Synopsis: Kate Fordham, escaping terrible trauma, has fled to the beautiful sunlit city of Granada, the ancient capital of the Moors in Spain, where she is scraping by with an unfulfilling job in a busy bar. One day in the glorious gardens of the Alhambra, once home to Sultan Abu Abdullah Mohammed, also known as Boabdil, Kate finds a scrap of paper hidden in one of the ancient walls. Upon it, in strange symbols, has been inscribed a message from another age. It has lain undiscovered since before the Fall of Granada in 1492, when the city was surrendered to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. Born of love, in a time of danger and desperation, the fragment will be the catalyst that changes Kate’s life forever.
A Court of Lions brings one of the great turning-points in history to life, telling the stories of a modern woman and the last Moorish sultan of Granada, as they both move towards their cataclysmic destinies.
Inside, it was hot and steamy. There was so much perfume in the air that I sneezed, which cleared enough of an eddy in the vapour for me to make out a figure in a marble tub. If this was the Christian witch, it seemed to me that a lot of fuss had been made about nothing. Where I came from the women were strong, with black hair and eyes like the night, their sun-baked skin as brown as bark and about as tough. This one was as pale as a wraith. I almost walked away then, to report back to Qasim with a sneer.
I wish I had.
For when Isobel de Solis rose from her bath, every impression of weakness vanished like the coiling vapours from which she emerged. She stood with her shoulders back and her chin high, making no attempt to hide any part of herself.
I had never seen a woman naked before, bathing opportunities being limited in the desert, and never having acquired this peculiar habit of stripping and steaming and scrubbing, I never used the royal hammam but instead confined my efforts at cleanliness to dabbing dubiously at myself out of view of everyone, with a cloth dipped in wash water. Which merely added to Momo’s view of me as a little heathen. So I regarded her with curiosity, even though I had no appreciation for the aspects of her that appeared to have driven the sultan wild. To me, breasts were appendages like camels’ humps for storing sustenance—and hers seemed unimpressive. The rest of her was slender and girlish. But then her eyes came to rest on me. They were the green of a flame that changes its hue when a charlatan throws mineral powder into the fire.
She clicked her fingers and spoke in a foreign tongue. One of the women scuttled like a big black beetle to stare at me. “Lady say you her slave now,” she rasped in horrible Arabic.
“What?” I laughed nervously. “I’m not her slave.”
“She choose you.”
“She can’t choose me. I’m the sultana’s servant.”
“You belong Lady Isobel.” The old woman dug her fingers into the meat of my arm. I caught a whiff of her, bitterness distilled. Sheeba, grown in the kitchen garden to ward off parasites. Who would wear wormwood as a perfume?
“What your name?” she demanded.
“Jihad,” I told her defiantly. Struggle.
She gave me a hard stare, then conveyed my insolence to Isobel. I saw a frown pleat a deep line in the perfect brow and thought: She is really quite old. Nineteen, at least. Then she responded to the crone with a stream of harsh-sounding words.
“The lady will call you Gatita,” the crone said. “‘Little cat.’”
A drowned kitten’s corpse being carried away in a bucket. I shivered.
“And I am La Sabia—the Wise One. I earn my name. Do not forget.”
“I earned mine too,” I said, hardening my muscles against her fingers. “It’s a Muslim name and you are in a Muslim kingdom, so maybe you should get used to that.”
Her expression did not change by so much as a flicker, but abruptly I was lying on the wet tiles and blood was singing in my ears. I was just getting used to the unlikely idea that the old woman had put me there, when she kicked me in the stomach. Even though she wore nothing more substantial than a soft leather slipper, the blow doubled me up like a dying wasp.
Her voice seemed to come from a long way away. “¡Pequeño demonio!”
Author bio: Jane Johnson is from Cornwall and has worked in the book industry for over 20 years, as a bookseller, publisher and writer. She is responsible for the publishing of many major authors, including George RR Martin.
In 2005 she was in Morocco researching the story of a distant family member who was abducted from a Cornish church in 1625 by Barbary pirates and sold into slavery in North Africa, when a near-fatal climbing incident caused her to rethink her future. She returned home, gave up her office job in London, and moved to Morocco. She married her own ‘Berber pirate’ and now they split their time between Cornwall and a village in the Anti-Atlas Mountains. She still works, remotely, as Fiction Publishing Director for HarperCollins.