“I am…very disappointed, to put it mildly.”

Viceroy Balthazar paced back and forth within his spacious office in the Palacio Municipal. Exposito stood before him, along with Captain Ramirez. A bedraggled-looking Samuels lurked behind them, along with the senior surviving officer from the Magdalena other than the captain: Gutierrez, the cabo of the marine complement who had been promoted in the field.

Exposito was clearly bristling under the viceroy’s scrutiny. “I do not see what the problem is,” he said. “Mistakes have been made, perhaps, but-”

“Mistakes? Mistakes?” Balthazar approached his subordinate closely enough that the spittle from his words lightly dusted Exposito. “You let not one but two precious alux escape from your grasp. You let not one but two crystal skulls slip away, into the hands of pirates no less! You allowed the Magdalena, one of our finest barques, to be blown to smithereens along with the better part of our most experienced crew and my own, personal crack squadron of marines!”

“It was a terrible defeat, Viceroy,” said Gutierrez. “We can only apologize again.”

“Viceroy, if I might-” Captain Ramirez began.

“Quiet!” snapped Balthazar, jabbing a finger like a dagger in the captain’s direction. “I haven’t even begun with you yet, so wait your turn!”

Chagrined, Ramirez nodded and looked at the mirror-shined marble floor.

“Speak when the Viceroy speaks to you, captain,” said Gutierrez.

“With the losses in men, in material, in the components that are absolutely necessary for my plans to come to fruition, where does that leave me?” Balthazar screamed. Retreating to his desk, he slapped a letter atop it that bore the royal seal. “This arrived from Cádiz while you were paddling your way back here at a snail’s pace. It is a royal warrant summoning me to Madrid–MADRID!–to take up Corazon’s place as Chamberlain now that the old fool has died.”

“My congratulations, your lordship,” said Samuels from the back of the room.

“Yes, all glory to the new Chamberlain!” cried Gutierrez.

Balthazar responded only with a contemptuous snort before he went on: “The letter empowers me to fully advise His Majesty on the full, worldwide deployment of our innovations. What am I to tell him? What am I to tell him when we begin seeing pirate ships that can resist our shot and blow our warships out of the water with a single shot?”

“Tell him nothing,” said Exposito. “Just like Corazon did. The Chamberlain exists to shield the king from the results of his own decisions.”

“How dare you suggest we lie or omit to His Majesty!” cried Gutierrez, apparently shocked.

“Bah,” said Balthazar. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t have the lot of you strung up or shot.”

“I’ll give you several, if your Excellency will allow me a word in,” said Exposito.

“How dare you speak to the Viceroy that way?” Gutierrez said.

“Consider this: we know exactly where the pirates were headed,” Exposito continued. “The Villanueva Estuary.”

“You merely caught them there. They could have been intending to plunder the mission, or careen their ship.”

“They have the skulls with them, Exposito said. “We can track them. If they’re still in Villanueva, we can assume it was their final destination.”

“To what end, Exposito? To what end? We already knew that the alux was posing as a lay member of the mission there. Surely it will not resume its guise now that it has been found out. And even if it has, what is one alux compared to what we’ve lost?”

“Valid points,” said Gutierrez. “Valid points.”

“I wish you would be quiet, Gutierrez.” Exposito glowered a bit. “And I believe Villanueva is the nest, Viceroy.”

“The nest?” snapped Balthazar. “A Catholic mission? Inconceivable. The alux would never be able to maintain such a ruse.”

“Never,” Gutierrez said.

“It would explain why they have been able to elude us for so long, save the stragglers we have rounded up,” Exposito said.

“And so would the nest being on the moon!” cried Balthazar. “I will not burst into a sacred place and turn the Church against me without absolute proof!”

“What would you have me do, then?” said Exposito. “Sit here, cooling my heels, and ignoring what I know could bring our cause to fruition?”

“Cool your heels while I decide whether or not to string you up in the Palacio Municipal square,” said Balthazar. “Ramirez! Report to the docks for reassignment. Exposito! You and your English monkey are confined to your quarters. I trust you can find your way there.”

The Viceroy swept out of his office in a whirl of his cloak, taking up the crystal skull behind his desk as he did so. Ramirez followed with his head bowed, nodding at the others with only a weak smile.

“Perhaps if you throw yourself on the Viceroy’s mercy,” said Gutierrez, “get down on your knees and beg his forgiveness, and-”

Exposito drew Conchita and plunged her up to her tail into Gutierrez’s abdomen. “Be quiet,” he said. “Adults are talking.”

Gutierrez grabbed at the wound, opening his mouth to scream, but found his mouth covered by the Corregidor’s other hand. Exposito’s eyes flashed amber, and the life rapidly drained from the cabo’s eyes as they rolled back in his head. He also rapidly took on an emaciated look, only partly concealed by his uniform.

“Good God almighty,” said Samuels. “You did that without a skull.”

“Tell me something I am not already aware of,” said Exposito, breathing deeply and flashing a satisfied smile. “Help me dispose of the body, and then we will see what we can do about this…situation.”

“After all,” said Samuels. “As far as anyone in the port knows, you are still the Corregidor of Veracruz with the full faith of the Viceroy.”

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