The horizon was void of all human activity and the sky stained not with heavenly blues and whites, but with waves of heat and drops of water condensing on exposed flesh of any man or beast forced to walk in the sun.
It was the heavy wind on his back and the sound of boots running toward him in the sand that made Cortez shift under his dark wool coat and stand straight. By the time the man reached his side the dagger was now covertly sheathed, and the new owner would have to consider its fate later.
“Cortez!” The man in matching uniform breathlessly called out. “Find something?”
Of course not. Why should he. A trivial lie to his compatriot meant Cortez stood to hold this dagger longer, cherish it, discover the facets of mystery entombed in the jewels. Had there been a duel, a murder? Certainly a conflict for only a fool would lose this treasure by accident. Yet he found no blood on either the blade or the ground, and any darker clues were long swept away.
The soldier smiled and placed a hand on Cortez’s shoulder. “Come on, we can’t stay out here any longer.”
Weaving between tall ships docked, merchants and soldiers, cargo and livestock, Cortez and the man at his side were tasked with observation and keeping order in a block of the stifled port. If anyone had as keen an eye as Cortez, it was this man. A loyal soldier and a good friend, Felipe Marcos would describe himself as too small to be anyone’s rival and too intelligent to be caught should he find himself entrenched in mischief.
They made their way past the docks and away from the main street. Marcos removed his hat and threw himself into a shadow and the cool wall of the building’s corridor. Here the air vacuumed from the ocean to the top of the city creating a tunnel of refuge for the citizens of Cádiz.
“You know the only thing I hate more than these uniforms during Summer?” Marcos let the cooling air drive across his face and fill his lungs.
Cortez hardly cared what the answer might be. He had his own ideas of Hell and today, this might be a preview of life he assumed all pirates should encounter after their Judgement.
“Bad wine! When we are off duty tonight come down with me. To the Plaza.”
“No. Let’s meet at Cobos,” Cortez leaned back next to his friend and took a deep breath.
“Are you mad?”
Cortez turned his mouth up in a knowing smirk. “It is why I keep you around amigo.”
Marcos shifted his weight from the wall and replaced his hat. “You know who I have heard walks that Calle? No thanks.”
“Why are you listening to rumors?” Cortez looked down and scuffed the bottom of his boot along the stone street. “Gossiping is a woman’s sin. Keep your mouth shut, si?” Suddenly the dagger was beginning to sit uncomfortably at his side.
Yes, he was cognizant of who walked Cobos at night and Marcos was correct. It was the same two men who were absent until late hours from the arsenal. Better to let his friend continue to believe it only a rumor. Better to not let anyone else know those men had what they thought was a secret. No secrets could be kept from Cortez. He would find out. By chance, by investigation, by confrontation. Either of those remedies would procure answers and he was willing to do almost anything to have answers.
No one who kept in Cortez’s company could feasibly hide a moment of passing judgement or a glance of lust. More than reading faces, he noticed if a man was born to the stables and rose through the ranks. That man would still keep small habits. Perhaps a curve of his lip when pronouncing a word or the way he bridled his horse a moment faster than the man from Nobility, who had never saddled his own horse.
Belonging to the Armada did not make equals of any man. It only showed who had the courage to die faster.
The startling crack of a swinging wooden door hitting stucco and fracturing small pieces of the wall, tumbled to the ground and further breaking against the cobblestones called the men to attention. A young boy stumbled out the doorway and tried to cross the busy road, clutching his side. He made it only far enough to grasp on to Cortez’s sleeve.
“What happened?” Marcos said and flinched as the boy collapsed into Cortez’s arms.
A trembling hand attached to a slender arm reached up and partially opened his bloodied coat. The boy slid back down, the cause of sweat on his brow not from heat but from loss of blood.
“I will get help,” Marcos leaned in to reassure the boy.
“No señor. Take me home. We have doctor, I must get home.”
Cortez pushed his friend back. “Give him room. He’s not going to survive if we do not get him out of here.” A moment of precise decision turned seconds into actions. “What is your name?”
“Peter. Trenton. Please señor,” his tender voice fading under gasps of pain.
“The boy is English!” Marcos, in his usual naïve way, replied in surprise.
“Get my horse. Tell Captian DeSoto what happened.”
Marcos leaned down. “Can you describe what the person looked like who did this?”
Cortez only motioned once again to the horses and picked up the boy in his arms.
“Trenton,” Cortez stopped walking and watched the boy’s shallow breath. “Peter, you have to direct me.”
“The hill. There is…marble arch.”
Marcos handed him the reins to an unsteady dappled grey Andalusian, the heat making even this noble horse temperamental and almost unwilling to take both riders. “That’s halfway cross the city. He’ll never make it.”
Cortez mounted the horse securing his injured passenger against his chest. A single stamp of its right hoof then circling in attention to the surroundings, horse and soldier made a final sweep of the scene.
And just like the scene before it, there were no clues, no detail in piercing glances from the crowd. Cortez would have to retreat, leaving his partner with no answers and alone to face the examination of their superiors.