"Felipe, allow me to present my niece, Lady Rachel Douglas." Sir Edmund gestured toward the young woman. "Rachel, this is Don Felipe de la Vega, son of Don Diego."
"De la Vega?" The young woman's eyes lit up. "I'm told the de la Vegas are the richest, most respected landowners in California!"
Sir Edmund nodded agreement. "Yes, and there are more de la Vegas here. Don Alejandro's cousin is a grandee and a distant relative of the king. A duke of royal blood."
Nodding toward her, Felipe thought that no one would ever guess from looking at Lady Rachel that the young woman was English. She had coal-black hair and tanned skin like his father's.
Suddenly remembering his manners, Felipe took her hand and kissed it as he had been taught. "Please to meet you, Lady Rachel."
"You, too, Felipe." The young woman smiled at the young man. "My uncle has told me quite a bit about you and your family. You were once a servant boy, no?"
Felipe grinned. "Sí, and before that, I was a peon in Mexico. My late father was a poor tenant farmer, you see. My parents were killed in a revolutionary battle, when I was seven; Don Diego found me and took me to California. He and his father hired me and raised me. Educated me."
Felipe paused, remembering. "Then, when I was approaching manhood, Don Diego adopted me and made me his heir. Now, I've come to Madrid to study law."
"Don Diego taught him well, before he came here," Sir Edmund added. "He showed me some of this boy's work while I was a guest there. I'm quite sure that Felipe will be a good student, just as his father was."
Felipe smiled wryly. "If I pass my entrance examinations, that is. I spent my whole voyage studying for them."
Sir Edmund nodded. "When you graduate, what will you do?"
Felipe scratched the side of his head. "I'll take a Grand Tour for two or three years. Maybe spend an extra year or so here in service to the king, when it's finished. Then I'll return to California to stay."
He paused a moment, remembering. "I was just a young boy when you stayed at our hacienda, Sir Edmund."
The former fencing instructor chuckled. "You certainly were. Fourteen years old, as I recall. How old are you, now? Twenty-one?"
"Sí." Felipe grinned. A moment later, he sobered. "I wish you were still teaching swordsmanship at Madrid University, Sir Edmund."
Sir Edmund sighed. "If my prayers are answered, Felipe, someday I will be. I would dearly love to finish the job your father started, and see to it that you become a master swordsman. First, though, I have a fight to win on the king's behalf."
Felipe nodded. For a long moment he gazed at Lady Rachel. "What are you doing here?"
Sadness flitted across the young woman's face. "All my loved ones are dead, Don Felipe. Except for Uncle Edmund, I have no family left. I have not married, as you may have guessed, and it is not fitting for a young girl like me to live by myself." She gazed at her uncle. "Besides, I want to help him. My uncle has been in danger for years and I can no longer endure that."
Sir Edmund chuckled. "You're a good girl to worry about me, Rachel, but I don't want you in danger. Either of you. The de la Vegas love this young man dearly and they would be quite devastated if the king's enemies killed him. I would be no less devastated if anything were to happen to my favorite niece." He put his arm around her shoulder and turned to Felipe. "Have you met your relatives yet?"
Felipe shook his head. "I've just arrived in Madrid. I've had no chance to meet anyone. I moved into my new quarters today, but I haven't even had a chance to take my entrance examinations, yet."
He paused. "My grandfather, Don Alejandro, has given me a letter of introduction for my great-uncle. I will go there and meet him before classes start."
Sir Edmund nodded approvingly. "I'm glad to hear it. Your great-uncle, Don Rodrigo de la Vega, is a good man and a loyal supporter of the king. You'll like him."
Felipe nodded agreement, then frowned. "What is this fight you're in, Sir Edmund?"
"Have a seat, and I'll tell you about it." Sir Edmund gestured toward a small wooden table.
The three sat down on benches. Sir Edmund leaned forward. "Felipe, I'll tell you a secret. One person alone knows I'm alive: the king, himself. Unfortunately, King Ferdinand cannot help me."
"Why?" Felipe frowned.
Sir Edmund sighed. "Because, as I told you, the king has many enemies, and they are after his life. If he were to publicly pardon a man believed to be a traitor and revolutionary--never mind that he is innocent--the king's enemies would be clamoring for his head. King Ferdinand has given me free reign to do what I can to stop these men, but until things have calmed down, that is all he can do. He's promised me that if I win this battle for him, he'll publicly exonerate me and see that I'm restored to my old position. I've been waging this battle for three years now."
Felipe sighed. "Who are these enemies? Are they numerous?"
"The ringleaders aren't. There's just four of them. But they're quite powerful, and they have many followers."
Felipe set his jaw with determination. "I want to help, Sir Edmund." He leaned forward and rested his arms on the table. "If my father and grandfather were here, they'd be helping you all they could. I can do no less. The de la Vegas have raised me to fight injustice."
Sir Edmund nodded. "I can certainly believe that. You must have been a real help to Zorro in his struggle." He paused. "I cannot promise anything, Felipe. Right now, you have a job to do: to pass your exams and enroll in college. When you've done all that, we'll talk about this again."
Felipe nodded and rose to his feet. "Sí. We will. I'm sorry to leave you, Sir Edmund, but I have to study. My examinations are scheduled tomorrow."
Sir Edmund stood up and hugged the young man. "We will be in touch. I promise you that."
Felipe grinned and hugged him back then left the building.
The next day, he sat in the headmaster's office to take his exams. The headmaster acted as the young man's proctor. For eight long hours, Felipe took one exam after another. The proctor graded each one as it was handed in.
When Felipe had handed in the last exam, he sat back in his chair and rubbed his eyes. He had done his best. Now all he could do was wait.
Ten minutes later, the headmaster leaned back in his own chair and smiled at the young man. "Felipe, you've passed all your exams with flying colors. You're admitted."
The two men rose to their feet and shook hands. "Welcome to the University of Madrid!"
"Gr-gracias." Felipe's voice shook. "I thank you."
"Classes won't commence for two weeks, but I advise you to enroll and register for classes tomorrow. Then you will have the rest of the time before classes start to get situated."
"Sí, señor. I'll be here first thing tomorrow morning. I promise."
Felipe left the room. He felt like shouting, but he controlled the impulse. He decided to find a cantina and get something to eat. He was starved.