1. The Disfigured God
So you ask for the story of your origin, beautiful boy, and why you and your father are different from those around you. You are fourteen and nearly a man. Before you choose your name, you should know yourself–and I, your grandfather, will tell you the story of you. The tale is written in the scars of my hands, and told in the blood of the Incan people.
You must imagine me younger, child–much the age that your father is now. Picture a warm December day, just before midsummer. It was 1806, though back then we did not count the years as Europeans do. Smallpox raged through the southern Land of the Four Quarters. You’ve seen your grandmother’s pitted face; once she was considered a beauty for those telltale scars. I worked in the fields near Cusco, because I enjoyed farming. I had never liked the city. The cool soil on my hands reminded me of childhood, and of home in the northern mountains.
When the gods summoned me, I was planting late-spring tomatoes–the ones that would blossom shortly before June frost. I knelt on the terraced slopes south of Cusco, on land owned by your grandmother’s clan–since as you know, I myself came from a poor potato-farming family. Each seed entered the ground lovingly; I thanked Pachimama that I could enjoy the planting and not fear the harvest. The noon sun blessed my bare head. My water jug rested nearby, with my flintlock rifle leaning against it.
The sunlight faded–but no cloud marked the sky. I looked up. Two men approached, noble in dress and bearing. They wore macaw feathers at their throats, so I knew they outranked any noble I’d ever met. Although society did not require me to bow, I stood and did so anyway.
The taller one, who wore the brighter feathers, said, “Lanchi Ronpa?”
“I am Lanchi,” I said, leaving off the honorific as I often did. I disliked claiming noble status simply because my family survived smallpox, even though it was my right. I was traveling at the time and never exposed. For all I knew, smallpox would kill me if I ever caught it. Even the great physician Ronpa himself had admitted that while Inti marked certain families with the sacred scars, he would still take their children as he pleased.
The shorter man looked disdainfully at my dirty tunic and hands. I guessed he was subordinate, because he didn’t speak. The first man said, “I am Amaru Aroynapa, and this is my cousin Paucar Aroynapa. We come on behalf of the Sapa Inca himself, Coniraya the Condor, Emperor of the Four Quarters. A matter of great importance has arisen. You are summoned into his presence.”
My knees trembled. The Aroynapa family? Not just any nobles, but cousins to the god-emperor himself! It was only three years ago that the former Sapa Inca joined the Court of the Dead. The ruler now called Coniraya was barely a man, yet had proved his godhood through skillful combat against his brother. And now the god’s mortal cousins summoned me into his presence?
“What honor could the Sapa Inca possibly wish to grant me?” I asked, my mouth dry.
“Your grandfather was British, was he not?”
“Yes,” I said, “born Smith in the land of Britain, but he came here as a trader and learned our ways. He took the name–”
“And do you speak English?”
I hadn’t spoken it since I was ten. My grandfather had lived in isolation on our farm, and we had always feared an edict ordering his death. He had died of digestive ills twenty years ago. “I have spoken English,” I said cautiously, worried that I had forgotten it. “But the foreigners were expelled from our land forty years ago. What possible need has the Sapa Inca for that language?”
“Things have changed,” said the shorter man abruptly. “Do not question the need.”
“His question is intelligent, Paucar,” said Amaru gently. “He will want to understand why the Sapa Inca summons him.” He addressed me. “There are visitors from the northern lands. They bear a British flag, but call themselves Americans. They brought their own translator, a poor fisherman from a distant village with heritage like yours. But such a man cannot appear before a god.”
I understood instantly. “And there are no true nobles who speak this language anymore.”
“Exactly. There are several families with English heritage, particularly among the farmers and fishermen in the distant north. There are also several families elevated to nobility as the Ronpa, because one parent and two children proved resilient to smallpox. However, there is only one man in Cusco who has both qualities.”
I put down my hoe as my palms sweated. I had never felt like I belonged in Cusco, despite my rank. It was only at manhood that my family earned a place in the capital–and that, only by chance, as smallpox swept our village. I was no more elegant than the fisherman I would replace. But I had learned some manners in the city, and of course the Sapa Inca would not speak with a fisherman. Perhaps if I went, I might spare this man the pressures I had felt since arriving–the burden I could only share with my wife, who understood my fears.
I said calmly, “If the Sapa Inca calls, then I answer gladly.”
Amaru nodded. “Prepare yourself and inform your wife. Come to the palace at nightfall, where we will begin your quarantine.”
I paused, concerned for my coarse appearance. “I have an embroidered tunic, perhaps–”
Paucar snorted, but Amaru gave a tiny smile. “Your clothes will be burned, Lanchi. You may as well wear what you have on now.”
My face grew hot. “Of course.” The Sapa Inca would shower me with clothes and jewelry, as casually as a dog sheds its hair. And that was only the beginning. No matter what came of the meeting, my life would be different forever. No man could meet a god and remain unchanged.
I shouldered my musket and water jug and headed home. I had a long walk. There were few fields near Cusco itself, since few commoners lived in the capital. In those days it was quite strange to be of Ronpa class; we existed in a world halfway between the established families and the workers. My home lay across the city. It would have been shorter to cut through, but I preferred the scenic route on the beautiful fitted stone roads, which had remained strong for four centuries. I’d heard that the roads in Europe were full of holes. It amazed me that the inventors of muskets could not build a road.
As I neared home, I recognized the scent of llama stew, which my beloved Yma had promised me for supper. I hurried toward the familiar stone house, which still felt too lavish. We had a traditional blanket door rather than the newfangled European doors, because we preferred the fresh breeze.
I pushed the blanket aside. “Yma, darling. I’m home early with news.”
She looked up from her cookpot. My heart filled with contentment at the sight. My wife was as lovely as the day I gave her mother coca leaves; still sweetly shaped, like a goddess, with cornsilk hair falling to her hips. The pockmarks dotting her face proved her health and strength; no partial scarring to ruin her symmetry! My Yma had survived the pox at fifteen, which made her a good mate for a Ronpa like myself. With Inti’s blessing, our children might escape death by pox.
Yma smiled, but her expression faded. “You look troubled. Is the news bad?”
“Not bad,” I told her, “but unexpected.”
With a peal of laughter, my little Chaska raced through the doorway, covered in cornmeal. “Papa!” she cried, hugging and kissing my arm with flour-covered lips. The joy of my life! She would be nine at Midsummer. Bright stars, her nickname meant–or planets, as we now called them, after sharing knowledge with European astronomers in the past century.
“Hello, sweet child,” I said affectionately, patting her head so as not to spoil her. I pushed her away and went to my son, who crawled in his baked-earth playpen. I picked him up and swung him around once before setting him down. My heart ached to give this boy his nickname, but I didn’t dare tempt the spirits to steal him. He must simply be “the baby” until his second birthday.
My wife said, “Chaska, get back to grinding.” My daughter bounded out the door. Work seemed to brighten her spirits, which we thought was positive. We took great care with our daughter, as she was considered one of the prettiest girls in Cusco, and we hoped she might be chosen as a priestess someday.
“What has happened?” asked Yma, setting down her spoon.
When I told her, her eyes widened and her face grew pensive. Yma was a youngest daughter of the lower nobility, and she knew what an imperial summons meant. It could mean our family’s great fortune–or the execution of us all, should I displease our ruler.
Finally she said only, “I must cut your bangs before you go. I don’t want locks of your hair in the palace’s power.”
I nodded, even though she had cut my hair only last week. She called Chaska to stir the stew. Yma trimmed my hair neatly to eyebrow length in front and chin on the sides. She wielded the knife carefully, as if her haircut would protect me when she herself could not. Ah, my child–how I loved that woman, your honored grandmother! I miss her every day, now that she has gone to the Empire of the Sun. She was the moon to my sun, the silver to my gold–the lesser but equally important half of our pairing, as all things in this world are matched. Without her, I would have been nothing. Someday, my child, you will choose a woman yourself, and you will understand why family is the world’s true gold. The greatest joy imaginable is to love another person as I did my Yma.
But that evening, I kissed my wife goodbye fearing that I might lose all happiness. I embraced both my children lovingly, regardless of what others might say about spoiling them.
I saw my city with new eyes as I crossed it that evening. I admired the square at Huacaypata, where workers prepared the vast stone tables for the Midsummer feast. I watched the lesser nobles bustle through the streets on evening calls, clad in bright wool tunics and shining feathers from the Amazon. A few even wore hats, which the Europeans had popularized, though many Incas now scorned that tradition as foreign. Yet none could argue that bright-feathered hats were practical, and thus the custom persisted in noble circles.
Cusco seemed newly fragile to me. Even as servants bathed me in the Coricancha’s stone chambers, scouring away dirt and hard work, I could not appreciate the palace’s beauty. The Americans! What could they want from us? They were a British splinter group, ruled from overseas–much the way we ruled tribes across three thousand miles of desert, rainforest, and mountains. Yet they called themselves both British subjects, and Americans.
No Incan ruler would tolerate such a thing. The leaders of conquered peoples were granted nobility in Cusco, and imperial loyalists were sent to the new lands as rulers. In this way all became Incan. I could not understand why the British did not do likewise.
And so I waited, naked and solitary, for my turn to see the god-emperor. Twelve days must pass before contact, per Ronpa’s guidance. The ruler had singlehandedly saved the Incan Empire, or what was left after millions died in the 1500s. I was comfortable enough; the waiting chambers held heated bricks and fascinating mosaics. I was not allowed to touch anything, and so I sat and thought. It was hard not to think through my history lessons, to remember foolish Pizarro who attacked 80,000 Incas with only 168 Spaniards; mere horses, cannons, and armor could not daunt so many Incan warriors! The brave Atahualpa slew most of Pizarro’s men, keeping seven to teach him how cannons worked.
I thought of these men, as my attendants dressed me in the finest tunic I had ever touched. But even those Spaniards, who had lived with smallpox since anyone could remember, did not know how to manage it. It was Incan science that figured out how to quarantine and sanitize. I found courage here. The gods may have tested us, but my people triumphed–and eventually took back our lost lands, until our empire was as glorious as before. This time, Incas and outsiders would meet on equal ground.
But one thing nagged me, as the servants pressed thick gold earplugs through my ears. I would be held responsible for these Americans’ words. Surely they came to bargain. If they threatened the Sapa Inca, I would have to alter their tone–or the ruler might blame me for their sacrilege. Yet if the Sapa Inca knew I translated imperfectly, I might be killed for that offense too. I held an unwinnable position.
The attendants strapped a heavy gold block to my back, for no man could meet the Sapa Inca unburdened. I staggered under the weight. Unless the barbarians were perfect nobles–gentle and respectful in all ways–my fate was tied to theirs. And I had little hope that they would respect our god-emperor enough to avoid offense.
A servant led me from the waiting room. I stumbled barefoot on the tiled floor, nearly blind to my surroundings. Massive stone pillars and golden trim marked my route. I passed lines of nobles, each clad more finely than the last, wearing gold sun-masks that marked their ranks. It was like a strange dream that might vanish on waking. I waited behind three different doors, each grander than the previous, until finally the imperial crier summoned me forth.
I steeled myself. If the Sapa Inca received the Americans, then surely he must hear their request. He would want my honest translation. With aching back and pounding heart, I stumbled into the throne room. I walked what seemed like the entire length of Cusco to reach the Sapa Inca’s pedestal. I pressed my body to the floor and did not lift myself until called. Even then I rose slowly and kept my eyes downcast.
Before me stood the great gold screen, carved with pumas and condors and flowers, which hid the man my eyes were unworthy to see.
2. The Sapa Inca Speaks
You, my grandson, have seen the throne room yourself, because of your father’s accomplishments. Perhaps my story seems mundane. You must remember–I never dreamed of meeting the Sapa Inca. When I was fourteen, I still lived in the village Pitahaya, where I farmed and hunted and studied my British grandfather’s Bible. I had only two dreams: to farm my own land, and to have a brother. You will not appreciate how difficult a boy’s life is with two elder and two younger sisters!
So you must picture this day as if you were me, my child. When smallpox struck Pitahaya, my elder sisters had already married into other villages. I was away on my first solo hunt, preparing to become a man. My parents and younger sisters stayed home.
Imagine yourself on a hunt today–yes, I know you prefer sailing, but bear with me. You’re alone, with your musket and your senses. You stalk a raptor or wildcat, and think yourself clever. You might kill a condor, as I did, and declare yourself a man. You mark your face with its blood. You walk home, proud and triumphant, after your five-day hunt.
Then you reach the village hill and find you cannot walk further. Imperial soldiers block your way. Smallpox has struck your home. Houses burn, to kill the disease, and you don’t know who’s inside. The soldiers tell you three-fourths of your village has died. They cannot tell you of your family. You must look to the sickly clusters, sleeping in the open air, quarantined by scarred pox survivors. You cannot join them, so you squint from a distance, wishing your eyes were those of the condor you killed.
But no. My child, you cannot imagine such madness. You no longer fear smallpox the way we did. Three days passed before I learned my family’s fate. My mother recovered, but my sisters went blind. My father died moaning my name. My grandson, you will never come home to a deeply scarred family–to learn that overnight your family is newly valued as Ronpa. Your fortune is made. But at what cost! Look at your wrecked village, where women weep, where possessions burn. See your friends and neighbors, drowned by the dozens in pestilence.
Try to understand, dear boy. Because the story of you depends on this fear.
My burning village haunted me as I met the Sapa Inca, who sat unapproachable behind his solid screen. I knew he had never seen such a thing.
“You are Lanchi Ronpa,” stated an imperious voice from behind the golden wall.
“Yes, Your Divinity,” I answered, and flushed hot as the nobles tittered behind their masks. I was supposed to address him as Greatness; that other title meant his brother the High Priest.
Luckily, the voice sounded amused. “Lanchi Ronpa, you will translate for the Americans when they are granted entrance. Keep yourself firm at all times. Speak in your most imperial tone when you convey our words, as if you were the greatest of men. When you interpret their words, use a vulnerable tone. We command you to translate as accurately as possible.”
Those words relieved me somewhat, but not entirely. The Sapa Inca might announce one thing, and do another if sufficiently angered. No one would question his fickleness. So I simply said, “I hear and obey, Your Greatness.”
“Stand beside this screen to speak.”
Nervously I approached the screen, which extended sideways to shield the god-emperor completely. I heard nobles whispering. No matter what else happened this day, I would be remembered as the Ronpa who stood on the highest step. My knees shook. I could not have borne seeing the Sapa Inca’s face.
A woman’s voice spoke softly next to me. “Lanchi Ronpa, you will also ask any question I have of these Americans when the time comes.”
The Coya Inca! She was here as well. Most ruling women kept to their domestics, but this one had always been ambitious. Wife to the Sapa, she was the moon who shone beneath his daylight. I had no idea how to address her. I murmured, “I hear and obey, star of the purest sky.”
The compliment seemed acceptable, as no words came from behind the screen. Thus I waited for the Americans.
Soon the imperial guards appeared, armed with every weapon known to us, from traditional bolas to modern flintlock rifles–the best our scientists had developed. We had not stumbled through centuries of poverty and war; only plagues interrupted our science. Ever since Atahualpa’s reign, imperial guards remained armed at all times. One never knew when a diplomat might attack. So many warriors arrived that I could see nothing else. Then the procession parted like grain in the wind, and I saw the Americans.
My child, I tell you–I feared disappointment that they were only men, but in fact I was astonished. The Americans were five in number. All wore heavy stones on their backs. First I noticed their leader–who, at that time, I thought might be king. He had deep-set eyes like my grandfather, with ghostly irises and rust-colored eyebrows. His hair amazed me, for it was curled throughout, and aged white despite his young face. It looked like he had rolled it on sticks and slept on it while damp. I wondered why this man would arrange his hair so strangely.
But these thoughts vanished quickly–for among the Americans stood the strangest man I’d ever seen. His skin was dark as fertile soil, with hair like the black llamas that honor the creator god. Like the others, he wore strange clothing: a fine white shirt, with excess fabric gathered at his throat. His shirt was far too short, only falling to his waist, and fine wool fitted the shape of his legs. I saw no point in this; it seemed confining, but I recalled that Europeans had long dressed in this fashion. He looked younger than the leader, though perhaps that was because of the leader’s white hair.
I met the dark man’s gaze, though he quickly looked down. The pale man addressed me in English. I thanked Inti that he spoke slowly, which helped me. He said, “Praise God that we have arrived here to meet you, and that you have welcomed us. We are Americans, and currently subjects of the British Empire. In the name of the thirteen American colonies, I greet you and request that we negotiate.”
I paused before translating “God”–did he mean Inti or did he mean the character from British mythology? I finally translated as “divinity,” and I think the Sapa Inca took it as meaning the true gods.
The court scribe said, “State your name, title, and rank for the records.”
“I am Ambassador John Fernando Loddington de Godoy. As you request my rank, I will state that my father owns an enormous farm in Virginia, which is the most proud and courageous of the American lands. My mother was Spanish-born of noble blood, and thus my titling is to Catalan lands. In America my nobility comes from the amount of land I own. You must forgive my slow response. American ranks are understood very differently.”
I wondered how Americans recognized their nobles, but it was not my role to ask. I translated his words. The scribe took notes and said, “You may address the Sapa Inca. He will respond only if he pleases. When you are finished, you must leave, whether or not he has spoken.”
Loddington looked at the screen. I saw his distrust; he clearly lacked confidence that any man sat there at all, let alone the Sapa Inca. Yet he recognized his place, and his words showed his cleverness.
He said, “I am pleased that the Sapa Inca considered our proposal worthy, and that he would bring his most honored presence to this meeting so that he might hear with his own ears and respond with his own voice. Though we had chosen our translator and prepared ourselves accordingly, his great wisdom moved him to choose his own man. Indeed, what effective ruler could trust a translator who was not self-selected and aligned with his interests?”
By this, I learned not to underestimate this man. I felt uncomfortable translating the last part, because it might inspire the Sapa Inca to ensure that I was in fact perfectly aligned. I worried that this might force the marriage of my daughter to an imperial cousin, perhaps within the week. You may think this an overreaction–but that is precisely the power the ruler held, and he might on a whim raise my fortune and deprive my daughter of her free choice. At any rate, I saw Loddington’s intent. He had both complimented and condemned the man in the same words–and ensured that the Sapa Inca would prove his presence with his own voice.
Our ruler did precisely as Loddington intended. The voice from the screen spoke with the strength of a mountain storm. “We are most curious about your intent. Why have you come to this land? What could your impoverished people offer us?”
“We bring relief from the smallpox which devastates your empire.”
“A cure?” I blurted out, forgetting myself.
“Better than a cure. We bring something that will make you–” and here he spoke a word I did not know.
I meant to clarify, but the scribe interrupted me and said, “Translate immediately for the Sapa Inca.”
“I am trying,” I said in Quechua, “but I must understand properly first.” I addressed Loddington in English. “What does this word mean? Say it again?”
“Immune,” he said clearly. “Smallpox will never affect you. This is what happens after a person receives the vaccine.”
That last word was also unfamiliar, but I didn’t need a definition. This vaccine was a brilliant device that could save my people. My heart lifted at the thought. What was a vaccine? Perhaps a gift, or an item? My imagination suggested a suit of golden armor, with gaps too small for a pustule to cross. I wondered how many men could wear it.
But of course I must translate, and so I said in Quechua, “He offers something called vaccine, which he says will prevent smallpox from affecting a person. They will not sicken.”
“Not sicken?” repeated the Sapa Inca, clearly surprised. All the nobles whispered at once. Words swelled among the crowd and flowed outward from the lower palace, like water cascading down a hillside.
“That is his claim, Your Greatness,” I said.
“Convey neither surprise nor interest. Ask how this vaccine works.”
I did so, and Loddington smiled in a familiar way. A man smiles like that when he knows he will win the coming battle. But, my grandson: remember that an unseen battle has no certain victor, for time and terrain will vary the outcome.
Loddington said, “Surely Your Greatness will understand that the precise method of conveying the vaccine cannot be shared without guaranteed payment.”
At my translation, the Sapa Inca said, “Explain how the vaccine works. We cannot believe anything known to science would stop the illness.”
Loddington’s response surprised me greatly. He said, “Bring twenty healthy men to my camp outside Cusco, and let them stay five days. I will give them the vaccine. Then send them to a village where smallpox rages. Have them share drinks with the infected. Your men will remain whole.”
I couldn’t believe what I heard. All men knew that sharing a drink with an infected person meant exposure; even breathing air might contaminate a man. Before I translated, I asked Loddington, “What is this vaccine? The Sapa Inca will be more tolerant if he has some idea of its nature. Is it a mask, or… a charm perhaps? Or maybe a kind of healing earth? How do you know it will work on our people?”
Loddington chuckled and said, “It’s like teaching a boy to shoot a bird. When the boy grows up, he can shoot a lion. I could not show you the vaccine even if I wished to; it is so small that a beetle wearing spectacles could not see it.”
I blew my breath out my cheek, thinking perhaps the man was mad–but I translated these words for my audience. I knew what lions were from the Bible, but I used the word puma for simplicity. At my speech, even more murmurs rose from the nobles. Cusco would discuss this day for years to come.
The Sapa Inca remained silent for a long time. I heard the Coya Inca whispering, but I couldn’t make out her words. Finally the Sapa Inca said, “Lanchi Ronpa, are you sure you understand this man?”
“Yes, Your Greatness.”
“Ask him–if this vaccine proves effective, how many men could we protect?”
Upon hearing this request, Loddington replied boldly, “Your Greatness, I will teach your doctors how to protect every man, woman, and child in the Four Quarters. With the vaccine, your doctors can save your great Empire from this terrible scourge.”
As I considered this, he added, “Think of what you might become, if you cast off the Spanish plague. Your empire even now surpasses those of Britain and Spain, including their New World holdings. France is a distant contender–and believe me, I have patrolled our western border and dealt with many Frenchmen. The world could lie at your feet. The Inca could expand northwards and expel Spain from the California Territory and Mexico. We offer you the chance to seize these rich lands from their overseas masters, that they may serve Incan glory instead.”
As soon as I dared, I translated so I would not miss any nuance. It was difficult to keep it all together. I was thinking about how, after the worst of the 16th century plagues, we Incas had needed two hundred years just to recover our former size. The reconquest of the southern lands had required huge expense and effort–slowed by smallpox. We’d lost time in quarantining victims and performing medical experiments. We’d grown skilled at limiting the disease’s reach, but made no progress on understanding its cause. If those great minds researching smallpox could be transferred to the project of Incan expansion–!
It seemed the Sapa Inca thought as I did, for his next question was, “If this vaccine proves effective, what is its price?
Most diplomats would have hedged their answer, but Loddington proved a bolder man. He said, “Four thousand times my own weight in gold, and a peace treaty between our nations.”
I was certain I’d misheard that, so I clarified the number with him. But I had indeed heard correctly. I conveyed the request to the Sapa Inca, thinking he’d laugh the American out of the room. Gold belonged to Inti; we valued it for spiritual power and not as a bargaining tool. But the Sapa Inca said nothing, even though the nobles shouted their outrage.
After some time, the Sapa Inca replied, “That is the weight of the sunrise itself.”
“That is our price,” said Loddington firmly.
“As a mere subject, you have no right to speak for Britain and thus cannot offer any such bargain. Furthermore, if you truly possess such a scientific miracle, any man with humanitarian values would offer it for only the cost of his voyage and supplies, plus some incidental reward.”
“To your second point–if I acted on my own free will, then a humanitarian mission might happen, which would assure me the richest seat in Heaven. But I represent the thirteen American Colonies under British rule, and in their name, I ask such an enormous price. For you see, we wish our nation free of British rule. We desire a land of free men who decide their own affairs, rather than suffer rule from afar. And the price of this vaccine would fund our war against Britain–who taxes us unfairly and strips our resources, while giving nothing in return. You must understand–our overseas tyrants are nothing like what you’ve seen in your Empire’s history. Here in the Four Quarters, the government cares for its people. Tales abound in our history books of how the Sapa Inca provides new clothing for every bride and groom in the land. Surely you understand why men must pursue fair treatment from their leaders.”
I prayed for him to fall silent so I could catch up. Even a polite wave of my hand had not cued him to stop. I tried my best, although I stumbled on the part about rebelling against rulers. I thought surely the Sapa Inca would find this man and his ideas threatening, but once again, the ruler remained silent for a long time.
As we waited, Loddington spoke again. “It is a most reasonable price for–”
The Sapa Inca interrupted with, “What if we killed you and took this vaccine?”
I translated uncomfortably, but Loddington didn’t blink. “You don’t even know what it looks like, much less how to use it. If we thought you did, we would destroy it before you came close. I do not fear your empty threat.”
More silence, and then the Sapa Inca said, “State the full terms of the agreement.”
“We ask four thousand times my weight in gold, plus a permanent peace treaty between our nations. We intend to claim all land west of us, up to a river called the Mississippi.”
The Sapa Inca did not respond, so Loddington said, “I can show Your Greatness this river on a map if necessary.”
“We know where it is,” said the Sapa Inca.
Before I could translate that response, Loddington continued smoothly, perhaps understanding the Sapa Inca’s tone. “You may claim all land west of the Mississippi, though Spain might challenge you. But Spain is chaotic and impoverished right now, as is Britain. I’m sure you’ve followed the troubles in their lands.”
Even I saw the true nature of this game. If we distracted Spain in the northern lands, they couldn’t help Britain defend against the American rebellion. Both wars would more likely succeed. I translated this proposal for the Sapa Inca, and Loddington continued, “Surely you of all people would–”
The Sapa Inca interrupted with, “Silence. We are thinking.”
The room fell silent for some time, aside from nobles whispering. I watched Loddington’s llama-haired companion. Although he was taller, and bore himself like a man, I thought after a close look that perhaps he was yet a boy. He was certainly no older than seventeen, and I thought he might be as young as fourteen–just on the threshold of manhood. I wondered why he accompanied Loddington. Perhaps he was a servant? His stance indicated deference, as did his positioning. The boy fascinated me, even then. I suppose that Inti himself signaled how my fate lay entwined with this almost-grown boy, in a way that none could foresee. At the time I thought to myself he was the lesser of the pair with Loddington, for all great things were paired, and perhaps that included Americans.
Loddington shifted on his feet. He was impatient–a fact that my people might use against him, if necessary. I wondered how expensive the Sapa Inca found this proposal. Our ruler was wealthy beyond any earthly standard–but four thousand times the weight of a man? And to insist on payment in gold, which should be too holy for common transaction! I thought that even if the Sapa Inca considered the sum astronomical, he wouldn’t dare show it.
After what seemed like hours, the living god-emperor of the Incan people pronounced his decision.
“We will provide these twenty men as requested. You will give them this vaccine and we will expose them to smallpox. When you have proven your claim, you will receive half the amount you request, paid in silver.”
“Half!” shouted Loddington, then regained himself. “Half is simply not enough,” he said. “And our payment must be in gold. Our creditors will not accept silver. If you do not want this vaccine, then I will go home.”
“You are a fool to throw away so much wealth,” said the Sapa Inca.
“We will find resources through other means,” said Loddington.
“You would kill innocent men, women, and children for the sake of greed?”
Loddington’s face darkened, and he said, “I would save each and every citizen under threat. It is you who would kill them by refusing this deal.”
I cringed as I translated this, carefully specifying that he said these things, not I. After a long silence, the Sapa Inca said, “One-fourth your requested price in gold when you prove your claim, and another one-fourth half a year after this vaccine continues to be effective.”
Ah, the wisdom of the gods indeed! Loddington countered with, “One-fourth when the vaccine proves effective, and the remaining three-fourths at the half-year mark.”
“You are dismissed,” said the Sapa Inca coldly.
To my surprise, Loddington shrugged and smiled. He bowed deeply and turned to his dark-skinned companion. “Come, Marco,” he said. “We have a long voyage ahead of us.”
Loddington strode down the long hallway, chin lifted like an emperor. His party followed. Every noble’s head turned to follow them. I heard loud whispering behind the screen–this time an unknown man’s voice, along with the two rulers. Loddington had nearly left when the Sapa Inca commanded, “Call out for him to stop.”
“Stop!” I shouted. Loddington paused near the door, tilting his head. But he didn’t turn around. He gave no indication he would hear any more. I realized that I had met a rare creature: a man to whom the living god himself must submit.
The Sapa Inca said, “One-half when the vaccine proves effective, and the other half a year from that day. The full amount that you request, paid in gold.”
Loddington turned on the threshold, and smiled. His face reminded me of a raptor diving toward prey. “And the peace treaty?”
“As requested, provided it cover aggression by either nation.”
“Agreed,” said Loddington smoothly, “by power vested in me from the Governor of Virginia and the General of the American Revolutionary Army. Shall we formalize in writing?”
The rest of the day–and then the week–fell to writing endless documents. The scribes took care of the Quechua versions, and Loddington wrote the English ones. I had to catch discrepancies, which twisted my stomach. Too many papers and not enough time! Luckily English and Quechua shared an alphabet, as we’d taken the Spanish letters–but still I felt overwhelmed. No one could help me; even another English-speaker offered little help, as those few men were illiterate peasants.
I was not called to further meetings, as they mostly consisted of Coniraya with his chief advisors. I did hear about the changing plans, though. The first plan was to test the vaccine on criminals, in case the American intended to attack us with poison. Because we do not keep prisons, this required bringing in criminals who’d committed two crimes and would normally be killed outright. They were kept under strict guard, until someone realized that of course the guards could not accompany the criminals so closely to an infected village and ensure proper exposure.
Attention turned to those loyal men who would volunteer for this task, and to my surprise, twenty were found. I suspected that the Sapa Inca had ordered compliance, and they dared not disobey, but I was not privy to these discussions. Most likely many llamas died as the High Priest examined their entrails, and runners wore themselves out relaying messages between the Sapa Inca and his spiritual advisor. I was notified that the village chosen for the test was Sayacmarca, and that several pox survivors would accompany these men, in order to assist should they fall ill.
Thus I learned that my wife Yma would go with these volunteers, as one volunteer was a widow who required a female companion. I supposed this was the Coya Inca’s doing; it made sense to ensure the vaccine worked on women too, but I wished anyone other than my wife might go. My family was already entangled too far above our station. Great harm came to those who mingled with too-powerful people. Yma would go, and endure a twelve-day quarantine before her return. I was assured that my children would be cared for in her absence, as I was needed at the palace–and in particular that my lovely Chaska would join the priestesses, as a reward from the Sapa Inca. Yes, I was assured.
So you will understand, dear child, my dead panic when I heard of the Sapa Inca’s plans to appease the gods. You see, Amaru and Paucar–his cousins who had come to me earlier–paid me a visit, shortly into this time of paperwork. I drowned in scrolls, with aching eyes and head. The windowless room was stuffy and hot, and all I could think of was seeing my wife and children again. But then Amaru told me of my next task as translator.
“The Sapa Inca awaits the results from Sayacmarca. Meanwhile, he instructs us to take the American leader and his servant to Machu Picchu and show them that palace’s glory. Their entourage will remain in the palace as honored guests, under guard.”
“Machu Picchu!” I exclaimed, setting down my papers. “No one sees Machu Picchu except the most–”
“Even I have not seen it,” interrupted Paucar, “and I believe the American does not belong there. But this is the order and so we shall obey.”
“I believe,” said Amaru quietly, “that the intent is to impress the man. But yes, the fact that our cousin would allow such savage eyes into a holy place–I think that Coniraya already believes this vaccine will work, and he wants nothing to stop this deal. Perhaps he hopes that an impressed American will show mercy in his dealings.”
I shook my head. “This is all amazing to me,” I said. “I have never dreamed of visiting Machu Picchu.”
Amaru said, “We will meet the High Priest there. I believe Ahuapauti wishes to talk to the Americans without his brother present.”
I knew he meant the Sapa Inca, for then as now, the Sapa and Coya and High Priest were all siblings or at least cousins–and those three were full siblings, which was most unusual. I asked, “What do you suppose the High Priest thinks of Loddington?”
Paucar snorted. “You know as much as we do. You translated his every word.”
I blinked, startled. The High Priest had been speaking in the throne room, as if he ruled the land? I had heard two different male voices behind the screen, along with the female. It was said that Ahuapauti as the elder brother always coveted the throne, despite losing to Coniraya in combat. Perhaps there had been an arrangement between them that they might share governance, and their sister would be wife to both.
“Does Ahuapauti rule this land then?” I asked, feeling like an ignorant villager.
Amaru said, “The rumor around court is that the Sapa Inca defers to the High Priest in all complex and unusual matters. He spends his time listening, rather than speaking, so he can accurately assess the situation. There are some who feel that this encourages the High Priest to desire too much power, but others think the brothers found an effective balance.”
Paucar added, “Some say the Coya Inca prefers her elder brother, but no one says this unless he wants to be thrown off a mountaintop.”
Amaru narrowed his eyes at his cousin, then continued, “However, the Sapa Inca makes all the decisions, including the plan for a hundredfold sacrifice on Atun Cusqui.”
“A hundredfold!” I exclaimed, for normally only six boys and six girls were married at the festival.
“Yes. Six hundred boys and six hundred girls, aged nine to thirteen, will be married and then given to the gods near Lake Titicaca. The Sapa Inca believes we must increase our sacrifice as penance for spending our gold, which is Inti’s sweat that we have earned.”
I hardly heard his words, for my world collapsed around me. My family was being discussed in every noble household by now. Any hope of obscurity was gone. My beautiful Chaska–my darling daughter, admired by all around me, would surely be targeted for those marriages. She could hardly escape such a huge gathering of children. My daughter would be crowned with flowers–and then killed by a penitent priest.
I had never liked the festival sacrifices, but Inti demanded them, and who could question a god’s will? And now the sacrifices seemed nightmarish. What god would ask this of a father? I turned away, that these men would not see my pain. I was trapped between two terrible outcomes. If the Sapa Inca consummated this trade, it would cost me my daughter–and hundreds of other daughters and sons. Yet if he rejected it, how many children would die from smallpox? Perhaps twelve hundred lives was a bargain indeed.
I had no answer then, and no answer now. At that moment, I desperately wished for my child’s sweet face and her arms thrown about me.
3. Machu Picchu
Let me tell you, child, of how smallpox strikes. This is the tale told to me by your grandmother Yma, from when she was fifteen.
Put yourself here, with your grandmother. You’re lying on your reed mat in your house’s loft. It’s summer and you’re far too warm. You hear your parents talking below, of how smallpox has swept through villages too close to Cusco. They talk of rumors, how a man escaped quarantine. This man, you think, may be in Cusco now, infecting the millions gathered here.
The thought makes your forehead sweat. You shiver. And you think, I am scaring myself, but you know you can’t sicken yourself with a thought. Still, your stomach twists and your back hurts, which could be from weaving wool today. And there’s a lump in your cheek, which you run your tongue over, which might be where you burned yourself on supper. Perhaps you should show your father this lump, or not–why worry over nothing?–but you decide you should. You try to stand up, but the world spins. So you crawl, and fall against your hand–and where did you get those two blisters on your cheek? You’re sure they’re new, those two dots like the sun and the moon. You call for your parents, but your voice is weak.
And your parents come, and wrap you in blankets, but you hear soldiers surrounding your house. This must be quarantine–it happened once before, in childhood. But that was other children, not you who lay here, sweating and shaking, your tongue swollen like boiled squash. A hot red rash blisters all your skin. A scarred stranger brings you water, and you drink, and the stranger is gone and back again. You call for your parents, but they do not come. All around you the city of Cusco is silent, except for cries of pain and death. You do not know what happens next.
In time you come to your senses, not knowing the day or week, and the stranger is someone else. You’re feeble as a newborn pup and your face is scarred like baked earth. You ask for your parents, but the stranger shakes his head. You wail as grief consumes you. And this house is yours now, empty and cold.
And that house is this house, where now we sit and I tell you the story of you. That plague was in 1793, when one-fifth of Cusco perished by smallpox–and still that toll was better than 16th-century plagues, where nine of ten might die. It’s a miracle that we survived at all, Inti’s blessing that the physician Ronpa discovered quarantine. Even the Europeans who brought this horror could not destroy the Incan Empire at its height. Though had the Spanish fully assaulted us in the earliest years, it might have been different, child–so very different.
So you see the choice we faced in 1806, my dear grandson, and why it mattered. Smallpox crippled us. It forced a twelve-day quarantine for all travelers. Without smallpox, our Empire could explode northward, taking the Spanish lands and all their wealth. We could replenish any funds we’d spent to get this vaccine. But everything relied on the vaccine doing what the Americans promised.
We went to Machu Picchu on litters carried by imperial runners, and we had scarcely begun our journey before Amaru ordered his runners to carry him close to me. The Americans were far behind us; I had no doubt they were being reminded of their place.
Amaru said, “I’m told that when the twenty volunteers reported to Loddington’s camp, he blindfolded them and separated them from their sighted companions. He brought them into a tent and promised that the vaccine would hurt only briefly, and they would sicken slightly but recover within three days. Then they would journey to Sayacmarca. Five volunteers quit at this point. I believe they preferred to risk the Sapa Inca’s wrath over sickness.”
Intrigued, I asked, “What did he do to them?”
“None are sure,” said Amaru. “All reported a stab in the arm, as with a cactus. The woman declared it was a sewing needle she felt. Several heard labored breathing and coughs–small coughs, like a child. One man reported the stench of stale urine and feces, as if someone had perhaps lain in them for some time.”
I considered the mystery and had no ideas. “And did they sicken?”
“Yes,” said my companion, as if thinking aloud to himself. “They became ill, though not with smallpox. All had to wait in these tents for three days. The smallpox survivors who had come with them were forbidden to enter the tents, and witnessed nothing. But these volunteers all emerged with slight scars, mostly on their hands.”
“As with smallpox.”
“No, nothing like. The scars were so mild they might have been caused by childhood injury. They reported feeling feverish, and blistering a bit–but with larger blisters, they said, based on talking with the smallpox survivors.”
I glanced backward where the Americans rode. “And now they will not get smallpox?”
“So he claims. They are traveling to Sayacmarca now. I am sure that word will come from that village before the volunteers return; the Emperor has of course assigned smallpox survivors as runners.”
And their clothes would be burned before they met the next runner, and their hair shaved off. No chances could be taken. With a start, I realized my wife would lose her beautiful hair, and this was only the beginning of changes for my family.
I realized Amaru had addressed me while I was lost in thought, and I asked his pardon. “Again, please?”
“I said–befriend this American. Get him to trust you. I must play the arrogant noble, but he will relax around a man of more ordinary rank. Find out what this vaccine is, if you can. If nothing else, learn what moves him, so that we might leverage it against him if needed.”
“I will try,” I murmured, feeling pressured.
Shortly we crossed the holy bridge over the Urubamba, and stopped to let our carriers rest. Amaru and Paucar offered coca leaves to the river, since this site lay on the sacred lines. Amaru gave me two small leaves and I understood his intent.
I took the leaves to Loddington and his companion. Loddington looked quite pale from his travels, though his servant appeared wide-eyed and excited. Up close, I saw that Loddington’s coiled white hair was actually a fitted item that sat atop his head, like a hat. Small tufts of red-brown locks peeked out underneath. How peculiar, to wear hair as a hat. I wondered if the boy’s llama hair was also a hat, but it looked natural.
Bowing slightly, I offered the two leaves on an outstretched palm.
“What are these?” asked Loddington.
“Coca leaves,” I told him. “They will help you adjust to the mountain air.”
Loddington grabbed both leaves and stuffed them in his mouth. Surprised, I looked at his companion, but the boy seemed to expect this behavior. I had meant one for each man, but indeed the boy seemed healthier. I knew from my grandfather that some men found our air easier than others.
“I am called Lanchi Ronpa,” I told them. “Lanchi is my name, and Ronpa is where my father’s name should be–but because some of my family survived smallpox, we are children of Ronpa, the great physician who became Sapa Inca. He is the disfigured god of our people.”
“I know Ronpa,” said Loddington. “Without him, Incan civilization would have collapsed. You owe him a great debt. Actually, some of our modern science is based on his work. For a man who didn’t know what a germ was, he did an amazing job protecting your people.”
I didn’t know what a germ was either, but felt reluctant to ask. “We will meet Ronpa at Machu Picchu. He lives there along with all other past rulers.”
Loddington gave me a strange look. I figured he might not understand that our god-emperors were immortal, but he didn’t question me further. Personally, I was excited beyond belief that I would see the mummies of Ronpa and Atahualpa and our other great leaders. Loddington’s color improved greatly with the coca leaves, and he asked me, “How is it that you speak English?”
“My grandfather was a British merchant. He came to these lands before the Expulsion and married here.”
“Oh, he went native. I see. Our previous translator had a similar story, but his English was better. I’m sorry, that was rude of me. I prefer to speak my mind. Diplomacy tires me.”
The boy smiled at this, but didn’t say anything. He picked up a fan and created a small breeze for Loddington. I liked the way this boy kept his own counsel and never spoke out of turn. Suddenly I wondered if he was mute. I asked him, “What’s your name?”
He looked away shyly. Loddington said, “Go on, boy. Answer the man.”
“Marco,” he said, quietly but clearly. I noticed that his jawline was nearly as square as Loddington’s, and both Americans had hooked noses. They bore a certain barbaric look; they resembled coarse peasants rather than elegant nobles. Despite their oddness, I felt more comfortable with them than the wealthiest of Incan society.
Loddington said, “Named him for the famous explorer who opened China. His mama still cooks for my family back in Virginia. He’s here to help me carry out my work. And he helped sail the ship here. Smart boy, he is. Natural on the water. Shame he’s a mulatto, or he’d be a captain by now!”
“What is a mulatto?” I asked.
Loddington grinned at me. “Dark enough for a houseboy, but white enough you won’t lose him at night!”
I didn’t understand his riddle, so I asked, “And his family works for you?”
“Close enough,” Loddington replied. “He was born into our household. Marco was always special to Father.”
“Ah!” I said, understanding. I looked at their faces again and saw proof. “You are brothers!”
Marco’s eyes widened like a startled cat’s. Loddington’s face grew tight. “We are not brothers,” he said stiffly. “My mother is a Spanish-born lady of the noble house of de Godoy, who gave up her privilege to marry my father in the New World. Her bloodline traces back to cousins of Queen Isabella three centuries ago. Marco is my manservant and his mother is from Africa.”
My heart pounded. Clearly I had offended Loddington in some major way. Marco ducked his head and busied himself with a strange leather bag, as if the contents needed immediate inspection. I quickly said, “Please forgive any offense I have caused. You must understand, my knowledge of English is limited to reading my grandfather’s Bible and speaking with him, and my knowledge of America is almost nothing. I do not have the education that Incan nobles receive, for I was raised on a farm and I achieved my status through luck. I regret the insult and ask only that you let me learn from you. I may not be born into privilege as you are, but I have worked hard to improve myself.”
I felt I hadn’t said any magic words. But perhaps Loddington regained control of himself, because he said, “Please forgive my temper. I am very proud of my father and I’m sure you can understand that.”
“What man should feel less for his father?” I asked, smiling at Marco to show I meant no harm. “I have a baby son myself, along with an older daughter, and I pray myself worthy of my boy’s respect.”
“Please do join us in our carrier,” said Loddington. “I would like to learn more of the Incan people. I read widely before I came here, but naturally our histories are sparse after the Expulsion. How is it that your grandfather stayed here through the wrath of the Sapa Inca?”
Gratefully, I joined him and Marco, where we passed the remaining ride in pleasant talk. I told them of how my grandfather had become so Incan in his ways that the villagers accepted him, and the soldiers from Cusco had never forced him out. A handful of men had escaped the Expulsion in this way. I improved my accent by copying Loddington’s speech–a longer sound than I was used to, deeper in the throat, with r’s that carried longer than seemed necessary. I thought then that I must be out of practice with English, though later I learned that Americans speak differently.
I told him how I farmed some land with my wife’s family. He seemed very interested in our terraced landscapes, and I was able to point out several well-built ones on our journey, where peasants farmed food for the magnificent imperial palace at Machu Picchu. I learned that his two loves were farming and sailing; his crop was tobacco, which was a luxury in my land, and his waters were the sea called Atlantic. I asked how he managed both enterprises, and he said, “My wife manages the plantation and my men work the fields,” by which I concluded American families must be as broad and complex as our own.
At one point on our journey, we crossed a thick stone bridge over a narrow stream. I noticed Marco eyeing the water hungrily, as if he wished to explore where its merry waters led. I leaned over and said, “We have reed rafts, if you wish at some point to travel the land with Imperial companions.”
Marco grinned and glanced at Loddington, who shrugged. Marco said, “I don’t think I’ll have time for an adventure.”
Loddington said, “We’ll be here a while, Marco, and traveling great distances to vaccinate the people. It’s possible you’ll get your wish.”
“You’re that sure of your vaccine?” I asked.
“Positive. It works. I have no fear as we head to your famed palace–although I note how easily we might mysteriously disappear on our way there, or back. Your ruler is no fool.”
I couldn’t think of a diplomatic answer, so I just said, “You’re wise to see it.”
By afternoon we’d reached a narrow path, from which Machu Picchu rose in the distance. A leafy canopy shaded us from the sun’s rays. On our left rose a vast stone wall; on the right the cliff dropped away to sheer rock and a distant crevice. Though I was used to the mountain heights, the sight floored me; no man could look down and forget his place in Viracocha’s creation. Loddington gave it the barest glance before settling back into comfort. Marco stared downwards, his eyes dancing like wild men. Slowly our carriers marched, step by step, toward this most sacred palace. It felt like the trees sank as we climbed.
As the palace drew into view, Marco’s jaw dropped. Energy rushed through me, as if the gods themselves spoke in my body and declared me worthy. Never in my life had I dreamed of seeing this miracle, this beautiful jewel on the mask of the Incan people–me, from humble origins, whom fate had vaulted into this place. Even Loddington’s eyebrows went up at the sun-drenched stones, shaped into perfection over three centuries ago and faultless ever since.
Now my child, let me tell you: though you have seen Machu Picchu before, you have not seen it through my eyes–on that day shortly before Midsummer, when the sun honored this incredible creation. You have run through its corridors with the sons of the Sapa Inca himself. To you perhaps Machu Picchu is a happy childhood memory, a place where noble cousins might play hide and seek with you. You have run your hands along the stones’ fitted edges, feeling no gap–yes, the palace proves the Incan mastery of stonework, before we’d ever heard of Europe or smallpox. Can you believe, child, that even today the Americans spread plaster on their stones, like thick llama guts, to glue their walls together?
Ah, our Incan engineers, they surpassed even the modern European artisan! They built seventeen channels to splash water through the palace and siphon away the rainy season, so that the palace would never flood or erode. They reshaped the ground under this palace into graveled terraces, that the water might restore the earth. All of this, done in a few decades–solely because the Sapa Inca Pachacuti demanded it, and a god’s bidding must be done without question. Men gave their lives to ensure Machu Picchu would merit its holy location–for why else build a magnificent palace in the most unreachable mountains, other than to prove that one can?
And those were my thoughts as we arrived–that Machu Picchu represented the peak accomplishment for the early Empire, before the European diseases wasted us so deeply that we spent a century regaining our lands. But Cusco and Machu Picchu had remained ours always, their glory crowning our legacy.
I remained silent until our carriers reached the palace entrance, for I did not wish to disturb anyone’s thoughts. Marco drank in the sights like woolen yarn with dye; he looked as if he were memorizing everything he saw, as if it could sustain him through a lean period surrounded by white walls. Loddington’s eyes swept the plaza, from the gold-leaf pumas and carved birds to the massive stone pillars that marked the first step. Terraces rose above us like earthen warriors. Water splashed through the channels, and I knelt to refresh myself with a drink. I did not fear tainting the water, for this was the lowest point. Only the Sapa Inca could drink from the heights.
Amaru and Paucar drew near, and Amaru addressed Loddington. “This is the imperial palace of Machu Picchu, summer home of the Sapa Inca himself. He has instructed us to show you the palace in all its glory.”
“I thank you for the privilege,” said Loddington, but I detected a note of humor in his voice. I couldn’t understand it.
Amaru and Paucar led our little processional, with Loddington following, and Marco and myself in back. Eight armed guards accompanied us, stone-faced and attentive; we Incas held a long memory after the treacherous Pizarro. Personally, I felt no danger that the Americans might harm us, but caution was wise.
We toured endless terraces and plazas, each more glorious than the last, lined with so many gold-leaf cornstalks I went cross-eyed. So much glamor overwhelmed me. I appreciated the beauty of isolated fountains, and the occasional secluded passage–but I thanked Inti for not making me Sapa Inca, for I think I would have perished of richness.
Amaru discussed the palace’s history, and Paucar commented on its architecture. I learned much as I translated for the Americans, but mostly I spoke to Marco. He listened with shining eyes, as if I narrated legends rather than history. Loddington listened too, but his eyes were distant, and in time he drifted away to study the delicate gold sculptures lining the pools and archways.
Amaru said, “We understand that gold is valuable in every known nation. Europeans–and Americans, it seems–trade it for earthly goods and services. But we consider it spiritual currency. Gold buys honor in Inti’s eyes; it is created by the sun itself, and is holy. Thus why Machu Picchu is laden with the sun’s sweat; it marks the hard work done to honor our Sapa Inca and the god Inti himself.”
When I had translated this, Marco asked, “What do you use for money?”
Amaru answered, “We have bartered since the early days of the Empire. When Europeans arrived, they nearly destroyed us–but our Empire survived, and eventually welcomed the Europeans. We quickly saw the value of a single tradable item, useful in any context. So the Sapa Inca–this was Ronpa’s reign, in 1543–declared silver as our currency. Gold is reserved for religious and imperial use. Of course some nobles buy and sell gold, but it is not demeaned with everyday economic use.”
“So if you pay us in gold,” said Marco thoughtfully, “it’s like selling us a piece of heaven.”
“Marco!” exclaimed Loddington. “Come here. I need you immediately.”
The boy went to his leader, and Amaru asked me quietly, “Have you learned anything of interest yet?”
“No,” I said, worrying that I’d been given a too-difficult task. I couldn’t see why Loddington might tell me anything surprising. He seemed too smart a man to reveal any clues to his thinking.
“Unless I miss my guess, he will open to you,” said Amaru, smiling. “Keep translating for me, please.”
I bowed slightly, still bothered by Marco’s words. It was true–if we paid in gold, we were selling our gods for the people’s health. No wonder the Sapa Inca felt we should make a hundredfold child sacrifice. Without that additional gift, the gods would be angry at our heathen choice–and a new illness might strike us down.
We headed next to the great Temple of the Three Windows, where all the former Sapa Incas lived. Their lovingly-wrapped mummies once lived in the Coricancha to advise the Sapa Inca, but they had been moved here in 1766 for peace and privacy. Now I felt Macchu Picchu’s true power, and my knees grew weak. Amaru led us through winding passages towards the rulers’ alcoves, and he chose Ronpa’s nook first.
I admired Ronpa’s clean wrappings, and I imagined the living god standing before us. Amaru droned on and on, describing the complex family relationships among the various rulers–most were cousins of some fashion–and stressing the importance of good imperial heritage. I translated mindlessly; family terms and names were easy, without nuance, and could vanish from my head once spoken. Loddington looked exceptionally bored during this part, and even Marco’s eyes dulled a bit. As I explained how the Sapa Inca and the High Priest were often brothers, and the current Coya Inca was their sister, Loddington snapped to attention.
“Do you mean to tell me that your rulers are siblings?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, taken aback. “It’s always been this way.”
Loddington looked like he wanted to say something angry, but he controlled himself with tight lips and narrow eyes. Marco just looked confused, as if he couldn’t understand how such a thing were possible. Amaru asked, “Is there a problem?”
“They wished to clarify my translation,” I said.
“Ah,” he said. “We will tour the upper fountains and the plaza next, and then we can rest. I suspect our guests need it.”
Indeed, Loddington looked exhausted, and even Marco looked worn down. But Amaru spent the entire afternoon lecturing on the sights at Machu Picchu. I thought my eyes couldn’t handle any more gold. As the sun dropped lower, Amaru stopped in a room with a lovely window, which framed a dropaway landscape of the valley and the setting sun. I couldn’t even appreciate it anymore; I was numb with awe.
“You may rest here,” he told the Americans. “Lanchi will stay in case you need anything. Paucar and I will attend to the High Priest.” He handed me two more coca leaves and departed.
When we were alone, Loddington sat on a bench and took a deep breath, looking pale. Marco sat next to him and leaned against the wall. Marco had carried all of Loddington’s bundles up hundreds of flights of stairs, so I offered him the coca leaves. He took them and offered both to Loddington, who glanced at me and chose only one leaf.
He chewed it roughly, like it angered him. “Royalty is the same anywhere you look,” he said.
I wasn’t sure if he addressed Marco or me. When the boy didn’t answer, I said, “How do the royals act in the colonies where you live?”
“Uppity. They think they own us. Nobles think it’s all about the family you’re born into. Did you hear him going on about the lineage of each ruler? It’s like that heritage mattered more than what the man actually did.”
I thought this odd from a man so proud of his noble Spanish mother, but didn’t say so. “According to legend, we Incas appeared on earth at the end of a golden rod,” I told him. “The nobles ensure that our rulers always connect back to Manco Inca and the other seven original people.”
“What does it matter, though? A man’s worth is in his deeds. It doesn’t matter if he was born a king or a shoemaker. A good man proves his worth regardless of his station.”
“That much is true,” I agreed. “I have known peasants who were kinder than I deserved, and nobles who angered at nothing.”
“That’s what I mean,” said Loddington. “Do you think these nobles deserve all this wealth? Look at the gold in this place. Every man in your nation could be rich. Yet your people toil in the fields to support the Sapa Inca, and they have no say in their future. Do you think that’s fair?”
“The Sapa Inca deserves the best of everything,” I told him. “The gods choose him to rule us, and he must lack for nothing.”
“But why should an ordinary man suffer to offer him such tremendous wealth? When there is no chance of that man becoming noble himself, unless disease should spare his family, as happened to you?”
“It’s an interesting question,” I said cautiously, as Amaru’s wisdom dawned on me. “It is true that a man can find great strength by doing things for himself. Many nobles don’t understand this.”
“Exactly,” said Loddington. “Marco, fetch me some water from that fountain, will you? I’ve developed enough great strength for a week after those stairs.”
“Most nobles are born with everything–all that they might want, and they never question that. I have more humble origins, and I still feel awkward among them.”
“Really?” asked Loddington, sounding interested. Marco slipped a cup out of his pack and filled it with water. “How did you arrive at court?”
“I’m not really part of court,” I said. I told him of the day I left for a hunt, and came back a man. When I reached the part about my younger sisters contracting smallpox, he listened very acutely. A bird flew in the window and he barely noticed; he listened as I described the horror of finding my sisters maimed and my father dead.
“That must have been a nightmare,” he said quietly, sipping water. “You’re lucky you were never exposed to the disease. It might have killed you. God willing, your Sapa Inca will make this deal, and spare your people such suffering. Smallpox has always been cruel, but particularly so to your people. No one knows why.”
“I sincerely hope the vaccine will work for us,” I said, “though my heart aches at my personal grief, should that be true.”
I was torn by uncertainty. I wanted to tell him about the Sapa Inca’s plan to sacrifice twelve hundred children at Atun Cusqui, and that my Chaska was likely to be chosen for this honor. On one hand, Amaru had instructed me to befriend the man and learn his secrets, and what better way to open a man than to open oneself? Yet on the other, perhaps in discussing the true cost of his demand, I would harm future negotiations.
I’m not sure what decided me. I think something in Marco’s face moved me to share my fears, something about his innocence mixed with excitement. Somewhere, I thought, this boy’s mother has released him into the world to become a man, and she must miss him terribly. Besides, perhaps if Loddington knew the full consequences, he might lower his price. Surely a mere thousand times his own weight in gold would buy a whole kingdom.
So I told Loddington and Marco of their vaccine’s ultimate cost, and Loddington’s face turned solid white. He stood and paced the room, then leaned against the window looking at the view.
“That’s horrible,” whispered Marco. “Those poor kids–they’re killed? For what purpose?”
“To appease the gods,” I said. “Because if we pay the price requested, we are spending divinity itself. Gold is not money to us.”
“Barbarians,” said Loddington, almost inaudibly.
Now I feared I had done terrible damage. I said, “Perhaps there is another way that my nation could pay, with silver? Or a smaller amount, or–”
“Silver would be too heavy in the amount I need,” he said. “I can’t transport it. Besides, it’s useless for backing our money. Military service wouldn’t help either; you don’t know our terrain the way we do, and– Ugh! Child sacrifice and incestuous marriage. Jesus protect us.”
Greatly worried, I said, “Perhaps the Sapa Inca will change his plan, or–”
“It’s not my business,” he said sharply. “My job is to make this deal and fund our war. There’s more than twelve hundred American children praying for me to succeed. They’re praying for an independent land, free of unfair tax policies and royal meddling–a land of brotherhood and equality. And in my homeland, each of those children has value for who they are. Any boy can work hard and be a landowner, like my father did to earn his plantation. And that’s a cause worth fighting for, even if the price is far too high. Every life has value–even if the Sapa Inca cannot understand that. But you understand, I think.”
His speech moved me, despite my fears. I thought then that despite his rough manners, this kind of man made history–and if indeed he planned to free his home from British oppressors, this he would do at whatever cost. His word “brotherhood” rang through my ears. I had always wished for a brother, squeezed as I was between sisters. A man like Loddington would make a fine brother, so self-possessed and strong in his convictions.
“It sounds like a marvelous land,” I told him. “I would like to see what would happen if the worthy were allowed to be wealthy.”
“So would I,” said Loddington, staring out into the valley. “I would like to see that very much.”
Something in his manner troubled me, like I’d glimpsed a cat’s yellow eyes in the night.
4. The Condor’s Brother
My grandson, today you should reflect on what it means to be a man. The story of you includes several great men, and several who failed to achieve such greatness. Your story also describes men with mixed motives–both good and evil, as many men are in the end. Most men who have walked the earth since time began appear in this tale, in one form or another, and I leave you to judge their hearts.
That evening, we were summoned to the Temple of the Three Windows, where we learned that the High Priest would consult the gods. Loddington and Marco had rested well by this point. So we headed to the temple, our steps light upon the stone. Since the summer solstice would occur in only three days, the sun hovered well into the evening, and it felt like darkness would never touch this glorious place.
In the temple, hundreds of priestesses washed and scented us. This was the role I hoped my little Chaska might play someday, if she lived to see adulthood, and I prayed quietly as the women combed my hair. One offered me a mug of chicha, the sacred wine brewed from spit and corn, and I drank deeply. Loddington submitted to their care without much reaction. Marco seemed very interested in admiring the lovely priestesses, who represented the best of Incan beauty.
During the preparations, Amaru pulled me aside and said, “It is said that tonight the High Priest determines whether the bargain offered is satisfactory, and whether a great sacrifice is required at Atun Cusqui.”
“I hope the omens are good,” I said.
“So do we all,” he said. “Some are troubled, including myself. It is unwise that the High Priest should openly question the Sapa Inca’s will. It’s one thing to speak from his chair sometimes, but another entirely to consult the gods about another god’s decision.”
Astonished at Amaru’s openness, I looked at his hands, which folded and unfolded in front of him. I decided he must be nervous, and perhaps even looking to someone as unimportant as myself for guidance. Perhaps he could talk to me without worrying which nobles might hear of his concerns. I said, “Maybe the gods will confirm the Sapa Inca’s decision.”
“I hope so,” he said distractedly, and left for another room. Meanwhile, I hoped with all my heart that the entrails would say otherwise, that I might not worry about my daughter’s fate, entangled with the fates of other children in the Four Quarters.
We gathered outside the Temple, and Amaru deferred to his cousin Paucar, who apparently held higher religious education and experience. Paucar instructed me, “The High Priest will consult a llama’s entrails about the American proposal. The Americans must stand quietly near the consultation and not disrupt it. Translate some basics for them, but don’t give too much detail. They are not allowed to understand too well. The ceremony will be held on the outside altar so that the barbarians do not see this most sacred place.”
I had no idea how to combine that instruction with Amaru’s direction to be forthright with the Americans, so I decided to pretend I understood little of what happened. It turned out that I did not need to pretend; in fact the ceremony was nothing like the public festivals I had attended.
A row of priests wearing speckled gold masks stood next to the golden altar. They chanted low words I couldn’t understand, though I heard the names of Inti and Viracocha and many others. I glanced at Paucar, who stood on the far side of Loddington and Marco. His head remained bowed and he chanted along with the priests.
A priest brought in a hooded condor; its wings were clipped, so it could not fly away. They chained its foot to a perch over the altar. I guessed they meant it to represent the Condor, as the Sapa Inca Coniraya had been known in his younger days, fighting for the rule of our land. I thought it odd that the bird would be chained to the post, symbolically, but I was no priest and I supposed it necessary for the ritual.
Another priest led a young llama to the altar. He pushed her down on the stained gold slits that lined the cutting surface. She bleated loudly. Strong men strapped her down on her back, tying her forelegs together, and then her hind legs. I glanced over at Loddington, who watched with mild distaste, and at Marco beyond him, who looked worried.
“Marco,” I said quietly, “you may wish to look away for a while.”
“I can handle it,” he said stubbornly–and he did, for when a priest slashed her belly, and the intestines sprung forth like writhing maggots, it was Marco who remained stoic, and Loddington who blanched. The smell of rotten vegetation and llama manure curled my nose hairs, and even though I’d slaughtered my share of animals in the fields, I had always disliked the task.
The High Priest stepped out from the shadows, wearing a fancy gold mask with rays scattering from his face, so large that two priests mirrored his every move just to support the sides. He plunged a fist into the llama’s guts and lifted forth a bloody mass. He examined it from all sides like a jeweler examining turquoise, and then shoved it back into the body. Other intestines bulged as he smoothed down the belly.
“What does it say?” whispered the ever-curious Marco.
“I have no idea,” I said honestly. I glanced up at the roof’s edge, looking at the stars. The roof here stood high above us, with irregularly-shaped stones carved in interesting patterns. Something felt wrong to me, but I couldn’t place it. By now, the night fell blackly over us. I saw only hundreds of torches circling the altar, and the stars beyond the rooftop. I thought of Chaska then, my bright-star planet, and looked towards the sight that had inspired her nickname. The light blinked into view, vanished, then blinked back. Mystified, I stared at the sky. How could a planet vanish?
Too late I realized what I was seeing. “Look out!” I shouted, heedless of the ceremony. I leaped forward and pushed Loddington as the boulder tumbled off the roof towards us.
My grandson, picture these events happening now. Imagine time moves like water, and air hardens to rock. I cannot speak; my lungs are full of stones. Loddington leaps away like me–but says nothing. His silence is an accusation. Time itself slows to witness the crime. Loddington stands idle, not reaching for this boy who shares his father–his brother, whose face speaks the truth. The boulder is falling, and I cannot save Marco. But one man can help–does help. To this day I bless him, and trust Inti to warm his spirit in the brightest sunlight.
Time restored itself. Marco lay face down, thrown from the boulder with mere scrapes, but Paucar’s legs lay crushed beneath the rock. Paucar still lived–though later I learned not for long. Priests rushed him away for treatment. He said nothing to me as he passed, nor I to him. How I wish I could speak now, to thank him for his courage! I don’t know what moved him–but Paucar was a great man, worthy of his birth. And thus you know a man’s measure: how he dies is how he lived. Loddington’s empty claims of brotherhood echoed in my mind. This was how he treated a brother: by ignoring a threat to his brother’s welfare, since it bothered him not at all. He was no brother, but a snake.
The rest of the night blurred. We were whisked away to sleep on reed mats, all in one room. I slept fitfully, dreaming of Paucar’s crushed legs, and of llama entrails spilling the fate of my people and my child. In my dreams the entrails snarled my wrists and ankles. I tried to run a long road through the Empire, but I slipped on blood and fell nonstop through the night.
Near midnight, someone shook my shoulder. I woke quickly and saw Marco’s face, silhouetted by moonlight through the window. I sat up and he lifted a finger to his lips. He pointed at Loddington, who slept soundly.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Thank you for saving our lives,” he said simply. “I wanted to tell you myself. I’m sorry about the man who was so gravely injured.”
“Marco,” I said, worried, “why did your companion not save you when he could have?”
“He surely meant to,” said the boy defensively. “He was startled and not thinking.”
I looked at him, realizing that some part of him needed to preserve this lie. “You are half-brothers, are you not? Is it so different in America that half-brothers are not kin?”
“His father lay with my mother,” the boy said, with great shame, “and surely here too that is a crime, if a man and woman are not married.”
Ah, illegitimacy! Finally I understood why Loddington did not acknowledge his brother. Or so I thought, at the time. “So then you will leave once you are fully a man, and build your own life away from the accusations written on your face.”
Marco said, “I must stay with John Fernando, unless he sells me elsewhere. I am surprised he did not do so upon his father’s death, but perhaps he humors his sister who cherishes me. He is decent to me; he never beats me nor insults me.”
“Sells you?” I asked, wondering if this word held a modern meaning I did not know.
Marco’s eyes flickered. “John Fernando may sell me to another man as he pleases, and I would serve that man as I do him.”
Oh my child, so much of the world I did not understand then! I thought merely of brotherhood, and America as Loddington claimed it: a land where any man might fight for his freedom to live as he pleased. In my mind I reconciled this image with Marco’s words by thinking that servants might change lords for better pay–but the cracks in the mirror already glimmered. I knew even then that Loddington’s brotherhood was as shoddy in spirit as he.
So I said to Marco, “Dear boy, I would be proud to know you as servant, or free man, or brother–whichever role Inti would give you in the Land of the Four Quarters, for I admire your spirit. I am delighted that you were uninjured today.”
Marco smiled at that, and clasped my hand. “Someday, Lanchi, I would like to name a ship for you.” He lay down to sleep again, and I did the same, resting uneasily through the night.
In the morning Amaru came, his face lined with grief and pain. He beckoned me out of the room, and I hastened to follow. He said, “I trust you are well and whole.”
“By Inti’s grace, I am,” I said. “I am sorry for your hardship. But Paucar saved Marco’s life.”
“If my cousin lives, he will be crippled,” said Amaru. “I pray that the boy proves worthwhile.”
I attributed the unkindness to lack of sleep and his deep suffering. “All lives have value, and Paucar is a hero to that child,” I told him.
I wasn’t sure my words would help. We Incas loved our children so much that it hurt. In their eyes, we saw the wise adults they would become. This is why we sacrificed so many children in those days–we were returning their potential to the gods. But any doubts on this practice are a modern anachronism; in those days, we gave children to the gods, and none questioned it.
Amaru smiled sadly. “I also like the boy’s spirit, but I would rather have my cousin,” he said. “But I come bearing news. The vaccine works and the Sapa Inca is pleased with the results. All the volunteers remained in Sayacmarca, shared drinks with the victims, and walked out unscathed.”
“By the sunrise, a true miracle,” I whispered. Indeed, I had not believed it until that very moment! With such treatment, I could keep my children and myself safe from the dread disease–and every father in Cusco could do likewise. My heart surged with desire to see my family, but fell again as I remembered what this news meant. A working vaccine meant the Sapa Inca would surely consummate this deal with the American delegation. And that meant my Chaska’s future would likely see her lying in a snowy mountain pit, dead in her flower crown.
Amaru continued, “We are to return immediately and undergo another quarantine. At that point the Sapa Inca will require translation to continue negotiations.”
“And of this assassination attempt?” I asked. “Surely anyone can see what it was. I suppose a gun could not look so much like an accident.”
“All the workers on the wall that day were killed,” said Amaru matter-of-factly. “Rumors say that some very high-level priests may be implicated in scandal. Do not trouble yourself with such matters. Leave them to my investigation. Do not befriend the Americans any further; it would complicate matters at this point. Leave them to their business as you attend to your own.”
And thus our processional wound away from Machu Picchu, and its tall pillars like teeth in the sky, as we returned to Cusco. Per Amaru’s instructions, I conveyed the information, and then stayed distant from the Americans. Thus I trapped them in a silent cloud through which they could not communicate. Upon arrival in Cusco, they were taken to one area for quarantine, and I to another.
I expected that twelve days from our arrival, we would all appear once more before the Sapa Inca, or perhaps the Condor’s brother speaking in his place. But on the fifth day, I heard rumor from the attendants of great unrest in the palace, and on the eighth day I smelled burning flesh in the courtyards. I could see nothing from my barren waiting room, but an attendant told me that those loyal to the High Priest were burning alive for treason. On the ninth day I heard of the execution of the High Priest Ahuapauti for treason against the gods. No one would tell me precise details–perhaps they did not know–but I deduced that it involved the attempt on the Americans’ lives. The only thing I felt sure of was that my daughter’s fate was sealed. The Sapa Inca Coniraya now held sole power–and he had insisted we increase the festival sacrifice.
My dear grandson, I am no priest, but it seems to me that a man who kills those who disagree with him–especially his spiritual guide–cannot then argue that his way is righteous.
I expected a quick conclusion to the business at hand, but instead I was kept a thirteenth day, then a fourteenth. On the fifteenth day of my quarantine, an unfamiliar noble came to my chambers and told me to go home until I was summoned back. I had heard that morning that the Coya Inca was permanently exiled to a remote mountain palace. If only we had known then of the complex web of treachery against the Sapa Inca and the Incan people, woven by those two high-profile lovers and siblings to our ruler! But we owe the traitors a great debt. Had they delayed their conspiracy to steal the throne, the Sapa Inca might have paid the Americans’ steep price. The siblings’ crimes saved the Incan people from sacrilege.
But I digress. I was surprised, but delighted about returning home. I wondered of the Americans, but knew not where they might be. When I returned to my house, there I found my wife Yma–head shaven, dressed in new clothing, but more beautiful than ever. I kissed her deeply and traced her cheekbones with my finger, the familiar bumps of her scarred skin like a blessing. Scarcely had I finished embracing her than Chaska leaped into my arms, and I hugged her as if it might be the last time. Sternly I ordered her back to chores, ignoring my own aching heart, and she obeyed without even a childish glance backward. I stroked my son’s head, and he giggled as I placed him back in his pit.
The room smelled like boiled greenery; Yma was preparing yucca to ease aching joints, which she sold at the medicine market. We reconnected as man and woman will, and then lay in each other’s arms, savoring each other. Then of course the daily tasks of the household called, and my son squalled for feeding, which my wife obliged.
She listened to my tale with fascination, asking many questions about the Americans. She gasped at Loddington’s price, and felt even more horror than I.
“They demand money like blood,” she said. “How could they steal our spirit itself? Do they not see how entire families–whole clans–are wiped by this dread disease?”
“They see,” I said, “but they desire their nation of brotherhood–or so they call it.”
I told her of Machu Picchu and Loddington’s careless disregard for his brother, and her face crinkled with disgust. When I told her of the Sapa Inca’s likely decision to sacrifice twelve hundred children, she immediately formed the same conclusion I had about Chaska. My heart sank, for she proved to me that I was not wrong.
“We could leave Cusco,” she said. “Travel to the distant southern lands, and raise our family there.”
“Impossible,” I said. “I am now in the Sapa Inca’s service as translator, and thus our family is bound to him. He would not let me leave, and we cannot run from the Imperial guards. They would find us no matter where we were.”
My wife grieved here, for we had lost another daughter at birth shortly after Chaska, and she knew the pain of losing a child. I held her, and stroked her shorn hair. When she had cried, I said, “Tell me of what you witnessed in Sayacmarca.”
She straightened and said, “Truly, I wish I had more to report! I saw death and torment in the stricken village, as always, and I wish I could banish those memories. But the volunteers all survived, and bear only the strange scars on their hands that marked them after their illness.”
“The American took them into a dwelling at his camp and made them somewhat sick for a few days. It was like a lesser version of smallpox–a kind which did not ravage their bodies, but rippled them like a pond.”
“And did you see how this was done?”
“No, though I did hear a child’s cry at one point.”
“A child’s cry?” I asked, remembering Amaru’s tale of strange noises and the smell of urine. “Are you certain?”
“I am a mother,” she said pointedly, and I acknowledged her talent. As I have stated, the husband is not complete without the wife; he may be the greater of the pairing, but he cannot stand alone.
I said, “It is all very strange. I cannot help but think that the Americans are being unfair in this debate. They would kill millions of Incan men, women, and children–for the sake of their rebellion against England, which is supposed to be about brotherhood. Yet they do not demonstrate this brotherhood even when the stakes are smaller. Why should I think they will behave differently on a larger scale?”
My wife nodded, saying, “It is wrong to hold us hostage against such a deadly enemy.”
My dear grandson, I must tell you something. A moment comes where an idea visits your mind, straight from the gods themselves. An idea is a guest, worthy of the best hospitality. It taps on the door, or simply walks in like it lives there, and you must handle it wisely or it may depart forever. The gods had given me an idea, and let it linger for some time before I noticed it. By this point the idea had so firmly lodged into my being that it seemed part of my family, which I must protect at all costs.
“Yma,” I said to my wife, “if I were to ask you where the American camp was located, how close could you bring me to that place?”
“Within arm’s reach,” she said, “for I paid close attention to our direction as we went, in case I became separated.”
“Wise woman,” I said. I did not mean to tell her my plan, because if it went poorly for me, there was a chance she could beg for mercy and claim she had no knowledge. A slim chance, for a man’s family was held accountable for his misdeeds–but given her noble family, I thought her cousins might protect her from Imperial wrath.
But my precautions proved needless, for my wife asked with narrow eyes, “Lanchi Ronpa, what is it that you mean to do?”
I did not dare answer her, but stood and inspected my musket where it hung over the door. Let her think I wished to shoot the American, for that might be more honorable than what I intended. But I underestimated her–ah, how often I did that!–for she said, “My husband, in our land, medicine is available for any man who requires it.”
“This is true,” I said.
“If a thief can prove that an official should have provided him with an item, and did not do so, it is the official who is executed for failing to serve.”
“It is so,” I admitted.
She kissed me and said, “My darling, you are on an errand of mercy. Steal this vaccine, if you can, and provide it to our people! I would consider this moral and right, and the Sapa Inca himself could not convince me otherwise.”
“I fear for you, if you know what I do,” I said.
She laughed. “Perhaps I shall tell you precisely where that camp was, in case you happened to want to visit that place tonight.”
You see, I loved my wife with all my heart, and in that moment I loved her a hundredfold. Someday, child, I pray that you will be equally fortunate.
5. Ronpa’s Blessing
I followed Yma’s directions and approached a grove outside Cusco–an area I had not visited often. I expected Loddington’s men would guard the camp that stored his precious vaccine. I did not know what I sought. I only knew it was small, and perhaps involved a sewing needle–or so Amaru had surmised, from the volunteers’ reports. I feared the vaccine might be something that Loddington kept on his person, in which case I had no idea how to obtain it. Would I kill a man for this vaccine, if I felt sure it were necessary? I debated in my mind and decided that yes, I would if I must–but then I could have no argument with the gods if Chaska were chosen for sacrifice. I steeled myself for the possibility, but prayed that it would be otherwise.
And so you see, I was on a fool’s errand–seeking a vaccine of unknown shape, size, and location. I pictured something like thread through a needle’s eye, but knew no definitive answer. It was easy to move through the area alone; guards surrounded the camp, but they were protecting against an army encroachment, or a violent war party. The Americans likely thought that a single man like me could not possibly find and identify their vaccine. They failed to understand that a determined man–one responsible for his family’s fate–possesses a fox’s cunning and a raptor’s strength.
I crept closer, using shady trees and leafy ferns for cover. One American started, as if he saw me; he aimed his musket briefly. A squirrel darted out, and the man relaxed, presumably thinking the animal had startled him. I thanked the squirrel, vowing to honor them later if I survived. I prayed quickly to Mama-Quilla the moon goddess to shadow my way, and then darted through a glade to my next target.
In this manner I found a path to the closest tents, and then wondered where to look first. I would not have long before someone spotted me. I knew the outside tents would hold only supplies, nothing critical–and thus I sauntered towards the central tents, hoping for some divine sign of approval to hint me in the right direction.
And there! A small cough. Despite lacking a woman’s intuition, I knew that sound was a young child. I hoped not to startle the child, but a youth might be persuaded to tell me of the vaccine, if indeed they knew. And a child’s declaration of an invader, if it came to that, might be tossed off as fancy and nothing more.
It was risky, but so was this whole attempt. I folded the cloth away from a tent and peeked inside.
The tent was dark, but moonlight crept in as my silent assistant. As my eyes adjusted, I saw two sleeping boys, perhaps five or six years old. Their heads pointed toward me and their feet away. Even through the forest air, they smelled of human waste. The wind rustled the leafy trees behind me, granting a moment of brighter moonlight. To my shock, I saw that these children were darker even than Marco–how was that possible?–and had the same llama-hair as he. Cousins perhaps? Iron chains with solid-looking locks wrapped their bodies. I did not know what it meant. The tent darkened again as the trees settled back. A child coughed, and I hastily withdrew.
I turned around and faced the muzzle of a musket, pointed directly at me. Behind that gun stood Marco, his eyes masked and unreadable.
I held perfectly still. The boy and I looked at each other. I had no doubt that he knew well how to use the gun, and I had no urge to test his reflexes. What I didn’t know was why he had not shot me already, nor what he intended for me.
We stood that way for what seemed like a whole night, though I am sure it was only moments. After a while, I murmured, “It would be better for both of us if you made a decision.”
Marco’s lip quivered, but the gun stayed firm. “I’m supposed to protect the camp,” he said.
“Where is Loddington?”
“He stayed in Cusco at the palace. He’s refusing to leave until the Sapa Inca agrees to speak with him again, through our original translator.”
We held still a bit longer, looking at each other. Finally I said, “I’m sorry you will have to think of a new name for your ship.”
“Step inside that tent,” ordered Marco, keeping the gun on me.
We entered the tent where the boys lay. I said, “What happens now, Marco?”
“I–I don’t know,” he admitted, sounding more like a child than ever before. “John Fernando said someone would probably sneak in and try to steal the vaccine, but I never expected it would be you, Lanchi. How–how could you be a thief?”
“In this land…” I said, preparing to tell him what my wife had told me, but the boy lowered his gun and looked at the ground. Of course I could have jumped him and overpowered him there, without alerting anyone, but I had no intention of doing so.
I studied him, slumped against the tent wall, and simply said, “There are so many lives at stake. I cannot see how I could stand by and watch my people die, for the sake of a foreign war with no sensible grounds.”
“No grounds!” he exclaimed. “John Fernando fights for the freedom of Americans, to live their lives as they choose.”
“So he says,” I said as gently as possible, “but his actions show the lie.”
“That’s not true!”
“Does he fight for your freedom?”
“It’s different for me,” he admitted, “and these other slaves.”
I knew what slaves were, of course; even my grandfather’s Bible mentioned them. I had always felt sorry for them in the stories. And many things made sense to me now, about Marco and the way Loddington treated him. “Who are these boys?” I asked.
“They are the carriers of the vaccine,” he told me. “I help John Fernando with his medical work. We brought with us five dozen slave boys from the auction. We have kept the vaccine alive by transmitting it through them, two boys at a time. This is why John Fernando so urgently insists on seeing the Sapa Inca; it has taken far longer for him to negotiate the deal than he thought possible. If the last boy heals before the vaccine is transferred, then all is lost to us.”
“What is the vaccine?” I asked. “Each boy carries it separately?”
At this Marco smiled, and said, “It is very clever indeed. It is a disease called cowpox, which comes from Britain and infects some farmers and milkmaids who work with the animals. A person with cowpox sickens, but heals again–and once the body has witnessed cowpox, it guards well against smallpox! The terrible germ cannot touch the man, for the body now understands the threat and will not let it take hold.”
So simple! So marvelous! You see, the principle of vaccination had been known to the Incan people since the beginning of time. It was written in our pairings of greater and lesser, of sun and moon, of husband and wife. There was the greater disease and the lesser, and neither was complete without the other.
I said to Marco, “So how does one pass the disease? Will I contract it, having been here?”
“No,” said Marco, “I must vaccinate a person, or John Fernando does, by extracting pus from a cowpox blister and injecting it into a new person.”
“Then if this is not done before those blisters heal…” I said, understanding finally.
Marco blurted out, “Lanchi, why did you come here? I wish you hadn’t. I don’t want to kill you, but I cannot let you leave. What can I do?”
“You can vaccinate me,” I said, “and let me leave. Speak no word to Loddington, or just say you never saw me.”
“I can’t,” protested Marco. “He will know. He always knows. I cannot be free of him.”
“Then you can come with me,” I said, “for I admire your courage and honesty. I see the fine man you are becoming–and nearly are.”
His eyes brightened, and I knew he was intrigued. Still, I saw he was unconvinced. He said, “John Fernando has been kind to me…”
“I expect he treats you like gold. He is most careful with his possessions,” I remarked. “Though a lump of gold cannot withstand a falling boulder.”
Anger flashed through Marco’s eyes, and I thought he might shoot me after all. Then he said, “I have nowhere to go and I don’t know this land. I would do no better in your service.”
“Then come with me as a son,” I told him. “I would welcome you into my family. Here you are considered a man at fifteen, when you take a new name. I will teach you the Quechua language. And I will trade goods until I can give you an adventure such as you desire. You will be your own master.”
Marco cried silently, and his body shook. I knelt to embrace him, and said, “We don’t have much time. Quickly–give me the vaccine. I will carry it in my own body.”
“I can’t leave the boys,” he said. “There’s nearly sixty of them, lying in their own filth and chained to beds. They cry at night, and I can’t soothe them. Some are as young as three. They call for their mothers but none are here.”
My heart ached for these poor children, who could not understand their role here. “Where did they all come from?”
“They are field boys, chosen for sturdiness. I believe John Fernando plans to sell them back to the auction when he returns home–whichever ones survive. Three children died on our voyage here.”
“I don’t see how we can free them all,” I said slowly.
“I cannot leave them here,” insisted Marco. “I could not walk away knowing their future. If I stay, I might at least persuade John Fernando to sell them to known houses, who might care for these boys.”
“We must find a way,” I said. “There are many childless families who would be grateful to adopt a son–even one not from the Four Quarters. In the older days of the empire we commonly adopted children from conquered regions. These boys cannot go back with him.” But I was thinking–how could we possibly get them all out? Marco could have crept away with me unnoticed, but not five dozen children.
I considered for some time, and then asked Marco, “Have you ever de-fanged a snake?”
We implemented our plan quickly. Marco infected me with cowpox and gave me ten needles to transfer the disease. I promised him that we would meet again soon, and he must remain quiet until that time. He distracted a guard so I could slip away unnoticed.
I returned to my wife and told her the whole story. Concerned, she sent me to bed, and insisted I rest so as not to worsen my fever. Within days I developed a rash on my hands and arms, and yellow blisters that ached to touch. My wife said it was indeed the same illness that she had seen on her visit to the camp, and at my direction, she carefully extracted the pus and injected both our children.
Oh, how hard it was to infect them, even knowing the benefits! As they sickened, I started healing; the hardest part was disguising our efforts from our neighbors, for I feared that if they discovered our illness, soldiers would quarantine the house and alert Loddington to my plan. Our daughter we persuaded to be as silent as possible, but our son did not understand, and he wailed with pain. I thought of the boys in Loddington’s camp, not much older than he. I did not know what would happen to Marco–and just as bad, I feared that someone would notice us. An official quarantine would lose us precious time. We could not afford to let the last blister heal before we had transferred the precious disease to other people.
Though I was not entirely well, I decided it was critical to accelerate my plan. I asked my wife to beg favor at the palace, using any rank or pleas she could think of, to get a message to the wise Amaru–on whom all my hopes rested. With all the political chaos, I was unsure that she would succeed. But my good wife persisted, and after spending a day and a sleepless night pleading for audience, she found a servant willing to bear her message.
And so on that next night, as my body healed and my children lay ill–Amaru came alone, and at night. He was plainly dressed and wore no mask, which might call attention to himself.
When I told him my tale, his face darkened with anger. For a moment I wondered if it might be directed at myself, for thievery, but that was mere anxiety. Amaru finally said, “So this vaccine is now in the possession of the Incan people. We have no more need for this greedy bargainer.”
“I do not wish to see him killed,” I said hesitantly, wondering if that was his thought.
“Nor I,” he said, “for the Americans might not take kindly to that. Yet I also do not wish to see him profit on the suffering of others, even if they are mere children.”
“We can refuse his deal now, provided we keep the vaccine alive in our people.”
“Refuse his deal, certainly. He has negotiated in bad faith. There are worse punishments for a man such as he,” said Amaru.
And with that, we discussed a plan.
The next day, Amaru and I visited Loddington, where he had encamped in the palace’s waiting chambers. He was speaking in broken Spanish to anyone who understood and would listen, begging for audience with the Sapa Inca. I kept my hands clasped behind my back. When he saw me, his face brightened with a generous smile.
“Lanchi Ronpa!” he exclaimed. “I asked for you, but no one would bring you.”
Amaru said, “The Sapa Inca is unavailable, but he has authorized me to finalize our bargain. Here is a measure of faith.” He opened his purse and poured out golden beads, more than I had ever owned myself, which tumbled into Loddington’s hands and scattered across the floor. He crawled around after them, scooping up handfuls like a monkey gathering food.
Amaru said, “I have gathered more, and my warriors will bring it to your camp. Let us go there, and we will bring you–as promised–at least a tenth of what you requested, with the remainder to follow tomorrow. We would bring the entire amount today, but it is simply too much gold; the warriors must return tomorrow with it.”
At my translation, Loddington’s eyes narrowed. “This is a sudden change of direction for the Sapa Inca.”
“He is busy,” said Amaru smoothly. “He deals with matters of state and cannot attend directly to this business. He does desire the vaccine, now that it’s been proven.”
Loddington looked directly at me and said, “Lanchi, tell me the truth. Is the Sapa Inca really ready for the vaccine?”
“I assure you,” I said, choosing my words carefully, “that the Sapa Inca will be delighted to know the secret of this vaccine.”
Loddington smiled and got to his feet. “Then we shall do business together,” he said. “Come, let us go to my camp.”
And so we went, a processional of warriors led by the American, who did not know he was already defeated. Loddington led the parade on an imperial riding-llama, his head held high, as if he ruled all the land. I kept to the middle, not wanting him to see my hands, to know his ruin was already upon him.
When we arrived at the camp, Amaru murmured to me, “Here we go. Good luck.” He assumed a haughty expression and said, “An emissary of the Sapa Inca requires all people in the visited realm to present themselves and stand forth for viewing.”
I translated these words for Loddington and added, “All men may of course retain their weapons; we know you are not a fool.”
Marco stepped out, carrying his musket. “What’s going on?” he asked me.
I addressed him directly. “The Sapa Inca’s representative asks that all persons be visible as he enters.”
Marco glanced at Loddington, who said, “Humor them, Marco. They bring gold in exchange for our vaccine.”
Marco looked at me, but to his credit did not show surprise. Around twenty American men appeared from the woods, all heavily armed, ready to shoot us. Amaru subtly dug his knee into his llama, and the beast reared back and spat.
“There are more,” he said calmly, which I translated.
I added, “You had best bring forth all persons here, since the llama smells the presence of many who remain unseen.”
Loddington frowned, then signaled with his hand. Ten more American men slid into view. Clever man. But Marco had caught on, and said, “John Fernando, shall I bring all the–”
“No!” exclaimed Loddington. “This is my encampment. Now let us close this deal.”
Amaru said, “You have not been honest with us. I can smell the children as clearly as this llama can.”
At these words, Loddington paled, and Marco ran off to open several tents. He flung aside canvas to show the children huddled together like clustered pebbles, staring at us with enormous eyes. Amaru frowned at the sight. He said, “Who are these children?”
“They help me with the vaccine,” said Loddington angrily. “They are my property.”
I counted our warriors. We had nearly a hundred men. Amaru had enough wealth to command an army. “Come here, Marco,” I said. The boy came, and I grasped his shoulders firmly like a father.
Amaru waved his hand commandingly, and I addressed Loddington. “The Sapa Inca has changed his mind,” I said. “He wishes to buy your children instead of the vaccine. That purse which his emissary gave you is more than the amount you paid for them. These children will now be the Sapa Inca’s subjects in the Land of the Four Quarters.”
“But…” Loddington sputtered, “but–why?”
“The Sapa Inca’s word is law, and his representative merely implements it. We do not question his decisions and neither can you.”
“But they are mine!”
“These children were free the moment they stepped onto our soil,” I told him. “Any damage to your finances is repaid with gold. A few beads in exchange for a few children, clearly neglected. How could that not satisfy you?”
“You will never get the vaccine,” said Loddington, his face red with anger. I could tell he wished to order an attack, but didn’t dare, in the face of so many armed Incan warriors.
Marco spoke up defiantly. “They already have it,” he said. “Look at Lanchi’s hands.”
I held them up. Loddington stared in disbelief. I feared he might order me shot, regardless of consequence, but Marco added, “By now he has transferred the vaccine to others, and those others can be used for vaccines. Most likely they already have been.”
“You may leave this land,” said Amaru. “Our deal is done.”
“You–you thieves,” Loddington screamed. “You have stolen what is mine!”
“You have tried to sell what should be any man’s,” I said. “It is not a crime to take it.”
Loddington suddenly went white. He raised his gun and aimed at Marco. Before anyone could react, he shot. Marco reeled back, collapsing against the llama. Four Incan warriors shot Loddington where he stood, but I held Marco, pressing his shoulder where blood poured out. I hardly noticed Loddington fall, nor his men staring in shock. We are all lucky they did not shoot back; perhaps they too had some doubts about the circumstances. Or perhaps the gods guided our hands that day. I cannot say, nor can any man.
“Marco!” I shouted.
“It is–” he gasped for breath– “It is not so bad. Bind the wound tightly.”
I ripped my tunic and obeyed. Oh my grandson, my heart broke–I thought I would lose Marco. But I crushed his hand in mine, and said, “Marco–stay strong. Let my hand keep you in this world. My hand, which you have marked with a blessing–stay here with your gift, and with me.”
Marco smiled through his pain, and I thought that this boy had much left to do. He would not leave this world–not yet.
And he did not, for you know who Marco became.
So my child, that is the story of you, which I tell you on your fifteenth birthday that you might know yourself. And you know the rest of the tale–how the Americans fought their war without our funding and achieved their freedom anyway, though they still suffer the schism of slavery in a so-called free land. The boys we freed from Loddington were adopted into the Empire; the childless Amaru and his wife adopted three boys themselves, and rewarded me richly. I built a school with those funds, so that all boys might attend and learn.
Marco stayed in the Land of the Four Quarters and became my son. He took my name, and then traveled the seas to foreign lands as the great explorer Marco Ronpa. Your father opened the prosperous trade we now share with China, by sailing the Lanchi across the vast ocean. All this shortly after marrying my darling Chaska, now a beautiful woman in her own right, who had honorably left the temple for love’s sake. Your father gave you his features and his voice, and blessed you with your proud strong face–the face I love as much as my wife’s and my children’s and my own, for you belong to the Incan people with all your soul. Someday I expect you will explore further than your father, in our faster modern ships, and visit your grandmother’s homelands in Africa. But that day is not here, and you, my grandson, must find your own destiny.
And my child–the interesting thing about China is that they’d already solved the smallpox problem with a technique called variolation, which they’d learned from India. But our vaccination was safer and more effective, and Marco found that technology vital in opening China to trade. But that is another story, child, and not the story of you. Sleep now, and in the morning you must tell me your new name, the one that marks you a man in the Land of the Four Quarters.
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