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Secretamente: An Officer Cortez Fic

Chapter Text

INTRODUCTION

No te amo como si fueras rosa de sal, topacio
o flecha de claveles que propagan el fuego:
te amo como se aman ciertas cosas oscuras,
secretamente, entre la sombra y el alma.

 

 

It should not have been there.

The dagger that flashed against the light; a terrifying steel glint across shadow and sky half buried in sand and dirt, the hilt of gold and silver damascening and the small glow of pigeon’s blood ruby catching the sweltering heat of day to its silk. The reflection half blinding the eye of the man walking toward something else, yet below his feet it called out.

The man whose boot touched the hilt and then cautiously reached down to pull it from its unintended hiding place - He too should not have been there.

Finding something. That is not stealing. Keeping something which has no owner, that too is not stealing. A gift from the Heavens, now belonging to a man who would respect and devote himself to the care of such a work of art. Such a precious thing dropped on this shore only to be found by he, a man who cautiously noticed things others often overlook. A man who notices small things. Who delights in memorizing the detail in a person’s voice or if the woman walking the calle has scuffed the toes on her shoe.

These few rushed days were different than the previous Seasons. War, threat of war, and all the death and violence and blood that comes with feuding nobility. It is the people that suffer. Swearing to make a swift decision to honor your people does not communicate well to those who thirst for power.

 

In all truth, nothing of that day should have been there.

Not the dagger.

Not his fellow soldiers.

Not the story that follows.

 

 

Chapter Text

The horizon was void of all human activity and the sky stained not with heavenly blues and whites, but with waves of heat and drops of water condensing on exposed flesh of any man or beast forced to walk in the sun.

It was the heavy wind on his back and the sound of boots running toward him in the sand that made Cortez shift under his dark wool coat and stand straight. By the time the man reached his side the dagger was now covertly sheathed, and the new owner would have to consider its fate later.

“Cortez!” The man in matching uniform breathlessly called out. “Find something?”

Of course not. Why should he. A trivial lie to his compatriot meant Cortez stood to hold this dagger longer, cherish it, discover the facets of mystery entombed in the jewels. Had there been a duel, a murder? Certainly a conflict for only a fool would lose this treasure by accident. Yet he found no blood on either the blade or the ground, and any darker clues were long swept away.

The soldier smiled and placed a hand on Cortez’s shoulder. “Come on, we can’t stay out here any longer.”

Weaving between tall ships docked, merchants and soldiers, cargo and livestock, Cortez and the man at his side were tasked with observation and keeping order in a block of the stifled port. If anyone had as keen an eye as Cortez, it was this man. A loyal soldier and a good friend, Felipe Marcos would describe himself as too small to be anyone’s rival and too intelligent to be caught should he find himself entrenched in mischief.

They made their way past the docks and away from the main street. Marcos removed his hat and threw himself into a shadow and the cool wall of the building’s corridor. Here the air vacuumed from the ocean to the top of the city creating a tunnel of refuge for the citizens of Cádiz.

“You know the only thing I hate more than these uniforms during Summer?” Marcos let the cooling air drive across his face and fill his lungs.

Cortez hardly cared what the answer might be. He had his own ideas of Hell and today, this might be a preview of life he assumed all pirates should encounter after their Judgement.

“Bad wine! When we are off duty tonight come down with me. To the Plaza.”

“No. Let’s meet at Cobos,” Cortez leaned back next to his friend and took a deep breath.

“Are you mad?”

Cortez turned his mouth up in a knowing smirk. “It is why I keep you around amigo.”

Marcos shifted his weight from the wall and replaced his hat. “You know who I have heard walks that Calle? No thanks.”

“Why are you listening to rumors?” Cortez looked down and scuffed the bottom of his boot along the stone street. “Gossiping is a woman’s sin. Keep your mouth shut, si?” Suddenly the dagger was beginning to sit uncomfortably at his side.

Yes, he was cognizant of who walked Cobos at night and Marcos was correct. It was the same two men who were absent until late hours from the arsenal. Better to let his friend continue to believe it only a rumor. Better to not let anyone else know those men had what they thought was a secret. No secrets could be kept from Cortez. He would find out. By chance, by investigation, by confrontation. Either of those remedies would procure answers and he was willing to do almost anything to have answers.

No one who kept in Cortez’s company could feasibly hide a moment of passing judgement or a glance of lust. More than reading faces, he noticed if a man was born to the stables and rose through the ranks. That man would still keep small habits. Perhaps a curve of his lip when pronouncing a word or the way he bridled his horse a moment faster than the man from Nobility, who had never saddled his own horse.

Belonging to the Armada did not make equals of any man. It only showed who had the courage to die faster.

The startling crack of a swinging wooden door hitting stucco and fracturing small pieces of the wall, tumbled to the ground and further breaking against the cobblestones called the men to attention. A young boy stumbled out the doorway and tried to cross the busy road, clutching his side. He made it only far enough to grasp on to Cortez’s sleeve.

“What happened?” Marcos said and flinched as the boy collapsed into Cortez’s arms.

A trembling hand attached to a slender arm reached up and partially opened his bloodied coat. The boy slid back down, the cause of sweat on his brow not from heat but from loss of blood.

“I will get help,” Marcos leaned in to reassure the boy.

“No señor. Take me home. We have doctor, I must get home.”

Cortez pushed his friend back. “Give him room. He’s not going to survive if we do not get him out of here.” A moment of precise decision turned seconds into actions. “What is your name?”

“Peter. Trenton. Please señor,” his tender voice fading under gasps of pain.

“The boy is English!” Marcos, in his usual naïve way, replied in surprise.

“Get my horse. Tell Captian DeSoto what happened.”

Marcos leaned down. “Can you describe what the person looked like who did this?”

Cortez only motioned once again to the horses and picked up the boy in his arms.

“Trenton,” Cortez stopped walking and watched the boy’s shallow breath. “Peter, you have to direct me.”

“The hill. There is…marble arch.”

Marcos handed him the reins to an unsteady dappled grey Andalusian, the heat making even this noble horse temperamental and almost unwilling to take both riders. “That’s halfway cross the city. He’ll never make it.”

Cortez mounted the horse securing his injured passenger against his chest. A single stamp of its right hoof then circling in attention to the surroundings, horse and soldier made a final sweep of the scene.

And just like the scene before it, there were no clues, no detail in piercing glances from the crowd. Cortez would have to retreat, leaving his partner with no answers and alone to face the examination of their superiors.

Chapter Text

Since the beginning of the war, Cortez had reason to follow the changing loyalties in each district in the port of Cádiz. This road away from town once provided a thriving ancient population a key to the unbreakable chain to Rome herself and the previous Great Empire. There were still citizens of Cádiz who claimed to have in their blood the determination of those people who had inhabited the lands since the time of Christ.

And so neglect was not the cause of the rutted paths he followed, but time itself. Thousands of people and hundreds of years converged on these same parched grey stones.

Where he was headed, the family had no such ties. The Trenton’s came to the Iberian Peninsula with nothing but a heavily decorated piece of parchment from the apparent Spanish Monarch and the statutes of from a House that carried only bitter resentment. It was for their own protection that the King gave Ambassador Trenton land so far away from the heart of Cádiz. Cortez recalled that Marcos had been part of a small regiment with the unfortunate obligation to escort the Trenton family when they first arrived. Orders were concise. See to it that the Ambassador and his family make it safely from the harbor to the Estate. Everyone in the room upon hearing the orders gasped when it was revealed where the Trenton’s would call home.

Paraíso Terrestre

Everyone except Cortez.

He knew too well that land and estates and titles were subject to the Will of the Crown. Where centuries of stability once lay, this new game between Houses left no safety for anyone. That included the family that inhabited Paraíso Terrestre for the past three hundred years. At least they had the decency to purchase safe passage for those under their care to escape the forced invasion of the land by the Bourbon Guardia.

When the Bourbons came for the smaller Cortez lands, his family had not the same opportunity. The appointed Commander made his presence known with the sound of a nail being driven into the main front doorway, a roughly transcribed law with an enormous red seal at the bottom of the page attached.

That was it.

That was the transfer of Titles. No chance for defense, no opportunity to appeal to the Crown. An hour it took the soldiers to ransack his childhood home and his father – Cortez pondered for years after - why his father gave up the treasures without so much a word. He shook the Commander’s hand, prompted his son to hold the reins of his favorite horse and never look back.

Remember Lot’s wife, his father said. Never look back.

And it was Summer. The throat closing type of heat that turns around the from the dust of the earth to the nose and the eyes.

Now, another Summer and still the same unrest, the same stagnant heat.

The horse felt inelegant under him, trudging up the winding incline and carrying the burden of an extra rider. Hooves shattered against the road and the strain made his horse sweat, building up a distinct white foam around the reins along the neck.

Cortez had remembered his friend’s words about Paraíso Terrestre. A lush place, Marcos would say. The main courtyard a rival of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. But Felipe did always have an over exuberant imagination. His friend did not have the same good fortune to have wandered the gardens of the Alcázar. Good fortune? Cortez smiled as he thought. Good fortune to never have been caught trespassing. Amazing what can be accomplished when you make friends with those who everyone else sees as their inferior.

The crumbling marble arch appeared at the top of the hill and Cortez had to duck as they passed under. He slowed enough to check if Peter’s wound had stopped bleeding and listened to shallow breaths. A whine from the boy’s weak body broke the silence each time the horse called to attention, pricking its ears forward and raising its nose to the stagnant air.

The pitiless sun blazed down, perspiration gathering around his neck and under his hat. He should have liked to remove his uniform coat but neither the dying boy in his care nor time would allow. His boots felt heavy and he continued to encourage the horse, stirrup pressing to the arch of his foot as he clung to the reins and balanced the boy in his lap. Bare the discomfort for both God and King, an offering of self sacrifice even if he did not admit to wanting to use his own suffering in pleading for the boy’s life.

The estate should have been a flurry of activity.

Yet, no workers in the small field.

He noticed the crops withering under the sun and man and beast may have withered just the same. The vegetation was not dead or dry, yet lush leaves touched the ground. Garlic had been planted in sandy soil and appeared to be placed only for show. Fruit trees of apricots and apples in desperate need of the rain lined the pathway, their yellowed leaves dropping on the dirt path and kicked up by the horse, scattering behind as he past. He observed an open field to his left assuming the design was for livestock but nothing grazed there. A few meager rows of grapevines lined up on his right with small brilliant green clusters that had not been tied off. Birds of varying sizes, the bane of any honorable farmer, descended and ravaged the tart fruit. The winged beggars scattered in a rush of vibrating feathers and scratching calls to abandon their feast as he past.  

Cortez kept a timed repetition of speaking the boy’s name trying to keep him awake.

¿Este es el lugar?” he leaned in closely to ask as they reached the leveled ground of the estate.

Peter painfully raised his head and through bleary eyes gasped, tried to sit up, looked forward and only nodded his head.

They approached the ornate home. A strange design of brick and scrollwork covered in brightest white, each window shuttered and covered in azure paint. He entered the empty courtyard, a scowl on his face and an alert mind. There was a small post for the horse and temporary shade and still, no sound came from the house.

But before Cortez could react, an older man entered the courtyard. His thin grey beard mottled about his chin, his clothing a fine uniform of brown and yellow silk although a size too large hanged from the shrinking frame. When he saw the head of the boy, the man almost fell forward with the force of his realization and stopped, looked at Cortez with wide grey eyes and stumbled to speak. Only high gasps left his mouth before he turned and ran back into the house.

“Para por favor! Este - niño necesita su ayuda!” Cortez tried to alert the old man while dismounting the horse.

Pain dropped sharply into his stomach. He was well acquainted with that tightness, the automatic release of tension from the brain to the gut. Nerves they call it. Sweating, vivid flashes of color across his vision, the sensation that everything was going to shatter in an instant.

He only had to wait the few seconds it would take for the feeling to rush through his blood. The sensation would relax, disappear. Wait it out, he told himself. Breathe.

Then it was gone.

The boy was dying in his arms and the one place he wanted to be brought to for safety and assistance seemed to turn against him and leave him to the whim of the cruelest of fate.

Cortez stopped and shifted Peter’s weight again in his arms before forcing the next step.

The sun reflected off the stucco of the walls making Cortez squint as he walked. Two bleached wood doors carved each with six geometric squares greeted them. The old man had left the door open slightly and Cortez used his foot to open it wide enough to enter a secondary courtyard. Compact but no less ornate than the rest of the building, scattered remnants of broken pots and dying flowers lay on the ground in the corners. There was a sadness to the scene, as though a hurricane had been through and taken all the life from the place leaving a trail of corpsed botanic diversity that at once both left the seer with pity and fear. It may have resembled the famed Hanging Gardens of Babylon a season ago.

Today it was the expulsion from Paradise.

 

“Who are you!?” a woman’s voice cried out and echoed against the building.

 

Cortez did not respond.

It was too bright for him to look up beyond a few feet from the ground and he could barely keep his eyes open more than squint, sweat dripping from his forehead into his eyes.

He heard the hammer of a pistol being pulled back, followed by the heavy slide of a shoe on the dirt moving one step toward him. Another voice, he supposed was the old man from earlier, questioned the first voice.

“Do you think he killed him?”

“Get back inside Gerard,” the voice commanded.

“My Lady, you cannot stand out here –“

Cortez tried to focus on the figure approaching him. The woman’s hands were shaking but the dark pistol was exquisitely aimed at his head.

“Médico. ¡Inmediatamente! El pidió un medico.” Cortez’s response was loud, solid. He could now see the worn shoes of the old man and the hem of a woman’s dress brushing against the ground.

¿Señora? ¿Poner la pistola abajo?”

The woman raised her arm to the air and fired. The vibration of the shot sent a flock of birds that had been resting under the eaves of the second story of the house to take wing.

 

Mierda.

 

Cortez closed his eyes and remained stationary, feeling the dry wind brush past his cheek. He held a cautious distance between himself and the still armed woman. He leaned forward slightly, offering the boy’s body as a sign of peace.

“¡Por favor, senora, uh, necesita su ayuda!”

“Peter!” a shrill voice, desperate, cried out and she dropped the pistol to the dirt and ran toward rescuer and victim.

“What happened?” She questioned and grabbed for Peter’s head gently plying her fingers in his hair. And she finally looked up at her brother’s rescuer. Her eyes lacked focused, not quite seeing anything more than the outline of his face and the features of his uniform.

“My brother! What did you do? ¿Qué hiciste?”

He had not been prepared to be addressed in English.

“Brother. Yes.” Cortez paused again and looked down at the boy. “He. Your brother?” Rather shocked that she presumed he had any involvement in the boy’s current condition.

“I can see that! Follow me,” she picked up her skirts and motioned for Cortez to follow her inside.

He remained still.

¿Sígueme? Do you speak any English?”

Cortez wanted to respond. He knew he could respond.

Yet she did not give him a chance.

“Mr. Ledford,” addressing the old man, “please fetch Doctor Barton.”

She then pointed to a very well dressed young lady whose brown hair highlighted red against the sun. “Susan, I need you to take the carriage and get father.”

“But Miss,” Susan stared at the Spaniard still holding the heir of the Trenton name in his arms. “Your father be somewhat difficult to find.” The young maid squinted her eyes as she looked up and down at the man.

“Yes, yes! Inside!” the first woman motioned. “Please Susan. Father must know.”

Cortez already made his observation about the maid: Either do what you are told or get out of my way. He had the clarity of mind to keep the order to himself.

The other servants of the household slowly appeared as Cortez followed the woman up a single flight of unadorned wooden stairs, down a cool hallway and to the third room on the left. Each servant carried a small piece of furniture or an ornamentation and looked to be rearranging the entire house.

Another removal? Were the Trenton’s ending their diplomatic stay?

 

“Here, please.” The woman scrambled to pull the blankets back from a small bed and he lay Peter down. She immediately fell to her knees and wrapped her hands around her brother’s face.

“Peter, please wake up. Peter, what happened?”

All was silent.

She began to whisper a desperate prayer attempting to coax a miraculous healing from the Heavens.

The boy took a deep breath.

“Where…dónde?” she asked, wiping with the back of her hand the now uncontrolled tears from her face.
“Calle Vincente,” Cortez replied.

There was another moment of hesitation and another tear down her cheek before she spoke. “Oh good Lord, I knew I should have listen to my father. Thank you for bringing him home, Señor…?”

“Cortez.”

“Thank you.”

“You are welcome.”

She took her eyes away from the body under her fingertips, and slowly turned to Cortez, surprised he had responded clearly in her own language.

 

Doctor Barton burst in the room and threw his stern voice at Cortez. “Did you see what happened?”

Both the doctor and woman looked up at him.

“No.”

“Very well.” The doctor pushed him out of the way and whispered to the woman something Cortez could not translate.

“Nothing? You saw nothing at all?” the doctor continued to provoke with questions while briefly examining his patient. “He has a fairly good gash on his side but the bleeding has stopped. I dare say it was a fools errand to bring him here and not find a doctor in the city! It will take several days. He might have damaged his internal organs. Or bruised them on the ride. What were you thinking Señor?” Dr. Barton’s attention turned back to Cortez. “Some protection these men are supposed to be. I cannot know the injuries until I have more time to examine him properly.”

“He ask for home. Medico, home,” Cortez reminded himself of his training and held back a sneer. This doctor was proving more an annoying inquisitor than healer.

“Would you take her out of here?” Doctor Barton waved in his direction.

“Señora –“ and he held his arm out for her to take.

The doctor abruptly stopped and looked up at Cortez. “Señora? There has not been a Señora Trenton for ten years. You should learn better manners, boy. Makes your country look…impotent.”

“Please,” she pleaded. “My brother. What if he dies? I won’t have him die alone!”

The doctor took a deep breath and responded with a voice on the edge of a growl. “Leave so I may do a proper examination, Miss.”

She knew that voice and knew the consequences if she disobeyed. There was no choice but wait for her father to arrive home.

It was the red cuffs and two gold buttons that caught the maid’s eye as she watched her Lady and Cortez walk down the stairs to the Library. She murmured objections under her breath. Can’t expect all the prospective Marines to arrive as impeccably as the other Spanish officer! Mr. Trenton allowed for one specific man to cross the threshold weekly, even if that Spaniard made little advancement in his English. Which was odd, what with how many times he came to visit. Was it not the agreement of both men to teach their native language to each other? She shook her head trying to get the vision out of her mind. “None of my business,” she sighed. But it was exciting to have that other handsome man around to glance at and mummer about and share the most improper dreams with the other staff. But another Spaniard! In uniform and in the house of the Trenton’s! Such scandal if anyone were to discover a second Spaniard visiting under this roof. And this one – it was going to take days to get his odiferous presence out of the house. He’d never make it past ordinary seaman in that condition, she thought.

 

Cortez was again placed as follower. She opened the door quietly and motioned for him to enter.

She had a brief moment to rationalize and frantically scanned the room. What did he expect in return for bringing her brother here? A gift? Money?

She was quietly walking the perimeter of the room, brushing her hands along the bookshelves until she came to the large desk sitting on a grand carpet in the middle of the room. She picked up a small item and cradled it before walking back to Cortez to speak.

“Señor Cortez, I, in the absence of my father, I wish to bestow a token of gratitude for rescuing my brother.” She reached out in his direction. “Here. It’s not worth much I’m afraid but the treasury is locked and my father will not arrive until this evening and…Oh. Comprender que estoy..” Her voice faltered. She reached out and abruptly grabbed his hand and released the oval enamel frame to him.

This morning the dagger, such an expensive treasure, and now he was gifted another piece he could easily take back to port to sell and send the money – His thoughts were interrupted by the look in her eye.

Disillusionment.

“Señorita?”

She tilted her head. “Yes?”

“No. Aqui. Tu, uh, you have,” he said placing it back into her soft hands, a gentle tremble of her fingers quickly removed her hand back from his.

A disruption from the courtyard followed by the sound of a booming voice carried through the house.

There was another look in her eyes.

Terror.

She was terrified.

Voices in the background confirmed what she feared. It was her father and the maid, just inside the front doorway.

“You need to leave!” Her command was a scared whisper. “Wait. Señor you cannot tell anyone. I mean, thank you for helping but you must leave. You don’t know what my father…You shouldn’t have interfered.”

“You watch your brother die?”

She furrowed her brow. “No, señor. I apologize. I should not have questioned...” At those last words she broke, and mindlessly forgot her station, to land in his arms for moment and rest her tears on his coat.

He let her cry, he let her fall for a brief second.

“Señorita. I go. Your father,” his words soft but determined.  

She took a long step backward and her face flushed as her mind dawned on what she had done.

“Yes. Si.”

 

More time had passed than he realized. The sun shifted, the light beginning to cast deep shadows behind him. The man, Ledford, had watered his horse and seemed to have anticipated the need for Cortez’s escape.

“Through the vineyard,” the man told him. “Ir a la viña a la Carretera.” It was a poor accent, but Cortez understood.

Cortez spent the shortened journey back to the Arsenal organizing his thoughts and observations.

Two members of the Trenton household whose accented words did not sound like any English Cortez had remembered hearing.

One boy, wounded, possibly dying.

A large, middle aged Medico more interested in investigation than in healing, and he walked with a slight limp.

The Honorable Ambassador Trenton, loud, disinterested in keeping his land prosperous, preferring to spend a great deal of time away.

Various other persons, abiding strict orders, all refusing to lift their head in his presence.

And a woman. A Lady. Terrified of her father. The consolation of her brother. The acting head of household. Frightening with a pistol.

He was thankful as he arrived down to the port that the breeze finally pulled up from off the coast.

“Cortez!”

He snapped to attention as Officer Lesaro marked his return.  

“Report to the Admiral immediately.”

“Si, Señor!”

“Cortez. Why is your uniform wet?”

“What?

Lesaro ran his hand along the front of Cortez’s coat where the fabric appeared darker. “Are you so clumsy when in uniform?”

 

Cortez had not noticed.

He had not noticed - that her tears had penetrated the fabric of his uniform.

And still, even in the heat and the humidity, lingered across his chest.

Chapter Text

Doctor Iasan Barton drew a sigh across his lips.

How disruptive the last five years in Spain proved to be. One by one a member of this inner circle succumb to illness or injury and one by one the doctor had to stand watch. First the eldest daughter, writhing in agony below his tools as he tried to stop the infection in her arm from spreading, followed quickly by Mrs. Trenton who Barton suspected died from a broken heart and not disease. Shocking, the thought that a heart, a piece of organ tucked in behind the solid confines of bone could break and stop beating entirely from grieving loss and the force of one’s own will. Though he had seen the opposite occur too. The will to survive, to continue against everything would bring men from the battlefield home alive missing arms or legs or part of faces. Today he found himself standing at the side of the bed of a boy he helped bring into the world.

Here he also stood on the precipice of losing the third Trenton in his care. Why Lord Edward Trenton did not think the doctor cursed, Iasan never understood. He had performed every task with great heart, with deep reverence to serve the family.

There was a reason.

But Doctor Barton was trying to forget, trying to steady the small thin metal knife in his hand. He grasped it tighter hoping the cold steel would send a shock, anything to distract his mind from the memory.

There was a reason…

The tighter he closed his eyes, the tighter he held the blade yet it still did not stop the dark shadow of a memory that threatened to overtake his being.

He stumbled forward, nervously racing his hands back and forth across the surgical instruments neatly laid out on the table before him. A glass vile tipped and cracked as it fell.

No place to go’

Cries from Peter took him back to that day and he was immersed in the nightmare the second the knife released from his hand and reverberated in a clank on the floor.

 

‘No place to go

No place to go’

Barton held his breath.

‘Steady men!’

The crashing of swords against pikes and the strike of metal into black powder.

‘Fire!’

Words now thrusting themselves into pounding eardrums.

A cold sensation shot through his lower body and he was reaching, half blindly, into a sky so filled with smoke that he could no longer distinguish the time of day. He realized he was laying in water, waist deep, and being pulled under by the current.

Come up men!’

‘The horses! The horses!’

‘Another round Sir! Find the center ranks!’

Something grabbed his wrist and he was being dragged out of the steep riverbank and to a field covered in the stench of blood and death.

‘I can’t feel my leg!’

Gunpowder burned across his face and smoke crashed across his vision. Barton was running, no, dragging his leg, and sliding away from the battle, away from the cries of boys the same age as Peter.

I cannot leave them! I have a duty!’

‘Retreat Barton, I’ll not leave you here to die.’

 

The memory ceased as a quiet breath escaped him.

Doctor Barton forced his eyes open and bit down on his tongue, his hand reaching down to touch his knee. His head throbbed.

It was over.

And he looked down at this groaning patient. Flaxen curls lay haphazardly against the sunken and pale face. He breathed - the boy breathed - the doctor assured himself as he pulled the blanket away from Peter’s body. He was conscious, still moaning in pain but if he did not stop moving his wound would open and life would be harder to protect. The damage had been a loss of blood, but not so much as the doctor had originally thought. Bruises true, and a laceration from a sword to the side, but nothing to take Peter away from the living.

Dr. Barton gently lay the blanket over Peter when his body began to wake and moan in pain.

“Here now, drink slowly,” Barton lay the cup with liquid to the boy’s lips and held his head up.

Peter’s eyes shot open in recognition of the man before him.

“Peter, you must stop. Stop struggling!” a calm order sounded from Barton yet still Peter struggled not aware of his own actions.

“Now please. Finish this, and rest.”

Peter managed a nod, and settled back down against the pillows, his breathing no longer as labored. The doctor sat down and sunk his shoulders.

“Peter, I do not know if I can do this. You must help yourself boy. This is not my choice,” turning slightly to watch the chest rise and fall, faintly, but steadily.

A sudden creak from behind the door caught his attention but he had no desire to question who it might be. It was time again, to fight off the memories.

A last glance to his side and he was satisfied. Peter had need of rest, and so did he.

Among the glass vials and ink stained paper labels sat another remembrance. A small white porcelain box, painted in vibrate fresh colors, the hillsides of an English Spring come to life across the top. There were words too. Simple, but in black, and the doctor read them aloud before opening the box.
In Memory of a Friend

Two quick sniffs of tobacco and Doctor Barton felt relaxed, poured himself a mix from the potions at his disposal, and drank quickly before settling into the chair across from the bed and inviting sleep to overtake him.

 

But there another pair of eyes rested on Peter, those of his sister outside the doorway. She had witnessed the struggle, heard her brother fight the doctor against the medicine and her heart fell to her stomach. Each breath Peter took she thought could be his last and she fought against the pulsing waves of anxiety telling her to enter the room and nurse her brother to health herself.

“Miss, you need to ready for supper. Mr. Trenton expects you.”

The words from Susan startled her and she shot up, closing the door quickly.

“Shh!”

“Yes Miss. Shall we – “
“I will take care of it myself tonight. You are dismissed for the evening,” turning her face away from the maid to hide the redness of her eyes.

Susan made a polite curtsy and she heard the scurry of sweeping feet rush down the hallway.

Evalianna had no real argument against the maid. She had become accustomed to the lulling voice following her around day and night. Tonight she was in no mind to be around anyone. The two might have been sisters, they were close in age and shared every secret. Spirited, she reminded herself. Susan was spirited too and in need of an orderly life and strong role model, as her father said. She was to be that good influence and she hated every minute of it. Susan had freedoms here unheard of in England only because Mr. Trenton favored her cheerful and robust laughter.

It was difficult enough to find her way now that the sun’s light had already dimmed in this stifling madness that surrounded her brother, but Evalianna walked away from the room, watching her own feet move forward one after another through blurry tear filled vision. She leaned on the door before taking the handle and pushing with what little strength she had left to retreat into her private space. The small room was dressed in whites and creams, and it was her refuge. The window directly across from her door opened to a small balcony and a courtyard below looking out to the road that Cortez had taken to avoid Mr. Trenton’s inquisition.

She sat down at the grand dressing table next to the window and looked at her tired reflection.

Barton is drunkard.

Evalianna quickly lifted her head; that knowing voice seemed to always intrude at the most inconvenient times.

“Clare!” she scolded girl’s voice.

Si? A haughty reply hovered in the air.

“I don’t…I know but he’s the only doctor that father will allow us,” tears began rising again in her eyes.

Hmm. When you see my beautiful Spaniard again?

She glanced in the mirror over her shoulder in the direction the voice was coming from.

Above the white marble fireplace a gilded frame hung with a painting of a former Royal daughter; austere, dressed in deepest red, shoulders uncovered and black hair in forced curls plastered to the side of her head. The eyes loomed greedily and followed Evalianna’s every move. They formed an uneasy friendship throughout the years and she had grown used to the mischievous smile of the girl she named Clare.

“My brother is injured. I can’t think about that,” waving away the thought. “What am I going to do?”

Do? Smile more. I know my Spaniard. He likes the smile. Also, walk with your head up – Oh, you cry again. I sorry. Tu padre es un cabron!

Evalianna did not respond. She heard very clearly from even behind her locked doors the reason for Clare’s rebuke. Edward Trenton had not ceased his yelling from the moment he had walked through the grand doors of the Estate. Now he was pacing below her in the courtyard, his heavy voice in sharp contrast to the timid answers of Mr. Ledford pleading that his Lordship should calm himself and that seeing an angry father might only aggravate Peter’s condition.

She sighed and picked up her hairbrush trying to bring some life back into her complexion when she heard another string of words.

Clear. Heavy. And very much not Clare’s.

Señora, - necesita su ayuda!

She continued to brush her hair ignoring the voice coming from the man holding her brother’s body. Another uniformed Spaniard breaking in, to walk the sacred ground that was intended to be a piece of England in Spain. He was nothing like the other man who came to visit her. There – there was a man she could respect. But this soldier, intimidating, broad shouldered and most likely only interested in pursuing his career. Why had she been so foolish to offer him that frame!

Frantically she continued to brush her hair – and yet…

Calle Vincente

That voice again. How commanding he had sounded. Harsh. Abrupt. As if he was ordering her around! She wondered what he was doing in that part of town.

“No. No,” shaking her head. “Susan could tell me,” she spoke softly to her reflection.

The cuff of his uniform appeared in her mind and she remembered his presence; a pillar, like the ancient Roman marble statue, not to be touched and her hand deliberately hovered over his arm. When she lost all thought in the library and allowed herself to fall into him, that recollection flooded her nerves. His presence frightened her in ways she could not understand.

Evalianna admonished herself for crying to a stranger. How could she have been so unladylike? No wonder her father refused more than a handful of guests and no one near her own age to visit.

Five years and not a solitary true friend other than Susan and Clare. Poor Mr. Ledford did try and was the kindest of all their household. She smiled at the thought of his drooping face running about at all hours, attempting to coax her father to retain the health of the trees and give him permission to spend a mere three Reales and hire a few more laborers from the streets.

Being the Ambassador’s daughter did not come without trials and for a moment she pondered the change too in her own heart. Three months ago a very dashing man came to the door, and Susan, the ever reliable gossip, recounted to her every detail in the man’s face down to the way he boldly walked across the courtyard and took a seat immediately with her father. Come here to learn English indeed! And two days later returning and asking her – her! - to walk the gardens. Three months of this man’s consistent coming and going every other afternoon and she was growing fond of his attention.

But the other man was as different as frost from fire. She lingered again for a moment on his voice.

Armando will not be pleased, Clare suggested.

“Oh what of it?” she spun around on her chair and faced the portrait. “Wait. You think he will find out? I think - I think Armando sent Cortez with my brother! I guess he is – “

Peter is important. Why would my Spaniard not come himself? Clare’s voice mocking.

“The Armada cannot risk it! Too important in keeping peace in the city,” proudly answering Clare’s objections.

If Armando loved you, he would have found a way.

She turned abruptly back to the mirror. “Clare, I’ve had just about enough of your advice. Tonight,” as she fixed the last pin in her hair and pinched her cheeks, “you will reside in the Library. You may watch Armando from there!”

And she looked at the portrait’s reflection over her shoulder, waiting for a frown. Instead the life drew away and became silent in voice, and silent in eyes.

The last dark thing in her room, she vowed, would exit tonight.

Only brightness had permission to stay.

---

 

“¡Qué pronto llegaste!” It was Felipe, breathless and concerned .

“Si, si.” Cortez pushed past Marcos and sat down on the wood bench removing his coat and hat. It had been too long a day and too many hours lost away from his post. He had to remove the stiffening sweat and caked on dirt from his body.

“Not even going to ask me what Comandante said about your little – encounter,” Marcos said.

Cortez shot up. “What encounter?” for a split second he remembered the woman crying in his arms.

“I made a brilliant report to him of your heroic actions in your attempt to save the life of the Ambassador’s son. Brave Cortez exhausted from the heat, rides forth past dangerous...” Marcos smiled and shook his head. “Bien. I told him the truth.”

“And.”

“And?” Marcos sat beside him.

“When will I be summoned to repeat your story?”

“Tomorrow Capitán Desoto will begin the inquest. I suppose they may want to speak to you after Trenton gives his version.”

Cortez removed his boots and stretched. “Still going with me to Cobos tonight?”

“About that. Comandante wants me here. You go off with a dead – “

Cortez immediately stopped and looked up, examining the wood beams of the ceiling. “He is not dead. Not when I left him.”

The door to the barracks fully opened and a rush of cool air beat back against the stagnate confines of the room. Their Capitán had been listening in.

“Cobos…would be unwise.”

They rose to give the proper salute before he handed Cortez a paper.

“However, I give you permission. Someone has attacked the Ambassador’s son and you two,” he paused and turned directly to Cortez. “I put you in charge of finding out what happened in Vincente. Señor Marcos has filled in a great many details and tomorrow, I will unfortunately have to pay a visit to our English neighbors. You are expected to listen Cortez. Listen! And observe and report. Nothing more. Do you understand?”

“Si Capitán!”

“Oh, and Señor Cortez?” Capitán Desoto stopped just short of the doorway.
“Si Capitán.”

“Do not break anything this time.”

“Si Capitán.”

The officer removed himself from the room as quickly as he entered and Marcos released a deep breath. “That man is the more frightening than the King.”

“Only because you allow him to frighten you.”

Cortez opened the folded orders, the seal cracked and he raised an eyebrow as he read. “Felipe! Seems the Ambassador has enemies.”

“No fuck. I cannot imagine,” a sly smile entered across Marcos’ mouth and he rolled his eyes. “Time for reconnaissance!”

Cortez shook his head in agreement. “It does feel good knowing I have permission.”
“You would have gone anyway.”

“I would have gone anyway. I would have gone, gotten our Capitán in trouble, and been quietly laying in my bunk at the bell. Now I have orders.”

“Hey, let me hold that dagger while you clean up. I want to see it again.”

Cortez brought it slowly out from inside his waistcoat.

And raised it just below Marcos’ chin.

“Nice and close up,” Cortez said as he smiled and backed away.

“You bastard! Why you have to be such a badass all the time?”

His smile turned upward as they said in unison: “Malagueño”

Cortez left his uniform on a pile near the door, one among many that some very unlucky soldier would be assigned to cleaning. He hesitated before dropping his shirt to the floor. Thoughts betrayed him.

Why had she been so terrified of her father? And why had no one, other than the old man, placed any confidence in his arrival? The woman had forced the frame into his hands, a token of gratitude. He understood only half her words and none of the implications.

He allowed the cool water of the bath to brush all thoughts aside and instead prepared for his assignment with a clear vision of his plan. Nighttime in that quarter could be dangerous. His ability to observe would be tested. What happened to Peter Trenton was enough to place a deeper divide between Spain and England. He must go to Cobos and listen to the languages, the tones, the wagers of the men at the tables. Give an unseasoned youth enough time and they would inevitably show their hand by their own voice. Cortez was sure of it. Listen. Yes. He would listen and before sunset of tomorrow would know more than any inquisition by Capitán Desoto.

 

Cortez straightened the collar of his civilian clothes and ran his fingers along the paper orders folded neatly tucked in his waistcoat pocket. One tap to his left side to check for the dagger, and another tap on the right settled his navaja against his side. He pulled his hat down, took a deep breath and steadied his shoulders back to take his first step toward the garrison doors.

“Cortez!”

He stopped and closed his eyes.

“Be very careful,” Marcos was there to send him off with a warning.

“What are you doing?” Cortez grit his teeth, annoyed by one more delay.

“I am required to warn you I think, you know there is danger and yes yes,” Marcos noticed how his friend kept tapping his hand on his side. “For once would you stop and listen? This is not the same as back home. There is danger to anyone who goes poking about in places they are not invited to. The Ambassador’s son was attacked. Deliberately. You are not dealing with loyalist Habsburgs. There is something very sinister in this business and I do not like – Well! Who will watch your back?”

One sentence caught Cortez’s attention.

“Loyalist Habsburgs? Marcos, you are this afraid?” He leaned his head and caught his friend’s eye.

“Let us hope I do not have to drag your body across the town. But go on! Get yourself killed.”
“I have orders si? I die for Spain they make a great monument to my memory!” Cortez laughed. “If you are anxious about my health I suggest you go pray. Pray, Felipe Marcos. Enough for both of us.”

“Maybe if you prayed once and a while.”
“Who says I will not?”

Marcos gave him a look of disapproval. “I never understand why you think yourself invincible. Someday Cortez. Someday you will have to face your demons and I do pray La Virgin Maria protects you!”

“Go pray your rosary, Fray Felipe!” Cortez yelled over his shoulder as he walked away.

Marcos watched as Cortez took long sturdy strides away and through the gates.
“Via con Dios, amigo,” Marcos whispered.

Chapter Text

Emerging from the garrison Cortez straightened the buttons of his coat. His breeches were neatly tucked and buttoned, and while he would have rather been in his boots it would mark him as a soldier, so black leather and simple buckled shoes it had to be. Tonight, he had to appear as an ordinary citizen weaving in the crowds and disappearing behind the shadows.

Cobos was beginning to come alive, balancing the Summer twilight between orange flames illuminating the corridor from tall street lamps.

Cortez wandered the street, head down, eyes forward. Listen, Capitán Desoto said. Your objective is to listen.

“Hay una buena oportunidad…”

“J’ai l’argent! Donnez-moi un peu de votre temps.”

“No, portar els a la sala de darrere.”

“Did you see that boy? Collapsed right into the street.”

Cortez stopped in the middle of the road and turned his head slightly in the direction of the words. There it was. The language he was searching for.

“Not here. Inside.”

And he noticed footsteps. Footsteps that stopped the moment he had and began again as he moved forward.

Before he reached the entrance of the inn a woman’s voice, soft and gentle floated across his shoulder.

“Señor. Your dagger.”

He stopped. He had to stop. The woman seemed to have her hand on his soul and would not allow it to move in any direction.

“I see…The ruby señor,” she continued.

Turning, he was surprised to see the figure from which the voice emanated. A painted face and darkest hair, her dress bold and yet covering any distinguishing features, she stood before him with alarm in her eyes.

“I see it. Glowing red. Just there,” pointing to his side. The softness fell and she continued speaking resolute on delivering her message.

“I can break the spell.”

She circled him, drawing her finger across the back of his shoulders.

“Here,” was his quick reply and he dropped a coin at her feet. “Is this enough for you to leave me alone?”

She scoffed. “Your mother Cortez. She believed,” the woman paused, and Cortez immediately tensed. “She believed you would be her – hope.”

Those words made his gut twist. He wanted to scold her but she reached her hand out knowing exactly where the dagger was hidden and touched it. He grabbed her wrist with a strength almost breaking it and as they touched his mind was pushed far from the streets of Cádiz.

Far from his life as a soldier.

Far into a dream, a memory so deeply buried he had forgotten the sensations those thoughts brought to his body: cold and piercing and full of sorrow.  

 

He was crying. Tears from a boy not physically wounded yet -

No, the wound was still open and pumping emotions out of his soul in long repetitive breaths. The tears came quickly and drew lines down his youthful face collecting at the bottom of his chin before falling to the ground. He tried wiping those that gathered at the corner of his lips with his shirt, but those he dried were soon replaced, unwillingly, and largely because he tried to keep them hidden behind his eyelids until they swelled up and could not be contained.

He heard his father’s voice clearly and felt his hands around his shoulder. The man was kneeling before him on the red dusty ground, the sights of his childhood creeping back in even as he heard the words.  

“Son, your brother is gone. You must accept that. Mama,” his words faded but did not disappear completely. “Is not here. You may begin to hear people, your peers may speak ill things about our family. I want you to protect yourself.”
His father was issuing a warning.

Cortez saw it, clean and clear as the day it was placed in his hands as a nine year old boy; the navaja he still carried in his pocket.

“I give you this, a symbol of our heritage. Protection. The time will come that you will need to defend our family name. I will teach you. Strike quickly, direct. Watch your opponent. They will make the first move and you,” his father stood and made a slashing movement down, grabbing Cortez by the waist and turning him, the knife quickly pressed to his throat, “Must be precise. Now. Attack,” his father ordered.

The navaja lay cold and heavy in his hand. The new feeling of responsibility rushed from his fingertips through his veins. He lunged forward with a short jabbing motion.

“No. Again.”

The vision was fading but not before he heard the last warning:

 

“Your life depends on how well you can protect the ones you love.”

 

A second flash of light crossed his vision and he now saw the dagger against a noon day sky, blood dripping from it and drops falling steady on his hand.

 

She released her grip and Cortez jerked forward, the town before him moving as though nothing had happened.

“Give me the dagger,” she repeated.

“No!” he yelled down at her.

“Give me the dagger,” she persisted.

“No.”

“This is your only opportunity. You will never be rid of it. You will carry the burden the rest of your existence, and the memory of what you did will drip from it like the blood you saw, each time to you touch it!”

The vision was almost enough to make him give up the prize. Almost. The dagger had been dropped in that exact spot and for him alone and he would not give it up so easily.
“Approach me again and I will see you have a visit from The Holy Office,” he threatened.

“Turn me in now, if you dare,” she spat her words and pushed him back, only to disappear into the shadow of the crowd a second later.

Cortez’s head throbbed but he forced his body to attention and recalled why he was there on that forbidden street, remembering where the foreign language had come from.

The Inn.

The jolt of music and shouting hit his ears as he made his way to a long table on the far side of the room and sat down. He had to have a drink. On duty or no, there was only one way he could make the image of his father erase completely so he could continue to focus on his task.

The crystal rim of the glass in front of him flashed translucent red as the bartender poured Cortez’s drink.

“Certain about this?” he looked at Cortez incredulously. His words were met by a drop of a coin and a nod of the young man’s head.

“If you’re waiting for someone –“

The first sip hit Cortez’s mouth and he shielded his eyes from the scrutiny of the bartender before shaking his head in decline.

The man was about to leave when Cortez finally spoke. “That man over there,” Cortez had noticed each group in the room, the hierarchy of friends and enemies, the mix of people in shambled clothing only feet away from those dressed in the finest silks when he first entered. He pointed only with his eyes and asked, “English?”

“We don’t discuss loyalties here Señor. Everyone is welcome. So long as you keep your coins honest.”

Cortez leaned in and whispered, “How much?”

The man smiled greedily. This was going to be easier than Cortez had anticipated.

“Depends on the value of the information,” the man said.

“The Trent –“ Cortez hushed his voice before continuing. “The Trenton boy.”

At that name the man paled and scolded Cortez. “That sort of information is well out of your purse. That I am certain.”

Cortez reached to his coat, intending to show his bargaining power when the bartender caught a glimpse of the dagger.

“Ah. My mistake Señor.” Color rushed back to his face. “Let us say I have heard,” he scanned the room. “That man. Over there. The one, well you must recognize him.”
He did. Unfortunately he did.

Armando Salazar.

They had passed each other often enough at the Citadel. Ran drills together. There was something of an aura that followed him and his name was becoming familiar on more and more lips of the citizens of Cádiz.

“He sees the Trenton’s often enough. If I didn’t know his previous accomplishments I would have thought him a traitor.”

“Explain,” he said as another mouthful of alcohol poured down his throat and he pushed another coin to the man.

The glass was once again filled and emptied just as rapidly. It was working. He was beginning to numb to everything around him.

“Spanish nobility aligning themselves with the English? Makes the French look like the acceptable option. Tell your master that the boy,” the man looked down in the direction of the dagger, “I understand he said too much about the deal.”

Cortez shot up. Master? He thought. The dagger! Whomever had owned the dagger before was somehow connected to Peter’s attacker. Or might be the attacker himself. “Did you see what happened?”

“No. Sorry. That is all I know. Even for you.”

“Keep your ears open for me?” Cortez tried to ask innocently.

“Return tomorrow and,” he tapped his finger on the bar, “I will have more information.” His voice returned to a deep bellow and Cortez was beginning realize he had already lost too many coins to the man. “Now, enjoy yourself Señor!”

 

The room held a variety of tables and mismatched chairs, several long tables and benches wherein men from the middle of the city had already been settled since midday.

But in the far corner, those were the spoken words that caught his attention. Tense. Hesitant.

“What do you expect to draw from me?”

“There’s not a creditor here willing to give you the sum you seek.”

“I shall require,” the first man replied, while he scribbled the balance in chalk on the dark wool velvet covering the gaming table. “No less than this.”

“Creatures such as you should understand the stakes.”

“Stakes?” It was Armando Salazar’s voice interrupting the game. “What stakes are so important you wager your soul? No. Let us keep this friendly. I have no desire tonight to lose.”

The table irrupted in laughter and Cortez made his way slowly in the crowd, still clutching his glass, closer to his target. Three men were sitting with Salazar in a corner of the room, at the finest carved mahogany table, the flicker of candles around them almost too bright for Cortez to identify the game they were playing.    
They were speaking his native language but the man with his back to Cortez had a fine heavy English accent. For the moment he amused himself with the idea that it was Ambassador Trenton himself, until a slightly withered hand emerged from the corpulent body and he lay a gold ring on the table.

“There is my wager gentlemen.”

Silence surrounded the table. Cortez could see an abrupt calculation spill across Salazar’s face as he was the first to lay his cards down.

The men on either side of him followed and the Englishman, with jovial self assurance threw his cards down and did not wait for approval to gather his winnings.
One of Salazar’s companions hastily stood up, throwing back his chair before yelling in defiance. “You cheated.”

The Englishman paused and grinned. “That’s an astonishing accusation Señor. Would you care to tell me how?”

“Do you not deny it?”

“You see my cards, how the hand was played. I think you are mistaken.”

Before anyone at the table could move the Englishman had drawn his sword and was standing, sturdy and tall despite such a gluttonous figure, ready to challenge the younger Spaniard.

Salazar rose from his seat, hand to the ready on the hilt of his sword.

The Englishman noted his actions and quickly responded. “I suggest if you’re going to pull that sword Salazar you intend on using it for the purpose of my death.”

“Señors,” a familiar woman approached and lay her hand on the Englishman’s arm. “All this noise coming from such a distinguished table?” she asked as her body now stood security between the two men. “And I am not in the mood to clean up blood from good paying customers off the floor!” She threw a glance to Salazar and he put his sword down.

“Drinks? Bianca,” Salazar threw her the coins. “for each man in the room.”

She took the money and smiled.

 

The bartender had kept watch, but not on Salazar. He was watching Cortez’s mood waver from sadness to fear, and finally to investigation. He shook his head and brought another glass to the table where Cortez had been sitting alone.

“When Armando Salazar buys a man a drink, the man drinks it. Here Señor,” placing the glass on the table.

Cortez looked up and his mood had not improved.

“It cannot be all that bad. Have the drink. Find some company. Tomorrow I will give you what I promised.”

Cortez closed his eyes and shut out the noise. Everyone around him celebrated the fortunate opportunity. The last drink pushed its effects to each nerve in his body and he stood up making his way to the top of a set of stairs hoping to improve his vantage point of the conversation Salazar was having.

 

“Tell me, what do you suppose your fine Evalianna is doing at this moment?”

“Yes, your English lessons?” the younger Spaniard questioned.

Salazar did not address them. He placed his newly dealt cards neatly in his hand and leaned back.

“Ah here,” the woman had returned and addressed the table. “Let’s not speak of theology. I prefer…”

“We know what you would prefer!” came a laugh from one of the men.

The woman should have been insulted yet she smiled timidly at the striking face of the man in whose lap she sat.

“Señors be kind to our senorita. She did only a moment ago save your life.” Salazar shifted her on his lap. “Hmm, give me something to remember this good deed of yours by.”

“What do I have?” she asked.

“This!” He pointed to the small brooch pinned at the top of her bodice. Its single pearl reflected the true luster in the candlelight. “Give this to me.”

She threw her hand over her chest and hesitated a moment. “Is it not worth a price?”

“Name the price!”

“A night with you!” There was no hesitation in her voice.

“No I do not think so,” he continued to watch her face very closely.

“Well, another type of English lesson? You must be very bored with the Ambassador. Why not come to me for your lessons?”

He ran his hands gently along her neck and stopped when his fingers reached the brooch.

“This, for a kiss.”

“Oh Armando, you’ve never. I mean, I would. A kiss from you señor is worth less than this pearl yes?”

“Contrary, a kiss from you señorita is enough to make any man forget his native tongue.”

She brought a glass of wine to his lips and he took a sip quickly and when she removed the glass she replaced it with her lips.

“Enough!” the Englishman belted out. “Let the man breathe. I need to finish emptying his pockets.”

She pulled away slowly and Salazar in the same moment removed the brooch from her dress.

“A fair trade,” he said.
Bianca did not respond. She did not have to. All was paid and equal now in his mind and the evening would continue without another word from her.

 

Cortez refused to watch any more. The room was confining, the light pinpricks to his eyes. He reprimanded himself for taking that last drink, but he could do nothing about it now. The investigation was no further along in his mind and he wished Felipe was there to tell his jokes and keep him company.

Company though was to be had, and he smiled when he heard a familiar tune and he lost his composure for a moment as he began to sway with the music. A crowd of people rushed by him on the stairs. So much fabric and boisterous laughter pushing him back against the wall and he was amused. Until he found himself the target of one set of eyes, and a soft hand guiding him with the crowd further up the stairs.

The woman played her dance before him and willingly obliged her companion in the kisses she began to lay on his neck. His body gave in to her wishes yet his mind was elsewhere, to the blurring events unfolding the story below and questions presented themselves to the forefront of his thoughts. Why were those men meeting with Salazar? Why is he visiting Paraíso Terrestre instead of learning English at the Academy? Was Salazar discussing treason? He could not be sure and when the woman attempted to move further along with her dealings by trying to remove his coat, the briefest of clarity washed over his mind and he pushed her back. The sobering effects of his actions took hold and hastily tucking the last coin he had between her breasts he rushed back down the stairs to escape the Inn and threw himself in the corridors of the night outside.

Chapter Text

Cádiz was one of those towns jutting out to the sea on a spit of land where one could cast a person deep into the ocean if one wanted and no one would find the body. The dark corners and contrasting soft beaches surrounding the city could lull one into thinking there was sanctuary behind the walls. Watchtowers along the coast gave an impressive display but were a pretense of protection meant only for the unscrupulous merchants to look out and observe their lawlessness. The wandering traveler might mistake it for an island and the ships constantly turning in and out with the tide, brought the world to the feet of one of the oldest inhabited places of Europe.

Cortez amused himself with the thought that under his feet on the same stones once walked world conquerors and infamous criminals.

His knees hit the ground. The rocks were cold, smooth, soft enough that he also contemplated laying there until his head stopped spinning. Until a splash of warm liquid and the pungent smell of humanity touched his nose. Cortez picked himself up and stumbled toward a pitch-dark corridor holding closely to the wall. Maybe it was the building holding him up, or the other way around, or something else entirely.

He shook his head again.

A thin line of bright glowing orange appeared at the far end of the street and slowly grew stronger.

“Morning” he said out loud addressing no one but the buildings he stood between. “Si, morning.”

Curiously, the line of light became a circle and decided to bounce up and down.

“Mierda. Now I am seeing things.”

Whatever he had been served at the Inn was, he concluded, from now on a forbidden drink to be avoided with all prejudice.

Nothing made sense.

Except for one sound he was certain he heard echoing behind him. Footsteps mirroring his own: ten paces behind and closing. Three. They were not discreet footsteps. No, they were tapping along the stone street in even succession and the tell-tale clank of a sword from the man’s side every time he stopped was a pin to his eardrum. Then again, that rush of steps along the street shuffling in familiar patterns...

Ah! I know these steps!

Cortez ducked behind the shadow of a wide pillar and waited for the man to pass. Only the man did not pass. He stopped directly in front of the pillar and skittishly looked back and forth as if he had become the prey, a mouse thinking it had outwit the hawk by weaving between tall grasses yet having lost its way home.

Cortez moved first, pulling his navaja quietly from his pocket and jumping down in front of the man, swiping his knife across the air.

“Come on! Don’t be a coward and step back! I have no more money señor so if you quarrel with me make it interesting!”

Cortez swung again and the sharp blade found itself upon the neck of a vexed solider now being held against his will and thrown into the shadows. Cortez flung the man against the pillar in one quick step.

“Marcos!”
Felipe’s knees buckled below him and some how he managed to keep his breath. “Cortez it’s me!”

“Shhh!” Cortez flicked the knife back into place and threw his hand over his companion’s mouth to stifle the scream he knew was building in his friend’s throat.

Marcos never did care for the night. He insisted always to sleep under a window in view of the stars or the moon and it caused unnecessary tension more than one time between himself and the Commanding Officers. A man goes where he is ordered, sleeps where he is ordered. No one understood a grown man being afraid of the dark. Yet here was Marcos not only walking the night, but alone, and in the darkest part of the city.

“Couldn’t stay at home huh?”

“Can we discuss this later?” Marco whispered.

“Depends on whether you want to live longer.”

“You really want that monument, don’t you?”

“Yes,” he replied as he released his friend. “And we can discuss the dimensions later!”

 

The orange light he had seen earlier now increased to two. They were torches held high by men dressed indistinguishable from the night. He thought he spied the woman from earlier with them yet as they came closer and the two men became three and any figure resembling her melted to the darkness. A man hissed in his direction and Cortez backed into the shadow hoping for the men to pass by unaware of them. It was not to be. There was a call from behind him, a whistle of a bird and the man leading the group whistled a reply.

“Everyone wants to be here and everyone wants to fight,” remarked Cortez.  

Even his whisper, even in the darkness, they had been noticed.

Cortez hesitated. Let the other man strike first. Let them show the first weakness. Tonight adrenaline took the place of the blood in his veins. The dagger called out and he drew it, his grip steady, while his legs threatened to give way under him.

“Who is here!” the first man motioned his companions to stop and he cocked his head.

Marcos released from Cortez’s grip and proudly walked to the middle of the street.

“I am Señor Marcos, soldier in His Majesties Royal Armada and –“

Cortez could not allow his friend to continue and stepped between Marcos and the commanding dark man.

“Drunk. He’s intoxicated,” motioning with his head in the direction of the Inn.

“You have a quarrel with this - hombre?”

Cortez paused and looked over his shoulders. Three men. All armed. Pistols, swords – illegal ones – and daylight on the horizon. One exit.

“Si! I have a massive quarrel with this hombre. And you have interrupted. So if you don’t mind, I’d like to finish beating the life out of him in private. Señors,” and Cortez grabbed Marcos by the collar.

“Oh I’ll not go,” the first man crossed his arms and leaned closer to Marcos. “Good entertainment to see a Bourbon King’s soldier have his ass handed to him by,” his attention suddenly turned on Cortez. “You are not a Gaditano either.”

Cortez’s blood ran cold. The man had called his bluff. He looked into Marcos’s eyes and clenched his hand to a fist.

There was a panic set in Marcos’ face, the torches reflecting in the whites of his eyes.

Cortez took a deep breath and the humid night air filled his lungs. “You with me?”

“Can I convince you there is a peaceful option?” Marcos was logical enough to ask in their shared Malaga accent.

“No.”

The two men fell, hard, to the ground and Marcos grabbed the torch from the man on his right who was trying to lunge at him, throwing it to Cortez before being tripped. Cortez threw the torch in the third man’s face and the man screamed out.

Cortez pulled Marcos to his feet.

“My apologies señors!” he yelled out before they both took off running down the corridor in the opposite direction. They raced headlong down the path to the sea and did not stop until they reached the garrison.

“What is so funny?!” Marcos finally asked out of breath.

“You almost got us killed!” Cortez’s exclamation was filled with laughter rather than rebuke.

Marcos leaned in closer to Cortez’s coat and breathed deeply. “Madre de Dios! You are drunk.”

“Si. Poquito.”

“Come on.” Felipe put his friends arm around his shoulder to hold him steady. “Comedians find themselves in the institution. Only promise me you will shut up when we arrive at the barracks? I think I broke my finger!”

“Huh. No blood,” Cortez remarked somewhat surprised after rubbing his nose.

Dawn was closing in under their footsteps and Cortez kept his word. He quietly turned back the blanket and collapsed on the bed knowing well he would only have half of an hour to sleep. But if he were at sea… His mind wandered to the possibilities as his eyes closed heavily on a dream of dark waters.

 

---

 

“Girl! You’ve bent the silver! What’s got your mind?” Mr. Ledford held up the fork and examined it against the light of the rising sun.

A young boy ran through the kitchen and ushered the chickens out while they began a noisy chorus as they attacked bits of food he left as a trail to outside.

“Sorry Mr Ledford,” and she returned to briskly polishing the spoon in her hand. “I worry for Master Trenton. So weak all the time.”

“Oh hush-a, hush-a. Mind your task. Ah but Master Trenton he did finally sleep so we may have peace yet this morning. If it’s young Master Trenton you worry for…”

They both let the quiet of the morning surround them. The clock on the table ticked away as the second hand made three more passes around its face.
“Who would have done this?” Susan asked.
“Keep your gossiping tongue in your mouth for once and take the tray up,” Ledford thrust the board carrying tea and two slices of bread against her chest. “We’re already late.”

 

“Get up Barton,” a swift kick to the chair alarmed the doctor out of his sleep. He shifted, rubbed his nose but refused the daylight to meet his eyes.
“I have need of you Iasan.” That gruff voice could only come from one man. The Honorable Lord Edward Trenton. The doctor knew what he needed. He sighed and slowly stood up from his make shift bed.
“Peter slept through the night well enough. It’s a good sign.”
“You are sure of your intent?” Edward said.

“What can we do? Your son goes places you forbid him and yet you” Barton did not finish his words. The clanking of a spoon stirring a pungent liquid around a porcelain cup stopped with three taps.

“Do you blame me? He is my only son.”
“And you treat him with less discipline than I have seen you give the King. Here. Drink this. It will sober you up.”
“Cheers.” Edward’s throat forced down the drink and he returned the cup to Iasan’s hand before sitting down next to Peter.

“Such a cold face.” He rolled his fingers through Peter’s hair then reached for the blanket and pulled it up closer under Peter’s chin. “When you’ve finished here join me in the Library. I have a task for you.”
Barton tried to control his yawn and gave a half smile. At least one person in the room had slept through the night.

Susan knocked politely at the door and Lord Trenton bade her enter.

“Good morning, sir.”
Both men rose. Lord Trenton said nothing as he past Susan in the doorway. Dr. Barton followed close behind and straighten his coat over his shoulders, a vain attempt to appear that he had not spent the night in the same clothes.
“Good morning Doctor Barton.”
“Mmm. Morning Susan” taking one of the cups from her tray and drinking it.
“Dr. Barton, sir. How is..”

“Peter is sleeping. If that’s meant for him best be extra quiet about it.”

“Yes sir.”

The room was bright. Dr. Barton had not bothered to close the curtains in the evening and the room had already begun to warm up with the summer sun. She sat the tray down on a side table and began her ritual of placing all things back in precise neat order. The blanket on the chair where Dr. Barton had slept lay on the floor. Susan picked it up and shook it out, then folded it neatly and lay it across her arm. In the shaking a corner of the blanket hit the table with the doctor’s instruments and sounded a loud clatter. She stopped and held her breath, but Peter did not awaken, and she sighed in relief. Poor boy, she thought, daring to run the back of her hand along his cheek. He was a brother, much like she considered Evalianna a sister. She pulled her hand back quickly and hastily attempted to place the bottles back in order.

The snuff box.

Susan recognized it. It was half empty and she glanced behind her, quickly taking a pinch for herself. Her hands returned to their work while she mindlessly began tapping the top of the scalpel.

“Messy doctor not putting his implements of torture away,” she mumbled.

That is how she saw them. For all the potions and bottles and dried leaves in fancy bottles Dr. Barton still managed to inflict pain on his patients.

Susan had another long look at Peter. He must be cold, so pale, she thought as she lay the blanket across the foot of the bed, brushing out a large crease. She left the room quietly leaving the door ajar in case Peter were to wake up and try to call out.

 

---

 

The two men sat down in the Library. One a Master of his foreign castle - though castle was hardly the correct term - and the other a physician hired to follow them to the ends of the earth. They sat opposite each other in front of the great fireplace that was empty and cold. The humid Summer air had not yet reached this English home perched on a Spanish hilltop and morning sat with her long shadows cast between the tall windows in the Library.

Lord Edward Trenton placed his feet on a leather stool and stretched out. He too carried permanent injuries from battle and the scars running along his ribcage pulled taut when he lifted his hands above his head.

Edward studied his friend. Iasan Barton had an extended time of imprisonment in France, and his refusal to cooperate gave him the distinguishment of being a prisoner in solitary confinement for three weeks. He had paid for his disobedience with his own skin, the injury to his leg becoming infected almost to the point of amputation. Something about his faith, Trenton concluded, saved his own life and Barton walked out of the confinement without support. The French had begun to murmur in the courtyard that he was a healed miraculously, there was something of the Divine in him. When the final peace treaty was signed Edward and Iasan walked out of that country together and sailed home to English soil. Since the war had left him disfigured and unable to fully employ his arts in London the Trenton family offered him a permanent position as their doctor. Barton could hardly believe his luck. Truth was, he owed his life to Edward Trenton and vowed to save his family from any calamity just as Trenton had saved him that day from the river and the battlefield. Trenton could not leave his friend at the mercy of the soldiers who had broken through English lines. He would repeat the actions again, he concluded. Despite those months in prison, he would do it again.

Barton shifted his knee and let out a sigh.

“Those bastards. They do more than represent the King. Worse than criminals!”

“Iasan I have no choice in the matter. Take notes, sit down, nod your head and stand for hours in ceremony that could take minutes. I wonder if the Lord understands boredom. I think His Holiness should outlaw the entire ceremony. They should stop being so -”

“Stop being popish!” Iasan gave a vocal outburst.

It was enough to make Trenton abruptly stand and take verbal aim at his friend.

“Do you remember, Iasan, how I told you Spain would kneel at the feet of England?”

“How could I not? You were formidable then. Even the King himself rallied at your speech.”

“Yes. Even the King himself. Ambassador, he said. For all I had done that’s all he gave me. A weak title and useless land in a foreign country overrun by bickering and family inbreeding.”

“Careful Edward. There are ears in every corner.”

“This place first took my daughter, then my wife. Now my son lay upstairs victim to the cruelty of war. And you. You promised to keep them safe.”

“Can I help if the weak of heart succumb to illness? As for Peter.”

“As for Peter,” Edward repeated. “My son. My son,” and he sat back down his heart conflicted and heavy.

“Cannot keep himself out of trouble. Much like his father.”

“What Hell war is.”

“And what devils reach even the most sublime earthly places.”

There was a knock on the Library’s oak door.

“Master Trenton,” Ledford walked in and bowed before continuing. “Señor, er um the-“

“Speak!”
“Mr. Salazar is here to see you Sir.”

Barton huffed and looked over at Trenton.

“Well, send him in.”
“Better rouse that daughter of yours. Can’t keep telling the man his English lessons are free,” Iasan laughed.

Edward did not like the tone but knew he spoke the truth. The time was coming, and very soon, he would have to demand payment from the Spaniard.

Lord Trenton pushed Ledford out of the way and with great strides skipping over every other step, arrived at Evalianna’s door.

“Eva! Come down.” He continued to yell through the door. “Eva!”
Susan rushed down the hall and tried to intervene. “Master Trenton, Miss Eva-“

“I do not care. Armando is here to see her and see her he shall. Get her up and ready. Before I do.” It was more than a threat and it was directed at both the ladies.

“Yes Sir.”

Susan watched as Lord Trenton ran down the wooden stairs. She waited until he was completely out of view before knocking.

“Miss, your Spanish gentleman is here to see you.”

Evalianna sat up in bed. The room was still dark, the wood shutters locked tight. It was morning, late morning she guessed by the string of irritating chirps from the birds outside. She pried open her heavy and swollen eyes. Had she had cried herself to sleep? She could remember nothing of her dreams from the evening and her world felt eerily still.

“Which one?” she sleepily asked.

Susan entered the room and gently closed the door behind her. “Which one? You can’t have forgotten so easily.”

Susan walked to the window and struggled with the shutters before throwing them open.
“Why is he here?”

“I suppose to walk with you. You know it could be nice. He is very handsome.”

Climbing out of bed she placed her feet on the cold terra cotta tiled floor. “Handsome? More like a wool blanket that’s been left out in the elements for too long.” There was something about his eyes though, she admitted and thinking about them for too long caused her checks to blush and her stomach to turn to knots.

“Why are you acting so? It’s not the first time Mr. Salazar has come to call on you.”

“Salaz..oh. Oh. Naturally. Armando.”

Evalianna looked up at the empty space above the fireplace expecting a reply from Clare before remembering she had banished the poor girl to the Library yesterday.

“You’re acting strangely this morning. I’ve brought you tea. But you’d better hurry, your father is impatient.”
“No I will Susan. Thank you. How is Peter?”

“Sleeping. Doctor Barton said he slept through the night and that was a good sign. But I worry. You’ll see him?”

“I have to see Father first. Stupid,” she stopped herself from continuing the words she wanted to say.

Susan curtsied and left the room, empty tray in one hand and blanket that needed mending in the other. She was stopped at the bottom of the stairs by an unexpected figure. At least she had not expected him to be waiting there. Armando Salazar bowed and Susan’s eyes immediately looked down as she smiled.

“How is Peter?” he asked.

Susan had to catch her breath. “Not well Sir. Sleeping.”

“He’s not going to survive?” Salazar’s voice grew loud, and he leaned uncomfortably closer to her ear.

“I – I hardly know Sir. He was so cold when I touched his hand. Oh but please don’t tell Miss Evalianna. Or Master Trenton that! Promise me?”

He raised his eyebrow. “No. I will not say anything to ah, the word, is? What is the word I look for?”

“Distress?”

“Good. Yes. Not distress.”

“Yes sir. Thank you.”

 

The morning light touched across Evalianna’s shoes, and then her gown, and the light pretended to glide peacefully along the floors and the walls to embrace the opening of the world and the new day. As she passed her brother’s room she glanced in briefly. “Forgive me Peter,” was her whisper. “I will return shortly.”

Salazar had not moved from his station at the bottom of the stairs. He stood content to watch the comings and goings of the household. Lord Trenton would be waiting for him but he wanted to speak to Evalianna in private before courtly formality would take precedence.

“Good Morning Miss Trenton.”

“Good Morning Mr. Salazar.”

“I want to ask that you take a journey with me. To the beach. This afternoon.”

She closed her eyes so as not to appear shocked before answering him.

“My brother is gravely ill, sir, and you ask me to go traipsing about Cádiz?”

“I am asking you to…traipsing?” he sounded remorseful and stepped back.

“Trek, um, wander - walk!”

Salazar reached to his waistcoat and presented a letter folded neatly with her name exquisitely written across it.

“I am sorry for your brother. For you.” He kissed her hand while placing the letter and a small item wrapped in white linen in her other hand.
“Think on my words. I will wait for your answer.”

“Armando.” She broke formality in her worry. “My answer is no. Not today. I am tired.” She swore Clare was staring over her shoulder. “Please understand.”

He wrapped his hands tighter around hers and the gift within her hands. “I will stay if you need.”

“Thank you. But, you know my father.”

“We will find the culprit!”

The weight of his hands on hers felt clammy and rough. She slowly pulled away.

“Señor!” Lord Trenton smiled boldly as he entered the room and took hold of Salazar’s hand. “I do not wish to take you from the lovely company of my daughter for long, but will you join us then in the Library?”

“Your son. I hear he is ill.”

Trenton glanced up in time to see Evalianna reach the top of the stairs.

“News travels quickly, as the saying goes.”

“I have told her. I tell you. We will find the culprit.”

“Yes.” He sounded unsure yet his posture – he shot up. “Yes! You must! An attack such as this is a provocation of war against England!”

The fire in his dark eyes shocked even Salazar. “Capitán DeSoto will –“

Before he could finish there was a shocking sound.

 

Evalianna screamed.

 

Salazar was the first to reach the scene. Peter’s door was open and Evalianna knelt at his side holding her brother’s hand to her chest as she continued to gasp and scream between breaths.

Doctor Barton rushed through and grabbed Peter’s hand out of hers.

“Quiet girl!” he ordered.

Evalianna fell to the ground and the rest of the company’s gaze focused solely on Doctor Barton.

He checked for a pulse.

Again.

He leaned down to put his ear over Peter’s mouth.

And shook his head.

“I’m sorry Edward. Peter is dead.”

Chapter Text

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. 

Chapter Text

For the second time that morning Evalianna called for the indolent maid and received no reply. Ordinary circumstances would have required her to be concerned about the whereabouts of Susan, but these were not ordinary circumstances and the entire household was in disarray. She resigned herself to sorting out her black silk gown and looking very pale and threw her head into her hands on the dressing table. Beside her a black hat draped with a thin veil balanced on the edge of the table. It would be unseemly to appear in public in a full black mantilla, the symbol of a married woman. And white, that of an unmarried woman, Evalianna feared would be disrespectful. But the lace was soft and delicate in her fingers as she plied them in her hand, tempted to wear the ostentatious gift from her Godfather, to yet another funeral.  

“Where is that girl?” 

At the pinnacle moment when she needed help dressing, Susan was still nowhere to be found.  Perhaps attending to her father, a thought that sent chills down her spine. She did not want to believe that, but neither did they try to hide their evening relations. She almost hoped her father would marry Susan and be done with it. 

“Stockings,” she mumbled, opening a heavy drawer. The only ones not hanging in the laundry lay folded neatly at the bottom and she sighed. Bright red. She had no choice. Why had she kept such a shocking piece of clothing? 


“I could go without them? No one would notice,” looking down and assuring herself of the modest length of her mourning gown. “Besides, what horrible person would be trying to look licentiously at someone during a funeral!”

“Susan!” She called desperately once more and received the same empty response. 

The stockings hardly fit and she struggled to tie the garters. Nothing was going smoothly this morning. Sighing and falling back down on the chair, Evalianna looked down and stretched her feet. 

“Shoes!” She ran and grabbed them from under her bed. “Of course.” The buckles were missing. 

In a small oak chest which had on the top a broken lock, in what remained of her mother’s most precious items, Evalianna rummaged through to find the gold buckles inlaid with red and clear paste stones. They did not shine as she remembered, and walking toward the window she held them up and danced them in the thin morning light. 

She looked out the window to the gravel below. There was a brief moment held against time, floating between the door and the billowing curtain where she had longed to be held by the wind. Time called, hovering and waiting for her to step out. 

“Eva!” It was her father shouting from outside her door. When she did not answer he banged against the wood twice with his fist. “You must come down! Open this door!”

Either to the door or out the window . She contemplated it - the window - open and light and two stories above the ground. A bird for a moment, and a soul caressing the sky the next.

“Evalianna Trenton!”

The shout of her name broke her attention and she conceded to his demand, unlocking the door and opening it. 

“Yes father,” her voice reticent. “I will be down in a moment.”

He gave her a deprecating look. 

“You will take the second carriage. I have to - speak with Doctor Barton. Privately.” 


“Yes father.” 

---

Ambassador Trenton released a hollow grunt from his throat.  The large white ribbon tied around his forearm pinched his circulation and he clapped his fingers against his palm, the tingling sensation becoming worse. Even the vibration from the carriage travelling at quick speed along the cobblestone road gave no relief.  

“Really Barton is this necessary?”

“Yes,” flipping his own white ribbon with his hand. “You are doing what is required. You will walk in, head down, and try to look...” 

He examined the Ambassador sitting across from him, dressed in a somber black velvet frock with silver threads, (the silver naturally imported from Mexico) sewn in broad floral motifs along the large cuffs. There was no other way to put it. Ambassador Trenton had lost his second child and was about to walk into a Lion’s Den of gossip and political intrigue and the scowl on his face read boredom rather than mourning. 

“Well. Less agitation and more – humility. At least try to appear that you care.” 

Trenton continued to shuffle uncomfortably in the carriage seat and looked out the window. “Could we not have done this privately? And I do care! But this weeping and showing grief the Spanish expect us to perform. It’s not natural Barton! Let me grieve in silence.”

“What Edward? Behind closed doors? No. Let the town mourn him.” The doctor leaned in. “You are England here. Show them dignity. Concern. We’re not the barbarians their King makes us out to be.” Perhaps the murderer will make a surprise confession in the Church, he thought as they pulled up to the Arco de Pópulo

The Chapel Nuestra Señora del Pópulo stood atop the gateway that led into the remaining Medieval party of Cadiz. Two white towers flanked the entrance. It was a modest Chapel by Spanish standards and when they stopped in front of the great oak door, Evalianna wished for nothing more than to be back home.  

She exited the carriage behind her father and he took her hand. 

“Where is Susan?” He asked perturbedly. 


Evalianna kept her head down and spoke faintly. “I couldn’t find her. Is she not with you?”

Trenton stopped. “What do you mean couldn’t find her!?” 

“Not now Trenton.” Barton raised an eyebrow and gestured towards the Church doors. 

Evalianna genuflected before entering the front pew, followed by her father and then Dr. Barton. One of the accolades standing in the aisle with his tall brass staff and red glass lantern turned his bold boyish eyes at Trenton and stuck his tongue out at the English stranger. Trenton gave the boy a spurious smile back. 

Trenton cleared his throat and tugged at his cravat, the smoke of incense laying itself across his cheeks and settling into his nostrils. It was suffocating, and all the gilded reminders of Spain’s religious heart were encroaching and implanting visions of guilt on his soul. He looked over at his daughter, her hands tightly folded and a whimper coming from her lips. What am I supposed to do with Evalianna now? His thoughts in every direction except on the casket in front of him, draped in black velvet at the foot of the Altar. The primitive silver skull embroidered on the fabric cast its hollow eyes toward Heaven. But for a moment Trenton thought they lowered and peered at him, and he feared words would rise out of the boney mouth in condemnation. He raised his right hand to bless himself, but waved his hand as if he was brushing a fly away from his face rather than completing a symbol of faith.

Directly across the nave from the grieving family sat the Alcalde, Comandante de la Garza, and next to him, kneeling in prayer, his eyes intent on the statue of Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, was Armando Salazar. His attendance was requested by Ambassador Trenton himself in hopes of furthering a social bond between the families. Salazar accepted in private the request under the condition he attend with the Guardia so as to not, as he put it, offend the delicate sensibilities of a grieving sister. 

The one mercy in this ordeal was that the Father saying Mass was known for his prompt invocations and Trenton’s demand that words of spiritual comfort or prayers for the bound souls would be made the following week. 

The candles on the Altar became a myriad of flickering gold breaking the stale air surrounding the casket. During Mass Evalianna refused to kneel, refused to stand at the appropriate times. Instead she hid behind her black veil tears stemming from anger, not of holy piety. Her eyes stared through the delicate lace draped over her hat, and content on keeping in shadow the side of her face, she glanced over at Salazar. And began to regret, for his sake, the burden of courtly mannerisms they both now had to abide by.   

The gentle Officium Defunctorum of Tomás Luis de Victoria rose, a soothing choir of voices falling from the loft behind her and stretching its arms across her shoulders. Evalianna imagined for a moment it was her mother's voice among them, the lighter second soprano’s cantus speaking against her ear. The only interruption was the occasional thrice ringing of a set of small bells and the clank from the chains of the censer as the priest rounded the Altar between prayers to fill the room again with incense. Could Heaven reach down and place before a man the sounds of a soul being caught up to the Eternal? Evalianna closed her eyes and allowed herself, this time, to lose her thoughts, not to her near future, but to the one beyond Earth. 

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine...

And it was over. The small assembly processed discreetly out, following the casket and the ostentatiously vested priest with his servers who had the luxury of being shaded from the Summer heat by a white canopy trimmed in gold. 

The burial was swift, and the priest held to Trenton’s request that the words spoken were minimal as Peter’s body was laid in the ground next to his mother and his sister. 

Cortez had placed himself behind one of the trees in the cemetery and watched covertly. He was not surprised to see Salazar, yet he noticed one important person missing: Don Pedro. 

“I extend my great sorrow to your family,” Salazar bowed politely as he greeted  Ambassador Trenton. 

Trenton smiled broadly and nodded. “Yes, yes. Thank you. Tell me, any news of an arrest?”

“The Alcalde, I know he is making a list.”

“Good! Excellent!” He then brushed his hands together and cleared his throat. “I mean, you understand, it will be some days before I may allow you to see my daughter again.”

Salazar furrowed his brow, insulted by the Ambassador's forwardness and excused himself from the courtyard. 

The towering marble Memorial emblazoned with the Trenton name would receive another sculpture soon, one that, in Mr. Trenton’s eyes symbolised his heir’s life. A resting lamb would be placed at the foot of the grand winged angel holding a cross and pointing toward Heaven. Evalianna remained there, finally bending her knee in prayer and to lay a handful of flowers under her mother’s name.

“Come Eva.” Her father reached down his hand to help her stand. 

“Father, let me stay. Only for a few moments.” She had much on her heart and no ear to listen except for the ones buried below the ground.  

Edward Trenton sighed at the pathetic appeal of his daughter and it was Barton that convinced him to let the girl have her way and turn his attention to speaking with the Alcalde.  Mr. Ledford was assigned to watch her, and he placed himself at a modest distance sitting down comfortably on the edge of a tiered and silent fountain.

 

If it was her mother’s voice she heard in the choir, it was her face she saw in the marbled angel above her. A woman who took the vow of obedience to her husband in extreme, following the man who showered her with promises of a life at court, but behind closed doors beat her at a smallest error in etiquette. It was not a life Evalianna wanted to follow in. 

Mr. Ledford fell asleep, and she seized the brief moment, caught by the sounds of the river to wander beyond the crowd still gathered outside the gates to wander in solitude. 

Cortez watched in trepidation as she came closer. He could not leave the way he entered, it would mean waking Mr. Ledford. And now, he could not leave via the river or she would see him. 

She followed the waters that ran under the arch. They gently rose and crested with the tide, the saltwater meeting freshwater at the bend, a swirling current below tree lined banks. 

The water crisp and cold below tempted her just enough to put her feet in. As her shoes filled with the water it filtered between her stockings and undulated between her toes. For a moment she thought to pick up her dress and keep walking. Instead she allowed the hem to soak in the river, a swirl below her body slowly and rhythmically taking away the pain, the shocking cold stopping her tears. And now she was truly alone, with only her father and regrettably some distant Aunt in the Kingdom of Naples holding her future fortunes. 

The rocks were slick below her, the steady current rising above her ankles. She had unconsciously kept walking, and a small fish came to inspect the bows on her shoes. She leaned down and spoke aloud with outstretched hands as she began to drop to her knees in the water: 

Oh to be free of such constraints and assigned to the Heavens as a star!

Her shoes slipped from under her, and pressure around her waist removed in a great sweeping motion the air from her lungs.

“No Señorita!” 

She was on land, her feet not touching the ground, and a panicked breath rapidly pulsating in her ear. But she opened her eyes and recognized the arm around her, or at least the cuff of the uniform.  

“Señor?” Turning her head over her shoulder to meet his eyes. “Cortez?” 

He gently put her down and stood erect but refused to release her arm.

“Please let me go. What are you doing here?” She demanded. 

He scanned her face. The fear he had seen in her eyes when they were in the Library were now replaced by defiance. Another, yet this time, slowly, a breath passed between them. 

“I watch you,” he said matter of factly. 

“Yes I can see that,” she chidded, twisting her ankle that began shooting with pain. “Which you shouldn’t be doing by the way. I hardly think my father would,” she paused and backed away, placing a respectable distance between them, trying to hide her unsteady step backwards.  

“Why are you here?” She repeated.  

“I am sorry. Your brother.”

“Thank…thank you.”  

“Who?” 

“Hm?” 

“Who is there?” He motioned to the graves. 

“My mother. My sister,” she replied brushing herself off. “This is ridiculous. I will try my Spanish. Maybe it will be easier.”

“No! I can speak English to you!” he said excitedly. 

“Oh. I didn’t…it sounded like you didn’t understand me. Before.”

“Yes.”

“Yes what? You don’t understand me or?”

“You. I help you? Um,” he shook his head feeling very much the fool of the moment. Something about her made him nervous. 

“What is it?”

“Danger,” was all he could think to answer.

“From whom?” She scoffed. “I have the protection of two Kings not to mention the position of my father. No one would harm our family.”

“Oh? Why is your brother dead?” He said mockingly though he regretted his words immediately. 

“A – mistake. Mistaken identity.”  

But in his mind there was no simple mistake. “You are a danger Señorita.” 

“I think...I - have to go.” Her face burned and flushed red as she turned away, unable to hold his gaze without her hands trembling. She began to hobble up the hill when he noticed her uneven walk. 

“I carry you!” He announced. 

“Maybe, maybe Señor I should walk.”

“No.” And he picked her up fully in his arms, only then noticing the shocking red of her stockings contrasting with her black shoes. Now who has the muddy shoes? he thought.

“Señor! Let me go this instant. Please! It is not appropriate!”

“No.”

“I insist you put me back on the ground. I can walk!” But her arms tightened around his strong shoulders. 

“No. I carry you. Caminar es para caballos!”

“Horse?”  

“Bien! You are a horse?” he asked cooley.  

“Uh no,’’ she replied, her mouth agape. 

“No! I am a horse!”

“You are,” looking down at the closed space between them she blushed. “...a horse?”

“Yes.”

“Oh.” Her lips creased to a tremulous smile. “You are a very strange man. What is your name?”

“Cortez.”

“No your first name,” she could hardly repeat the question, his lips hovering just above hers. 

“Evalianna!” 

She gasped and Cortez opened his arms, almost dropping her to the ground in surprise.  

“Evalianna!” Her father’s voice carried over the hill. 

“Shit. That’s my father. You need to hide!” She forcefully pushed him behind a tree. 

¿Qué ?”

“Debes esconderte!” she ordered and tried hastily to brush her dress down into place while walking away. 

Evalianna stood before her father, utterly disheveled with a false innocence glazed in her eyes. Her shoes were destroyed, and the hem of her dress heavy and wet from the river. And her hat! Balanced lopsided and by Providence’s help alone stayed in place by a single ribbon. She bit down on her bottom lip before responding with a smile. 

“What - happened?” He asked.

“I was um collecting… flowers,” brushing her hair away from her eyes. “Flowers! For Sissi’s grave. And I fell.”

“I see no flowers here. You need to be more careful clumsy girl.”

Trenton jerked his head around at the sound of what he thought was a laugh. 

“Who is that?”

“I didn't hear anything. Come father,” she pleaded and tugged on this coat sleeve. “I am tired. And I would like to go home.” She tried to force the most pitiful sound to accompany her words. 

He brushed her off and strode to the side of the river. “You there! Show yourself.”

Cortez boldly stepped into view and smiled. If Ambassador Trenton wanted to meet him, properly, he would emerge from the shadows. Never one to hide he was not to begin now.   

Evalianna pretended to be surprised and grabbed her father’s arm. 

“You there! Your name!” Trenton demanded. 

“Name?”

“Yes you idiot. Your name Señor Soldier. I shall have you reported to the Comandante. Have you no discretion? No respect for the dead! What are you doing here?”

Cortez looked back and forth over his shoulders and grinned. “Patrol Señor.”

“Patrol. Here? A cemetery?”

“Si.”

¿Por qué ?” Trenton asked in a mocking tone. 

“El funeral. Capitán DeSoto -,” He knew he had slipped up before the name sounded in the air. But he could not stop the motion and his eyes kept focused on Evalianna. 

“Father, he was helping me.” She was desperate and attempted to divert her father’s inquest in any way, even if that meant tarnishing her reputation. After all, her father never showed a care about it before and she doubted he would begin now. 

Trenton loosely paid attention to his daughter’s words and only one name piqued his thoughts. “DeSoto ay?” He remarked quietly as he turned back to Evalianna.  “See to it you no longer accept help from ordinary soldiers. We are leaving!”

Despite the warning from Trenton, Cortez reached out to offer his hand to help her. She shrunk back.

“No,” she said timidly, shaking her head. Her eyes shot to the ground below his feet.

It was the dismal sound of her ‘no’, a lingering sorrow he suspected had nothing to do with the death of her brother, or her mother, that burned into his mind. 

He watched in silence as they boarded the carriage and drove away. 

But before they reached the city gate, Evalianna leaned out the window to look back, wondering at the soldier who again had taken her arm in a most desperate hour. 

 ---

Outside the Comandante’s Office, Salazar and Lesaro stood waiting for their Superior Officer.  Cortez noticed them before they saw him and he was just about to turn and walk away down a  different corridor when Salazar called out. 

“Cortez! Come now. Join us!”
Cortez resigned himself and took company with the gentlemen. 

“You are a good soldier,” Salazar addressed him. “I have already told you what my plan is. I intend on riding the world of Spain’s enemies. All of them. And, I want you to join us.”

“I don’t think he is convinced yet Armando,” Lesaro said. 

“Why not? Who am I? Armando Ignacio Salazar. Even before coming to Cadiz you have heard my name. Lesaro, Lesaro here – he is my right hand! We stand together. Now I ask you to join us. There will be a commission soon,” nodding his head thoughtfully. “I will be Capitán.” 

“How can you know this?” Cortez asked. 

“Finally the man speaks,” Lesaro said. 

Salazar turned to Lesaro and smirked.

“He knows,” Lesaro continued, “because he is the best man for the task.”

“I will clear the seas of our foe. My question again to you. Will you hunt with us?”

“You will kill with no regard to their souls?” Cortez had turned his question to blatant arrogance and Salazar whipped his head around. 

“That is not what I said. I will sink their ships and leave their fate to God. If they swim, they are spared. If they drown, that is their fate.” 

“No desire for a soldier’s duty to protect Spain?” Lesaro interjected. 

“No desire to spill blood in such quantities.”

Salazar had yet another warning. “It is too bad. Stay on the land and when the English try to invade again, I hope you are not chased from your comfortable home and slaughtered along with the foreigners in the confusion.”  

“And what of the Señorita? Will you see that she is safe?” Cortez retorted. 

Salazar paused then swiftly nodded, and Lesaro took the cue to be dismissed from the argument he suspected would commence. 

“I hold Evalianna in very high regard,” Salazar said, approaching Cortez and leaning into his shoulder. 

“Yes but you –,” Cortez tried to rebuke him, remembering the words Salazar had spoken the previous evening. 

“I keep giving you pieces of advice, don’t I Cortez? Then let me give you one more. The places you are going have eyes and ears in every corner. At every table. In every street. How do you think it would appear if the Admiralty thought I was courting an enemy, hm? An English girl whose father has outwardly spoken against the Spanish Crown? I would have no career. The deception must be visible.  More – though I do not know why I trust you with this information Cortez de Córdoba, there is more to Ambassador Trenton and his companions that you do not need to know. The Alcalde has given me orders. Yes, I visit Paraíso . I walk with his daughter because Trenton allows it. She - is an honorable woman.” He paused to lay his hand on his sword. “Do not think for a moment I would not defend that honor.”

The dark tone in Salazar’s voice intrigued Cortez and he nearly spoke, when the Comandante opened his door and invited the other Officers in. 

And the dagger. 

It again twisted against Cortez’s side, reminding him of its weight. 

Reminding him of the vision in the street, and the sound of a single gull crying out. 

 ---

“Well Marcos, I think I’m in trouble.” Cortez threw his boots off and sat on the edge of his bunk. 

“You think too much,” his friend replied, only now taking the time to have a much needed stretch before laying down for the night.  

“No,” he was steady. “No. Trenton saw me at the cemetery and I mentioned Capitan’s name.” 

“Oh.” Marcos rolled to his side in the bed. “I am sure it will be alright. You did not tell him anything that he could not have discovered later. Oh! That shot you heard last night? Some man, drunk, decided to fire his pistol in the air because - the report said - he wanted to mark the beat in the song he was singing and thought it perfect accompaniment. Strange I know.” Marcos turned over to his back and stared out the window above his head. “Dutch.”

“What?”

“Dutch. They hauled him away singing about the glories of Austria.”

“And the man is still alive?” Cortez laughed. 

Marcos yawned and pulled the covers over his head. “Good Night.”

Cortez finished undressing and lay the jewelled dagger under his pillow. From under the mattress he retrieved his new book and ran his hand along the cover before settling properly into his bunk keeping it hidden under the covers. 

Paradise Lost, Book 1:  John Milton

Why his father insisted on keeping this book locked away in a separate place and not with the other stack of ‘forbidden’ books Cortez had found had always puzzled him.  What was it specifically about this story? With a heavy sigh he began to read the first stanza: 

OF Man's First Disobedience, and the Fruit

Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste

Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,

With loss of Eden, till one greater Man

Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,

He hated to admit but not even a full sanza in and he was beginning to conclude Marcos might be right, and this was not the easiest way to improve his grasp on the English language. 

In truth he could pronounce most words, and remembered his father claimed that at least the English had the decency to pronounce a great deal more letters in their words than the French, who seemed to have thrown the entire alphabet out in favor of only vowels. But the truth was much deeper. He had listened more than Felipe realized. He had paid attention to the nuances of the language but convinced himself Spain would conquer the world, not the Ingles, and so it annoyed him but also delighted him to put his knowledge to work. The defect of course was knowing he was giving in and doing something he thought he would never have to return to because of one man’s actions. 

It was his father’s friend assigned to be his English tutor when they lived in Cordoba. The man insisted that the end of a thin cane to a boy’s back was the quickest way to ensure perfection in academics. Cortez learned, but in stubbornness purposely failed at each review. Until the day the man warned his mother about his obstinate ways. Ah but the favorite son was comforted, and his mother supported the idea of Spain being the great conqueror, and had little patience for contradictory views. Cortez hid himself behind the door of the study and listened as his mother berated the tutor. 

If my son does not want to learn the language of our enemy, Senor, I will not force him and your employment in this household has come to an end.

‘Senora Cortez you cannot dismiss me! I have a contract with your husband!’

It did the man no benefit to argue with Senora Cortez and the tutor never returned to their home to the extreme delight of the boy.  

Now Cortez was determined to speak to Ambassador Trenton, and in his own language, to tell him off if nothing else. He cringed, remembering the embarrassed look on Evalianne’s innocent blushing face when he called himself a horse.  And so he would force himself to learn English, perfectly. Even Salazar’s own words had said it: Perfectly. 

He opened the book and read again. 

Sing Heav'nly Muse, that on the secret top

Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire

That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,

In the Beginning how the Heav'ns and Earth

Rose out of Chaos: or if Sion Hill

Delight thee more, and Siloa's brook that flow'd   

Cortez began to doze off and realized he needed to mark the page he was studying. He reached over the edge of the bed to his coat pocket, remembering the paper Salazar dropped. It was now more crumbled than before and he held it to the moonlight, studying the map. But through that light he noticed the calligraphy on the other side. He read it easily, for it was in Spanish although with some grammatical errors and a few blots of ink showing it was written hastily. 

Sir,

Once again I am allowed to slip the chains of my cage and graciously you agreed to meet with me. Even now I feel my words of joy do not express the flighted happiness I have known in your company. I know you will forgive my boldness in addressing you in such a manner. Your own words to me encourage me to declare my feelings. My thoughts too do intrude my sleep, which you have spoken and matched with uncommon deeds!  A wrong I could never bear, if you had not told me with the delicate proposal the expressions of your future. 

His own words? Cortez thought. Maybe Salazar was a man capable of deep feelings? But who was writing this letter? Susan? Bianca perhaps. She appeared well versed with her customers and would need to be fluent in several languages, including the written word if she were to keep her employment. She seemed so confident at the Inn. His words about Evalianna this afternoon? Cortez laughed at the thought of Salazar’s threat. 

‘... It is a bitter suffering, to be surrounded by so many willing to manipulate. You have proven true in our discourse, and my heart Wills to be healed by Your words. With one stroke, the pen in your own hand has made my heart bloom with new life.”

Cortez stopped and put the letter down. He wondered why all these women were throwing themselves at Salazar. He thought of going back to Milton and his drivel of the Heavens. Even Lucifer intrigued him more than the weary and pitiful words of this woman, whomever she was. 

But he forced himself to continue reading beyond the second paragraph. 

“… I have nothing to offer you. No dowry but my heart, no title but my honor. They have betrayed me. And so I come to you. Why do you haunt my mind in the middle of the night? Torment me with the heavy gaze of your eyes?

...For without love we are the empty canvas of a sail, the becalmed sea, Fate’s own catastrophic Will. And here is the villain! That I should trust one who pities me and takes in the lies of fellow servants as Truth! I am banished from my country, my soul. 

...Oh to be free of such constraints and assigned to the Heavens as a star ..”

Those words! He recognized them and frantically searched for the signature at the bottom:

I sign not as yours, rather a heavy and confused heart - Evalianna

Chapter Text

“Five days! Five days and not a single arrest. Comandante!” Trenton had not stopped yelling at the King’s Officers from the moment he entered the room. “I have just buried my son and not one person arrested.  My son was attacked! Unprovoked and unarmed! Your men, who you have assured me to have the acclaim of the King, were supposed to be patrolling the town that day. Now. I want to know exactly who killed my son!”

The Comandante stared at the man sitting on the very edge of the small chair opposite him. He reluctantly let Ambassador Trenton in to discuss his concerns but that discussion was rapidly deteriorating to a tirade against Spain and anyone else Trenton concluded was his enemy. De la Garza sat quietly waiting to respond until he was certain he could take a breath. Or until he could stand no more talk against Spain. Even DeSoto, who was accustomed to hearing such talk from rebellious citizens, stood next to the Ambassador and began to stretch his neck back and forth and bite his lip in agitation. 

“I have my men investigating,” de la Garza said flatly. 

“Do you trust these men?” Trenton snapped back. 

“With my life.”

“You had better. I tell you if the murderers are not found, I will see to it you will answer. And very personally.  I demand again by the virtue of diplomacy!  What are the names of the soldiers who found my son?”

“That is confidential Lord Trenton.”

“Spanish and their damned loyalty,” he murmured back. 

“Pardon, Ambassador?” 

“Anyone is capable of murder. You think because he can stand at attention a soldier is immune to temptation?! And there he had, right in front of him – my heir! What better way to inflict pain on your enemy than to kill the heritage! No. You cannot convince me either of these men are not guilty. I say they are. Therefore my Government says they are. I demand you place them under arrest. It will be shortly that we will find the evidence needed to have them hanged.”

“Ambassador, I understand your grief -,” the Comandante had further lost his patience and hit the desk with the palm of his hand. 

“Grief? I want justice and your French King,” the broken voice faded and he slouched back down in the chair. “He cannot give me my son back.”

“We are doing what the law allows Ambassador,” DeStoto stepped forward but his words were a hollow assurance. 

“Spanish law, or Justice? You run a great risk of war Comandante by trying my patience.”

“Two days. This I will give my word on.” 

The three men sat quietly for a minute. Trenton realized he was not going to get the answers he wanted from the government. Other channels however, those names he recalled quietly and rose to leave.

“I am sorry to have wasted your time Comandante.”

De la Garza gave a tight lipped smile and nodded as Trenton left the room in disgust. 

DeSoto shut the door and whipped around. “You’re not actually going to arrest Marcos or Cortez are you?” 

“What would you have me do? Nothing is making sense. Salazar has found nothing, Cortez comes back with reports that seem, confusing.” The Comandante did not want to offend his Capitan but it was no secret Cortez’s last report provided little evidence beyond that of showing his own impulsiveness. 

“I know. Forget those reports,” DeSoto said. 

“I have to do something.” De la Garza scratched his forehead. “Two days. Very good. I have given them two days.”

“What about the man you arrested last night? The one singing about the um, Habsburg . He seems like a suitable perpetrator .”

“Does he? I had thought of it. Could fit the story. No one would question his guilt. But to let this man die for a crime he may not have committed?”

The bowl of green apples on de la Garza’s desk caught DeSoto's eye and he ran his hand over their smooth skin. “Either him or one of our own.”

“Prudence, Capitán DeSoto. I know you do not believe Cortez capable of such a thing but who can understand the man’s loyalties. In truth, Marcos has a motive.” He waved his hands over the apples and DeSoto cautiously pulled his hand back wishing he had reached for the apple more swiftly.  

“Felipe Marcos may have some grievance with the Trenton family but he is not capable of murder.” DeSoto thought on that pious face, kneeling at every bell and never failing to recite his prayers at night. No, Marcos would not risk Hell. Not for revenge on the Trenton family anyway. 

“There we are. Do not worry. Salazar will provide us with more substantial evidence. He’s not failed me.” 

DeSoto walked to the door and stopped to turn around before opening it. “Before I go. Is it true?”

“Nothing is true until I see it,” de la Garza quipt. 

“The rumors. About an invasion.” 

“There are always rumors! You’re worried about the cannons.” He laughed and shuffled the papers on his desk. “The French have the most terrible system for organizing their documents. Worse than before!” He looked up at DeSoto. “Yes. There might be one. Next week, next year. One crisis at a time.” He broke off a small portion of crisp green apple and ate it directly off his knife. The apple’s juice ran out the corner of his mouth and he casually mumbled, “Dismissed.”

Capitán DeSoto pulled his gloves tight on his hands and swiftly opened the door. There he encountered a red faced man who was pacing the dry clay street, causing a trail of dust to gather along his boots.

“Capitán DeSoto!” Trenton called out.  

He closed his eyes and sighed. “Yes Lord Trenton. Is there something else you needed? I thought we addressed your concerns.”

Trenton fiercely began and his anger made him speak rapidly with broken sentences. He was not done fighting his point and he waved his finger in DeSoto’s face. “Cortez! One of your men Capitán. I found him spying. Yes, spying! Pathetic boy does not know how to lie very well. Said he was patrolling. On your orders! I know you would not give such a command.”

“Lord Trenton,” he answered confidently, “I did.”  

“No! This..Cortez.. He is the same one - Barton said he was! Who brought Peter home. I want him charged with murder!”

“Provide me evidence. I have no authority.”

“No authority?” Trenton spat out the words. “I think you simply refuse to arrest your own man! That idiot Alcalde directed me to speak with de la Garza.” He grit his teeth and spoke sternly, only inches away from the Capitán’s expressionless face. “Two days. If nothing is done, and done very soon DeSoto, I will appeal directly to the Crown. Both yours, and mine,” and he strode away, his temper still high. 

DeSoto had no doubt the man would leverage his influence. Was it too much to hope Letters of Recall would be on the next ship? He stood under the heat of the sun letting it caress his face and imagined the document, graced with the seal of the Empire, that would take the nuisance off his shores.  

And in a corner, just behind the Comandante’s Office, stood a bewildered Felipe Marcos taking note of every word. 

---

The arrival home of the flustered and tired Edward Trenton brought Mr Ledford rushing from the kitchens to his side. Trenton’s only wish was for some order to return to the house and he needed time to think. Think, and perhaps have a drink and assure himself that Barton would join in any scheme he devised. 

“Where’s Susan? I need to - speak with her,” Trenton marched into the Library and threw his coat. It landed on the floor with a heavy thud.  

Mr. Ledford promptly retrieved the garment and folded it neatly over his arm. He did not want to be the one to inform of the absence so intimidated he was by his employer but he was forced to respond with the truth. 

“Lord Trenton no one has seen her,” the old man’s words cracked timidly in the air.  

He stopped, his eyes in furrowed disbelief. “No one has seen her?” He almost accused Ledford of lying and raised his hand in anger, but paused when he noted the other person in the room.  “She did not return in the morning? Eva?” 

Evalianna had her back turned replacing a book on the shelf under the portrait of Clare. She closed her eyes but like a dutiful child turned to her father and gave a curtsey. She was little worried about her maid and to her own astonishment inwardly held a great hope that Susan had run away, or had been captured by pirates and stolen on some English galleon to America. Maybe her absence would give her father some peace.  Maybe he would reconcile his soul and stop his illicit and vulgar behavior. She had almost wished too, for the sake of Susan, that the girl did escape. 

Running away . She shook the thought of freedom. 

“Shall I send out a search?”

“No. If she is not back by nightfall I will go myself. Now get out.”

Mr. Ledford opened the door and Evalianna bowed her head before escaping to her room. 

---

Dusk poured over the roofs of the town and arrived at the Inn laying a shadow over the dark coach and the man hidden inside.  Trenton immerged and pulled his collar up to hide his face, ordered the borrowed coach to wait and paid the man holding the reins. The meeting that brought him here under half darkness he intended to be brief and his actions as precise as a military campaign, though he admitted it felt like he was entering the offices to lead a coup. He would exact more information than he obtained from the lawful authority of Cadiz behind these walls. Trenton knew the risk to his honor and entered with alert determination. 

Vasco raced out from behind his table and without any exchange escorted Trenton to the back of the Inn, and in front of a small wooden door knocked loudly in the prescribed pattern.

The noise and smoke from within when the door cracked open made Trenton stumble back. But he was not deturded and forcibly pushed open the door and came briskly into the room. The audience hardly registered his presence, but he recognized each of them. Here, in the most inconspicuous hole in Cadiz the powerful merchants, and those nobility who spent a generation clawing to be recognized risking each gemstone and last of their silver on the threads of their imported garments for the opportunity to rule in the New World, sat together galvanizing cutthroat deals and securing fortunes by the weight of another’s trials. 

Don Pedro sat in the chair languidly, a high blue silk collar encasing his neck, accented by Belgian lace spilling forth like some exotic species of bird extending its tail in a ritual dance to capture a mate. His eyes played tricks with the guests at the table. One moment a charming brightness and in the next, narrow, cunning, aware that others passed judgement on him behind his back. He was in an excellent mood, having educated a Count on the routes his men were tracking across the Caribbean, unaware of the new guest until he heard Trenton’s booming voice.  

“Remove them.” 

The room became silent and every face turned on Don Pedro who finally looked up.

“Now Ambassador, that isn’t very diplomatic of you,” motioning with an outstretched hand across the table. 

“Send them out,” he repeated. “This was not a suggestion.”

“Very well,” Don Pedro was not accustomed to obeying orders and yet gave a signal that emptied the room through a side door. He tapped his fingers on the table and scowled at Trenton. “Now, what is it? Speak quickly. I have exceedingly greater business that needs my attention.” 

Trenton continued to stand firmly in the middle of the room and spoke fiercely: “Where is she?” 

“Who?” Don Pedro looked astonished, although several shes appeared in his thoughts. “Oh who knows where your daughter is? Perhaps she’s finally run off with that Salazar. Would make your life simple. Agreeable,” he said calmly. 

Trenton pulled out a chair and straddled his legs over the sides. “You know who I am speaking of.” 

Don Pedro straightened the lace on the cuff of his sleeve and gathered a few scraps of paper from the middle of the table examining them for several minutes. 

Growing nervous at the thought of being ignored, Trenton leaned in breaking the awkward silence with a whisper. “I shall pay you. If you are keeping her for ransom then make your demand and I will double it.” 

“Oh Mr Trenton.” Don Pedro examined the Ambassador’s vulgar appearance and shook his head.  “You could not double any of my demands. For anything.” 

“Then you do have knowledge of her,” his shoulders fell down and he paled. 

“No.” It was an immediate reply with no trace of deception. 

“What?” 

“I said, I do not know where your whore of maid is. It is too bad. Because I had friends asking about her.” 

Trenton leaned forward and scowled. “You lie.”

“You think she loves you? She loves freedom, Edward Trenton. What she has determined in her little mind as freedom. Where is freedom for her? It is in America? Perhaps she has made her way to Portugal and a ship. Or back home - to Ireland.” 

“If you have brought her into your spider’s web I will expose this entire operation.” 

“My hands are clean. I swear it to you. If you do not find her tomorrow I will send a search out myself. I’ll demand no payment, all on my effort to find her. But Edward.” He poured the deepest of red wine into a glass and slid it over to his guest then poured a small amount for himself. “Even a thirsty horse will drink from a contaminated river.” He brought the glass to his lips. “To your health!”

---

Cortez cleared his throat and moved into Prime position, dagger in his left hand and sword in his right. His mind was racing between the instructions the Fencing Master shouted and his own plans under his Capitán’s orders.  

“Imbroccata!” 

Marcos turned his cloak twice around his left arm to cover his elbow and gripped the collar tightly. 

“All must learn to defend both body and soul!” The Fencing Master continued giving the lesson: ‘ He that presumes more knows less. That which deprives us of the truth is false.  The destreza is founded in science, and it is certain that that which they profess deprives them of it.  It necessarily follows that it has to be false, and it will be so as much as it deprives them of greater certainty.  The true destreza teaches a man to scientifically defend himself from another; that which they follow doesn’t defend them, rather it is the reason that they kill them.’

“Therefore the destreza is formed by a concise and educated morality!”

Morality.  

Cortez closed his hand tightly on the silver braided grip of the jeweled dagger. He thumbed back and forth over the carved ruby on the pommell. It was warm, jagged, and slightly loose in the setting.  He steadied his feet and closed his eyes. 

A breath in.

Out.

In. 

The tighter he gripped the dagger, the more intense the vision grew. 

‘We do not destroy what we do not understand.’ It was his father’s voice, as if he were whispering to himself in private prayer at the Altar. 

Young Cortez shuffled along the hard pew and drew closer to his mother. Her face was shadowed by a black mantilla and she looked down at him from the corner of her eye with a smile. Over her shoulder, in a niche to the left of the main gilded Altar, the boy focused his attention. The figure was tall, reaching his sword over his head and seated on a rearing horse. Imposing. Hundreds of years passing in the columns and thousands of souls arriving and departing within the fortress that stood as the Cathedral of Córdoba.

His father spoke of the legend many times. St. James appearing in a vision, a warrior on his white horse with a white banner to help Christian armies of King Ramiro I in battle that all Spaniards grew up believing in. 

But the rest of the legend his mother whispered while the bells of Mass chimed around them.  King Ramiro succeeded to the throne and the Moors demanded the reinstatement of the tribute of virgins. Ramiro denied them and prepared his army for battle. The night before, he dreamt of St. James who told him that God had chosen James as the patron for the Spanish kingdoms and under his banner and protection would lead Ramiro to victory.  

Whether he believed in the legend did not matter. His mother did, despite her own theological questions embedded in the art around her. King Ramiro put his life at the point of a sword to protect the lives he believed would be defiled if he gave them over. He doubted his own dream, yet he followed the passion that enveloped his heart and soul. 

And words from his mother and the lesson she imprinted clear in his mind cried out: 

‘When you feel the passion emerging from deep in your soul and you do not understand or know where it comes from - follow it. Protect it! That is God calling you.’

He loosened his fingers slowly and opened bleary eyes to see Marcos standing in front of him, worried. The Fencing Master gave the signal to resume and Cortez gave a hasty salute. 

“I have to warn her.”

Marcos smiled and stepped in on his left foot. “This time I truly believe you have lost your mind. A few words of a forbidden English book and you are going to march up to Para - Oh here I will show you how it goes: Good evening Senor Ambassador.” Marcos feigned two thrusts at him and began freeing the folds of his cloak. He passed the point of his sword underneath it, and tossed it on Cortez’s blade. Cortez quickly drew it away and the cape bellowed behind him. “Ah, good evening.” Marcos continued to play both voices. “Oh you are that idiot from the cemetery!” 

Cortez did not notice Marcos had made another pass of his left arm and thrust his blade between the dagger and his right arm.

“Cortez!” The master shouted and pushed himself between the men. “You have just been stabbed in the chest. Congratulations. You are dead. No.” The man kicked at Cortez’s heels and positioned his elbow. “This way. Block! Again!” 

Marcos bowed and Cortez shook his head as they returned to prime.  

“Won’t you come in? Have some...tea?” 

This time Cortez moved first and they mirrored each other’s steps until they were opposite sides of the fencing circle from where they had started. 

Marcos continued mockly with his impression. “I have word about your daughter’s safety.” Then changing it to a slightly higher tone as the voice of Trenton. “Do you? Well tell me! Yes good thing you are the bravest soldier! Here, I give my daughter.” Again Marcos lunged but foolishly took his eyes off the dagger hand of his opponent. “In your capable hands!”

Cortez pushed forward and linked his arm with Marco’s left arm and now stood face to face. “Felipe Marcos, son of Don Carlos Deigo de Malaga,” and suddenly dropped his sword and with his right hand seized the left hand of Marcos, pointing the tip of the dagger to his chest. “That is the worst English accent I have ever heard.”

Marcos looked down at the blade and laughed. “Si, si. You tell me many times.”

The lessons concluded and they moved to a secluded corner to store their swords. Marcos grabbed his arm and spoke in a panic. “Trenton thinks you killed Peter. I heard him this morning talking to Capitán. You have two days. Cortez listen! He threatened to charge you with Peter's death. I think I should start a novena for you or something. Who do you think I should petition?”

Cortez stopped and cringed. He regretted saying DeSoto’s name. “English word would be ‘buffoon’?” Obviously his reading of the aforementioned forbidden book was helping to recall what English he did know. “What evidence?”

“Ambassador’s do not need evidence. Only accusation and a powerful one.” 

“He can come get me. I have nothing to hide from that coward. How he treated her…”

Marcos twisted his sword around once more in the air, checking it’s balance. “Her father’s a bastard.” 

Cortez was now convinced. He had spent the evening mapping out the scenario and now was prepared to tell his theory. “Who else is aligned with the merchants? Who else has this power in Cadiz? I believe Don Pedro killed Peter. Not directly but somehow. He admitted to saying he would like to see them all dead. I cannot convince Alcalde without more proof.”  

Marcos stared back at Cortez. “I think you’re right.” 

There was a wildness to Cortez’s eyes. They would not hold still, a habit of searching for answers in his surroundings and Marcos recognized it. 

“Bien, what are you waiting for? Go get her!”

As Cortez readied to leave he noticed Lesaro had been standing at the edge of the training ground, watching.  He opened his navaja and stood quietly. 

“You have a word for me Lesaro?”

Lesaro did not hesitate to approach. “Cortez de Málaga, you are not as adept with your dagger as you lead others to believe.”

It was only one sentence and Cortez refused to give a verbal acknowledgement, instead he half smiled at the Officer before giving a quick flick his navaja blade into the corner of the wall making a small notch. He pushed his way past Lesaro and left. 

But Lesaro was not waiting for Cortez. He was waiting for Felipe Marcos. 

 

Chapter Text

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 .’ 

A danger? 

A?

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. 

Ravishing

“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. 

“Excuse -!?” 

He picked up the brooch and placed it in his open palm.  “From Salazar?”  

“Yes!” 

“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.

“Oh.” 

“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.

 

Chapter Text

There was a peculiar expression on his face, as if he had seen a flash of verdant green run up the garrison wall and then shatter into the sky. His first thought as he turned his head to look over his shoulder was that perhaps a mirror caught the sun in front of him and some fool had set off a small flash of gunpowder. There were plenty of zealous if inexperienced new recruits running about. One of them could easily bring the entire garrison down. It was all very sloppy in Cortez’s eyes. Too many Noblemen and not enough soldiers in charge with real experience. And he would never align himself to that. 

 

“Cortez!” Capitán DeSoto shoved the broom handle in his face. “Sweep the stairs.” 

 

Cortez’s expression said what his mouth would not. 

The Capitan might as well have asked him to shovel horse manure or count rocks. Which he had been ordered to do on one occasion after a small infraction the first month he was enlisted. Cortez counted to slightly over five thousand before DeSoto was merciful enough to end the punishment. He found the counting pacified his natural tendencies for swiftly lashing out, and from that day chose counting his actions or his steps to ease unavoidable and otherwise intolerable tasks. 

“Do as you are ordered and sweep the stairs.” The Capitán kicked at the dirt with his heel. “And-  you are not to leave this garrison today. Stay out of sight.”  

“Si Capitán. What of my previous orders- if I am confined to the garrison?”

“Those orders no longer stand. Today.” DeSoto looked apprehensively at Cortez, wanting to tell him Ambassador Trenton called for his arrest and threatened international diplomacy if swift action was not taken. What was worse is that he knew Cortez knew, yet he would never formally breathe the accusation. Therefore there was only one course of action: Keep the soldier out of sight, and he might be able to protect him for longer.
“Sweep!” 

Cortez grabbed the broom in one hand and gave the appropriate salute with the other. Felipe had been right. Trenton was set on having him shot, without fair trial and without explanation. It had not been in Cortez’s mind he had done anything improper. The opposite! Do the right thing. Keep yourself out of trouble by telling the truth.  

Maybe he had not been the best observer in this affair. He admitted it was a mistake to follow those men down the corridor, to let himself be taken in by the company of Salazar at the Inn. Certainly flattered his ego even if he disagreed with the man’s methods. 

 

“Catorce…” 

He spent the entire morning sweeping. Exactly as ordered. Capitán DeSoto said nothing about how quickly he would need to go about it. It was a leisurely walk, one suited to thinking. A few steps forward, around several men walking the path, his hands mechanically shifting back and forth then several steps forward again. Had Marcos been given the task every step in the armory would have been shining by now. 

“Quince…”

Fifteen. He noted fifteen buttons on Trenton’s coat in the cemetery and one blinding white ribbon around his arm in the Bourbon fashion of mourning. 

She hadn’t worn a ribbon. Had she? No. He shook his head. She had worn impressively bright red stockings.  

He nimbly glided the broom through the crevices between the stone walkway. It reminded him of the way her hair felt under his fingertips last night.   

And that pistol she kept! She had a rare fire in her actions. 

There were words - not his own, he conceded he was no poet - but words that came from the heart and given by muses to other men and he mindlessly began humming lyrics low and soft behind his lips. 

‘De qué le sirve tu incendio el llanto que solicitas,
¿si el agua en llama se enciende en cenizas?
Pero sea fuego el llanto contra el Vesubio que abrigas,
y que un fuego con otro medesina.’

 

“Here! You.” The reins were thrown at his face. 

What was it about people throwing things at him today?   

“Look at the rabble they are bringing to the Armada,” the soldier mockingly frowned. He could not be more than a Corporal and certainly not in a position to order Cortez. 

His companion nodded and laughed in agreement. 

“Do not stand there. My horse needs water. Make sure this noble beast has a good rest. Now go on,” he smoothed down the mane of the dark Andalusian. “...Boy.” 

Cortez straightened. “ Señor, I am not -,”

“Not what?” he spun around and pulled a shining blade from his side. 

“Come on,” the other soldier interjected. “You have time for play later.” 

The man lunged twice in succession at Cortez. If he meant to be playful, the intent was lost. Cortez had already formed in his mind the exact moves he would use to take the man down. The only thing stopping him was the remembrance of a promise he gave and challenging a marine, even with such a blatant insult would likely only result in him sweeping. Again. Or worse. DeSoto was clever with his punishments. 

Cortez took the reins of the horse and walked away. He had plans. “Yes. Rest. And tonight, you and I shall be partners?” The horse bowed his head in response.  

 

---

Armando Salazar waited in the Ambassador’s private box on the second story of the theater. The building was small if one compared it to the constructions still continuing in Madrid and Seville. He had arrived early and the vantage allowed him a perfect view of everyone arriving in the audience below. And he had his intentions set on one. 

Being in the company of Lord Trenton and his daughter under the gaze of so many might give the city more gossip.  With the death of Peter still unresolved no one dared speak out, less they found themselves at the steps of Judgement at the hands of a criminal entity capable of slipping through the Alcalde’s markers.  If someone was brave enough to murder the Ambadador’s son in broad daylight, how safe were the rest of the citizens of Cadiz?  Salazar’s eyes ran over the crowd below. 

Don Pedro sat in the second row oblivious to the eyes scrutinizing him from the balcony. 

The man was purposely conspicuous. He was there to enjoy himself.  His broad shoulders, the high dark wig, the burnt orange velvet coat that was lined in enough silver threads to pay the entire Armada’s salary for a year made him a King in the eyes of some of the Nobles around him. His ambiance extended like an unrefuted torch against the waves of silver light and pale silks surrounding him.

The first person to greet Salazar was the befuddled Doctor who acknowledged the tall figure with a short wave of his hand and an urgency to sit down on the first chair he could find. He was quickly followed by the exuberant Lord Trenton, all smiles and courtesy, with no trace in his voice that tragedy had only the previous week befallen him. They each took their appointed seat.  Evalianna stood quietly and waited to be addressed. It was a formal custom and she had been trained so well it was habit. She ran her fingers over the gifted brooch pinned neatly on the right front corner of her dress bodice. 

Salazar noticed immediately and drew back. 

“I thought - you might like if I wore your gift tonight,” Her eyes resolutely met his. This was the moment. Cortez might be correct about Don Pedro, but she was going to give Salazar one last chance and prove Cortez wrong in his assessment of Salazar’s motives and with a single gesture claim victory against his harsh rebuke. Her heart was beating violently as she waited for his words.  

“Lovely,” he said and waved his hand. Until he realized the gift of her joyful hope was the piece he had given in secret and one that would be recognized by any number of men in the theater below. Men such as Don Pedro. He might have panicked had he not already thought of words to encourage its removal.  “Yet, it does not suit you here in this luxurious place. It is too plain and humble for such a,” he paused for a long while and Evalianna held her breath. “Lovely face.”

But damned if Cortez was not correct. Salazar could not find the most simple words to compliment her. She bit her lip and tore the pin off, daring herself to throw it over the balcony rail to the crowd below. What a spectacle that would have been, hurling a piece of jewelry off the balcony.  She doubted if one more scandal to the family would make a difference. Everyone below her knew the circumstances of her brother’s death. She imagined the whispers behind painted silk fans were directed at her father - and more so herself. Sitting there with Armando Salazar as if he was courting her. No, Cortez had been right, and Evalianna found her heart fully detached from the handsome man sitting next to her. She quietly dropped the pin to the floor and kicked it under her seat. 

Don Pedro was proving himself a cultured and accomplished Spaniard. He had a unique display to perform when visiting any theater.  Before the players would begin to assemble, he would rush on stage and recite several baudy lines he had recently heard or read from a questionable source. Or grab the nearest stringed instrument and pretend to play. In truth he could play the viola impeccably and would do so for hours to the grievance of the actors if the audience showed enough delight. 

Tonight he ran to the stage, made a short soliloquy and descended the stairs forming an impromptu parade back to his seat while bowing to the pearl-drenched woman and rouged lipped men who all attempted to covertly trail their fingers along his lace cuffs.  Once seated, Don Pedro smuggly leaned over his right shoulder to address the equally finely dressed man studiously waiting in the seat next to him. “Well Magda, what are your thoughts?”

“I have seen this play before,” he vaguely smiled.

“Yes, but not with this company of actors! Forget Madrid. Here you will see on stage a passion they cannot freely express under the confines of religious interpretation.” Don Pedro’s eyes shot to the box of Ambassador Trenton then immediately back to the stage. His companion saw the glance. 

“What is there you so eagerly look for?” Magda inquired. 

“That,” he gestured with a quick nod of his head, “Is the English Ambassador.”

Magda recognized the dark haired man waiting in the balcony assigned to Lord Trenton.  “Ah. I have heard there are two suspects. Soldiers.”

Don Pedro chuckled. “Making your own allies so quickly?”

“Are they guilty?” He asked abruptly. 

“The King’s men are always guilty of something.  But you wish to discuss such things tonight? I have other plans for you. Other people for you to make acquaintance with.” He impatiently tapped the arm of his chair with his long fingers.  “Did you know? There is a rumor. Buried deep in the earth below us are the ruins of a Roman theater. Buried by a volcano. Do you suppose such a thing exists?”    

“If it does Don Pedro, there is nothing new.” Magda kept his eyes forward watching the distortion of the curtains as the players backstage moved to their opening positions. 

“Yes. Nothing new. Like this play. The prophecy of a Prince, and the disaster he will bring to his country.” He paused to stare at Magda and placed his hand on the other man’s knee. “And the death of the King.”

The death of a King

Neither would say which King they wished deceased.  The curtain was rushed away and the players contorted their voices and bodies on stage while the men below kept their faces in eager glances to those around, searching to lock eyes with figures who held power.  

Magda looked down. It was Don Pedro's cane he felt. He tapped it once discretely at Madga's waist, and then trailed the top of the cane between his legs and followed the contour of his body.
“Are you in need of something?” Magda asked, smiling.

"Si, I am. And soon," came the silky reply. 

The Spanish theater was designed to provide relief of soul, entertainment to the weary and the imposition of morality the King wished all his subjects to emulate: A lesson aggressively provided to the pupil under the guise of entertainment; an escape to another realm to be applied in their own. Whether the people followed those rules was evident by the number of Confessors available to the citizens. One priest for every five people, and all ready to hear the exploits at any time of day. 

'Tis a dream that I in sadness

Here am bound, the scorn of fate;

'Twas a dream that once a state

I enjoyed of light and gladness.

What is life? 'Tis but a madness.

What is life? A thing that seems,

A mirage that falsely gleams,

Phantom joy, delusive rest,

Since is life a dream at best,

And dreams themselves are merely the dreams of dreams

“Y los sueños, sueños son"

 

“What time is it?” Evalianna leaned forward and ran her fingers back and forth mindlessly on the carved polished wood under her hand. She had cast her eyes all evening between stage and the crowd below but it had become a blur of colors, pleated shapes moving side to side in a dance, and her head was aching. The only thing she could focus on was Salazar. And he, she noticed, spent the evening with his jaw set and his eyes in constant furrow, glaring down at the figure of Don Pedro.

“Father. I need to go home.” Evalianna tapped her fan frantically on her knee. 

She clutched at the silver pomander hanging from her neck, letting the warmth from her hand bring to life the scents hidden inside. She brought it carefully to her nose to inhale a calming mixture of sandalwood and rose. 

“What time is it?” She repeated loudly. 

“My girl that is the fourth time you have asked!” The annoyance in her father’s voice an immediate dismissal of her feelings.  

Doctor Barton drew out his pocket watch. “It is just half past eight.” He noticed she was tapping her foot in rapid succession just outside her skirt and the pallor that washed over her face.  “Are you feeling well?”

“The play, it is not entirely over. I will have you stay,” her father said. 

Evalianna forcefully bit down on her lip and leaned slightly over the balcony again. She could not look down. 

“Please Father. I do not feel well.” She was beginning to panic. Half past eight. Had he not shown last night before then? Or after? She couldn’t remember the exact time.  “Father. I need to leave. Now!”

Salazar pulled back from his observations, his target was removing himself from the row of seats and making his way outside. “Lord Trenton, I will see her home.”

“Oh? You will?” The statement had caught him off guard but he was pleased to hear it. “I see. Yes!” 

Evalianna’s eyes shot open. “Father. I will be alright on my own.”

“Nonsense girl. Let the man take you home. It is dangerous. You’re completely pale. Doctor Barton - give her a sip of your wine before she leaves.”

“No..no thank you father I’d -.”

Trenton grabbed the glass from Barton’s hand and presented it to Evalianna. “One sip, if you wish to go home.”

Her eyes shifted between Barton and Salazar as she took the glass in her hands. She was grateful Salazar had the decency to look away. One sip and she pressed her lips together to force the liquid down. 

“Good.” Trenton leaned in to whisper. “Be polite daughter. And for Heaven’s sake smile. I doubt he’ll ravage you in the carriage.”

--- 

The ride to Paraíso Terrestre was an uncomfortable formality, a hollow gesture of both occupants in an attempt to escape a situation each found intolerable. He spoke nothing, not even mention of the clouds blocking the stars, or the cool wind that shifted across the city. The weather would have been an expected conversation for polite company. Both were beyond that and she had no patience reserved for the man sitting stoically across from her. 

“Do they know, who killed Peter?” A line appeared between her brows. “Does the Comandante have anyone in mind?”

“He has suspects, yes.” Salazar did not look up but continued to look out the window into the darkness, one arm laying across his lap with his hand resting on the hilt of his sword.

“Oh?” It was a coy tone but one that fooled neither recipient or giver of the expression.  “I don’t suppose you could tell me?”

There was no way to avoid an answer, and he still held enough respect to tell her the truth. “There are two men. One, I was sent to watch tonight.” Salazar kept his gaze out the window. The town was darker and behind them now, and they were beginning to climb the hill away from intrigue and chaos.  

Evalianna closed her eyes. It was clear who he had been watching. The man with the orange coat.

“I see. Don Pedro.”

He should have been surprised she knew the man by name, but he supposed the Ambassador’s daughter might have had to play hostesses once to the Don of Cadiz. 

“Yes. The Alcalde has long suspected him of illegal activities. It is who you know that keeps you out of the jail. Out of the clutches of Justice.”

“And the other?”

He finally turned toward her, his eyes disciplined and guarded. “The other is one your father accused. One who saw Peter last.” The horses halted. “Ah. You have arrived safely. Good Evening Senorita Trenton.” He hastily kissed her hand as the door opened. 

“But..” That her father accused! Salazar confirmed it. She wished to remain, to ask him more questions, to probe him for all the information he had on Peter’s death. Instead the footman took her hand and Salazar closed the door with a cursory dismissal. She would receive no more answers from Armando Salazar tonight. 

Mr. Ledford greeted her at the door. His eyes frantically darted between her and the courtyard.

“Miss…”

“No!” She let out an exhaustive sigh. “Excuse me, Ledford. It’s been a trying evening. I wish to remain undisturbed. Tell Susan I will only need her in the morning.”

“And your father? Shall I be expecting him at the usual hour?”

“My father,” she almost told a lie, anything but the truth of what she was feeling. “My father will be home much later.” 

Ledford knew the implication. “Yes Miss. Good Evening.”

Evalianna shot up the stairs and slammed the door shut.  The fireplace lit the room and she thought almost nothing of the fact that the vase had been cleared up from the floor, and took it as a sign that Susan must have returned. But, the bed had not been turned down. Nor was there a clean shift laid out and her slippers, which she so desperately wanted to rest her feet in were nowhere to be found. 

And no sign of Cortez. She checked the door on the balcony. Locked. The windows were shut. Everything on her desk - just as she left it. Her heart sank. 

She changed to her dressing gown and sat at the vanity.  Even the water pitcher was completely empty. And she was so thirsty. 

He knew the difference of her footsteps as soon as she stepped inside the room. One of the servants earlier in the evening peeked in and a second later inexplicably retreated in the same covert manner. That first invasion he hoped was Evalianna returning and he had almost been caught by the nosy servant. He did not need the clock on her wall to know how late it was becoming. Opportunity - it favored him in those waiting minutes hidden away in her room and surrounded by her things. In the darkness he shifted over to the desk exploring secret compartments that were no longer secret after his first visit. A delicately penned letter she was beginning to write lay folded in the top drawer. Half a name had been scrolled across the top but the words - the words underneath were potent. 

‘The world sleeps. 

And I wait for you. 

Hours course in my veins and become a reminder of my existence, the will to live abiding in the hope of a distant sunrise. Yet sunrise comes and I pray for evening. You neither stay nor go, a fond remembrance clutched to my bosom. Parted from me…’

He told himself to stay calm, and he counted his breaths as her footsteps approached. He remained hidden as she investigated the empty pitcher, as she released a sigh, as she sat down so close to him. He could see her shadow along the floor as she began to brush her hair. 

From the corner of her eye she caught a brief rusling movement near her bedpost. It stopped and she continued to brush her hair. She heard it - the sound of something scraping quickly along the floor. Mice again . This time she was too tired and upset to do anything more than take off her shoe and throw it in the direction of the noise. 

 “Oh!”

Cortez emerged from behind the drapes at the corner of her bed. Her hand stopped midair holding her other shoe, and she fixed her gaze on him, fearing he would vanish if she blinked. 

“If your aim with a pistol is as good as your aim with your shoe senorita, I am glad you put the pistol down!” 

“What are you doing here?” As soon as the words left her mouth she felt foolish. They both spent their day anticipating this moment and she still felt embarrassed to admit it. 

He frowned, insulted by the question. “I told you - I return to know Salazar’s answer.”

“Um, you,” she looked away. To anything. The cleaned floor, the fireplace, the ceiling, the small porcelain squirrel with its tail lively brushed and standing to a perfected attention on her mantle.  

“I was bored waiting. You need better servants. I almost slipped on the vase. Any idea how much sweeping I have done today?” He feigned an ache and rubbed his hand around his forearm. “Sore.” He smiled as a flush of color brightened her cheeks.

“And the fire?” Even if she thought he was impolite with his words, his actions were another matter. 

“Si. And the fire. When was the last time your maid came to dust?” He clicked his tongue, walked toward the fireplace and ran his finger along the mantle.  “It is the messiest woman’s room I have seen.” 

“Señor Cortez, I doubt you have ever seen the inside of a ladies bed chamber.” She stood up and walked over to him. 

“Yes I have!” He contested.

“What? A sister? Your mother? I am very tidy!” She turned her head up and folded her hands in front of her as if being scrutinized by a childhood teacher. 

An uneasy silence fell between them. His eyes grew cold from her words and he turned his face away. She had not meant to upset him. And what if he wanted to leave. She searched desperately for anything to change the heavy atmosphere her words had created. 

“Arma -,” Remembering his rebuke the last time she mentioned the man’s first name she stopped herself. “Señor Salazar said they have suspects. One he confirmed what you said. Don Pedro. And another,” she relaxed her posture and ran her fingers along the same mantle. He was correct. It was dusty. She rubbed her fingers together removing the dirt and softly cleared her throat before continuing. “He said, my father accused. By name.”

“And you think this is me?” He scowled. 

This was not the reaction she hoped for. She wanted to see him smile, not frown. She was confirming she believed his words, trusted him. But now she was curious, and that curiosity to know anything about this man directed the conversation. 

“Is it?” She turned back toward him.  “Have you in your past, killed someone?” The pain in her face as the words passed her lips was not unnoticed by Cortez. 

“Why would I have brought your brother here if I had been ordered to kill him?!” 

“I’m sorry! I want to make sense of this.” She looked down, embarrassed to meet his eyes. Eyes that hastily flickered with scorching condemnation and refused to move their glare away from her face. Had he even blinked? 

Everything was wrong. They had been in her room for hardly five minutes and already she felt every time her mouth opened the wrong words came out. Her body was betraying her, her mind was racing, and the man standing in front of her was shifting his weight back and forth on his feet, as if in some dance within himself to retain control.  Now she had half accused him of murdering Peter.

She bit her bottom lip. “May I know, Señor Cortez,” toying with the pomander still around her neck, “Where you were born?”

He raised an eyebrow. “I will not tell you about my past.” It was a lie. He was prepared to tell her part of his past. But not the part she was trying to directly ask about. 

“Then you have killed someone.” Her voice softened at his pseudo revelation.  

“Si, but it is…complex. I do not suppose you committed murder?” He returned to the familiar relaxed stance, leaning against the wall, his arms crossed over his chest. “You have an enemy? Maybe you have slit their throat hm? Or...  How would you go about killing someone Señorita?”

“What a morbid thing to think about!”

“Si.” He nodded his head and turned up the corner of his mouth in a smile. “Maybe that pistol of yours. I fear your accuracy. How well you have trained. How many hours you have held that pistol in your hands.” He sauntered toward her, stopping with only a few inches between them. He was now towering above her and the blaze in his eyes returned. 

“You did not murder anyone!”

His stature immediately straightened. “I am a loyal son of Spain. I kill when ordered.” 

“But not before. Why say so? Why accuse yourself?”

“I watched a man die.” 

“Watching is not the same as committing the crime.” 

He laughed and leaned down, taking a small curl of her hair in his hand. “Are you guilty of some horrible crime? Confess to me and…”

“Confess?” She tried to steady her voice. 

“Tell me then. What is this horrible thing you think weighs on your soul. Did you steal, Señorita?”

“No!”

“Have you told a lie?” He grinned not giving her a chance to respond. “Si, to me. Have you not said your prayers well?”

He traced his hand steadily down her sleeve, stopping only for a moment when his fingers touched her the flesh of her elbow, and continued until his hand entwined over hers. She gasped and tried to pull away but he only held her tighter.  

“N-no.” 

“What could be bothering her so much?”

Her hand was now trembling and he let it go. 

“Please, let us talk about something else.” She licked her lips before tightly closing her eyes and forcefully begging her body to behave respectively. There was no opportunity. He pulled at the fabric of her dressing gown with his left hand, bringing her to his chest. 

“I think I know. You dishonor your father?” He tilted her head up with the back of his hand. “Evalianna, your thoughts. You think of something you should not.”

“What are you implying?” 

 “Your face. It is red.” He languidly brushed a hand across her cheek, “I think, you have impure thoughts.”

“That is entirely inappropriate Señor Cortez!”  

“Si. Thoughts – about me.” 

“I - I have no thoughts.”

“Your lips, Señorita.”

“What about them?” She innocently covered her mouth with her hand.

“I kiss them.”

“You will not.”

“Si. I will.” 

His fingers traced her jawline. He was enjoying being in command of her. “But not until you say where Salazar has touched you.”

The name washed across her mind like a distant memory. “Nothing. He hasn’t -” 

It would be his eyes that pulled the truth from her. The eyes that pierced through dark lashes down to her own, bright and crisp, and an arrow to her heart. 

“I think you lie as well as you swear.”

“Only he did kiss me.”

Cortez pulled back and cocked his head to one side.  

“Yes. Just this evening in fact. Right before he left. He - grabbed my arm and swooped me up, and –,”

The thought, the sight in his mind of that man’s face anywhere near her flesh ignited his already rising jealousy. That was enough. He had to touch her. Had to stop her mouth from forming any more lies.

He grabbed her arm and pulled her below him, and without hesitation slammed his lips to hers. She moaned in reply but did not move. 

Realizing at that moment he was giving away his control he drew back. “I am - lo siento señorita.” 

“No Señor Cortez. Again,” she requested breathlessly. 

He did not have the opportunity. Her father had arrived home, announcing himself in the usual disruptive way.  Evalianna remained frozen, unsure if her father would go directly to the Library as his custom, or be coherent enough to find Susan and bring her to his bedroom. There were heavy footsteps on the stairs, down the corridor, and finally stopping at her door. 

Cortez threw his hand over Evalianna’s mouth to keep her from making any noise. Trenton knocked on the door. Cortez took his hand from her and shook his head. She understood. He would hide himself again. 

Evalianna unlatched the door and her father almost fell in on top of her. He stood before her, breathing like an overheated bull, slightly weaving, his cravat missing, and his bald head showing from underneath his hat. 

“I see you made it home. Good girl.” His hand landed on her shoulder and he looked directly at it. There was a single red ribbon peeking out from under her dressing gown. 

“Red. Hmm. Red. Your mother used to wear red when she.” His voice drifted as he saw movement over her shoulder behind a curtain. 

Listening to the drunken Trenton, Cortez’s hand immediately reached for the dagger. One more threat, one more touch to Evalianna and Cortez would strike, damn the consequences. 

“I wondered whose horse that was. Well, Armando is a handsome fellow. And frankly, I would not mind if you did, girl.” A disproportionate sigh exited his chest and filled the air around him with the pungent smell of tobacco lodged in his stained mouth. 

“Tomorrow I am sending a search for Susan. I could use his help.” He ran his finger along her shoulder and pulled at the red ribbon “I need her.” He let the ribbon go. “Yes...Let him have this.” Clearing his throat he spoke louder intending to address the man behind the curtains. The man he thought was Salazar. “Let it be known your father has no objections to your honor in this matter. I was young once too.” He cupped her chin in his hands and she yanked her head away. “And you do so remind me of your mother.”

She almost spoke. A heated shiver ran up her spine as if knowing Cortez’s eyes were focused on her. The Ambassador did not realize how closely he was playing with death. 

“Father I-.”

There was a shuffle along the stairs outside her room and Trenton immediately turned his attention to it. His mouth was dry. Ledford would certainly have poured a drink for his master by now. 

“Good night, girl.” Trenton flumbled out the door and down the hallway. 

Evalianna slammed the door shut and fell back. “You should go.”

Cortez was at her side before she had a chance to turn around. He slid his arm around her hips backing her against the door.

“Shh!”

Cortez leaned his ear on the door. The corner of his mouth turned up in a smile as she modestly struggled under him. But he kept her pinned there, neatly applying pressure from his chest against hers. “Stop wiggling.”

Her knees pulled together as she bit her lip. “What is it!”

It was the sound of breaking glass, a string of vulgarities from the mouth of Ambassador Trenton, and finally a crash from a small piece of furniture. He thought he heard Dr. Barton speak. 

Evalianna remained below him, her fists locked around the fabric of his waistcoat and her face buried in his arm trying to escape the sound. 

“Go! Go!” her voice muffled against his chest. 

“You think,” he huffed and pushed back so to look directly in her eyes. “You think I leave you here? With- ,” the words twisted out of his mouth. “That man? No. You are crazy.”

“You cannot stay. My father, when he is like this.” There was no doubting her father’s agitated state. 

“Si. I can. I will.”

“What about your commanding officer? What about -,” she wanted to protest. She needed to protest before her entire body refused to let go of him. “Please. You do not need to take any shit from him for me.”

“Not very good at that,” he laughed.  

“At what?” She sheepishly raised her head. 

“The vulgarity. You think it makes you stronger to sound like one of the gutter soldiers? I will not have that language cross your lips,” his fingers brushed across her mouth. “No, you are not capable of such language. It is beneath you. Try it again.”

Evalianna parted her lips but no sound escaped. She was tempted to reach out with her tongue and taste the thumb that was still dancing back and forth across her bottom lip. 

“And are you one of those – gutter soldiers?”

“No señorita. I am not like them,” he growled and his eyes hardened. “I will prove it.”

He let her go and she stepped back leaving him to stand alone in the middle of the room. “Sleep. You there,” he pointed to her bed and looked around the room, “I will sleep here. Chairs are very comfortable.”

She hesitated. The way he was so certain made her smile. 

“I will not leave you,” he said. 

Those words from him created an entirely different sensation. One that made those locked knees under her shift. 

“Turn around then.” She shivered, hardly knowing if he would obey. Why was she agreeing to his demand? He asked her before to trust, proven his intelligence regarding Salazar’s intentions, he held nothing from her even when the truth was something she wanted desperately to deny. Here she would give him another opportunity to prove what sort of gentleman he was. And with the world around her in chaos, for the first time in many years simply being in his presence she felt - protected - A sensation she had not experienced for so long. 

Quickly she dropped her dressing gown, climbed into bed in her chemise, pulled the sheet and blanket up tightly under her neck and lay there, her back toward him. 

“It is better that you not go,” she whispered to herself. But he heard.  

“Si. You sleep.”

“Good night, Señor Cortez.”

Señor Cortez! He turned and watched as she curled herself down into the covers so far that he could only see a lock of hair trail down her pillow. Enough. Tomorrow. Tomorrow he would tell her his name. 

“Good night, Evalianna.” 

He removed his coat and hung it on the back of the chair next to her bed. The dagger he placed on the table between them, and he stretched before sitting down. Chairs were more comfortable than his cot at the barracks but still he cleared his throat several times before finding a comfortable position. 

And she, eyes watching his shadow cast by the dwindling firelight on the wall opposite as he moved, slipped into a peaceful dream. 

---

It was another humid Summer morning. The bright white of the sun cracked through her shutters and absorbed in the lightly woven silk curtains framing the window. As the sun moved, the long rays crawled along the tile floor and illuminated the soft pale wood of her bed and the cream colored sheets surrounding her outstretched body.  

She had not heard the birds. No, that was not what woke her. It was the calm and even breath of the man seated beside her. The man protecting her.

Cortez remained all night, just as he promised and was still asleep on the chair, his arms crossed over his chest. If he heard her wake, he made no effort to reveal it. She hesitated, daring to watch his profile move in the glow. Slouched down, his ankles crossed over in his boots, she moved her eyes upward in a continual admiration of the man. He stirred, shifting his hips slightly making his breeches crease just a little more, though she scolded herself for wanting to see what other movements his shifting may produce. The white linen of his shirt lay haphazardly untucked and his collar open, revealing the true breadth of his shoulders, ones she had spent imagining since his appearance in the cemetery. She followed his smooth dark hair slightly falling around his face, the angle of his brow, the curve of his lips and that slight indent at the corner of his mouth that would turn to a long dimple when he smiled. She imagined reaching out to kiss it. A gentle caress, a willing delight of skin below her lips, the warm sweet intoxication of his scent invading her body in unstoppable waves. 

She sat up, quietly swung her legs over the edge of the bed and placed her feet solidly on the cool floor. 

And he woke. 

When his eyes opened he did not look at her; instead he walked to the shutters and opened them with force. A rush of wind pushed the curtains filling the remaining dark corners of her room with sunlight. 

He paused a minute, walked back to her side, and knelt down resting on his heels. Yes, now was the moment. He reached out and solemnly took her hand, raising his eyes to hers that were darted back and forth with apprehension. 

Then he spoke. Deeply. Evenly. Direct.  

“Quiero que recuerdes.”

She looked back at him questioningly. 

He took a breath and brought the palm of her hand to his lips, whispering against the delicate flesh: 

 

Me llamo Stefano.”  

 

She leaned forward.

He shook his head. 

And picked her up, wrapping his arm under her legs and carrying her to the window.

They stayed in front of the opened window both staring quietly at the horizon.  The humidity built along her neck, her shoulders, stifling her lungs and making her chemise cling to her body. And after a silence of some time, he let her down and held her there.  

The lightest breeze swept through the curtains and enclosed them in the opaque fabric, enveloping them in a bright and soft world. One that was secluded. One of their own.

 She instinctively wanted to brush stray hair from her face. Oh how she wished to give herself up entirely to him, locked as they were here, yet she was unwilling to risk moving a single muscle, or twitch of an eye, should it all fall into dust with the wrong gesture. 

He saw the struggle in her eyes, the wandering thoughts uncertainty yet safety. He moved her hair out of her face and she flinched back.  The palm of his hand touched her cheek as his fingers danced upward into her hair and when he found those locks he grasped them, tilted her head up and with a cautious, tamed movement yielded to his desire and, and he brushed his lips along her neck.  

The longer he held her, the more tantalizing his velvet lips remained and so near her own, the more she felt as if she were teetering between a wave of trembling hands and stiff shoulders, wanting to collapse against him, while her pulse rose in her chest and lay against his heart. But he would not let go, and so they continued to stand in this place taking in the presence of each other.  She imagined this must be how a gull feels along the wind, or how molten glass feels as it is molded and cooled under an exquisite glassmaker. 

She rested her chin on his shoulder, closing her eyes and listening to his steady breath. 

He broke away, slightly, and her whole being trembled, fearing he was about to declare their time together complete and he could no longer make excuses and must retreat back to his Capitan. 

He did not. 

“Remember,” he whispered to her ear. 

It was not a question. But an order. 

She nodded and he repeated still a second time - remember - , his arms never leaving their hold around her waist. 

“I am waiting,” he said.  

She paused and drew a breath, a deep confidence welling as she realized what he was beseeching her to do.  

“Stefano.”

The sound of his name slipped past her lips to the air infusing his soul with a passion to take her then, strip her down in front of that window and put the entire world on hold while he caressed every pulsing and blushing inch of her body.  Wanting to break his own promise to be patient with her, and forcing him to lay his velvet lips again on hers. 

After having taken once more a warm drink of from her lips he pulled back, unlocking his hand from her waist to take hold of that now steady hand of hers. 

“Will you allow me to claim your hand? To stay with you?” There was more he wished to say but words did not come. Rather he continued to brush his other hand along her face and gather with his thumb a tear that had broken from the corner of her eye; a tear that bloomed from the joy in her heart. “ I cannot force you to love me but I love you and I will not go. Will you love me?” 

She did not hesitate. “I will.”

Such words, an agreement of the Will of Souls, delighted even the Heavens. 

Only below them his attention had been sharply interrupted. In the courtyard Edward Trenton had stumbled his way across the ground, yelling orders for Ledford before retreating inside. 

“Truly you must leave now,” gentle sobs broke her voice. 

His eyes studied the horizon, marking the time and the movement of the clouds, and the commotion beginning to gather in their Paradise.  Even Nature wore their hearts and the wind became inundated with tension, no longer brushing quietly along the window but turning sharp against corners and cracking along the trees down the path, as though the angels had caught sight of their secret pledge and interceded to carry it upwards on colossal wings, stirring up humanity and sweeping away the demons laying just beyond the coastline. 

“Eva,” his voice darkened. “I have given you my word. Today, you are mine. I know how much you have suffered, these walls you lock yourself in. I will not cut out your heart. And will make you call my name.” 

“Stefano..” She meant to say it with a light sarcastic tone. 

“You see?”

She smiled and he, Stefano Cortez, held her in his arms, intensely taking another kiss from her. While she gave. And gave again. And let his mouth claim her with fervent elation. 

Chapter Text

I

What remained of the two fine English stemware glasses cast shards of light across the table. Thin pieces of crystal were floating in a lake of evaporating red wine, spilled and dripping down from the mahogany table to the carpet of the Library.  Edward Trenton pushed open the great doors and stumbled back into the room. The damage was his, he knew it. And the remaining anger inside him insisted on immediate release. 

The portrait of the girl. 

It was the target of his madness. There she hung, wine stained and softly smiling, her dark eyes continuing to rebuke the narcotized man. Trenton grimmissed, his hands in tight fists. His daughter had named her Clare. Oh yes, he knew of the grotesque relationship Eva had formed with an invisible friend in the confines of her bedroom. He had designed it that way.

“Better she talk to you than to me! I will not be so kind!” Ripping her from the wall completely and throwing her on the floor at his feet Clare toppled to the ground, a corner of her gilded frame flying across the room. 

“You couldn’t watch over her? I specifically! Specifically commanded –” Out of breath he could not finish the sentence. Her eyes followed him, not harsh, indeed they were sorrowful. Hesitating, he felt a moment of guilt and swore he heard her speak. His contrite heart vainly looked for excuses and clemency in his attempt to reply.  

“No no no, do not scold. I came here looking for you…” A twinge caught his nose and ran down to his lips. He licked the salt away.  

“Floating away on that damned Spanish ship! Like some dandelion on the wind. Leaving me.” Looking through blurred eyes he picked at the cuff of his sleeve. The lace was unraveling. “You see what I have done for you?!  I wouldn’t have hurt you.” 

Now crumbled on the floor propped against her and begging forgiveness, scraping away the moisture from his chin with his other sleeve as he bit down on his lower lip, all coherent thought mixed with delusions of past and pain. 

And her face- Opaque crimson streaks appeared down her cheeks, as if she had been crying and those tears were awash with a far away longing. Or so he imagined. 

“Hush hush,” brushing his calloused fingers along the black flaking brush strokes representing her hair. “Your father…our father. He didn’t understand did he? How much I would have loved you.  Made me trade you for that serving girl. Tell me. Tell me you’ve stolen her away and are coming back to me?” 

His mind was racing. A thousand excuses and schemes frantically placed before him by all the demons which had been haunting him these last weeks. 

“That’s why Susan has disappeared! Because you …You’d never really leave me.” He wiped the canvas with the back of his hand, collecting several drops of wine. The cold liquid trailed along his skin. It had to be wine, crawling down her cheeks, didn’t it? Certainly there was no real reason for it to be blood. Her blood had not been spilt on his behalf. There would be no reason for her to condemn him. So yes, it must be remnants of wine left over from the glass he threw at her picture last night. 

It was then he realized there was a tear in the canvas above her head; an inch long and loosely hanging down. No gash that could not be repaired. It would leave a scar. They all had scars in this house. Now she carried one. In life she had been untouched, free from the spoils of man and earth. This was what he wanted to remember. The unspoiled beauty. 

“I’d trade them all, if you’d come back,” he cried, no longer holding back tears. 

Slowly raising his hand to the sunlight the cold line of liquid again caught his attention.

It was blood. His. Glass embedded in his fingers. He looked down on the slick red dripping out of his skin. Slowly closing his hand, he allowed the pain to intrude against his palm. That was what he needed. To feel. Anything. Right now, pain would suffice. 

 

II

“Come.”

Her lips, swollen and eager to have more brushed against his warm and slightly bristled neck at that spot where she could feel his strong and steady pulse. She hummed against its rhythm. Breathed in his warming scent. 

“Come,” his heated breath slid between her ear and hairline. What else that pressed against her was formidable, solid. She tried to lift her leg slightly higher in his grip. 

Until his alarming direction stopped her.    

“Dress yourself. Quickly.” 

“I -” her eyes shot open. “What? Now?” She asked frantically. 

Between them and the billowing curtains, between the solid wall of their faux sanctuary and the chaotic world, Cortez watched as DeSoto’s men marched with confidence to the entrance of Paraíso Terrestre kicking up red dust along the road. A company of six, no seven, he counted.  DeSoto always did have inopportune timing. 

“Why? No!” She followed his eyes and saw the same distant red cloud. “Oh they must be here to speak to my father. The Capitán may have word of Peter’s,” she could hardly get the word out, “murderer.”

He smiled. Danger would not stop her from thinking of others. 

It was not only the oncoming threat of the soldiers.  The commotion her father made in the Library, an extension of drink and an unsteady mind, overtures made by a man hallucinating somewhere between reality and the powdered diversion Don Pedro had supplied him with forced Cortez to make a decision.  

“We are leaving. Get dressed.” Trying to be practical in his next request, he made it swiftly. “Do not wear anything complicated. You will be riding my horse.”

She looked down at the beast tied to the rudimentarily repaired post. “That one? It looks so - unwieldy. Untamed.” 

“Trust me. And the word is,” closing his eyes and rolling the translations through his mind. “I teach you your own English - feisty.” The accent would need work. 

“Why leave in a rush? I could hide you very easily in here. Even from the Alcalde’s men. I have some rights as the Ambassador’s daughter and he would not dare -,”

Clasping her arm, his face in sober accusation. “No no, we go. I will not leave you here. Together.” As if to add urgency to his meaning he motioned with his head at her clothes laying neatly across the bed. 

The horse tapped the ground and gave a great snort, pulling at his expertly secured lead.

“Stefano! Did you steal that horse!?”

He almost looked offended. If that were possible. “Borrowed.” 

“Uhuh. With or without permission?” She might still be in his grasp but was prepared to admit he might have a streak of rebellion in his character. “Susan was right. You are a scoundrel!”

“Borrowed! Without permission,” he hastily mumbled. “Now. Get dressed.” With a great stretch he straightened his posture, pleased and intrigued to know she had spoken intimately about him. 

“And when did she say that?” His inquiry was left unanswered. 

She brushed him out of the way to look out the window again. “I am not going to take part in horse thievery! Take your coat and, um, hide.” Trying to shove him behind the curtains of her bed was futile; he did not budge. “Um.. under the bed? No - how about,” frantically looking around. “In the wardrobe? Yes! Plenty of room!” 

“No I will not fit!” He objected. “And,” smugly looking down his nose and pointing across the room, “you forgot my boots.” 

A battle of wills had begun and he had no intention of losing. 

“You have no choice. Listen to me.” Taking her by the shoulders and turning her around, she stood captured by both his physical form and his sincere voice.  “I will have you for myself today. Do what you are told.”

The mistake she made was looking him in the eyes. They were bright, saturated by the sunlight and potently evocative. But still she would not relent. 

“We can take one father’s,” pointing down to the stable. Across the pale clay courtyard, slowly rolling its great teeth between drooping lips and sensitive whiskers the tan hay crunched and shuffled side to side before being devoured by the grey mare. 

“That old beast? It will not ride as fast.” Once again trying to impress on her the urgency of his meaning, he pushed her closer against the open window.  “Look.” 

She had to squint but Cortez clearly watched. Silver buttons flashing in the sunlight, the shield being carried by one man with the Alcalde’s arms. “You see? Those men are not here for friendly visit.” He wondered if Salazar was among them but could not distinguish faces.

“Let me protect you,” sturdy words and desperate eyes pleading for her to yield. 

“I cannot simply run away. What of my father? And Mr. Ledford would probably die if I left.”

“You have a choice. Your father, the Alcalde .. Or me.” 

It might not have been the wisest thing to say, to ask her to choose between her family or him, and part of his stomach tightened. He had to make her understand. It was his last option. 

Precious moments passed. She thought his hand was trembling as he still held tight to her arm. Was it so much danger? Even if only to him, she would not concede to being the downfall of his military career. She looked back at the chair he spent the night in. Words flew into her mind. Honorable. Trust. She must trust him.   

“Well,” not wanting to fully admit defeat, “if it will allow me to be out of the house for a while.” 

Gathering clothing and shoes she began to dress as was her habit in the middle of the room. Until she watched his smile. The little upturn to his cheek, the crease lining up so exquisitely with his eyes. Oh if her own eyes would at least try to obey and not immediately draw down to linger on his stance! Nonchalantly leaning against the bedpost, arms folded across his chest and one ankle over the other. And his eyes staring down. No. They were craving. If he continued this way she would have permanent bite marks on her lower lip trying to stay the temptation of kissing him again.

Crawling on her bed, she grabbed for the curtains to shut them tight. There had to be some semblance of modesty to maintain, even if she had allowed the man to spend the night in her room. Allowed? She had no choice. 

It was his own hand that prevented the curtains from closing. 

“Excuse you,” she feigned an objection as his hand landed on hers. 

“I was taught to be polite,” he said. “I help you.”

“Then politely close them thank you!” She tried to snap the fabric back away from him. 

He would let go. He had the intention of letting go. Not before his lips brushed along her knuckles. 

“Do you want me to hurry up?” If he was going to continue those seductive hints she would have her way and they would never leave. 

He did not raise his lips but hummed an affirmative against her soft skin.

“Then stop that.” A simple touch and he was already raising sensations in parts of her yet to be uncovered.  

The timing was miserable. If those men had not been approaching, he effortlessly would have crawled across that bedspread and laid her back. Continued with their descent of indulging flesh covered in piloerection.  He begrudgingly shut the curtains, content to imagine her wrything under that canopy as he listened to the bed creak under her movements. 

She sat down to put on her stockings, struggling with tying her stays while not realizing she was kicking out her legs past the curtain. He watched her feet dangle and gracefully arc in her struggle. 

He snickered, tempted to take hold of an ankle and catch her like a fish. 

“What is so funny,” she vexingly called out. 

“Do you need help?” A small shift of his weight and speaking over his shoulder toward the still very opaque and very tightly drawn fabric, his inquiry was purely for teasing, knowing she would decline. There did lay on his heart a small amount of optimism that she might invite him in. 

Later , he reminded himself. The horses outside were now close enough that the distinct whiney and neighs of overworked animals echoed up the road.  

“No no! I’ll get it. Oh damn!” Still, she continued to fight with her attire. As before with the buckles and shoes the day of the funeral she struggled to put everything in its proper place. Each movement was in slow motion, and as she tried to tighten ribbons and adjust seams her fingers lost all sense of touch and she worked from instinct. 

“Fucking knot…”

“What was that?” The grin left his face at her vulgar words. 

“Nothing,” she sang, fighting with the last ribbon. “Oh forget it,” and she tossed the troublesome piece of clothing to the foot of the bed.  “And stop asking me questions if you want me to rush.” 

He wasn’t impatient about her attire, rather he was displeased with her language. And clearly he would have to explain again what words he did not want to cross her lips. He might even contemplate punishing her next time.   

III

Secretly she was glad Cortez talked her out of taking her father’s horse. Poor thing had been useful in drawing carts but carrying people? Not with such a sunken back. His mount was bred for endurance, fit for war and certainly trained to obey every command of it’s master on loud and crowded battlefields. She shuddered. This was not the time to dwell on whether the daunting man holding her would be called away. Thankfully she had the sense to learn to ride and that he had a hold of her waist. She gathered the leather of the reins tightly over her hands. She wondered if he was purposely guiding the horse in multiple directions just so he could clasp down and play on her fingers.  

The bridge was empty and when they continued past the last post she tried to gain her bearings from maps she had seen on her father’s desk. The layout lined up with nothing she imagined. There were far too many trees, and being lost was not on her plan. 

“Where are you taking me?”

Leaning down and speaking directly in her ear, “Maybe we go all the way to Gibraltar?” 

Eva paled and her eyes grew wide as the leather from the reins pushed deeper into her hands.  

“Ha! The look on your face.” He slowed.  “No. I will take you not much further.”  

Where was he going anyway? Admittedly he had only half a plan in her room. Now that she was riding away with him, he would have been satisfied to go with her to Málaga and present her as the new Señora. But that could wait. Right now they had to stay away from Trenton. The town was too crowded, the shore unsafe, and with the summer heat scorching the fields that was an uncomfortable option.  

There was one place he remembered. Abandoned, or he hoped it had remained so. 

The greeting they received was from overgrown trees and fragrant vines reclaiming a plastered wall. 

Would it have killed anyone to leave the lock undone? Cortez flicked out his navaja, managing to cut through some of the unruly vines at the edge of the gate. He shoved the door open and forced away the supporting beam used to keep trespassers out. He was hardly a trespasser. This place once belonged to his mother’s family. 

They entered a small courtyard, not so grand as his childhood home in Cordoba, but the same Moorish plans: geometric hedges now overgrown, a fountain in the center with a mosaic trench extending the length of the perfectly square area. The fruit trees growing in large glazed pots needed pruning but the birds sang very comfortably. Blue and tan tiles with floral patterns made the floor.  Archways that resembled cut out minarets, their entrances blocked with dense and diverse foliage marked the perimeter of the court. 

She tightened her grip on his hand, dodging large magenta flowers trailing across the path. 

“Why is it abandoned? It’s beautiful but like a forgotten dream.”

Could she really not understand? An Ambassador’s daughter so blind to the world around her? She seemed the equal to her father when questioned about the Dutch and the French but still events less than a generation old evaded her learning. 

Walking along the tiles as if in a holy reverence, he brought her to stand in the middle. There were stories of this home and its inhabitants but they were only names to him, and ones his father wanted him to forget. He knew them only from the songs his mother would hum when they were alone. 

“Have you been to a place such as this before?” She tried taking in all the colors and life. Such an opposite abandonment than her own home. 

“Why do you ask.” 

“You have a far off look in your eye. As if you were thinking of something. A memory.” She bowed her head and turned slightly away, palms cold as she cleared her throat to finish her thoughts. “A - someone.”

“You are right.” 

His head cocked in that curious manor picked up from some creature he had studied during hours of wandering in the Alcázar . He had not recognized the movement, almost involuntary, a habit picked up from all those hours weaving in the gardens making notes of the creatures both free and in captivity. His mother forebad his education after the incident with his tutor and the subsequent dismissal. It did not stop him from observing the natural world and blending human action to wild animals around him. What gifts had been brought from the New World in the lieu of gold! Strange birds and pineapples, and tall gangly animated beings with tails longer than his arms wrapped around branches and calling down on him, mocking.

His silence made her tremble, afraid of his answer and wishing she could close her ears to everything except the birds in the trees. How selfish she had been, thinking there would be no one else he cared for. Her father was right. Proper social manners were lacking. Selfish to think she could matter to him as nothing more than an obligation, and that was coincidence. Assigned to walk with her because of Peter’s death, and not of his own choice. 

“Have you seen the Alcázar ?” He asked. 

It was her turn for silence. 

“This place reminds me of it.” Turning around he sat down on the marble ledge of the fountain. “It is a fortress outside. Towers. But inside. Inside I used to run my fingers between the carvings on the walls. They were sharp, cold.”

“How did you get in? There must have been guards. Or,” she blushed, keenly aware she may have made a mistake about his past and his origins. “Were you, born there?”

He stood up, wrapped his gentle arm around her waist and looked down on her with serenity in his eyes. 

“Señorita there are gardens. An orchard. Every imaginable flower. Red, yellow, greens. And the blue sky.”

“Oh?” 

“Hmm.” Raising his hand brushing it along her cheek. “Apricot.”  Then taking her hand to kiss it, “Pomegranates.”

“Señor I –,” watching his lips move with that last word, hungry to let drip the liquid from each fruit he named in her mouth or on her being if he desired it. 

“And here. I am in that garden again. With Eve.”  His expression darkened. “With you.” 

A silence persisted while the breeze decided which way to turn. Up through the hill where they had arrived, or down to the side of the garden where they now stood. It took turns, back and forth, crossing over several times before giving up, and leaving them still. And alone. 

“You are shaking,” he said.  

“I’m cold.”

“No,” he laughed at her attempted lie. “Are you afraid?” 

She quickly nodded but did not know why her action went against her thoughts.  

“Of what?”

“This reminds me of.”  

She stopped and moved away from him, dreading the reaction to the name she had on her tongue. Of what he, the man Clare called ‘my Spaniard’ had done to her heart. But Clare had been wrong, banished from her room and despite the impetuosity that made up Stefano Cortez, his words were honest. She needed him to remain honest. 

“I am afraid you have asked me to walk with you so you can gently tell me you are never coming back. That you never want to see me again. That all this has been exciting and I believed you and what a fool I have been. But you have some decency left in your heart and you do not wish to see me hurt so you will proceed with honeyed words and tell me that someday in other circles my future is with someone else.”

She was flustered, red faced, speaking too quickly for him to understand all her words, watching her hands wave about while unleashing the doubts of her heart. And she was pacing so rapidly that her hair began to come loose joining the few strands already released from their journey. 

He stopped her. 

It was the open palm of her hand he kissed first. Then her inner wrist. A brush of his tongue over the skin and she was thankful he was holding her by that wrist or she was certain her legs would give way and find herself falling, clasped on to those thighs she had earlier felt standing by the window. She over compensated the rush by lifting on her toes and folding into his arms, raising her own hand to trace his jawline with her finger. Then his lips. Down his neck, wrapping her fingers in the fabric of his cravat and pulling down, gently. 

“ … what?”

“Feeling you do that. Do you know what it does to me?” He growled. Even if she did know, he was going to show her. 

“Sit with me.”

Politely she brushed her skirt back and took a place next to him on the ledge of the fountain. Immediately her eyes raised to the sky. He was studying her again, and she could feel those eyes take their time along her neck. She forced her knees together while a cascade of nerves rushed up her back and shoulders, like so many light feathers brushing against bare skin. It was happening again. The heat growing in her chest and the uncomfortable flutter of want between her legs. 

And so she could not look him in the eye. Not if she were to say what she truly wanted. 

“I must make a confession Señor.” The words were so formal, he expected her to turn and kneel before him, hands folded in supplication. 

“My thoughts. You were right about them.” Once the words stirred the air, she absolved her conscience, prepared to impart further everything in her heart. 

“Ah, you finally admit.” How easily he coaxed the words of intimate moments from her. 

“Yes! I admit! I admit Señor Cortez! I have thoughts of you. Such impure thoughts of you that I think it makes the devil blush!” 

 She lay before him, a temptation. One he knew the pleasures of but she did not. 

If he had not been holding the boldness of her declaration, and his smooth silent reply, catching her words in his hand and pressing his fingers to her lips it may have ended there. But she too caught something; her mouth opened and she pressed her tongue into his palm in a kiss, then wrapped her lips around his thumb. There was no hesitation. Warm, wet, and rolling side to side guided by that dexterous muscle in her mouth. It called his body to attention, fervently wanting to have other parts of him enveloped by her gifted tongue.  

A whimper escaped her when he pulled his hand away. 

“Show me,” he commanded.  

“No I - I.” 

“Why not?” 

“Because it would require that I, that I.. touch..” 

“Touch?” How innocently she had said the word yet here she was, fully relaxed and held up only by his arms, conceding to him she had behaved in such a way. There was no investigation needed to understand how she had sinned. He refused to let her act that out again alone. 

“Describe what I will do to you.” What was that garment she deserted? Time to use his entire body to discover what was missing. 

“No, not only myself. But - you.” 

He took her hand and folded it to his growing length, steadying her fingers to adjust himself as she held him, pleased that he was exceeding what she had imagined. He moaned, low, slowly, under her touch. 

 “Someone - are they? Will hear us.” 

“Do you think I care if you let anyone hear you sing?” 

There was a song he meant to pull from her lips. Long and salacious. Laying her across his lap he began with his kiss to her temple, lost in the sighs and warmth of his hand roaming under her skirt high enough to squeeze her thigh. 

An orange cracked from the branch above and spilled down landing at her feet. The breeze caught the oils permeated from the broken skin of the citrus, invigorating and bright and she could not help but kiss him again, though it had brought her body to mind they were not entirely alone. 

Her skin was not soft. It was luxurious. 

But he had not obtained as much as he wanted. There were still petticoats and ribbons and embroidered sleeves to remove. She was fumbling ungracefully with the buttons of his coat, while he traced every seam on the gown looking for vulnerable stitches to which he could tear into, unwilling to take his mouth away from its job of making her moan his name. 

She pretended to object.

He pretended to ask for forgiveness. 

Before she could protest once more, he discovered what article of clothing she had forgone. With one swift tug his hand was on her bare breast, taking pieces of her skin in his mouth and rotating his tongue in lecherous circles.  

Tearing the coat from his shoulders he threw it back behind him. Now she had his arms to discover, and quickly tried to pull away the buttons on his waistcoat. If she was underdressed, he was over. He removed his belt not caring if the metal bent or scratched as it tumbled from the edge of the marble ledge to the ground. 

She touched the scabbard of the dagger. 

He touched the hilt. 

Her hand flew from it. 

His locked. His eyes closed, and he fell. 

--

“Give him here. Yes- he is too hot!” Cortez’s father beamed as he held his second son, and flippantly pushed aside his wife. “You’ve bundled him too tightly!”

“He is only hungry husband, I will take care of him.” A soft voice, one that belied the anxiety behind her eagerness to regain the child back to the safety of her arms. 

“No I will see my son! Now,” as he unswaddled the flush faced boy.  “He is completely red.” Continuing to undress him to soothe the wailing infant. “Too warm.”

He stopped. 

She pulled back in fear, knowing what he was seeing.

“What - have you done?” Even tone against the cold rain of the night and the wind smashing at the shutters. 

She lunged forward and retrieved the baby, quickly wrapping him and taking him to her breast. The crying ceased.  

Tall, direct, the force of all Heaven behind her she began her defense.

“He is my son! You have your first born. Look at what happened to him. This is my son.” She repeated, her courage grew steadily as she yelled out. “And you will allow me some of my people’s tradition.” The last sentence said with the conviction of Judith confronting Holofernes.

The man crumbled against the red damask covered chair. Leaning forward, his head in his hands. It was difficult to tell if he was crying, or it was the December storm outside. When he finally spoke, she expected his condemnation. She expected shouting. Instead what came was calm, and deeply wounded. 

“Do you understand?” The man barely had the strength to speak. He might have guessed this would happen, though she swore before they were married she had given up her old religion. Signed her new Baptismal name with her body, but clearly not in her heart. He fell back..  

“Why…Why would you do this? You have given him a death sentence.”

She was stroking the infant's thick dark hair, fluttering between the peaceful beauty of a sleeping child and the half guilt of what she had allowed. “I am sorry. But… I. When Father Ruiz made those awful statements and -,”

“And you couldn’t just let it go,” he sighed. He was defeated. “There is no way to change what you have done.” 

Trying to reconcile she showed him Stefano’s now sleeping face, and rocking him in that gentle sway so natural to maternal instincts. “He looks much like you. And he will be strong!”

How could he blame his wife? She had been loyal in all things to him. Given him genuine love, hope, never questioned his direction. He had been too careless, allowing informal meetings and trusted her to allow guests of all manner come and go from the house as if it were an inn. 

“I will not blame you. This was Señor Pereria’s doing. But I command you never to see him again. You are too much under his influence.” 

In reticence she quickly nodded, extending the babe in offering to be cradled by his father.  

His son did look peaceful, perhaps even a smile? And the mother, his heart softened with the tender care that had been shown over the past years. But he could not remain close. It was more. If he were caught, at any time in his life,  examined by the Inquisition he might be able to talk his way to freedom with a firm and solid education. Or he would be, as many of his mother’s family had been forced, to leave with nothing. The last option, he refused to give it honor. His oldest son was thriving and following well the footsteps of their family name. He must focus on that. Give all his fortune to that. Turning a gentle hand to her cheek, still flushed red from her fit of defense, inwardly hurt by her actions, stoically gave his order: 

“No. Take him back. He is your responsibility.”  

IV

Stefano Cortez rose up from the ground, all his weight on one arm, seething, darkness in his eyes. And the dagger, the hilt previously embedded in his hand had dropped below him. Eva kicked it away and it slid across the ground. It would have been impossible for him to hide the effect the vision had on his mind; the possession which filled his body, that string of memories invading his soul. It was a revelation festering in the corners of his memory, now bursting forth with the help of grief.

“Stefano!” 

He fell back down, gasping for air. The previous visions had not been so strong. The flood of emotions behind it refusing to unlock from his soul. 

Eva leaned down to touch him as he remained at her feet, shaking, pale, his body folded over not so much in pain but fighting convulsions.  Forcing her arms under his she wrapped herself around him, holding him tightly. 

What had she witnessed? Could she hear or see what he had? Her eyes told of fear but astonishment at the sudden change. Underneath her hold she could feel his breathing change, a certain calmness as his chest no longer extended as widely in her arm. She rested her head on his shoulder, closing her eyes and listening. For anything. One heartbeat, one breath, then another, and her own following the pattern he developed. 

As he opened his eyes he recognized nothing outside of himself. He knew he was on the ground by the feel of hard broken tile under his knees, that something was holding him in place and it felt warm. Serene. He took in a deep breath. What poured in his lungs was a combination of the familiar perfume of the citrus trees and - her. 

He wanted to collapse or hide or lock himself away. That damned dagger interfering with his life. And she had seen it. 

“You are alright. It is alright.” Almost instinctively knowing how to calm him by repeating his name. “Stefano?” 

Still, no movement. 

Finally his arms tightened around her. His body tense under her hold.

“If you wish never to speak of it…” she whispered.  

Stefano partially unfolded and forced words to his mouth. “Give.. bring back the dagger,” a baritone voice burdened with need. 

She panicked looking around not remembering which direction it had flown. 

He noticed. The jewels a beacon showing him the hiding place beneath the hedge. His eyes fixed on the hilt. 

“Now!”

“But.. it.”

“Now!” Instead of waiting for her he stood and marched to the place, picking it up and harshly sheathing it under his waistcoat. All the pain left. Instantly. 

Questioning eyes refused to focus on one part of him, instead dashing between his dust covered knees and his hand still holding the dagger in place under his coat. 

He had to give her an explanation. “I,” how could he describe it without sounding like a possessed creature? “See things. Visions.” 

Visions.

“She was in wonderment at his explanation and took the first cautious step toward him. 

“The miraculous!” She exclaimed.

“You are an expert on how miracles happen?” He chided. 

“No. But explain to me, this.. experience. Seriously,” adding the last part to stop him from deflecting an answer again with sarcasm. 

“Seriously si. And you must know how miracles work. You have me. Or perhaps you bewitched me,” walking toward her and when finding his place, retrieved the woman he loved to his embrace. 

“Shh! Even a mention of that is dangerous.”  

“Oh? How dangerous?” Turning to yell over her shoulder. “I have in my arms an enchantress!” 

Holding her breath she waited for another vision, bringing his hand to cover her heart hoping it would take her with him. 

Until his fingertips lifted up to her face and traced her cheek. She turned her head to kiss his palm, lightly placing her hand over his and holding it firm against her lips.  She wanted to caress it, to stay just as they were in that moment.

He grabbed her wrist to stop her from moving away and sat her back down over him on the ledge. 

“Are you done being ridiculous?” Intensely staring down, she followed his eyes moving back and forth playing that game of catch between their souls. He tilted his head again and brought it back up. She watched his eyes fall down to stare at her lips.

Trembling kisses as her lips touched his, pursuing eager vibrations that slowly arched his hips closer to hers. Shutters between her mouth and his tongue, gradually becoming steady in her confidence. He moaned, tempted to place his hands on her shoulders to coax her lips downward, aching to know her satin touch over every inch of his skin. 

Her hand followed that guidance and smoothed boldly down between them, finding his arousal and giving firm pressure in her heavily filled hand. Knowing that what she had been imagining was now in reality only a layer of fabric from her touch she tightened her thighs around his hips beginning to move in the rhythm of her desires. 

Lost, just for the moment, in that sweetly unfolding heat above him. But he could not let her. Even if she had not seen the vision, he was not prepared to let her know. 

“Stop!” He commanded. “Eva you must stop!”

He pulled her hand away.

They looked at each other in harsh silence, unbroken for minutes as he regained control of his breath. In. Out. Calm. Until he was ready. And took her chin in his hand. 

Her eyes remained wild. Confused. The look of a cast off child being punished for wrongdoing it did not know it had committed. 

“You,”  He leaned back, flushed. “I will not take you here. Not yet. Not like this.” 

With his tamed words her contorted face smoothed. “Oh Stefano. Of all the people I have now before me in my life, the only one I never want to lose – is you.”

Two faces with only the soft distance of a breath between them sat, grasping at a focal point to lean back on while examining the designs of eyes still ablaze from the seconds of time before this moment. His, dark and playful. Hers, delicate and warm. He studied them, tried to memorize the length of the crease between her eyelids and brow, the stray freckle just to the inward of her right eye. He would need to memorize them if they were to keep him company at sea.  

“You are not, upset? Concerned about your…safety?” It was a hollow and weak excuse.  

“No! No! I only care that you are here. That I can hold you and touch you and kiss you!” Desperately tugging at the collar of his shirt before taking his rough face in her hands, every line a reminder of his previous smiles.  

“I am not, a different person to you?”

“You are the same! The same Stefano I love and desire and want.”

He grabbed her wrists and pulled them away from his face, the pulse in her as wild as her declaration. “But I am two people. You have seen them both now.”

“My love, my Stefano, you are one man. One. I only love you, as whole as you are. Not some object that you carry around.” 

He shook his head. “My anger. These visions could hurt you.” There was a true concern. 

“I know the Stefano who cannot hurt me is standing before me, right now,” she tucked the long hair from his forehead behind his ear and pressed her lips to the skin below. “They will pass. I know they will. We will find a way to stop them.”

My love, she had said. So willing to accept his entire being. To accept - him.

A brief kiss.

Then another. 

Eva paused and touched a finger to his lips. “My only request is that you keep your word. Do not say you will do something and then forget or leave or make promises you will not keep.”

The response was quick, resolute. “I will always keep my word to you.”

Taking his hand she did not hesitate to show him she also accepted his promise. His arm cradled her back as she repositioned herself in his lap. This time, she had gathered her skirts, and her skin radiated heat as she straddled him. Now he was undone. The sensation of his thumb so expertly soothing that lush spot between her legs and finding that she was already covered in silk made him thrust his fingers into the adoring body above him. She knew she was making a sound. It was his hands provoking her. 

Still with one hand supporting himself against her, he loosened his cock to her touch. She had not allowed herself a firm grip on him, she was there to learn what rhythms he preferred, what twists of an agile wrist would excite him. There was a smoothness to his taut skin, and before long the first signs of his nearness, and he lay repeated strokes of an exuberant tongue to her throat. She was beginning to learn it was a place he enjoyed focusing on, and he enjoyed seeing her drop her shoulder in invitation to more each time he landed there.

It was an awkward place to remain. Hands buried under so many layers of clothing, muscles beginning to tense and yet unable to satisfy their final pleasure. 

“Stefano. I need this. In me.” She was losing her balance. Her hands uncurled from their task. She draped her arms around his neck and hovered, unwilling to stop the friction of his hard length to her folds but waiting for his command.

“I want to hear you say it,” his dark voice demanding, always demanding and always getting his way.   

“To say what?”  

“I belong,” he gasped, almost at the edge as the tip of his cock smoothed across her sumptuous and swollen flesh. She was so easy to part. Slick. Tight. “To you.”   

“I – I do belong to you,” she answered as he slid further in.    

“No,” biting down on her lower lip, pulling it slowly back before letting go and licking at her open mouth. He tilted her body further back, almost pressing her to the ground and she wrapped her legs together around his hips to keep from falling. 

“My name. That – I am yours.”  

“You are mine, Stefano Cortez!”  

Her words made him arch, made him rise with piercing tension pushing down into her with immense force, overcome by the relief of the declaration and the sound of his name. 

She came, he knew she did. He felt each pulse gather around him and her cry of release at the moment he filled her. 

Gathering her, her face gleaming from the heat, to lay on his chest and calm the surge of    lust he had broken out of her, he asked, “Are you alright?” 

Eva closed her eyes to take in a breath of him and tried, unsuccessfully, to keep him in her by lowering her hips further on him. She heard him ask the question again and answered playfully, “If you do that again.”   

“Si?”   

“I may not survive,” knowing well that her statement would produce his signature smirk she said it anyway.     

“So this was good?” He continued to roll his fingers through her loose hair, brushing it away from the back of her neck to help cool her down. 

“Stefano?” There was no reason to look up. Even if she could manage to make any of one of her muscles to obey, she was content to stay as they were.    

“Hmm?”     

“Shut up.”    

He laughed. “Si, love.”   

The sky over them between the branches of the orange tree still held radiant blue. Glassy leaves waved their bright green in a cooler breeze that was descending on the courtyard. The tide was coming in, he could tell. And it was time to return. 

“Don’t take me home,” she dared to beg, as he removed her from his lap and began to pick up his discarded belt and coat. 

“I must. You said poor old Ledford, what was it, die without you? I think there is enough death.”

“Stop teasing. Will you stay?”

“I cannot. Comandante expects me back this evening. Tomorrow we have orders to,” now those he could not reveal. “Imagine your father sending out another search party and finding us here. I would be obliged to duel him. I do not feel like killing your father.” What a lie he willingly spoke to make himself appear honorable to her. There were at least three men he knew directly who would not mind if Trenton’s body lay at the bottom of the sea.  

“I suppose not.”

“Promise me you will stay away from him. Never allow yourself to be alone.”

She wondered if he realized how tight his arms were around her, the furrow of his brow deepening. “You are afraid!”

Fear? Not for himself. “Out there are men, who have killed your brother. I will not have them touch you.” 

“Well. I have my pistol, remember?” She smiled. 

“I have not seen you hit a target. No good to only wave it around without meaning to fire.” 

Someday she would have to show him what an excellent shot she was. 

“Now. Or do I have to prove again that I am right?”

Her legs ached and she adjusted the skirts that were bunched around her sides. It was going to be a long ride home. 

As they returned to the perimeter of Paraíso Terrestre, Eva’s heart sank. 

“Do you suppose the Alcalde’s men are gone?”

“No,” he said dryly and dismounting, helping her down. 

“No! Well you’re awfully casual about it.”

“We have done nothing wrong.” He continued to walk with her up the dirt path, scanning every direction for the slightest motion. 

“Except you stealing a horse.” 

“I borrowed it for official business. I am supposed to be investigating your brother’s death. How am I if I cannot get from one place to another? I’m not worried about the Alcalde. You do not know of another way to sneak in?”

“I might. Ledford used to take this path.” There was a secondary trail, narrow, and only visible by the dried grasses that had been crushed below a man’s feet. 

Ah , he thought. No wonder the old man gave such excellent instructions that day. 

“I know this. Follow me.”

“Then why did you ask?” She stopped and let him lead. 

“Checking to see if you used it for meetings with previous lovers.” 

“Now you know very well that’s not true!” 

Previous... lovers ? Is that what he was going to call this?  

They tried to sneak in from behind the barn, just as Ledford had done so many times before. Cortez assumed Susan had used the path too.  But that horse of his. He pulled on the reins, trying to contain the noises as it reared beside them having been spooked by one of the Alcalde’s men around the corner. 

There were shouts and clammors, and Edward Trenton running out of the house at the sound of a Sergeant yelling they had found him. 

Cortez was pulled away, and Eva struggled not to let go. She felt his hand slip something into her pocket and only moved when a soldier pushed her to the ground. 

Ledford came hobbling from the kitchen and helped her up. 

Trenton, breathless, his narrow bloodshot eyes pointed directly at Cortez  yelled his formal accusation. “You - I charge you with  the death of my son, and” as if added in spite, “stealing this horse.”

The Sargeant handed Cortez over to another soldier, and walked over to speak with Trenton.  

The Ambassador pulled his daughter away from Ledford and said, “I would charge him too with kidnapping!”

“Father! I went of my own free will,” her face flushed with indignation. 

“Did you?” But his posture was directed at Cortez. “I suspect Susan also fell under your spell. That is what these sort of men do Eva. They spring their trap. How many other girls have you taken advantage of? Steal from them. Men from Málaga are bred differently. You think I do not know your mother went missing? Oh yes. There is something nefarious about you Cortez.  Learn these things from your father. How to make women disappear. Well this time. This time you are caught! I hope you...”

Cortez was of a mind to interrupt the man. Instead he kept count of each insult knowing the Commandante would turn his eye if somehow, potentially, the meddlesome Ambassador one day incurred a wound just debilitating enough to send him straight home to England. But not in front of Evalianna. The man was plotting revenge, true. Still, he would not stoop to insults that he did not make good on, or nefarious deeds in such company. He determined she had seen enough violence in her life already. Never lose your temper in front of your enemy. Let Trenton talk, the same as the boys in Málaga. Eventually they would shut their mouths. 

Restrained by the Alcalde’s Officers he put up no fight. Examining the faces he was thankful Salazar was not there to see his humiliation. 

One man he did recognize. 

Lesaro. Quietly speaking to the Sergeant and darting glances between the accused and accuser's face with such a strange insight - almost, Cortez would have thought it compassionate? Conflicted? His eyes never actually locked for enough time to read what was behind them. Only men who felt guilt acted this way. And Cortez stared back, a piercing look that if he could swear on Heaven itself proved to Lesaro his innocence. At least where the boy was concerned. His other innocence, Lesaro shook his head and followed with the rest of the men down to Cádiz.  

Evalianna could not watch. Stefano had been forced, hands tied behind his back and was being led, an accused man, to the prison at the fort. She wished she had understood her father more. Or had listened to his conversations with Dr. Barton with more care. She never bothered to try and learn her father’s past. Asking about it brought only lectures of names, dates, far away places she would never see and faces of the dead she knew from rough drawings. 

Was there something in his past that would make him target Cortez so grievously? 

Mr. Ledford walked her back to the house, murmuring things about getting tea and that young Adina would now, if she graciously agreed, be her servant until Susan was safely home. That a bath would be set within the hour, and not to worry too much about the young Señor.  

She refused to throw herself on her bed. She refused the tears that were climbing from her core to her eyelids. Running her hand down the curtains along her bed, where he had touched, she was determined. 

She undressed, a sharp needle to her finger as she reached in her pocket. The dagger. In the chaos of his arrest, as he was leaning in to kiss her, he placed the dagger with her. She withdrew it carefully, fearful that if she held it too tightly or too long she would be subject to its vision inducing curse. Laying it in the center of her dressing table she sat down. It was exquisite. Unique. Not a style she had seen worn by any man. Heavily her eyes were drawn toward it, the details, a half shell like she had seen on the Camino. It was beckoning her in, swaying, all sound around her disappeared. Such an intimate object. If she held it again, she might be able to feel him there with her. With a trembling hand her finger descended to touch the cold metal. 

It gave a warm shock and she pulled back. 

Action. Everything about him had been action. And so that was what she would be too.   

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.  

Chapter Text

 I

Broken pots. 

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.” 

 

 II

 

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. 

 

Shit.

 

There went his plan not to have to walk the rest of the way to Paraíso Terrestre . Time to start counting again.  

 III

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.