Thursday, December 03, 2009

**Exclusive** Chapter 4 of Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard

When I arrived, the courtyard was deserted again, and the entrance-curtain to Eleuia’s room hung forlornly in the breeze. But from the other set of rooms – Zollin’s – came light, and the slow, steady beat of a drum. Music, at this hour?

I pulled aside the curtain, and took a look inside.

In a wide room much like Eleuia’s, two young adolescents went through the motions of a dance. One was tall, her hair cascading down her back, and the seashell anklets she wore chimed with each of her slow gestures. The other wove her way between the tall one’s movements, like water flowing through stone. It was not all effortless: beads of sweat ran down the first dancer’s face, and the other one kept whispering under her breath, counting the paces.

The drum-beater was older than either of her dancers: her seamed face had seen many a year, and she kept up her rhythm, even though her eyes were focused on the girls. Smoke hung in the room: copal incense, melding with the odour of sweat in an intoxicating mixture.

I released the curtain. The chime of the bells crashed into the music, a jarring sound that made both dancers come to a halt. The drum-beater laid her instrument on the ground, and looked at me, appraising me in a manner eerily reminiscent of Ceyaxochitl. It was very uncomfortable.

“Priestess Zollin?” I asked her. “I am Acatl.”

The drummer nodded. She turned, briefly, to the girls, “That was good. But not enough. A dance should be done without thinking, in much the same way that you breathe.” She waved a dismissive hand. “We’ll practise again tomorrow.”

The girls remained standing where they were, staring at me in fascination.

The older woman’s full attention was on me. “The High Priest for the Dead, I suppose. Come to question me. I’ve had the Guardian already, you know, and you’ve already arrested a culprit. I don’t see what good it will do.”

She was sharp. Used to getting her own way, to the point of discarding Neutemoc as of no importance to her. Already, I longed to break some of that pride. She was also singularly unworried, if she could dispense music lessons in the middle of the night, with one of her priestesses missing, or killed.

“One of your priestesses has vanished,” I said. “Doesn’t that–”

She shrugged. “Why should it interfere with the running of this house? I grieve for Eleuia” – that was the worst lie I’d ever heard, for she made no effort to inflect any of those words, or to put sadness on her face – “but she was only one woman. The education we dispense shouldn’t halt because of that.”

“I see,” I said. “So you think she’s dead.” I closed my eyes, briefly, and felt the magic hanging around the room like a shroud, clinging to the frescoes of flowers and musical instruments: not nahual, not quite, but something dark, something angry. Zollin was clearly powerful.

“There was so much blood,” the tallest dancer said suddenly. Her face was creased in an expression that didn’t belong: worry or fear, or perhaps the first stirrings of anger.

“Cozamalotl,” Zollin snapped. The girl fell silent, but she still watched her teacher. Her younger companion hadn’t moved. A faint blush was creeping up her cheeks.

“Eleuia could still be alive,” I said.

“Then go look for her,” Zollin said. She was truly angry, and I had no idea why. “Do your work, and I’ll do mine.”

The Duality curse me if I was going to let her dominate me. “My work brings me here,” I said, softly. “My work leads me to ask you why you’re not more preoccupied by the disappearance of a priestess in your own calmecac.”

Zollin watched me. “She never belonged to this calmecac. It was only a step on her path to better things.”

“Becoming Consort?” I asked.

“Whatever she could seize,” Zollin said.

Cozamalotl spoke up again, moving closer to Zollin as if she could shield her. “Everyone knows Eleuia grasped at power the way warriors grasp at fame.”

The younger dancer did not answer. She was shaking her head in agreement or in disagreement, though only slightly. It seemed that Cozamalotl wasn’t only Zollin’s student, but her partisan. If Eleuia was indeed dead, or incapacitated, Cozamalotl would have her reward, just as Zollin would.

The Southern Hummingbird blind my brother. How in the Fifth World had he managed to embroil himself in such a bitter power struggle?

I probed further. “So you think someone didn’t like what Eleuia was doing?”

Zollin snorted. “No one did. It’s not seemly for a woman.”

Hypocrite. She condemned Eleuia for her ambition, but she still wanted that office of Consort for herself. I liked Zollin less and less as the conversation progressed, though I couldn’t afford to be blinded by resentment if I wanted to solve this.

“Women have few paths open in life,” I said, finally, thinking of my own sister Mihmatini, who would be coming of age in a few months, and would either join the clergy or look for a husband of her own.

“But we know our place,” Zollin said. “Eleuia’s behaviour was hardly appropriate. Flaunting herself before men with her hair unbound and her face painted yellow – red cochineal on her teeth, as if she were still a courtesan on the battlefield–”

“When did she come here?” I asked, knowing I had to regain control of the conversation if I wanted to find anything to help Neutemoc.

Zollin looked bewildered for the first time. “Nine, ten years ago? I’m not sure.”

“And how long have you been here?”

“A long time,” Zollin said.

“Long enough to feel you should have been Consort, instead of Eleuia?” I asked.

She looked at me with new eyes. Yes. I might look harmless, but I could still wound.

When she answered, some of the acidity was gone from her voice. “Some of us,” she said, “take what we have. And we do the tasks we were charged with, and do them well for years. Eleuia was young and inexperienced. But she was alluring. And men like that in a woman.”

Of course they did – the warriors, and maybe even some of the priests, though they shouldn’t have. And the men, as she had no need to remind me, held the power: the clergy of Xochiquetzal was subordinate to that of her husband, Xochipilli.

“She had power,” Zollin went on. “A great mastery of magic, and a reputation won on the battlefield. But all that doesn’t make a good Consort of Xochipilli.”

“Then what does?” I asked.

“Dedication,” Zollin said shortly. “Eleuia’s heart wasn’t in the priesthood. You could see it was only her pathway to something larger.”

“I see,” I said. She was only repeating herself. But her final assessment of Eleuia sounded more sincere than everything she’d said before. A woman bent on power – and wouldn’t Neutemoc, with his status as a Jaguar Knight, have been a good embodiment of that power? My hands clenched. I wouldn’t think about Neutemoc, not now. I couldn’t afford to. “What were you doing tonight?”

“None of your concern.”

Had she and Neutemoc decided to act together to vex me? “I’ve had my share of foolish excuses for tonight,” I said. “Tell me what you were doing.”

It was the dancer Cozamalotl who answered. “She was with us,” she said. “Teaching us the proper hymns for the festivals.”

Given the slight twitch of surprise on Zollin’s face, that was clearly a lie.

“I see,” I said, again. “Would you swear to that before the magistrates?”

She gazed at me, defiant, but it was Zollin who spoke. “Cozamalotl,” she said. “The penalty for perjury is the loss of a hand. Don’t waste your future.”

Cozamalotl did not look abashed, not in the slightest. Her young companion, though, was bright red by now, and looked as if she wanted to speak but couldn’t get the words past her lips. I would have to talk to her later.

“I–” Cozamalotl started.

Zollin cut her. “I was alone. In my rooms. And I can swear that I had nothing to do with that.”

“But you hated Eleuia,” I said.

“I won’t deny that.”

“Tell me,” I said. “What day were you born?”

She looked surprised. “That’s no concern of yours.”

“Humour me.”

“Why should I?”

“It’s only a date,” I said. “What are you afraid of?”

“I’m not a fool,” Zollin said. “There’s only one reason you’d be asking for it. I didn’t summon the nahual, Acatl-tzin.”

“But you could have.”

She watched me, unblinking. At length: “You’ll go to the registers anyway. Yes. I was born on the day Twelve Jaguar in the year Ten House.”

She’d been quick to react. Too quick, perhaps, as if she’d had prior knowledge? She’d been in the room: it was conceivable she’d have recognised the scent of nahual magic, though highly unlikely. It wasn’t a widespread craft among priestesses.

I said nothing. “Will that be all?” she asked, drawing herself to her full height. “I have offerings to make.”

“That will be all,” I said. “For now.” I caught the eye of the younger dancer, who was still standing unmoving, her face creased in worry. She nodded, briefly, her chin raising to point to the courtyard outside.

I exited the room, and waited for the girl there. She did not come immediately: an angry conversation seemed to be going on inside, between Zollin and her two students. But try as I might, I couldn’t make out the individual words, not without re-entering the room.

Two things worried me. The first was Zollin’s singular unconcern for the summoning of a nahual, and the spilling of blood in her own calmecac school; the second, the sheer incongruity of teaching girls how to dance at this hour of the night.

But then, if she was indeed complicit in Eleuia’s disappearance, the first wasn’t surprising. As to the second: I’d known men and women who would bury themselves in activities, no matter how ludicrous, in order to escape guilty consciences.

The younger dancer joined me outside, after a while. She was even younger than I thought: not much more than a child, really, her body barely settling into the shapes and contours of adulthood. “Acatl-tzin? I thought–”

“Go on,” I said, gently.

“My name is Papan,” she said. “I…” She looked at me, struggling for words. “Is Zollin-tzin a suspect in your investigation?”

“I don’t know,” I said, though she most surely was.

“There was a man found in Eleuia’s rooms,” Papan said. “With blood on his hands.”

I nodded, curtly, trying not to think too much of Neutemoc, of what I’d have to tell his wife, Huei, once I’d gathered enough courage to go to her. “There are unexplained things,” I said, finally. I started walking towards the end of the courtyard, crushing pine needles under my sandaled feet. Their sweet, aromatic smell wafted upwards, a relief after the stifling atmosphere of Zollin’s room.

Papan followed me. “You’re looking in the wrong place.”

“Your loyalty brings you credit,” I said. “But–”

“No. You don’t understand. Zollin-tzin has worked hard for this calmecac. She’s always been fair. She would never kill or summon forbidden magic.”

“Nahual magic isn’t forbidden,” I said. “And I only have your word for Zollin’s acts.”

“But I have only your word that Eleuia was abducted,” Papan said, obviously frustrated. “No one has found her. No one even knows if she didn’t summon the nahual herself.”

I shook my head. “Priestess Eleuia wasn’t born on a Jaguar day. She couldn’t have summoned the nahual.” Curious, I asked, “Why would she do such a thing?”

Papan came to stand by my side, under the red arch leading out of the courtyard. A fresco of conch-shells and butterflies ran along the length of the arch. The insects’ wings, painted with dark-red lac, glinted with the same reflections as Papan’s eyes. “Eleuia was very beautiful,” Papan said. “But always frightened. Cozamalotl and the other students didn’t see it, but she always moved as if the ground would open under her feet.”

“She had enemies?” I asked.

Papan shrugged. “I didn’t know her.”

“But you understood her.”

“No,” Papan said. She blushed. “I just saw. But it wasn’t just now. She’d always been like that. For years and years, ever since I entered the calmecac school.”

“And you think she wanted to disappear? Why, if she’d always been afraid?”

Papan turned her face away from me. “I– I’m not supposed to tell you. But if it helps…” She twisted her hands together, but didn’t speak.

“Go on,” I said. “It could save her life.”

Papan was silent for a while. “I saw her once, at the bath-house. She was coming out of the pool.” Papan blushed again. “I saw the marks on her body.”

“What marks? Scars?”

“No,” Papan said. “Stretch-marks.”

“She’d borne a child?” It wasn’t forbidden for a priestess of the Quetzal Flower, but it was certainly unusual. Many herbs would expel a child from a woman’s body, and there were spells which would summon minor gods from Mictlan to end an infant’s life in the womb. Priestesses would know all of these.

“Yes,” Papan said. “I asked her; and she laughed and she said it was a long time ago, when she was much younger, in the Chalca Wars. I asked her why she’d done that, and she told me she’d wanted a keepsake of her warrior lover.”

My heart went cold. “You’re sure it was in the Chalca Wars?”

Papan nodded.

In the Chalca Wars, Eleuia and Neutemoc had slept together. But surely… Nonsense. She was a sacred courtesan. She’d slept with many, many men, even in the Chalca Wars. There were dozens who could have been the father of that child. But it had been someone she’d loved. You couldn’t say that about just any warrior.

And there lay the root of the problem: for a warrior, sleeping with a courtesan was an inalienable right, a reward for facing the hardships of the battlefield. A long affair between a warrior and a courtesan, though – that wasn’t tolerated. It would lead to exclusion from the Jaguar Brotherhood, no matter how long ago the affair had taken place. If Neutemoc had indeed conceived a child with Eleuia – and if Eleuia had kept it – then it meant they had been more than casual lovers.

It also meant that Neutemoc had an even stronger motive to keep Eleuia silent. A child.
I did not like the thought. I had to consider it, like everything linked to the investigation – but it was an itch at the back of my mind, claws softly teasing apart what I had believed I knew about Neutemoc.

“Why do you think it may be connected?” I asked Papan.

Papan shrugged. “I don’t. But she didn’t name the warrior.”

I had noticed that. “And she didn’t tell you anything about him?”

“No,” Papan said. “But she looked scared, as if she’d told me something I wasn’t meant to know. She made me swear to keep it secret. And I have, haven’t I?”

I knew what she wanted. Gently, I said, “Secrets are no use to her if she’s dead.”

Papan stared at me for a while. I couldn’t tell if I’d convinced her. “Don’t tell Zollin-tzin I told you,” she said, as we walked out of the courtyard. “She thinks Eleuia was only an opportunist.”

She didn’t use any honorific for Eleuia, I noticed, just her name. “You were close?” I asked.

Papan bit her lip. “Until Zollin-tzin started teaching me,” she said, miserably. “It’s hard, being torn in two halves.”

I hadn’t known that. But I could guess, given Zollin’s acidity, that it was indeed hard. “You did the right thing,” I said.

“I’m not sure.” Papan bowed, deeply. “I’ll go back to my room now. But thank you for listening to me, Acatl-tzin.” And she walked off into the darkness, leaving me to my own worries.

A child. Neutemoc’s child? The Storm Lord smite him, couldn’t he have been more careful? A warrior was meant to marry in his calpulli clan, to love his wife, to raise her children. And it seemed that Neutemoc – who’d always been held up as an example before me, the shining representation of all I should have done with my life, whom I’d always admired and hated at the same time – it seemed that Neutemoc had not had great success with his marriage.

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