The Emperor's Men 9: High Tides - Dirk van den Boom - E-Book

The Emperor's Men 9: High Tides E-Book

Dirk van den Boom

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Beschreibung

The empire of Mutal is growing, and with it the number of its opponents. While a large alliance of free Mayan cities forms to put a stop to the expansion of the messengers of the gods in harmony with the mighty Teotihuacán, the Roman expedition tries to contact the mainland Mayans and find out more about the time travellers from Japan. But events quickly escalate and many who thought they were in control are taught otherwise. Conflicts escalate, events get out of control and Romans, Japanese and Mayans are caught in heavy tides ...

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List of characters

Endnotes

Copyright © 2022 by Atlantis Verlag Guido Latz, Bergstraße 34, 52222 Stolberg (Germany) Cover © Timo Kümmel Editor: Rob Bignell eBook Production: André Piotrowski ISBN 978-3-86402-842-7www.atlantis-verlag.de

1

“What does that mean?”

Aritomo Hara was not sure if this was a rhetorical question. He stood at the window covered with thin leather skins, from which only a dim light entered the room. Rain splattered, and this time it was not the thundering deluge of a tropical storm, but the persistent monotony of a shower that had begun an hour ago and had no intention of stopping. For the inhabitants of the city of Mutal, capital of the New Mayan Empire, this was good news. The rain filled the reservoirs and irrigated the numerous fields surrounding the city in terraces. Another corn harvest was to be expected, a good one at that, and this was a positive development in view of the steadily growing population.

Captain Inugami sat behind a wide desk that he had had made by capable craftsmen. Both men were in the officer’s office, the true power center of the city and empire, a fact of which all were aware, regardless of what other forms of ritual homage were paid to Chitam, the king of Mutal.

“I had it translated twice, by Itzanami and by Sawada’s best students. The texts hardly differed from each other.”

Inugami nodded. Lines stood out sharply on his face. He had always been a dogged type, but the strain of the last few weeks had left its mark. When he had returned to Mutal, a victorious commander and creator of an empire, he had not allowed himself any rest. The arrival of the letter from the distant island of Cozumel had thrown them into confusion. There was talk of travelers who had arrived, speaking a strange, incomprehensible language, but possessing wonders of ships, wearing strange clothing, and claiming to have crossed the great sea, straight from the east. Mutal was asked to send one of his own as an interpreter, for the strange visitors had weapons of the gods like Mutal’s new masters, and therefore they were surely acquainted with each other.

How could that be?

“It won’t be Columbus,” Hara finally replied, just to say anything at all. “It’s too early for that, we can assume. We don’t know exactly what year it is in Europe or in Japan, but I’m sure it’s too early for Columbus.”

“The letter speaks of vents with steam coming out of them,” Inugami said. “Columbus didn’t have anything like that. It all doesn’t add up.”

“The reference to language is important,” his first officer explained. “An expedition from Japan would not come from the East. Was there a westward expedition of European powers so early? I don’t know anything about it. Is it possibly a failed venture lost in the annals of history?”

“This guess is as good as any. We don’t even know which European powers are dominant at the moment. I have a hunch that it all doesn’t add up at all … Steam engines at this time? Surely the world had long since been fully opened up and divided among the major powers by the time steamships came along! That’s an anachronism.”

“Like us.”

“Yes, like us.” Inugami continued to frown at the letter, which he had already read several times. “That might be the most important aspect. Like us. What if we are not the only ones who represent an anachronism – or have triggered one? Maybe this will give us a clue to help explain our own presence. Or could I be wrong?”

Aritomo shook his head, partly in response to the captain’s question, and partly out of quiet astonishment that the latter even hinted at possibly making a mistake. Inugami’s face had become harder, he looked older, but there were not only external traces of all the past events, but also internal ones. It was remarkable.

“No, captain,” Aritomo said. “I’m thinking along similar lines.” He sighed. “I’ve done some research. Several women left for Cozumel some time ago because they couldn’t have children – or at least assumed they couldn’t. There is a temple there of a goddess responsible for fertility, a sort of pilgrimage site, if I understand correctly. The journey is common and not overly arduous, it is regularly taken by Mutalese women. All the women who left last have at least witnessed our arrival and, perhaps only passively, some of our language lessons. We must assume that this is their frame of comparison. What language did they pick up from us? Japanese and English.”

“There is only one thing to explain all of this,” the captain said, putting the letter aside. “You think the same as I do?”

“More time travelers.”

Inugami nodded slowly and rose. He stepped next to Aritomo and slapped the thin leather skin aside. Splashes of water wet their face as the protection disappeared, but Aritomo did not complain. The heavy, earthy smell of the humid city seemed fresher and more bearable now than it had during the midday heat, the rain cleansing the air and the temperatures cooling a bit. The moisture on his face was no longer just sweat, and that was quite welcome.

“How do we respond?” he asked, loud enough to drown out the still-insistent shiver.

“Two responses,” Inugami said quietly, close to Aritomo’s ear. “We must immediately continue the campaign and expand our power base, although I will admit that we must be slow to be careful not to overextend ourselves. And we must send an expedition to Cozumel to put ourselves in possession of the means of power that the strangers have. We will probably need them.”

Aritomo pressed his lips together. Inugami continued to think only in terms of his own power. He had not even considered making peaceful contact with the strangers instead of immediately making enemies of them.

“According to the reports, they have a fleet of large ships. It can be assumed that they have prepared this trip well. They should have soldiers with them and weapons.”

Aritomo said this with the intention of slowing Inugami down. He achieved the opposite.

“I want those. Do I need to point out to you again the reference made in the letter, the black vent or smokestack, the ability of ships to sail without wind?”

The letter had indeed been relatively detailed in its descriptions.

“No,” was all Aritomo said.

“Steam power, Sub-Lieutenant Hara! Steam power! Those who have steam power have firearms. Guns, cannons, perhaps not as good as ours – the ships of the strangers are apparently generally made of wood, so somewhat older, in comparison to our native epoch – but good enough, better than anything the Maya, even with our guidance, could quickly develop. Fully available, with supplies of ammunition and propellant, black powder probably. I want them. I need them. Our weapons are few, and we are low on cartridges. We need to act now. It’s going to take a very long time to build the industry we need with the Mayans. We haven’t even found a good source of iron ore yet! This is a gift, a gift of destiny.”

Inugami spoke with increasing passion. Aritomo knew when the captain was in that mood. The latter’s eyes gleamed, fixed on a distant point in the future where his vision of an even greater, ever-growing empire awaited him. To argue peace now would evoke just the opposite.

“How are we going to effectively attack such a force – assuming it even exists? With rowboats and small sailors? From shores likely to be hostile to us by now? With few guns and few cartridges?”

A factual objection, and Inugami was available for one. He stretched out his arm and pointed to the mighty body of the submarine, which, covered with large tarpaulins to protect it from the weather, still rested in its place on the never-completed grave of King Chitam’s father.

“With this, Sub-Lieutenant Hara. With this.”

“But …”

Inugami made a hand gesture wiping away.

“We now have the manpower of four cities in our hands – and soon of more. The boat’s diesel tanks are full, and Sarukazaki has been tending to the machines since we arrived. Are you telling me that the boat is no longer operational in the water?”

Aritomo had to shake his head against his will.

“No. The deterioration is not that far advanced and yes, Sarukazaki and the men are working hard. If we put the boat in the water, we will be able to use it. But …”

“No buts,” Inugami interrupted him, and his gaze had returned from the distance, seizing Aritomo with an iron will that brooked no further opposition. “We must get the boat to the east coast, by a direct route. This is the most important task for you, Hara. I’ll plan the next campaign, you plan the deployment of the boat. And when we’re ready, we’ll collect what fate has prepared for us.”

Aritomo remained silent. He knew that every disagreement was useless if he could not support it with further arguments. For now, it was to be hoped that this plan would prove impossible to implement. But he had to admit that it was actually not impossible. Inugami was absolutely right. They had plenty of manpower at their disposal, including intelligent men who knew what heavy loads meant, what statics was, how to move things with muscle power that were a lot heavier and bigger than people. The Egyptians had built gigantic pyramids, using only simple tools, their brains and a large number of muscles. The grandiose structures of the Maya were in no way inferior. The road to the coast was long and arduous. Aritomo estimated, based on the only rough maps of the region that the submarine carried, that the distance was nearly 130 miles. They would be able to cover a good part of it on a river, but until then … And the way there was not without dangers. The enemies of Inugami would gather, in fact, signs of an alliance uniting against them were increasing. Such an expedition would not go unobserved, and ensuring its protection was at least as difficult a task as the logistical aspect, should the enemies not be able to be kept otherwise occupied.

He left Inugami’s room and immediately began looking for Lengsley and Sarukazaki. These two men would be the most likely to get a realistic picture of the possibilities. Sarukazaki would not complain aloud; he carried out orders, even rather nonsensical ones when in doubt. Lengsley, however, was of a more independent spirit, and that independence had been reinforced by his relationship with Chitam’s sister. Would he take this insane project as an opportunity to break with the Japanese and openly side with the Maya? Aritomo thought the risk was low, but unfortunately he could not completely rule out such a development.

As he left the building where the Japanese were housed, the rain eased somewhat. Moisture steamed over the city, and people emerged from the buildings to make up for lost time in their day’s work. Mutal was crowded. In addition to the returning soldiers, the slaves of Inugami’s Janissary army were also part of the city’s population. Although they continued to be housed separately in their own quarters, this was now basically a matter of efficiency, not security. Many had not only come to terms with their fate, they even proudly wore the insignia of their status. Inugami had kept his promises. He had rewarded the brave, given them wives and possessions. He had strengthened their ranks with new recruits – slaves and volunteers alike – creating command posts filled by the newly promoted. A standing army, an unusual institution for the Maya, a professional army that did nothing more all day than train, improve its own equipment, practice discipline, and steel the body. Currently, to minimize the reservations of the urban population, Inugami also used the army for sowing and harvesting, for gathering plants and cutting wood, transporting stones, building roads. There was not a quiet minute for the Janissaries, but all endured the lot without complaining, because for each of them there was the promise of advancement, of honors and offices, of prestige and influence. And, Aritomo considered, they felt freed by their direct allegiance to the messenger of the gods from all other loyalties, even from the obligation to submit to the caprice of unpredictable deities. Inugami gave them security, a clear world view, a definite orientation. There were no more ambiguities, no more this and that, no more contradictory messages. They obeyed, and he took care of them. They maintained discipline and iron loyalty, and unimagined paths to supreme glory were open to them. Had not one of them even become lord of one of the conquered cities? How else if not in this way could simple men like them ever think of such a rapid rise past the traditional hierarchies? The Janissaries, as rigid and tightly organized as they were, represented a path of liberation and advancement for many, and it spoke well for Inugami that he immediately recognized this and wisely promoted it. He thus created an instrument of power against which his opponents first had to find a weapon.

And should he indeed succeed in the unthinkable and lay his hand on technology that was not quite so modern but possibly much easier to copy, on effective weapons that were certainly inferior to theirs but easier to manufacture – who or what would then oppose the messenger of the gods?

This was not an academic question for Aritomo, and he put it to himself again as he strode across the main square, toward the construction site for the city wall where he suspected the wanted men were.

A question he asked himself, because he could also be one of those who one day had to stand before the power of the warrior slaves.

As their enemy, not as their leader.

2

Köhler slumped a bit. The old man in front of him, a Mayan priest in a colorful costume, had set up a large stone slab on which he was painting characters with a brush. It was fascinating to see the ease and speed with which he conjured up the complex glyphs on the stone. Köhler had a kind of parchment lying in front of him, apparently made of wooden bark, and held a small brush in his own hands. Actually, it was his job to paint off what the old man had just tried to teach the seven crew members of the Gratian. He had already largely given up after the first symbol. His reproduction of the glyph had resembled many things with some imagination – the cloud formation just passing over them, a random pattern in the sand where they sat – but the template rather not. There were other students more eager to get on with the job, and Köhler felt a very gentle twinge of guilt for not meeting the standard of the class today.

As so often.

But one also had to understand his predicament.

It was a warm day, as it usually was in these latitudes, and the sun burned from the sky with a frightening intensity. They sat under a tarp, but the shade did not dispel the sultry heat, and the breeze from the sea was tepid and barely noticeable. Köhler wore only the most necessary clothes on his body, but he had already been sweating all morning and had caught himself thinking about taking a cooling bath. Of course, no one would stop him if he jumped up now and looked for a nice spot to enter the water – he was one of the highest ranking officers on this expedition. On the other hand, Langenhagen told him that he felt that Köhler had a role model function to fulfill, both in terms of self-discipline and in terms of his language skills. They had been on Cozumel for several weeks now, and it had proved fruitful and safe to have made contact with the Maya here. There was an endless amount to learn, and although they would surely travel on sooner or later, they had not yet reached the end of their stay here. Above all, Langenhagen had ordered intensive language studies, for everyone, and that unfortunately included Trierarch Köhler, who had talents for many things, but for languages rather not.

He agonized.

Or not, because there were other ways of distraction if he was not allowed to jump into the water. Rather than try again with the glyph, he turned his attention to the second reason besides the sweltering heat that kept him from his language studies. Diagonally in front of him, Terzia was squatting on the floor, and she was highly concentrated and had drawn wonderful copies of the templates on her paper, an expression of both her drawing skills – Köhler wasn’t very good at that either – and her powers of comprehension. She was immersed in the world of Maya writing, which she absorbed like a sponge. That’s why she didn’t notice that Köhler was examining her intently from behind: the curve of her jutting hips, as was clearly visible when she was sitting down, the breasts hanging forward when she bent over the paper, the gentle curve of her neck and shoulders, half exposed in the thin tunic she wore. The fine film of sweat, which of course also showed on her skin, shimmered lightly and seemed immensely … interesting. Köhler imagined feeling the salty taste on his tongue while he …

He was definitely distracted.

The old Mayan priest did not care. He was not dealing with children in need of rebuke. He reeled off his program with the routine of a teacher who had taught these lessons many times in his life. Those who paid attention would benefit. Those who stared at the gentle sway of shoulders and elegantly swinging breasts were sure to enjoy that, too. He did not care. He began with the next glyph, which, after all, Köhler had noticed, stood for “house.” He drew it on, skillfully, quickly, but not too quickly, and Köhler stared at his largely blank piece of paper and began to feel a tiny bit ashamed.

He painted “house,” and what came out of it possibly also had a meaning in Maya writing, but certainly not the one it should have. That Terzia’s “house” became a very clear and distinct “house” was also not surprising. Köhler had the idea to ask the scientist for private lessons to catch up on his learning. He was willing to take this upon himself selflessly in order to fulfill his duty before the eyes of his superior.

Another half hour or so passed, then the lesson was over, and the students rose, said the words of thanks for the old priest – one of the first formulas he had taught them – and bade their goodbye. Every day these lessons would be repeated, and Köhler hoped for the success of their expedition that others were more attentive than he was. After packing his things into the backpack he carried for this purpose, he looked up and found, to his regret, that Terzia had already slipped away, probably to continue her botanical studies, to which she had devoted herself intensively with some Ixchel priestesses since their arrival. Köhler envied her this task, which seemed to fulfill her completely. His daily routine threatened to become monotonous. Until Langenhagen ordered the departure for the mainland, there would not be too much to do for the maritime and military arm of their troop.

That could not be long in coming. The rumors about the so-called messengers of the gods had aroused too much curiosity. And it was part of the core of their journey to track down other time-wanderers and assess the threat they might pose to Rome. Köhler certainly preferred to continue making friends. Here on Cozumel, they had succeeded quite well so far. He had decided to remain confident in this regard.

He heard a call and squinted, recognizing one of the older priests approaching him. It was D’aak, one of the first Mayan men who had begun language studies. Just as Köhler was a reluctant student, D’aak had assembled a group of Maya, including a number of children, who devoted themselves to Latin language studies, up to six hours a day and with awe-inspiring intensity. No one was surprised, therefore, that the old gentleman grasped the logical and comprehensible grammar of Latin more quickly than Köhler grasped the equivalent of the Mayan language. Above all, written expression continued to present him with almost insurmountable hurdles, which D’aak did not face with the Latin script. In fact, Terzia had told him, the old priest had taken to transcribing the Mayan language into Latin characters, not solely to create a dictionary, but also to make it easier for strangers in general. Unfortunately, this innovation, which was certainly still in its early stages, had not yet reached Köhler’s teacher.

“Trierarch!” D’aak called him, smiling kindly as he came closer. “Langenhagen is looking for you!”

The way D’aak pronounced words still took some getting used to, and there were sounds where his Mayan origin could not be denied. But again, what the old man said was easier to understand than anything the officer could produce in Mayan.

He suppressed a sigh. Whether he wanted to or not, he had to intensify his studies if he didn’t want to be badly cut off. If only so that he didn’t look like the very last fool in Terzia’s eyes, a necessity that occupied a remarkably wide space in his thinking.

“Where?” he asked in Maya’s direction. The simple questions weren’t his problem. The complicated answers were.

D’aak, who was well aware of Köhler’s linguistic limitations, pointed with a long arm in the direction of the camp. This had been built by the Romans near the harbor, in the style of a traditional military fortification, albeit somewhat smaller. The Mayan builders of Cozumel had not only provided labor, they had also watched the construction of the guests with the utmost attention and made some notes. It was not that they could learn very much from the Romans – that the Maya could erect impressive and very sturdy buildings was obvious to the naked eye in every direction – but in terms of details, they were apparently willing to learn. In particular, the mighty palisade fence that Langenhagen had insisted on attracted a great deal of attention. The Maya had not fortified their cities. It wasn’t that the concept was completely foreign to them, they just didn’t do it. For Köhler, this was a similar mystery to the fact that the natives knew the idea of the wheel but did not use it to construct chariots.

Köhler knew that this was the reason why Langenhagen was looking for him. For several days they had been preparing a demonstration to which island’s notables had been invited. The preparations had to be completed now.

When Köhler arrived, he was already awaited by an illustrious group. The two most important personalities were Ik’Naah, the chief priestess of the island and de facto head of government, as far as he had been able to judge, and Navarch Langenhagen. Certainly also of central importance were two others present – Lucius Aemilius Sater, who was in charge of the expedition’s horses, a member of the Roman cavalry with many years of experience, and Optimus, the oldest of the stallions brought along. Optimus, like all the horses, had been selected for his composure, which did not make him the most sprightly mount. He was old enough, however, not to have lost his interest in the opposite sex, and all the animals had not only enjoyed the freedom of going ashore, but had used it productively. In any case, Sater said that foals were to be expected, and this in turn meant that they had to factor this into their planning for further expeditions. Now, however, Optimus was here not in his function as future father or sprightly cavalryman, but in a third – as draft animal.

The legionaries who were not on duty had agreed to start a joint project with a number of craftsmen from the city – the construction of a single-axle cart, such as had populated the streets of the Roman Empire for centuries. Even today, there were many of them, often pulled by donkeys or oxen, both species that the expedition did not carry. Köhler noted with an expert’s eye that the men had done a neat job. The wagon consisted of a flatbed, a good two meters long, with a small coach stand at the front end. The wagon wheels were large, made of wood, and each had six spokes. The ride would be very rough, for it lacked any suspension. Until they found a good source of iron ore or copper, they would not be able to build springs, although a design with fixed cables could be imagined, but it would require constant maintenance. For demonstration purposes, however, this prototype was adequate, and the hard-packed, dry road leading out from the main square into the island was almost completely level and would therefore not offer too much resistance to the wagon.

Optimus stood in the harness and looked with his big brown eyes at Köhler. A riding horse was not necessarily a good draft animal, but Sater had already pointed out that nothing mattered to the stallion as long as he got enough to eat and otherwise had his fun. Since both had been taken care of, Köhler remained confident. Also present was Magister Andochos, whose extensive linguistic talents had proven invaluable in recent weeks. He greeted D’aak, with whom he sat together a great deal, and the fact that they both began to converse animatedly indicated that both of their language studies were well-advanced.

Langenhagen nodded to Sater. He placed a small staircase, also made of wood by the soldiers, next to the carriage stand and made an inviting motion toward Ik’Naah, who, without hesitation, started to move. It was by no means that the Maya did not like to grasp the advantages of a carriage or had any other reservations about this effective use of the wheel. So far, however, they had lacked the suitable draft animal and for some reason had not wanted to resort to humans as engines. The thing that the assembled Maya found much more amazing than the wagon was the horse. Ik’Naah also still looked with some suspicion at Optimus, but the horse did not care. He snorted and wagged his head. Langenhagen helped the old woman onto the coach box and sat beside her, seized the reins, and waited until Sater had taken the steps away. Then it creaked, and the carriage lumbered off, slowly so as not to throw the priestess off balance, but steadily, and Optimus showed himself willing, obedient, and very much agreeable to a rather sedate speed. Köhler observed less the wagon and more the Mayans who had gathered for the demonstration: passersby; the craftsmen involved; some notables of the town. Some simply marveled, a few seemed rather frightened of the apparatus – possibly on principle, because it was an innovation, and for some innovations were always bad –, but others had a thoughtful expression on their faces. They may have been considering what the widespread use of these wagons would mean for the transportation of goods and people, and what effect it would have on the economy … and on warfare. There was a lot to consider. Should their small herd of horses grow, Cozumel had an advantage in many ways and a trade commodity that was of great importance, at least in the short term. This certainly had not escaped Ik’Naah’s notice, and as Köhler assessed, neither had many others here. The Romans could not take all the horses home again, and the reproductive instinct would ensure that their numbers increased rapidly. This alone started an economic revolution on the island and potentially for the whole Mayan civilization. And this very moment was the historic beginning.

A special day.

A hot day, in Köhler’s opinion, who watched the rumbling vehicle for a few more moments as it drove thoughtfully along the road, demonstrating to the Mayans the undeniable benefits of traveling a distance in this weather without the need to exert their own legs.

Köhler himself, however, quickly found himself under the erected tarpaulin with a table underneath, which had been erected next to the spectacle to provide refreshment for the thirsty. Behind the table, two young priestesses were serving fruit juice diluted with water. Köhler accepted a large cup and drank in hasty draughts.

Magister Andochos joined him, also in search of refreshment, and nodded to the officer. “A great moment, Trierarch.”

“Indeed, indeed,” Köhler replied without much enthusiasm.

“I heard the local craftsmen are already independently building a second chariot. With a roof, as a means of transportation for the old High Priestess. She doesn’t know about it yet, I gather.”

Köhler smiled. “I don’t think anything happens on this island that Ik’Naah doesn’t know about. Whether she always shows her knowledge openly is another question.”

Andochos did not seem to have considered this point of view. He put down his cup and smiled.

“What I know,” he said, “is that a delegation is expected from the nearby port city of Zama. Envoys from the king there. D’aak has explained to me that the latter has had his eye on Cozumel for some time, and that until we arrived there was real fear that he might wish to make that interest clear by a military incursion.”

“Let him try that,” Köhler murmured and asked for a refill of fruit juice. The two young priestesses gave him such a sunny smile that he forgot Terzia for a moment.

“Langenhagen and Ik’Naah have entered into a mutual assistance agreement?” asked Andochos. “They talked about it, I know they did. I helped translate a little bit.”

Köhler shook his head. “Well, I wouldn’t quite call it that. But we have made it clear to the priestess that her hospitality and support has earned our gratitude. As long as we have a presence on Cozumel, Ik’Naah’s security needs are ours as well. It is a reliable entity for us, we get to know it well, and its people are friendly and open-minded toward us. We learn the language, get fresh supplies, our explorers are allowed to move freely around the island, none of us have ever been threatened. The king of Zama has a less than good reputation, to say the least. He is not predictable to us. We have learned enough by now to know that it is a dear habit of city-states to wage war against each other again and again. Langenhagen has come to the conclusion that we can only establish a secure base if we have an ally. This function is currently fulfilled by Cozumel. With that, however, I don’t want to have said anything about the future.”

Andochos had listened carefully to Köhler. By no means the officers kept these considerations secret from the crew, but for the most part it was the scientists and experts, especially the linguistic genius in front of him, who had so much to do that they were often only peripherally aware of these developments.

“New boats are coming from the mainland this afternoon, probably with pilgrims. Langenhagen has instructed me to be on the lookout for people from the Mutal area to gain more information about what is taking place there in relation to the messengers of the gods.”

“There’s a war, we know that much,” Köhler said, finishing his second cup. He felt refreshed. “If there are time-wanderers there, and we have to assume there are, that’s not surprising. But we have to be careful not to get involved in that conflict. Our job is to gather intelligence. We are a military expedition, but not an armed force. The utmost caution is required. When exactly are the boats coming?”

“D’aak was going to let me know. I guess in an hour; they left in the morning, and the weather is calm, almost windless. Sailing won’t work so well; they’ll have to row. I told the lookout on the Gratian to make a report and … ah, speak of the devil …”

Köhler turned around. A crew member of the Gratian, clearly recognizable by his uniform, came running toward them as if hounded by furies. The officer poured a fresh cup, this time with water, and waited until the man had arrived panting in the shadows.

“Trierarch, Magister, I report the arrival of the pilgrim boats. Should be landing in a few minutes.”

Köhler nodded to him and held out the water, which was received with pleasure. Then he turned to Andochos.

“We’ll be on our way, Magister. Or do you still have work to do here?”

The older man shook his head. “Nothing the good D’aak couldn’t handle. His Latin isn’t bad. I’m thinking of teaching him Greek too.”

“I am curious to see what other languages we will be confronted with,” Köhler replied as they started moving. It was good that the Magister took great pleasure in learning and teaching languages, showing a tirelessness that only aroused admiration in Köhler.

The way to the landing site, politely called “port” by the Romans, was not too far, yet Köhler was again drenched in sweat when they got there. The lack of breeze made breathing difficult, and the oppressive sun intensified the sultry heat to the point of being intolerable. They had all become accustomed to the climate, drank plenty of water, and got to rest regularly in the shade – but that still didn’t mean they moved as freely and dynamically as the Mayans, who also complained at times but went about their day’s work undeterred.

They usually had a little less on their backs, as Köhler noted self-critically.

Köhler shaded his eyes, as he looked out over the water. There was the Gratian, not 200 meters ahead of him, lying at anchor, and it was clearly visible that large tarpaulins were stretched across the entire deck. Then beyond, farther out in the open sea, could be seen the chain of other ships of the expedition, thus guarding the island and the Gratian, but themselves difficult to attack. Langenhagen also gave shore leave to the crews there, but the focus of contact with the Maya remained the Gratian.

And then there were the small dots approaching, with simple masts from which the sails hung limply, and oarsmen eagerly pushing the boats along. They were the usual designs, none of which could hold more than seven or eight passengers. The Maya were not great seafarers, quite persistent fishermen to be sure, but they had never been drawn to the wide ocean and had never constructed the ships necessary for the purpose. The frigates of the Roman navy were wonders to them and remained so. Köhler had noticed that a group of fishermen could not get enough of the sight of the Gratian. They constantly circled the ship and watched it with wary eyes. He would not be surprised if Cozumel also became the center of a new generation of Mayan shipbuilders. The mere presence of the Romans was an inspiration for the locals that would not pass this civilization by without leaving a trace.

They stood there waiting, and they were not the only ones. A delegation of the temple arrived to receive the pilgrims and the gifts they brought. The rituals were prepared for all of them, which were supposed to bring fertility to the women, but those who contributed to the temple’s wealth were given special treatment. Then there were mats of food and water for the boat people who would return to the mainland the same day. And onlookers came – many elderly, many children – all hoping for some diversion and the latest gossip from the mainland. It was the middle of the day, so the working population of Cozumel was busy with work.

Eight boats arrived, an average number, six of them occupied by pilgrims, two with the gifts of the wealthy. Mostly they were easily transportable valuables: trinkets; obsidian; cacao beans, of high value but not taking up much space. The Maya did not yet know money. Köhler wasn’t sure that was a disadvantage. Fortunately, the expedition’s planners had prepared for this eventuality and packed all sorts of tradable goods of practical or aesthetic value in the holds of the ships. Although the Maya here were especially generous with food, Langenhagen always was willing to pay for supplies.

Köhler watched as the boats landed and were pulled onto the flat beach by helpful men. Others rushed over to help the pilgrims. They were, as might be expected, younger women, at least not yet so old that even a benevolent fertility goddess could not do too much anymore. Some were simply, others more splendidly dressed, and although the differences in social status were recognizable, they were all united by the common desire for offspring, which had apparently not yet materialized, or not to a sufficient degree.

Köhler and Andochos, who contrasted sharply with the Maya in garb and figure, were stared at as the ladies landed and climbed out of the boats. It was not suspicious attention, not fear. The priests’ presence certainly had a calming effect. Yet they were both the center of attention. There was whispering. Priests addressed the newcomers. Langenhagen had asked Ik’Naah that everyone be asked immediately about their origins, so that pilgrims from Mutal could be identified right away. But it could well be that today no …

Yes.

Grasped by the arm, friendly, a young woman was led in their direction. It was evident from her clothing and posture that she was not one of those who spent their lives in toil and daily drudgery. She was certainly in her late 20s, and one look at her hands was enough to convince Köhler that he was dealing with a very privileged young woman. And a confident one, for she showed no shyness, as she approached the Romans and took note of the polite bows of the two men. She looked at them with interest, with an alert gaze, curious, far less surprised than one might have assumed.

She spoke a few words, and Köhler could see from Andochos’ concentrated frown that he was having trouble understanding her. He had learned early on that Mayan dialects already differed from city to city. Mutal was a metropolis far inland, there the differences from the language spoken on the island had to be significant. When Andochos beckoned a priest he knew to join him and ask for his help in correctly interpreting what was being said, Köhler braced himself with patience.

That could take time.

The two men conferred, and Köhler suppressed a sigh. He smiled at the young woman, ready to pass the waiting time by contemplating her pleasant face.

He didn’t have to try his patience any further.

The woman looked at Köhler, then approached him and said in English, “You look like Robert Lengsley. Are you related to him?”

Köhler stared at her, then slowly shook his head. Andochos had abruptly stopped his conversation. He had understood and was thunderstruck. Köhler would’ve liked to stall for a moment, but the woman deserved an immediate answer.

“My name is Köhler,” he replied slowly. “I am a sailor from the land of Rome. I do not know the man.”

“The world is big,” the woman said with a smile. “I am Muwaan from Mutal, daughter of Bakch. My father is at court. I enjoyed language studies that Master Sawada gave us. Do you know Master Sawada?”

Köhler denied this and made a welcoming hand gesture. Tarps had been erected on the beach for shade, including seating. Andochos waved to a Maya, and drinks were brought. Muwaan seemed to be used to this kind of attention, she allowed herself to be led to the shade without discussion and sat down with an elegant and flowing movement. Such a beautiful woman; for her the fact that she had difficulty conceiving must have weighed especially heavily. Köhler was well aware that the “blame” in such cases, insofar as one wanted to speak of it at all, by no means always lay with the woman. But it would be a while before it would be possible to talk openly about this alternative with the Mayan men. It was difficult even in oh so modern Rome.

And he readily admitted, the other possible explanation did not suit a conservative man very well.

He smiled at the woman and asked his first question. “This Master Sawada … he’s a teacher?”

Muwaan nodded and sipped her fruit juice. “A wise man. He learns and teaches tirelessly, answers many questions, and is the little prince’s personal teacher.”

“The little prince?”

Muwaan frowned finely and leaned forward as she whispered in an almost conspiratorial tone, “They say he ran away!”

“The prince?”

Muwaan nodded, a certain disapproval on her features. “Yes! The lord of the messengers had been too strict with him. And I am not surprised. The Lord Inugami is a strict man.”

This was now the third name of a messenger they heard. They got a cornucopia of information here, but unfortunately a little unstructured.

Andochos raised a hand. “Noble lady, can you give us more names of the strangers? Perhaps we do recognize one of our relatives?” Andochos’ English was a lot better than Köhler’s, and the officer decided to leave further conversation to the scholar.

Again, the thoroughly delightful frown. “But yes. There is the deputy of lord. Aritomo Hara is his name. If you ask me, a far kinder man than his master, and they all say that, actually.”

She blinked at Köhler, showing flawless teeth, giving him a smile. Whatever brought her to this island and the temple of the goddess, lack of charms and unwillingness to use them were not her problem. Köhler caught himself silently comparing Terzia to Muwaan and began to evaluate her merits. Muwaan’s breasts were smaller, but that was not a disadvantage and was to be expected since she was generally more lightly built than the Roman. Her light brown skin was very attractive and looked flawless. The idea of subjecting her to a thorough and very kind examination became more attractive with each passing moment.

Köhler reminded himself to be careful. Yes, Muwaan was looking for fertility, but not necessarily for his very personal support in this matter.

The conversation went on for a while, and Magister Andochos managed to elicit some interesting details from the young lady. In his mind, Köhler was already compiling a report that he would painstakingly transmit to Rome via the shortwave system. The radio operator would get an inflammation on his Morse finger, but it was necessary that the headquarters be informed.

When they said goodbye to Muwaan, Köhler looked after her almost wistfully. But when he saw Andochos’ thoughtful face, he immediately banished these thoughts.

“You’ve drawn your conclusions,” Köhler said. “Out with it.”

Andochos nodded slowly. “I have studied extensively the writings that the time-wanderers brought aboard their ship. I had free access to the library of Rheinberg during my studies, as it now stands in the Academy and has been copied many times. These names are familiar to me.” He raised a hand. “Not as historical persons or the like. But the nature of the names. They come from a language spoken in the Far East … or from our present location, more in the West. You’ve had a decent geographic education, Köhler. You know where Japan is.”

Köhler nodded. “Of course. In the original era of the time-wanderers, an emerging country under a powerful emperor. What is there today, we do not know. Surely one day an expedition will be sent there to learn more. Possibly our comrades who have left for India and China will hear about it. I could inquire at headquarters.”

Andochos made a thoughtful face.

“That might make sense. In any case, these names – Inugami, Sawada, Hara – come from the language of those people from Japan. Therefore, it should be safe to assume that these time migrants came from that country and arrived at the Maya in a very special way. And now we come to the interesting part of the whole story. Köhler, do you know what a submarine is?”

The officer frowned.

“I am familiar with the concept,” the officer replied. “Rheinberg’s records are part of the officer training curriculum, especially in relation to the types of ships of his time. It is a fascinating and at the same time frightening design. I’m not sure I would ever be willing to step on something like that. You can go underwater with it and the men of the crew can breathe and live, for days, without going on deck. An insidious weapon, effective against ships, of great destructive power and almost impossible to destroy. I am afraid just at the thought of such a construction.”

Andochos smiled. “That is understandable. I, too, find the thought difficult. But if I’m interpreting correctly the information we’ve gathered so far, the Japanese, as I’ll call them for now, traveled through time on such a submarine.”

Köhler shook his head. “Mutal is not on the sea, we know that much by now.”

“That is accurate. Don’t ask me how it became possible, but it’s what I can conclude from our information. We should talk to Langenhagen.”

“Yes. And I know what that means too. We can’t delay an expedition into the interior any longer.” Köhler took a deep breath and looked at the older man, who nodded pensively. “We have to leave Cozumel.”

3

“We need to get to Mutal.”

Inocoyotl could find no fault in this logic. He considered Meztli, the divine ruler of Teotihuacán, lord of the Eternal City, representative of the gods on earth but still a lunatic. He didn’t say it aloud, he didn’t even show his thoughts in his face, because without a head you couldn’t think anymore, and Inocoyotl was very satisfied with his head. It looked reasonably good for his age, was neatly coiffed, and was capable of a variety of facial expressions. His teeth also were still quite acceptable, and his brown eyes were dear to him, if only because he had had much success with the ladies with them in his younger years and liked to think back to that. All in all, it was a head that fulfilled its function well and was pleasing to look at.

That’s why he wanted to keep it.

And that’s why he bowed deeply to his supreme lord, as deeply as his back could still manage without having to throw himself on the floor in front of Meztli. Those present in Meztli’s private audience room had been exempted from this duty, quite explicitly in fact, but that did not mean that the three men could allow themselves any insubordination.

“Certainly, noble lord,” Ichtaca, who was closest to the king, hastened to say, and not only in this chamber, but also metaphorically. The old man, like Inocoyotl, had already served Meztli’s father, and although the years were visibly weighing him down, he continued to be the lord of the warehouses, responsible for the collection of taxes and tributes and, that was the point here, for the manufacture of weapons and other war material. Meztli attached great importance to a uniform equipment of the warriors and had ordered that the nobles and clan chiefs might provide him with men but leave their armament to him. Ichtaca was appointed minister of armaments only one day after Meztli had revealed things to Inocoyotl that the latter continued to be able to think of only with the greatest astonishment and largely with incomprehension.

General Izel also knew nothing better than to agree with Meztli. His bow was more elegant and powerful than those of his comrades; he also was the youngest of those present, even a year younger than the ruler himself. Izel had been a warrior and never anything else, a man who had distinguished himself, and who, Inocoyotl noted with some envy, had accepted his overlord’s revelations with stoic equanimity. The wondrous devices from the palace’s secret lair had certainly seemed equally strange to him, but the warrior’s practiced eye probably divined the potential behind them much more than the ambassador did. Izel was among those who were unconditionally devoted to Meztli in every way. He would have followed the king’s orders even if he had ordered the attack on the gods. His expressions of respect were not born of embarrassment or resignation, but of conviction. And if new, all-conquering tools of destruction were now available to their cause, he would certainly be the last one to find fault with them.

“We must hurry,” said the general. “If the envoy’s reports are true, the so-called messenger of the gods will not stick to themselves and will not wait for us to put a stop to their doings. They will continue to expand, adding more men to their force and familiarize them with their new methods and weapons. We have an advantage. We already have a large force, and we have weapons of the gods at least equal to those of the strangers. But their numbers are limited, and the new lords of Mutal have proved wise and prudent. We must not count on the inadequacy and stupidity of enemies who have so far shown neither.”

Meztli put his hands flat on the table around which they were standing. This showed a rough map of the area they were talking about, the basis of their considerations and planning.

“The general is right,” he then said. He looked at Ichtaca. “But I suspect there are objections.”

The old man bowed his head. “If I may express them.”

“This is what I am asking you to do, Ichtaca. It does us no good if we blind ourselves with lies and illusions. That is the way to disaster. Show me clearly where the errors in my thinking lie. Any criticism will be accepted by me. There is no one else here.”

And indeed they were. Guards might stand in front of the mighty wooden doors, but hardly a sound would escape through the thick walls. It was a sign of trust from the ruler that could not be valued highly enough. Nevertheless, Inocoyotl listened to the king’s words with caution. That was all well and good, but who would call Meztli to account if he suddenly changed his mind and did not consider a statement appropriate after all?

“High Lord, your magic weapons alone will not bring us victory. We need a well-prepared army. And this preparation requires time. It has been a long time since Teotihuacán has conducted a major campaign. Since you, Supreme King, took office, we have not had a war of significant size. Peace has been good for the country. We are respected. No one dared to attack us. But at the same time, it has led to certain things being … neglected. Therefore, I must ask you for time. Only a well-equipped and well-prepared army will be able to turn short triumphs into lasting victory.”

Inocoyotl kept his thoughts to himself, but the old man’s words had increased rather than dampened his unease. Since Meztli had made the decision to lead the alliance of Mayan cities against Mutal, he had made it clear several times that he was concerned with more than just defeating the messengers of the gods. He was about fulfilling his “destiny” and making Teotihuacán more than an Eternal City. He took the idea of the stranger Inugami and made it his own, speaking of an empire and of his fear that there might be others like the messengers of the gods against whose arrival it was now necessary to guard. Others like his father, who had appeared decades ago and usurped power in the city, a man about whom Inocoyotl now knew so much more than before and whose very existence made the appearance of the messengers of the gods appear in a completely different light.

Meztli looked at Ichtaca. How fortunate that he could not read Inocoyotl’s mind. The envoy was not particularly enthusiastic about his ruler’s sudden desire for expansion and dreams of great power. But he would faithfully carry out his orders and do everything he could to make those dreams a reality. Anything else was a much greater madness than his master’s intentions could ever be.

No one opposed the king of Teotihuacán, not outside the city and certainly not inside.

And there was always the matter of his head to consider.

“I think you’re right,” Meztli now said. “My father taught me this: I should use the magical power of his weapons when the time came and other strangers arrived. But I was never to give in to the delusion that I could accomplish everything on my own, without the cooperation of all. That is why he made himself king. The best tool never replaces the combined power of a nation united in its intentions. And it would be irresponsible of me to waste that power or diminish it from the start. Ichtaca, I give you six months. That must be enough. Tell me that this time is enough.”

The old man bowed. He knew what an order was and how far the ruler was willing to compromise. He had achieved as much as he could. Now he had to make the most of it. Inocoyotl had no doubt that Ichtaca would succeed.

Then he found his king’s eyes on him and stretched. Now his instructions would follow, and given what he had just heard, he could quite well imagine what they would involve.

He should not be mistaken.

“Inocoyotl, you are going to B’aakal with a legation to King Bahlam. You take with you Queca, who has already accompanied you, and 200 warriors as a sign of our power and our agreement to an alliance. Let him believe that we will do no more than conquer Mutal and thus remove the danger of the messengers. Let him not learn too soon that he too will not sit long on the throne of his city. Show yourself friendly and willing to negotiate and support the alliance as much as you can until my arrival. I will leave for B’aakal in six months at the latest, and the Mayan army is to gather there as well. Should the messengers get wind of the matter, evade them. There shall be no attack until I have arrived, even if it means losing more cities.”

Meztli leaned forward, his voice becoming insistent.

“This is very important, voice of my will. Did you understand it well?”

“I have,” Inocoyotl replied submissively. “I will leave at once and do as you have commanded.”

Meztli straightened up again and nodded with satisfaction. “I am relying on you, my envoy. And I promise you, once all this is done and the new empire of Teotihuacán is established, you will find yourself on a throne of a powerful Mayan city, and the stelae will bear your name.”

Inocoyotl bowed deeply, very deeply. Once again, he was glad that his face was hidden. Meztli might otherwise have wondered why there was no real expression of excitement on his features – but rather an expression of fear. To become king was a terrible idea and at the same time an honor he would never be allowed to refuse. Thither were his hopes for a quiet retirement, a gentle, peaceful old age. King over rebellious Maya. Conqueror and governor.

But his head, oh yes, his head.

A few more orders were given, then the war council was dismissed and the men stepped out into the open in front of the palace. Ichtaca quickly said goodbye and hurried to his palanquin, with which he would immediately be carried back to the building from which he wanted to continue the preparations. Inocoyotl also had to hurry. Of course, the order to travel again to the Mayaland had been expected, and he had acquainted his family and servants with this prospect. But unlike Ichtaca, the envoy had not been given six months. He was expected to leave immediately.

The fact that Queca, the commander of the 200 warriors, was already waiting for him on the steps of the palace showed that the warrior had also received his orders. He took a few steps toward Inocoyotl and indicated a bow.

“So here we go again,” he said. “I’m ready when you are.”

“You’re a little ahead of me on that one,” the older man murmured, sighing. “I have a feeling that our second expedition together won’t go quite as smoothly as the first.”

Queca just nodded. He did not care. He obeyed the king and did what had to be done.

Inocoyotl was no different.

It was his personal curse that he still had to bother so much about it, too.

4

“I’m supposed to … what?”