“The King commands it,” he said without looking up, his dark eyes trained on the paper spread across his desk, his thick northern accent betraying a Pyrenees heritage. He thoughtfully dipped his quill in an inkwell and scratched at the paper. The silence within the ornate great room was palpable before he continued, “And as I am the King’s servant–”
“King Charles’ servant or de Godoy’s servant?” The brown-robed priest who stood patiently across the desk hazarded quietly. The priest shifted slightly on his feet, the movement not unnoticed by the finely dressed official at the desk. The priest looked as the official had imagined, yet why he was to summon him specifically was something he could not imagine. The priest was tall, thin, clean-shaven with intensely dark, brown eyes and a face lined with all of his forty-five years.
“He is the one,” de Godoy had insisted days earlier when the official, barely daring to raise the face he kept bowed, had been ordered into the royal presence. The official had shot a sidelong glance at the Queen of Spain who sat, unmovable, as her lover paced the room. He quickly turned his gaze back to the floor.
“One priest is the same as another, sir,” he had started.
De Godoy stopped pacing. “Then you know nothing of their Order. You will send for him,” de Godoy continued with a brisk nod, “and you will send him on.”
In the silent, dimly lit great room, the official hesitated, his quill twitching in irritation. He glanced at the red robed Cardinal who sat, his hands folded serenely in his lap, in a chair behind the priest. “I endeavor to separate myself from those affairs of state.”
Father Michele Rodriquez’s lip twisted into a smile and he bowed his head quickly. “Of course,” he managed.
“Spain’s claim to the far north of the Pacific coast is far more ancient than these upstarts’,” the Cardinal cut across Father Rodriquez as if he had not spoken.
Father Michele cleared his throat before he turned and made a deep obeisance, keeping his head bowed. “His Eminence is referring to the papal bull of 1493.”
The official smiled in spite of himself, realizing his earlier pun had escaped him. “Forgive me, Father Rodriquez,” he said, gentling his voice as Father Rodriquez turned back toward him, “but with all the bother of the French and Napoleon and the coming war with Britain, can you blame their majesties for wanting to tighten their God-given grip beyond Europe?”
Father Michele waited patiently.
“This,” the official waved his hand as if at an irksome fly, “United States of America, so self-styled a democracy, is merely an experiment doomed to failure. While Spain continues to press the advantages of her colonies to the south, there is no doubt that commodities in the northern climes beckon.”
“Commodities?” Father Michele echoed.
“Furs, whale oil, all the things the damnable Russians and the Golikov-Shelikhov Company are after, Padre,” the official replied, the irritation returning momentarily to his voice. “Our ships have sailed from Central America, past our holdings in California.” Father Michele watched as the man placed the quill on his desk and folded his hands together. The man smiled. It was a smile Michele returned. “I am the Queen’s man, since the King gives no thought for his government. As I was entrusted by the Crown with the continued exploration of the north, so I entrust the civilizing of the savages to you, Father Rodriquez.”
“Civilizing?” Father Michele asked, his brow tilting.
“We can’t have them all cast into the Pit because of some misunderstanding of salvation, can we, Father? Rumor has it that Baranov is bringing Russian Orthodox missionaries to live among them. A bastion of heresy within the bounds of a Spanish protectorate would be,” the Cardinal hesitated, “unfortunate.”
“I’ve read our commanders’ journals, Eminence,” Father Rodriquez continued carefully. “These are not men who suffer strangers to exist in their midst.”
“I have complete confidence in you, Padre,” the Cardinal said as the man at the desk bent his head back to the paper in front of him. “You and your Brethren.”
“And if we fail, we are at least expendable,” Michele said quietly.
“A foothold, Father,” the official replied, his voice becoming more grave. “The Crown is seeking a foothold—to stop the Russians, to stop the Americans, to press the Spanish right and restore some of her former glory,” he took a breath, his eyes darkening, “and the French be damned.”
“Queen Maria Luisa’s man,” Father Rodriquez said softly.
The man’s lip twisted. “I daresay that de Godoy is her man, Padre, in every Biblical sense of the word.” He sighed and picked up the quill, dipping it distractedly into the inkwell. “Better we are here, Padre. Better you go to the north and freeze with the savages than face the horror that is coming to Europe.”
“There are men who say this is the most illuminated time in the history of mankind,” Father Michele said evenly. His lip twitched into a smile as the Cardinal behind him drew an audible breath. The official’s fingers tightened around his quill. He took a breath before he raised his face, training his gaze past Father Rodriquez toward the Cardinal whose knuckles had begun to whiten against the arms of the chair.
“Even now, I begin to see what their majesties saw in you, Father,” the official said, his voice barely rising above a whisper.
Michele continued to smile quietly as he placed his hand flat against his chest and bowed slightly. The official set his teeth and nodded brusquely.
“We are four years from the end of the eighteenth century, Father Rodriquez,” he continued. He bit at his lip and continued to scratch at the paper. “I do not believe you and I will see the nineteenth.”
©2012 A.K. Marshall