Zamboanga, Philippines, two years later, December 1768
Dionisio, the native guard at the watchtower, raised his head, all his senses on alert.
He scanned the horizon, blinking as the sun’s rays glinted off the turquoise waves, momentarily blinding him. Shading his eyes, his glance swept the water and the coast as it curved around the Spanish settlement of Fort Pilar. He scoured the shallow spots where the waves tripped and rolled.
There it was, a boat out in the open water. His eyes focused on its striped sail.
He gulped. Slave raiders?
He blinked rapidly, trying to clear his vision. His eyesight had been worsening with age, but he could still see that this was an enemy prau, brazenly trying to enter the bay in broad daylight.
“Mario,” he called out to his fellow militia guard. Mario grunted and walked up to where Dionisio stood.
“Raiders,” Dionisio whispered.
Mario shielded his eyes against the glare of the sun. His expression tightened as he nodded. “Good work.”
Dionisio wished Mario would have told him he was mistaken. He believed Mario. His neighbor had served far longer in the militia. He knew what he was talking about. Dionisio started to raise a spyglass to his eye, but Mario said, “Help me get the cannon ready.”
“Already?” Dionisio said, his voice rising.
Mario shrugged. “Don’t you want to be the town hero?”
Hero. The word had a pleasant ring to it.
Dionisio set down his spyglass to help Mario get the cannon ready. But first, he lifted the horn to his lips, blowing into it three long breaths.
In the boat, the sound of the horn startled Raúl Calderón. The Spanish captain’s gaze landed on the watchtower.
Beside him, Juliza clutched his arm. “That signal,” the princess said. “It’s a call to battle.”
“I know,” he said, tightening his jaw. “We’ll maneuver closer. Hopefully they’ll see us.”
She nodded, her eyes wide with fright.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “I didn’t come all the way here just to die.”
Her small smile tugged at his heart. He reached for her hand, squeezed it, then let it go.
Raul assessed the watchtower once again. Two men stood in it, and no other citizens. It was just a matter of time before they might attack. They needed to send word that they weren’t an enemy, but how?
The universal white flag.
His glance took in the clothes of the dozen or so passengers in their makeshift boat. Mineera, Juliza’s stepmother, was wearing a white scarf. “Mineera,” he said, “let me have your scarf.”
She blinked, not understanding Spanish. Or choosing not to.
He gestured to his head. She touched the fabric, her eyes widening, and said something in Gurianese.
“Mineera,” Juliza said, sharply. Translating for Raul, she said, “Her hair is too unruly to take out of her scarf.”
Mineera lifted her chin haughtily and looked away.
The cannon ball landed nearby, close enough to splash. After a moment of stunned silence, Mineera undid the knot on her scarf, threw the white fabric at Raul, and bent low in the boat.
“Thank you,” Raul said. He grabbed one of the oars, tied the scarf on it, and waved it high above their heads.
Dionisio winced. How could Mario have missed that boat? His ears still rang from the cannon boom.
“Come on,” Mario urged. “Don’t just stand there. Let’s load it again.”
Dionisio tamped the powder inside the cannon, slipped the ball into the mouth until it gave off that satisfying clunk, and proceeded to light the pan. At the last minute, Mario muttered, “Wait.”
“What?” Dionisio said, turning to follow Mario’s worried gaze.
“A white flag,” Mario said.
Dionisio squinted at the boat. Indeed, against the striped sail of the raiders, a man waved a white flag.
But it was too late. Dionisio had inadvertently lit the cannon, and it boomed towards the sea.