I had spoken with command in my voice to a Senor of a noble house. Me, a potter’s son. People have been whipped and jailed for less, but there I was doing exactly that. Somehow I have the audacity to continue, my mouth running before I have a chance to stop it.
“These people have lost enough and you’re out of men. Please leave them alone.”
“Oh. Ha ha. Now you plead,” he says flatly. He is beyond angry. He has gone clear past it all the way back to an even tone. “Now you ask for my grace. No, you and the basurero are going to pay the price for the shame and mockery I’ve endured this day. You will have to beg a thousand times over for any mercy from me.”
He dismounts off his horse and I realize he is short for a man, just around my height if not shorter. He approaches and I stretch my hands out, blocking the innkeeper’s family from his path for reasons I can’t articulate even now. He sees me do this and he unsheathes his sword. It is inlayed with brilliantly colored jewels and shines brightly in the early morning sun. It is much too beautiful to soil with my blood, I think to myself.
“I can’t decide your defect. Bravery or stupidity. Your resolve is certainly something to be admired, though, so I will give you my word that those two will not be harmed by me. But only if you get on your hands and knees right now.”
I look to Silvio. There is a man around his legs and another locking his arm, punching his side. I am alone. I cannot resist this Senor with anything. I fall to my hands and knees. My world blurs as tears fall to the ground. Zapata pushes me down with a boot on my neck.
“Rio!” I hear Silvio say. Zapata talks low so only I can hear him.
“Listen to me. Listen close. This is why we are different. Why we are separated across a vast distance of status. I understand the order of things. It is my great responsibility to know this and I will give you a gift by sharing this knowledge with you. Are you ready? Here it is. First, there is the Goddess. Next, her sister Muerta. Then there are the saints and angels of the heavens and the saints and angels of the world. JUST below all of them is the Empress.” He presses harder on my neck until I can barely breathe. “Then come the dons, each according to their station. Then the nobles, the Senors and Soritas like me, then the agents of the throne, then the bosses and hefes and company leaders, then the workers, laborers, craftsmen, and traders. Then the common folk and outsiders and farmers. Then the nomads, basureros and freaks.” He presses harder and I can feel myself dying. “Then the burros, then the flies, then the grass, then the dirt, then the burro droppings, and way way down past that, there is disobedient, disrespectful, ungrateful back stains like you who threaten the fragile peace our civilization provides because you are too simple to see what is obvious to everyone else.”
I feel shame. True deep shame. The shame of a boy caught stealing from the treat jar. The shame of a pretender trying to convince a lover who can see right through them. I had not considered my class all that much in the years I’d spent in Nuevo Chine. There was not much beyond laborer, craftsmen and imperial officer in my small village, but everyone understands their place. I wonder then what possessed me to address my superior in such a way. Had the stories made me get carried away? Tales of heroes fighting oppressors. But I had no illusions that I was some hero. So there I was, choking to death under Zapata’s crushing boot, wondering where it had all gone so wrong.
Suddenly, there is no boot on my neck. My lungs fill with air. My eyes focus and I see Silvio holding the diminutive Zapata up by the collar.
“Look at you. You’ve fallen so far you’ve become a cliché,” Silvio says, disgust in his voice.
“Unhand me at once, Basurero!” Zapata squeals, flailing ineffectually.
“As you wish. Which hand?” Silvio asks, pulling a knife out. “Or did you want me to unhand both of them?”
Zapata’s eyes go wide.
“Who are you?” he asks.
I see that all the rest of Zapata’s men have run away or are on the ground, writhing in pain or not moving at all. The last one standing has the innkeeper’s wife at knife point. Without a word, Silvio pulls a polished wooden stick about forearm’s length from a holster on his back and throws it at the goon’s face, incapacitating him.
He turns to me and says, “Rio. Put him to sleep. Like I showed you.” I nod and run over to the man writhing on the ground.
“Secret technique: Pray for Sleep.” I drop on his face with both knees, knocking him out. I put my hands together and say grace.
“Good boy,” Silvio says.
“I- I don’t. What? You are no man! You are a martial fighter. A soldier. Something!” Zapata says, baffled.
“No. I am only trash. Like you said,” Silvio says.
“Well, I’ll pay you for your services. Hired. Done! Name your price, Basurero,” Zapata says. He is sweating like a chicken in line for the chopping block.
“There’s only one thing I want from you,” Silvio says, drawing Zapata closer.
“What? Name it,” Zapata says.
“Leave these people and their homes alone. And don’t step on your people’s necks.” Silvio unceremoniously drops the man. Zapata waits a moment. When Silvio turns to leave, he turns bright red all over again.
“Don’t you disrespect me! I am a Senor of House Zapata, servant of Don Gregorio and the Empire. I will come back with a hundred men and scour you from the face of tierra mundo. I will-” Zapata doesn’t finish. Silvio walks up, twists back and punches the Senor in the face, knocking him out cold. The boy holding the flag of Don Gregorio, who has not moved at all since this began, finally turns tail and runs, flag whipping in the wind behind him.