With the success of those first small captures, the crews of both the Siren Song and La Columbe voted in resounding favor for raiding Guayaquil. During the 200 mile cruise the men dreamed of the riches stockpiled in the largest port on the Pacific coastline. Guayaquil had long since established itself as a center of trade between Lima and Panama. It was also a major ship-building center, supplying the merchant families with the ships necessary to transport silver, coca, leather, wool, indigo, and small quantities of silk and porcelain acquired with the arrival of the Manila galleons. This bastion of the Spanish Empire had a population of over 2,000 souls that followed the tenants of the One True Faith in five lavish churches. The people of Guayaquil lived with a sense of peace and ease with little fortification. Their position at the mouth of a river estuary was a natural deterrent to most enemies of God and the Spanish crown, and those that made the attempt would have to survive the heat, humidity, and disease-bearing mosquitoes to reach the city. Nothing about this raid would be easy, but the rewards were worth the risks.
After a week of sailing the crew’s excitement was palpable. The sun was setting to port and the coast was once again breaking the horizon to starboard. The high spirits of the crew aboard the Siren Song manifested in songs and dancing on the deck. Bartolo and several of the other musically inclined sailors had set up with a barrel of grog amidships to celebrate the eve of adventure. Corvus hopped and bobbed and wheeled about them as if dancing to the merry tunes. Henry Quintor’s normal stoicism was broken with smiling and a taping of his toe as he stood his duty at the helm and looked on Bartolo with fondness. The sound of music and laughter drew Grace and Hawkins from their planning session in the cabin to the forward decks.
Taking a tankard of grog offered her by Hawkins, Grace said, “Make sure that’s the only cask they open tonight. I appreciate the excitement, I feel it too, but the time for celebration is after the town is taken.”
“Aye,” Hawkins replied and grinned over the rim of his own tankard. “But high spirits now will also keep them going through the night. We shall make the bay by morning.”
“Very good, Mr. Hawkins,” she said and turned toward the prow.
She smiled and wove her way through the revelers as if dancing a madrigal. As she passed by the musicians, Corvus took to his wings and followed her to the forecastle.
Joy of the purest kind bubbled up in Grace’s soul as she looked across the horizon spreading wide before the bowsprit of the Siren Song. The setting sun painted the sky in shades of gold, pink, and purple. The clouds above and the waves below seemed to be gilded as the sun crept closer to the sea. She could see La Columbe sailing a few leagues ahead of them and heading closer to shore. The three ships sailing in consort with them were trailing along behind.
Corvus dropped on to her shoulder as she stood there watching La Columbe in the distance. He butted his head against her temple a couple of times, gave a cry that sounded almost like a laugh, and took to the air. She envied his ability to ride the breeze on his glossy black wings.
She climbed over the railing and out onto the bowsprit, steadying herself with a hold on the lines from the jibs. The wind buffeted her from head to toe. Her feet balanced on the bowsprit appeared to be flying out over the waves. Grace couldn’t contain the laughter rising in her as the bow dipped and the waves broke into a hissing spay and dampened her face and hair. From that vantage point she could see dolphins leaping and chasing in the wash of the Siren Song. Her body finally felt whole again and her mind at last was clear. Grace O’Malley was mistress of her ship and ready to lead her crew to riches and adventure.
The light was nearly gone when she climbed back down onto the deck. Amidships the men were passing a taper and lighting the lamps. A warm golden glow followed the orange glowing tip of a match Mr. Gibbs brought forward for the forecastle lanterns. Ahead, Grace could see the aft cabin of the La Columbe shining bright against the enveloping darkness.
“Tis a fair night, eh, Captain,” Gibbs said as the ascended the forecastle stairs.
“It is indeed, Mr. Gibbs. I doubt we will need these lanterns once the moon is up.”
“Quick, Barbecue, quick! The next watch is due and I have to get aloft!” The young sailor snatched a hunk of dark brown bread from the dense loaf.
The ship’s cook made no change in his pace as he went about his galley serving the last of the crew of La Columbe their evening meal. “You’ll get yours all in good time, my lad. Keep your powder dry.”
“Pah, ya old sea turtle, it’s not your hide they’ll tan if I’m not at my post.”
The cook pulled a face and handed the young scoundrel an apple and some salt pork. “Off with you now. If you’re up in the nest, you’ll have to wait for your dram until after the watch.”
“Gray bearded pelican,” the lad replied and bundled up the meager meal to carry up to the crows nest.
Quickly the young sailor scaled the rigging of the mainmast, dinner swinging in the bundle slung from his belt. “Ahoy, Moreau, the moon is up and so am I.”
“Kai, you little weasel, there’ll be no dinner left for me by the time I get down from here,” Moreau replied.
“It’ll be cold and moldy by the time Barbecue serves it, but that old turtle will still have something left for you. He’s the one what has delayed me getting up here.”
Kai nearly shoved Moreau out of the crows nest in eagerness to be alone in the canopy of stars. As soon as the old salt was on his way down the rigging, the smile and youthful energy drained out of Kai. He sat there empty and numb, mind a blank. It wasn’t until his stomach growled that Kai recalled that there was food still hanging from his belt. He untied the bundle and pulled his knife from the sheath. The slim blade seemed to glow in the moonlight.
“I need to feel. Something. Anything. I need to wake up,” the thoughts tumbled through his mind. “I need control.”
Hours spent day after day stuck aloft in the nest had resulted in meditative sharpening of that knife. The blade was razor thin. Kai stroped the blade back and forth across the rough canvas pants that were stretched tight across his thigh.
“I need to feel. I need to wake up.”
The bare skin on his left forearm began to itch and crawl. He sat there, his gaze shifting back and forth between the knife held loose in the right hand and the exposed skin of his left arm. In and out. To and frow.
“I need to wake up.”
He touched the cool metal of the blade to his arm. Odd how relaxed the hand seemed resting palm down on his knee.
“I need to feel.”
Kai tilted the edge of the blade against the skin darkened by weeks in the sun. He gently, slowly drew it across his flesh. A hair-thin line of blood welled warm in the wake of the knife. The sting caused him to suck a quick breath through his teeth.
He lifted the knife and laid it parallel to the first cut. Again, the sting and the line of blood. Two neat little lines. Then a third and a fourth.
Kai wiped the knife clean and took a bite of his apple. He breathed deep as if waking from sleep. He could once again hear the wash of the water against the hull of the ship, the creaking and groaning of the ship and she plowed her way toward Guayaquil. He could see the clear night sky pricked with a million pin-points of starlight. Kai could feel the breeze drying the blood on his arm, making the skin feel tight and hot. He knew he could stay awake for hours into the night.
Archbishop Urdaneta whisked open the heavy curtains, admitting the early afternoon light into his study. He wanted to put a few final touches on the letter to his friends in Seville. Dust from the curtains danced in the beams of sunlight illuminating the desk.
He sat down and read back through the letter that would accompany the Sun Stone back to Spain.
“My dear Ernesto, I hope this letter finds you well for I truly believe that the treasure delivered into your keeping is the key to all our plans.
After many months of research and testing, I can confirm that we have at last acquired a genuine Atlantean stone of power. It was Francisco Solis’ folk tale that unlocked the secret of its power.
When the stone is exposed to sunlight it will grow warm and glow. The longer it is exposed the stronger the power becomes. The heat of it can become so intense that one can light candles and start a fire with it. It also has the potential for explosive power. If it is stored away without releasing the power it has absorbed it will release it in one uncontrolled burst.
I entrust it to you and our friends to determine how best to harness this power to achieve our goals.
I also believe that now is the time to formalize these friendships and guard the knowledge we have acquired. Soon there will be a time to stand together and come out of the shadows.”
A knock upon the door broke Urdaneta’s concentration. He quickly folded the letter and pressed his seal to the edges.
“You many enter,” he called.
The large heavy door swung open, and the nondescript priest who had taken Father Miguel’s place escorted Captain Montoya across the room. Urdaneta stood to greet Montoya.
“Juan Carlos, my son, welcome,” Urdaneta beamed at the Captain.
“It is always a pleasure to receive and accept an invitation from Your Excellency.”
“Pedro, you may serve the wine and then see that we are not disturbed,” Urdaneta directed as took his seat and gestured for Montoya to do the same.
As instructed, the priest poured wine for the Archbishop and his guest and retreated.
“I hear that la Nuestra Senora Reina de los Galeones will sail in a matter of days,” said Urdaneta as soon as he was certain the door was closed.
“Si. The last of the cargo should be loaded by tomorrow.”
“Then I delayed a little too long in requesting a visit. You must be anxious to be under way.”
“La Nuestra Senora Reina de los Galeones, is a fine ship. It pleases me it be the one in command for her maiden voyage to Acapulco. And although the journey will be a long one, this will be the first stage that allows me to return to my beloved Elena. But, surely you do not want to hear the romantic musings of a sailor in love?”
“I rejoice with you, my son. Your advancement is an accomplishment worthy of a little pride.” Urdaneta smiled. “But, yes there is more than just the opportunity to bid you farewell. Were you able to employ my clever carpenter friend, Jose?”
“Si, Excellency. He was aboard two nights ago and accomplished the task. Had I not watched him with my own eyes, I would never know such a hiding place existed.”
“Excellent. Excellent, Juan Carlos. Then all is ready to entrust this to you.” Urdaneta reached into the collar of his robes and began to pull a fine silver chain from around his neck. Hanging from the chain was a tiny key. Urdaneta lifted the chain over his head and unlocked one of the drawers of his desk. The drawer made the merest hiss of a sound as it slid open. Again, Urdaneta smiled as he lifted the same carved wooden box he had shown to Montoya on his last visit over six months ago.
“This treasure I now intrust to you, Juan Carlos. You are a man of honor and duty. I implore you to live up to the highest standards of that honor and duty, now. This artifact, this Sun Stone must reach Seville without fail.” He set the box directly in front of Montoya on the edge of the desk nearest the Captain. “I when you deliver it to our very dear friend, Ernesto, I need for you to give him this as well. If not handled properly, the contents of that box can be very dangerous.”
Urdaneta placed the letter he had sealed into a leather pouch with other papers and tied the package closed. He then held a blood red stick of wax into the flame of one of the candles on his desk. Once the wax was soft, he smeared a generous blob of it over the knots securing the package and pressed his seal into it.
“Under no circumstances should anyone aboard your ship know that these are in your possession. You are to secure them in the hiding place in your cabin and not remove them again until you hand over command of the la Nuestra Senora Reina de los Galeones to her new master. Keep the papers on you at all times and never open that box. I cannot express how extremely dangerous and valuable that stone is. It must not see the light of day until it reaches Seville. Do you understand me, Juan Carlos?”
“Si, Excellency. I will guard it with the very life that Elena holds most dear.”
Urdaneta chuckled. Montoya was most sincere and serious, even if a little overly dramatic.
“Your Elena, why I almost forgot. I have a gift for her as well.” Urdaneta stood and turned to the bookcases behind him. “I could not be more proud of this union than if I were Ernesto himself. Therefore, you will not arrive at his house to claim his daughter without many lavish gifts.”
He returned to his seat at the desk with another box much bigger and more ornate that the one that seemed to pulse with energy before Montoya. Urdaneta opened this one to reveal a beautifully crafted communion cup encrusted with gold and gems.
“I wish to bless your union, but as I cannot be present, I hope that you will take your first communion as man and wife from this cup.”
“Your Excellency is far too generous,” exclaimed Montoya.
“You will be a great help to Ernesto and the other members of our order in this new era, my son. And I know that you will endeavor to repay my generosity with the utmost loyalty.”
Montoya sensed that the interview had come to an end. He stood and bowed to his mentor. He then did as instructed and tucked the papers inside the lining of his waistcoat on his left nearest his heart. The small box containing the Sun Stone was secreted into the deep pockets of his naval coat. The ostentatious box containing the communion cup was carried openly to divert attention from the other items he carried.
Archbishop Urdaneta rang the bell for Father Pedro and wished Captain Montoya Godsspeed.