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Secretamente: An Officer Cortez Fic

Chapter Text

The next day...

Cortez was many things: headstrong, bit of a show off with that sword, but not a common horse thief. And certainly not a murderer. Guillermo Lesaro knew murderers. This boy, for he still saw him as nothing more than a boy despite only a few years separating them, did not have those characteristics. As much as it would please him to see the cocksure nature struck out of Cortez and watch him have to humble himself, Lesaro could not let the feeling go that something was not right; not with the previous arrest and not with this one. Comandante must have ordered it to please Trenton, rather, to please England . He removed the napkin from around his neck, brushed his hands and excused himself from the company of the other Officers. It was time to confront the one man who would help him sort this out: Armando Salazar.

There were no markings on the door to distinguish it from any of the others that lined the wood building. What lay inside, that was the determining feature. Salazar was confined for the morning in this small room next to the Alcalde’s office. Sparsely adorn without so much as one painting on the wall or place to hang a coat, and he did not care. He had no intention of staying behind that desk long. 

“I do not understand.” Salazar was struggling with a handful of papers strewn on his new desk. A deep breath revealed all. This recent position would take more time than he was willing to give and he confided within himself there must be someone to delegate this monstrous administrative task. Lifting his head he saw standing before him, presented like a gift from Providence: Lesaro. They were again speaking of Cortez but not under the conditions Salazar wanted. Even the word ‘ murder ’ brought a foul taste to coat his tongue and he took a long drink of water from the glass in front of him.

Lesaro was the one eager to continue their conversation. 

“His whereabouts are accounted for. Most troubling is! Explain to me why he would bring Peter home, directly to his father if he had tried to kill him?” 

If a sculptor needed a face to model perplexity, he would have found the perfect form in the man perched at the edge of the chair. Lesaro ran his hands through his hair and quickly licked his lips before tapping his index finger on the desk.  

Salazar dipped the pen to its fine silver engraved jar before giving it a gentle tap. “Is that not the perfect alibi? Boy does not die immediately so pretend you were trying to save his life. Bien!” 

It was too hasty and too smoothly that Salazar arrived at this justification. Such conclusions always made Lesaro nervous. It made sense and was the mark of a complex mind that had learned through difficulty what men’s motivations were. Something dark and yet reasonable.  

“No! No…If Cortez can find nothing else, we should. Find some. I .” Lesaro continued rhythmically tapping his fingers on the table, the crease in his brow growing deeper. 

Salazar leaned back in his chair and smiled. This habit his friend had of extending a nervous tick along any flat wooden surface nearby was quickly growing irritating. “You suggest we take up the investigation. What does Capitán DeSoto think of your plan?”

“He doesn’t. Besides, you are a Capitán now.”

There was a pause. Not heavy, but long enough for Lesaro to discover he had been sitting hunched over and his lower back warned him with a shot of pain to correct his posture. 

“Gui, I know what you are thinking,” he mumbled, cautious to give an answer. 

Lesaro smiled. “That if you are not careful maybe they make you the murderer next? Trenton is not exactly happy with you.”

Salazar looked up without moving his head. There was his friend, always holding things over him. And he did still want Cortez as part of his crew. Completing that would be impossible from a jail cell. Comandante might release him after Trenton’s assignment was recalled. That could be weeks, years. 

“You do not think the weak Ambassador could accuse me! Me! Of such a thing.”

A knowing look passed between them. Lesaro remained silent.

“Eh,” shuffling papers and throwing his hands up. “Get your sword. Let us go for a walk.”

The paperwork would wait. 

II

“Fuck!” 

Calloused palms wrapped around flaking metal bars and wrenched at the solid metal. Of course it did not move. He did not expect it to. For an instant he thought to kick at the welded edge of the door but stopped as thick strands of hair fell into his eyes and he had to brush them away.  The corridor was empty. His pockets, empty. 

His mind, saturated with information. 

Letting go of the bars he unwittingly stumbled back. Chains confined the length of his steps. The back of his head throbbed. Rather than gently rub the small lump on his scalp he pushed hard against it, the pain dull and unremarkable compared to the strange dread breathing through the bones in his chest. Eva would be alone now and prey to the man holding the future.  He hoped she had the sense to lock herself in her room with her pistol and his dagger until he returned. And the mind to use either or both if needed. 

There were now two affairs to consider. Even if he had not been able to solve the murder as quickly has he intended, even if, yes as Comandante de la Garza said there were gaps in his report, there was no reason beyond Edward Trenton’s tenuous word for him to wake up in a cell.

“How did this happen?” he mumbled against the musty air. 

“Well,” there was a shuffle of feet, gathering of straw and dirt to a pile along the brick floor of the cell. “First you decided to do what some English boy told you, then Capitán DeSoto sent these guards for no reason and you took off running & I foolishly with you and oh – another thing!” 

Cortez sharply turned. “Marcos! What did you tell to them?”

Marcos stood in the middle of the room, chains around both his feet and hands, and - was he, it almost made Cortez laugh, indignant? There was an expression his friend did not know how to carry well.   

“Ha! I don’t know if I should help you. Man who gets away with everything manages to put me in jail! Look. Cortez, there is no way –”

“If you do not tell me,” Cortez lunged forward and grabbed him by the neck. It was a struggle to throw him against the wall with those chains shortening his reach, but he was moved by anger, the sort that consumed muscles and flesh and soul. “You told them where I was!”

“No!”

“You betrayed me!” All the ire and turmoil confining itself in the rough growling tone of his accusation spat against the man and wall. 

“I told DeSoto I saw you riding the horse. I swear! I thought you were still on your investigation Señor-’ Now-I-have-permission’ .  I swear that is the only thing I said. Salazar figured out where you went. I had to!”

Cortez was silent. His hand twitched, adding pressure around the fragile neck of the man gasping for air. 

“It was Trenton! Ambassador Trenton!” He choked the name and Cortez let him fall to the ground.

“Why? This makes no sense. I tried to save his son’s life.”

Marco looked up from his crouched place on the muddy prison floor. “Yes but Peter is dead and we were the last to hear him speak.”

Cortez whipped around. He left Peter alive, but the wounds, could he be blamed? Trenton had no reason to accuse him. He had never seen the man before the other night. In Eva’s room Trenton thought it was Salazar hiding behind the curtains. That thought too made him ill. He tried walking. Count the steps again. DeSoto had warned him there must be a name and body attached to the murder soon. The uneven bricks in the floor hindered his path. The one mercy granted him was that de la Garza must have been the one to order him locked in the same cell as Marcos.

Marcos sat up against the wall, brought his knees up and rubbed his throat. “I overheard Comandante. Apparently their English doctor is not all together. Would you sit down? Your pacing makes me nervous. My father’s going to kill me. You see?”

The morning light was striking through the small window. Or was it noon. The shadows along the floor confirmed nothing. 

“How much time? Felipe! What else did you hear?”

“Hmm? Nothing important. There was a man caught attempting to smuggle several crates at the port.”

Stefano crouched down in front of him. Felipe’s face was stern. Yes he should resent Cortez, but he understood the man better than himself. What was one more test of their friendship? They might mark this as the latest adventure and recount it in memoirs of bravery in their old age. 

Felipe smiled. Stefano relaxed his shoulders and sighed. 

All was forgiven. 

“Every detail Felipe. I need you to remember every solitary detail. No matter how insignificant you might think it. Peter was alive when I left. The doctor was there and saw me leave.” He paused and looked again out the barred window above them.  “She –,” his tone softened. “She saw me leave.” But he wasn’t thinking of that first day. It was the dark apprehension in her eyes as he was being taken away. That was the look striking at his gut. 

“Oh. She? You mean Señorita Trenton? I see… No. Oh, it was the maid!” He said tauntingly. 

“Stop right now.”

“Pretty girl finally has your full attention! You know Stefano I would have thought you could have gone for that raven haired one. Who walks with her father every time we patrol. Very beautiful. Very er,” tracing the outline of her body in the air with his hands.

One look and Felipe shut his mouth. 

“Yes. Sorry. When we get out I think I will write to Susan.”

“After your father kills you.”

“Ah yes. After my father kills me. We have to get out of here.”

“I am working on it,” he grit his teeth and brushed his fingers through his hair.  

It suddenly occurred to him how quickly Felipe ran across the plaza, the swiftness of their introduction, the flower he so expertly handed the maid in question. 

“How familiar are you with Trenton’s maid? Do not lie to me. You had met her before you introduced me. You would never have given her that flower if you had not spoken with her before.”

Felipe’s face grew red and his words were meaningless gibberish. “I, um. Easy and. Twice.”

“You are holding back from me Felipe. Where?” Followed by that signature head tilt. 

Seated together on the floor there still remained a great silence between them.  

“A friend would ask first why I am in here?” Violently rattling the chains attached to his own wrists. 

Stefano rested his throbbing head in his hands. Damned world was spinning and all he could think was how to escape - how to return to Evalianna. “You are right. Sorry. Tell me.”

“That is better! First I have to express my enormous gratitude for getting me into this mess. If my career is in shambles because of you I will dress in beggar’s clothes and follow you around with a bell ringing it loudly until the end of my days.”

“Felipe, please.” Not only was his head splitting but the coating in his mouth reminded him of the lack of hydration to his system. Well, lasting hydration anyway. The caress of Eva’s mouth still lingered in his mind. And if his friend did not reveal useful information to work with he was going to begin to look for ways to stuff his ears with straw instead of the inane ramblings Felipe was known to give.

“Lesaro came to see you. No. That’s not entirely true. He came to get me. Brought me immediately to Capitán DeSoto. After I told him you er..were gone, he throws me in here for brawling in the street.”

Ah yes. “That one I apologize for.”

“No, I forgive you. Someday you save my life though, si?”

It was doubtful either man remembered how many debts they owed each other. 

“Now to tell you where I saw Susan.” He straightened his back and pridefully crossed his arms over his chest. “Cobos.”

“Cobos?” Stefano laughed. “No, the pious Felipe does not go to such places.”  

His face dropped and turned serious again. “I – might have. I think I would like to be in love with her.”

He twisted in the shackles again. They were beginning to tear a thin layer of skin away from his wrist bone.  Genuinely surprised but not willing to acknowledge it he responded with a dry, “I should have known.” 

“You do not think badly of me? I met her at one of the docks. She was, how do I explain?” He almost felt sickly. It was a planned meeting and both parties had braved conviction and hazards to meet. “Took me up the stairs.” 

He raised his head. “I am not your confessor,” curtly interrupting. That and he did not want the sordid details of any rendezvous between Felipe and Susan. “You see what else happened at the Tavern?”

“You talking to Salazar and his compatriots? Yes! Or do you mean to that woman –” Felipe shook his head. He had his own encounter with the mysteriously woman that stopped Stefano in the middle of the street, making the same mistake thinking she was a sort of temptress, an apprentice to the devil. All those markings on her face and a lulling voice dripping with the message of fate and peril turned the marrow in his legs cold. Felipe was quick to rid himself of her, taking from under his shirt a bold solid silver crucifix around his neck and muttering a response in Latin. Those words made her laugh though he took it seriously. He had not the courage or truly the time to ask Cortez what she said to him. 

“I had my orders too. Comandante was not foolish enough to let you wander town alone.”

“Only to let me think I was alone.” Why was it so difficult to focus on the hands in front of him?

“A ruse! Rather proud of the whole thing really. I had the evening all planned out. Then you had to go and get drunk.” 

“I almost killed you. You were three steps behind me and I could have killed you. I think sometimes I do not give you enough credit.”

“That is a compliment coming from you!”

“What else did you hear?”

“Crates, um…the Officer investigating a merchant’s complaint said they have captured three English pirates.”

“Which Officer?” After his last encounter with Lesaro he suspected it was another connection with Salazar. 

“It is not who you think it is. Why you dislike him?”

“Go on.” Stefano’s answer was simple. As for his impression of the Officer in question, it was merely that. An impression. Any man who was intensely difficult to read was not to be trusted until he proved himself. 

“No. I am going to take my time. You want details I give you details! Not like we have anywhere to go. Good. Now stay sitting down and I will do the pacing.” Felipe began to pull himself up when Stefano threw his hand across his chest. 

“Shh!” 

There was a loud creak of the door in the hall.

“Now just a minute!”

“Shut up!” He repeated and jumped up to walk closer to the cell door, hiding in a corner. 

There were two voices in the distance echoing down the corridor and the familiar brush of coins dropping one by one into a hand. One. Two. Seven. Seven! Whatever was happening was not a casual bargain. 

Shadows of the two people grew as they walked toward the cell. One set of feet much softer and took more steps than the other. One figure must be the jailer, and the second. He was not given the time to think about it. 

“Cortez!” The gruff voice of the guard yelled out. Too busy flipping expertly through his keys he did not look up to see Stefano already standing nearby. 

“Five minutes,” the man said as he shook the lock on the door to make sure it was solid. Stefano hoped he would open the door. Instead the guard took those keys and mockingly waved them in the air before returning to the end of the corridor. Alone. 

Leaving the second person to stand half in shadow. There was a nod from behind the dark hood. A delicate hand that reached out and grabbed hold of one of the bars. 

“Stefano Cortez?”

Felipe watched as his friend slid his boot forward toward the door. Was it the woman from the street again?

“Yes.”

 She had come with a purpose, and she must remain calm. She slowly removed her hood, looking directly to his narrowed eyes.

Felipe gasped. 

Evalianna Trenton appeared from below Susan’s hooded jacket.

“What are you doing here!” Stefano fell forward on the door, blindly reaching through it to grab her hand. 

“I bribed the guard,” she said matter of factly.

“You bribed the guard?” Felipe almost choked on the words. 

“Do not sound so shocked! It is not difficult.” She twisted under her coat looking down on the disheveled man crouched on the floor, questioning her. Another Spaniard there to underestimate her?  

“Evalianna.” Speaking her name caught his soul on fire.

“I am sorry Stefano. I know. I know you are innocent but my father.” 

Damn that man. If England were truly worried about their alliance with the crowns of Spain they should not have sent such a pathetic and immoral representative. 

“No. You are not at fault.” 

“Let me speak!” She was beginning to lose all courage if she did not speak quickly. “My father is very hurt. And very angry right now. He does not trust, frankly anyone at the moment. So you see I knew I had to.” Her lips fell silent. That courage was now waning. She was so sure of herself back home when she planned everything out in a relaxing bath. 

He reached further through the bars, wrapping his arm around her waist. It was a dangerous move, a bold one. Yet his instinct to touch her was natural. “To?” At his words her face blushed. Even in the darkness of the prison he could see it and felt vainly delighted about being the cause. 

She swallowed and licked her lips before continuing. “To see you. I mean, I had to tell you I believe this is a most horrible injustice. I cannot see you caged this way! Not after what.” voice rapid but soft, “you said yesterday.”

“Thank you for visiting, Señorita,” Felipe interjected and walked up to them. “I think maybe your visit puts you at risk? Do not worry about us. Cortez has a plan,” Patting him on the back. 

“You? You do? I can give you money, I can bribe the guard again if you need me to.” She should not have been surprised by Stefano’s look. 

He shook his head, not thinking of the future but only this moment and having her fresh faced and obstinate under his grip.  

“I am very serious! Spanish think we have no ideas of our own! My mother was not English Señor and we are capable people! Tell me what to do. What is your plan?”

“Do not have one,” he said cooley. “Soon.”

Felipe threw his hands up and walked away to the back of the cell, shaking his head. 

“Let me bribe the guard. We’ll start there,” she insisted. 

“We? Eva…”

“Oh! In case you think I am not up for the challenge! Here.” From under her cloak she produced a familiar glint, the steel polished and the ruby catching a fraction of light sliding through the bars. “Your dagger Stefano. Now. You see what I can do for you?”

“I gave that to you to keep safe.”

“And now you need it.” 

Brushing his fingers neatly over the blade, he finally understood. Remain calm and the dagger was quiet, subdued. Nothing more than his practical navaja. Become overwhelmed with emotions, any emotion, and it would rise, seal with his soul and show him the impossible. His pulse rose. That index finger still touching the blade began shaking. Was that the key? Had he seen, through this blade, the attack? The blood dripping in the summer sun? The woman warned he would never be rid of it. 

Evalianna would have to keep the dagger for him. Together they could bury it, destroy it. 

“You must take it back. If I am caught in here with it they will know it was you who gave it to me. If you bribe the guard you will have to bribe the Commandant. You bribe him, then entire Armada. And even you I do not think have enough influence to do that.”

“I am trying to help you!” She was losing patience and running out of time. 

“I think you take on entire Armada if you had to,” a smirk crossed his lips and he brushed a curl of her hair through his hands. 

She was beginning to enjoy that look far too well. It brought with it his propensity to suddenly make her want to forget there was another person within earshot and reenact yesterday afternoon. “Yes, and I would win too!”

“Foolish. You would lose.” 

“Never. Only if I lose you.”  

“You love me this much?” 

She said nothing in reply and kept her head down. He knew the answer. Not only in her eyes but her shaky breath, her determination to be reckless, just as reckless as he. Folding her hands over the dagger he kissed her hand and pressed it to her chest. 

“Then let time run its course. That is better. We will be released soon. I promise.” Remain calm he reminded himself. 

“How can you be so confident?”  

“I am innocent. You keep for me? I promise: Soon this will be over. I come to you,” once more embracing her cheek with his fingers to memorize her softness before taking a long step back and becoming trapped again in the cell, shielding him from the dagger’s potentially debilitating effects. But also separating from what he desired of her.  

“Go.”

“No.”

“Go! Stubborn girl.”

“Stefano..please.”

She did not have the opportunity to continue her protest. The guard began his sturdy descent of the stairs to collect the cloaked accessory to a rejected jailbreak. 

Promising herself again she would hide her tears, she raised the hood of her jacket and without saying goodbye, walked out. 

Being observed, and unaware, Evalianna brushed at her face and walked through the town to her carriage that waited along a narrow and unobstructed street. She sat down and hesitated, flexing her hand. Stefano had released her in a harsh dismissal. Even if he meant it for her own protection the words repeatedly crashed to her ears and her heart beat heavy in her chest. To see him caused a darkening rush to her veins, the same lightheadedness when she worried that she missed his visit while at the Opera. How long could she sit in the carriage unnoticed? Another hour? A minute? When he backed away into his cell her hands turned cold, tingled, and that feeling had not left. She pulled the shade down and threw off Susan’s coat. The air inside was stifling. Humid. All of nature attempting to talk her into leaving and going home. But she could only think of him there, trapped. Leaving Cadiz would mean leaving him behind miles away, where now she was only steps. A cold sweat beaded down her back. 

I come to you’  

She remained silent. With no reason to doubt his promise, other than the promises of others having been broken each time, his words hovered over her entire being just as his arm had when he escorted her down the stairs that day. Why should someone keep their promise to her, especially if they act as she had always received?  To keep or break a given word to her, they did not care. So she waited, arguing within herself that she was worth something, and that there should be consequences if he breaks his word. Her heart wanted to forgive him, even before any wrongdoing. Her mind scolded and demanded proof.   She should simply believe him and trust. 

She pulled the dagger out from her pocket and laid it on her lap. So long as she had that, she had part of him. It would have to keep her company while his fate was decided. She knocked on the door and the driver started their way back to Paraíso Terrestre. 

III

By the next morning the inhabitants of the cell were at opposite positions in the acquiescence of their fate.  One laying on his back on a single musty blanket over the floor, hands behind his head and gently snoring, and the other, still determined to understand the nature of the tangled situation, giving the man on the floor a slight kick when the nasal emissions coming from the one on the floor intruded on his thinking. 

The jailer rattled the keys in the lock.  “Get up,” he gruffed as the door opened.  “Out!”

“What do you mean?” Marcos drowsily swept his hand under his nose and crawled up off the floor. 

Cortez did not question but picked up his coat, threw it over his arm and walked out in silence, only pausing for the jailer to remove his shackles. 

Out of the corner shadow, a singular and distinct profile glowed in the soft morning light. It spoke firmly. “He means you are free to go. Unless you like it in here Señor Marcos.” 

Marcos ran out with a quick bow and a respectful, ‘Thank you very much’ to the voice in the shadow. 

An arm reached to stop Cortez. “All charges dropped.”

He looked down. Yes he had told Evalianna he would be freed based on his innocence, but he assumed there would be one judge he would have to defend himself against. This release was not what he expected. 

“Why.”

The familiar voice now revealed a confirmation. Lesaro.

“Because we discovered a body for one. Comandante managed to convince the Ambassador of this also: Your innocence in the matter of Peter Trenton.”

It was difficult to read the tone of Lesaro’s answer. In the light outside, there he could discern his face. In the dark, the man’s voice gave no indication of his own conviction. 

“Do you believe that?” Cortez asked candidly. 

“Does it matter? DeSoto wants to speak with you. Here is your knife.” And with a retort to the earlier insult in the tavern he added, “Dagger is missing.”

“No. It is very safe,” he gathered a calm breath. “Thank you, Lesaro.”

“You are welcome.” He was surprised at the sincerity. “But do not make it a habit of owing me favors.”

The street was relatively quiet as they started walking away from the continually under construction fortress to the Garrison further along the small bridge of land that split the sea. Marcos followed along at a respectful distance behind them, lost in his own thoughts and wondering if he could run out into the water and quickly to wash. 

Cortez did not have to ask the next question. He knew the answer. But to hear it spoken would validate his own suspicions. “The missing girl. The maid, Susan. Has anyone found her?” 

“Dead.” They stopped just before entering the street to let a cart pass. “That was the body discovered.” 

“Does,” he wanted to ask if Eva knew but held back and changed his inquiry. He glanced quickly behind him. Marcos had heard. His face paled. “Who else knows? Anyone in town?”

“I don’t think so. Two murders so close to each other, Alcalde does not want panic.” They continued out of town reaching the short path to the final bridge. 

“How do you find out?”

If only he were as quick to make up stories as Salazar. The truth was told. 

“Salazar and I went for a walk. There was a woman.” He hesitated. “I can only describe her as a mirage? Over dressed for this weather. Something strange on her face. She caught Salazar’s eye and ran down a corridor.” 

Lesaro was staring in the distance, looking for words to describe what he had witnessed. All simple descriptions evaded him. One woman running and then suddenly, another dead at his feet. 

“At the end of the alley is where we found her. The body. Stabbed. In the exact manner Peter had been. But more forcefully. Poor girl had no chance to fight.” Lesaro was calm at the retelling of a gruesome murder. 

It struck Cortez how passive he was in recounting the ordeal. Murder is never committed neatly and even a soldier, for all his trials and experience, would not easily let go of the humanity of seeing a woman stabbed to death. To be so numb to violence and speak of it so stoically; only a man who had seen such crimes many times over could accomplish this. 

“And the hooded woman?” Cortez knew who he had seen. The same one who pestered him about the dagger. It had to be. She freely roamed Cadiz and just as freely disappeared. 

“I told you! Poof! Mirage,” he said adamantly.  

“You must have missed a door, a gate through which she escaped.” He had been through such things before at the Alcazar. Doors and walls that turned when tapped in a very specific way leading to escape tunnels and hidden rooms. 

“No. I assure you. We looked.” Lesaro cleared his throat. That calm temperment reigned over the conversation. “Now. I am to escort you to Commandante and from there, your fate is your own.” 

“Not assigned as my bodyguard eh?” There was a spring in his step as he made the statement. 

“The last thing I need is a troublemaker like you following me around. In truth, I am being called back to my ship. We leave within the week.” 

Here was his opportunity. “Not with Capitán Salazar?”

Lesaro continued to walk in a perfectly metered fashion. “I would ask how you know that but I confess I do not want the answer.” 

“And as you can see, I obviously am not the trouble maker. Maybe you should trust me more.” 

“The only thing you have right now is the backing of two high ranking officials. Whether that is coincidence or design I do not know.” 

“Salazar trusts me.” 

“Salazar wants you on his crew. He thinks you have,” it almost pained him to say it. “Potential.”

“Maybe I have so much potential I do not have to take his offer. There will be more. Better opportunities.”

That made Officer Lesaro stop. “Señor Cortez?” His question was filled with exasperation and rightfully, a lesson in that humility Cortez needed to be taught. “Have you ever crossed the Atlantic Ocean? Do you know what it is like crashing through the waves and trying to fire cannons while the men around you slip in their own blood? The screams of innocent citizens who have left to build New Spain being blown to pieces by thieves and ruthless terrorists? Salazar will put an end to those pirates.” He smiled as a bit of that pride slipped from Cortez’s face.  “So yes, you may find yourself another ship, another Capitán and sail happily through the Mediterranean. Or if you are lucky sink your sword into one, eh, two men. Spain is rebuilding, Señor. Decide now where your loyalties are.”

“You would desert your own commission to sail with this man?” The gate to the fort was mere footsteps ahead of them. Beyond it lay the chance to build the most powerful empire in the world, and he wanted it. Everything it had to offer: Adventure, glory, fortune. Spain would increase and he with it. 

“I desert nothing. But yes, I will sail with Capitán Salazar.” 

 

IV

It was times like these that Capitán DeSoto understood the reasons a king would want a round table. As it was, the men in the room were not properly seated in any order at all. Comandante de la Garza was at one end of the table, followed by Cortez, then DeSoto himself. Across the way Lesaro sat quietly, and Marcos, that little man who was now smiling with the eyes of a school boy about to watch a procedure from the front row of a dissection theater, sat comfortably next to de la Garza as if they were sharing a Christmas meal. As for which side was the ‘head’ of the table, that would depend on who you asked. Undoubtedly the higher ranking officer would be everyone’s answer. It seemed to DeSoto that it was the other Capitán at the table who controlled the room. How, he was unsure. The dark haired man was very still, hands folded neatly and resting in front of him. An expressionless face yet somehow he commanded every living thing in that room, right down to the flickering candles in the center of the table that he was staring at. 

DeSoto whispered to Cortez as they settled in, “You look awful,” passing a glass of water and a piece of torn bread to both men. 

Disheveled was not how he intended to meet with the Comandante but what did the man expect? Orders were to immediately report to his office. No time to change clothes or wash off any bugs he might be carrying on his boots. 

“Señor Cortez,” de la Garza cleared his throat and poured more water in the glass. “You look awful.”

Thankfully his mouth was full of bread or something vulgar and dismissal worthy was going to be spoken. 

Marcos chewed slowly on the bread, the realization of Susan’s death had not taken hold. 

De la Garza stood up, pulled his waistcoat into place and knocked on the table for their attention. “Very good. Now forgetting all the frivolous details, I give you the facts.”

Cortez raised his eyebrow. What did he mean frivolous? Details had meaning. Everything accounted for. Nothing happened without a previous action having taken place! Frivolous . He sighed but kept his mouth shut. 

“No one saw Peter’s attacker. When the shopkeeper was interviewed the only information he could give was that the boy ran in from a backdoor that led to an alley, stumbled across his shop almost knocking over one of his patrons and pushed his way to the front door. And in to you. Peter then incoherently mumbles for you to take him home, where he would be treated by his own English Doctor. I have met that man and I tell you if that is what the English call a physician, Spain will soon conquer every land their King attempts to take from us. They will be dead within a week at the hands of their own keepers!” 

“That alley is the same place Salazar discovered the second body last night.” DeSoto added. 

“Where Lesaro and myself discovered the body,” Salazar corrected him. 

Unfolding a neat piece of paper from his pocket, DeSoto smoothed it out on the table. At the top it read: ‘List of suspects’  It was short. Five names. At the very top one Cortez did not recognize. 

Lesaro slid the list toward himself to read. 

“Broos Malin”

“The Dutch boy we arrested last week. Despite his drunken ramblings about glorious Austria, sided with the French at Steenkirk and apparently injured fighting his own country men under Admiral Tourville,” DeSoto said. 

“Well he couldn’t have murdered the maid he was in the prison,” de la Garza waved his hand. 

“Señorita Burke,” Marcos quietly whispered. “Her name was Susan Burke.” 

Cortez watched the familiar look of shocking realization insert itself on Marco’s face. He hated that look. First denial. Then isolation. With his friend, isolation might as well be a death sentence. 

“No, but certainly Peter. Maybe he had friends.” 

“Keep reading,” de la Garza ordered. 

“The Honorable Ambassador Trenton?” Lesaro looked up bewildered. 

“Who made this list?” Cortez mocked. 

“Here me out” - ah, the Comandante put his name there. “There is something wrong with a man who can lose half his family and never weep about it. Who came down here and demanded immediate resolution? Before his son’s body was even in the grave? And it was he that suggested both Cortez and Marcos were to blame. Bah.”

No one at the table would argue that Trenton himself would make a fine suspect. Each man there wanted to be rid of the diplomat.  

“Doctor Iasan Barton.” 

“Man is,” DeSoto wanted to raise a string of words but settled on ‘troubled.’

“And loyal to a fault to the Trenton family,” Salazar said.  

“Don Pedro de -,”

There was a loud guttural laugh from the opposite end of the table before Lesaro could finish saying the man’s name. 

“Find that amusing Salazar?”

“You will forgive me Comandante, but I have known Don Pedro for this past year.”

Only the last year? Cortez thought. I’ve known him since I was a child. That little interaction about his father and the books. Better to keep it to himself. Frivolous detail, after all. 

“Pompous. Terrible card player. He may have questionable friends. But kill someone? He would not want blood on his fine suits eh?”

“Maybe he hired someone,” Cortez said. 

“Why.” Not a question, an implied threat to Salazar’s assertion. 

“So he wouldn’t stain the suit!” Marcos was so proud of his reply. 

“No. I meant why would he want to kill Peter?”

DeSoto leaned in. “He knows Trenton well. If as you say he is bad at cards and there was a wager, a debt to be paid.” 

“No,” Salazar again denied.  

“And no one knows where he was during both murders,” de la Garza pointed out.  

“I’ve seen him. At the plaza,” Marcos said.  

“Who else?”

The room was quiet. There was one more name. De la Garza took the list from Lesaro and read it calmly. 

“Ah yes. Maxim Gaspar de Barcelona. Friend of Don Pedro. Was arrested two years ago for participating in a duel. Spent time in England before, well. It’s a long list of places that man claims to have been.”

He threw the paper back to the table and sat down. “Señors, what are your thoughts?”

Salazar was first to speak. Standing, the chair beneath him scraped against the floor, he leaned forward placing both hands on the table. “I think we can say several of these names are politically damaging. If accused.”

“You think we should let one go even if he is found guilty?” DeSoto questioned. 

“Proof, is what we need. Where is the murder weapon? Why are there no witnesses? This alley - Cadiz is becoming unruly.”

“Cap-,” catching himself midword was not necessary but a cautionary habit. “Salazar. Continue with these thoughts and I begin to think you would prefer to be Alcalde!”

Salazar sat down. “My apologies Comandante. I wait only for your instruction.”

“Bien. We are running out of time. Trenton has been informed of your release Cortez.” That earlier headache was returning. He closed his eyes and prayed: Why does the Lord not take this Englishman from my city?! “If there is no counsel tomorrow, Trenton has threatened to take his own legal action. The Alcalde refuses to present Don Pedro to a public trial. Do what you must. Find the weapon, find the killer.”

Simple Comandante . Thinking it would be as easy as that. Any sword, any dagger, inflicted the same wounds if thrusted equally. Cortez understood his commanding officer’s fragile case. The Alcalde demanding justice and Trenton - Trenton might easily want another war. None of the men listed had anything to gain by the death of Peter Trenton. Did they? 

Stefano Cortez would have to contemplate that later. Comandante de la Garza had excused everyone from the office except him. Once again he found himself alone with the second highest ranking officer in Cadiz. It was beginning to feel uncomfortably familiar. 

“Thank you, for placing me in the same cell as Señor Marcos during my incarceration,” he felt the need to express a small amount of gratitude.  

“No hard feelings,” de la Garza cleaned up the papers and drank an entire glass of wine in one go.  

“No Comandante. You were only doing what you thought was best. Obeying orders.”

“Good soldier. Now. Clean yourself up, get some sleep. You deserve time off. Oh, and the next time you want a horse to visit Paraíso Terrestre, take mine? He needs the exercise anyway.”

“Si Comandante!” 

He tried not to run. He thought he was walking quickly. No, he was running and knew exactly which stall to enter. Rest could wait. He needed to leave. Immediately. 

“Hey! That’s the Comandante’s horse!” A scuffle broke out between several stable hands who were determined no other horses would mysteriously disappear. 

“Really? Fine animal.” And very obediently it took to the new rider easily.  

“You can’t just take it!” The cadet tried to hold on the reins but Cortez pushed him back. 

“No? Why do you take it up with him. Move!”

Horse and rider once again left the walled city and headed in the direction parallel to the ocean. A direct path to his heart.