isten!' my brother cried. Mamiztli â âthe Mountain Lion' â was staring across the lake towards the island and city of Mexico. âYaotl, what was that noise?'
âDaybreak', I said shortly.
For the first time in an eventful night, I noticed that the water surrounding us was no longer black. The lake's surface had caught the deep blue of an early morning sky. It was going to be a crisp winter's day, hailed by a yellow-white radiance spreading through the thin haze that veiled the eastern horizon. Mist blanketed the mountains surrounding the valley, and swirled around the countless temples in front of them, softening their harsh, angular forms.
Birds twittered and flapped among the sedges at the water's edge, but the sound my brother had drawn my attention to had come from one of the temples, and as we gazed towards its source it came again, drifting lazily towards us over the still water: the call of a trumpet, hailing the dawn.
Another followed it, and soon the air around us was alive with them, both from the city itself and the many little towns behind us on the lake's western shore, until it felt as if the boat we stood on was the only place on Earth where priests were not blowing lustily into conch-shells. It was strange to hear them from a distance, over the water. Perhaps that was why my brother had not recognized their sound. It felt as if they were
calling to us alone, instead of proclaiming to the World at large their relief and delight that the Sun had come up one more time, and that today at least he would not desert his people.
For us, every morning was a struggle whose outcome could never be known in advance. Every time the Sun rose, he reenacted the birth of our War-God, Huitzilopochtli, and his terrible battle with his half-sister, the Moon Goddess, and his half-brothers, the Stars. Like the War-God, the Sun always won, but we could never escape the thought that he might not, and that we owed every day to the favour of the gods.
I shivered, and it was not from the chill of the early morning air. After such a night as had just passed, I could well believe that nothing, not even the Sun's rising in the morning, was certain. I had come out expecting to face an old enemy and found instead my own child, a son I had never known I had, and then watched him slip away and vanish, as fugitive as a fiery spirit on the lake.
As the last of the trumpet calls died away I felt an urge to do something that, in the days when I had been a priest, I had done out of habit: to offer the gods my blood, the nourishment the Sun needed for his day's journey.
Finding a sharp edge was easy. There were several slivers of obsidian scattered around my feet. They had been struck off blades set into the wooden shaft of a sword, at the moment when it had been driven into a man's skull. A weeping woman crouched over his prone body. I stepped delicately around her, avoiding the corpse and the other things â some of them human, none of them alive â that were scattered around it. I stooped to pick up one of the hard, glittering shards with one scrawny hand while the other reached up to my temple to tug a mass of long, tangled hair out of the way. Then I quickly cut into one of my earlobes.
With no bowl or paper to collect the blood, I let the warm fluid run down my hollow cheek and the side of my bony jaw, staining and matting the grey-streaked hair that lay over them. I stood and looked towards the city and the glowing sky beyond it and offered up a wordless prayer, remembering how it had once been every morning, the smell of incense and the vain fluttering of the quails we had sacrificed and our voices appealing to the Sun to do his work.
The woman's brittle voice shattered my reverie.
âHaven't you spilled enough blood for one night?'
The woman's name was Oceloxochitl, which meant Tiger Lily. The dead man was her son, a young merchant named Ocotl â the word for a pine torch or, as we thought of it, a Shining Light. A more vicious, treacherous, murderous youth would have been hard to find, although you would not have known it from the way his mother wept over his body, cradling it and shaking it as if to try to wake him up again, while his blood soaked her skirt, blouse and mantle and trickled along her bare arms.
âI didn't kill him, Lily,' I said. âI told you how it was.' I appealed to my brother. âLion, you were here too.'
Lion's name normally suited him. He was a big, muscular man, every inch a warrior, but this morning he looked anything but fierce. He avoided my eyes, fixing his own on the city taking shape in the mist. He scowled. He hated lies and told them badly.
âIt all happened like you said, Yaotl,' he said mechanically. âWhat do you want me to say? Momaimati here â¦'
âDon't involve me,' growled the fourth person on the boat, a stolid commoner whose name meant One Skilled with His Hands or, in other words, âHandy'. âI didn't see anything.'
Which was true, if unhelpful. I looked desperately down at
the bereaved mother, wondering what I could say to her now. The anguished face she turned up towards me had had twenty years' worth of lines etched on it in a single night. I had seen it looking very different once, very close and flushed with passion, black hair with its intriguing silver strands flowing from it like a spray of feathers from a fan as I pressed her down on a sleeping-mat. A lot had happened to us both since then, but I could not help wishing for something â some word of comfort, if not from me then from anyone else â that could make a start at smoothing away those lines. I watched as her hand strayed automatically towards the young man's blood-matted hair, before drawing back sharply as it brushed the blades set into the sword's flat shaft. My own fingers twitched in sympathy. I was about to lean forward, to reach out to her, even though I knew I would almost certainly be rebuffed, when another voice made me freeze.
It was the voice of an ancient man, hoarse with exhaustion and strain, but still clear and powerful. My master, Lord Feathered in Black, had not attempted to climb out of the canoe he had arrived in, and was still reclining in its stern, looking up at us as his craft bobbed gently beside the much larger boat I stood on.
âIn case you've all forgotten,' he snarled, âthe man and the boy who did all this are still out there.' His glance swept over the carnage on the bigger craft. âI want them alive and conscious. They're not getting away with what they've done, do you hear? I'll make an example of them. As soon as we get back to the city I'm sending warriors out here to start searching. Handy and Yaotl, you're to wait here, with the boat, until they arrive.'
Handy was a retainer of my master's â not a slave, but a common man who hired himself out by the day. I had no thought for his position now, though. All I could see was what
my master was telling me to do. Then I imagined myself in the midst of his hunting party, and pictured its quarry, seeing the terrified, stricken face of a young man whose real identity the Chief Minister could never have guessed at.
âMy Lord! I can't! You can't ask me â¦'
For a moment my master was speechless.
â“Can't”?' He was shrill with indignation. âWhat do you mean, “can't”? Who are you to tell me what I can and can't do, slave?'
At that sharp reminder of what I was, I recollected myself, feeling like a man running blindly towards a cliff-edge who realizes only just in time what is in front of him.
âI â¦ I am sorry, my Lord. I didn't mean to be impertinent. It's just that â¦'
I could not tell him. It would have meant death for me as well, to admit to Lord Feathered In Black, the
the Chief Minister, Chief Priest and Chief Justice of the Aztecs, the second-most powerful man in the World, that the boy he blamed for killing Shining Light, and for so many other things besides, was my own son.
I had lied about the night's events, both to Lily, to save her from the truth, and to my master, to save my own skin.
The big boat I was standing on had belonged to Lily's son, Shining Light â the same young man whose corpse she was weeping brokenly over now. He had been a merchant, a member of the class of long-distance traders known as Pochteca, who earned their fortunes and renown through long, often hazardous journeys into distant lands. Shining Light had found an easier path to riches, however. Unknown to the rest of his family, he had hoarded their wealth on this boat and used it to finance an illegal gambling operation, taking secret bets on the sacred Ball Game.
Deceiving and stealing from his own mother and grandfather had not been Shining Light's only crime. He had depraved tastes, particularly when it came to boys. Once, in one of the marketplaces, he had picked up a rootless but resourceful young man, an orphan named Quimatini, or âNimble'. Nimble had no place in Aztec society. He had sprung from a brief, illicit liaison I had had with a pleasure-girl. He had been brought up among the Tarascans, beyond the Mountains to the West, and had drifted back into Mexico as a youth. Shining Light had adopted him, in his own perverted fashion, and the lad had posed as his lover's son while he ran errands and collected bets from his customers.
One of those customers had been my own master, Lord Feathered in Black. Shining Light had double-crossed him, though. Many others were caught up in his treachery, and some of them lay on the boat around us, murdered. My son had been his unwitting accomplice.
Lord Feathered in Black had finally caught up with Shining Light and Nimble on the night that had just passed; but he had not learned the truth about either who they were or what they had done. My master, my brother, Shining Light's mother Lily, the commoner Handy and I had gone in search of them, setting out across the lake in two canoes. As it happened, the canoe with my master and Lily in it had been deliberately run ashore by its boatman, who had panicked and run away, and only Lion and I had confronted the pair. We were the only ones to learn that the man who had betrayed my master was indeed Lily's child, and that the young man he had in his thrall â who was in the end virtually his prisoner â was my own son.
My brother had had to kill Shining Light. We had set Nimble free, and when my master, Lily and Handy finally reached us, we had lied to them. We had let them think Lily's
son had been held captive by the man he had pretended to be, and killed by him, and that that man and Nimble had escaped.
They appeared to have believed us; but even so, old Black Feathers was not going to let the matter drop. Nimble and his lover had seen and heard things that could imperil his life if the Emperor learned of them. Moreover, he had been duped. My master's was not a forgiving nature. He wanted revenge.
I was babbling, saying anything that came into my head if I thought it might help persuade Lord Feathered in Black to relent.
âI might let you down. I'm weak, my Lord. I've lost blood, the precious water of life. I might not be able to guide a search party â¦'
My master laughed out loud.
It was a strange noise, a prolonged hoarse cackle, ending in a series of harsh dry coughs. Then he cleared his throat and his ancient face settled into a grin.
âOh, don't you worry yourself about that, Yaotl. So you might let me down â so what? It'll be so much the worse for you!' He threw a significant glance across the water towards the nearest of the temples. âRight now you're probably worth more as a sacrifice to the gods than as a slave!'
My heart sank at this further brutal reminder of my position.
âYou find the boy and his father,' my master went on relentlessly, âand no excuses! If you don't, it'll be the worse for you!'
My master had no idea that he was telling me to deliver up my own child, but I knew that if he had known it would have made no difference.
Then Handy spoke up.
âMy Lord, I am sorry, but you can't send Yaotl after Telpochtli and the boy.'
I stared at him. Terror made my stomach churn. I wondered
what he had really seen and heard. He had been knocked into the water early in the fight with Shining Light, before Lion and I had found out who he and Nimble really were. Surely, I told myself, Handy could not know?
Then the commoner spoke again and, realizing what he meant, it was as much as I could do not to laugh out loud from sheer relief.
âHave you forgotten what day it is?' he went on wretchedly.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw my master's face, the taut muscles and bulging eyes seeming to collapse inward as his expression changed from fury to comical bemusement.
âYaotl is a slave,' the commoner reminded him. âHe's sacred to Tezcatlipoca. My Lord, this is Tezcatlipoca's name-day You can't give Yaotl orders today, it would offend the god. We're in the middle of the lake â what if he stirs up a storm?'
I saw my brother start at that, and then squint suspiciously at the sky. He had always been more god-fearing than I was. âHe's right, my Lord.' He looked down at my master, whose eyes had now closed in an expression of resigned exasperation.
âAfter all, you're in a little open canoe. It wouldn't do to take the risk â not on a day like One Death.'