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Secretamente: An Officer Cortez Fic

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There were many things Comandante De la Garza loathed. The arrogance of nobility arriving late, the constant throat clearing from someone who should be silent, lack of eye contact from his subordinates; and most peculiarly of all, any sort of cheese. It reminded him of Summers in the Mediterranean, and a sweet girl who insisted the production of the stuff could win any man’s heart. The shocking thing is, she was right. His heart had been lost to her, wrapped up in the dark spiraled locks of her hair and the warm sun kissed cheeks that framed a conspicuous smile. If it had not been for that smile, he would have retired long ago. For it was her smile, her sing-song voice refusing to let rational thoughts gather when he should have been following orders that changed his life’s course.

That woman almost got him killed. And after that incident De la Garza refused to tolerate any deviance in his men. A hard line and strict order, even if he did allow his own desk to be haphazardly marked in chaos. This was why he liked Cortez. He saw in the young man a mix of the desire to follow orders without emotional entanglement, and a deep arrogance which if guided correctly would produce a man with a career to make the Spanish Crown proud.

Cortez stood before the Comandante and realized his throat was unusually dry and the tip of his right toe was tapping in his boot. In other words he was nervous, and so attempted to stand quietly at attention, the only way he knew to behave that would not upset the heavy man standing in front of him.

“Ambassador Trenton wanted to know which of my men brought his son home. He was livid when DeSoto refused to give your name.”

De la Garza let the report slip from his stubby weathered fingers and fall on his desk. The papers fluttered down causing a short candle to wave and almost extinguish.

“Cortez, are you paying attention?”

He was. As well as he could with a throbbing head and a deep ache in the muscle of his left leg. The thin candle had an hour left to burn he estimated; less he determined by the sharp angle at which it sat in the engraved silver holder, slowly dripping wax on the papers scattered underneath. It was taking what was left of his willpower not to reach out and rectify the offending point of light.

Cortez tried not to look intimidated and clasped his hands firmly behind his back. The small room with its barred window had a way of making everyone who entered claustrophobic. It was no more than a glorified jail cell, the difference being if one was obedient to Comandante De la Garza one could find themselves in possession of something no prisoner had hope of: a friend in the upper echelon of conflicting law makers. 

“Your report seems to lack key points.”

“Si Comandante.” He could not hide the deliberate attempt to censor parts of the previous evening. 

“No mind,” he waved and sat down in the great mahogany chair behind the desk. The black leather gave way in unkind fashion under the man’s weight. “We have a murder investigation on our hands.”

“Murder?”  

“Peter Trenton appears to have died from - now where are the words directly -?”

Cortez rolled his eyes behind closed eyelids. If only Comandante - anyone in charge at the Citadel - would practice the fine art of organization.

“Here.” He held up the parchment to the long rays of sunlight coming in from the window. “Testimony of Doctor Iasan Barton, and I quote you his own words, ‘Peter Trenton died directly from wounds inflicted upon the unarmed child without provocation’. The Honorable Lord Trenton was quite vocal when DeSoto made his inquest. He announced in clear terms that he believes his son was murdered. And as you were the last to see him alive and in the city.” More paper was thrown down and added to the pile. “You understand.”

“No Comandante I do not.”

“Yesterday evening might have been too much for you. Perhaps you are not ready for this assignment. DeSoto is head of the investigation and if you continue to waste your time drinking at a common tavern, I will give the job to - bien,” he waved his hand repeatedly. “Any number of soldiers would fall at my feet and kiss my boots to have this opportunity. You will need to speak with Capitán Salazar about –“

“Capitán?” His voice raised in disbelief. “Of what regiment?”

“Ah. Officially his promotion has been approved by all but the King and we expect that,” more hesitation layered into his voice, “any day. He is being given a small ship this time.”

“Ah, as you expect more ships to be built any day.”

“Cortez, you are very lucky you are a favorite of DeSoto’s or I would have you punished for words like that. Mind your tongue in future,” the Comandante rested back in his chair, his brows furrowed in disappointment. 

“Si Comandante.”

“Do not look so upset. Better that you know his rank now. You’ll not report to him. DeSoto is still your commanding officer. Go back to the Inn. Sit down with Salazar and find out how much he knows, really knows, about the Trenton’s. I suspect he is keeping something from me. Ha! All of Cádiz knows of his visits. But what can I do? A man sees a pretty girl…,” A grim frown grew across his lips.

“Salazar is, courting her?” Realizing the words crossed his mouth too quickly Cortez corrected himself. “I mean Señorita Trenton?”

“Who knows. I have him followed yet they are never together outside Paraíso Terrestre . You have your orders.” He stood up to usher Cortez out but stopped short of the narrow doorway. “Lastly. That doctor.”

That doctor . Forgetting him would be like forgetting a sliver of wood in one’s hand. Easy to cover up but the annoyance palpable in the middle of the night when trying to sleep.

“I did not have an opportunity to speak with him.”

“He is an idiot. Could not tell me how long the boy had been asleep or an estimate of how long he had been dead. You know he used to be a physician during our last war? He and Trenton locked away in some French prison after being captured in the North Territories. They say when he came to Cádiz he had a talisman around his neck and that a woman walked around the estate three times chanting in a strange language.” De la Garza vulgarly spat on the floor. 

It sounded to Cortez like a tale Marcos would make up. 

“You’re not superstitious, are you?”

“No! But there are times young man you see things even the Saints would not explain.” He made a pious gesture of the Sign of the Cross over his chest. “Take Marcos into town this afternoon and go back to the street where you found Peter. However, if you get into another street brawl, I will find myself compelled to place you under Salazar’s command.”

“One more thing if I may. Does Salazar know I am...?” He was looking for the right word when the Comandante found it first.

“Investigating? No. You are no detective Cortez. Officially that is DeSoto’s orders and you are to repeat that information if questioned. In my mind none of our conversation here has taken place. Understood? The Alcalde will have my head if we do not have a murder in chains by morning.”

Cortez nodded in compliance. Play ignorant in front of Salazar. Capitán. Likely that happening when there is no company to command and no ship to sail on. A position in name and pay only.

“Dismissed.”

---

The penetrating fusion of vanilla, leather, and ink pricked into his nose. 

The ink. 

That was familiar, harsh against his mind. Cortez closed his eyes and entered the small building’s domain. A hollow sound rose from the wooden floor each time he stepped further past the threshold.

And along with it a memory.

The street level of his father’s house in Málaga quickly transformed to a printing shop a few short months after their arrival from Cordoba. Cortez had learned to play games of hide and seek between the drying sheets of newly made paper. Anyone else’s father might have chided him, punished him for playing dangerously close to unfinished work yet Cortez’s father laughed and praised the dexterity of his son.

Time passed and he still wandered and wove between the pages but now there had been an addition and he had a companion to teach this game to.  In days of both sun and rain he would lose sight of his younger half-sister, pretending not to hear as her stifled laughter moved the parchment around her. Her childish silhouette visible through sun yellow pages hanging side by side row after row and he never missed seeing her two small feet peeking from below the paper. He remembered her squeal as he snuck up behind her and picked her up, turning her about before she broke into false tears, only soothed when he would put her on his shoulders allowing her imagination to claim the name of a gallant caballero fighting windmills as the hero of her favorite story.

No one doubts when an old man no longer walks upright that he has endured the wounds of time. Society will however ignore a man who still has children under his roof when and see he has begun to hunch over. His father carried such a wound, inflicted by malefactors who never faced earthly justice.

And so the smell of fresh ink reminded him of that October day, finding his father alone in the shop, his shirt wet and hung across a taut rope to dry yet still stained red with blood. When Cortez asked the cause, both men’s voices rose against each other. It was the only time he had fought his father.

It gave him a distaste for the scent of freshly bound books. Today he wished to obtain his query and carry on his orders without more interference.

“What are you looking for?” Marcos pulled a volume off the shelf and ran his hands across the red leather cover embossed in gold lettering and Roman numerals. 

“I will know it when I see it.”

Rather he knew exactly the book. The title, the author, the contents. His father kept a single copy as a privilege of his new profession. No one questioned a printer walking home with arms full of old books.  Cortez never had the courage to read it but on rainy days he would find himself drawn to the secret box hidden in the floorboards of the upper hallway in their modest house. There he rifled through the pages and traced the illustrations with the tips of his fingers.

Yes, he knew the book very well. Now was the time to learn to translate it - fully.

Marcos meandered between the obscenely enormous terrestrial globe in the center of the room and the piles of illustrations scattered on wooden tables. There was something suffocating to him about these places. An energy he could not understand; the buzzing of a world indulging with new apprehension as if the Gates of Heaven had been opened and the angels had come down from their lofty heights to fill the minds of mankind with their comprehension of things before unseen.

Cortez made his purchase and discreetly tucked the book under his arm. Marcos too had found a distraction and placed all his coins in the bookseller’s hands. They left quietly and Cortez marked each face that passed when they entered the street. 

“What did you buy? Let me see!” Marcos took in an eager breath of fresh air.

Cortez stopped to pull back the paper wrapping just enough to reveal the author’s name.

John Milton.

Marcos swiftly put his hand across it. “That is forbidden!” He exclaimed with a feigned shock in his voice.

“How would you know? Nothing is forbidden in Cádiz if you are quiet and willing to pay.”

“Because I had a cousin who had a neighbor whose friend once borrowed that book from a priest. You know what happened when my uncle found out? One year in the jail!” Marcos peaked under his hand to read the title again. “And in English!? You are finally going to learn the English? About time as you speak as well as a child. But, this is not the way to do that my friend. I beg you to ask Professor…” Marcos stopped as he caught Cortez scanning the plaza. “Oh – the Trenton señorita.” His face blushed and Cortez raised a single sharp eyebrow in response.

“If I am going to discover what happened to Peter, I should know what the Ambassador says precisely. In his own language. I know enough but this requires...more. Está claro?” 

“The Ambassador. Si,” he laughed. “That is a terrible alibi.”

“Marcos.” It was a stern rebuke.

“Si?”

“What did you find?”

He showed no remorse and flaunted the prize. Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda.

“You have not already read this?” Cortez threw an awkward glance at his friend.

“Do not pretend you have! Shipwreck and passion and eh, I suppose not your sort of tale. Maybe I give a lesson of passion to that one?” Marcos pointed across the plaza to a woman carrying a small basket filled with a meager amount of fish and vegetables.

Cortez recognized her and kept silent but Marcos took bold strides and was at her side in an instant, introducing himself with a cheerful smile and grand gestures reserved only for the elite. Weaving through the crowd Cortez finally caught up to them.

“Susan. Beautiful name is it not?” Marcos asked without expecting a reply as he pulled her hand from her side to bring it to his lips. “My good friend and –“

It was indeed Susan Burke, the maid Cortez had seen briefly the day before. She allowed a false smile to appear and addressed him directly.

“Señor Cortez. I hardly recognized you not covered in dust and – horse,” looking down objectionably at his shoes.  “I had to clean your boot prints off the carpet in the Library. Don’t worry. I will not tell. It was my Lady who asked you in there and,” Susan’s voice cracked, “She was upset.”

Marcos immediately took hold of the basket she struggled with while digging in her pocket for a handkerchief. 

“Peter was like a brother to me.” Her tears now only held back by the thought of not wanting to offend polite society by crying in public.

“Your Spanish is excellent señorita,” Cortez meant to only half compliment her. In truth he was intrigued by how fluidly she spoke the language. If he had not previously known her residence, he would have mistaken her for a native of Cádiz and it made him ponder what other secrets she may be holding. He dismissed her tears for she responded so quickly to his words he wondered if she might in truth be a secret actress in the evenings.

“Thank you. I also speak fluent French and a good amount of Greek.”

“How does a maid employed in the –,” He stopped as he recognized a man coming out of the store they had been assigned to watch. Susan recognized him too and was not swift enough in diverting her eyes. 

“Do you know that man?” Cortez asked harshly and Marcos scolded him with a look.

“Who señor?”

“The man with the blue frock.”

“No. I can’t – I – no. I have seen him? Before here at the market I think but I do not know his name or anything like that,” her words tumbling out of her mouth matching the shaking of her hands.  “Who is he?” A more innocent question could not be hidden in her high pitched tone.

Cortez did not bother to excuse himself and left to follow the man.

Marcos refused to be so impolite, swiftly plucking a flower from a nearby stand and presenting it to Susan.

“Excuse us and um, good day!” he shouted and ran to catch up with Cortez.

“Felipe we know him!”

There were no harsh features in the face of the man in the blue frock to distinguish him from others on the street. Average build, height, a walk that was even paced. His voice too: calm and light, not able to carry great distances but loud enough to be heard in the crowded market.

Cortez closed his eyes and listened again to the voice. A Malaga accent, and one the man tried to cover. A reputation too: a desire to be in possession of the most scandalous books. That was how he knew the face so well. An inquiry on an early morning to his father’s shop. One book had changed his father’s fortunes.

“Be somewhat covert about it?” he pulled Marcos back behind a stall.

“Sorry.”

“Don Pedro,” Cortez said, dropping his voice.

“You do not think he could have attacked Peter?”

“I do not know but I wager he will be at the same place we will tonight.”

“Loose coins and loose morals.”

---

Cortez and Marcos entered the tavern and immediately caught eyes with the bartender who returned the look with a quick nod. The room was more difficult to navigate than his last visit. A different crowd with less drunkards and finer clothes spread across almost every table and groups of men loitering in every open space. Cortez pushed his way through trying to find an unobtrusive small table. No such luck. The only place where they might be able to keep their head down was not in a corner or against a wall as he hoped, but two tables away from the man he had been charged to speak with, which Cortez was not mentally prepared to do so - yet.

And Salazar had chosen the most auspicious place in the tavern to sit with his friend – the exact middle of the room.

Marcos pulled out a chair and paused, waiting for the three other men at the table to acknowledge him. Or yell at him. He held his breath, squinted his eyes, and sat down. The other men continued with their conversation, ignoring anything outside their inner circle. Cortez shrugged in reticent agreement and sat down across from him.

The sudden and loud drop of a bottle between the men threw Marcos back in his chair. Cortez took a deep breath and leaned forward, his eyes slowly looking up to follow the arm of the man holding the bottle. He was relieved at the discovery.

“Thank you.”

The bartender smiled. “You call me Vasco. I admit, I worried you encountered trouble when I did not see you here much earlier.”

“I always keep my word.” Cortez smiled back, “Trouble or no.”

A mouth in friendly smile to all, but eyes to observe what he had been paid to watch, Vasco stared stonily at his guests.  Though this seemed his usual patrons for the week there was an air of discontent still looming, one that carried in two months ago and refused to leave, getting more complex by the day and the burden was not one he wished to carry past the season.   

“Well Señor, but El Ostrero did not give me your name.”

He had to think quickly. It stared back at him, the answer, as he caught a glimpse of a small carved animal gazing down from a corner rafter. “Rafael - de León . And this is,” he gestured frantically with his hand before announcing a name. “Manuel.”

‘Manuel? ’ Marcos mouthed the words silently before confidently agreeing to his new alias. “Si Si Manuel. Um, Segura.”

“Your acquaintance is now our friendship Señor. Does your, what I mean to say is,” Vasco gestured in Marcos’ direction.

“Yes I was requested to bring him this evening. Did you want to speak to him about it?”

Vasco straightened and made a half mocking frown. “Sorry. Not used to working with someone without being introduced directly by Ostrero. I only make an exception for you señor because of your... accoutrement . Alas, tonight I have to make you pay for the drinks. Same as yesterday?”

“Si!” Marcos cheered confidently.

“No!” Cortez shot back.

“Wine.”

“Wait!” Cortez reached out and grabbed Vasco’s arm as he was leaving. “You said you would have more information for me.”

The man nodded and hunched down slightly. “Mmm. We have a guest tonight. Ostrero wants to pay him back for the…well, the good deed he has done? But I’ll not let you in that room,” he coldly said motioning to a door at the back of the Inn.

“You mean about the Tr –,” Marcos had almost completed the name when Vasco’s eyes suddenly turned and raged fire behind them.

“de León, you’d better shut your friend up. Or I will.”

Cortez let go of Vasco’s arm and sternly leaned across the table to Marcos, a glimmer of mischief in his eye when he spoke. “Shut up?”

Marcos shook his head in agreement. “Si Señor. I am your most obedient student.”

Vasco left, and Cortez hoped the man would be content with the lies that were building rapidly at the table. Observing was easy. Attempting to keep this many stories in order worried him.

“Why do I bother betting against you?” Marcos sat back, uneasy in his chair.

“Now I have a name and a possible connection. That should satisfy DeSoto hmm?” His tone dismissive.  

“You are supposed to talk to Salazar. How are you going to accomplish that maestro?”

But as Cortez watched the balcony across the room he caught sight of something, someone, dancing between shadows, the recognizable highlights of her hair laying gently on a man’s shoulder, along a coat made of green damask and woven with fine silver embroidery.

Susan Burke .

Twice in one day, in unexpected places, the maid of Ambassador Trenton appeared and disappeared, imitating the slight of hand of an amateur magician. Cortez smirked. Perhaps he had been right and she kept a second life here at the tavern. 

Marcos noticed her too and smiled.

“Easy,” Cortez said, his face an expression of certitude usually reserved for victory in battle. To him this was a battle, only the opposing combatants had little idea of their engagement against each other. “We wait. Don Pedro - when he goes upstairs I talk to Salazar. You stay here. Be my eyes and ears.”

“Just like that you’re going to sit down with those two? I think I would rather follow the English maid around. What if I do that instead? I could you know, buy a drink, see what her lips might be willing to tell me?”

Manuel - if anyone here beyond Salazar recognizes us? And yes. I will sit down and play cards.”

Marcos shook his head before taking a drink. “You’re either very foolish or very brave.”

Cortez inhaled. His friend was correct on both counts.

---

Armando Salazar produced a folded piece of paper; an elegantly penned letter he had forgotten about creased and unceremoniously stored in his coat pocket.  It would do. He turned the paper over and brushed it flatly down on the table several times before scrawling a map, an elaborate copy of a coastline, every detail neatly arranged and drawn from his perfect visual memory. Lengths of islands across the Atlantic alongside a strip of land he hastily labeled La Florida appeared in exact proportion.

Salazar let the ink drop to a large dark circle on the land and announced the name of the fortifications: San Augustine. A conspicuous place and one that, thanks to Spanish ingenuity, remained intact despite multiple attacks by both the English and several waves of Pirates. “The decision to burn the city, the fort, it was,” his face grew with frustration. “No, no,” he leaned in and pressed his finger down on the spot he marked Castillo de San Marcos. “Here.” 

“Armando, there is someone approaching.”

“Si si. I know. The English want to land in Portugal. Why doesn’t your Admiral look for them?” He replied, too busy focusing on the map to realize what his companion was truly referring to.

It was Don Pedro’s arrival Guillermo Lesaro had noted. An arrival marked only by two other people in the room. The man neither stood out nor looked the equal to any of his station. He was the least likely suspect of being the third most powerful man in Cádiz and as he scanned the room he shrugged off his coat, dropping it in the arms of the cowering young man behind him, a simple boy whose eyes never rose above the height of the tables.

“You will forgive me señors for my absence?” Don Pedro gave a slight bow as he approached the table. 

“Ah, there is the man we are hoping to see! Where were you last night?” Armando Salazar stood in greeting and covertly brushed the map under the table.

Don Pedro said nothing but took a seat and immediately placed a large black velvet bag down. “Let us make this interesting?”

“Reckless on your behalf,” Lesaro warned before dealing the cards. 

“Then let us set about the important business. I have a proposition for you. There are men... ah see,” two cards lay face up on the table and Don Pedro smiled. “Who continue to be a thorn in my side. And while I would address this matter directly.”

“Then be direct Don Pedro, before your cards reflect your loss.” Salazar interpolated.  

“I would address this matter directly with your sympathizers but I do not believe I can trust them. Can I trust you, Armando Salazar? It is a question I have pondered within myself the last week.”

“Your conclusion?” Salazar wanted to laugh but held his tongue as he read over the cards in his hand. 

“Your loyalty to the crown has been rewarded.” He clearly expected the compliment to alight the man’s pride. 

“Everyone knows that,” he answered dryly.

“Do they? Again. There you see? Ten. You wagers señors and I will give you mine. If the English were to make their way by land through Portugal, or deploy from the waters off Gibraltar,” he waited to finish his thoughts until he saw both men’s attention fully on him. “There is a fair amount of money to be made in that sort of wager. Your little English Rose could probably tell you. Put her in your bed and she would confess all more swiftly than a heretic before the Tribunal. El Consejo de Despacho I have control of. I send my dispatches privately to the King. He receives them and I simply follow commands. You should understand that?'' His voice an imitation of thoughtfulness.

“What are you suggesting?” 

“I am suggesting you know your enemy,” he gave a chuckle and raised his chin. “Intimately. If it were up to me, I would rid the world of people like the Trenton’s. Every last one of them.”

Salazar paused before reaching for his half filled glass, wondering if anyone else around him had heard the threat. 

Don Pedro continued to remove and rearrange the cards in his hand. He had developed a twitch under his left eye and he blinked twice before speaking. 

“What if I told you I could secure you a ship? What do you make of this?” The question lay heavy against the silence of the  table. “Put your money on Gibraltar. Sail where you wish, possess documents that would allow you to dock in any port from here to Terra Nueva.”

“A French ship no doubt,” Lesaro scoffed.

“No, no. That would be disgraceful! She sits and waits right now in Naples - for a Capitán.”

“What does Don Pedro wish me to do in return for this grand ship?” There were only four cards left and Salazar kept his winning hand close to his chest. 

“When I need certain supplies to cross from Cartagena to Seville I will ask for you to transport them.”

“Supplies? Find yourself a merchant. There are dozens here.”

“Yes but none I can trust. None so - honorable . The ship would transport nothing out of the ordinary I assure you! A few crates twice a year. If there are more you will be equally compensated. Perhaps you forget where my silver is minted. And my gold.” Don Pedro produced three coins, their deeply etched fleurs-de-lis bright in the center of the coat of arms.   

“These belong to the crown!”  

“How observant you are Señor Lesaro,” he said before shifting his gaze across the table. 

Salazar lay the cards down and Don Pedro rapidly followed. 

The young companion leaned down and whispered into Don Pedro’s ear. 

“Well played. But it appears I have lost enough to you for now.” Don Pedro rose from his seat and lamented his loss at Salazar’s hand, yet had one more rebuke for the table. “If you do not wish to settle yourself amongst the mere hidalgos, you know where to find me.”

Lesaro kept his head down but watched as Don Pedro disappear into the dimly lit crowd. There was a marked change in his voice as he addressed Salazar, a serious tone arrived at from a single memory not long before. “Armando, what are you scheming?”

“It is not a scheme Gui. Plan. Plans must be made. War is not won by the foolish.” His voice fixed with a solemn tone. “I shall take the best of Spain and put them on a ship of my own.”

Lesaro altered the shape of his mouth to a frown.“You’re not actually considering taking Don Pedro’s offer?” 

“Bien! I will consider anything if it allows me a chance to fulfill my vow. But tell me, what is this you have brought that you refuse to shut up about?”

Lesaro placed the vellum bound book in front of him on the table and untied it’s red ribbon closure. 

Salazar drew a long sigh and slowly picked it up, examining the first several pages before raising an eyebrow and handing it back to Lesaro.

“The very first thing, Gui, this man does is tell me what I already know.” 


“Yes but observe how he takes those forward thrusts and incorporates them in such a way as to achieve a more elegant stance. The diestro will give to his right side - look.” Lesaro opened the book immediately to a simple diagram. “The momentum then carries you through and the next moment your opponent has lost footing. The natural angle of his elbow, and the center of motion will take his sword low and a wound with a thrust to his shoulder makes him drop the sword.”


“Ah. Without ever bending the arm I can give a blow to the chest and render him disarmed. Tell me how this is not the swiftest way to be done with it. Too many complex moves Gui and you will tire yourself out!”

“But there are so many more techniques Armando. The men in the new school have the advantage! I can see these are not being taught here so we must take the initiative.” 

“Show me another.” Salazar poured the entire contents of his glass in his mouth and rolled the wine around his tongue to prevent himself from speaking further. 

Lesaro flipped through several pages until he found the chapter he was most content with and read: ‘ The Arrebatar.   It is composed of four movements: the first natural and the second offline lateral in order to be placed inferior and transverse to the diestro’s sword, the third violent in order to give the blow and make the deflection, and the fourth and last natural with which they execute the tajo.’” 

“Are you giving me instructions for sword fighting or a courtly dance? No. There is no reason to be so hesitant.”
“It is not hesitation to analyze your opponent.” 

It was at that same moment Salazar looked up and noticed the two men at the table across from him. “Men like him follow a challenge.”

Lesaro briefly turned his head, recognizing at least one of the men at the table; the man the Alcalde, and his own Capitan told him to investigate and try to recruit. “One of DeSoto’s is he not? His men are fiercely loyal and not easily willing to break that allegiance. First in his class I am told. However I think he has spent as much time at sea as he has in a lady’s bed.”

“Not at all then? I can use men with no ties to home,” he said after letting the wine flow warmly down his throat. 

“But Cortez seems so - .”

“What? What is your objection to him Lesaro? Does he favor the French too much? I do not care. As long as the pirates…” he stopped and lowered his voice. “I will prove it to you.”

Salazar rose from his seat and motioned in Cortez’s direction. “There is a man who can help us! Come! You will decide for us who is correct.” 

Marcos shot up from his seat but Cortez stoically rose and sauntered the short distance before situating in the seat across from Salazar. Marcos promptly took the chair opposite and folded his hands on the table. 

“Tell me, Cortez,” the name rang in Cortez’s ear and he hoped Vasco was still hiding behind the counter unable to hear Salazar’s voice. “What do you feel is the better true destreza? Lesaro here believes he has found flaws in the great don Pacheco de Narváez. This manuscript! Claims to give greater advantage. Why should a man waste his energy instead of facing his opponent and laying him at your feet with one swift thrust?”

Both men were staring at Cortez, waiting for him to interrupt the silence. He hesitated, tempted to bring his dagger into the light. 

“Capitán DeSoto has taught us to be conservative with actions.” Cortez swallowed hard and pushed back against his desire to reply with a smirk across his lips. 

“Ah, Capitán DeSoto . We were just speaking of him. Good man. I hear he has new trouble on his hands.”

Cortez said nothing and kept his head down.

“It is a shame about his promotion.” Lesaro said, never taking his eyes off Cortez.

“Gui, maybe you should not speak of these things?”

“Why not? If he fails to find out what happened to the boy , his career is finished.” It was a clear statement and one that Lesaro used to try and goad Cortez into any reaction at all.

 And his reaction was not what Lesaro expected. 

“What is your business with Ambassador Trenton?”

“Now how and why would a soldier have that information?” Lesaro let his agitation taint the question. 

“No, no, Gui,” Salazar rebuked his friend and gave a short laugh. “It is a perfectly acceptable question. The man has heard rumors yes? My business there is to acquire perfect English.”

“While visiting Paraíso Terrestre ?”

“Yes. That is a good way. Plus, I can kiss his daughter. Now, if you wish to learn proper English, there are ways -”

“You’ve what?” His hand slipped quietly under the table and along the hilt of the jeweled dagger. “You have no objection being the subject of scandal?”

“Scandal? To which one are you referring?” Salazar’s eyes gave over to fire and a somber warning. “I would mind my own business. And I expect others to estrange themselves from such tales.”

Cortez took a deep breath and placed his hands back on the table. 

“Aye – forget it Cortez. Learn English from one of these women. They will teach you better words!”

“Do you intend on marrying senorita Trenton?” Marcos blurted. 

“Marriage?! No. I spend time with her father, learn their language, throw some kisses and gifts at his daughter to keep any suspicions away. These Ingles are foolish. Easy to manipulate.”

“How does this help Spain? What do you want to do? Begin another invasion of England?”  

Salazar lit up at the thought and he smiled before adding to his wager. 

“And what do you want with us, Cortez de Córdoba ?” Lesaro’s question emphasizing the revealed city. 

Córdoba ? I understood you to be from Málaga.” Salazar did not take his eyes off the cards in his hand.

Cortez ran his finger along the top of the rounded glass still filled with deep red wine. Lesaro could only know he was from Córdoba if he had access to confidential papers, a contact within the ranks of the Armada. How close he might be to the Comandante, no, he seemed more the man who would not dirty his hands with bribes. The Alcalde perhaps?

“I was born in Córdoba ,” he said, endeavoring to conceal any emotion.

Lesaro nodded in agreement and leaned in on his elbow. “Yes. And his family were –“

Before Lesaro could reveal more Cortez interrupted. “My family is not at this table Señor.” 

“Who are you running from I wonder?” There was a slight knowing in Salazar’s voice.

“I am not running from anyone. The documents say Córdoba because I was born there. I was sent to Málaga when I was very young.” He intensely gazed down at the wagers in the middle of the table. Every coin he had lay in the center and the corner of his mouth turned up in a smile. Hopefully that was enough information to gain Salazar’s trust. That was all Cortez needed for this one evening. Trust between the two of them. 

 “Your hand,” Salazar insisted. 

Cortez lay down the winning cards and smoothly collected the silver from the middle of the table. “Satisfied I hope.”

“Not yet. But it is late, agreed?” 

Cortez raised his head and realized the musicians had disappeared and the only remaining patrons were beginning to fall asleep where they sat, awash in fading candlelight. 

And as Salazar rose from his chair to walk away Cortez got up to follow, noticing the paper that had been dropped on the floor. He leaned down to pick it up, secretly folding it into his own coat pocket but in doing so a flash of silver caught Lesaro’s eye. 

“Tell me, how well do you use this?” Lesaro scoffed as he pointed to the navaja attached on Cortez’s belt. 

“I was trained well enough by my father. I should not like to have to use it on you Señor.”

Lesaro forcefully grabbed Cortez’s arm and minaciously smiled. “Oh, why not?”

“Because you are fat. And would take a long time to bleed out. It would be – messy .” Cortez with a shrug of his shoulder shook free of the hold. 

 Salazar cleared his throat and walked between the two men who remained for the brief moment in silent glare between each other, a look broken only by the sound of a single pistol firing outside the door.