The ample brim of his hat did little to shade his eyes from the dazzling sunlight. Images of the chapel entrance still burned white in his vision as Captain Juan Carlos Montoya slowly stepped down the center aisle toward the altar. Eventually his eyes adjusted to the candlelight of is favorite shrine in Manila.
While the full mass in the main cathedral was an appropriate celebration of all that had been achieved on this last voyage, Juan Carlos believed his personal pledge to the blessed Virgin was better fulfilled quietly, piously, without spectacle. Hid did nothing more than his duty to God and King.
Laying aside the hat he’s removed on entering and the sword he constantly wore, he passed the last pair of pews and approached the altar. He placed a small gilded box on the rail in front of the altar and gegan lighting several candles for his family and officers.
As he knelt to pray and give thanks, a door off to his left opened and a blazing shaft of sunlight pierced the reverent gloom.
“Juan Carlos, my son,” a familiar voice boomed as the door closed out the blinding subtropical sun. “I am so pleased that your recent voyage was such a success,” said Archbishop Alanzo de Urdaneta as Montoya rose to greet him.
“Your Excellency honors me,” replied Montoya and kissed the rings of the elder’s hands.
“Nonsense, my son. Your service honors your church and your country. Ah, is this the gift your have brought back to fulfill your pledge?” Archbishop Urdaneta asked as his eyes alighted on the box sparkling in the glow of the candles.
“Yes, Excellency. It is a collection of Peruvian emeralds I purchased from a shrewd old trader in the marketplace in Acapulco. At first I had a mind to keep a few myself to have made into a gift for my bride, but my heart would not be at peace until I decided to give them all as my pledge of thanks.”
The old Archbishop’s eyes grew wide as he opened the little box and discovered he could not count all the uncut stone residing therein.
“My boy, this is your most extravagant gift yet. Let us take it through to my cell and lock it up for safe keeping. Careful prayer and consideration must be given as to how to use such a gift given in honor of our gracious Lady,” he said as he closed the box and turned back for the door. “Come, come, I desire to hear all your news, my son,” he added as he beckoned Montoya to follow.
Archbishop Urdaneta lead Captain Montoya through a labyrinth of passages to his private study.
The room beyond the heavy mahogany doors was an architectural embodiment of the man who conducted his life within. To Captain Montoya’s eyes it could have been transported directly from the grand castles of Ferdinand and Isabella. The walls were lined with beautifully carved bookcases that rose to meet the beams of the vaulted ceiling and fairly groaned with the weight of books and treasured gifts. Rich brocades covered sumptuous furniture, while massive wrought iron chandeliers bathed the massive space in a warm glow. A member of the lower order of the Catholic clergy finished setting out wine and a light repast on the ornate desk as the Archbishop and his guest entered.
“Thank you, Father Miguel, that will be all for the moment,” Urdaneta said dismissively.
The priest seemed to blend into the woodwork in his homespun brown robes. He bowed to the Archbishop and shuffled quietly out of the room.
“Now, sit, my son and tell me of your travels.”
As Montoya took the seat indicated, Urdaneta placed the gilded box in the center of his vast desk. His face glowed with pleasure as he ran his hand over the top of the box before shifting his gaze back to Montoya’s face.
“I am most grateful for your successful return. My wine cellar is far more gracious now that we have been able to procure some of the vintages of our homeland.”
Despite decades of service in the Philippeans, the Archbishop still cultivated an aristocratic Castillian accent and the high-born lifestyle to go with it.
“Please, Your Excellency, you pay me far too much honor for what is merely my duty,” said Montoya, lowering his eyes even as he accepted the glass of wine offered to him.
“Nonsense, we are able to enjoy God’s blessings, because of your service to duty. How many crossings have you made to Acapulco and back now?”
“Eight voyages, sir. Six as an officer and the last two as Captain.”
“And you have now been given command of the newest, la Nuestra Senora Reina de los Galeones,” Urdaneta said as he smiled and leaned forward over the desk.
“Yes, Your Excellency, I received the new commission shortly after the celebration mass. I am to stay here in Manila for the next six months to oversee the final preparations for her maiden voyage.”
“Congratulations, my son. I have also heard that more is to be bestowed on you.”
Montoya chuckled. It seemed there was very little news that the Archbishop did not already know.
“Indeed. Although I will be in command of la Nuestra Senora Reina de los Galeones, I will also be training her next master.My orders are to bestow his commission at Acapulco and journey on to Vera Cruz. From there I will journey as a passenger back to Seville in order to receive a commendation and marry the very patient Elena.
Again the Archbishop’s face took on a glow. His smile broadened as he topped off the Captain’s wine.
“Then this is certainly cause for celebration, my son. Please allow me to be the first to wish you and your bride all happiness.”
“Your Excellency is too kind,” replied Montoya as he raised his glass to Urdaneta’s.
The conversation came to a natural pause as both men savored the taste of wine and success.
Urdaneta drained his glass, set it down, and picked up a small bell from his desk. Within moments of ringing it, Father Miguel shuffled back into the room, head bowed.
The Archbishop did not bother to wait for the man to approach the desk. “Clear these things away and see that we are not disturbed until I call for you.”
The young priest deftly cleared the desk and once again melted out of sight. Urdaneta had stayed the progress of any conversation with a look until they were alone.
“It pleases me immensely to hear that you will be returning to Spain soon,” he intoned once the doors had closed behind the little brown man. “This news is indeed very timely.” The elder man smiled across the desk. The smile grew into a knowing grin as he pulled open one of the drawers and removed a package bound in old leather.
“Are you familiar with Plato’s writings about Atlantis?” Urdaneta began to remove the wrappings as he asked.
“Aye, Your Excellency, I am familiar with the legends,” Montoya replied. His attention was focused on the object on top of the Archbishop’s desk.
The last of the wrappings fell away to reveal an intricately carved dark wooden box.
“There is more truth than legend in those tales my son. Members of our order have turned academic study into tangible reality.”
Urdaneta’s eyes glowed with triumph as he turned the open box so that Montoya could see what lay inside. Nestled on a bed of rich velvet was a smooth stone about the size of a man’s palm. Its rounded oval shape reminded Montoya of rocks tumbled and rounded in a river, but it was like no river rock he had ever seen. It had a translucent quality like glass and a depth like an opal. Its quality was like no gemstone he had ever seen and its size was astonishing.
Montoya neither soke nor moved.
“This, my son, is the seed of legend,” Urdaneta whispered. “The power that eventually became the downfall of the ancients was housed in stones like this one.”
“Power,” Montoya’s tone was dreamy as if he were entranced.
“I believe so, my son. While it remains in my possession, I intend to discover if a few theories are true.” Udaneta reached across the desk to grasp Montoya’s hand. “When you set sail again, I wish to entrust this package and my notes on it’s true nature into your personal care. Take it back to Seville with you and present it to the head of our order with my compliments.”
“It will be an honor, Your Grace,” Montoya whispered, still in the thrall of the man across the desk and his mysterious possession.
On the other side of the door, Father Miguel crossed himself and prayed, “Madre de Dios, protect and keep us from fools and power seekers.