El Cubo de Sangre
by Rob Wieland
The street was choked with beggars and thugs. This part of Avila was always bad. It had spread since the Montaigne Navy had aided the port last year. She walked alone, calmly but purposefully. Alicia had insisted on coming along, but she would not subject her sister to the risk. There were many enemies of Castille that would love nothing more then to get their hands on the Hero of San Cristobal, much less her sister. She had to practically sneak out from underneath Don Andres del Aldana's eye anyway. National heroes were few and far between in Castille. They shouldn't be dashing off after a letter that was promising the impossible.
But she had to know.
The place was called The Bucket of Blood. Even though the sign had long fallen from above the door, every sailor that sailed La Boca had passed out in it at one time. The drinks were awful and the company was ugly. The closest thing to entertainment was the cloud of coughs, whistles, and wheezes as she walked in the door. Her boots thumped heavily on the floor as the scurvy dogs inside fell silent. A woman of her beauty and grace hadn't graced the establishment since the days of the Prophets. She flipped down the hood of her cloak and casually leaned against the bar.
"Cervesa, por favor," she asked casually.
"All we have is some barnacle cleaner I won off a Vendel," huffed the bartender. He barely was able to look over the bar.
"What year is it?" she asked.
The bartender looked at her, confused.
"Never mind. I'll take a glass."
She watched him pull a glass from the hand of a sailor that was passed out at the edge of the bar. He then walked over to a barrel that had been cut in half. He submerged the glass and slammed it on the table.
"What do I owe?" she asked.
"Allow us, senorita," a voice said from behind. She glanced carefully over her shoulder. Three men stood behind her, leering.
"Such kindness from strangers," she said. "What do I need to do in return?"
"Nothing. Let me buy you..."
She waved her hand. "I need no other gifts."
"I was finished. I want to know how much."
She picked up the drink with her left hand and turned slowly. The middle one has steel in his eyes. The one on her left looked fast and the one on the right had more eyes than teeth.
"And what makes you think you could afford me?"
"We're pooling our money."
"May I finish my drink first?"
She tossed the liquid in her mouth in a fluid motion. Her face drew into a terrible grimace and she spit out the swill into Steely Eye's face. He fell to the ground and cried out. She whirled and the glass she had drank from smashed into No-Teeth's head. Before The Fast One could draw, she had levelled a rapier at his throat.
Somewhere in the bar, she heard laughter.
The one at the end of the bar suddenly leapt toward her. She kicked a barstool into his legs and he crashed to the ground. She grabbed The Fast One's arm and spun him into two more charging curs.
"Friends of yours?" she said, not a hint of heavy breathing.
Joaquin Orduno leaned against the bar, grinning Legion's finest grin.
"No friends of mine would be foolish enough to call Margaretta Orduno a Jenny."
He slid his arm around her and led her back to a table in the corner. She did not sheath her sword as she sat.
"I see your time on the sea has toughened you up."
"I see you're still as rough as a peasant's face."
A moment passed.
"I do apologize, Margaretta. Were I in better graces with my family I would have delivered this news personally to the rancho."
"And what news is this?"
"First things first. Did you get what I asked for in the letter?"
Margaretta reached into her cloak. She removed a letter that bore the seal of High King of Castille.
"A pardon for crimes on the seas controlled by Castille. Though I doubt you'll keep your nose clean for long."
She placed it on the table. He reached for it. She snatched his wrist.
"You said you had proof."
"You have my word what I say is true..."
Her grip tightened.
"But honestly, would I make such a bold claim if it were not true? Knowing that your first act would to hunt me down and feed me to the sirens? I bear no ill will to our familia, though the reverse is sadly untrue. While I have no proof, the information I have is invaluable."
She relented. Joaquin slid the letter into his vest.
"Who gave you this information?"
"Mikhail the Tsar. I delivered some...delicate items to him and this was part of my payment."
"Mikhail the Tsar? He's a myth."
"I was under the impression you were a woman of faith, Margaretta. Having renounced your husband to the Inquisition to save your soul, and all."
Her eyes cooled. He had her right where he wanted and she hated it.
"What did your good friend Mikhail tell you?"
"He told me there was a place in Ussura where he sent people that had troubled him. Bribing the guards is easy for a man of his resources. It is a madhouse run by monks of St. Nicklaus. He took me to visit one of our...mutual acquaintances who was recuperating there. While we were there, I heard a voice calling out in Castillian. I peered into the cell and there he was, chained to the wall."
"And L'Emperuer was in the cell next him, I'm sure. The man just looked like him."
"And what was Felipe saying?"
"He was talking to someone. He said he saved you from the demons in the Porte hole. He said he would bring you to him."
"He was alone in the cell."
She studied Joaquin for a long moment. He was a smuggler, a braggart, and a branch of the family tree the Ordunos wish would be quietly trimmed.
"You have a map to this place?"
He reached into his vest and pulled out a folded parchment.
"Compliments of Mikhail the Tsar."
"He would not leave Enrique's side..." she said. Her voice drifted off.
"You may not believe me, but I wish for Enrique's safe return as well. He was made a scapegoat because Verdugo needed something to burn. I know you renounced him only so you could clear his name. I came to the Hero of San Cristobal because I knew you would believe me and look past my reputation."
"Then you know what will happen if I find out if you are wrong."
"If I am, I'll gladly dance from the yard-arm."
Margaretta stood and put her sword away.
"If you are wrong, pray that Theus has mercy on your soul. I will not."
To be continued...