An Encounter With a Stranger

My luck did not hold for it never does.

On one such occasion ten of us gathered, with four or five always at a table in our cards, while the rest mingled about talking and drinking. Aside from myself and the generous Don Antonio, there was the treasurer Lope de Alcedo and several friends of his, including one strange looking fellow I had never set eyes upon before. He was dark haired and dark skinned but with the most piercing blue eyes I have ever seen. I sat at the table most of the night, as was my habit, and acquitted myself well, accumulating a generous pile of reales. Several times, especially as I began to take the treasurer’s coin, I caught the stranger gazing at me from the corner of the room when he thought my eyes were on my cards.

I wondered at his interest and, deciding that it could hardly be friendly, I made a great show of getting full in my drink, talking loudly and unsteadily, all the while keeping a careful eye on the man. Fortune stood by me that night and I kept up my winning ways, which led to much dark muttering by Don Lope and the others at the table. This kept on for some time, as we played deep into the night, the others cursing me and their ill luck, the hours growing heavy on everyone’s faces.

My mood, which had been as bright as my fellow players’ had been foul, turned ugly when, after losing a hand, I reached into my purse to pay into the pot and found it lighter than it had been. Though I had no proof, beyond my own native instinct, I immediately turned and locked eyes with the blue eyed stranger. He returned my gaze, the smallest of grins touching his lips. I marveled at his ability to steal up beside me and take the coin right before my eyes where it sat on the table. Had the others noticed? Unlikely, they were all too consumed with me and their own gloom with the play going against them.

I had no sense of when or how he might have pulled his trick. As I have mentioned to you before, all my senses are very keen and on this night, though I had been acting quite the drunkard, I had taken only a cup or two of drink. And yet he had slipped past my guard, stealing right from under my eyes, without my even noticing.

I vowed then, as I paid out my debts and settled into the next hand, that I would not allow him to succeed in his game again. I slipped my dagger out from my belt and kept it in my lap, my left hand clenched around it, within easy reach of my purse on the table before me. And there I kept my eyes, even as I played on through the next hands, never glancing again towards the newcomer, though I knew he was watching me like a falcon studying its prey from afar. I know only too well the charlatan tricks that can be played, the deception of appearances, where one is there and then not there. No fool am I, I recognized a fellow traveler.

When he came next to lighten my purse I was well prepared for him. As he reached out, making a show of passing by the table, I brought my dagger down upon his hand, the blade gouging right through his flesh and lodging itself in the table trapping the stranger there. He let out a yell that quietened the room and I leapt up from chair, snatching my purse from the table, calling him a devil and a thief.

My strategy was poorly thought out though, for he was a friend of Don Lope, the treasurer, as were most of those there that night. My only friend in the place was our host Don Antonio and he did not dare risk his friendship with the treasurer over someone as inconsequential as me, a decision I cannot blame him for. He did step forward and plead for peace, to no effect, as Don Lope and his friends drew their rapiers against me.

I drew my blade as well, thinking only of how I might engineer an escape with my vitals intact. Before the mob could come at me I brought my rapier down upon the stranger’s still-trapped hand taking off two of his fingers. He snarled at me, more like a beast than a man in that moment, and then pulled my dagger free and came at with the rest of them. Though I parried furiously I was unable to stop them from raking me with their blades. I managed to fend them off only enough to allow me to exit the house, little good it did me, for I was still menaced at all sides by Lope de Alcedo and his companions.

Leave his guts on the street, Don Lope said to his friends, his voice heavy with drink.

I shall still have more stones than the lot of you, I told him with a sneer. You are as unpaved as any village.

This caused a general uproar among the half dozen or so men brandishing their weapons in the darkness. They were advancing upon me when Don Antonio, Lord bless him, came round the corner with the Alcalde of the city, who he had roused from his bed at that late hour. That man called a halt to the proceedings and had me arrested, calling on all the others gathered to follow him to give their statements as to what had occurred.

Strangely, the newcomer with the blue eyes was nowhere to be seen among those who trailed behind me and the Alcalde, cursing and muttering at their poor luck in being unable to finish their task. I, of course, was infinitely grateful that they had failed in that, but something else was troubling me. I was certain that the stranger had come out with the rest of the mob in pursuit of me as I had made my feeble retreat, but at some point in between the ensuing scrum and the arrival of the Alcalde he had vanished. If his fellows had noticed they made no comment on it, either among themselves or to the Alcalde. Where then had the man gone, and to what end?

I had plenty of time to dwell on that, for I was thrown into jail, clapped with irons, and set in the stock. I passed a cold and miserable night, bleakly pondering the terrible state I now found myself in. The next day the sun rose and with it came my friend Don Antonio, as true a gentleman as one could wish for, and my master Don Tadeo, who spoke with the Alcalde, a man he knew, and had me let out of the stocks and irons. The Alcalde would not free me, though, for the witnesses had all sworn statements against me.

Surprisingly, no mention was made of the stranger, the harm that had come to him, or the theft which had precipitated all the events. It was as though he had never been present. I protested to the Alcalde that I wished to press charges against this man, but he waved me away. Neither Don Antonio nor I knew the man’s name and the Alcalde had not seen him when he’d come upon the scene, so for all intents and purposes he did not exist. The charges against me had nothing to do with the stranger. It seems that in the scuffle that had broken out I had, while making my frantic defense, landed a blow on the face of one Mendo de Quinones, which required some seven stitches.

As they were unable to secure my release, in spite of their many and considered pleas to the Alcalde, both Don Tadeo and Don Antonio left me to my fate in the jail, promising to return with what help they could muster. In spite of their cheerful bravado at our parting, I knew my situation was bleak. Neither of my friends had the standing that Lope de Alcedo did in Cuzco and that, combined with the fact that all the witnesses spoke against me, meant I was almost certain to be facing a penalty, no doubt a few years with the army in Chile battling the savages that roam there.

So began my first spell of imprisonment, though it would not be my last. At the time, the specter of unending days lying before me, filled with poor food and miserable conditions, as the case ran through its gauntlet of appeals, left me in a state of dread and despair. Those nights did not pass easily. Neither do these nights before me now, though I have had ample time to grow accustomed to them.

from The Maleficio Chronicles

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