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, then he looked back out to sea.
There it was, a boat in open water. His eyes focused on its striped sail.
He gulped. Slave raiders!
Trying to clear his vision, he rubbed his eyes. His sight had been worsening with age, but he could still see that this was an enemy vinta, brazenly trying to enter the bay in broad daylight.
“Mario,” he called out to his fellow militia guard. Mario grunted and came over. “Raiders,” Dionisio whispered.
Mario shielded his eyes against the glare of the sun. His expression tightened as he nodded. “Good work. It is a raider boat.”
Dionisio wished Mario would have told him he was mistaken. He believed Mario. His neighbor had served far longer in the militia and knew what he was talking about. Dionisio started to raise a spyglass to his eye, but Mario said, “Help me load the cannon.”
“Already?” Dionisio said, his voice rising. “But it’s just one boat.”
Mario drew himself to his full height, which, for a Filipino, was not that tall. “Have you not heard the saying, one leak can sink a galleon?”
“One leak—well, no.”
“That is not my point. My point is, of course one boat isn’t much of a threat. But one enemy is one too many. Once they are on shore, they could open the floodgates to other attackers.”
Dionisio gripped his spyglass tightly. “Floodgates! Heaven forbid.”
“Yes! Like a typhoon.”
Dionisio fanned himself.
“Besides,” Mario leaned forward,” by the time reinforcements come, we’d have taken care of the enemy. 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 and know we’re friends.”
Her eyes widened with fright. “Some of us aren’t exactly considered friends.” She looked around at her family, exiled from their sultanate, members of the Islamic faith that the Spaniards didn’t believe in.
“Don’t worry,” he said, smiling, “I didn’t come all the way here just to die.”
Her answering smile tugged at his heart. He reached for her hand, squeezed it, then let go.
Raúl assessed the watchtower once again. Two men stood in it, and no other citizens. It was just a matter of time before their boat would be attacked. Raúl and his castaway crew needed to send word they weren’t the 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, “can I please have that?”
Her brows came together. She didn’t understand Spanish. Or chose not to.
He gestured to his head. She touched the fabric, her eyes widening, and said something in Gurianese.
“Mineera,” Juliza said, sharply. To Raúl, she translated, “She says her hair is too unruly to be uncovered.”
Mineera lifted her chin haughtily and looked away.
The cannon ball landed near Raúl’s boat, close enough to douse them all and rock their boat. After scrambling back in place, Mineera undid the knot on her scarf, threw the now-soaked white fabric at Raúl, and cowered on the floor.
“Thank you,” Raúl 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 the enemy? His ears still rang from the cannon boom as he turned back to his fellow militia.
“Come on,” Mario urged. “Don’t just stand there. Let’s load it again.”
Dionisio swabbed the cannon, tamped the powder inside, inserted the ball until it gave off that satisfying dull clunk, and prepared 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 fuse, and the cannonball boomed towards the sea.