Emerging from the garrison Cortez straightened the buttons of his coat. His breeches were neatly tucked and buttoned, and while he would have rather been in his boots it would mark him as a soldier, so black leather and simple buckled shoes it had to be. Tonight, he had to appear as an ordinary citizen weaving in the crowds and disappearing behind the shadows.
Cobos was beginning to come alive, balancing the Summer twilight between orange flames illuminating the corridor from tall street lamps.
Cortez wandered the street, head down, eyes forward. Listen, Capitán Desoto said. Your objective is to listen.
“Hay una buena oportunidad…”
“J’ai l’argent! Donnez-moi un peu de votre temps.”
“No, portar els a la sala de darrere.”
“Did you see that boy? Collapsed right into the street.”
Cortez stopped in the middle of the road and turned his head slightly in the direction of the words. There it was. The language he was searching for.
“Not here. Inside.”
And he noticed footsteps. Footsteps that stopped the moment he had and began again as he moved forward.
Before he reached the entrance of the inn a woman’s voice, soft and gentle floated across his shoulder.
“Señor. Your dagger.”
He stopped. He had to stop. The woman seemed to have her hand on his soul and would not allow it to move in any direction.
“I see…The ruby señor,” she continued.
Turning, he was surprised to see the figure from which the voice emanated. A painted face and darkest hair, her dress bold and yet covering any distinguishing features, she stood before him with alarm in her eyes.
“I see it. Glowing red. Just there,” pointing to his side. The softness fell and she continued speaking resolute on delivering her message.
“I can break the spell.”
She circled him, drawing her finger across the back of his shoulders.
“Here,” was his quick reply and he dropped a coin at her feet. “Is this enough for you to leave me alone?”
She scoffed. “Your mother Cortez. She believed,” the woman paused, and Cortez immediately tensed. “She believed you would be her – hope.”
Those words made his gut twist. He wanted to scold her but she reached her hand out knowing exactly where the dagger was hidden and touched it. He grabbed her wrist with a strength almost breaking it and as they touched his mind was pushed far from the streets of Cádiz.
Far from his life as a soldier.
Far into a dream, a memory so deeply buried he had forgotten the sensations those thoughts brought to his body: cold and piercing and full of sorrow.
He was crying. Tears from a boy not physically wounded yet -
No, the wound was still open and pumping emotions out of his soul in long repetitive breaths. The tears came quickly and drew lines down his youthful face collecting at the bottom of his chin before falling to the ground. He tried wiping those that gathered at the corner of his lips with his shirt, but those he dried were soon replaced, unwillingly, and largely because he tried to keep them hidden behind his eyelids until they swelled up and could not be contained.
He heard his father’s voice clearly and felt his hands around his shoulder. The man was kneeling before him on the red dusty ground, the sights of his childhood creeping back in even as he heard the words.
“Son, your brother is gone. You must accept that. Mama,” his words faded but did not disappear completely. “Is not here. You may begin to hear people, your peers may speak ill things about our family. I want you to protect yourself.”
His father was issuing a warning.
Cortez saw it, clean and clear as the day it was placed in his hands as a nine year old boy; the navaja he still carried in his pocket.
“I give you this, a symbol of our heritage. Protection. The time will come that you will need to defend our family name. I will teach you. Strike quickly, direct. Watch your opponent. They will make the first move and you,” his father stood and made a slashing movement down, grabbing Cortez by the waist and turning him, the knife quickly pressed to his throat, “Must be precise. Now. Attack,” his father ordered.
The navaja lay cold and heavy in his hand. The new feeling of responsibility rushed from his fingertips through his veins. He lunged forward with a short jabbing motion.
The vision was fading but not before he heard the last warning:
“Your life depends on how well you can protect the ones you love.”
A second flash of light crossed his vision and he now saw the dagger against a noon day sky, blood dripping from it and drops falling steady on his hand.
She released her grip and Cortez jerked forward, the town before him moving as though nothing had happened.
“Give me the dagger,” she repeated.
“No!” he yelled down at her.
“Give me the dagger,” she persisted.
“This is your only opportunity. You will never be rid of it. You will carry the burden the rest of your existence, and the memory of what you did will drip from it like the blood you saw, each time to you touch it!”
The vision was almost enough to make him give up the prize. Almost. The dagger had been dropped in that exact spot and for him alone and he would not give it up so easily.
“Approach me again and I will see you have a visit from The Holy Office,” he threatened.
“Turn me in now, if you dare,” she spat her words and pushed him back, only to disappear into the shadow of the crowd a second later.
Cortez’s head throbbed but he forced his body to attention and recalled why he was there on that forbidden street, remembering where the foreign language had come from.
The jolt of music and shouting hit his ears as he made his way to a long table on the far side of the room and sat down. He had to have a drink. On duty or no, there was only one way he could make the image of his father erase completely so he could continue to focus on his task.
The crystal rim of the glass in front of him flashed translucent red as the bartender poured Cortez’s drink.
“Certain about this?” he looked at Cortez incredulously. His words were met by a drop of a coin and a nod of the young man’s head.
“If you’re waiting for someone –“
The first sip hit Cortez’s mouth and he shielded his eyes from the scrutiny of the bartender before shaking his head in decline.
The man was about to leave when Cortez finally spoke. “That man over there,” Cortez had noticed each group in the room, the hierarchy of friends and enemies, the mix of people in shambled clothing only feet away from those dressed in the finest silks when he first entered. He pointed only with his eyes and asked, “English?”
“We don’t discuss loyalties here Señor. Everyone is welcome. So long as you keep your coins honest.”
Cortez leaned in and whispered, “How much?”
The man smiled greedily. This was going to be easier than Cortez had anticipated.
“Depends on the value of the information,” the man said.
“The Trent –“ Cortez hushed his voice before continuing. “The Trenton boy.”
At that name the man paled and scolded Cortez. “That sort of information is well out of your purse. That I am certain.”
Cortez reached to his coat, intending to show his bargaining power when the bartender caught a glimpse of the dagger.
“Ah. My mistake Señor.” Color rushed back to his face. “Let us say I have heard,” he scanned the room. “That man. Over there. The one, well you must recognize him.”
He did. Unfortunately he did.
They had passed each other often enough at the Citadel. Ran drills together. There was something of an aura that followed him and his name was becoming familiar on more and more lips of the citizens of Cádiz.
“He sees the Trenton’s often enough. If I didn’t know his previous accomplishments I would have thought him a traitor.”
“Explain,” he said as another mouthful of alcohol poured down his throat and he pushed another coin to the man.
The glass was once again filled and emptied just as rapidly. It was working. He was beginning to numb to everything around him.
“Spanish nobility aligning themselves with the English? Makes the French look like the acceptable option. Tell your master that the boy,” the man looked down in the direction of the dagger, “I understand he said too much about the deal.”
Cortez shot up. Master? He thought. The dagger! Whomever had owned the dagger before was somehow connected to Peter’s attacker. Or might be the attacker himself. “Did you see what happened?”
“No. Sorry. That is all I know. Even for you.”
“Keep your ears open for me?” Cortez tried to ask innocently.
“Return tomorrow and,” he tapped his finger on the bar, “I will have more information.” His voice returned to a deep bellow and Cortez was beginning realize he had already lost too many coins to the man. “Now, enjoy yourself Señor!”
The room held a variety of tables and mismatched chairs, several long tables and benches wherein men from the middle of the city had already been settled since midday.
But in the far corner, those were the spoken words that caught his attention. Tense. Hesitant.
“What do you expect to draw from me?”
“There’s not a creditor here willing to give you the sum you seek.”
“I shall require,” the first man replied, while he scribbled the balance in chalk on the dark wool velvet covering the gaming table. “No less than this.”
“Creatures such as you should understand the stakes.”
“Stakes?” It was Armando Salazar’s voice interrupting the game. “What stakes are so important you wager your soul? No. Let us keep this friendly. I have no desire tonight to lose.”
The table irrupted in laughter and Cortez made his way slowly in the crowd, still clutching his glass, closer to his target. Three men were sitting with Salazar in a corner of the room, at the finest carved mahogany table, the flicker of candles around them almost too bright for Cortez to identify the game they were playing.
They were speaking his native language but the man with his back to Cortez had a fine heavy English accent. For the moment he amused himself with the idea that it was Ambassador Trenton himself, until a slightly withered hand emerged from the corpulent body and he lay a gold ring on the table.
“There is my wager gentlemen.”
Silence surrounded the table. Cortez could see an abrupt calculation spill across Salazar’s face as he was the first to lay his cards down.
The men on either side of him followed and the Englishman, with jovial self assurance threw his cards down and did not wait for approval to gather his winnings.
One of Salazar’s companions hastily stood up, throwing back his chair before yelling in defiance. “You cheated.”
The Englishman paused and grinned. “That’s an astonishing accusation Señor. Would you care to tell me how?”
“Do you not deny it?”
“You see my cards, how the hand was played. I think you are mistaken.”
Before anyone at the table could move the Englishman had drawn his sword and was standing, sturdy and tall despite such a gluttonous figure, ready to challenge the younger Spaniard.
Salazar rose from his seat, hand to the ready on the hilt of his sword.
The Englishman noted his actions and quickly responded. “I suggest if you’re going to pull that sword Salazar you intend on using it for the purpose of my death.”
“Señors,” a familiar woman approached and lay her hand on the Englishman’s arm. “All this noise coming from such a distinguished table?” she asked as her body now stood security between the two men. “And I am not in the mood to clean up blood from good paying customers off the floor!” She threw a glance to Salazar and he put his sword down.
“Drinks? Bianca,” Salazar threw her the coins. “for each man in the room.”
She took the money and smiled.
The bartender had kept watch, but not on Salazar. He was watching Cortez’s mood waver from sadness to fear, and finally to investigation. He shook his head and brought another glass to the table where Cortez had been sitting alone.
“When Armando Salazar buys a man a drink, the man drinks it. Here Señor,” placing the glass on the table.
Cortez looked up and his mood had not improved.
“It cannot be all that bad. Have the drink. Find some company. Tomorrow I will give you what I promised.”
Cortez closed his eyes and shut out the noise. Everyone around him celebrated the fortunate opportunity. The last drink pushed its effects to each nerve in his body and he stood up making his way to the top of a set of stairs hoping to improve his vantage point of the conversation Salazar was having.
“Tell me, what do you suppose your fine Evalianna is doing at this moment?”
“Yes, your English lessons?” the younger Spaniard questioned.
Salazar did not address them. He placed his newly dealt cards neatly in his hand and leaned back.
“Ah here,” the woman had returned and addressed the table. “Let’s not speak of theology. I prefer…”
“We know what you would prefer!” came a laugh from one of the men.
The woman should have been insulted yet she smiled timidly at the striking face of the man in whose lap she sat.
“Señors be kind to our senorita. She did only a moment ago save your life.” Salazar shifted her on his lap. “Hmm, give me something to remember this good deed of yours by.”
“What do I have?” she asked.
“This!” He pointed to the small brooch pinned at the top of her bodice. Its single pearl reflected the true luster in the candlelight. “Give this to me.”
She threw her hand over her chest and hesitated a moment. “Is it not worth a price?”
“Name the price!”
“A night with you!” There was no hesitation in her voice.
“No I do not think so,” he continued to watch her face very closely.
“Well, another type of English lesson? You must be very bored with the Ambassador. Why not come to me for your lessons?”
He ran his hands gently along her neck and stopped when his fingers reached the brooch.
“This, for a kiss.”
“Oh Armando, you’ve never. I mean, I would. A kiss from you señor is worth less than this pearl yes?”
“Contrary, a kiss from you señorita is enough to make any man forget his native tongue.”
She brought a glass of wine to his lips and he took a sip quickly and when she removed the glass she replaced it with her lips.
“Enough!” the Englishman belted out. “Let the man breathe. I need to finish emptying his pockets.”
She pulled away slowly and Salazar in the same moment removed the brooch from her dress.
“A fair trade,” he said.
Bianca did not respond. She did not have to. All was paid and equal now in his mind and the evening would continue without another word from her.
Cortez refused to watch any more. The room was confining, the light pinpricks to his eyes. He reprimanded himself for taking that last drink, but he could do nothing about it now. The investigation was no further along in his mind and he wished Felipe was there to tell his jokes and keep him company.
Company though was to be had, and he smiled when he heard a familiar tune and he lost his composure for a moment as he began to sway with the music. A crowd of people rushed by him on the stairs. So much fabric and boisterous laughter pushing him back against the wall and he was amused. Until he found himself the target of one set of eyes, and a soft hand guiding him with the crowd further up the stairs.
The woman played her dance before him and willingly obliged her companion in the kisses she began to lay on his neck. His body gave in to her wishes yet his mind was elsewhere, to the blurring events unfolding the story below and questions presented themselves to the forefront of his thoughts. Why were those men meeting with Salazar? Why is he visiting Paraíso Terrestre instead of learning English at the Academy? Was Salazar discussing treason? He could not be sure and when the woman attempted to move further along with her dealings by trying to remove his coat, the briefest of clarity washed over his mind and he pushed her back. The sobering effects of his actions took hold and hastily tucking the last coin he had between her breasts he rushed back down the stairs to escape the Inn and threw himself in the corridors of the night outside.