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Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola1532
It was a quiet evening in Santa Domingo. But Bianca knew very well that would not last long.
She stood behind the high counter along the back wall of her tavern, rinsing pottery goblets and keeping a close eye on her customers. It was mostly the usual crowd, sailors and merchants biding their time as they bought supplies, loaded their cargoes, and waited for the convoys that would bear them back to Spain. A few of the men were headed in the opposite direction, from Maracaibo or Cartagena towards the mines of Peru.
They were all focused on the riches they hoped awaited them, the gold and pearls and emeralds, and drank their ale and rum with a tense, watchful air.
Bianca had been hearing disquieting whispers, though, and she was sure they had something to do with the ship that had limped into port today. Its battered sails and broken mainmast were like an omen in a town that was far too superstitious already.
But the more frightened the men were, the more they drank, and thus the more coin they spent in her establishment. Bianca was all in favour of that, as long as things didn't turn nasty. It had taken her a sennight to clean up after the last fight, and those were days she could ill afford to lose. She had to pay her servants, her suppliersand she didn't intend to end up on the streets. Not again.
She narrowed her gaze as she studied the room. It wasn't vast or grand, nothing like the gilded palazzos of Venice still so vivid in her memory. It was just a long, low chamber, the walls freshly whitewashed after the last repairs. The wooden beams overhead were dark with smoke, hung with bunches of driedherbs in a vain attempt to drive away the stench of rum and wool-clad bodies in the island heat. The uneven planks of the floor were warped and sticky, covered by close-packed tables and benches.
Si, humble it might be, but it was hers. A small accomplishment, perhaps, compared to the great feats of fortune hunting she heard every day here in Santo Domingo. But it was something.
Bianca stored the last of the goblets behind the counter, checking to make sure her pistol was tucked there still. Quiet as it was, she still didn't trust that strange, heavy tension in the air. It was almost like the atmosphere that hung over the island just before a storm broke, taut and still. Something was afoot. Santo Domingo had been peaceful enough as they waited for the arrival of the next Seville-boundflota, but perhaps there was a raid coming.
She frowned as she remembered the last battle here with French pirates, Jean Florin and his men hanging at the mouth of the harbour as she and her late husband Juan had arrived. But that was years ago. The French had seen the folly of their actions, and ceased to harry the mighty Spanish fleets and their fortified ports. It couldn't be that. Then what was it?
Bianca glanced towards Delores, who was stirring the stew pot over the fire and humming to herself. The maid wouldn't know; she was a good worker, but cared mostly for flirting with the sailors. But Bianca knew who would have all the gossip, who knew everything that happened from Puerto Rico to Peru. And he was sitting right over by the wall.
She poured out a generous portion of her most expensive beverage, a punch made of rum, sugar and nutmeg, and carried it over to Señor de Alameda, aide to Governor de Feuonmayor.
Alameda was a quiet, watchful man of around thirty years old, not one to cause a fuss, yet still a regular visitor at the tavern. She suspected he was a spy of sorts, and heard more of his news at the docks than he did in the governor's fortress. Also, he was diddling Delores. Not that Bianca cared. His escudos were good, he caused her no trouble, and he sometimes passed on titbits of valuable information.
She placed the goblet before him and sat down across the small table, wiping her hands on her apron. "I hope all is well with the governor, Señor de Alameda," she said.
He glanced at her from his inscrutable black eyes, giving her a polite smile. "Ah, Señora Montero. Your company is indeed a rare pleasure. And, yes, the governor is quite well. Much occupied with the expansion of the cathedral."
"Hmm. Then that cannot be what is amiss."
Alameda took a slow sip of his drink. How very Spanish he was! Nothing ever given away. So polite, so careful, so dangerous. "Amiss?"
"I have lived in this town long enough to know when trouble is in the air," she said. "And I have an interest in what happens. Business is better when all is peaceful and prosperous."
He laughed ruefully. "That is undeniable, señora. A peaceful island where we can all go about our business is better for everyone. Our churches and storehouses unmolested, our shipping free of pirates "
Bianca turned suddenly cold, despite the warm breeze from the windows, carrying the smell of the lush green island from the mountains out to the sea. She remembered those rotting bodies twisting in the wind, the smoldering shells of houses and the desecrated icons. Reports of torture, rape, murder. "Pirates? Is that the trouble?"
Alameda glanced away. "Señora Montero, pirates are always a menace in this part of the world, are they not? Desperate villains who seek to steal from the King and the Church. Surely you know that as well as anyone, for was your late husband not a sailor? But they are not an immediate threat to Santo Domingo. Quite the opposite."
The tavern door blew open, admitting a rowdy group amid shouts and coarse laughter. Delores could see to them for now, but Bianca knew she would soon have to go back to work. The time for conversation was short; she had to find out what was happening. In Santo Domingo, knowledge was power. "What do you mean, Señor Alameda?" she said impatiently.
He nodded. Like any primero player, he knew when it was time to show his hand. "I have heard reports that the Calypso has made its way into our port."
Whatever Bianca expected to hear, it was not that. She gave a startled laugh. "The Calypso? Have your spies started seeing fantasy vessels, then?"
The Calypso, captained by a man of near-supernatural navigational skills, was whispered about in the tavern when the rum was freely flowing: undefeatable in battle, so fleet it could outrun any storm, said to have sailed to the very edge of the earth and returned bearing unimaginable riches. Even Juan, her salty old navigator of a husband, had been awed by the tales. They had the aura of ancient, golden myths.
But Bianca had long ago given up on myths and heroes.
"The Calypso is real enough," Alameda said.
"And her captain? The man they say could navigate his way out of hell itself? And steal the devil's treasure while he's at it."
Alameda laughed. "He is real, too, though I doubt he has seen the underworld."
"There is hell enough on earth, especially for a man who sails the seas for his living."
"True, Señora Montero. Just don't let Father Yanez hear you speak so. None of us have chosen an easy path so far from home, not even someone as wealthy as the captain of the Calypso."
Bianca glanced towards the counter, where Delores was pouring rum and dishing out stew. "If the Calypso is so very grand, why have I never seen it? I have been in Santo Domingo for a fair number of years. I thought I knew every vessel that plies its way between Peru and Seville."
Alameda shrugged. "I've heard tell Havana is his port of choice, and too that he has his own hidden island somewhere between here and Jamaica. He is servant to no one; he certainly does not answer to Governor de Fuenmayor. Perhaps not even to the king."
A man who was servant to no one. Now Bianca knew he was a myth. And a most intriguing one. "Then who does he answer to?"
"That, Señora Montero, is something I would very much like to know. I'd pay a great deal to anyone with more information on the captain of the Calypso."
"You know so much already."
"Me? I am merely a functionary. I seek only to mind my own business, make my fortune so I can quietly retire in Andalucia. Away from this cursed place."
And amen to that, Bianca thought, swatting at a mosquito. But much as she, too, sometimes longed to escape, dreamed of Venice and a long-lost home, she knew this was her place now. A place always fraught with dangers. "I would vow you are more than that, señor. Does the governor not rely on you?"
"You are too kind."
"In fact, I would vow you know everything that happens on Hispaniola. Even to the furthest estancia up-island." The noise of the tavern grew, spiralling louder and louder as more new arrivals poured in. "Such as why the Calypso would suddenly be calling at Santo Domingo."
"That is simple enough. I hear there was a great battle off the coast of Puerto Rico."
"Between the Calypso and a pirate vessel. The villains were driven away, but the Calypso's mainmast was damaged. It was made worse when she was caught in that storm in the Mona Passage a few days ago." His gaze swept over the room. "The storm that has made Santo Domingo so very crowded of late. So many newcomers to our fair city, many of them seeking shelter at the governor's fortress."
"So, the Calypso has come into port for repairs?" Bianca laughed. "Not so mythical after all. I would have thought anyone who could steal the devil's treasure could magically repair his own mainmast, even in the midst of a storm."
"Oh, señora, I would not dismiss him so quickly." Alameda laid a few coins on the table and rose to his feet. "Now I must be on my way. I have a conundrum of my own waiting at the fortress, though one I am rather looking forward to returning to. I thank you for the drink, and for the conversation. As always, it has been most enlightening."
Bianca pocketed the coins as she watched him leave, his fine clothes quickly obscured by the crowd of rougher, rowdier patrons. He might be enlightened, yet she was more puzzled than ever. What was it about this one ship and her mysterious captain that seemed to have all of Santo Domingo balanced on a knife's edge?
She made her way back to the counter, searching each face to see if one could belong to the unknown captain. Most of them were people she knew, sailors who usually called at her tavern when they were in port. They came to celebrate, to spend their new-found treasure, or to mourn losses at sea, bury their sorrows in her rum. The coin seemed plentiful enough tonight, but she also saw apprehension on their sunburned faces.
She glanced beneath the counter to make sure the pistol was still there. She didn't usually care for firearms; they were too unpredictable, too apt to fire off at the wrong moment. Just like the inhabitants of this town. But when havoc threatened, there was nothing like a great deal of smoke and noise to disperse it.
Bianca took over pouring out the drink, sending Delores to wait on the tables. The room was crowded indeed now, every chair filled, men lined up along the walls. The windows were all open to let in the warm tropical breeze, but it wasn't quite enough to banish the heat. The smell of rum and wool and Delores's stew.
Bianca lifted the loose curls off the nape of her neck, the wild tendrils that always escaped their pins and clung damply to her skin. For some reasonperhaps Alameda's words of "home"she couldn't be rid of the images of Venice in her mind. Cool, white rooms, their tall doors open to terraces over the canals. The sound of music in the air, masked faces around every corner. There had been danger aplenty there, too. No one knew that better than Bianca. But there was also great beauty.
She closed her eyes for a moment, and for that one instant she stood again outside her mother's house. A girl full of foolish hopes and dreams, gazing up at the face of
No! She slammed a goblet down on the counter, opening her eyes to the hot, noisy reality of the tavern. She would not think of that again, of Venice and Balthazar Grattiano. They were gone. This was all that mattered now. His betrayal had led to so much grief and hardship. To her life on her own.
She had work to do.
As she sent Delores off with another tray of drinks, a man appeared at the counter. Bianca stared at him curiously. He was not one of those regular customers. Indeed, she was certain she had never seen him before. He was tall, with the lean, muscled frame of someone accustomed to climbing rigging, but he was also thin, almosthollow.
Despite the heat, he wore a hooded cloak, his face cast half in shadow. But Bianca could see enough to tell he was quite handsome, or would be if he shaved off his tangled black beard. His sun-darkened face, all gaunt angles, and his brown eyes were almost elegant, in a haunted way. Drawn with taut lines of some deep-seated sorrow. He gazed at her wearily.
For a moment, she wondered if he was a wraith, summoned by her own unhappy memories. A spirit, perhaps flown from the decks of that half-myth the Calypso. But then he gave her a whisper of a smile, and her strange fancies vanished. He was just a man, though certainly a very odd one. Even for Santo Domingo.
"Rum, por favour, señora," he said, his voice deep and rusty.
Bianca poured out a generous measure of the thick brown liquid into a pottery goblet, sliding it to him over the scarred wood of the counter. "You are new to Santo Domingo, yes?"
"It has been some time since I last visited," he answered, after he neatly drained the liquor. She poured out more. "This place was owned by Señor Valdez then."
"It has been a time. I bought it from Valdez more than a year ago, before he went back to Spain."
"A year ago," he muttered, as if that was an unfathomable length of time. Perhaps it was. Lives did change in only a moment, after all.
She found herself unaccountably curious about this wraith. People came and went on this island, all of them intent on their own business, most of them running from something. Just like Bianca herself.
"Was your ship damaged in the storm?" she asked. Perhaps he was even a crew member of the Calypso. That would explain why she had never seen him before. A mysterious wraith from a mythical ship.