Wednesday, December 02, 2009

**Exclusive** Chapter 3 of Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard

Chapter 3

Yaotl took me to where Neutemoc was kept: a room at the back of the calmecac. He walked by my side with a faint trace of amusement in his dark eyes, but said nothing. Neither did I – I, too, could play the game of withholding information.

Two of Ceyaxochitl’s warriors, with the fused-lovers insignia of the Duality on their cotton-padded armour, stood guard at the door. They let us pass in silence.

It must have been a teaching room for the girls: weaving looms and discarded threads littered the ground. Neutemoc was sitting in its centre, cross-legged on a woven reed mat, hands on his knees, staring distantly at the frescoes on the walls, as if deep in meditation. He wore his Jaguar Knight’s regalia: the jaguar’s skin tightly covering his body, and his face showing through the animal’s open jaws.

I stopped for a moment, suddenly unsure of what I’d say to him. He wasn’t quite the brother I remembered from four years ago. His features had hardened in some indefinable way, and slight wrinkles marred the corner of his eyes, lessening the aura of arrogance that had once permeated every part of his body. He smelled, faintly, of the magic in the room, but most of it was gone: washed, no doubt, at the same time as his hands, which were now clean, their skin the colour of cacao beans.

Neutemoc raised his eyes when I came in. “Hello, brother,” he said. He didn’t sound surprised, or angry, just thoughtful. But his fingers tightened on his knees.

I had been bracing myself for seeing him again, trying to calm the frantic beating of my heart. His face, in the dim light, looked like a younger, softer version of Father’s: an unexpected, additional discomfort.

I knelt by his side and looked at him, trying to see evidence of guilt, or remorse – of anything that would indicate he’d summoned the nahual. His face was clear, guileless, as smooth as that of a seasoned patolli gambler. “Dealing in magic?” I asked, as calmly as I could.

He shook his head. “I had nothing to do with that, believe me.”

The anger in his voice belied his calm assurances. “I don’t,” I said, curtly. “Why don’t you tell me what you were doing in Priestess Eleuia’s rooms, overturning furniture?”

Neutemoc didn’t move, but his eyes flicked away from me. “I don’t have to explain myself to you.”

“Have you no idea of what trouble you’re in? What happened tonight, Neutemoc?”

He opened his mouth to say something, changed his mind with a visible effort, and finally said, “It’s none of your concern.”

None of my concern? Huitzilpochtli curse him, could he be so unaware of what he risked? He’d always been more concerned with the turmoil of the battlefield than with politics, but still… “I think you’ll find it has become my concern tonight,” I said, with some exasperation, remembering that his silence was one of the reasons we’d quarrelled four years ago. “From the moment magic was used to abduct her.”

Neutemoc shifted, looked at the frescoes. “I know I’m in a bad situation, but I didn’t do anything wrong. I’ll swear it on any god you name.”

If only it were that simple. “An oath, even by a Jaguar Knight, won’t be enough in a court of law,” I said. “Why don’t you explain to me what happened?”

Neutemoc just stared at the frescoes. Finally he said, “I came to visit my daughter Ohtli. She entered the calmecac a few months ago, and Huei thought I could see how our daughter was doing. I was halfway to Ohtli’s room when I heard a noise coming from a nearby courtyard, and…” He trailed off, closed his eyes. “When I entered the room, something leapt at me and knocked me against the wall. I was thrown unconscious and, when I woke up, your people had arrested me for the Duality knows what offence.”

His story was barely coherent. It didn’t account for the blood, or the marks on him. “And you overturned the furniture because you weren’t sure what had leapt at you?” I asked, fighting to keep my sarcasm in check. “Come on, Neutemoc. I’m sure you can do better than this.”

He shook his head. “It’s the truth, Acatl.”

I didn’t believe a word he had said. But he was obviously not going to admit to anything, not unless I forced him into it.

I went to the door, and motioned Yaotl in.

“Anything you want?” he asked me.

“Can you ask the priestesses if there’s a girl named Ohtli here, of the Atempan calpulli clan? She’d be about–” I thought back to the last time I’d seen Neutemoc’s daughters – “seven years old.”

Yaotl shrugged. “Easily done,” he said. “They keep records of every girl-child in the school.”

I glanced at Neutemoc, who was watching me, his eyes widening slightly. It was not a kind threat, the one I was about to make, either for him or for Ohtli, but his life was at stake. “If you find her, can you have her brought here? Tell her I have some questions for her.”

“Acatl, no! She’s only a child. At least have the decency to keep her out of this.”

The insult stung, but I didn’t move. “You were the one who introduced her name into the conversation.”

Neutemoc’s hands clenched. “It was a mistake. Ohtli has nothing to do with this, nothing at all. I didn’t get to her room, I swear.”

“Then please show a little more co-operation.”

“Acatl–” He was pleading now, and it made me ill at ease. I’d never enjoyed reducing people to helplessness.

“It’s a pretty story you told me,” I said. “But it doesn’t fit what I saw in that room, or what the Guardian saw.”

Neutemoc looked at me, and at Yaotl, who already had a hand on the entrance-curtain. “Very well,” he said, finally. “I’ll tell you. But in private.”

“Nothing is private,” I said. “Your testimony–”

“Acatl.” His voice cut as deep as an obsidian blade. “Please.”

He was my brother, the threat of death hanging over him, yet I could afford no favouritism. Everyone should be treated according to their status, noblemen and Jaguar Knights more harshly than commoners. “I’ll listen to you in private,” I said. “But I’ll make no guarantee I won’t pass it on.”

Neutemoc’s face was flat, taut with fear. He glanced at Yaotl – tall, scarred, unbending – and finally nodded.

Yaotl slipped out, drawing the entrance-curtain closed in a tinkle of bells. He barked orders, and footsteps echoed in the corridor: the warriors, moving away from the door.

I sat by Neutemoc’s side, keeping one hand on the handle of the obsidian daggers I always had in my belt, just as a protection. He hadn’t looked violent, but his mood-swings could be unpredictable. “So?” I asked.

He said, slowly, “I… I knew Priestess Eleuia. We fought together in the war against Chalco. She was a novice priestess of Xochiquetzal then, at the bottom of the hierarchy – but she was magnificent.” He shook his head. “We slept together.”

Priestesses of Xochiquetzal were sacred courtesans, accompanying the warriors on their campaigns. They were also warriors in their own right, fighting the enemy with their long, deadly spears. “You slept with her in Chalco,” I said, flatly. “That was sixteen years ago.”

I was starting to suspect what Neutemoc had been doing in Eleuia’s room. The idea was decidedly unpleasant.

“Yes,” Neutemoc said. “I didn’t think much of it, at the time. I had my marriage coming, and we drifted apart.” He closed his eyes, spoke with care, as if he were composing a poem: each word slowly falling into place with the inevitability of a heartbeat. “I met her again two months ago, when I enrolled Ohtli. I had no idea she’d been posted here. We sat together and reminisced about the past, and all we’d lived through together… She hadn’t changed, Acatl. Still the same as she’d been, all those years ago. Still the same smile, the same gestures that would drive a man mad with desire.”

The Storm Lord smite him, surely he hadn’t dared? “Neutemoc–”

His lips had gone white. “You asked, Acatl. You wanted to know why I was here tonight. I had an assignation. She… she flirted with me, quite ostentatiously.”

And he’d gone to her rooms. “You gave in?” I rose, towered over him. “You were stupid enough to give in?”

“You don’t understand.”

“No,” I said. “You’re right. I don’t understand why you’d endanger all you’ve got for a pretty smile.” Eleuia was no longer a sacred courtesan: to sleep with her was adultery. And for that, they would both be put to death. And then… No more quetzal feathers, no more showers of gold brought to his luxurious home; no more calmecac education for his sons or his daughters, or for our orphaned sister.

I said, haltingly, “For the Duality’s sake! You’ve got a family, you’ve got a loving wife.”

Everything – he had everything my parents had wished for their children: the glory of a successful warrior – and not the poverty-ridden life of a measly priest, barely able to support himself, let alone take care of his aged parents…

Neutemoc smiled. “You’re ill-informed, brother. Huei and I haven’t talked for a while.”

I blinked. “What?”

He shrugged. “Private matters,” he said.

“Such as your sleeping with a few priestesses?” I asked, rubbing the salt on his wounds. If he had indeed been unfaithful, Huei would have kept silent: if not for his sake, then for the sake of their children.

He finally opened his eyes to stare at me, and his gaze was ice. “I haven’t committed adultery. Even tonight, though that was rather unexpected.” He laughed, sharply, sarcastically. “I know what you think. What a man I make, huh?”

“Don’t push me. Or I might just leave you in peace.”

“You’ve already done too much as it is.” Neutemoc’s hands clenched again.

“You were the one who brought me into this, all because you were incapable of resisting a woman’s charms,” I snapped.

Neutemoc was silent for a while, looking at me with an expression I couldn’t interpret. “You’re right. I shouldn’t have said that. I apologise. Can we go back to where we were?”

I had been bracing myself for a further attack; this extinguished my anger as efficiently as water poured on a hearth. Struggling to hide my surprise, I nodded. “So you came to her rooms with the promise of a pleasurable evening. I assume you got in by pretending you were here to see your daughter?”

He shrugged. “It was before sunset. Nothing wrong with my visiting her.”

“But you didn’t.”

“No,” Neutemoc said. “I– Eleuia had told me where her rooms were. I went there and found her waiting for me. She poured me a glass of frothy chocolate, with milk and maize gruel – good chocolate, too, very tasty. That’s the last thing I remember clearly. Then the room was spinning, and…” His hand clenched again. “There was darkness, Acatl, deeper than the shadows of Mictlan. Something leapt at her. I tried to step in, but everything went dark. When I woke up, I was alone, and covered in her blood.”

It still sounded as though he was leaving out parts of the story – probably Eleuia’s seduction of him, which I didn’t think I was capable of hearing out in any case – but this version sounded far more sincere than the first one he’d given me. Which, of course, didn’t mean it was the truth. If he and Eleuia had consummated their act, he could have panicked and decided she was a risk to him while she still lived. I didn’t like the thought, but Neutemoc was a canny enough man, or he wouldn’t have risen so high in the warrior hierarchy.

“You could at least have had the intelligence to get out as soon as you could,” I said. “What about the furniture?”

He stared at me. “Furniture? I… You know, I don’t quite remember about that. I think I must have wanted to make sure I hadn’t left any trace of my passage.”

Not a sensible thing to do. But then, would I be sensible, if I woke up in a deserted room, covered in blood, with no memory of what had happened?

“Very well,” I said. “Do you have anything that can prove your story?”

Neutemoc stared at me, shocked. “I’m your brother, Acatl. Isn’t my word enough?”

He was really slow tonight. “We already went through that, remember?” I tried to keep my voice as calm as possible. “Your word alone won’t sway the magistrates.”

“Magistrates.” His voice was flat.

“It will come to trial,” I said.

I’d expected him to be angry. Instead, he suddenly went as still as a carved statue. His lips moved, but I couldn’t hear any word.


He looked up, right through me. “It’s only fair, I suppose,” he said. “Deserved.”

My stomach plummeted. “Why did you deserve it?”

But he wouldn’t talk to me any more, no matter how many times I tried to draw him out of his trance.

Ceyaxochitl was waiting for me in the corridor, talking to Yaotl. He threw me an amused glance as I got closer.

“So?” Ceyaxochitl asked.

I shrugged. “His story holds together.”

“But you don’t like it,” she said, as shrewd as ever.

“No,” I said. “There’s something he’s not telling me.” And my brother had tried to sleep with a priestess; had tried to cheat on his wife. I was having trouble accepting it. It did not sound like something that would happen to my charmed-life brother.

“Where does the world go, if you can’t trust your own brother?” Yaotl asked, darkly amused.

As far as I knew, Yaotl, a captive foreigner Ceyaxochitl had bought from the Tlatelolco marketplace, had a wife – a slight, pretty woman who seldom spoke to strangers – but no other family. At least, not the kind that lived close enough to get him embroiled in their troubles.

Lucky man.

“What about the nahual trail?” Ceyaxochitl asked.

“It vanishes into thin air, halfway up a wall no animal could jump.”

“Hum,” Ceyaxochitl said. “Odd. We’ve searched every room, and the nahual isn’t here.”

“They don’t just vanish,” I said.

“I know,” Ceyaxochitl said. She frowned. “We’re no nearer finding Priestess Eleuia than we were one hour ago. I’ll instruct the search parties to cast a wider net.”

She waited, no doubt for my acquiescence. It was an unsettling thought to be in charge of the investigation. Eleuia had been about to become Consort of Xochipilli. This meant that she would have been connected to the Imperial Court, in one way or another. Given the political stakes, I had better be very careful of where I trod; and politics had never been my strength. “Shouldn’t you be back at the palace?” I asked her.

Ceyaxochitl snorted. “I can spare one night to help you start. But only one.”

I nodded. She’d been clear enough on that. I couldn’t fault her for her frankness, even if sometimes she wounded me without realising she did so.

If the blood in the room and on Neutemoc’s hands had indeed belonged to Eleuia, time was against us. “Send them out,” I said. “I’ll go and talk to Zollin.”

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