Since the beginning of the war, Cortez had reason to follow the changing loyalties in each district in the port of Cádiz. This road away from town once provided a thriving ancient population a key to the unbreakable chain to Rome herself and the previous Great Empire. There were still citizens of Cádiz who claimed to have in their blood the determination of those people who had inhabited the lands since the time of Christ.
And so neglect was not the cause of the rutted paths he followed, but time itself. Thousands of people and hundreds of years converged on these same parched grey stones.
Where he was headed, the family had no such ties. The Trenton’s came to the Iberian Peninsula with nothing but a heavily decorated piece of parchment from the apparent Spanish Monarch and the statutes of from a House that carried only bitter resentment. It was for their own protection that the King gave Ambassador Trenton land so far away from the heart of Cádiz. Cortez recalled that Marcos had been part of a small regiment with the unfortunate obligation to escort the Trenton family when they first arrived. Orders were concise. See to it that the Ambassador and his family make it safely from the harbor to the Estate. Everyone in the room upon hearing the orders gasped when it was revealed where the Trenton’s would call home.
Everyone except Cortez.
He knew too well that land and estates and titles were subject to the Will of the Crown. Where centuries of stability once lay, this new game between Houses left no safety for anyone. That included the family that inhabited Paraíso Terrestre for the past three hundred years. At least they had the decency to purchase safe passage for those under their care to escape the forced invasion of the land by the Bourbon Guardia.
When the Bourbons came for the smaller Cortez lands, his family had not the same opportunity. The appointed Commander made his presence known with the sound of a nail being driven into the main front doorway, a roughly transcribed law with an enormous red seal at the bottom of the page attached.
That was it.
That was the transfer of Titles. No chance for defense, no opportunity to appeal to the Crown. An hour it took the soldiers to ransack his childhood home and his father – Cortez pondered for years after - why his father gave up the treasures without so much a word. He shook the Commander’s hand, prompted his son to hold the reins of his favorite horse and never look back.
Remember Lot’s wife, his father said. Never look back.
And it was Summer. The throat closing type of heat that turns around the from the dust of the earth to the nose and the eyes.
Now, another Summer and still the same unrest, the same stagnant heat.
The horse felt inelegant under him, trudging up the winding incline and carrying the burden of an extra rider. Hooves shattered against the road and the strain made his horse sweat, building up a distinct white foam around the reins along the neck.
Cortez had remembered his friend’s words about Paraíso Terrestre. A lush place, Marcos would say. The main courtyard a rival of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. But Felipe did always have an over exuberant imagination. His friend did not have the same good fortune to have wandered the gardens of the Alcázar. Good fortune? Cortez smiled as he thought. Good fortune to never have been caught trespassing. Amazing what can be accomplished when you make friends with those who everyone else sees as their inferior.
The crumbling marble arch appeared at the top of the hill and Cortez had to duck as they passed under. He slowed enough to check if Peter’s wound had stopped bleeding and listened to shallow breaths. A whine from the boy’s weak body broke the silence each time the horse called to attention, pricking its ears forward and raising its nose to the stagnant air.
The pitiless sun blazed down, perspiration gathering around his neck and under his hat. He should have liked to remove his uniform coat but neither the dying boy in his care nor time would allow. His boots felt heavy and he continued to encourage the horse, stirrup pressing to the arch of his foot as he clung to the reins and balanced the boy in his lap. Bare the discomfort for both God and King, an offering of self sacrifice even if he did not admit to wanting to use his own suffering in pleading for the boy’s life.
The estate should have been a flurry of activity.
Yet, no workers in the small field.
He noticed the crops withering under the sun and man and beast may have withered just the same. The vegetation was not dead or dry, yet lush leaves touched the ground. Garlic had been planted in sandy soil and appeared to be placed only for show. Fruit trees of apricots and apples in desperate need of the rain lined the pathway, their yellowed leaves dropping on the dirt path and kicked up by the horse, scattering behind as he past. He observed an open field to his left assuming the design was for livestock but nothing grazed there. A few meager rows of grapevines lined up on his right with small brilliant green clusters that had not been tied off. Birds of varying sizes, the bane of any honorable farmer, descended and ravaged the tart fruit. The winged beggars scattered in a rush of vibrating feathers and scratching calls to abandon their feast as he past.
Cortez kept a timed repetition of speaking the boy’s name trying to keep him awake.
“¿Este es el lugar?” he leaned in closely to ask as they reached the leveled ground of the estate.
Peter painfully raised his head and through bleary eyes gasped, tried to sit up, looked forward and only nodded his head.
They approached the ornate home. A strange design of brick and scrollwork covered in brightest white, each window shuttered and covered in azure paint. He entered the empty courtyard, a scowl on his face and an alert mind. There was a small post for the horse and temporary shade and still, no sound came from the house.
But before Cortez could react, an older man entered the courtyard. His thin grey beard mottled about his chin, his clothing a fine uniform of brown and yellow silk although a size too large hanged from the shrinking frame. When he saw the head of the boy, the man almost fell forward with the force of his realization and stopped, looked at Cortez with wide grey eyes and stumbled to speak. Only high gasps left his mouth before he turned and ran back into the house.
“Para por favor! Este - niño necesita su ayuda!” Cortez tried to alert the old man while dismounting the horse.
Pain dropped sharply into his stomach. He was well acquainted with that tightness, the automatic release of tension from the brain to the gut. Nerves they call it. Sweating, vivid flashes of color across his vision, the sensation that everything was going to shatter in an instant.
He only had to wait the few seconds it would take for the feeling to rush through his blood. The sensation would relax, disappear. Wait it out, he told himself. Breathe.
Then it was gone.
The boy was dying in his arms and the one place he wanted to be brought to for safety and assistance seemed to turn against him and leave him to the whim of the cruelest of fate.
Cortez stopped and shifted Peter’s weight again in his arms before forcing the next step.
The sun reflected off the stucco of the walls making Cortez squint as he walked. Two bleached wood doors carved each with six geometric squares greeted them. The old man had left the door open slightly and Cortez used his foot to open it wide enough to enter a secondary courtyard. Compact but no less ornate than the rest of the building, scattered remnants of broken pots and dying flowers lay on the ground in the corners. There was a sadness to the scene, as though a hurricane had been through and taken all the life from the place leaving a trail of corpsed botanic diversity that at once both left the seer with pity and fear. It may have resembled the famed Hanging Gardens of Babylon a season ago.
Today it was the expulsion from Paradise.
“Who are you!?” a woman’s voice cried out and echoed against the building.
Cortez did not respond.
It was too bright for him to look up beyond a few feet from the ground and he could barely keep his eyes open more than squint, sweat dripping from his forehead into his eyes.
He heard the hammer of a pistol being pulled back, followed by the heavy slide of a shoe on the dirt moving one step toward him. Another voice, he supposed was the old man from earlier, questioned the first voice.
“Do you think he killed him?”
“Get back inside Gerard,” the voice commanded.
“My Lady, you cannot stand out here –“
Cortez tried to focus on the figure approaching him. The woman’s hands were shaking but the dark pistol was exquisitely aimed at his head.
“Médico. ¡Inmediatamente! El pidió un medico.” Cortez’s response was loud, solid. He could now see the worn shoes of the old man and the hem of a woman’s dress brushing against the ground.
“¿Señora? ¿Poner la pistola abajo?”
The woman raised her arm to the air and fired. The vibration of the shot sent a flock of birds that had been resting under the eaves of the second story of the house to take wing.
Cortez closed his eyes and remained stationary, feeling the dry wind brush past his cheek. He held a cautious distance between himself and the still armed woman. He leaned forward slightly, offering the boy’s body as a sign of peace.
“¡Por favor, senora, uh, necesita su ayuda!”
“Peter!” a shrill voice, desperate, cried out and she dropped the pistol to the dirt and ran toward rescuer and victim.
“What happened?” She questioned and grabbed for Peter’s head gently plying her fingers in his hair. And she finally looked up at her brother’s rescuer. Her eyes lacked focused, not quite seeing anything more than the outline of his face and the features of his uniform.
“My brother! What did you do? ¿Qué hiciste?”
He had not been prepared to be addressed in English.
“Brother. Yes.” Cortez paused again and looked down at the boy. “He. Your brother?” Rather shocked that she presumed he had any involvement in the boy’s current condition.
“I can see that! Follow me,” she picked up her skirts and motioned for Cortez to follow her inside.
He remained still.
“¿Sígueme? Do you speak any English?”
Cortez wanted to respond. He knew he could respond.
Yet she did not give him a chance.
“Mr. Ledford,” addressing the old man, “please fetch Doctor Barton.”
She then pointed to a very well dressed young lady whose brown hair highlighted red against the sun. “Susan, I need you to take the carriage and get father.”
“But Miss,” Susan stared at the Spaniard still holding the heir of the Trenton name in his arms. “Your father be somewhat difficult to find.” The young maid squinted her eyes as she looked up and down at the man.
“Yes, yes! Inside!” the first woman motioned. “Please Susan. Father must know.”
Cortez already made his observation about the maid: Either do what you are told or get out of my way. He had the clarity of mind to keep the order to himself.
The other servants of the household slowly appeared as Cortez followed the woman up a single flight of unadorned wooden stairs, down a cool hallway and to the third room on the left. Each servant carried a small piece of furniture or an ornamentation and looked to be rearranging the entire house.
Another removal? Were the Trenton’s ending their diplomatic stay?
“Here, please.” The woman scrambled to pull the blankets back from a small bed and he lay Peter down. She immediately fell to her knees and wrapped her hands around her brother’s face.
“Peter, please wake up. Peter, what happened?”
All was silent.
She began to whisper a desperate prayer attempting to coax a miraculous healing from the Heavens.
The boy took a deep breath.
“Where…dónde?” she asked, wiping with the back of her hand the now uncontrolled tears from her face.
“Calle Vincente,” Cortez replied.
There was another moment of hesitation and another tear down her cheek before she spoke. “Oh good Lord, I knew I should have listen to my father. Thank you for bringing him home, Señor…?”
“You are welcome.”
She took her eyes away from the body under her fingertips, and slowly turned to Cortez, surprised he had responded clearly in her own language.
Doctor Barton burst in the room and threw his stern voice at Cortez. “Did you see what happened?”
Both the doctor and woman looked up at him.
“Very well.” The doctor pushed him out of the way and whispered to the woman something Cortez could not translate.
“Nothing? You saw nothing at all?” the doctor continued to provoke with questions while briefly examining his patient. “He has a fairly good gash on his side but the bleeding has stopped. I dare say it was a fools errand to bring him here and not find a doctor in the city! It will take several days. He might have damaged his internal organs. Or bruised them on the ride. What were you thinking Señor?” Dr. Barton’s attention turned back to Cortez. “Some protection these men are supposed to be. I cannot know the injuries until I have more time to examine him properly.”
“He ask for home. Medico, home,” Cortez reminded himself of his training and held back a sneer. This doctor was proving more an annoying inquisitor than healer.
“Would you take her out of here?” Doctor Barton waved in his direction.
“Señora –“ and he held his arm out for her to take.
The doctor abruptly stopped and looked up at Cortez. “Señora? There has not been a Señora Trenton for ten years. You should learn better manners, boy. Makes your country look…impotent.”
“Please,” she pleaded. “My brother. What if he dies? I won’t have him die alone!”
The doctor took a deep breath and responded with a voice on the edge of a growl. “Leave so I may do a proper examination, Miss.”
She knew that voice and knew the consequences if she disobeyed. There was no choice but wait for her father to arrive home.
It was the red cuffs and two gold buttons that caught the maid’s eye as she watched her Lady and Cortez walk down the stairs to the Library. She murmured objections under her breath. Can’t expect all the prospective Marines to arrive as impeccably as the other Spanish officer! Mr. Trenton allowed for one specific man to cross the threshold weekly, even if that Spaniard made little advancement in his English. Which was odd, what with how many times he came to visit. Was it not the agreement of both men to teach their native language to each other? She shook her head trying to get the vision out of her mind. “None of my business,” she sighed. But it was exciting to have that other handsome man around to glance at and mummer about and share the most improper dreams with the other staff. But another Spaniard! In uniform and in the house of the Trenton’s! Such scandal if anyone were to discover a second Spaniard visiting under this roof. And this one – it was going to take days to get his odiferous presence out of the house. He’d never make it past ordinary seaman in that condition, she thought.
Cortez was again placed as follower. She opened the door quietly and motioned for him to enter.
She had a brief moment to rationalize and frantically scanned the room. What did he expect in return for bringing her brother here? A gift? Money?
She was quietly walking the perimeter of the room, brushing her hands along the bookshelves until she came to the large desk sitting on a grand carpet in the middle of the room. She picked up a small item and cradled it before walking back to Cortez to speak.
“Señor Cortez, I, in the absence of my father, I wish to bestow a token of gratitude for rescuing my brother.” She reached out in his direction. “Here. It’s not worth much I’m afraid but the treasury is locked and my father will not arrive until this evening and…Oh. Comprender que estoy..” Her voice faltered. She reached out and abruptly grabbed his hand and released the oval enamel frame to him.
This morning the dagger, such an expensive treasure, and now he was gifted another piece he could easily take back to port to sell and send the money – His thoughts were interrupted by the look in her eye.
She tilted her head. “Yes?”
“No. Aqui. Tu, uh, you have,” he said placing it back into her soft hands, a gentle tremble of her fingers quickly removed her hand back from his.
A disruption from the courtyard followed by the sound of a booming voice carried through the house.
There was another look in her eyes.
She was terrified.
Voices in the background confirmed what she feared. It was her father and the maid, just inside the front doorway.
“You need to leave!” Her command was a scared whisper. “Wait. Señor you cannot tell anyone. I mean, thank you for helping but you must leave. You don’t know what my father…You shouldn’t have interfered.”
“You watch your brother die?”
She furrowed her brow. “No, señor. I apologize. I should not have questioned...” At those last words she broke, and mindlessly forgot her station, to land in his arms for moment and rest her tears on his coat.
He let her cry, he let her fall for a brief second.
“Señorita. I go. Your father,” his words soft but determined.
She took a long step backward and her face flushed as her mind dawned on what she had done.
More time had passed than he realized. The sun shifted, the light beginning to cast deep shadows behind him. The man, Ledford, had watered his horse and seemed to have anticipated the need for Cortez’s escape.
“Through the vineyard,” the man told him. “Ir a la viña a la Carretera.” It was a poor accent, but Cortez understood.
Cortez spent the shortened journey back to the Arsenal organizing his thoughts and observations.
Two members of the Trenton household whose accented words did not sound like any English Cortez had remembered hearing.
One boy, wounded, possibly dying.
A large, middle aged Medico more interested in investigation than in healing, and he walked with a slight limp.
The Honorable Ambassador Trenton, loud, disinterested in keeping his land prosperous, preferring to spend a great deal of time away.
Various other persons, abiding strict orders, all refusing to lift their head in his presence.
And a woman. A Lady. Terrified of her father. The consolation of her brother. The acting head of household. Frightening with a pistol.
He was thankful as he arrived down to the port that the breeze finally pulled up from off the coast.
He snapped to attention as Officer Lesaro marked his return.
“Report to the Admiral immediately.”
“Cortez. Why is your uniform wet?”
Lesaro ran his hand along the front of Cortez’s coat where the fabric appeared darker. “Are you so clumsy when in uniform?”
Cortez had not noticed.
He had not noticed - that her tears had penetrated the fabric of his uniform.
And still, even in the heat and the humidity, lingered across his chest.