The event was, of course, a thinly veiled attempt to introduce the pupils of the Hopewell Finishing Academy to fitting matches in the form of Southern Michigan Military Academy cadets. There were none of the popular tunes of the day in the repertoire; an entire committee had been assembled to choose a stately program of waltzes for formal dancing.

One concession–indeed the only concession–that the matrons and officers and hangers-on made was that cadets were free to dance with anyone they liked, and quiet conversation was generally permitted. The chaperones were eagle-eyed for any inappropriate touching, and none of the girls or boys were allowed to leave with each other. But they could discuss whatever they liked.

The fifth waltz, Eternal Wizrd by Adrian Wetzler, began. Alan DeVries, a cadet from the DeVries financier family out of Detroit, was dancing with Edith Carrington of the Battle Creek Carringtons. Alan had seen the Edith with a coy smile and a distant look on her face and, intrigued, held out his arm.

“What do you think of the latest fashions coming out of London this season, Miss Carrington?” Alan asked, hoping to stimulate conversation on a topic that the fairer sex would find interesting.

“I’m told that I am wearing them,” laughed Edith, “but otherwise I really couldn’t care less. Tell me, Mr. DeVries, what is the last book that you read?”

Alan bit his lip. “Er, Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. It’s required reading for all first-years.”

Edith ostentateously batted her dark eyes. “And what year are you, Mr. DeVries?”

“A sixth year, Miss Carrington.”

“Lovely, truly lovely,” said Edith. “May I regale you with a book that I re-read recently, Mr. DeVries?”

Alan did not feel qualified to speak on a topic that interested him so little, but…for all her cheek, Miss Carrington’s dark hair and slim figure were very pretty. “Please do, Miss Carrington.”

“It’s called Folk Stories of the Spanish Conquest, by one Mr. Pierre Richat, and it collects stories and tales from the conquest of the New World.”

“Oh,” said Alan with a relieved smile. “Grand stories, I’m sure, of the conquistadors’ noble deeds.”

“Stories and tales of the Indians and their descendents, Mr. DeVries, not the conquistadors,” Edith laughed. “One of the tales in particular, that of Princess Eréndira of the Purépecha, has long fascinated me. Are you familiar with it?”

Alan cast a longing look about the dance floor, to the other couples waltzing silently or talking about fashion. “I don’t know that I am, Miss Carrigton.”

“Princess Eréndira was daughter of the king of the Purépecha people of Mexico. Although her father surrendered to the Spanish she resolved to defeat them, and defeat them she did. Would you like to know how?”

A military story seemed like it might be tolderable, so Alan nodded in the affirmative. “I have a passing curiosity, Miss Carrington.”

The waltz began to build to its cresdendo, and the whirling couples on the floor were suddenly faster, almost dizzying. “She learned the ways of the Spanish, taking their horses and their arms and studying them so that she knew how they worked. Princess Eréndira picked apart the machine that had been set up to oppress and conquer her, and she learned its inner workings. She learned how best to defeat it by stabbing deep at its soft spots even as she appeared to the Spaniards to be an ineffectual savage.”

“And…what happened to her?” Alan said, utterly mystified by Edith’s tone.

“Well, no one is quite sure. Some say she went into hiding, others that she married a priest. I have my own theory.”

“What is that?”

“It is that she learned all she could from those who would conquer her, used that information to destroy them, and then fell in with someone who shared her beliefs. And together, they raised a generation that would give way to another, and another, each stronger than the last, until the yoke of the conquestadors was thrown off for good.”

The music came to an end. Alan seperated from Edith. He gave her a bow, she a curtsey.

“A…delightful tale, Miss Carrington,” said he. He disappeared into the mass of cadets before much else could be said.

“Pity,” laughed Edith to herself.

On cue, the Hopewell Chamber Orchestra struck up a fresh waltz, and cadets once more went in search of ladies to dance with. Alan could be seen repeating presumably wild stories, complete with gestures, of Edith to his fellows.

But, as she made her way back to the wall, another of the cadets stepped forward. “Tell me, miss,” he said. “Are you familiar with the old tale of Arminius?”

“You mean,” said Edith, eyes glittering, “the German who got himself a Roman military education so he could smash Caesar’s armies at the Teutoberg Forest?”

“The very same. May I have this dance?”

“You may indeed, cadet,” said Edith. “You may indeed.”

Inspired by the song ‘Erendira’ by Hiroki Kikuta, released under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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“Apostle Alexandra?”

“I reckon that’s about what people call me.” From behind the kerchief, behind the darkness, the voice was husky but feminine. “I reckon I’m not much fond of it, either.”

“Well, tell me your real name, and I’ll see to it that it’s published.” Sands held out a pencil and stenography pad, gripping each by only two fingers to show his mild intent.

Each was torn away seconds later by a sharply-aimed shot. “And if you do that, there’ll be people after my gold within a week,” she snorted.

“You have gold?” Sands’ eyes glittered.

“Not a flake. But that’s not how rumors work. As soon as people know where I am, who I am, they’ll convince themselves I’m sitting on a goddamn vein of the stuff.”

“I assure you that-”

“Which is why,” she continued, “you have until the count of twenty to give me a very good reason not to gutshot you and leave you for dead.”

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“Yes, it is what it appears to be: a copy of the Mstumpuan, transcribed into Latin by João of Amareleja shortly before he was buried up to his elbows and stoned to death by the Segumbi.” Carlos examined the book reverently, holding it at arm’s length both to read it through his glasses and to keep the tropical steam of his breath away from it.

“What would they do if they knew we had it?” Annabelle said. “The Segumbi.”

“I imagine that many would not care,” Carlos laughed. “But those who still follow the paramount chief, those in the hinterlands…it is probable that they would show us the same hospitality why showed João of Amareleja.”

Annabelle exhaled sharply. “Not exactly what I have in mind when I want to get stoned. Why would they care so much?”

“You have to realize that the Quri have become the boogeymen of Segumbi legend, distant and demonic legends, and the Mstumpuan is their blasphemous liturgy,” said Carlos. “It would be like bringing a book on Satanism into the Spanish Inquisition.”

“Or a self-professed terrorist in Times Square.”

“Yes,” said Carlos. “A knee-jerk reaction of the cultural DNA, one might say.”

“What about the Quri themselves?” said Annabelle, cautiously. “Wouldn’t they be more helpful?”

“They were conquered nearly a thousand years ago by the Segumbi; if there are any of their line left, by now they’d be indistinguishable. But that’s not why we can’t let a word of this escape to the Segumbi or anybody.”

“Why’s that?”

“The same thing it always is. Treasure.”

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Shoji, the Seeker, crossed his blade with Tsuchiya, the Usurper. Their clashing steel was as the conflict between their lords and masters in a microcosm.

“It is my lord’s right!” cried Shoji. “He alone can use the power of the Ryūsei for the good of all!”

“It is no one’s right!” returned Tsuchiya. “No one can master the Ryūsei’s power! That is why it was hidden away. Your master will destroy himself and others in his madness!”

Tsuchiya’s passion was his undoing. As he spoke those words, Shoji maneuvered his way into a commanding position. The Seeker’s next attack bypassed his opponent’s defenses, striking at a vulnerable shoulder point in his armor. Shoji rammed the blade home; Tsuchiya cried out once, sank to his knees, and was silent.

“An honorable pose in death, at least,” grunted Shoji, flustered with the rush and thrill of battle. He cleaned his sword and sheathed it. He approached the altar, the tiny shrine to the Ryūsei, that his efforts had uncovered despite the deaths of his men. “How do I open it?” he demanded.

Moriko, the Guide, was the only member of either party to have survived. “There is no secret,” she said. “Anyone who has made it this far against all comers has earned the right to bear the Ryūsei and its power.”

Without acknowledging the Guide’s words, Shoji reverently took hold of the altar and lifted it. In a hollow within, wrapped in a dirty rag, was a small statue of purest crystal: a woman carved in the old Asuka period style. He whispered the command word that his lord had taught him, asking only that the Ryūsei, the granter or wishes and the remaker of the world, glow from within. In that glow, Shoji would see his master’s design fulfilled–and his own.

The statuette remained stubbornly dim before the Seeker, its blank crystalline eyes ciphers. Shoji spoke the word again, uttering the same command, to no avail. “I don’t understand,” he said, his eyes fixed on his prize. Guide, what is the meaning of-”

Shoji, the Seeker, was cut off in mid-word. Moriko, the Guide, had approached him from behind and slipped her long dagger into the same weak spot that had doomed Tsuchiya not moments ago. “Shh,” said the Guide in a comforting tone. “It will all be over in a moment.”

It was the custom of Moriko and her family to serve as guides for those foolish enough to seek the Ryūsei in their lands, and to waylay and murder them for their valuables. It had been a delicate balancing act, but anyone coming across the bodies would assume that the men had killed each other over a worthless counterfeit bauble.

As Shoji, the Seeker, rattled his final breath, the Guide turned him around and lowered him, face-up, to the ground. As his vision began to fade, the Seeker saw something that caused his hard features to soften with wonder.

The eyes of Moriko, the Guide, were aglow with an inner light unbeknownst to her. The Ryūsei had obeyed its command, and the Seeker was now expiring in the arms of his prize–a hiding place so secure that none after he would ever stumble upon it.

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“Ho there. We seek Hamasaki-San on behalf of the Daimyō Tokatsu, for it is said that his lands abut the Canyons of Kyōkoku and that none know the land like he and his family.”

“I am the Hamasaki-san you seek, in that case,” said the older man, “and these are my lands. I am happy to serve the servants of the Daimyō Tokatsu, whatever they might require, if only I might know their purpose.”

“We seek the Ryūsei,” said Nakano Shoji. “Our sages have determined that its resting place is in the Canyons of Kyōkoku, and we seek to discover it and deliver it to its proper owner.” The rider left the latter statement purposely ambiguous, though the gleam in Hamasaki-san’s eyes was one of immediate comprehension.

“That old legend? If you’ll forgive my saying so, I have always found it to be beneath serious consideration.”

“Then surely you’ll have no objection to providing us a guide, since we will pay you for nothing.” Nakano Shoji had taken an instant dislike to the old man, but his continued politeness was necessary. The haughty courtiers of the other daimyō retainers searching the Canyons of Kyōkoku would no doubt proceed on their own, and therein lay their disadvantage.

“You may take my niece, Hamasaki Moriko,” said Hamasaki-san. “She is a burden left to me by my departed elder brother, and were it not for the familial obligation I bear him, I would long since have rid myself of the extra mouth I have to feed and the extra lip I have to endure.”

“The men of the daimyō will not accept such a guide,” said Nakano Shoji. “We demand the best that your valley has to offer.”

“Surely your daimyō did not send his best men on such a trivial errand,” said Hamasaki-san cunningly, “since I know him to be a wise and sober man who puts little stock in rumor and legend. And surely it behooves me not to send my best son to guide them, as the cost would be ruinous should the endeavor fail.”

Nakano Shoji might have struck Hamasaki-san for his insolence, but he was ostensibly a guest in those lands, and any disturbance would bring the attention of the local daimyō. The daimyōs were on good terms, but not so good as to strike a landowner whose tongue had to draw blood before it was sheathed.

“What have you to say for yourself?” Nakano Shoji demanded when Hamasaki Moriko was offered up, a sensibly-dressed but plain woman of indeterminate age.

“I know the Canyons of Kyōkoku as I know the folds of my own kimono,” Hamasaki Moriko responded, “and I bear my departed father’s sharpened kaiken dagger. Should you or your men have any dishonorable ideas, I will not hesitate to assist them in reclaiming their honor through seppuku before redeeming my own through jigai.”

Nakano Shoji looked to Hamasaki-san, his gaze sharp, as the first words out of their guide’s mouth concerned ritual disembowelment. The old man responded by throwing up his hands; “see what I have to deal with?” was the essential thrust of the gesture.

“We are off to an auspicious start, to be sure,” Nakano Shoji griped. There was no time to waste, though: the Ryūsei awaited, the prize of ten thousand lifetimes. Other retainers sought it, and it was far better for him and his men to be jewels shattered in the attempt than intact clay tiles dishonored by their failure.

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For the first six months after Oliver Twist was removed, the system was in full operation. It was rather expensive at first, in consequence of the increase in the undertaker’s bill, and the necessity of taking in the clothes of all the paupers, which fluttered loosely on their wasted, shrunken forms, after a week or two’s gruel. But the number of workhouse inmates got thin as well as the paupers; and the board were in ecstasies.

The room in which the boys were fed, was a large stone hall, with a copper at one end: out of which the master, dressed in an apron for the purpose, and assisted by one or two women, ladled the gruel at mealtimes. Of this festive composition each boy had one porringer, and no more—except on occasions of great public rejoicing, when he had two ounces and a quarter of bread besides.

The bowls never wanted washing. The boys polished them with their spoons till they shone again; and when they had performed this operation (which never took very long, the spoons being nearly as large as the bowls), they would sit staring at the copper, with such eager eyes, as if they could have devoured the very bricks of which it was composed; employing themselves, meanwhile, in sucking their fingers most assiduously, with the view of catching up any stray splashes of gruel that might have been cast thereon. Boys have generally excellent appetites. Oliver Twist and his companions suffered the tortures of slow starvation for three months: at last they got so voracious and wild with hunger, that one boy, who was tall for his age, and hadn’t been used to that sort of thing (for his father had kept a small cook-shop), hinted darkly to his companions, that unless he had another basin of gruel per diem, he was afraid he might some night happen to eat the boy who slept next him, who happened to be a weakly youth of tender age. He had a wild, hungry eye; and they implicitly believed him. A council was held; lots were cast who should walk up to the master after supper that evening, and ask for more; and it fell to Oliver Twist.

The evening arrived; the boys took their places. The master, in his cook’s uniform, stationed himself at the copper; his pauper assistants ranged themselves behind him; the gruel was served out; and a long grace was said over the short commons. The gruel disappeared; the boys whispered each other, and winked at Oliver; while his next neighbors nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:

“Please, sir, I want some more.”

The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralyzed with wonder; the boys with fear.

“What!” said the master at length, in a faint voice.

“Please, sir,” replied Oliver, “I want some more.”

The master aimed a blow at Oliver’s head with the ladle; pinioned him in his arm; and shrieked aloud for the beadle.

The board were sitting in solemn conclave, when Mr. Bumble rushed into the room in great excitement, and addressing the gentleman in the high chair, said,

“Mr. Limbkins, I beg your pardon, sir! Oliver Twist has asked for more!”

There was a general start. Horror was depicted on every countenance.

“For more!” said Mr. Limbkins. “Compose yourself, Bumble, and answer me distinctly. Do I understand that he asked for more, after he had eaten the supper allotted by the dietary?”

“He did, sir,” replied Bumble.

“That boy will be hung,” said the gentleman in the white waistcoat. “I know that boy will be hung.”

Nobody controverted the prophetic gentleman’s opinion. An animated discussion took place. Oliver was ordered into instant confinement; and a bill was next morning pasted on the outside of the gate, offering a reward of five pounds to anybody who would take Oliver Twist off the hands of the parish. In other words, five pounds and Oliver Twist were offered to any man or woman who wanted an apprentice to any trade, business, or calling.

“I never was more convinced of anything in my life,’ said the gentleman in the white waistcoat, as he knocked at the gate and read the bill next morning: ‘I never was more convinced of anything in my life, than I am that that boy will come to be hung.”

As I purpose to show in the sequel whether the white waistcoated gentleman was right or not, I should perhaps mar the interest of this narrative (supposing it to possess any at all), if I ventured to hint just yet, whether the life of Oliver Twist had this violent termination or no.

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In their old haunt, a slum apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, Adam Callahan detailed his plan. “It’s a pretty simple con,” he said, eyes gleaming in the late afternoon sun from beneath a stolen–and filthy–porkpie hat. “We need to get into the Baker-Barrister department store, corner of Broadway and W. 13th St.”

His confederate, Sam Goldman, flashed the winning smile that had kept him alive despite having spent 11 of the 13 years since 1900 in the gutter. “I can use a version of my ‘Mr. Mayweather’ con if you can get me a fresh suit and a business card.”

“Already working on it. I called in a favor with my pal Israel at Shoenborne Printers; cards’ll be ready tomorrow.”

Sam spat on the floor. “And the suit?”

“Picked it up from the cleaner’s on the way out this morning.” Adam’s eyes twinkled as he thought about the cleaner’s turned back, his hand darting behind the desk, and the quick but nonchalant escape that followed.

“Fair enough,” Sam laughed, effecting the nasal upper-class twang that had allowed him to rob the upper crust blind on their own promenades. “What’s the item, and the angle?”

“There’s a Turkish rug in the showroom on the fifth floor,” said Adam. “Custom-made for Baker-Barrister by Caboblanco, their rugmaker on East 19th Street. It’s on the showroom, but has a ‘sold’ tag.”

“Sold to who?”

“G. Arnold Cooper III. He won’t be coming to collect it anytime soon.”

“You…took care of him?” Sam raised an eyebrow. It wasn’t like Adam to resort to violence when skullduggery was by far his strong suit.

“He was on the Titanic. Dead fourteen months, estate in disarray. Rug is bought and paid for but never collected.”

Sam tapped his chin. “In other words, someone who looks and sounds like they belong there can just walk in, have it delivered wherever he wants, and then hawk it for some easy cash?”

“That’s right. But that’s not what we’re going to do. It’s an expensive rug, but at ten cents on the dollar none of the usual fences. My source in Baker-Barrister says there’s something even better woven into the thing.”

“What’s that?”

“Freedom, Adam. Freedom from under Cobb’s thumb for you, freedom from that bitch Sally for me, and freedom from the gutter for both of us. Body and soul.”

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