collection of short stories mostly written
Disclaimer: The series characters and the Queen of Swords are copyrights of the producers, Fireworks Productions and Paramount. No infringement or revenue is intended. The story plots and other characters are original and copyright to the author, Maril Swan.
The sun angled through the window, one shaft highlighting her wild tangle of hair, as she set down her hairbrush. She grimaced at her reflection, giving up on trying to tame the unruly curls. She turned to survey her room everything was neat and tidy, her bed made, clothing folded and put away. Her own things surrounded her in this big room, though it was sparsely furnished. She found an odd satisfaction in the bedroom's meagre adornments the accumulation of a lifetime all gathered in one place, one solid place. She smiled at the thought. If she had remained with her people, she would have had none of this. All her belongings would have been crammed into a wagon that never stayed in one place very long.
Guiltily, she glanced at the letter on the table near the window. It seemed to beckon her with its demand to be read again ...and answered. Her brother, Rafael, had written to her from somewhere in Andalusia. The red seal was broken though the letter had been refolded. What could she say to him? In his halting scrawl, he wrote to remind her of her duty to her own people. She felt the pull of the blood toward them. It was a constant in her life, this mystical union with the gitano. Like part of her own body, she was always aware of them; unconsciously she carried them in her mind. Now, Rafael wanted her to return and take her place as the healing woman for the band. The woman her mother had been training to take her place, had married and left for another troupe. They needed her, Rafael said. Her mother was getting old; her days were numbered.
Marta sat at the table, taking up the letter to read it again. What can I say? Am I selfish to want to stay with someone I love? Am I abandoning my people to follow the destiny of another who needs me too? She thought of the small hoard of silver and gold coins she had saved. I have enough for my passage to Spain. I do not need to ask Tessa for it. I can go anytime I want to. She would never try to hold me. And yet, the thought of that parting made her heart heavy. And she was frightened to think of Tessa, here alone, facing the dangers she so recklessly plunged into. Marta shook her head, chilled at the thought. I could never forgive myself if anything should happen to her while I went back to take my place with the gitano. Which is the greater good? If I left her, would she continue to wear the mask, risk her life for justice? Marta sighed. She knew the answer. Even without me, she would do it.
She unstoppered an ink bottle near her hand and picked up a quill pen. After several more minutes of thought, Marta dipped the pen into the ink and began to write on a clean sheet of paper. "My dear brother, I am pleased to find in your letter that Mama is well. I send you both my most heartfelt love. You are never absent from my thoughts and prayers. I have read your letter many times, and weighed my duty to my people against my duty to Tessa. This has not been an easy choice to make. But I am needed here more. I cannot explain why, but trust me, Rafael, when I say the band will survive without me, but Tessa may not...."
Later, as Marta folded the letter, she heard the sounds of someone else moving about the house. Tessa was up, probably getting her breakfast. She smiled to herself as she arose from the table. She doesn't need to know about the choice I have had to make. But I think, it was the right one, and I can live with it.
Tessa's hand hovered over the chocolate confections, then pounced on a dark shiny bonbon, only to be intercepted by another hand. She looked up in annoyance as the chocolate dropped back into its place in the box.
"Enough. You'll spoil your dinner," Marta said, as she replaced the ornate cover on the chocolate box, and moved it a slight distance away on the dining room table.
The younger woman slapped down her quill pen. She shook her head and with a wry smile, thought, Will she ever let me grow up? Picking up the pen once more, Tessa dipped the nib into the ink bottle, and pondered. Aloud she said to Marta, "This letter to Louisa is taking longer to write than the bloody Bible. I can't think of anything I can tell her." Tessa smiled at the sharp intake of breath from Marta at her somewhat blasphemous mention of the holy book. She enjoyed shocking Marta, not easy to do usually.
Tessa drew a deep sigh, and began to doodle on the paper laying before her on the table. "Louisa's letter was full of the gaiety of Madrid, the parties, the weddings, and all those beautiful people. And now she tells me of her own engagement to Alfredo Carillo. Remember him, Marta? He paid his attentions to me for a while, until I finally had to be firm with him."
"Was he the skinny one with the big Adam's apple?" Marta asked, as she took a chair opposite Tessa at the table.
"No. That was Enrique Varga. Alfredo was shorter than me and a bit plump."
"Of course. After Antonio left for the war, there were so many vying for your hand, I lost track." Marta smiled at Tessa, a bit of maternal pride in her look.
Tessa was silent for several seconds as a wistful expression crossed her face. "Louisa wants me to come to Spain for her wedding next summer. If only I could." She seemed to shake off her melancholy and glanced up at Marta. "Help me with this letter. What can I say that is anything as exciting as her letter?" She laughed shortly. "Dear Louisa, last week we planted another vineyard, several of our cows have calved, the weather was hot yesterday, hot today and will be hot tomorrow." Tessa planted her elbows on the table and dropped her head into her hands.
Marta chuckled softly. "How about, "Dear Louisa, you have heard of the exploits of the Queen of Swords? Well, I am she. Last week, I saved ten peasants from execution by the Spanish ambassador, and stole some ill-gotten gold from the military governor, all the while fighting for my life. Would that be exciting enough for her? It certainly was for me."
"You know I can't write that!" Tessa laughed, her humour seeming to be restored. "Still, you've given me an idea. Perhaps I will tell her about the Queen, as a third person observer. Remember Señor Wellesley's stories? Maybe I'll just write about seeing those events as if I was watching them. Yes," she said, once more recharging her pen, "Louisa will envy how exciting my life is for a change."
and turned toward the doorway. Tessa reached for the chocolate box,
only to hear, "No more chocolates until after dinner." The
younger woman expressed a long-suffering sigh and with a resigned shrug,
began to write her letter.
"The backbone of surprise is fusing speed with secrecy. " - Von Clausewitz
Madrid, November 1812
The drumming of thousands of booted feet pounded through the Puerta del Sol, as the Madrileños watched the endless column of French soldiers parade past. The spectacle of this long line of grim-faced men, moving like some single-minded animal through their city, had the intended effect the citizens were terrified and drained of resistance.
Many furtive glances from the soldiers toward the dark-haired young woman, observing from the sidelines, brought a chill to her Gypsy companion. The stories of the atrocities committed by the armies of both sides on the towns they had 'liberated' rose alarmingly to her mind. Tessa must be protected from that. She took the young girl's arm. "Let's go, Tessa. We have seen what we came to see."
Reluctantly, the young woman allowed herself to pulled back through the crowd and they retraced their steps toward their villa on a back street near the Plaza Mayor. Tessa felt subdued by the sheer numbers of the soldiers, their unbending discipline. It was no wonder they had conquered half the world! The disorganized Spanish forces had no chance against them. Only the British could save Spain, if they only would.
As Tessa entered their villa, she was quiet, and preoccupied by the fate of her city, her country. Madrid had seemed like a pawn between the French invaders and the British liberators. It has passed back and forth several times, and was once more under occupation by the French. She sighed disconsolately as she climbed the stairs to her room. Once inside, she closed the door and suddenly, felt a hand clamp over her mouth. Her brief struggle ended when Antonio whispered in her ear, "Tessa, it's me. I had to see you before I go."
She turned in his arms and embraced him fiercely. "No. Antonio, you must not go into the war. Finish your university. No one will think less of you."
"I will. Besides, I have to go. I think they suspect me." Antonio's handsome face studied hers with an intensity that Tessa found disconcerting. It was almost as if he was trying to imprint her features on his memory. Tears rose into her eyes.
She swallowed and drew in a deep breath to regain control of her emotions. "Who suspects you? Of what?"
Antonio released her and stepped away as if considering what to tell her. Finally, he said, "I have been working as an courier for the British, relaying messages to their agents in the city. There is a large network of spies in Madrid and all of Spain. We are helping the British by giving them information about the French troops, how many, where they are located. Many Spaniards are in the British army, translating for them, guiding them through Spain and the cities. I will become one of those." He grinned proudly, his excited manner suggesting he couldn't wait to leave.
Tessa found it difficult to imagine her lover, the vain and indolent Antonio, as a spy, a soldier. Her heart ached at the thought of his leaving, perhaps getting killed in this terrible and needless war. "I don't understand this, Antonio. How do you receive the messages? Where do you take them?"
He chucked her affectionately under the chin. "That is not for you to know. All I want you to do is remain safe, and wait for me. When I return, we will marry."
She persisted. This idea of an underground of resistance was new to her, and she wanted to know everything. "If you loved me, you would trust me. I want to share your dangers and be proud of your brave actions against the French."
Antonio drew himself up more firmly under her praise. "You know of Señor Juan Torres, the fencing Maestro?" Tessa nodded, and he continued, "Señor Torres is the hub of the network. He moves freely about the city, teaching fencing privately, as well as giving group lessons. No one would suspect him. He has seemed to collaborate with the French, even giving some of their officers lessons as well. As you know, I am one of his students. He recruited me to act as a courier for him. But now I must leave Madrid with a very important message for General Wellesley."
Tessa frowned in concentration. "Who will take your place and run the despatches if you leave Madrid?"
"Señor Torres has many contacts. It will not be difficult to replace me." Antonio moved to embrace her and Tessa clasped him closely, her mind whirling with thoughts.
The youth swung casually down the narrow street, stepping lightly over the garbage strewn on the cobblestones of this poor barrio. He passed several pensiones, then entered the doorway of one and quickly ran up the steps to the second floor. A tap at a certain brought an immediate response. It was opened and a rough-looking man leaned out. His face showed surprise at the slim young dandy standing before him. The youth seemed equally taken aback by the man. The occupant of the pensione was tall and dark-haired. A scar running down his right cheek gave him a roguish and somewhat menacing look, as did the coolness of his grey eyes. He was dressed like a poor peasant in a tattered white shirt, a leather vest and a pair of dark and much patched trousers.
The youth found his voice and croaked, "The backbone of surprise..." then waited.
The man glanced into the corridor, then brusquely pulled the young man inside and closed the door. In a deep, gravelly voice, he said, "...is fusing speed with secrecy." The man's Spanish was rough but intelligible. He scowled at the youth, causing the boy to move uneasily and avert his gaze to study the vulgarly furnished room. The man bowed and picked up the youth's hand, kissing it gallantly. "My compliments, ma'am, on your bravery. My own wife is an agent of the Spanish. The enemy always underestimates the courage of the women in the resistance." His eyes, which had warmed briefly, were suddenly coolly professional again. "Do you have something for me?"
Tessa handed over what looked like an engraved invitation. It was a coded message. The man accepted it and placed it in the pocket of his vest.
"I'm Lieutenant Sharpe, ma'am. You'll be contacting someone else next time, and at a different location. Here is the message for Espada." Sharpe handed a tattered paper to her and she shoved it into her own pocket. He bowed again, and took her hand. "Vaya con dios, señorita." With that, he opened the door, and ushered her out.
Tessa felt almost limp with relief as she descended the stairs into the street. She resisted the urge to grin at her success; she had fulfilled her mission and had a message for Señor Torres. A sense of great accomplishment made her chest swell with pride as she hurried through the barrio toward her villa. She had proved to Espada that she could be entrusted with these despatches, though the fencing master might not always use her. She was finally doing something important; she had a mission in this war, and would be part of the liberation of her country.
Bad Luck Streak at Dancing School
The oriental rug had been rolled out of the way as the dancing class began. The dancing master glanced down the row of nubile young women and smiled. They were his to command for the duration of the class, and he enjoyed the sensation. To instruct and criticize, to watch as these clumsy girls learned the finer points of social dancing that was his vocation in life. He took it seriously, and would not allow for any deviation from the acceptable dancing techniques he taught. Perfection above all.
He noticed the Gypsy woman standing by the door, watching her ward, young Maria Theresa. The Gypsy had a bowl and wooden spoon in her hand, evidently making something for the girls for after their class. The classes were conducted at the Alvarado villa in Madrid, as his school had been taken over as a barracks for the British soldiers. The dance master grimaced at the woman, then at the girl. Maria Theresa was a trial, but she was letting them use her house for free. The girl was graceful enough, and could have been a reasonably good dancer, but she was inattentive and capricious. Whenever the master left the room, Maria Theresa would have the girls giggling with her antics, making up crazy dances and teaching them to the other girls. She had no sense of discipline, of decorum. Even the threat of a novena of rosary beads had no effect on her.
This day, the dancing master had left the salon for only a few minutes, and when he returned, Maria Theresa had all the girls lined up doing strange motions with their hands and very suggestive movements with their hips. He was scandalized at first, then began to enjoy their new dance.
"Maria Theresa, what do you call this dance?"
"It has no name. I just made it up, Señor Macarena."
He was driving her to distraction. Vera fiddled with the tassel on the red velvet rope that held back the brocade drape around their huge four-poster bed. She sighed heavily and leaned against the bedpost, impatiently waiting for Gaspar to finish peeling the apple with his small clasp knife. He did it slowly and methodically, with total concentration, the way he did everything. It drove her mad to watch.
Seeming to sense her tension, he looked up and caught the vexed expression on her lovely face. He smiled affectionately. "Is there something wrong this morning, my petal? I must say, this breakfast in bed was a most pleasant surprise. What is the occasion?" He brightened suddenly. "Do you have some news for me?"
Vera looked away quickly and Gaspar knew he had erred. She was in a mood he did not recognize and now he had wounded her with the reminder of her failure to conceive. She was restless, he could see that plainly. There was nothing for a young woman to do on a hacienda other than care for children, and they had none. Not yet.
She drew a deep breath and said, "Gaspar, I think I will go visit Tessa this morning. I haven't seen her for a while." The brilliant blue eyes watched him as he considered this idea in his slow, deliberate manner. Outwardly, she was placid and composed but inside Vera was seething with exasperation that she needed his permission to go out, and had to explain where she was going. She had no intention of seeing Tessa, but had arranged a picnic with Marcus.
"Did you not visit Tessa only a couple of days ago, my dear? You must remember she has a hacienda to run, and does not have so much free time as other women." His eyes grew soft as they slid over the satin gown that clung smoothly to the curves of her body. Perhaps some gentle loving was all she needed. "Come back into bed, my pet," he said as he lifted the sheet invitingly to make a space for her.
Vera quickly calculated the time and decided she could still be there when Marcus arrived at their rendezvous. With a seductive smile she climbed into the bed and snuggled up to her husband. This would not take long and she could even stop in to see Tessa along the way. In case Gaspar should ever ask.
Marta pulled the door open and peered into the hidden room. She drew a relieved breath, seeing Tessa inside, seated next to a table on which a single candle burned. "There you are, Tessa. I have been looking for you all morning." Observing more closely, Marta noticed a half-empty bottle of wine on the table and a full glass in Tessa's hand. "What are you doing?" Marta asked sharply.
"I'm celebrating," Tessa answered, rocking dangerously on her chair.
"I can see that," Marta said, coming closer to catch the girl in case she fell off her chair. "What are you celebrating?"
Tessa stood up abruptly, staggered slightly, then grabbed the table for balance. She grinned fatuously and said, "My birthday."
"Of course. I nearly forgot. Felicidades, Tessa. Considering what you have been doing for the past year, your birthday is a real cause for celebration."
"I'm twenty-three today. Twenty-three, ...and an old maid." She bit her lip and looked away.
Marta took her arm and tried to steer her back to the chair, but Tessa shook her off and moved across the room, to lean against a cabinet. "You know what the married girls whisper when I pass by, Marta? 'There goes poor Maria Theresa Alvarado. Twenty-three and not married. Not even a prospect in sight'." She took a swig of her wine, glancing morosely into its contents. "Alone, alone, all, all alone," she intoned.
"Tessa, you must stop. What will the servants say if they see you like this?" Marta shook her head in exasperation as the younger woman took another long pull at her drink, then giggled.
"They won't see me, Marta. This is a hidden room. That's the whole point, isn't it?" She laughed at her own humour, unaware of Marta's troubled look as Tessa finished the last of her wine, and made her way back to the table for a refill.
"I wouldn't exactly say you have no prospects. What about Dr. Helm?" Marta said, as she intercepted the bottle before Tessa could pour more wine into her glass. Ignoring Tessa's glare, Marta pushed the cork back in and placed it on top of a cabinet.
Tessa snorted in a most unladylike fashion. "Dr. Helm! How blind can a man be? He can't even see through a flimsy piece of lace."
"So that's what this is about." Marta said gently. "Do you really think this helps?" she asked, gesturing at the bottle.
"It will later."
"I'll worry about it then. Give me the bottle."
"No more wine. I'm taking you to your room where you can sleep it off." Marta took a firm grip on the younger woman's arm, steering her toward the door. Tessa allowed herself to led, laying her arm over Marta's shoulder for support.
Tessa hiccuped and started to laugh. "It's really quite funny, isn't it, Marta? Dr. Helm loves the Queen of Swords, and thinks Tessa Alvarado is just a nobody, a nuisance. What would he do if he ever found out the truth? He's probably end up hating both of us."
"Or loving both," Marta said, with an affectionate hug. "You can't decide for him how he will feel. But you must continue to protect yourself, keep your secret. And, Tessa, whether you realize it or not, it is you the doctor loves." Marta laughed softly. "So, go to him as the Queen, and enjoy what you already have. Just don't tell me about it. I'm supposed to be your duenna." She felt Tessa stiffen with shock, then relax. Forgive me, Don Alvarado, Marta thought, as she helped Tessa up the cellar stairs, but I'm sure you would want Tessa to be happy, as I do.
Feedback? yes, please - Maril Swan
More vignettes in Vignettes 3.
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