The characters from the Queen of Swords are copyright to Fireworks Productions.
No infringement of copyright is intended or revenue expected from their
use. The story plot and other original characters are copyright to the
author, Elizabeth Milligan.
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Lisa and Cecilia for their careful editing of this episode, and to Maril for her help and encouragement.
Virtual Season Episode #2
Part One of three
"Tessa, I think we should get a large bag of sugar. We will have to preserve some of that fruit that Don Ricardo has promised us."
Tessa couldn't tear her eyes away from the sight that she was watching though the window of the small shop. "Whatever you feel we need, Marta." She vaguely heard Marta finalize the order for this month's supplies as the stage from Monterey slowly came to a stop. She moved to the store's covered porch to get a better view.
"What is so fascinating?" asked Marta, now at her shoulder.
Tessa turned this time, sending Marta an apologetic grin. "Look at the stage. I didn't think that it would make it into the square without tipping over." The coach was loaded with trunks and boxes, bags and carefully wrapped bundles. There was even something that might be a large carpet. Tessa gently nudged her friend and nodded in the direction of the stage. "Let's go."
She caught Marta's indulgent smile from the corner of her eye before she started across the square. A new arrival in the small pueblo was always an event, and the owner of this amount of baggage must be more than just a casual visitor. Tessa indulged in a little speculation as she approached. A merchant would have his own wagons; he would not rely on the stage. It could be a new resident, but Tessa couldn't recall the sale of any of the houses in town or of the outlying haciendas. A relative of one of the local families, then.
The sight of a lady emerging from the coach strengthened Tessa's suspicions. She was a woman of quality and obviously had recently disembarked from the boat that had carried her from Spain. She was wearing the same condescending, slightly disappointed look that most new arrivals assumed at their first sight of the dusty square. Tessa smiled to herself. This woman could easily become one of those who grew to love the beauty of this land. Within a year, she might be wondering how she could have ever lived anywhere else.
"Buenas tardes, Senorita. Welcome to Santa Elena. I am Tessa Alvarado. Was someone supposed to meet you here?"
The dark-brown eyes that looked up at Tessa were, for an instant, hard and judgmental, but the smile that quickly appeared on the delicate features softened the expression. "Thank you for the pleasant welcome, Senorita Alvarado." The lady's gaze began to wander, and Tessa felt as if she had been summarily dismissed until the woman continued, "No, my arrival is unannounced. If you could point me in the direction of the military commander's residence, I will make arrangements to remove this debris from the square." The lady made casual gesture to the growing pile of luggage being unloaded from the stage. Her relaxed manner toward her belongings did not extend to the way she continued to scan the square anxiously, as if searching for someone.
Tessa doubted that Montoya would appreciate being expected to take charge of the lady's belongings while she contacted the person she was expecting to be her host. With that amusing thought in mind, Tessa indicated the large pink adobe building lining one side of the square. "That is the colonel's office and residence, Senorita..." she paused, still awaiting the lady's name.
The woman's smile grew at the sight of the impressive structure and for the first time she turned her full attention directly on Tessa. "It is Senora actually -- Senora Montoya."
"I want the culprit caught, Grisham. It may seem like a small matter now, but this type of behavior only leads to greater mischief. I will not have the ladies of this community treated in such a manner."
"It's only a few missing gloves, sir."
"It is *seven* missing gloves, and the last one disappeared from Dona Juanita's dressing table. The thief is becoming bolder. Who knows what will go missing next?" Montoya looked at his captain and gave a dramatic sigh. Grisham knew it was likely in response to the wide grin that had appeared on his own face. He couldn't help it; the whole glove situation appealed to his sense of humour.
They continued to walk out of the rose courtyard into the square with the colonel referencing the reports he carried with him. While waiting for the next item in today's list of orders, Grisham noticed the scene in the square. The amount of luggage being unloaded from the stage was impressive, and he didn't recognize the attractive woman with Tessa Alvarado. Perhaps Tessa was having company. That could make courting her difficult; she would have even more excuses not to spend time with him. He turned to Montoya. "Sir, were you aware of any visitors coming to stay at the Alvarado hacienda?"
"Senorita Alvarado does not inform me...," Montoya's comment died as he glanced up to take note of the new arrival. He pressed his lips together tightly, closed his eyes, and took a very deep breath. When he opened his eyes to focus again on the mystery woman, the look he sent should have killed her on the spot. The breath was released slowly accompanied by a quiet string of curses, some of which were new even to a career soldier like Grisham.
Anyone who could produce a reaction like that from the colonel was worth knowing about. "Who is she?" the captain asked cautiously.
"My wife." The words were spoken matter-of-factly and were the last two that Grisham had expected to hear.
In the short time it took to cross the distance to the women, Grisham watched as Montoya turned from the ruthless soldier that Grisham was most familiar with, to the refined gentleman the rest of the pueblo usually saw. "Sabina. This is unexpected." Montoya took his wife's hand, kissed it quickly, and released it without lingering.
Sabina seemed to be making a thorough inspection of her spouse. From the look on her face, Grisham would say that he barely passed. "Luis. You appear to be doing well."
"Do I need to make introductions?" Montoya asked, looking toward Tessa.
"I was bold enough to introduce myself to Senora Montoya," Tessa explained, practically bubbling over with the excitement of new gossip. "I didn't know that you were married, Colonel. You never mentioned a wife."
Grisham almost winced at Tessa's pointed comment, but then she hadn't seen the colonel's initial reaction. As usual, Montoya answered with aplomb, "Sometimes when one is separated from family, it is easier on the heart not to mention them. Just the memories can often cause pain." Aside from Montoya, Grisham was the only one able to see the evil little smile that appeared on the Senora's lips in response to this comment.
"I'll take care of the baggage, Colonel," Grisham announced, wanting very much to be out of range when the artillery barrage started. He could see the fuses being lit between the reunited couple with just this brief exchange.
Montoya nodded. "An excellent idea, Grisham. Sabina, may I introduce my Captain of the Guard, Marcus Grisham? Captain, Doña Sabina Ortiz de Montoya."
Grisham bowed over the lady's hand and she responded with a polite nod. As he moved toward the stage, he waved over a couple of soldiers to do the actual lifting and continued to listen to the very enlightening conversation.
"If you had informed me of your plans, I could have prepared for your arrival. You will find I live the Spartan life of a soldier."
Grisham found himself meeting Tessa's eyes upon hearing the colonel's remark and both of them raised their eyebrows in expression of a common opinion. With a quick, warm smile, Tessa broke the shared moment and turned to talk to Marta. Sabina had taken her husband's arm and had started toward the house.
"The decision was made quickly. There was no time to send word. As for the accommodations, I am certain I can make them endurable."
Sabina Montoya was too great a mystery to go without investigation, so Tessa had convinced Marta to go home alone with the supplies. She was confident that she would be able to find someone to give her a ride back to the hacienda. If worse came to worst, Grisham would jump at the chance to be alone with her. She had managed to put off many of the captain's attempts to court her, but he was tenacious and becoming impatient. A small concession might have to be made soon. She had been desperate when she gave him permission to see her and now she could not think of a way to revoke it without making him angry... or overly suspicious.
Tessa knew exactly where to start her search for more information, for Vera was at her usual table on the cantina's covered patio. "Tessa. I did not expect to see you today. Please, join me." As Tessa sat down, she could tell that she was being studied very carefully. When she was comfortable, Vera leaned close, "Tell me. I can see that there is something that you are dying to share."
Tessa grinned. If there was anyone who would have information about Senora Montoya, it would be Vera. "Actually Vera, I was hoping you could tell me a few things."
Vera sat back again and narrowed her eyes in suspicion. "About what?"
"You were here when Colonel Montoya arrived, were you not?"
That didn't seem to be what Vera had expected at all, for she blinked a few times before she collected herself and answered with a smile. "Actually, no, I was not. Gaspar and I traveled on the next ship, right after our wedding. Gaspar was introduced to the colonel a few days before Montoya left Spain. It was arranged by mutual acquaintances, just a brief meeting between two people heading to the same place. Why should the colonel's arrival interest you? That was more than four years ago."
"Has he ever mentioned a wife in all that time?"
Vera furrowed her brow. "Not that I recall. Gaspar might know more. No, he would have told me if he had heard anything like that. What makes you ask about a wife?"
Tessa almost felt like gloating. It was very silly, but she felt like she had won a prize by acquiring this piece of information before Vera. "I've just met her."
"No!" Vera was leaning close again, her blue eyes dancing at the prospect of a hint of a scandal. "Where has she been? She couldn't have been in California all this time without someone finding out. And why the secrecy?"
"I think she has been in Spain, from what I saw of her reaction to the town." Vera nodded; she would recognize the look that Tessa had noticed. "As for the secrecy, well . . . Let's just say that their initial meeting was . . . restrained."
Vera raised an eyebrow and a slightly smug grin appeared. "Not all marriages are like mine and Gaspar's. And almost five years apart is a long time. What is she like?"
"I didn't talk with her long enough to form a true opinion. Montoya introduced her as Doña Sabina, and she seems to be very much the noblewoman. She is beautiful, petite, a little shorter than you are. Dark hair, dark eyes, very fair skin -- she must not have spent much time on deck on the journey over. I'm sure you will see her for yourself very soon, Vera."
Tessa was so intent on her conversation that the intrusion of a masculine voice made her jump. "Perhaps tomorrow, Senora -- if you can convince your esteemed husband to accept my invitation to dinner." Colonel Montoya bowed to them both and then explained. "My lovely wife is fatigued from her journey, but I know that Santa Elena society is difficult to restrain when it comes to demanding introductions." He sent a smile in Tessa's direction, and she lowered her eyes at his reminder of her small breach in propriety. "Therefore, I am arranging an intimate dinner party tomorrow evening to make some of those introductions. I hope that both of you will be able to attend."
Tessa's embarrassment didn't last long. "That is a generous invitation, Colonel. Thank you. I would love to come."
"Gaspar and I will be there," said Vera, with the confidence of a cherished wife.
"Very good. Until tomorrow. Senora. Senorita."
The women waited until Montoya was out of sight before putting their heads together again.
"Tessa, I must get home. I must find something to wear and tell Gaspar this news." Vera was collecting her belongings in a flurry. "He will not believe me. He will be certain to attend tomorrow night just to see her for himself." And before Tessa could even say good-bye, Vera was out of the cantina and crossing the square.
Slightly stunned, as she always was after an encounter with Vera in full sail, Tessa decided to stay and finish the wine Vera had poured for her. She had to think of how she was going to approach Captain Grisham for a ride home without giving him too much encouragement.
"Again I find you drinking alone, Tessa. You know that is no longer necessary." Marcus Grisham took the seat across from her with just a hint of a request for permission, and not a moment's hesitation waiting for an answer.
"I was not alone, Captain, at least not for long. It was very strange, but all of a sudden Senora Hidalgo found that she had the strong desire to return home to her husband." As soon as the words left her mouth, Tessa knew that it was the wrong thing to say, for Vera might be the only thing standing between her and a full out courtship assault from the captain.
Fortunately, Grisham knew Vera very well. "She had to spread the word of Montoya's wife finally catching up with him, did she? You are coming to Montoya's dinner party tomorrow?"
It wasn't exactly a question. Some of Montoya's habits must be rubbing off on his captain. It was only fair that she respond with something that was not quite an answer. "I have been invited."
Grisham put on his most charming manner, and took her hand. He held her gaze while he kissed it, a little too ardently for either a public place or Tessa's comfort. "Would you do me the honor of allowing me to escort you tomorrow night?"
Tessa's first instinct was to refuse, but this might be the event that she had been looking for. There would be few people, so they would be missed if Grisham tried to corner her. Vera would be there that alone might encourage him to behave himself. He had made Vera angry enough in the past few months. And she could get a ride home this afternoon. "I would like to think about that, Marcus. The trip home should give me enough time to settle the issue, and if you were to drive me then you could have your answer as soon as possible." She sent him a sweet smile to give him an indication of her answer.
"I'll be right back," he said, placing another quick kiss on her hand before practically running out of the cantina. Tessa smiled to herself, maybe having a suitor wasn't such a bad idea after all.
There were worse ways to spend the afternoon than driving out to the Alvarado hacienda, Grisham decided. Even though Tessa was continuing to be coy, again avoiding his attempt at a proper parting kiss, she had agreed to go to Montoya's dinner with him. This could be the opportunity he had been waiting for. He knew there was passion bubbling below that facade of a decorous young lady. He had seen it for himself. All he had to do was tap into it and she would be putty in his hands. He would marry her, get control of the ranch, and then Vera would not be able to dismiss him as just a common soldier.
But he was getting ahead of himself. He still had to survive the afternoon and he had the feeling the colonel was not going to be in a good mood. They hadn't finished the daily briefing so Grisham climbed the stairs to Montoya's office to report in, just in case the colonel wanted to continue. The reply to his light knock seemed civil, if slightly distracted.
Montoya was sitting at his desk, and he barely glanced up from the pile of papers in front of him as Grisham entered the office. "Captain Grisham, did you enjoy your ride in the country? Admittedly Senorita Alvarado does make for more delightful company, but she does not pay your wages."
"Not yet at least." Grisham couldn't help the self-satisfied comment.
This seemed to catch Montoya's interest, for he looked up from his paperwork and leaned back in his chair. "You have succeeded in winning her then?"
"She is accompanying me to dinner tomorrow."
"Ah. A very limited success," Montoya said smugly, and returned his attention to the dispatches on his desk. It seemed to Grisham, that the pile was larger than usual. The colonel must have noted the curiosity for he explained, "The new viceroy has arrived, and with him a new supply of paper it seems. The man thinks that if he writes enough he will eventually make a permanent mark."
Montoya seemed about to make another comment when he frowned and rose to his feet as he pulled a message from the center of the pile. Again, Grisham was given a lesson in creative Spanish curses. "The idiot! Do you see what he has done, Grisham? He has instituted a head tax a tax on every person in the colony, completely irrespective of their holdings or earnings. There is enough unrest in the area without inciting the peasants." Grisham thought that he had been doing a good job at keeping his incredulity to himself, but Montoya paused in his diatribe to look at him with narrowed eyes. "We are walking a delicate line here. It takes finesse to judge how much people will tolerate. This *bureaucrat*," Montoya spat out the word, "will badly upset the balance."
Now Grisham saw the problem. The taxes that had been instituted by Montoya in the name of the state were now being usurped by... the state. To revoke any of them would prompt questions on why they had been instituted in the first place.
The colonel flipped through the pile of papers and came up with a folded announcement. "At least he had the good sense to send an official notice. Grisham, post this in the square. Make sure to point out the viceroy's seal at the bottom. I would like to deflect as much of the blame away from me as possible."
Relieved that this also seemed to be a dismissal, Grisham came to attention while accepting the paper and gave a slight nod as a salute. He had discovered that when Montoya was in a foul mood the more one deferred to his authority the better. He had to be careful though, to behave too formally would be out of character and draw attention to himself -- he did not want that. It was taking a while, but he was beginning to be able to read his commander.
Montoya barely noticed Grisham open the door, but his attention was caught by Grisham's slight bow and polite, "Senora," as he made way for Sabina. Montoya met Grisham's gaze over her head and he thought he saw a spark of pity in his captain's eyes. He was more surprised at the man's awareness of the situation than he was annoyed at the sentiment.
As the door clicked shut, Sabina's placid expression was replaced by a condescending smirk, an aspect of hers with which Montoya had become very familiar. "You have him well trained," she said.
"He is a soldier. He knows his place. You are a soldier's wife..." He didn't feel the need to finish the rest of the sentence. It was a very old argument.
"I am also a nobleman's daughter and have the right to expect certain things in life. There were promises made at the time of our betrothal."
"Promises that were foolishly offered... and received. Your excuse could be that you were young and impressionable. My father had no such justification. That does not mean that I have to follow folly blindly."
"Folly? You call all of the hard work I did for *us* folly?!"
Montoya sighed loudly, interrupting the coming diatribe. "Six years apart, and we continue to have the same argument."
Then she smiled. A real smile, like the one that she had used to invite him to her bed ten years earlier when they were just past their honeymoon year. "Luis, it need not be the same. This is a new land. We can gain respect, wealth, power, and influence here." She glanced at the papers on his desk and her smile became more brilliant. "See. With Agustin in Monterey, we can have the world at our feet. He has already implemented my first suggestion."
Montoya started to get a cold feeling in the pit of his stomach. He picked up the notice of the head tax and handed it to her. "You arranged this... idiocy."
"Idiocy?" The smile faded. "I did this for us, Luis. Spain will not be in control of this area much longer, and we must take what we can from it before we must go back. That is how the rich and powerful become rich and powerful, by using every available opportunity. How have you survived without me this long?"
He put on his most charming manner. Her cousin, Agustin Ortiz, the new Viceroy, had always followed her around like a puppy and so would be easy for her to control. It could be a very good arrangement, if Montoya had the slightest confidence that Sabina would follow his lead. Perhaps he should try. "You have forgotten to consider one option, Sabina. What if we are not going back to Spain? What if my plan is to consolidate power here, in California? This type of behavior could be damaging should a choice eventually have to be made. To have the support of the people would be advantageous."
"What are you babbling about, Luis?" Montoya recognized the stubborn set of her jaw and the tone of her voice. "Of course we are going back to Spain. How can status be worth anything without proper society and the regard of the king? The thought of staying here is ludicrous. No one would voluntarily live at the edge of the world. As usual, Luis, you have no idea of what is important." Then her eyes hardened. "And if you cross me in this I will have Agustin promote you -- to his assistant. I know how much you like his company."
Family! They knew where all the tender spots were. He would rather slit his own throat than be at the beck and call of that pompous cretin. For the moment, all Montoya could think to do was grit his teeth and bide his time. Hopefully, this would be the only bright idea that Sabina would have for a while.
"Champagne. Cognac. Vintage madeira. No wonder you are not getting any work done. Have you turned into a sot, Luis?"
//Not yet, but it is an idea worth considering.// Montoya was not enjoying his morning, particularly since the first sight of the day had been Sabina behind his desk going through his records. Fortunately, she had only found the official ones.
"One must make a suitable impression on the local nobility. You taught me that, mi corazon."
She raised her head to stare at him and he almost smiled -- she hated it when he used endearments. "Does the size of your library also increase your influence? It is a substantial collection, and must have been difficult and expensive to acquire in this isolated outpost. Treatises on war and history. Scientific works -- Bacon, Newton, Galileo. Dante. Shakespeare. A first edition of Don Quixote'." She noted the last as almost an accusation, as if it was a symbol of all of his inadequacies. She did not know him at all.
"That was a gift," Montoya said calmly.
"You have generous friends," she said suspiciously.
"One or two." He was not going to say any more on that matter -- let her wonder. He was not, however, about to let her think that he did not know how to manage his affairs. "I rescued the majority from haciendas that were abandoned or had come under control of the state. Not all of the people returning to Spain have the inclination, or the means to transport all of their belongings. I perform a service by preserving such valuable works."
"So we come to the subject of the land."
"What do you wish to know? I keep no secrets from my beloved spouse."
Sabina glared at him for a moment in response to the sarcasm, but could not be distracted from her point. "What in the name of the Blessed Virgin have you been thinking? The land is going to waste. You have done nothing with it."
"On the contrary, I have held it in trust for the crown, as I am charged to do. I could petition Monterey for the funds to develop the property, but they are having enough difficulty finding the funds to pay the wages for those in their employ. I did not want to add to the burden." Also, Montoya was not about to draw attention to his acquisitions. The minerals, the water rights, any aspect of the property that could be turned into ready cash was being utilized. As well, the tenant farmers had remained on the land, so there was little sign of the change of ownership and a steady income was being produced for Monterey -- even if it was reported as less than a third of what it actually was. Of course he understood what Sabina was suggesting, but this was not the right time to show his hand. She never did have any patience.
"With Agustin as viceroy, that should no longer be a problem. I will draft the letter tomorrow telling him about your... concerns, and requesting some money to implement improvements. We should be able to command a sizable percentage of the profits as guardians of such a valuable piece of crown land."
"You have lowered your sights, I see. Are you now content to be a manager rather than a landowner?"
"Own land here! Why would I want sand and scrub grass? You owe it to my family to see to it that our children have the advantages of my station."
The colonel turned his head and affected a cough as the phrase our children' almost sent him into gales of laughter. The few times Sabina had conceived in the first years of their marriage, the pregnancies had ended before the signs were obvious. If her constitution had strengthened as she moved into her twenties, Montoya had been given no opportunity to test it. He didn't trust her enough to even think about trying now.
Sabina narrowed her eyes at his display and continued with another line of reasoning. "Tio Gregorio did you a tremendous favour in finding such an illustrious position for a man of your background."
Montoya tilted his head slightly and held her gaze in a very direct stare. He made sure to keep his voice very calm. "Did he not also do *you* a favour in gracefully removing the husband who refused to be blindfolded to your actions and led around on a leash?"
"You should have more respect for your betters," she snarled at him.
In the past, throwing her status in his face would have guaranteed that he either back down or leave the room to control his anger. Now he only relaxed into his chair and chuckled under his breath as he met her angry stare. Since coming here he had learned how to judge the true value of a person. "But my dearest," he said sweetly, making sure she understood where he placed her in the hierarchy of California. "I do."
Continued in Part Two