Friday, December 04, 2009

**Exclusive** Chapter 5 of Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard

Ceyaxochitl and Yaotl were waiting for me at the entrance to the calmecac school, by a fresco of quetzals in flight. The birds’ long tails spread against the painted background like waterfalls of emerald. Ceyaxochitl’s face was flushed, and she was muttering imprecations under her breath.

“Arrogant bastard. Who does he think he is?”

“Something the matter?” I asked, stifling a yawn.

Yaotl turned to me. “The Jaguar Knight just walked out of here,” he said.

“The Jaguar Knight?” My mind, which had been focused on Eleuia’s child, and on whether it might have been Neutemoc’s, snapped back to the present. “Mahuizoh? The one who was visiting his sister?”

The Duality curse me. I’d forgotten to ask Neutemoc if he knew the man. He had to: there weren’t that many Jaguar Knights in the city of Tenochtitlan.

“Yes,” Ceyaxochitl snapped. “He said we had no evidence against him, that we had a perfectly good culprit in any case, and that he saw no reason to tarry here.”

“So you didn’t question him.”

“Does it look as though I did?” Ceyaxochitl snapped. She rapped her cane on the ground. “I should have arrested him for disrespect. I’m getting too soft for this.”

I didn’t believe a word of that last sentence. She was still as harsh as she’d ever been: as harsh as she needed to be, to protect the Mexica Empire from wayward gods, stray underworld monsters, sorcerers and magicians…

“Why didn’t you?” Yaotl asked, softly. He had a hand on his obsidian-studded macuahitl sword.

“You had ample reasons.”

Ceyaxochitl shook her head. “He’s not guilty of anything, Yaotl. Warriors and arrogance go hand-in-hand, remember?”

I disliked arrogance as much as Ceyaxochitl, and Zollin’s imperiousness was all too fresh in my mind. But Ceyaxochitl was right: warriors, especially Eagle and Jaguar Knights, were entitled to be arrogant, to dismiss us as of little consequence. It wasn’t seemly behaviour, but they had dispensation. They’d fought on the Empire’s battlefields, taken prisoners to sacrifice to the gods, so that the world should go on, fed by the magic of living blood; survived gruelling battles and retreats. Compared to this, we priests had an easy life.

“Do you know where he lives?” I asked Ceyaxochitl.

“No,” she said. “But he’s a Jaguar Knight. You can go ask at their House, tomorrow.”

“Why not tonight?” I asked. “Neutemoc–”

Ceyaxochitl’s lips pursed. “One night of imprisonment isn’t going to kill your brother.”

“But I could–”

“You could not.” Her voice was as cutting as obsidian. “One does not walk into the Jaguar House.”

“I am High Priest for the Dead,” I said, in the same tone she had used on me.

Ceyaxochitl’s gaze told me all I needed to know: the Jaguar and Eagle Knights were the elite of the Empire, the warriors who kept us strong, and they had their own laws. “Acatl. If you go into the Jaguar House, and wake up sleeping Knights without their commander’s permission, you’ll be under arrest. And much good it will do your brother then.”

“You’re asking me to let go?”

“I’m asking you to wait until tomorrow. Daylight changes many things.”

Yaotl’s lips pursed. “And if you dress impressively enough, getting in shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Ha ha,” I said. Even if I put on my full regalia, with the skull-mask and the cloak embroidered with owls, I’d still have difficulties entering the Jaguar Knights’ House. “Do you think it’s worth pursuing?” I asked Ceyaxochitl.

It was Yaotl who answered. “That Jaguar Knight was shaken,” he said. “Very badly shaken, and trying hard not to show it.”

Hardly a normal reaction. “You think he had something to do with it?”

“I’m having trouble seeing how he could not have had something to do with it,” Yaotl said.
More suspects. On the one hand, this lessened the chances Neutemoc was guilty of more than adultery. On the other, what had looked like an easy case seemed to put forth additional complications with every hour.

“I’ll go and see him tomorrow,” I said.

Ceyaxochitl’s eyes blinked, slowly; her face stretched slightly. I put my hand over my mouth to contain my own yawn.

“Anything else?” she asked.

I thought back to my interview with Zollin, and of the magic that had hung thick in her room.

“You said you’d searched every room of the calmecac for the nahual. Did that include Zollin’s rooms?”

Yaotl spoke up. “No supernatural jaguar hiding there, trust me. Although I’ve never seen someone less worried about Eleuia.”

“I had the same impression,” I said. “She seemed to polarise people.”

Ceyaxochitl shrugged. “The beautiful often do, even if they’re no longer young.” She leaned on her cane, exhaling in what seemed almost nostalgia. Then she shook her head, coming back to more pressing matters. “The search parties are out. Yaotl will stay here and supervise them. You, on the other hand, should go to sleep.”

I said, stung, “I don’t need–”

“Sleep? Don’t be a fool, Acatl. Dawn is in less than two hours. You won’t be of any use to anyone, least of all your brother, if you can hardly stand.”

My brother. Was I going to be of any use to him?

I hadn’t dwelled on Neutemoc for years. Or perhaps it had started even earlier: when the calpulli clan’s search party brought Father’s drowned body to Neutemoc’s house, and when we’d stared at each other across the divide, and known we’d become strangers to each other.
I didn’t know. I didn’t know what I ought to feel.

“There will be time, tomorrow,” Yaotl said, almost gently. I must have looked really tired, if he was being solicitous to me.

“Was there anything else, Acatl?” Ceyaxochitl asked.

It was a dismissal: my last chance to get her help, instead of Yaotl’s distant, ironic pronouncements. I said, finally, “I need the location… of a certain house in Tenochtitlan.”
“A House of Joy?” Yaotl asked, his face falsely serious. “Feeling lonely in your bed?”

I was too tired to rise to the jibe. “Priestess Eleuia allegedly had a child, some years ago. I’m not sure it’s significant, but I’d like to know if it’s true.”

Ceyaxochitl’s eyes held me, shrewd, perceptive. I lowered my gaze. I didn’t wish her to read my thoughts. But she had to know; she had to have guessed what I feared. “Yes?”

“I’ve heard whispers in the Sacred Precinct,” I said slowly. “They say… they say that Xochiquetzal, the Quetzal Flower could not restrain Her lust, and charmed all the gods onto Her sleeping mat, one after the other. There is talk that the Duality expelled Her from Heaven for this sin, and that She now dwells in the mortal world, in a house which can be visited, if one knows its location.”

Ceyaxochitl didn’t blink, or give any sign of surprise. “Perhaps,” she said. “You’d go to Her to know about the child?”

“Yes,” I said.

I couldn’t read her expression. But at length she said, “Priestess Eleuia belonged to Her. And she is Goddess of Lust and Childbirth, after all. Perhaps She’ll know something useful. Go to bed, Acatl. I’ll send the address to you in the morning.”

So I couldn’t go to the goddess’s house now. They were both treating me like a newborn infant, which was worrying. Neither of them had shown any inclination to overprotect me before.

“Very well,” I said. “You win. I’ll go find some sleep before dawn.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll take care of things,” Yaotl said. His eyes glinted in the darkness. For a fleeting moment I thought there was more than amusement in his gaze – something deeper and more serious – but then I dismissed the thought. Yaotl was not my enemy.

I was too tired to think properly. I bade them goodbye and walked back to my temple, praying that they’d find Eleuia alive – that they’d find something, anything, that would exonerate Neutemoc.

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