IT IS THE YEAR ONE-KNIFE IN TENOCHTITLAN - THE CAPITAL OF THE AZTECS. The end of the world is kept at bay only by the magic of human sacrifice. A Priestess disappears from an empty room drenched in blood.
Acatl, High Priest of the Dead must find her, or break the boundaries between the worlds of th living and the dead. But how do you find someone, living or dead, in a world where blood sacrifices are an everyday occurrence and the very gods stalk the streets?
File Under: Fantasy [ Aztec Mystery | Locked Room | Human Sacrifice | The Dead Walk! ]
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Aliette de Bodard is a writer and computer specialist whose short fiction has already brought her a John W Campbell Award nomination, for best newcomer.
Aliette is French, of Vietnamese extraction, but she writes exclusively in English. The author lives in Paris, France.
SERVANT OF THE UNDERWORLD, BY ALIETTE de BODARD
Obsidian & Blood, Book 1
In the silence of the shrine, I bowed to the corpse on the altar: a minor member of the Imperial Family, who had died in a boating accident on Lake Texcoco. My priests had bandaged the gaping wound on his forehead and smoothed the wrinkled skin as best as they could; they had dressed him with scraps of many-coloured cotton and threaded a jade bead through his lips – preparing him for the long journey ahead. As High Priest for the Dead, it was now my responsibility to ease his passage into Mictlan, the underworld.
I slashed my earlobes and drew thorns through the wounds, collecting the dripping blood in a bowl, and started a litany for the Dead.
“The river flows northward
The mountains crush, the mountains bind...”
Grey light suffused the shrine, the pillars and the walls fading away to reveal a much larger place, a cavern where everything found its end. The adobe floor glimmered as if underwater. And shadows trailed, darkening the painted frescoes on the walls – singing a wordless lament, a song that twisted in my guts like a knife-stab. The underworld.
“Obsidian shards are driven into your hands, into your feet,
Obsidian to tear, to rend
You must endure–”
The copper bells sewn on the entrance-curtain tinkled as someone drew it aside, and hurried footsteps echoed under the roof of the shrine. “Acatl-tzin!” Ichtaca called.
Startled, I stopped chanting – and instinctively reached up, to quench the flow of blood from my earlobes before the atmosphere of Mictlan could overwhelm the shrine. With the disappearance of the living blood, the spell was broken, and the world sprang into sudden, painful focus.
I turned, then, not hiding my anger. A broken spell would have left a link to Mictlan – a miasma that would only grow thicker as time passed, darkening the shrine, the pyramid it sat upon, and the entire temple complex until the place became unusable. “I hope you have a good reason...”
Ichtaca, the Fire Priest of the temple and my second-in-command, stood on the threshold – his fingers clenched on the conch-shell around his neck. “I apologise for interrupting you, Acatl-tzin, but he was most insistent.”
The curtain twisted aside, and someone walked into the shrine: Yaotl. My heart sank. Yaotl never came for good news.
“I apologise,” Yaotl said, with a curt nod of his head towards the altar, though clearly he meant none of it. Yaotl answered only to his mistress, Ceyaxochitl; and she in turn, as Guardian of the Sacred Precinct and keeper of the invisible boundaries, answered only to Revered Speaker Ayaxacatl, the ruler of the Mexica Empire. “But we need you.”
Again? Even though I was High Priest for the Dead, it seemed that Ceyaxochitl still considered me little better than a slave, to be summoned whenever she wanted. “What is it this time?”
Yaotl’s scarred face twisted in what might have been a smile. “It’s bad.”
“Hmm,” I said. I should have known better than to ask him about the nature of the emergency. Yaotl enjoyed keeping me in ignorance, probably as a way to compensate for his station as a slave. I snatched up my grey cotton cloak from the stone floor and wrapped it around my shoulders. “I’m coming. Ichtaca, can you take over for me?”
Yaotl waited for me outside the shrine, on the platform of the pyramid temple, his embroidered cloak fluttering in the breeze. We descended the stairs of the pyramid side by side, in silence. Beneath us, moonlight shone on the temple complex, a series of squat adobe buildings stretching around a courtyard. Even at this hour, priests for the Dead were awake, saying vigils, conducting examinations of the recently dead, and propitiating the rulers of the underworld: Mictlantecuhtli and his wife, Mictecacihuatl, Lord and Lady Death.
Further on was the vast expanse of the Sacred Precinct: the mass of temples, shrines and penitential palaces that formed the religious heart of the Mexica Empire. And, still further, the houses and fields and canals of the island-city of Tenochtitlan, thousands of small lights burning away under the stars and moon.
We walked from the bottom of the steps to the gates of my temple, and then onto the plaza of the Sacred Precinct. At this hour of the night, it was blessedly free of the crowds that congregated in the day, of all the souls eager to earn the favours of the gods. Only a few offering priests were still abroad, singing hymns; and a few, younger novice priests, completing their nightly run around the Precinct’s Serpent Wall. The air was warm and heavy, a presage of the rains and of the maize harvest to come.
To my surprise, Yaotl did not lead me to the Imperial Palace. I’d expected this mysterious summons to be about noblemen. The last time Ceyaxochitl had asked for me in the middle of the night, it had been for a party of drunk administrators who had managed to summon a beast of the shadows from Mictlan. We’d spent a night tracking down the monster before killing it with obsidian knives.
Yaotl walked purposefully on the empty plaza, past the main temple complexes and the houses of elite warriors. I had thought that we were going to the temple of Toci, Grandmother Earth, but Yaotl bypassed it completely, and led me to a building in its shadow: something neither as tall nor as grand as the pyramid shrines, a subdued, sprawling affair of rooms opening on linked courtyards, adorned with frescoes of gods and goddesses.
The girls’ calmecac: the House of Tears, a school where the children of the wealthy, as well as those vowed to the priesthood, would receive their education. I had never been there; the clergy of Mictlantecuhtli was exclusively male, and I had trouble enough with our own students.
I couldn’t imagine, though, what kind of magical offences untrained girls would commit. “Are you sure?” I asked Yaotl but, characteristically, he walked into the building without answering me.
I suppressed a sigh and followed him, bowing slightly to the priestess in feather regalia who kept vigil at the entrance.
Inside, all was quiet, but it was the heavy calm before the rains. As I crossed courtyard after courtyard, I met the disapproving glances of senior offering priestesses, and the curious gazes of young girls who stood on the threshold of their ground-floor dormitories.
Yaotl led me to a courtyard near the centre of the building. Two rooms with pillared entrances opened on this. He went towards the leftmost one and, pulling aside the curtain, motioned me into a wide room.
It seemed an ordinary place, a room like any other in the city: an entrance curtain set with bells, gently tinkling in the evening breeze, walls adorned with frescoes of gods – and, in the centre, a simple reed sleeping mat framed by two wooden chests. Copal incense burnt in a clay brazier, bathing the room in a soft, fragrant light that stung my eyes. And everything, from the chests to the mat, reeked of magic: a pungent, acrid smell that clung to the walls and to the beaten-earth floor like a miasma.
That wasn’t natural. Even in the calmecac, there were strictures on the use of the living blood, restrictions on the casting of spells. Furthermore this looked like the private room of a priestess, not a teaching room for adolescent girls.
“What happened–” I started, turning to Yaotl.
But he was already halfway through the door. “Stay here. I’ll tell Mistress Ceyaxochitl you’ve arrived, Acatl-tzin.” In his mouth, even the tzin honorific sounded doubtful.
“Wait!” I said, but all that answered me was the sound of bells from the open door. I stood alone in that room, with no idea of why I was there at all.
Tlaloc’s lightning strike Yaotl.
I looked again at the room, wondering what I could guess of the circumstances that had brought me here. It looked like a typical priestess’s room: few adornments, the same rough sleeping mat and crude wicker chests found in any peasant’s house. Only the frescoes bore witness to the wealth of the calmecac school, their colours vibrant in the soft light, every feature of the gods sharply delineated. The paintings represented Xochipilli, God of Youth and Games, and His Consort, Xochiquetzal, Goddess of Lust and Childbirth. They danced in a wide garden, in the midst of flowers. The Flower Prince held a rattle, His Consort a necklace of poinsettias as red as a sacrifice’s blood.
Dark stains marred the faces of both gods. No, not only the faces, every part of Their apparel from Their feathered headdresses to Their clawed hands. Carefully, I scraped off one of the stains and rubbed it between my fingers. Blood.
Dried blood. I stared at the floor again – at what I had taken for dark earth in the dim light of the brazier. The stain was huge – spreading over the whole room, soaking the earth so thoroughly it had changed its colour. I’d attended enough sacrifices and examinations to know the amount of blood in the human body, and I suspected that the stain represented more than half of that. What in the Fifth World had happened here?
I stood in the centre of the room and closed my eyes. Carefully, I extended my priest-senses and probed at the magic, trying to see its nature. Underworld magic, yet... no, not quite. It was human, and it had been summoned in anger, in rage, an emotion that still hung in the room like a pall. But it didn’t have the sickly, spread-out feeling of most underworld magic. Not a beast of shadows, then.
Nahual. It had to be nahual magic: a protective jaguar spirit summoned in the room. Judging by the amount of blood in the vicinity, it had done much damage. Who, or what, had been wounded here?
I had been remiss in not taking any supplies before leaving my temple – trusting Yaotl to provide what I needed, which was always a mistake with the wily slave. I had no animal sacrifices, nothing to practise the magic of living blood.
No, not quite. I did have one source of living blood: my own body. With only my blood, I might not be able to perform a powerful spell; but there was a way to know whether someone had died in this room. Death opened a gate into Mictlan, the underworld, and the memory of that gate would still be in the room. Accessing it wouldn’t be a pleasant experience, but Huitzilpochtli, the Southern Hummingbird, blind me if I let Ceyaxochitl manipulate me once more.
I withdrew one of the obsidian blades that I always carried in my belt, and nicked my right earlobe with it. I’d done it so often that I barely flinched at the pain that spread upwards, through my ear. Blood dripped, slowly, steadily, onto the blade – each drop, pulsing on the rhythm of my heartbeat, sending a small shock through the hilt when it connected with the obsidian.
I brought the tip of the knife in contact with my own hand, and carefully drew the shape of a human skull. As I did so, I sang a litany to my patron Mictlantecuhtli, God of the Dead:
“Like the feathers of a precious bird
That precious bird with the emerald tail
We all come to an end
Like a flower
We dry up, we wither...”
A cold wind blew across the room, lifting the entrance-curtain – the tinkle of the bells was muffled, as if coming from far away, and the walls of the room slowly receded, revealing only darkness – but odd, misshapen shadows slid in and out of my field of vision, waiting for their chance to leap, to tear, to feast on my beating heart.
“We reach the land of the fleshless
Where jade turns to dust
Where feathers crumble into ash
Where our flowers, our songs are forever extinguished
Where all the tears rain down...”
A crack shimmered into existence, in the centre of the chamber: the entrance to a deep cavern, a cenote, at the bottom of which dark, brackish water shimmered in cold moonlight. Dry, wizened silhouettes splashed through the lake – the souls of the Dead, growing smaller and smaller the farther they went, like children’s discarded toys. They sang as they walked: cold whispers, threads of sound which curled around me, clinging to my naked skin like snakes. I could barely make out the words, but surely, if I stayed longer, if I bent over the cenote until I could see the bottom of the water...
No. I wasn’t that kind of fool.
With the ease of practise, I passed the flat of the knife across the palm of my other hand – focusing on nothing but the movement of the blade until the image of the skull was completely erased.
When I raised my eyes again, the crack had closed. The walls were back, with the vivid, reassuring colours of the frescoes; and the song of the Dead had faded into the whistle of the wind through the trees of the courtyard outside.
I stood, for a while, breathing hard – it never got any easier to deal with the underworld, no matter how used to it you became. Still...
I had seen the bottom of the cenote, and the Dead making their slow way to the throne of Lord Death. I had not, however, made out the words of their song. The gate to Mictlan had been widening, but not yet completely open. That meant someone in this room had been gravely wounded, but they were still alive.
No, that was too hasty. Whoever had been wounded in this room hadn’t died within – yet I didn’t think they’d have survived for long, unless they’d found a healer.
“Ah, Acatl,” Ceyaxochitl said, behind me. “That was fast.”
I turned much faster than I’d have liked. With the memory of Mictlan’s touch on my skin, any noise from the human world sounded jarringly out of place.
Ceyaxochitl stood limned in the entrance, leaning on her wooden cane. She was wearing a headdress of blue feathers that spread like a fan over her forehead, and a dress embroidered with the fused-lovers insignia of the Duality. Her face was smooth, expressionless, as it always was.
I’d tensed, even though she had barely spoken to me, preparing for another verbal sparring. Ceyaxochitl had a habit of moving people like pawns in a game of patolli, deciding what she thought was in their best interests without preoccupying herself much with their opinions, and I seldom enjoyed being the target of her attentions.
“I don’t particularly appreciate being summoned like this,” I started to say, but she shook her head, obviously amused.
“You were awake, Acatl. I know you.”
Yes, she knew me, all too well. After all, we had worked together for roughly nine years, the greater part of my adult life. She had been the one to campaign at the Imperial Court for my nomination as High Priest for the Dead, a position I neither wanted nor felt comfortable with – another of her interferences in my life. We’d made a kind of uneasy peace over the matter in the last few months, but right now she was going too far.
“All right,” I said. I brushed off the dried blood on my fingers, and watched her hobble into the room. “Now that I’m here, can we dispense with the formalities? Who was wounded here, Ceyaxochitl?”
She paused for a moment, though she barely showed any surprises. “Hard at work, I s...
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