Authors: James Runcie
Tags: #Historical, #Fantasy, #Modern, #Romance
I had met Ignacia.
Attempting to write my dispatches that night, I found that no words fell from my pen. I was completely distracted. Whether this was infatuation, desire or love, I knew not; all I did know was that I could not live without seeing that woman again, for what else could account for the sickness in my stomach and the raging in my heart? My only hope lay in Doña Marina. I would have to swallow my pride and confess my love that very night.
‘I must see the lady who sells the
. I must discover where she lives,’ I declared in as bold a fashion as I could muster.
‘Of course we can bring her to you,’ she answered abstractedly.
I did not want anything to be done by force.
‘No,’ I replied. ‘I would like to see where she lives.’
‘It would not be safe to go there. You would be surrounded by these people, and could be put in danger …’
‘But they surround us now.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You have seen the walls that border our quarters, the causeways, the bridges, and the lake that circles this city. They are like the lattice of a spider’s web. We are already trapped and it makes no difference whether I am contained here or with my lady.’
‘My lady?’ Doña Marina smiled at me, but then stopped for a moment, as if she had not realised the true import of my observation. Lost in thought, she seemed to abandon her concentration.
‘I have to see her,’ I insisted. ‘Will you help me speak with her?’
‘Another time.’ Still Doña Marina seemed distracted. ‘I can summon her, but you cannot visit. My Lord would forbid such a thing. You are needed here. Talk to me again if you require my help, but do not ask me to disobey our General.’
Later that night I was brought before Cortés. I was fearful of both his company and his temper and was greatly relieved when he received me in all courtesy.
‘You have done me great service, Diego.’
‘I, my Lord?’
‘I too am aware that we are surrounded, cut off even from our Tlaxcalan allies. My chief advisor, Pedro de Alvarado, thinks we should mount a surprise attack and take our chances, but I believe that we should be more cautious. Doña Marina has come to me with good advice, for if you were to be kept with your lady, without fear of harm and in great leisure, how much better and safer it might be if Lord Montezuma were similarly entrapped with us. I have therefore invited him here this night, where he will remain as a voluntary prisoner.’
This seemed an act of unbelievable daring, and I could not imagine how we could explain this to the Mexican people. They would surely rebel. But Cortés continued: ‘In honour of our guest I should like you to guard him. I will give you three soldiers, and you must stay with him and occupy his time.’
‘What shall I say? I do not have the language.’
‘I will give you an interpreter.’
And so, amazingly, it came to pass that over the next few
weeks I was instructed in the Nahuatl language by the great Lord Montezuma.
He was treated in all civility, for we gave the impression that he stayed within our quarters willingly, and that there would be no need for any Mexican to doubt that he was still their ruler. His wives and mistresses were allowed to visit, and he behaved with the utmost courtesy. In the evenings I would instruct him in games of dice, and he would tell of the history of his country so that I could write a full account of this great city.
One evening he even showed me the treasury full of riches gathered by his father. It contained the most extraordinary array of masks, jewellery, urns, bangles and gold. In one corner stood a large vase, which, when I removed the lid, seemed to be filled with the seeds used in the drink Ignacia had given me. I held them in my hand, letting them slip through my fingers.
‘Cacao,’ explained Montezuma.
I repeated the word.
In this room lay all the fortune any man could ever need. The great chieftain put his arm around me and escorted me from the chamber, as if I was the prisoner and he my gaoler. And, as we sat together and ate that evening, he asked how many wives I possessed.
I told him that I was unmarried, but that a fine and beautiful lady waited at home for my return.
He then asked, now that I had seen his city, if I truly wanted to return to Spain.
I admitted that there was surely no fairer place on earth than this, and that it must seem madness to want to go back home, but I had made a promise, and my word was
my bond. I would return to Isabella within two years, having made my fortune, and with a gift no other man could give, a token perhaps even beyond wealth, something as elusive as the Holy Grail or wood from the foot of the Cross of our Saviour.
This intrigued Montezuma, and he told me that he would be glad to provide a brooch, bracelet, necklace or staff that no other man had seen; holy objects, perhaps, from his religion: sacrificial bowls, daggers, statues, or even the smallest and most delicate of objects, a salamander encrusted with lapis.
His generosity and kindness seemed to have no end, and I found it hard to believe that this was the man whose reputation for cruelty and sacrifice stretched out across all these lands and into the approaching seas. I was forced to explain that, although grateful for his kindness, there would surely be many soldiers here who would hope to bring such objects back to Spain.
He then suggested that he should provide me with a small dwelling and a canoe, and that I could return to Spain to bring Isabella to live with me here. We could build a new life in Mexico.
I thought of the way we might live, and could not imagine a world in which Isabella and Ignacia could exist together.
‘You are thinking,’ he observed, ‘that nothing I can give will make you happy.’
I began to speak.
‘My great Lord. It is because I am distracted. There is a woman who makes what they call
in your service. If I could see her, the lady who turns your money into drink, then perhaps I could take such things home with me to show my lady.’
At this he laughed.
‘This is all that you require? Why not take the lady as your wife? I will give her to you.’
I explained that I did not believe that human beings could be bartered, and that people should only come together freely, not as animals to be exchanged for profit.
‘How then will the world survive?’ he argued. ‘Everything must be ordered. If we all did as we pleased there would be chaos. Even you must have a leader. We must be both leaders and the led.’
‘Even in matters of love?’
‘I think so,’ he insisted. ‘It is the best way in which to prevent dispute.’
‘Then love is a form of slavery?’
‘A slavery in which we willingly enter. What would you have me do?’
‘I would like to see the lady who makes the
. I would like to see where she gathers the beans, and how she lives her life.’
‘I shall send for her tomorrow,’ he answered. ‘I will also show you the secret passage from this palace.’
‘A secret passage? Then why have you not escaped?’ I asked.
‘Because it entertains me to observe your leader, who thinks he has control of me. The more effort he makes in disguising my imprisonment before my people, the more amusing I find you all …’
‘What will you do?’
‘You cannot stay here for ever. I am sure you will tire of us …’
I could not understand why so potent a chieftain could
appear so kind and weak. It seemed he no longer had any power, and that his wealth was a burden to him. His eyes contained a great sadness, as if all the riches of the world could not bring him happiness, and I realised then that if there were one emotion I would use to describe Montezuma it was that he was bored. He was toying with our presence because it amused him to do so, and he could think of no better jest than to make us think that we had conquered him.
The following day one of Montezuma’s servants gestured that Pedro and I should follow him. I was uncertain whether we were travelling north or south or east or west, as we moved through low passageways, strange tunnels, and corridors underneath the temple. It appeared that there was a second, dark underground city in Mexico, filled with stores, supplies, and secret alleys in which people could be hidden away. This place was only known to the court of Montezuma. His tactic had been to concede to each of our wishes, to give us the illusion that we had control of the city and to behave with all courtesy. Then he would either persuade us to retreat, or would have made us so weak and bloated that he could make a strong offensive on our trapped position from below, above, and on every side. All he needed was the right moment to attack.
Emerging from underground, the servant led me through the streets to the edge of the town and left me standing by the side of the lake. He motioned me to wait and immediately departed. I was in a section of the city I had never seen before, and felt certain that I could never return to our quarters without aid.
Pedro’s nose twitched with fear, and he looked at me for a reassurance that I knew I could not provide. We were alone with our destiny.
At last I heard the muffled sound of a low canoe, and saw Ignacia, the maker of the
, coming towards us. She pulled in to the side of the lake and motioned me to join her.
I sat behind her as she paddled, the muscles of her back easing back and forth, and wondered what fate now planned for me. I could not help but stare at the way in which her dark hair fell on her bare olive skin. I do not think that I had ever felt such excitement.
Eventually we found ourselves in a shallow creek, and steered our way through the small islands of the
. The air was filled with the sounds of quetzals and toucans. Midges, sawflies, bees and prepona butterflies moved through the stillness of the evening. The trees were lush and shady and so much fruit hung overhead that we did not even have to leave our boat to take figs, cherries, oranges and lemons. Small limestone buildings lay almost hidden in the vegetation and Ignacia pointed ahead to an orchard of low, well-shaded cacao trees growing beneath blackwoods and legumes, their large cauliflorous fruits sprouting directly from black trunks. The earth beneath was thick, soft and fertile, as if no one had walked inside these woods before and the leaves of years and of generations had been left to fall and rot, gently nurturing the growth of each new season. My beloved, for that was how I saw her now, steered the boat to the side of the canal, stepped out in one movement, and held out her hand for the rope. I threw it to her. Then she reached back into the
boat, removed a silver sickle, and cut one of the large pods from the tree. After splitting it in half, she stretched forward and showed me the brown seeds lying in a soft, white veil, like the caul of a child.
Ignacia then pulled away the white buttery substance, and produced six cacao beans.
‘Happie Monie,’ she said, in my own language, as if she had learned such words only for me, and gestured that I follow her.
I soon found myself in a series of well-shaded gardens, in which we walked on narrow paths bordered with wild flowers, and past ponds of fresh water used to irrigate the plantation. I tried to think of Isabella but found that I could not; nor did I want to, so excited were my emotions, and so voracious was my desire. Excusing myself with the thought of other soldiers, for whom such activities involved no loss of conscience, I steeled myself with the knowledge that in this country, at least, it seemed common that a man should have more than one beloved.
At last we arrived at a small and private dwelling, hidden in the midst of the plantation. Outside, in a bright space of sunlight, lay wooden trays of cacao beans baking in the sun. Inside, protected against the heat stood a low bed, a table, and storage jars filled with the dried
. There were red glazed pottery jugs, gourds and bowls, and Ignacia now motioned that I should fetch some water while she prepared the
I drank from the nearby pond, cooling my neck and forehead, not knowing if it was the heat or my passion which had so raised my temperature.
When I returned, Ignacia held out each ingredient for
me to savour before she included them in her mixture, grinding nutmeg, cinnamon and black pepper, adding chillies, aniseed and honey.
She stirred the paste by rolling a carved silver whisk between her palms at speed.
she said with a smile, as the mixture began to froth.
‘He who drinks one cup,’ she said in Nahuatl, ‘can travel for a whole day without any other refreshment.’
I drank and felt that I need never taste anything else again.
‘I need nothing but this.’
‘You seem weary. Rest.’
Her voice was as dark and as warm as the
Then she gestured to the bed.
Sitting beside me she now took off my cotton quilted jacket and began to rub a kind of butter into my skin, a cream that she took from the pods of the cacao tree. She covered my body, in long sweeping gestures, pressing deep into my flesh, and I knew then that I was lost, that there could be no possible escape from the delights of this seduction, and I gave myself freely to her.