Here’s the prologue and first chapter of EYE OF THE GODS. Take a journey into the mystery and magic of the Ayacucho Andes in Peru… to a place where, according to local legend, the gods came to earth – leaving behind not only unimaginable wealth, but a secret so powerful that it could alter the destiny of humankind – forever.
Trujillo of New Castilla, Peru
February 14, 1619
Diego De Los Parlotes y Villalobos was not a man to be trifled with.
His lack of physical stature was equalled only by his lack of patience, and his men knew full well that he did not lightly suffer the presence of fools in his company. Nor did he fall prone to the common vices of kindness and compassion, both of which he despised as foppish weaknesses: the stained hemp noose dangling from the yardarm of the Bella Rosa bore grim witness to his swift despatch of two hapless stowaways who had been discovered a mere sixty days from port, a pair of half-starved wretches who had risked their lives, and lost them, on the chance of a journey to the New World.
Now, as he stood contemplating the burgeoning town from a leaded casement window of the imposing Viceroyalty building on the waterfront, he was far from the repose one might have assumed for a man who had just completed an arduous crossing of two vast oceans under appalling conditions. On the horizon, several miles beyond the fertile valley, the first soaring green peaks of the distant mountains could be seen, shrouded in sombre wreaths of grey cloud. The Moche river, glittering like a dull silver thread in the uncertain light of the late afternoon, lazily snaked away into the undulating foothills, bordered by verdant fields of ripening sugar cane.
Villalobos heard the sound of his visitor’s footsteps on the staircase even before the man entered, announcing his presence with a soft tap on the open wooden door. The room was appointed in accordance with a man of the viceroy’s stature, and boasted an array of luxuries that would not have been out of place in the Spanish court of Charles himself. The craftsmanship was exquisite, the highly polished teak furniture gleaming darkly as if imbued with an inner light, the opulence of fur and silk and pearl a testimony to the power of the empire to which the viceroy was beholden.
He stood motionless for a moment, careful not to acknowledge his visitor too readily, as befitted his status, and then glanced over his shoulder, nodding curtly.
“General Villalobos,” said the newcomer by way of greeting, his face betraying no reaction to the deliberate slight he had been offered. “It is good that you have come. I am-“
“Cardinal Espinoza,” said Villalobos, brusquely interrupting him. “I know who you are. And let me just say that I am also entirely aware of the regrettable role you have played in this… this situation we now find ourselves in.”
The cardinal cleared his throat and adjusted the waistband of his black cassock, frowning slightly as he did so.
“General. I am not sure what has been conveyed to you, but I do not think that you have been adequately informed of the circumstances surrounding the uprising. I am not by any means against you, as you strangely seem to think. Nor am I – God forbid – disloyal to the Crown. I am an obedient subject, both to our Lord and to our king. And, of course, to the Holy Father himself.”
The general turned to him, incredulity written upon his face. He held up a fist, in which was grasped several creased sheets of yellow vellum.
“This is the message that I received. It is as plain as day. Do you mean to tell me that you do not sympathize with these savages in any way? Is this report then a fabrication? The product of the deranged mind of an officer of the Court?”
The priest regarded him impassively.
“I am concerned with the conversion of the heathen, nothing more and nothing less. Whatever you have read… whatever you have been told, should reflect that. What is there to suggest otherwise?”
He folded a hand into a sleeve and inclined his head.
“You are intimating something far darker, my lord. Why, I have no idea. I have done nothing remotely seditious, nor is it proper to even suggest such a thing.”
“Four years ago,” said Villalobos, “you devoted yourself to the physical comfort of the slaves for a period of more than a month. Day and night, without ceasing. These… these creatures. You yourself were so debilitated that you could not perform your duties for weeks after, even to your own diocese. Is this not true? And a mere six months ago, you personally pleaded for clemency in the case of a savage who was found consorting with a woman of this very house, the house of my predecessor.”
His mouth twitched as if struggling to frame the image in his mind.
“I cannot even conceive of something so base. The woman must clearly have been bewitched by the native… or the alternative, too ghastly to credit to a noblewoman of Spain, that she was deceived by the devil himself, and fell into whoredom.”
He turned back to the window, flung it open, and spat expressively out into the street below.
“It matters not. The sentence of hanging, which by the way is entirely appropriate, should have been carried out immediately. Immediately. Had it not been for your incessant petitions to the council for clemency, and the delay that resulted, the affair would have been dealt with speedily, and an example made of them both. Instead, you interfered. And what happened? They escaped. Escaped! And are now doubtless causing unrest among the brutish masses. The woman, blast her soul to hell, is probably running from barbarian to barbarian, bed to bed, in paroxysms of madness as she betrays the sanctity of Spanish womanhood before the lustful eyes of these swine.”
He paused, and shook his head.
“Already the streets are full of mestizo. The ragged little bastards think that because there is some Spanish blood in them that they are somehow superior to the Indians. Hah! There lies a surprise in wait for them. We shall see how well they fare when I have them rounded up in short order for the labour gangs.”
The cardinal looked pointedly at him.
“Well, they themselves are the product of a Spanish father and an Indian mother, are they not? So, with all deference, should those responsible not also be brought before the council and sentenced for their indiscretions?”
The general regarded him as if he were becoming aware of a particularly loathsome spider sitting on his foot.
“Of course not. Of course not. It is entirely different. And you already know this. If a Spanish man takes an Indian woman in a moment of desire, or to punish her, it is his natural right. They are after all animals, fit only for labour and for the occasional pleasure of my men. Have you gone mad? How do you even draw such a comparison?”
“If you do not see the comparison,” said the priest affably, “then I will not impress it upon you. I will only say that my petition to the council was not an attempt to cause disruption, but to seek mercy, for we are all sinners.”
His eyes flickered and made contact with those of Villalobos.
“Are we not, my general? And to your assertion that I somehow neglected my flock to tend to those who were in desperate need, then I suppose I must admit my guilt. But, what then? Are we not enjoined to seek the sheep that has fallen into the pit?”
He shook his head, a palpable sadness shadowing his features for a moment.
“These people… the Mochica. They do not have the constitution of body that a Spaniard seems to enjoy. And the influenza, which is but a trifle to us, stalked their hovels like the grim reaper himself, causing destruction and misery such as I have never seen. Do you know how many died in a scant fortnight, general? Women, and infants?”
“I care not one whit,” said Villalobos shortly.
“More than a thousand,” said the cardinal slowly, continuing as if he had not heard the response. “The stench of the dead hung over their camps, and there was no end to the wailing of the women for their children. Our soldiers laughed at them, and refused to allow them to bury their deceased families, instead forcing them to to pile up the corpses so that they could burn them in full view of everyone. Is it not then proper that I should have offered them succour in their hour of suffering?”
He inhaled deeply and shook his head.
“I do not see how the provision of aid in the midst of such calamity can be compared to an incitement to violence. To even suggest it is preposterous.”
“Of course you cannot see it!” said Villalobos, his irritation palpable. “You are constrained by your cloth, and concern yourself with thoughts of piety. You are not equipped to discern the mind of the savage, and their devious ways. I assure you, your so-called acts of mercy are interpreted by them as a sign of weakness, and they will take full advantage of us if we continue to indulge them in such a manner. They do not understand the ways of a gentleman; they are utterly incapable of doing so. There is only one thing they understand, and that is power. They respect the sword and the lash, for this is how they are ruled. And it will ever be so, mark my words… they are far beneath the natural intelligence and decency of the white man.”
He curled his lip, an expression of raw contempt.
“You may pray for them, but I believe that they are beyond redemption. You may as well pray for the soul of a dog. And by aiding them, you are creating the impression that we somehow regard them as being worthwhile of attention. Can you not see the inevitable result? It is a poison that will gradually fill them with a false sense of self-importance, and they will rebel against their masters.”
He raised his hand again, and pointed the sheaf of papers at the cardinal.
“As they are doing at this very moment, Espinoza. And you – you – are largely to blame for this.”
“You are wrong,” said the cardinal bluntly.
Villalobos stepped toward him and stabbed a finger at his chest.
“Wrong? How dare you! Do you realize what I have been mandated to do here?”
He was almost shouting.
“I have the king’s very seal upon my writ of authority! The king! I have the power to cast you into chains if I so wish!”
The priest blinked, his face stony.
“General Villalobos. I have come here because you summoned me, and because it was my desire to welcome you to the colony in a manner which befits our station.”
He shook his head.
“Instead, I have not yet had a the courtesy of a proper greeting. You do not even know me, yet you have done nothing but arbitrarily accuse me of treason – treason! – and have treated me most despitefully. It pains me, it grieves me, that you should behave thus. Where is the manner of court that decorum demands for an ambassador of the Holy See?”
He raised a hand to forestall reply.
“And as for your assertion that you would have me chained: by all means do so. Do so, if you wish the might of Rome to be exerted upon you personally and upon the state. And be aware that once your claims have been proven without foundation, and you are charged with trespass upon the Church, that you will be excommunicated and damned for all eternity by the Holy Father himself. Is that what you desire? Lay hand upon me, then, and we shall see who is false!”
Villalobos was almost speechless with fury.
“You threaten me? You threaten me? You are a worm!”
“It is not I who am breathing threats,” said the clergyman, tight-lipped. “I am a man of peace, but that does not make me a weakling. By God, I have no fear of you, sir.”
There was a clatter of feet on the staircase, and both men turned to stare at the doorway, at which appeared two burly men-at-arms, dressed in ruff and chain mail, and carrying pikes. The larger of the two was bearded, with flowing black hair and a scabbarded broadsword at his side.
He genuflected respectfully at the sight of the general, and stepped into the room.
Villalobos beckoned him to approach, and tossed the crumpled documents onto the ornate desk before giving the soldier his attention.
“Captain Fernandez. What is it?”
The man placed his hand over his heart, a gesture of respect, and then removed his helm before speaking.
“My lord. I apologize for the intrusion, but I thought it prudent to bring you news of great importance in all haste, and to do it directly.”
He nodded perfunctorily at the prelate who stood off to his side, as if noticing him for the first time.
“Out with it, man,” said Villalobos angrily, still seething with ill-concealed rage at his exchange with the clergyman. “What is so urgent?”
“As it pleases my lord,” answered the captain, “we have captured one of the leaders of the uprising… the one named Huaman.”
“Huaman!” exclaimed Villalobos. “That devil! Is he not the one who was complicit in the murder of General Vargas? Excellent! I trust you have him upon the rack as we speak?”
The captain shook his head.
“No, my lord. This is why I have come to obtain your counsel and your permission. The dog claims that he allowed himself to be taken by my men, and that he wishes to parlay.”
The general’s eyebrows shot up.
“What! What nonsense is this? Why do you even dither? Quarter him forthwith, and display his head in the public square, man!”
The captain cleared his throat and lowered his eyes, wary of the Viceroy’s wrath.
“General… I believe he may be of some use to us before we slay him. He says he wishes to offer a ransom for the release of the eighteen prisoners marked for hanging this Friday.”
He hastily reached into a leathern pouch at his waist, noting the near-apoplectic astonishment of his superior.
“He gave this into my hands, my lord. He says he will lead us to a cave near the Huaca del Dragon where there is enough gold to fill ten wagons, and a trove of gemstones, of which this is the very least.”
He withdrew his hand from the pouch, and displayed a faceted stone the size of a hen’s egg, gleaming deep crimson in the dusty shaft of light from the stairwell.
The general paused, sipping in his breath, and stepped forward, peering incredulously at the stone.
“Are you sure about this, captain? Is that not a worthless piece of glass? These savages know nothing of the shaping of gems, and this has plainly been cut and polished by a master craftsman – if it is indeed of any value.”
“With my lord’s indulgence,” said the captain, “I thought it prudent to establish the verity of the stone before I dared bring it before you. I took it at first to Luis Perez, the assayer of mines, whom my lord knows well-“
He hastily cleared his throat again, noting the look on his general’s face.
“I have made it abundantly plain to him, my lord, that if he breathes word of this to anyone, I will hear of it, and that he is under pain of death to remain silent about it.”
“Good,” said the general shortly. “Go on.”
“Well… he assures me that not only is the stone indeed a full-blooded ruby, but it is the finest and purest he has ever seen. He intimated to me that, were he ever afforded the opportunity, he would sell his entire estate – indeed, his very mother! – to obtain such a gem. It is, according to him, utterly priceless.”
Villalobos inhaled sharply, beckoning to the captain to hand him the stone. He raised it toward the window and studied it carefully, his face inscrutable. The gemstone’s clarity and depth of colour were almost intoxicating, flashes of deep crimson and burgundy setting it afire in the gloom of the general’s chamber.
There was a moment of silence before he nodded decisively, turning to place the stone carefully on his desk alongside the manuscripts.
“You have done well, captain. Your initiative in this matter is to be commended. Now: here is what I would have you do. Hasten immediately to the donjon and bring him to me, under strict guard. I will see this savage myself, and ascertain whether or not he speaks the truth. I will offer him the release of the eighteen worthless rogues for the whereabouts of this supposed treasure he claims to know of. And then he will lead us there, before we entertain any ideas of a barter.”
The captain nodded solemnly.
“As it suits my lord, we have not yet placed him in shackles… I have him trussed hand and foot over a horse downstairs, in the keeping of fifteen of my best men. I thought it judicious to enquire of the general’s pleasure before we committed him to iron and solder, or gave him over to the jailers to be branded.”
“Ah!” said Villalobos, an inarticulate expression of approval. “This is now the reasoning of a man loyal to a fault, unlike those who would seek to subvert the cause of civilization.”
He glowered momentarily at the cardinal, who returned the look with an even gaze.
“So. Fetch this Huaman to me, and we will parlay with him.”
He looked pointedly at captain Fernandez.
“We will wring the information from him that he brings, but as for freeing his band of criminals, or sparing his life… it is not to be entertained. Let us establish the veracity of his claim, and then we will do away with him. Perhaps there will be a story of an attempted attack upon our persons, hmm? We will see to it, captain, that he does not leave this chamber alive.”
A thin smile flitted across his lips, and he raised a hand as if in afterthought.
“Do bring him, but once he is secured here, have your men leave. I do not wish idle ears to hear our conversation, or be tempted by utterances of riches which are not theirs to claim.”
He waved an impatient hand.
“Now go; we shall wait for you.”
The captain bowed, then touched his lieutenant’s elbow. The two soldiers retreated, the spurs of their boots clattering down the wooden stairs as they descended.
There was a momentary silence as the two men regarded each other, the heat of their disagreement still upon them. It was the general, eventually, who spoke.
“I am of a mind to dismiss you, Espinoza. But… I would rather have you stay. Perchance your presence will sway the savage toward reason, if indeed you are held in such high regard by the natives.”
He brandished a finger.
“But do not think that I am yet finished with you. Do not imagine for one moment that your disregard for me will be forgiven. There will be a reckoning; mark my words. A sore reckoning.”
The cardinal pursed his lips.
“There will indeed, general Villalobos. Of that I have no doubt. But it is not against flesh and blood that you wrestle. It is not against me that you strive.”
He locked his gaze upon the viceroy.
“You cannot break the great laws of this universe, O general. You can only break yourself against them.”
Villalobos waved a contemptuous hand.
“Say what you will. Your utterances may impress the illiterate beasts you claim to care for, but they do not impress me.”
He turned and made his way around the desk, pausing before an ornately carved cabinet which he unlatched and swung open. He reached in, withdrew a carafe of wine and deftly uncorked it, pouring some into a silver goblet. He drained it before turning back to the cardinal, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.
“Yes,” he said slowly, picking the ruby up from his desk and studying it anew. “Perhaps, just perhaps, there is some truth in what the ignorant brute is saying. We shall in any wise find out shortly.”
The cardinal, meanwhile, had tilted his head, a curious expression upon his face.
“Do you hear that?”
Villalobos raised his chin and frowned.
“A commotion of some sort, undoubtedly. What the devil – “
He rapidly crossed the room with a few short paces, opening the broad casement window again and leaning out of it.
A sound was carrying through the streets and alleys of the town, a howling, baying cacophony that sounded for all the world as though dozens of animals were being beaten simultaneously. Villalobos looked back at the cardinal, astonishment writ upon his face.
“Dogs! Can it be? The city’s hounds have all gone mad, by the sound of it. Hark to the screeching… something is clearly amiss.”
He wheeled to face the clergyman.
“If this is somehow the work of your rebellious savages, Espinoza-“
“Of course it is not,” said the cardinal, almost irritably. “It is the town’s beasts that are creating the uproar, general, most of them behind fence and wall of good citizens. Of what possible use would it be to stir them up, even if such a thing could be done? Nay, there is doubtless something else that causes their discord.”
“Pray you are right,” said Villalobos, glowering at him. “If it is otherwise, then I will bring misery to the barbarians such as they have never-“
He was interrupted again by the sound of feet, and the abrupt reappearance of the men-at-arms at the doorway. The captain and his lieutenant held between them a tall Indian, wearing a brown tunic and leathern sandals, as well as a ceremonial iron circlet upon his brow. He was lean and strong, his skin the colour of bronze, and his wrists were tightly bound by a rope which was likewise fastened to his ankles. His features were angular, with jutting cheekbones and a high forehead. His eyes, though, were the most arresting aspect of his appearance: they were pale blue, almost unheard of among the indigenous peoples, and alive with craft and intelligence.
At the sight of Villalobos, his lips twitched upward slightly, almost as if to smile, and he inclined his head so as to acknowledge the general. Unceremoniously, he was pushed forward into the chamber, almost stumbling as the short rope between his ankles was stretched taut. He regained his posture, standing upright and raising his head before fixing Villalobos again with his gaze.
“General,” he said in almost flawless Spanish, his voice deep and resonant. “I give you my respect, and that of my people. It is good that we meet each other at last.”
“Your people?” said Villalobos, his voice like ice. “Your people? You do not have a people, Huaman. You may imagine otherwise, but the only people you lead are a ragged band of starving outlaws who will very shortly be put to the sword and the rope. You are a fugitive, a wanted man, and by order of the crown, there is a warrant upon your head. You are a prisoner of this colony, and sooner than you think, you will face justice for your acts of thievery and murder.”
He gestured the captain toward a stout oaken chair set before his desk.
“Fernadez. Tie the dog into that chair, and spare not his limbs. Lieutenant, draw your sword, and if the savage so much as moves a muscle, run him through like a swine at the block.”
The two men set about securing the prisoner, Villalobos standing back warily as they did so, his hand upon the hilt of his own rapier. He glanced at the window again.
“Captain… what was that uproar a moment ago? It sounded as if the devil himself was needling every hound within earshot.”
The captain paused, raising his head, a baffled expression on his face.
“My lord, I have no idea. There was nothing to indicate mischief of any kind. When it broke out, I thought it might have been some kind of attempt to rescue this one-“
He jerked his head at the prisoner.
“- and I sent out runners in three directions to ascertain what was happening. They came back within moments, saying that naught was amiss, save for the outburst from the animals. But then, at almost the same instant, we saw the birds as well.”
Villalobos cocked his head, puzzled.
“Yes, my lord. Did you not see them? As with one accord, they left the trees and fields and soared into the air, masses of them. They were like grains of wheat scattered into the sky, a thousand or more. They wheeled up, and made directly across the river for the mountains.”
“Cabracan,” muttered the prisoner softly, his eyes gleaming with a peculiar intensity.
Villalobos stared at him.
“What was that? Speak up if you would.”
Huaman was silent, and only shook his head.
“It is the name of one of their pagan gods, my lord,” said the captain, jerking at a knot to ensure its tightness. “I have heard them speak it before.”
Villalobos laughed, throwing his head back.
“Ah! The dog seeks to intercede with his devils. We shall see then, O savage, whether or not they come to your aid.”
His expression sobered, and he waved a hand at the men-at-arms.
“Captain, have your men depart from my chamber and await us downstairs. Stay with us, and keep watch. We will have words with the prisoner.”
Fernandez turned to the small knot of men crowded onto the landing. They were already making their way down the stairs, and he crossed the room to shut and bar the heavy wooden door, reinforced with cast iron plates.
Villalobos rounded his desk, regarding his captive at length before seating himself. He was silent for a moment, then leaned forward.
“Let us be clear, before we begin. You are not an emissary; you are an outlaw and a prisoner, and you have no rights.”
He picked up the ruby from the tabletop and hefted it in the palm of his hand.
“Nevertheless, I would hear you. The captain informs me that you wish to offer me something in exchange for the release of the rebels we hold in the donjon below. But before you speak, I warn you: if there is any falsehood in what you say, you will swiftly and surely die, along with the prisoners, and well before the appointed time.”
The prisoner flexed his fingers experimentally, and it was evident from his grimace that his captors had indeed bound him exceedingly tightly.
“I will not risk the lives of my men on a lie, general. I speak the truth. You know well the oceans of wealth that your people have already stolen from mine, and you know too that there is much that still lies hidden from your sight.”
He paused, turning his head to cough.
“I ask for water, if you would grant it. I have been carried several leagues from the highlands in the heat of the day without pause for food or drink, and my throat is as the sand of the desert.”
Villalobos shook his head.
“That is none of my concern. I am not your mother, to suckle you like a mewling babe. First let us-“
“General,” said the cardinal, who had been silent throughout. “I pray, I beseech you, suffer me to water the man’s lips. We are not unfeeling beasts.”
“Ah! As you wish,” said the general crossly, with a dismissive flick of his fingers. He looked significantly at the Indian.
“But let him not mistake your weakness as a token of mine.”
The captive smiled as if to himself, before tipping his head back and drinking deeply and thirstily from a carafe which the cardinal tilted to his mouth. When he had sated his thirst, he nodded appreciatively and licked his lips before addressing Villalobos again.
“General. I assure you, if you are truly willing to release my men, I will put before you more wealth than any man of Spain has ever seen.”
“I am listening,” said the general guardedly.
“It is no accident that I am now in your keeping, general. It must be so, even at this moment, so that when my men are released, I can lead them to safety.”
Villalobos snorted derisively.
“Before we speak of release, you would be well advised to furnish me with overwhelming good reason in order that you – and your comrades – are not immediately brought to execution.”
Huaman was silent for an interminable time before he inhaled deeply, and his eyes met the general’s for a moment.
“My intent is true,” he said softly, almost wistfully. “If your heart was as the sky, O general, then our spirits could meet in the place where there is no darkness. But I fear that you are not true; I discern the hidden manner of your being. You are not, as I had hoped, a man of honour.”
“What?” said Villalobos sharply, rising from his chair, his cheeks crimson with sudden rage. “Enough! How dare you! You will be put to death forthwith, you and your scoundrels! You are clearly mad! Not for all the gold in the world will I –“
He stopped, grabbing at the corner of his desk as the floor lurched beneath him.
There was a sound like the grinding of a thousand massive millstones, and a tumult of crashing and splintering as the building trembled and swayed. Through the window, the horizon tilted alarmingly, and from the streets outside arose a cacophony of screams and cries amidst the roar and rumble of houses collapsing.
The floor beneath suddenly splintered, a section falling away, and as the cardinal clung desperately to the doorjamb, he could see the chamber beneath rising to meet them like a terrifying, undulating wave of stone and earth. The prisoner, fastened helplessly in the upended oaken chair, had careened into the far wall, and was lying on his side, buffeted by the thunderous force that was ripping the building asunder like a giant fist. The noise was indescribable, and thick gouts of billowing dust darkened the room as the entire floor plunged downward in a madness of vertigo and confusion.
Villalobos was grimly, vainly trying to keep his footing as the thick beams disintegrated beneath him, and was likewise knocked sideways by the heavy cabinet, as it toppled into him and crashed into the gaping hole that had been the floor. One entire stone wall had broken away, and collapsed outward like a shattered windowpane, plunging onto the street. The captain, who had been standing against it, was flung out like a broken toy, his body contorting as it was crushed under the falling blocks of granite. The entire valley lay momentarily open to view, and the scene was horrifying, as the river boiled over its banks and entire orchards and groves of eucalyptus were uprooted and tossed into the air like matchsticks being shaken from a blanket.
Smoke was billowing from half a dozen surrounding buildings, and flames licked hungrily at broken wooden beams that had fallen into hearths and cooking fires. The shock and noise had been so overwhelming, so sudden, that the men had not even had time to cry out before the building had fallen; and now, as the cardinal struggled to his feet amidst the ruins, he was almost completely deafened. The dust that swirled around them reduced visibility to a nightmarish haze of grey and brown, and the already clouded sky, now exposed, was blotted out by the rising smoke.
Cardinal Espinoza was dimly aware of a figure crawling across the shattered debris and rising drunkenly; it was Villalobos, who had somehow, miraculously, survived the plunge through the floor as the building fell. His ornate hat was gone, and one sleeve of his formerly immaculate uniform had been torn right off, exposing a bloodied arm. He staggered over the enormous blocks of stone that lay strewn about them like scattered marbles, momentarily blinded by the dust, and reeled out into the street, where he could breathe.
Espinoza, to his incredulous disbelief, was largely unhurt. The lintel of the massive barred door had been his saving grace, acting like a framed shield as the building exploded apart. He hastily tore a length of cloth from his ripped cassock , and wound it across his face, drawing breath raggedly through the makeshift cover. He moved hesitantly forward, inching his way across the rubble, then froze at the sight of Huaman, lying against a stone pillar, seemingly whole, his eyes darting about as if seeking aid, but still tied immovably into the chair in which he had fallen.
There was another rumble, and the ground beneath them shivered ominously as the aftershocks began. Elsewhere, buildings were still rupturing apart in a continuous roar of sound, and a deafening clang, like a death knell, sounded across the town as the remaining hundred-foot spire of the cathedral toppled, plunging its massive bronze bell to the earth. Screams and cries rent the air, and several horses tore past, wide-eyed and crazed with fear, white foam streaming from their mouths as they careened blindly into each other in their haste to escape.
Espinoza groped his way around a massive cornerstone, now canting at a dangerous angle, and stopped, aghast.
General Villalobos had made his way back into the maelstrom of rubble, and was shouting incoherently as he plucked at his sword. Such was his fury, that he was completely unaware of the cardinal’s presence, a scant number of feet behind him.
“You dog!” he screamed, spying the Indian lying bound in the upturned chair. “You devil! Your bandits run free from the shattered gaol while my men are crushed! My city is destroyed – and you yourself live! How-“
His ravings were almost inarticulate, such was his rage, and he stumbled forward, freeing his rapier from its scabbard as he did so. His face was set in a snarl of primal hatred, his speech a roaring, slavering horror as he shrieked fragmented obscenities at his foe.
He took another step forward and swung his sword high, the better to deliver a stroke of furious death upon Huaman.
“I will cleave your head from your wretched body, you demon! You will die like – ah!”
He stopped in mid-sentence, as if someone had ordered him to instant silence. He stood frozen for a moment, his sword still raised furiously over his head, and then drew a ragged breath, blood trickling slowly from his gaping mouth. An expression of surprise and consternation flitted across his dust-streaked features.
His body twitched, and he toppled forward, collapsing dead upon the mass of stone and wreckage.
There was a long moment of silence in the midst of the carnage, and then Cardinal Espinoza moved forward. He bent, and as if in a dream, withdrew the sharp knife that he had punged deep into Villalobos’ back. He swiftly stepped across the viceroy’s lifeless body, and gave himself to the task of sawing through the thick ropes that bound the Indian.
Within moments, the captive was free, and he stood to his feet with remarkable agility, gazing steadily at the cardinal as he rubbed life back into his swollen hands and fingers.
The cardinal’s hands, in turn, were shaking uncontrollably, and his face was ashen.
Huaman tilted his head, and studied Espinoza for a moment.
“You have shown your heart,” he said slowly. “You are a man whose spirit is clear… you are not like so very many of the others.”
Espinoza could not speak, but simply shook his head.
“They will kill you for this if they find out,” said Huaman, and Espinoza nodded.
“Then come with me. I will give to you the wealth that I have promised. You have spared me to lead my men, and the agreement I swore to is now with you.”
He paused, sensing the cardinal’s agreement before continuing.
“What of your religion, my friend?”
Espinoza took a deep, ragged breath.
“I am at odds… just as Spanish law does not always bring true justice, so my people’s religion does not always bring truth.”
He shook his head, as if hearing himself for the first time.
“I have renounced… I am a man without a master. I have no king… I expect not only on earth, but now in heaven too. I am a castaway.”
Tears rolled down his dusty cheeks, and he shrugged resignedly, like a helpless child.
Huaman reached out and took him by the hand, a gentleness in his bearing.
“Look at me,” he said. “You are far from lost. You are only finding that which is true to your heart. Now, come with me, and we shall go to a place far from here, where you never need fear your former masters. I will guarantee you long life, and peace. You will have descendants, and they too will inherit your wealth and happiness.”
He nodded, affirming his words.
“This I promise you.”
He stooped, lifting the edge of a cracked flagstone to reveal the ruby that had fallen from Villalobos’ desk. He picked it up and pressed it into Espinoza’s hand.
“There will be a thousand more of these. You will have too many to count, and you will with your own eyes see the mountains of gold of which I spoke.”
He paused, and after a moment of silence, raised a finger to his lower lip, a gesture uncharacteristic of his species.
“And, my friend… if your god truly forsakes you, I will show you a mystery that has been hidden by my people since the time of the great serpent. You will see the power of the gods who even now visit us.”
He pointed toward the distant mountains, across the valley and the ruins of the city that lay smoldering before them.
“Come now. Let us leave this place.”
The teenagers worked as a team, and they were very, very skilled.
The smaller of the two, a youngster dressed in poorly fitting shorts and a baggy Hawaiian-themed shirt, moved through the crowd as his partner performed, putting on a show that was, in reality, quite dazzling. His speed and dexterity was impressive, the small wooden skittles spinning into the air like colourful propellers that seemed to take on a magical life of their own.
A small group of hotel guests had already gathered around outside the curio store, and several were filming the impromptu performance on their phones.
The setting sun had already slipped behind the mountains, and the sky was a darkening liquid haze of blue and grey, shot through with streamers of high cloud that stretched away to the opposite horizon like ragged tongues of orange flame. The hotel courtyard was bustling with visitors on their way to dinner, where several of them had stopped to admire the artistry of the impromptu performers.
The air was cool, and the heady, sweet scent of jasmine pervaded the hotel grounds. Off to the side, a couple of workers were adding cords of split firewood to two large cast iron braziers that flanked the cobbled drive, the ruddiness of the flames reflected on the faces of the fascinated tourists gathering around the teenagers.
The juggler was beginning to move faster, his movements exaggerated, and as the whirring skittles blurred into an almost-impossible arc above him, he would stab his hand into the mass of spinning colour and pluck them out, one by one, as if to draw attention to to the ease and confidence with which he was doing so. The surrounding group was riveted, their eyes fixed on him, and that was exactly what he wanted.
His partner, almost unnoticed by comparison, moved through the rapidly-growing gaggle of onlookers, collecting tips offered absentmindedly by the engrossed spectators. And as he walked, a shadow among shadows, he would occasionally brush against a tourist sporting a tote bag, or against someone’s jacket, murmuring an apology as he did so.
The loose-fitting Hawaiian shirt he wore was not the only one he owned, despite his slightly ragged appearance. It had been left deliberately untucked, flapping loosely over his shorts, in order to conceal the pouch held tightly against his stomach by a strap that circled his waist.
And, with movements so deft that they were almost indiscernable, he would drop the fruits of his labours into the pouch as his hands seemed to flit against the front of his shirt in a brief shimmer: wallets, wristwatches, money clips, and hotel room keys.
The Hotel Esperanza was a beautifully designed exemplar of late colonial architecture, boasting one of the best views of the Andes near Cusco, the semicircular design fronting onto a verdant valley that lay between the hotel and the first craggy foothills, stony talons clawing at the immense crags and anchoring them to the earth. The impossibly vast majesty of the mountain range lay beyond: immense monoliths, soaring emerald peaks that vanished into the greyness of the clouds, lit here and there by sharp glints of golden fire from the dying sun.
The youngster moved toward a man standing near the periphery of the small crowd. He seemed utterly preoccupied, his eyes on the performer, his face that of an individual deep in thought. He was tall, with a high forehead and short dark hair, and gave the impression of being strongly built without being noticeably large or muscular. His arms were folded across his chest, his head inclined to the side, absorbed, as if considering the merits of the juggler.
He was wearing a pair of cargo trousers and a T-shirt, and the slight bulge in his left hip pocket told the teenager where his wallet was kept.
He was casual, completely relaxed, and it was almost too easy.
The pickpocket approached him obliquely from the rear, and as he edged between the man and another spectator, he raised his right hand and touched the man’s upper arm.
“Escusar me, Senor.”
And as he moved forward, exaggerating the turn of his body, his left hand did its work, a light dart of the fingers into the pocket, the motion hidden by his right shoulder, the physical sensation masked by the light pressure of his other hand on the man’s arm.
As the boy stepped through, the wallet already in his hidden pouch, the tourist shifted his hips slightly, a surprisingly fluid movement that spoke of some kind of training, and fixed his eyes on those of the youngster for a brief moment. There was something in his expression, a change, barely perceptible, but there nevertheless, a slight flicker as though he was registering something and then masking it again a split second later. He nodded, his eyes on the teenager as the young pickpocket edged away among the other patrons and made his way around to the other side.
The juggler slowed and faltered as a short, heavy-set man wearing spectacles and an open-necked suit exited a glass door and walked rapidly across the parking area , his hand raised as if calling a halt to the proceedings. He was shaking his head, gesticulating toward the small gathering of guests.
“Eso es suficiente! Dejar!”
He switched to heavily-accented English, his demeanour apologetic.
“I am sorry, ladies and gentlemen. It is not… it is not the hotel policy for these boys to be here. They must go now.”
He waved and clapped his hands, motioning for the juggler to pack up. Within moments, the two teens had gathered their belongings and were making their way back down the pebbled drive, accepting a few last-minute tips from several of the tourists. The sun had meanwhile slipped behind the distant mountains, and darkness was falling with astonishing rapidity.
From inside the hotel, a gong sounded, the muted note echoing across the courtyard, a gentle summons to dinner, and the last of the guests began to make their way indoors. Lamps were being lit along the serried balconies of the hotel, and the majestically storied stone arches and colonnades sprang into bold relief against the darkening sky, bathed in soft golden light.
The two boys rounded the curve of the drive, and as soon as they were out of sight of the parking lot, paused and looked at each other, grinning broadly. The young, ragged pickpocket lifted his shirt, leaning forward in the gloom so that his partner could see the impressive collection of items in his pouch. The air was still and cool, and the faint smell of woodsmoke drifted through the surrounding trees from the decorative fires that had been lit up near the entrance to the parking area.
The boys had been friends for as long as either of them could remember, living on the streets, keeping themselves alive any way they could, sometimes working, sometimes stealing.
Although they had been caught many times before, and bore the scars of retribution, they had accepted their occasional fate with a stoicism born of the knowledge that every beating was a lesson in how to become better thieves – and they had.
The punches and kicks that they had endured on such occasions were, however, nothing compared to the pain of abandonment that they had both suffered as small children, turned out into a hostile world to make their way through life. They were the best of friends, had always there for each other, and that was all that mattered.
Satisfied with the evening’s takings, the smaller teenager carefully tucked his shirt around the pouch again – and yelped with startled surprise and consternation as he felt a steel-hard hand close firmly around his wrist. His partner jumped back, wide-eyed: neither of them had seen the tall man coming out of the bushes off to the side, and who had somehow crossed the intervening space of the broad drive like a soundless ghost.
There was a moment of wary silence, a standoff, and then the man spoke, surprisingly gently, his voice calm and deep.
“A donde vas? Where are you going?”
The youngster tugged desperately, trying to get away from the iron grip, realized instantly that it was utterly futile to attempt an escape. His partner, meanwhile, took another step back, fumbling with the waistband of his trousers, and produced a folding knife, flicking it open with a gesture that demonstrated a great deal of practice. He raised the blade threateningly, edging toward the man who held his friend.
The stranger shook his head, his eyes shadowed as he inclined his head toward the knife.
“No lo intente. Don’t try it.”
His Spanish was reasonably fluent, but it was instantly evident from his accent that he was English; not American, but British. There was something in his inflection, a firmness that spoke of unnerving self-confidence, and the youngster with the knife hesitated, gripped by a paralyzing attack of indecision at the intruder’s apparent composure.
The tall man nodded, as if recognizing the boy’s reticence. He spoke slowly, in a reassuring tone.
“It’s all right. You can put it away. I’m not going to do anything to your friend.”
Reluctantly, the knife was lowered, and the youngster regarded the man suspiciously for a moment. He raised his chin, an act of feigned arrogance.
“What do you want?”
The man smiled, gesturing with his free hand toward the boy he was holding.
“Only my wallet.”
He spoke now to the pickpocket.
“Give it back to me, and I’ll let you go. No problems.”
The smaller boy’s gaze met that of his friend, and a look passed between them. He nodded, his shoulders slumping slightly as he lifted his shirt and turned toward the stranger, showing him the pouch. The man glanced down, still keeping his attention on the older boy’s knife, and reached into the makeshift bag, lightly rummaging through the collection of ill-gotten items until he found what he was looking for: a flat, nondescript grey leather wallet. He withdrew it, opened it with a flick of his wrist, and nodded.
The young boy felt the pressure ease on his wrist, and he was free. To his great surprise, it seemed as if the unusual stranger who walked like a cat was going to keep his word.
The man slipped the wallet back into his pocket, and glanced down at the pouch again, which the youngster had still not closed. He pointed.
“What’s that? That thing with the stone in it?”
The pickpocket took a cautious step back, away from the man, before looking down. He reached into his stash and lifted out the object in question. It was a pendant, some kind of pale yellow semi-precious stone enclosed in a ring of silver, attached to a leather thong that served as the neckpiece. Engraved into the silver ring was an intricate series of symbols, indistinguishable in the near-darkness.
The man pursed his lips.
“I saw a woman wearing that, across from where I was standing. How did you take it?”
His tone was not one of outrage, but rather, curiosity, perhaps even admiration. The boy, sensing his unusual demeanour, relaxed, increasingly confident of the fact that there was not going to be any kind of surprise attack, or spiteful reprisal. He grinned, realizing that, in an oblique way, he was being praised.
“It was easy,” he said. “I stand next to her, and ask her for money. When she gives it to me, I look at her watch, maybe touch it and tell her how pretty it is. Or her hands. I tell her she is just like my mother was, she is very beautiful… I tell her I miss my mother, who died and this is why I must live on the streets.”
“It is true, and so I can say it. Now many women pull away from me, and they are cold, but not this one. She turns and she hugs me, and she tells me I must be safe, and that I am a very precious boy.”
He coughed, turning his head away for a moment.
“You see? Now you are making me feel bad because of this. But while she is leaning toward me, and holding me, I can undo the back of the necklace and it falls into my hand, like an accident.”
“If she sees, it is an accident. If she does not… then I keep it.”
His partner nodded and folded his knife, tucking it back into his waistband.
“He is very good,” he said, gesturing toward the young pickpocket. “He can even take a necktie from a man sometimes.”
“I’m sure he can,” said the tall man, with raised eyebrows. He looked at the pair silently for a second, before speaking again.
“I want that necklace. But I will pay you for it, mmm? Fair is fair. Tell me how much you want for it.”
The two boys looked at each other, momentarily nonplussed at the stranger’s bizarre offer. It was fairly evident that he could have easily taken the trinket by force, if he wanted to.
“Uh – I don’t know,” said the smaller boy, before recovering his composure. He glanced slyly at the stranger’s face. “Perhaps it is very valuable?”
The man laughed.
“That stone is called a Citrine. It’s worth nothing. Perhaps a few Soles , enough to buy three or four loaves of bread. But I will give you more than that.”
He pulled out the wallet that he had recently retrieved, and flipped it open, pulling out a handful of neatly folded banknotes.
“Here is enough to buy food for two weeks. Deal?”
The young pickpocket leaned forward incredulously, his eyes widening as he saw the actual amount that the man was offering.
“Yes,” he said quickly, taking the money before the crazy foreigner could change his mind. “Yes. Here. You can have it.”
He stared at the notes clutched in his fist. There was significantly more than enough. There was enough to eat for two weeks, and not just bread. There was enough to eat at almost any restaurant in Cusco for two weeks. Not, he reflected ruefully, that any restaurant would allow them in.
The stranger nodded.
“No, I didn’t make a mistake. You can keep it. Now, unless you want the whole hotel to come hunting for you, you two had better get going.”
He pointed toward the main road, dimly visible further down the wooded hillside in the darkness.
“Stay off the road if you know what’s good for you. It’ll be too easy for the police to pick you up.”
“I know,” said the young pickpocket, nodding. Of course he did.
“Before you go,” said the man thoughtfully, “let me give you something.”
He reached into a back pocket and pulled out a folded sheet of paper, hotel stationery of some sort, from which he tore a square. Extracting a pen from his shirt, he jotted down a name and address, and handed it to the boy, who looked at it blankly.
The tall man replaced his pen, speaking as he did.
“If you want a place to sleep, maybe a job where you can earn some money without worrying, then ask someone to read that address for you, and go to that place. Ask for a woman named Mia. Show her the paper, and she’ll help you. She has a school, a place where you can learn some things.”
He tilted his head.
Both boys nodded.
The man turned his head, as if sensing something.
“There’s someone coming.”
An instant later, the boys heard the sound of a car, saw the flash of the headlights through the intervening trees. By the time the vehicle reached the spot where they had been standing, they had melted away into the darkness.
The car held several occupants, among them the rotund, sweating hotel manager, who was gesticulating furiously at the driver to accelerate, and within moments, had vanished from view as it sped down the drive toward the intersecting road.
The boys cautiously emerged from the surrounding bushes, momentarily dazzled by the passing headlights, and waited for a few seconds to pass before looking around. The money, clutched in the younger boy’s hand, was of course still there.
The man was not.
END OF CHAPTER ONE
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