November, 15th, 1817
"Sorry, what did you say?" the bartender asked, speaking loudly to cover the sounds of the guitars, the clapping of hands, the conversations and the numerous bursts of laughter.
"A bottle of Xérès, por favor," Diego repeated, suddenly waving Marcos that a table on their left had just been freed.
"Sorry, Señor, I did not understand, what do you wish to drink, milk?"
Diego cast an annoyed look at the man, not knowing if he was making fun of his accent or his youth.
Both... he sighed, feeling a deep ire rising from his guts.
This was really getting on his nerves. Sure, he knew he had an accent, but by all saints! Was it necessary for every person he met to make fun of him?
Diego took a deep breath to control his boiling young blood.
Following his father's advice, he had tried his best to stay calm, and not to seek trouble at the first occasion, and especially not on his first month at the university. But now, he was in Spain for two months already, and not a day had gone by without someone joking more or less openly on his behalf, either of his accent, or of the few hairs that grew on his chin.
Certainly there was so much a man could endure without speaking his tongue!
"Xérès, and two glasses," he insisted, taking out a few pesos from his pocket and throwing them on the counter. As always, the sound of cold, hard cash would get him what he wanted.
Still smiling condescendingly, the man lowered his gaze, swiped the pesos into his cupped hand, and turned away.
Shortly after, Diego elbowed his way through a compact, heterogeneous crowd made of students, ordinary people, and King's army officers, toward his friend, with what they needed to feast in hand.
However, as their first exams were in a month, one would say that they had little merit yet to celebrate. But this was not Marcos's opinion. The viceroy's son had managed to get in the good favor of a señorita a few hours earlier. It was as good a reason as any to go and feast at the tavern. But not any tavern.
El café del Real was the last fashionable tavern for a youth desiring to forget the troubled times. Though troubled, the place was also notorious, as there seldom passed a night without a duel being declared. But that was just the reason why the Madrileños liked to go feasting here.
A call sounded in Diego's ear and the next second, someone passed fast behind him, roughly knocking him.
If the young don managed not to let his precious load slip from his fingers, the unfortunate movement caused him to crash against someone else's shoulder. Said shoulder was prolonged by an arm at the end of which, utterly banal the thing, was a hand. A hand that now held an empty glass, for the alcoholic content had just been spilled.
Aware that duels were quick to start off even if one did not wear a sword at his hip - he had already witnessed how quickly blades sprung from beneath the table and in a second, half the clients would propose a sword to him, the other half to his opponent, for no pesky detail would keep the whole assembly from enjoying a good fight - Diego apologized to the owner of the glass, and proposed reparation.
Not that his noble blood was afraid to duel, but he needed to feel in his own right before defeating someone. And now, he was no more wrong than the young man with the spilled glass.
Thankfully, this was also the opinion of the latter, and Diego passed his way without a hitch.
When he caught sight of Marcos a few seconds later below curls of smoke, his tension vanished and a smirk appeared on his lips. No wonder the crowd was so packed in this corner of the tavern. The beautiful dancer of Flamenco had moved there, and was teasing the clients, and especially his friend. Such privilege was not without attracting him a lot of glances, ranging from amused to every shade of envy and deep jealousy.
Diego chuckled and shook his head, impressed. And he who thought that his friend would be waiting for him, staring at the others like a tormented soul waiting for a Good Samaritan to offer him anything to sooth his dried throat. Marcos was an attraction by himself.
To his great sorrow, Diego arrived at the table just as the guitars sounded the final steps of the dance.
"How you manage to always find yourself at the right place, at the right moment amazes me, Marcos," he said, watching the beauty moving away under a thunderous applause and the sound of coins thrown to her.
"Let's call this charm. Listen to this advice, Diego, let yourself grow a mustache and it won't be long before a procession of señoritas will stretch at your feet."
Diego chuckled again. Though they were both seventeen, give or take a few months, nature seemed to take its time with him. "A mustache, eh? Just that?" he asked, dubious as Marcos took out of his inner vest pocket an oblong and thin metallic box.
"Want to try?" Marcos proposed.
Still irritated by the bartender's insult about his age, Diego accepted a cigar with pleasure. While his friend approached the candle to the edge, and ignited it, he could not keep himself from thinking about his father. The old don would be utterly mad if he saw him right now, in a very questionable place, drinking Xérès, and smoking.
Diego had not finished his thought when the pleasure of defying the fatherly authority suddenly became his only reason to tolerate the intense burning of his lungs. As discreetly as possible, the young don turned his head away to deafen a cough in his elbow. Though that move had not escaped Marcos, who gently tapped his shoulder, and condescendingly said, "It will pass, don't worry."
However, he did forget everything when the music filled the place again, and entered in the dancing floor the next performer. A tall and thin beauty with long, black, and curled hair and a dress as red as embers.
As she began to dance, three other students from their class joined them, bringing more wine and beer with them.
The five compañeros drank and laughed, and soon, tables were pushed together to accommodate a larger group.
Thrilled by their hormones and intoxicated by the alcohol flowing freely, they spoke about the new world and the old Spain, comparing the quality of their wines and the beauty of their women. Well, to be honest, Marcos spoke more about Mexico, and Diego little of California; for one, Marcos was more loquacious than the young don, having grown up in the atmosphere of a court, and second, the pueblo of Reina de Los Angeles was merely a burg that travelers on the Camino Real crossed on their way to Monterey or San Francisco.
In fact, Diego did not mind letting Marcos doing the show, as he was more comfortable listening to each of his anecdotes, even if he already knew many of them after their seven months secluded on the huge galleon that had brought them from the pacific coast to the Spain shoreline.
"You are here for so little though you left so long ago. Do you miss your life there, your families?"
"What should we answer to this, mi amigo?" Marcos asked, elbowing him in the side to snatch his attention away from the dancer.
"That to have the privilege to witness such grace and beauty, I would travel the world without resting," he replied, an absent-minded smile on the lips.
"If you want a chance with her, you'd better speak with your eyes!"
"What do you mean?" Diego shot back, turning an irritated glance toward the student who had just spoken.
"Let me be clear, Señores," Marcos suddenly said, pushing his chair to stand up, "the next one I hear making fun of my friend's accent will have to hear the one of my blade."
In a twelve-foot radius around them, all the conversations stopped and faces turned to stare. For Marcos, on the edge of being beyond intoxicated, had shouted his threat.
Embarrassed, Diego caught his arm and made him sit down.
"No need to get carried away for so little!" one of the students said, aghast by Marcos's reaction. "That was just a simple question."
"I'll ask you a simple question then, Señor. Is it right that the señoritas hide behind their lace to laugh each time they see you?" Marcos interjected, resisting Diego's hand that tried to keep him from standing again.
"Marcos," the latter said, feeling that, by the sight of the spark of ire in the insulted student's eyes, it would be best to end the conversation straight away. "Come. It's late enough and tomorrow we have to get up early. Señores," he added, standing up in his turn.
"I won't let you go away so easily, Señor, no matter who your father is. Mexico is a far long shot from Madrid!"
"Then, here and now maybe, Señor?"
"Marcos! Stop this. You're drunk and not thinking straight."
"A duel is a duel, Señor," the student on Diego's left side said, intercepting his arm, "No matter how drunk the man who called it, is."
The young don freed his limb with a vivacious move. Annoyed, he stared at the crowd, for the so expected word had been pronounced, and its whisper spread rapidly amongst the clients, jumping from one table to the next, silencing the whole tavern in a matter of seconds like a stream of air blowing on the candles.
Upon realizing that there was no honorable way out of this, Diego exhaled slowly to ease his pounding heart. This whole situation was deeply annoying. Not only had the duel been called on his name, but Marcos, who was leaning heavily on the back of the chair, did not seem able to stay up for very long. In the best case scenario, his friend was going to be humiliated; in the worse... well, there was never a guarantee that a duel would end without blood shed.
Though he too felt the effects of alcohol in his blood, Diego chose to intervene.
Discreetly, he swept the chair away, and while his friend collapsed on the ground, he stepped forward.
"As Marcos's second, this duel is falling on me, and I accept it. Your word, Señor?"
The student who was the insulted party stared at him. "Tell me first, muchacho, have you already fought with a real blade, or just with wooden sticks?"
"A wooden stick is all I need to teach you respect!" Diego shot back, furious to hear a general laugh.
"Respect is earned by blood, not taught. At least it is the way things go here in Madrid."
"To the first blood, then, Señor," the young don replied without hesitation, though in his mind an alarm blared to see a simple duel suddenly scaling up out of proportions.
"Montega! De la Vega is young and not aware of our ways. Come to your senses. This is merely a misunderstanding," one of the students that were at their table intervened.
"Do you prefer taking his place, de Baños?" Montega asked, drawing his sword and placing himself into guard in the middle of the dance floor.
The student sighed. Shaking his head, he pivoted on his heels to face Diego, and drew his own blade out of its case.
"Whatever the outcome, do some honor to this sword, Señor," he said, presenting the weapon on his arm, pommel toward Diego.
The young don took it with a nod, and joined his opponent on the dance floor.
As he sliced the air with the blade to appreciate its feel, and adjusted his grip on the guard, tables and chairs creaked on the wooden ground. While de Baños moved between them, slightly in retreat, Diego sighed upon watching Montega swaying. The man seemed almost as drunk as Marcos. There would be no honor to beat him.
"En garde! Señores," de Baños suddenly pronounced, "Listos! Ya!"
Montega threw himself forward, beating with force on Diego's blade. Ready, the young don warded off this first, coarse assault without difficulty. Bordering on ridiculous, it almost constituted an insult to his person that could have asked in itself reparation.
The following attempts were no more subtle, and asked no more strain from the young don's hand who, far from breaking a sweat, pushed them all back with a flowing style. After a few minutes of this dance, the crowd started to cry OLE! each time Montega flew into their arms, caught by his momentum.
Cheered by the cries, and to a certain by the Xérès in his veins, Diego smiled, and spun his blade in front of him like a toreador his red cape, teasing the bull in front of him to charge the next offensive.
However, he had one thing to concede to Montega's honor.
Like a true bull, his attacks were strong, and forced him to hold his sword well in hand not to have it snatched away. Montega was swift to change his aims during the assault, targeting the head first and going for the chest, or targeting the chest and finally aiming for his thigh, so that Diego had always to adapt his parry swiftly in accordance. Last but not least, he seemed, despite his sorry state, tireless! At each ole, he kept coming back like a clown out of his box.
After half a dozen minutes of this frenetic dance, and at least double assaults, if not triple, Diego began to feel the effects of the alcohol truly slowing down his reflexes when the adversary's blade nearly touched his shoulder.
Having enough of this play, he decided it was time to demonstrate a little more energy, and end the show.
For the first time at the attack, Diego wrapped his blade around his opponent's sword to control it, and suddenly lunged so low that one could have thought he had staggered, succumbing to tiredness and inebriation. But unlike his opponent, he was still in perfect balance, and his move was perfectly mastered. With a sparking gleam in his eyes, he stopped the point of his sword just where he wanted to: on his adversary's throat. However, aware that Montega could impale, he hastily drew his blade away, not without grazing his chest to draw the needed blood to stop the duel.
"Maybe next time, you will wish for me to have only a wooden stick, Señor," he claimed, hoping that such a display of his skills would, if not earn him some respect, at least stop the banters about his funny Californian accent.
"Next time, you will wish for my hand to be weakened by alcohol again, Señor," Montega replied, furious.
There was a tense moment during which all the tavern went suddenly silent again, fearing or hoping that the duel would start again. But finally, Diego joined his feet to salute, and was imitated, for with a furious glance, by his adversary.
Immediately, cries of joy sounded in the place along with disappointed growls, and the sound of pesos changing of hands.
While Montega was circled by his friends, and dragged away, the man who had loaned him his sword, de Baños, stopped in front of him.
"Very impressive," he said, bowing his head, "For a Californian, or for a Spaniard, Señor. As I would prefer to count you if not amongst my friends, at least not amongst my enemies, let me give you an advice."
"Which one, Señor?" Diego asked, giving him back his sword.
"Juan Montega is considered as one of the best blades around here, and for quite some time. That means he has a lot of friends, and does not suffer to have enemies for very long. While you, Señor de la Vega, just arrived. So here is my advice. Get yourself a sword, and stand on guard for the next few days. Someone might feel the need to – how to say it... clean Montega's honor after such a public affront to his blade."
"Oh! If they think they are better than their idol, they can surely try. Otherwise, they might consider it more careful to stand away from my path," Diego boasted, still thrilled by his victory.
"It's your life. Buenas noches," de Baños replied, bowing his head in salute before walking away to join some friends.
"Buenas noches," Diego replied, before glancing around for Marcos.
A sigh escaped his lips. Shaking his head, he headed toward his friend, slumped against a pillar while the bartender and a waiter were putting back the tables in their place.
"Come on, Marcos, at least try to walk a bit," Diego said, seizing his friend's arm and hauling him on his feet.
Feeling the aftermath of the rush of adrenaline in his body, Diego clenched his teeth and, weary, supported his friend out of the tavern.
The freshness of the night and the slight rain falling reinvigorated him.
Turning his head up and down the street, the young don wondered for a brief moment where to go. For if they had come from the right, it seemed to him that the university was more on their left. And as they had made quite a detour to go to the tavern in order to pass by the villa of the señorita being Marcos current's sweetheart, finding their first, sinuous path would be as tricky as to try to find a new, more direct one.
Diego had decided that they were better to walk in streets heading in what he thought was the right direction, when a last group of at least a dozen students suddenly stepped out of the tavern, and bumped into them. Impervious to their presence, all holding one another and to their bottles, they moved away, singing, confirming the reputation of the Madrileños' endurance at feasting.
A deep sigh of annoy escaped the young don's lips.
Not that he disapproved of their behavior, but more exactly of the one of his right hand, that de Baños' warning had caused to clench into a fist in anticipation of a fight.
Feeling ashamed of himself to be so cheeky, Diego took a deep breath to ease his nerves. It was then that he noticed that, next to the tavern door, the little man he had seen before coming in two hours earlier, was still there asking for charity despite the humid weather.
Dragging Marcos with him, the young don headed back toward the poor bloke, and gave him the few pesos he had left in his purse.
The man smiled from one ear to the other and, placing a hand on his heart, bowed his thanks.
Such merry but silent praise made Diego realize the beggar was mute, and this thought, added to the fact that there was little in the man's hat despite his donation, saddened him.
"De nada, mi amigo, now go find a shelter before you catch a bad cold," he told him, even if he knew that in all probability, the beggar was deaf too.
A smile answered him again.
Ah! He can read lips, the young don thought, straightening his grasp on Marcos.
While he moved away, the indifference of the people here in Madrid, compared to the solidarity he was used to in his pueblo, created a feeling of unease in the young don. Well, maybe it was more of a problem of big cities. Maybe in the countryside, people took care of the unfortunate souls, like Fray Felipe and his father had always taught him to. He would have to speak a word about this to Marcos, about how it is in Mexico City. Well, when his friend would be sober again.
After a few corners of buildings, the sounds of laughing of the other drunken students weakened as groups separated, to completely vanish when they turned right into a narrow alley. Diego stopped briefly, not certain of his path anymore. He knew there was a small street with a series of stairs going down from the University District between private hotels, and he thought this could be it. However, climbing stairs with Marcos leaning on his shoulder would be rather tiresome. He could still move around and take another street. They would probably end up climbing anyway.
Eager not to stay longer under the rain that it was necessary, Diego decided to clench his jaw and go for the shortest path.
They were half-way through the alley, and almost at the bottom of the first stair, when Marcos suddenly asked him to stop and bent in two.
"Whoa! Sick, huh?" Diego winced, trying to hold him while his stomach purged itself.
"I'm not sick..." his friend muttered between two vomitings.
"Only drunk to death," Diego laughed, "Now I trust that you'll think twice before mixing wine, beer, and cognac in so short an interval."
"Never!" Marcos growled, panting.
"I thought you'd say that," Diego replied, shaking his head. "Want a cigar maybe?"
The young don's words caused another sudden regurgitation. Disgusted, he turned his head, and gulped down some fresh air.
"You bastard..." Marcos croaked when the ordeal halted. "Don't feel so good, finally..."
"Whoa, easy," Diego said, feeling his friend swaying dangerously. "Breath deeply, Marcos, it will pass," he added with a smirk when an echo down the alley attracted his attention.
His brow furrowed as he glanced above his shoulder. In the half-shadows, three men were walking toward them in a very unnatural, straight line for this hour of the night.
"Come on, Marcos, let's go. The University is not far away anymore."
Holding his friend tighter, Diego made them walk a bit faster toward the first stairs. There were only four landings if he recalled correctly.
They had reached the second when suddenly a large shadow appeared on top of the steps.
The young don's instinct made him freeze instantly. Either it was a simple robbery affair, or Montega's friends were already on the war path. However, he did not believe that it could be either.
As his heart pounded faster in his chest, he cast a quick look around him for a route of escape. But there was none.
Unarmed, with only walls on his sides, a half-unconscious friend around his arm, and four rogues circling his position, Diego knew that his only viable option would be to call for help in hope that a police patrol would hear him.
However, his honor forbade him to show such weakness. As he put down Marcos as delicately as possible on a step, he knew he was in for a very bad moment. Though he would not be the only one.
Diego dodged the first punch to his head, and dug his right fist into his opponent's belly. Satisfied to see him stumbling and falling down the stairs, he glanced above his shoulder, and pivoted just in time to block a right hook to his head. But in a street fight, honor seldom spoke. He was getting rid of his aggressor with a punch when a fist crashed in his lower back. As he fell to his knees with a cry of pain, a foot suddenly appeared in his line of vision. Diego crossed his arms in protection in front of his face, but if he blocked most of the impact, he was nonetheless sent flying backward by the blow. As he rolled down a few steps, he felt strong hands seizing his arms and twisting them behind his back.
Being suddenly hauled up on his feet, and partially immobilized did not stop the young don from putting up a fierce struggle, for the man holding him, though strong, was slightly smaller than him, and so his feet still touched the ground.
With a cry of rage, he pushed his captor against a wall. Hitting his head hard, the man let him go. Diego pivoted swiftly on his heels, and threw him a hook square in the face, knocking out cold his aggressor, just before being seized by the shoulders and thrown swirling against the opposite wall.
Staggering, he tried to make it to his feet, when he heard one of the last two scoundrels asking his fellow to hold him tight.
Straight away, he felt a powerful grasp on his collar, and saw the bulkiest man of the group walking toward him, knocking his right fist in his left palm.
Diego struggled to break free. To no avail.
Holding his breath, he waited for the rogue to be close to him, and suddenly took support on the man behind him as if he were a pillar, and kicked the bulky man in the guts with all his strength. The latter escaped a surprised growl, and retreated a few steps, half bent to bear the blow. But he did not collapse.
With dread, Diego gulped down with difficulty upon catching, despite the half-shadows, a gleam of dark ire on the man's face.
Way to go... the young don thought, bitter. He had just irritated the man further.
But suddenly, a sound of broken glass crashed, and the bulky man collapsed straight on the ground. Behind him appeared the face of the little beggar of the tavern, holding the other half of the bottle in hand.
As surprised as him, the rogue who held him slightly released his grasp on his arms. Seizing the opportunity, Diego immediately pushed him like the other against the wall, freed himself, and punched him as hard as he could.
Satisfied of the result, he pivoted on his heels, biting his lips and shaking his bruised hand, when whistles and fast steps sounded further down the alley.
Scared, the little beggar looked all around him in panic, and tried to climb the stairs. But on the steps slippery by the rain, he stumbled and fell. Worried for him, Diego moved to help him back to his feet when a police agent cried:
"Hey! You! Move away from each other at once!"
Diego raised his head, troubled, but did not comply.
"No, no, no, Officer, we are not fighting together," he tried to explain, as the agent seized the beggar by the collar. "My friend and I were walking back to the University when we were attacked by these four men," he added, pointing with his finger the slumped bodies of his aggressors.
"Your papers, please, Señor," the officer asked, before showing Marcos and adding, "And the ones of your friend here too."
This time Diego complied willingly, aware that the tension would defuse as soon as the officer checked their identities. Confident, he then sent a friendly nod to the little beggar, wishing to reassure him. How terrifying it could be not to be able to explain oneself with words. The least misunderstanding could reveal itself dramatic for the beggar.
"Marcos de la Callas? Is he..."
"Sí, Officer, my friend is the viceroy's son," Diego replied, aware of the effect these words would have.
"Everything is regular, Señor de la Vega," the officer said, giving him back their papers, before pointing the beggar with his chin, "And this one? Did he annoy you?"
"On the contrary, Officer, he came to our rescue. Without him, I would be in a sorry state right now."
"Maybe. But he is coming with us anyway, for we can not allow more trouble in the streets tonight."
The young don immediately stepped forward.
"If it is merely a problem of not being in the street, then I will provide him shelter for tonight and for all the following nights if he wants. Until I have repaid the debt of honor I contracted toward him."
"Are you taking him at your service, Señor?"
"If he agrees. I will certainly need someone to watch my back in this town," Diego replied, a discreet smile conveying his request to the poor bloke, hoping that he could indeed read lips.
And it seemed that way as the little beggar smiled, and nodded his head several times out of enthusiasm to say yes.
"All right, then," the officer replied, "He is not under our responsibility anymore. You will answer for him from now on."
"So I will," Diego said, tapping his new manservant on the shoulder with a smile.
Upon seeing the genuine joy on his face, he knew he would not regret it.