Disclaimer: The characters from the Queen of Swords are copyright to Fireworks Productions and Paramount. No infringement of copyright is intended nor revenue expected from their use. The story plot and other characters are copyright to the author, Maril Swan.
Tessa's head turned suddenly at the loud rattling and jangling of the coach as it halted in a cloud of dust in front of the hotel. The arrival of the stage coach was always an event, like the anchoring of a ship in Santa Helena's small harbour. Either event usually signalled a break in the dull routine of the sleepy little California pueblo. Her curiosity was piqued when the driver leaped to the ground and pulled down the step, then opened the coach door.
A dapper, but portly older man got out, squinting in the harsh sunlight. Tessa recognized him right away, and with a wide smile, walked swiftly toward the coach to greet him.
"Señor Wellesley!" she hailed. "What an unexpected pleasure to see you here again so soon." She held her hand out, and Edward Wellesley raised it to his lips and gallantly kissed it.
"The long journey was worth it to see your lovely face here to welcome me, Señorita Alvarado," he said, bowing with an exaggerated flourish. "And how have things been in this Garden of Eden since I left?"
"Other than a few snakes, Señor Wellesley, it has been very peaceful." Tessa laughed, and enjoyed watching the look of good humour on the Englishman's florid face. His high colour reminded her that he was probably suffering from the heat, especially in the dark suit that hung in rumpled creases on his ample frame. A man used to rich foods and good living, she thought, but this torridness may cause him a stroke if he does not get out of the sun soon. "Let us sit in the cantina and refresh ourselves, señor. It is much cooler in there."
"I must attend to my baggage first, señorita. Then get lodgings at the hotel. Perhaps we can meet a bit later." Wellesley pulled out a white handkerchief and mopped at his perspiring brow.
"But, of course, you will not stay in the hotel!" Tessa exclaimed as she smiled into his twinkling grey eyes. "Please accept the hospitality of my hacienda for your visit."
Wellesley raised his eyebrows slightly then laughed. "Spanish hospitality. It always surprises me. Your generous offer is accepted, Señorita Alvarado. Thank you. I have stayed in this hotel before and the food is not fit for pigs. The rooms are just barely passable. Of course, I have stayed in worse places, but I don't know where," he jested.
Tessa saw the coach driver watching them with apparent impatience. She said, "Driver, put Señor Wellesley's bags in that wagon over by the horse trough. Gracias," she added as he climbed onto the coach roof to remove the luggage. "That takes care of the your baggage, now shall we go to the cantina? Marta is in the market but perhaps she will join us when she is finished."
Minutes later, they were comfortably seated at a table which overlooked the town plaza. It was busy and colourful with stalls of goods and food, and crowded with people, shopping and chatting. Tessa spied Marta and signalled to her.
Marta set her market basket in the wagon, and walked over to the cantina to join the two at the table. Her face showed her pleasure at seeing Wellesley again, and she greeted him warmly. "Señor Wellesley, we did not expect to see you again so soon." She looked around and added, "No Spanish Ambassador, this time?" She grinned at his look of distaste.
"Thank God, no, Marta." He leaned forward as if to offer a confidence. The two women leaned toward him. "I have a present for the Queen of Swords." He sat back in satisfaction at the curiosity he saw forming in their eyes.
Finally, Tessa blurted, "What is it? May I see?"
Wellesley looked around cautiously then slid something out of an inner pocket of his jacket. It seemed to be a small book, a slim volume with a soft leather cover. With a furtive air, he handed it to Tessa. "Don't let anyone see this, my dear. If Montoya got hold of it, it could mean my life." He seemed satisfied that she took in the import of his words and settled back to watch her open the book.
She gasped and her eyes flew to Marta's. Recovering quickly, she smiled at Wellesley. "The Adventures of the Avenging Angel? You wrote this?" she said in a conspiratorial tone. He nodded. She said, "I don't know what could be in here that could be so risky for you. Did you say anything about Montoya?"
"The truth." Wellesley's usually affable face grew serious. "Truth is always dangerous, even when you try to hide it in a work of supposed fiction. I changed the names, but the facts are there for anyone who knows them."
"I would like to read your book, Señor Wellesley. That is, if you have another copy."
"As it happens, I do. That copy is a gift from me to you." He bowed slightly and smiled at the way she clutched the book.
"Thank you, Señor Wellesley! Let us finish our wine and go to the hacienda," Tessa remarked as she placed the book under her shawl.
Her impatience amused him. Wellesley's eyes twinkled with pleasure at the sudden flush that rose to her cheeks, and the bright excitement in her dark eyes. What a beauty, he thought fondly. My descriptions of her in the book hardly begin to do her justice. Maybe the next novel. He arose and pulled out her chair, offering his arm gallantly as they stepped out into the blinding sunlight of the street.
"I must see the Queen of Swords as soon as possible. Is there some way to contact her?" The corpulent Englishman glanced inquiringly between the two women, as he filled his briar pipe. He leaned back against the wicker chair on the Alvarado verandah, and waited for an answer.
"You could find yourself on the gallows for doing nothing. That always seems to work," Marta said drily.
Wellesley laughed. "Marta, you have such a sharp wit."
"Have I? I wasn't joking." Marta looked toward Tessa as if for corroboration.
"Why do you need to see her, Señor Wellesley? Just to give her the book or for a story?" Tessa asked carefully.
"Actually, I have a message for her ...from Spain." Wellesley noted the slight rise of the young señorita's eyebrows, and the sudden wariness in her eyes. The eyes always give the game away, he thought with grim satisfaction. "It's for her ears only. Since the deaths of the Viceroy and the Spanish Ambassador, this little pueblo has become a centre of attention at the High Court. There was some talk of either replacing Colonel Montoya with a more competent, and possibly more ruthless man, or sending a large contingent of soldiers here to increase the garrison. A third option has been proposed. That is my mission here. To offer the third option." He kept his face bland and affable, taking great care lighting his pipe, drawing on it with slow deliberate breaths. Buying time while the information sank in.
Finally, Tessa said, "I don't know of any way you could get to meet her, Señor Wellesley. She just seems to appear and disappear suddenly. No one knows who she is or where she lives. I would imagine she is very wary of traps, so you may have no luck in your quest."
Wellesley had to admire her poise. She must be dying of curiosity about that message, but she has kept her head. What a spy she would have made during the War! "I will just put it about that I want to meet with her for an interview, and perhaps she will come out of hiding. When she hears what I have come to say, it may make all the difference in the world to her."
He laid that ace card before her, and drew heavily on his pipe, casually blowing the smoke away from the ladies. He saw a look pass between the women and Marta's eyes almost imperceptibly warning 'no'. So that's the lay of the land, is it? Wellesley took another careful look at Marta. He had merely take her for a faithful servant, but now he could see she was much more than that to the señorita. An accomplice or a mentor? Most likely both, he decided. The Gypsy woman was far sharper than most would give her credit for. Not to be dismissed lightly. Wellesley congratulated himself on his keen perception. No wonder Montoya could never catch the Queen! He was only looking at part of the picture, the obvious part.
Wellesley could almost see the wheels turning in Tessa's mind as she processed the information. What would she do? This was always the exciting part. Watching the mouse scent the cheese, then audaciously but warily approach, unable to resist the lure. Could she resist? He would know in a few days. I am blessed with limitless patience, he complimented himself, and a penchant for taking infinite pains over my assignments. This little trip should earn enough for a comfortable retirement.
The Queen turned suddenly to find two soldiers closing in on her. "You bastard!" she shouted at Wellesley. "You set me up!"
As the first soldier reached for her, she jammed her boot into his knee and he hopped away, howling in agony. The second soldier pulled his gun but Tessa threw herself against him and he sprawled onto the ground. A boot to the jaw stopped his effort to get up, and she turned again on the first soldier. He held his sword uncertainly as she pulled her own and advanced on him. His face was pale and he seemed to want nothing more than to escape with his life. Suddenly, he threw his sword on the ground and ran to his horse.
As she watched him ride away, Tessa felt the hard barrel of a pistol shoved in her back.
"Drop your weapon, my dear. We'll have no more of that," a smooth English voice said behind her. He chuckled softly. "I have some advice for you, señorita. Trust no one."
"Thanks, but it comes a bit late, don't you think?"
Wellesley smirked to himself. It had been so easy. Why did Montoya fail time after time? He had scarcely finished this thought when she whirled and caught him in the midriff with a solid punch that dropped him as if he'd been poleaxed. He grunted in pain, as he doubled over on the hard ground, trying to catch his breath.
Tessa stood above him, holding her sword very near his heart. "What was it, Wellesley? The story or the reward?" she asked harshly.
When Wellesley was finally able to breath, he looked up at her. In her eyes was the anguish of betrayal. Yes, Wellesley thought, those eyes will give you away every time. So soulful and expressive. She's hurt and it shows. He felt a moment of pity for her. She had a hard lesson to learn.
"It was both, and something else."
"What? This phoney message that you lured me into a trap with?" she said bitterly. She had fallen for this meeting, supposedly arranged through Señorita Alvarado. The abandoned mission had seemed like a safe place, except for his double-dealing. She wondered why there were only two soldiers. Did he plan to kill them to get the reward for himself?
"I do have a message for you. From the King of Spain." Wellesley pushed himself to a sitting position. He decided not to risk trying to stand, not with that blade so close to his heart. He had no doubt she would plunge it in if he tried anything. Her eyes told him she was in deadly earnest. He saw a flicker of interest as she glared down at him. He could work with that.
"A petition has been made at the High Court that you receive a full pardon." Wellesley waited patiently while she absorbed this momentous bit of news.
For long minutes, she studied him, watching for a sign of deceit.
He remained perfectly still, allowing her scrutiny for as long as she wanted. He was a patient man.
At length, she said, "Why would anyone petition for my pardon? Who was it?"
"Don Alejandro Alvarado." Wellesley noted that her mouth opened slightly in surprise and she jerked back slightly as if warding off a blow. You'll need a lot more practice at deception, my dear, if you expect to survive, he thought. How have you lived this long?
"Why would he petition the King for me? I don't understand this."
"I spoke to Don Alejandro at the Royal Court just after he put in his petition. As you may know, the don has a lot of influence at Court, being a member of the Cortes. There is great turmoil at the Court these days. Trouble in all the Spanish colonies. Don Alejandro suggested that instead of sending more soldiers, which the Court could ill afford, they simply offer an unconditional pardon for the vigilante known as the Queen of Swords. She would stop her lawlessness, and the pueblo Santa Helena would be peaceful again. That is the option I was instructed to offer you, Señorita Reina."
"And if I refuse this pardon?" she asked breathlessly. The immensity of what was offered had nearly made her stagger. But it would not solve Santa Helena's problems, only her own. "Perhaps you do not understand the situation here, Señor Wellesley. I became a vigilante to try to curb the injustice and tyranny here in this area. The job won't be finished until Montoya is gone."
Wellesley laughed shortly. "Do you really think removing one tyrant will solve anything? 'I fear there will a worse come in his place.' From Shakespeare. It's the power that corrupts men, my dear. And some men, like Montoya, have dreams of empire, and like Napoleon, have no compunctions about sacrificing other men's lives to achieve their dreams. You can't fight them all, my dear girl. All that you will accomplish is to stave off the day when he wins. He has the power. You do not."
Tessa lowered her sword slightly, but kept it at the ready. The offer was so tempting. To quit while she was still young enough to begin her life again. If I take the pardon, what will happen? Will Montoya know about it? Will I be immune to arrest if he ever finds out I am the Queen? And if I quit, will his regime become more ruthless than ever with no one to stand against him?
She backed away warily, keeping an eye on Wellesley and the unconscious soldier. A whistle brought her horse to her and Tessa mounted quickly. "I will consider the offer, and let you know, Señor Wellesley." She kneed Chico into a fast gallop and headed for the Sacred Valley. It was the most peaceful place she knew, a place where she could think. I should see Marta and ask her advice, but right now I just want to be alone for a while.
Something seemed to tickle his neck and Wellesley tried to brush it off. His fingers encountered something cold and his eyes flew open. In the bright moonlight he saw the flash of a blade, held by a masked woman. He sighed with relief. "Thank God, it's you. I was afraid for a moment."
"Of what, ghosts?" the Queen asked, with a wry smile.
"Phantoms, more like." He pushed himself into a sitting position on the bed and focussed on the woman standing nonchalantly beside him. "Well, have you come to tell me your decision?"
Tessa wandered across the room and stood, uncertainty in her eyes as she watched him. "I've been tricked before, Señor Wellesley. How do I know you are bargaining in good faith?"
"If you will allow me, I will get the pardon and show you. It has the King's seal. All you have to do is sign it." He smiled benignly and the moonlight glinted in his eyes. She's like a deer that scents danger, he thought, watching her as she moved uneasily around the room. A good hunter is patient, and lets the quarry settle before taking the shot.
"Let me see it." Tessa brought her sword up, and in her other hand was a pistol.
He hadn't reckoned on her having a gun. She's more dangerous than I thought. With a flourish, he threw off the bedclothes and stepped over to a leather valise that was sitting on the tiled floor. As he bent to open the catch, he heard the sound of a gun being cocked. So she knows how to use it too, he thought wryly.
"Keep your hands where I can see them," she warned. "I can't miss from this distance."
The moonlight was bright enough in the bedroom that he easily found the document and pulled it out. He began to move toward her with it, but she backed away.
"Put it on the desk and get back into bed." Tessa waited until he had obeyed her, then warily picked up the parchment and studied it in the bright moonlight. Sure enough, what looked like a royal seal was impressed upon it, with a scrawl that could have been a signature next to it. She held her breath, somewhat in awe of this page that had come from her King's hands. It was what Wellesley said it was. The room was light enough to make out the seductive words ...immunity from prosecution ...freedom of a Spanish citizen ...unconditional pardon for all previous offenses. Her heart beat wildly as she clutched the document. She trembled with the enormity of the offer.
On the desk was a quill pen and ink bottle. Tessa picked up the pen and stabbed it into the ink. Her gloved hand poised over the document. All she had to do was put her name on it. And she would be free of the masquerade.
But what name, she wondered. Her real name? "What name am I expected to put on this document?" she asked.
"Why, the name you were christened with, my dear. Of course. It wouldn't be legal otherwise."
"What happens to the pardon after I sign it?" Her scalp prickled with a sense of danger suddenly.
"I will take it back to Spain with me and it will be recorded," Wellesley said casually. "Then you will be free to resume your life as a Spanish lady."
Tessa swallowed several times; the page shook in her hands. In a sudden rage, she ripped the document in half, then half again, and tossed it on the floor. She gave Wellesley a wry grin. "You nearly had me, Wellesley. I almost signed my own death warrant. But, no deal. Tell the King thanks, but no thanks. Not this time, anyway." She turned to leave but Wellesley's voice called her back.
"Brava, my dear," he said heartily as he got out of the bed. "Brava! That took courage ... and quick thinking. You have passed the test. Now I can tell you what my true mission is."
Tessa kept the gun pointed levelly at Wellesley's heart and he halted several feet from her. Her eyes hardened as if daring him to come closer. In a harsh voice, she asked, "Why should I trust you? You've been lying to me from the start. How do I know this isn't another part of an elaborate trap?"
Wellesley splayed his hands in front and sighed. "Does the name 'Wellesley' not suggest something to you, my dear?"
"Of course. Arthur Wellesley commanded the British troops in Spain during our War of Independence, which you call the Peninsular War." Tessa looked at the Englishman more closely. "Are you saying you are related to Wellington?"
"Distantly, but I am also in the service of his British Majesty. The Intelligence Service, actually." Wellesley sat down on the bed, seemingly relaxed in spite of the gun which was aimed at him. "The turmoil here in this area is part of a larger unrest everywhere in Spain's empire. The British have territories on this coast which we want to protect. If Montoya succeeds in gaining a strong foothold in Alta California, how far will he go? With the rumours of revolution in Mexico and South America, Spain has her hands full. She will not worry about a minor official in a small area like this. But we have seen tyrants rise before, and raise huge armies and take over whole continents. It is best to kill this one in the egg, before he gets a real start.'Tis the brighter day that brings forth the adder, and that craves wary walking'." He smiled sheepishly, adding, "Shakespeare again. Sorry. Bad habit that."
Tessa frowned in confusion. Was he suggesting she kill Montoya? There had been many opportunities but she had always held back. Killing was a step she only took to save her own life. She had never done it in cold blood. Was that what his secret mission was?
"Why me, Señor Wellesley? If the British government wants to get rid of Montoya, why not kill him yourself?"
"Politics, my dear Queen. A British agent killing a Spanish official would cause a major rift in our relations with Spain. We've only had a few years of peace with your country as it is. No, it has to be done carefully, and subtly."
"I don't kill for anyone, Señor Wellesley!" Tessa rasped. "Only in self-defence. If you want Montoya removed, you will have to find someone else." She backed toward the open window, preparing to leave.
"We don't want him dead! That would ruin everything." He watched her expression change to surprise and enjoyed the sight immensely. "No, we only want you to keep him too busy to further him ambitions. Keep him off-balance and worried about his position. Sooner or later, Mexico will become independent, and may even take over Alta California. We have contingency plans for that. Meanwhile, we want to keep this area stabilized under Spanish control."
Wellesley smiled at her shocked look. "And in case you were wondering The King of Spain did offer a pardon, the petition did come from your uncle and I was instructed to offer it to you. As a British agent, I have managed to get very close to the Spanish Court. Of course, they don't know about my real identity. That's between you and me. I know you can keep secrets, Maria Theresa Alvarado."
Tessa sat on the verandah, staring out across her lands. Marta followed her gaze and said, "It is peaceful again since Señor Wellesley left. He seems to bring trouble in his wake."
"But he is a good writer. And he said some very nice things about me in his book. Listen to this," Tessa said as she picked up the small volume. "The señorita was a feast for the eyes, a dark beauty with a flawless complexion and a hauntingly lovely smile. In sharp contrast was her frumpy old Gypsy duenna who ..." Tessa giggled as Marta dove toward the book and tried to take it.
"Let me see that! I'll kill him if he ever comes back!"
Tessa held firmly onto the book and laughed heartily, nearly falling off her chair at the look of vexation on Marta's face.
Marta wagged her finger warningly at the younger woman. "Someday, Tessa, you will go too far."
©Wellesley's Quest - Maril Swan - April 2001
Your comments on this story would be most appreciated -Maril Swan
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