“The world’s a simple place, once you understand it. People will talk of Our Lord—and they’re right to. Make no mistake, we are His chosen. They’ll talk of humility and kindness and justness. All the things they think we should be. But in the end, what matters is who can take what. Remember that. If you can take something—take it. Because rest assured, you’ll be a fool to think someone else won’t.”
The man speaking these words wore a finely tailored doublet, though a close inspection would reveal it was worn and faded, as were the rest of his clothes. His name was Don Luis Farajo, and he led his companion—a ladino youth named Juan—along a winding trail that passed through villages with names he did not know.
“Now that’s something your kind just don’t understand. Oh, you listen to all the priests have to tell you, I’ve no doubt. How else did you learn our tongue, after all? But you take it all on faith. You trust. Damned fools, the lot of you. Look at Atahualpa with Pizarro. He had no intention of keeping his word. None. Yet the whole empire was lost because an emperor did not understand the fundamental rule of the world. Takers always take. And always will. Mark my words.”
Juan did not answer Don Luis, his eyes on the trail ahead. It was early morning, the sun still climbing above the mountains which towered around them. They had started off before dawn from the inn they had spent the night in, passing men and women carrying goods for the day’s market down the steep paths they were climbing. It was exhausting work and Juan chewed coca leaves to ward off his appetite, though Don Luis scoffed at his habit, calling it uncivilized.
Don Luis had opinions on all matters, which he was never shy to share with anyone who happened to be at hand. Especially Juan, who he seemed to view as a child who he had a solemn duty to properly educate in the ways of the world. This despite the fact Juan could speak Spanish as well as any Peninsular, having been taught by the Dominican friars he served in Pisac. Of the two of them it was Juan who had the rudiments of his letters, though the ladino never dared mention that to Don Luis.
“See, now pay mind to these people,” Don Luis said, gesturing at the family that was making its way down the hill, their backs heavy with baskets filled with alpaca wool clothes. “They have not done a thing different than their fathers or their father’s fathers in all their lives. Wake up and walk down to the valley. Spend the day at market and then go back up. Now, you at least have started your education. Those friars taught you a thing or two.
“But so many men—even Spaniards, by God—can’t be bothered to do more than what their fathers did. And what do you think they accomplished? Nothing. No, I will not be like them. Not me. I’ve seen to that. Come across to this New World and these godforsaken villages. But we won’t be idling here long, will we Juan?”
Juan agreed with a murmur. The sun was up above the mountains now, burning bright and warm, and both men were soon covered in a sheen of sweat. They continued up further, past the last of the villages, until they could see the ruins standing above it all. It was a grand fortress, still standing strong, as though it might be able to repel the Spaniards simply by its existence, each stone intricately placed against the next, creating a vast whole.
There were row upon row of terraces extending below the stones of the fortress and the two men made their way up them until they arrived at the foot of the fortress. Once there, Don Luis led the way to the river that curved around the far side of the ruins. An old bridge extended across it, leading to a hillside that had once had a few houses built into it. There were also a number of, what appeared to be, caves whose entrances had been blocked over with stone. It was to these that the two men went.
“See, now this is the kind of thing people don’t think about. It takes a certain mind to see the opportunity here. Your people, they just see a sacred place, to be respected. Nonsense. The dead are dead. They’ll continue to lie there regardless of what you, God or anyone else does. Now, my people, they’re off looking for the next empire—El Dorado, or whatever such thing they think exists over the next hill. Nonsense too. We don’t need an El Dorado to make our fortunes. We just need the right grave, the right bit of treasure. And here, I think, we’ll have it.”
Don Luis stopped in front of one of the stone walls and gestured for Juan to hand him one of the picks he carried. Together they started to work on breaking the stones, the sound of metal on rock echoing from the mountain down into the valley below. When they had cleared enough of the wall away, Don Luis lit a candle he had stuffed in one of his pockets and slipped into the hole, casting the light around to see what was there.
Juan followed after him, making a sign of the cross. A body, mummified and dressed in ancient clothes lay on a stone at the center of the cavern. Don Luis ignored it, rooting through the rest of grave, which was filled with various artifacts, his eyes alert only for the glimmer of gold. They found none in the first grave, or in the second, but the third and fourth revealed a few small trinkets which the Spaniard pocketed.
“You see Juan. It’s just as I said. There is a fortune here for the taking. Those other fools running around the jungle never bother to get their hands a little dirty here. And your people don’t want to disturb the dead. That’s foolish. The dead are dead. They will lie there regardless.”
Juan did not think that was the case, but he offered no comment. They busied themselves with opening the fifth grave, which proved to be the largest. It contained a stunning number of tiny figurines crafted from gold and silver. Some were shaped as men and women, others as jaguars, alpacas or other beasts. There were so many the sack Juan carried was almost too heavy to carry.
Don Luis danced about with glee, unable to contain himself. “My fortune is made boy. It is made. Think of what I can do with the coin from this. There might even be enough here to let me buy some land in Spain. You see, it’s just as I said. The reward will always go to those who take.”
Juan paid no mind to Don Luis. He was studying the figurines under the candlelight. As he did so he had a vision of himself picking up one of the stones they had knocked loose and striking Don Luis in the head, leaving him here so that he might take the gold for himself. The Spaniard would never expect it. Juan could pile up the rocks, restoring the wall, so that Don Luis would be trapped. By the time he managed to get himself free, if he ever did, Juan would have disappeared.
Something stayed his hand, though it was a tempting vision. Juan could not say what it was. Perhaps it was the teaching of the Dominicans, who would surely disapprove of such an act, just as they would consider both Juan and Don Luis the pair of scoundrels they were. Or perhaps it was just that he did not believe what Don Luis said about the ways of the world. There were other ways, other paths, and he would find his own.
“Come Juan,” Don Luis said, stepping out of the tomb back into the light. “We’ll have to hurry if we’re to be back to civilization by nightfall. We don’t want to be on the open road with this gold. Takers will take, as I say.”
Juan slipped a few of the figurines from the sack into his own pockets and followed Don Luis down the mountain.
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