Tuesday, December 01, 2009

**Exclusive** Chapter 2 of Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard

Chapter Two

The Jaguar Born

I walked back to my temple in a preoccupied mood – trying to keep my thoughts away from Neutemoc and what awaited him if I failed. My brother had brought me many problems, but so far most of those had come only from my own doings: if I had chosen the path my parents wanted for me, if I had gone to war and distinguished myself on the battlefield, they would have found no need to compare us to each other – and invariably find me, a priest with few possessions of his own, a failure too great to be encompassed in words.

I reached the temple, and found my priests still up. My second-in-command Ichtaca, who was obviously done with the vigil I’d left him, was leading a group of novice priests to one of the examination rooms. Overhead loomed the bulk of the pyramid with its shrine; and several buildings of the temple opened on the courtyard: rooms where the priests would make offerings; places where the lesser dead (those not of Imperial blood) would be honoured; closed rooms for examinations in the case of suspicious deaths; and our storehouse, a discreet, unadorned door hidden at the back of the temple complex.

The offering priest who was watching the storehouse’s entrance – Palli, a burly nobleman’s son who looked more suited for the military than for the priesthood – bowed as I came towards him.

“Good evening, Acatl-tzin. You need something?”

I nodded. “Living blood. Do you know what’s inside tonight?”

Palli shrugged. “Mostly owls. There’s probably some other animals, too.”

For what I had in mind, owls would not do – they were connected with the underworld and not with the hunt.

“I’ll take a look inside,” I said.

Palli frowned. “I can fetch what you need.”

“No, there’s no need.” Huitzilpochtli blind me, I wasn’t so respectable yet that I couldn’t find my way through a storehouse.

I picked one of the torches outside, and held it against the flame of the torch on the wall until it blazed. Then I entered the storehouse, making my way between the carved pillars. They each bore the image of a minor deity of the underworld: the hulking shape of the Owl Archer, leaning on his feathered bow with the suggestion of coiled strength; the simple, almost featureless carving of the Faded Warrior, with his obsidian-studded macuahitl sword by his side; the glittering mass of obsidian shards that made up the Wind of Knives.

I made my way through the storehouse, my torch falling on the piled riches: on the quetzal feathers and ocelot cloaks, on the jade and silver which safeguarded us from the underworld…
I felt as though I had spent an eternity in this place; and still I had seen no animals. The nahual trail in the courtyard would be vanishing further and further; and so would my chances of finding Eleuia alive. Unless…

Near the back were a series of wooden cages. I quickened my pace – but when I shone the torchlight on them, I saw that they held only owls, as predicted.

Tlaloc’s lightning strike me, did we have nothing but this? I shone the torch left and right, hoping to see more than hooting birds.

There. Near the back, two wooden cages held weasels. They pressed themselves against the bars when I shone the torchlight on them. They weren’t Mixcoatl’s favourite animals, but they would do.

I transferred them both to the same cage, and went back to the calmecac.

In the courtyard near Eleuia’s room, I knelt in the darkness, and traced a quincunx on the ground with the point of my dagger: the fivefold cross, symbol of the universe and of the wisdom contained therein. I put myself in the centre of the pattern, and started singing, softly, slowly:

“You who come forth from Chicomoztoc, honoured one,
You who come with the net of maguey ropes
The basket of woven reeds
You who come forth from Tziuactitlan, honoured one…”

I reached inside the cage for the first weasel, and slit its throat in a practised gesture. Blood spurted, covering my hands, spilling over the ground, where it pooled in the grooves of my pattern, pulsing with untapped power.

“You who seek the deer
The jaguar, the ocelot
You who hold them in your hand…”

I plucked the second weasel from where it was cowering at the back of the cage, and drew my blade across its throat. Its blood joined that of the first one: where they melded, the air trembled and blurred, as if in a heat-haze.

“You who come forth from Chicomoztoc, honoured one,
You who come with the arrows,
The spear-thrower, the grips of shell
You who seek, you who find,
Let flow the blessing of Your craft.”

Power blazed across my pattern, wrapping itself around me until I stood completely enfolded. My head spun for a moment. But when the dizziness passed, I could see the tendrils of magic in the courtyard: a trail of sickly green that came from Eleuia’s room and exited the courtyard in a wide, loping arc.

I rose carefully and followed it. A minute resistance, like the crossing of a veil, slowed me down as I crossed my quincunx, but it was swiftly gone.

The nahual’s trail traversed a handful of other courtyards. For the most part, they were deserted, though a few had girls making offerings of blood on the beaten earth. The trail grew fainter and fainter with every passing step, and that was not normal. Whoever had summoned the nahual had taken the precaution of covering their tracks.

In the last courtyard, the trail made a straight line upwards, the beginning of a leap over the outer wall of the calmecac; but halfway through, it completely faded. It seemed Priestess Eleuia wasn’t within those walls any more, which only confirmed the results of Ceyaxochitl’s search.
I stared at that wall for a while, but I couldn’t find anything more than what I’d already seen.
The Southern Hummingbird curse me. I hadn’t actually expected to find the nahual – but at least to find something, anything that might prove Neutemoc innocent. Here I had nothing, not even a trail. Something about that wall was bothering me, though. But the more I sought to identify the problem, the more it eluded me.

I was about to turn away and leave, when a swish of cloth made me stop.

In the doorway of one of the rooms opening on the courtyard stood a young girl, no more than six or seven, barely of age to be educated in the calmecac. Her face was as pale as a fawn’s hide. Her eyes, two pools of darkness in the dim light, turned, unwaveringly, towards me. She wasn’t offering blood, or incense: she simply watched me.

“You should be in bed,” I said, slowly. I’d never been at ease with young children, having none of my own.

She shook her head.

“Are you supposed to be awake?”

She watched me for a while, and then she said, tentatively, as if afraid I’d berate her, “Can’t sleep.”

I sighed. “I suppose all the noise we made in the calmecac woke you up?”

Again, she shook her head. “I don’t need sleep,” she said. “Not a lot.”

Comprehension dawned. “Oh.” I’d heard of sicknesses like hers, though they were unusual. “You’ve been awake all night?”

She shrugged. “Most of it. It’s not so bad. It’s calm, at night.”

“Except tonight,” I said, ruefully. I pointed at the room behind her. “This is where you sleep?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Did you hear anything unusual?” I asked. “I mean, before we came.”

She watched me, as unmoving as a deer before it flees. There was something in the liquid pools of her eyes: fear, worry?

“I won’t tell anyone you were awake,” I said, forcing a smile I knew was unconvincing. “It will be our secret.”

“The priestesses don’t like it,” she said. “They say I’m a disobedient girl.”

An intelligent thing to say to a six-year-old with sleeping troubles. “For not sleeping? You can’t help it.”

She clutched the doorjamb as if for comfort. “Someone screamed,” she said. “And a huge thing crossed the courtyard. I heard its breath.”

“But you didn’t see it?”

“No,” she said. “It sounded scary.”

I wished she’d been outside, close enough to see it. And then I realised that if she had indeed been outside, she would have died. What had I been thinking of? “It was scary,” I said. “But we’re going to hunt it down.”

She didn’t look impressed. I had to admit I probably didn’t look very impressive. I’d never been as tall or as muscular as Neutemoc – no, I couldn’t afford to think of Neutemoc now. I needed to focus on understanding the crime if I wanted to help him.

“Chicactic will protect me,” the girl said, proudly.

The name meant “strong”, but I couldn’t see to whom it would refer, in a house of women and young girls. “Your brother?” I asked.

She shook her head, closed her eyes, and frowned; and the ghostly shape of a jaguar coalesced into existence at her feet.

A nahual. A small, insubstantial one: it batted at me with its paws, as the jaguar’s children will do, but its swipes went right through me, leaving only a faint coldness in my legs. For a brief, wild moment, I entertained the idea that this nahual could have carried off Eleuia, but I dismissed it as ridiculous. This animal was young, ghostly. With the Hunt-God’s sight still upon me I could see the magic wrapped around the girl, and it wasn’t the same one as in Eleuia’s room. It was weaker, and not angry, simply tremendously self-focused.

“You’re very strong,” I said, and my admiration wasn’t feigned. It was impressive. Most people born on a Jaguar day would never even get this close to materialising their protective spirit. Only the Duality knew what this child was going to become as she grew older. “I’m sure the priestesses are proud of you.”

She made a grimace. She didn’t look as though she thought much of the priestesses. “They tell me not to summon him.” The jaguar had come back to her, rubbing itself against her legs, purring contentedly. Impressive indeed. “They don’t like boastful people.”

“They’re surprised, that’s all,” I said. “Most people can’t do that.”

“No,” she said. And then, with more shrewdness I would have guessed for a child of her years, “They’re afraid. They think I’ll take their place when I’m older.”

I’d hoped this calmecac was different from the others: a true place of retreat, and not a battlefield for those who would rise in the hierarchy. But it was everywhere the same. And, judging by the enmities surrounding Eleuia, perhaps worse here, in the shadow of the Imperial Palace. “People are always afraid of what they can’t understand. But you know what? If you can do that already, then you’ll be very powerful when you’re older, and nobody will bother you.”
She looked sceptical, as if that wasn’t a good thing. In truth, I wasn’t sure it was.

Her jaguar spirit was prowling at the foot of the wall, and growling – its small, insubstantial frame dwarfed by the bulk of the calmecac’s wall. It could probably smell the spoor of the other nahual.

I finally realised what had been bothering me about that wall. It was too high to leap, even for a nahual. In spite of their supernatural origins, nahuals retained the characteristics of mundane jaguars: teeth, claws, muscles. No jaguar, not even an adult, could have leapt over that wall.
Then how had the nahual left the calmecac? And why did the trail lead here, if it hadn’t jumped over that wall?

“Do you know what’s behind that wall?” I asked the girl.

She shrugged. “The outside.”

“The Sacred Precinct?”


I glanced at the nahual jaguar, and then at the rooms, which appeared quiet. Surely, if the nahual was still in this school, Ceyaxochitl’s warriors would have flushed it out? “If you remember anything about that beast – anything about tonight, will you ask the priestesses to send for me?”

She nodded, eagerly. She seemed to care far more for me than for the priestesses. Not that I could blame her. I mostly felt the same about the other clergies: those of the great gods like Tlaloc, God of Rain, and Huitzilpochtli, Protector of the Mexica Empire. Their top ranks were filled with social climbers too cowardly to go to war. As I had been, back when I had left the calmecac and chosen to become a priest.

It wasn’t a subject I was ready to dwell on; especially not in the middle of the night, at the hour when the aimlessness of my life weighed like layers of gold on my chest.

I gave the girl my name and bade her a good night. Then I went out of the calmecac, to see what was on the other side of the wall.

As the girl had said, not much. This particular section of adobe wasn’t connecting with another temple, or warriors’ barracks: it simply faced the deserted expanse of the plaza. A little further away, the ground sloped down, towards the elongated shape of the ball-game court. With the Cloud Serpent’s sight still on me, I should have seen the trail, had there been one. But there was nothing. It was as if the nahual had vanished in mid-air.

Feeling faintly ill at ease, I went back into the school, to look for Neutemoc.

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