They had been sitting with their damaged shells strewn in the inner courtyard for a year. Even with the previous rains the lush vines had become tangled and bare sticks, reaching through cracked ground and sprawling up to the ledge of the stucco walls, terminating once they broke free from the gates.
She kicked at one of them. It turned over and a small lizard scurried away across her feet.
What had she been thinking, riding into town in her father’s carriage dressed in Susan’s plain clothes? Bribing a guard! Bribing! Even if she used her father’s diplomatic status it would still be a highly punishable offence. Did that make her a criminal? Were her actions justifiable as the man she went to see was clearly innocent? Could she convince a tribunal that she was acting in accordance to a Work of Mercy by visiting the imprisoned? What if the jailer had recognized her and right now was standing before the Alcalde telling him the daughter of the English Ambassador had attempted to smuggle a man charged for murder out of his cell? She exonerated herself of that last thought. To expose her meant he would have to expose himself since he did accept the money.
Money she found in a small square chest covered in blackened leather and dotted with iron tacks across the top.
It was sitting neatly on Susan’s dresser, no hint of a lock, and Eva had not intended to look but the temptation was too strong. They were a sort of kin, having no secrets before this - yet. What the box should have contained might have been notes or souvenirs Susan may have gathered from the beach. She was always collecting shells. Eva opened and looked. A hair pin covered in emeralds, a necklace with fine pearls, and two pair of gold earrings with rough cut diamonds hanging like fine Spanish chandeliers, and below those odd jewels - for she had never seen Susan wear jewelry of any sort - silver and gold coins, each recently minted and enough to pay for her passage back to England. Enough to buy her freedom. But Eva knew. Those circular hammered reales were from her father and belonged as part of Eva’s dowry. And so taking a handful was returning what was rightfully hers.
Bribes. Stolen inheritance. And broken pots.
Such a sad place this entrance had become. Nothing like the garden Cortez had introduced her to. How was it that the other abandoned garden had continued to grow and thrive but the one at her feet lay as empty as a windswept sand dune?
So much death around her. She wished Cortez had taken her away to Gibraltar. Madrid. Even to her aunt in Naples. Anywhere but this desolate ‘Paradise’.
Ledford hobbled past her stopping before the grand wooden doors. The same doors where she first met him, a disaster in hand and covered in earth. Now she was the one planning to be covered in dirt.
“Please, come in. No sense standing out in the Spanish sun turning yourself red.”
Evalianna looked up, the small shadow of the pale straw hat keeping her face barely out of the light.
“No, I don’t think I will.” She kicked once again at another pot. This one shattered at her feet. “Ledford, go retrieve the tools. I intend on making this a garden again.”
The old man lit up. If he were still in his youth he would have jumped and clapped like a school boy. Although he knew this was not the time for planting and he wondered if she understood that too or if her excitable ideas made her forget.
“But winter, Miss.”
“Yes. Winter will bring the rains and by Spring,” she closed her eyes. Those magenta flowers appeared and a wisp of thick citrus scent confined her being in a dream of his embrace. “The world is alive. And we are going to make sure of it.”
Comandante’s warning about the horse needing exercise was true. Halfway to his destination the animal slowed and could no longer be coaxed up the hill and Cortez was not about to walk the rest of the way. His feet hurt and his body was itchy and his hair appeared glued to his scalp. They halted at the edge of a ridge. Cortez looked over his shoulder to his left, to the sea and the thunderous sound of the waves and dismounted. It was not noon yet. Still time. Comandante had given him one day of freedom for each day spent in jail. Yes, he was in a rush to return to Eva. Or he could try to make himself somewhat presentable? To hell with the Officers seeing him filthy. They had seen worse. Smelled worse. Been knee deep in shit and blood, isn’t that what Lesaro had said?
“Alright horse.” Hoping the words were understood he tied the reins to a large piece of driftwood. “Stay.”
All the activity of Cadiz centered inside the walls. This small stretch of beach typically lay undisturbed. The water was too shallow to fish and the tides conformed to their own will, sometimes brushing up as high as the road and other times swallowed back so far one could walk and walk toward the ocean and forget there was a drop off into the darker sea. Today he would have to make that longer walk if he wanted to bathe. Not that he minded. And the quietness? The beach could have been just as busy as the port and he would still do the same as he was planning now.
Finally he could breathe deeply and let the rays from the sun touch his body. It was only two and a half days in that jail but it was enough. The stains and foul smells still caught the hair in his nose and made it burn. Never again. He threw off his boots and in the manner of a child, shuffled off his entire uniform. His feet finally bare the coarse grains of sand hot and solid, supporting his steps as he walked to the ocean’s edge.
He was there to cleanse his mind and his body.
The water smoothly rushed over his back while waves kicked at his chest as he stopped right before the breakers. He knew better than to try and swim past those. Gathering air in his lungs he submerged below the horizon, bounding in and out of the lines between the silken buoyancy of hydration and serration of dry air wicking the drops from his shoulders.
Next time he would bring her to the sea and tumble her between earth and water.
To have the sea dive in his own blood and control it beyond human capacity and he shook with the cold vibrations of a new salt water entering his soul. Soft whispers gulped around his ears, rising in the spray from the sea below his feet. He looked down to the world below. A lost and empty shell floated by; death and its mistress tangled like kelp in the hollow opening where some creature had outgrown the shelter.
Gradually rising higher, or was he beginning to sink? It mattered not. Between the horizon, sea meeting sky, rolling water against his lips he gasped for breath and floated to the surface.
He imagined laying against blues and whites and all the colors of the deepest ocean, the sand a warm and silken bed beneath them.
This happy vision too was to be overshadowed by reality.
Apparently not everyone received word he was a free man.
“I told you I saw Comandante’s horse!”
Cortez heard the voice as it yelled to the man cautiously walking down the beach. He ran out of the water and hastily gathered his clothes. He was too late. The soldiers had released the animal and were halfway down the road by the time he caught up.
There went his plan not to have to walk the rest of the way to Paraíso Terrestre . Time to start counting again.
Mr. Ledford had come and gone with the tea. She refused it, barely acknowledging his request for her to stop digging in the ground on her hands and knees and take a small refreshment. Eva waved her trowel at him, with not so much as a ‘no thank you’, concentrating on adding to the rapidly building pile of debris and unsalvageable mason work. The wall would need reconstruction but she was focused on transforming the parched clay; breaking apart the earth using strength that rallied from the intensity of her soul to have life surround her.
Stretching a few times before taking pen to parchment, she scribbled down various plant names from books she had gathered out of the library. It would cost perhaps her entire inheritance. All those jewels in Susan’s box belonged to her and any merchant in town might give her a fair price.
“Miss you really should go in.” Ledford was there again with his concern but his tone had become stern instead of his usual passiveness. “You cannot work all day and not eat something.”
The gloves on her hands were caked in dirt and she licked at her dry lips. “Very well. I suppose I need to clean up. Ten more minutes.”
“Yes Miss.” Ledford reluctantly bowed and left to order her wash basin filled and the kitchens to prepare a small meal.
Her mind needed those ten minutes. The more time she could spend applying her hands in repetition and out of her bedroom the less she would think of him. And when her thoughts wandered to him it was pain. Anxiety wrapped in sorrow, making bedfellows with self doubt and helplessness. Yearning without relief. Eternity was not this long. For every second she was not thinking of her work, her mind immediately went to him. Was he given meals? Did he manage to sleep well and what of any plan to prove his innocence? She needed him there, to hear his voice or - anything! She tapped her pocket. Yes, the dagger was still in place, carefully hidden in the folds of her dress. Reaching in she slid her fingers along the cold and decorated handle, running her thumb across the top of the blade. Powerful, steady. Exactly like him. It made her shiver; lose concentration. She would rather her hands be on him.
Those ten minutes were dwindling and a tear darkened the clay below her.
Returning to the disobeying ground that crumbled instead of holding life she continued digging on her hands and knees, brushing off a stone before tossing it blindly to the pile.
And from behind her she heard the gentle clank of one of the servants dropping pottery to the ground.
She closed her eyes and clenched her teeth. She was trying to save as many pots as she could. They knew that. It was an explicit order.
Another crack. It was almost a growl she emitted this time. Whoever dropped it was not even sweeping up the mess. She threw her trowel in the ground again.
One more piece cracked.
She clenched the handle of her tool and stabbed the ground with such force the metal slightly bent. Finally she could no longer stay silent.
“If you are going to help,” getting up and turning around to face the perpetrator and brushing her hands on her apron, “try to be more careful!”
Why was everyone so clumsy today? She raised her face to better scold the field hand. The sun was bright in her eyes even with the shelter of her hat she could see no more than the man’s boots.
The man’s boots .
And the man, resting against the wall dangling a broken shard of pottery ready to let it fall to the ground if she again refused to turn around.
“Stefano!” She yelled, throwing herself to him and almost climbing around his neck. “How! When!” All the anxiety from before rushed to questions and transformed to energetic kisses to his jaw.
“Si, si. Now calm down.” He dropped the pottery and pulled her gloved hands away from his neck, only to turn them over and kiss each wrist before allowing her to wrap her arms around him again.
He was not going to admit that Lesaro had assisted in his release, nor give her the terrifying news that her own father was on the list of suspects to Peter’s murder. As for Susan’s death, that too he would hide from her. He was there to protect Evalianna.
“Where is your father?”
“Gone to see the Alcalde. He said there was word of Susan but honestly I -,”
Stefano pressed his finger to her lips. “No more.” He looked over her shoulder to the mess of turned up ground and weeds behind her. “You should really clean up around here.”
Letting go she stepped to the middle of the court to show off her work. “What do you think?”
He cocked an eyebrow. “I think it is a disaster.”
“You broke my pots!” Looking down at the shattered pieces at his feet.
But she could not remain angry. And a sudden thought shook her. What if he was a mirage? A cruel vision brought by the heat of the sun and dehydration and his dagger she refused to part with, playing the same trick with her it had done to him in his garden?
There was one way to know.
This time approaching him cautiously she observed every angle of his person in silence. His boots were clean, though the rest of uniform was wrinkled with a button missing from one cuff. Now she was face to face, well, she on her toes and he bending down. She touched his slightly shadowed cheek, ran her fingers through his wet hair and when she raised to meet his eyes - that would be her assurance. Bright, confident, and an allusion of mischief glowing from his iris. The eyes that would say sumptuous words in his native language while his lips reserved speaking in another more physical form of communication, one which her lips had succumbed to and acknowledged in illuminated translation.
Those lips met for only a second.
It was enough.
He was real and there and driving her mad with such a rush of desire that she felt suspended between the ground and sky, her legs trembling and weightless.
Until she realized she was off the ground and he had picked her up, not caring if the servants saw and not wanting to wait for their next embrace.
She brought her hands around the back of his head and kissed again his cheek.
“Distract me too much and I will fall,” he smiled.
“Oh? Let us see how steady you can remain Señor Cortez.” She needed the taste of his skin. It tasted still of the sea, of salt and coarseness against her mouth as she made a long trail with her tongue from his collar to the bottom of his ear. Yes salt, but that lifegiving kind and gave a tugged to his ear lobe with her teeth.
He released his arms from under her legs not fully letting go. She immediately shrieked, clasping her arms tighter to his neck.
“I told you,” he snickered.
He had no intention of dropping her and she knew it. It was all part of their game, each player learning the rules only so they could bend or break them.
“Stop messing around. And take me up the stairs.”
She hardly had to whisper the directions for he was already past the doorway and with long strides began to climb the small and creaking staircase.