STERN SAT at the end of one of the long communal tables. The dragoons were busy with the horses and Birgit was nowhere to be seen. A few travelers nodded at him and then turned back to their food. He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do and felt a bit disoriented after his two months in a coma. He noticed several indio women moving in and out of the abobe house carrying trays of food and pints of beers but he didn’t know if they took orders at the table or if he had to go inside, order and pay. And then he realized he had no money to buy food; all he possessed were the clothes on his back. Birgit and the dragoons had given him no opportunity to pack. Suddenly, the momentous undertaking he had made when he followed Birgit out of the hospital came to him; and, as the magnitude of what he had done became clear, he felt stupid and afraid at the same time. In a momentary panic he ran the past few days’ activities through his mind. He was dying and in a coma and then a woman forced an elixir down his throat and he was no longer in danger; instead, within hours he was feeling better than he did before he was attacked and growing demonstrably stronger, fleeing across central Mexico with a beautiful French woman and a squad of dragoons.
He placed his hands on the table palm up and sighed. A white moth settled on a splash of spilled beer between his hands and unnaturally arrested his attention. Diverted from his confusion for a few moments by the beauty of the moth, he suddenly felt a sense of calm. As he wondered at this instant change of mood he realized there was something familiar about the moth. Then he remembered, like one remembers a forgotten dream: when he was in the library, looking for the Grimoire of Shadow, hundreds of moths filled the lighted circle during his conversation with the demon. It was clear to him that the demon and the moth were connected; and, as he made this connection, the moth fluttered its wings and lifted off the table and hovered before his face, as if to confirm his suspicions. It was as if it and he were now in communion with one another. Then the moth spoke to him, as a cone of silence and brilliant white light that extinguished all other sounds formed over him and the moth. He could see the people talking and eating outside the cone but he could not hear them and he suspected that they could no longer see him. He had the impression, and this was something that the moth seemed to impart to him, that he had disappeared and entered a pocket world adjacent to but not part of the everyday world he just inhabited. His understanding from the moth was that this pocket world was a type of portal into another sphere or realm; a place where time and space did not exist and he and the moth or its master, the demon, could communicate freely. And then to emphasize his understanding of this alternate reality, the moth said, “This realm or ein Bezirk is the one you entered when you read the Grimoire of Stone. It is here that we will communicate until you seek me out. They will want you to find the Grimoire but it is neither in your realm nor mine. It is in Okeanus and it is in peril of being found by those who would misuse it.”
Stern did not understand a word the creature spoke or the significance of its message so he asked: “I don’t understand what this all means?”
But instead of his receiving an answer, the bubble of light and silence burst with an audible pop and he returned to both time and space: he could hear the people around him talking and laughing; he could smell the food and feel the cool humid breeze emanating from the rushing stream on his face; and he could sense a tingle in his head and a steady vibration of his body. After effects, he suspected, from being transferred from one Bezirk to another.
He thought he chose the word “Bezirk” because it felt more alien to him and yet more precise than the word “realm;” however, the truth was that the word picked him. The concept was placed, inserted really, in his mind, to work on him through a subconscious process to build a semantic structure in which a framework of magic could emerge; it was an idea, he knew, originating from the moth, an idea growing organically and exponentially as he sat quietly among these people and that explained through this process first the uses and power of the Bezirk to him and then how he could use it. He suspected it was the demon, Kokabiel, that had planted the knowledge of the Bezirk and he now intuited it was part of his task to unravel it and control it. But then he thought this explanation too was just another form of manipulation, like a key left in a lock. Birgit, Bleak, and the demon were all attempting to instill some sort of understanding of the task or quest on him. He was aware and somewhat angered by the knowledge that he was not currently acting from his own volition; instead, he was being pushed or carried along into the fantasies and agendas of other people. And then an idea struck him; perhaps, he was still in a coma and this adventure was nothing but a dream. He laughed at this theory and pinched himself to reassure himself that he was alive and in the hills west of La Ciudad.
“Why are you pinching yourself?” said a tall, thin Argyll woman with a laugh. He looked up and smiled sheepishly; his blue skin darkening in embarrassment. She wore the blue skirt, red apron, and white peasant blouse of the other servers and she was speaking to him in his mother’s language, not lingua of the Middle Kingdom but in Argyll.
He cleared his throat and sat up as he formed his answer. For some reason it was important he explain himself to this woman. “I have been sick and I felt as if I were not truly here.” He stopped and checked her face to see if she were truly listening. “I wondered if I was dreaming this.”
She turned her head a bit and a tendril of her thick, dark blue-black hair fell away from her face. “What do you mean by ‘this’?” she said.
He smiled at her in an attempt to convey his feelings. He had not spoken to a woman of his race since he entered the military academy and her presence was eliciting all sorts of feelings he could not accurately interpret. Of course, the image of his mother came unbidden into his conscious mind, as well as sexual feelings that he kept tightly tapped down while he was in the academy. Unlike his fellow cadets he did not patronize prostitutes, who were mostly indios or Mexicans, nor did he have any family connections that would have brought him into contact with young women of a particular class. The cadets, for the most part, were either members of nobility or sons of middle-class bureaucrats or merchants. His case had been unique; he was the son of a Black Robe engineer, who had proven himself invaluable to the progress of the Empire. It was only an accident of fate that he also happened to be half-Argyll.
“I mean this lovely spot,” he stuttered, lying to her.
A slight pout crossed her lips and she said, “I hate it here.”
His feeble response was to ask “Why?”
She looked around her to see if anyone was listening and then she whispered. “I was indentured to the owner, Carne, for one year for a fee of five gold eagles; the amount of money my father needed to get the rest of my family to Veracruz.”
His mouth opened a bit, a sign he was shocked and saddened by her father’s betrayal of her. Stupidly, the only thing he thought to say was: “How long ago?”
“Seven months,” she said.
At that moment a short man exited the cookhouse and stretched. His apron stained with blood hung loosely around his neck. Beneath it he wore a white sleeveless shirt and a pair of black linen pants. He walked toward them, pulling a cheroot from his shirt’s pocket and stuffing it into his mouth. “He is angry,” she said quickly. “I must go.”
“But I want to order something to eat,” Stern blurted out, as she hurried away from the table and her boss.
Stern turned his attention the man. He noticed his thick dark forearms covered in curly black hair first and then his scowling face partially hid under a heavy black beard. Stern was inexperienced with young women but he could spot an angry man a mile away from him and this man was very angry.
The man stopped a few feet away and pulled the cigar from his mouth before asking, “Who are you?”
Stern wondered if he should stand or continue to sit. If the man attacked him, he would be at a great disadvantage, his legs trapped under the table.
“Are you Carne?” he asked to buy a time while he thought what to do.
The man blinked and opened and closed his fists, somewhat confused by the question. “Why do you ask?” he asked.
“I was just asking the server what to order and she said I should ask Carne, the chef.”
The man’s demeanor changed: his face relaxed and a slight smile gathered at the corners of his mouth; his shoulders hunched and ready to receive and give blows straightened and broadened; his clenched fists opened and he wiped them on the dirty apron before extending his right hand to Stern to shake. “I recommend the chili relleno. I make it Ciudad style,” he said, holding Stern’s hand.
“Then I will have that and a cerveza,” said Stern with a grin.
The man snapped his fingers and one of the indio women rushed to his side and took the order. Carne, satisfied that nothing untoward was going on between the Argyll woman and Stern, moved on to other tables greeting his guests and Stern sighed in relief. He felt strong; the dragon skin was evidently a miracle drug but he still felt a residue of uncertainty in his ability to defend himself. Lurking in his memory was traumatic pain and agony. Just the thought of being hit unnerved him.
As these thoughts surfaced he began to worry about Birgit; she had disappeared shortly after they arrived at the caravanserai. The dragoon, too, had been in the barn for a long time and he was beginning to feel deserted. Could something have happened to them?
Just as these thoughts surfaced, the squad began to emerge from the barn and head toward the tables. Munoz saw him and waved and then the men changed course and swaggered toward him.
They had cleaned up a bit, he noticed. Their tunics were buttoned and their hair combed. Some wore their brown sombreros, while others carried them in their hands. The dust had been knocked from their cavalry boots and he noticed the regimental pins on their collars for the first time; the silver hand, identifying them as Sans Main. Odd, he had not seen that the night before when they rushed him from the hospital and then it struck him: they had not worn any service pins or patches because they did not want to be identified.
The Sans Main regiment, he remembered, were descended from the French Expeditionary force that supported the Pope in the war of 2212 against the Anglo mob fleeing the North and crossing the wall at Juarez. Those captured had their hands cut off and left for dead in the desert south of the Juarez ruins.
Munoz was the first one to sit, choosing a spot opposite Stern. The rest moved in around him. He had not yet learned all of their names but he was beginning to recognize them.
Twelve in all, they all seemed to be older; seasoned veterans, he guessed. They probably volunteered for the mission. But to do what: rescue him or kidnap him? This he didn’t know.
Munoz called out to one of the indio serving women and she nodded and moved toward them. “Starving,” he said with a grin. Several of the other men agreed.
“So where is the good doctor?” asked Munoz.
Stern shrugged and answered, “I have no idea. I thought she was with you.”
One of the men they called Oso said, “She headed off to the main house as soon as we arrived. I thought she was arranging food for us.”
Stern looked toward the house and he asked the serving girl if she had seen the woman that accompanied them.
“No, I haven’t seen anyone but you men,” she said and then headed toward the cook house to fetch beers for them.
“She wouldn’t have gone far,” said Munoz, looking over his shoulder.
Birgit had not turned up by the time their food was served and Stern was beginning to worry. He knew no one in this group but the woman who called herself a doctor. He had no money and he had no real understanding of why he was fleeing toward Veracruz, except the woman who had said he was in danger. He was at their disposal.
The men finished eating and then ordered another round of beer. They were beginning to grow boisterous and loud and the serving women were eying them nervously. Twelve drunken dragoons was not a pretty tableau. Stern was beginning to feel tired and the men bothered him. He asked Munoz what their plans were. The man looked up from his beer and slurred out an answer. “Stay here the night and let the horses rest and then we are off to the east tomorrow morning at dawn,” he said.
Stern needed to get away from the soldiers. Drunken humans always scared him because beat the Argyll would be the next thing on their agenda. Let them drink themselves silly, he thought, as he stood up and asked: “Where are we bedding down?”
“The loft above the stalls,” Munoz answered. “Find some hay and make yourself comfortable.”
The tables were now in shade; the mountains and the forest blocked the sinking sun. As he walked toward the barn, he heard bells and turned toward the trail he and the dragoons traveled from the main road earlier in the day. A large group of Aztecas in ceremonial garb emerged from the shadows of the forest. Bells on straps tied to their their ankles tingled as they walked. ‘What the hell?’ he asked himself. He stopped and watched fifty or so Aztecas, men, women and children, filter into the clearing. Behind them two men on tall black horses entered the clearing. They were not with the indios. He recognized the Black Robe out riders immediately. “Damn,” he said out loud as he scurried for the barn and hoped they had not seen him.
He climbed a ladder to the loft and lay down on the hay-covered floor, and then crawled to the open doors to watch the Black Robes ride their horses up to a hitching post near the well. The shorter one stepped out of the saddle and tied his horse off, while the taller of the two, the one with a thick black beard, stood in his stirrups and surveyed the people sitting at the tables eating. He wanted to believe their being here was a coincidence but he quickly overruled that bit of magical thinking. He could almost read the man’s mind as he checked each person at the tables. The younger one pulled off his thick black woolen robe, his symbol of office and authority, and folded it carefully before tying it with leather straps to the rear jockey behind the canticle of the Mexican saddle. He wore two Navy colts on his hips, guns that Asa’s father might have made for the military order, which he slid partially from the holsters, loosening them to ease his draw, and then reached over the saddle and pulled a sawed-off double barrel shotgun from a boot designed for the weapon.
Asa looked to the dragoons who were laughing and drinking, unaware of the danger they were now in. “Where the hell was Birgit?” he wondered out loud. When he turned back to the Black Robes, it was clear to him that the taller one had spied the dragoons, as he, too, stepped out of the saddle and pulled off his robes.
The dragoons were unarmed and half-drunk. Any protection they would provide him would be minimal and quickly over with if the Black Robes decided to fight.
Suddenly he heard the ladder creak. Someone else was on their way up.
He slid away from the trapdoor toward the shadows looking for a weapon, a hay hook or fork, to skewer one of the Black Robes.
Hiding in the shadows he breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the wild thick thatch of blue-black hair appear above the edge of the loft's floor. The Argyll woman peered over the edge of and looked around and then smiled when she saw him crouching in the corner. “It’s just me, Akna,” she said softly.
“What is it?” he blurted out and she frowned, disappointed and a bit wounded by his greeting.
“I wanted to talk to you?” she said, now a bit shy and hesitant.
He was afraid someone would see her standing on the ladder so he urged her to join him in the shadows. “Hurry up,” he said, hurting her feelings further.
“Why are you being so rude?” she asked bluntly. Now she was becoming angry with the officious young man.
Before he could answer the first shotgun blast erupted and then the screams. She looked panicked and started back toward the stairs. “No,” he yelled and grabbed her arm and pulled her to him. “Do not go out there.”
She struggled against him and then a second blast convinced her to stay with him. He told her to get down and he crawled to the wide doors and looked out. People were running into the woods away from the communal tables. Four or five dragoons were down, while the rest held their hands up in surrender to the two Black Robes who leveled their shotguns at them.
“Jesus,” he whispered and backed away from the door. He had to get out and away from this place.
Suddenly she was next to him, looking out on the carnage. “What do they want?” she whispered.
“I think they are looking for me?” he said.
She looked at him and asked: “You, what did you do?”
“I don’t really know,” he said and that was the truth. He really didn’t know why the Black Robes were coming for him. Yes, he thought, he had read a book of black magic and cast a spell for his own protection but did that make him such a dangerous character. Maybe he should give himself up before someone else was hurt but something held him back. The demon wasn’t talking to him now and Birgit was nowhere to be found but he had a nagging suspicion that if he gave himself up to the Black Robe he would never to be heard from again.
“You need to get away from here, now,” she whispered into his ear.
He turned toward her and asked: “How do I get past them?”
“I know a place for you to hide. Go there and I will come for you when it is safe. We can leave together.” She said firmly. She took his hand and he could see she was as desperate as he was to get away from the clearing.