Chapter 21: Dead Men Tell No Tales (Part 2 of 2)

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Numerous free-standing buildings are ahead of us, the most prominent being the fort’s administrative headquarters. The multi-story structure – constructed of the same weathered stone as the perimeter – also contains the officers’ barracks and a prison. Although usually used for much more solemn activities, at the present moment, the place is filled with music and laughter.

Two more guards are standing by the building’s open front doors, but these men are obviously only for show. Disinterestedly staring off into the distance, they seem of no consequence.

Before we pass them, however, I tug on Cade’s arm and nod toward the back part of the fort. In the distance and currently out of sight is the entrance to the underground treasury. With any luck, we’ll be making our way there in a few hours.

Finally stepping into the building’s wide hallway, we get caught up in a throng of people milling about. Dressed in their finest attire and wearing their richest jewels, the elite citizens of Panama appear to be having quite a good time. Their faces are flushed, and it’s no wonder, as smartly-dressed servants carry around trays of crystal goblets filled with champagne and cups full of ale.

The further in we go, the louder the rhythmic melody of string instruments becomes.  It flows out of the grand ballroom, which on most days is reserved for court proceedings or other official meetings. Tonight, however, it’s the locus of celebration.

Pushing our way inside, we must stay close to the wall or risk being carried away by the twirling couples on the dance floor. The cavalcade of colors paints an unusually cheery picture that makes me momentarily forget our far more serious task.

“I see my father and Leonor made it inside.” Cade indicates toward the dance floor where the two are already in the middle of a lively gigue. “Now, see if you can spot the admiral,” he instructs, glancing around the room.

We have no luck from our present position, so I grab onto his elbow, and we walk the perimeter. When we get near the back wall, I spot our target.

“There he is.” I lean into Cade’s ear to be heard over the music. The words barely leave my mouth when I gasp. Next to the bearded man in the handsome military uniform is a young woman – much like myself – wearing a familiar, indigo gown.

“She’s alive!” I cover my mouth with my hand upon seeing my friend.

“Are you certain that’s Luciana?”

I nod. Although she's thinner and more disinterested in the festivities than I have ever seen her, I am certain. “Of course. I went to her fitting with the seamstress for that dress.”

Cade takes my hand and pulls me forward. “Very well. We might as well take the opportunity to make our introductions.”

I follow his lead, and we join the short line of guests greeting the evening’s hosts. When it’s our turn to exchange pleasantries, Cade offers his hand to the admiral. “Captain Riley Stokes of the Vengeance.”

“Bienvenido, Captain Stokes,” Mercado vocalizes his welcome. “You're that French privateer, are you not?"

Cade smiles. "French by appointment. Irish by heart."

Mercado nods approvingly before pointing to his left. "May I introduce my daughter, Luciana.”

“Señorita Mercado.” Cade tips his hat as the girl curtsies. Then, he motions towards me. “And this is my bride-to-be Penelope.”

Fully aware of the lie, I still inadvertently blush at our implied relationship. Hastily grabbing my skirt, I bow too deeply and almost stumble in the curtsy. “Admiral.”

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