Disclaimers: The characters from the Queen of Swords are copyrights of Fireworks Productions and Paramount. No infringement of copyright is intended or revenue expected from their use. The story plot and other characters are copyright to the author, Maril Swan.
Acknowledgment: Thanks to Jo for beta reading this story and helping to make it better.
Author's Note:This story was formerly titled "And the Truth Shall..."
and Black Lace
Part 1 of 3
"I have permission to see the prisoner." Tessa brushed past the guard and entered the cell corridor. She had visited this place many times before but never on such a mission as this. The prison was evil-smelling, dank and gloomy with a row of cells along one side. Each cell was divided from its neighbour by an adobe wall. She uttered a low cry when she saw the forlorn woman seated on a narrow cot, behind the prison bars. "Marta," she said faintly, moving swiftly to the cell door.
Marta arose and crossed the cell. Her face seemed flushed with chagrin that Tessa should see her like this - unkempt, hollow-eyed, frightened. Tessa leaned against the bars, her forehead touching Marta's, while she struggled to control her feelings. The younger woman knew her own distress was affecting Marta even though she tried to hide it.
With a shadow of a smile, Marta touched Tessa's cheek. "I'm all right. Don't look so sad, Tessa. You know what they say, 'The truth shall set you free'."
Tessa jerked away with an angry exclamation. "The truth! What truth? Who could ever believe you're a murderer? This is an outrage, not justice!" She turned to the guard who was standing only a few yards away. With an imperious look, she demanded, "Open this door so that I may visit with my servant!"
Uncertainly, the soldier produced his keys and unlocked the cell door, then swung it wide enough for Tessa to enter. "I shouldn't do this, seņorita, but since it is you, I'm sure it will be all right."
For an instant, Tessa contemplated knocking the guard down and helping Marta to escape. With a sinking feeling, she knew that would only complicate the situation. Marta would be a fugitive and could be killed on sight. She stepped into the cell carrying her basket and sat down on the hard cot. The guard swung the door shut, and Tessa experienced a moment of panic at being locked in the cell. How must Marta feel being imprisoned here since yesterday? She shuddered and tried to compose herself, for Marta's sake.
"Here are the things you asked for. And I brought you something to eat. I imagine the food they serve here isn't fit for dogs." Tessa untied the linen wrapper and revealed a bowl of something that resembled rice. "I made it myself," she said proudly, handing Marta a fork.
"Thank you, Tessa. Even a dog would turn his nose up at the food I get in here." Marta poked at the contents of the dish and took a mouthful. She swallowed quickly with a look of alarm on her face. "What is it?"
"Your favourite - paella." Seeing Marta's hesitation to take another bite, she added, "It's not very good, is it? I'll have something sent over from the cantina. You don't have to eat this."
"No. Really. It's fine. I'll eat it later. But I would appreciate some food from the cantina as well."
Tessa's lip trembled as she glanced around the prison cell. "I can't stand to see you in a place like this." Her voice broke and she clenched her jaw, trying keep her anger under control.
Just outside the cell window, Colonel Montoya leaned against the building, eavesdropping on the conversation between the two women. So far, he had heard nothing that would incriminate or exonerate Marta. Perhaps, while they thought they were alone, one of them might let something slip - something about the identity of the Queen of Swords, for instance. He kept his breathing shallow and quiet, eagerly waiting for that one slip.
"Marta, I'm going to get you out of here," he heard Tessa say, and caught his breath. Then Marta replied vehemently in an unintelligible language.
Montoya listened without understanding a word. He ground his teeth in frustration as the heated dialogue went back and forth in the Gypsy language. He heard his own name a few times, but without the context, it meant nothing. He pushed away from the wall and went to his own office, none the wiser. Except, he thought, the relationship between those women is much closer than they let on. Marta has taught Seņorita Alvarado to speak the gitano tongue. Why? How close is that relationship? What would she do to save Marta? He rubbed his hands with glee suddenly as an idea formed. Of course, Montoya mused. This whole situation can be turned to my benefit. The gods are truly smiling on Montoya lately.
Before entering his office, Montoya beckoned to a soldier. "Bring Seņorita Alvarado to me after she has finished visiting the prisoner." The soldier hurried off and Montoya closed the office door and sat down in his chair, fairly squirming in anticipation. A feral grin crossed his thin lips as he contemplated his cleverness.
A short while later, a gentle tap on his door signalled her arrival. "Come," he called and arose as Tessa stepped into his office. "Seņorita Alvarado," he said, his voice soft with affected concern. "This is a most distressing business. Please come in and sit down."
"I prefer to stand, Colonel. What did you want to see me about?" Tessa's body was rigid, her face pale though her dark eyes flashed with anger when they encountered the Colonel's. Montoya's eyes held hers, a cruel amusement in their pale depths. He smiled at her discomfiture. She felt off-balance. It annoyed her.
"The prison is no place for a woman. It is bad enough for the men," Montoya said in a sympathetic tone. "I have a proposal to make." He began to pace his office, finally coming to stand near her. "I will release Marta into your custody, if you will put up a monetary guarantee that she will not flee before the trial. A paltry sum of five thousand reales, or the deed to your hacienda."
Her eyes widened in surprise and indignation, though she tried to conceal her reaction from him. They hardened and fixed him with an angry glare, finally settling into a haughty scowl. "Your offer is most generous, Colonel, but I'm afraid I must refuse. My hacienda cannot be bargained away for one servant, no matter how loyal. I have many others depending on me for their livelihood. Marta must stay where she is until her name is cleared. I am sure a fair trial will show her innocent of this heinous crime."
Tessa held her ground, keeping her chin high and forcing herself to breathe normally. It was exactly what Marta said he would do. During their conversation in the cell, Tessa had wanted to post a guarantee to get Marta released, but Marta had warned her of Montoya's treachery. As Marta had said, "You pledge your hacienda to Montoya, and you sign both our death warrants, Tessa. Once he has that deed legally, he doesn't need you any longer." Marta had proved to be right, as usual. Tessa noted the Colonel's features remained neutral but his eyes lit suddenly as if a fire had kindled within him. She knew he was angry at being thwarted once again in his plan to acquire her hacienda by fair means or foul.
"If there is nothing else, Colonel, I bid you good day." She turned toward the door and was about to leave when Montoya spoke again.
"I must say I am disappointed in you, Maria Theresa. Your noble father would never have allowed one of his people to rot in jail if he could have done anything to prevent it," Montoya said smoothly.
His words stung like a lash, and she flinched involuntarily. "I suppose I am not like my father, Colonel," she replied evenly. "Good day." She left the office with carefully unhurried steps, wanting nothing more than to have a sword in her hand at that moment.
Outside, in the glare and heat of the sun, she shuddered with cold dread. Leaving Marta in that cell was one of the hardest things she'd ever had to do. The trial started tomorrow, and she had no proof of Marta's innocence.
Dr. Helm was not in his office when Tessa pushed open the door. Despair crashed around her as she realized he was the most damning of the witnesses. Still, she had to see him. A sound in his back room alerted her to his presence. She called out, hesitantly, then more forcefully, and he finally appeared with an annoyed look on his face. His look softened when he saw her and he crossed the room quickly.
"Seņorita Alvarado. Please sit down," he said pulling out a chair for her.
She sank into it gratefully and tried to marshal her thoughts. Why had she come to him? What could he do for Marta? Looking into his concerned eyes, she knew he was almost as distressed as she was about Marta being accused of murder. "Dr. Helm, is there nothing you can say that will acquit Marta of this crime? Is there no evidence of someone else poisoning Seņora Vicente? Surely, there must be something. You tended her for several days before Marta took over her care. Did the seņora speak of being afraid or worried about something?"
Helm glanced away and Tessa thought she saw a guilty look cross his features. In a deliberate tone, he said, "The communication between a doctor and patient is as sacred as that between a priest and a penitent. Whatever Seņora Vicente said to me is confidential."
Tessa stood abruptly, her face a mask of fury. "Surely your duty is to the living, doctor! Seņora Vicente is dead, but your testimony could hang Marta! Unless you tell the whole truth. She said something, did she not? Or you know something and will not speak. Why?"
"I just told you! My oath forbids me to reveal what patients tell me."
"And what about saving lives? You keep your oath, doctor, and let an innocent woman die for it!" Tessa hurtled from his office and ran outside toward her wagon.
Helm stood at his door and watched her climb into her wagon and leave in a cloud of dust. His spirits were at a very low ebb as he contemplated the rights and wrongs of this case. He knew Marta was innocent but had no way to prove it. Someone had poisoned Seņora Vicente while she was convalescing at the Alvarado hacienda. The only other suspects were her husband, Donato, or her daughter, Cristina.
Grisham noted Montoya's nod of satisfaction as he surveyed his small courtyard. Everything had been set up as he ordered - his magisterial seat at the head of the court and off to the left, the chair for the accused. In front of the magistrate's place was the witness chair. Further down were a table for each the Crown and defence, with a row of seats behind for the witnesses and audience.
The colonel turned to Grisham. "Not exactly the High Court but it will serve our purposes. The trial begins tomorrow. Are you prepared to act as prosecutor?"
Grisham grinned and pushed away from the wall against which he had been lounging. He was excited by the chance to prove himself to the colonel. "I've never acted as a lawyer before, but I'm sure I can carry it off. Pretty open and shut case, isn't it? She has to be guilty. I mean, who else could have done it?"
"Grisham, a crime involves two main elements - motive and opportunity. Marta had the opportunity but where is the motive? As far as I know, she did not know these people before they came to the Alvarado hacienda. No, this is far from open and shut. But we will get at the truth."
"And then we'll hang her." Grisham laughed aloud at the distressed look that crossed Montoya's face. Now he knows how I felt when Vera was kidnapped, he thought with malice. He sobered immediately when those pale eyes impaled him with a look that signalled danger.
Impatiently, Montoya gestured at the makeshift courtroom. "You will assign six men to guard the courtroom, and make sure they have pistols and rifles. We do not want the Queen of Swords to throw a spoke into the wheels of justice." With that, Montoya turned toward the rear door of his villa. "Join me in my office in an hour. Seņorita Alvarado will be there too."
She looks rather haggard as if she has not been sleeping well, Montoya thought as Tessa entered his office and sat down opposite his desk. But her jaw was set with an inexorable purpose and her eyes had a hardness he had never noticed before. There is more to this lady than she lets on. She bears watching closely. He observed her fidgeting nervously with her gloves while they waited for Grisham. Montoya cursed him silently. Late as always, damn him!
The door opened and Grisham sauntered in, gave a sloppy salute and dropped into the other chair next to Tessa. He nodded briefly at her then fixed his attention on Montoya. The colonel grimaced and sighed heavily.
"I have called you both here to go over the procedures of the trial since neither of you has ever acted in this capacity before. In this little pueblo, we have no lawyers and it would take several weeks to bring anyone from Monterrey. So, I must appoint a Crown representative and a defence counsel for this trial if it is to be done expeditiously." Montoya glanced between the two and wondered if the trial would be more farce than tragedy. I do not think I could have found two worse representatives for this trial if I had combed the entire area. But as senior officer, Grisham has to be the prosecutor, and Seņorita Alvarado volunteered to act for Marta. He sighed and continued.
"Grisham, as prosecutor, it is your duty to interrogate the witnesses, and maintain the security of the court. Seņorita Alvarado, as defence counsel, you also may call and interrogate witnesses. You also have the right to cross-examine the prosecutor's witnesses, and examine any evidence the Crown may have collected." He glanced from one to the other and asked, "Any questions?"
Tessa's face flushed suddenly, and she said hotly, "Yes, Colonel. Why are we doing this? There is absolutely no evidence that Marta had a hand in Seņora Vicente's death. For all we know, it may have been natural causes. To me, this is just an outrageous accusation by an aggrieved husband and daughter, looking to blame someone for their loss. And who do they accuse? The person who spent sleepless nights tending the woman through her illness! It's a travesty and should be stopped before more harm is done."
Montoya watched Tessa striving to hold onto the tenuous self-control which threatened to slip away. Her chest heaved with emotion as she clenched her jaw so tightly the muscles stood out starkly against the smoothness of her face. The hands resting on her lap were tightened into fists. Yes, Montoya thought smugly, she seems to be in a highly emotional state, just barely able to control herself. A small twinge of compassion for her was soon lost to the recollection that she stood in the way of his attaining the most desirable hacienda in the area.
He gestured openly with his hands and sighed. "I'm afraid, Maria Theresa, that once a charge has been brought, especially such a serious one as murder, the accused must answer the charge. A trial is required. It is the law." He stood up, signalling the end of the conference.
Tessa arose quickly and ignored Montoya's effort to take her hand to kiss. She turned abruptly and left the office. Montoya compressed his lips as he considered her reactions. So much passion makes a deadly adversary. He smiled to himself, speculating on Grisham and Tessa crossing swords in the courtroom. He pondered with delight, wondering what the morrow would bring. At the very least, the trial should be entertaining.
Tessa sat on the hard seat fiddling with some papers on the table while she awaited the start of the proceedings. Marta had already been brought in to sit in the accused's chair. To Tessa's relief, her hands were free at least of the manacles. Tessa had argued earlier against that indignity and Montoya had relented. Tessa caught her eye and Marta returned a brave little smile. Tessa could see she was nervous though she sat serenely looking around the makeshift courtroom. It was the rigid set of her shoulders, and the tightness around her mouth that gave away her state of mind. She looks better today, Tessa thought, trying to swallow a lump in her throat. More composed as if she's glad it's finally going to be decided, one way or the other. Marta was wearing the colourful dress that Tessa had brought for her. She looked alien, exotic, out of place among these people. That was part of the problem.
Beside her, Tessa heard Grisham move to stand up. Turning her attention to the front, she saw Montoya enter with a stately tread. He was dressed in his formal military tunic and looked self-consciously impressive. As she stood, her heart lurched with fear. This was a real trial, and Marta's life was in her hands! She heard the other members of the trial arise with a loud scraping of chairs and shuffling of feet.
Montoya gestured for everyone to sit. "This is an unusual court proceeding as we have no actual legal counsel for either the prosecution or the defence. Nevertheless, this is a legal trial which will be recorded by my clerk. I will preside as magistrate and it will be my sacred duty to pronounce the guilt or innocence of the accused according to the witnesses and evidence presented. This is a duty I do not take lightly as a life hangs in the balance. I remind all the witnesses that you are sworn to tell the truth before God and man. Perjury is also a criminal offence." With that he brought down his gavel and declared, "This court is now is session. Prosecution, you may call your first witness." Off to Montoya's side, a soldier scribbled quickly, recording the procedure.
"Your Honour, I call Seņor Donato Vicente as my first witness," Grisham declared a little too loudly. A man moved from behind Grisham and stepped between the tables toward the front of the court where a witness chair was placed.
Tessa remembered the first time she had seen Seņor Vicente.
Tessa turned her gaze to the young woman at their table, seated very close to Dr. Helm. She was wearing a lovely satin gown of a light blue that matched her eyes. Her blonde hair was dressed in a conservative bun which made her seem older. There was a bright flush on her cheeks as she stared at the doctor. Tessa tried not to smile at her obvious infatuation with the handsome Englishman. At least she has good taste for one so young, she thought with amusement. Tessa guessed her to be about fourteen years old. She met Tessa's glance with a disdainful look that made Tessa uncertain about the outfit she had decided to wear that day. It was not elegant like the strangers' clothing, but serviceable and comfortable - just a short sleeved blouse and a colourful skirt that Marta had made. Tessa felt somewhat nettled to be judged by this young woman and found wanting.
"Please join us, Seņorita Alvarado." Montoya bowed slightly and gestured at the table invitingly.
Not having any real choice, Tessa turned to Marta, who had just joined her with the market basket. "I will be here for a while, Marta. Do you mind getting the supplies on your own?" Her courtesy to a servant raised the eyebrows of all those at the table, except Dr. Helm's. Instead, he smiled.
"Si, seņorita," Marta said demurely and strode away to the market square.
Tessa moved to the table, and Dr. Helm, being nearest, pulled out a chair for her to sit. She found herself uncomfortably close to him as he resumed his seat. His nearness and the warmth from his body caused a rush of feeling through her and she wished she could have moved further away with seeming too obvious. She knew her face was becoming flushed and covered it with, "My, isn't it warm today?"
"No warmer than usual, Seņorita Alvarado. Perhaps you just feel the heat more than others," Dr. Helm returned with a sardonic smile. "More sensitive to it, I mean," he added with a smirk.
Montoya glanced curiously between the two, then said, "May I present Seņor Vicente and his daughter, Cristina?" Seņor Vicente bowed low over Tessa's hand and placed a lingering kiss on it.
Montoya continued, "Seņor Vicente had to shorten his trip to Monterrey. His wife caught a sudden illness, perhaps while they were crossing Panama. Dr. Helm will be attending her at the hotel until she is better. Perhaps, Seņorita Alvarado, you could take Cristina under your wing for a while. She would, I think, be glad of some female companionship, in the absence of her mother. So far, the young lady has had to put up with only our dull male talk. I'm sure she would welcome the more genteel conversation of ladies."
Tessa caught the sulky look on Cristina's face. She knows she's been palmed off on me, and doesn't like it. Neither do I, but what can I do without seeming rude.
"Of course, if Cristina wants to take a walk through the pueblo, I would be glad to show her around. Would you care to accompany me for a little exercise, Cristina?" Tessa turned her remarks to the young woman and received a glare of hostility. What's this about, Tessa wondered. What have I done to make her angry?
As Tessa arose, Dr. Helm stood up quickly and courteously pulled out her chair, scarcely allowing her room to pass without rubbing against him. "Thank you, Doctor. You are most considerate." She flashed him her haughtiest look which only made him grin. What's he doing... flirting with me, Tessa wondered. He's supposed to be in love with the Queen. Is he thinking of being unfaithful to her already? Mentally she shook herself. This dual identity is getting too complicated. I'm becoming jealous of myself. She nearly laughed aloud at the thought.
"De nada. Have a nice walk," Helm said.
She brushed closely by him, enough so he would know it was intentional. If he wants to flirt, he hasn't seen anything yet, she promised herself, as Cristina joined her on the street.
The two woman started down toward the market square when suddenly Cristina snapped, "Did you have to be so obvious?" Tessa's mouth opened but before she could protest, Cristina added, "I know you didn't want my company, but we're stuck with each other, so let's make the best of it." With that, she marched ahead as if to get the walk over with quickly. Tessa caught up and tried to take her arm, but the young girl shrugged her off.
Well, this is going to be fun, Tessa thought dismally. What had started out as a pleasant day was deteriorating rapidly. She strolled silently beside the girl, searching for some topic of conversation that might make her more amenable to this enforced companionship.
At one of the stalls, Cristina stopped and began to examine the leather goods hanging there. "I'm surprised, Seņorita Alvarado, that you have a Gypsy woman working for you. They can't be trusted, you know. They're all thieves and vagabonds. We have had tribes of them camped around Barcelona since the war. They come into the city at night to pick up the garbage. The traperos, they're called. They always raised such a racket with their filthy carts, it used to wake me up at night. Papa says that's all Gypsies are good for, picking up garbage."
Tessa gasped as Marta walked out from behind the stall, her dark eyes fiery with outrage. Marta cast an aggrieved glance at Cristina as she marched away from the market toward their wagon. Tessa turned on the girl who was regarding Marta's retreat with a smug smile. "You knew she was there! You wanted her to hear that!" It was all Tessa could do to restrain herself from smacking the ugly smile off Cristina's face. Unable to contain her own rage, Tessa strode away, leaving the girl alone in the market.
Cristina shrugged and wandered back to the cantina. She was deeply disappointed to see that Dr. Helm was no longer with her father and Colonel Montoya.
By the time Tessa reached the wagon, Marta had already placed the supplies in the back and was standing facing in the opposite direction to the market. Tessa could see by the rigid set of her shoulders, that Marta was deeply offended and hurt. "Marta," she said gently touching her arm. "I'm sorry about what she said. If I had known you were there, I...."
"You could do nothing, Tessa. The old poison the minds of the young and the old hatreds go on." Marta climbed onto the wagon and added, "Let's go home. I've had enough of this town for one day."
"Well, Marta, at least in this new world, there is less prejudice against your people."
"Is that what you think? You and I live in different worlds. You don't see the looks or hear the things that are said to me by other doņas or their servants." Seeing Tessa's look of distress, Marta relented and squeezed the younger woman's hand. "But you set a good example, Tessa. Maybe others will learn from you." Marta smiled ruefully and picked up the reins, preparing to leave the pueblo.
As Seņor Vicente now stood at the front of the courtroom, Tessa felt a pang of compassion for him. His shoulders slumped, his eyes seemed red from loss of sleep, and his mien seemed that of someone carrying an enormous burden. He took the bible into his hands and swore his oath of truth, then dropped wearily into the witness chair. Vicente sent a malevolent glance toward Marta. She flinched as if struck but maintained eye contact. He looked away, then Grisham began to speak.
"Seņor Vicente. Please give us the details of the days leading up to your wife's unfortunate death. Start with when you first discovered she was ill." Grisham smiled at Montoya, and received an approving nod. The colonel had probably coached him for hours on the questions he should ask, Tessa decided.
"We were on the ship after leaving Panama. Many were ill but recovering. My poor Juanita was getting worse. The ship's doctor suggested we land at Santa Elena where he knew there was a doctor. So we did. I planned to go on to Monterrey by coach when my wife was well enough." His voice broke suddenly, and he paused, taking several deep breaths. He cleared his throat, and continued, "Dr. Helm diagnosed the illness as a type of dysentery, and he began to treat her. She was getting better. Then, the doctor suggested she might recover more quickly away from the noise and commotion of the town. He thought Seņorita Alvarado might allow us to stay with them for a week or two." Vicente dropped his face into his hands and groaned aloud. "God forgive me. If only I had known they were harbouring a witch there, I would never have agreed and my Juanita would still be with me."
Tessa stood suddenly, and said vehemently, "I object to that slander. Marta is not a witch."
Montoya waved her to her seat and said to Vicente, "I realise this is a terrible experience for you, seņor, but please, confine your statements to the facts. This is a murder trial not a witch hunt."
Isn't it? Tessa thought angrily. She noted the flush on Marta's cheeks and the way she was staring fixedly into space, as if trying to distance herself from this ordeal. I don't blame her for wishing she was elsewhere. So do I. I wish the Queen could ride in and save the day. But, as Marta has often pointed out, 'This is one problem you cannot solve with a sword'. Somehow, I'll have to find the real murderer before the trial ends. Tessa stared anxiously at her hands then brought her attention back to the witness who had resumed speaking.
"We moved out to the Alvarado hacienda and were shown great hospitality. The Gypsy woman gave up her own room for my wife and shared a room with Seņorita Alvarado. Dr. Helm said the Gypsy woman was a healer and could take good care of my wife. Juanita began to get worse almost from the day we arrived. Along with the medications the doctor prescribed, she also used some of her own potions. Who knows what was in them? Some Gypsy poison or maybe a curse!"
Montoya interrupted just as Tessa began to rise, a fierce look on her face. Firmly, he said, "Seņor Vicente, you have been warned to keep to the facts! If you cannot, I will have the clerk take your statement which will be read before the court. No more insults or insinuations, please. They have no place in this courtroom." Montoya gave Tessa a quick smile of sympathy, then added, "Proceed with your testimony, seņor."
Almost inaudibly, he began to speak again. "I feared for her life but she was too weak to be moved. I told Seņorita Alvarado that her servant was not to tend my wife any longer, or even go near her. On that fatal night, I was in my wife's room when I saw the Gypsy woman sneaking in with something in her hand. I was enraged and would have struck her but she escaped to her own room. The next morning, my wife was dead." Vicente stared down at the floor and several minutes went by as the background noises of the courtyard intruded into the sudden silence - the splashing of the fountain, a chair scraping, someone coughing or whispering.
Continued in Part 2 of 3
|Home||Queen of Swords||The Raven||Other Stories|
|Other Authors||QoS 2nd Season||Contact|