp hair sticking to his forehead. Sergio laughs.
“You look like a drowned mouse,” he says and hands him the clothes. “They’ll probably be a bit bigger because... eh... because they’re mine. I would ask Xavi for some, but as he’s not here...”
When David puts them on, Sergio almost doubles from laughter.
“No, that won’t do!”
He has the impression that he’s looking at a pile of clothes hanging magically in the air, because David is nowhere to be seen under them.
“Well, I really don’t know what to do with them...” he sighs.
“I can make them fit if you have a needle and some thread...” David says.
Sergio blinks in surprise.
“You can sew?”
David nods. Sergio’s jaw drops.
“Oh. I once tried to stitch my shirt and almost lost my eye.”
He takes a few steps towards David and tries to help him to at least roll his sleeves up. He continues talking in the meanwhile.
“You’ll probably have to sleep with me, because there’s no other… good God!”
Sergio grabs David’s hand and turns the inner side of his wrist to him.
“What is this?”
Initially, he had it for a burn, and now he sees that it really is a burn, but definitely not a result of an accident. It has a shape, a symbol Sergio doesn’t recognize.
“That’s a mark,” David replies calmly.
“But... why... what...” Sergio blurts out.
“We all have it. It’s how the master marks his property. It’s like with cows, you know.”
“But... but you’re not a cow!” Sergio almost screams.
David backs up, utterly terrified, and looks around like he expects someone to appear out of the thin air to kill them both on the spot.
“No... I didn’t mean...” Sergio blurts out, gripping David’s shoulders in a desperate attempt to calm him down. “I just wanted to say that you’re human, I mean it’s awful to...”
He sighs exasperatedly.
“Never mind, forget it. I won’t speak about it again, alright?”
David nods timidly. Then he lifts his head and looks at Sergio with wide eyes.
“Does that mean your master won’t do it to me?”
“What? Are you... are you asking me if Villa will... God, no!"
He has to take a few deep breaths to calm down.
“Well, do you think I can show you around or will you kill yourself tripping over my pants?” he asks then.
~ ~ ~
It takes them a long time to go through the whole house. Sergio himself never thought it was that big until he had to walk through it all at once.
“You don’t have fields?” David asks.
Sergio gives him a confused look.
“Fields? We’re in the city. Villa has some land in the country, but I don’t think he cares about it that much.”
“I’m used to working in the fields,” David says. “What am I going to do here?”
“Well, I don’t know. Villa will tell you. I suppose you’ll be doing Fábio’s work.”
“He was a servant here.”
“What happened to him?”
On one hand Sergio is glad that the boy has lost some of his initial terror and shyness. On the other, he finds these questions rather difficult to answer.
“Like this!” Sergio snaps his fingers. “With a few things that belonged to Villa. It made him terribly angry, I can tell you.”
When they are finally done, Sergio opens the door close to the kitchen.
“That’s my room. And also yours, now. I have to warn you, I’m not a very tidy person.”
“Nobody else will sleep here?” David asks.
“No. Xavi has his own room. He gets up earlier than I do when he bakes bread and so on.”
David blinks again, but doesn’t say anything. The thought of sleeping in an actual bed in a room that he will have almost for himself is too good to be true.
Sergio rummages through his thing and then pulls out some thread and a needle triumphantly.
“Here!” he says. “You can do something with the clothes now. I’ll just go to check if Villa needs something, and then I have to – somehow – make dinner. Which probably won’t end well.”
He closes the door behind him, leans over the wall and sighs. Then he heads up the stairs to Villa’s room.
~ ~ ~
Villa is sitting in his favorite chair, scribbling something in one of the books that are constantly lying around. When Sergio knocks and enters, he instinctively closes it. Sergio smirks and Villa realizes that he cannot even read.
“Did you show him the house?” Villa asks.
Villa nods and takes a cup and a carafe with wine.
“Señor?” Sergio says quietly.
“When his former owner comes for the money, do you think I could make him accidentally slip on a horse’s shit or something?”
“Sergio!” Villa snaps, but the laughter in his voice is badly hidden.
Then he notices that Sergio looks... shaken. Which is not a usual thing.
“What happened?” Villa asks.
“Nothing in particular, but... he thinks of himself as of a cow. Have you seen his wrist?”
Villa nods quietly.
“He also asked me if I got beaten if I didn’t carry your orders right.”
“You certainly should,” Villa notes with amusement. “But I’m afraid you’d be already dead in that case.”
“And he asked me if you will mark him as well.”
Villa turns around briskly.
“What did you just say?”
“I don’t know why, but he probably thinks that you’re a monster. I’d say he thinks all the masters are the same. He seems to be utterly terrified of you.”
Villa slumps back in his chair. What, in the name of God, have I gotten into? He makes a mental note to strangle Francesc Fábregas the next time he sees him.
~ ~ ~
When David walks into the kitchen, Sergio is rummaging through the pantries again. He turns around and nods in appreciation when he sees his clothes. They still don’t fit perfectly, but at least he now doesn’t look like a kid trying on his father’s clothing, and isn’t tripping over the trousers anymore.
“Can’t Xavi at least write on things what they are?” Sergio laments. "Though I can't read, so it would be useless anyway."
David gives him a skeptical look.
“What do you want to do with flour, vinegar and milk?” he asks.
“Well, I have no idea. I can’t even cook porridge to save my life.”
“May I...” David asks and moves towards the table.
Sergio hesitates for a while, then nods.
“It can’t be worse than my cooking, can it?”
David smiles and looks around.
“Do you have some meat?”
“There’s pork. At least Xavi said it was pork. I hope it’s not a piece of a horse or something.”
“You can eat horse,” David says calmly.
“Thank you very much, I prefer chicken.”
In the next few minutes, David gathers all sorts of ingredients Sergio doesn’t even know.
“Can I... do at least something?” Sergio asks.
He feels rather stupid and useless.
“You can make salad,” David says. “Cut the apples and onions.”
“What nonsense is that?” Sergio frowns.
“It’s not nonsense, it’s delicious!”
Sergio picks up a knife and takes the first apple.
“Peel it. Don’t chop your fingers off, there’s no meat in the recipe.”
“Oh, so you can joke!” Sergio grins.
In not so long, they – well, David with some pretended help of Sergio - manage to cook some meatballs, the salad that Sergio is still skeptical about, and even some almond pudding as dessert.
“Is there something you can’t do?” Sergio asks, rather frustrated.
David looks at him with doe eyes and shrugs.
“I thought so,” Sergio sighs.
~ ~ ~
Villa looks at Sergio in surprise, laying the cutlery back on the table.
“Did you wake up today with some newly discovered culinary talent, Sergio?”
“No, señor. I only made the salad... well, chopped the apples and onions.”
“Alright. Can I talk to the cook?”
Sergio doesn’t look really convinced about it being a good idea, but he walks out the door and returns a few minutes later, dragging David along. Villa can hear his whispered “he doesn’t want to eat you alive, silly” and sighs.
He still thinks that he’s ready for everything. That is until the boy falls on his knees in front of him. Villa freezes on the spot. Then he glances over to Sergio, who rolls his eyes and shrugs in a silent ‘I told you’.
“For God’s sake, get up!” Villa says.
The boy scrambles to his feet but keeps his head down.
“First, this will not repeat itself,” Villa says calmly but emphatically. “I’m neither God, nor a king.”
David fidgets a little, but stays silent.
“Second, I would like you to look at me when I’m talking to you.”
That is rather a challenging order mainly for himself, but he has to get used to it. David lifts his head slowly and looks at him.
“That’s better,” Villa smiles. “Now, Sergio told me that you had some... doubts as to what concerns your work here.”
Sergio makes a face which suggests that ‘doubts’ is really an understatement.
“For now, you will do whatever is necessary to do. Sergio will tell you. If we have guests, count with helping around the house more.”
“Yes, my lord.”
It is barely a whisper, but at least it’s a reaction.
“Now to your other... doubts. I have no intention of hurting you for no reason. I do not beat my servants up for whatever triviality. In conclusion, David, I’m not a cruel person at all. There’s no reason to fear me.”
The boy nods. Still, Villa is absolutely convinced that he doesn’t share his opinion.
“Oh, and I forgot to tell you...” Villa says and smiles. “The dinner was absolutely delicious.”
“Thank you, my lord.”
“I cannot even tell Xavi or he would get jealous,” Villa chuckles. “I had no idea you could cook.”
“My mother taught me.”
It’s the first thing David actually says which is not a simple answer, and it takes Villa by surprise. He tries to remember if there was a woman at the market, but can’t recall the other slaves at all.
“Your mother... she is...”
“She is dead.”
“Oh. I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”
At least Villa now knows two things. He knows that since the early morning whenever he moves, he puts his foot into something, and he also knows that he suddenly feels uneasy in his own house, and has to figure the situation out as soon as possible.
~ ~ ~
David calms down only when they get back to the kitchen. Sergio has to check the house before going to sleep, and David offers to clean the kitchen. Sergio assumes that he wouldn’t offer it if he didn’t want to do it, and he doesn’t feel like being the one Xavi will blame for the mess, so he accepts.
Sergio practically talks himself into sleep while David stares at the ceiling, his mind too awake to sleep. When there’s only Sergio’s quiet snoring to be heard, he throws his blanket away and gets up.
He creeps out of the room to the dark hallway. There is a door at the end of it. David walks to it and pushes the handle. The door is not locked. It almost startles him. He remembers the room he used to sleep in with the others. The door was always locked for the night. His biggest fear was that there would be a fire one night and he wouldn’t get out.
Then he peeks out. He can feel fresh air. The door leads to the garden. He gulps. There is a fence around the garden, not very high.
He could escape. He certainly could climb over the fence and run away now. He could even get quite far before Sergio or someone else would wake up. But where? Where would he go? And what if they caught him?
Besides that, he considers the situation. It doesn’t seem to be bad at all. Sure, he is still a bit afraid of his new master, even though he seems not to be a bad person. But there is something strange about him that terrifies David. He is not readable like his old master. With him, David always knew when he was going to hit him, when he was in a bad mood and it was better to avoid him, or when on the contrary he could expect an alleviation. Villa looks and talks nicely all the time and David just cannot afford to be lulled into a false sense of security by it.
But he has a bed to sleep in, food to eat and even though he doesn’t allow himself to trust him completely just yet, Sergio looks like a nice guy with a big heart.
He closes the door again and goes back to his room. For now he is staying.