The wind was absent from the city and made the humid night air lay stagnant on the hill that was Paraíso Terrestre . Evalianna stood outside her room at the balcony in a loose cotton dressing gown tied neatly with a bold green belt around her waist. She looked out over that expansive view of Cadiz. The vision stopped only at the horizon, a dark aegean ocean almost indistinguishable from the streets below. Stars reflected in the water, even if she knew in her heart they were only the tops of waves breaking. She gazed down toward the glowing white sails of the ships anchored along the coast and wondered how many would remain in the morning.
The brooch in her hand reflected the ethereal light too. She cradled the pearl that might be mistaken for a full moon in her palm. It was still attached to the linen cloth it had been wrapped in when he gave it to her so hastily. When Armando Salazar gave it to her. The pin felt tainted. Not by its giver but by the actual day it had been received. Peter’s death, his last breath pouring from his lungs seemed to enshrine itself in the pearl. A soft and kind heart and she imagined his soul now as pure as the gem, kneeling among angels dancing in the stars.
She wrapped her fingers tightly around the brooch and closed her eyes. “Peter?” Her whisper of his name to the Heavens did not move beyond the railing she was now leaning her full weight against. Instead those words fell at her feet. “Who would do this?” There was more she wanted to ask but kept the inquiries silent from the night.
Though she unexpectedly heard a reply.
Breathless. Deep. Whispered along the top of her rapidly beating heart. She threw her hand over her chest, and a flush of heat ran across her cheeks.
‘You are a danger Señorita .’
Perhaps it was his poor grasp of her language which caused him to make the mistake. Certainly he meant ‘in danger’ and not ‘a danger’. Her mind slowly tried to recall his face as he spoke those words. And she could not help but feel he meant it. There was no mistake. No question in his eyes or stammer of his lips. His lips. Those were too easy to recall. She found her body encased in the heated sensation of his hand on hers, the weightlessness of being carried in his arms to shore. The memory of the roundness of his shoulders as she clung to his uniform - she had to stop.
A danger? He was the one in danger, and from her father! Or any number of people below in that city. The merchants who controlled every facet of the economy had power over the military. And despite her father’s contant dismissal to her on the subject, she understood the dangers of speaking out against the other rival to the Spanish crown. Daughter of an Ambassador was not allowed to speak but that did not mean she would remain ignorant. Did he harbor support for Austria? And what if was he assigned to a ship? He would be sent away for months.
There was a feeling of unease under this sky, as if the entire world suddenly cracked open and slipped her mind out of her body, burying it in layers of heavy wet sand. She turned back to her room and stopped in the doorway. Indeed there was a crack, along the outer wall of her room, running from the floor of the balcony to the bottom of a window; a single line that spread itself into so many fingers like the dried and pale flaking skin of an old man. She ran her finger along one line tracing it carefully. A piece of white plaster caught under her fingernail and flew off exposing the dark black structure underneath.
She could not stop the barrage of questions in her mind. It was this last one, the thought of more than small conflicts and the daily skirmishes in the streets that frightened her. Was he part of the defense of Cadiz in case of an invasion?
Suddenly she envisioned him, wounded and lying on the shore and gasping for his last breath and calling out with no one to help him. Her chest tightened, flush of cold along her skin and yet a strange heat gathering along her stomach and the air turned suffocating. She panicked at the thought of him in agony. The worry she would not speak with him again, overwhelming.
Evalianna shifted her glance back to her desk that sat tightly on the opposite end of the room.
What is the harm if I write to him? She thought. A small correspondence, thanking him for pulling her free from the river where she would have been swept out so easily. To apologize for her father’s behavior too.
She rushed back in her room and dropped the brooch on the desk, sat down and pushed aside a stack of papers. The pen dipped in the very bottom of the almost empty inkwell and with delicate calligraphy she began to write, slowly, the letters in his name. The “C” appeared below her hand. She traced a gentle ‘o - r’ and contemplated the sound of the letters across her tongue.
R... For - Rogue? Reckless. She shyly grinned.
“Oh Eva you’re being,” she scolded herself. “Ridiculous!”
A sound from just outside her balcony reached her ears. The scratching of small footsteps across the dirt, and a thud followed by a man’s voice trying to keep an expletive under his breath . She grabbed her pistol and boldly went to the door, opened it slowly and looked below.
The man was getting up and brushing the dirt off his knees.
“Usted no debe estar aquí!” She yelled down to the intruder.
Cortez was surprised and shot up, slightly embarrassed but determined to impart his message. He knew her yelling voice. “This is too bad! I have to tell you.” He stepped closer to the stairs when he saw what she was pointing directly at him. “Again I have to tell you to put the pistol down?!”
“Oh!” She glanced at the weapon and put it down on a table just inside the door. “Well I thought you were some common robber! What do you want? Be quick and go!”
“No I will not yell in the courtyard! And your Spanish,” he smirked, “Better than I think.”
“I’m not going to let you in!”
Cortez strode halfway up the stairs and almost stumbled at the sight of her. Simple, but soft, and silhouetted by the light of candles illuminating her room. He stood there a while in apprehension, making no sound for fear of breaking the vision. He had almost suspected it was another vision, and he tightened his hands in a fist to assure himself the dagger was neatly sheathed under his coat and not able to play its trick on his mind.
He finally cleared his throat and spoke. “It is your brother’s death.”
“Then tell the Alcalde.”
“I cannot! It is Don Pedro and you are in danger! Persistent one! Por favor! People want you dead. Why you make me angry?!”
The question hung in silence around him. He waited for her voice, but nothing came. He watched the sky long enough to see the waning crescent of the moon begin to rise over the rooftop. Still she said nothing and he reluctantly thought to turn and leave. But no - he could not as he heard again the words: Follow it. Protect it !
“What do you think you are doing?” She protested as he deliberately pressed in through her doorway.
He scanned the room and behind her his eyes fell on an object that could have only come from Salazar. The brooch. Cortez placed his hands on her arms and abruptly moved her out of his way, striding toward the desk.
He picked up the brooch and placed it in his open palm. “From Salazar?”
“Mmm,” he grumbled through pursed lips and looked down again where his eyes stopped. The paper with the letters “C o r” lay under his hand and he hid a smile.
She watched in horror as he slowly traced the letters with his finger tips.
“Señor Cor- “ her voice could not finish saying his name. “Please, um -” and she ran across the room and threw herself between him and the desk.
“And?” He was undeterred and turned, pointing over her shoulder to roses in a vase on the mantle. He did not wait for a reply, answering the question himself. “Si. Is this why you cry? He makes you cry!”
She was leaning against him, her chest rising and falling with determined breaths, her eyes dancing across his face begging him silently to stop.
“He makes many women cry señorita.”
“I demand you explain yourself Señor!”
Cortez bent his head down, a move which demanded her eyes to look up at him. “Salazar, his lesson in English, from your father?” He knew the answer. He knew and pressed her again to confirm it, as if only by hearing it come from her sweet mouth he would believe.
She nodded. “Yes.”
“And he sees you?” He slowly shook his head. “No. He does not come to see you.”
“How do you know so much about what Armando - ?”
“Armando? That is very familiar. You think I lie? He wants you alone?”
“Alone?” Evalianna straightened her shoulders and swallowed hard. “Of course not alone why would you think I should allow such, or that my father would tolerate such vulgar behavior!”
“You say this,” and he raised his hand to glide it over her cheek. “Vulgar behavior?”
“Señor Cortez I -,” She stepped back and only then did she notice why she stayed so long that close to him. The pressure of his arm lightened as his hand was sliding away from her waist.
“Perhaps we can, remedy this um,” her mind was racing. “May I? Will you speak to me in -?”
“My language.” His words were a command to her request.
“Yes. Yours. And tell me honestly. What you think of him?”
“He does not want to see you.” He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned his weight against the desk. “He wants something from you. Specifically from your family and once that is obtained he will be gone.”
“How do you know?” Her confidence grew, holding her heart steady.
“I see all.”
“Then you must be a magician and magicians are heretics and heretics belong in the prison by order of the King.”
“Such strange logic you have.” He stood up, circled around behind her, and unable to avoid the temptation dragged his fingers lightly across the bottom of her hair. It was soft, light in his hand, more fine than the silk gown she was wearing. The touch made her neck flush and he pulled away.
“Are you a magician then, Señor?”
“If I were, I would read your mind,” he said, stepping in front of her. “But then, maybe I already am. Stop allowing Salazar to see you. Then you will see his true intention. Stop giving him information. You will see. I am correct.”
“You’re very confident.”
“Tell me, does he flatter you with words?”
“He writes to me yes. I will show you.” She leaned across her desk and handed him a small bundle of paper tied together with a black ribbon. “This is the last letter I received.”
He thought to seize it out of her hand. Instead he gently pulled it away, unfolding it and bringing it to the light of the candle on the desk.
“Well I didn’t give you permission to read it!”
“Then you should not have handed it to me,” he said, not looking up.
“If you were a gentleman you would not need to be told.”
He read a line aloud: ‘ A kiss from you Señorita is enough to make any man forget his native tongue. ’ Evalianna, he said this to the girl at the tavern. The same words.”
“I did not - give you permission to call me by my name either. And, I do not believe you!”
“I was there. I heard him.”
“You must have heard incorrectly,” her words were a weak accusation.
He exchanged one letter for another, bringing out the one he kept in his coat pocket. “This is yours?”
She wrenched the note from him, almost tearing the paper in half. “How did you? That is a very personal letter!”
“Yes. It is.” His demeanor serious. “You want to know how I found it?”
“You probably stole it!”
“Laying on the ground at the Inn. Under a table.”
“Maybe someone else, stole it and you, I do not care!”
“No. It fell under Armando Salazar’s boot. He took it out of his pocket and pushed it over the edge of the table. I watched him.” Cortez took the note from her and showed her the other side.
The handwriting was unmistakable. And she knew by the markings, the names of the places, the outline of a map. Salazar was using it as an ordinary paper. Bent and torn and scratched across. Yes, ordinary and to be used however he wanted. She clenched her fist not wanting to believe any revelation Cortez had spoken this night. Not about Don Pedro, and not about Salazar. She faltered and wanted to turn away from him but did not.
“You need to leave.”
“You know in your heart I am right or you would not be crying.”
“I am not. I’m not crying.”
“Then tell me, what are these?” His hand brushed away a single tear about to fall from her chin.
“Nothing. They are -”
He drew her in closer, smoothing his hand along her waist.
Heat progressed across her face and down to her hand, still clasping the torn letter and she felt the familiar pangs of betrayal in her heart.
“Go now, or I will have you shot.”
He smiled and let her go. “I think you are a good enough shot to do it yourself. But you insist, I honor your words. I will be back tomorrow.”
“What? No! You cannot come back tomorrow.”
“Ask him. Tomorrow. And will I return tomorrow night. For your answer.”
As he was leaving, she felt again the same threat of emptiness when she imagined him on the beach.
“Wait!” She called out and ran to his side.
“May I have your permission?” Cortez turned to her and entwined his fingers with hers.
“Yes, you may do that.”
“No. Your name,” he said.
“Evalianna. Remember, tomorrow.” He thought to kiss her hand. He would have liked to, but knew she would deny him. And any kiss from her, he wanted to know for certain she was only thinking of him and that Salazar held no sway in her heart.
They did not say goodbye, nor good night, nor wish each other to see a fair sunrise.
Cortez left quietly, aware of the darkness being lifted and the moon’s light directly above him. And the sound of an object shattering - that of a broken vase crashing to the tiled floor of her room.