Chapter 1: Blow Me Down

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All I can see are their boots, but I can tell these men are savages. They've been at it non-stop ever since they broke into the manor. Rummaging through drawers, overturning furniture, and occasionally ferreting out one of the residents from their shelter.

They found Senora Ayala - the cook - first. From the sounds of it, she tried to ward them off with one of her copper pots, but it didn't seem to do any good. She was still screaming when they dragged her out into the courtyard. Only the harsh bang of a pistol could silence her.

The footman, scullery maid, and laundress met the same fate. I pray that the rest of the servants – those who lived outside the great house – had more time to escape.

The men keep shouting vulgarities to each other, while laughing all the same. They appear to be a rag-tag bunch, using a mix of Spanish, English, and Dutch. Their enthusiasm just grows with every valuable they find, whether it be a silver candlestick or an innocent soul who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I wish I knew what they were looking for. I'd do anything to give it to them just to make them stop. But all I can do is watch their scuffed boots occasionally pass by the open door. Even in the faint candlelight, I can see the fresh blood splattered on the caked-on mud covering them.

Luckily, this room hasn't interested them much. A younger man – by the sound of his voice – did come in briefly. Seeing as this is just a poor housemaid's quarters, he quickly left without poking around. Had he done a better job, he'd have found the estate's most prized possession.

In the wardrobe – across from the bed under which I'm lying – is my mistress. Daughter of the soldier in charge of Portobelo's impenetrable fort, she's the reason her father moved the family here to Panama.

Luciana's lungs couldn't take the dusty climate of Cordoba. The land-locked city in her home country made her sicker and sicker, until she was bedridden. Five years ago, Admiral Mercado accepted the royal mission to this otherwise inauspicious post and set sail across the Atlantic.

The salty air did her wonders and her health immediately improved. She's also been my best friend ever since.

"Ana," I hear a faint whisper from behind the wardrobe's doors.

I push myself up on my elbows and toes, gently lifting my body from the cold floor. Slowly inching forward on my stomach, I only hesitate when the wood below me creaks from my weight. Eventually, I get a clear view of Luciana's hiding spot, but not before she continues.

"Ana. My legs are numb. I don't have space to move. I can't—" she pleads in quiet desperation, but I raise a finger to my lips to hush her. She must see me through the small crevice between the panels because she goes silent.

But it's too late.

The sound of heavy footsteps from the hallway gets increasingly louder.

"Did ya check in here, lad?" A figure in the doorway grumbles in English. The torch he's holding fills the room with not only a soft, yellowish glow, but also with the putrid smell of burning pine tar.

"Aye, sir. Just an empty room," the teen responds with a slight quiver in his voice.

A massive boot takes one step inside. "So if I were to find somethin', you'd be mistaken?"

"I can check again," the boy offers.

"No! This one's mine," the other immediately rebuffs.

I hold my breath as he comes further into the small space. He takes his time, putting one, large foot in front of the other with deliberate calculation. I can feel every thud reverberate in my chest.

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