As he approached the shining city of Cuzco, Samin slowed his pace. The roads here were better, paved with stone and neatly laid, but he was not eager to reach the end of his journey. The masses of men gathered outside the city spoke to the turmoil he had heard of inside – an army mustering to face traitors and invaders, while great lords argued over the fate of a nation whose emperor had been murdered by strangers from across the sea. Samin was a simple government inspector. He liked order. He didn’t want to be a part of this.
Behind him, a train of peasants and llamas, weighed down by the supplies he had been ordered to bring, also slowed their pace.
On the outskirts of the city he met Poma, one of the great lords. Poma was not as grandly dressed as when in court, only a single gold plug in each of his ears. Around him were men with clubs and cotton armour.
Samin spread his hands and bowed deeply.
“Good, you’re here,” Poma said. “Some of the others went to Manco.”
Samin carefully said nothing. He had not considered joining the Emperor Manco, the man raised up by the outsiders, these infamously vicious Spaniards. But if the old order was being overthrown, perhaps he would be better off joining the new one. And if he brought supplies with him…
“I’ll take these,” Poma said, gesturing to the column of supplies.
Perhaps it was just coincidence. Perhaps he had seen the doubt in Samin’s eyes.
Better not to be here to find out.
“I should go up to the palace,” Samin said. “They may have orders for me.”
“Fine.” Poma dismissed him with the merest of waves, concerned only with his new supplies.
Walking up into Cuzco, Samin faced the unfamiliarity of a place he had been a hundred times. There were clusters of frantic activity, people making weapons or plans. But for the most part, everyone kept off the streets. All the gold had been stripped from the temples. Few of the nobles wore their jewellery. Cuzco had become a desolate place.
If this was the way of things then Samin wanted out. He would take his chances with Manco and his Spaniards.
Just not while anyone was looking.
He waited until dark, visiting a friend at the edge of the city to fill time. Then he slid out into the night.
The plains outside Cuzco were still busy. Men sat in clusters around fires, talking and tending to their weapons. The roads were under guard. He would have to be careful.
A servant of the Incan crown learnt to walk softly, so as not to intrude upon his betters. It was easy for Samin to apply that skill here, sliding from shadow to shadow through the armed encampment. He overheard snatches of conversation, some angry, some bitter, some bewildered. The world had been turned upside down. Men were determined to fight to set it right, but they were far from confident.
All the more reason not to be on this side.
As Samin crept past the dying embers of an abandoned fire, a voice called out to him.
He looked around. A lone figure sat on the ground a few feet from the fire. As he turned his head, there was a brief glint from a gold ear plug.
“Lord Poma.” Samin turned to bow, rigid with tension.
“What are you doing here?” Poma asked. His voice wasn’t loud or demanding, but it was firm.
“I…” Samin struggled for words. He had never been imaginative enough to make a good liar and now his life depended upon it. The fate of a man going to join the traitors could only be terrible.
“Let me guess.” Poma rose, brushing dirt off his white tunic. “You believe that Manco is the rightful heir. You fear the Spaniards. You are just curious and will be back soon. Any of a dozen excuses will do.”
As he spoke, he walked closer to Samin, until there was only a hand’s breadth between their faces.
“I understand,” Poma said softly. “I’m a better man than you and I considered it.”
Samin still trembled with fear, but the slightest of hope was starting to emerge. Maybe he wouldn’t die. Maybe they would just beat him and set him back to work.
“I’m not even going to stop you,” Poma said. “But consider this. You used to work for a great and civilised empire. You used to bring your reports and your tithes to the most magnificent city in the world. These foreigners tore the beauty from our temples and turned civilisation into strife. Is it better to live in fear and let that corruption spread or to take a risk and have somewhere worth living?”
He stepped back and gestured out across the plains.
“Your choice,” he said.
Then he sat back down.
Samin ushered the grain bearers up the slope into the fort above Cuzco. The other administrators had agreed with him, better to hope for victory and plan for defeat.
He looked out across the city, no longer shining as it once had, to the plains beyond. There was movement at the edge of the jungle, perhaps the enemy finally arriving. Outside Cuzco, the army prepared to meet them.
Samin had seldom felt more afraid. But never before had he felt proud.