“Brother Sebastián,” said Antonio de Benalcázar, frowning as he brushed the dust from his black satin doublet, finding yet another frayed thread in its embroidered front. “I trust you have a good reason for choosing this remote tomb, rather than one of those nearer the city?”
“There are signs, Don Antonio,” said the little monk, his hands trembling only slightly from lack of wine, “that this grave was, in fact, that of a Christian.” He pulled aside the thorny brush tangling around the ancient Roman tomb, exposing the dim outlines of an anchor hung with fish, just visible on its weathered sandstone surface. “Here,” he said, gesturing at it. “And here too!” he scampered around the low memorial, his robes snagging on weeds, to point at words carved into the lintel of the tomb’s peaked roof. “Look here! It looks like ‘Ne Illis Acciderent Obstiterunt’ which means, roughly, ‘protected from harm,’ a common Christian formula, I believe.” The monk did not meet de Benalcázar’s piercing gaze, his black eyes sharp as the sword at his side. Instead, he busily scrubbed at the faded inscription with the coarse fabric of his sleeve.
The nobleman sighed, his shadow stretching out before him in the long afternoon sun. They were some miles distant from Seville, standing among the tumbled tombs and broken cenotaphs of an old Roman graveyard, grown wild with flowering broom and stunted oaks. Overhead the crows called to one another, announcing the unusual arrival of six men in the wild matorral that had hitherto been ceded to them alone.
“You really must overcome this compunction of yours, Brother Sebastián,” de Benalcázar said. “Whether the bones are Christian or Heathen matters little, ultimately.”
“But Don Antonio,” said the monk, his head still low, his fingers tracing the Latin letters. “The churches of New Spain want – ”
“The churches of New Spain want relics,” said de Benalcázar quickly, cutting off the monk’s whining with a curt wave of his gloved hand. “The bones of Saints and Martyrs, to inspire the faith of converts and ensure pilgrimage and tithing. But, sadly, the days of blessed martyrdom are behind us, and so they will have to do with whatever old bones are available in these reduced and impoverished times.”
“But should they not at least be the bones of good Christians that are venerated?” asked the monk, his voice plaintive among the wastes.
The nobleman rested his hand on the hilt of his rapier, a fine piece of wicked Valencian steel badly in need of a new sheath and a polish. As always, his thumb sought out the empty socket on the pommel where, once, had rested a pearl of unusual size and startling beauty, white and pure as the Virgin’s milk. He’d hocked it to pay off a particularly humorless man in Zaragoza last year. He gazed grimly down at the little drunkard of a monk. Afterall, he hadn’t been at this sort of work as long as Antonio de Benalcázar, impoverished Knight and hunted debtor. He smiled softly at his apprentice ghoul.
“I would think that placing the bones of heathens within the hallowed shelter of a church would ease their soul’s pain in the furnace of Hell. But!” He held his hands out in a conciliatory gesture. “Far be it from me to refuse whatever balm you need to soothe your bruised conscience! We will take this Christian, forgotten here in the desert, and give him an honored place in the conquest of New Spain.” He nodded over his shoulder, and the four burly Basques he’d hired by the docks shuffled forward, picks and mattocks and shovels ready.
They pried the tomb’s capstone off with relative ease. The long years had reduced the mortar in the joints to powdery ruin, and it was a simple question of brute strength to muscle the slab off the raised stone box. It shattered with a satisfying crash as it struck the ground and, for the first time in twelve centuries, the dark interior of the Roman tomb was exposed to daylight. Brother Sebastián hurried over to peer inside. He gasped with surprise.
“Don Antonio!” he said, “look!” The Knight leaped down from his perch atop a boulder and strode over to the yawning tomb. A musty scent rose from its dark interior, a hazy, unpleasant miasma that seemed to hang over it, making the evening light dance and shimmer sickly in its fumes. He peered over the little monk’s shoulder.
“Well now,” de Benalcázar said, after a moment, his black eyes glittering like polished jet. “Most unusual indeed.”
Antonio de Benalcázar had seen many Roman tombs in his career as a procurer of ancient remains. Often, they were empty, or full of mere dust, the bones having long ago succumbed to the millstone of time. Sometimes there were teeth (a silver real a tooth, although a big molar in good condition could be sold for four times that as a relic of St. Apollonia) or a few finger bones (half-a-real per phalange). Long bones were rarer, and worth much more – he’d sold three of Saint James’s femurs (a true miracle, to be sure) to a ship’s captain once for fifty reales, and he was sure that the scoundrel got double that in the New World. Generally whatever remains there were, though, were loose and scattered; occasionally a bit of crumbling wood or corroded metal spoke to a box or casket, but like the human remains they once held these were often the victims of long ages.
But within the tomb selected by Brother Sebastián there nestled a long lead box, shackled round and round by a heavy iron chain that had left red, rusty smears across the casket, like splashes of dried blood.
“I have never seen anything like it,” said the nobleman.
“Why the chain, though?” asked the monk, confused. “It seems heathenish…”
“Perhaps the Romans martyring him feared this Christian and his promised life after death,” laughed de Benalcázar. The monk crossed himself. “What’s important is what’s inside! A sealed box…a whole skeleton may lie within it! Think of that! Why, it’d be worth a fortune. And in its Roman casket as well. That sort of provenance is worth real money!” He turned to the four workers and waved them over. “Come on, get it out of there, hurry! There’s not much daylight left!”
Brother Sebastián stood by, counting his rosery and glancing nervously towards the crows that flocked in increasing numbers overhead, coming to roost at day’s end. The four laborers struggled mightily with the casket, the smallest of them squeezing into the tomb while the others pried the heavy box up with their tools, allowing ropes to be passed under it. Finally, with everything in place, they were able to haul it up out of the tomb and onto the rough, rocky ground. The monk put his beads away and knelled by one end of the box, examining its lid, while de Benalcázar kicked at the chain with his boots. It broke easily, the links in places having been eaten through by rust over the years, and the whole length fell away in pieces.
“It looks sealed all the way around,” said Brother Sebastián, pointing at the beaded thread of lead that ran the length of the joint between lid and box.
“Nothing a chisel won’t take care of,” he turned to one of the workmen and held his hand out. “Here, I’ll do it – we must take care with this treasure. A gentle touch is called for.”
Carefully de Benalcázar worked his way around the box, tapping the chisel into the lead seal around the lid. The sun sank red in the west, and the crows cackled maniacally at one other, sharing a joke at the expense of the men below. Finally, after many long minutes, he hammered a final stroke and the lid shifted. The noblemen stood up, backing away from the box.
“By the Virgin,” swore the nobleman, his bright black eyes wide and staring.
Vapor oozed from the seam, smoky tendrils of red mist that seeped out and sank thickly into the sandy soil. The smell was strange – like cinnamon, or camphor, pungent and sharp. The monk held his hand over his nose and crossed himself again.
“Are not apparitions of the holy Saints said to be accompanied by strange odors?” de Benalcázar asked.
“Those of Devils as well,” replied the monk, his voice muffled behind his sleeve. The nobleman laughed and, with a grunt, kicked the leaden lid aside, sending all the crows that had landed nearby flapping furiously into the air, full of hateful chatter.
“God protect us,” said the monk, his eyes wide at the strange sight within the box.
It was a mummy; its skin clung tight like a cured hide to its emaciated, bony frame. Its visage was that of a death’s head, yellowed and terrible, hollow eye sockets staring up at the crows and the first of the evening stars. Horribly, a smooth, round river rock had been thrust into its open mouth, forcing the jaws wider than they could ever have been in life. Its hands and feet had been bound by cords as well, and the whole attitude of the body was strangely contorted or twisted.
“As if he had been writhing as they sealed him in,” said de Benalcázar, wonder in his voice.
“Look at the fingers!” muttered the monk. Bound at the wrists by a crumbling length of leather, the two hands were high up on the chest, palms out, fingers held like claws. The skin was gone from their tips; only raw bone remained. The nobleman turned the leaden lid over, exposing its underside, and whistled at the deep gouges there, lines in fours or threes running parallel to one another, scored deep into the soft metal.
“Remarkable,” said the nobleman.
“This is truly prodigious,” said the monk.
“Why was this stone jammed into his mouth, do you think?” The nobleman leaned in and gripped the rock. “Have you ever heard of a Roman torment like it?” He yanked hard, and the smooth rock popped out of the gaping jaws, dislodging a few yellowed teeth. “Oops,” said de Benalcázar, tossing the rock aside.
“We should return these remains to the tomb,” said Brother Sebastián. The nobleman laughed, incredulous.
“Do you have any idea what we have here?” he asked, standing up quickly. “This isn’t some stick of bone, a pile of teeth, a holy toe…this is an entire body. Miraculously preserved. In a Roman coffin. This is a relic fit for an archbishop, for a grand cathedral!” He strode quickly over to stand by his shivering companion. “If we do this right, we’re going to be rich, do you hear me, Brother Sebastián? More than enough money to efface any disgrace, any mistake.” The monk swallowed hard, staring at the opened coffin. “But we have to do this right, you understand? We have to be in this, together, true comrades-in-arms. With the word of a learned Jesuit like yourself, we’ll be able to set whatever price we want for our friend here. The sky’s the limit, but only if we stand together.” The monk squirmed, sighed, and finally brought himself to look Don Antonio de Benalcázar, adventurer, scoundrel, villain, in his eyes like twin pools of ink. He nodded, and the nobleman grinned. “Good man!” he said, slapping the little prelate hard on the back. He turned to the workers. “Let’s get this lid back on, tie a rope around it. We’ve got a long walk back to Seville. Come on, Brother Sebastián, light the lanterns. You brought us out here, you’ll have to guide us back!”
In the dark, two points of light led four grunting, shuffling men along a goat path towards a distant city. As they went, the nobleman’s voice rose above the wind.
“Brother Sebastián! What Saints were martyred by being buried alive?”
“Saint Edisto, Saint Paulina, Saint Vitalis,” he answered, listing names as they vanished over the hill.
Later, the moon rose, shedding its cold glow on an empty, shattered tomb. Somewhere, an owl called.
“Two hundred reales?” repeated Don Antonio de Benalcázar, amazement jostling with scorn for mastery of his tone. “Two thousand reales. Two hundred thousand!” he said, slamming his fist against the table. The Captain, a weather-beaten man with one eye a pure lunar white and another rich brown, like fresh turned earth, simply shrugged.
“Don Antonio,” the old sailor said, his voice bored and weary. “It may be you could get that price for your old bones…”
“The very body of Holy Saint Castulus himself –” he clarified, hotly. The Captain held up his hands, asking for peace.
“Fine, yes, a most holy relic,” he said placidly. “But I offer only what I can. The journey is long, and stowage is at a maximum. Plus, I cannot say whether the holy fathers in New Spain will agree with your most learned friend’s assessment of the Blessed Saint’s remains,” he paused to offer an ironic bow of his hoary head to the monk, who was eagerly draining a third tankard of cheap wine. “Nor,” he continued, “can I say what they will consider a fair price! But I repeat: I will pay you two hundred reales for the body, plus fifty for the antique coffin, right now – such is all I can offer!”
“You would rob me, and worse, in thwarting me you rob the Church in the New World of the holy relics it needs to continue its sacred work!”
“If you want more money,” laughed the captain, setting his own glass down. “Then haggle for it in Veracruz yourself.”
“Perhaps I shall do just that,” shouted de Benalcázar to the Captain’s back as he made his way towards the tavern door. The nobleman spat on the floor and poured himself another drink, sipping the foul vintage with a scowl. “Perhaps I shall do just that,” he said again, quieter and more thoughtfully.
Brother Sebastián shivered, and reached for the pitcher of wine.
The Ciervo Volante was a caravel, 60 tons with a sixteen-foot beam and a compliment of twenty-four sailors. The Captain was a bland man with skin like a dumpling; he was named Vicente Niño, the youngest son of the owner of the Ciervo Volante, and eager for the money de Benalcázar offered him for passage to New Spain for himself, a monk, and their strange lead box. They sailed out of the port of Seville on St. Marcian’s Day, chasing the ebb tide down the Guadalquivir before reaching the broad blue sea at its mouth.
With its sails fat and full of a strong westerly wind, de Benalcázar and Brother Sebastián joined Captain Niño on deck, looking out over the endless waves of the Atlantic. Sailors scampered nimbly through the rigging and across the deck, performing the thousands of tasks needed to ensure the smooth running of a ship at sea. The monk was glad for the reassuring weight of the flask under his robes – he felt surrounded by motion, on the deck, out over the sea, everywhere. It rather threatened to turn his stomach.
“A stout wind, eh Captain?” said de Benalcázar, rubbing his hands together and grinning. He may have been feeling the sea too, but he wasn’t about to show it.
“We should have good running indeed, at least for a while,” sniffed the Captain. He was bundled head-to-toe in a great coat, and a delicate silk scarf fluttered around his throat. “If you will excuse me,” he gave a stiff bow and went below decks.
“You’ll have to forgive the Captain, sirs,” said the first mate, a garrulous man from the Azores named Ramón. “It’s not that you’ve offended him, or that he finds your company unwelcome or unpleasant. No,” he laughed. “He simply cannot abide weather, of any sort.”
“Does he suffer from sea sickness, like me?” asked the monk, swaying unsteadily.
“Ha! No indeed, his ailment is much more universal than that. You’ll have doubtless noted our good Captain’s penchant for covering up in a spray. Perhaps also you’ve noticed our Captain’s fair skin, his dewy complexion, his soft and delicate countenance?” The first mate grinned mischievously. “It is said, sirs, that our Captain regards himself as something of a beauty among men, having been complemented on his fine skin by several eligible ladies of Seville. He holds the complement dear, so he guards his skin most zealously. He goes about always covered up, regardless of the weather, and even keeps a jug of olive oil in his cabin that he massages into his hands and face, a beauty secret he learned in Greece, I’m told. Surely you smelled it on him? Yes, he takes considerable pains to ensure he doesn’t turn into a side of cured beef, like ol’ Ramón here!” The mate slapped his own broad chest with a rough hand and laughed. “I’m sure you’ll find him much more personable when the wind dies down and the salt settles a bit!”
“Is the Captain a vain man then?” smiled the nobleman.
“Well, sir, some men strive for beauty, some seek knowledge, others chase wealth. I myself cultivate a quick wit, a silver tongue, and a humble mien. All men, in truth, have their little vanities, sir,” said Ramón with a wink.
“And yet,” said Brother Sebastián, leaning against the railing for stability, “in the end, all men are equal, before God.”
“It is rarely God’s good opinion that men court,” answered the mate. “Now, Brother, let me help you below decks – you’re looking a bit green about the gills. A bit of a lie down, at least until we’re away from shore and the chop. You’ll see, you’ll feel better when we’re out in the open a bit. Like glass the sea is then, Brother, like glass. Come now, give me your arm, there we go.”
Below decks, Brother Sebastián came to conclusion that Ramón had merely wanted to get him out of the way of their work. It was hot, stifling, and dark, and the rolling motion of the ship seemed worse. Still, he allowed himself to be walked over to his hammock.
“Now then Brother, here’s a bucket, and here’s a rag for if you miss the bucket,” he said, grinning in the smoky light of the lantern. He turned, about the leave, and then stopped, tsking and shaking his head.
“Thunder and damnation,” he said, making the monk blanch with his coarse language. “I told those dog-fucking sons of sharks to secure that box of yours well. Secure I said!” He grunted as he pushed the heavy lead coffin back against the wall of the little compartment. “What piss-licking bastard tied this knot? If I ever find out, I’ll strip the hide from the motherless sluggard’s back, see if I don’t, just see if I don’t!” The sailor wrestled with the ropes again, executing a series of complicated knots with the deft hand of an expert. “There!” he said, pleased with his own work. “That box won’t go wandering about the hold now, I’ll warrant!”
Alone with box, hanging in his hammock, Brother Sebastián prayed for Saint Erasmus’s intercession on his behalf until, after some half an hour, he finally fell into a troubled sleep. His dreams were all of unending motion, of the earth rolling and heaving beneath his feet, and of the great lead coffin, rattling back and forth, the lid straining against the rope as something within pushed its way to freedom.
He woke and found himself in the dark timeless belly of the ship. A sound had bothered him, something harsh and sharp and discordant against the rhythmic oaken groan of the ship. Something rattled or scraped, like a knife against a whetstone. Don Antonio must’ve come in, he thought. These hammocks were difficult to get used to – he must’ve been struggling in his, from the sound of the muffled straining and thumping he heard. There were more furtive sounds, a clattering, a silken hiss, the whine and pop of boards as someone walked stealthily across the little room. Probably heading to the jakes, Brother Sebastián thought. The door creaked, its more solid darkness as it opened towards him outlined faintly by the distant moonlight filtering down the stairway to the main deck. The door moaned as it closed, and cavernous night descended on the little monk, who was soon asleep.
As Brother Sebastián climbed on deck that morning, he saw the crew lined up, hands clasped behind their back while the Captain and Ramón the mate were busy with something at the mast. Still rubbing the sleep from his eyes, the monk walked towards de Benalcázar, who was leaning with his arms crossed and his back against the railing, watching the scene with his bright black eyes.
“What is going on, Don Antonio?” asked the monk.
“A sailor is missing,” answered the nobleman simply. “He must have gone overboard in the night. He was not missed until this morning, at the changing of the watch. As such, those who failed their comrade are about to be punished.”
Ramón stepped back from his work, and the monk saw that a man had been tied to the mast, his arms hugging the great pole of northern spruce. He had been stripped to the waist, and his back was exposed. The man was shivering.
The Captain, still swaddled in his coat and scarf, nodded, and a huge, muscular man stepped forward. He was a full head taller than even de Benalcázar, and there was the promise of tremendous physical strength in the broad sweep of his chest and in his powerful corded arms. A man that huge must find life aboard a ship as small as the Ciervo Volante miserable, the monk thought.
The giant took a position behind and slightly to the right of the man tied to mast. He raised his hand, and the cat-o-nine-tails seemed to writhe with anticipation, each of its knotted ropes swinging heavily in time to the pitch and roll of the deck.
“The purpose of the watch,” said the frocked captain, a gloved hand emerging from his heavy sleeve to pull the scarf aside and give his mouth freer reign, “is to be alert and on guard against all signs of the countless troubles or misfortunes that may befall a ship at sea! It is the duty of all seamen to apply themselves with diligence and discipline to their rounds, to be aware of the state of the ship, the sea, and their comrades, to heed all signs of distress or disorder, and to give prompt warning when such are spotted! Your indolence has meant that a man is dead, lost overboard when, possibly, timely action could have saved him – let this be a sharp lesson to you all. Hernán! Twenty-five lashes, apiece!”
The giant’s arm rose and fell, his shoulders pumped, and the man tied to the mast screamed until he fainted. Having received his lashes he was dragged, bloody and unconscious, below decks, and a second man was called for. Four more times they tied a man to the mast. Four more times they dragged an unconscious man below.
“I should not like to be a sailor,” said Brother Sebastián.
“Don’t worry,” laughed the nobleman, “when we sell our Saint below, you’ll be able to buy yourself an abbotship on some remote peak of the Pyrenees, far away from the sea.”
A monotonous week passed before a second sailor vanished.
It must’ve happened after the silver sliver of the moon had set, sometime before midnight. They had chimed seven bells, and everyone had been accounted for, but come eight bells and the changing of the watch, one man was absent. A search was hastily organized, but all that was found was a crumpled tin lantern and a smear of blood on an aft railing.
In their small room, the monk and the nobleman lay awake in their hammocks. The activity on deck had woken them, and now they swung in the dark, listening to the tromp of feet and the voices of sailors, shouting a man’s name out into the wide, heartless sea.
“Should we go and help?” asked the monk.
“Better to spend your time in prayer and out from underfoot,” answered de Benalcázar with a yawn in the dark. “I’m going back to sleep. Damned dangerous business, sailing…” He was soon snoring.
Brother Sebastián struggled in his hammock, flailing his arms and legs until he could heave himself up out of the sagging cloth stirrup. He finally got out of it, only to immediately stub his toe against the heavy lead coffin.
“Saints preserve us!” he gasped, hopping on one foot.
“Shut up,” mumbled the nobleman, between snores.
The monk knelt down. How had the coffin gotten into the middle of the room? The constant motion of the ship must’ve allowed it to work itself free from the ropes, leaving it to slide about, he decided. The monk grunted and pushed, shifting the heavy box out of his way. As he knelt to begin prayers for the man’s safety and soul, he thought perhaps he would get Ramón to teach him some of those ingenious sailor’s knots he was so adept at tying.
“Pater noster,” he mumbled, his hands clasped in the dark, “qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum…”
Overhead, footsteps pounded across the deck.
“Aye, a cloud has descended, as the poets say,” said Ramón, gazing up pensively at a group of sailors climbing the rigging. Beside him, watching the work with polite interest, were Brother Sebastián and de Benalcázar. A week of low clouds, spattering rain, and contrary winds had made for rough sailing, though that seemed to have finally passed, and the sun was just peeping through a crack in the iron bowl of the sky.
“I rather thought it looked as if the weather was improving,” said Brother Sebastián, doubtfully, shielding his eyes and scanning the sky.
“Bless ye, Brother,” laughed Ramón, “but I mean the general bearing of the men and their overall state of morale. Tis somewhat diminished by the loss of two men in so rapid a succession, and under such strange circumstances. They begin to mutter of curses, and the wrath of God.”
“Surely not,” said the monk, crossing himself devoutly. But he felt the blood drain from his face, and thought of the leaden box, and the violated tomb back in Seville.
“I give it no credence, of course,” said Ramón, “because I am Portuguese, but, and I mean no disrespect to either of you learned gentlemen, many of your Spanish sailors come by their superstitions natively, as it were. The product of low education.” He nodded. “Still, it was an odd thing with Mateo, the blood on the railing and that tin lamp, stamped flat. And it makes Leandro’s disappearance on that first full day out that much stranger.” He shook his head. “Now the men are all scared and getting sloppy with there work. Excuse me,” he said, stepping forward to harangue the poor work of the men high up in the ropes.
“Don Antonio,” said the monk, nervously. “You don’t think –”
“Think what,” whispered the nobleman, softly, and turning to face the sea. “That we’ve brought a curse down on this ship?” He laughed dismissively. “Look around you, Brother; I promise you our little sin is only a small amount when added to the ledger of this whole crew. No, like I said – sailing is dangerous work, that’s all. This is simply bad luck and coincidence.”
“But Don Antonio,” stammered the monk.
“Quiet!” hissed the nobleman. “You heard the First Mate – sailors are superstitious, and I’d rather not have them wondering too much about the quivering, sweating, fearful monk they brought on board. They might get ideas. And stop crossing yourself!”
They had been elbow-to-elbow at the Captain’s cramped table enjoying desert, a brandy-soaked trifle studded with dried currants, when the scream ripped through the night, a rattling shriek that swept like a wave over the deck of the ship. The Captain hadn’t even paused to put on his great coat, but had ran out bare-headed and scarfless on deck, followed closely by the monk, who was clutching his rosary, and the knight, who was nervously tapping the hilt of his sword. A cluster of men swarmed the stairs leading up to the quarterdeck.
“Out of the way, damn you, move!” shouted the captain, pulling the men, who stood and stared dumbly at him, out of the way, clearing a path through the dazed throng. The sight that met them made even de Benalcázar, who had served in the Low Countries, pale with horror.
The ruins of a man lay scattered across the steps. Blood poured down the stairs, organs lay in heaps, the bones had been jointed and set aside. Brother Sebastián reeled away, nearly making it to the railing before losing the contents of his stomach.
“It is as if a man was,” rasped de Benalcázar, “butchered, for his meat.” He grimaced, angry at himself for having said aloud the thought that had flashed unbidden through his brain. He glanced at the sailors and saw glass-eyed panic in their faces. He felt his own breathing shallowing, so he paused a moment to get it under control.
“Everyone get back,” bellowed the Captain. The first mate herded the men away, and the Captain leaned close to de Benalcázar. “What do you mean?” asked Captain Niño.
“I meant,” said the nobleman, carefully and quietly, “that he has been unlimbed and disemboweled, as you would a hare. Look, there are bones, there are organs. But the muscle of this man has been stripped away.” He stood up and shook his head. “Most horrible. Who is it?”
“Given his size,” said the Captain, slowly, “I’d say it was Hernán.”
“The huge man? Who wielded the cat-o-nine-tails?” asked the nobleman. The Captain nodded.
“Yes, our blacksmith.”
“A big job of butchering,” said the nobleman.
More off-duty sailors had emerged from below decks, and the murmuring and muttering of the men began to have a sharper tone. Horror and surprise curdled into suspicion and anger, and the faces of some of the sailors began to take on a particularly hard look in the flicker of the deck lamps. The Captain shivered.
“We are on the razor’s edge,” said Captain Niño, furtively glancing over the deck. “Look at the men! They are ready to abandon the voyage, by any means necessary!” His voice was a low whisper, but a slightly worrying look swam in his watery eyes. De Benalcázar had seen it many times on the battlefield, felt it himself more than once – an overmastering lassitude that was the body’s response to intolerable anxiety. Speed, action, that was the only remedy. The nobleman’s mind raced, and landed on the answer.
“Fortunately, Captain,” said de Benalcázar, taking him firmly by the arm, “your keen perspicacity in this situation shows us the solution to this crime!” The Captain blinked stupidly at the nobleman, who was nodding in admiration.
“What do you mean?”
“As you yourself so sharply observed, this man served as an instrument of discipline upon this ship!” said the nobleman. “And as all men who work thus, dispensing justice I mean, he had enemies aboard the ship! It was he who inflicted punishment on the malcontents, whose hand, in meting out justice, stirred in the dark hearts and cruel minds of evil men a most heinous crime of revenge!”
“But he was merely following my orders,” said the Captain, still somewhat dazed.
“Ah, yes,” said de Benalcázar quickly, “but your own august and lofty person is, of course, untouchable. Who would dare strike at his Captain! Unthinkable! So their ire is spent on a target more apparent, more vulnerable, the direct cause of their discomfort and shame – the faithful Hernán. They knew that the previous disappearances had troubled the crew mightily, and that they could hide their heinous crime behind a veil of superstition! Clever, foul dogs! They murdered and mutilated their man, hoping that the horror of it would convince the crew that it was the result of some monstrous curse!” He laughed and shook his head, as if admiring their audacity. “Fortunately, you saw through it, immediately!”
“I did?” asked the Captain.
“Oh, certainly! Why, you saw that the victim was Hernán right away.” De Benalcázar mimed wiping his hands. “The rest is self-evident.”
“Now all that remains is for you to determine the location and movements of the men who were flogged, keeping alert, of course, for the lies and dissembling they will no doubt employ. Well done Captain!” said de Benalcázar, taking the soft hand of the Captain in his own and shaking vigorously. “Truly remarkable discernment, of both facts and motive! I’ll gather my monk up (he seems to have finished vomiting now) and leave you to it!”
The Captain was bellowing orders to Ramón, authority creeping back into his voice well before the knight and the monk had descended below decks.
“What is happening, Don Antonio?” said the monk, gripping the handrail as they reached the bottom of the stairs.
“I have, once again, saved our asses, despite being surrounded on all sides by fools and cowards,” he said happily. He felt like whistling, though he didn’t, choosing not to transgress that particular sailor’s taboo.
“But the murdered man…”
“Tut!” said de Benalcázar, “It is left to the Captain and the rough justice of the sea to decide, though I too have learned to tell which way the wind is blowing, and unless I am mistaken, everything shall turn out fine, for us at least. Ah, God’s Blessed Beard,” he said, grunting as he pushed hard against the door to their tiny quarters. “This door won’t budge, there’s something in the way. That lead coffin has come lose and slid into the room again! Will it never stay put? Help me push, Brother!”
The drumhead trial was finished by dawn. Two of the flogged men had been on watch with Hernán, and two had been below decks where they were supposed to have been sleeping, though it was only by their own words that this was avowed. Detecting a conspiracy, the Captain had all four hanged. Morale sank deplorably, both from the deaths as well as from the depletion of the crew, for the work that needed doing remained the same and, indeed, increased over the next week as the ship encountered a monotonous patch of Atlantic fog.
The middle of the Atlantic is a mysterious place, surging between the Old and New worlds. Strange vapors swirl over its illimitable depths, banks of thick fog rising from the sea’s cold surface in the warm air of a Spring voyage. Into one of these the Ciervo Volante had sailed, a roiling opacity that blotted out the horizons and turned the sun into a dim, distant candle. Everything was wrapped in a thick, damp light during the day, while night saw the ship plunged into sepulchral murk, lit only by the tiny red pinpricks of lamps. The Captain appeared only rarely on deck, and when he emerged he was always fully armored against the fog, a heavy cloak over his coat, multiple scarves around his neck and face, hat pulled low.
Brother Sebastián felt his way through the swirling, clinging fog on deck, his purse lighter but the flask under his robes heavier. The cook was an eminently reasonable man, thought the monk, though a bit avaricious. The madeira was truly mediocre, especially at that price but, of course, needs must!
The monk slunk along the deck, his hands clinging to the railing, feeling his way more by intuition than by sight. The pearly mist was greening into a foul soup as the sun slid beneath the western horizon, somewhere out there – the lamps had already been, indeed they were rarely extinguished these days, since even at noon you could stand in the middle of the ship without seeing either bow or stern.
He crept along, slipping on the fog-slickened deck, trying not to let the constant rolling of the ship turn his head. With nothing solid to fix an eye on, the rocking of the sea could make you lose all sense of position and motion. “Up” and “Down” became meaningless concepts within an ever-shifting mist where even the difference between the sea and the sky seemed pointlessly academic.
The monk stumbled against a heavy tackle lashed to the railing, which he knew meant he was just about to approach the outer edge of the raised quarterdeck. He left the railing and moved inwards, hugging the rough planks of the platform. If he followed its contour he knew he would, eventually, round a corner and come upon the door that lead down into the snug belly of the ship. He shuffled forward.
Sounds in the fog were strange. Something nearby, something right next to your ear, would be muffled, distant, obscure, while something happening on the other side of the ship would boom and echo, as if it were right atop you. Such was the case now – Brother Sebastián heard a splash, something heavy flopping in the water, a porpoise come to investigate the ship perhaps, or a deckhand throwing a bucket of foul water overboard. But it had been very loud, and had made the monk jump.
He squinted into the mist and glimpsed a shambling form, indistinct and woolly in the mist. The shape bore no lantern; it was simply a darker, slightly more solid patch within the roiling fog. It had seemed to be coming towards him – there were steps, strangely furtive, and an odd throaty sound, like a gurgling intake of breath. The shape seemed to be hesitating.
“Is someone there?” squeaked the monk. The figure waivered in the mist – was it retreating, or had the mist merely thickened between them? The monk shrank against the wall of the quarterdeck. Why was his pulse pounding in his ears? Why did the hair on the back of his neck seem to stand up straight? Why did he suddenly feel like turning and fleeing down the slick deck, a scream building in his throat?
The shape suddenly broke through the mist like a ship making its way to harbor, the cloak clasped around the great coat, collar up, the scarf wrapped tight and high around a face hidden by a great hat pulled low.
“God save you, Captain,” said the monk, relieved, though the thrill of fear still played up and down his spine. “I did not recognize you in this foul mist!”
The Captain nodded, or at least the great hat bobbed briefly, and then he hurried by, staying close to the outside railing, as if he were avoiding any chance of contact with the monk. Then he was gone, vanishing into the mist.
“Odd to see the Captain out this time of evening, and in this kind of fog!” said the monk. A hot, prickly fear still lapped at his guts, so he reached beneath his robes for the flask and steadied himself with two deep draughts. He felt a little better, and hurried on his way.
Voices oozed down from overhead – laughing and talking from up on the quarterdeck. He heard de Benalcázar’s low self-assured tones, and the voluble chatter of the first mate, Ramón, as well as the bony clatter of dice. Gambling away the watch, thought the monk, shaking his head. As he did, he kicked something light and small that had gotten underfoot, and felt it skitter away across the deck, vanishing over the side and landing with a damp plop in the sea.
“What’s all that racket down there?” barked Ramón. “Whose keeps dumping things over the side?”
“Ah, it is me! Brother Sebastián!” A dark blob swam into view overhead, and then a lantern was lifted, thinning the murk somewhat, at least enough to see the grinning face of the first mate.
“Ah, your pardon, Holy Brother!” laughed the mate. “I thought it was one of my men, blundering about like a drunken camel down there.”
“What were you dumping over the side?” asked de Benalcázar, appearing next to Ramón, his huge black eyes glittering in the lamplight.
“I kicked something here on deck,” said the monk, lamely. “I hope it wasn’t important…”
“But before that? It sounded huge! For a moment I thought someone had fallen overboard!” laughed the nobleman, though the first mate made a sour face at the reminder of their past troubles.
“That was not me,” said the monk. He gestured over his shoulder. “I was back there, down that way, down the deck. I heard it too, though; quite a splash it was!”
“I thought I’d heard someone shuffling around down here, below us,” said the first mate.
“I met the Captain,” answered the monk. “He was coming from this direction.”
“The Captain?” said Ramón, surprised. “Well, blow me, what’s he doing out on deck in this soup?” He gazed down the deck, into the fog, a puzzled look on his face. “I thought he said he was turning in for the night?”
“Well, goodnight gentlemen!” said the monk, waving his hand as he found the door.
“Off to your prayers, Brother?” said de Benalcázar, nastily.
“Say one for me, Brother!” he heard Ramón say.
The sudden return of his sight below decks was a blessing and a relief, even if it was only to see wooden walls stained black by smoky lamps hanging from low ceilings. He hurried down the corridor to their small room – he had grown used to the hammock, and looked forward to his evening prayers, the flask, and the oblivion of deep sleep. He swung the door open, stepped inside, and nearly dropped his flask.
The lead coffin lay in the middle of the room. Its lid was off, haphazardly tossed into the corner.
The coffin was empty.
“If these weren’t my dice,” said de Benalcázar, staring down hard at the sparse little pips on display, “I’d swear you were cheating.”
“You’ve got to learn to throw with the pitch of the ship,” explained Ramón, scooping up the dice with his left hand. He rolled them in his palm a few times, checked their faces, and then tossed them with a casual flick of the wrist into the circle they’d scratched out in the deck. A pair of sixes winked up at them. “See? But I always have to hold off dicing when we’re in port, at least until I get my land legs back – can’t throw at all with nothing but solid Earth beneath my feet!”
“Perhaps I’ll have better luck in Veracruz then,” said the nobleman. “If we ever get there, that is! This blasted fog! Feels as if we’re standing still.”
“Aye, and this is some of the worst I’ve seen, at that,” said the first mate. “The sails are slack, but we’re in a decent current anyway – making progress westward, at least, though I’ll not be happy until we can sight the stars again. A bit uncanny, surrounded by mist all the time. Starts to all feel a bit close.”
“Maybe that’s why the Captain was out for a stroll around the deck,” said the nobleman, rattling the dice in his hand. He threw; a two and four. He spat in disgust.
“Now that was a bit strange,” said Ramón, absentmindedly palming the dice and tossing off a five and six. “As a rule, he keeps out of these sea fogs – says it degrades the skin and encourages whelks.”
The door below them creaked open, and they heard fumbling footsteps as someone emerged into the foggy night from below.
“Don Antonio?” piped the voice of the monk. He was barely whispering, but there was a harsh urgency in his words. “Don Antonio, are you there?”
“What’s troubling you, Brother Sebastián?” asked the nobleman. “Did the cook fill your flask with vinegar?” The heard him stumbling up the steps to the quarterdeck, emerging out of the gloom and into the little circle of their lamp. His face was grey and haggard.
“Don Antonio, we have been robbed,” he choked out.
“What are you talking about?” asked de Benalcázar.
“Robbed?” said the first mate, rising to his feet. “Who has been robbing you, and of what?” The monk’s jaws worked, but he seemed to swallow his words, looking furtively from the first mate to de Benalcázar, who gave him a warning glance. Finally, with a shudder, he found his voice again.
“Our lead,” he paused, hunting for the word, “casque, that we keep in our quarters. It has been emptied!” De Benalcázar leaped to his feet, his hand automatically reaching for the sword at his side.
“What do you mean?” he hissed.
“It was in the middle of the room,” whimpered the monk. “The lid was off, thrown aside in the corner and…it was empty, Don Antonio!”
“Thievery! Under my very nose! By thunder!” said the first mate.
“Who would dare?” said the nobleman.
“The crew must be more resentful than we realized,” said Ramón, worry creasing his forehead. “There were a few who blamed the bad luck on the Captain taking your strange box on board, and then when they saw you talking to the Captain after the murder of Hernán…” he scratched his chin and looked out into the fog.
“It is imperative that our property be returned to us,” said de Benalcázar. His black eyes were hard and merciless, and his hand tightened on the hilt of his sword.
“Certainly, but it’s a bad business,” said Ramón, rubbing the top of his head distractedly. “To rob the Captain’s passengers, and so boldly! They didn’t even bother to cover the box back up. Lashed and stowed proper, you might not have known until you were on the dock in Veracruz! No, that shows that the don’t care. They’ve no fear of punishment, now. We thought the men had settled back down, but they must be closer to a mutiny that we realized!” Fear flickered between the three men, dancing in time to the sad glow of the lamp. “We’ve got to find the Captain! He has the only key to the gun locker. A musket apiece and we’d be safe, or at least in a position to properly defend ourselves. Come on, he must still be on deck; I’ve not heard him go below.”
They filed down the stairs in close order, the fog filled with a more concrete fear than the simple discomfort it had held for them earlier. At the base of the stairs, standing on the main deck, the first mate lit a second lamp and handed it to de Benalcázar.
“We’ll split up, be that much quieter and quicker. We have to be careful, now – who knows how many of the men are in on this. It could be us and the Captain against the lot! So we find the Captain, tell him what’s happened and then, with all the nonchalance we can muster, we’ll stroll, calm-like and placid as a millpond, down to his quarters and the guns. Brother, you stay here, by the door, and wait for our return.”
The men were quickly swallowed in the fog, their lamps dimming and vanishing as they went.
The little monk fumbled for his flask. His hands were shaking.
De Benalcázar’s thumb again found the empty socket in the pommel of his sword. He tapped it nervously. The gall of these filthy, lice-bitten, peasants! Daring to rob him! Antonio de Benalcázar! When he’d sold the Saint in Veracruz, he’d settle things, all right – he’d have every one of the ill-bred dogs flayed alive; there were people in New Spain who were good at that sort of thing, oh yes, and he’d have the silver to pay them to do it nice and slow. A savage, wolfish grin flashed across his face.
Mist clung to him like a shroud; it seemed to clog his nostrils, to stick in his lungs. He tasted the salt on the night air and spat. Christ weeping on the Cross, but he’d be glad to be off this damned ship soon. He had, originally, planned to return to Spain as soon as he’d made a proper sale of the Saint, but perhaps he could wait a little while. It may be a wild backwater, but there were opportunities in the New World, especially for men with money. And they said the women were beautiful there too, and plentiful.
He stumbled and knocked his knee against the railing. He was holding the lamp high, trying to shed as much light as he could, but his feet were lost in the fog and he could barely see anything around him. His neck was stretched out straight, and his eyes were wide, trying to catch a glimpse of movement in the mist.
He steadied himself against the rail and listened. He had caught the rustle of cloth, ahead perhaps? Something finer and thinner than the sail that hung, slack and silent, overhead. He inched forward.
“Captain Niño?” he said, his voice thin and small in the night. He cleared his throat and tried to muster the dignity of his blood; a de Benalcázar had been with El Cid at the conquest of Valencia, for the love of Christ! “Captain!” he said again, louder and cheerier. “Are you out here, in this devilish murk?”
Damp vapors twisted and coiled, like a serpent seeking its rock. Again he heard the soft rasp of cloth and the clack of heels against the wooden deck. He hurried forward, lamp aloft, gaining on the shape ahead that seemed almost to be fleeing from him. Something was very strange here, he thought. De Benalcázar shifted the lamp from his left hand and rested his right lightly on the hilt of his sword. The shape rounded the foredeck – they were nearly at the bobbing prow of the Ciervo Volante. The nobleman chanced a quick dash across the slippery, rolling deck –
He came to a sudden stop, his boots scrambling for purchase against the damp wood. Out of the mist came first the great feathered hat, then the tightly wound scarf, and finally the cloaked and hunched shoulders of Captain Niño himself, standing stock still at the prow of the ship.
“Ha! Captain!” laughed de Benalcázar with relief. He released his grip on his sword and lowered the lamp. “Forgive me for running at you like that, but when you did not return my greeting, well,” he shrugged, somewhat embarrassed.
The Captain bobbed his head, the feather waving damply in the fog. Then, without a word, he turned, continuing on his way. The nobleman blinked in surprise.
“A moment, sir,” he said, stepping forward and placing his hand lightly on the Captain’s shoulder. The nobleman was surprised to feel hard muscle beneath the cloak and coat – the Captain, who he had always thought of as a bit of a soft dandy, was a tougher sort than he’d realized. The Captain, though, flinched away from the contact, twitching and jerking his shoulder out from under the arm. “My apology, Captain!” said the nobleman, sensing he had overstepped the bounds of familiarity. He bowed, and the Captain hesitated in his flight, stopping against the railing. He kept his back to the nobleman however, and leaned on the rail, pale fingers bright in the damp glow of the lamp. He seemed to be staring out over the prow at the sea, although de Benalcázar could not be certain – the hat was pulled low, the scarf wrapped high, right up to his eyes, it seemed, totally hiding his face. The nobleman joined him at the railing and tried to take no offense when he saw the Captain shrink away from him, edging out of the little circle of light cast by the lamp.
“I am sorry to take up your time, but something unforgivable has happened to me, something that is, perhaps, a portent of danger to us all. I have been robbed, sir, by someone aboard this very ship. Robbed boldly and defiantly!” he paused, but the Captain remained quiet and still. “I see you are as shocked as I! Brother Sebastián has reported that our lead case had been opened and the, ah, materials within, gone!” That did seem to elicit a response from the Captain. He tensed again, and de Benalcázar thought he heard a sharp, wet gasp from somewhere beneath the hat, a rattling hiss of surprise or anger.
“Yes, my sentiments exactly,” he said, nodding his head. “Of course, you know what we were transporting, and you also know that the cost of our passage was to be recovered out of the profits realized from its sale. However, your first mate seems convinced that something else is afoot, as the boldness of the thief (or thieves) suggests a dangerous conspiracy – ” he stopped, midsentence, as the Captain again began to walk away from him. The nobleman swallowed his rising anger. Were it any other man, he would have struck him down for such insolence. He reached for the Captains shoulder again, and then paused.
Why had the Captain not spoken? He was not a talkative man, to be sure, but to not even offer a noncommittal word of sympathy? That was not like him, not like the proud son of a rich shipowner who fancied himself a gentleman. And the muscular shoulder he had gripped – that had surprised him, but perhaps…
The nobleman glanced up and down at the Captain’s back. Was he wider? And shorter perhaps? A cold knot tied itself in the nobleman’s stomach. He had not seen the Captain after all, only his hat, his cloak, his coat…anyone could wear those, and thereby impersonate the Captain. With a snarl, he leapt forward, grabbing at the man before him.
“Hold fast, you damned imposter!” he hissed, wrenching the figure around and thrusting the lamp into the man’s face.
Powerful hands reached his throat before the scream did. De Benalcázar died, clawing at the strangely baggy skin of the thing’s face, the smooth clear skin of the Captain that slid easily from a rotten, eyeless skull.
“Captain?” asked Ramón, moving hurriedly up the other side of the ship. He hadn’t met anyone, not even the man who was supposed to be on watch aft. His lamp swung wildly as he trusted to his sea legs to guide him safely across the wet planks. Could they have gotten to the Captain already? God help him if they did – he knew they might spare him for his navigational skills, but only after binding him to their mutiny by forcing him to kill the passengers.
He went towards the prow, expecting at any minute to meet de Benalcázar coming the other way. If it came to it, he mused, maybe they’d let them all go out in a lifeboat. If they gave them some water, they just might make it. It’d be hard, but it could be done. Bit of luck, they could make Hispaniola in a couple of weeks, ten days with a good wind. They might be feeling merciful. He’d served with a number of them for years after all, and they’d all seen how he’d tried to talk the Captain out of the hangings.
A figure shambled into view, and Ramón gave a sigh of relief. He’d recognize that ridiculous hat in Hell!
“Captain!” he said, his bandy-legged walk propelling him rapidly towards his superior officer. “Glad I found you, there’s something bad going on, Captain, theft and mutiny and – ” he stopped and stared. In the glow of the lamp, the Captain’s eyes glittered hard and bright, but they were not the watery blue he’d expected. They were black, black as night, and sharp as daggers against the pale, loose skin around them. A thin trail of blood oozed from their edges, and they were restless in their sockets, rolling madly like a bull’s eyes in the ring.
His scream became a muffled choking sob as the figure lunged at him, striking him a ringing blow against his head with a powerfully swung fist. As he crumpled dazed to the deck, Ramón vaguely remembered once, in Seville, when he and Hernán had gotten too boisterous in their drinking and ended up fighting. He had felt the same powerful fist against his skull then, too.
He struggled weakly, but the horrible thing crouched on his chest, heavy as death. With one strangely slick hand it pried his jaws open, and with the other it gripped his tongue firmly, and began to pull.
“Saints preserve us,” whispered Brother Sebastián. He had heard another strange, ghostly sound flit across the fog-cloaked deck, like a bat in the night. Where was Don Antonio? Where was the first mate? He sipped from his flask, but even the soothing warmth of the madeira seemed dampened by the surrounding fog.
There it was again – had it been a choked-off cry for help? Or a curse for a stubbed toe? He took a step towards it, paused, then thought better, and returned to the faint security of the lamp over the hatch. He wished someone would come for him, soon.
“Who’s there?” he squeaked in the fog. There was a splash, something heavy striking the water off to his right. He shivered. What was happening out there? He was almost ready to flee down the stairs and into the safety of his hammock when he heard the click-clack of heels against the deck. Someone was approaching.
“Don Antonio?” he asked, his voice quivering. “Ramón?” he asked again. Still there was no answer. “Captain?” he squeaked. He felt an unreasoning fear clawing at his heart. There was no answer, and yet the steps came on, almost leisurely in their pace.
“Sancte Michael Archangele,” he prayed, “defende nos in proelio, contra nequitiam et insidias diaboli esto praesidium.” The footsteps paused.
“Ah! So there are some yet living who still speak the Tongue of the Empire,” said a voice from out of the fog, speaking in rapid, strongly accented Latin. “To hear it again, after all these years! It is a strange comfort! I had feared that I would be forced to listen to more of that barbarous yapping!” The words came thickly, as if the tongue was swollen or numb.
“Who is there?” he said, then corrected himself. “Quis est ibi?”
“Now there’s a question! Who indeed?” laughed the voice. The fog thinned slightly, and a figure approached, still obscured by the dark and the mist. “In truth, the Parts of many now stand before you, blood from one, organs from another, the muscles of a third…”
“Nescio quid est,” stammered the monk.
“Don’t you? I suppose not. Here, little Roman mouse, I shall show you.” The figure strode into the light, and Brother Sebastián reeled with horror.
The Captain’s great coat was thrown wide open, and at first the monk had supposed the man was wearing a sheet or length of loose, pale cloth, but as his brain ordered what his eyes were seeing, he realized that it was skin, pale and unblemished and smelling faintly of olive oil, worn like a cassock. Powerful muscles rippled beneath it, twisting it and stretching it and contorting it like an ill-tailored suit. The skin of the head hung loosely, and a moldering grin full of yellow broken teeth met the monk’s dawning recognition.
“Yes, yes,” said the figure. “The master of this vessel had fine skin indeed. The paleness of it brings out my new eyes splendidly, don’t you think?”
Brother Sebastián’s gaze was dragged reluctantly over the baggy, misshapen nose to stare, horrified, into the glittering black eyes of Don Antonio de Benalcázar, red-rimmed and shining with unholy vigor.
“What are you?” he muttered, his voice weak with terror.
“In olden times,” murmured the man, advancing on the monk, “I was Hostus Terentius Varro, wizard and philosopher.” Brother Sebastián backed away, but still the man kept coming towards him. “Deep was my delving into the secrets of magic, and of the wisdom of the ancient teachers. I ripped the shade of Apollonius of Tyana itself from Hell, and made him divulge his forbidden teachings to me! All the secrets of the Medes were mine, and I had ventured even unto the tombs of Memphis, where the Priests know the secret of conquering death itself.”
“You are the body from the tomb outside of Seville,” the monk shuddered with revulsion at his revelation.
“In my days it was Hispalis, a town of rich merchants and swaggering soldiers, but it had a library of wonderful, forbidden scrolls. I was foolish, though, and my entombment was engineered by a Greek slave, a woman who knew the old words and the ancient rites.” The walking dead body of Varro swayed in its steps, and the rich, rolling Latin seethed with anger and shame. “Thracian bitch! Wise she was, but not wise enough – for here I am, striding this world yet, when she is doubtless so much dust scattered in the wind.”
“It is not possible,” muttered the monk. He felt the rail of the ship press into his back – he had retreated as far as he could.
“Many terrible things in this world are not merely possible, my foolish little fellow, but probable” Varro whispered. A long red tongue licked out over pale, bloodless lips. “Now, what of yours shall I take for myself?”
It was a moment’s thought, a sudden vision that fell upon him with such clarity that, truly, it could only have been Heaven-sent. Brother Sebastián mounted the wooden rail and, without a backwards glance at the abomination behind him, leaped into the cold churning sea.
He prayed for his salvation, and the salvation of all sinners beset by devils out of Hell. He prayed as he swam, trying to keep his head above water.
He did not pray long.
Don Ricardo de Narváez was the harbor master of Veracruz, a powerful post that, generally, meant he spent the first hour of the day delegating tasks to various underlings before heading off to the villa of one of his three mistresses. Today, he mused sourly, would have been for Carmilla, a big healthy German girl with the legs of a thoroughbred. He scowled down at the functionary.
“Who found a ship?” he boomed. At least he could make this little man quiver.
“These men discovered the Ciervo Volante apparently abandoned, Don Ricardo,” said the orderly, bobbing his head over and over again, eager to display the requisite obsequiousness. He gestured towards a group of five small, dark Indians, fishermen by the look of them, thick armed and broad chested from a life spent trawling the Bay of Campeche.
“Well, what about it? Where did you find it?”
“Ah, Don Ricardo,” said the orderly. “These men are Huastecs. They do not speak Spanish, sir.”
“Then how do you know they found a ship?”
“Brother Miguel is translating for us, sir,” said the orderly.
“Then why in God’s name am I talking to you! Brother Miguel!” barked de Narváez.
“At your service, Don Ricardo,” said a tall, thin monk, emerging from behind the Huastecs. “These five men were three days out from shore, working the outer edge of the fishing grounds that are allowed to them by the grace of the Governor General, when they spied a ship drifting with the wind. They thought the sails looked strange, torn and hanging limply, and that the ropes on deck had a disheveled appearance. As the vessel was heading towards rough water full of the most terrible reefs and hidden shoals, these men thought it best that they go and investigate, offering their expertise to preserve the life of the crew from shipwreck and drowning.”
“More likely to cut the throats of any survivors and take what loot they could find,” said de Narváez, darkly.
“Sir,” objected the priest hotly, “I know these men – they are honest, god-fearing fishermen, good Christians all. I assure you, their motives were pure and altruistic.”
“Apologies, Brother,” said de Narváez, “I am in a foul temper from overwork. Please, continue.” The Franciscan nodded curtly.
“Approaching the ship, they confirmed that the sails were torn and loose, and that much of the rigging was in a tangle, as from a great storm. They called up but, when no one appeared to answer them, they climbed aboard.”
“Was there any sign of a fight? Holes in the hull, shattered wood?” The Priest turned and put the questions to them haltingly, and they answered in a rich, rolling language whose words flowed like a song. The Priest nodded along, and then turned.
“They say that, other than the tattered sail, everything seemed in order. The hull was intact, and the ship rode high in the water – indeed, it rode very lightly, else it would have already struck a reef. They patched the sail and repaired the rigging as best they could, and sailed her in to port.”
“Well, fine then,” said Don Ricardo, his eyes slitted and shining. “Offer them a silver real apiece for it, and tell them good work.”
“Don Ricardo, these men are entitled to the salvage rights for the ship,” said the Priest, severely.
“What? How do they know that?”
“I told them as much,” said the Priest, simply. The harbor master knotted his hands into fists beneath the table, but kept his composure.
“Very well then,” he said, swallowing his disappointment. “We will put it up in auction for them (with a small commission, plus fees) and sell the ship in their name. There are many here who are eager for ships, even derelict ones found at sea. Is that all?”
“Ah, there is the matter of the survivor, Don Ricardo,” said the orderly.
“A survivor?” said the harbor master. Always a trickle with these people, he thought, they can never come out and give you everything up front!
“They of course searched the ship, and found only one survivor,” said the Brother, crossing himself for the missing men that they did not find.
“Well, if there’s a survivor,” said de Narváez, exasperated, “they can’t claim salvage. Rule of the sea and all!”
“They do not believe this man is a member of the crew, nor, indeed, do I, for he is not Spanish.”
“You have seen this man?”
“Yes, Don Ricardo. He was weak, laying in the belly of the ship. Left all alone. He must have been ill, for there was food and water a plenty, but he had the look of a man starved and delirious with thirst, his fair skin baggy, his terrible black eyes sunken deep in their sockets.”
“What is he? French?”
“I believe he may be Genoese, sir. He is clearly a scholar, for his mastery of Latin is profound, though his accent is very strange. It was in that language that we conversed. He told a muddled tale of mutiny and murder and abandonment at sea. I am not clear on all the details – perhaps after some rest he will be able to make more sense.”
“Where is he, then?”
“I had him taken to the hospital on Tlacopan street, Don Ricardo.”
“He has a distinct bearing,” said Brother Miguel, carefully.
“Fine, fine,” said Don Ricardo, standing up. “Congratulate these men on their good fortune, and tell them that we will see to everything. Now, if there is nothing else, I am off to Doña Carmilla’s villa for a visit.”
Don Ricardo de Narváez stepped out of the harbor master’s office and into the busy dockside streets of Veracruz. The sky was blue, and the sun was warming up nicely. All in all, he thought, pausing to examine a truly obscene hibiscus flower growing in a fat pot in front of his office, it looked like it would be a beautiful day.