XIII

Friar Ferron escorted them to the palace of the Moorish governor of Ronda, called the Mondragon, which had been given over to officers of the Inquisition. The palace was only a short walk along the road that followed the cliff top. They walked through light-filled rooms to a colonnaded courtyard, and then passed on through a horseshoe arch into a small garden that overlooked the cliff itself, with a remarkable view of the flood plain below.

The mudejar Abdul brought out a tray of tea.

Grace glanced at Abdul. ‘Are you sure it’s safe to talk of these matters in front of him?’

‘The mudejar? Of course. He is an ambassador to one defeated Moorish city from another which soon will be defeated. What harm can he do? We will speak freely, and forget he even exists.’

Grace leaned forward eagerly. ‘Tell me of this Dove, then.’

Ferron said, ‘I cast a net for men of his sort, and have caught what looks like a promising fish. He came to our attention – I mean the Inquisition’s – because he intends to travel to Cordoba, to the monarchs’ court, where he hopes to present his case.’

‘A case to do what?’

Ferron smiled. ‘To sail the Ocean Sea. To go west, if he can.’

‘Then such a man exists,’ Grace breathed.

‘Oh, yes. He was born in Genoa, this man, the son of a clothier. He is now thirty-four years old. It seems he was educated in a school run by the clothiers’ guild. But his learning is poor,’ he said dismissively. ‘He was restless, as many of that Italian breed are. He ran off to sea; he served on ships from his youth. He has sailed to Chios in the Aegean, and as far as Iceland in the Ocean Sea; he has visited Ireland, England, Flanders, and sailed down the African coast. He became a competent navigator, mapmaker and ship’s master, it seems. He made his money from his petty bits of commerce, as men of his kind do.

‘But his fortunes changed, this poor Dove’s, when he made a good marriage. He wed into a noble Portuguese family called Perestrelo. And this is where the dream was born. For his father-in-law, who died before the Dove married his daughter, served as a captain during the colonisation of Madeira, led by Henry the Navigator. The Perestrelos were given some land on the island of Porto Santo, off Madeira. Here it was that our Dove settled with his wife, and he began to go through his dead father-in-law’s maps and accounts of his explorations. He learned first hand how a new land may be made to turn a profit for its discoverer, and the nation that sponsors him.

‘And his eyes were drawn west. Porto Santo, I am told, is a haven for those who sail out into the fringe of the Ocean Sea in their little ships, explorers hunting down the African coast, slavers seeking a supply base. And many of them bring back tales of marvellous lands which lie to the west, always just out of sight…’

Out of all these fragments, in the head of the clothier’s son, a most remarkable dream was born.

Ferron said, ‘Perhaps if you sail west and keep on sailing, it would be more than new lands, new Madeiras, that you would find. For if the world is round, then perhaps you could sail around it. Perhaps you would end up coming around the curve of the earth and arrive in the east…’

James was astounded. He was educated; he knew his geography, and the shape of the world. But this was a category of journey that had never occurred to him before. ‘Can it be possible?’

‘Oh, yes,’ Ferron said. ‘Why, it was a dream of Pedro, elder brother of Henry the Navigator, half a century ago. And there are strong commercial reasons to try it. Some say that if the Muslims block the way to the east – well, then, on a round world, perhaps a route can be found to the far east, by sailing west.’

‘And that is the Dove’s dream,’ Grace said.

Ferron sneered. ‘You can just see this little man, the jumped-up Genoan, his poorly educated mind struggling to make sense of the tavern legends he so credulously devours. But he is devout, I’ll give him that. It’s not just trade he’s after. He’s said to have concocted a scheme to contact the Mongol Khan, if he still reigns, and to persuade him to join an attack on the Islamic states from the east. Our clothier’s son dreams of liberating Jerusalem!’

‘All right,’ Grace said. ‘But so what? You say men have had this sort of dream before. What makes this “Dove” different?’

Ferron said, ‘For one thing, the plausibility of his case. The seed of his dream may have been travellers’ tales, but he has been trying, in his dogged, uneducated way, to assemble a rational case, based on the testimony of the ancients and other arcana. Second, he has added a gloss of a divine mission, which will appeal to our monarchs. You could even see it as fitting in with the greater project of the Hidden One to rule the whole world; after all you must discover a land before you can conquer it. Third, there is his sheer determination. Anybody who has met him says this of him. He is obsessed where those who went before him were not, and he may succeed in his dream of going west merely because of that.’

‘Or perhaps,’ James said, ‘he just wants to get out from under the shadow of his father-in-law. That would be human.’

‘Well, if he wants to impress his wife he’s sadly too late,’ Ferron said. ‘She died last year, leaving our Dove with a chick, a son. Perhaps that death released our dreamer from the damp prison of Porto Santo. Within months he had travelled to Lisbon and petitioned the Portuguese court to fund his westward expedition. In return he wanted a share of the profits, a hereditary nobility and to be named governor of any lands he found.’

Grace smiled. ‘This little man thinks big.’

‘You can’t blame him for that. Joao turned him down. He left Portugal – although that may not be unconnected to the fact that his wife’s family were implicated in a murky little plot to assassinate the King. And so, early this year, our Dove came to Spain. He’s here now, in a little port called Palos. And as I say we’ve learned that he intends to come to Cordoba to present his case to the monarchs.’

Grace nodded. ‘And you do believe he is the figure predicted in Eadgyth’s Testament?’

‘Oh, yes.’

James said, ‘His father was a clothier, you said, friar. What kind of clothier?’

‘A weaver. This man is the son of a weaver. Just as your prophecy says.’

And James remembered the line: the spider’s spawn. The weaver of a web.

Abdul asked, ‘And if I may, what is his name?’

‘His Italian mother called him Cristoforo, his Portuguese wife Cristovao. In his workaday commercial Latin he is Christophorus. We in Spain must, I suppose, call him Cristobal.’

‘Christophorus. Christo ferens,’ said Grace slowly. ‘The Christ-bearer. And the surname?’

Ferron smiled, anticipating her reaction. ‘He will be called Colon here – Colombo in Genoa and Portugal – Columbus in Latin.’

Grace clapped her hands, delighted as a child. ‘Columbus-the Dove! Can it really be as simple as that? The spider-spawn, the Christ-bearer, the Dove – Christopher Columbus!’

But James, shocked, thought there was nothing simple about a four-hundred-year-old prophecy coming true.

Ferron said, ‘Well, it seems that all hinges on this man. Spain is drained by war; the monarchs won’t buy everything that is presented to them. If this man is funded to go west, they will not spend on your engines – as I am coming to believe they must, if the world’s final war is to be won. What we must do, then, is recruit this Dove, this Colon, to our cause. We must make him forget the western Ocean. We must make him long for the engines, and the glorious war to come.’

‘”And the Dove will fly east”,’ James breathed.

The mudejar Abdul was staring intently at Ferron, absorbing every word.

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