Early evening in Goa, 1586 – by Robin van Koert

Steven had arrived discreetly, through the half-hidden servants’ entrance. Slowly, she walked towards where he was standing. Her expanded belly made it impossible to walk normally. She turned and placed the back of her head against his chest, allowing him to stroke the round shape that was her lower body.
“I guess our little one is sleeping”, he started.
“Well, the waddling would do that to me as well”, she said softly.
He smiled.

She knew he would ask, but decided to enjoy the moment a little longer. With one hand he moved her loose fitting kameez up and with the other he softly touched her skin. She closed her eyes as he shaped and re-shaped his hand to match her curves. Her mind drifted away to the mehfil at Ismael Khan’s house, where she had first seen him. During her dance performance, she had avoided eye contact with him. She had moved as in a dream, utterly concentrated on her body. Such had been her focus, she had seen, but had not heard, the appreciative sounds the audience was making. As she whirled over the stage, her audience had become a blur of opening and closing mouths and wildly clapping hands. Afterwards, she had taken in the applause, acknowledged the guests and retreated. Through an opening between curtains, she had observed the tall stranger. She still cherished the memory

Even though he was now whispering sweet nothings in her ear, she was aware of his other, darker side. At moments like these, though, it was almost impossible for her to imagine him doing anything beyond caressing her body, stroking her long hair or holding a pen to write passionate letters. Almost, because he had arrived agitated: Gaspar Paes was dead. Killed. He had been strangled, a source had told him. Poor Gaspar, she thought ruefully. He had found out about her earlier relationship with Gonçalvo, one of Steven’s adversaries. Gaspar’s next planned move had been ill advised. Perhaps he had felt safe under the protection of his master, archbishop Vicente da Fonseca. In any case, she mused, Gaspar had underestimated her.

Obviously, neither she, nor anyone else, would want to be linked to the disappearance of the archbishop’s close advisor. Looking for advice, she had contacted Gonçalvo, who had clearly sensed an opportunity. Goa’s Portuguese elite has ambivalent opinions about your Dutchman, he had claimed. He was right. She had witnessed Steven whipping Portuguese power brokers with his sharp tongue, oddly enough without apparent consequences. The fact that, as a foreigner, his abrasive behavior was never challenged had tongues wagging. There were lurid rumors concerning Steven’s relations with high-ranking members of the Portuguese nobility. He shrugged those tales off as innuendo resulting from boredom laced with envy. “What else do those people have to do during their days?” Steven would laugh. Still, Gonçalvo had been confident that the Portuguese community would be receptive to the idea of Steven having taken matters in his own hand.

She had been aware of Steven’s misgivings concerning Gaspar, one of his secretive sources. She had actually liked the young Portuguese, she mused, exactly because he had not been like his countrymen. Therefore, she had been surprised, instead of shocked, when Gaspar had confronted her with her Gonçalvo’s role in her past. Until, of course, it became clear how he intended to use that knowledge. She closed her eyes. Briefly, melancholy came over her. She was abruptly taken out of her reveries, though, when Steven gently pushed her away, turned her around and looked her in the eyes. His agitation had dissolved, but she recognized the preternaturally calm, but intense, look and braced herself for the confrontation.
“What do you know about the death of Gaspar Paes?”
“Probably just as much as you do. Or less, perhaps, since you have excellent sources”, she said unperturbed.
“Besides, you worked closely with him. Perhaps you know about less than savory aspects of his life”, she added, implying a darker motive.

He appeared to ignore her insinuation. Then again, she thought, his facial expressions rarely gave anything away. His responses would typically be measured, friendly, even now, when he was suggesting that she was involved in a murder or at least had an idea of who was behind the killing. Of course, she had anticipated the question.
“Do you mean that he had it coming? And what about the rumors linking me to his sudden demise?”}“Steven, let’s not pretend that it wasn’t obvious that Gaspar was becoming a nuisance to you”, she added calmly.
“I did not murder Gaspar Paes.”
“Neither did I”, she responded.

She looked at him intently. It was clear from his ever so slight edginess that having been linked to Gaspar’s death, however vaguely, had started to unnerve him. The archbishop would be a powerful opponent.
“Of course not, but you then thought to drop my name to extricate yourself”, he snapped.

She just frowned, as if baffled by his suggestion.
“Extricate myself from what?”
“Did you order his murder or not?”
“I did not. Listen carefully, Steven, I didn’t kill your friend nor did I order anyone else to do so. I did not betray you. Feel free to continue rephrasing your questions, but I cannot possibly give you the answer you seem to desire.”

His eyes had softened again. Slowly, he moved over to her and gently removed a strand of hair out of her face. Annoyed she turned her head away. He shrugged, walked to a chair near a window and sat down. She reflected on their tense exchange. What had he expected her to say? Yes, I killed your friend? She shook her head. Show some empathy, she scolded herself. Of course, he did not really want her to confess. He wanted her to provide him with a solid alibi. Anything. It would have to be a lie. Still, lying was not the problem, because, at times, the truth was not worth pursuing. It was something they had both agreed on early on. “What is your truth?” he had asked her one time. He knew that, like him, she was living several lives. And only one of those involved him. Wearily she looked over towards him. A sense of regret about having involved Gonçalvo had started to bubble up inside of her. Several options that could exonerate him tumbled over each other in her mind. She pursed her lips. Right now was not a good time, though, to discuss those with Steven. Furtively, she glanced over her shoulder to the other side of the room and back to him.

Lanky frame draped over the comfortable chair, he was gazing into the distance. She folded her hands in front of her face, closed her eyes and concentrated on breathing. She positioned herself a short distance behind him and followed his gaze. The setting sun had sunk to the horizon, giving the Mandovi River’s water a purple hue, while the sky shifted delicately from purple, via yellow and orange, to pink. A soft, yellowish light fell over Goa’s white washed houses. Slowly but surely, the light was pulled from the room and over the water to beyond the horizon. As darkness seeped in to fill the resulting void, their bodies became silhouettes. She could no longer distinguish his features, but was certain that his senses were alert.

The early evening sounds gently drifted in through the windows. Only fragments of shouted phrases reached their room, not enough to make sense of what was being said. Inside, they could not break their silence. The longer it lasted, the more awkward it became. Finally, she decided to light a few candles, one of them near him. The light of the flame gave his face an orange tinged color. As he slowly turned to face her, his deep-set eyes remained hidden in the darkness of their sockets and his high cheekbones and hollow cheeks created black shapes. Even though she could not see his eyes, it was impossible to miss the melancholy that radiated from his half-lit face. He leisurely rose from his chair, carefully moved through the room, embraced her, inhaled her perfume and then stepped back to face her.

“I’ll be in touch”, he whispered, touching her belly.
“Yes”, she answered almost inaudibly, stroking his hand.

Then he turned around and walked towards the door. From the window she watched him leave. Feeling sad and forlorn, she closed her eyes to sense every single breath ripple smoothly through her body. Relax, she thought. Suddenly, she felt a hand on her shoulder. Its fingers caressed their way up to her neck, where the hand’s grip slowly tightened.
“I want him gone, tawaif”, Gonçalvo’s hoarse voice whispered menacingly, “you should finish what you started.”
She could feel warm breath in her ear.
“I’ll give you one last chance”, he muttered and swiftly slipped out of the room.
She just stood there. Breathing rapidly now. Trembling.