Inca – Prologue and First Chapter

Cover_ImprovedAs I mentioned earlier in the week, I expect there’s going to be a spike in traffic to this blog in the coming days. A friend recommended I should put up sample chapters of my novels. I will start with Inca, which is my most popular book to date. It really seems to have found a home with people going to Peru as tourists, as it isn’t a travel guide or a text book.

It’s the life story of a high-ranking Inca bureaucrat: He is born into wealth and privilege; he spends his early adulthood living as a fugitive from Imperial justice; his middle years see him watch the Empire he loves tear itself apart, and by his old age he lives in the ruin of his life’s work, telling a Spanish friar to write down what he has to say so that through his words, his people will be remembered.

Here’s the Prologue and First Chapter:

Prologue of Inca

I am tired, Friar.

I am tired of you, and that shoddy brown robe you wear. I would not have given such an embarrassing rag to the poorest llama drover who ever worked my flocks.

I am tired of this thing we must do together before we have even begun. I used to savour a long and difficult task, but now I begrudge even the small annoyances of finding you parchment and ink. The scratching of your quill sets my teeth on edge. I would weep, but even a useless old man knows his tears will change nothing.

I begrudge the new reality that darkens the twilight of my life. I used to be able to guide the lives of millions of people with just a few balls of string, but now all I can do is sit here and speak to you in your clumsy tongue. My life’s work is gone, and those squiggles you labour over shall produce my only lasting legacy.

I feel it in my bones. I am weary all the way down to the marrow. I ache where the monster of Time gnaws at me, swallowing my accomplishments, digesting all the people and places and things that I have ever loved. Time is relentless, unstoppable, and it devours all memory, some faster than others. When the monster voids its bowels, everything I care about vanishes into the emptiness and loneliness and stillness and silence that is to be forgotten forevermore.

I can see you don’t understand, and your ignorance exhausts me. How can I make you see what I am trying to do? Speaking in Spanish is like trying to play the drum when all you have is a flute. It is a lover’s language, and full of colourful obscenities, but it is not a proper medium for lofty discourse.

Do you know that the Inca chose a language that was not our own with which to rule our world? You call it Quechua, which is the name of an unimportant tribe of river people who live not too far from Cuzco. We call it Runa Simi, the Language of the People, and of all the tongues I have mastered I always marvel at Runa Simi’s versatility, its capacity, its grace.

Take the word Pacha, Friar. Pacha means Time, Earth and Universe. You can tell which one a man means by the context, but it is always there in the back of your mind that Time and Earth and Universe are all one whole, inseparable from one another.

There is another word, Cuti, which means change, movement, alteration. A simple term, to be sure, but what happens when you put it together with a word that has three meanings that are the same thing seen from different angles? How do you translate Pachacuti, a thoroughly complex and beautiful word in my tongue, into your unimaginative language? Does it mean Earthquake? It does, but not always. Does it mean Change of Time? Yes, but what does that mean to you? It terrifies me, so I must find a better term than a mere Change of Time for Pachacuti.

Think of the world you know, Friar. Think of the reality of your life that wraps around you like a warm blanket. That is not the way things are. It is just the way things are right now. At any moment the world you know can stop, and a new and different world, unimaginable and unacceptable to you before, will begin. That is a Pachacuti. It is the end of one era and the beginning of another. It is the Apocalypse. One era ends and a new era begins. Do you see now?

One of our emperors even named himself Pachacuti so there would be no confusion: There was a time before him and a time after him, and during his reign the old world changed and a new world —the world that was divided into four quarters with each paying homage to the Inca— was born.

Your very presence here is because of a Pachacuti that clenches my heart and disturbs my dreams. My old eyes fog up with regrets sometimes, and when I try to blink them away I see flashes of what we were, and what we should have been long after my death. When I was a boy my people ruled. Today those few of us who survive bow to your kind, or we cower in the darkness of the hacha hacha, the cloying sticky jungles that are fit only for beasts and men prepared to act like beasts.

That was a Pachacuti. Our time is gone, and now I must spend my final days bitter and useless and defeated in your time. The world has changed, and not for the better. I am so tired of being helpless, of not being able to correct the great wrongs and injustices that have swept my world from Quitu to Tchili, from the never-ending ocean to the never-ending forest.

I have brought you here, Friar, to preserve some small part of all that I have lost. After a Pachacuti no one remembers what life was like before. What will the future remember of the past? Shaped stones, abandoned cities and dusty graves are no fit legacy for all that my people accomplished, but someday that will be all that remains unless I do something with the few days I have left to me.

It falls to me, or it will never be done. I am the only one left to do it. My kind ruled Tahuantinsuyu, an empire the size of which the world has never known. It was forged in the crucibles of war and diplomacy by grandfather, father, and son. I am related to all of them.

The first was Viracocha Inca, who took the name of our creator god as his own and then set out to earn such a title. The second was his son Pachacuti, a name whose implication I have already explained to you. He took the Imperial Red Fringe from his father’s preferred son and defended Cuzco in its darkest hour, when Chanca invaders were about to reduce us to serfdom.

Pachacuti turned his victory into a war of expansion, pushing the edges of Tahuantinsuyu further than his father would have imagined possible before giving his armies to his son Topa Inca Yupanki. That grand old man stretched our Empire to almost its furthest extent, and all before your Christopher Columbus found his New World —though I can assure you this place is as ancient as the one on your side of the Never-Ending Ocean.

Viracocha Inca was my great-grandfather. Pachacuti was my great uncle, and he ordered my grandfather —his bastard half-brother— executed on a whim. I met Old Topa several times when I was a young man and spent my adult life serving his son and grandsons. There is no Inca of the Blood left alive better suited to tell you about Tahuantinsuyu.

I have seen more than seventy harvests come and go, and Time is stalking my last days. Am I to stay silent while your kind tells the story of my people? What do you Spaniards know about the Inca except that we had mountains of gold and big ears, and with us out of the way you can pillage across the rest of Tahuantinsuyu, the Land of the Four Quarters, just as you have done to Royal Cuzco?

Among the many duties I have performed for my people throughout my long life, I have done my best within the narrow window of my own experiences to record the great events of my land as they actually happened, and not as some would prefer them to be remembered, be they Spaniard or Inca—

You snort your disbelief, Friar? To quote one of your peers, ‘Oh ye of little faith.’ Just as you have your scribe’s tools laid out before you, so I hold in my hands threads that can speak of great victories and foul deeds, of love’s triumphs and lust’s treacheries. Your conviction that we were too stupid to record the world around us is still further proof that only a true Pacuyok, an Earplug Man, can tell our story.

From an empire of twelve million there may have been five or ten thousand with my special education. Building the empire took its toll on us, and the plague was worse. Both were as nothing compared to the War Between the Brothers, and you Spaniards killed most of the rest. Now there are so few like me that you have never heard of the Royal Quipu, the knotted strings that remember words instead of cold numbers. I have my story ‘written’ —though in the Language of the People the term is tied— across hundreds of thousands of knots, but who will be able to read my tangled skein after I’m gone?

It seems Time will swallow up the last of the capac quipucamayocs, the royal quipu masters, just as it has swallowed up Tahuantinsuyu. Perhaps one day the Language of the People will be replaced with Spanish. I shudder to think of a time when the hills around Cuzco forget the sound of Runa Simi echoing from their faces.

No, I must save some small part of the truth. I must take these knots of string and make them speak in Spanish. Even if no one is interested now, someday someone will look at the ruined cities of the Inca and wonder what glories and tragedies were played out in these places.

If I am to cheat Time I will have to do it in Spanish with the help of an educated Spaniard, but where was I to find one while hiding in this city, deep in the jungle? We have several of your countrymen living here, deserters from Almagro, but they’re as illiterate in your writing as a Colla potato farmer would be with my royal quipus.

I think your God and my gods have conspired to help me, Friar. When our pickets said a Spanish priest was wandering in the hacha hacha I ordered them to spare you. I need you. I need you enough to let you live when all I want to do is burn you alive as you and yours have done to me and mine.

So we have each other’s oaths, Friar. You shall write my story word for word as I read it from my quipus. Where my Spanish falters we shall use other translators to aid us, and we shall go back and forth through the story until my words are as lucid in your language as they are in mine. When I allow you to leave this place, you will make sure the manuscript is stored somewhere safe for the future to contemplate. One day someone will want to know what really happened, and my story will be found preserved within these pages.

In exchange for this task you will have the run of the city and permission to preach your Christian gospel every seventh day to whomsoever wishes to hear you. I will even sit in the front pew for every sermon.

Who knows? Clearly your God beat my gods, or you would not be here, and I would not be in this stinking, chittering, sweating jungle, and there would be no need to transfer a royal quipu from string to parchment, knot to ink. Perhaps you will convert me, but I warn you now I am a stubborn man, and old. I have walked a long road under a harsh sun to appear before you today. If you can change me now then you will be the finest son of Castile I have ever met, but considering the ilk of your countrymen that might be an easy feat.

Enough rambling, it is the blessing and curse of the elderly to be able to sit and talk all day, whether anyone wants to listen or not. Let us begin…


Chapter 1 of Inca

My father was not much of one to tell stories —he preferred to lecture and instruct— but I remember being a little boy, waking in terror at phantoms and ghouls who swirled through my dreams and seemed to lurk still in the quiet corners of my dark room. My father would show affection in the night that he would never have given in the light of day, cradling me in his strong arms and whispering stories that always began with Ñaupa Pacha, Once Upon a Time.

The story of my life will leave my father behind far too soon, and so much will be left unsaid. Thus I begin my tale as he would have wanted me to, and I beg you to write it in my own language as well as your Spanish so that a piece of him will be remembered.

Ñaupa Pacha, Once Upon a Time, there was a land called Tahuantinsuyu, the Four Quarters of the World, which was ruled by the Intip Churi, the Children of the Sun.

Just calling it the Four Quarters of the World does not convey how immense it was. At its highest zenith it was literally the entire known world, including areas only discovered as we conquered them.

Tahuantinsuyu was bigger and broader than the mind’s eye can imagine, holding every trick of land and water that the most imaginative of gods could conjure. There were mountains so tall that their peaks punched through the roof of the sky, so that a man could suffocate at their tops. There were weed-choked swamps that reduce the ground to a perfect flatness all the way out to the horizon, so that a man born in that fetid place could not conceive of a slope, let alone a hill, and never dream of the sky-piercing mountain.

There were deserts so dry that not one green thing grew, and you dared not open your mouth for fear that the greedy air would snatch your life’s moisture from your insides. There were jungles so wet that when it rained a man looked at the ground to create a hollow for his nose to draw air, otherwise he would splutter and drown where he stood.

All of this was Tahuantinsuyu, and all of it belongs to a single man, the Sapa Inca, the Only Inca, the Shepherd of the Sun, the Son of the Sun, the Emperor. It all belonged to him, this king of kings, the Imperial leader of the Imperial people, and everyone knew it.

Pomposity? Hubris? No! One need only look back before the Spanish Pachacuti to see the proof of it. In the most remote village of the snowy land of Tchili, or in the smallest mountain hamlet in the dark jungles beyond Quitu where the people had so little they paid their taxes in dead fleas and lice plucked from their own bodies, even there you would see that the Inca rule: Ask for a drink, beg a meal, and it would appear in an Inca beaker, on an Inca plate.

In the four quarters of the Empire there were eighty tribes, and before each one was firmly fixed into the State, before our legions had even left, a colony of settlers was imported from a land long loyal to the Sapa Inca; that colony’s job would be to make the standard Inca pottery, the same made in all directions for a thousand topos, roughly the same distance as your Spanish leagues.

Every man, loyal or rebellious, needs to drink; he pours his drink from an Inca amphora into an Inca beaker before he puts it to his lips. When he eats, it is off an Inca plate. He will be reminded with each sip and every bite that he lives with the permission of the Children of the Sun, and if he wishes to do so in the future he must stay in their good graces.

That was the awesome power of the Sapa Inca, the Only Inca, the Emperor. Lands he would never see recognized him as the most important thing in their lives.

It was in such a world —though not yet extended to its highest glory— that I was born. By and large people born up in the mountains do not keep track of their birthdays or their exact ages, but my household never forgot that day. All the omens were bad, and all of them proved true.

While no one can speak with great authority on the moments of their birth, my coming into this world was unusual enough at the time that many people remembered it. What I am telling you now is drawn from the accounts of many who I respect, and I have spent a lifetime without hearing a single contrary version of the story.

I was to be my father’s first legitimate child by his official wife, so he had summoned two fortunetellers to make their predictions for my future. The first was a kalparicoc, a diviner from the lungs of sacrificed animals. He killed a guinea pig and inflated its lung with a straw. The veins on the outside of the gory balloon foretold a life that would cause woe early and experience it often.

The next man was a spider augur, capable of answering only yes or no questions. My father asked if I would be a boy, and the man pulled away his pot to reveal a giant spider from the distant jungles with legs neatly splayed out, meaning yes. My father then asked if the kalparicoc’s gloomy tidings were wrong. The pot was pulled back again to show the spider had shifted a hairy leg askew, meaning no.

My father tried to pay the two men for their time with bolts of red cotton, but their predictions had been so unpleasant that they declined payment. While I’m sure they did so in the hopes that their bad tidings would prove false, my father took their refusal as yet another bad omen. His life’s work revolved around maintaining reciprocity, an equal exchange of goods for services. He retired to his counting room to work while he worried.

There was much to concern an expecting father, and he did not need the services of fortunetellers to know that my birth was poorly timed: I was born in the month of Ayamalca Raimi, just thirteen days before the shortest day of the year. By your calendar that would be June the Eighth of the year Fourteen-Seventy.

That is the worst time of year for a birth, because there are no crops in the ground. Tahuantinsuyu was surviving off its storehouses. Meanwhile, the cold and damp that herald the presence of Supay —our version of your Devil— crept into every room, threatening mother and baby alike with sicknesses while they are at their lowest ebb.

Worse still was the weather. Ayamalca Raimi is a month of storms that come off the never-ending forests of the east in rolling black thunderheads, sending rain and hail and snow one after the other to make even a walk across a courtyard a miserable affair. Such a storm was overhead all day and through most of that terrible night. The thunder god Illapa, crashing his fist against a great drum in the sky, caused such noise that twice my father came down to the kitchen to see if the servants were smashing the crockery.

Even the best efforts of the thunder god, though, paled beside those of my mother.

I have left the worst until last, and unfortunately the worst is my mother. She was unable to bear me with the quiet suffering of so many Inca women. I have been told that my mother’s screams made the stone walls of my house tremble, but I think that is an invention of one of my nursemaids. My father’s head was always turned by frail and fragile maidens, thin and graceful, like stately willow saplings beside a cold mountain brook. Not the sort of woman whose lungs could make stones quake, or the sort whose hips could easily pass a child.

Except for my own delivery I have never been present as a woman gave birth, but I know for most of my broad-hipped race the feat is no great effort. I have heard of many peasants who begin labour out in the fields, deliver, assure themselves that the baby is all right, and go back to work.

My father thought women with the figures necessary for such ease were too squat and ugly for a man who could have any woman in the world. My mother was of the Chacapoyas, the Cloud People who live on the mountain slopes just above the hacha hacha. Their women are pale and tall and slender even compared to you Spaniards.

She had been born far below my father’s station and should never have been eligible to become his official wife, but he was so taken with her —and not just with her beauty but with her heart— that he gave generous gifts to her father until my maternal grandfather could buy his way into the highest ranks of his nation’s nobility. Once the necessary station was established my father obtained special permission from the Emperor himself to marry the newly ennobled princess.

My father loved my mother in a way few men are lucky enough to find. She was bright and always cheerful, and she returned his affections without reservation. In all the years of my life I have never heard anyone, from family friends to our most vicious enemies, speak an unkind word against her memory. She had only one flaw, narrow hips, and I killed her for it.

When her screams stopped a midwife entered my father’s counting room and told the great accountant, “You have a son!”

He allowed no smile to break his composed facade but continued moving his pebbles around his counting board by the light of a single rush torch. “And my wife? Is she still in pain? Can I see her?” He said.

“No lord, she is dead,” was the reply.

I am told his hand froze over the board, and it trembled as he set down his stone. “That is unfortunate,” was all he said.

Some might think my father’s lack of reaction was truly heartless, and his enemies at Court certainly circulated the story far and wide with that interpretation applied, but I have always known how hard he took the news of my mother’s death. I endured a tangible and constant reminder of his sorrow with me throughout my childhood, and until a decade ago there were many who could remember the penance I served for killing his beloved.

There is a tradition among mountain people to call a newborn simply Wawa, Baby, until it has lived long enough to live a good while longer. Only then is it given a childhood name. When I escaped my infancy without suffering any fatal disease I was named Waccha, Unfortunate, and every time my father called me to him he was reminding himself of what he had sacrificed for an heir.

My father was a Tocoyricoc, He Who Sees All, one of only four such men in all the world. He was in charge of making sure one quarter of the Realm ran smoothly, free from any corruption that cheated the Emperor of his taxes and the Emperor’s subjects of the state services those taxes provided. In the pursuit of just government he answered only to the Sapa Inca, and he could order any man save one of the four great viceroys, each the absolute lord of one quarter of Tahuantinsuyu, to aid him in his task.

I spoke earlier of the length and breadth of Tahuantinsuyu, and how each tribe recognized the Inca as supreme. It was men like my father who made it so.

I said my father had enemies at Court, and he did; not from envy at his rank and station or jealousy at the special trust the Sapa Inca placed in him, but for the fear of his talent and his ruthless honesty. When my father found a guilty man that man was brought to justice, and for that reason a great number of my father’s colleagues had to be honest men. He was very good at finding corruption.

My father’s name was Tupac Capac, Royal Lord. He had others, seven or so, for it is the fashion among nobility to tack on adjectives like jewelry. Once people call you a thing, Just, Fair, Wise, generally the honorific is adapted into your name. Whatever his full name, his few equals called him Tupac, and his legions of subordinates called him Inca, Tocoyricoc, Lord, Sire, Sir, or, in my case, Father.

We lived in a great house just off one of the main streets of Royal Cuzco. From the narrow lane outside it was unremarkable, a solid wall of fitted masonry joining us to the houses of our clansmen to the left and right. We had neatly thatched eaves and a single doorway of massive teak decorated with an alpaca wool blanket dyed with the family’s personal shade of yellow.

Our home was a compound, as all great houses are in Cuzco. We had eight buildings circling two courtyards, and the two buildings that linked the inner courtyard to the outer one were two stories tall with the counting room tower mounted on top of that.

My father’s counting room was a marvel: In my school days I had many friends who mocked my home for only having eight buildings, for there were palaces in Cuzco that had a hundred, but only the houses of tocoyricocs had counting rooms, and the counting room’s tower gave a magnificent view of the entire city.

This elevation was strictly for business, of course. The room had huge windows with thick silver frames, and the inside walls were of precisely fitted fieldstone speckled with sparkling chips of mica that were regularly whitewashed with lime from burned seashells. The end result was that from before sunrise to just after sunset and even on rainy days the whole room was brilliantly lit so my father could work.

The building is gone now, of course. Most of Cuzco is gone, but I can close my eyes and see that place still in my mind. I can remember my father’s assistants waiting outside in the early morning, stomping their feet at the cold but making as little noise as possible lest they disturb my father’s rest. After the household had made its dawn sacrifice of burned coca leaves —and not a moment before— our doorman would unbar the teak entrance. My father’s underlings would come in with great mountains of jars in their arms, quietly fighting for position to be the last to admit their failures to the Tocoyricoc.

Inside each jar lay a quipu, a length of rope with strings descending from it, littered with knots. I am sure through my long life I have run more quipus through my hands than I have hairs on my head, for the knots record all manner of valuable information for those with the knowledge to tease the facts out of the skeins.

Among the quipucamayocs, the quipu masters, the strings brought to the house of He Who Sees All were called the problem quipus, because they recorded the inconsistencies in the records of the Empire as discovered by hundreds of accountants working in the Great Quipu Repository, the beating heart of the efficient Inca bureaucracy.

When my father was in Cuzco it was his job and special talent to look at the problem quipus. He could take an incompatible set of numbers that had baffled a dozen men before him, move backwards and forward through the ledgers and invoices and requisitions, and arrive at a solution.

The men would climb the ladders one by one to reach him in his counting room, and he would be waiting there, perched on a low stool carved from a single piece of mahogany to look like a man crouching in deep thought.

Up there he would stretch out the troublesome threads and run his fingers along the knots, the numbers lodging in his mind, faster than he could speak them aloud. Then he would turn to his counting board, a maze of boxes and compartments spread across the floor, littered with coloured stones. He would move the pebbles around, and to someone who did not know their pattern it seemed he would arrive at an answer by magic; then he would take some yarn from a basket behind him and tie the answer down, passing it to the man waiting at the top of the ladder. Each would scuttle off as fast as dignity would allow so that the next man and the next could climb the ladder, and so it would go for most of the day.

There were times where my father would snort with impatience, handing the quipu back to his assistant without even resorting to the counting board, barking the answer that he had seen while the knots were still tangled in the quipucamayoc’s fist. He rightly took those errors as a waste of his time and an insult to all the hard training he had put into his subordinates.

When a really complicated problem arose he took it as a personal challenge; he would furrow his brow and set his face as hard as granite, staring at the knots and daring them to defy his mind. You could always tell when my father was stuck because he would call for akha, maize beer, and the mug would appear instantly from the kitchen two floors below. He would usually have the answer by the time he drained the cup, and the rare times he did not that would mean an audit. Only he audited within his quarter of Tahuantinsuyu, but he loathed admitting he was stumped.

“Huaman Paullu! Note: Fifteen bags of maize are missing from the Cusi Tampu in the Nazca province. The ledgers say ten bags were destroyed by rodents, but what kind of idiot tampu keeper doesn’t notice mice eating ten bags of maize? Also, there’s no mention of what happened to the other five bags. Next trip we audit that tampu, and his ledgers had better be clearer than the copy he sent us or we’ll replace him with someone who can tie a two without making it look like a four!”

Behind him his faithful secretary would tie knots on a royal quipu, recording sounds instead of numbers. If there were four new strings on the audit list by the end of the day my father would be angry at his failure; meanwhile, hundreds of discrepancies had been corrected by his mind, the worst problems that had already defeated long days of bureaucratic scrutiny.

And that was the way of things. My father either solved the unsolvable or he would conduct an audit. Every year, sometimes twice a year, my father would leave Cuzco and follow the Royal Roads throughout Condesuyu, the western quarter of the Four Quarters of the World. He would stop at each inn and way station, each hamlet and village along his route between problems, making a long circle ending back at Cuzco where he balanced his archived account ledgers with the findings of his most recent trip. Doing this meant that every community in that entire quarter of the Empire was visited by He Who Sees All at least once every five years.

I spent my infancy and childhood in that man’s shadow, and I have always marveled at my good fortune. My father was a driven man. He cared only for results and hard work.

As you would expect from one so devoted, my father led a quiet home life, shunning the outside. There was one group of visitors, though, that even a man as powerful as my shut-in father could not turn away: The Ocllo sisters.

There were three of them, all more than ten years his senior, and all married to the Emperor Topa Inca Yupanki. My father could not have denied them entry even if it were within his vast power to do so. They could make a river freeze over with their glare. They were my father’s bane.

The eldest, Mama Ocllo, was actually Old Topa’s official wife, his Coya, his Empress. Her two sisters, Chiqui Ocllo and Cari Ocllo, had been married on the Imperial whim of having the entire trio within the Emperor’s harem. All three of them had long passed out of favour with the Sapa Inca and now contented themselves with using their considerable influence to bother quiet widowers like my father.

I can remember one visit in particular. They arrived without warning, as was their preference, and the leader of their bodyguard threw our doorman aside as he opened our teak portal. The guardsman stepped into the middle of our outer courtyard and announced the arrival of the Coya and her two sisters in his best parade ground voice; then he blew his conch-shell trumpet, rattling the teeth of every jaw in our compound.

My father descended from his counting room to join me, slightly dazed at the volume of the summons. Only when the entire household was turned out in the courtyard to greet them did the three preening women and their retinue come in from the street.

They were small, plump, and solid, and they looked around with unapologetic criticism on their faces as only the powerful can do. Our house was frugally decorated, as befitted the nation’s greatest accountant. We did not have elaborate tapestries, jaguar skin rugs, gold idols or silver icons. We may have been the only house on the street without a garden or fish pond or aviary of jungle birds. The three of them read this as a lack of taste. They each sniffed their disdain several times to make sure it was noted before deigning to be greeted.

My father and I blew them a kiss and bowed, followed by our household. Mama Ocllo nodded her acceptance and then pinched my cheek hard enough to take it off. “Little Waccha gets taller every day, Tupac! He grows like a maize stalk.”

“Skinny as one too,” Chiqui Ocllo added, her tone implying she was bored already.

“Yes, well, your son Capac Huari was the same at his age, and he’s filled out nicely,” my father replied. In his place I would have smiled sweetly to add insult to injury. It was a well-known but unspoken fact that her husband was not Capac Huari’s father. Chiqui Ocllo had cuckolded the short Emperor with Viceroy Hualpaya, the tall ruler of Andesuyu, the eastern quarter of Tahuantinsuyu. All Chiqui Ocllo could do was nod in agreement that her darling son had indeed been scrawny as a boy.

“When are you going to take little Waccha out on one of your inspections?” Mama Ocllo asked, patting my head as I would a llama, a dumb animal that did not know it was being talked about.

“He’s young for that yet,” my father replied.

“Nonsense! Do him good to get out of these walls and see the world. The sooner the better, if you ask me. It’s not natural keeping a boy inside, especially in a house without a woman.” The three of them each harrumphed their agreement and straightened their dazzling robes, as if to reassure everyone what women looked like.

“I have fifteen women living with us,” my father sighed. I could tell from his tone that he was rehashing an argument that he knew he would not be allowed to win.

“And which one do you call mother, Waccha?” Mama Ocllo asked.

My father only rarely sought the solace of one of his concubines’ arms, and without the clear signal from him none had stepped forward to be a mother to his only legitimate child. I opened my mouth, but my father beat me to it. “My domestic affairs are my business, good lady, and I will thank you to leave the raising of my son to me.”

I had seen quipucamayocs recoil as if burned when my father took that tone with them, but Mama Ocllo just sniffed a little, as if he had merely singed a nose hair. “You need a proper wife, Tupac. You’re too young to live alone.”

“I think there’s something to be said for a life of dedication, and if that leads to celibacy, so be it.” That was another calculated shot, as all three of the Ocllo sisters were much neglected by an Emperor with a thousand wives. Everyone knew of Chiqui Ocllo’s famous dalliance, but the other two were just whispered about, so far.

Our household suffered their company throughout the afternoon, and we were beginning to worry that they would stay for supper until Mama Ocllo delivered her ultimatum.

“Find a wife, or we will find one for you, Tupac. We don’t like you living alone. At least a wife would have the courtesy to invite us to visit once in a while. Oh, and take young Waccha out on an inspection. If he doesn’t look capable of taking over your position, Cari Ocllo has a friend whose son could use the opportunity.”

My father gave his least sincere smile and saw the three old hags out. He then ordered the teak door barred and had our servants sweep the courtyard, as if by removing the dust on the flagstones they could rid the house of the memory of this latest invasion of his home.

He muttered to me as he climbed the ladder back to his counting room, “Cari Ocllo has a friend, does she? Wants his son to be Tocoyricoc one day? You had better be as smart as you seem, boy. When those three get an idea in their heads, they’re like a dog with a bone…”

I lay awake all that night, wondering and worrying. As his only official son I had known from a young age that one day I might take my father’s place as a tocoyricoc. Can you imagine how frightening that is to a little boy, to see your father work with all the benefits of an education that staggers you and know that it might one day fall to you to do the same? It gave me nightmares.

Within days of the Ocllo sisters’ visit my father decided to go on an audit tour and to take me with him.

I had a number of older brothers, though none were official sons because my father had sired them with concubines instead of a wife, as he had me. Still, illegitimacy is not an insurmountable handicap —my father himself was a bastard of one of the Emperor Viracocha Inca’s bastards— and so the two of my father’s sons who were older than me and had shown some ability to think for themselves had each gone out with him on an inspection and returned in tears. He had told them flatly that they would not receive the patronage required from him to secure the education of He Who Sees All.

That might sound cruel coming from a father, but remember He Who Sees All is always looking for government waste, and there are few things more expensive than training a tocoyricoc.

All Inca sons can expect the standard four years at an Inca school, but a boy destined to become He Who Sees All will need much more. His schooling starts as soon as possible and continues on past the state school for another three, and throughout the entire time there are extra tutors and subjects and assignments and projects, and all the people involved in his training, including the student, will be fed and clothed and housed and feted at State expense.

You can put a legion of conscripts on the frontier for three months for what it costs to bring up a tocoyricoc-in-waiting, and so the selection of candidates is a serious business.

Whether it was Mama Ocllo’s prompting or not, he took me, and he had high hopes as he offered up the sacrifice to Inti, the Sun, at the beginning of our journey. For my part I had done my best to seem the ideal candidate: Of all his children I spent by far the most time in his counting room with him, watching him work. I asked questions and was interested in the answers.

My father took pride in his job and position in life, and I think he sensed I was his last chance to pass the post on to one of his sons. If I should fail he would start going around to schools, asking for the top students of mathematics, quipus, and Runa Simi. He would pick the best candidate for the good of the Empire, even if it meant leaving his boys to make their own way in the world.

I remember that inspection tour as one long lesson. Everywhere we went he lectured me in his crisp and exact manner of speaking. It was fascinating to see the world outside Cuzco and have all of its complexities explained by one of their foremost experts.

It wasn’t just my father and I on our trip, of course. My father’s retinue consisted of dozens of quipucamayocs carrying copies of ledgers and inventories for every community on my father’s route. Then there were the interpreters for the few languages he did not speak. My father took a handful of soldiers for the rare cases where a show of force might be necessary, and a few parcel couriers who could run across rough country all day, if need be. He also had dozens of llamas and their drivers, loaded with beautiful gifts to give as rewards to the deserving.

Then there was his retinue of thirty men of the Rucana tribe dressed in identical blue livery: These were a mark of true prestige and power for they carried his litter, a vehicle whose use could only be granted by the Sapa Inca himself.

My father’s one indulgence was his gherkin fetcher. The man’s job was to work up and down the royal highway and off down the side roads, searching for gherkins.

The tiny vegetable, watery yet firm, was my father’s absolute favourite. He ate handfuls of them at a time when it was seemly to do so. As a boy his odd love of them had inspired my grandfather to give him the childhood name of Gherkin, just as mine was Unfortunate, and so they were a part of who my father was. Many villages kept crops of gherkins just for his visits, a gesture of his popularity that did not escape my notice. Between these villages, meanwhile, he still had the craving, and so we had the gherkin fetcher.

As ungainly as all these people sound, my father moved fast, thanks in large part to the Capac Ñan, the Royal Road. Today the system is a shambles, but when the Inca ruled the royal roads were a network of transportation and communication stretching the length and breath of  Tahuantinsuyu, tying together people separated by mountains and deserts and rivers and jungles into a unified whole.

The royal roads were not for the commoners, though they could use the road to go about their tax-paying duties provided they had a pass. Instead, the roads were for anyone on the Emperor’s business.

Every night my father and his procession stopped at a tampu, a depot of storehouses with an inn that provided free food and lodgings. The tampus were spaced about a day’s amble from each other, but my father often moved so quickly that our procession would skip the first tampu to eat and sleep at the second.

I have walked the royal roads many times since I was a boy, but I still think of the landmarks in Condesuyu as I saw them on that first journey I took with my father. There was the gorge of the Apurimac River that we crossed on a great rope suspension bridge, more than a hundred of my small boy’s paces long. The river below moves so fast across an endless series of rapids that it was always roaring, and the steep sides of its canyon bounced the sound around to form untranslatable words and conversations, thus the Apurimac’s name, the Speaking Lord.

I remember the rolling puna, and stepping off the swept and leveled road to feel the ichu grass against my calves. The puna is a treeless prairie between the two mountain ranges where llamas graze and potatoes grow, and where the wicked green eyes of pumas watched our fires in the night, hoping one of the tampu’s llamas would venture out of the stone-walled corral.

I remember the coastal desert, where a heavy fog often settles on the ground, and you can smell the rain coming, teasing, taunting, but never delivering. Up and down the Empire from Quitu to the lands of Tchili rain comes only from the east, out of the great forests. The rain clouds climb the slopes of the eastern mountains until their weight lets them climb no more, so they dump their load of water to bob higher, up and over, perhaps dropping a little more rain between the eastern and western mountains.

By the time the clouds reach the coastal desert they can promise rain and flaunt their damp fog, but no rain will come. To grow crops on the coast of the never-ending ocean men have to live on the banks of the rivers that make their way down from the rainy mountains to the sea.

It was in such a community that I first saw the awesome power my father wielded as a tocoyricoc, the power of life and death. That coastal village tried to cheat the Emperor, the Empire, and themselves. He Who Sees All could not allow such deeds to go unpunished.

As a boy I thought the collection of huts and houses was large, but looking back on it now I remember the curaca, the headman, was a local with the rank of pachacamayoc, master of a hundred taxpaying families. That would make his village, perched on the arid land above the delta of a river valley, quite small in the grand scheme of things.

Throughout his tour my father had given me a running lesson on where we were, and this valley was no different. He looked down on me from his litter and said, “This village is part of the Sama tribe. It chose to join Tahuantinsuyu voluntarily, but that might have had something to do with the wars your great-uncle Pachacuti won up and down the coast from them. We have been good to them, and they have prospered under our rule. This village would not be a third this size without the Inca, for the river delta floods too often to make farming a safe and reliable source of food.

“The fields belonging to the Sapa Inca and the Sun grow cotton, which is then shipped to tampus throughout Condesuyu in exchange for their surpluses of maize and potatoes. Now if a flood destroys the personal plots of the people here, they have reserves grown by their neighbours up valley, ready and waiting for them.”

He gestured with his staff of office to a bluff on the slope. After a month of touring with my father I easily recognized the round storehouses containing maize and the square ones holding potatoes, as well as all the other buildings and warehouses of a well-provisioned tampu.

“What is that smell, Father?” I asked, for the wind off the sea was coming across the fields and I smelled something stronger than the usual llama and human manure.

“Just offshore there are islands that have been the nesting place of seabirds since Viracocha made the world,” my father said. “Their guano is piled three times the height of a man in places, and all that digested fish makes perfect fertilizer. The village exports it to farms as far away as Xauxa in exchange for wool, potatoes, and quinoa. They also use a lot of it on their own fields.”

Behind my father a group of quipucamayocs were decanting a storage amphora and pulling out the various quipu ledgers for the community below us. One of them noticed a black knot on the census quipu’s crime thread.

“My lord?” The man called.

“Yes?” My father did not turn around on his litter.

“This is the village that killed a man for venturing out to the bird islands during the nesting season.”

“Very well,” my father said. He turned his face down to look at me, his stern expression from before difficult to maintain as he popped a gherkin between his straight white teeth. “There is a good chance you are going to see someone trying to swindle the Emperor. Watch the curaca’s eyes. Only the best liars can control their eyes. Remember always that men do not need to be clever to be greedy, but they have to be exceedingly clever to get away with it.”

My father brought his staff of office down onto the floor of the litter twice and the Rucana bearers smoothly increased their pace, jogging without jostling their burden. They were the best porters in the Empire, so much so that their tribe paid its taxes exclusively by carrying the Sapa Inca’s favourites. Other tribes enviously called them, ‘the Feet of the Inca.’

We descended the slope down to the tampu bluff to find the entire village turned out in their holiday dress. Taxpayers were issued two sets of clothes by the State when they marry: A set for working and a set for festivals. Many women supplemented their families’ wardrobes with their looms, but when they did so it was usually to replace work clothes. The result was that older couples were often in drab, stained and patched holiday clothes, and the younger families often rubbed dust into their mantles so as not to shame their neighbours before He Who Sees All.

One young man in the front of the crowd stood out among them like a parrot among a flock of sparrows. He was dressed in a blazing red tunic with a flamboyant blue and yellow mantle over it, secured with a silver pin at the shoulder. His hems were decorated with copper discs, and the llama leather of his sandals was bleached white. His neck, wrists, and ankles hung with jewelry made from seashells. His smile was broad and blinding, like that of a man offering shoddy tribute. He blew a kiss when my father’s litter stopped, and the villagers repeated the gesture.

My father got down from his litter with dignity and stood tall and proud, flanked by his retinue. Where the village curaca —he could be no other— used gaudy colours and chunky ornaments to set himself apart and above those he ruled, my father was the height of noble fashion.

His knee-length tunic was blue vicuna wool with a short red fringe. His mantle of office was dyed the bright yellow of jungle flowers, trimmed with gold plates and the multi-coloured feathers of hummingbirds. His ears, like all Inca men, were pierced and stretched by golden earplugs, but his oval ornaments were so heavy with seniority that the bottom of his lobe almost touched his shoulder.

“Curaca Taraque, it has been too long.” My father rumbled the pleasantry.

“Yes, my lord. Five years since my village last had the pleasure,” Taraque enthused.

My father looked up at the sun without squinting. It was two thirds of the way across the sky.

“We will stay the night. Inform the tampu staff.”

“At once, my lord.” Taraque pointed at a man in the crowd who took off at a run.

I was watching it all, alerted by my father’s words without knowing what I was looking for. The crowd was tense, but they did not seem guilty. There was something wrong though, of that I was certain. I watched their eyes and every one of them was looking at Taraque.

“In five years your population has grown six percent. My congratulations to you, and to all your people,” my father said. The village blew him a kiss of thanks.

“Your tax figures have been good. Everyone has done their share. Your women will be happy to know your cotton cloaks have been issued out to Huanca conscripts doing garrison duty in the jungles of Andesuyu, and the light cotton is much preferred to the wool they could have been given.” The crowd seemed pleased at this.

“The bird guano you shipped up the valley has resulted in a bumper crop of tomatoes and chilies, a tenth of which will be sent to you. I have ordered a great chef from Rimac to come here three festivals from now to show you how to spice your fish stews with them.” My father continued in this way, telling them where their taxes had gone and how they benefited real people. At last he came around to the matter of the criminal.

“I understand a man was punished for going to the bird islands during the nesting season.” My father did not make it a question.

Taraque’s eyes darted left and right, as if looking for escape. His smile grew broader. “Yes, my lord, a terrible thing. What if the birds had been too badly disturbed? We all know the story of the village that was disbanded because the birds did not come back to roost the next year.”

“The man was caught in the act?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“So where is the grave?”

“Grave? No, lord, he is still alive,” the curaca said.

My father arched an eyebrow. “Present him.”

The curaca raised an arm and a dejected looking wretch was brought out from the tampu office. His tunic was in tatters, and he was thin as a half-hearted scarecrow. The hollows under his eyes spoke of sleepless nights.

“Your name?” My father asked the man.

“Zambiza, my lord. Please don’t hurt me!”

“You went to the islands and killed birds?” My father asked as if the man had said nothing but his name.

“Yes, my lord, but not for myself! My wife was pregnant, and she wanted a bird or two for the pot, and—”

My father interrupted him smoothly. “The laws are not made without reasons. Yes, your wife’s craving would have been satisfied by your act, but what about the life of your child? How badly will future generations suffer when the birds move to a new nesting site because of your thoughtless actions?

“Without the guano on that island this village is not capable of trading its way to self-sufficiency. The clans will be split up and relocated. All that could happen if you spook the birds or someone follows your bad example.”

My father was stern, but he spoke simply, as he would to a child. Zambiza was weeping now. “There is another law, a simple law that was also made for a reason. It says that any man who breaks a law must be punished, so all who know of his crime know it was a crime and that crime is punished. Is this your first offence, or your second?”

Through his sobs Zambiza choked out that it was his first. My father nodded, for it was rare for anyone to survive his first punishment, so rare that he had originally asked for the grave instead of the man.

“Then you shall be sentenced now. Hold him down.”

Zambiza struggled, but there was not enough strength left in his thin body, and the men guarding him soon had him face down and spread eagled on the ground. From inside the tampu office two villagers laboured under the heavy weight of a round stone. A third appeared holding a short length of blood-red string.

“Zambiza, for the crime you have committed the first offence is punished by the Hiwaya, the dropping of a stone onto your back. If you should survive, know that you have paid your penalty and will return to your family without any further loss of station or privilege. The State shall do everything in its power to heal you, and you and yours shall be fed at public expense until you can again provide for yourself. Do you understand?”

My father enunciated each word, speaking in a slow calm voice so the man heard him through his whimpers. When Zambiza nodded as best he could with his face in the dust, my father nodded to the man with the string.

The string man positioned himself over the prone Zambiza. He took one end of the red thread in his left hand and placed it between Zambiza’s shoulder blades. Holding it there, he pulled the other end taut with his right hand until the twine stood straight up and menacing, measuring the distance fairly for all the villagers to see. The two men with the stone moved into position on either side of the prisoner until the bottom of their rock just brushed the high end of the dark red string.

The string man moved aside so that the stone was now two cubits above the captive’s back, no more or less, and with nothing in between. Zambiza stopped crying and my father nodded. “Take it like a man, son,” he said.

With that they dropped the stone.

Men do survive the Hiwaya. I’ve seen it. If they can lift themselves off the ground a little, or are fat, or strong, or even just blessed by the gods, then they can survive. None take it easily, but those who live recover.

Zambiza was none of those things. The stone landed with a nauseating plunk, and his splintered ribs drove out through his skinny sides, soaking his threadbare clothes in a dead man’s blood. When the stone men lifted the rock off Zambiza’s corpse I could tell that the inside of his spine must have been touching the inside of his breastbone. His heart was crushed to a pulp.

A woman burst out of the crowd with a baby carrier strapped to her back. “Bastard!” She screamed, pummeling my father’s chest with her small fists. “Inca bastard!”

He seized her wrists in his strong hands, and spoke over her head to the villagers. “I may be an Inca, woman, but your husband would still be dead whether you paid your taxes to your old rulers or your new ones. The Sama tribe punished killing a bird in nesting season with disemboweling. With the Hiwaya he had a chance. Your old laws would not have spared him.”

She relaxed in his grip, surprised at his words. “Also, I did not hear you when Zambiza was still alive. Did you fear I would put you under the Hiwaya for your part in all this? Has is occurred to you that as a pregnant woman you could have asked for an extra meat ration from the tampu without threatening your husband’s life?” The woman stayed mute, so my father spun her around and gave her a push back into the crowd. It parted for her but did not close again in acceptance.

My father looked at the baby strapped to her back. It was half a year old if it was a day. “Curaca Taraque, how long ago did the nesting season end?”

“Nine months ago, Tocoyricoc,” the man said, his eyes shifting from the tocoyricoc to Zambiza’s body.

My father held his hand palm flat over his shoulder, and one of his assistants had a quipu in it within moments. A cursory scan confirmed what he already knew. “I don’t see the work Zambiza did between his conviction and now.”

“But my lord Inca, the man was a criminal, he—”

My father cut Taraque off. “You kept him alive but put down in the ledgers that he was dead, and you’ve been working him at spear point every day since, haven’t you?” My father almost whispered so the crowd would not hear. They murmured among themselves, trying to figure out what their betters were saying. A glance from my father stilled them. The curaca began to get indignant, but my father quieted him by pointing at the corpse.

“Look at his body. You starved him and strained him, now what did you have him do?” My father cast a critical eye over the scattered huts and buildings. “That’s your house there, isn’t it?” My father pointed to a rectangular compound on a bluff overlooking the mouth of the river.

“Yes, lord, you remember, you stayed there the last—”

“So what is that?” My father pointed up valley now to a little hollow on higher ground. The dip was filled with gnarled Huarango trees, but between their branches one could just make out a set of stone walls without a roof.

Taraque’s eyes went wide for just a moment, but it was enough to show me his guilty conscious. My father began to walk towards the hollow, and when Taraque began protesting two of my father’s warriors leveled their lances.

I looked at the crowd and knew they had all been waiting for this moment. The air was charged as it is before a thunderstorm. I followed my father, watching all. Taraque walked ahead of us, not saying a word.

The hollow was in a shady grove with a trickling stream descending from a spring above to the valley floor below. Inside we found a house complex that would not have been out of place in Royal Cuzco itself; twelve buildings around three courtyards, already half-paved in white limestone. The walls were incomplete, standing only shoulder high, but wooden roof beams that must have been hideously expensive on the coast where only unworkable Huarango trees grew lay piled and ready.

“Did the Sapa Inca send word requisitioning a summer residence?” My father asked Taraque, keeping his voice calm despite the appalling expense that must have been committed to a mansion that upon completion would indeed be a fit place for the Emperor to spend the night.

“You know he did not, my lord,” Taraque replied. His broad grin was gone now, but his tone remained proud. I was impressed. He was doomed but still faced his end like a man.

“Why?” My father asked.

“Before my grandfather submitted to the Inca my family was the richest in this valley for as far as our traders went. The guano belongs to me. Now I see villages everywhere using it, and their extra crops send their people to the fairs on market days so that anyone can afford these,” he gestured to his copper discs. “Or these,” he rattled his seashell jewelry. “I wanted a home, a grand home for my descendants and I, so that we will never forget that once we were nobles.”

“You are a noble, Taraque. Nothing the Inca can do to you will change that,” my father said. Taraque smiled, this time with real pleasure. “Well,” my father said, looking around. “Let me see if I can save you the trouble of confessing. You had Zambiza —who presumably has a raft of some kind— go out to the islands every day and fetch back loads of guano that you stored…” My father trailed off, arching an eyebrow.

“In the courtyard of the house my family uses during the fishing season.”

“Ah, of course, right next to the beach caravan route,” my father said, as if this was a friendly conversation. “So you now have an inexhaustible supply of wealth that, presumably, every curaca up and down the coast would gladly send porters out to get.”

“They purchased it in good faith, my Lord. Please don’t punish them for buying illegal goods. I told them we had a surplus.”

“And it’s to their credit that they took advantage of that bargain. I’d noticed a rise in crop yield in the area. As the curacas reported their bumper crops instead of keeping their excess I shall not punish them.” Taraque nodded his thanks. “But what about this?” My father gestured to the half-built palace.

Taraque shrugged his shoulders. “I traded the guano for the stone and wood, of course. What else is there?”

“Don’t play coy, Taraque. Confess in full.” My father waited, finally sighing. “Very well, I already know what happened. Zambiza was going to the island, and you certainly haven’t imported any workers because no taxpayers in the surrounding communities have disappeared from my ledgers. That means the villagers are building this house for you. How did you get them to do it?”

“You’ve seen the ledgers. We have paid our taxes fairly for the last five years,” Taraque said.

“Yes, I’m sure you would not be so foolish as to take the farmers out of the State fields, and you couldn’t drag a man off his own plots during planting or harvesting. So they worked on their holidays… And how did you pay them?”

“Pay them?” Taraque said it as if the concept was foreign to him. My father laughed, and Taraque joined him.

“Nobles can expect many things, Taraque, but not free labour on a holiday. If they are doing something for you, you must give them something in return. That is how the world works. So what were you paying them?” Taraque remained silent. “Fine,” my father said at last.

He turned on his heel and we all followed him back to the tampu where the crowd remained. He ordered the storeroom doors opened and commanded the strongest of the farmers to start removing bags of maize, potatoes, and quinoa at random. The sun was setting when they pulled out the first sandbag, buried in the middle of the pile. Only now did Taraque try to defend himself.

“My Lord, you know I would not steal from the State.”

“You have stolen from it, and from your own people. You paid them with the Sapa Inca’s food that he was saving for their time of need!” My father thundered.

“No, I was going to pay it back! We’ve had bumper crops two of the last five years. I’ve gone over my ledgers. I would have paid back every kernel of maize out of my personal surplus within fifteen years,” Taraque said.

“Then what you should have done was save for fifteen years, then find a way to legally obtain the stone and wood, and then build your house after clearing it with you superiors,” my father said. “Instead, you put this entire community at risk for a generation so you can build a third home? You paid them with their famine relief food? I have heard enough.” The last statement cut through the air, sharp as the first blow of a bronze chisel on granite.

The crowd stilled. Taraque swallowed visibly. Even my father’s retainers shifted. Here was the power of He Who Sees All. Corruption had been discovered and would be dealt with swiftly and ruthlessly, without appeal. In a moment this community would never be the same. A small pachacuti was in the making.

“Where are the chuncacamayocs?” Ten men filtered forward from the crowd, indistinguishable from the rest of the peasantry. Each of these men was the head of ten of the hundred taxpaying families of this community. “Those of you who speak Runa Simi well, step forward.” Four men advanced further. “Look at their eyes, son.” He said quietly to me before turning back to the four.

We watched them, and only one of the four watched us back. “You,” my father pointed the man out. He stepped forward. “Nineteen farmers each work six days hauling guano in from the islands. How many tax days have they worked?”

The man kept his eyes open as he thought about it. “One hundred and fourteen, my Lord, but six days is longer than each man would normally work.”

“It’s only a test,” my father said. “A man marries and has four sons and three daughters before the first son is married. How much land should he get when the fields are reallocated at the start of the planting season?”

“That’s a lucky man to have so many children survive, my lord.”

“Only a test. What is the answer?”

“One topo for the husband and wife; one for each of the sons and a half for each of the daughters. That’s five and six and a half… Six and a half topos.”

My father laid his hand palm flat behind him and two lengths of string, one yellow and the other green, were given to him. He offered the string to the chuncacamayoc. “Tie that down.”

The man slowly tied one hundred and fourteen into the yellow string for days and six and a half into the green string for land. The knots were clumsy, but that would improve with time.

“What is your name?”

“Illaquita, my lord.”

“Huaman Paullu, promote Illaquita from chuncacamayoc to pachacamayoc of this community. Congratulations, Curaca Illaquita.” My father walked over to Taraque and removed the silver pin from his shoulder. He gave it to Illaquita, who held it without swapping it for his own copper pin.

“What will my punishment be, my Lord?” Taraque asked.

My father turned to the crowd and spoke in a loud clear voice. “Your curaca put you at risk to benefit himself at the expense of the State. I cannot overlook this, despite the good conduct of his family in leading you all these years. However, this is Taraque’s first offence, and though any crime against the State is a grievous one I shall not sentence him to death.” There were murmurs from the crowd, but they were not angry.

“Taraque shall be demoted to a chuncacamayoc, if—” The word stopped the sighs of relief and the crowd tensed. “If he can survive the Hiwaya.” The crowd breathed a subdued collective sigh. Taraque was a fine and proud nobleman, but he was neither strong nor fat nor lucky.

“Illaquita?” Taraque said. “Look after my wives?”

“Of course, my lord.”

“I am no longer your lord.”

“You will always be our lord, my lord. I will make sure your wives are maintained in their noble status, and that you are buried with your favourite.”

“Thank you,” Taraque said, contented. He bit the collar of his tunic once to ward off bad luck, then he lay down on the ground without complaint, arms spread wide. The stone men and string man ran to the tampu office and returned with their burdens. My father repeated his short speech over the prostrate man, but this time he ended with, “Take it like a nobleman, Taraque. Make your father proud.” The stone fell. Taraque did not survive.

“Illaquita?” My father murmured after the appropriate interval of respectful silence.

“My lord?”

“Call forward the heads of the households who were formerly under you.” The nine farmers stepped forward. “Pick one to succeed you as chuncacamayoc.” Illaquita picked a man who nodded his acknowledgement. All nine retired back into the crowd after Huaman Paullu had the name of the new man.

“Illaquita? As the stone and wood have already been obtained, I authorize you now to finish the construction of the palace. Name it Taraqip Cancha, Taraque’s House, and bury him according to his custom under the biggest courtyard. It will be your official residence unless and until a high official should come through this valley in need of accommodation.” My father put his hand behind him again, and the quipu authorizing the expense materialized there. His assistants were well trained.

“Also, I never want to see your villagers dirty their holiday garb again. If your older couples cannot find the time to make new festive wear, you will buy it out of your own surplus wealth. They will work harder for a generous lord. As there are so many old clothes at the moment, the Sapa Inca himself shall provide this time.”

As soon as it was said it was done, and a storehouse of richly embroidered cotton was breached from which every man, woman, and child from a hundred families were given new clothes. The lavish Imperial gift barely dented the warehouse supply.

“I leave tomorrow, Illaquita. Show me and mine where we are to sleep tonight.” My father and his entourage walked with Illaquita to Taraque’s former house while the villagers sang a song of praise and contentment behind us. Two men were dead and a noble family line had ended, but the people sang because good government had prevailed.

We settled into three buildings, with my father, Huaman Paullu and I sharing a small room to ourselves. When Huaman Paullu began his snoring I turned to my father. I had a question. “Why did Taraque take it as such a compliment when you called him noble?”

“Because he understands,” my father rumbled, pulling his alpaca blanket up to his chin.

“I don’t. What does he understand?”

“That there is a difference between being a nobleman and being noble.” My father closed his eyes, but I would not be dissuaded.

“What’s the difference?” I have a characteristic that in an adult you would call unshakeable but in a child is derided as irrepressible. My father knew he would not sleep until I was satisfied.

“Anyone can be born into nobility, but where did that noble rank come from in the first place?” My father opened one eye to see if I could answer his question.

“The gods made some men noble when they made the world, and those men’s children were noble in turn down to us,” I said, thinking my answer was a good one. I had no formal schooling yet, but I had heard bards talk of the Good Ones, the first nobility who passed the traits down to us.

“Then how did Illaquita become a noble to his people today? Am I a god? I just elevated him into the low ranks of nobility.” He opened the other eye and stared at me, trying to end my line of questioning. If I gave up without an answer I was not worth bringing up to follow in his footsteps. I could not back down in front of his stare.

“You are not a god,” I said, unsure what else to say.

“There are two kinds of people in the world, Waccha.” He sat up and leaned his back against the wall, warming himself for a lecture. “The vast majority of people take the world as it is. They say ‘As!’ ‘It must be so!’ and so it is, because they will do nothing to change their lot in life. A man who thinks of a way to better his situation or the situation of his people, that man is noble regardless of his rank. It is a state of mind, and that is why the Inca need to rule the world.”

I did not follow the leap from one statement to the other. “Why is that, Father?” Huaman Paullu snored beside me, oblivious of the wisdom the tocoyricoc was imparting.

“Because there was a time long, long ago when all a man needed was noble thought and he would rise to lead his community as the best man to do so, and all prospered. Those were the true Good Ones, Waccha. They were not god-made. They made themselves great by improving the lives of people who would not do it for themselves.” I nodded, but my father was not done.

“But men are men, and they want the best for their sons, and so their sons became nobles with or without that noble way of thinking, and then there was the nobility as a rigid and hereditary caste. Generations passed and commoners toiled while nobles thought only of themselves.”

His eyes flashed now with the fire of a religious zealot. “We Inca are different, Waccha. We all think in terms of change, of action, of altering the world around us. More than that, Inti has ordered us to build this Realm of ours. As we expand, we find others who think as we do, and we will elevate them as high as their capability will allow, something that would never happen without us. The vast majority of people will suffer what the universe gives them and call it fate, but those people who can make things better for the majority should be put in a position to do so. The Inca will make that possible.”

“And Taraque, he was a noble?”

“He saw something in his way and instead of saying, ‘It must be so!’ he tried to change it. The problem is that it was the Inca way of governing in his way, and so we had to crush him.” My father did not relish the words, but they were spoken as inevitably as the peasant whose crops are beaten down by hail will cry, ‘As!’

“But he was a noble. Wasn’t he supposed to lead?”

“Yes, but he had the responsibility to better the lives of his people. You and I, Waccha, we only work in the fields a couple of days a year as a token to the commoners. We eat off gold and silver plates. We wear fine clothes and have servants to do our cooking and cleaning. We get all this because we are Inca, but we are supposed to be getting it all so that we are free to make life better, safer, easier, for those under us.

“We rule a land where no one will ever starve, and no one fears his neighbour will kill him, a land free of crime and prostitution, a land where you can worship any god or goddess you want as long as you acknowledge that the Inca’s god, Inti, conquered yours. We live in a land where the poor and old and sick and orphaned can survive even when they cannot support themselves.

“The Inca have made all this possible with our administration, our self-discipline, our foresight. Do you know why this village has five years’ worth of food stored in the tampu above them?” He held up a hand with three fingers raised.

“Because one year in six they do not grow enough to eat, and without a reserve they would lose most of the new generation of children before they were old enough to become farmers.” The first finger fell.

“Because if the neighbours they trade with today come to pillage them tomorrow, that food will feed the Inca army we send to mete out justice, and knowing that, their neighbours remain peaceful friends and allies.” The second finger followed the first.

“Because a hundred things can go wrong in this world, and a full belly makes all of them bearable.” He pointed the last finger at me and waited for me to look him in the eyes, to see how deadly serious he considered the matter. My father shifted his weight and brought his hands up in front of him as if he were holding a precious burden.

“Our system works, Waccha. Take the holiday clothes we distributed today: They were made by taxpayers, years and years of work went into making that fabric. Today that slow and steady accumulation was distributed to the people, and they will remember for the rest of their lives what it felt like to have that given to them.

“It was theirs already, or at least commoners just like them were the ones who made it, but by storing it up until it was truly needed it was worth so much more to them. It was special. It made their dull lives brighter, and they can take comfort in their finery where before they were ashamed at their lack.”

I digested that for a moment, but one more thing still troubled me. “And why did you tell Taraque to make his father proud?”

My father put down his head and sighed so long and soft, so weary, that I thought he had fallen asleep. When he spoke again it was in a different voice. “I went to school with Taraque’s father. We were friends.”

“You killed your friend’s son?”

“I made the system work,” he said. “I taught Taraque when he came to school in Cuzco. I taught him his numbers and quipus. When his father died I came to this village, and we had a long talk; I told him the system comes first, and that there are no exceptions because the system does not work that way. He knew it.”

We sat there for a long time, listening to Huaman Paullu snore. “Is it hard?”

“No,” he shook his head. “It’s fair. My job is the best in the world because it is all about right and wrong. Either something is helping the people or it is hurting them. I make sure the system works. That’s my job. You can never play favourites, but you never have to, because there is only right and wrong, and you will know wrong when you see it. It will offend you. You will not be able to stand idle. The Inca have a plan for Tahuantinsuyu, and a Tocoyricoc makes sure the plan does not go awry.”

I lay awake most of the night, my thoughts inspired by the purpose my father had found for his life. I decided as I fell asleep that I wanted that same responsibility for myself. I wanted to set things right and make people’s lives better. I would impress my father and pass his tests. I would become He Who Sees All.


If you have read this far, I hope you enjoyed it! Here’s a link to the listing. The rest is available in e-book or trade paperback formats.


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