/ Language: English / Genre:antique / Series: Aztec

Aztec

Gary Jennings

"A dazzling and hypnotic historical novel."--The New York Times "Anyone who reads, anyone who still lusts for adventure or that book you can't put down, will glory in Aztec."--Los Angeles Times Aztec is the extraordinary story of the last and greatest native civilization of North America. Told in the words of one of the most robust and memorable characters in modern fiction, Mixtli-Dark Cloud, Aztec reveals the very depths of Aztec civilization from the peak and feather-banner splendor of the Aztec Capital of Tenochtitlan to the arrival of Hernán Cortes and his conquistadores, and their destruction of the Aztec empire. The story of Mixtli is the story of the Aztecs themselves---a compelling, epic tale of heroic dignity and a colossal civilization's rise and fall.

You tell me then that I must perish

like the flowers that I cherish.

Nothing remaining of my name,

nothing remembered of my fame?

But the gardens I planted still are young—

the songs I sang will still be sung!

HUEXOTZIN, Prince of Texcóco, ca. 1484

  COURT OF CASTILE VALLADOLID

To His Majesty's legate and chaplain, Fray Don Juan de Zumárraga, lately appointed Bishop of the See of Mexíco in New Spain, a charge upon him:

That we may be better acquainted with our colony of New Spain, of its peculiarities, its riches, the people who possessed it, and the beliefs, rites, and ceremonies which they heretofore held, we wish to be informed of all matters appertaining to the Indians during their existence in that land before the coming of our liberating forces, ambassadors, evangels, and colonizers.

Therefore, we order that you shall inform yourself from ancient Indians (having first administered to them the oath, to assure veracity) as to their country's history, their governments, their traditions, their customs, etc. In addition to the information that you secure from witnesses, you will cause to be brought before you any writings, tablets, or other records of that foregone time which may substantiate what is said, and you will cause your missionary friars to search and ask for such records among the Indians.

Because this is a very weighty matter and very necessary for the discharge of His Majesty's conscience, we command you to attend to the conduct of the said inquiry with all possible promptitude, care, and diligence, and that your account be set forth in much detail.

(ecce signum) CAROLUS R I

Rex et Imperator

Hispaniae Carolus Primus

Sacri Romani Imperi Carolus Quintus

  I H S S.C.C.M.

Sanctified, Caesarean, Catholic Majesty, the Emperor Don Carlos, Our Lord King:

May the grace, peace, and loving kindness of Our Lord Jesus Christ be with Your Majesty Don Carlos, by divine mercy eternally august Emperor; and with your esteemed Queen Mother Doña Juana, together with Your Majesty by the grace of God rulers of Castile, of Leon, of Aragon, of the Two Sicilies, of Jerusalem, of Navarre, of Granada, of Toledo, of Valencia, of Galicia, of Mallorca, of Seville, of Sardinia, of Cordova, of Corcega, of Murcia, of Jaen, of the Caribbees, of Algeciras, of Gibraltar, of the Canary Isles, of the Indies, of the islands and lands of the Ocean Sea; Counts of Flanders and of the Tyrol, etc.

Very Fortunate and Most Excellent Prince: from this city of Tenochtítlan-Mexíco, capital of your dominion of New Spain, this twelfth day after the Assumption, in the Year of Our Lord one thousand five hundred twenty and nine, greeting.

It was but eighteen months ago, Your Majesty, when we, though the least of your vassal subjects, heeded Your Majesty's command that we assume this trifold post as the first appointed Bishop of Mexíco, Protector of the Indians, and Apostolic Inquisitor, all embodied in our one and own poor person. It has been but nine months since our arrival in this New World, and there was much arduous work awaiting us.

In accordance with the mandate of this appointment, we have striven zealously "to instruct the Indians in their duty to hold and worship One True God, Who is in Heaven, by Whom all creatures live and are maintained"—and likewise "to acquaint the Indians of that Most Invincible and Catholic Majesty, the Emperor Don Carlos, whom divine Providence has willed that the whole world should obey and serve."

Inculcating these lessons, Sire, has been far from easy or expeditious. There is a saying among our fellow Spaniards here, extant well before our arrival: "The Indians cannot hear except through their buttocks." But we try to bear in mind that these miserable and spiritually impoverished Indians—or Aztecs, as most Spaniards now refer to this particular tribe or nation of them hereabouts—are inferior to all the rest of mankind, and therefore, in their insignificance, deserve our tolerant indulgence.

Besides attending to the Indians' instruction—that there is only One God in Heaven, and the Emperor on earth, who's subjects they have all become and whom they must serve—and besides dealing with many other ecclesiastical and civil matters, we have attempted to comply with Your Majesty's personal adjuration to us: that we early prepare an account of the conditions of this terra paena-incognita, the manners and ways of life of its inhabitants, the customs, etc. formerly obtaining in this benighted land.

Your Most Lofty Majesty's royal cédula specifies that we, in providing the chronicle, shall inform ourself "from ancient" Indians." This has necessitated something of a search, inasmuch as the total destruction of this city by Captain-General Hernán Cortés left us very few ancient Indians from whom thy seek a credible oral history. Even the workers currently re-building the city consist mainly of women, children, the dolts and dotards who were unfit to fight in the siege, brute peasants conscripted from the outlying lands. Oafs, all of them.

Nevertheless, we were able to ferret out one ancient Indian (of some sixty and three years of age) capable of providing the desired account. This Mexícatl—he repudiates both the appellations Aztec and Indian—is of a high grade of intelligence (for his race), is articulate, is possessed of what education was heretofore afforded in these parts, and has been in his time a scrivener of what passes for writing among these people.

In his lifetime he has had numerous occupations besides that of scribe: as warrior, as courtier, as traveling merchant, even as a sort of emissary from the late rulers of this place to the first arriving Castilian liberators, and those envoy duties have given him a passable grasp of our language. Though his Castilian falters seldom, we of course desire precision in all details. So we have provided an interpreter, a young lad who has considerable proficiency in Náhuatl (which is what these Aztecs call their guttural language of lengthy and unlovely words). In the interrogation room, we have also seated four of our own scribes. These friars are adept in that art of swift writing by character, known as Tironian notes, which is employed at Rome for making memoranda of the Holy Father's every utterance, and even for recording the entire proceedings of many-peopled conferences.

We bade the Aztec sit down and tell us his life story. The four friars, busily flicking away at their Tironian squiggles, did not then or since lose a single word that drops from the Indian's lips. Drops? Better say: words that cascade in torrents alternately loathly and corrosive. You will soon see what we mean, Sire. From the very first opening of his mouth, the Aztec evinces disrespect for our person, our cloth, and our office as our Revered Majesty's personally chosen missionary, which disrespect is an implicit insult to our sovereign himself.

The first pages of the Indian's narrative follow immediately after this explanatory introduction. Sealed for your eyes only, Sire, this package of manuscript will depart Tezuítlan de la Vera Cruz the day after tomorrow in the keeping of Captain Sanchez Santovena, master of the caravel Gloria.

Your Caesarean Majesty's wisdom, sagacity, and discrimination being universally known, we realize that we risk your imperial displeasure in presuming to preface the enclosed pages with a caveat, but, in our episcopal and apostolic capacity, we feel that obligatory upon us. We are sincerely desirous of Complying with Your Majesty's cédula, of sending a true report of all there is worth knowing of this land. But others besides ourself will tell Your Majesty that the Indians are paltry beings, in whom one will scarcely find even vestiges of humanity; who do not even have a comprehensible written language; who have never had any written laws, but only barbaric customs and traditions; who have been or still are addicted to all kinds of intemperance, paganism, ferocity, and carnal lusts; who have but lately tortured and slain their own fellow beings for the sake of their misbegotten "religion."

We cannot believe that a worthwhile or edifying report can be procured from an informant like this arrogant Aztec, or from any other native, however articulate. Also, we cannot believe that our Sanctified Emperor Don Carlos can be other than scandalized by the iniquitous, salacious, and impious prattlings of this overweening specimen of a dunghill race. We have referred to the enclosure herewith as the first part of the Indian's chronicle. We fervently desire and trust that it will also, by Your Majesty's command, be the last.

May God Our Lord guard and preserve the precious life, the very royal person, and the very catholic estate of Your Majesty for uncounted years, with the enlargement of your reigns and dominions as your royal heart desires.

Of Your S.C.C.M., the ever faithful servant and chaplain,

(ecce signum) Fr. Juan de Zumárraga

Bishop of Mexíco

Apostolic Inquisitor

Protector of the Indians

  INCIPIT:

The chronicle told by an elderly male Indian of the tribe commonly called Aztec, which narrative is addressed to His Excellency, the Most Reverend Juan de Zumárraga, Bishop of Mexíco, and recorded verbatim ab origine by

FR. CASPAR DE GAYANA J.

PR. TORIBIO VEGA DE ARANJUEZ

FR. JERONIMO MUÑOZ G.

FR. DOMINGO VILLEGAS E YBARRA

ALONSO DE MOLINA, interpres

  DIXIT:

My Lord—

Pardon me, my lord, that I do not know your formal and fitting honorific, but I trust I do not hazard my lord's taking offense. You are a man, and not one man of all the men I have met in my life has ever resented being addressed as a lord. So, my lord—

Your Excellency, is it?

Ayyo, even more illustrious—what we of these lands would call an ahuaquahuitl, a tree of great shade. Your Excellency it shall be, then. It impresses me the more that a personage of such eminent excellency should have summoned such a one as myself to speak words in Your Excellency's presence.

Ah, no, Your Excellency, do not demur if I appear to flatter Your Excellency. Common report throughout the city, and these your servitors here, have made plain to me how august a man you are, Your Excellency, while I am but a threadbare rag, a frayed raveling of what once was. Your Excellency is attired and arrayed and assured in your conspicuous excellency, and I am only I.

But Your Excellency wishes to hear of what I was. This has also been explained to me. Your Excellency desires to learn what my people, this land, our lives were like in the years, in the sheaves of years before it pleased Your Excellency's king and his crossbearers and crossbowmen to deliver us from our bondage of barbarism.

That is correct? Then Your Excellency asks no easy thing of me. How, in this little room, out of my little intellect, in the little time the gods—the Lord God—may have vouchsafed me to finish my roads and my days, how can I evoke the vastness of what was our world, the variety of its peoples, the events of the sheaves upon sheaves of years?

Think, imagine, picture yourself, Your Excellency, as that tree of great shade. See in your mind its immensity, its mighty boughs and the birds among them, the lush foliage, the sunlight upon it, the coolness it casts upon a house, a family, the girl and boy who were my sister and myself. Could Your Excellency compress that tree of great shade back into the acorn which Your Excellency's father once thrust between your mother's legs?

Yya ayya, I have displeased Your Excellency and dismayed your scribes. Forgive me, Your Excellency. I should have guessed that the white men's private copulation with their white women must be different—of more delicacy—than I have seen them perform forcibly upon our women in public. And assuredly the Christian copulation that produced Your Excellency must have been even more—

Yes, yes, Your Excellency, I desist.

But Your Excellency perceives my difficulty. How to enable Your Excellency to see at a glance the difference between our inferior then and your superior now? Perhaps one summary illustration will suffice, and you need trouble yourself with no more listening.

Look, Your Excellency, at your scribes: in our language "the word knowers." I have been a scribe myself, and I well recall how hard it was to render onto fawnskin or fiber paper or bark paper so much as the unfleshed bones of historical dates and happenings, with any degree of accuracy. Sometimes it was hard even for me to read my own pictures aloud, without stumbling, after just the few moments the colors took to dry.

But your word knowers and I have been practicing, while awaiting Your Excellency's arrival, and I am amazed, I am struck with wonder, at what any one of your reverend scribes can do. He can write and read back to me not just the substance of what I speak, but every single word, and with all the intonations and pauses and stresses of my speech. I would think it a talent of memory and mimicry—we had our word rememberers, too—but he tells me, shows me, proves to me, that it is all there on his page of paper. I congratulate myself, Your Excellency, that I have learned to speak your language with what proficiency my poor brain and tongue can attain, but your writing would be beyond me.

In our picture writing, the very colors spoke, the colors sang or wept, the colors were necessary. They were many: magenta-red, ocher-gold, ahudcatl-green, turquoise-blue, chocolatl, the red-yellow of the jacinth gem, clay-gray, midnight-black. And even then they were inadequate to catch every individual word, not to mention nuances and adroit turns of phrase. Yet any one of your word knowers can do just that: record every syllable forever, with a single quill instead of a handful of reeds and brushes. And, most marvelous, with just one color, the rusty black decoction they tell me is ink.

Very well, Your Excellency, there you have it in an acorn—the difference between us Indians and you white men, between our ignorance and your knowledge, between our old times and your new day. Will it satisfy Your Excellency that the mere stroke of a quill has demonstrated your people's right to rule and our people's fate to be ruled? Surely this is all that Your Excellency requires from us Indians: a confirmation that the victor's conquest is ordained, not by his arms and artifice, not even by his Almighty God, but by his innate superiority of nature over lesser beings like ourselves. Your Excellency can have no further need of me or words of mine.

My wife is old and infirm and unattended. I cannot pretend that she grieves at my absence from her side, but it annoys her. Ailing and irascible as she is, her annoyance is not good for her. Nor for me. Therefore, with sincere thanks to Your Excellency for Your Excellency's gracious reception of this aged wretch, I bid you—

My apologies, Your Excellency. As you remark, I have not Your Excellency's permission to depart at whim. I am at Your Excellency's service for as long as—

Again my apologies. I was not aware that I had repeated "Your Excellency" more than thirty times in this brief colloquy, nor that I had said it in any special tone of voice. But I cannot contradict your scribes' scrupulous account. Henceforth I will endeavor to temper my reverence and enthusiasm for your honorific, Señor Bishop, and to keep my tone of voice irreproachable. And, as you command, I will continue.

But now, what am I to say? What should I cause your ears to hear?

My life has been long, as ours is measured. I did not die in infancy, as so many of our children do. I did not die in battle or in holy sacrifice, as so many have willingly done. I did not succumb to an excess of drinking, or to the attack of a wild beast, or to the creeping decay of The Being Eaten by the Gods. I did not die by contracting one of the dread diseases that came with your ships, and of which so many thousands upon thousands have perished. I have outlived even the gods, who forever had been deathless and who forever would be immortal. I have survived for more than a full sheaf of years, to see and do and learn and remember much. But no man can know everything of even his own time, and this land's life began immeasurably long ages before my own. It is only of my own that I can speak, only my own that I can bring back to shadow life in your rusty black ink—

"There was a splendor of spears, a splendor of spears!"

An old man of our island of Xaltócan used always to begin his battle tales that way. We listeners were captivated on the instant, and we remained engrossed, though it might have been a most minor battle he described and, once he had told the foregoing events and the outcome of it all, perhaps a very trivial tale hardly worth the telling. But he had the knack for blurting at once the most compelling highlight of a narrative, and then weaving backward and forward from it. Unlike him, I can but begin at the beginning and move onward through time just as I lived it.

What I now state and affirm did all occur. I only narrate what happened, without invention and without falsehood. I kiss the earth. That is to say: I swear to this. * * *

Oc ye nechca—as you would say, "Once upon a time"—ours was a land where nothing moved more rapidly than our swift-messengers could run, except when the gods moved, and there was no noise louder than our far-callers could shout, except when the gods spoke. On the day we called Seven Flower, in the month of God Ascending, in the year Thirteen Rabbit, the rain god Tlaloc was speaking his loudest, in a resounding thunderstorm. That was somewhat unusual, since the rainy season should have been then at its end. The tlalóque spirits which attend upon the god Tlaloc were striking blows with their forked sticks of lightning, cracking open the great casks of the clouds, so that they shattered with roars and rumblings and spilt their violent downpour of rain.

In the afternoon of that day, in the tumult of that storm, in a little house on the island of Xaltócan, I came forth from my mother and began my dying.

To make your chronicle clearer—you see, I took pains to learn your calendar too—I have calculated that my day of birth would have been the twentieth day of your month called September, in your year numbered one thousand four hundred sixty and six. That was during the reign of Motecuzóma Iluicamina, meaning The Wrathful Lord, He Who Shoots Arrows into the Sky. He was our Uey-Tlatoani or Revered Speaker, our title for what you would call your king or emperor. But the name of Motecuzóma or of anybody else did not mean much to me at the time.

At the time, warm from the womb, I was doubtless more impressed by being immediately plunged into a jar of breathtaking cold water. No midwife has ever bothered to explain to me the reason for that practice, but I assume it is done on the theory that if the newborn can survive that appalling shock it can survive all the ailments which may beset it during its infancy. Anyway, I probably complained most vociferously while the midwife was swaddling me, while my mother was disentangling her hands from the knotted, roof-hung rope she had clutched as she knelt to extrude me onto the floor, and while my father was carefully wrapping my severed navel string around a little wooden war shield he had carved.

That token my father would give to the first Mexícatl warrior he chanced to encounter, and the soldier would be entrusted to plant the object somewhere on the next battlefield to which he was ordered. Thereafter, my tonáli—fate, fortune, destiny, whatever you care to call it—should have been forever urging me to go for a soldier, that most honorable of occupations for our class of people, and to fall in battle, that most honorable of deaths for such as we were. I say "should have been" because, although my tonáli has frequently beckoned or prodded me in some odd directions, even into combat, I have never really yearned either to fight or to die by violence before my time.

I might mention that, according to the custom for female babies, the navel string of my sister Nine Reed had been planted, not quite two years earlier, beneath the hearth in that room where we both were born. Her buried string was wrapped around a tiny clay spindle wheel; thus she would grow up to be a good, hard-working, and humdrum housewife. She did not. Nine Reed's tonáli was as wayward as my own.

After my immersion and swaddling, the midwife spoke most solemnly and directly to me—if I was letting her be heard at all. I scarcely need remark that I do not repeat from memory any of those doings at my birth time. But I know all the procedures. What the midwife said to me that afternoon I have since heard spoken to many a new boy baby, as it always was to all our male children. It was one of many rituals remembered and never neglected since time before time: the long-dead ancestors handing on, through the living, their wisdom to the newborn.

The midwife addressed me as Seven Flower. That day-of-birth name I would bear until I had outlived the hazards of infancy, until I was seven years old, by which age I could be presumed likely to live to grow up, and so would be given a more distinctive adult name.

She said, "Seven Flower, my very loved and tenderly delivered child, here is the word that was long ago given us by the gods. You were merely born to this mother and this father to be a warrior and a servant of the gods. This place where you have just now been born is not your true home."

And she said, "Seven Flower, you are promised to the field of battle. Your foremost duty is to give to the sun the blood of your enemies to drink, and to feed the earth with the cadavers of your opponents. If your tonáli is strong, you will be with us and in this place only a brief while. Your real home will be in the land of our sun god Tonatíu."

And she said, "Seven Flower, if you grow up to die as a xochimíqui—one of those sufficiently fortunate to merit the Flowery Death, in war or by sacrifice—you will live again in the eternally happy Tonatíucan, the afterworld of the sun, and you will serve Tonatíu forever and forever, and you will rejoice in his service."

I see you wince, Your Excellency. So should I have done, had I then comprehended that woeful welcome to this world, or the words spoken by our neighbors and kinsmen who crowded in to view the newcomer, each of them leaning over me with the traditional greeting, "You have come to suffer. Suffer and endure." If children were born able to understand such a salutation, they would all squirm back into the womb, dwindle back into the seed.

No doubt we did come into this world to suffer, to endure; what human being ever did not? But the midwife's words about soldiering and sacrifice were a mere mockingbird repetition. I have heard many other such edifying harangues, from my father, from my teachers, from our priests—and yours—all mindlessly echoing what they themselves had heard from generations long gone before. Myself, I have come to believe that the long-dead were no wiser than we, even when they were alive, and their being dead has added no luster to their wisdom. The pontifical words of the dead I have always taken—as we say, yea mapilxocoitl: with my little finger—"with a grain of salt," as your saying goes.

We grow up and look down, we grow old and look back. Ayyo, but what it was to be a child, to be a child! To have the roads and the days all stretching out forward and upward and away, not one of them yet missed or wasted or repented. Everything in the world a newness and a novelty, as it once was to Ometecutli and Omeciuatl, our Lord and Lady Pair, the first beings of all creation.

Without effort I remember, I recall to memory, I hear again in my age-muffled ears the sounds of dawn on our island Xaltócan. Sometimes I awoke to the call of the Early Bird, Papan, crying his four-note "papaquiqui, papaquiqui!"—bidding the world "arise, sing, dance, be happy!" Other times I awoke to the even earlier morning sound of my mother grinding maize on the metlatl stone, or slapping and shaping the maize dough she would bake into the big, thin disks of tlaxcala bread—what you now call tortillas. There were even mornings when I awoke earlier than all but the priests of the sun Tonatíu. Lying in the darkness, I could hear them, at the temple atop our island's modest pyramid, blowing the hoarse bleats of the conch trumpet, as they burned incense and ritually wrung the neck of a quail (because that bird is speckled like a starry night), and chanted to the god: "See, thus the night dies. Come now and perform your kindly labors, oh jeweled one, oh soaring eagle, come now to lighten and warm The One World..."

Without effort, without striving, I remember the hot middays, when Tonatíu the sun, in all the vigor of his prime, fiercely brandished his flaming spears while he stood and stamped upon the rooftop of the universe. In that shadowless blue and gold noontime, the mountains around Lake Xaltócan seemed close enough to touch. In fact, that may be my earliest memory—I could not have been much over two years old, and I had yet no conception of distance—for the day and the world were panting all about me, and I wanted the touch of something cool. I still recall my childish surprise when I stretched out my arm and could not feel the blue of the forested mountain that loomed so clear and close before me.

Without effort I remember also the days' endings, when Tonatíu drew about him his sleeping mantle of brilliant feathers, and let himself down on to his soft bed of many-colored flower petals, and sank to sleep in them. He was gone from our sight to The Dark Place, Mictlan. Of the four afterworlds in which our dead might dwell, Mictlan was the nethermost, the abode of the utterly and irredeemably dead, the place where nothing happens, or has ever happened, or ever will. (It was compassionate of Tonatíu that for a time (a little time only, compared to what he lavished on us), he would lend his light (a little light only, dimmed by his sleeping) to The Dark Place of the hopelessly dead.

Meanwhile, in The One World—on Xaltócan, anyway, the only world I knew—the pale blue mists rose from the lake so that the blackening mountains roundabout appeared to float on them, between the red waters and the purple sky. Then, just above the horizon where Tonatíu had disappeared, there flared for a while Omexochitl, the evening star After Blossom. That star came, After Blossom always came, she came to assure us that, though the night did darken, we need not fear this night's darkening to the oblivion darkness of The Dark Place. The One World lived, and would live yet a while.

Without effort I remember the nights, and one night in particular. Metztli the moon had finished his monthly meal of stars, and he was full fed, he was gorged to his roundest and brightest, so that the figure of the rabbit-in-the-moon was as clearly incised as any temple carving. That night—I suppose I was three or four years old—my father carried me on his shoulders, his hands holding tight to my ankles. His long strides bore me through cool brightness and cooler darkness: the dappled moonlight and moonshade beneath the spreading limbs and feathery leaves of the "oldest of old" trees, the ahuehuetque cypresses.

I was old enough then to have heard of the terrible things that lurked in the nighttime, just beyond the edge of a person's vision. There was Chocaciuatl, the Weeping Woman, the first of all mothers to die in childbirth, forever wandering, forever bewailing her lost baby and her own lost life. There were the nameless, headless, limbless torsos that somehow managed to moan as they writhed blind and helpless on the ground. There were the disembodied, fleshless skulls that drifted head-high through the air, chasing travelers overtaken by night upon their travels. If a mortal glimpsed any of those things, he knew it to be a sure omen of dire misfortune.

Some other denizens of the dark were not so utterly to be feared. There was, for instance, the god Yoali Ehecatl, Night Wind, who gusted along the night roads, seeking to seize any incautious human abroad in the dark. But Night Wind was as capricious as any wind. Sometimes he seized, then let a person go free, and if that happened, the person would also be granted his heart's desire and a long life in which to enjoy it. So, in hope of keeping the god always in that indulgent mood, our people had long ago built stone benches at various of the island's crossroads, whereon Night Wind might rest in his rushings about. As I say, I was old enough to know and dread the spirits of the darkness. But that night, set on my father's broad shoulders, myself temporarily taller than a man, my hair brushed by the rustling cypress fronds, my face caressed by the dapples of moonlight, I felt not at all afraid.

Without effort I remember that night because, for the first time, I was being allowed to observe a ceremony involving human sacrifice. It was but a minor rite, for it was in homage to a very minor deity: Atlaua, the god of fowlers. (In those days, Lake Xaltócan teemed with ducks and geese which, in their seasons of wandering, paused there to rest and feed—and to feed us.) So, on that night of the well-fed moon, at the start of the season of the waterfowl, just one xochimíqui, one man only, would be ritually killed to the greater glory of the god Atlaua. And the man was not, for a change, a war captive going to his Flowery Death with exhilaration or resignation, but a volunteer going rather ruefully.

"I am already dead," he had told the priests. "I gasp like a fish taken from the water. My chest strains for more and more air, but the air no longer nourishes me. My limbs weaken, my sight darkens, my head whirls, I faint and fall. I had rather die all at once than flop about fishlike until I strangle at last."

The man was a slave who had come from the Chinanteca nation, far to the south. Those people were and still are prey to a curious illness which seems to run in certain of their family bloodlines. We and they called it the Painted Disease, and you Spaniards now call the Chinanteca the Pinto People, because an afflicted one's skin is blotched with livid blue. His body somehow gradually becomes unable to make use of the air it breathes, and so it dies of suffocation, exactly in the manner of a fish removed from its sustaining element.

My father and I arrived at the lakeshore, where two sturdy posts were embedded a little way apart. The surrounding night was lighted by urn fires and made smoky by burning incense. Through the haze danced the priests of Atlaua: old men, black all over, their robes black, their faces blackened and their long hair matted with oxitl, which is the black pine tar our fowlers smear on their legs and lower body to shield them from the cold when they wade into the lake waters. Two of the priests tweedled the ritual music on flutes made from human shin-bones, while another thumped a drum. That was a special sort of drum, specially suited to the occasion: a giant dried pumpkin, partly filled with water so it floated half submerged in the lake shallows. Beaten with thighbones, the water drum gave out a resonant rataplan which echoed from the mountains invisible across the lake.

The xochimíqui was led into the circle of smoky light. He was naked, he wore not even the basic maxtlatl which customarily encircles a man's loins and private parts. Even in the flickery firelight, I could see that his body was not of flesh color mottled with blue, but a dead blue touched only here and there with flesh color. He was spread-eagled between the lake-shore posts, one ankle and one wrist bound to each stake. A priest, waving an arrow as a Song Leader waves his stick, chanted an invocation:

"This man's life fluid we give to you, Atlaua, mingled with the life water of our beloved Lake Xaltócan. We give it to you, Atlaua, that you may in return deign to send your flocks of precious fowl to the nets of our fowlers—" And so on.

That continued long enough to bore me, if not Atlaua. Then, without any warning or ritual flourish, the priest suddenly lowered the arrow and jabbed it with all his strength upward, twisting it, into the blue man's genital organs. The victim, however much he might have thought he desired that release from life, gave a scream. He howled a scream, he ululated a scream that overrode the sound of flutes, drum, and chanting. He screamed, but he did not scream for long.

The priest, with the bloody arrow, drew a cross on the man's chest for a target, and all the priests pranced about him in a circle, each carrying a bow and many arrows. As each passed in front of the xochimíqui, he thrummed an arrow into the blue man's heaving breast. When the prancing was done and the arrows used up, the dead man looked like an overgrown specimen of the animal we call the prickly little boar. There was not much else to the ceremony. The body was unloosed from the stakes and tied by a rope behind a fowler's acáli pulled up on the sand. The fowler rowed his canoe out into the lake, out of our view, towing the corpse until it should sink of the water that seeped in through its natural orifices and the arrow punctures. Thus Atlaua received his sacrifice.

My father hoisted me to his shoulders again and started his long strides back across the island. As I bobbed along, high and safe and secure, I made a boyishly arrogant vow to myself. If ever it was my tonáli to be selected for the Flowery Death of sacrifice, even to some alien god, I would not scream, whatever was done to me, whatever pain I suffered.

Foolish child. I thought death meant only dying, and doing it badly or bravely. At that moment in my snug and unthreatened young life, being borne on strong shoulders homeward to a sweet sleep from which I would awaken to a new morning at the Early Bird's call, how could I know what death really is?

As we believed in those days, a hero slain in the service of a mighty lord or sacrificed in homage to a high god was assured of a life everlasting in the most resplendent of afterworlds, where he would be rewarded and regaled with bliss throughout eternity. And now Christianity tells us that we all may hope for an afterlife in a similarly splendid Heaven. But consider. Even the most heroic of heroes dying in the most honorable cause, even the most devout Christian martyr dying in the certainty of reaching Heaven, he will never again know the caress of this world's moonlight dappling his face as he walks beneath this world's rustling cypress trees. A trifling pleasure—so small, so simple, so ordinary—but never to be known again.

Your Excellency evinces impatience. Forgive me, Señor Bishop, that my old wits sometimes drift off the straight road onto meandering bypaths. I know that some things I have told, and some other things of which I shall tell, you may not regard as a strictly historical account. But I pray your forbearance, for I do not know whether I shall ever have another opportunity to say these things. And, for all I say, I do not say all that could be said....

Casting my mind again backward to my childhood, I cannot claim that it was in any way extraordinary for our place and time, since I was no more or less than an ordinary boy child. The day number and year number of my birth were numbers regarded neither as fortunate nor misfortunate. I was not born during any portents in the sky—an eclipse biting at the moon, for example, which could similarly have bitten me with a harelip or permanently shadowed my face with a dark birthmark. I had none of the physical features our people regarded as unhandsome defects in a male: not curly hair nor jug-handle ears, no double chin nor any cleft in it, no protruding rabbit teeth, my nose neither flat nor too beakishly pronounced, no everted navel, no conspicuous moles. Most fortunate for me, my black hair grew straight and smooth; there were no tufts turned up or turned awry.

My boyhood comrade Chimali had one of those unruly feathers of hair, and all his young life he prudently, even fearfully, kept that tuft clipped short and plastered down with oxitl. I remember once, in our early years, when he had to wear a pumpkin over his head for a whole day. The scribes smile; I had better explain.

The fowlers of Xaltócan caught ducks and geese, in the most practical way and in goodly numbers, by raising large nets on poles here and there in the lake's shallow red waters, then making some violent noise to startle the birds into flight, and seizing those that got entangled in the nets. But we boys of Xaltócan had our own sly method. We would cut off the top of a pumpkin or other large calabash gourd, and hollow out its inside, and cut a hole in it through which to see and breathe. We would put the pumpkin over our head, then dog-paddle out to where the ducks or geese sat placidly on the lake. Our bodies being invisible underwater, the birds never seemed to find anything alarming in the slow approach of a floating gourd or two. We could get close enough to grab a bird's legs and yank it under the surface. It was not always easy; even a small teal can put up quite a fight against a small boy; but generally we could keep the bird underwater until it drowned and went limp. The maneuver seldom even disturbedt the rest of the flock afloat nearby.

Chimali and I spent a day at that sport, and we had a respectable heap of ducks stacked onshore by the time we got tired and decided to quit. But then we discovered that all the swimming about had dissolved Chimali's hair plaster, and his tuft was sticking up behind like the back feather worn by certain of our warriors. We were at the end of the island farthest from our village, meaning Chimali would have to cross the whole of Xaltócan looking like that.

"Ayya, pochdoa!" he muttered. The expression refers only to the malodorous passing of gut wind, but it was a vehement enough expletive, from a boy of eight or nine years, that it would have earned him a thrashing with thorns if an adult had been there to overhear it.

"We can get back into the water," I suggested, "and swim around the island, if we stay far enough offshore."

"Maybe you could," said Chimali. "I am so winded and waterlogged that I would sink on the instant. Suppose we wait until dark to walk back home."

I said, "In the daylight you risk running into some priest who may notice your standing tuft of hair. In the dark you risk meeting some monster even more terrible, like Night Wind. But you decide, and I am with you."

We sat and thought for a while, idly nipping at honey ants. Those were everywhere on the ground at that season, their abdomens bulging with nectar. We picked up the insects and bit their hinder ends for a sip of the sweet honey. But each droplet was minuscule and, no matter how many ants we nipped, we were getting hungry.

"I know!" Chimali said at last. "I will wear my pumpkin all the way home."

And that is what he did. Of course he could not see too well through its eyehole, so I had to lead him, and we were both considerably encumbered by our burdens of dead, wet, heavy ducks. This meant that Chimali quite often stumbled and fell, or walked into tree trunks, or toppled into roadside ditches. By good fortune, his pumpkin never broke to pieces. But I laughed at him all the way and dogs barked at him and, since the twilight came before we reached home, Chimali himself may have astonished and terrified any passersby who saw him in the dusk.

But it might otherwise have been no laughing matter. There was good reason for Chimali's being always aware and careful of his unruly hair. Any boy with such a tuft, you see, was especially preferred by the priests when they required a male youngster for sacrifice. Do not ask me why. No priest has ever told me why. But then, what priest has ever had to give us a credible reason for the unreasonable rules he makes us live by, or for the fear and guilt and shame we must endure when we sometimes circumvent them?

I do not mean to give the impression that any of us, young or old, lived lives of constant apprehension. Except for a few arbitrary vagaries like the priests' predilection for boys with disordered hair, our religion and the priests who interpreted it did not make too many or too onerous demands of us. Nor did any other authorities. We owed obedience to our rulers and governors, of course, and we had certain obligations to the pípiltin nobles, and we heeded the advice of our tlamatintin wise men. But I was born into the middle class of our society, the macehualtin, "the fortunate," so called because we were equally free of the upper classes' heavy responsibilities and of the lower classes' liability to being basely used.

In our time there were few laws—deliberately few, so that every man might hold them all in his head and in his heart, and have not the excuse of ignorance for flouting them. The laws were not written down, like yours, nor pasted up in public places, like yours, so that a man must forever be consulting the long lists of edicts, rules, and regulations, to measure his every last action against "you shall" and "you shall not." By your standards, our few laws may seem to have been lax or whimsical, and the penalties for their infraction unduly harsh. But our laws worked for the good of all—and all, knowing the dire consequences, obeyed them. Those who did not—they disappeared.

An example. According to the laws you brought from Spain, a thief is punished with death. So he was in our time. But, by your laws, a hungry man who steals a thing to eat is a thief. Not so in our time. One of our laws said that, in any maize field planted alongside a public road, the four rows of stalks adjacent to that road were accessible to the passerby. Any hungry warfarer could pluck as many ears of maize as his empty belly required. But a man who greedily sought to enrich himself, and plundered that maize field to collect a sackful for hoarding or trading, if he was caught, he died. Thus that one law ensured two good things: that the thieving man was permanently cured of thievery, and that the hungering man did not die of hunger.

Our lives were regulated less by laws than by long-standing customs and traditions. Most of those governed the behavior of adults or of clans or of entire communities. But, even as a child not yet grown beyond the name of Seven Flower, I was made aware of the traditional insistence on a male's being brave, strong, gallant, hard-working, and honest; of a female's being modest, chaste, gentle, hard-working, and self-effacing.

What time I did not spend at play with my toys—most of them miniature war weapons and replicas of the tools of my father's trade—and what time I did not spend at play with Chimali and Tlatli and other boys about my own age, I spent in the company of my father, when he was not at work in the quarry. Though of course I called him Tete, as all children childishly called their fathers, his name was Tepetzalan, meaning Valley, after the low place among the mainland mountains where he had been born. Since he towered well above the average height of our men, that name, given him at the age of seven, was rather ridiculous in his adulthood. All our neighbors and his fellow quarriers called him by tall nicknames: Handful of Stars and Head Nodder and the like. Indeed, he had to nod his head far down to my level, to speak the traditional father-to-son homilies. If perhaps he caught me impudently imitating the shuffle gait of our village's hunchbacked old garbage collector, my father would tell me sternly:

"Take care that you do not mock the old, the ill, the maimed, or anyone who has fallen into some folly or transgression. Do not insult or despise them, but abase yourself before the gods, and tremble lest they bring the same misery upon you."

Or if I showed little interest in what he tried to teach me of his trade—and any macehuali boy who did not aspire to soldiering was expected to follow in his father's footsteps—he would lean down and say earnestly:

"Flee not any labor to which the gods assign you, my son, but be content. I pray that they may grant you merits and good fortune, but whatever they give you, take it gratefully. If it be only a small gift, do not scorn it, for the gods can take even that little away. If it be a large bestowal, perhaps some great talent, do not be proud or vainglorious, but remember that the gods must have denied that tonáli to someone else that you might have it."

Sometimes, at no discernible instigation, and with his big face reddening slightly, my father would deliver a small sermon that made no sense to me at all. Something on this order:

"Live cleanly and be not dissolute, or you will anger the gods and they will cover you with infamy. Restrain yourself, my son, until you meet the girl whom the gods destine for your wife, because the gods know how to arrange all things properly. Above all, never disport yourself with another man's wife."

It seemed an unnecessary injunction, for I did live cleanly. Like every other Mexícatl—except the priests—I bathed twice a day in hot soapy water, and swam often in the lake, and periodically sweated out my remaining bad vapors in our oven-like little steam house. I cleaned my teeth, night and morning, with a mixture of bee's honey and white ashes. As for disporting myself, I knew of no man on the island who had a wife my age, and none of us boys included girls in our games anyway.

All those father-to-son preachments were so many rote recitations, handed down through the generations word for word, like the midwife's discourse at my birth. Only on those occasions did my father Tepetzalan talk at great length; he was otherwise a taciturn man. In the noise of the quarry there was little use for talk, and at home my mother's incessant fretful chatter gave him little chance to put in a word. Tete did not mind. He always preferred action to speech, and he taught me far more by example than with the parroted harangues. If my father was at all defective in the qualities expected of our men-strength, bravery, and all that—it consisted only in his letting himself be bullied and brow-beaten by my Tene.

My mother was the most untypical female among all those of our class on Xaltócan: the least modest, least docile, least self-effacing. She was a shrill termagant, the tyrant of our little family and the bane of all our neighbors. But she preened herself on being the model of womanly perfection, so it followed that she lived in a state of perpetual and angry dissatisfaction with everything around her. If I learned anything at all useful from my Tene, it was to be sometimes dissatisfied with myself.

I remember being corporally punished by my father on only one occasion, when I richly deserved it. We boys were allowed, even encouraged, to kill birds like crows and grackles which pecked at our garden crops, and that we did with reed blowpipes which propelled shaped clay pellets. But one day, out of some impish perversity, I blew a pellet at the little tame quail we kept in our house. (Most houses had one of those pets, to keep down scorpions and other insect vermin.) Then, to compound my crime, I tried to blame the bird's killing on my friend Tlatli.

It took my father not long to find out the truth. While my murder of the unoffending quail might have been only moderately penalized, the strictly prohibited sin of lying could not. My Tete had to inflict on me the prescribed punishment for "speaking spittle and phlegm," as we called a lie. He winced himself as he did it: piercing my lower lip with a maguey thorn and leaving it there until bedtime. Ayya ouíya, the pain, the mortification, the pain, the tears of remorse, the pain!

The punishment left such a lasting impression on me that I have in turn left its impress upon the archives of our land. If you have seen our picture writing, then you have seen figures of persons or other creatures with a small, curly, scroll-like symbol emanating from them. That symbol represents a nahuatl, which is to say a tongue, or language, or speech, or sound. It indicates that the figure is talking or making a noise of some sort. If the nahuatl is more than ordinarily curly, and elaborated by the symbol for a butterfly or flower, then the figure is speaking poetry or singing music. When I myself became a scribe, I added another elaboration to our picture writing: the nahuatl pierced by a maguey thorn, and all our other scribes soon adopted it. When you see that symbol before a figure, you know you see a picture of someone telling a lie.

The punishments more frequently dealt out by my mother were inflicted with no hesitation, no compunction, no compassion; I suspect even with some pleasure at giving pain besides correction. They may have left no legacy to this land's pictured history, like the tongue-and-thorn symbol, but they certainly affected the life history of myself and my sister. I remember one right watching my mother ferociously beat my sister's buttocks bright red with a bundle of nettles, because the girl had been guilty of immodesty. And I should explain that immodesty did not necessarily mean to us what it evidently means to you white men: an indecent exposure of one's unclothed body.

In the matter of clothing, we children of both sexes went totally naked, weather permitting, until we were four or five years old. Then we covered our nudity with a long rectangle of rough cloth which tied at one shoulder and draped around us to mid-thigh. At the attainment of adulthood—that is, at the age of thirteen—we boys began wearing a maxtlatl loincloth under our outer mantle, which was now of finer cloth. At about the same age, depending upon when they had their first bleeding, girls donned the womanly skirt and blouse, plus an undergarment rather like what you call a diaper.

Pardon my recital of minor details, but I am trying to fix the time of that beating of my sister. Nine Reed had become Tzitzitlini some while before—the name means "the sound of small bells ringing"—so she was past the age of seven. However, I saw her nether parts beaten nearly raw, meaning that she was wearing no undergarment, so she was not yet thirteen. All things considered, I reckon her age to have been ten or eleven. And what she had done to deserve that beating, the only thing of which she was guilty, was that she had murmured dreamily, "I hear drums and music playing. I wonder where they are dancing tonight." To our mother, that was immodesty. Tzitzi was yearning for frivolity when she should have been applying herself to a loom or something else as tedious.

You know the chili? That vegetable pod which is used in our cookery? Though the degree of piquancy varies, all the different types of chili are so hot to the tongue, so pungent, so biting, that it is no accident that their name comes from our word for "sharp" or "pointed." Like every cook, my mother used the chilis in the usual ways, but she had another use for them which I almost hesitate to mention, since your Inquisitors already have instruments enough.

One day, when I was four or five years old, I sat with Tlatli and Chimali in our dooryard, playing the patoli bean game. This was not the grown men's gambling game, also called patoli, which on occasion has cost a family its fortune or caused a mortal family feud. No, we three boys had merely drawn a circle in the dust, and had each put a jumping bean in its center, the object being to see whose bean, warmed to activity by the sun, would be the first to hop outside the circle. My own bean tended to sluggishness, and I muttered some imprecation at it. Maybe I said "pocheoa!" or something of the sort.

Suddenly I was upside down and off the ground. My Tene had snatched me up by the ankles. I saw the inverted faces of Chimali and Tlatli, their mouths and eyes wide with surprise, before I was whisked into the house and to the cooking hearth. My mother shifted her grip so that one of her hands was free, and with it she flung into the fire a number of dried red chilis. When they were crackling and sending up a dense yellow smoke, my Tene took me again by the ankles and suspended me head down in those acrid fumes. I leave the next little while to your imagination, but I think I nearly perished. I know that for half a month afterward my eyes watered continuously so that I could scarcely see, and I could not draw a breath without feeling as if I were inhaling flames and flints.

Yet I must count myself fortunate, for our customs did not dictate that a boy spend much time in his mother's company, and I now had every excuse not to. Thereafter, I avoided her, as my tuft-haired friend Chimali avoided the island priests. Even when she came looking for me, to command some chore or errand, I could always retire to the safety of the hill of the lime-burning kilns. The quarriers believed that no woman should ever be allowed near the kilns, or the quality of the lime would be spoiled, and not even my mother dared to trespass on that hill.

But poor Tzitzitlini knew no such refuge. In accordance with custom and her tonáli, a girl had to learn womanly and wifely labors—cooking, spinning, weaving, sewing, embroidering—so my sister had to spend most of every day under our mother's sharp eye and limber tongue. Her tongue neglected no opportunity to deliver one of the traditional mother-to-daughter orations. Some of those, which Tzitzi repeated to me, we agreed had been fashioned (by whatever long-ago ancestor) more for the benefit of the mother than the daughter.

"Attend always, girl, to the service of the gods and the giving of comfort to your parents. If your mother calls, do not loiter to be called twice, but come instantly. When commanded to a task, speak no insolent answer and show no reluctance to comply. Indeed, if your Tene calls another, and that other does not come quickly, come yourself to see what is wanted, and do it yourself, and do it well."

Other preachments were the expectable admonitions to modesty, virtue, and chastity, and even not Tzitzi or I could find fault with them. We knew that after she turned thirteen, until she was perhaps twenty and two and properly married, no man could so much as speak to her in public, nor she to him.

"If, in a public place, you meet with a likely youth, take no notice, give no sign, lest that inflame his passions. Guard against improper familiarities with men, yield not to the baser impulses of your heart, or lust will befoul your character as mud does water."

Tzitzitlini would probably never have disobeyed that one sensible prohibition. But by the time she was twelve years old, surely she felt some sexual sensations stirring in her, and some curiosity about sex. It may have been to conceal what she considered unmaidenly and inexpressible feelings that she tried to vent them privately and alone and in secret. All I know is that one day our mother came home unexpectedly from a trip to the market and caught my sister lying on her pallet, nude from the waist down, doing an act of which I did not understand the significance for some time. She was caught playing with her tipíli parts, and using a small wooden spindle for the purpose.

You mutter under your breath, Your Excellency, and you gather the skirts of your cassock almost protectively about you. Have I somehow offended by telling frankly what occurred? I have been careful not to use the coarser words for the telling. And I must assume, since the coarser words abound in both our languages, that the acts they describe are not uncommon among either of our peoples.

To punish Tzitzitlini's offense against her own body, our Tene seized her and seized the container of chili powder, and viciously rubbed the burning chili into those exposed, tender tipíli parts. Though she muffled her daughter's screams with the bed covers, I heard and came running, and I gasped, "Should I go to fetch the physician?"

"No! No doctor!" our mother snapped at me. "What your sister has done is too shameful to be known outside these walls!"

Tzitzi stifled her sobs and added her plea, "I am not much hurt, little brother. Summon no doctor. Mention this to no one, not even Tete. Try to pretend that even you know nothing of it. I beg you."

I might have ignored my tyrant mother, but not my beloved sister. Though I did not then know the reason for her refusal of assistance, I respected it, and I went away from there, to worry and wonder by myself.

Would that I had disregarded them both, and done something! I think, from what came later, that the cruelty inflicted by our mother on that occasion, intended to discourage Tzitzi's awakening sexual urges, had exactly the contrary effect. I think, from that time on, my sister's tipíli parts burned like a chili-blistered throat, hot and thirsty, clamoring to be slaked. I think it would not have been many years before dear Tzitzitlini would have gone "astraddle the road," as we say of a depraved and promiscuous woman. That was the most sordid and squalid depth to which a decent Mexícatl maiden could sink—or so I thought, until I learned of the even worse fate that eventually did befall my sister.

How she later behaved, what she became, and what she came to be called, I will tell in its place. But I want to say here only one thing. I want to say that to me she was and always will be Tzitzitlini: the sound of small bells ringing.

  I H S

S.C.C.M.

Sanctified, Caesarean, Catholic Majesty, the Emperor Don Carlos, Our Lord King:

May the serene and beneficent light of Our Lord Jesus Christ shine everlastingly upon Your Majesty Don Carlos, divinely appointed Emperor, etc., etc.

Most August Majesty: from this City of Mexíco, capital of New Spain, this eve of the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, in the Year of Our Lord one thousand five hundred twenty and nine, greeting.

Your Majesty commands that we continue to send additional portions of the so-called Aztec History "as quickly as the pages are compiled." This grievously astounds and offends your well-intentioned chaplain, Sire. We would not, for all the realms in Your Majesty's domain, dream of disputing our sovereign's desires and decisions. But we thought we had made plain in our earlier letter our objections to this chronicle—which grows daily more detestable—and we hoped that the recommendation of Your Majesty's own delegated Bishop would not be so casually disdained.

We are cognizant of Your Gracious Majesty's concern for the most minute information regarding even the most remote of your subjects, that you may the more wisely and beneficently govern them. Indeed, we have respected that praiseworthy concern ever since the very first task to which Your Majesty personally set us: the extermination of the witches of Navarre. That once dissident province has been, since that sublime and prodigious purging by fire, among the most obedient and subservient of all under Your Majesty's sovereignty. Your humble servant intends equal assiduity in rooting out the age-old evils of these newer provinces—putting the curb rein to vice and the spurs to virtue—thus bringing them likewise to submission to Your Majesty and the Holy Cross.

Surely nothing can be undertaken in Your Majesty's service which will not be blessed by God. And, of a certainty, Your Most Puissant Lordship should know of matters regarding this land, for it is so limitless and marvelous that Your Majesty may well call yourself Emperor of it with no less pride than you do of Germany, which by the grace of God is now also Your Majesty's possession.

Nevertheless, in supervising the transcription of this history of what is now New Spain, only God knows how racked and outraged and nauseated we have been by the narrator's unquenchable effluxion. The Aztec is an Aeolus with an inexhaustible bag of winds. We could not complain of that if he confined himself to what we have asked: that is, an account in the manner of St. Gregory of Tours and other classical historians—names of distinguished personages, brief summaries of their careers, prominent dates, battles, etc.

But this human cataract cannot be restrained from his divagations into the most sordid and repellent aspects of his people's history and his own. Granted, this Indian was a heathen until his baptism no more than a few years ago. The infernal atrocities he committed and witnessed in his earlier life we must charitably concede were done or condoned in ignorance of Christian morality. Still, he is now at least nominally a Christian. One would expect him, if he must dwell on the more bestial episodes of his life and times, to manifest a decent and humble contrition befitting the horrors he describes in such lascivious detail.

He does not. He recognizes no horror in those enormities.

He does not so much as blush at the many offenses to our Lord and to common decency which he is dinning into the ears of our reverend friar-scribes: idolatry, pretense of magic, superstitions, bloodthirst and bloodletting, obscene and unnatural acts, other sins so vile that we here forbear even to name them. Except for Your Majesty's command that all "be set forth in much detail," we would not allow our scribes to commit portions of the Aztec's narrative to the permanence of parchment.

However, Your Majesty's servant has never yet disobeyed a royal order. We will try to regard the Indian's pernicious maunderings merely as evidence that during his lifetime the Adversary arranged many sorts of temptations and trials for him, God permitting it for the stoutening of the Aztec's soul. This, we remind ourself, is no small evidence of the greatness of God, for He chooses not the wise and strong but the simple-minded and weak to be equally instruments and beneficiaries of His mercy. The law of God, we remind ourself, obliges us to extend an extra meed of tolerance to those upon whose lips the milk of the Faith is not yet dry, rather than to those who have already absorbed it and are accustomed to it.

So we will try to contain our disgust. We will keep the Indian with us and let him continue to spew his sewage, at least until we hear of Your Majesty's response to these further pages of his story. Fortunately, we have no other urgent need for his five attendants at this time. And the creature's only recompense is that we allow him a share of our simple fare, and a straw sleeping mat in an unused store closet off the cloister for his use on those nights when he does not take our table scraps to his apparently ailing wife, and spend the night ministering to her.

But we are confident that we shall soon be rid of the Aztec and the foul miasma which we feel surrounding him. We know that when you read the following pages. Sire—indescribably more horripilating than the previous portion—you will share our revulsion and will cry, "No more of this filth!" much as David cried, "Publish it not, lest the unbelievers rejoice!" We will eagerly—nay, anxiously—await Your Esteemed Majesty's command, by the next courier ship, that all pages compiled in the meantime be destroyed and that we oust this reprehensible barbarian from our precincts.

May God Our Lord watch over and preserve Your Most Excellent Majesty for many years in His holy service. Of Your S.C.C.M., the loyal and prayerful chaplain,

(ecce signum) Zumárraga

ALTER PARS

His Excellency does not attend today, my lord scribes? Am I to continue, then? Ah, I see. He will read your pages of my words at his leisure.

Very well. Then let me leave, for now, my overly personal chronicle of my family and myself. Lest you get the impression that I and the few other persons I have mentioned lived in some kind of isolation, apart from the rest of humanity, let me give you a broader view. In my mind, in my recollection, I shall step back and away, so to speak, that I may better make you see our relation to our world as a whole. The world we called Cem-Anáhuac, meaning The One World.

Your explorers early discovered that it is situated between two boundless oceans east and west. The humid Hot Lands at the oceans' edges extend not far inland before they slant upward to become towering mountain ranges, and with a high plateau between those eastern and western ranges. This plateau is so near the sky that the air is thin and clean and sparkling clear. Our days here are almost always springtime mild, even during the midsummer rainy season—until the dry winter comes, when Tititl, god of the year's shortest days, chooses to make some of those days chilly or even achingly cold.

The most populous part of all The One World is this great bowl or depression in the plateau, which you now call the Valley of Mexíco. Here are puddled the lakes that made this area so attractive to human habitation. In actuality, there is only one tremendous lake, pinched in two places by encroaching highlands, so that there are three large bodies of water connected by slightly narrower straits. The smallest and southernmost of these lakes is of fresh water, fed by clear streams melting from the snows of the mountains there. The northernmost lake, where I spent my earliest years, is of reddish and briny water, because it is surrounded by mineral lands which leach their salts into the water. The central lake, Texcóco, bigger than the other two together and composed of their mingled salty and fresh waters, is thus of a slightly brackish quality.

Despite there being only one lake—or three, if you like—we have always divided them by five names. The dun-colored Lake Texcóco aione bears a single name. The southern and most crystalline lake is called Xochimilco in its upper part: The Flower Garden, because that neighborhood is the nursery of precious plants for all the lands about. In its lower part, the lake is called Chalco, after the Chalca nation which borders it. The northernmost lake, though also a single body of water, is likewise divided. The people who live on Tzumpanco, The Skull-Shaped Island, call its upper half Lake Tzumpanco. The people of my native Xaltócan, Island of Field Mice, call their portion Lake Xaltócan.

In a sense, I might liken these lakes to our gods—our former gods. I have heard you Christians complain of our "multitudes" of gods and goddesses, who held dominion over every facet of nature and of human behavior. I have heard you complain that you never can sort out and understand the workings of our crowded pantheon. However, I have counted and compared. I do not believe that we relied on so many major and minor deities as you do—the Lord God, the Son Jesus, the Holy Ghost, the Virgin Mary—plus all those other Higher Beings you call Angels and Apostles and Saints, each of them the governing patron of some single facet of your world, your lives, your tonaltin, even every single day in the calendar. In truth, I believe we recognized fewer deities, but we charged each of ours with more diverse functions.

To a geographer, there is but one lake here in the valley. To a boatman laboriously paddling his acáli, there are three broad bodies of water, interconnected. To the people who live on or around the lakes, there are five, distinguished by separate names. Just so, no one of our gods and goddesses had but one face, one responsibility, one name. Like our lake of three lakes, a single god might embody a trinity of aspects....

That makes you scowl, reverend friars? Very well, a god might have two aspects, or five. Or twenty.

Depending on the time of year: wet season or dry, long days or short, planting time or harvest time—and depending on circumstances: wartime or peacetime, feast or famine, kind rulers or cruel—a single god's duties would vary, and so would his attitude toward us, and so would our mode of worshiping or celebrating or placating him. To look at it another way, our lives and harvests and battle triumphs or failures might depend on the temperament and transient moods of the god. He could be, like the three lakes, bitter or sweet or blankly indifferent, as he chose.

Meanwhile, both the god's prevailing mood and the current happenings in our world could be differently viewed by different followers of that god. A victory for one army is a defeat for another, is that not so? Thus the god or goddess might be simultaneously regarded as rewarding and punishing, demanding and giving, doing good and evil. If you grasp all the infinite possible combinations of circumstances, you should be able to comprehend the variety of attributes we saw in every god, the variety of aspects each assumed, and the even greater variety of names we gave each of them—worshipful, respectful, grateful, fearful.

But I will not belabor this. Let me come back from the mystic to the physical. I will speak of things demonstrable to the five senses that even brute animals possess.

The island of Xaltócan is really a gigantic, almost solid rock, set well out from the mainland in the salty red lake. If it were not for three natural springs of fresh water bubbling up from the rock, the island would never have been populated, but in my time it supported perhaps two thousand people distributed among twenty villages. And the rock was our support in more than one sense, for it was tenextetl limestone, a valuable commodity. In its natural state, this form of limestone is quite soft and easily quarried, even with our crude tools of wood, stone, blunt copper, and brittle obsidian, so inferior to yours of iron and steel. My father was a master quarrier, one of several who directed the less expert workers. I remember one of the occasions when he took me to his quarry for instruction in his trade.

"You cannot see them," he told me, "but here—and here—run the natural fissures and striations of this particular stratum of the stone. Though they are invisible to the untrained eye, you will learn to divine them."

I never would; but he never ceased hoping. I watched while he marked the face of the stone with dabs of black oxitl. Other workers came—they were pale with sweat-caked dust—to hammer wooden wedges into the minute cracks he had marked. Then they sloshed water over the wedges. We went home and some days passed, during which the workers kept those wedges well sodden, so they would swell and exert increasing pressure inside the stone. Then my father and I went again to the quarry. We stood on the brink of it and looked down. My father said, "Watch now."

The stone might have been awaiting his presence and permission, for all of a sudden and all of its own accord, the quarry face gave a rending noise and split apart. Some of it came tumbling ponderously down in immense cubic chunks, other parts peeled off in flat square sheets, and they all fell intact into rope nets spread to receive them before they smashed on the quarry floor. We went down and my father inspected them with satisfaction.

"Only a little dressing with adzes," he said, "a little polishing with a slurry of powdered obsidian and water, and these"—he pointed to the limestone cubes—"will be perfect building blocks, while these"—the sheets as big as our house floor and as thick as my arm—"will be panels of facing."

I rubbed the surface of one of the blocks, waist high to myself. It felt both waxy and powdery.

"Oh, they are too soft for any use when they first come loose from the mother stone," said my father. He ran his thumbnail across the block and it scored a deep scratch. "After some while of exposure to the open air, they solidify, they become as strong and imperishable as granite. But our stone, while it is still malmy and workable, can be carved with any harder stone, or cut with an obsidian-grit sawing string."

Most of our island's limestone was freighted to the mainland or to the capital for use as buildings' walls and floors and ceilings. But, because of the fresh stone's easy workability, there were also sculptors busy at the quarries. Those artists chose the finest quality blocks and, while those were still soft, sculptured them into statues of our gods, rulers, and other heroes. The most perfect limestone sheets they carved into low-relief lintels and friezes with which to decorate temples and palaces. Also, using leftover chunks of stone, the artists carved the little household gods treasured by families everywhere. In our house we had small figures of Tonatíu and Tlaloc, of course, and of the maize goddess Chicomecoatl, and the hearth goddess Chintico. My sister Tzitzi even had her own private figurine of Xochiquetzal, goddess of love and flowers, to whom all young girls prayed for a suitable and loving husband.

The stone chips and other detritus from the quarries were burned in the kilns I have mentioned, from which emerged powder of lime, another valuable commodity. This is essential for the mortar used to cement a building's blocks together. It also makes a gesso for plastering and disguising buildings made of cheaper materials. Mixed with water, the lime is used for hulling the kernels of maize that our women grind into meal for tlaxcaltin tortillas and other foods. The lime was even used by a certain class of women as a cosmetic; with it they bleached their black or brown hair to an unnatural yellow hue, like that of some of your own women.

Of course the gods give nothing absolutely free of payment, and from time to time they exacted tribute from us for the wealth of limestone we dug out of Xaltócan. I happened to be at my father's quarry on a day when the gods decided to take a token sacrifice.

A number of porters were hauling a tremendous block of new-cut stone up the long incline, like a curving shelf, that spiraled from the bottom of the quarry to the top. They did it by sheer muscle power, with a tumpline around each man's forehead attached to the rope net that dragged the block. Somewhere high up on that ramp, the block slid too close to the edge, or was tilted by some irregularity in the path. Whatever happened, it slowly and implacably fell sideways. There was much shouting and, if the porters had not instantly ripped the tumplines from their heads, they would have gone over the brink with the block. But one man, far below in the noise of the quarry, did not hear the shouts. The block came down upon him, and one of its edges, like a stone adze, chopped him precisely in half at his waist.

The limestone block had gouged such a deep notch in the quarry floor that it stayed there, balanced on its angular edge. So my father and the other men who rushed to the spot were able without much difficulty to topple it to one side. They found, to their astonishment, that the victim of the gods was still alive and even conscious.

Unnoticed in the excitement, I came close and saw the man, who was now in two pieces. From the waist up, his naked and sweaty body was intact and unmarked. But his waist was pinched wide and flat, so his torso itself rather resembled an adze or a chisel. The stone had simultaneously severed him—skin, flesh, guts, spine—and neatly closed the wound so that there was not even a drop of blood spilt. He might have been a cotton doll that had been sliced across the middle, then sewn at the cut. His bottom half, still wearing its loincloth, lay separated from him, neatly pinched shut and bloodless—though the legs were twitching slightly, and that half of the body was copiously urinating and defecating.

The massive injury must have so deadened all the cut nerves that the man even felt no pain. He raised his head and looked in mild wonder at himself in two halves. To spare him the sight, the other men quickly and tenderly carried him—the upper half of him—some distance away, and leaned him against the quarry wall. He flexed his arms, opened and closed his hands, experimentally turned his head about, and said in a voice of awe:

"I still can move and talk. I see you all, my comrades. I can reach out and touch and feel you. I hear the hewing of tools. I smell the bitter dust of lime. I still live. This is a most marvelous thing."

"It is," my father said gruffly. "But it cannot be for long, Xicama. There is no use even sending for a physician. You will want a priest. Of which god, Xicama?"

The man thought for a moment. "I can soon greet all the gods, when I can no longer do anything else. But while I still can speak, I had better talk to Filth Eater."

So the call was relayed to the top of the quarry, and from there a runner sped to fetch a priest of the goddess Tlazolteotl, or Filth Eater. Her unlovely name notwithstanding, she was a most compassionate goddess. It was to her that dying men confessed all their sins and misdeeds—quite often living men, too, when they felt particularly distressed or depressed by something they had done—so that Tlazolteotl might swallow their sins, and those sins would disappear as if they had never been committed. Thus they did not go with a man, to count against him or to haunt his memory, in whatever afterworld he was headed for.

While we waited for the priest, Xicama kept his eyes averted from himself, where his body appeared to be squeezed into a cleft of the rock floor, and spoke calmly, almost cheerfully, to my father. He gave him messages to impart to his parents, to his widow and orphaned children, and made suggestions as to their disposition of what little property he owned, and wondered aloud what his family would do when its provider was gone.

"Do not trouble your mind," said my father. "It is your tonáli that the gods take you in exchange for the prosperity of us who remain. In thanks for your sacrifice of yourself, we and the Lord Governor will make suitable compensation to your widow."

"Then she will have a respectable inheritance," said Xicama, relieved. "And she is still a young and handsome woman. Please, Head Nodder, prevail on her to marry again."

"I will do that. Is there anything else?"

"No," said Xicama. He looked about him and smiled. "I never thought I would regret seeing the last of this dreary quarry. Do you know, Head Nodder, even this stone pit looks beautiful and inviting now? The white clouds up there, then the blue sky, then the white stone here... like clouds above and below the blue. I wish, though, I could see the green trees beyond the rim—"

"You will," my father promised, "but after you have finished with the priest. We had better not chance moving you until then."

The priest came, in all his black of flaffing black robes and blood-crusted black hair and never-washed sooty face. He was the only darkness and gloom that marred the clean blue and white of which Xicama was sorry to take leave. All the other men moved away to give them privacy. (And my father espied me among them, and angrily bade me begone; that was no sight for a young boy.) While Xicama was occupied with the priest, four men picked up his stinking and still-quivering lower half, to carry it up to the top of the quarry. One of them vomited along the way.

Xicama evidently had led no very villainous life; it did not take him long to confess to Filth Eater whatever he regretted having done or left undone. When the priest had absolved him on behalf of the goddess, and had said all the ritual words and made all the ritual gestures, he stood away. Four more men carefully picked up the still-living part of Xicama and carried him, as rapidly as they could without jostling, up the incline toward the quarry rim.

It was hoped that he would go on living long enough to reach his village and say his own farewell to his family and pay his respects to whatever gods he had personally preferred. But somewhere along the upward spiraling ramp, his pinched body began to gape, to leak his blood and his breakfast and various other substances. He ceased speaking and breathing, and closed his eyes, and he never did get to see the green trees again.

Some of the limestone of Xaltócan had long ago gone into the construction of our island's icpac tlamanacali and teocaltin—or, as you call them, our pyramid and several temples. A share of all the stone quarried was always set aside for taxes we paid to the nation's treasury, and for our annual tribute to the Revered Speaker and his Speaking Council. (The Uey-Tlatoani Motecuzóma had died when I was three, and in that year the rule and throne had passed to his son Axayácatl, Water Face.)

Another share of the stone was reserved to the profit of our tecutli, or governor, to some other ranking nobles, and to the island's expenses: building canoes for water freighting, buying slaves to do the dirtier work, paying quarry wages, and the like. But there was still much of our mineral product left over for export and barter.

That earned for Xaltócan imported trade goods and negotiable trade currency, which our tecutli shared out among his subjects, according to their status and merit. Furthermore, he allowed all the island people—except, of course, the slaves and other low classes—to build their houses of the handy limestone. Thus Xaltócan differed from most other communities in these lands, where the houses were more often built of sun-dried mud brick or wood or cane, or where many families might be crowded into one large communal tenement building, or where folk might even live in hillside caves. Though my own family's house was of only three rooms, it was even floored with smooth white limestone slabs. There were not many palaces in The One World that could pride themselves on being built of finer material. Our use of our stone for building meant, also, that our island was not denuded of its trees, as were so many other peopled places in the valley.

In my time, our governor was Tlauquecholtzin, the Lord Red Heron—a man whose distant ancestors had been among the first Mexíca settlers on the island, and the man who ranked highest among our local nobility. As was customary in most districts and communities, that guaranteed his lifetime tenure as our tecutli, as representative of the Speaking Council headed by the Revered Speaker, and as ruler of the island, its quarries, its surrounding lake, and every single one of its inhabitants—except, in some measure, the priests, who maintained that they owed allegiance only to the gods.

Not every community was so fortunate in its governor as was our Xaltócan. A member of the nobility was expected to live up to his station—that is, to be noble—but not all of them were. And no píli born to the nobility could ever be demoted to any lower class, however ignoble his behavior. (He could, however, if his conduct was inexcusable by his pípiltin peers, be ousted from office or even put to death by them.) I might also mention that, though most nobles got that way by being born to noble parents, it was not impossible for a mere commoner to win elevation to that upper class.

I remember two Xaltócan men who were raised from the macehualtin to the pípiltin and given an estimable lifetime income. Colotic-Miztli, an elderly onetime warrior, had lived up to his name of Fierce Mountain Lion by doing some great feat of arms in some forgotten war against some long-ago enemy. It had cost him such scars that he was gruesome to look at, but it had gained him the coveted -tzin suffix to his name: Miztzin, Lord Mountain Lion. The other man was Quali-Ameyatl, or Good Fountain, a mild-mannered young architect who did no deed more notable than to design some gardens at the governor's palace. But Ameyatl was as handsome as Miztzin was hideous, and during his work at the palace, he won the heart of a girl named Dewdrop, who happened to be the governor's daughter. When he married her, he became Ameyatzin, the Lord Fountain.

I have tried to make clear that our Lord Red Heron was genial and generous, but above all he was a just man. When his own daughter Dewdrop tired of her lowborn Lord Fountain and was surprised in an adulterous act with a blood-born píli, Red Heron commanded that both she and the man be put to death. Many of his other nobles petitioned that the young woman be spared her life and instead be banished from the island. Even the husband swore that he forgave his wife's adultery, and that he and Dewdrop would remove to some far country. But the governor would not be swayed, though we all knew he loved that daughter very much.

He said, "I would be called unjust if, for my own child, I should waive a law that is enforced against my subject people." And he said to Lord Fountain, "The people would someday maintain that you forgave my daughter out of deference to my office and not of your own free will." And he commanded that every other woman and girl of Xaltócan come to his palace and witness Dewdrop's execution. "Especially all the nubile but unmarried maidens," he said, "for their juices run high, and they might be inclined to sympathize with my daughter's dalliance, or even envy it. Let them be shocked at her dying, that they may dwell instead on the severity of the consequences."

So my mother went to the execution, and took Tzitzitlmi.

On their return, my mother said the errant Dewdrop and her lover had been strangled, with cords disguised as garlands of flowers, and in full view of the populace, and that the young woman took her punishment badly, with terrors and pleas and struggling, and that her betrayed husband Good Fountain wept for her, but that the Lord Red Heron had watched without expression. Tzitzi said nothing of the spectacle. However, she told me of meeting at the palace the condemned woman's young brother, Red Heron's son Pactli.

"He looked long at me," she said with a shudder, "and he smiled and bared his teeth. Can you believe such a thing, on such a day? It was a look that gave me gooseflesh."

I would wager that Red Heron did no smiling that day. But you can understand why all the island folk so esteemed our impartially fair-minded governor. In truth, we all hoped the Lord Red Heron would live to a great age, for we regarded unhappily the prospect of being governed by that son Pactli. The name means Joy, a misgiven name if ever there was one. He was an ill-natured and despotic brat long before he even wore the loincloth of manhood. That obnoxious offspring of a courtly father did not, of course, freely associate with any middle-class boys like myself and Tlatli and Chimali, and anyway was a year or two older. But, as my sister Tzitzi flowered into beauty, and Pactli began to manifest increased interest in her, she and I came to share a special loathing of him. However, all that was still in the future.

Meanwhile, ours was a prosperous and comfortable and untroubled community. We who had the good fortune to live there did not have to grind away our energies and spirits just for subsistence. We could look to horizons beyond our island, to heights above those to which we had been born. We could dream, as did my friends Chimali and Tlatli. Both their fathers were sculptors at the quarries, and those two boys, unlike myself, aspired to follow their fathers' trade of art, but more ambitiously than their fathers had done.

"I want to be a better sculptor," said Tlatli, scraping away at a fragment of soft stone which was actually beginning to resemble a falcon, the bird for which he was named.

He went on, "The statues and friezes carved here on Xaltócan go away in the big freighting canoes unsigned and their artists unacknowledged. Our fathers get no more credit for their work than a slave woman who weaves mats of the lake reeds. And why? Because the statues and ornaments we make here are as indistinguishable as those reed mats. Every Tlaloc, for example, looks exactly like every Tlaloc that has been sculptured on Xaltócan since our fathers' fathers' fathers were carving them."

I said, "Then they must be what the priests of Tlaloc want."

"Ninotlancuicui in tlamacazque," growled Tlatli. "I pick my teeth at the priests." He could be as stolid and immovable as any stone figure. "I intend to do sculptures different from all that have ever been done before. And no two, even of my own, will be alike. But all will be so recognizably my work that people will exclaim, 'Ayyo, a statue by Tlatli!' I will not even have to sign them with my falcon symbol."

"You want to do a work as fine as the Sun Stone," I suggested.

"Finer than the Sun Stone," he said stubbornly. "I pick my teeth at the Sun Stone." And I thought that audacity indeed, for I had seen the Sun Stone.

But our mutual friend Chimali gazed toward even farther vistas than did Tlatli. He intended so to refine the art of painting that it would be independent of any sculpture underneath. He would be a painter of pictures on panels and murals on walls.

"Oh, I will color Tlatli's lumpy statues for him, if he likes," said Chimali. "But sculpture requires only flat colors, since its shape and modeling gives the colors light and shade. Also, I am weary of the same old unvarying colors other painters and muralists use. I am trying to mix new kinds of my own: colors that I can modulate in tint and hue so that the colors themselves give an illusion of depth." He made excited gestures, modeling the empty air. "When you see my pictures you will think they have shape and substance, even when they have none, when they have no more dimension than the panel itself."

"But to what purpose?" I asked.

"Of what purpose is the shimmering beauty and form of a hummingbird?" he demanded. "Look. Suppose yourself to be a priest of Tlaloc. Instead of dragging a huge statue of the rain god into a small temple room, and thereby cramping the room even more, the priests of Tlaloc can simply have me paint on a wall a portrait of the god—as I imagine him to be—and with a limitless rain-swept landscape stretching away behind him. The room will seem immeasurably larger than it really is. And there is the advantage of thin, flat pictures over gross and bulky sculptures."

"Well," I said to Chimali, "a shield usually is fairly thin and flat." I was making a joke: Chimali means shield, and Chimali himself was a lean and lanky boy.

At my friends' ambitious plans and grandiose boasts I smiled indulgently. Or perhaps a little enviously, for they knew what they wanted eventually to be and do, and I did not. My mind had yet conceived no notion of its own, and no god had yet seen fit to send me a sign. I knew only two things for sure. One was that I did not want to hew and haul stone from a noisy, dusty, god-menaced quarry. The other was that, whatever career I essayed, I did not intend to pursue it on Xaltócan or in any other provincial backwater.

If the gods allowed, I would take my chances in the most challenging but potentially most rewarding place in The One World—in the Uey-Tlatoani's own capital city, where the competition among ambitious men was most merciless, and where only the worthiest could rise to distinction—in the splendid, the wondrous, the awesome city of Tenochtítlan.

* * *

If I did not yet know what my life work would be, I did at least know where, and I had known since my first and only visit there, the visit having been my father's gift to me on my seventh birthday, my naming day.

Prior to that event, my parents, with me in tow, had gone to consult the island's resident tonalpoqui, or knower of the tonalmatl, the traditional naming book. After unfolding the layered pages to the book's full length—it took up most of his room's floor—the old seer gave prolonged and lip-moving scrutiny to its every mention of star patterns and godly doings relevant to the day Seven Flower and the month God Ascending and the year Thirteen Rabbit. Then he nodded, reverently re-folded the book, accepted his fee—a bolt of fine cotton cloth—sprinkled me with his special dedicatory water, and proclaimed my name to be Chicome-Xochitl Tlilectic-Mixtli, to commemorate the storm that had attended my birth. I would henceforth formally be known as Seven Flower Dark Cloud, informally called Mixtli.

I was sufficiently pleased with the name, a manly one, but I was not much impressed by the ritual of selecting it. Even at the age of seven, I, Dark Cloud, had some opinions of my own. I said out loud that anybody could have done it, I could have done it, and quicker and cheaper, at which I was sternly shushed.

Early on the morning of the momentous birthday, I was taken to the palace and the Lord Red Heron himself graciously and ceremoniously received us. He patted me on the head and said, with paternal good humor, "Another man grown to the glory of Xaltócan, eh?" With his own hand, he drew my name symbols—the seven dots, the three-petaled flower symbol, the clay-gray puffball signifying a dark cloud—in the tocayamatl, the official registry of all the island's inhabitants. My page would remain there as long as I lived on Xaltócan, to be expunged only if I died or was banished for some monstrous crime or moved permanently elsewhere. I wonder: for how long has Seven Flower Dark Cloud's page been gone from that book?

Ordinarily there would have been a deal of other celebration on a naming day, as there had been on my sister's: all the neighbors and our relatives coming with gifts, my mother cooking and serving a grand spread of special foods, the men smoking tubes of picíetl, the old folks getting drunk on octli. But I did not mind missing all that, for my father had told me, "A cargo of temple friezes leaves today for Tenochtítlan, and there is room aboard for you and me. Also, word comes of a great ceremony to be held in the capital—the celebration of some new conquest or the like—and that will be your name-day festival, Mixtli." So, after no more than a congratulatory kiss on the cheek from my mother and my sister, I followed my father down to the quarries' loading dock.

All our lakes bore a constant traffic of canoes, coming and going in all directions, like hordes of water striders. Most were the little one- and two-man acaltin of fowlers or fishermen, made from a single gutted tree trunk and shaped like a bean pod. But others ranged upward in size to the giant sixty-man war canoes, and our freight acáli consisted of eight boats nearly that big, all lashed side by side. Our cargo of the carved limestone panels had been carefully piled aboard, each stone wrapped in heavy fiber mats for protection.

With such a load on such an unwieldy craft, we naturally moved very slowly, though my father was one of more than twenty men paddling (or poling, where the water was shallow). Owing to the curving route—southwest through Lake Xaltócan, south into Lake Texcóco, thence southwest again to the city—we had to cover some seven of the distances we called one-long-run, each of which would be approximately equivalent to one of your Spanish leagues. Seven leagues to go, then, and our big scow seldom moved faster than a man can walk. We left the island well before midday, but it was well into the night when we tied up at Tenochtítlan.

For a while, the view was nothing out of the ordinary: the red-tinted lake I knew so well. Then the land closed in on both sides as we slipped through the southern strait, and the water around us gradually paled to a dun color as we emerged into the vast lake of Texcóco. It stretched away so far to the east and south of us that the land yonder was only a dark, toothed smudge on the horizon.

We crept southwest for a time, but Tonatíu the sun was slowly cloaking himself in the radiance of his sleeping gown by the time our oarsmen backed water to bring our clumsy craft to a halt at The Great Dike. That barrier is a double palisade of tree trunks driven into the lake bottom, the space between the parallel rows of logs packed solid with earth and rock fill. Its purpose is to prevent lake waves, whipped up by the east wind, from flooding the low-lying island-city. The Great Dike has gates set into it at intervals, and the dikemen keep those gates open in most weathers. But of course the lake traffic headed for the capital is considerable, so our freighter had to wait a while in line before it could edge through the opening.

As it did so, Tonatíu drew the dark covers of night over his bed, and the sky went purple. The mountains to the west, directly ahead of us, looked suddenly as sharply outlined and dimensionless as if they had been cut from black paper. Above them, there was a shy twinkle and then a bold spark of light: After Blossom again assuring us that this was only one more of many nights, not the last and everlasting one.

"Open wide your eyes now, son Mixtli!" called my father from his place at the oars.

As if After Blossom had been a signal fire, a second light appeared, this one low beneath the jagged line of black mountains. Then there came another point of light, and another, and twenties upon twenties more. And thus I saw Tenochtítlan for the first time in my life: not a city of stone towers, rich woodwork, and bright paint, but a city of light. As the lamps and lanterns and candles and torches were lit—in window openings, on the streets, along the canals, on building terraces and cornices and rooftops—the separate pinpoints of light became clusters, the clusters blended to form lines of light, the lines drew the outlines of the city.

The buildings themselves, from that distance, were dark and indistinct of contour, but the lights, ayyo, the lights! Yellow, white, red, jacinth, all the various colors of flame—here and there a green or blue one, where some temple's altar fire had been sprinkled with salt or copper filings. And every one of those shining beads and clusters and bands of light shone twice, each having its brilliant reflection in the lake. Even the stone causeways that vault from the island to the mainland, even those wore lanterns on posts at intervals along their reach across the water. From our acáli, I could see only the two causeways going north and south from the city. Each looked like a slender bright-jeweled chain across the throat of night, with the city displayed between them, a splendid bright-jeweled pendant on the night's bosom.

"Tenochtítlan, Cem-Anahiuac Tlali Yoloco," murmured my father. "It is truly The Heart and Center of the One World." I had been so transfixed with enchantment that I had not noticed him join me at the forward edge of our freighter. "Look long, son Mixtli. You may experience this wonder and many other wonders more than once. But, of first times, there is always and forever only one."

Without blinking or moving my eyes from the splendor we were all too slowly approaching, I lay prone on a fiber mat and stared and stared until, I am ashamed to say, my eyelids closed of themselves and I fell asleep. I have no recollection of what must have been considerable noise and bustle and commotion when we landed, nor of my father's carrying me to a nearby inn for boatmen, where we stayed the night.

I awoke on a pallet on the floor of an unremarkable room, where my father and a few other men lay still snoring on pallets of their own. Realizing that we were in an inn, and where that inn was, I leapt to lean out the window opening—and for a moment felt dizzy at seeing my altitude above the stone pavement below. It was the first time I had ever been inside a building atop a building. Or that is what I thought it was, until my father later showed me, from the outside, that our room was on the upper floor of the inn.

I lifted my eyes to the city beyond the dockside area. It shone, it pulsated, it glowed white in the early sunlight. It made me proud of my own home island, because what buildings were not constructed of white limestone were plastered white with gesso, and I knew that most of the material had come from Xaltócan. Of course the buildings were frescoed and inlaid with bands and panels of vividly colored paints and mosaics, but the dominant effect was of a city so white, so nearly silver, that it almost hurt my eyes.

The lights of the night before were all extinguished now. Only a still-smoldering temple fire somewhere sent a trail of smoke into the sky. But now I saw a new marvel: from the top of every roof, every temple, every palace in the city, from every highest eminence projected a flagpole, and from every staff flew a banner. They were not squared or triangular like battle ensigns; they were pennants many times longer than they were broad. And they were all white, except for the colored insignia they bore. Some of those I recognized—that of the city itself, of the Revered Speaker Axayácatl, of some gods—but others were unfamiliar to me: the symbols of local nobles and special city gods, I supposed.

The flags of your white men are always swatches of cloth, often impressive in their elaborate blazonings, but still mere rags which either hang limp on their staffs or flutter and snap peevishly like a country woman's washing hung to dry on cactus spines. By contrast, those incredibly long banners of Tenochtítlan were woven of feathers—feathers from which the quills had been removed and only the lightest down used for the weaving. They were not painted or dyed. The flags were intricately woven of the feathers' natural colors: egret feathers for the white grounds of the flags, and for the designs the various reds of macaws and cardinals and parakeets, the various blues of jays and herons, the yellows of toucans and tanagers. Ayyo, I tell you true, I kiss the earth, there were all the colors and iridescences that can come only from living nature, not from man-mixed paint pots.

But most marvelous, those banners did not sag or flap, they floated. There was no wind that morning. Just the movement of people on the streets, and acaltin in the canals stirred enough air current to support those tremendous but almost weightless pennants. Like great birds unwilling to fly away, content to drift dreamily, the banners hung full-spread on the air. The thousands of feather banners undulated gently, soundlessly, magically, over all the towers and pinnacles of that magic island-city.

By daring to lean perilously far out the window opening, I could see, away to the southeast, the two volcano peaks called Popocatepetl and Ixtacciuatl, The Incense-Burning Mountain and The White Woman. Though it was the start of the dry season and the days were warm, both the mountains were capped with white—the first snow I had ever seen—and the smoldering incense deep inside Popocatepetl wafted a blue plume of smoke that floated over him as lazily as the feather banners floated over Tenochtítlan. I hurried from the window to wake my father. He must have been weary and wanting sleep, but he arose without complaint, with a smile of understanding at my eagerness to be out and away.

The unloading and delivery of our barge's cargo being the responsibility of its freightmaster, my father and I had the day to ourselves. He had one errand—to make some purchase my mother had ordered; I forget what—so we first wended our way northward into Tlaltelólco.

As you know, reverend friars, that portion of the island—what you now call Santiago—is separated from this southern part only by a broad canal crossed by several bridges. But Tlaltelólco was for many years an independent city, with its own ruler, and it brashly kept trying to outdo Tenochtítlan as chief city of the Mexíca. Tlaltelólco's delusions of superiority were for a long time humorously tolerated by our Revered Speakers. But when that city's late ruler Moquihuix had the effrontery to build a temple pyramid higher than any in the four quarters of Tenochtítlan, the Uey-Tlatoani Axayácatl was justifiably annoyed. He ordered his sorcerers to harass that now intolerable neighbor.

If the stories are true, a carved stone face on one wall of Moquihuix's throne room suddenly spoke to him. The remark was so insulting to his manhood that Moquihuix snatched up a war club and pulverized the carving. Then, when he went to bed with his First Lady, the lips of her tipíli parts also spoke to him, impugning his virility. Those occurrences, besides making Moquihuix impotent even with his concubines, much affrighted him, but still he would not cede allegiance to the Revered Speaker. So, earlier in that same year in which I made my naming-day visit, Axayácatl had taken Tlaltelólco by force of arms. He himself, Axayácatl, personally threw Moquihuix off the top of his upstart pyramid and dashed out his brains. And, just those few months later, by the time my father and I saw Tlaltelólco—though it was still a fine city of temples and palaces and pyramids—it was satisfied to be the fifth "quarter" of Tenochtítlan, the city's marketplace appendage.

Its immense open market area seemed to me to be as big as our whole island of Xaltócan, and richer, and more full of people, and far noisier. Walkway aisles separated the area into squares where the merchants laid out their wares on benches or groundcloths, and every square or a square of squares was allotted to a different kind of merchandise. There were sections for goldsmiths and silversmiths, for feather workers, for sellers of vegetables and condiments, of meat and live animals, of cloth and leather goods, of slaves and dogs, of pottery and copperware, of medicines and cosmetics, of rope and cord and thread, of raucous birds and monkeys and other pets. Ah, well, that market has been restored, and you have doubtless seen it. Though my father and I got there early in the morning, the place was already thronged with customers. Most were macehualtin like us, but there were lords and ladies too, imperiously pointing at the wares they wanted and leaving the haggling of price to their accompanying servants.

We were fortunate in arriving early, or at least I was, for there was one stall in the market which sold a commodity so perishable that it would be gone before midmorning, the most distinctive delicacy among all the foods for sale. It was snow. It was brought the ten one-long-runs from the crest of Ixtacciuatl, by relays of swift-messengers racing through the cool of the night, and the merchant kept it in thick clay jars under heaps of fiber mats. One serving of it cost twenty cacao beans. That was an entire day's wage for the average workman anywhere in the Mexíca nation. For four hundred beans you could buy a passably strong and healthy slave for life. So snow was more expensive, by weight, than anything else in the Tlaltelólco market, even the most costly jewelry of the goldsmiths' stalls. Few but the nobles could afford a taste of that rare refreshment. Nevertheless, said the snow man, he always sold out his morning's supply before it melted.

My father made a token grumble. "I remember the Hard Times. In the year One Rabbit, the sky snowed snow for six days in a row. Snow was not just free for the taking, it was a calamity." But of course he relented and said to the vendor, who could hardly have cared less, "Well, since it is the boy's naming day..."

He unslung his shoulder bag and counted out the twenty cacao beans. The merchant examined each of them to make sure it was not a carved wood counterfeit or a hollowed-out bean weighted with dirt. Then he uncovered one of his jars, scooped out a spoonful of the precious delicacy, patted it into a cone made of a curled leaf, poured over it a dollop of some sweet syrup, and handed it to me.

I took a greedy bite and nearly dropped it, so surprised was I at its coldness. It made my lower teeth and my forehead ache, but it was the most delicious thing I had eaten in my young life. I held it out for my father to taste. He lapped it once with his tongue, and obviously savored it as much as I did, but pretended he wanted no more. "Do not bite it, Mixtli," he said. "Lick it so it will last longer."

When he had bought whatever it was my mother wanted and had sent a porter carrying it to our boat, he and I went south again toward the center of the city. Although many of the ordinary buildings of Tenochtítlan were two and even three floors tall—and most of them made even taller for being set on pillars to avoid dampness—the island itself is nowhere more than two men's height above the waters of Lake Texcóco. So there were in those days almost as many canals as streets cutting up and down and across the city. In places a canal and a street ran side by side; the people walking could converse with the people afloat. At some corners we would see crowds of people bustling back and forth in front of us; at others we would see canoes gliding past. Some of those were passenger craft for hire, to whisk busy persons about the city more rapidly than they could walk. Others were the private acaltin of nobles, and those were much painted and decorated, and held awnings aloft to ward off the sun. The streets were of hard-packed smooth clay surfacing; the canals had masonry banks. In the many places where a canal's waters were almost at street level, its footbridges could be swiveled to one side while a boat passed.

Just as the network of canals made Lake Texcóco practically a part of the city, so did the three main avenues make the city part of the mainland. Where those broad streets left the island they became wide stone causeways, along which a man could walk to any of five different cities on the mainland to the north, west, and south. There was another span which was not a walkway but an aqueduct. It supported a trough of curved tiles, wider and deeper than a man's two arms could stretch, and this still brings to the city sweet water from the spring of Chapultepec on the mainland to the southwest.

Since all the roads of the land and all the water routes of the lakes converged here at Tenochtítlan, my father and I watched a constant parade of the commerce of the Mexíca nation, and of other nations as well. Everywhere about us were porters trudging under the weight of loads heaped on their backs and supported by forehead tumplines. Everywhere there were canoes of all sizes, piled high with produce going to and from the Tlaltelólco market, or the tribute from subordinate peoples going to the palaces, the treasury, the national warehouses.

Just the multicolored baskets of fruit would give an idea of the extent of the trade. There were guavas and custard apples from the Otomí lands to the north, pineapples from the Totonaca lands on the eastern sea, yellow papayas from Michihuácan to the west, red papayas from Chiapan far to the south, and from the nearer-south Tzapoteca lands the tzapotin marmalade plums which gave that region its name.

Also from the Tzapoteca country came bags of the dried little insects which yield the several brilliant red dyes. From nearby Xochimilco came flowers and plants of more kinds than I could believe existed. From the far southern jungles came cages full of colorful birds, or bales of their feathers. From the Hot Lands both east and west came bags of cacao for the making of chocolate, and the black orchid pods that make vanilla. From the southeastern coastland of the Olméca came the product which gave that people their name: óli, strips of elastic gum to be braided into the hard balls used in our game of tlachtli. Even the rival nation of Texcala, perennial enemy of us Mexíca, sent its precious copali, the aromatic resin for making perfumes and incense.

From everywhere came packs and panniers of maize and beans and cotton; and bundles of squawking live huaxolome (the big, black, red-wattled birds you call gallipavos) and baskets of their eggs; and cages of the barkless, hairless, edible techíchi dogs; and haunches of deer and rabbit and boar venison; and jars of the clear sweet-water sap of the maguey plant, or the thicker white fermentation of that juice, the drunk-making drink called octli....

My father was pointing out to me all those things, and telling me their names, when a voice interrupted him: "For just two cacao beans, my lord, I will tell of the roads and the days that lie beyond your son Mixtli's name day."

My father turned. At his elbow, and not much taller than his elbow, stood a man who himself looked rather like a cacao bean. He wore a tattered and dirty loincloth, and his skin was the color of cacao: a brown so dark it was almost purple. His face was creased and wrinkled like the bean. He might have been much taller at some time, but he had become bent and crouched and shrunken with an age no one could have estimated. Come to think of it, he must have looked much as I do now. He held out one monkey hand, palm up, and said again, "Only two beans, my lord."

My father shook his head and said politely, "To learn of the future, I go to a far-seer."

"Did you ever visit one of those seers," the bent man asked, "and have him recognize you instantly as a master quarrier from Xaltócan?"

My father looked surprised and blurted, "You are a seer. You do have the vision. Then why—?"

"Why do I go about in rags with my hand out? Because I tell the truth, and people little value the truth. The seers eat the sacred mushrooms and dream dreams for you, because they can charge more for dreams. My lord, there is lime dust ingrained in your knuckles, but your palms are not callused by a laborer's hammer or a sculptor's chisel. You see? The truth is so cheap I can even give it away."

I laughed and so did my father, who said, "You are an amusing old trickster. But we have much to do elsewhere—"

"Wait," said the man insistently. He bent down to peer into my eyes, and he did not have to bend far. I stared straight back at' him.

It could be assumed that the mendicant old fraud had been lurking near us when my father bought me the flavored snow, and had overheard the mention of my significant seventh birthday, and had taken us for spendthrift rustics in the big city, easily to be gulled. But much later, when events made me strain to recall the exact words he spoke...

He searched my eyes and murmured, "Any seer can look far along the roads and the days. Even if he sees something that will truly come to pass, it is safely remote in distance and time, it neither avails nor threatens the seer himself. But this boy's tonáli is to look closely at the things and doings of this world, and see them near and plain, and know them for what they signify."

He stood up. "It will seem at first a handicap, boy, but that kind of near-seeing could make you discern truths the far-seers overlook. If you were to take advantage of the talent, it could make you rich and great."

My father sighed patiently and reached into his bag.

"No, no," the man said to him. "I do not prophesy riches or fame for your son. I do not promise him the hand of a beautiful princess or the founding of a distinguished lineage. The boy Mixtli will see the truth, yes. Unfortunately, he will also tell the truth he sees. And that more often brings calumny than reward. For such an ambiguous prediction, my lord, I ask no gratuity."

"Take this anyway," said my father, pressing on him a single cacao bean. "Just do not predict anything more for us, old man."

In the center of the city there was little commercial traffic, but all the citizens not occupied with urgent business were beginning to congregate in the grand plaza for the ceremony of which my father had heard. He asked some passerby what it was to be, and the man said, "Why, the dedication of the Sun Stone, of course, to celebrate the annexation of Tlaltelólco." Most of the people gathered were commoners like ourselves, but there were also enough pípiltin there to have populated a sizable city of nobody but nobles. Anyway, my father and I had arrived early on purpose. Although there were already more people in the plaza than there are hairs on a rabbit, they nowhere near filled the vast area. We had room to move about and view the various sights to be seen.

In those days, Tenochtítlan's central plaza—In Cem-Anáhuac Yoyótli, The Heart of the One World—was not of the mind-stunning splendor I would see on later visits. The Snake Wall had not yet been built to enclose the area. The Revered Speaker Axayácatl was still living in the palace of his late father Motecuzóma, while a new one was being built for him diagonally across the plaza. The new Great Pyramid, begun by that First Motecuzóma, was still unfinished. Its sloping stone walls and serpent-banistered staircases ended well above our heads, and from inside could be seen poking the top of the earlier, smaller pyramid that was being thus enclosed and enlarged.

But the plaza was already awesome enough to a country boy like me. My father told me that he had once crossed it in a straight line and paced it off, placing foot before foot, and that it measured almost exactly six hundred of his feet. That whole immense space—some six hundred man's-feet from north to south and from east to west—was paved with marble, a stone whiter even than Xaltócan's limestone, and it was polished as smooth and shiny as a tezcatl mirror. Many people there that day, if their sandals were soled with one of the more slippery kinds of leather, had to take them off and walk barefoot.

The city's three broadest avenues, each wide enough for twenty men to walk abreast, began there at the plaza and led out of it, north, west, and south, to become the three equally wide causeways going all the way to the mainland. The plaza itself was not then so full of temples and altars and monuments as it would be in later years. But there were already modest teocaltin containing statues of the chief gods. There was already the elaborate rack on which were displayed the skulls of the more distinguished xochimíque who had been sacrificed to one or another of those gods. There was the Revered Speaker's private ball court in which were played special ritual games of tlachtli.

There was also The House of Song, which contained comfortable quarters and practice studios for those foremost musicians, singers, and dancers who performed at religious festivals in the plaza. The House of Song was not, like all the other edifices on the plaza, entirely obliterated with the rest of the city. It was restored and is now, until your cathedral Church of San Francisco shall be completed, your Lord Bishop's temporary diocesan headquarters and residence. It is in one of the rooms of that House of Song that we now sit, my lord scribes.

My father correctly supposed that a seven-year-old would hardly be enraptured by religious or architectural landmarks, so he took me to the sprawling building at the southeast corner of the plaza. That housed the Uey-Tlatoani's collection of wild animals and birds, and it too was not yet so extensive as it would be in later years. It had been begun by the late Motecuzóma, whose notion was to put on public display a specimen of the land and air creatures to be found in all the parts of all these lands. The building was divided into countless rooms—some mere cubicles, some large chambers—and troughs from a nearby canal kept a continuous flow of water flushing out the rooms' waste matter. Each room opened onto the viewers' passageway, but was separated from it by netting or in some cases stout wooden bars. There was an individual room for each creature, or for those several kinds of creatures that could live together amicably.

"Do they always make so much noise?" I shouted to my father, over the roaring and howling and screeching.

"I do not know," he said. "But right now some of them are hungry, because they have deliberately not been fed for some time. There will be sacrifices at the ceremony, and the remains will be disposed of here, as meat for the jaguar and cuguar cats, and the coyotin wolves and the tzopilotin vultures."

I was eyeing the largest animal native to our lands—the ugly and bulky and sluggish tapir; it waggled its prehensile snout at me—when a familiar voice said, "Master quarrier, why do you not show the boy the tequani hall?"

It was the bent brown man we had earlier met in the street. My father gave him an exasperated look and demanded, "Are you following us, old nuisance?"

The man shrugged. "I merely drag my ancient bones here to see the Sun Stone dedication." Then he gestured to a closed door at the far end of the passage and said to me, "In there, my boy, are sights indeed. Human animals far more interesting than these mere brutes. A tlacaztali woman, for instance. Do you know what a tlacaztali is? A person dead white all over, skin and hair and all, except for her eyes, which are pink. And there is a dwarf with only half a head, who eats—"

"Hush!" my father said sternly. "This is a day for the boy to enjoy. I will not sicken him with the sight of those pitiful freaks."

"Ah, well," said the old man. "Some do enjoy viewing the deformed and the mutilated." His eyes glittered at me. "But they will still be there, young Mixtli, when you are grown mature and superior enough to mock and tease them. I daresay there will be even more curiosities in the tequani hall by then, no doubt even more entertaining and edifying to you."

"Will you be silent?" bellowed my father.

"Pardon, my lord," said the hunched old man, hunching himself even smaller. "Let me make amends for my impertinence. It is almost midday and the ceremony will soon begin. If we go now and get good places, perhaps I can explain to you and the boy some things you might not otherwise understand."

The plaza was now full to overflowing, and the people were shoulder to shoulder. We would never have got anywhere close to the Sun Stone, except that more and more nobles were now haughtily arriving at the last moment, borne in gilded and upholstered litter chairs. The crowds of commoners and lower classes parted without a murmur to let them through, and the brown man audaciously eeled along behind them, with us behind him, until we were almost as far forward as the front ranks of real notables. I would still have been hemmed in without a view, but my father hoisted me to one shoulder. He looked down at our guide and said, "I can lift you up too, old man."

"I thank you for your thoughtfulness, my lord," said that one, half smiling, "but I am heavier than I look."

The focus of all eyes was the Sun Stone, set for the occasion on a terrace between the two broad staircases of the unfinished Great Pyramid. But it was shrouded from our sight with a mantle of shining white cotton. So I occupied myself with admiring the arriving nobles, for their litter chairs and their costumes were something to behold. The men and women alike wore mantles entirely woven of feathers, some varicolored, some of just one coruscating hue. The ladies' hair was tinted purple, as was customary on such a day, and they held their hands high to display the bangled and festooned rings on their fingers. But the lords wore many more ornaments than their ladies. All had diadems or tassels of gold and rich feathers on their heads. Some wore gold medallions on neck chains, gold bracelets and armlets and anklets. Others wore ornate plugs of gold or jewels piercing earlobes or nostrils or lower lips, or all of those.

"Here comes the High Treasurer," said our guide. "Ciuacoatl, the Snake Woman, second in command to the Revered Speaker himself."

I looked, eager to see a snake woman, which I assume must be a creature like those "human animals" which I had not been allowed to look at. But it was just another píli, and a man at that, distinguished only for being even more gorgeously attired than most of the other nobles. The labret he wore was so heavy that it dragged his lower lip down in a pout. But it was a cunning labret: a miniature serpent of gold, so fashioned that it wriggled and flickered its tiny tongue in and out as the Lord Treasurer bobbed along in his chair.

Our guide laughed at me; he had seen my disappointment. "The Snake Woman is merely a title, boy, not a description," he said. "Every High Treasurer has always been called Ciuacoatl, though probably none of them could tell you why. My own theory is that it is because both snakes and women coil tight around any treasures they may hold."

Then the crowd in the plaza, which had been murmurous, quieted all at once; the Uey-Tlatoani himself had appeared. He had somehow arrived unseen or had been hidden somewhere beforehand, for now he suddenly stood beside the veiled Sun Stone. Axayácatl's visage was obscured by labret, nose plug, and ear plugs, and shadowed by the sunburst crown of scarlet macaw plumes that arched completely over his head from shoulder to shoulder. Not much of the rest of his body was visible either. His mantle of gold and green parrot feathers fell all the way to his feet. His chest bore a large and intricately worked medallion, his loincloth was of rich red leather, on his feet he wore sandals apparently of solid gold, laced as high as his knees with gilded straps.

By custom, all of us in the plaza should have greeted him with the tlalqualiztli: the gesture of kneeling, touching a finger to the earth and then to our lips. But there was simply no room for that; the crowd made a sort of loud sizzle of combined kissing sounds. The Revered Speaker Axayácatl returned the greeting silently, nodding the spectacular scarlet feather crown and raising aloft his mahogany and gold staff of office.

He was surrounded by a hoard of priests who, with their filthy black garments, their dirt-encrusted black faces, and their blood-matted long hair, made a somber contrast to Axayácatl's sartorial flamboyance. The Revered Speaker explained to us the significance of the Sun Stone, while the priests chanted prayers and invocations every time he paused for breath. I cannot now remember Axayácatl's words, and probably did not understand them all at the time. But the gist was this. While the Sun Stone actually pictured the sun Tonatíu, all honor paid to it would be shared with Tenochtítlan's chief god Huitzil-opochtli, Southern Hummingbird.

I have already told how our gods could wear different aspects and names. Well, Tonatíu was the sun, and the sun is indispensable, since all life on earth would perish without him. We of Xaltócan and the peoples of many other communities were satisfied to worship him as the sun. However, it seemed obvious that the sun required nourishment to keep him strong, encouragement to keep him at his daily labors—and what could we give him more vitalizing and inspiriting than what he gave us? That is to say, human life itself. Hence the kindly sun god had the other aspect of the ferocious war god Huitzilopóchtli, who led us Mexíca in all our battle forays to procure prisoners for that necessary sacrifice. It was in the stern guise of Huitzil-opóchtli that he was most revered here in Tenochtítlan, because it was here that all our wars were planned and declared and the warriors mustered. Under yet another name, Tezcatlipóca, Smoldering Mirror, the sun was the chief god of our neighbor nation of the Acolhua. And I have come to suspect that innumerable other nations I have never visited—even nations beyond the sea across which you Spaniards came—must likewise worship that selfsame sun god, only calling him by some other name, according as they see him smile or frown.

While the Uey-Tlatoani went on speaking, and the priests kept chanting in counterpoint, and a number of musicians began to play on flutes, notched bones, and skin drums, my father and I were privately getting the history of the Sun Stone from our cacao-brown old guide.

"Southeast of here is the country of the Chalca. When the late Motecuzóma made a vassal nation of it, twenty and two years ago, the Chalca were of course obliged to make a noteworthy tribute offering to the victorious Mexíca. Two young Chalca brothers volunteered to make a monumental sculpture apiece, to be placed here at The Heart of the One World. They chose similar stones, but different subjects, and they worked apart, and no one but each brother ever saw what he carved."

"Their wives sneaked a look, surely," said my father, who had that sort of wife.

"No one ever got a look," the old man repeated, "during all those twenty and two years they worked to sculpture and paint the stones—in which time they grew middle-aged and Motecuzóma went to the afterworld. Then they muffled their finished works separately in swathings of fiber mats, and the lord of the Chalca conscripted perhaps one thousand sturdy porters to haul the stones here to the capital."

He waved toward the still-shrouded object on the terrace above us. "As you see, the Sun Stone is immense: more than twice the height of two men—and ponderously heavy: the weight of three hundred and twenty men together. The other stone was about the same. They were brought over rough trails and no trails at all. They were rolled on log rollers, dragged on wooden skids, ferried over rivers on mighty rafts. Just think of the labor and the sweat and the broken bones, and the many men who fell dead when they could no longer stand the pull or the lashing whips of the overseers."

"Where is the other stone?" I asked, but was ignored.

"At last they came to the lakes of Chalco and Xochimilco, which they crossed on rafts, to the major causeway running north to Tenochtítlan. From there it was a broad way and a straight one, no more than two one-long-runs to the plaza here. The artists sighed with relief. They had worked so hard, so many other men had worked so hard, but those monuments were within sight of their destination...."

The crowd around us made a noise. The twenty or so men whose lifeblood would that day consecrate the Sun Stone were in line, and the first of them was mounting the pyramid steps. He appeared to be no captured enemy warrior, just a stocky man about my father's age, wearing only a clean white loincloth, looking haggard and unhappy, but he went willingly, unbound and without any guards impelling him. There on the terrace he stood and looked stolidly out over the crowd, while the priests swung their smoking censers and did ritual things with their hands and staffs. Then one priest took hold of the xochimíqui, gently turned him, and helped him lie back on a block in front of the veiled monument. The block was a single knee-high stone, shaped rather like a miniature pyramid, so, when the man lay propped on it, his body arched and his chest thrust upward as if eager for the blade.

He lay lengthwise to our view, his arms and legs held by four assistant priests, and behind him stood the chief priest, the executioner, holding the wide, almost trowel-shaped black obsidian knife. Before the priest could move, the pinioned man raised his dangling head and said something. There were other words among those on the terrace, then the priest handed his blade to Axayácatl. The crowd made noises of surprise and puzzlement. That particular victim, for some reason, was to be granted the high honor of being dispatched by the Uey-Tlatoani himself.

Axayácatl did not hesitate or fumble. As expertly as any priest, he stabbed the knife point into the man's chest on the left side, just under the nipple and between two ribs, then made a slash with the knife edge, then rotated the wide blade sideways to separate the ribs and open the wound wider. With his other hand he reached into the wet red opening, seized the un-scratched and still-beating heart, and tore it loose from its enlacement of blood vessels. Not until then did the xochimíqui utter his first sound of pain—a blubbering sob—and the last sound of his life.

As the Revered Speaker held high the glistening, dripping, purple-red object, a priest somewhere jerked some hidden string, the shroud fell away from the Sun Stone, and the crowd gave a concerted "Ay-y-yo-o!" of admiration. Axayácatl turned, reached up, and ground the victim's heart into the very center of the circular stone, into the mouth of Tonatíu carved there. He mashed and rubbed the heart until it was only a smear on the stone and nothing was left in his hand. I have been told by priests that a heart's donor usually lived long enough to see what became of his heart. But that one could not have seen much. When Axayácatl was finished, the blood and ground meat were scarcely visible, because the carved sun face was already painted a color very like that of heart's blood.

"That was cleanly done," said the bent man at my father's side. "I have often seen a heart go on beating so vigorously that it jumps from the executioner's fingers. But I think this particular heart had already been broken."

Now the xochimíqui lay unmoving, except that his skin twitched here and there, like the skin of a dog tormented by flies. The priests rolled his carcass from the stone and let it tumble unceremoniously off the terrace, while a second victim plodded up the stair. Axayácatl honored no more of the xochimíque, but left the rest to the priests. As the procession went on—each man's extracted heart being used to anoint the Sun Stone—I peered closely at the massive object, so I might describe it to my friend Tlatli, who, even way back then, had begun practicing to be a sculptor by whittling bits of wood into doll figures.

Yyo ayyo, reverend friars, if you could but have seen the Sun Stone! Your faces show disapproval of the dedication ceremony, but if you had ever once seen the stone, you would know it to have been worth all its cost in toil and years and human lives.

The carving alone was beyond belief, for that was porphyry, a stone as hard as granite. In the center was the face of Tonatíu, eyes staring, mouth agape, and on either side of his head were claws grasping the human hearts which were his provender. Surrounding that were the symbols of the four eras of the world which preceded the era in which we now live, and a circle comprising the symbols of our twenty day-names, and a circle of the alternating symbols of jadestone and turquoise, the gems held in highest esteem of all found in our lands. Around that, again, a circle of the day's sun rays alternating with the night's stars. And, girdling the whole, two sculptures of the Fire Serpent of Time, their tails at the top of the stone, their bodies making the round of it, and their heads meeting at the bottom. In one stone, that one artist had captured all of our universe, all of our time.

It was painted in bold colors, meticulously applied on those precise places where each color belonged. Yet the painter's real skill was most evident where no paint at all had been put on. Porphyry is a stone that holds fragments of mica, feldspar, and quartz. Wherever one of those bits of crystalline rock was embedded, the artist had left it unpainted. So, as the Sun Stone stood in the midday radiance of Tonatíu himself, those tiny clear jewels flashed at us pure sunlight from among the glowing colors. The entire great object seemed not so much colored as lighted from within. But I suppose you would have to have seen it in all its original glory to believe it. Or through the clearer eyes and in the clearer light I enjoyed in those days. Or perhaps with the mind of an impressionable and still-benighted little heathen boy...

Anyway, I turned my attention from the stone to our guide, who was continuing his interrupted history of the thing's painful progress hither:

"The causeway had never before known such a weight. The two brothers' two mighty stones were moving along on their log rollers, one behind the other, when the road buckled under the leading burden, and that wrapped stone went to the bottom of Lake Texcóco. The porters rolling the second—this Sun Stone here—stopped it just short of the brink of the broken causeway. It was lowered onto a raft again and floated around the island to the plaza here. Thus it alone was saved for us to admire today."

"But the other?" asked my father. "After all that work spent, could not a little more have been expended?"

"Oh, it was, my lord. The most experienced divers went down time after time. But the floor of Lake Texcóco is a soft and maybe bottomless ooze. The divers prodded with long poles, but they never located it. The stone, whatever it was, must have gone down edge on."

"Whatever it was?" echoed my father.

"No one but its artist ever laid eyes on it. No one ever will. It may have been more magnificent even than that"—the old man indicated the Sun Stone—"but we will never know."

"Will not the artist tell?" I asked.

"He never did."

I persisted, "Well, could he not do it over again?" A task of twenty and two years seemed rather less to me then than it would now.

"Perhaps he could, but he never will. He took the disaster as evidence of his tonáli, as a sign that the gods had spurned his offering. That was he whom the Revered Speaker just now honored with the Flowery Death at his own hand. The rejected artist gave himself to be the first sacrifice to the Sun Stone."

"To his brother's work," my father murmured. "Meanwhile, what of the brother?"

"He will receive honors and rich gifts and the -tzin to his name," said our guide. "But the whole world will forever wonder, and so will he. Might there not be a work more sublime even than the Sun Stone lying unseen beneath Lake Texcóco?"

In time, indeed, the myth-enhanced unknown came to be more treasured than the tangible reality. The lost sculpture came to be called In Huehuetotetl—The Most Venerable Stone—and the Sun Stone regarded as only a middling substitute. The surviving brother never carved another work. He became an octli drunkard, a pitiful ruin, but he had enough self-respect remaining that, before he brought irredeemable shame to his new and noble title, he too volunteered to participate in a sacrificial ceremony. And when he died the Flowery Death, his heart did not, either, leap from the executioner's hand.

Ah, well, the Sun Stone too has been lost and gone these eight years now, buried under the rubble when The Heart of the One World was demolished by your war boats and cannon balls and battering beams and fire arrows. But perhaps one day your own rebuilt new City of Mexíco will be razed in its turn, and the Sun Stone will be rediscovered shining among the ruins. Even—aquin ixnentla?—perhaps someday The Most Venerable Stone as well.

My father and I went home again that night, on our composite acáli now loaded with trade goods procured by the freightmaster. You have heard the major and most memorable events of that day, that celebration of my seventh birthday and naming day. It was, I think, the most enjoyable of all the birthdays I have passed, and I have passed more than my share.

* * *

I am glad I got to see Tenochtítlan when I did, for I never again saw it the same way. I do not mean just because the city grew and changed, or because I came back to it surfeited and no longer impressionable. I mean I literally never saw anything so clearly again with my own two eyes.

I have earlier spoken of my being able to discern the chiseled rabbit in the moon, and After Blossom in the twilight sky, and the details of the insignia on Tenochtítlan's feather banners, and the intricacies of the Sun Stone. Within five years after that seventh birthday, I could not have seen After Blossom if some sky god had run a surveyor's string from the star to my eye. Metztli the moon, at his fullest and brightest, became no more than a featureless yellow-white blob, his once sharp circle fuzzing indistinctly into the sky.

In brief, from about the age of seven onward, I began to lose my sight. It made me something of a rarity, and not in any enviable sense. Except for those few born blind, or those who became so from a wound or a disease, almost all our people possess the keen eyesight of eagles and vultures. My decreasingly clear vision was a condition practically unknown among us, and I was ashamed of it, and did not speak of it, and tried to keep it my own hurtful secret. When someone would point and say, "Look there!" I would exclaim, "Ah, yes!" though not knowing whether I should goggle or dodge.

The dimness did not come upon me all at once; it came gradually, but inexorably. By the time I was nine or ten, I could see as clearly as anyone, but only to a distance of perhaps two arms' length. Beyond that, the outline of things began to blur, as if I were seeing them through a transparent but distorting film of water. At a more considerable distance—say, looking from a hilltop across a landscape—all the individual outlines blurred so much that objects mingled and merged, and a landscape was to me no more than an eccentrically patterned blanket of amorphous smears of color. At least, in those years, with a clear visual field of two arms' length, I could move about without falling over things. When bidden to fetch something in one of the rooms of our house, I could find it without having to grope.

But my scope of vision continued to diminish, down to perhaps one arm's length of clarity before I reached my thirteenth birthday, and I could no longer pretend well enough for it to go unnoticed by others. For a time, I suppose my family and friends thought me merely clumsy or slipshod or maybe dimwitted. And at that time, with the perverse vanity of boyhood, I would rather have been thought a lout than a cripple. But it inevitably became obvious to everyone that I was lacking in the one most necessary of the five senses. My family and friends behaved variously toward this suddenly revealed freak among them.

My mother blamed my condition on my father's side of the family. It seems there was once an uncle who, drunk on octli, had reached for another pot of some similarly white liquid, and had swallowed it all before noticing that it was the powerful caustic xocoyatl, used for cleaning and bleaching badly begrimed limestone. He survived and never drank again, but he was blind all the rest of his life, and, according to my mother's theory, that lamentable inheritance had been handed down to me.

My father did no blaming or speculating, but consoled me rather too heartily: "Well, being a master quarrier is close-up work, Mixtli. You will have no trouble peering for the threadlike cracks and crevices."

Those of my own age—and children, like scorpions, stab instinctively, savagely—would cry out to me, "Look there!"

I would squint and say, "Ah, yes."

"That is really something to see, is it not?"

I would squint harder, desperately, and say, "It truly is."

They would burst into laughter and yell derisively, "There is nothing there to see, Tozani!"

Others, my close friends like Chimali and Tlatli, would also sometimes blurt out, "Look there!" but they would quickly add, "A swift-messenger comes running toward the Lord Red Heron's palace. He wears the green mantle of good news. There must have been a victorious battle somewhere."

My sister Tzitzitlini said little, but she contrived to accompany me whenever I had to go any distance or into unfamiliar surroundings. She would take my hand, as if merely making the fond gesture of an older sister, and unobtrusively she would guide me around any obstacles in my path not readily visible.

However, the other children were so many, and they so persistently called me Tozani, that soon their elders addressed me the same—unthinkingly, not unkindly—and eventually so did everybody but my mother, father, and sister. Even when I had adapted to my handicap, and managed no longer to be so clumsy, and other people had little cause to notice my shortsightedness, by then the sobriquet had stuck. I thought that my given name of Mixtli, meaning Cloud, ironically suited me better than before, but Tozani I became.

The tozani is the little animal you call the mole, which prefers to spend its life underground, in the dark. When it infrequently emerges, it is blinded by the mere light of day, and squints its tiny eyes closed. It neither sees nor cares to see.

I cared very much, and for a long time in my young life I went pitying myself. I would never become a tlachtli ball player, to hope for the high honor of someday playing in the Revered Speaker's own court a ritual game dedicated to the gods. If I became a warrior, I could never hope to win knighthood. Indeed, I would be god-protected if I had a life expectancy of as much as one day in combat. As for earning a living, supporting a family of my own... well, a quarrier I would not become, but of what other labor was I capable?

I toyed wistfully with the possibility of becoming some kind of traveling worker. That could take me eventually south to the far land of the Maya, and I had heard that the Maya physicians knew miraculous cures for even the most hopeless eye ailments. Perhaps there I could be healed, and could come home again in bright-eyed triumph as an unbeatable tlachtli goalsman, or a battle hero, or even a knight of one of the three orders.

But then the encroaching dimness seemed to slow its approach and stop at my arm's length. It did not, really, but after those early years its further progress was less perceptible. Today, with the unaided eye, I cannot make out my wife's face farther than a handspan from my own. It matters little, now that I am old, but it mattered much when I was young.

Nevertheless, slowly I resigned myself and adapted myself to my limitations. That strange man in Tenochtítlan had spoken aright when he predicted that my tonáli was to look close, to see things near and plain. Of necessity I slowed my pace, I was often still, I scrutinized instead of scanning. When others hurried, I waited. When others rushed, I moved with deliberation. I learned to differentiate between purposeful movement and mere motion, between action and mere activity. Where others, impatient, saw a village, I saw its people. Where others saw people, I saw persons. Where others glimpsed a stranger and nodded and hastened on, I made sure to see him close, and later I could draw a picture of his every lineament, so that even an accomplished artist like Chimali would exclaim, "Why, Mole, you have caught the man, and to the life!"

I began to notice things that I think escape most people, keen-eyed though they may be. Did you ever notice, my lord scribes, that the maize grows faster at night than in the day? Did you ever notice that every ear of maize has an even number of rows of kernels? Or almost every ear. But to find one with an odd number of rows is a happenstance far more rare than to find a clover leaf with four petals. Did you ever notice that no two fingers—no two of your own—no two in the entire human race, if my studies are any proof—have precisely the same pattern of whorls and arches infinitesimally etched on the balls of the fingertips? If you do not believe me, compare your own. Compare each other's. I will wait.

Oh, I know there was no significance or profit in my noticing such things. They were but trivial details on which to exercise my new penchant for looking close and examining with care. But that necessity-made-virtue, combined with my aptitude for copying exactly the things I could see, finally led me to take an interest in our people's picture writing. There was no school on Xaltócan that taught such an abstruse subject, but I sought out every scrap of writing I could find, and studied it intently and struggled to read its meaning.

The numerical writing, I think, anyone could easily make out. The shell symbol for zero, the dots or fingers for ones, the flags for twenties, the little trees for hundreds. But I remember the thrill when one day I first puzzled out a pictured word.

My father took me along on some business visit to the governor and, to keep me occupied while they talked in some private chamber, the governor let me sit in his entry hall and look at the register of all his subjects. I turned first to my own page. Seven dots, flower symbol, gray cloud. Then I ever so carefully moved to other pages. Some of the names were as easy to comprehend as my own, simply because I was familiar with them. Not far before my page was that of Chimali, and of course I recognized his: three fingers, the duck-billed head symbolizing the wind, the two intertwined tendrils representing smoke, rising from a feather-fringed disk—Yei-Ehecatl Pocuia-Chimali: Three Wind Smoking Shield.

The more frequently repeated drawings were easy to espy. After all, we had only twenty day-names. But I was suddenly struck by the not so immediately evident repetition of elements from Chimali's name and my own. One page near the back, hence recently drawn, showed six dots, then a shape like a tadpole standing on its head, then that duck-billed symbol, then the three-petaled thing. I could read it! I knew whose it was!

Six Rain Wind Flower, the baby sister of Tlatli, who had only last week celebrated her naming birthday.

Somewhat less gingerly now, I turned the stiff folded pages back and forth, looking at the pages on both sides of the pleats, searching for other repetitions and recognizable symbols I could piece together. The governor and my father returned just after I had laboriously worked out another name, or believed I had. With a mixture of timidity and pride I said:

"Excuse me, Lord Red Heron. Would you have the goodness to tell me, am I right, does this page record the name of some person called Two Reed Yellow Eyetooth?"

He looked and said no, it did not. He must have seen my face fall, for he patiently explained:

"It says Two Reed Yellow Light, the name of a laundress here in the palace. The Two Reed is obvious. And yellow, coztic, is easy to indicate simply by using that color, as you have divined. But tlanixtelotl, 'light'—or more precisely 'the eye's element'—how does one make a picture of something so insubstantial? Instead, I put a drawing of a tooth, tlanti, to represent not the meaning but the sound of the tlan at the beginning of the word, and then a picture of an eye, ixtelolotl, which serves to make clear the meaning of the whole. You grasp it now? Tlanixtelotl. Light."

I nodded, feeling rather deflated and foolish. There was more to picture writing than just recognizing the drawing of a tooth. In case I had not realized it, the governor made it plain:

"Writing and reading are for those trained in such arts, son of Tepetzalan." And he gave me a man-to-man clap on the shoulder. "They take much learning and much practice, and only the nobility have the leisure for so much study. But I admire your initiative. Whatever occupation you do undertake, young man, you ought to do it well."

I daresay the son of Tepetzalan should have complied with the Lord Red Heron's broad hint, and stuck to the trade of Tepetzalan. Weak-eyed and ill equipped as I was for any more ambitious or venturesome occupations, I could have drudged away an uneventful but never empty-bellied life as a real mole of a quarrier. A life less satisfying, perhaps, than the one I stubbornly persisted in pursuing, but it would have brought me far smoother roads and more tranquil days than I was to know when I went my own way. Right at this moment, my lords, I could be employed in helping to build your City of Mexíco. And, if Red Heron was right in his estimation of my abilities, possibly making of it a better city than your own imported architects and stonemasons are doing.

But let it pass, let it all pass, as I myself let it all pass—heedless of the Lord Red Heron's implied command, heedless of my father's genuine pride in his trade and his attempts to teach it to me, heedless of my mother's carping complaints that I was reaching above my ordained station in life.

For the governor had given me another hint, and one that I could not ignore. He had revealed that the picture writing did not always mean what it looked like, but what it sounded like. No more than that. But that was enlightening enough and tantalizing enough to keep me searching out bits of writing—on temple walls, on the island's tribute roll in the palace, on any paper carried by any passing tradesman—and doing my untaught, earnest best to make sense of them.

I even went to the ancient tonalpoqui who had so glibly given me my name, four years before, and asked if I might pore over his venerable naming book when it was not in use. He could not have recoiled more violently if I had asked to use one of his granddaughters as a concubine when she was not otherwise busy. He repulsed me with the information that the art of knowing the tonalmatl was reserved for the descendants of tonalpoque, not for unknown and presumptuous brats. It may have been so. But I will wager that either he remembered my declaring that I could have named myself as well as he had done, or—more likely—he was a frightened old fraud who could no more read the tonalmatl than I could at that time.

Then, one evening, I met a stranger. Chimali and Tlatli and I and some other boys had been playing together all afternoon, so Tzitzitlini was not along. On a shore far distant from our village we found a holed and rotting old hulk of an acáli, and got so absorbed in playing boatmen that we were taken by surprise when Tonatíu gave his red-sky warning that he was preparing for bed. We had a long way to walk home, and Tonatíu hurried to bed faster than we could walk, so the other boys broke into a trot. In daylight I could have kept up with them, but the dusk and my blighted vision forced me to move more slowly and pick my way with care. Probably the others never missed me; anyway, they soon outdistanced me.

I came to a crossroads, and there was a stone bench there, I had not passed that way in some time, but now I remembered that the bench bore several incised symbols, and I forgot everything else. I forgot that it was now almost too dark for me even to see the carvings, let alone decipher them. I forgot why the bench was there. I forgot all the lurking things that might descend on me as the night descended. I even heard an owl hoot somewhere nearby, and paid that omen of danger no attention. There was something there to read, or try to read, and I could not pass by without trying.

The bench was long enough for a man to lie upon, if he could have lain comfortably on the ridges of stone carving. I bent over the marks, and stared at them, and traced them with my fingers as well as my eyes, and moved from one to the next and the next—and nearly sprawled across the lap of a man sitting there. I sprang away as if he had been red-hot to the touch, and stammered an apology:

"M-mixpantzinco. In your august presence..."

Politely enough, but wearily, he made the customary reply, "Ximopanolti. At your convenience..."

Then we stared at each other for a space. I assume he saw only a slightly grubby, squinting boy of about twelve years old. I could not see him in detail, partly because the night was well upon us now, partly because I had leapt so far away from him. But I could make out that he was a stranger to the island, or at least to me, that his mantle was of good material though travel-stained, that his sandals were worn from long walking, and that his coppery skin was dusty from the road.

"What is your name, boy?" he asked at last.

"Well, they call me Mole—" I began.

"I can believe that, but it is not your name." Before I could put in a word, he asked another question, "What were you doing just now?"

"I was reading, Yanquicatzin." I really do not know what there was about him, but it made me address him as Lord Stranger. "I was reading the writing on the bench."

"Indeed?" he said, in what sounded like tired disbelief. "I would never have taken you for an educated young noble. What does the writing say, then?"

"It says: From the people of Xaltócan, a resting place for the Lord Night Wind."

"Someone told you that."

"No, Lord Stranger. Excuse me, but—see?" I moved close enough to point. "This duck-billed thing here stands for wind."

"It is not a duck bill," the man snapped. "That is the trumpet through which the god blows the winds."

"Oh? Thank you for telling me, my lord. Anyway, it stands for ehecatl. And this marking here—all these closed eyelids—that means yoali. Yoali Ehecatl, the Night Wind."

"You really can read?"

"A very little, my lord. Not much."

"Who taught you?"

"No one, Lord Stranger. There is no one on Xaltócan to teach the art. It is a pity, for I should like to learn more."

"Then you must go elsewhere."

"I suppose so, my lord."

"I suggest you do it now. I tire of being read to. Go elsewhere, boy called Mole."

"Oh. Yes. Of course, Lord Stranger. Mixpantzinco."

"Ximopanolti."

I turned back once for a last look at him. But he was beyond the range of my short sight, or he was swallowed up in the dark, or he had simply got up and gone.

I was met at home by a chorus of my father, mother, and sister expressing a mixture of worry, relief, consternation, and anger at my having stayed out so long alone in the perilous dark. But even my mother quieted when I told how I had been delayed by the inquisitive stranger. She quieted, and she and my sister looked with wide eyes at my father. He looked with wide eyes at me.

"You met him," my father said huskily. "You met the god and he let you go. The god Night Wind."

All through a sleepless night I tried, without much success, to see the dusty, weary, surly wayfarer as a god. But if he had been Night Wind, then by tradition I was due to get my heart's desire. There was only one problem. Unless wanting to learn to read and write might qualify, I did not know what was my heart's desire. Or I did not know until I got it, if that is what I got.

* * *

It happened on a day when I was working at the first apprentice job I was given at my father's quarry. It was no onerous work; I had been appointed watchman of the big pit during the time when all the workmen downed tools and went home for their midday meal. Not that there was much risk of human thievery, but if the tools were left unguarded, small wild animals would come to gnaw the tool hafts and handles for the salt the wood had absorbed from the workers' sweat. A single prickly little boar could chew up a whole, hard ebony pry-bar during the men's absence. Fortunately, my mere presence there was sufficient to keep the salt-seeking creatures at bay, for whole swarms of them could have invaded unseen by my mole eyes.

That day, as always, Tzitzitlini ran out from home to bring me my own midday meal. She kicked off her sandals and sat with me on the sunlit grassy rim of the quarry, chattering gaily while I ate my fare of tiny boned lake whitefish, each rolled and broiled in a tortilla. They had come wrapped in a cloth and were still hot from the fire. My sister looked warm too, I noticed, though the day was cool. Her face was flushed and she kept fanning the square-cut top of her blouse away from her breasts.

The fish rolls had a slight but unusually tart taste. I wondered if Tzitzi instead of our mother had prepared them, and whether she was chattering so volubly just to keep me from teasing her about her apparent lack of cooking skill. But the taste was not disagreeable, and I was hungry, and I felt quite replete when I had finished. Tzitzi suggested that I lie down and digest my meal in comfort; she would keep watch for any intruding prickly little boars.

I stretched out on my back and looked up at the clouds which once I could see so clear-cut against the sky; now they were but formless white swatches among formless blue swatches. I had got accustomed to that by now. But all at once something more disturbing began to happen to my vision. The white and blue commenced swirling, slowly at first, then more rapidly, as if some god up there had begun to stir the sky with a chocolate beater. Surprised, I started to sit up, but I was suddenly so dizzy that I fell back upon the grass.

I felt uncommonly odd, and I must have made some odd noise, for Tzitzi leaned over me and looked into my face. Addled though I was, I got the impression that she had been waiting for something to happen to me. The tip of her tongue was caught between her brilliant white teeth, and her narrowed eyes gave me a look of seeking some sign. Then her lips smiled mischievously, her tongue's tip licked them, and her eyes widened with a light almost of triumph. She remarked on my own eyes, and her voice seemed strangely to come like an echo from far away.

"Your pupils have got so large, my brother." But she still smiled, so I felt no cause for alarm. "Your irises are scarcely brown at all, but almost entirely black. What do you see with those eyes?"

"I see you, my sister," I said, and my voice was thick. "But somehow you look different. You look..."

"Yes?" she prompted.

"You look so beautiful," I said. I could not help saying it.

Like every boy my age, I was expected to disdain and disprize girls—if I even deigned to notice them—and of course one's own sister was more to be disparaged than any other girl. But I would have known Tzitzitlini to be beautiful even if the fact had not been remarked so often in my hearing by all the adults, women and men alike, who caught their breath at first catching sight of her. No sculptor could have captured the lissome grace of her young body, for stone or clay cannot move, and she gave the illusion of being always in flowing motion even when she was most still. No painter could have mixed the exact golden-fawn color of her skin, or the color of her eyes: doe-brown flecked with gold...

But that day something magical had been added, and that was why I could not have refused to acknowledge her beauty, even if I had been so inclined. The magic was visible all about her, an aura like that of the mist of water jewels in the sky when the sun comes out immediately after a rain.

"There are colors," I said, in my curiously thickened voice. "Bands of color, like the mist of water jewels. All around your face, my sister. A glow of red... and outside that a glow of purple... and... and..."

"Looking at me gives you pleasure?" she asked.

"It does. You do. Yes. Pleasure."

"Then hush, my brother, and let yourself be given pleasure."

I gasped. Her hand was underneath my mantle. And remember, I was nearly a year short of that age to wear a loincloth. I should have found my sister's bold gesture an outrageous violation of my privacy, except that somehow it did not now seem so, and in any case I felt too numb to raise my arms and ward her off. I could feel almost nothing except that I seemed to be growing in a part of my body where I had never noticeably grown before. So was Tzitzi's body changing. Her young breasts ordinarily showed only as modest mounds beneath her blouse, but now, as she knelt over me, her nipples were swollen; they poked like little fingertips against the thin cloth covering them.

I managed to raise my heavy head and gazed wearily down at my tepúli in her manipulating hand. It had never before occurred to me that my member could be unsheathed of its skin so far down its length. That was the first time I had ever seen more than the tip and the pouty little mouth of what was now, with its outer skin slid back, revealed to be a ruddy and bulbous-ended shaft. It looked rather like a gaudy mushroom sprouting from Tzitzi's tight grasp.

"Oeya, yoyolcatica," she murmured, her face almost as red as my member. "It grows, it becomes alive. See?"

"Toton... tlapeztia," I said breathlessly. "It becomes glowing hot..."

With her free hand, Tzitzi lifted her skirt and anxiously, fumblingly unwound her diaperlike undergarment. She had to spread her legs to get it entirely undone, and I saw her tipíli, close enough that it was clear even to my sight. Always before, there had been nothing between her legs but a sort of close-shut crease or dimple, and even that had been almost imperceptible because it was blurred by a light fuzz of fine hairs. But now her cleft was opening of itself, like—

Ayya, Fray Domingo has upset and broken his inkwell. And now he leaves us. Distressed by the accident, no doubt.

During this interruption, I might mention that some of our men and women grow just a trace of ymáxtli, which is that hair in that private place between the legs. But most of our race have no hair at all there, or anywhere else on the body, except for the luxuriant growth on the head. Even our men have only scant facial hair, and any abundance is regarded as a disfigurement. Mothers daily bathe their boy babies' faces with scalding hot lime water, and in most cases—as in my own, for example—that treatment discourages the emergence of a beard all through a man's life.

Fray Domingo returns not. Do I wait, my lords, or go on?

Very well. Then I return to that hilltop long ago and far away, where I lay dazed and wondering while my sister worked so busily to take advantage of my condition.

As I said, her tipíli cleft was opening of itself, becoming a budding flower, showing pink petals against the flawless fawn skin there, and the petals even glistened as if drenched with dew. I fancied that Tzitzitlini's new-blossomed flower gave off a faint musky fragrance like that of the marigold. And meanwhile, all about my sister, about her face and her body and her now uncovered parts, there still shimmered and pulsated those inexplicable bands and waves of various colors.

She lifted my mantle out of her way, then raised one of her slender legs to sit astride my lower body. She moved urgently, but with the tremor of nervousness and inexperience. With one quivering small hand she held and aimed my tepúli. With the other she seemed to be trying to spread farther open the petals of her tipíli flower. As I have told earlier, Tzitzi had already had some practice at utilizing a wooden spindle as she now utilized me, but she was still narrowed by her chitoli membrane and was tight within. As for me, my tepúli was of course nowhere near man-size. (Though I know Tzitzi's ministrations helped to hurry it toward mature dimensions—or beyond, if other women have spoken true.) Anyway, Tzitzi was still virginally pursed, and my member was at least larger than any thin spindle substitute.

So there was a moment of anguished frustration. My sister's eyes were tight shut, she was breathing like a runner in a race, she was desperate for something to happen. I would have helped, if I had known what it was supposed to be, and if I had not been so numbed in every part of my body except that one. Then, abruptly, the threshold gave way. Tzitzi and I cried out simultaneously, I in surprise, she in what might have been either pleasure or pain. To my vast amazement, and in what manner I still could not entirely comprehend, I was inside my sister, enveloped by her, warmed and moistened by her—and then gently massaged by her, as she began to move her body up and down in a slow rhythm.

I was overwhelmed by the sensation that spread from my warmly clenched and slowly stroked tepúli to every other part of my being. The mist of water jewels about my sister seemed to brighten and grow, to include me as well. I could feel it vibrating me and tingling me all over. My sister held more than that one small extension of myself; I felt totally absorbed into her, into Tzitzitlini, into the sound of small bells ringing. The delight increased until I thought I could no longer tolerate it. And then it culminated in a burst even more delicious, a sort of soft explosion, like that of the milkweed pod when it splits and flings its white fluffs to the wind. At the same moment, Tzitzi breathed out a long soft moan of what even I, even in my ignorance, even half unconscious in my own sweet delirium, even I recognized as her rapturous release.

Then she collapsed limply along the length of my body, and her long soft hair billowed all about my face. We lay there for some time, both of us panting hard. I slowly became aware that the strange colors were fading and withdrawing, and that the sky above had stopped its whirling. Without raising her head to look at me, my sister said against my chest, very quietly and shyly, "Are you sorry, my brother?"

"Sorry!" I exclaimed, and frightened a quail into flying up from the grass near us.

"Then we can do it again?" she murmured, still without looking at me.

I thought about it. "Can it be done again?" I asked. The question was not so hilariously stupid as it sounds; I asked out of understandable ignorance. My member had slipped out of her, and was now wetly cold and as small as I had heretofore known it. I can hardly be derided for thinking that perhaps a male was allotted only one such experience in a lifetime.

"I do not mean now," said Tzitzi. "The workmen will be returning. But another day?"

"Ayyo, every day, if we can!"

She lifted herself on her arms and looked down at my face, her lips again mischievously smiling. "I will not have to trick you next time?"

"Trick me?"

"The colors you saw, the dizziness and numbness. I did a most sinful thing, my brother. I stole one of the mushrooms from their urn in the pyramid temple, and cooked it into your fish rolls."

She had done a daring and dangerous thing, besides a sinful one. The small black mushrooms were called teonanacatl, "flesh of the gods," which indicates how scarce and precious they were. They came, at great expense, from some holy mountain deep in the Mixteca lands, and they were to be eaten only by certain priests and professional seers, and then only on special occasions when it was necessary to foresee the future. Tzitzi would assuredly have been killed on the spot if she had been caught filching one of the sacred things.

"No, do not ever do that again," I said. "But why did you?"

"Because I wanted to do—what we just now did—and I was afraid you might resist if you knew clearly what we were doing."

Would I have? I wonder. I did not resist then, nor any time afterward, and I found every subsequent experience just as blissful, even without the enhancement of colors and vertigo.

Yes, my sister and I coupled countless times over the next years while I still lived at home—whenever we had the opportunity—during the mealtime break at the quarry, on deserted stretches of the lakeshore, twice or thrice in our own house when both our parents were absent for what we knew would be an adequate while. We mutually learned not to be quite so awkward at the act, but of course we were both inexperienced—neither of us would have thought of trying those transports with anyone else—so there was not a great deal we could teach each other. It was a long time before we even discovered that it could be done with me on top, though after that we invented numerous variant positions.

Now my sister slid off me and stretched luxuriously. Both our bellies were wet with a small smear of blood from the rupture of her chitoli, and with another liquid, my own omícetl, white like octli but stickier. Tzitzi dipped a wad of dry grass into the small jar of water she had brought with my meal and washed us both clean, so that there should be no telltale trace on our clothes. Then she rewound her undergarment, rearranged her rumpled outer clothes, kissed me on the lips, said "Thank you"—which I should have thought of saying first—wrapped the water jar in its cloth, and ran off down the grassy slope, skipping merrily.

There and then, my lord scribes, and thus, ended the roads and the days of my childhood.

I H S

S.C.C.M.

Sanctified, Caesarean, Catholic Majesty, the Emperor Don Carlos, Our Lord King:

Most Eminent Majesty from this City of Mexíco, capital of New Spain, this All Souls' Day of the Year of Our Lord one thousand five hundred twenty and nine, greeting.

In sending, at Your Majesty's behest, yet another increment of the Aztec History, this necessarily obedient but still reluctant servant begs leave to quote Varius Geminus, on an occasion when he approached his emperor with some vexata quaestio: "Whoever dares speak before thee, oh Caesar, knows not thy greatness; whoever dares not speak before thee, knows not thy goodness."

Though we may risk giving affront and receiving rebuke, we beseech you, Sire, that we may be granted permission to abandon this noxious enterprise.

Inasmuch as Your Majesty has recently read, in the previous portion of manuscript delivered into your royal hands, the Indian's bland and almost blithe confession of having committed the abominable sin of incest—an act proscribed throughout the known world, civilized and savage alike; an act execrated even by such degenerate peoples as the Basques, the Greeks, and the English; an act forbidden even by the meager lex non scripta observed by the Indian's own fellow barbarians; therefore an act not to be condoned by us because it was committed before the sinner had any knowledge of Christian morality—for all these reasons, we had confidently expected that Your Pious Majesty would be sufficiently appalled to order an immediate end to the Aztec's oratory, if not to the Aztec himself.

However, Your Majesty's loyal cleric has never yet disobeyed a command from our liege. We append the further pages collected since the last were sent. And we will keep the scribes and the interpreter at their enforced and odious occupation, setting down still further pages, until such time as our Most Esteemed Emperor may see fit to give them surcease. We only beg and urge, Sire, that when you have read this next segment of the Aztec's life history—since it contains passages that would sicken Sodom—Your Majesty will reconsider your command that this chronicle be continued.

That the pure illumination of Our Lord Jesus Christ always guide the ways of Your Majesty, is the devout wish of Your S.C.C.M.'s devoted missionary legate,

(ecce signum) Zumárraga

TERTIA PARS

At the time of which I have been speaking, when I was given the name of Mole, I was still in school. Every sundown, when the working day was done, I and all the other boys above seven years of age, from all the villages and residences of Xaltócan, went either to The House of Building Strength, or, boys and girls together, to The House of Learning Manners.

In the former school, we boys endured rigorous physical exercises, and were taught the ball game of tlachtli and the rudiments of handling battle weapons. In the latter school, we and the girls our age were given some sketchy history of our nation and other lands, some rather more intensive instruction in the nature of our gods and the numerous festivals dedicated to them, and were taught the arts of ritual singing, dancing, and playing of musical instruments for the celebration of all those religious ceremonies.

It was only in those telpochcaltin, or lower schools, that we commoners mingled as equals with the children of the nobility, and even with a few of the demonstrably brighter and more deserving slave children. That elementary education, stressing politeness, piety, grace, and dexterity, was regarded as sufficient schooling for us middle-class youngsters, and a real honor for the handful of slave children who were deemed worthy and capable of any schooling whatever.

But none of the slave boys, and few of us middle-class boys—and never a girl child, even a daughter of the nobility—could look forward to any further education than that provided by The Houses of Manners and Strength. The sons of our nobles usually left the island to attend one of the calmécactin, since there was no such school on Xaltócan. Those institutions of higher learning were staffed and taught by a special order of priests, and their students learned to be priests themselves, or to be governing officials, or scribes, historians, artists, physicians, or professionals of some other calling. Entrance to a calmécac was not forbidden to any ordinary boy, but the attendance and boarding there was too costly for most middle-class families to afford, unless a boy was accepted at no cost at all, for having shown great distinction in the lower school.

And I must confess that I distinguished myself not at all in either The House of Learning Manners or that of Building Strength. I remember, on my first entering the music class at the school of manners, the Master of the Boys asked me to sing something, so that he might judge the quality of my voice. And I did, and he did, saying, "A wondrous thing to hear, but I do not believe it is singing. We will try you on an instrument."

When I proved equally incapable of wringing a tune from the four-holed flute, or any kind of harmony from the various tuned drums, the exasperated Master put me into a class which was learning one of the beginners' dances, the Thundering Serpent. Each dancer makes a small spring forward with a stamping noise, then whirls completely around, crouches on one knee and turns again in that position, then makes another stamping forward leap. When a line of boys and girls does this in progression, the sound is of a continuous rolling boom and the visual effect is that of a long snake twining its way along in sinuous curves. Or it should be.

"This is the first Thundering Serpent I ever saw with a kink in it!" shouted the Mistress of the Girls.

"Get out of that line, Malinqui!" shouted the master of the Boys.

Thereafter, to him, I was Alfaqui, the Kink. And thereafter, when our school's students performed in public, at festival ceremonies in the island's pyramid plaza, my only contribution to the music and dancing was to beat a turtleshell drum with a pair of small deer antlers or to click a pair of crab claws in each hand. Fortunately, my sister maintained the honor of our family at those events, she being always the featured solo dancer. Tzitzitlini could dance without any music at all, yet make the spectators believe they heard music all about them.

I was beginning to feel that I possessed no identity at all, or else so many that I knew not which to accept as really my own. At home I had been Mixtli, the Cloud. To the rest of Xaltócan I was becoming generally known as Tozani, the Mole. At The House of Learning Manners I was Alfaqui, the Kink. And in The House of Building Strength I soon became Poyautla, the Fogbound.

By good fortune, I was not as lacking in muscle as in musical bent, for I had inherited my father's stature and solidity. By the time I was fourteen I was taller than schoolmates two years older. And I suppose a stone-blind man could do the stretching and leaping and weightlifting exercises. So the Master of Athletics found no fault with my performance until we began to engage in team sports.

If the game of tlachtli allowed the use of hands and feet, I might have played better, for one moves one's hands and feet almost instinctively. But the hard óli ball can be struck only with knees, hips, elbows, and buttocks, and when I could see the ball at all, it was only a dim blob further blurred by its speed. Consequently, though we players wore head protectors, hip girdles, knee and elbow sleeves of heavy leather, and thick cotton padding over the rest of our bodies, I was constantly being bruised by the blows of the ball.

Worse, I could seldom distinguish my own teammates from the opposing players. When I did infrequently knee or hip the ball, I was as likely as not to slam it through the wrong one of the squat stone arches, the knee-high goals which, according to the complicated rules of the game, are continually being lugged from place to place at the ends of the court. As for putting the ball through one of the vertical stone rings high up in the midline of the court's two enclosing walls—meaning an immediate win, no matter what the score of goals already made by either team—that is next to impossible for even the most experienced player to do even by accident; it would have been a miracle for fogbound me.

It was not long before the Master of Athletics gave up on me as a participant. I was put in charge of the players' water jar and dipper, and of the pricking thorns and sucking reeds with which, after each game, the school physician eased the stiffness of the players by drawing the turgid black blood from their bruises.

Then there were the war games and the weapons instruction, under the tutelage of an elderly and scarred cuáchic, an "old eagle," the title of one whose battle valor has already been proved. His name was Extli-Quani, or Blood Glutton, and he must have been well over forty years old. For those exercises, we boys were not allowed to wear any of the plumes or paints or other array of real warriors. But we carried boy-sized shields of wood or wicker covered with leather, and we wore boy-sized suits of the soldiers' standard battle garb. Those garments were of thickly quilted cotton, toughened by having been soaked in brine, and they covered us from neck to wrists and ankles. They allowed a reasonable freedom of movement, and they were supposed to protect us from arrows—at least those arrows propelled from a distance—but ayya! they were hot and scratchy and sweaty things to wear for longer than a short while.

"First you will learn the battle cries," said Blood Glutton. "In combat, of course, you will be accompanied by the conch trumpeters and the beaters of the thunder drums or the groaning drums. But to those must be added your own voices shouting for slaughter, and the sound of your fists and weapons pounding upon your shields. I know from experience, my boys, that an overwhelming clamor of noise can be a weapon itself. It can shake a man's mind, water his blood, weaken his sinews, even void his bladder and bowels. But you must make that noise, and you will find it twice effective: it heartens your own battle resolve while it terrifies your enemy."

And so, for weeks before we had even a mock weapon, we yelled the shrieks of the eagle, the rasping grunts of the jaguar, the long-drawn hoots of the owl, the alalalala! of the parrot. We learned to caper in feigned eagerness for battle, to menace with broad gestures, to threaten with grimaces, to pound our shields in drumming unison until they were stained with the blood of our hands.

Some other nations had weapons different from those we Mexíca relied on, and some of our own units of warriors were equipped with arms for particular purposes, and even an individual might choose always to use whichever weapon he had become most proficient with. Those other arms included the leather sling for throwing rocks, the blunt stone ax for bludgeoning, the heavy mace whose knob was studded with jagged obsidian, the three-pointed spear of bones barbed at the ends so they inflicted a tearing wound, or the sword fashioned simply of the toothed snout of the sawfish. But the basic weapons of the Mexíca were four.

For the opening encounter with an enemy, at a long distance, there was the bow and arrow. We students practiced for a long time with arrows tipped only with soft balls of óli instead of sharp obsidian. For example, one day the Master formed twenty or so of us into a line and said:

"Suppose the enemy are in that patch of nopali cactus." He indicated what was to my fogbound vision only a green blur some hundred strides away. "I want full pull on the bowstring and I want your arrows angled upward, exactly midway between where the sun stands and the horizon below him. Ready? Take stable stance. Now take aim at the cactus. Now let fly."

There was a swooshing noise, then the boys groaned in concert. All the arrows had arced to the ground in a respectably tight grouping and at the hundred-strides distance of the cactus patch. But that was thanks to Blood Glutton's having specified the pull and the angle. The boys groaned because they had all been equally and dismally off target; the arrows had landed far to the left of the cactus. We looked to the Master, waiting for him to tell us how we could have aimed so wrong.

He gestured at the square and rectangular battle ensigns whose staffs were stuck here and there in the ground about us. "What are these cloth flags for?" he asked.

We looked at each other. Then Pactli, son of the Lord Red Heron, replied, "They are guidons to be carried by our separate unit leaders in the field. If we get scattered during a battle, the guidons show us where to regroup."

"Correct, Pactzin," said Blood Glutton. "Now, that other flag, that long feather pennant, what is it for?"

There was another exchange of glances, and Chimali ventured timidly, "We carry it to show pride that we are Mexíca."

"That is the wrong answer," said the Master, "but a manly one, so I will not whip you. But observe that pennon, my boys, how it floats upon the wind."

We all looked. There was not enough of a breeze that day to hold the banner straight out from its staff. It hung at an angle to the ground and—

"It is blowing to our left!" another boy shouted excitedly. "We did not aim wrong! The wind carried our arrows away from the target!"

"If you miss your target," the Master said drily, "you have aimed wrong. Blaming it on the wind god does not excuse it. To aim correctly, you must consider the force and direction in which Ehecatl is blowing his wind trumpet. That is the purpose of the feather pennon. Which way it hangs shows you which way the wind will carry your arrows. How high it hangs shows you how strongly the wind will carry them. Now, all of you march down there and retrieve your arrows. When you get there, turn about, from a line, and aim at me. The first boy who hits me will be excused for ten days from even his deserved whippings."

(We did not march, we ran for the arrows, and quite gleefully sent them back at the cuáchic, but not one of us hit him.)

For fighting at a nearer range than arrow shot, there was the javelin, a narrow, pointed blade of obsidian on a short shaft. Unfeathered, it depended for accuracy and piercing power upon its being thrown with utmost strength.

"So you do not hurl the javelin unaided," said Blood Glutton, "but with this atlatl throwing-stick. It will seem a clumsy method at first, but after much practice you will feel the atlatl to be what it is: a lengthening of your arm and a doubling of your strength. At a distance of as many as thirty long strides, you can drive the javelin clear through a tree as thick as a man. So imagine, my boys, what it will do when you fling it at a man."

There was also the long spear, with a broader and heavier obsidian head, for jabbing, thrusting, piercing before an enemy got really close to you. But, for the inevitable hand-to-hand fighting, there was the sword called the maquahuitl. It sounds innocent enough, "the hunting wood," but it was the most terrible and lethal weapon in our armory.

The maquahuitl was a flat stave of the very hardest wood, a man's-arm long and a man's-hand wide, and all along both edges of its length were inset sharp flakes of obsidian. The sword's handle was long enough for wielding the weapon with one hand or with both, and it was carefully carved to fit the grip of that weapon's owner. The obsidian chips were not merely wedged into the wood; so much depended on that sword that even sorcery was added to it. The flakes were cemented solidly with a charmed glue made of liquid óli, the precious perfumed copali resin, and fresh blood donated by the priests of the war god Huitzilopóchtli.

Obsidian makes a wicked-looking arrowhead or spear or sword edge, as shiny as quartz crystal but as black as the afterworld Mictlan. Properly flaked, the stone is so keen that it can cut as subtly as a grass-blade sometimes does, or cleave as deep as any bludgeon ax. The stone's one weakness is its brittleness; it can shatter against a foe's shield or against his opposing sword. But, in the hands of a trained fighter, the obsidian-edged maquahuitl can slash a man's flesh and bone as cleanly as if he were a clump of weeds—and in all-out war, as Blood Glutton never ceased reminding us, the enemy are but weeds to be mowed.

Just as our practice arrows, javelins, and spears were tipped with óli gum, so were our mock maquahuime made harmless. The stave was of light, soft wood, so the sword would break before it dealt a too punishing blow. And instead of obsidian chips, the edges were outlined only with tufts of feather down. Before any two students fought a sword duel, the Master would wet those tufts with red paint, so that every blow received would register as vividly as a real wound, and the mark would last almost as long. In a very short time, I was cross-hatched with wound marks, face and body, and I was quite embarrassed to be seen in public. Then it was that I requested a private audience with our cuáchic. He was a tough old man, hard as obsidian, and probably uneducated in anything besides war, but he was no stupid clod.

I stooped to make the gesture of kissing the earth and, still kneeling, said, "Master Blood Glutton, you already know that my eyesight is poor. I fear you are wasting time and patience in trying to teach me to soldier. If these marks on my body were real wounds, I should have been dead long since."

"So?" he said coolly. Then he squatted to my level. "Fogbound, I will tell you of a man I once met down in Quautemálan, the country of The Tangled Wood. Those people, as perhaps you know, are all timorous of death. This particular man scampered from every least suspicion of danger. He avoided the most natural risks of existence. He burrowed away in snug security. He surrounded himself with physicians and priests and sorcerers. He ate only the most nutritious foods, and he seized eagerly on every life-preserving potion he heard of. No man ever took better care of his life. He lived only to go on living."

I waited for more, but he said no more, so I asked, "What became of him, Master Cuáchic?"

"He died."

"That is all?"

"What else ever becomes of any man? I no longer remember even his name. No one remembers anything at all about him, except that he lived and then he died."

After another silence, I said, "Master, I know that if I am slain in war my dying will nourish the gods, and they will amply reward me in the afterworld, and perhaps my name will not be forgotten. But might I not be of some service in this world for a while before I achieve my dying?"

"Strike just one telling blow in battle, my boy. Then, even if you are slain the next moment, you will have done something with your life. More than all those men who merely drudge to exist until the gods tire of watching their futility and sweep them off to oblivion." Blood Glutton stood up. "Here, Fogbound, this is my own maquahuitl. It long served me well. Just feel the heft of it."

I will admit that I experienced a thrill when for the first time I held a real sword, not a toy weapon of corkwood and feathers.

It was most atrociously heavy, but its very weight said, "I am power."

"I see that you lift it and swing it with one hand," observed the Master. "Not many boys your age could do that. Now step over here, Fogbound. This is a sturdy nopali. Give it a killing stroke."

The cactus was an old one, of nearly tree size. Its spiny green lobes were like paddles, and its barked brown trunk was as thick as my waist. I swung the maquahuitl experimentally, with my right hand only, and the obsidian edge bit into the cactus wood with a hungry tchunk! I wiggled the blade loose, took the handle in both hands, swung the sword far back behind me, then struck with all my force. I had expected the blade to cut rather more deeply, but I was truly surprised when it slashed cleanly all the way through the trunk, splashing its sap like colorless blood. The nopali came crashing down, and the Master and I both had to leap nimbly away to avoid the falling mass of sharp spines.

"Ayyo, Fogbound!" Blood Glutton said admiringly. "Whatever attributes you lack, you do have the strength of a born warrior."

I flushed with pride and pleasure, but I had to say, "Yes, Master, I can strike and kill. But what of my dim vision? Suppose I were to strike the wrong man. One of our own."

"No cuáchic in command of novice warriors would ever put you in a position to do so. In a War of Flowers, he might assign you to the Swaddlers who carry the ropes to bind enemy prisoners that they may be brought back for sacrifice. Or in a real war, you might be assigned to the rear-guard Swallowers whose knives give merciful release to those comrades and foes left lying wounded when the battle has swept on past them."

"Swallowers and Swaddlers," I mustered. "Hardly heroic duties to win me reward in the afterworld."

"You spoke of this world," the Master sternly reminded me, "and of service, not heroism. Even the humblest can serve. I remember when we marched into the insolent city of Tlaltelólco, to annex it to our Tenochtítlan. That city's warriors battled us in the streets, of course, but its women, children, and old dodderers stood upon the housetops and threw down at us large rocks, nests full of angry wasps, even handfuls of their own excrement."

Right here, my lord scribes, I had better make clear that, among the different kinds of wars we Mexíca fought, the battle for Tlaltelólco had been an exceptional case. Our Revered Speaker Axayácatl simply found it necessary to subjugate that haughty city, to deprive it of independent rule, and forcibly to make its people render allegiance to our one great island capital of Tenochtítlan. But, as a general rule, our wars against other peoples were not for conquest—at least not in the sense that your armies have conquered all of this New Spain and made it an abject colony of your Mother Spain.

No, we might defeat and humble another nation, but we would not obliterate it from the earth. We fought to prove our own might and to exact tribute from the less mighty. When a nation surrendered and acknowledged fealty to us Mexíca, it was given a tally of its native resources and products—gold, spices, óli, whatever—that henceforth it would annually deliver in specified quantities to our Revered Speaker. And it would be held subject to conscription of its fighting men, when and if they should be needed to march alongside us Mexíca.

But that nation would retain its name and sovereignty, its own ruler, its accustomed way of life, and its preferred form of religion. We would not impose on it any of our laws, customs, or gods. Our war god Huitzilopóchtli, for example, was our god. Under his care the Mexíca were a people set apart from others and above them, and we would not share that god or let him be shared. Quite the contrary. In many defeated nations we discovered new gods or novel manifestations of our known gods, and, if they appealed to us, our armies brought home copies of their statues for us to set in our own temples.

I must tell you, too, that there existed nations from which we never were able to wring tribute or fealty. For instance, contiguous to us in the east there was Cuautexcalan, The Land of the Eagle Crags, usually called by us simply Texcala, The Crags. For some reason, you Spaniards choose to call that land Tlaxcala, which is laughable, since that word means merely tortilla.

Texcala was completely ringed by countries all allied to us Mexíca, hence it was forced to exist like a landlocked island. But Texcala adamantly refused ever to submit in the least degree, which meant that it was cut off from importing many necessities of life. If the Texcalteca had not, however grudgingly, traded with us the sacred copali resin in which their forestland was rich, they would not even have had salt to flavor their food.

As it was, our Uey-Tlatoani severely restricted the amount of trading between us and the Texcalteca—always in expectation of bringing them to submission—so the stubborn Texcalteca perpetually suffered humiliating deprivations. They had to eke out their meager crop of cotton, for example, meaning that even their nobles had to wear mantles woven of only a trace of cotton mixed with coarse hemp or maguey fiber; garments which, in Tenochtítlan, would have been worn only by slaves or children. You can well understand that Texcala harbored an abiding hatred for us Mexíca and, as you well know, it eventually had dire consequences for us, for the Texcalteca, and for all of what is now New Spain.

"Meanwhile," said Master Blood Glutton to me on that day we conversed, "right now our armies are disastrously embroiled with another recalcitrant nation to the west. The Revered Speaker's attempted invasion of Michihuácan, The Land of the Fishermen, has been repulsed most ignominiously. Axayácatl expected an easy victory, since those Purémpecha have always been armed with copper blades, but they have hurled our armies backward in defeat."

"But how, Master?" I asked. "An unwarlike race wielding soft copper weapons? How could they stand against us invincible Mexíca?"

The old soldier shrugged. "Unwarlike the Purémpecha may be, but they fight fiercely enough to defend their Michihuácan homeland of lakes and rivers and well-watered farmlands. Also, it is said they have discovered some magic metal that they mix into their copper while it is still molten. When the mixture is forged into blades, it becomes a metal so hard that our obsidian crumples like bark paper against it."

"Fishermen and farmers," I murmured, "defeating the professional soldiers of Axayácatl...."

"Oh, we will try again, you may wager on it," said Blood Glutton. "This time Axayácatl wanted only access to those waters rich in food fish, and those fruitful valleys. But now he will want the secret of that magic metal. He will challenge the Purémpecha again, and when he does, his armies will require every man who can march." The Master paused, then added pointedly, "Even stiff-jointed old cuáchictin like me, even those who can serve only as Swallowers and Swaddlers, even the crippled and the fogbound. It behooves us to be trained and hardened and ready, my boy."

As it happened, Axayácatl died before he could mount another invasion into Michihuácan, which is part of what you now call New Galicia. Under subsequent Revered Speakers, we Mexíca and the Purémpecha managed to live in a sort-of wary mutual respect. And I hardly need remind you, reverend friars, that your own most butcherlike commander, Beltran de Guzmán, is to this day still trying to crush the diehard bands of Purémpecha around Lake Chapalan and in other remote corners of New Galicia that yet refuse to surrender to your King Carlos and your Lord God.

I have been speaking of our punitive wars, such as they were. I am sure that even your bloodthirsty Guzmán can understand that kind of warfare, though I am also sure he could never conceive of a war—like most of ours—which left the defeated nation still surviving and independent. But now let me speak of our Wars of Flowers, because those seem incomprehensible to any of you white men. "How," I have heard you ask, "could there have been so many unprovoked and unnecessary wars between friendly nations? Wars that neither side even tried to win?"

I will do my best to explain.

Any kind of war was, naturally, pleasing to our gods. Each warrior, dying, spilled his lifeblood, the most precious offering a human could make. In a punitive war, a decisive victory was the objective, and so both sides fought to kill or be killed. The enemy were, as my old Master put it, weeds to be mowed. Only a comparatively few prisoners were taken and kept for later ceremonial sacrifice. But whether a warrior died on the battlefield or on a temple altar, his was accounted a Flowery Death, honorable to himself and satisfying to the gods. The only problem was—if you look at it from the gods' point of view—that punitive wars were not frequent enough. While they provided much god-nourishing blood and sent many soldiers to be afterworld servants of the gods, such wars were only sporadic. The gods might have to wait and fast and thirst for many years between. That displeased them, and in the year One Rabbit, they let us know it.

That was some twelve years before my birth, but my father remembered it vividly and often told of it with much sad shaking of his head. In that year, the gods sent to this whole plateau the harshest winter ever known. Besides freezing cold and biting winds which untimely killed many infants, sickly elders, our domestic animals, and even the animals of the wild, there was a six-day snowfall which killed every winter crop in the ground. There were mysterious lights visible in the night skies: wavering vertical bands of cold-colored lights, what my father described as "the gods striding ominously about the heavens, nothing of them visible but their mantles woven of white and green and blue heron feathers."

And that was only the beginning. The spring brought not just an end to the cold but a scorching heat; the rainy season ensued, but it brought no rain, the drought killed our crops and animals as dead as the snows had done. Nor was even that the end. The following years were equally merciless in their alternate cold and heat and dearth of rain. In the cold our lakes froze over; in the heat they shrank, they became tepid, they became bitter salt, so that the fish died and floated belly up. and fouled the air with their stench.

Five or six years continued thus: what the older folk of my youth still referred to as the Hard Times. Yya ayya, they must have been terrible times indeed, for our people, our proud and upstanding macehualtin, were reduced to selling themselves into slavery. You see, other nations beyond this plateau, in the southern highlands and in the coastal Hot Lands, they had not been laid waste by the climatic catastrophe. They offered shares of their own still-bounteous harvests for barter, but that was no generosity, for they knew that we had little to trade except ourselves. Those other peoples, especially those inferior to us and inimical to us, were only too pleased to buy "the swaggering Mexíca" for slaves, and to demean us further by paying only cruel and miserly prices.

The standard trade was five hundred ears of maize for a male of working age or four hundred for a female of breeding age. If a family had one sellable child, that boy or girl would be relinquished so the rest of the household might eat. If a family had only infants, the father would sell himself. But for how long could any household subsist on four or five hundred ears of maize? And when those were eaten, who or what remained to be sold? Even if the Good Times were suddenly to come again, how could a family survive without a working father? Anyway, the Good Times did not come—

That was during the reign of the First Motecuzóma and, in attempting to alleviate his people's misery, he depleted both the national and his personal treasury, then emptied all the capital's storehouses and granaries. When the surplus was gone, when everything was gone except the still-grinding Hard Times, Motecuzóma and his Snake Woman convened their Speaking Council of elders, and even called in seers and sayers for advice. I cannot vouch for it, but it is said that the conference went thus:

One hoary sorcerer, who had spent months in studying the thrown bones and consulting sacred books, solemnly reported, "My Lord Speaker, the gods have made us hungry to demonstrate that they are hungry. There has not been a war since our last incursion into Texcala, and that was in the year Nine House. Since then, we have made only sparse blood offerings to the gods. A few prisoners kept in reserve, the occasional lawbreaker, now and then an adolescent or a maiden. The gods are quite plainly demanding more nourishment."

"Another war?" mused Motecuzóma. "Even our hardiest warriors are by now too feeble even to march to an enemy frontier, let alone breach it."

"True, Revered Speaker. But there is a way to arrange a mass sacrifice..."

"Slaughter our people before they starve to death?" Motecuzóma asked sardonically. "They are so gaunt and dried-up that the whole nation probably would not yield a cupful of blood."

"True, Revered Speaker. And in any case, that would be such a mendicant gesture that the gods probably would not accept it. No, Lord Speaker, what is necessary is a war, but a different kind of war...."

That, or so I have been told, and so I believe, was the origin of the Flowery Wars, and this is how the first of them was arranged:

The mightiest and most centrally situated powers in this valley constituted a Triple Alliance: we the Mexíca with our capital on the island of Tenochtítlan, the Acolhua with their capital at Texcóco on the lake's eastern shore, and the Tecpanéca with their capital at Tlácopan on the western shore. There were three lesser peoples to the southeast: the Texcalteca, of whom I have already spoken, with their capital at Texcala; the Huexotin with their capital at Huexotzinco; and the once mighty Tya Nuü—or Mixteca, as we called them—whose domain had shrunken until it consisted of little more than their capital city of Chololan. The first were our enemies, as I have said; the latter two had long ago been made our tribute payers and, like it or not, our occasional allies. All three of those nations, however, like all three of ours in the Alliance, were being devastated by the Hard Times.

After Motecuzóma's conference with his Speaking Council, he conferred also with the rulers of Texcóco and Tlácopan. Those three together drafted and sent a proposal to the three rulers in the cities of Texcala, Chololan, and Huexotzinco. In essence it said something like this:

"Let us all make war that we may all survive. We are diverse peoples, but we suffer the same Hard Times. The wise men say that we have only one hope of enduring: to sate and placate the gods with blood sacrifices. Therefore, we propose that the armies of our three nations meet in combat with the armies of your three nations, on the neutral plain of Acatzinco, safely far to the southeast of all our lands. The fighting will not be for territory, nor for rule, nor for slaughter, nor for plunder, but simply for the taking of prisoners to be granted the Flowery Death. When all participating forces have captured a sufficiency of prisoners for sacrifice to their several gods, this will be mutually made known amongst the commanders and the battle will end forthwith."

That proposal, which you Spaniards say you find incredible, was agreeable to all concerned—including the warriors whom you have called "stupidly suicidal" because they fought for no apparent end except the extremely likely and sudden end to their own lives. Well, tell me, what professional soldier of your own would refuse any excuse for a battle, in preference to humdrum, peacetime garrison duty? At least our warriors had the stimulus of knowing that if they died in combat or on an alien altar, they earned all people's thanks for pleasing the gods, while they earned the gods' gift of life in a blissful afterworld. And, in those Hard Times, when so many died of inglorious starvation, a man had even more reason for preferring to die by the sword or the sacrificial knife.

So that first battle was planned, and it was fought as planned—though the plain of Acatzinco was a dreary long march from anywhere, so all six armies had to rest for a day or two before the signal was given to commence hostilities. Other intentions notwithstanding, a goodly number of men were killed; some inadvertently, by chance and accident; some because they or their opponents fought too exuberantly. It is difficult for a warrior, trained to kill, to refrain from killing. But most, as agreed, struck with the flat of the maquahuitl, not with the obsidian edge. The men thus stunned were not dispatched by the Swallowers but were quickly bound by the Swaddlers. After only two days, the priest-chaplains who marched with each army decided that prisoners enough had been taken to satisfy them and their gods. One after another, the commanders unfurled the prearranged banners, the knots of men still grappling on the plain disengaged, the six armies reassembled and marched wearily home, leading their even wearier captives.

That first, tentative War of Flowers took place in midsummer, normally also mid-rainy season, but in those Hard Times just another of the interminable hot, dry spells. And one other thing had been prearranged by the six rulers of the six nations: that all of them should sacrifice all their prisoners in their six capital cities on the same day. No one remembers the exact count, but I suppose several thousand men died that day in Tenochtítlan, in Texcóco, in Tlácopan, in Texcala, in Chololan, in Huexotzinco. Call it coincidence if you like, reverend friars, since the Lord God was of course not involved, but that day the casks of clouds at last broke their seals, and the rain poured down on all this extensive plateau, and the Hard Times came to an end.

That very day, also, many people in the six cities enjoyed full bellies for the first time in years, when they dined on the remains of the sacrificed xochimíque. The gods were satisfied to be fed merely with the ripped-out hearts heaped on their altars; they had no use for the remainder of the victims' bodies, but the gathered people did. So, as the corpse of each xochimíqui, still warm, rolled down the steep staircase of each temple pyramid, the meat cutters waiting below dissected it into its edible parts and distributed those among the eager folk crowding each plaza.

The skulls were cracked and the brains extracted, the arms and legs were cut into manageable segments, the genitals and buttocks were sliced off, the livers and kidneys were cut out. Those food portions were not just flung to a slavering mob; they were distributed with admirable practicality, and the populace waited with admirable restraint. For obvious reasons, the brains went to priests and wise men, the muscular arms and legs to warriors, the genitalia to young married couples, the less significant buttocks and tripes were presented to pregnant women, nursing mothers, and families with many children. The leftovers of heads, hands, feet, and torsos, being more bone than meat, were put aside to fertilize the croplands.

That feast of fresh meat may or may not have been an additional advantage foreseen by the planners of the Flowery War; I do not know. All the various peoples in these lands had long ago eaten every still-existing game animal, every domesticated bird and dog raised for food. They had eaten lizards and insects and cactus. But they never had eaten any of their relatives and neighbors who succumbed to the Hard Times. It might be thought an unconscionable waste of available nutriment, but in every nation the starving people had disposed of their starved fellows by burial or burning, according to their custom. Now, however, thanks to the War of Flowers, they had an abundance of bodies of unrelated enemies—even if those were enemies only by an exaggeration of definition—and so there was no compunction about making a meal of them.

In the aftermath of later wars, there was never again such an immediate butchery and gorging. Since there was never again such a massed and ravenous hunger to assuage, the priests set up rules and rituals to formalize the eating of captives' flesh. The victorious warriors of later wars took only token morsels of their dead enemies' muscular parts, and partook of them ceremoniously. The bulk of the meat was apportioned out among the really poor folk—generally meaning the slaves—or was fed to the animals in those cities which, like Tenochtítlan, maintained a public menagerie.

Human flesh, like almost any other animal flesh, when properly hung, aged, seasoned, and broiled, makes a tasty dish, and it is suitable for sustenance when there is no other meat. However, just as it can be proven that close-kinship marriage among our noble families did not result in superior offspring, but more often the contrary, I think it could be equally demonstrated that humans who feed only on humans must similarly decline. If a family's bloodline is best improved by marriage outside the line, so a man's blood must be best strengthened by the ingestion of other animals. Thus, with the passing of the Hard Times, the practice of eating the slain xochimíque became—for all but the desperate and degenerate poor—only one more religious observance, and a minor one.

But the first War of Flowers was such a success, coincidence or not, that the same six nations continued to wage others at regular intervals, for a safeguard against any future displeasure of the gods and any recurrence of the Hard Times. I daresay we Mexíca had little further need of that stratagem, for Motecuzóma and the Revered Speakers who succeeded him did not again let years elapse between real wars. There was seldom a time thereafter when we did not have an army in the field, extending our tributary dominion. But the Acolhua and the Tecpanéca, having few ambitions of that sort, had to depend on the Wars of Flowers to provide Flowery Deaths for their gods. So, since Tenochtítlan had been the instigator, it continued willingly to participate: The Triple Alliance versus the Texcalteca, the Mixteca, and the Huexotin.

To the warriors it mattered not. Punitive war or Flowery War, a man had as much chance of dying. He had also as much opportunity of being acclaimed a hero or even awarded one of the orders of knighthood, whether he left a notable number of enemies dead on some disputed field or brought home a notable number alive from the plain of Acatzinco.

"For know this, Fogbound," said Master Blood Glutton, on that day of which I have spoken. "No warrior, in a real war or a War of Flowers, must ever expect to be counted among the fallen or the captured. He must expect to live through the war and to come out of it a hero. Oh, I will not dissemble, my boy. He may very well die, yes, while still thrilling to that expectation. But if he goes into battle not expecting victory for his side and glory for himself, die he surety will."

I tried to convey, while trying not to sound pusillanimous, that I was not afraid to die, but neither was I eager to. In whatever kind of war, I was evidently destined for no higher office than Swallower or Swaddler. Such a duty, I pointed out, could as well be assigned to women. Would I not be of more value to the Mexíca nation, to humanity as a whole, if I were allowed to exercise my other talents?

"What other talents?" grunted Blood Glutton.

That stopped me for a moment. But then I suggested that if, for example, I succeeded in mastering the picture writing, I could accompany the army as a battle historian. I could sit apart, on an overlooking hilltop perhaps, and write a description of each battle's strategy and tactics and progress, for the edification of future commanders.

The old soldier regarded me with exasperation. "First you say you cannot see to fight an opponent face to face. Now you say you will encompass the whole confused action of two entire clashing armies. Fogbound, if you are seeking exemption from this school's weapons practice, save your breath. I could not excuse you if I would. In your case, there is a charge upon me."

"A charge?" I said, nonplussed. "A charge from whom, Master?"

He frowned, annoyed, as if caught in a slip of the tongue, and growled, "A charge I impose upon myself. It is my sincere belief that every man should experience one war, or at least one battle, in his lifetime. Because, if he survives, he savors all the rest of his life the more richly and dearly. Now, enough of this. I shall expect to see you on the field as usual at tomorrow's dusk."

So I went away then, and I went on with the combat drills and lessons in the days and months that followed. I knew not what the future held for me, but I did know one thing. If I was destined for some undesirable duty, there were only two ways to evade it: either show myself incapable of it or show myself too good for it. And good scribes were at least not made weeds for the obsidian to mow. That is why, while I uncomplainingly attend both the Houses of Building Strength and Learning Manners, in private I worked ever more intensely and feverishly to puzzle out the secrets of the art of word knowing.

* * *

I would make the gesture of kissing the earth, Your Excellency, if that were a custom still observed. Instead, I simply straighten my old bones upright so that I stand, like your friars, to salute your entrance.

It is an honor to have Your Excellency's presence grace our little group once again, and to hear you say that you have examined the collected pages of my story thus far. But Your Excellency asks searching questions relative to certain events therein, and I must confess that your questions make me lower my eyelids in embarrassment, even in some shame.

Yes, Your Excellency, my sister and I continued to enjoy each other at every opportunity during those growing-up years of which I have recently spoken. And yes, Your Excellency, we knew that we sinned.

Probably Tzitzitlini knew it from the start, but I was younger, so it was only gradually that I became aware that what we were doing was wrong. Over the years I have come to realize that our females always knew more about the mysteries of sex, and knew it earlier, than any males. I suspect the same is true of the females of all races, including your own. For they seem inclined, from their youngest years, to whisper among themselves, and to trade what secrets they learn about their own bodies and the bodies of men, and to consort with old widows and crones who—perhaps because their own juices have long gone dry—are gleefully or maliciously eager to instruct young maidens in womanly wiles and snares and deceptions.

I regret that I am not, even yet, sufficiently knowledgeable of my new Christian religion to know all its rules and strictures on the subject, though I gather that it frowns on every manifestation of sexuality except an occasional copulation between Christian husband and wife for the purpose of producing a Christian child. But even we heathens observed a few laws and a great many traditions regarding accepted sexual behavior.

A maiden was to remain a virgin until she married, and she was encouraged not to marry young, for our religion recognized that our living room and resources would be depleted by more than a moderate harvest of children in each generation. Or a maiden might choose not to marry but to join the auyanime, whose service to our warriors was a legitimate female occupation, if not exactly an exalted one. Or, if she was disqualified for marriage by ugliness or some other deficiency, she might become a maátitl for pay, and go astraddle the road. There were some girls who maintained their maidenhood so that they might win the honor of sacrifice in some ceremony which required a virgin; and others so that they might serve all their lives, like your nuns, as attendants to the temple priests—though there was speculation about the nature of that attendance and the duration of that virginity.

Chastity before marriage was not so demanded of our men, for they had always available the willing maátime and the slave women, willing or unwilling; and anyway, a man's virginity can hardly be proved or disproved. Neither can a woman's, I might confide—as Tzitzi confided to me—if she has time to prepare before her wedding night. There are old women who keep pigeons that they feed with the dark red seeds of some flower known to them, and they sell the eggs of those birds to would-be virgins. A pigeon's egg is small enough to be easily secreted deep inside a woman, and its shell is so fragile that an excited bridegroom will break it without feeling it, and the yolk of that specially bred egg is the exact color of blood. Also, the crones sell to women an astringent ointment made from the berry which you call the buckthorn, which will pucker the most slack and gaping orifice to adolescent tightness...

As you command, Your Excellency, I shall try to refrain from giving so many specific particulars.

Rape was a crime not often heard of among our people, for three reasons. First, it was almost impossible to commit without being caught, since most of our communities were so small that everyone knew everyone else, and strangers were exceedingly noticeable. Also, it was a rather unnecessary crime, there being plenty of maátime and slave women to satisfy a man's really urgent needs. Also, rape was punished with death. So was adultery, and so was cuilónyotl, the sex act between man and man, and so was patlachuia, the sex act between woman and woman. But those crimes, while probably not rare, were rarely discovered unless the partners were caught in the act. Such sins are, like virginity, otherwise elusive of proof.

I should make it clear that I speak here only of those practices banned or shunned among us Mexíca. Except for the sexual liberties and ostentations permitted during some of our fertility ceremonies, we Mexíca were rather austere in comparison to many other peoples. I remember, when I first traveled among the Maya, far to the south of here, I was shocked by the aspect of some of their temples, which had their roof drainpipes formed in the shape of a man's tepúli. All during the rainy season they urinated unceasingly.

The Huaxteca who live to the northeast, on the shore of the eastern sea, are exceptionally gross in matters of sex. I have seen temple friezes there carved with representations of the many positions a man and woman can assume. And any Huaxtecatl man with a tepúli larger than average would go walking about, even in public, even when visiting more civilized places, wearing no loincloth at all. That boastful strutting gave the Huaxteca men a reputation for rampant virility, which may or may not have been deserved. However, on those occasions when captured Huaxteca warriors have been put up for sale at the slave market, I have seen our own Mexíca noblewomen—veiled, and staying on the fringe of the crowd, but making signals for their servant to bid for this or that Huaxtecatl on the selling block.

The Purémpecha of Michihuácan to the west of here are most lax, or lenient, in matters of sex. For example, the sex act between a man and a man is not only not punished, it is condoned and accepted. It has even got into their picture writing. Perhaps you know that the symbol for a woman's tipíli is the drawing of a snail shell? Well, to write of the act between two males, the Purémpecha unashamedly would draw the picture of a nude man with a snail shell covering his real organs.

As for the act between my sister and myself—your word is incest?—yes, Your Excellency, I believe that was forbidden in every nation known. And yes, we risked death if we had been caught. The laws prescribed particularly grisly forms of execution for copulation between brother and sister, father and daughter, mother and son, uncle and niece, and so on. But such couplings were prohibited only to us macehualtin, who constituted most of the population. As I earlier remarked, there were noble families which strove to preserve what they called the purity of their bloodlines by confining their marriages only to near relatives, though there was never any evidence that it improved any succeeding generations. And of course not the law nor tradition nor people in general gave much notice to what went on among the slave class: rape, incest, adultery, what have you.

But you ask how my sister and I evaded discovery during our long indulgence in our sin. Well, having been so harshly chastised by our mother for much lesser mischiefs, we had both learned to be discreet in the extreme. A time came when I was away from Xaltócan for months on end, and I ached for Tzitzitlini, and she ached for me. But at every homecoming, I would give her only a cool brotherly kiss on the cheek and we would sit apart, concealing our inner tumult, while I recounted to our parents and other news-hungry relatives and friends all my doings in the world beyond our island. It might be a day or several days before Tzitzi and I could find or make an opportunity to be together in private and in secret and in no danger. Ah, but then, the hasty disrobing, the frantic caresses, the first release—as if we two lay on the slope of our own small, secret, and awakening volcano—then the more leisurely fondlings, the softer and more exquisite explosions...

But my absences from the island came later. Meanwhile my sister and I were never once surprised in the act. Of course, we would have incurred calamity if, like Christians, we had conceived a child at every coupling, or at any of them. That possibility might never have entered my own head; what boy could imagine being a father? But Tzitzi was a female, and wiser about such things, and she had taken precautions against the contingency. Those old women of whom I have spoken, they sold secretly to unmarried maidens—as our apothecaries sold openly to married couples who did not want to make a child every time they went to bed—a powder ground from the tlatlaohuéhuetl, which is that tuber like a sweet potato, only a hundred times bigger; what you call in Spanish the barbasco. Any woman who daily takes a dose of the powdered barbasco runs no risk of conceiving an unwanted—

Forgive me, Your Excellency. I had no idea I was saying anything sacrilegious. Do please be seated again.

I must report that, for a long time, I was personally running a risk, even when I was safely distant from Tzitzi. During our twilight military classes at The House of Building Strength, squads of six or eight boys together were regularly sent off to remote fields or stands of trees where we did a pretense of "standing guard against attack on the school." It was a boring duty, which we usually enlivened by playing patoli with jumping beans.

But then someone of the boys, I forget who, discovered the solitary act. He was not shy or selfish about his discovery, and immediately demonstrated the art to the rest of us. From then on, the boys no longer carried beans when they went on guard; they had their games equipment attached. For that is all it amounted to: a game. We held contests and made wagers on the amount of omícetl we could ejaculate, the number of times we could do it in succession, and the time needed in between for resurgence. It was like our even younger days, when we had competed to see who could spit or urinate farthest or most copiously. But in this new competition I was at hazard.

You see, I often came to the games not long out of the embrace of Tzitzi and, as you can imagine, my reservoir of omícetl was pretty well drained, not to mention my capacity for arousal. Hence my ejaculations were but few and feeble dribbles compared with the other boys', and often I could not get my tepúli erect at all. For a time, my comrades hooted and made fun of me, but then they began to regard me with worried and even pitying looks. Some of the more compassionate boys suggested remedies to me—eating raw meat, sweating long in the steam house, things like that. My two best friends, Chimali and Tlatli, had discovered that they achieved vastly more thrilling sensations when each manipulated the other's tepúli rather than his own. So they suggested—

Filth? Obscenity? It lacerates your ears to hear me? I am sorry if I distress Your Excellency—and you, my lord scribes—but I do not relate these events out of idle prurience. They all have a bearing on less trivial events which came later, and which came as a result of all this. If you will hear me out?

Eventually some of the older boys got the idea of putting their tepultin where they belonged. A few of our comrades, including Pactli, the governor's son, went scouting in the village nearest our school. There they found and drafted into service a slave woman of twenty-some years, maybe even thirty. Rather fittingly, her name was Teteo-Temacaliz, meaning Gift of the Gods. At any rate, she was a gift to the guard posts, which thereafter she visited almost daily.

Pactli had the authority to command her to that attendance, but I do not believe she had to be commanded. For she proved a willing, even vigorous participant in the sexual games. Ayya, I suppose the poor slut had reason. She had a comical bulge on her nose, and she was dumpily built, with great doughy thighs, and I imagine she had not much hope of marriage even to a man of her own tlacotli class. So she took to her new avocation of road straddler with lewd abandon.

As I have said, there might be six or eight boys camping afield at the guard posts on any given evening. When Gift of the Gods had serviced each of that number, the first would be ready for another turn, and the round would begin again. I am sure the lascivious Gift of the Gods could have gone on all night. But after a while of that activity she would get full of omícetl, slimy and slippery, and begin to give off the odor of an unhealthy fish, so the boys would stop of their own accord and send her home.

But she would be there again, the next afternoon, stripped naked, splayed wide open, and panting to commence. I had taken no part in those doings, had done no more than watch, until one evening, when Pactli finished using Gift of the Gods, he whispered something to her, and she came to where I sat.

"You are Mole," she said, leering. "And Pactzin tells me you have a difficulty." She made movements of temptation, her loose-lipped tipíli directly in front of my burning face. "Perhaps your spear would welcome being held in me and not in your fist for a change." I mumbled that I was not in any need of her at the moment, but I could not protest too much, with six or seven of my comrades standing about and grinning at my discomfiture.

"Ayyo!" she exclaimed, when with her hands she lifted my mantle and undid my loincloth. "Yours is a choice one, young Mole!" She bounced it in her palm. "Even unawakened, it is grander than the tepúli of any of the older boys. Even that of the noble Pactzin." My surrounding fellows laughed and nudged each other. I did not look up at the Lord Red Heron's son, but I knew that Gift of the Gods had just earned for me an enemy.

"Surely," she said, "a gracious macehuali will not deny pleasure to a humble tlacotli. Let me arm my warrior with a weapon." She took my member between her big flabby breasts, squeezed them together with one arm and began to massage me with them. Nothing happened. Then she did other things to me, attentions with which she had not favored even Pactli. He turned, thunder-faced, and stalked away from us. Still nothing happened, although she even...

Yes, yes, I hasten to conclude this episode.

Gift of the Gods finally gave up in annoyance. She threw my tepúli back against my belly and said petulantly, "The conceited cub warrior saves his virginity, no doubt for a woman of his own class." She spat on the ground, abruptly left me, seized another boy, wrestled him down, and began to buck like a wasp-stung deer—

Well.

His Excellency did ask me to speak of sex and sin, did he not, reverend friars? But it seems he cannot ever listen for long without turning as purple as his cassock, and betaking himself elsewhere. I should at least like him to know what I was leading up to. But of course—I was forgetting—His Excellency can read of it when he is calmer. May I proceed then, my lords?

Chimali came and sat beside me, and said, "I was not one of those who laughed at you, Mole. She does not excite me either."

"It is not so much that she is ugly and slovenly," I said. And I told Chimali what my father had recently told me: of that disease nanaua which can come from unclean sexual practices, the disease which afflicts so many of your Spanish soldiers, and which they fatalistically call "the fruit of the earth."

"Women who make a decent career of their sex are not to be feared," I told Chimali. "Our warriors' auyanime, for instance, keep themselves clean, and they are regularly inspected by the army physicians. But the maátime who will spread themselves for just anybody, and for any number, they are best avoided. The disease comes from unclean parts, and this creature here—who knows what squalid slave men she services before she comes to us? If you ever get infected with the nanaua, there is no cure. It can rot your tepúli so it falls off, and it can rot your brain until you are a stumbling, stammering idiot."

"That is the truth, Mole?" asked Chimali, quite ashen in the face. He looked at the sweating, heaving boy and woman on the ground. "And I was going to have her too, just so I would not be jeered at. But I had rather be unmanly than be an idiot."

He went at once and informed Tlatli. Then they must have spread the word, for the waiting line diminished after that evening, and, in the steam house, I often saw my comrades examining themselves for symptoms of rot. The woman came to be called by a variant of her name: Teteo-Tlayo, Offal of the Gods. But some of the schoolboys continued recklessly rutting on her, and one of those was Pactli. My contempt for him must have been as obvious as his dislike of me, for he came to me one day and said menacingly:

"So the Mole is too careful of his health to soil himself with a maátitl? I know that is only your excuse for your pitiable impotence, but it implies criticism of my behavior, and I warn you not to slander your future brother." I gaped at him. "Yes, before I rot, as you predict, I intend to marry your sister. Even if I become a diseased and shambling idiot, she cannot refuse a nobleman. But I would prefer that she come to me willingly. So I tell you, brother-to-be. Never let Tzitzitlini know of my sport with Offal of the Gods. Or I will kill you."

He strode away without waiting for me to reply, which, in any case, I could not have done at that moment. I was dumb with dread. It was not that I feared Pactli personally, since I was a shade the taller of us and probably the stronger. But if he had been a weakling dwarf, he was still the son of our tecutli, and now he bore me a grudge. The fact was that I had lived in trepidation ever since the boys began their games of solitary sex, and then their couplings with Offal of the Gods. My poor performance, and the derision I endured, those embarrassments did not wound my boyish vanity so much as they put fear in my vitals. I truly had to be thought impotent and unmanly. Pactli was as underwitted as he was overbearing, but if he ever began to suspect the real reason for my seemingly feeble sexuality—that I was lavishing it all elsewhere—he was not too stupid to wonder where. And on our small island, it would not take him long to ascertain that I could be trysting with no female except...

Tzitzitlini had first caught Pactli's interest when she was only a bud of a girl, when she visited the palace to attend that execution of his own adulterous sister princess. More recently, at the springtime Feast of the Great Awakening, Tzitzi had led the dancers in the pyramid plaza—and Pactli had seen her dance, and he had been fully smitten. Since then, he had repeatedly managed to encounter her in public and had spoken to her, a breach of manners for any man, even a píli. He had also recently invented excuses to visit our house two or three times, "to discuss quarry affairs with Tepetzalan," and there he had to be let enter. But Tzitzi's cool reception of him and her unconcealed distaste for him would have sent any other young man slinking away for good.

And now the vile Pactli told me he was going to marry Tzitzi. I went home from school that night and, as we sat around our supper cloth, after our father had given thanks to the gods for the food before us, I bluntly spoke up:

"Pactli told me today that he intends to take Tzitzitlini to wife. Not perhaps, or if she accepts him, or if the family gives consent. But that he intends it and will do it."

My sister stiffened and stared at me. She drew her hand lightly across her face, as our women always do at something unexpected. Our father looked uncomfortable. Our mother went on placidly eating, and just as placidly said, "He has spoken of it, Mixtli, yes. Pactzin will soon be out of the primary school, but he still must spend some years at the calmécac school before he can take a wife."

"He cannot take Tzitzi," I said. "Pactli is a stupid, greedy, unwholesome creature—"

Our mother leaned across the cloth and slapped my face, hard. "That is for speaking disrespectfully of our future governor. Who are you, what is your high station, that you presume to defame a noble?"

Biting back uglier words, I said, "I am not the only one of this island who knows Pactli to be a depraved and contemptible—"

She hit me again. "Tepetzalan," she said to our father. "One more word out of this unruly young man and you must attend to his correction." To me she said, "When the píli son of the Lord Red Heron marries Tzitzitlini, all the rest of us become pípiltin as well. What are your great prospects, with no trade, with only your useless pretense of studying word pictures, that you could bring such eminence to your family?"

Our father cleared his throat and said, "I care not so much for the -tzin to our names, but I care less for discourtesy and infamy. To refuse a nobleman any request—especially to decline the honor Pactli confers by asking our daughter's hand—would be an insult to him, a disgracing of ourselves, that we could never live down. If we were let to live at all, we would have to leave Xaltócan."

"No, not the rest of you." Tzitzi spoke for the first time, and firmly. "I will leave. If that degenerate beast Pactli... Do not raise your hand to me, Mother. I am a woman grown, and I will strike you back."

"You are my daughter and this is my house!" shouted our mother.

"Children, what has come over you?" pleaded our father.

"I say only this," Tzitzi went on. "If Pactli demands me, and you accede, not you or he will ever see me again. I will leave the island forever. If I cannot borrow or steal an acáli, I will swim. If I cannot reach the mainland, I will drown. Not Pactli or any other man will ever touch me, except a man I can give myself to."

"On all of Xaltócan—" our mother sputtered. "No other daughter so ungrateful, so disobedient and defiant, so—"

This time she was silenced by our father, who said, and said solemnly, "Tzitzitlini, if your unfilial words had been heard outside these walls, not even I could pardon you or avert your due punishment. You would be stripped and beaten and your head shaved. Our neighbors would do it if I did not, as an example to their own children."

"I am sorry, father," she said in a level voice. "You must choose. An undutiful daughter or none."

"I thank the gods I need not choose tonight. As your mother remarked, it will be a few years yet before the young Lord Joy can marry. So let us speak of it no more now, in anger or otherwise. Many things may happen between now and then."

Our father was right: many things might happen. I did not know if Tzitzi had meant anything she said, and I had no chance to ask her that night or the next day. We dared no more than to exchange a worried and yearning glance from time to time. But, whether or not she held to her resolve, the prospect was desolating. If she fled from Pactli, I should lose her. If she succumbed and married him, I should lose her. If she went to his bed, she knew the arts of convincing him that she was virgin. But if, before then, my own behavior made Pactli suspect that another man had known her first—and me of all men—his rage would be monumental, his revenge inconceivable. Whatever the hideous manner he chose for slaying us, Tzitzi and I would have lost each other.

Ayya, many things did happen, and one of them was this. When I went to The House of Building Strength at the next day's dusk, I found my name and Pactli's on Blood Glutton's roster, as if it had been ordained by some ironic god. And when our squad got to the appointed patch of trees, Offal of the Gods was already there, already naked, sprawled, and ready. To the astonishment of Pactli and our other companions, I immediately ripped off my loincloth and flung myself upon her.

I did it as clumsily as I could, a performance calculated to make the other boys believe it was my first, and a performance that probably gave the slut as little pleasure as it gave me. When I judged it had gone on long enough, I prepared to disengage, but then the revulsion got the better of me, and I spewed vomit all over her face and naked body. The boys roared and rolled on the ground with laughter. Even the wretch Offal of the Gods was capable of recognizing the insult. She gathered up her garments, and she clutched them to her nakedness, and she ran away, and she never came back.

* * *

Not long after that incident, four other things of note occurred in rather rapid succession. At least, that is how I remember them happening.

It happened that our Uey-Tlatoani Axayácatl died—very young, from the effects of wounds he had received in the battles against the Purémpecha—and his brother Tixoc, Other Face, assumed the throne of Tenochtítlan.

It happened that I, along with Chimali and Tlatli, completed what schooling was afforded on Xaltócan. I was now regarded as "educated."

It happened that our island's governor sent a messenger to our house one evening to summon me immediately to his palace.

And it happened that, at last, I was parted from Tzitzitlini, my sister and my love.

But I had best recount those occurrences in more detail, and in the order of their happening.

The change of rulers did not much affect the lives of us in the provinces. Indeed, even in Tenochtítlan, little was later remembered of Tixoc's reign except that, like his two predecessors, he continued work on the still-rising Great Pyramid in The Heart of the One World. And Tixoc added an architectural touch of his own to the plaza. He had stonemasons hew and carve the Battle Stone, a massive flat cylinder of volcanic rock which lay like a stack of immense tortillas between the unfinished pyramid and the Sun Stone's pedestal site. The Battle Stone was nearly as high as a man and about four strides across its diameter. Around the rim were low-relief carvings of Mexíca warriors. Tixoc prominent among them, engaged in combat and in subduing captives. The flat round top of the stone was the platform for a kind of public dueling, in which, a long time later, and in an unusual way, I would have occasion to participate.

Of rather more immediate concern to me, at that time, was the end of my formal schooling. Not being of the nobility, I was of course not entitled to go on to a calmécac of higher learning. And my record as Malinqui the Kink in one of our schools, and as Poyautla the Fogbound in the other, had hardly been of a nature to make any of the higher schools on the mainland invite me to attend at no cost.

What particularly embittered me was that, while I hungered in vain for the chance to learn more than the trivial knowledge our telpochcaltin could teach, my friends Chimali and Tlatli, who cared not a little finger for any further formal learning, did each get an invitation from separate calmécactin—and both of those in Tenochtítlan, my own dream destination. During their years in Xaltócan's House of Building Strength they had distinguished themselves as tlachtli players and as cub warriors. Though an elegant nobleman might have smiled at the "graces" the two boys had absorbed from The House of Learning Manners, they had nevertheless shone there too, by designing original costumes and settings for the ceremonies performed on festival days.

"It is too bad you cannot come with us, Mole," said Tlatli, sounding sincere enough but no whit less happy at his own good fortune. "You could attend all the dull schoolroom classes, and leave us free for our studio work."

Under the terms of their acceptance, both boys would, besides learning from the calmécac priests, also be apprenticed out to Tenochtítlan artists: Tlatli to a master sculptor, Chimali to a master painter. I was sure that neither of them would pay much heed to the lessons in history, reading, writing, counting, and such, the very things I ached for most. Anyway, before they departed, Chimali said, "Here is a good-bye gift for you, Mole. All my paints and reeds and brushes. I will have better ones in the city, and you may find them useful in your writing practice."

Yes, I was still pursuing my untutored study in the arts of reading and writing, though my ever becoming a word knower now seemed hopelessly remote, and my moving to Tenochtítlan a dream that would forever come untrue. My father had likewise despaired of my ever becoming a dedicated quarrier, and I was now too old to serve only to sit at the empty pit and shoo away animals. So, for some while past, I had been earning my keep and contributing to our family's support by working as a common farmboy.

Of course, Xaltócan has no such thing as farmland. There is not enough arable topsoil for staple crops like the maize, which requires deep earth for its nourishment. So Xaltócan, like all island communities, grows the bulk of its vegetable foods on the wide and ever spreading chinampa which you call floating gardens. Each chinamitl is a raft of woven tree limbs and branches, moored at the lake edge, then spread with load upon load of the richest soil, freighted out from the mainland. As the crops extend their roots season by season, new roots twining down old ones, they eventually clutch the lake bottom and hold the raft firmly in place. Other gardens are built and moored alongside. Every inhabited island in all the lakes, Tenochtítlan included, wears a wide ring of fringe of these chinampa. On some of the more fertile islands, it is difficult to discern where the god-made, land leaves off and the man-made fields begin.

It takes no more than mole eyesight or mole intellect to tend such gardens, so I tended those belonging to our family and neighbors in our quarter. The work was undemanding; I had plenty of free time. I applied myself—and Chimali's gift of paints—to the drawing of word pictures: training myself to make the most complex symbols ever simpler, more stylized, smaller in size. Unlikely as it then seemed, I still nursed the secret hope that my self-education might somehow yet improve my lot in life. I smile pityingly, now, to recall my young self sitting on a dirt raft among the sprouting maize and beans and chilis—among the reeking fertilizer of animal entrails and fish heads—while I scribbled away at my writing practice and dreamed my lofty dreams.

For example, I toyed with the ambition of becoming one of the pochtéa traveling merchants, and thus journeying to the Maya lands where some wonder-working doctor would restore my eyesight, while I should become rich from my shrewd trading along the way. Oh, I devised many a plan to turn a trilling amount of trade goods into a towering fortune, ingenious plans that I was sure no previous trader had ever thought of. The only obstacle to my assured success—as Tzitzi tactfully pointed out, when I confided some of my ideas—was that I lacked even the trifling amount of capital I reckoned I would need to begin with.

And then, one afternoon when the workday was done, one of the Lord Red Heron's messengers appeared at our house door. He wore a mantle of neutral color, signifying neither good news nor bad, and he said politely to my father, "Mixpantzinco."

"Ximopanolti," said my father, gesturing for him to enter.

The young man, about my own age, took only a single step inside and said, "The Tecutli Tlauquecholtzin, my master and yours, requires the presence of your son Chicome-Xochitl Tlilectic-Mixtli at the palace."

My father and sister looked surprised and bewildered. I suppose I did too. My mother did not. She wailed, "Yya ayya, I knew the boy would one day offend the nobles or the gods or—" She broke off to demand of the messenger, "What mischief has Mixtli done? There is no need for the Lord Red Heron to trouble himself with whipping or whatever is decreed. We will gladly attend to the punishment."

"I do not know that anyone has done anything," said the messenger, eyeing her warily. "I merely obey my order. To bring him without delay."

And without delay I accompanied him, preferring whatever waited at the palace to whatever my mother's imagination might conceive. I was curious, yes, but I could not think of any reason to quake. If that summons had come in an earlier time, I would have worried that the malicious Pactli had contrived some charge against me. But the young Lord Joy had himself gone off, two or three years before, to a Tenochtítlan calmécac which accepted only the scions of ruling families, themselves rulers-to-be. Pactli had since come back to Xaltócan only on brief school holidays. During those visits, he had paid calls at our house, but always during the working day when I was not at home, so I had not even seen him since the days of our having briefly shared Offal of the Gods.

The messenger stayed a respectful few paces behind me as I entered the palace throne room and bent to make the gesture of kissing the earth. Beside Lord Red Heron sat a man I had never seen on the island before. Though the stranger sat on a lower chair, as was proper, he considerably diminished our governor's usual air of importance. Even my mole vision could make out that he wore a brilliant feather mantle and ornaments of a richness that no nobleman of Xaltócan could flaunt.

Red Heron said to the visitor, "The request was: make a man of him. Well, our Houses of Building Strength and Learning Manners have done their utmost. Here he is."

"I am bidden to make a test," said the stranger. He produced a small roll of bark paper and held it out to me.

"Mixpantzinco," I said to both the nobles before I unrolled the thing. It bore nothing I could recognize as a test; only a single line of word pictures, and I had seen them before.

"You can read it?" asked the stranger.

"I forgot to mention that," said Red Heron, as if he had taught me himself. "Mixtli can read some simple things with a fair measure of comprehension."

I said, "I can read this, my lords. It says—"

"Never mind," the stranger interrupted. "Just tell me: what does the duck-billed face signify?"

"Ehecatl, the wind, my lord."

"Anything else?"

"Well, my lord, with the other figure, the closed eyelids, it says Night Wind. But—"

"Yes? Speak up, young man."

"If my lord will excuse my impertinence, that one figure does not show a duck's bill. It is the wind trumpet through which the wind god—"

"Enough." The stranger turned to Red Heron. "He is the one, Lord Governor. I have your permission, then?"

"But of course, of course," said Red Heron, quite obsequiously. To me he said, "This is the Lord Strong Bone, Snake Woman to Nezahualpili, Uey-Tlatoani of Texcóco. Lord Strong Bone brings the Revered Speaker's personal invitation that you come to reside and study and serve at the court of Texcóco."

"Texcóco!" I exclaimed. I had never been there, or anywhere in the Acolhua country. I knew no one there, and no Acolhuatl could ever have heard of me—certainly not the Revered Speaker Nezahualpili, who, in all these lands, was second in power and prestige only to Tixoc, the Uey-Tlatoani of Tenochtítlan. I was so astounded that, unthinking and unmannerly, I blurted, "Why?"

"You are not commanded," the Texcóco Snake Woman said brusquely. "You are invited, and you may accept or decline. But you are not invited to question the offer."

I mumbled an apology, and the Lord Red Heron came to my support, saying, "Excuse the youngster, my lord. I am sure he is as perplexed as I have been these several years—that such an exalted personage as Nezahualpili should have fixed his regard on this one of so many macehualtin."

The Snake Woman only grunted, so Red Heron went on, "I have never been given any explanation of your master's interest in this particular commoner, and I have refrained from asking. Of course, I remember your previous ruler, that tree of great shade, the wise and kindly Fasting Coyote, and how he used to travel alone throughout The One World, his identity disguised, to seek out estimable persons deserving of his favor. Does his illustrious son Nezahualpili carry on that same benign avocation? If so, what in the world did he see in our young subject Tlilectic-Mixtli?"

"I cannot say, Lord Governor." The haughty noble gave Red Heron almost as gruff a rebuke as he had given me. "No one questions the Revered Speaker's impulses and intentions. Not even I, his Snake Woman. And I have other duties besides waiting for an irresolute stripling to decide if he will accept a prodigious honor. I return to Texcóco, young man, at tomorrow's rising of Tezcatlipóca. Do you go with me or not?"

"I go, of course, my lord," I said. "I have only to pack some clothes, some papers, some paints. Unless there is something in particular I should bring?" I boldly added that, in hope of prying loose a hint of why I was going, for how long I was going.

He said only, "Everything necessary will be provided."

Red Heron said, "Be here at the palace jetty, Mixtli, at the rising of Tonatíu."

Lord Strong Bone glanced coolly at the governor, then at me, and said, "Best you learn, young man, to call the sun god Tezcatlipóca from now on."

From now an forever? I wondered as I hastened home alone. Was I to be an adopted Acolhuatl for the rest of my life, and a convert to the Acolhua gods?

When I told my waiting family what had occurred, my father said excitedly, "Night Wind! Just as I told you, son Mixtli! It was the god Night Wind you met on the road those years ago. And it is from Night Wind that now you will get your heart's desire."

Tzitzi looked worried and said, "But suppose it is a ruse. Suppose Texcóco merely happens to need a xochimíqui of a certain age and size for some particular sacrifice..."

"No," our mother said bluntly. "Mixtli is not handsome or graceful or virtuous enough to have been specially chosen for any ceremony I know of." She sounded disgruntled at this affair's having got out of her management. "But there is certainly something suspicious in all this. Grubbing about in picture books and wallowing idly in the chinampa, Mixtli could have done nothing to bring himself to the notice of even a slave dealer, let alone a royal court."

I said, "From the words spoken at the palace, and from the scrap of writing Lord Strong Bone carried, I think I can guess some things. That night at the crossroads I met no god, but an Acolhuatl traveler, perhaps some courtier of Nezahualpili himself, and we have just assumed he was Night Wind. During the years since then, though I do not know why, Texcóco has kept track of me. Anyway, it now seems that I am to attend a Texcóco calmécac, where I shall be taught the art of word knowing. I will be a scribe, as I have always wanted. At least," I finished with a shrug, "that is what I surmise."

"And you call it all coincidence," my father said sternly. "It is just as likely, son Mixtli, that you really did meet Night Wind and took him to be a mortal. Gods, like men, can travel in disguise, unrecognized. And you have profited from the encounter. It would do no harm to give thanks to Night Wind."

"You are right, father Tepetzalan. I will do so. Whether or not Night Wind was directly involved, he is the dispenser of hearts' desires when he chooses to be, and it is my heart's desire I am about to realize."

"But only one of my heart's desires," I said to Tzitzi, when at last we had a moment together in private. "How can I leave the sound of small bells ringing?"

"If you have good sense, you will leave here dancing and cheering," she said, with feminine practicality, but not with any perceptible cheer in her own voice. "You cannot spend your life pulling weeds, Mixtli, and inventing futile ambitions like your notion of becoming a trader. However this all happened, you now have a future, a brighter one than has ever been offered to any macehuali of Xaltócan."

"But if Night Wind or Nezahualpili or whoever could send one opportunity my way, there might be others, even better. I always dreamed of going to Tenochtítlan, not to Texcóco. I can still decline this offer—Lord Strong Bone said so—and I can wait. Why should I not?"

"Because you do have good sense, Mixtli. While I was still at The House of Learning Manners, the Mistress of the Girls told us that Tenochtítlan may be the strong arm of The Triple Alliance, but Texcóco is the brain. There is more than pomp and power at the court of Nezahualpili. There is a long heritage of poetry and culture and wisdom. The Mistress also said that, of all the lands which speak Náhuatl, the people of Texcóco speak the purest form of our language. What better destination for an aspiring scholar? You must go and you will go. You will study, you will learn, you will excel. And, if you truly have won the patronage of the Revered Speaker, who knows what high plans he may have for you? When you talk of refusing his invitation, you know you talk nonsense." Her voice dropped. "And only because of me."

"Because of us."

She sighed. "We had to grow up sometime."

"I always hoped we would do it together."

"We can still and always hope. You will be coming home at festival times. We will be together then. And when your schooling is done, why, you could become rich and powerful. You could become Mixtzin, and a noble can marry whomever he chooses."

"I hope to become an accomplished word knower, Tzitzi. That is ambition enough for me. And few scribes ever do anything to get themselves entitled -tzin."

"Well... perhaps you will be sent to work in some far Acolhua province where it is not known that you have a sister. Simply send and I will come. Your chosen bride from your native island."

"That would be years from now," I protested. "And you are already approaching marriageable age. In the meantime, the accursed Pactli also comes home for holidays on Xaltócan. Long before my schooling is done, he will be back here to stay. You know what he wants, and what he wants he demands, and what he demands cannot be denied."

"Denied, no, but possibly deferred," she said. "I will do my best to discourage the Lord Joy. And he may be less insistent in his demands"—she smiled bravely up at me—"now that I shall have a relative and protector at the mightier court of Texcóco. You see? You must go." Her smile became tremulous. "The gods have arranged that we be parted for a while, so that we shall not be parted forever." The smile faltered and fell and broke, and she wept.

The Lord Strong Bone's acáli was of mahogany, richly carved, covered by a fringed awning, decorated with the jadestone badges and feather pennons proclaiming his rank. It bypassed the lakeside city of Texcóco—what you Spaniards now call San Antonio de Padua—and proceeded about one-long-run farther south, toward a medium-sized hill which rose directly from the lake waters. "Texcotzinco," said the Snake Woman, the first word he had addressed to me during our entire morning's journey from Xaltócan. I squinted to peer at the hill, for on the other side of it was Nezahualpili's country palace.

The big canoe slid up to a solidly built jetty, the rowers upended their oars, and the steersman jumped ashore to make the boat fast. I waited for Lord Strong Bone to be helped out by his boatmen, then myself clambered onto the pier, lugging the wicker basket in which I had packed my belongings. The laconic Snake Woman pointed to a stone staircase winding uphill from the jetty and said, "That way, young man," the only other words he spoke to me that day. I hesitated, wondering whether it would be polite to wait for him, but he was supervising his men's unloading from the acáli all the gifts Lord Red Heron had sent to the Uey-Tlatoani Nezahualpili. So I shouldered my basket and trudged alone up the stairs.

Some of the steps were man-laid of hewn blocks, some were carved from the living rock of the hill. At the thirteenth step I came to a broad stone landing, where there was a bench for resting and a small statue of some god I could not identify, and the next flight of stairs led off at an angle from the landing. Again thirteen steps and again a landing. I thus zigzagged up the hill and then, at the fifty-second step, I found myself on a flat terrace, a vast level place hacked out of the sloping hillside; it was riotous with the many-hued flowers of a lush garden. That fifty-second step had set me on a stone-flagged pathway, which I followed as it wound leisurely through flower beds, under splendid trees, past meandering brooks and gurgling little waterfalls, until the path again became a stairway. Again thirteen steps and a landing with a bench and statue...

The sky had been clouding over for some time, and now the rain came, in the usual manner of the days of our wet season—a storm like the end of the world: many-forked sticks of lightning, drum rolls of thunder, and a deluge of rain as if it would never end. But end it always did, in no longer time than a man would take for a pleasant afternoon nap; in time for Tonatíu, or Tezcatlipóca, to shine again on a wet-sparkling world, to make it steam, to make it dry and warm again before he set. When the rain came, now, I had already taken shelter on one of the stair landings which had a bench protected by a roof thatch. While I sat out the storm, I meditated on the numerical significance of the-zigzagging staircase, and I smiled at the ingenuity of whoever had designed it.

Like you white men, we in these lands lived by a yearly calendar based on the sun's traversing the sky. Thus our solar year, like yours, consisted of three hundred sixty and five days, and we used that calendar for all ordinary purposes: to tell us when to plant which seeds, when to expect the rainy season, and so forth. We divided that solar year into eighteen months of twenty days apiece, plus the nemontemtin—the "lifeless days," the "hollow days"—the five days required to round out the three hundred sixty and five of the year.

However, we also observed an alternate calendar based not on the sun's daytime excursions but on the nightly appearance of the brilliant star we named for our ancient god Quetzalcoatl, or Feathered Serpent. Sometimes Quetzalcoatl served as the After Blossom which blazed immediately after sunset; at other times he moved to the other side of the sky, where he would be the last star visible as the sun rose and washed away all the others. Any of our astronomers could explain all this to you, with great diagrams, but I have never been very good at astronomy. I do know that the movements of the stars are not as random as they would seem, and that our ceremonial calendar was somehow based on the movements of the star named for Quetzalcoatl. That calendar was useful even to our ordinary folk, for naming their newborn children. Our historians and scribes used it for dating notable happenings and the length of our rulers' reigns. More important, our seers used it to divine the future, to warn against impending calamities, to select auspicious days for weighty undertakings.

In the divinatory calendar, each year contained two hundred sixty days, those days named by appending the numbers one through thirteen to each of twenty traditional signs: rabbit, reed, knife, and so on—and each solar year was itself named according to the ceremonial number and sign of its first day. As you can perceive, our solar and ritual calendars were forever overlapping each other, one lagging behind or forging ahead of the other. But, if you care to do the arithmetic involved, you will find that they balanced out at an equal number of days over a total of fifty and two of the ordinary solar years. The year of my birth was called Thirteen Rabbit, for example, and no later year bore that same name until my fifty-second came around.

So, to us, fifty and two was a significant number—a sheaf of years, we called it—since that many years were simultaneously recognized by both calendars, and since that many years were more or less what the average man could expect to live, barring accident, illness, or war. The stone staircase winding up Texcotzinco Hill, with its thirteen steps between landings, denoted the thirteen ritual numbers, and with its fifty and two steps between terraces, denoted a sheaf of years. When I eventually got to the top of the hill I had counted five hundred and twenty steps. All together, they denoted two of the ceremonial years of two hundred sixty days apiece, and likewise stood for ten sheaves of fifty and two years. Yes, most ingenious.

When the rain stopped, I continued my climb. I did not go up all the rest of those stairs in one headlong dash, though I am sure I could have, in those days of my young strength. I halted at each remaining landing only long enough to see if I could identify the god or goddess whose statue stood there. I knew perhaps half of them: Tezcatlipóca, the sun, chief god of the Acolhua; Quetzalcoatl, of whom I have spoken; Ometecutli and Omeciuatl, our Lord and Lady Pair....

I stopped longer in the gardens. There on the mainland the soil was ample and the space unlimited, and Nezahualpili was evidently a man who loved flowers, flowers everywhere. The hillside gardens were laid out in neat beds, but the terraces were not trammeled by walls. So the flowers spilled generously over the edges, and the trailing varieties dangled their brilliant blooms almost as far down the hill as the next lower terrace. I know I saw every flower I had ever previously seen in my life, besides countless kinds that I never had, and many of those must have been expensively transplanted from far countries. I also gradually realized that the numerous lily ponds, the reflecting pools, the fish ponds, the chuckling brooks and cascades were a watering system fed by the fall of gravity from some source atop the hill.

If the Lord Strong Bone was climbing behind me, I never caught sight of him. But, in one of the higher terrace gardens, I came upon another man, lolling on a stone bench. As I approached near enough to see him fairly clearly—the wrinkled cacao nut-brown skin, the ragged loincloth that was his only garment—I remembered having met him before. He stood up, at least to the extent of his hunched and shrunken stature. I had grown taller than he was.

I gave him the traditionally polite greeting, but then said, probably more rudely than I intended it to sound, "I thought you were a Tlaltelólco beggar, old man. What do you here?"

"A homeless man is at home anywhere in the world," he said, as if it were something to be proud of. "I am here to welcome you to the land of the Acolhua."

"You!" I exclaimed, for the grotesque little man was even more of an excrescence in that luxuriant garden than he had been in the motley market crowd.

"Were you expecting to be greeted by the Revered Speaker in person?" he asked, with a mocking, gap-toothed grin. "Welcome to the palace of Texcotzinco, young Mixtli. Or young Tozani, young Malinqui, young Poyautla, as you like."

"Long ago you knew my name. Now you know all my nicknames."

"A man with a talent for listening can hear even things not yet spoken. You will have still other names in time to come."

"Are you really a seer, then, old man?" I asked, unconsciously echoing my father's words of years before. "How did you know I was coming here?"

"Ah, your coming here," he said. "I pride myself that I had some small part in arranging that."

"Then you know a good deal more than I do. I would be grateful for a bit of explanation."

"Know, then, that I never saw you before that day in Tlaltelólco, when I overheard the mention that it was your naming day. Out of mere curiosity, I took the opportunity for a closer look at you. When I inspected your eyes, I detected their imminent and increasing loss of distant vision. That affliction is sufficiently uncommon that the distinctive shape of the afflicted eyeball affords an unmistakeable sign diagnostic. I could say with certainty that you were fated to see things close and true."

"You also said I would speak truly of such things."

He shrugged. "You seemed bright enough, for a brat, that it was safe to predict you would grow up passably intelligent. A man who is forced by weak eyesight to regard everything in this world at close range, and with good sense, is also usually inclined to describe the world as it really is."

"You are a cunning old trickster," I said, smiling. "But what has all that to do with my being summoned to Texcóco?"

"Every ruler and prince and governor is surrounded by servile attendants and self-seeking wise men who will tell him what he wants to hear, or what they want him to hear. A man who will tell only the truth is a rarity among courtiers. I believed that you would become such a rarity, and that your faculties would be better appreciated at a court rather nobler than that of Xaltócan. So I dropped a word here and there..."

"You," I said unbelievingly, "have the ear of a man like Nezahualpili?"

He gave me a look that somehow made me feel again much smaller than he was. "I told you long ago—have I not proved it yet?—that I also speak true, and to my own detriment, when I could easily pose as an omniscient messenger of the gods. Nezahualpili is not so cynical as you, young Mole. He will listen to the lowliest of men, if that man speaks the truth."

"I apologize," I said, after a moment. "I should be thanking you, old man, not doubting you. And I truly am grateful for—"

He waved that away. "I did not do it entirely for you. I usually get full value for my discoveries. Simply see to it that you give faithful service to the Uey-Tlatoani, and we shall both have earned our rewards. Now go."

"But go where? No one has told me where or to whom I am to announce myself. Do I just cross over this hill and hope to be recognized?"

"Yes. The palace is on the other side, and you are expected. Whether the Speaker himself will recognize you, next time you meet, I could not say."

"We have never met," I complained. "We cannot possibly know each other."

"Oh? Well, I advise you to ingratiate yourself with Tolana-Teciuapil, the Lady of Tolan, for she is the favorite of Nezahualpili's seven wedded wives. At last count he also had forty concubines. So over there at the palace are some sixty sons and fifty daughters of the Revered Speaker. I doubt that even he knows the latest tally. He may take you to be a forgotten by-blow from one of his wanderings abroad, a son just now come home. But you will be hospitably welcomed, young Mole, never fear."

I turned, then turned back again. "Could I first be of some service to you, venerable one? Perhaps I could assist you to the top of the hill?"

He said, "I thank you for the kind offer, but I will loiter here yet a while. It is best that you climb and breast the hill alone, for all the rest of your life awaits you on the other side."

That sounded portentous, but I saw a small fallacy in it, and I smiled at my own perspicacity. "Surely my life awaits, whichever way I go from here, and whether I go alone or not."

The cacao man smiled too, but ironically. "Yes, at your age, many possible lives await. Go whichever way you choose. Go alone or in company. The companions may walk with you a long way or a little. But at the end of your life, no matter how crowded were its roads and its days, you will have learned what all must learn. And that will be too late for any starting over, too late for anything but regret. So learn it now. No man has ever yet lived out any life but one, and that one his chosen own, and most of that alone." He paused, and his eyes held mine. "Now then, Mixtli, which way do you go from here, and in what company?"

I turned and kept on up the hill, alone.

I H S

S.C.C.M.

Sanctified, Caesarean, Catholic Majesty, the Emperor Don Carlos, Our Lord King:

Most Virtuous Majesty, our Sagacious Monarch: from the City of Mexíco, capital of New Spain, this Feast Day of the Circumcision in the Year of Our Lord one thousand five hundred twenty and nine, greeting.

With heavy heart but submissive hand, your chaplain again forwards to Your Imperial Majesty, as again commanded, yet another collection of the writings dictated to date by our still-resident Aztec—or Asmodeus, as Your Majesty's servant is increasingly inclined to think of him.

This humble cleric can sympathize with Your Majesty's wry comment that the Indian's chronicle is "considerably more informative than the fanfarronadas we hear incessantly from the newly entitled Marqués, the Señor Cortés himself, who is currently favoring us with his attendance at Court." And even a grieved and morose Bishop can perceive Your Majesty's wry joke when you write that "the Indian's communications are the first we have received from New Spain not attempting to wheedle a title, or a vast allotment of the conquered lands, or a loan."

But, Sire, we stand aghast when you report that your royal self and your courtiers are "entirely rapt and enthralled at the reading aloud of these pages." We trust we do not take lightly our pledges as a subject of Your Most Eminent Majesty, but our other sacred oaths oblige us to warn most solemnly, ex officio et de fides, against any further indiscriminate dissemination of this foul history.

Your Astute Majesty can hardly have failed to notice that the earlier pages have treated—casually, without remorse or repentance—of such sins as homicide, prolicide, suicide, anthropophagy, incest, harlotry, torture, idolatry, and breach of the Commandment to honor father and mother. If, as it has been said, one's sins are wounds of one's soul, this Indian's soul is bleeding at every pore.

But, in the case the more sly insinuations somehow escaped Your Majesty's attention, allow us to point out that the scurrilous Aztec has dared to suggest that his people boast of some vague lineal descent from a Lord and Lady Pair, a pagan parody of Adam and Eve. He also suggests that we Christians ourselves are idolatrous of a whole pantheon comparable to the seething host of demons his people worshiped. With equal blasphemy, he has implied that such Holy Sacraments as Baptism, and Absolution through Confession, and even the petitioning for Grace before a meal, were observed in these lands, antedating and independent of any knowledge of Our Lord and His bestowal of the Sacraments. Perhaps his most vile sacrilege is to aver, as Your Majesty will shortly read, that one of the previous heathen rulers of these people was born of a virgin!

Your Majesty makes an incidental inquiry in this latest letter. Though we ourself have sat in on the Indian's storytelling sessions from time to time—and will continue to do so, time permitting, to put to him specific questions or to demand elaboration on some of his comments we have read—we must deferentially remind Your Majesty that the Bishop of Mexíco has other pressing duties which preclude our personally verifying or disproving any of this prattler's boasts and asseverations.

However, Your Majesty asks information regarding one of his more outrageous assertions, and we sincerely hope that the query is merely another of our jovial sovereign's good-humored jests. In any case, we must reply: No, Sire, we know nothing of the properties the Aztec ascribes to the root called barbasco. We cannot confirm that it would be "worth its weight in gold" as a commodity of Spanish commerce. We know nothing about it that would "silence the chatter of the ladies of the Court." The very suggestion that Our Lord God could have created a vegetable efficacious in averting the conception of Christian human life is repugnant to our sensibilities and an affront to—

Pardon the ink blot, Sire. Our agitation afflicts our pen hand. But satis superque...

As Your Majesty commands, the friars and the young lay brother will continue setting down these pages until—in time, we pray—Your Majesty commands that they be relieved of their pitiable duty. Or until they themselves can no longer bear the task. We think we are not breaching the confidence of the Confessional if we merely remark that in these last months the brothers' own confessions have become phantasmatical in the extreme, and bloodcurdling to hear, and necessitating the most exigent penances for absolution.

May Our Redeemer and Master, Jesus Christ, be always Your Majesty's consolation and defense against all the wiles of our Adversary, is the constant prayer of Your S.C.C.M.'s chaplain.

(ecce signum) Zumárraga

QUARTA PARS

The other side of the hill was even more beautiful than the side facing Lake Texcóco. The slope was gentle, the gardens undulated downward and away below me, variously formal and informal, glinting with ponds and fountains and bathing pools. There were long sweeps of green lawn, on which grazed a number of tame deer. There were shady groves of trees, and an occasional tree standing alone which had been clipped and pruned into the living statue of some animal or bird. Toward the bottom of the hill there were many buildings, large and small, but all most handsomely proportioned and set at comfortable distances from one another. I believed I could even make out richly dressed persons moving about on the walkways between the buildings—anyway, there were moving dots of brilliant colors. The Xaltócan palace of the Lord Red Heron had been a commodious building, and impressive enough, but the Texcotzinco palace of the Uey-Tlatoani Nezahualpili was an entire, self-contained, pastoral dry.

The top of the hill, where I stood, was wooded with the "oldest of the old" cypress trees, some of them so big around that perhaps twelve men with arms outstretched could not have encircled their trunks, and so tall that their gray-green feathery leaves merged into the azure of the sky. I looked about and, though they were cleverly concealed by shrubbery, I espied the big clay pipes that watered those gardens and the city below. As well as I could judge, the pipes led away in the distance to an even higher mountain to the southeast, whence no doubt they brought the water from some pure spring and distributed it by letting it seek its own level.

Because I could not resist lingering to admire the various gardens and parklands through which I descended, it was getting well on toward sundown when I finally emerged among the buildings at the bottom of the hill. I wandered along the flower-bordered white gravel paths, meeting many people: richly mantled noblemen and women, knights in plumed headgear, distinguished-looking elderly gentlemen. Every one of them graciously gave me a word or a nod of greeting, as if I belonged there, but I was shy of asking any of those fine folk exactly where I did belong. Then I came upon a young man of about my own age, who seemed not to be occupied with any urgent business. He stood beside a young buck deer that was just beginning to sprout antlers, and he was idly scratching the nubs between its ears. Perhaps ungrown antlers are itchy; at any rate, the deer appeared to be enjoying the attention.

"Mixpantzinco, brother," the young man greeted me. I supposed that he was one of Nezahualpili's offspring, and took me for another. But then he noticed the basket I carried, and said, "You are the new Mixtli."

I said I was, and returned his greeting.

"I am Huexotl," he said; the word means Willow. "We already have at least three other Mixtlis around here, so we will have to think of a different name for you."

Feeling in no great need of yet another name, I changed the subject. "I have never seen deer walk among people like this, uncaged, unafraid."

"We get them when they are fawns. The hunters find them, usually when a doe has been killed, and they bring them here. There is always a wet nurse about, with full breasts but no baby to tend at the moment, and she gives suck to the fawn. I think they will all grow up believing they are people. Have you just arrived, Mixtli? Would you like to eat? To rest?"

I said yes, yes, and yes. "I really do not know what I am supposed to do here. Or where to go."

"My father's First Lady will know. Come, I will take you to her."

"I thank you, Huexotzin," I said, calling him Lord Willow, for I had obviously guessed right: he was a son of Nezahualpili and therefore a prince.

As we walked through the extensive palace grounds, the deer ambling along between us, the young prince identified for me the many edifices we passed. One immense building of two floors ran around three sides of a gardened central court. The left wing, Willow told me, contained the rooms of himself and all the other royal children. In the right wing dwelt Nezahualpili's forty concubines. The central portion contained apartments for the Revered Speaker's counselors and wise men who were always with him, whether he resided in his city or country palace; and for other tlamatintin: philosophers, poets, men of science whose work the Speaker was encouraging. In the grounds about were dotted small, marble-pillared pavilions to which a tlamatini could retire if he wanted to write or invent or predict or meditate in solitude.

The palace proper was a building as huge and as beautifully ornamented as any palace in Tenochtítlan. Two floors high and at least a thousand man's-feet in frontage, it contained the throne room, the Speaking Council chambers, ballrooms for court entertainments, quarters for the guardsmen, the hall of justice where the Uey-Tlatoani regularly met with those of his people who had troubles or complaints to lay before him. There were also Nezahualpili's own apartments and those of his seven wedded wives.

"All together, three hundred rooms," said the prince. Then he confided, with a grin, "And all sorts of concealed passages and stairways. So my father can visit one wife or another without the others' getting envious."

We dismissed the deer and entered the great central doorway, a knight-sentry on either side snapping to attention, spears vertical, as we passed them. Willow led me through a spacious hall hung with featherwork tapestries, then up a broad stone staircase and along a gallery carpeted with rushes, to the elegantly appointed chambers of his stepmother. So the second person I met was that Tolana-Teciuapil whom the old man on the hill had mentioned, the First Lady and noblest of all the noblewomen of the Acolhua. She was conversing with a beetle-browed young man, but she turned to give us an inviting smile and a gesture to enter.

Prince Willow told her who I was, and I bent to make the motion of kissing the earth. The Lady of Tolan, with her own hand, gently lifted me from my kneeling position and, in turn, introduced me to the other young man: "My eldest son, Ixtlil-Xochitl." I immediately dropped to kiss the earth again, for this third person I had met so far was the Crown Prince Black Flower, ordained heir to Nezahualpili's throne of Texcóco. I was beginning to feel a little giddy, and not just from bobbing up and down. Here was I, the son of a common quarrier, meeting three of the most eminent personages in The One World, and all three in a row. Black Flower nodded his black eyebrows at me, then he and his half brother departed from the room.

The First Lady looked me up and down, while I covertly studied her. I could not guess her age, though she must have been well along into middle age, at least forty, to have a son as old as the Crown Prince Black Flower, but her face was unlined and lovely and kindly.

"Mixtli, is it?" she said. "But we already have so many Mixtlis among the young folk and, oh, I am so bad at remembering names."

"Some call me Tozani, my lady."

"No, you are much bigger than a mole. You are a tall young man, and you will be taller yet. I shall call you Head Nodder."

"As you will, my lady," I said, with an inward sigh of resignation. "That is also my father's nickname."

"Then we will both be able to remember it, will we not? Now, come and I will show you your quarters."

She must have pulled a bell rope or something, because when we stepped out of the room there was waiting a litter chair borne by two burly slaves. They lowered it for her to get in and sit down, then lofted her along the gallery, down the stairs (keeping the chair carefully horizontal), out of the palace, and into the deepening dusk. Another slave ran ahead carrying a pitch-pine torch, and still another ran behind, carrying the lady's banner of rank. I trotted alongside the chair. At the three-sided building that Willow had already pointed out to me, the Lady of Tolan led me inside, up the stairs and around several corners, far into the left wing.

"There you are," she said, swinging open a door made of hides stretched on a wooden frame and varnished stiff. It was not just leaned in place, but pivoted in sockets top and bottom. The slave carried the torch inside to light my way, but I stuck only my head in, saying uncertainly, "It seems to be empty, my lady."

"But of course. This is yours."

"I thought, in a calmécac, all the students were bunched together in a common sleeping room."

"I daresay, but this is an annex of the palace, and this is where you will live. My Lord Husband is contemptuous of those schools and their teacher priests. You are not here to attend a calmécac."

"Not attend—! But, my lady, I thought I came to study—!"

"And so you shall, very hard indeed, but in company with the palace children, those of Nezahualpili and his nobles. Our children are not taught by unwashed zealot priests, but by my Lord Husband's own chosen wise men, every teacher already noted for his own work in whatever it is he teaches. Here you may not learn many sorceries or invocations to the gods, Head Nodder, but you will learn real, true, useful things that will make you a man of worth to the world."

If I was not already gaping at her by then, I was the next moment, when I saw the slave go about with his torch, lighting beeswax candles stuck in wall sconces. I gasped, "A whole room just for myself?" Then the man went through an arch into another room, and I gasped, "Two of them? Why, my lady, this is almost as big as my family's whole house!"

"You will get used to comfort," she said, and smiled. She almost had to push me inside. "This is your room for studying. That one yonder is your sleeping chamber. Beyond it is the sanitary closet. I expect you will want to use that one first, to wash after your journey. Just pull the bell rope, and your servant will come to assist you. Eat well and have a good sleep, Head Nodder. I will see you soon again."

The slave followed her out of the room and shut the door. I was sorry to see such a kind lady leave, but I was also glad, for now I could scurry around my apartment, veritably like a mole, peering nearsightedly at all its furnishings and appointments. The study room had a low table and a cushioned low icpali chair to sit on, and a wickerwork chest that I could keep my clothes and books in, and a lava-rock heating brazier already laid with mizquitl logs, and a sufficiency of candles so that I could study comfortably even after dark, and a mirror of polished tezcatl—the rare clear crystal that gave a definitive reflection, not the cheaper dark kind in which one's face was only dimly visible. There was a window opening, with a split-cane covering that could be rolled up and dropped shut by means of a string arrangement.

The sleeping chamber contained no woven reed pallet, but a raised platform, and on that some ten or twelve thick quilts apparently stuffed with down; anyway, they made a pile that felt as soft as a cloud looks. When ready to sleep, I could slide myself in between the quilts at any layer, depending on how much softness I wanted under me and how much warmth on top.

The sanitary closet, however, I could not so easily comprehend. There was a sunken tiled depression in the floor, in which to sit and bathe, but there were no water jugs anywhere about. And there was a receptacle on which to sit and perform the necessary functions, but it was solidly fixed to the floor and obviously could not be emptied after each use. Each of those, the bath and the slop jar, had a curiously shaped pipe jutting from the wall above it, but neither pipe was spouting water or doing anything else that I could ascertain. Well, I would never have thought that I should have to ask instruction in cleaning and evacuating myself, but, after studying the utilities in bafflement for a while, I went to pull the bell rope over the bed, and waited with some embarrassment for the appearance of my assigned tlacotli.

The fresh-faced little boy who came to my door said pertly, "I am Cozcatl, my lord, and I am nine years old, and I serve all the young lords in the six apartments at the end of the corridor."

Cozcatl means Jeweled Collar, rather a high-flown name for such as he, but I did not laugh at it. Since a name-giving tonalpoqui would never deign to consult his divinatory books for a slave-born child, even if the parents could afford it, no such child ever had a real and registered name. His or her parents simply picked one at whim, and it could be wildly inappropriate, as witness Gift of the Gods. Cozcatl appeared well fed and bore no marks of beatings, and he did not cringe before me, and he wore a spotlessly white short mantle in addition to the loincloth that was customarily a male slave's only apparel. So I assumed that among the Acolhua, or at least in the palace vicinity, the lower classes were fairly treated.

The boy was carrying in both hands a tremendous pottery vessel of steaming hot water, so I quickly stepped aside, and he took it to the sanitary closet and poured it into the sunken tub. He also spared me the humiliation of having to ask to be shown how the closet's facilities worked. Even if Cozcatl took me to be a legitimate noble, he could have supposed that any noble from the provinces would be unaccustomed to such luxury—and he would have been right. Without waiting to be asked, he explained:

"You can cool your bathwater to the temperature you prefer, my lord, like this." He pointed to the clay pipe jutting from the wall. It was pierced near its end by another, shorter piece of pipe stuck vertically through it. He merely twisted that short pipe and it gushed clear cold water.

"The long pipe brings water from our main supply line. The short pipe has one hole in its side, and when you twist it to make that hole face inward to the long pipe, the water can run as needed. When you are through with your bath, my lord, just remove that óli stopper in the bottom and the used water will drain away through another pipe beneath."

Next he indicated the curiously immobile slop jar and said, "The axixcali works the same way. When you have relieved yourself in it, simply twist that short pipe above, and a gush of water will wash the wastes away through that hole in its bottom."

I had not even noticed the hole before, and I asked in ignorant horror, "The excrement falls into the room below?"

"No, no, my lord. Like the bathwater, into a pipe that carries it clear away. Into a pond from which the manure men dredge fertilizer for the farm fields. Now, I will order my lord's evening meal prepared, so it will be waiting when he has finished his bath."

It was going to take me a while to stop playing the rustic and to learn the ways of the nobility, I reflected, as I sat at my own table in my own room and dined on grilled rabbit, beans, tortillas, and batter-fried squash blossoms... with chocolate to drink. Where I came from, chocolate had been a special treat doled out once or twice a year, and only weakly flavored. Here, the foamy red drink—of precious cacao, honey, vanilla, and scarlet achiyotl seeds, all ground up and beaten together to a stiff froth—was as free for the asking as spring water. I wondered how long it would take me to lose my Xaltócan accent, to speak the precise Náhuatl of Texcóco, and gracefully to "get used to comfort," as the First Lady had phrased it.

In time I came to realize that no noble, not even an honorary or temporary one like myself, ever had to do anything for himself. When a nobleman reached one hand up to undo the shoulder clasp of his magnificent feather mantle, he simply walked away from the garment, and it never hit the floor. Some servant was always there to take it from his shoulders, and the noble knew there would be someone there. If a nobleman folded his legs to sit down, he never looked behind him—even if he collapsed suddenly, involuntarily, from an excess of octli drinking. But he never fell. There was always an icpali chair slid under him, and he knew the chair would be there.

I wondered: were the noble folk born with such a lofty assurance, or could I possibly acquire it by practice? There was only one way to find out. At the first opportunity—I forget the occasion—I entered a room crowded with lords and ladies, made the proper salutations, sat down with assurance, and without looking behind me. The icpali was right there. I did not even glance back to see whence it came. I knew then that a chair—or anything I wanted and expected from my inferiors—would always be there. That small experiment taught me a thing I never forgot. To command the respect and deference and privileges reserved for the nobility, I need only dare to be a noble.

On the morning after my arrival, the slave Cozcatl came with my breakfast and with an armload of new clothes for me, more clothes than I had ever worn and worn out during my whole previous life. There were loincloths and mantles of glossy white cotton, beautifully embroidered. There were sandals of rich and pliable leathers, including one gilded pair for ceremonial wear, which laced nearly to my knees. The Lady of Tolan had even sent a small gold and bloodstone clasp for my mantle, which heretofore I had worn only knotted at the shoulder.

When I had donned one of those stylish outfits, Cozcatl led me again around the palace grounds, pointing out the buildings containing schoolrooms. There were more classes available than in any calmécac. I was most interested, of course, in those dealing with word knowing, history, geography, and the like. But I could also, if I chose, attend classes in poetry, gold and silver work, feather work, gem cutting, and various other arts.

"The classes that do not require tools and benches are held indoors only in bad weather," said my little guide. "On fine days like this, the Lord Teachers and their students prefer to work outside."

I could see the groups, sitting on the lawns or gathered about the marble pavilions. The teacher of every class was an elderly man wearing a distinctive yellow mantle, but his students were an assortment: boys and men of varying sizes and ages, here and there even a girl or a woman or a slave sitting slightly apart.

"The students are not graded by age?" I asked.

"No, my lord, but by their ability. Some are much further along in one subject than in another. When you first attend, you will be interrogated by each Lord Teacher to determine in which of his classes you will fit best—for example, among the Beginners, the Learners, the Somewhat Learned, and so on. He will grade you according to what knowledge you already have and what he judges to be your capacity for learning more."

"And the females? The slaves?"

"Any daughter of a noble is allowed to attend, all the way through the highest grades, if she has the ability and the desire. The slaves are allowed to study as far as is consistent with their particular employments."

"You yourself are well spoken, for such a young tlacotli."

"Thank you, my lord. I went as far as learning good Náhuatl, deportment, and the rudiments of housekeeping. When I am older I may apply for further training, in hope of someday becoming Master of the Keys in some noble household."

I said grandly, expansively, generously, "If ever I have a noble household, Cozcatl, I promise you that position."

I did not mean "if," I meant "when." I was no longer idly wishing for a rise to eminence, I was already envisioning it. I stood there in that lovely parkland, my servant at my side, and I stood tall in my fine new clothes, and I smiled to think of the great man I would be. I sit here now, among you, my reverend masters, and I sit bent and shriveled in my rags, and I smile to think of the puffed-up young pretender I was.

The Lord Teacher of History, Neltitica, who looked old enough to have experienced all of history, announced to the class, "We have with us today a new piltontli student, a Mexícatl who is to be known as Head Nodder."

I was so pleased to be introduced as a "young noble" student that I did not wince at the nickname.

"Perhaps, Head Nodder, you would be good enough to give us a brief history of your Mexíca people...."

"Yes, Lord Teacher," I said confidently. I stood up, and every face in the class turned to gaze at me. I cleared my throat and said what I had been taught in Xaltócan's House of Learning Manners:

"Know, then, that my people originally dwelt in a region far to the north of these lands. It was Aztlan, The Place of Snowy Egrets, and at that time they called themselves the Aztlantláca or the Aztéca, the Egret People. But Aztlan was a hard country, and their chief god Huitzilopóchtli told them of a sweeter land to be found to the south. He said it would be a long and difficult journey, but that they would recognize their new homeland when they reached it, for they would see there a nopali cactus on which perched a golden eagle. So all the Aztéca abandoned their fine homes and palaces and pyramids and temples and gardens, and they set out southward."

Someone in the class snickered.

"The journey took sheaves upon sheaves of years, and they had to pass through the lands of many other peoples. Some were hostile; they fought and tried to turn the Aztéca back. Others were hospitable and let the Aztéca rest among them, sometimes for a short while, sometimes for many years, and those peoples were repaid by being taught the noble language, the arts and sciences known only to the Aztéca."

Someone in the class murmured, and someone else gave a low chuckle.

"When the Aztéca came finally into this valley, they were kindly received by the Tecpanéca people on the western shore of the lake, who gave them Chapultepec for a resting place. The Aztéca lived on that Grasshopper Hill while their priests continued to range about the valley in search of the eagle on the nopali. Now, in the Tecpanéca dialect of our language, the nopali cactus is called tenochtli, so those people called the Aztéca the Tenochca, and in time the Aztéca themselves took that name of Cactus People. Then, as Huitzilopóchtli had promised, the priests did find the sign—a golden eagle perched on a cactus—and this they found on a not-yet-peopled island in the lake. All the Tenochca-Aztéca immediately and joyfully moved from Chapultepec to that island."

Someone in the class laughed openly.

"On the island they built two great cities, one called Tenochtítlan, Place of the Cactus People, and the other Tlaltelólco, The Rocky Place. While they were building the cities, the Tenochca noticed how every night they could see from their island the moon Metztli reflected in the lake waters. So they also referred to their new habitation as Metztli-Zictli, In the Middle of the Moon. In time, they shortened that to Mexitli and then to Mexíco, and eventually came to call themselves the Mexíca. For their sign they adopted the symbol of the eagle perched on the cactus, and the eagle holds in its beak the ribbonlike symbol which represents war."

A number of my new classmates were laughing by now, but I persevered.

"Then the Mexíca began to extend their dominion and influence, and many peoples have benefited, either as adoptive Mexíca or as allies or as trading partners. They learned to worship our gods, or variations of them, and they let us appropriate their gods. They learned to count with our arithmetic and mark time by our calendars. They pay us tribute in goods and currency, for fear of our invincible armies. They speak our language out of deference to our superiority. The Mexíca have built the mightiest civilization ever known in this world, and Mexíco-Tenochtítlan stands at its center—In Cem-Anáhuac Yoyótli, The Heart of the One World."

I kissed the earth to the aged Lord Teacher Neltitica and sat down. My classmates were all waving their hands for permission to speak, meanwhile making a clamor of noises ranging from laughter to hoots of derision. The Lord Teacher gestured imperiously, and the class sat still and silent.

"Thank you, Head Nodder," he said politely. "I had wondered what version the Mexíca teachers were expounding these days. Of history you know abysmally little, young lord, and what little you know is wrong in almost every particular."

I stood up again, my face as hot as if I had been slapped. "Lord Teacher, you requested a brief history. I can elaborate in more detail."

"Kindly spare me," he said. "And in return I will do you the kindness of correcting just one of the details already proffered. The words Mexíca and Mexíco did not derive from Metztli the moon." He waved for me to be seated, and addressed the class as a whole:

"Young lord and lady students, this illustrates what I have often told you before now. Be skeptical of the many versions of the world's history you are likely to hear, for some are as full of impossible invention as they are of vanity. What is more, I have never met a historian—I have never met any sort of professional scholar who could put into his work the slightest trace of humor or ribaldry or jollity. I have never met one who did not consider his particular subject the most momentous and weighty of all studies. Now, I concede the importance of scholarly works—but need importance always wear the long face of stern solemnity? Historians may be serious men, and history may sometimes be so somber that it saddens. But it is people who make the history, and they often play pranks or cut capers while they are doing it. The true story of the Mexíca confirms that."

He spoke directly to me again: "Head Nodder, your Aztéca ancestors brought nothing to this valley: no ancient wisdom, no arts, no sciences, no culture. They brought nothing but themselves: a skulking, ignorant, nomad people who wore ragged animal skins crawling with vermin, and who worshiped a loathsomely pugnacious god of slaughter and bloodshed. That rabble was despised and repulsed by every other already developed nation hereabout. Would any civilized people welcome an invasion of uncouth beggars? The Aztéca did not settle on that island in the lakeside swamp because their god gave them any sign, and they did not go there joyfully. They went because there was nowhere else to go, and because no one else had cared to claim that pimple of land surrounded by marshes."

My classmates watched me from the corners of their eyes. I tried not to flinch under Neltitica's words.

"They did not immediately build great cities, or anything else; they had to spend all their time and energy just in finding something to eat. They were not allowed to fish, for the lake's fishing rights belonged to the nations about it. So for a long time your ancestors existed—just barely existed—by eating revolting little things like worms and water insects, and the slimy eggs of those creatures, and the only edible plant that grew in that miserable swamp. It was mexixin, the common cress or peppergrass, a scraggly and bitter-tasting weed. But if your forebears had nothing else, Head Nodder, they had a mordant sense of humor. They began to call themselves, with wry irony, the Mexíca."

The very name evoked another knowing snicker from the class. Neltitica went on:

"Eventually the Mexíca devised the chinamitl system of growing decent crops. But even then, they grew for themselves only a necessary minimum of staple foods like maize and beans. Their chinampa were mainly used for growing more rare vegetables and herbs—tomatoes, sage, coriander, sweet potatoes—which their lofty neighbors could not be bothered to cultivate. And the Mexíca traded those delicacies for the necessities of life: the tools and building materials and cloth and weapons that the mainland nations would otherwise have been unwilling to give them. From then on, they made rapid progress toward civilization and culture and military might. But they never forgot that humble weed which had sustained them in the beginning, the mexixin, and they never afterward abandoned the name they had adopted from it. Mexíca is a name now known and respected or feared throughout our world, but it means only..."

He paused on purpose, and he smiled, and my face flamed again, as the entire class shouted in concert: "The Weed People!"

"I understand, young lordlet, that you have essayed some learning of reading and writing on your own," said the Lord Teacher of Word Knowing, somewhat sourly, as if he believed any such self-education impossible. "And I understand that you have brought examples of your work."

Respectfully, I handed him the long, pleated-together bark paper strip of which I was most proud. I had drawn it with extra care, and painted it in the vibrant colors Chimali had given me. The Lord Teacher took the compacted book and began slowly to unfold its pages.

It was an account of one famous incident in the history of the Mexíca, when they first arrived in this valley, and when the most powerful nation here was that of the Culhua. The Culhua leader, Coxcox, had declared a war against the people of Xochimilco, and invited the newcome Mexíca to fight as his allies. When the war was won and the Culhua warriors brought in their Xochimilca prisoners, the Mexíca brought none at all, and Coxcox denounced them as cowards. At that, the Mexíca warriors opened the bags they carried and dumped out a mountain of ears—all left ears—which they had sliced from the multitude of Xochimilca they had vanquished. Coxcox was astounded, and glad, and from then on the Mexíca were accounted fighters to be reckoned with.

I thought I had done a very good job of picturing the incident, particularly in my meticulous rendering of the innumerable left ears and the expression of astonishment on the face of Coxcox. I waited, almost aglow with self-congratulation, for the Lord Teacher to praise my work.

But he was frowning as he flipped the book's pages apart, and he looked from one side to the other of the pleated strip, and he said at last, "In which direction am I supposed to read this?"

Puzzled, I said, "In Xaltócan, my lord, we unfold the pages leftward. That is, so we may read each panel from left to right."

"Yes, yes!" he snapped. "We all customarily read from left to right. But your book gives no indication that we should do so."

"Indication?" I said.

"Suppose you are bidden to write an inscription that must be read in some other direction—on a temple frieze or column, for instance, where the architecture requires that it be read from right to left, or even from top to bottom."

The possibility had never occurred to me, and I said so.

He said impatiently, "When a scribe pictures two persons or two gods conversing, naturally they must be face to face. But there is one basic rule. The majority of all the characters must face in the direction the writing is to be read."

I think I gulped loudly.

"You never grasped that simplest rule of picture writing?" he asked scathingly. "And you have the effrontery to show me this?" He tossed it back to me without even refolding it. "When you attend your first class in word knowing tomorrow, join that one yonder."

He pointed across the lawn to a class assembling about one of the pavilions, and my face fell and my pride evaporated. Even from a distance, I could make out that all the students were about half my size and age.

It was mortifying to have to sit among infants—to begin at the very beginning in both my history and my word knowing classes—as if I had never been taught anything at all, as if I had never exerted myself to learn anything at all.

So I was cheered to discover that the study of poetry, at least, was not graded into the Beginners, the Learners, the Somewhat Learned, and so on, with me at the very bottom of the class. There was only a single gathering of aspiring poets, and they included students much older as well as much younger than myself. Among them were both the young Prince Willow and his elder half brother Crown Prince Black Flower; there were other nobles ranging even to the very old; there were both girls and women of the nobility; there were more slaves than I had seen in any other class.

It seems that it matters not who makes a poem, and it matters not what kind of poem: a tribute to some god or hero, a lengthy historical account, a love song, a lamentation, or a joking bit of banter. That poem is not judged according to the poet's age, sex, social standing, education, or experience. A poem merely is or is not. It lives or it never existed. It is made and remembered or it is forgotten so quickly that it might never have been made at all. In that class I was content to sit and listen, timorous of attempting any poetic ventures of my own. It was not until many, many years later that I happened to make a poem which I have since heard recited by strangers. So that one has lived, but it is a very small poem, and I would not call myself a poet on that account.

What I recollect most vividly about my poetry class is the first time I attended it. Some distinguished visitor had been invited by the Lord Teacher to read his works, and he was just about to begin when I arrived and sat down on a grassy bank at the rear of the crowd. I could not see him too distinctly at that distance, but I could make out that he was medium tall and well built, that he was about the age of the Lady of Tolan, that he wore a richly embroidered cotton mantle held by a gold clasp, and no other adornments to designate his office or class. So I took him to be a professional poet of sufficient talent to have been rewarded with a pension and a place at court.

He shuffled several sheets of bark paper in his hand and gave one sheet to a slave boy who sat crosslegged at his feet, holding a miniature drum on his lap. Then the visitor announced in a voice which, though soft-spoken, carried well, "With the Lord Teacher's permission, my young lord and lady students, I will not recite today from my own works, but from those of a far greater and wiser poet. My father."

"Ayyo, with my permission and pleasure," said the Lord Teacher, nodding benignly. The class also murmured a collective ayyo of approval, as if everyone there already knew the works of the poet-father he had mentioned.

From what I have already told you of our picture writing, reverend friars, you will have realized that it was inadequate for setting down poetry. Our poems lived by oral repetition, or lived not at all. Anyone who heard and liked a poem would memorize it and retell it to someone else, who might in turn tell it again. To aid the hearers in that memorizing, a poem was usually constructed in such a manner that the syllables of its words had a regular rhythm, and in such a manner that the same word sounds regularly recurred at the ends of its separate lines.

The papers the visitor carried bore only enough word pictures to assure that his memory did not falter and omit a line, to remind him here and there to stress a word or a passage his poet-father had thought worthy of special note. And the papers he handed to his drummer slave were marked only with brush strokes: many small dabs of paint, some larger ones, variously commingled and variously spaced. They told the slave the rhythm to beat out with his hand on the drum as accompaniment to the poet's recital: sometimes murmurous, sometimes sharply emphasizing the words, sometimes a soft throb like a heart beating in the pauses between the lines.

The poems the visitor recited and sang and chanted that day were all felicitously worded and sweetly cadenced, but they all were slightly tinged with melancholy, as when early autumn first steals in upon the summertime. After nearly a sheaf of years, and with no word pictures to aid my recollection, no drum to mark the beats and pauses, I still can repeat one of them:

I made a song in praise of life,

a world as bright as quetzal feather:

to skies of turquoise, sunlight gold,

to streams like jadestone, gardens blooming...

But gold can melt and jadestone shatter,

leaves turn brown and trees fall down,

our flowers fade, their petals scatter.

The sun sets soon, the night comes looming.

See beauty fade, our loves grow cold,

the gods desert, their temples weather...

Why does my song pierce like a knife?

When the recital was concluded, the respectfully attentive crowd of listeners stood up and broke apart. Some went strolling about by themselves, saying one or several of the poems over and over, to fix the words in their memory. I was one of those. Others milled about the visitor, kissed the earth to him, and regaled him with compliments and thanks. I was walking in circles on the grass, head bowed, repeating to myself that poem I have just repeated to you, when I was approached by young Prince Willow.

"I overheard you, Head Nodder," he said. "I too liked that poem best of all. And it made another poem waft into my own head. Would you oblige me by hearing it?"

"I should be honored to be the first," I said, and what he recited was this:

You tell me then that I must perish

like the flowers that I cherish.

Nothing remaining of my name,

nothing remembered of my fame?

But the gardens I planted still are young—

the songs I sang will still be sung!

I said, "I think it is a good poem, Huexotzin, and a true one. The Lord Teacher would most certainly give you an approving nod." And I was not just slavishly flattering a prince, for you will have noticed that I have remembered that poem, too, all my life. "In fact," I went on, "it might almost have been composed by the same great poet whose works we have heard today."

"Yya, come now, Head Nodder," he chided me. "No poet of our time will ever match the incomparable Nezahualcoyotl."

"Who?"

"Did you not know? Did you not recognize my father doing the recitation? He read the works of his father, my grandfather, the Revered Speaker Fasting Coyote."

"What? That man who recited was Nezahualpili?" I exclaimed. "But he wore no insignia of his office. No crown, no feather mantle, no staff or banner..."

"Oh, he has his eccentricities. Except on state occasions, my father never dresses like any other Uey-Tlatoani. He believes that a man should display only tokens of his achievement. Medals won and scars collected, not baubles inherited or bought or married. But do you really mean you have not yet met him? Come!"

However, it seemed that Nezahualpili was averse also to having his people too openly manifest their regard for him. By the time the prince and I elbowed our way through the throng of students, he had already slipped away.

The Lady of Tolan had not misled me when she warned that I would work hard at that school, but I will not bore you, reverend friars, with accounts of my daily schedule, and the mundane events of my days, and the sheaves of work I took back to my chambers at the end of each day. I will tell you that I learned arithmetic, and how to keep account books, and how to calculate the exchange of the various sorts of currency in use—all facilities that would be most useful to me in years to come. I learned about the geography of these lands, though at that time not much was known about any of the lands beyond our immediate own, as I would later discover by exploring for myself.

I most enjoyed and profited from my studies in word knowing, getting ever-more proficient at reading and writing. But I think I benefited almost as much from the classes in history, even when they refuted the Mexíca's most cherished beliefs and boasts. The Lord Teacher Neltitica gave generously of his time, even according private sessions to some of us. I remember one, when he sat down with me and a very young boy named Poyec, son of one of Texcóco's numerous lords.

"There is a grievous gap in Mexíca history," said the teacher, "like the wide gap an earthquake can cleave in the solid earth."

He was preparing a poquietl to smoke while he discoursed. This is a slender tube of some substance like bone or jadestone, ornamentally carved, with a mouthpiece at one end. Into the open other end is inserted a dry reed or rolled paper, firmly packed with the finely shredded dried leaves of the picíetl plant, sometimes mixed with herbs and spices for added flavor and fragrance. The user holds the tube between his fingers and sets fire to the far end of the reed or paper. It and its contents smolder slowly to ash, while the user lifts the mouthpiece at intervals to his lips to suck a breath of the smoke, inhale it, and puff it out again.

When he had lit his with a coal from a brazier, Neltitica said, "It was just a sheaf of years ago that the Mexíca's then Revered Speaker Itzcoatl, Obsidian Snake, forged The Triple Alliance of the Mexíca, the Acolhua, and the Tecpanéca—with the Mexíca, of course, as the dominant partner. Having secured that eminence for his people, Obsidian Snake then decreed that all the books of bygone days should be burned, and new accounts written to glorify the Mexíca past, to give the Mexíca a spurious antiquity."

I looked at the blue smoke rising from the poquietl, and murmured, "Books... burned..." It was hard to believe that even a Uey-Tlatoani would have the heart to burn something as precious and irreplaceable and inviolable as books.

"Obsidian Snake did it," the Lord Teacher continued, "to make his people believe that they were and always have been the true custodians of art and science, and therefore to believe that it is their duty to impose civilization on every lesser people. But even the Mexíca cannot ignore the evidence that other and finer civilizations had existed here long before their coming. So they have concocted fanciful legends to account for such evidence."

Poyec and I thought about it, and the boy suggested, "You mean things like Teotihuacan? The Place Where the Gods Gathered?"

"A good example, young Poyectzin. That city is now a tumbled and deserted and weed-grown ruin, but it obviously was once a greater and more populous city than Tenochtítlan can ever hope to be."

I said, "We were taught, Lord Teacher, that it was built by the gods when they all assembled to decide to create the earth and its people and all living things...."

"Of course you were taught that. Any grand thing not done by the Mexíca must not be credited to any other mortal men." He snorted a plume of smoke from his nostrils. "Although Obsidian Snake blotted out the Mexíca's past history, he could not burn the libraries of our Texcóco and other cities. We do still have records telling what this valley was like long before the coming of the Aztéca-Mexíca. Obsidian Snake could not change all the history of The One World."

"And those unaltered histories," I asked, "—how far back do they go?"

"Not nearly far enough. We do not pretend to have accounts dating back to the Lord and Lady Pair. You know the legends. Those two were the very first inhabitants of this earth, and then all the other gods, and then a race of giants." Neltitica took a few meditative puffs at his poquietl. "That legend about the giants, you know, may be true. An old and weathered bone was dug up by a farmer and is still preserved in Texcóco—I have seen it—and the surgeons say it is most definitely a thighbone. And it is as long as I am tall."

Little Poyec laughed uneasily and said, "I should not care to meet the man whose thigh it was."

"Well," said the Lord Teacher, "gods and giants are things for the priests to ponder. My interest is the history of such men, especially the first men in this valley, the men who built such cities as Teotihuacan and Tolan. Because all we have, we inherited from them. All we know, we learned from them." He took a last puff of smoke and removed from the holder the burned-down stub of his picíetl reed. "We may never know why they disappeared, or when, though the fire-charred beams of their ruined buildings suggest that they were driven out by marauders. Probably the savage Chichimeca, the Dog People. We can read but little of the surviving wall paintings and carvings and picture writings, and none of those things tells even the name of that vanished people. But the things are so artfully executed that we respectfully refer to their makers as the Toltéca, the Master Artisans, and for sheaves of years we have been trying to equal their achievements."

"But," said Poyec, "if the Toltéca have been so long gone, I do not see how we could have learned from them."

"Because a few individuals would have survived, even when the mass of them, as a nation, disappeared. These would have been some survivors who took to the high crags or the deep forests. And those diehard Toltéca would have endured in hiding—even preserving some of their books of knowledge perhaps—hoping to hand on their culture through their children and children's children, as they intermarried with other tribes. Unfortunately, the only other peoples in this area at that time were utter primitives: the stolid Otomí, the frivolous Purémpecha, and of course the ever-present Dog People."

"Ayya," said young Poyec. "The Otomí have not yet learned even the art of writing. And the Chichimeca to this day still eat their own excrement."

"But even among barbarians there can be a handful of extraordinary specimens," said Neltitica. "We must assume that the Toltéca chose carefully their mates, and that their children and grandchildren did likewise, and thus at least a few superior bloodlines would have been maintained. It would have been a sacred family trust, to hand down from father to son what each remembered of the ancient Toltéca knowledge. Until finally, from the north, there began to come to this valley new peoples—also primitives, but capable of recognizing and appreciating and utilizing that hoard of knowledge. New peoples with the will to fan that long-guarded ember again to flame."

The Lord Teacher paused to fit a new reed into his holder. Many men smoked the poquietl because, they said, its fumes kept their brains clear and healthy. I took up the practice myself when I was older, and found it a great aid to cogitation. But Neltitica smoked more than any man I ever met, and that habit may have accounted for his exceptional wisdom and long life.

He went on, "The first comers from the north were the Culhua. Then the Acolhua, my own forebears and yours, Poyectzin. Then all the other lake settlers: the Tecpanéca, the Xochimilca, and so on. Then, as now, they called themselves by different names, and only the gods know where they originally came from, but all those migrants arrived here speaking one or another dialect of the Náhuatl language. And here in this lake basin, they began to learn, from the descendants of the vanished Toltéca, what remained of the Toltéca's ancient arts and crafts."

"It could not all have been done in a day," I said. "Or in a sheaf of years."

"No, and perhaps not in many sheaves of years," said Neltitica. "But when learning must be done largely from elusive scraps of information, and by trial and error, and by the imitation of relics—well, the more people engaged in sharing the learning, the faster it is accomplished by all. Fortunately, those Culhua and Acolhua and Tecpanéca and all the rest could communicate in a common language, and they all worked together. Meanwhile, they gradually ousted the lesser peoples from this region. The Purémpecha moved west, the Otomí and Chichimeca drifted north. The Náhuatl-speaking nations remained, and they grew in knowledge and ability at about the same pace. It was only after those peoples had attained some measure of civilization that they ceased to be mutually supportive and began to vie for ascendancy over each other. It was then that the still-primitive Aztéca arrived."

The Lord Teacher turned his eyes on me.

"The Aztéca, or Mexíca, settled into a society that was already well developed, but a society that was beginning to separate into rival fragments. And the Mexíca managed to survive until Coxcox of the Culhua condescended to appoint one of his nobles named Acamapichtli to be their own first Revered Speaker. Acamapichtli introduced them to the art of word knowing, then to all the other knowledge already salvaged and shared by the longer-settled nations. The Mexíca were avid to learn, and we know what use they made of that learning. They played off the other rival factions of these lands, one against another, shifting their allegiance from one to another, until finally they themselves had achieved military supremacy over all the rest."

Little Poyec of Texcóco gave me a look as if I had been to blame for my ancestors' aggressiveness, but Neltitica went on speaking with the dispassion of the detached historian:

"We know how the Mexíca have thrived and prospered since then. They have far surpassed, in wealth and influence, those other nations that once snubbed them as insignificant. Their Tenochtítlan is the richest and most opulent city built since the days of the Toltéca. Though there are countless languages spoken in The One World, the far-ranging Mexíca armies and traders and explorers have made our Náhuatl the second language of every people from the northern deserts to the southern jungles."

He must have seen the trace of a smug smile on my face, for the Lord Teacher concluded:

"Those accomplishments would, I think, be enough for the Mexíca to boast about, but they have insisted on even more self-glorification. They rewrote their history books, trying to persuade themselves and others that they have always been the foremost nation of this region. The Mexíca may delude themselves, and may deceive historians of generations to come. But I believe I have adequately demonstrated that the usurping Mexíca are not the great Toltéca reborn."

The Lady of Tolan invited me to take chocolate in her chambers, and I went eagerly, with a question bubbling inside me. When I arrived, her son the Crown Prince was there, and I kept silent while they discussed minor matters concerning the palace management. But when there came a lull in their colloquy, I made bold to ask the question:

"You were born in Tolan, my lady, and that was once a Toltéca city. Are you then a Toltecatl?"

Both she and Black Flower looked surprised; then she smiled. "Anyone of Tolan, Head Nodder—anyone anywhere—would be proud to claim even a drop of Toltéca blood, but in honesty, ayya, I cannot. During all of living memory, Tolan has been part of the Tecpanéca territory, so I come of Tecpanéca stock—though I suspect our family may long ago have included an Otomitl or two, before that race was ousted."

I said in disappointment, "There is no trace of the Toltéca in Tolan?"

"In the people, who can say for certain? In the place, yes, there are the pyramids and stone terraces and vast walled courts. The pyramids have been stunted by erosion, and the terraces are all buckled and crazed, and the walls are fallen in places. But the exquisite patterns in which their stones were set are still discernible, and the low-relief carvings, and even fragmentary paintings here and there. The most impressive and least worn objects, though, are the many statues."

"Of the gods?" I asked.

"I do not think so, for they each have the same face. They are all of the same size and shape, sculptured simply and realistically, not in the convoluted style of today. They are cylindrical columns, as if once they supported some massive roof. But the columns are carved into the form of standing humans, if you can imagine humans more then three times as tall as any human known."

"Perhaps they are portraits of the giants who lived on earth after the gods," I suggested, remembering the monstrous thighbone of which Neltitica had told.

"No, I think they represent the Toltéca themselves, only portrayed much larger than life size. Their faces are not stern or brutal or haughty, as you would expect of gods or giants. They wear an expression of untroubled watchfulness. Many of the columns are toppled and scattered about the low ground, but others still stand on the heights, and they look out across the countryside as if patiently, tranquilly waiting."

"Waiting for what, do you suppose, my lady?"

"Perhaps for the Toltéca to come again."

It was Black Flower who answered, and he added a harsh laugh. "To emerge from wherever they have been lurking through all these sheaves of years. To come in might and fury, to conquer us interlopers, to reclaim these lands that were theirs."

"No, my son," said the First Lady. "They were never a warlike people, nor wanted to be, and that was their undoing. If they could ever come again, they would come in peace."

She sipped at her chocolate and made a face; it had gone flat. She took from the table at her side the beater of large and small wooden rings strung loose and jingling on a central stem, the whole instrument cunningly carved from a single stick of aromatic cedar. Putting it into her cup and holding the stem between her palms, she rubbed briskly to rotate the beater rings until the red liquid puffed up foamy and stiff again. After another sip, she licked the froth from her upper lip and said to me:

"Go sometime to the city of Teotihuacan, Head Nodder, and look at what is left of the wall paintings there. Only one of them shows a Toltecatl warrior, and he is merely playing at war. His spear has no blade, but a tuft of feathers at its point, and his arrows are tipped with óli gum, like those employed in teaching archery to boys."

"Yes, my lady, I have used such arrows in practicing the war games."

"From other murals, we can deduce that the Toltéca never gave human sacrifices to their gods, but only butterflies, flowers, quail, and such offerings. The Master Artisans were a peaceable people because their gods were gentle gods. One of them was that Quetzalcoatl still worshiped by all nations far and wide. And the Toltéca concept of that Feathered Serpent tells us much about them. Who but a wise and kindly people could have bequeathed to us a god that so harmoniously blends lordliness and lovingness? The most awesome but most graceful of all creatures, the snake, clad not in hard scales but in the soft and beautiful plumage of the quetzal tototl bird."

I said, "I was taught that the Feathered Serpent once really lived in these lands, and will someday come back again."

"Yes, Head Nodder, from what we can understand of the remains of Toltéca writing, Quetzalcoatl did indeed once live. He was a long-ago Uey-Tlatoani, or whatever the Toltéca called their rulers, and he must have been a good one. It is said that he himself devised the writing, the calendars, the star charts, the numbers we use today. It is even said that he left us the recipe for ahuacamoli and all the other moli sauces, though I am sure I cannot see Quetzalcoatl doing cook's work in a kitchen."

She smiled and shook her head, then was serious again. "It is said that during his reign the farmers' fields grew not just white cotton but cotton of all colors, as if already dyed, and that a single ear of maize was as much as a man could carry. It is said that there were no deserts in his time, but fruit and flowers growing everywhere in abundance, and the air was perfumed with all their mingled fragrances...."

I asked, "Is it possible that he could come again, my lady?"

"Well, according to the legends, Quetzalcoatl somehow unintentionally committed some sin so awful—or did something which so violated his own high standards of behavior—that he voluntarily abdicated his throne. He went to the shore of the eastern ocean and built a raft—of interwoven feathers, some say, or of intertwined live snakes. In his last words to the grieving Toltéca he vowed to return again someday. And he rowed away, and he vanished beyond the ocean's eastern horizon. Since then, the Feathered Serpent has become the one god recognized by every nation and every people known to us. But all the Toltéca have also disappeared since then, and Quetzalcóatl has yet to return."

"But he could have, he may have," I said. "The priests say that the gods often walk among us unrecognized."

"Like my Lord Father," said Black Flower, laughing. "But I believe the Feathered Serpent would be rather harder to overlook. The reappearance of such a distinctive god should certainly make a stir. Be assured, Head Nodder, if ever Quetzalcdatl comes again, with or without his retinue of Toltéca, we will know him."

I had left Xaltócan toward the close of the rainy season in the year Five Knife and, except for my frequent yearnings for the presence of Tzitzitlini, I had been so engrossed in my studies and my enjoyments of palace life that I had scarcely noticed the swift passing of time. I was frankly surprised when my schoolmate Prince Willow informed me that the day after tomorrow would be the first of the forthcoming nemontemtin, the five lifeless days. I had to count on my fingers to believe that I had been away from home for more than the round of a whole year, and that this one was coming to a close.

"All activities are suspended during the five hollow days," said the young prince. "So this year we will take the opportunity to pack and move the entire court to our Texcóco palace, to be ready to celebrate the month of Cuhhuitl Ehua there."

That was the first month of our solar year. Its name means The Tree Is Raised and refers to the many elaborate ceremonies during which the people of all nations were accustomed to beseech the rain god Tlaloc that the forthcoming summer's wet season would be an abundantly wet one.

"And you will want to be with your family for the occasion," Willow went on. "So I ask you to accept the loan of my personal acáli to carry you thither. I will send it again at the close of Cuahuitl Ehua, and you will rejoin the court at Texcóco."

This was all very sudden, but I accepted, expressing my gratitude for his thoughtfulness.

"Just one thing," he said. "Can you be ready to leave tomorrow morning? You understand, Head Nodder, my oarsmen will want to be safely back on their home shore before the lifeless days begin."

* * *

Ah, the Señor Bishop! Once more I am pleased and honored to have Your Excellency join our little gathering. And once more, my lord, your unworthy servant makes bold to give you worshipful greeting and welcome.

...Yes, I understand, Your Excellency. You say that I have not hitherto spoken sufficiently of my people's religious rites; that you especially want to hear in person about our superstitious dread of the hollow days; that you wish to hear at first hand my account of the ensuing month's heathen rituals of petition to the rain god. I understand, my lord, and I shall cause your reverend ears to hear all. Should my old brain wander in its recollection, or should my old tongue skip too lightly over any details of relevance, please do not hesitate, Your Excellency, to interrupt with questions or demands for elucidation.

Know, then, that it was on the sixth-to-last day of the year Six House that Prince Willow's carved and bannered and canopied acáli put me ashore on a Xaltócan jetty again. My splendid borrowed craft of six oarsmen rather put to shame the uncovered, two-oared canoe of the Lord Red Heron which was, that same day, likewise bringing his son home from school for the ceremonial month of Cuahuitl Ehua. I was even noticeably better dressed than that provincial princeling, and Pactli involuntarily gave me an ingratiating nod before he recognized me and his face froze.

At my house, I was welcomed like a hero home from some war. My father clapped his hands on my shoulders, which now nearly matched his in height and breadth. Tzitzitlini wrapped both arms around me in a squeeze that would have looked merely sisterly to anyone who did not see her fingernails digging softly But suggestively into my back. Even my mother was admiring, if mainly of my costume. I had deliberately chosen to wear my most wonderfully embroidered mantle, with the bloodstone clasp at the shoulder, and my gilt sandals which laced almost to the knee.

Friends and relations and neighbors came crowding in to gawk at the rover returned. Among them, I was happy to see, were Chimali and Tlatli, who had each begged a ride home from Tenochtítlan on limestone freight acaltin returning to the island to ride out the lifeless days at their moorings. My family's three rooms and dooryard, which now appeared to me to have curiously shrunken, were quite overflowing with visitors. I do not attribute that to my personal popularity, but to the fact that midnight would bring the beginning of the hollow days, during which there could be no social mingling.

Not many of the gathered people, except my father and some other quarriers, had ever been off our island, and were naturally eager to hear of the outside world. But they asked few questions; they seemed content to listen to me and Chimali and Tlatli trading tales of our experiences in our separate schools.

"Schools!" snorted Tlatli. "It is precious little time we have for school work. Every day the vile priests roust us out at dawn to sweep and clean our quarters and all the rooms of the whole building. Then we must go to the lake to tend the school's chinampa, and pick maize and beans for the school kitchen. Or go all the way to the mainland to chop wood for the sacred fires, to cut and fetch bags full of maguey thorns."

I said, "The food and firewood I can understand, but why the thorns?"

"For penance and punishment, friend Mole," Chimali growled. "Break the slightest rule and a priest makes you prick yourself repeatedly. In the earlobes, in the thumbs and arms, even in private places. I am punctured all over."

"But even the best-behaved suffer too," added Tlatli. "Every other day seems to be the feast day of some god or other, including many I have never heard of, and every boy must shed blood for the offering."

One of the listeners asked, "When do you find time for studying?"

Chimali made a face. "What little time there is does not avail us much. The teacher priests are not learned men. They know nothing except what there is in the textbooks, and those books are old and smudged and falling apart into shreds of bark."

Tlatli said, "Chimali and I are fortunate, though. We did not go for book learning, so the lack of it does not much trouble us. Also, we spend most of our days in the studios of our art masters, who do not waste time on religious drivel. They work us hard, so we do learn what we came to learn."

"Some other boys do, too," said Chimali. "Those who are similarly apprenticed out—to physicians, feather workers, musicians, and the like. But I pity those who came to learn classroom subjects like the art of word knowing. When they are not engaged in rituals and bloody mortification and menial labor, they are being taught by priests as ignorant as any of the students. You can be glad, Mole, that you did not get into a calmécac. There is little to learn in one, unless you desire to be a priest yourself."

"And nobody," said Tlatli, shuddering, "would want to be a priest of any god, unless he wants never to have sex or a drink of octli or even a bath just once in his life. And unless he truly enjoys hurting himself as well as seeing other people in pain."

I had once felt envy of Tlatli and Chimali, when they donned their best mantles and went away to their separate schools. Now here they were, still wearing the same mantles, and it was they who envied me. I did not have to say a word about the luxurious life I enjoyed at the court of Nezahualpili. They were sufficiently impressed when I remarked that our textbooks were painted on smoked fawnskin for durability, and when I mentioned the absence of religious interruptions, the few rules and little rigidity, the willingness of the teachers to give private tutorial sessions.

"Imagine!" murmured Tlatli. "Teachers who have worked at what they teach."

"Fawnskin textbooks," murmured Chimali.

There was a stir among the people nearest the door, and all of a sudden Pactli strode in, as if he had deliberately timed his arrival to display the superior product of the most select and prestigious kind of calmécac. Numerous persons dropped to kiss the earth to the son of their governor, but there was not room for all to do so.

"Mixpantzinco," my father greeted him, uncertainly.

Ignoring my father, not bothering to utter the customary response, Pactli spoke directly to me. "I came to request your aid, young Mole." He handed me a strip of folded bark paper and said, as comradely as he knew how, "I understand that your study is concentrated on the art of word knowing, and I ask that you give me your opinion of this effort of mine, before I return to school and submit it to the criticism of my Lord Teacher." But while he spoke to me, his eyes shifted to my sister. It must have cost the Lord Joy a pang, I thought, to have to use me as an excuse for visiting before midnight should make a visit impossible.

Though Pactli could not have cared a little finger for my opinion of his writing—he was openly leering at my sister now—I flipped through the pleated pages and said boredly, "In which direction am I supposed to read this?"

Several people looked aghast at my tone of voice, and Pactli grunted as if I had struck him. He glared at me and said, through his teeth, "From left to right, Mole, as you know very well."

"Usually from left to right, yes, but not always," I said. "The first and most basic rule of writing, which apparently you have not grapsed, is that the majority of your pictured characters must all face in the direction the writing is to be read."

I must have been feeling uncommonly inflated by the finery of my costume, by having just come from a court infinitely more cultured than Pactli's, and by being the center of attention of a houseful of friends and relations—or I should probably not have dared to flout the conventions of servility. Not troubling to scan the paper further, I refolded and handed it back to him.

Have you ever noticed, Your Excellency, how the same emotion of rage can make different persons turn different colors? Pactli's face had gone almost purple, my mother's almost white. Tzitzi lightly brushed her hand across her mouth in the gesture of surprise, but then she laughed; so did Tlatli and Chimali. Pactli turned his baleful glare from me to them, then swept it around the entire assemblage, most of whom seemed to be wishing they could turn yet another color: the invisible color of the invisible air. Speechless with fury, the Lord Joy crushed his paper together in his fist and stalked out, rudely shouldering those who could not immediately make way for him.

Most of the rest of the company also left straightaway, as if thereby they could somehow disassociate themselves from my insubordination. They gave the excuse that their houses were more or less distant from ours, and they wanted to hurry home before darkness fell, to make sure that not a single ember in their hearths had been accidentally left smoldering alight. While that mass departure was in progress, Chimali and Tlatli both gave me supportive grins, Tzitzi pressed my hand, my father looked stricken, and my mother looked glazed with frost. But not everyone left. Some of the guests were staunch enough not to feel trepidation at the contumacy I had displayed—and had displayed on the very eve of the lifeless days.

During those coming five days, you see, to do anything was regarded as rash—patently fruitless and possibly hazardous. The days were not really days; they were only a necessary gap between the year's last month of Xiutecutli and the next year's first month of Cuahuitl Ehua; they did not exist as days. Hence we tried to keep our own existence as imperceptible as possible. That was the time of year when the gods lazed and drowsed; even the sun was pale and cool and low in the sky. No sensible person would do anything to disturb the gods' languor and risk their annoyance.

So, during the five hollow days, all worked stopped. All activities ceased, barring the most essential and unavoidable tasks. All house fires and lights were extinguished. No cooking was done and only meager cold meals were served. People did not travel or visit or mingle into crowds. Husbands and wives refrained from sexual connection. (They also refrained, or took precautions, at the proper time previous to the nemontemtin, for a child born during the lifeless days was seldom let survive them.) Throughout all our lands, then, most people stayed indoors and occupied themselves with trivial timepassers like flaking tools or mending nets, or they simply sat about and moped.

Since the hollow days themselves were so ill-omened, I suppose it was only natural that the company remaining in our house that evening conversed on the subject of omens and portents. Chimali, Tlatli, and I sat apart and continued our comparison of our schools, but I overheard snatches of the talk of our elders:

"It was a year ago that Xopan stepped over her baby daughter who was crawling underfoot in the kitchen. I could have told Xopan what she was doing to the girl's tonáli. That child has not grown a fingerspan in the whole year since she was stepped over. She will be a dwarf, you wait and see."

"I used to scoff, but now I know that the old tales about dreams are true. One night I dreamt of a water jar being broken, and it was the very next day that my brother Xicama died. Killed in the quarry, you recall."

"Sometimes the dire results do not happen for so long that one might forget what thoughtless action provoked them. Like the time, years ago, that I warned Teoxihuitl to be careful with her broom, when I saw her sweep across the foot of her son playing on the floor. And sure enough, that boy grew up to marry a widow woman nearly as old as his mother Teoxihuitl. Made himself the laughingstock of the village."

"A butterfly flew in circles about my head. It was not until a month later that I got the word. My only sister Cueponi had died at her home in Tlácopan on that same day. But of course I should already have known, from the butterfly, for she was my nearest and dearest relation."

I could not help reflecting on two things. One was that everybody on Xaltócan really did speak a most unrefined tongue, compared with the Náhuatl of Texcóco to which I had recently become accustomed. The other was that, of all the omens of which the company spoke, not a single one ever seemed to presage anything but misfortune, deprivation, misery, or woe. Then I was diverted by Tlatli's telling me something he had learned from his Lord Teacher of Sculpture:

"Humans are the only creatures that have a nose. No, do not laugh, Mole. Of all the living creatures of which we make carvings, only men and women have a nose which is not just part of a muzzle or a beak, but sticks out from the face. So, since we elaborate our statues with so many decorative details, my master has taught me always to sculpture a human with a somewhat exaggerated nose. Thus anyone looking at the most complicated statue, even if he is ignorant of art, can tell at a glance that it represents a human and not a jaguar or a serpent or, for that matter, the frog-faced water goddess Chalchihuitlioió."

I nodded, and tucked the idea away in my memory. Thereafter I did likewise in my picture writing, and many other scribes later imitated my practice of always limning men and women with distinctive noses. If all our people are doomed to vanish from the earth like the Toltéca—I trust that our books at least will survive. Any future readers of our picture writing may get the mistaken notion that every inhabitant of these lands had a hooked hawk beak like the Maya, but they should at least have no trouble distinguishing the human characters from the animals and the gods of animal aspect.

"Thanks to you, Mole, I have devised a unique signature for my paintings," said Chimali, with a shy grin. "Other artists sign their works with their name symbols, but I use this." He showed me a board about the size of his sandal, embedded all over its surface with countless tiny chips of sharp obsidian. I was startled and horrified when he slapped his open left hand hard against the board, then, still grinning, held it open for me to see the blood oozing from its palm and every finger. "There may be other artists named Chimali, but it was you, Mole, who showed me that no two hands are alike." His was now entirely covered with his blood. "Hence I have a signature which can never be imitated."

He slapped the massive household water jar nearby. On its dull brown clay surface there was now a gleaming red handprint. Travel these lands, Your Excellency, and you will see that same signature on many a temple mural and palace painting. Chimali did a prodigious amount of work before he stopped working.

He and Tlatli were the last of the guests to leave our house that night. Those two stayed, on purpose, until we actually heard the drums and conch trumpets from the temple pyramid, announcing the start of the nemontemtin. While my mother dashed about the house to douse the lights, my friends scampered to get to their own homes before the beating and the bleating stopped. It was reckless of them—if the hollow days were bad, their lightless nights were far worse—but the two friends' staying saved me from chastisement for my insult to the Lord Joy. Neither my father nor mother could undertake something as serious as punishment during the ensuing days, and by the time the nemontemtin ended, the matter had been pretty well forgotten.

However, those days were not entirely uneventful for me. On one of them Tzitzi got me aside to whisper urgently, "Must I go and steal another sacred mushroom?"

"Godless sister," I hissed at her, though not angrily. "Lying together is forbidden even to husbands and wives at this time."

"Only to husbands and wives. To you and me, it is forbidden always, so we run no exceptional risk."

Before I could say anything else, she moved from me to the waist-high clay jar that held our household water supply, the one that now bore Chimali's blood-red handprint. She shoved it with all her strength; it overturned and broke, and water cascaded across the limestone floor. Our mother stormed into the room and let loose one of her tirades at Tzitzitlini. Clumsy wench... jar took a whole day to fill... supposed to last through the nemontemtin... not another drop in the house and not another container that size....

Unruffled, my sister said, "Mixtli and I can go to the spring with the largest other jars, and between us bring back as much in one trip."

Our mother did not think highly of that suggestion, and so she did a good deal more of her shrilling, but she really had no alternative, and finally let us go. Each of us left the house carrying a handled, big-bellied jug in either hand, but at the first opportunity we set them down.

I last described Tzitzi as she looked in early adolescence. She was now full grown and, of course, her hips and buttocks had filled out to graceful, womanly curves. Each of her breasts overflowed my cupped hand. Their nipples were more erectile, their areolas were of larger diameter and a darker russet brown against the fawn skin around them. Tzitzi was also, if possible, more quickly aroused each time than the time before, and more wanton in her responses and movements. In just the brief interval we allowed ourselves between the house and the spring, she came to culmination at least thrice. Her increased capacity for passion, and one noticeable maturation of her body, gave me the first hint of a premise, and my experiences with other women in later years served always to confirm it. So I consider it not a premise, but a proven theory, and it is this:

A woman's sexuality is in direct proportion to the diameter and darkness of her breast's areola. Never mind how beautiful her face, how shapely her form; never mind how approachable or how aloof she may seem. Those aspects can be misleading, even deliberately so on her part. But there is that one reliable indicator of the sensuality of her nature, and, to the knowing eye, no cosmetic art can hide it or counterfeit it. A woman with a large and dark area surrounding her nipple is invariably hot-blooded, even if she might wish to be otherwise. A woman with a nipple only—like the vestigial nipple of a man—is inevitably cold, although she might honestly believe herself to be otherwise, or even behave shamelessly in order to appear otherwise. And of course there are gradations of areola size and color, the gauging of which can be learned only by experience. Thus a man need contrive to get but a single glance at a woman's bare breast and, with no waste of time or chance of disappointment, he can judge how passionately she will—

Your Excellency wishes me to have done with this subject. Ah, well, no doubt I dwell on it only because it is my theory. I have always been fond of it, and of testing it, and I never once encountered disproof. I still think the correlation of a woman's sexuality and her areola ought to have some useful application outside the bedchamber.

Yyo ayyo! Do you know, Your Excellency, it suddenly occurs to me that your Church might be interested. It could use my theory as a quick and simple test for choosing those girls best suited by nature to be nuns in your—

I desist, yes, my lord.

I will just mention that, when Tzitzi and I at last returned to the house, fairly staggering with the four heavy jugs of water, we were berated by our mother for having been so long out in the open on such a day. My sister, who only a short while before had been a young wild animal—thrashing, panting, and clawing me in her ecstasy—now lied as casually and smoothly as any priest:

"You cannot scold us for loitering or dallying. There were others wanting water from the spring. Since the day forbids any congregating, Mixtli and I had to wait our turn at a distance and move nearer bit by bit. We did not waste any time."

At the end of the dreary hollow days, all The One World breathed a great sigh of relief. I do not know exactly what you mean, Your Excellency, when you mutter about "a parody of Lent," but on the first day of the month The Tree Is Raised there commenced a round of general gaiety. Throughout the following days, there were private celebrations in the bigger homes of nobles and well-to-do commoners, and in the local temples of the various villages, during which the hosts and guests, the priests and worshipers indulged in excesses of which they had been deprived during the nemontemtin.

Those preliminary festivities might have been a trifle dampened that year, for we got word of the death of our Uey-Tlatoani Tixoc. But his reign had been the shortest in the history of Mexíca rulers, and the least noteworthy. Indeed, it was rumored that he had been quietly poisoned—either by the elders of his Speaking Council, impatient with Tixoc's uninterest in mounting new war campaigns, or by his brother Ahuítzotl, Water Monster, next in line to the throne and ambitious to show how much more brilliantly he could rule. At any rate, Tixoc had been such a colorless figure that he was not much missed or mourned. So our grand ceremony in praise and supplication of the rain god Tlaloc, held in Xaltócan's central pyramid plaza, was also dedicated to celebrating the accession of the new Revered Speaker Ahuítzotl.

The rites did not begin until Tonatíu had sunk to sleep in his western bed, lest that god of warmth should see and be jealous of the honors paid to his brother god of wetness. Then there began to gather—about the edges of the open plaza and on the slopes rising around it—every single inhabitant of the island, save those too old, too young, too ill or disabled, and those who had to remain at home to tend them. As soon as the sun set, the square and the pyramid and the temple on top were aflutter with the black-robed priests, busy at their last preparations of lighting the multitude of torches, the artificially colored urn fires, and the sweetly smoking incense burners. The sacrificial stone atop the pyramid would not be used that night. Instead, there had been brought—to the foot of the pyramid, where every spectator could see into it—an immense, hollowed-out stone tub, full of water previously sanctified by special incantations.

As the darkness deepened, the grove of trees beside and behind the pyramid also came alight: innumerable little wick lamps flickering as if the trees were nesting all the fireflies in the world. The trees' branches began to sway, swarming with children: very young and small but agile boys and girls wearing costumes lovingly fashioned by their mothers. Some of the little girls were enveloped by stiff paper globes painted to represent various fruits; others wore ruffs or skirts of paper cut and painted to represent various flowers. The boys were even more gaudily dressed, some covered in glued-on feathers to act the role of birds, others wearing translucent oiled-paper wings to play the part of bees and butterflies. All during the night's events, the boy birds and boy insects flitted acrobatically from branch to branch, pretending to "sip the nectar" of the girl fruits and girl flowers.

When the night was entirely upon us, and the island's population was assembled, the chief priest of Tlaloc appeared on the pyramid summit. He blew a blast on his conch trumpet, then raised his arms commandingly, and the hubbub of crowd noise began to subside. He held his arms aloft until the plaza hushed to absolute silence. Then he dropped his arms and, on the instant, Tlaloc himself spoke in a deafening crash of thunder—ba-ra-ROOM!—that kept on resounding and reverberating. The noise veritably shook the leaves on the trees, the smoke of the incense, the flames of the fires, the breath we had gasped into our lungs. It was not really Tlaloc, of course, but the mighty "thunder drum," also called "the drum that tears out the heart." Its taut and heavy snakeskin drumhead was being frenziedly hammered with óli mallets. The sound of the thunder drum can be heard two one-long-runs distant, so you can imagine its effect on us people clustered close around it.

That fearsome throbbing continued until we felt that our flesh must be about to shiver off our bones. Then it gradually diminished, quieter and quieter yet, until it merged into the pulsing of the smaller "god drum," which merely muttered while the chief priest chanted the standard greeting and invocation to Tlaloc. At intervals he paused for the crowd of us to respond in chorus—as your churchgoers say "Amen"—with a long-drawn owl cry of "Hoo-oo-ooo...." At other intervals he paused while his lesser priests stepped forward, reached into their robes, plucked out small water creatures—a frog, an axolotl salamander, a snake—held them up wriggling and then swallowed them whole and alive.

The chief priest concluded his opening chant with the age-old words, as loudly as he could shout them: "Tehuan tiezquiaya in ahuehuetl, in pochotl, TLALOCTZIN!"—which means, "We would that we be beneath the cypress, beneath the ceiba tree, Lord Tlaloc!"—which is to say, "We would ask your protection, your dominion over us." And at that bellow, priests in every part of the plaza threw onto the urn fires clouds of finely powdered maize flour, which exploded with a sharp crack and a dazzling flash, as if a fork of lightning had stabbed down among us. Then ba-ra-ROOM! the thunder drum smote us again, and kept on pounding until our teeth seemed to be rattling loose in our jaws.

But again it slowly quieted, and, when our ears could hear, we were listening to music played on the clay flute shaped like a sweet potato; and on "the suspended gourds" of different sizes which give different noises when struck with sticks; and on the flute made of five reeds of different lengths fastened side by side; while, behind all of those, the rhythm was kept by "the strong bone," a deer's toothed jawbone rasped with a rod. With the music came the dancers, men and women in concentric circles doing the Reed Dance. At their ankles, knees, and elbows were fastened dried pods of seeds, which rattled, whispered, and rustled as they moved. The men, wearing costumes of water blue, each carried a length of reed about as thick as his wrist and as long as his arm. The women were dressed in blouses and skirts colored the pale green of young reeds, and Tzitzitlini was their leader.

The male and female dancers glided through graceful interweavings in time to the happy music. The women waved their arms sinuously above their heads, and you could see the waving of reeds in a breeze. The men shook those thick canes they carried, and you could hear the dry rustling of reeds in a breeze. Then the music soared louder, and the women grouped in the center of the plaza, dancing in place, while the men formed a ring around them, and made a casting gesture with their thick reeds. At which, each of the things was revealed to be not just a single reed but a whole series of them, the thick one enclosing a less thick, which in turn enclosed a thinner, and so on.

When a man made that throwing movement, all the inner reeds slid out of the one held in his hand, to become a long, tapering, curving line whose tip met the tips of all the others thrown. The dancing women were embowered by a fragile dome of the reeds, and the watching crowd again went "Hoo-oo-ooo" in admiration. Then, with an adroit flick of their wrists, the men made all those reeds slide back inside each other and into their hands. The cunning trick was done again and again, in varying patterns, as when the men formed two lines and each threw his long reed to meet that of the man opposite, and the reeds made an arched tunnel through which the women danced....

When the Reed Dance was done, there came a comic interlude. Into the firelit square crept and limped all those old folk who suffer from an ailment of the bones and joints. This affliction keeps them always more or less bent and crippled, but for some reason it is especially painful to them during the rainy months. So those old men and women struggled to that ceremony to dance before Tlaloc in hope that, come the wet season, he would this time take pity and ease their aching.

They were understandably serious in their intent, but the dance was bound to be grotesque, and the spectators began to titter, then to laugh aloud, until the dancers themselves recognized their ridiculousness. One after another started to play the clown, exaggerating the absurdity of his or her limp or hobble. Eventually they were hopping on all fours like frogs, or lurching sideways like crabs, or hunching their scrawny old necks at each other like cranes in the mating season—and the watching crowd roared and rocked with laughter. The aged dancers got so carried away and so prolonged their hideous, hilarious capering that the priests had to clear them almost forcibly from the scene. It may interest Your Excellency to know that those suppliant exertions never influenced Tlaloc to benefit a single cripple—quite the contrary, many of them were permanently bedridden from that night on—but those old fools still capable would keep coming back to dance again year after year.

Next came the dance of the auyanime, those women whose bodies were reserved to the service of soldiers and knights. The dance they did was called the quequezcuicatl, "the ticklish dance," because it roused such sensations among its watchers, male and female, young and old, that they often had to be restrained from rushing in among the dancers and doing something really outrageously irreverent. The dance was so explicit in its movements that—though only the auyanime danced, and apart even from each other—you would swear they had invisible, naked male companions with whom...

Yes, well, after the auyanime had left the plaza—panting, perspiring, their hair tousled, their legs weak and wobbly—there came, to the hungry rumble of the god drum, a boy and a girl, each about four years old, in an ornate litter chair carried by priests. Because the late and unlamented Revered Speaker Tixoc had been lax in his waging of war, there had been no captive children from some other nation available for that night's sacrifice, so the priests had to buy the youngsters from two local slave families. The four parents sat well down front on the plaza and watched proudly as their babies were paraded several times past them in their several circuits of the square. The parents and the children had reason to be proud and pleased, for the little boy and girl had been purchased long enough beforehand to have been well cared for and well fed. They were now plump and perky, waving merrily to their parents and to everyone else in the crowd who waved at them. They were better dressed than they could ever have hoped to be, for they were costumed to represent the tlalóque spirits which attend upon the rain god. Their little mantles were of the finest cotton, a blue-green color patterned with silver raindrops, and they wore on their shoulder blades cloud-white wings of paper.

As had happened at every previous ceremony in honor of Tlaloc, the children were unaware of the behaviour expected of them. They were so delighted by the excitement, the colors, the lights and music that they bounced with laughter and beamed about them as radiantly as the sun. That, of course, was just the opposite of what they were meant to do. So, as usual, the priests carrying their chair had to reach up surreptitiously and pinch their bottoms. The children were at first puzzled, then pained. The boy and girl began to complain, then to weep, then to wail, as was proper. The more bawling, the more thunderstorms to come. The more tears, the more rain. The crowd joined in the crying, as was expected and encouraged, even for grown men and crusty warriors, until the hills roundabout echoed with the groaning and sobbing and beating of breasts. Every other drum and musical instrument now augmented the throbbing of the god drum and the ululation of the crowd, as the priests set down the litter chair on the far side of that stone tub of water by the pyramid. So unbelievably loud was the combined noise that probably not even the chief priest could hear the words he chanted over the two children when he lifted them and held them up one at a time to the sky, that Tlaloc might see and approve of them.

Then two assistant priests approached, one with a small pot, the other with a brush. The chief priest bent over the boy and girl and, though no one could hear, we all knew he was telling the children that they were now to don masks so the water would not get into their eyes while they swam in the sacred tank. They were still sniffling, not smiling, their cheeks wet with tears, but they did not protest when the priest brushed liquid óli liberally over their faces, leaving only their flower-bud lips uncoated. We could not see their expression when the priest turned from them again to chant, still unheard, the final appeal that Tlaloc accept their sacrifice, that in exchange he send a substantial rainy season, and so on.

The assistants lifted the boy and girl one last time, and the chief priest swiftly daubed the sticky liquid across their lower faces, covering mouths and nostrils, and the assistants dropped the children into the tank, where the cool water instantly congealed the gum. You see, the ceremony required that the sacrifices die in the water, but not of it. So they did not drown, they suffocated slowly behind the thick, unremovable, untearable óli masks, while they flailed desperately in the tank, and sank and rose and sank again, and the crowd wailed in mourning, and the drums and instruments continued their god-shouting cacophony. The children splashed and struggled ever more feebly, until first the girl, then the boy, ceased to move and hung only dimly visible just under the water, and on the surface their white wings floated, widespread, unmoving.

Cold-blooded murder, Your Excellency? But they were slave children. The boy and girl would otherwise have led brute lives, perhaps mated when they were grown, and begotten more brutes. When they came to die, they would have died to no purpose whatever, and they would have languished for a dreary eternity in the darkness and nothingness of Mictlan. Instead, they died to the honor of Tlaloc, and to the benefit of us who went on living, and their death earned them a happy life ever after in the lush green afterworld of Tlalocan.

Barbaric superstition, Your Excellency? But that next rainy season was as bountiful as even a Christian could have implored, and it gave us a handsome harvest.

Cruel? Heartrending? Well, yes... Yes, I at least remember it so, for that was the last happy holy day that Tzitzitlini and I were ever to enjoy together.

* * *

When Prince Willow's acáli came to fetch me again, it did not reach Xaltócan until well after midday, because it was then the season of high winds, and the oarsmen had had a turbulent crossing. It was just as rough going back—the lake was roiled into choppy waves from which the wind tore and flung a stinging spray—so we did not dock at Texcóco until the sun was halfway to bed.

Though the city's buildings and streets began there at the docks, that district was really only a fringe of lakeside industries and dwellings—boatyards; shops making nets, ropes, hooks, and the like; the houses of boatmen, fishermen, and fowlers. The city's center was perhaps half of one-long-run farther inland. Since no one from the palace had come to meet me, Willow's oarsmen volunteered to walk part of the way with me and help to carry the bundles I had brought: some additional clothes, another set of paints given me by Chimali, a basket of sweets cooked by Tzitzi.

My companions dropped off, one by one, as we came to the neighborhoods in which they lived. But the last one told me that if I simply walked straight on, I could not fail to recognize the palace on the great central square. It was full dark by then, and there were not many other people abroad on that blustery night, but the streets were lighted. Every house seemed supplied with lamps of coconut oil or ahuacatl oil or fish oil or whatever fuel the householders could afford. Their light spilled out through the houses' window openings, even those closed by lattice shutters or cloth curtains or oiled-paper shades. In addition, there was a torchlight set at most of the street corners: high poles with copperwork baskets of blazing pine splinters on top, from which the wind blew sparks and occasional gobbets of burning pitch. Those poles were set in sockets drilled through the fists of standing or squatting stone statues of various gods.

I had not walked far before I began to tire; I was carrying so many bundles, and I was being so buffeted by the wind. It was with relief that I saw a streetside stone bench set in the darkness under a red-flowering tapachini tree. I sank down on it gratefully, and sat for a while, enjoying being showered by the tree's scarlet petals blown loose by the wind. Then I became aware that the bench seat under me was ridged with a carved design. I had only to begin tracing it with my fingers—not even to peer at it in the dark—to know that it was picture writing, and to know what it said.

"A resting place for the Lord Night Wind," I quoted aloud, smiling to myself.

"You were reading exactly the same thing," said a voice from the darkness, "when we met at another bench some years ago."

I gave a start of surprise, then squinted to make out the figure at the other end of the seat. Again he was wearing a mantle and sandals of good quality, though travel-worn. Again he was so covered with the dust of the road that his coppery, features were indistinct. But now I was probably just as dusty, and I had grown considerably, and I marveled that he could have recognized me. When I had recovered my voice, I said:

"Yes, Yanquicatzin, it is a surpassing coincidence."

"You should not address me as Lord Stranger," he growled, as surly as I remembered him. "Here you are the stranger."

"True, my lord," I said. "And here I have learned to read more than the simple symbols on roadside benches."

"I should hope so," he said drily.

"It is thanks to the Uey-Tlatotoi Nezahualpili," I explained. "At his generous invitation, I have enjoyed many months of higher schooling in his court classrooms:"

"And what do you do to earn such favors?"

"Well, I would do anything, for I am grateful to my benefactor, and eager to repay him. But I have yet to meet the Revered Speaker, and nobody else gives me anything but schoolwork to do. It makes me uncomfortable, to feel that I am only a parasite."

"Perhaps Nezahualpili has merely been waiting. To see you prove yourself trustworthy. To hear you say you would do anything."

"I would. Anything he might ask."

"I daresay he will ask something of you eventually."

"I hope so, my lord."

We sat for some time in silence, except for the sound of the wind moaning between the buildings, like Chocaciuatl the Weeping Woman forever wandering. Finally the dusty man said sarcastically:

"You are eager to be of use at the court, but here you sit and the palace is yonder." He waved down the street. I was being dismissed as curtly as the other time.

I stood up, gathered my bundles, and said with some pique, "As my impatient lord suggests, I go. Mixpantzinco."

"Ximopanolti," he drawled indifferently.

I stopped under the torch pole at the next corner and looked back, but the light did not reach far enough to illuminate the bench. If the travel-stained stranger still sat there, I could not make out his form. All I could see was a little red whirl of tapachini petals being danced along the street by the night wind.

I finally found the palace, and found the slave boy Cozcatl waiting to show me to my quarters. That palace at Texcóco was far larger than the one at Texcotzinco—it must have contained a thousand rooms—since there was not so much space in the central city for its necessary annexes to sprawl and spread around it. Still, the Texcóco palace grounds were extensive and, even in the middle of his capital city, Nezahualpili evidently would not be denied his gardens and arbors and fountains and the like.

There was even a living maze, which occupied land enough for ten families to have farmed. It had been planted by some long-ago royal ancestor, and had been growing ever since, though kept neatly clipped. It was now an avenue of parallel, impenetrable thorn hedges, twice man-high, which twisted and forked and doubled upon itself. There was only a single opening in the hedge's green outer wall, and it was said that anyone entering there would, after long meandering, find his way to a little grassy glade in the center of the maze, but that the return route was impossible to retrace. Only the aged chief gardener of the palace knew the way out, a secret handed down in his family and traditionally kept secret even from the Uey-Tlatoani. So no one was allowed to enter there without the old gardener for a guide—except as a punishment. The occasional convicted lawbreaker was sentenced to be delivered alone and naked into the maze, at spearpoint if necessary. After a month or so, the gardener would go in and bring out whatever remained of the starved and thorn-torn and bird-pecked and worm-eaten body.

The day after my return, I was waiting for a class to begin, when young Prince Willow approached me. After welcoming me back to court, he said casually, "My father would be pleased to see you in the throne room at your convenience, Head Nodder."

At my convenience! How courteously the highest noble of the Acolhua summoned to his presence this lowly foreigner who had been battening on his hospitality. Of course I left the classroom and went immediately, almost running along the buildings' galleries, so that I was quite breathless when at last I dropped to one knee at the threshold of the immense throne room, made the gesture of kissing the earth, and said, "In your august presence, Revered Speaker."

"Ximopanolti, Head Nodder." When I remained bowed in my position of humility, he said, "You may rise, Mole." When I stood, but stayed where I was, he said, "You may come here, Dark Cloud." As I did so, slowly and respectfully, he said, smiling, "You have as many names as a bird which flies over all the nations of The One World and which is called differently by every people." With a fly whisk he was wielding he indicated one of several icpaltin chairs ranged in a semicircle before the throne and said, "Be seated."

Nezahualpili's own chair was no more grand or impressive than the stubby-legged one on which I sat, but it was raised on a dais so that I had to look up at him. He sat with his legs not formally crossed under him or knees up in front of him, but languidly stretched out to the front and crossed at the ankles. Though the throne room was hung with feather-work tapestries and panel paintings, there were no other furnishings except the throne, those low chairs for visitors—and, directly in front of the Uey-Tlatoani, a low table of black onyx on which reposed, facing him, a gleaming white human skull.

"My father, Fasting Coyote, set that there," said Nezahualpili, noticing my eyes upon it. "I do not know why. It may have been some vanquished enemy over whom he delighted to gloat. Or some lost beloved he could never stop mourning. Or he may have kept it for the same reason I do."

I asked, "And what is that, Lord Speaker?"

"There come to this room envoys bearing threats of war or offering treaties of peace. There come plaintiffs laden with grievances, petitioners asking favors. When those persons address me, their faces may contort with anger or sag with misery or smile in feigned devotion. So, while I listen to them, I look not at their faces, but at the skull."

I could only say, "Why, my lord?"

"Because there is the cleanest and most honest face of man. No paint or disguise, no guile or grimace, no sly wink or ingratiating smile. Only a fixed, ironic grin, a mockery of every living man's concern for urgencies. When any visitor pleads that I make a ruling here and now, I temporize, I dissimulate. I smoke a poquietl or two, while I look long at that skull. It reminds me that the words I speak may well outlast my own flesh, may long stand as firm decrees—and to what effect on those then living? Ayyo, that skull has often served to caution me against an impatient or impulsive decision." Nezahualpili looked from the skull to me, and laughed. "When the head lived, for all I know, it was that of a babbling idiot, but dead and silent it is a wise counselor indeed."

I said, "I think, my lord, that no counselor would be of use except to a man wise enough to heed counsel."

"I take that as a compliment, Head Nodder, and I thank you. Now, was I wise to bring you here from Xaltócan?"

"I cannot say, my lord. I do not know why you did."

"Since the time of Fasting Coyote, the city of Texcóco has been famed as a center of knowledge and culture, but such a center is not necessarily self-perpetuating. The noblest of families can breed dolts and sluggards—I could name a few of my own get—so we do not hesitate to import talent from elsewhere, and even to infuse foreign blood. You seemed a promising prospect, so here you are."

"To stay, Lord Speaker?"

"That will be up to you, or to your tonáli, or to circumstances that not you nor we can foresee. But your teachers have given good report of you, so I think it time that you became a more active participant in court life."

"I had been hoping for a means to repay your generosity, my lord. Do you mean I am to be given some useful employment?"

"If it is to your liking. During your recent absence, I took another wife. Her name is Chalchiunenetl. Jadestone Doll."

I said nothing, wondering confusedly if he had for some reason changed the subject. But he went on:

"She is the eldest daughter of Ahuítzotl. A gift from him to mark his accession as the new Uey-Tlatoani of Tenochtítlan. She is a Mexicali like yourself. She is fifteen years old, of an age to be your younger sister. Our ceremony of marriage has been duly celebrated, but of course the physical consummation will be postponed until Jadestone Doll is grown more mature."

I still said nothing, though I could have told even the wise Nezahualpili something about the physical capabilities of adolescent Mexíca maidens.

He continued, "She has been given a small army of waiting women, and the entire east wing as apartments for herself, for servants' quarters, private kitchen; a private palace in miniature. So she will lack for nothing in the way of comfort, service, and female companionship. However, I wonder if you might consent, Head Nodder, to join her retinue. It would be good for her to have the company of at least one male, and he a brother Mexícatl. At the same time you would be serving me. instructing the girl in our customs, teaching her our Texcóco style of speech, preparing her to be a consort of whom I can be proud."

I said evasively, "Chalchiunenetzin might not take kindly to having me appointed her keeper, Lord Speaker. A young girl can be willful, irrepressible, jealous of her freedom—"

"How well I know," sighed Nezahualpili. "I have two or three daughters of about that same age. And Jadestone Doll, being the princess daughter of one Uey-Tlatoani and the queen wife of another, is likely to be even more spirited. I would not condemn my worst enemy to be the keeper of a mettlesome young female. But I think, Mole, that you will find her at least pleasant to look upon."

He must have pulled a concealed bell rope some while before, for he gestured and I turned to see a slim girl in a rich ceremonial skirt, blouse, and headdress, coming slowly but regally toward the dais. Her face was perfection, her head held high, her eyes demurely lowered.

"My dear," said Nezahualpili. "This is Mixtli, of whom I have spoken. Would you have him in your retinue, in the role of companion and protector?"

"If my Lord Husband wishes it, I comply. If the young man agrees to it, I shall be pleased to regard him as my elder brother."

The long-lashed eyelids lifted, and she looked at me, and her eyes were like unfathomably deep forest pools. I found out later that she habitually put into her eyes drops of juice from the herb camopalxihuitl, which greatly enlarged her pupils and made her eyes lustrous as jewels. It also forced her to avoid bright lights, even the light of day, when her dilated eyes saw almost as poorly as mine.

"Well, then," said the Revered Speaker, rubbing his hands with satisfaction. I wondered, with some misgivings, just how long he had conferred with his counsel skull before deciding on this arrangement. To me he said:

"I ask only that you provide brotherly direction and advice, Head Nodder. I do not expect you to correct or chastise the Lady Jadestone Doll. It would, in any event, be a capital offense for a commoner to raise either his hand or his voice against a noblewoman. Nor do I expect you to play the jailer or the spy or the talebearer of her confidences. But I would be pleased, Mole, if you devote to your lady sister what time you can spare from your school work and studies. That you serve her with the same devotion and discretion with which you serve me or the First Lady Tolana-Teciuapil. Now go, young people, ximopanólti, and get acquainted with each other."

We made the proper obeisances and left the throne room. In the corridor, Jadestone Doll smiled sweetly at me and said, "Mole, Head Nodder, Mixtli. How many names do you have?"

"My lady may call me whatever she pleases."

She smiled even more sweetly, and put a delicate tapered fingertip to her pointed little chin. "I think I shall call you..." She smiled still more sweetly, and said with a sweetness like the taste of sticky maguey syrup, "I will call you Qualcuie!"

That word is the third person singular jussive of the verb "to fetch," and is always pronounced forcefully and commandingly: "Fetch!" My heart grew heavy. If my latest name was to be Fetch!, my misgivings about this arrangement seemed justified. And I was right. Though she still spoke in that maguey syrup voice, the young queen dropped all semblance of demureness, docility, and submissiveness, and said, very queen-like:

"You need not interrupt any of your daytime classwork, Fetch! However, I shall want you available in the evenings, and on call if necessary during the nights. You will please move all your effects into the apartment directly across the hall from mine." Without waiting for me to say any word of acquiescence, without herself saying any polite word of leave-taking, she turned and walked away down the hall.

Jadestone Doll. She was named for the mineral chalchihuitl, which, though it is neither rare nor of any intrinsic value, was prized by our people because it was the color of The Center of Everything. Unlike you Spaniards, who know only the four directions of what you call the compass, we perceived five, and designated them by different colors. Like you, we had the east, north, west, and south, respectively referred to as the directions of the red, black, white, and blue. But we also had the green: to mark the center of the compass, so to speak—the place where a man was at any given moment, and all the space above that spot as far as the sky, and all below it as far as the Mictlan underworld. So the color green was important to us, and the green stone chalchihuitl was precious to us, and only a child of noble lineage and high degree could appropriately have been named Jadestone Doll.

Like a Jadestone, that girl queen was an object to be handled most respectfully and carefully. Like a doll, she was exquisitely fashioned, she was beautiful, she was a work of divine craftsmanship. But, like a doll, she had no human conscience or compunctions. And, though I did not immediately recognize my feeling of premonition, like a doll she was fated to be broken.

* * *

I must admit that I rather reveled in the sumptuousness of my new chambers. Three rooms, and the sanitary closet contained my own private steam bath. The bed in the bedroom was an even higher than ordinary pile of quilts, over which lay an enormous coverlet made of hundreds of tiny squirrel skins bleached white and sewn together. Over the whole was suspended a fringed canopy and from that hung almost invisible, fine-meshed net curtains, which I could close around the bed to keep out mosquitoes and moths.

The one inconvenience of the apartment was that it was far distant from those others which the slave Cozcatl had in his charge. But when I mentioned that to Jadestone Doll, little Cozcatl was abruptly relieved of all his other duties, to attend solely to me. The boy was ever so proud of that promotion. Even I felt rather the pampered young lord. And later, when Jadestone Doll and I were in disgrace, I would be glad that Cozcatl had always been by me and was loyally ready to testify in my defense.

For soon I learned: if Cozcatl was my slave, I was Jadestone Doll's. On that first evening, when one of her maids admitted me to her grand suite, the young queen's first words were:

"I am glad you were given to me, Fetch!, for I was getting unutterably bored, cooped up in seclusion like some rare animal." I tried to make a demurrer regarding the word "given," but she overrode me. "I am told by Pitza"—she indicated the elderly maidservant hovering behind her cushioned bench—"that you are an expert at capturing the likeness of a person on paper."

"I flatter myself, my lady, that people have recognized themselves and each other in my drawings. But it is some while since I have practiced the craft."

"You will practice on me. Pitza, go across the corridor and have Cozcatl collect the implements Fetch! will require."

The little boy brought me some chalk sticks and several sheets of bark paper—the brown, the cheapest, uncoated with lime, which I used for rough drafts of my picture writing. At my gesture, the boy went to crouch in a corner of the big room.

I said apologetically, "You know of my poor eyesight, my lady. If I may have your permission to sit near you?"

I moved a low chair over beside the bench, and Jadestone Doll held her head still and steady, her glorious eyes on me, while I did a sketch. When I was done and handed her the paper, she did not glance at it, but held it over her shoulder to the maid.

"Pitza, is it I?"

"To the very dimple in the cheek, my lady. And no one could mistake those eyes."

At which the young queen condescended to examine it, and nodded, and smiled sweetly at me. "Yes, it is I. I am very beautiful. Thank you, Fetch! Now, can you do bodies, too?"

"Well, yes, the articulation of limbs, the folds of garments, the identifying emblems and insignia..."

"I am not interested in the outward habiliments. I mean the body. Here, do mine."

The maid Pitza gave a muted shriek and Cozcatl's mouth dropped open, as Jadestone Doll stood up and, without coyness or hesitation, stripped off all her jewelry and bangles, her sandals, her blouse, her skirt, and finally her single remaining undergarment. Pitza went away and buried her flushed face in the draperies by the window—Cozcatl seemed incapable of movement—as the young queen again reclined on the bench.

In my agitation, I dropped some of my drawing materials from my lap to the floor, but I managed to say, and in a voice of severity, "My lady, this is most unseemly."

"Ayya, the typical prudery of a commoner," she said, and laughed at me. "You must learn, Fetch!, that a noblewoman thinks nothing of being nude, or of bathing, or of performing any function in the presence of slaves. Male or female, they might be pet deer or quail, or a moth in the room, for all that their seeing signifies."

"I am not a slave," I said stiffly. "My seeing my lady unclad—the queen of the Uey-Tlatoani—would be accounted a criminal liberty, a capital offense. And those who are slaves can talk."

"Not mine. They fear my own anger more than that of any law or any lord. Pitza, show Fetch! your back."

The maid whimpered and, without turning, slid her blouse down for me to see the raw welts inflicted by a knout of some sort. I looked at Cozcatl, to make sure that he also saw and understood.

"Now," said Jadestone Doll, smiling her maguey syrup smile. "Come as near as you please, Fetch!, and draw me entire."

So I did, though my hand trembled so that I had often to rub out and redraw a line. The tremor was not entirely because of my dismay and apprehension. The sight of Jadestone Doll stark naked would, I think, have made any man tremble. She might better have been named Golden Doll, for gold was the color of her body, and its every surface and curve and crevice and bend and hollow was as perfectly rendered as by a Toltecatl dollmaker. I might also mention that her nipples and their areolas were dark and generous in size.

I drew her in the pose she had assumed: full length on the cushioned bench, except for one leg negligently trailing onto the floor; her arms behind her head to give an even more piquant tilt to her breasts. Though I could not help viewing—I might say memorizing—certain parts of her, I confess that my prudish sense of propriety made me blur them somewhat in the drawing. And Jadestone Doll complained about that, when I gave her the finished picture:

"I am all a smudge between the legs! Are you squeamish, Fetch!, or merely ignorant of female anatomy? Surely the most sacrosanct part of my body deserves the most attention to detail."

She got up from the bench and came to stand spread-legged before me, where I sat on my low chair. With one finger she traced what she now displayed and painstakingly described. "See? How these tender pink lips come together here in front, to enfold this little xacapili nub which is like a pink pearl and—ooh!—most responsive to the lightest touch."

I was perspiring heavily, the servant Pitza had practically enshrouded herself in the draperies, and Cozcatl appeared permanently paralyzed in his crouch in the corner.

"Now quit your prissy agonizing, Fetch!" said the girl queen. "I did not intend to tease you; rather to test your draftmanship. I have a task for you." She turned to snap at the maid. "Pitza, stop hiding your head! Come and dress me again."

While that was being done, I said, "My lady wishes me to draw a picture of someone?"

"Yes."

"Of whom, my lady?"

"Of anyone," she said, and I blinked in puzzlement. "You see, when I walk about the palace grounds or go into the city in my chair, it would be unladylike of me to point and say that one. Also, my eyedrops can dazzle me so that I might overlook someone really attractive. I mean men, of course."

"Men?" I echoed stupidly.

"I want you to carry your papers and chalks wherever you go. Whenever you encounter some handsome man, put his face and figure on paper for me." She paused to giggle. "You need not undress him. I want as many different pictures of as many different men as you can provide. But no one is to know why you are doing it, or for whom. If you are questioned, say you are merely practicing your art." She tossed back to me the two drawings I had just done. "That is all. You may take your leave, Fetch!, and do not come back until you have a sheaf of pictures to show me."

I was not, even then, so dense that I did not have an inkling of what Jadestone Doll's command portended. But I put that out of my mind, to concentrate on doing the task to the best of my ability. My main problem was in trying to guess what a fifteen-year-old girl might regard as "handsome" in a man. Having been given no other criteria, I confined my surreptitious sketchings to princes and knights and warriors and athletes and other such stalwarts. But when I returned to the queen, with Cozcatl carrying my stack of bark papers, I had whimsically topped them with a drawing I had done from memory—of that bent, crooked, cacao-brown man who had so oddly kept reappearing in my life.

She sniffed, but surprised me by saying, "You think you jest in mischief, Fetch! However, I have heard whispers among women that there are special delights to be had from dwarfs and hunchbacks and even"—she glanced at Cozcatl—"a little boy with a tepúli like an earlobe. Someday, when I tire of the ordinary..."

She riffled through the papers, then stopped and said, "Yyo ayyo! This one, Fetch!, he has bold eyebrows. Who is he?"

"That is the Crown Prince Black Flower."

She frowned prettily. "No, that might cause complications." She went on, intently studying each picture, then said, "And this one?"

"I do not know his name, my lady. He is a swift-messenger whom sometimes I see running with messages."

"Ideal," she said, with that smile of hers. She pointed to the drawing and said, "Fetch!" She was not just pronouncing my name, but the verbal imperative: "Bring him!"

I had fearfully anticipated something of the sort, but I broke into a cold sweat nonetheless. With the utmost diffidence and formality, I said:

"My Lady Jadestone Doll, I have been ordered to serve you, and cautioned not to correct or criticize you. But, if I rightly perceive your intentions, I beg you to reconsider. You are the virgin princess of the greatest lord in all The One World, and the wedded virgin queen of a lord who is also great. You will be demeaning two Revered Speakers and your own noble self, if you trifle with some other man before you go to your Lord Husband's bed."

I was expecting her at any moment to produce the whip she used on her slaves, but she heard me out, still wearing her infuriating sweet smile. Then she said:

"I could tell you that your impertinence is punishable. But I will merely remark that Nezahualpili is older than my own father, and that his virility has apparently been sapped by the Lady of Tolan, by all his other wives and concubines. He keeps me sequestered here while he is no doubt desperately trying medicines and enchantments to stiffen his limp and withered old tepúli. But why should I waste my urges and juices and the bloom of my beauty while I await his convenience or his capability? If he requires postponement of his husbandly duties, I shall arrange that they are long postponed indeed. And then, when he and I are ready, you may be sure I can convince Nezahualpili that I come to him untouched and pristine and as timorous of the experience as any maiden."

I tried again. I really did my best to dissuade her, though I do not think anyone afterward ever really believed it.

"My lady, remember who you are, and the lineage from which you descend. You are the granddaughter of the venerated Motecuzóma, and he was born of a virgin. His father threw a gemstone into the garden of his beloved. She tucked it into her bosom, and at that moment conceived the child Motecuzóma, before she ever married or coupled with his father. Thus you have a heritage of purity and virginity which you should not sully—"

She interrupted me with a laugh. "I am touched, Fetch!, by your concern. But you should have lectured me when I was nine or ten years old. When I was a virgin."

It belatedly occurred to me to turn to Cozcatl and say, "You had better—you may go now, boy."

Jadestone Doll said, "You know those carvings that the beastly Huaxteca make? The wooden torsos with the oversized male member? My father Ahuítzotl keeps one hanging on the wall of a gallery in our palace as a curiosity to amuse or amaze his men friends. It interests women, too. It has been rubbed smooth and glossy by those who have handled it admiringly in passing. Noblewomen. Servant wenches. Myself."

I said, "I really do not think I care to hear..." But she ignored my protestation.

"I had to drag a big storage chest against the wall, on which to stand to reach the thing. And it took me many painful days, because after each of my attempts I had to wait and rest while my inadequate tipíli stopped hurting. But I persisted, and it was a day of triumph when I finally managed just the tip of the tremendous thing. Little by little, I took more of it into me. I have had perhaps a hundred men since then, but none of them has ever given me the sensation I enjoyed in those days of thumping my little belly against that crude Huaxteca carving."

I pleaded, "I should not know these things, my lady."

She shrugged. "I make no excuses for my nature. That sort of release is something I must have, and must have often, and will have. I would even use you for that purpose, Fetch! You are not unappealing. And you would not inform against me, for I know you will obey Nezahualpili's bidding that you be no talebearer. But that would not prevent your confessing your own guilt at our coupling, and that would be the ruin of us both. So..."

She handed me the picture I had drawn of the unsuspecting swift-messenger, and a ring from her finger. "Give him this. It was my Lord Husband's wedding gift to me, and there is not another like it."

The ring was of red gold, set with a huge emerald whose value was incalculable. Those jewels were only seldom brought by traders who ventured as far as the land of Quautemálan, the uttermost southern limit of our trade routes, and the emerald's origin was not even there, but in some land, its name unknown, an untold distance farther to the south of Quautemálan. The ring was one of those designed to be worn on a hand held vertically, for its circlet was hung with jadestone pendants that would show to best advantage when the wearer kept her hand uplifted. The ring had been made to the measure of Jadestone Doll's middle finger. I could barely squeeze it onto my little one.

"No, you are not to wear it," the girl warned. "Nor is he. That ring would be recognized by anyone who saw it. He is merely to carry it, hidden, and then at midnight tonight show it to the guard on the eastern gate. At sight of the ring, the guard will admit him. Pitza will be waiting just inside, to bring him here."

"Tonight?" I said. "But I must find him again, my lady. He may have been sent running on an errand to who knows where."

"Tonight," she said. "I have already been too long deprived."

I do not know what she would have done to me had I not found the man, but I did, and accosted him as if I were a young noble with a message for him to carry. I deliberately did not give him my name, but he said, "I am Yeyac-Netztlin, at my lord's service."

"At a lady's service," I corrected him. "She wishes that you attend upon her at the palace at midnight."

He looked troubled and said, "It is most difficult to tun a message any distance at night, my lord—" But then his eyes fell on the ring I held in my palm, and his eyes widened, and he said, "For that lady, of course, not midnight nor Mictlan could prevent my doing a service."

"It is a service requiring discretion," I said, a sour taste in my mouth. "Show this ring to the guard on the east gate to be admitted."

"I hear and obey, young lord. I will be there." And he was. I stayed awake and listened near my door until I heard Pitza lead Yeyac-Netztlin tiptoeing to the door across the corridor. After that I heard no more, so I do not know how long he stayed or how he effected his departure. And I did not listen again for his subsequent arrivals, so I do not know how often he visited. But it was a month before Jadestone Doll, yawning with boredom, asked me to start sketching prospective new consorts, so Yeyac-Netztlin apparently satisfied her for that span of time. The swift-messenger's name, appropriately, meant Long Legs, and perhaps he was otherwise lengthily endowed.

Though Jadestone Doll made no demands upon my time during that month, I was not always easy in my mind. The Revered Speaker came about every eighth or ninth day to pay a courtesy call on his supposedly cosseted and patient princess-queen, and often I was present in the apartment, and I strove not to sweat visibly during those interviews. I could only wonder why, in the names of all the gods, Nezahualpili did not recognize that he was married to a female ripe and ready for his immediate savoring. Or that of any other man.

Those jewelers who deal in Jadestone say that the mineral is easily found among the commoner rocks of the field, because it proclaims its own presence and availability. Simply go into the countryside at first sunrise, they say, and you will see a rock here or there exuding a faint but unmistakable vapor which announces proudly, "There is Jadestone inside me. Come and take it." Like the prized mineral for which she was named, Jadestone Doll also emanated some indefinable nimbus or essence or vibration which said to every male, "Here I am. Come and take me." Could Nezahualpili be the only man in creation who did not sense her ardor and readiness? Could he really be impotent and uninterested, as the young queen had said?

No. When I saw and listened to them together, I realized that he was manifesting a gentlemanly consideration and restraint. For Jadestone Doll, in her perverse reluctance to settle for just one lover, was making him see not a girl in the prime of nubility but a delicate and immature adolescent untimely consigned to a marriage of convenience. During his visits, she was not at all the Jadestone Doll so well known to me and her slaves—and presumably to Yeyac-Netztlin. She wore garments that concealed her provocative curves and made her look as slender and fragile as a child. Somehow she suppressed her usual aura of flagrant sexuality, not to mention her usual arrogance and irascibility. She never once used the rude name Fetch! when referring to me. Somehow she kept the real Jadestone Doll concealed—topco petlacalco, "in the bag, in the box," as we say of a secret.

In the presence of her lord, she neither lay languorously on a couch nor even sat on a chair. She knelt at his feet, her knees modestly together, her eyes demurely downcast, and she spoke in a childishly meek voice. She might have fooled even me into believing her no more than ten years old, except that I knew what she had already been even at that age.

"I hope you find your life less constricted," said Nezahualpili, "now that you have Mixtli for a companion."

"Ayyo, yes, my lord," she said, dimpling. "He is an invaluable escort. Mixtli shows me things and explains them. Yesterday he took me to the library of your esteemed father's poetry, and recited for me some of the poems."

"And did you like them?" asked the Uey-Tlatoani.

"Oh, I did. But I think I should like even more to hear some of your own, my Lord Husband."

Nezahualpili accordingly recited for us some of his compositions, though with becoming modesty: "They sound better, of course, when my drummer accompanies me." One of them, praising the sunset, concluded:

...Like a bright bouquet of flowers,

our radiant god, our glowing god, the Sun

thrusts himself into a vase

of richest jewels, and the day is done.

"Lovely," sighed Jadestone Doll. "It makes me feel a little melancholy."

"The sunset?" asked Nezahualpili.

"No, my lord, the mention of gods. I know that in time I shall become acquainted with all those of your people. But meanwhile, I have none of my old accustomed gods about me. Would I be forward if I asked my Revered Husband's permission to place in these rooms some statues of my family's favorites?"

"My dear Little Doll," he said indulgently, "you may do or have anything that makes you happy and less homesick. I will send Pizquitl, the resident palace sculptor, and you may instruct him to carve whatever gods your gentle heart yearns for."

When he left her rooms that time, Nezahualpili signaled for me to accompany him. I went, still silently commanding my sweat pores to stay shut, for I fully expected to be questioned about Jadestone Doll's activities when she was not visiting libraries. Much to my relief, though, the Revered Speaker inquired about my own activities.

"Is it much of a burden on you, Mole," he asked kindly, "devoting so much time to your young lady sister?"

"No, my lord," I lied. "She is most considerate about not intruding on my school time. It is only in the evenings that we converse, or stroll about the palace, or wander about the city."

"In the conversing," he said, "I would ask that you spend some effort on trying to correct her Mexícatl accent. You yourself picked up our Texcóco speech so quickly. Do encourage her to speak more elegantly, Head Nodder."

"Yes, my lord. I will try."

He went on, "Your Lord Teacher of Word Knowing tells me that you have also made quick and admirable progress in the art of picture writing. Could you perhaps spare any other time to put that ability to a practical use?"

"To be sure, my lord!" I exclaimed eagerly, ardently. "I will make time."

Thus I finally began my career as a scribe, and it was thanks in large measure to Jadestone Doll's father Ahuítzotl. Immediately upon being crowned Uey-Tlatoani of Tenochtítlan, Ahuítzotl had dramatically demonstrated his prowess as a ruler by declaring a war against the Huaxteca of the coast to the northeast. Personally leading a combined army of Mexíca, Acolhua, and Tecpanéca, he had waged and won the war in less than a month. The armies brought back much booty, and the defeated nation was, as usual, put under annual tribute. The plunder and the yearly levy were to be divided among The Triple Alliance as was customary: two-fifths each to Tenochtítlan and Texcóco, one-fifth to Tlácopan.

The job Nezahualpili gave me was to draw up a ledger book listing the tribute items received from the Huaxteca, and those yet to come, and then also to enter the various items—turquoise, cacao, cotton mantles, skirts and blouses, cotton cloth in bulk—in other ledgers which kept account of the goods as they were stored in various Texcóco warehouses. It was a task that exercised my knowledge of both picture writing and arithmetic, and I threw myself into it with great pleasure, with a conscientious determination to do it well.

But, as I have said, Jadestone Doll also had use for my abilities, and called me in again to command that I renew my search for and my sketching of "handsome men." She also took that opportunity to complain about the palace sculptor's lack of ability.

"As my Lord Husband allowed, I ordered this statue, and I gave precise instructions to that old fool of a sculptor he sent. But look at it, Fetch! A monstrosity."

I looked at it: a life-sized male figure sculptured in clay, painted in lifelike colors and baked to hardness. It depicted no god of the Mexíca that I could recognize, but there was something familiar about it.

"The Acolhua are supposed to be so expert in the arts," the girl went on, with disdain. "Know this, Fetch! Their avowed master sculptor is woefully inept compared to some far less renowned artists whose work I have seen back home. If Pixquitl does not do my next statue better than this one, I shall send to Tenochtítlan for those Mexíca unknowns, and put him to shame. You go and tell him so!"

I rather suspected that the lady was merely preparing an excuse to import not artists but some former lovers whom she fondly remembered. Nevertheless, as commanded, I went and found the palace sculptor Pixquitl in his studio below ground level. It was clamorous with the roar of the baking kiln's fire, the stone hammering and chiseling and chipping of his students and apprentices. I had to shout to make him hear Jadestone Doll's complaint and threat.

"I did my best," said the elderly artist. "The young queen would not even tell me the name of her chosen god, so that I could refer to other statues or painted pictures of him. All that I had to work from was this."

And he showed me a chalk drawing on bark paper: my own picture of Yeyac-Netztlin. I was extremely puzzled. Why should Jadestone Doll have ordered the statue of a god—whichever god it was supposed to be—and order it made in the likeness of a mere and mortal swift-messenger? But, in expectation that she would snarl at me to mind my own business, I did not ask her.

In my next delivery of drawings, I deliberately included, and not entirely in facetious spirit, a picture of Jadestone Doll's own legitimate husband, the Revered Speaker Nezahualpili. She gave it and me only a scornful sniff as she thrust it to one side. The picture she chose that time was one of a young under-gardener at the palace, Xali-Otli by name, and it was to him that I gave her ring and her instructions the next day. He, like his predecessor, was only a commoner, but he spoke Náhuatl with the Texcóco accent, and I hoped—since I would again be excused for a while from attendance upon the lady—that he would continue the refining of her speech, as Nezahualpili desired.

When I had finished the Huaxteca tribute entries, I delivered the ledger lists to the under-treasurer in charge of such things, who highly praised my work to his superior, the Snake Woman, and that Lord Strong Bone in turn was kind enough to give a good report of me to Nezahualpili. Whereupon the Revered Speaker sent for me to ask if I would like to try my hand at the very same sort of work you are doing, reverend friars. That is, to take down in writing the words spoken in the chamber where the Uey-Tlatoani met with his Speaking Council, and in the hall of justice where he gave audience to lesser Acolhua bringing requests and complaints.

Naturally I took on the job with gleeful enthusiasm and, though at first it was not easy and I made mistakes, I eventually earned plaudits for that work too. I must say immodestly that I had already attained considerable fluency, proficiency, and accuracy in setting down my pictures. Now I had to learn to do the symbols swiftly, though of course I could never have become so rapid a scribe as any of you, my lords. In those council meetings and receptions of supplicants, there was seldom a moment when somebody was not speaking words to be recorded, and often there would be several persons talking at once. Fortunately for me, the system was—like yours—to have two or more experienced scribes simultaneously at work, so that what one of them missed another would probably catch. I early learned to set down only the symbols recording the most important words of any person's discourse, and those only in sketchy outline. Afterward, at my leisure, I would strive to recall and insert the substance between, then make a clean recopying of the whole, and add the colors that made it fully comprehensible. That method not only improved my rapidity of writing, it improved my memory as well.

I also found it useful to invent a number of what I might call summary symbols, into which were compressed an entire procession of words. For example, I would put down just one little circle, representing an open mouth, for the lengthy preface with which every man or woman began every least remark to the Uey-Tlatoani: "In your august presence, mixpantzinco, my Lord Revered Speaker Nezahualpili..." If anyone talked alternately of recent and past events, I differentiated between them by drawing alternately the simple symbols that represented a baby and a vulture. The baby, you see, stood for "new" and identified the recent events. The vulture, being bald-headed, stood for "old" and identified the past events.

Ah, well. All this reminiscing may be of some professional interest to fellow scribes like yourselves, reverend friars, but in truth I speak of those things because I am loath to speak of other things—like my next summons to the chambers of the Lady Jadestone Doll.

"I require a new face," she said, though we both knew that it was not any face she required. "And I do not wish to wait while you collect a new series of drawings. Let me look again at those you have already done." I brought them to her and she went rapidly through the papers, giving each a mere glance, until she stopped and said, "This one. Who is he?"

"Some slave I have seen about the palace," I told her. "I believe he is employed as a litter bearer."

"Fetch!" she commanded, handing me her emerald ring.

"My lady," I protested. "A slave?"

"When I am in urgent appetite, I am not overly fastidious," she said. "Besides, slaves are often very good. The wretches dare not refuse to comply with the most debasing demands made of them." She smiled that cloyingly sweet smile of hers. "And the more spineless a man is, the more reptilian contortions he can squirm himself into."

Before I could raise any more objections, Jadestone Doll led me to a wall alcove and said, "Now look at this. The second god I have ordered from that so-called master sculptor Pixquitl."

"That is no god," I said, aghast, as I stared at the new statue. "That is the gardener Xali-Otli."

She said in a cold voice, warningly, "As far as you and everyone in Texcóco are concerned, that is an obscure god worshiped by my family in Tenochtítlan. But never mind that. You at least recognized the face. I will wager no one else would, except perhaps his mother. That old Pixquitl is hopelessly incompetent. I have sent for those Mexíca artists I spoke of. They will be here immediately after the festival of Ochpanitztli. Go and tell Pixquitl that I wish a separate and private studio prepared for them and supplied with all the materials they will require. Then find that slave. Give him the ring and the usual instructions."

When I again confronted the sculptor, he said grumpily, "I can only insist that again I did my best with the drawing given me. At least this time she also gave me a skull to work with."

"What?"

"Oh, yes, it is much easier to sculpture a good likeness when one has the actual underlying bones on which to mold the clay."

Not wanting to believe what I should have realized much earlier, I stammered, "But—but, Master Pixquitl—no one could possibly possess the skull of a god."

He gave me a long look from his heavy-lidded old eyes. "All I know is that I was given the skull of a newly dead adult male, and that the skull's structure approximated the facial features of the drawing I was also given, and I was told that the drawing was that of some minor god. I am not a priest, to question the god's authenticity, and I am not a fool, to question an imperious queen. I do the work I am bidden to do, and so far I have kept my own skull intact. Do you understand?"

I nodded numbly. I finally did understand, and only too well.

The master went on, "I will prepare the studio for the new artists soon to arrive. But I must say, I do not envy anyone thus employed by the Lady Jadestone Doll. Not myself. Not them. Not you."

I did not envy my situation either—procurer to a murderess—but I was already far too deeply involved to see any means of extricating myself. I went and found the slave, whose name was Niez-Hueyotl, in the pathetically overweening manner of slave names: I Will Be of Greatness. Apparently he did not live up to it, for it was not long before Jadestone Doll summoned me again.

"You were right, Fetch!" she said. "A slave can be a mistake. That one actually began to fancy himself a human being." She laughed. "Well, he will be a god before long, which is more than he could ever have expected. But this makes me realize something. My Lord Husband may eventually begin to wonder why I have statues of only gods in my chambers. I should have at least one goddess. In your last showing of drawings, I saw one of a comely woman. Go and bring that picture here."

I did, though sick at heart. I was sorry I had let the young queen glimpse that sketch. I had made it for no ulterior reason, but impulsively, out of admiration for the woman, when she had attracted my own attention. Indeed, she caught many men's eyes, and lit those eyes with speculation or longing. But Nemalhuili was already a married woman, the wife of a prosperous leather worker in the Texcóco craftsmen's market. Her beauty was not just in her lively and luminous face. Her gestures were always fluid and gentle, her carriage was proud, her lips had a smile for everyone. Nemalhuili exuded an unquenchable happiness. And her name was apt; it meant Something Delicate.

Jadestone Doll studied her picture and, to my relief, said, "I cannot send you to her, Fetch! That would be a breach of good manners, and might cause an undesirable commotion. I will send one of my slave women."

But that did not, as I had hoped, end my involvement. The next I heard from the young queen was, "The woman Nemalhuili will be here tonight. And this will be the first time—would you believe it?—that I have ever indulged with one of my own sex. I want you to attend, with your drawing materials, and record this adventure so that I may see later the various things we shall be doing."

Of course I was dismayed at the idea, for three reasons. First and foremost, I was angry at myself, for having inadvertently involved Something Delicate. Though I knew her only by sight and reputation, I held a high regard for her. Second, and selfishly, I could never after that night claim that I did not know for certain what sort of things happened in my lady's chambers. Third, I felt some revulsion at the prospect of being forced to witness an act that should be private. But there was no way I could refuse, and I must admit that among my emotions was a perverse curiosity. I had heard the word patlachuia, but I could not imagine how two females could perform together.

Something Delicate arrived, looking as cheerful and lightsome as ever, though understandably a bit bewildered at that clandestine midnight appointment. It was summer and the air outside was not at all chilly, but she wore a square cape over her shoulders. Perhaps she had been instructed to muffle her face in the cloak on the way to the palace.

"My lady," she said, courteously, inquiringly, glancing from the young queen to me, where I sat with a sheaf of bark papers on my lap. There had been no way for me discreetly to conceal my presence, since my eyesight required me to sit close if I was to record whatever occurred.

"Pay no attention to the scribe," said Jadestone Doll. "Pay attention only to me. First, I must be assured that your husband knows nothing of this visit."

"Nothing, my lady. He was sleeping when I left. Your maid told me to tell him nothing, and I did not, for I thought you might somehow have need of me for—well, for something of no concern to men."

"Precisely so," said her hostess, simpering with satisfaction. When the woman's eyes again slid sideways to me, Jadestone Doll snapped, "I said ignore this one. He is furniture. He does not see or hear. He does not exist." Then she dropped her voice to a coaxing murmur. "I have been told that you are one of the most beautiful women in Texcóco. As you see, my dear, so am I. It occurred to me that we might enjoyably compare our beauties."

At that, with her own hands, she reached out and raised the cape so that its central slit lifted over Nemalhuili's head. The visitor naturally looked surprised, at having a queen personally take her cape. But then her expression changed to shocked bafflement as Jadestone Doll next raised her long blouse and lifted it over her head, leaving her bare from the waist up.

Only her wide eyes moved. They flicked once more to me, like those of a frightened doe at bay, beseeching help from one of the hunters pressing in. But I pretended not to see, I made my face impassive, I kept my gaze apparently intent on the drawing I had just begun, and I do not think Something Delicate looked at me again. From that moment, she evidently managed to do as she had been told: to believe that I was not present or even existent. I think, if the poor woman had not been able to blot me from her consciousness, she would have died that night of shame.

While the woman stood barebreasted, as rigid as if she were already a statue, Jadestone Doll removed her own blouse—slowly, seductively—she might have been doing it to arouse an unresponsive man. Then she stepped close, until their two bodies were all but touching. Something Delicate was perhaps ten years older than the girl queen, and about a hand's breadth taller.

"Yes," said Jadestone Doll, "your breasts are beautiful. Except"—she pretended to pout—"your nipples are timid, they hold themselves folded so neatly. Can they not swell and thrust like mine?" She stood on tiptoe, leaned her upper body a little forward and exclaimed, "Why, look, they touch exactly! Our bosoms fit together so perfectly, my dear. Might not the rest of us?"

And she pressed her lips to the lips of Something Delicate. The woman did not close her eyes or change expression in the least, but Jadestone Doll's cheeks hollowed. After a moment, she drew her face back just far enough to say delightedly, "There! Your nipples can grow, I knew it! Do you not feel them unfolding against mine?" She leaned forward for another probing kiss, and that time Something Delicate did close her eyes, as if in fear that something unintended might show in them.

They stood like that, immobile, long enough for me to capture a picture of them: Jadestone Doll still on tiptoe, the two of them touching nowhere but at lips and breasts. Then the girl reached to the waist of the woman's skirt, and deftly undid the fastening of it, so that it dropped rustling to the floor. I was close enough to see the just perceptible ripple of the woman's muscles as she tightened her long legs protectively together. After a moment, Jadestone Doll undid her own skirt and let it fall around her feet. She had worn nothing underneath it, so she was now entirely naked except for her golden sandals. But when she pressed the entire length of her body against that of Something Delicate, she realized that the woman, like any decent woman, still wore an undergarment.

Jadestone Doll stepped away and gazed at her with mingled amusement, fondness, and mild annoyance, and she said sweetly, "I shall not remove your final modest covering, Something Delicate. I shall not even ask you to do so. I shall make you want to."

The girl queen took the woman's hand and tugged, so that she walked, and they crossed the room to the big, soft, canopied bed. They lay on top of it, with no covering over them, and I moved closer with my chalks and papers.

Well, yes, Fray Jeronimo, there is more. After all, I was there, I saw everything, I have forgotten nothing. But of course you may be excused from hearing of it, if that is your wish.

I might say to you remaining reverend scribes that I have seen rape in my time. I have seen soldiers, ours and yours, violently assault their women captives. But in all my life I have never seen a female so violated in her soul as well as in her sexual parts—so insidiously, thoroughly, ruinously, and horrifyingly violated—as was Something Delicate by Jadestone Doll. And what has made it remain in my memory more stark than any remembered rape of a woman by a man, is that the adolescent girl manipulated the married woman, never once by force or command, but by gentle touches and caresses that at last brought Something Delicate to a point of paroxysm after which she was no longer responsible for her behavior.

It might be appropriate here for me to mention that, in our language, when we speak of seducing a woman, we say, "I caress her with flowers—"

Something Delicate lay supine and determinedly indifferent for a while, and only Jadestone Doll did anything. She used just her lips and tongue and the very tips of her fingers. She used them on the woman's closed eyelids and their lashes, on the woman's earlobes, the hollow of her throat, the cleft between her breasts, the length and breadth of her exposed body, the dimple of her navel, up and down her legs. Repeatedly she used the tip of her finger or tongue to trace slow spirals around one of the woman's breasts before at last tweaking or licking the hardened upright nipple. The girl did not again press any passionate kiss upon Something Delicate, but she kept coming back from her other activities merely to flick her tongue teasingly across the woman's closed mouth. And gradually the woman's own lips, like her teats, became swollen and ruddy. Her pale-copper skin, at first smooth, began to prickle all over with gooseflesh, and then to tremble in places.

Jadestone Doll occasionally would have to stop her fondlings and clutch tight to the woman, her body writhing. Something Delicate, even with her eyes closed, could not help feeling and knowing what was happening to the girl. Only a stone statue could have remained unaffected by it, and even the most virtuous, reluctant, frightened woman is no statue. The next time the young queen helplessly began to shudder, Something Delicate made a sort of cooing noise, as a mother might make to a distressed child. She moved her hands to lift Jadestone Doll's head from her bosom, brought it up to her own, and for the first time herself implanted a kiss. Her lips forced the girl's open, and her cheeks hollowed deeply, and a muffled whimper came from both the crushed-together mouths, and both bodies palpitated together, and the woman dropped one of her hands to rip away her undergarment from between them.

After that, Something Delicate again lay still, and closed her eyes again, and bit the back of her hand, which did not prevent a sob escaping her. Jadestone Doll, when her panting had abated, again was the only one moving on the rumpled bed. But the woman was now also naked, vulnerable in every part, and the girl had more places to which to give attention. For a while, Something Delicate kept her legs pressed tight together. But slowly, little by little, as if she had nothing to do with it, the woman let her muscles slacken and her legs relax, and they parted a little, and a little more....

Jadestone Doll burrowed her head between them, seeking what she had once described to me as "the little pink pearl." That went on for some time, and the woman, as if being tortured, made many and various small noises, and finally a violent movement. When she recovered, she must have decided that, having now abandoned herself so far, no further abandonment could further abase her. Because Something Delicate began doing to Jadestone Doll what the girl was still doing to her. That occasioned a variety of couplings. Sometimes they would be clasped in embrace like a man and a woman, kissing mouth to mouth while their pelvises rubbed together. Sometimes they would lie reversed on the bed, each hugging the other's hips while she used her tongue as a miniature but much more nimble simulacrum of a man's member. Sometimes they would lie so that their thighs overlapped and only their lower bodies touched, straining to bring their little pink pearls into contact and mutual friction.

In that posture, they reminded me of the legend which tells how the race of humankind came into being. It was said that, after the eras when the earth was inhabited first by gods and then by giants, the gods decided to bequeath the world to human beings. Since there were then no such things, the gods had to create them, and they did: making a few men and an equal number of women. But the gods designed them badly, for those early humans had bodies that ended below the waist in a kind of smooth knob. According to the legend, the gods intended modestly to conceal the people's genitals, though that is hard to believe, since the gods and goddesses are hardly notorious for their own sexual modesty.

At any rate, those early people were able to hop about on the stumps of their bodies, and to enjoy all the beauties of the world they had inherited, but they could not enjoy each other. And they wanted to, because, concealed or no, their separate sexes mightily attracted each other. Happily for the future of mankind, those early people contrived a way to overcome their handicap. They bounded high, a man and a woman together, and in midair merged their lower bodies, the way some insects mate on the wing. Exactly how they managed that coupling, the legend does not tell, nor how the women delivered the babies thus conceived. But they did, and the next generation was complete with legs and accessible genital organs. Watching Jadestone Doll and Something Delicate in that position where they were rubbing their tipíli parts urgently together, I could not help but think of those first humans and their determination to copulate despite their having nothing to do it with.

I should mention that the woman and the girl, whatever intricate positions they assumed, and however avidly they fondled one another, did not thrash and bounce about as much as a man and a woman do when engaged in that act. Their movements were sinuous, not angular; graceful, not gross. Many times, however invisibly busy some parts of both of them undoubtedly were, the two appeared to me to be as still as if they slept. Then one or both would shiver, or stiffen, or jerk, or writhe. I lost count, but I know that Something Delicate and Jadestone Doll each came to many more climaxes that night than either could have achieved with the most virile and enduring man.

In between those small convulsions, though, they stayed in their several poses long enough for me to make many drawings of their bodies, separately or intertwined. If some of the pictures were smudged or drawn with a trembly line, it was not the fault of the models, except insofar as their doings agitated the artist. I was no statue, either. Several times, watching them, I was racked by sympathetic shudderings, and twice my own unruly member...

And now Fray Domingo leaves us, and precipitately. Odd, how one man can be adversely affected by some words, and another man by others. I think words conjure up different images in different minds. Even in the minds of impersonal scribes who are supposed to hear them only as sounds and record them only as marks on paper.

Perhaps, since that is so, I had better refrain from telling of the other things the girl and woman did during that long night. But finally they fell away from each other, exhausted, and lay breathing heavily side by side. Their lips and tipíli parts were exceedingly puffed and red; their skins shone with sweat, saliva, and other secretions; their bodies were mottled like jaguar hide with the marks of bites and kisses.

I quietly got up from my place beside the bed and, with shaking hands, gathered up the drawings scattered around my chair. When I had withdrawn to a corner of the room, Something Delicate also arose and, moving wearily, weakly, like someone just recovering from an illness, slowly put on her clothes. She avoided looking at me, but I could see that there were tears running down her face.

"You will want to rest," Jadestone Doll said to her, and pulled on the bell rope over the bed. "Pitza will show you to a private chamber." Something Delicate was still quietly weeping when the sleepy slave guided her from the room.

I said in an unsteady voice, "Suppose she tells her husband."

"She could not bear to," the young queen said with assurance. "And she will not. Let me see the drawings." I handed them over and she studied them minutely, one by one. "So that is what it looks like. Exquisite. And here I thought I had experienced every kind of... What a pity my Lord Nezahualpili has provided me with only aged and plain-faced servant women. I think I will keep Something Delicate on call for quite a while."

I was glad to hear that, since I knew what the woman's fate would otherwise and quickly be. The girl gave the drawings back to me, then stretched and yawned voluptuously. "Do you know, Fetch!, I truly believe it was better than anything I have enjoyed since that old Huaxteca object I used to employ."

It seemed reasonable, I thought, as I went to my own chambers. A woman ought to know, better than any man, how to play upon the body of another woman. Only a woman could so intimately know all the most tender, hidden, secret, responsive surfaces and recesses of her own body, hence those of any other woman's. It followed, then, that a man could improve his sexual talents—could enhance his own enjoyment and that of his every female partner—by knowing those same things. So I spent much time studying the drawings, and fixing in my memory the intimacies I had witnessed which the pictures could not portray.

I was not proud of the part I had played in the degradation of Something Delicate, but I have always believed that a man should try to learn and profit from his involvement in even the most lamentable occurrences.

* * *

I do not mean to say that the rape of Something Delicate was the most lamentable event I ever knew in my life. Another was awaiting me when I went home again to Xaltócan for the festival of Ochpanitztli.

That name means The Sweeping of the Road and refers to the religious rituals performed to assure that the coming harvest of maize would be a good one. The festival was celebrated in our eleventh month, about the middle of your August, and consisted of various rites all culminating in the enactment of the birth of the maize god Centeotl. That was a ceremonial time entirely given over to the women; all the men, even most of the priests, were mere spectators.

It began with Xaltócan's most venerable and virtuous wives and widows going about with brooms specially made of feathers, sweeping out all the island's temples and other holy places. Then, under the direction of our female temple attendants, women did all the singing, dancing, and music playing on the climactic night. A virgin chosen from among the island girls played the part of Teteoinan, the mother of all the gods. The high point of the night was the act she did atop our temple pyramid—all by herself, with no male partner—her pretense of being deflowered and impregnated, then going through the pains of labor and of giving birth. After that, she was put to death with arrows, by women archers, who did the job with earnest dedication but with little skill, so she usually died an untidy and prolonged death.

Of course there was always a substitution at the last moment, since we never sacrificed one of our own maidens, unless for some peculiar reason she insisted on volunteering. So it was not really the virgin portraying Teteoinan who died, but some dispensable female slave or a female prisoner captured from another people. For the simple role of dying, it was not required that she be a virgin, and sometimes it was a very old woman who was dispatched on that night.

When, after having been clumsily chipped and minced and pierced by countless arrows, the woman was finally dead, a few priests participated for the first time. They came out from the pyramid temple in which they had been hidden behind her, and, still almost invisible because of their black garb, dragged the corpse inside the temple. There they quickly flayed the skin from one of her thighs. A priest put that conical cap of flesh on his head and bounded forth from the temple to a blast of music and song. The young god of the maize, Centeotl, had been born. He skipped down the pyramid stairs, joined the women dancers, and they all danced the rest of the night away.

I tell all this now because I suppose that year's ceremony proceeded as in all the years before. I have to suppose because I did not stay to see it.

The generous Prince Willow had again lent me his acáli and oarsmen, and I arrived on Xaltócan to find that others—Pactli, Chimali, and Tlatli—had also again come home from their distant schools for that holiday. Pactli, in fact, was home to stay, having just then completed his calmécac education. That made me worry. He would now have no occupation at all, except to wait for his father Red Heron to die and vacate the throne. Meanwhile, Pactli could concentrate all his time and energy on securing the wife he desired—my unconsenting sister—with the help of his staunchest ally, my title-hungry mother.

But I had a more immediate worry. Chimali and Tlatli were so eager to see me that they were waiting at the jetty when my canoe made fast, and they were dancing with excitement. They both began talking, shouting, and laughing before I had even set foot on shore.

"Mole, the most wonderful thing!"

"Our first summons, Mole, to do works of art abroad!"

It took me some time, and some shouting of my own, before I could sort out and comprehend what they had to say. When I did, I was appalled. My two friends were the "Mexíca artists" of whom Jadestone Doll had spoken. They would not be returning to Tenochtítlan after the holiday. They would be accompanying me when I went back to Texcóco.

Tlatli said, "I am to do sculptures and Chimali is to color them so they seem alive. So said the message of the Lady Jadestone Doll. Imagine! The daughter of one Uey-Tlatoani and the wife of another. Surely no other artists our age have ever before been so honored."

Chimali said, "We had no idea the Lady Jadestone Doll had ever even seen the work we did in Tenochtítlan!"

Tlatli said, "Seen it and admired it enough to summon us to travel so many one-long-runs. The lady must have good taste."

I said thinly, "The lady has numerous tastes."

My friends perceived that I was little infected by their excitement, and Chimali said, almost apologetically, "This is our first real commission, Mole. The statues and paintings we did in the city were but adornments for the new palace being built by Ahuítzotl, and we were no more highly regarded or any better paid than stonemasons. Now this message says we are even to have our own private studio, all equipped and waiting. Naturally we are elated. Is there some reason why we should not be?"

Tlatli asked, "Is the lady a female tyrant who will work us to death?"

I could have said that he had put it succinctly when he spoke of being worked "to death," but I said instead, "The lady has some eccentricities. We will have plenty of time in which to talk of her. Right now, I myself am much fatigued by my own working."

"Of course," said Chimali. "Let us carry your luggage for you, Mole. You greet your family, eat and rest. And then you must tell us everything about Texcóco and Nezahualpili's court. We do not want to appear there as ignorant provincials."

On the way to my house, the two continued to chatter merrily of their prospects, but I was silent, thinking deeply—of their prospects. I knew very well that Jadestone Doll's crimes would eventually be exposed. When that happened, Nezahualpili would avenge himself upon all who had aided or abetted the girl's adulteries, and the murders to hide the adulteries, and the statues to flaunt the murders. I had some slim hope that I might be acquitted, since I had acted strictly on the orders of her husband himself. Jadestone Doll's other servants and attendants had acted on her orders. They could not have disobeyed, but that fact would earn them no mercy from the dishonored Nezahualpili. Their necks were already inside the flower-garlanded noose: the woman Pitza, and the gate guard, and perhaps Master Pixquitl, and soon Tlatli and Chimali...

My father and sister welcomed me with warm embraces, my mother with a halfhearted one—which she excused by explaining that her arms were limp and weary from having wielded a broom all day in various temples. She went on at great length about the island women's preparations for the observance of Ochpanitztli, little of which I heard, as I was trying to think of some ruse to get away alone somewhere with Tzitzi. I was not just eager to demonstrate to her some of the things I had learned from watching Jadestone Doll and Something Delicate. I was also anxious to talk to her about my own equivocal position at the Texcóco court, and to ask her advice as to what, if anything, I should do to avert the imminent arrival there of Chimali and Tlatli.

The opportunity never came. The night came, with our mother still complaining about the amount of work involved in The Sweeping of the Road. The black night came, and with it came the black-garbed priests. Four of them came, and they came for my sister.

Without so much as a "Mixpantzinco" to the head of the house—priests were always contemptuous of the common civilities—one of them demanded, addressing nobody in particular, "This is the residence of the maiden Chiucnaui-Acatl Tzitzitlini?" His voice was thick and gobbly, like that of a gallipavo fowl, and the words hard to understand. That was the case with many priests, for one of their penitential diversions was to bore a hole through their tongue and, from time to time, tear the hole wider by drawing reeds or ropes or thorns through it.

"My daughter," said our mother, with a prideful gesture in her direction. "Nine Reed the Sound of Small Bells Ringing."

"Tzitzitlini," the grubby old man said directly to her. "We come to inform you that you have been chosen for the honor of enacting the goddess Teteoinan on the final night of Ochpanitztli."

"No," said my sister, with her lips, though no sound came out. She stared at the four men in their ragged black robes, and she stroked a trembling hand across her face. Its fawn skin had gone the color of the palest amber.

"You will come with us," said another priest. "There are some preliminary formalities."

"No," said Tzitzi again, that time aloud. She turned to look at me, and I almost flinched at the impact of her eyes. They were wise, terrified, as bottomlessly black as were Jadestone Doll's when she used the pupil-dilating drug. My sister and I both knew what were the "preliminary formalities"—a physical examination conducted by the priests' female attendants to ascertain that the honored maiden was indeed a maiden. As I have said, Tzitzi knew the means to seem impeccably a virgin, and to deceive the most suspicious examiner. But she had had no warning of the sudden swoop of the raptor priests, no reason to prepare, and now there was no time to do so.

"Tzitzitlini," our father said chidingly. "No one refuses a tlamacazqui, or the summons he brings. It would be rude to the priest, it would show disdain for the delegation of women who have accorded you this honor, and, far worse, it would insult the goddess Teteoinan herself."

"It would also annoy our esteemed governor," our mother put in. "The Lord Red Heron has already been advised of the choice of this year's virgin, and so has his son Pactlitzin."

"No one advised me!" said my sister, with one last flash of rebellion.

She and I knew now who had proposed her for the role of Teteoinan, without consulting her or asking her permission. We also knew why. It was so that our mother might take vicarious credit for the performance Tzitzi would give; so that our mother might preen in the applause of the whole island; so that her daughter's public pantomime of the sex act would further inflame the Lord Joy's lust; and so that he would be more than ever ready to elevate our whole family to the nobility in exchange for the girl.

"My Lord Priests," Tzitzi pleaded. "I am truly not suitable. I cannot act a part. Not that part. I would be awkward, and laughed at. I would shame the goddess...."

"That is totally untrue," said one of the four. "We have seen you dance, girl. Come with us. Now."

"The preliminaries take only a few moments," our mother said. "Go along, Tzitzi, and when you return we will discuss the making of your costume. You will be the most brilliant Teteoinan ever to bear the infant Centeotl."

"No," my sister said again, but weakly, desperate for any excuse. "It is—it is the wrong time of the moon for me—"

"There is no saying no!" barked a priest. "There are no acceptable pretexts. You come, girl, or we take you."

She and I had no chance even to say good-bye, since the presumption was that she would be gone only a brief time. As Tzitzi moved to the door, and the four malodorous old men closed about her, she flung one despairing look back at me. I almost missed seeing it, for I was looking about the room for a weapon, anything I could use for a weapon.

I swear, if I had had Blood Glutton's maquahuitl at hand, I would have slashed our way through priests and parents—weeds to be mowed—and we two would have fled for safety somewhere, anywhere. But there was nothing sharp or heavy within reach, and it would have been futile for me to attack barehanded. I was then twenty years old, a man grown, and I could have bested all four of the priests, but my work-toughened father could have held me back without much effort. And that, for sure, would have caused suspicion, interrogation, verification, and the doom would have been upon us....

I have often since then asked myself: would not that doom have been preferable to what did happen? Some such thought flickered through my mind at that moment, but I wavered, I hesitated. Was it because I knew, in a cowardly corner of my mind, that I was not involved in Tzitzi's predicament—and probably would not be—which made me waver, which made me hesitate? Was it because I held to some desperate hope that she could yet deceive the examiners—that she was not yet in danger of disgrace—which made me waver, which made me hesitate? Was it simply my immutable and inescapable tonáli—or hers—which made me waver, which made me hesitate? I will never know. All I know is that I wavered, I hesitated, and the moment for action was gone, as Tzitzi was gone, with her honor guard of vulturine priests, into the darkness.

She did not come home that night.

We sat and waited, until long past the normal bedtime, until long past the midnight trumpeting of the temple conch, and we talked not at all. My father looked worried, doubtless about his daughter and the cause for the unusual attenuation of the "preliminary formalities." My mother looked worried, doubtless about the possibility that her carefully woven scheme for self-advancement had somehow come unraveled. But at last she laughed and said, "Of course. The priests would not send Tzitzi home in the dark. The temple maidens have given her a chamber there for the night. We are foolish to wait sleepless. Let us go to bed."

I went to my pallet, but I did not sleep. I worried that if the examiners had found Tzitzi to be no virgin—and how could they find otherwise?—the priests could very well take rapacious advantage of that fact. All the priests of all our gods were ostensibly bound to an oath of celibacy, but no rational person believed that they observed it. The temple women would truthfully state that Tzitzi came to them already devoid of her chitoli membrane and virginally tight closure. That condition could only be blamed on her own prior wantonness. When she left the temple again, whatever might have happened to her in the interim, she could prove no charges against the priests.

I tossed in anguish upon my pallet, as I imagined those priests using her throughout the night, one after another, and gleefully calling in all the other priests from all the other temples on the island. Not because any of them was sexually starved; they presumably used their temple women at will. But, as you reverend friars may have observed among your own religious, the kind of women who dedicated their lives to temple service were seldom of a face or form to drive a normal man delirious with desire. The priests must have been overjoyed that night, to receive a gift of new young flesh of the most desirable girl on Xaltócan.

I saw them flocking to Tzitzi's defenseless body, in hordes, like vultures to an uncaring cadaver. Flapping like vultures, hissing like vultures, taloned like vultures, black like vultures. They observed another oath: never to disrobe once they had taken the priestly vow. But, even if they broke that oath, to fall naked upon Tzitzi, their bodies would still be black and scaly and fetid, having been unwashed ever since they took to the priesthood.

I hope it was all in my fevered imagination. I hope that my beautiful and beloved sister did not spend that night as carrion for the vultures to tear at. But no priest ever afterward spoke of her stay in the temple, either to confirm or refute my imaginings, and Tzitzi did not come home in the morning.

A priest came, one of the four of the night before, and his face was blank of expression as he reported simply, "Your daughter does not qualify to represent Teteoinan in the ceremonies. She has at some time carnally known at least one man."

"Yya ouíya ayya!" my mother wailed. "This ruins everything!"

"I do not understand," my father muttered. "She was always such a good girl. I cannot believe..."

"Perhaps," the priest said blandly to them, "you would care to volunteer your daughter for the sacrifice instead."

I said to the priest, through my teeth, "Where is she?"

He said indifferently, "When the examining women found her unsatisfactory, we naturally reported to the governor's palace that another candidate must be sought. At which, the palace requested that Nine Reed Tzitzitlini be delivered there this morning for an interview with—"

"Pactli!" I blurted.

"He will be desolated," said my father, sadly shaking his head.

"He will be infuriated, you fool!" spat my mother. "We will all suffer his wrath, because of your slut of a daughter!"

I said, "I shall go to the palace immediately."

"No," the priest said firmly. "The court no doubt appreciates your concern, but the message was most specific: that only the daughter of this family would be admitted. Two of our temple women are escorting her there. None of the rest of you is to seek audience until and unless you are summoned."

Tzitzi did not come home that day. And no one else came to call, since the whole island by then must have been aware of our familial disgrace. Not even the festival-organizing women came to collect my mother to do her day's sweeping. That evidence of her ostracism, by women whom she had expected soon to be looking down upon, made her even more than ordinarily vociferous and shrill. She passed the dreary day in scolding my father for his having let his daughter "run wild," and in scolding me for having doubtless introduced my sister to some "evil friends" of mine, and letting one of them debauch her. The accusation was ludicrous, but it gave me an idea.

I slipped out of the house and went to seek Chimali and Tlatli. They received me with some embarrassment and with awkward words of commiseration.

I said, "One of you can help Tzitzitlini, if you will."

"If there is anything we can do, of course we will," said Chimali. "Tell us, Mole."

"You know for how many years the insufferable Pactli has been besieging my sister. Everyone knows it. Now everyone knows that Tzitzi preferred someone else over him. So the Lord Joy has been made to seem lovesick and besotted for having pursued a girl who despised him. Simply to salve his wounded pride, he will take out his humiliation on her, and he can do it in some horrible manner. One of you could prevent his doing that."

"How?" asked Tlatli.

"Marry her," I said.

No one will ever know what a heart pang it cost me to say that, for what I meant was, "I give her up. Take her away from me." My two friends reeled slightly, and looked at me with goggling astonishment.

"My sister has erred," I went on. "I cannot deny it. But you both have known her since we all were children, and you surely know that she is no promiscuous wanton. If you can forgive her misstep, and believe that she did it only to avert the unwelcome prospect of marrying the Lord Joy, then you know that you could find no more chaste and faithful and upstanding wife for yourself. I need not add that she is probably the most beautiful you would ever find."

The two exchanged an uneasy look. I could hardly blame them. That radical proposal must have hit them with the stunning abruptness of lightning thrown by Tlaloc.

"You are Tzitzi's only hope," I said urgently. "Pactli now has her in his power, as a supposed maiden suddenly found to be not so. He can accuse her of having gone astraddle the road. He can even make the lying claim that she was his betrothed and that she was deliberately unfaithful to him. That would be tantamount to adultery, and he could persuade the Lord Red Heron to condemn her to death. But he can not do that to a woman legitimately married or spoken for."

I looked hard into the eyes of Chimali, then Tlatli. "If one of you were to step forward and publicly ask for her hand..." They dropped their eyes from mine. "Oh, I know. It would take some bravery, and it would subject you to some derision. You would be taken for the one who had despoiled her in the first place. But marriage would atone for that, and it would rescue her from anything Pactli might do. It would save her, Chimali. It would be a noble deed, Tlatli. I beg and entreat you."

They both looked at me again, and there was now real chagrin in their faces. Tlatli spoke for them both:

"We cannot, Mole. Not either of us."

I was grievously disappointed and hurt, but, more than that, I was puzzled. "If you said you will not, I might understand. But... you cannot?"

They stood side by side before me, stocky Tlatli and reedy Chimali. They looked pityingly at me, then turned to each other, and I could not tell what was in their mutual gaze. Tentatively, uncertainly, each reached out a hand and took the other's, their fingers intertwining. Standing there, now linked, forced by me to confess a bond I had never remotely suspected, they looked at me again. The look proclaimed a defiant pride.

"Oh," I said, demolished. After a moment, I said, "Forgive me. When you declined, I should not have persisted."

Tlatli said, "We do not mind your knowing, Mole, but we would not care to have it common gossip."

I tried again. "Then would it not be to your advantage for one of you to make a marriage? I mean simply go through the motions of the ceremony. Afterwards..."

"I could not," said Chimali with quiet obstinacy, "and I would not let Tlatli. It would be a weakness, a sullying of what we feel for each other. Look at it this way, Mole. Suppose someone asked you to marry one of us."

"Well, that would be contrary to all law and custom, and scandalous. But it would be just the opposite if one of you took Tzitzi to wife. Only in name, Chimali, and later—"

"No," he said, and then added, perhaps sincerely, "We are sorry, Mole."

"So am I," I sighed as I turned and left.

But I determined that I would come back to them and press my proposal. I had to convince one of them that it would be to the benefit of us all. It would deliver my sister from danger, it would quell any possible conjectures about the relationship between Tlatli and Chimali, and about the relationship between Tzitzi and me. They could openly bring her with them when they came to Texcóco, and secretly bring her to me, for me. The more I thought about it, the more the plan seemed ideal for everybody concerned. Chimali and Tlatli could not continue to refuse the marriage on the selfish excuse that it would somehow tarnish their own love. I would persuade them—if necessary by the brutal threat of exposing them as cuilóntin. Yes, I would come back to Tlatli and Chimali.

But as things turned out, I did not. It was already too late.

That night, again, Tzitzi did not come home.

In spite of everything, I slept, and I did not dream of vultures, but of Tzitzi and myself and the immense jar which held the household water supply and which bore Chimali's handprint in blood. In my dream, I was back at that time during the lifeless days when Tzitzi had sought an excuse for us to get out of the house together. She had overturned and broken the water jar. The water sluiced all about the floor, and splashed up as far as my face. I awoke in the night to find my face wet with tears.

The summons from the governor's palace came the next morning, and it was not, as one would expect, for the head of the house, my father Tepetzalan. The messenger announced that the Lords Red Heron and Joy requested the immediate presence of my mother. My father sat meek and silent, his head bowed, avoiding my eyes, the whole time we awaited her return.

When she came back, her face was pale and her hands were unsteady as they unwound the shawl from around her head and shoulders, but her manner was surprisingly inspirited. She was no longer the woman irate at having been deprived of a title, and she was not at all the bereaved mother. She told us, "It seems we have lost a daughter, but we have not lost everything."

"Lost her how?" I asked.

"Tzitzi never arrived at the palace," said my mother, without looking at me. "She slipped away from the temple women escorting her, and she ran away. Of course, poor Pactlitzin is nearly demented by the whole course of events. When the women reported her flight, he ordered a search of the entire island. A fowler reports his canoe missing. You remember"—she said to my father—"how your daughter once threatened to do just that. To steal an acáli and flee to the mainland."

"Yes," he said dully.

"Well, it seems she has done so. There is no telling in which direction she went, so Pactli has reluctantly given up the search. He is as heartbroken as we are." That was so patently a lie that my mother hurried on before I could speak. "We must regard the departed Tzitzitlini as lost to us for good. She has fled as she said she would. Forever. It is no one's doing but her own. And she will not dare to show her face on Xaltócan again."

I said, "I do not believe any of this." But she ignored me and went on, addressing my father:

"Like Pactli, the governor shares our grief, but he does not hold us to blame for the misbehavior of our wayward daughter. He said to me: 'I have always respected Head Nodder.' And he said to me: 'I would like to do something to assuage his disillusions and bereavement.' And he said to me: 'Do you suppose Head Nodder would accept a promotion to become Chief Quarrier in charge of all the quarries?"

My father's bowed head jerked up, and he exclaimed, "What?"

"Those are the words Red Heron spoke. In charge of all the quarries of Xaltócan. He said: 'It cannot make up for the shame the man has suffered, but it may demonstrate my regard for him.' "

I said again, "I do not believe any of this." The Lord Red Heron had never before spoken of my father as Head Nodder, and I doubted that he even knew of Tepetzalan's nickname.

Still ignoring my interjections, my mother said to my father, "We have been unfortunate in our daughter, but we are fortunate in having such a tecutli. Any other might have banished us all. Consider—Red Heron's own son has been mocked and insulted by our own daughter—and he offers you this token of compassion."

"Chief Quarrier..." my father mumbled, looking rather as if he had been hit on the head by one of his own quarry stones. "I would be the youngest ever—"

"Will you accept it?" my mother asked.

My father stammered, "Why—why—it is small recompense for losing a loved daughter, however errant she..."

"Will you accept it?" my mother repeated, more sharply.

"It is a hand extended in friendship," my father maundered on. "To refuse that—after my lord has once been insulted—it would be another insult, and even more—"

"Will you accept it?"

"Why—yes. I must. I will accept it. I could not do otherwise. Could I?"

"There!" said my mother, much pleased. She dusted her hands together as if she had just completed some disagreeably dirty task. "We may not ever be nobles, thanks to the wench whose name I will never again pronounce, but we are one step higher in the macehualtin. And since the Lord Red Heron is willing to overlook our disgrace, so will be everyone else. We can still hold our heads high, not hang them in shame. Now," she concluded briskly, "I must go out again. The women of the delegation are waiting for me to join them in sweeping the temple pyramid."

"I will walk partway with you, my dear," said my father. "I think I will take a look at the western quarry while the workers are on holiday. I have long suspected that the Master Quarrier in charge there has overlooked a significant stratum—"

As they went together out the door, my mother turned back to say, "Oh, Mixtli, will you pack your sister's belongings and stow them somewhere? Who knows, she may someday send a porter for them."

I knew she never would or could, but I did as I was bidden, and packed into baskets everything I could recognize as a possession of hers. Only one thing I did not pack and hide: her little bedside figurine of Xochiquetzal, goddess of love and flowers, the goddess to whom young girls prayed for a happy married life.

Alone in the house, alone with my thoughts, I translated my mother's story into what I was sure had happened in fact. Tzitzi had not escaped from her guardian women. They had duly delivered her to Pactli at the palace. He, in a fury—and in what manner I tried not to imagine—had put my sister to death. His father might have been fully in accord with the execution, but he was a notably fair-minded man, and he could not have condoned a killing in cold blood, done without due process of trial and condemnation. The Lord Red Heron would have had the choice, then, of bringing his own son to trial or of covering up the whole affair. So he and Pactli—and, I suspected, Pactli's long-time conspirator, my mother—had concocted the story of Tzitzi's escape and flight in a stolen canoe. And, to smooth things over even more neatly, to discourage questions or a renewed search for the girl, the governor had thrown a sop to my father.

After stowing Tzitzi's belongings, I packed those of my own which I had brought with me from Texcóco. The last thing I tucked into my portable wicker basket was the figurine of Xochiquetzal. Then I shouldered the basket and left the house, never to come back again. When I walked down toward the lakeshore, a butterfly accompanied me for a while, and several times fluttered in circles around my head.

I was fortunate enough to find a fisherman who was irreverently determined to go on working during the Ochpanitztli festival, and who was even then preparing to paddle out to await the twilight rising of the lake's whitefish. He agreed to row me all the way to Texcóco, for a payment considerably in excess of what he could have earned from a whole night's fishing.

On the way, I asked him, "Have you heard of any fisherman or fowler losing a canoe recently? Of anyone's acáli having floated away or been stolen?"

"No," he said.

I looked back at the island, sunlit and peaceful in the summer afternoon. It sprawled on the lake water as it always had and always would, except that it would never again know "the sound of small bells ringing"—or give another thought to such a small deprivation. The Lord Red Heron, the Lord Joy, my mother and father, my friends Chimali and Tlatli, all the other inhabitants of Xaltócan, they had already agreed to forget.

I had not.

"Why, Head Nodder!" exclaimed the Lady of Tolan, the first person I encountered on my way to my apartment in the palace. "You have come back early from your holiday at home."

"Yes, my lady. Xaltócan no longer feels like home to me. And I have many things to do here."

"Do you mean you were homesick for Texcóco?" she said, smiling. "Then we must have made you learn to like us here. I am delighted to think so, Head Nodder."

"Please, my lady," I said huskily, "do not call me that anymore. I have seen enough of head nodding."

"Oh?" she said, her smile fading as she studied my face. "Whatever name you prefer, then."

I thought of the several things I had to do, and I said to her, "Tlilectic-Mixtli is the name I was given from the book of divination and prophecies. Call me what I am. Dark Cloud."

I H S

S.C.C.M.

Sanctified, Caesarean, Catholic Majesty, the Emperor Don Carlos, Our Lord King:

Most High and Mighty Majesty, our Sovereign Liege: from the City of Mexíco, capital of New Spain, this day of the Feast of the Dolors in the Year of Our Lord one thousand five hundred twenty and nine, greeting.

We regret that we cannot include, with these latest collected pages of manuscript, the pictures which Your Majesty requests in your most recent letter: "those pictures of persons, especially of female persons, drawn by the storyteller and referred to in this chronicle." The aged Indian himself, when questioned as to their whereabouts, laughs at the idea that such trivially indecent jottings should have been worth keeping all these years, or that, even if they had been of any value, they could have survived all these years.

We refrain from deploring the obscenities those drawings were intended to record, since we are certain that the pictures, even if available, would have conveyed nothing to Your Majesty. We know that our Imperial Sovereign's sense of appreciation is accustomed to works of art like those of the Master Matsys, whose painting of Erasmus, for example, is unmistakably recognizable as Erasmus. The persons portrayed in the daubs made by these Indians are seldom recognizable even as human beings, except in a few of the more representational wall frescoes and reliefs.

Your Most Lofty Majesty has earlier bidden your chaplain to secure "writings, tablets, or other records" to substantiate the tales told in these pages. But we assure you, Sire, that the Aztec exaggerates wildly when he speaks of writing and reading, drawing and painting. These savages never created or possessed or preserved any mementos of their history aside from some plicate paper folders, skins and panels bearing multitudes of primitive figures such as children might scribble. These would be inscrutable to any civilized eye, and were of use to the Indians only as mnemonic aids for their "wise men," who utilized the scrawls to jog their memory as they repeated the oral history of their tribe or clan. A dubious sort of history at best.

Before your servant's arrival in this land, the Franciscan friars, sent here five years previous by His Holiness the late Pope Adrian, had already combed every part of the country adjacent to this capital city. Those good brothers had collected, from every still-standing edifice that might be considered an archival depository, many thousands of the Indian "books," but had made no disposition of them, pending higher directive.

Wherefore, as Your Majesty's delegated Bishop, we ourself examined the confiscated "libraries," and found not one item that contained anything but tawdry and grotesque figures. Most of those were nightmarish: beasts, monsters, false gods, demons, butterflies, reptiles, and other things of like vulgar nature. Some of the figures purported to represent human beings, but—as in that absurd style of art which the Bolognese call caricatura—the humans were indistinguishable from pigs, asses, gargoyles, or anything else the imagination might conceive.

Since there was not a single work in which there was not to be seen rank superstition and delusions inspired by the Devil, we commanded that the thousands upon thousands of volumes and scrolls be made a heap in this city's main marketplace, and there had them burned to ashes, and the ashes dispersed. We submit that such was the fitting end for those pagan mementos, and we doubt that there remain any others in all the regions of New Spain thus far explored.

Be it noted, Sire, that the Indian onlookers at the burning, though almost all of them are now professed Christians, unashamedly showed a disgusting degree of regret and anguish; they even wept whilst they gazed upon the pyre, as they might have been so many real Christians watching the desecration and destruction of so many Holy Scriptures. We take that as evidence that these creatures have not yet been so wholeheartedly converted to Christianity as we and Mother Church would wish. Hence this most humble servant of Your Very Pious and Devout Majesty still has and will have many urgent episcopal duties pertinent to the more intense propagation of the Faith.

We beg Your Majesty's understanding that such duties must take precedence over our acting as auditor and monitor of the loquacious Aztec, except in our increasingly rare spare moments. We also beg that Your Majesty will understand the necessity of our occasionally sending a package of pages without a commentary letter, and sometimes even sending it unread by us.

May Our Lord God preserve the life and expand the kingdom of Your Sacred Majesty for many years to come, is the sincere prayer of Your S.C.C.M.'s Bishop of Mexíco,

(ecce signum) Zumárraga

QUINTA PARS

My little slave boy Cozcatl welcomed me back to Texcóco with unfeigned delight and relief, because, as he told me, Jadestone Doll had been exceedingly vexed at my going on holiday, and had taken out her ill humor on him. Though she had an ample staff of serving women, she had appropriated Cozcatl as well, and had kept him drudging for her, or running at a trot, or standing still to be whipped, all the while I had been away.

He hinted at the ignobility of some of the errands and chores he had done for her, and also, at my prompting, finally disclosed that the woman named Something Delicate had drunk corrosive xocoyatl upon her next summons to the lady's chambers—and had died there, foaming at the mouth and convulsed with pain. Ever since the suicide of Something Delicate, somehow still unknown outside those precincts, Jadestone Doll had had to depend, for her clandestine entertainments, on partners procured by Cozcatl and the maids. I gathered that those partners had been less satisfactory than what I had hitherto provided. But the lady did not immediately press me into service again, or even send a slave across the corridor to convey a greeting, or give any sign that she knew or cared about my having returned. She was involved with the Ochpanitztli festivities, which of course were in progress in Texcóco as they were everywhere else.

Then, when that celebration was over, Tlatli and Chimali arrived at the palace as scheduled, and Jadestone Doll occupied herself with getting them quartered, making sure that their studio was supplied with clay and tools and paints, and giving them detailed instructions regarding the work they were to do. I deliberately was not present at their arrival. When, a day or two later, we accidentally met in a palace garden, I gave them only a curt salute, to which they replied with a diffident mumble.

Thereafter I encountered them quite frequently, as their studio was situated in the cellars under Jadestone Doll's wing of the palace, but I merely nodded as I passed. They had by then had several interviews with their patroness, and I could see that their earlier exultation about their work had dissipated considerably. They were, in fact, now looking nervous and fearful. They obviously would have liked to discuss with me the precarious situation in which they found themselves, but I coldly discouraged any approaches.

I was busy with a job of my own: doing one particular drawing which I intended to present to Jadestone Doll when she finally should summon me to her presence, and that was a difficult project I had set myself. It was to be the most irresistibly handsome drawing of a young man I had yet done, but it also had to resemble a young man who really existed. I made and tore up many false starts and, when I at last achieved a satisfactory sketch, I spent still more time reworking and elaborating on it until I had a finished drawing that I was confident would fascinate the girl queen. And it did.

"Why, he is beyond handsome, he is beautiful!" she exclaimed when I gave it to her. She studied it some more and murmured, "If he were a woman, he would be Jadestone Doll." She could pay no higher compliment. "Who is he?"

I said, "His name is Joy."

"Ayyo, and it should be! Where did you find him?"

"He is the Crown Prince of my home island, my lady. Pactlitzin, son of Tlauquecholtzin, the tecutli of Xaltócan."

"And when you saw him again, you thought of me, and you drew his likeness for me. How sweet of you, Fetch! I almost forgive your deserting me for so many days. Now go and get him for me."

I said truthfully, "I fear he would not come at my behest, my lady. Pactli and I bear a mutual grudge. However—"

"Then you do not do this for his benefit," the girl interrupted. "I wonder why you should do it for mine." Her depthless eyes fixed on me suspiciously. "It is true that I have never mistreated you, but neither have you cause to feel great affection for me. Then why this sudden and unbidden generosity?"

"I try to anticipate my lady's desires and commands."

Without comment, she pulled on the bell rope and, when a maid responded, ordered that Chimali and Tlatli be brought to join us. They came, looking trepid, and Jadestone Doll shoved the drawing at them. "You two also come from Xaltócan. Do you recognize this young man?"

Tlatli exclaimed, "Pactli!" and Chimali said, "Yes, that is the Lord Joy, my lady, but—

I threw him a look that shut his mouth before he could say, "But the Lord Joy never looked so noble as that." And I did not mind that Jadestone Doll intercepted my look.

"I see," she said archly, as if she had caught me out. "You two may go." When they had left the room, she said to me, "You mentioned a grudge. Some squalid romantic rivalry, I suppose, and the young noble bested you. So you cunningly arrange one last assignation for him, knowing it will be his last."

Pointedly looking beyond her, at Master Pixquitl's statues of the swift-messenger Yeyac-Netztlin and the gardener Xali-Otli, I put on a conspirator's smile and said, "I prefer to think that I am doing a favor for all three of us. My lady, my Lord Pactli, and myself."

She laughed gaily. "So be it, then. I daresay I owe you one favor by now. But you must get him here."

"I took the liberty of preparing a letter," I said, producing it, "and on a royally fine fawnskin. The usual instructions: midnight at the eastern gate. If my lady will put her name to it and enclose the ring, I can almost guarantee that the young prince will come in the same canoe that delivers it."

"My clever Fetch!" she said, taking the letter to a low table on which were a paint pot and a writing reed. Being a Mexícatl girl, of course she could not read or write, but, being a noble, she could at least make the symbols of her name. "You know where my private acáli is docked. Take this to the steersman and tell him to go at dawn. I want my Joy tomorrow night."

Tlatli and Chimali had waited in the corridor outside, to waylay me, and Tlatli said in a quavering voice, "Do you know what it is you are doing, Mole?"

Chimali said, in a slightly steadier voice, "Do you know what could be in store for the Lord Pactli? Come and look."

I followed them down the stone stair to their stone-walled studio. It was well appointed but, being underground, lighted day and night by lamps and torches, it felt very like a dungeon. The artists had been working simultaneously on several statues, two of which I recognized. The one of the slave, I Will Be of Greatness, was already sculptured full length, life size, and Chimali had started painting the clay with his specially concocted paints.

"Very lifelike," I said, and meant it. "The Lady Jadestone Doll will approve."

"Oh, well, capturing the likeness was not difficult," Tlatli said modestly. "Not when I could work from your excellent drawing and mold the clay upon the actual skull."

"But my pictures show no colors," I said, "and even the Master Sculptor Pixquitl has been unable to recreate those. Chimali, I applaud your talent."

I meant that, too. Pixquitl's statues had been done in the usual flat colors: a uniform pale copper for all exposed skin surfaces, an unvarying black for the hair, and so on. Chimali's skin tones varied as do those on a living person: the nose and ears just the least bit darker than the rest of the face, the cheeks a little more pink. Even the black of the hair glinted here and there with brownish lights.

"It should look even better when it has been fired in the kiln," said Chimali. "The colors meld more together. Oh, and look at this, Mole." He led me around to the back of the statue and pointed. At the bottom of the slave's clay mantle Tlatli had incised his falcon symbol. Under that was Chimali's blood-red handprint.

"Yes, unmistakable," I said, without inflexion. I moved to the next statue. "And this will be Something Delicate."

Tlatli said uncomfortably, "I think, Mole, we would prefer not to know the names of the—uh—models."

"That was more than her name," I said.

Only her head and shoulders had yet been molded in clay, but they stood at the height they had stood in life, for they were supported by bones, her articulated bones, her own skeleton, held upright by a pole at the back.

"It is giving me problems," said Tlatli, as if he were speaking of a stone block in which he had found an unsuspected flaw. He showed me a picture, the one I had sketched in the marketplace, the portrait head I had first drawn of Something Delicate. "Your drawing and the skull serve me nicely for doing the head. And the colotli, the armature, gives me the body's linear proportions, but—"

"The armature?" I inquired.

"The interior support. Any sculpture of clay or wax must be supported by an armature, just as a pulpy cactus is supported by its interior woody framework. For a statue of a human figure, what better armature than its own original skeleton?"

"What indeed?" I said. "But tell me, how do you procure the original skeletons?"

Chimali said, "The Lady Jadestone Doll provides them, from her private kitchen."

"From her kitchen?"

Chimali looked away from me. "Do not ask me how she has persuaded her cooks and kitchen slaves. But they flay the skin and scoop the bowels and carve the flesh from the—from the model—without dismembering it. Then they boil the remainder in great vats of lime water. They have to stop the boiling before the ligaments and sinews of the joints are dissolved, so there are still some scraps of meat we have to scrape off. But we do get the skeleton entire. Oh, a finger bone or a rib may come loose, but..."

"But unfortunately," said Tlatli, "even the complete skeleton gives me no indication of how the body's exterior was padded and curved. I can guess at a man's figure, but a woman's is different. You know, the breasts and hips and buttocks."

"They were sublime," I muttered, remembering Something Delicate. "Come to my chambers. I will give you another drawing which shows your model in her entirety."

In my apartment, I ordered Cozcatl to make chocolate for us all. Tlatli and Chimali roamed through the three rooms, uttering exclamatory noises about their finery and luxury, while I leafed through my assortment of drawings and extracted one that showed Something Delicate full length.

"Ah, completely nude," said Tlatli. "That is ideal for my purposes." He might have been passing judgment on a sample of good marl clay.

Chimali also looked at the picture of the dead woman and said, "Truly, Mole, your drawings are skillfully detailed. If you would leave off doing only lines, and learn to work with the lights and shadows of paint, you could be a real artist. You too could give beauty to the world."

I laughed harshly. "Like statues built on boiled skeletons?"

Tlatli sipped at his chocolate and said defensively, "We did not kill those people, Mole. And we do not know why the young queen wants them preserved. But consider. If they were merely buried or burned, they would disintegrate into mold or ashes. We at least make them endure. And yes, we do our best to make them objects of beauty."

I said, "I am a scribe. I do not prettify the world. I only describe it."

Tlatli held up the picture of Something Delicate. "You did this, and it is quite a beautiful thing."

"From now on, I will draw nothing but word pictures. I have done the last portrait I shall ever do."

"That one of the Lord Joy," Chimali guessed. He glanced about to make sure my slave was not within hearing. "You must know you are putting Pactli at risk of the kitchen lime vats."

"I devoutly hope so," I said. "I will not let my sister's death go unpunished." I flung Chimali's own words back at him: "It would be a weakness, a sullying of what we felt for each other."

The two had the grace at least to lower their heads for some moments of silence before Tlatli spoke:

"You will put us all at hazard of discovery, Mole."

"You are already at hazard. I have long been. I might have told you that before you came." I gestured in the direction of their studio. "But would you have believed what is down there?"

Chimali protested, "Those are only city commoners and slaves. They might never be missed. Pactli is a Crown Prince of a Mexíca province!"

I shook my head. "The husband of that woman in the drawing—I hear he has gone quite mad, searching to discover what became of his beloved wife. He will never be sane again. And even slaves do not just disappear. The Revered Speaker has his guardsmen already seeking and making inquiries about the several mysteriously missing persons. Discovery is only a matter of time. That time may be tomorrow night, if Pactli is prompt."

Visibly sweating, Tlatli said, "Mole, we cannot let you—"

"You cannot stop me. And if you try to flee, if you try to warn Pactli or Jadestone Doll, I will hear of it instantly, and I will go instantly to the Uey-Tlatoani."

Chimali said, "He will have your life along with everyone else's. Why do this to me and Tlatli, Mole? Why do it to yourself?"

"My sister's death is not upon Pactli's head alone. I was involved, you were involved. I am prepared to atone with my own life, if that is my tonáli. You two must take your chances."

"Chances!" Tlatli flung up his hands. "What chances?"

"One very good one. I suspect the lady herself has the sense not to kill a prince of the Mexíca. I suspect she will toy with him for a while, perhaps a long while, then send him home with his lips sealed by a pledge."

"Yes," Chimali said thoughtfully. "She may court danger, but not suicide." He turned to Tlatli. "And while he is here, you and I can finish the statues already on order. Then we can plead urgent work elsewhere—"

Tlatli gulped the dregs of his chocolate. "Come! We will work night and day. We must be finished with everything on hand, we must have reason to ask leave to depart, before our lady wearies of our prince."

On that note of hope, they dashed from my chambers.

I had not lied to them, but I had neglected to mention one detail of my arrangements. I had spoken truly when I suggested that Jadestone Doll might balk at killing an invited prince. That was a very real possibility. And for that reason, for this particular guest, I had made one small change in the usual wording of the invitation. As we say in our language, of one who deserves retribution, "he would be destroyed with flowers."

The gods supposedly know all our plans, and know their ends before their beginnings. The gods are mischievous, and they delight to potter with the plans of men. They usually prefer to complicate those plans, as they might snarl a fowler's net, or to frustrate them so the plans come to no result whatever. Very seldom do the gods intervene to any worthier purpose. But I do believe, that time, they looked at my plan and said among themselves, "This dark scheme contrived by Dark Cloud, it is so ironically good, let us make it ironically even better."

The next midnight, I kept my ear close against the inside of my door until I heard Pitza and the guest arrive and enter the apartment across the corridor. Then I cracked my door slightly to hear better. I expected some exclamation of profanity from Jadestone Doll when she first compared Pactli's brutish face with my idealized portrait. What I had not expected was what I did hear: the girls' piercing scream of real shock, and then her hysterical shrieking of my name: "Fetch! Come here at once? Fetch!"

That seemed rather an extreme reaction in anyone meeting even the abhorrent Lord Joy. I opened my door and stepped out, to find a spear-carrying guard stationed just outside it, and another across the hall beside my lady's door. Both of them respectfully snapped their spears to the vertical as I emerged, and neither tried to prevent my entering the other apartment.

The young queen was standing just inside. Her face was twisted and unlovely, and nearly white with shock. But it gradually went nearly purple with fury as she began screaming at me, "What kind of comedy is this, you son of a dog? Do you think you can make filthy jokes at my expense?"

She went on like that, in full voice. I turned to Pitza and the man she had brought—and, for all my mixed feelings, I could not help bursting out into loud and sustained laughter. I had forgotten about Jadestone Doll's drug-caused nearsightedness. She must have come running through all the rooms and halls of her apartment, to embrace the eagerly awaited Lord Joy, and she must have got right upon the visitor before her vision allowed her to see him clearly. That truly would have been enough of a shock to force a scream from one who had never seen him before. His presence was a staggering surprise to me too, but I laughed instead of screaming, for I had the advantage of recognizing the shriveled, hunched, cacao-brown old man.

I had worded the letter to Pactli in such a way as to assure that he could not arrive unobserved. But I had no idea how or why the old vagabond had come instead of Pactli, and it did not seem the time to ask. Besides, I could not stop laughing. "Disloyal! Unforgivable! Despicable!" the girl was crying, over my guffaws, and Pitza was trying to fade into the nearest draperies, and the cacao man was waving my fawnskin letter and saying, "But that is your own signature, is it not, my lady?" She broke off her vilification of me to snarl at him, "Yes! But can even you believe it was addressed to a miserable, half-naked beggar? Now shut your toothless mouth!" She whirled back to me. "It has to be a joke, since it convulses you so. Confess to it and you will merely be beaten raw. Keep on laughing like that and I swear—"

"And of course, my lady," the man persisted, "I recognize in the body of the letter the picture writing of my old friend Mole here."

"I said be silent! When the flower garland is around your throat, you will dearly regret every breath you have wasted. And his name is Fetch!"

"Is it, now? It fits." His slitted eyes slid to me, and the way they glittered was not at all friendly. My laughter subsided. "But the letter clearly says, my lady, for me to be here at this hour, and wearing this ring, and—"

"Not wearing the ring!" she shrieked, most imprudently. "You sneaking old pretender, you even pretend to read. The ring was to be carried concealed! And you must have flourished it through all Texcóco... yya ayya!" She ground her teeth, and swung again to me. "Do you realize what your joke may have caused, you unspeakable lout? Yya ouíya, but you will die in the slowest of agonies!"

"How is it a joke, my lady?" the bent man asked. "According to this invitation, you must have been expecting someone. And you came running so joyfully to greet me—"

"You! To greet you?" screamed the girl, throwing out her arms as if she were physically throwing away all caution. "Would the cheapest, hungriest waterfront whore in Texcóco lie with you?" Once more she turned on me. "Fetch! Why did you do this?"

"My lady," I said, speaking for the first time, and speaking the hard words gently. "I have often thought your Lord Husband did not sufficiently weigh his words, when he commanded me to serve the Lady Jadestone Doll, and to serve her without question. But I was bound to obey. As you once pointed out to me, my lady, I could not myself betray your wickedness without disobeying both you and him. I had to trick you, finally, into betraying yourself."

She took a step back from me, and her mouth worked soundlessly, while her angrily flushed face began to pale again. The words took a while to come. "You—tricked me? This—this is no joke?"

"Not his joke, at any rate, but mine," said the hunched man. "I was at the lakeside when a well-dressed and oiled and perfumed young lord debarked from your private acáli, my lady, and boldly made his way hither, with this ring highly visible and recognizable upon the little finger of his big hand. It seemed a flagrant indiscretion, if not a transgression. I summoned guards to relieve him of the ring, and then of the letter he carried. I brought the things in his stead."

"You—you—by what authority—how dare you meddle?" she spluttered. "Fetch! This man is a confessed thief. Kill him! I order you to kill this man, here and now, that I may see."

"No, my lady," I said, still gently, for I was almost beginning to feel sorry for her. "This one time I disobey. I think you have at last revealed your true self to another observer. I think I am released from all bonds of obedience. I think you will kill no more."

She spun swiftly and yanked open the door to the corridor. Perhaps she meant to flee, but when the sentinel outside turned to face her, blocking the doorway, she said sharply, "Guard, I have here one thief and one traitor. That beggar, see, he is wearing my stolen ring. And this commoner has disobeyed my direct command. I want you to take them both and—"

"Your pardon, my lady," the guard rumbled. "I already have my orders from the Uey-Tlatoani. Different orders."

Her mouth fell open.

I said, "Guard, lend me your spear for one moment."

He hesitated, then handed it to me. I stepped to the nearby alcove housing the statue of the gardener Xali-Otli and, with all my strength, drove the spear point under the thing's chin. The painted head broke off, it hit the floor and rolled, its baked clay shattering and crumbling. When the head bounced to a stop against a far wall, it was a bare, white, gleaming skull, the cleanest and most honest face of man. The brown beggar watched its progress without expression. But the immense pupils of Jadestone Doll's eyes seemed now to have engulfed her eyes entirely. They were liquid black pools of terror. I gave the spear back to the guard and asked, "What are your orders, then?"

"You and your slave boy are to remain in your apartment. The lady queen and her serving women are to stay in this one. You will all remain under guard while your chambers are searched, and until further orders come from the Revered Speaker."

I said to the cacao man, "Will you join me in my captivity for a while, venerable one, to take a cup of chocolate perhaps?"

"No," he said, wrenching his gaze away from the exposed skull. "I am bidden to report on this night's events. I think the Lord Nezahualpili will now command a more extensive search—of the sculpture studios and other places."

I made the gesture of kissing the earth. "Then I bid you good night, old man, my lady." She stared at me, but I do not think she saw me.

I returned to my own chambers to find them being ransacked by the Lord Strong Bone and some others of the Revered Speaker's confidential aides. They had already discovered my drawings of Jadestone Doll and Something Delicate in embrace.

* * *

You say you attend today's sitting, my Lord Bishop, because you are interested in hearing how our judicial processes were conducted. But it is hardly necessary for me to describe the trial of Jadestone Doll. Your Excellency will find it minutely set forth in the archives of the Texcóco court, if you will trouble to examine those books. Your Excellency will also find it in the written histories of other lands, and even in the folktales of the common people, for the scandal is still remembered and related, especially by our women.

Nezahualpili invited to the trial the rulers of every neighboring nation, and all their tlamatintin wise men, and all their tecutlin of every least province. He even invited them to bring their wives and court ladies. He did it partly to make public demonstration that not even the highest-born of women could sin with impunity. But there was another reason. The accused was the daughter of the most powerful ruler in The One World, the ill-tempered and bellicose Revered Speaker Ahuítzotl of the Mexíca. By inviting him and every other nation's highest officials, Nezahualpili sought also to demonstrate that the proceedings were conducted in absolute fairness. It was for that same reason that Nezahualpili sat to one side during the trial. He delegated the questioning of defendants and witnesses to two disinterested parties: his Snake Woman, the Lord Strong Bone, and a tlamatini judge named Tepitzic.

Texcóco's hall of justice was crowded to capacity. It may have been the greatest gathering of rulers—friendly, neutral, inimical—until then convened in one place. Ahuítzotl only was absent. He could not expose himself to the disgrace of being ogled and pitied and derided while his own daughter's shame was inexorably revealed. In his stead, he sent the Snake Woman of Tenochtítlan. Among the many other lords who did attend, however, was the governor of Xaltócan, Pactli's father, Red Heron. He sat and endured his humiliation, head bowed, throughout the entire trial. The few times he raised his sad and bleared old eyes, they fixed on me. I think he was remembering a remark he had made long ago, when he had commented on my childhood ambitions: "Whatever occupation you do undertake, young man, you ought to do it well."

The interrogation of all persons involved was lengthy and detailed and tedious and often repetitive. I recall only the more pertinent questions and replies to recount to Your Excellency.

The two foremost of the accused were, of course, Jadestone Doll and Lord Joy. He was called first, and came pale and quaking to take the oath. Among the many other words put to him by the examiners were these:

"You were seized by the palace guards, Pactlitzin, on the grounds of that wing of the palace allotted to the royal lady Chalciunenetzin. It is a capital offense for any unauthorized male to enter, for any reason or on any pretext, the premises reserved for the ladies of the court. You were aware of that?"

He gulped loudly and said feebly, "Yes," and sealed his doom.

Jadestone Doll was next called and, among the numberless questions put to her, one elicited a reply that made the audience gasp. The judge Tepitzic spoke:

"You have admitted, my lady, that it was the workers in your private kitchen who slew your lovers and prepared their skeletons for the process of preservation. We think that not even the most debased of slaves could have done such work-except under extreme duress. What was the persuasion you applied?"

In the meek voice of a little girl, she said, "For a long time previous, I posted my guards in the kitchen to see that the workers got no food at all, that they did not even taste what they cooked for me. I starved them until they agreed to—do what I commanded. When they had done it once, and thereby had been full fed, they required no more persuasion or threats or watching guards—"

The rest of her words were lost in the general commotion. My little slave Cozcatl was retching, and had to be taken outside the hall for a while. I knew how he felt, and my own stomach wobbled slightly. Our meals had come from that same kitchen.

As Jadestone Doll's chief accomplice, I was called next. I gave a complete account of my activities on her behalf, omitting nothing. When I came to the part about Something Delicate, I was interrupted by another uproar in the hall. The deranged widower of that woman had to be restrained by guards from rushing forward to throttle me, and he was carried out, shrieking and flailing and spraying spittle. When I came to the end of my account, the Lord Strong Bone eyed me with open contempt and said:

"A frank confession, at least. Have you anything to say in mitigation or defense?"

I said, "Nothing, my lord."

At which another voice was heard. "If the scribe Dark Cloud declines to defend himself," said Nezahualpili, "may I, my lord justices, speak some extenuating words?" The two examiners gave reluctant permission, obviously not wanting to hear me exculpated, but not able to refuse their Uey-Tlatoani.

Nezahualpili said, "Throughout his attendance on the Lady Jadestone Doll, this young man was acting, however injudiciously, upon my express orders that he serve the lady without question and obey her every command. I submit that my own orders were badly expressed. It has also been shown that Dark Cloud finally seized upon the only means possible to divulge the truth about the adulterous and murderous lady. If he had not, my lord justices, we might have been trying her for the slaying of many more victims."

The judge Tepitzic grumbled, "Our Lord Nezahualpili's words will be taken into account in our deliberations." He leveled his stern gaze on me again. "I have just one further question to ask the defendant. Did you, Tlilectic-Mixtli, ever lie with the Lady Jadestone Doll?"

I said, "No, my lord."

Evidently hoping they had caught me in a damning lie, the examiners called my slave Cozcatl and asked him, "Did your master ever have sexual relations with the Lady Jadestone Doll?"

He said, in a piping voice, "No, my lords."

Tepitzic persisted, "But he had every opportunity."

Cozcatl said stubbornly, "No, my lords. Whenever my master was in the lady's company for any length of time, I was always in attendance. Not my master and not any other man of the court ever lay with the lady, except one. That was during my master's absence on holiday, and one night the lady was unable to secure a partner from outside."

The judges leaned forward. "Some man of the palace? Who?"

Cozcatl said, "Me," and the judges rocked back again.

"You?" said Strong Bone. "How old are you, slave?"

"I have just turned eleven years, my lord."

"Speak more loudly, boy. Do you mean to tell us that you served the accused adulteress as a sexual partner? That you actually coupled with her? That you have a tepúli capable of—?"

"My tepúli?" squeaked Cozcatl, shocked to the impertinence of interrupting the judge. "My lords, that member is for making water with! I served my lady, as she bade me, with my mouth. I would never touch a noblewoman with something as nasty as a tepúli...."

If he said anything else, it was drowned out by the roar of laughter from the spectators. Even the two judges had to struggle to keep their faces impassive. It was the only mirthful moment of relief in that grim day.

Tlatli was one of the last accomplices called. I have forgotten to mention that, on the night Nezahualpili's guards raided the studio, Chimali was absent on some errand. There had then been no cause for Nezahualpili or his aides to suspect the existence of another artist. Apparently no other of those accused had subsequently thought to mention Chimali, and apparently Tlatli had since been able to pretend that he had worked alone.

Strong Bone said, "Chicuace-Cali Ixtac-Tlatli, you admit that certain of the statues introduced in evidence were of your making."

"Yes, my lords," he said firmly. "I could hardly deny it. You see upon them my signature mark: the incised symbol of a falcon's head and beneath it the slap of my bloodied hand." His eyes sought mine and beseeched silence, as if saying, "Spare my woman," and I kept silent.

Eventually the two examiners retired to a private chamber for their deliberations. Everyone else in the hall of justice thankfully debouched from the big but now stuffy room to enjoy a breath of fresh air or to smoke a poquietl in the gardens outside. We defendants remained, each with an armed guard standing alert at our side, and we carefully avoided meeting each other's eyes.

It was not long before the judges returned and the hall refilled. The Snake Woman, Lord Strong Bone, made the routine prefatory announcement: "We, the examiners, have deliberated solely upon the evidence and testimony presented here, and have come to our decisions without malice or favor, without the intervention of any other persons, with the assistance only of Tonantzin, the gentle goddess of law and mercy and justice."

He produced a sheet of the finest paper and, referring to it, pronounced first, "We find that the accused scribe, Chicome-Xochitl Tlilectic-Mixtli, merits acquittal in that his actions, however culpable, were not ill intentioned, and furthermore were expiated by his bringing others to account. However..." Strong Bone threw a glance at the Revered Speaker, then glared at me. "We recommend that the acquitted one be banished from this realm as an alien who has abused its hospitality."

Well, I will not say I was pleased at that. But Nezahualpili could easily have let the judges deal with me as severely as they dealt with the others. The Snake Woman again referred to the paper and pronounced, "The following persons we find guilty of the several crimes with which they stand charged; actions heinous, perfidious, and detestable in the sight of the gods." He read the list of names: the Lord Joy, the Lady Jadestone Doll, the sculptors Pixquitl and Tlatli, my slave Cozcatl, two guards who had alternated night duty on the palace's eastern gate, Jadestone Doll's maid Pitza and numerous other servants, all the cooks and workers of her kitchen. The judge concluded his drone, "Regarding these persons found guilty, we make no recommendations, either of severity or lenity, and their sentences will be pronounced by the Revered Speaker."

Nezahualpili got slowly to his feet. He stood in deep study for a moment, then said, "As my lords recommend, the scribe Dark Cloud will be banished from Texcóco and all the domains of Acolhua. The convicted slave, Cozcatl, I here pardon in consideration of his tender years, but he will likewise be exiled from these lands. The nobles Pactlitzin and Chilchiunenetzin will be executed in private, and I shall leave their mode of execution to be determined by the noble ladies of the Texcóco court. All others found guilty by the lord justices are sentenced to be publicly executed by means of the icpacxochitl, with no recourse to Tlazolteotl beforehand. Their dead bodies, together with the remains of their victims, will be burned in a common pyre."

I rejoiced that little Cozcatl had been spared, but I felt sympathy for the other slaves and commoners. The icpacxochitl was the flower-enlaced garroting cord, which was bad enough.

But Nezahualpili had also denied them the solace of confessing to a priest of Tlazolteotl. It meant that their sins would not be swallowed by the goddess Filth Eater—and, since they would then be cremated together with their victims, they would bear their guilt all the way to whichever afterworld they went to, and they would continue to suffer unbearable remorse throughout eternity.

Cozcatl and I were escorted by our guards back to my chambers, and there one of the guards growled, "What is this?" On the outside of my apartment door, at the height of my head, was a sign—the slapped print of a bloody hand—silent reminder that I was not the only culprit who had escaped alive that day, a stark warning that Chimali did not intend to let his own bereavement go unavenged.

"Some tasteless prankster," I said, shrugging it off. "I will have my slave wash it clean."

Cozcatl took a sponge and a jar of water into the corridor while I waited, listening, just inside the door. It was not long before I heard Jadestone Doll being also returned to custody. I could not distinguish the sound of her tiny feet among the heavier tread of her escort, but when Cozcatl reentered with his jar of reddened water, he said:

"The lady came weeping, master. And with her guards came a priest of Tlazolteotl."

I mused, "If she is already confessing her sins to be swallowed, that means she has not much time." Indeed, she had very little. It was only shortly afterward that I heard her door open again, when she was taken to the last tryst of her life.

"Master," Cozcatl said timidly, "you and I are both outcasts now."

"Yes," I sighed.

"When we are banished..." He wrung his work-roughened little hands. "Will you take me? As your slave and servant?"

"Yes," I said, after thinking for some moments. "You have served me loyally, and I will not abandon you. But in truth, Cozcatl, I do not have the least idea where we shall be going."

The boy and I, kept in confinement, did not witness any of the executions. But I later learned the details of the punishment inflicted on the Lord Joy and the Lady Jadestone Doll, and those details may be of interest to Your Excellency.

The priest of Filth Eater did not even give the girl the opportunity to purge herself entirely to the goddess. In a pretense of kindness, he offered her a drink of chocolate—"to calm your nerves, my daughter"—in which he had mixed an infusion of the plant toloatzin, which is a powerful sleeping drug. Jadestone Doll was probably unconscious before she had recounted even the misdeeds of her tenth year, so she went to her death still burdened with much guilt.

She was carried to the palace maze of which I have spoken, and there she was stripped of all her clothes. Then the old gardener, who alone knew the secret paths, dragged her to the very center of the maze, where Pactli's corpse already lay.

The Lord Joy had earlier been delivered to the convicted kitchen workers, and they were commanded to do one last task before their own execution. Whether they first mercifully put Pactli to death, I do not know, but I doubt it, since they had little reason to feel kindly toward him. They flayed his whole body, except for his head and genitals, and they gutted him and hacked away the other flesh on his body. When all that remained was a skeleton—not a very clean skeleton, still festooned with shreds of raw meat—they used something, perhaps an inserted rod, to stiffen his tepúli erect. That grisly cadaver was taken to the maze while Jadestone Doll was still closeted with her priest.

The girl woke in the middle of the night, at the middle of the maze, to find herself naked and her tipíli snugly impaled, as in happier times, on a tumescent male organ. But her dilated pupils must quickly have adjusted to the pale moonlight, so that she saw the ghastly thing she was embracing.

What happened after that can only be conjectured. Jadestone Doll surely leapt loose from him in horror and fled screaming from that last lover. She must have run off into the maze, again and again, the tortuous paths always bringing her back to the head and bones and upright tepúli of the late Lord Joy. And every time she came back, she would have found him in the company of more and ever more ants and flies and beetles. At last he would have been so covered by squirming scavengers that it must have looked to Jadestone Doll that the cadaver was writhing in an attempt to rise and pursue her. How many times she ran, how many times she dashed herself against the unyielding thorn walls, how many times she found herself again stumbling onto the carrion of Lord Joy, no one will ever know. When the gardener brought her out in the morning, she was no longer beautiful. Her face and body were gashed and bloodied by the thorns. Her fingernails had been torn off. Patches of her scalp showed, where hanks of hair had been ripped loose. Her eye-enhancing drug had worn off, and the pupils were almost invisible points in her bulging, staring eyes. Her mouth was locked wide open in a silent scream. Jadestone Doll had always been so vain of her beauty that she would have been mortified and outraged to have been seen so ugly. But now she could not care. Somewhere in the night, somewhere in the maze, her terrified and pounding heart had finally burst.

When all was over, and Cozcatl and I were released from arrest, the guards told us we were not to go to classes, we were not to mingle or converse with any of our palace acquaintances, and I was not to go back to my writing job in the Speaking Council chamber. We were to wait, keeping ourselves as unobtrusive as possible, for the Revered Speaker to decide how and where to send us into exile.

So I passed some days in doing nothing but wandering along the lakeshore, kicking pebbles and feeling sorry for myself and mourning the high ambitions I had entertained when I first came to that land. On one of those days, engrossed in my thoughts, I let the twilight catch me far along the shore, and I turned to hurry back to the palace before the darkness fell. Halfway to the city, I came upon a man sitting on a boulder, a man who had not been there when I had passed earlier. He looked much as he had on the two previous occasions I had encountered him: weary of traveling afoot, his skin paled and his features obscured by a coating of the lakeside's alkali dust.

When we had exchanged polite greetings, I said, "Again you come in the dusk, my lord. Do you come from afar?"

"Yes," he said somberly. "From Tenochtítlan, where a war is being prepared."

I said, "You sound as if it will be a war against Texcóco.

"It has not been declared so, but that is what it will be. The Revered Speaker Ahuítzotl has finally finished building that Great Pyramid, and he plans a dedication ceremony more impressive than any ever known before, and for that he wants countless prisoners for the sacrifice. So he is declaring yet another war against Texcala."

That did not sound much out of the ordinary to me. I said, "Then the armies of The Triple Alliance will fight side by side once again. Why do you call it a war against Texcóco?"

The dusty man said gloomily, "Ahuítzotl claims that almost all his Mexíca forces and his Tecpanéca allies are still engaged in fighting in the west, in Michihuácan, and cannot be sent eastward against Texcala. But that is only an unconvincing pretense. Ahuítzotl was much affronted by the trial and execution of his daughter."

"He cannot deny that she deserved it."

"Which makes him the more angry and vindictive. So he has decreed that Tenochtítlan and Tlácopan will each send a mere token force against the Texcalteca—and that Texcóco must furnish the bulk of the army." The dusty man shook his head. "Of the warriors who will fight and die to secure the prisoners for sacrifice at the Great Pyramid, perhaps ninety and nine out of each hundred will be Acolhua men. This is Ahuítzotl's way of avenging the death of Jadestone Doll."

I said, "Anyone can see that it is unfair for the Acolhua to bear the brunt. Surely Nezahualpili could refuse."

"Yes, he could," the traveler said, in his weary voice. "But that could sunder The Triple Alliance—perhaps provoke the irascible Ahuítzotl into declaring a real war against Texcóco." Sounding even more melancholy, he went on, "Also, Nezahualpili may feel that he does owe some atonement for having executed that girl."

"What?" I said indignantly. "After what she did to him?"

"Even for that, he may feel some responsibility. Through having been negligent of her, perhaps. So might some others feel some responsibility." The wayfarer's eyes were on me, and I felt suddenly uneasy. "For this war, Nezahualpili will need every man he can get. He will doubtless look kindly on volunteers, and probably he will rescind any debts of honor they may feel they owe."

I swallowed and said, "My lord, there are some men who can be of no use in a war."

"Then they can die in it," he said flatly. "For glory, for penance, for repayment of an obligation, for a happy afterlife in the warriors' afterworld, for any other reason. I once heard you speak of your gratitude to Nezahualpili, and your readiness to demonstrate it."

There was a long silence between us. Then, as if casually changing the subject, the dusty man said, in a conversational tone, "It is rumored that you will soon be leaving Texcóco. If you have your choice, where will you go from here?"

I thought about it for a long time, and the darkness settled all around, and the night wind began to moan across the lake, and at last I said, "To war, my lord. I will go to war."

* * *

It was a sight to see: the great army forming up on the empty ground east of Texcóco. The plain bristled with spears and sparkled with bright colors and everywhere the sun glinted from obsidian points and blades. There must have been four or five thousand men all together, but, as the dusty man had foretold, the Revered Speakers Ahuítzotl of the Mexíca and Chimalpopoca of the Tecpanéca had sent only a hundred apiece, and those warriors were hardly their best, being mostly overage veterans and untried recruits.

With Nezahualpili as battle chief, all was organization and efficiency. Huge feather banners designated the main contingents among the thousands of Acolhua and the puny hundreds from Tenochtítlan and Tlácopan. Multicolored cloth flags marked the separate companies of men under the command of various knights. Smaller guidons marked the smaller units led by the cuáchictin under-officers. There were still other flags around which mustered the noncombatant forces: those responsible for transporting food, water, armor, and spare arms; the physicians and surgeons and priests of various gods; the marching bands of drummers and trumpeters; the battlefield clean-up detachments of Swallowers and Swaddlers.

Although I told myself that I would be fighting for Nezahualpili, and although I was ashamed at the poor participation of the Mexíca in that war, they were my countrymen, after all. So I went to volunteer my services to their leader, the one and only Mexícatl commander on the field, an Arrow Knight named Xococ. He looked me up and down and said grudgingly, "Well, inexperienced though you may be, you at least appear more physically fit than anybody in this command but me. Report to the Cuáchic Extli-Quani."

Old Extli-Quani! I was so pleased to hear his name again that I fairly ran to the guidon where he stood bellowing at a group of unhappy-looking young soldiers. He wore a headdress of feathers and a splinter of bone through the septum of his nose, and held a shield painted with the symbols denoting his name and rank. I knelt and brushed the ground in a perfunctory gesture of kissing the earth, then flung an arm around him as if he had been a long-lost relative, crying delightedly, "Master Blood Glutton! I rejoice to see you again!"

The other soldiers goggled. The elderly cuáchic flushed dark red and roughly thrust me away, spluttering, "Unhand me! By the stone balls of Huitzilopóchtli, but this man's army has changed since I was last afield. Doddering old growlers, pimply striplings, and now this! Are they enlisting cuilóntin now? To kiss the enemy to death?"

"It is I, Master!" I cried. "The commander Xococ told me to join your company." It took me a moment to realize that Blood Glutton must have taught hundreds of schoolboys in his time. It took him a moment to search his memory and find me in some remote corner of it.

"Fogbound, of course!" he exclaimed, though not with such glee as I had evinced. "You are in my company? Are your eyes cured, then? You can see now?"

"Well, no," I had to admit.

He stamped ferociously on a small ant. "My first active duty in ten years," he muttered, "and now this. Maybe cuilóntin would be preferable. Ah, well, Fogbound, fall in with the rest of my trash."

"Yes, Master Cuáchic," I said with military crispness. Then I felt a tug at my mantle and I remembered Cozcatl, who had been at my heels all that time. "What orders have you for young Cozcatl?"

"For whom?" he said, puzzled, looking around. Not until he looked down did his gaze light on the light boy. "For him?" he exploded.

"He is my slave," I explained. "My body servant."

"Silence in the ranks!" Blood Glutton bawled, both to me and to his soldiers, who had begun to giggle. The old cuáchic walked in a circle for a time, composing himself. Then he came and stuck his big face into mine. "Fogbound, there are a few knights and nobles who rate the services of an orderly. You are a yaoquizqui, a new recruit, the lowest rank there is. Not only do you present yourself complete with servant, but what you bring is this runt of an infant!"

"I cannot leave Cozcatl behind," I said. "But he will never be a nuisance. Cannot you assign him to the chaplains or some other rear guard where he can be useful?"

Blood Glutton growled, "And I thought I had escaped from that school to a nice restful war. All right. Runt, you report to that black and yellow guidon yonder. Tell the quartermaster that Extli-Quani ordered you to scullery duty. Now, Fogbound," he said sweetly, persuasively, "if the Mexíca army is arranged to your satisfaction, let us see if you remember anything of battle drill." I and all the other soldiers jumped when he bellowed, "You misbegotten rabble—FOUR ABREAST—MAKE RANKS!"

I had learned at The House of Building Strength that training to be a warrior was far different from my childhood play at being one. Now I learned that both the playing and the training were pale imitations of the real thing. To mention just one hardship that the tellers of glorious war stories omit, there is the dirt and the smell. At play or in school, after a day of hard exercise, I had always had the pleasant relief of a bath and a good sweat in the steam house. Here, there were no such facilities. At the end of a day of drilling we were filthy, and we stayed that way, and we stank. So did the open pits dug for our excretory functions. I loathed my own odor of dried sweat and unwashed garments as much as I did the ambient miasma of feet and feces. I regarded the uncleanliness and stench as the nastiest aspect of war. At that time, anyway, before I had been to war.

Another thing. I have heard old soldiers complain that, even in the nominally dry season, a warrior can rely on it that Tlaloc will mischievously make any and every battle the more difficult and miserable, with rain drenching a man from above and mud dragging at his feet below. Well, that was the rainy season, and Tlaloc sent unremitting rain during the several days we spent practicing with our weapons and rehearsing the various maneuvers we would be expected to perform on the battlefield. It was still raining, and our mantles were dead weights, and our sandals were ponderous lumps of mud, and our mood was foul, when at last we set out for Texcala.

That city was thirteen one-long-runs to the east-southeast. In decent weather, we could have traveled there in two days of forced march. But we would have arrived breathless and fatigued, to face an enemy who had had nothing to do but rest while they waited for us. So, considering the circumstances, Nezahualpili ordered that we make the journey more leisurely, and stretch it over four days, so that we should arrive comparatively unwearied.

For the first two days we tramped directly east, so that we had to climb and cross only the lower slopes of the volcanic range which, farther south, became the steep peaks called Tlaloctgpetl, Ixtacciuatl, and Popocatepetl. Then we turned southeast and headed directly toward Texcala city. The whole way, we went slogging through mud, except when we were slipping and sliding on wet rock terrain. That was the farthest I had ever been abroad, and I should have liked to see the landscape. But, even if my circumscribed vision had not prevented that, the perpetual veil of rain did. On that journey I saw little more than the slowly trudging mud-caked feet of the men in front of me.

We did not march encumbered by our battle armor. Besides our customary garb, we carried a heavy garment called a tlamaitl, which we wore in cold weather and rolled up in at night. Each man also carried a pouch of pinoli, ground maize sweetened with honey, and a leather bag of water. Each morning before starting to march, and again at the midday rest stop, we mixed the pinoli and water to make a nourishing if not very filling meal of atóli mush. At each night's halt, we would have to wait for the heavier-burdened supply forces to catch up to us. But then the commissary troops would provide every man with a substantial meal of hot food, including a cup of thick, nutritious, spirit-lifting hot chocolate.

Whatever his other duties, Cozcatl always brought my evening meal with his own hands, and often managed to get me a larger than standard portion or to slip me a stolen fruit or sweet. Some of the other men of Blood Glutton's company grumbled or sneered at the way I was coddled, so I weakly tried to refuse the extras Cozcatl brought.

He admonished me, "Do not act noble and deny yourself, master. You are not depriving your fellows in these forward columns. Do you not know that the best-fed men are the ones who stay farthest back from the fighting? The porters and cooks and message carriers. They are also the most boastful about their service. I only wish that I could somehow sneak a pot of hot water up here. Forgive me, master, but you smell atrocious."

Late in the wet, gray afternoon of the fourth day, when we were still at least one-long-run from Texcala, our forward scouts espied the waiting Texcalteca forces, and hurried back to report to Nezahualpili. The enemy were waiting, in strength, on the other side of a river we should have to cross. In dry weather the river was probably no more than a shallow trickle, but after all those days of steady rain it was a formidable barrier. Though still no more than hip high at its deepest, it was swift-running and broader than arrow range from bank to bank. The enemy's plan was obvious. While we waded across the river, we should be slow-moving targets, unable either to use our weapons or to dodge the enemy's. With their arrows and atlatl-flung javelins, the Texcalteca expected to decimate and demoralize us before we ever reached the farther side of the river.

It is told that Nezahualpili smiled and said, "Very well. The trap has been so nicely prepared by the enemy and Tlaloc alike, we must not disappoint them. In the morning we will fall into it."

He gave orders for our army to halt for the night where it was, still well distant from the river, and for all commanding knights and under-officers to gather about him and hear their instructions. We mere soldiers sat or squatted or stretched out on the soggy ground, while the commissary workers began preparing our evening meal, an ample one, for we would have no time to eat even atóli in the morning. The armorers unpacked and laid the stacks of spare weapons handy for distribution as needed the next day. The drummers tightened their drumheads, made slack by dampness. The physicians and chaplain-priests prepared their medicines and operating instruments, their incense and books of incantations, so that they were ready either to attend tomorrow's injured or to hear, on behalf of Filth Eater, the confessions of the dying.

Blood Glutton returned from the command conference as we were being served our food and chocolate. He said, "When we have done eating, we will don our battle costume and arm ourselves. Then, when the dark has come, we will move to our assigned positions, and there we will sleep in place, for we must be early awake."

As we ate, he told us Nezahualpili's plan. At dawn, a full third of our army, in trim formation, complete with drums and conch trumpets, would march boldly up to and into the river as if ignorant of any danger waiting on the other side. When the enemy let fly its missiles, the attackers would scatter and splash about, to give an impression of surprised confusion. When the rain of missiles got intolerable, the men would turn and flee the way they had come, in seemingly undisciplined rout. Nezahualpili's belief was that the Texcalteca would be deceived by that disarray and would incautiously give chase, so excited by their apparent easy triumph that they would give no thought to its possibly being a ruse.

Meanwhile, the remainder of Nezahualpili's army would have been waiting, concealed in rocks, shrubbery, trees on both sides of the long line of march leading to the river. Not a man of them would show himself or use a weapon until our "retreating" forces had enticed the entire Texcala army across the river. The Texcalteca would be running along a corridor between hidden walls of warriors. Then Nezahualpili, watching from a high place, would give the nod to his drummers, and the drums would give a signal crash of noise. His men on both sides of the ambuscade would rise up, and the walls of the corridor would close together, trapping the enemy between them.

A gray-haired old soldier of our company asked, "And where will we be stationed?"

Blood Glutton grunted unhappily. "Almost as far back and safe as the cooks and priests."

"What?" exclaimed the elderly veteran. "Tramp all this way and not get close enough even to hear the clash of obsidian?"

Our cuáchic shrugged. "Well, you know how shamefully few we are. We can hardly blame Nezahualpili for denying us a share of the battle, considering that he is fighting Ahuítzotl's war for him. Our Knight Xococ pleaded that we might at least march in the front, into the river, and be the bait for the Texcalteca—we would be the likeliest to be killed—but Nezahualpili refused us even that chance at glory."

I personally was glad enough to hear it, but the other soldier was still disgruntled. "Do we just sit here like lumps, then, and wait to escort the victorious Acolhua and their captives back to Tenochtítlan?"

"Not quite," said Blood Glutton. "We may get to take a prisoner or two ourselves. Some of the trapped Texcalteca may break out past the closing walls of Acolhua warriors. Our Mexíca and Tecpanéca companies will be fanned out to either side, north and south, as a net to snare any who do elude the ambush."

"Be lucky if we snare so much as a rabbit," grumbled the gray-haired soldier. He stood up and said to the rest of us. "All you yaoquizque fighting for the first time, know this. Before you get into your armor, go off in the bushes and evacuate yourselves good and empty. You will have loose bowels once the drums begin, and no chance to wriggle out of that tight quilting."

He went away to take his own advice, and I followed. As I squatted, I heard him mumbling nearby, "Almost forgot this thing," and I glanced over. He took from his pouch a small object wrapped in paper. "A proud new father gave it to me to bury on the battleground," he said. "His new son's navel string and little war shield." He dropped the packet at his feet, stamped it into the mud, then squatted to urinate and defecate on it.

Well, I thought to myself, so much for that little boy's tonáli. I wondered if my own natal shield and string had been likewise disposed of.

While we lesser soldiers struggled into the quilted cotton body armor, the knights were donning their flamboyant costumes, and they were splendid to see. There were three orders of knighthood: the Jaguar and the Eagle, to one of which a warrior might get elected for having distinguished himself in war, and the Arrow, to which belonged those who had achieved expert marksmanship and many killings with that most inaccurate of missiles.

A Jaguar Knight wore a real jaguar skin as a sort of cloak, with the big cat's head as a helmet. Its skull was removed, of course, but its front teeth were glued in place, so that its upper fangs curved down the knight's forehead and its lower hooked upward over his chin. His body armor was tinted like a jaguar's hide: tawny with dark brown markings. An Eagle Knight wore for a helmet an oversized eagle head made of wood and molded paper, covered with real eagle feathers, the open beak hooking forward above his forehead and below his chin. His body armor was also covered with eagle feathers, his sandals had artificial talons projecting beyond their toes, and his feather mantle was more or less shaped like folded wings. An Arrow Knight wore a helmet shaped like the head of whatever bird he chose—so long as it was of a lesser breed than the eagle—and his armor was covered with the same feathers that he preferred for fletching his arrows.

All the knights carried wooden, leather, or wickerwork shields covered with feathers, and those feathers were worked into colorful mosaic designs, each knight's design being his own name symbols. Many knights had become known for their bravery and prowess, so it was an act of daring for them to go into battle flaunting their symbols on their shields. They were sure to be sought out for attack by some enemy soldier, himself eager to enhance his own name as "the man who bested the great Xococ" or whomever. We yaoquizque carried unadorned shields, and our armor was uniformly white—until it got uniformly muddy. We were allowed no blazonings, but some of the older men tucked feathers into their hair or streaked their faces with paint to proclaim at least that they were not fighting their first campaign.

Once armored, I and numerous other novice soldiers went farther to the rear, to the priests, who yawned as they heard our necessarily hasty confessions to Talzolteotl, and then gave us a medicine to prevent our showing cowardice in the coming battle. I really did not believe that anything swallowed into the stomach could quell a fear that exists in the recalcitrant head and feet, but I obediently took my sip of the potion: fresh rainwater in which was mixed white clay, powdered amethyst, leaves of the cannabis plant, flowers of the dogbane, the cacao bush, and the bell orchid. When we returned to group around Xococ's flag, the Mexícatl knight said:

"Know this. The object of tomorrow's battle is to secure prisoners for sacrifice to Huitzilopóchtli. We are to strike with the flat of our weapons, to stun, to take men alive." He paused, then said ominously, "However, while this is for us merely a War of Flowers, for the Texcalteca it is not. They will fight for their lives, and fight to take ours. The Acolhua will suffer most—or win the most glory. But I want all of you, my men, to remember: if you should encounter a fleeing enemy, your orders are to capture him. His orders are to kill you."

With that not very inspiriting speech, he led us out into the rainy darkness—each of us armed with a spear and a maquahuitl—northward at a right angle off the previous line of march, dropping off companies of men at intervals along the way. Blood Glutton's company was the first to be detached, and, when the other Mexíca had plodded on, the cuáchic gave us one last bit of instruction:

"Those of you who have fought before, and have previously taken an enemy prisoner, you know you must take the next one unaided, or you will be accounted unmanly. However, you new yaoquizque, if you have a chance at taking your first captive, you are allowed to call for the help of as many as five of your fellow recruits, and you will all share equally in credit for the capture. Now follow me.... Here is a tree. You there, soldier, you climb and hide in its branches—You there, crouch in that jumble of rocks... Fogbound, you get behind this bush..."

And so we were sown in a long line stretching northward, our separate posts a hundred strides or more apart. Even when daylight came, none of us would be within sight of the next man, but we would all be within calling distance. I doubt that many of us slept that night, except perhaps the hardened old veterans. I know I did not, for my shrub offered concealment only if I hunkered on my heels. The rain continued to drizzle down. My overmantle soaked through, and then my cotton armor, until it hung so clammy and heavy that I thought I might never be able to stand erect when the time came.

After what seemed like a sheaf of years of misery, I heard faint sounds from the southward, from my right. The main bodies of Acolhua troops would be preparing to move, some into ambuscade, some into the very teeth of the Texcalteca. What I heard was a chaplain chanting the traditional prayer before battle, though only snatches of it were audible to me so far away:

"Oh, mighty Huitzilopóchtli, god of battles, a war is being mounted... Choose now, oh great god, those who must kill, those who must be killed, those who must be taken as xochimíque that you may drink their hearts' blood— Oh, lord of war, we beg you to smile upon those who will die on this field or on your altar... Let them proceed straight to the house of the sun, to live again, loved and honored, among the valiants who have preceded them—"

Ba-ra-ROOM! Stiff as I was, I started violently at the combined thunder of the massed "drums which tear out the heart." Not even the muffling rain all about could mute their earthquake rumble to anything less than bone-shaking. I hoped the fearsome noise would not frighten the Texcala troops into flight before they could be lured into Nezahualpili's surprise envelopment. The roar of drums was joined by the long wails and honks and bleats of the conch trumpets, then the whole noise began slowly to diminish, as the musicians led the decoy part of the army away from me, along the line of march toward the river and the waiting enemy.

What with the rainclouds practically within arm's reach overhead, the day did not begin with anything like a sunrise, but it was by then perceptibly lighter. Light enough, anyway, for me to see that the shrub behind which I had sat hunched all night was only a wizened, nearly leafless huixachi, which would not adequately have hidden a ground squirrel. I would have to seek a better place to lurk, and I still had plenty of time to do so. I got up creakily, carrying my maquahuitl and dragging my spear so it was not visible above the surrounding scrub, and I moved off in a sort of crouching lope.

What I could not tell you, even to this day, reverend friars, not even if you were to put me to the Inquisitorial persuasions, is why I went in the direction I did. To find other concealment, I could have moved backward or to either side, and still have been within hailing distance of the others of my company. But where I went was forward, eastward, toward the place where the battle would soon commence. I can only presume that something inside me was telling me, "You are on the fringe of your first war, Dark Cloud, perhaps the only war you will ever be engaged in. It would be a pity to stay on the fringe, a pity not to experience as much of it as you can."

However, I did not get near the river where the Acolhua confronted the Texcalteca. I did not even hear sounds of battle until the Acolhua, as Nezahualpili had hoped, rushed after them in full force. Then I heard the bellow and whoop of war cries, the shrieks and curses of wounded men, and, above all, the whistling of arrows and warbling of flung javelins. All our mock weapons at school, harmlessly blunted, had made no distinctive noise. But what I heard now were real missiles, pointed and bladed with keen obsidian, and, as if they exulted in their intent and ability to deal death, they sang as they flew through the air. Ever afterward, whenever I drew a history that included a battle, I always pictured the arrows, spears, and javelins accompanied by the curly symbol that means singing.

I never got closer than the noise of the battle—first coming from my right front, where the armies had met at the river, then progressing farther to my right, as the Acolhua fled and the Texcalteca gave chase. Then Nezahualpili's signal drums abruptly boomed for the corridor to close its walls, and the tumult of battle sounds multiplied and increased in volume: the brittle clash of weapons against weapons, the thuds of jaguar grunts, eagle screams, owl hoots. I could envision the Acolhua trying to restrain their own blows and thrusts, while the Texcalteca desperately fought with all their strength and skill, and with no compunction against killing.

I wished I could see it, for it would have been an instructive exhibition of the Acolhua's fighting skills. By the nature of the battle, theirs had to be the greater art. But there was rolling land between me and the battle site, and shrubbery and clumps of trees, and the gray curtain of rain, and of course my own nearsightedness. I might have tried to go nearer, but I was interrupted by a hesitant tap on my shoulder.

Still in my protective crouch, I whirled and leveled my spear, and almost skewered Cozcatl before I recognized him. The boy stood, also hunched over, with a warning finger to his lips. With the breath I had gasped in, I hissed out, "Cozcatl, curse you! What are you doing here?"

He whispered, "Following you, master. I have been near you all the night. I thought you might need a better pair of eyes."

"Impertinent pest! I have not yet—

"No, master, not yet," he said. "But now, yes, you do. One of the enemy approaches. He would have seen you before you could see him."

"What? An enemy?" I hunkered even lower.

"Yes, master. A Jaguar Knight in full regalia. He must have fought his way out of the ambush." Cozcatl risked raising his head far enough for a quick look. "I think he hopes to circle around and fall upon our men again from an unexpected direction."

"Look again," I said urgently. "Tell me exactly where he is and where he is headed."

The little slave bobbed up and down again and said, "He is perhaps forty longpaces to your left front, master. He is moving slowly, bent over, though he does not appear to be wounded, merely cautious. If he continues as he goes, he will pass between two trees that stand ten long paces directly to your front."

With those directions, a blind man could have managed the interception. I said, "I am going to those trees. You stay here and keep a discreet eye on him. If he notices my movement, you will know it. Give me a shout and then run for the rear."

I left my spear and my overmantle lying there, and took only my maquahuitl. Squirming almost as close to the ground as a snake does, I moved ahead until the trees loomed out of the rain. The two trees stood amid an undergrowth of high grass and low shrubs, through which an almost imperceptible deer trail had been lightly trampled. I had to assume that the fugitive Texcaltecatl was following that trail. I heard no warning call from Cozcatl, so I had got into position unobserved. I squatted on my heels at the base of one tree, keeping it between me and the man's approach. Holding my maquahuitl with both fists, I brought it back behind my shoulder, parallel to the ground, and held it poised.

Through the drizzle sound of the rain, I heard only the faintest rustle of grass and twigs. Then a muddy foot in a muddy sandal, its sole rimmed with jaguar claws, was set down on the ground directly in front of my hiding place. A moment later, the second foot stood beside it. The man, now sheltered between the trees, must have risked standing fully upright to look about and get his bearings.

I swung the obsidian-edged sword as I had once swung at a nopali trunk, and the knight seemed to hang in the air for an instant before he crashed full length on the ground. His feet in their sandals stayed where they were, severed above the ankles. I was on him in one bound, kicking away the maquahuitl he still grasped, and laying the blunt point of my own against his throat, and panting the ritual words spoken by a captor to his captive. In my time, we did not say anything so crude as, "You are my prisoner." We always said courteously, as I said to the fallen knight, "You are my beloved son."

He snarled viciously, "Then bear witness! I curse all the gods and all their get!" But that outburst was understandable. After all, he was a knight of the elite Jaguar order, and he had been cut down—in his own one moment of carelessness—by a young, obviously new and untried soldier of the lowly yaoquizqui rank. I knew that, had we met face to face, he could have minced me at his leisure, sliver by sliver. He knew it too, and his face was purple and his teeth grated together. But at last his rage ebbed to resignation, and he replied with the traditional words of surrender, "You are my revered father."

I lifted my weapon from his neck and he sat up, to gaze stonily at the blood gushing from his leg stumps and at his two feet still standing patiently, almost unbloodied, side by side on the deer trail ahead of him. The knight's jaguar costume, though rain-drenched and mud-smeared, was still a handsome thing. The dappled skin which depended from the fierce helmet head was fashioned so that the animal's front legs served as sleeves, coming down the man's arms so that the claws rattled at his wrists. His fall had not broken the strap which held his brightly feathered round shield to his left forearm.

There was another rustling in the brush, and Cozcatl joined us, saying quietly but proudly, "My master has taken his first war prisoner, all unaided."

"And I do not want him to die," I said, still panting—from excitement, not exertion. "He is bleeding badly."

"Perhaps the stumps could be tied off," the man suggested, in the heavily accented Náhuatl of Texcala.

Cozcatl quickly unbound the leather thongs of his sandals and I tied one tightly around each of my prisoner's legs, just below the knee. The bleeding dwindled to an oozing. I stood up between the trees and looked and listened, as the knight had done. I was somewhat surprised at what I heard—which was not much. The uproar of battle to the south had diminished to no more than a hubbub like that of a crowded marketplace, a babble interspersed with shouted commands. Obviously, during my little skirmish, the main battle had been concluded.

I said to the glum warrior, meaning it for condolence, "You are not the only captive, my beloved son. It appears that your whole army has been defeated." He only grunted. "Now I will take you to have your wounds tended. I think I can carry you."

"Yes, I weigh less now," he said sardonically.

I bent down with my back to him and took his shortened legs under my arms. He looped his arms around my neck, and his blazoned shield covered my chest as if it had been my own. Cozcatl had already brought my mantle and spear; now he collected my wicker shield and my blood-stained maquahuitl. Tucking those things under his arms, he picked up an amputated foot in either hand and followed me as I moved off through the rain. I trudged toward the murmurous noise to the south, where the fighting had finally wound down, and where I supposed our army would be disentangling the resultant confusion. Halfway there, I met the members of my own company, as Blood Glutton was collecting them from their various overnight stations to march them back to the main body of the army.

"Fogbound!" shouted the cuáchic. "How dared you desert your post? Where have you—?" Then his roaring stopped, but his mouth stayed open, and his eyes opened almost as wide. "May I be damned to Mictlan! Look what my most treasured student has brought! I must inform the commander Xococ!" And he dashed away.

My fellow soldiers regarded me and my trophy with awe and envy. One of them said, "I will help you carry him, Fogbound."

"No!" I gasped, the only breath I could spare. No one else would claim a share of the credit for my exploit.

And so I—bearing the sullen Jaguar Knight, trailed by the jubilant Cozcatl, escorted by Xococ and Blood Glutton proudly striding on either side of me—finally came to the main body of both armies, at the place where the battle had ended. A tall pole bore the flag of surrender which the Texcalteca had raised: a square of wide gold mesh, like a gilded piece of fishnet.

The scene was not of celebration or even tranquil enjoyment of victory. Most of those warriors of both sides who had not been wounded, or were only trivially wounded, lay about in postures of extreme exhaustion. Others, both Acolhua and Texcalteca, were not lying still but writhing and contorting, as they variously screamed or moaned a ragged chorus of "Yya, yyaha, yya ayya ouíya," while the physicians moved among them with their medicines and ointments, and the priests with their mumbles. A few ablebodied men were assisting the doctors, while others went about collecting scattered weapons, dead bodies, and detached parts of bodies: hands, arms, legs, even heads. It would have been difficult for a stranger to tell which of the men in that wasteland of carnage were the victors and which the vanquished. Over all hung the commingled smell of blood, sweat, body dirt, urine, and feces.

Weaving as I walked, I peered about, looking for someone in authority to whom I might deliver my captive. But the word had got there before me. I was suddenly confronted by the chief of all the chiefs. Nezahualpili himself. He was garbed as a Uey-Tlatoani should be—in cloak—but under that he wore the feathered and quilted armor of an Eagle Knight, and it was spattered with blood spots. He had not just stood aloof in command, but had joined in the fighting himself. Xococ and Blood Glutton respectfully dropped several steps behind me as Nezahualpili greeted me with a raised hand.

I eased my captive down to the ground, made a tired gesture of presentation, and said, with the last of my breath, "My lord, this—this is my—well-beloved son."

"And this," the knight said with irony, nodding up at me, "this is my revered father. Mixpantzinco, Lord Speaker.

"Well done, young Mixtli," said the commander. "Ximopanolti, Jaguar Knight Tlaui-Colotl."

"I greet you, old enemy," said my prisoner to my lord. "This is the first time we have met outside the frenzy of battle."

"And the last time, it appears," said the Uey-Tlatoani, kneeling down companionably beside him. "A pity. I shall miss you. Those were some wondrous duels we had, you and I. Indeed, I looked forward to the one that would not be inconclusively ended by the intervention of our underlings." He sighed. "It is sometimes as saddening to lose a worthy foe as to lose a good friend."

I listened to that exchange in some amazement. It had not earlier occurred to me to notice the device worked in feathers on my prisoner's shield: Tlaui-Colotl. The name, Armed Scorpion, meant nothing to me, but obviously it was famous in the world of professional soldiers. Tlaui-Colotl was one of those knights of whom I have spoken: a man whose renown was such that it devolved upon the man who finally bested him.

Armed Scorpion said to Nezahualpili: "I slew four of your knights, old enemy, to fight free of your cursed ambush. Two Eagles, a Jaguar, and an Arrow. But if I had known what my tonáli had in store"—he threw me a look of amused disdain—"I would have let one of them take me."

"You will fight other knights before you die," the Revered Speaker told him, consolingly. "I will see to that. Now let us ease your injuries." He turned and shouted to a doctor working on a man nearby.

"Only a moment, my lord," said the doctor. He was bent over an Acolhuatl warrior whose nose had been sliced off, but fortunately recovered, though somewhat mashed and muddy from having been much trodden upon. The surgeon was sewing it back onto the hole in the soldier's face, using a maguey thorn for a needle and one of his own long hairs for a thread. The replacement looked more hideous than the hole. Then the doctor hastily slathered the nose with a paste of salted honey, and came scurrying to my prisoner.

"Undo those thongs on his legs," he said to a soldier assistant, and to another, "Scoop out from the fire yonder a basin of the hottest coals." Armed Scorpion's stumps began slowly to bleed again, then to spurt, and they were gushing by the time the assistant came bearing a wide, shallow bowl of white-hot embers, over which small flames flickered.

"My lord physician," Cozcatl said helpfully, "here are his feet."

The doctor grunted in exasperation. "Take them away. Feet cannot be stuck back on like blobs of noses." To the wounded man he said, "One at a time or both at once?"

"As you will," Armed Scorpion said indifferently. He had never once cried out or whimpered with pain, and he did not then, as the doctor took one of his stumps in each hand and plunged both their raw ends into the dish of glowing coals. Cozcatl turned and fled the sight. The blood sizzled and made a pink cloud of stinking steam. The flesh crackled and made a blue smoke that was less offensive. Armed Scorpion regarded the process as calmly as did the physician, who lifted the now charred and blackened leg ends out of the coals. The searing had sealed off the slashed vessels, and no more blood flowed. The doctor liberally applied to the stumps a healing salve: beeswax mixed with the yolks of birds' eggs, the juice of alder bark and of the barbasco root. Then he stood up and reported, "The man is in no danger of dying, my lord, but it will be some days before he recovers from the weakness of having lost so much blood."

Nezahualpili said, "Let there be a noble's litter prepared for him. The eminent Armed Scorpion will lead the column of captives." Then he turned to Xococ, regarded him coldly, and said:

"We Acolhua lost many men today, and more will die of their injuries before we see home again. The enemy lost about the same, but the surviving prisoners are almost as many as our surviving warriors. To the number of thousands. Your Revered Speaker Ahuítzotl should be pleased at the work we have done for him and his god. If he and Chimalpopoca of Tlácopan had sent genuine armies of full strength, we might well have gone on to vanquish the entire land of Texcala." He shrugged. "Ah, well. How many captives did your Mexíca take?"

Knight Xococ shuffled his feet, coughed, pointed to Armed Scorpion, and mumbled, "My lord, you are looking at the only one. Perhaps the Tecpanéca took a few stragglers, I do not know yet. But of the Mexíca"—he motioned at me—"only this yaoquizqui..."

"No longer a yaoquizqui, as you well know," Nezahualpili said tartly. "His first capture makes him an iyac in rank. And this single captive—you heard him say he slew four Acolhua knights today. Let me tell you: Armed Scorpion has never troubled to count his victims of lesser rank than knight. But he has probably accounted for hundreds of Acolhua, Mexíca, and Tecpanéca in his time."

Blood Glutton was sufficiently impressed to murmur, "Fogbound is a hero in truth."

"No," I said. "It was not really my sword stroke, but a stroke of fortune, and I could not have done it without Cozcatl, and—"

"But it happened," Nezahualpili said, silencing me. To Xococ he continued, "Your Revered Speaker may wish to reward the young man with something higher than iyac rank. In this engagement he alone has upheld the Mexíca reputation for valor and initiative. I suggest that you present him in person to Ahuítzotl, along with a letter which I myself will write."

"As you command, my lord," said Xococ, almost literally kissing the earth. "We are very proud of our Fogbound."

"Then call him by some other name! Now, enough of this loitering about. Get your troops in order, Xococ. I appoint you and them the Swallowers and Swaddlers. Move!"

Xococ took that like a slap in the face, which it was, but he and Blood Glutton obediently went off at a trot. As I have told earlier, the Swaddlers were those who either tied or took charge of the prisoners so that none escaped. The Swallowers went about the whole area of battle and beyond, seeking out and knifing to death those of the wounded who were beyond relief. When that was done, they heaped and burned the bodies, allies and enemies together, each with a chip of jadestone in its mouth or hand.

For a few moments, Nezahualpili and I were alone together. He said, "You have done here today a deed to be proud of—and to be ashamed of. You rendered harmless the one man most to be feared among all our opponents on this field. And you brought a noble knight to an ignoble end. Even when Armed Scorpion reaches the afterworld of heroes, his eternal bliss will have an eternally bitter taste, because all his comrades there will know that he was ludicrously brought down by a callow, shortsighted, common recruit."

"My lord," I said, "I only did what I thought was right."

"As you have done before," he said, and sighed. "Leaving for others the bitter aftertaste. I do not chide you, Mixtli. It was long ago foretold that your tonáli was to know the truth about the things of this world, and to make the truth known. I would ask only one thing."

I bowed my head and said, "My lord does not ask anything of a commoner. He commands and is obeyed."

"What I ask cannot be commanded. I entreat you, Mixtli, from now henceforward, to be prudent, even gingerly in your handling of the right and the truth. Such things can cut as cruelly as any obsidian blade. And, like the blade, they can also cut the man who wields them."

He turned abruptly away from me, called to a swift-messenger, and told him, "Put on a green mantle and braid your hair in the manner signifying good news. Take a clean new shield and maquahuitl. Run to Tenochtítlan and, on your way to the palace, run brandishing the shield and sword through as many streets as you can, so the people may rejoice and strew flowers in your path. Let Ahuítzotl know that he has the victory and the prisoners he wanted."

The last few words Nezahualpili did not speak to the messenger, but to himself: "That the life and the death and the very name of Jadestone Doll are now to be forgotten."

* * *

Nezahualpili and his army parted from the rest of us there, to march back the way we all had come. The Mexíca and Tecpanéca contingents, plus myself and the long column of prisoners, went directly west on a shorter route to Tenochtítlan: across the pass between the peak of Tlaloctepetl and that of Ixtacciuatl, thence along the southern shore of Lake Texcóco.

It was a slow march, since so many of the wounded had to hobble or, like Armed Scorpion, be carried. But it was not a difficult journey. For one thing, the rain had finally stopped; we enjoyed sunny days and temperate nights. For another, once we had crossed the fairly rugged mountain pass, the march was along the level salt flats bordering the lake, with the serene, whispering waters on our right and the slopes of thick, whispering forests on our left.

That surprises you, reverend friars? To hear me speak of forests so near this city? Ah, yes, as short a time ago as that, this whole Valley of Mexíco was abundantly green with trees: the old-old cypresses, numerous kinds of oak, short- and long-leaved pines, sweet bay, acacias, laurel, mimosa. I know nothing of your country of Spain, my lords, or of your province of Castile, but they must be sere and desolate lands. I see your foresters denude one of our green hills for timbers and firewood. They strip it of all its verdure and trees that have grown for sheaves of years. Then they step back to admire the dun-gray barren that remains, and they sigh nostalgically, "Ah, Castile!"

We came at last to the promontory between the lakes Texcóco and Xochimilco, what remained of the Culhua people's once extensive lands. We smartly trimmed our formation to make a good show as we marched through the town of Ixtapalápan and, when we were past it, Blood Glutton said to me, "It has been some time since you saw Tenochtítlan, has it not?"

"Yes," I said. "Fourteen years or so."

"You will find it changed. Grander than ever. It will be visible from this next rise of the road." When we reached that eminence, he made an expansive gesture and said, "Behold!" I could, of course, see the great island-city yonder, shining white as I remembered it, but I could not make out any detail of it—except, when I squinted hard, there seemed to be an even more shining whiteness to it. "The Great Pyramid," Blood Glutton said reverently. "You should be proud that your valor has contributed to its dedication."

At the point of the promontory we came to the town of Mexicaltzínco, and from there a causeway vaulted out across the water to Tenochtítlan. The stone avenue was wide enough for twenty men to walk comfortably side by side, but we ranked our prisoners by fours, with guards walking alongside at intervals. We did not do that to stretch our parade to a more impressive length, but because the bridge was crowded on both sides with city folk come to greet our arrival. The people cheered and owl-hooted and pelted us with flowers as if our victory had been entirely the doing of us few Mexíca and Tecpanéca.

Halfway to the city, the causeway broadened out into a vast platform which supported the fort of Acachinánco, a defense against any invader's trying to take that route into Tenochtítlan. The fort, though supported entirely by pilings, was almost as big as either of the two towns we had just passed through on the mainland. Its garrison of troops also joined in welcoming us—drumming and trumpeting, shouting war cries, pounding their spears on their shields—but I could only look scornfully at them for their not having been with us in the battle.

When I and the others at the front of the column were striding into the great central plaza of Tenochtítlan, the tail of our parade of prisoners was still trooping out of Mexicaltzínco, two and a half one-long-runs behind us. In the plaza, The Heart of the One World, we Mexíca dropped out of the column and left it to the Tecpanéca soldiers. They turned the captives sharp left and marched them off along the avenue and then the causeway leading westward to Tlácopan. The prisoners would be quartered somewhere on the mainland outside that city until the day appointed for the dedication of the pyramid.

The pyramid. I turned to look at it, and I gaped as I might have done when I was a child. During my life I would see bigger icpac tlamanacaltin, but never one so luminously bright and new. It was the tallest edifice in Tenochtítlan, dominating the city. It was an awesome spectacle to those who had eyes to see it from away across the waters, for the twin temples on top of it stood proudly, arrogantly, magnificently high above every other thing visible between the city and the mainland mountains. But I had little time to look at it or at any of the other new landmarks built since I had last been in The Heart of the One World. A young page from the palace elbowed his way through the throng, asking anxiously for the Arrow Knight Xococ.

"I am he," said Xococ importantly.

The page said, "The Revered Speaker Ahuítzotl commands that you attend upon him at once, my lord, and that you bring to him the iyac named Tlilectic-Mixtli."

"Oh," said Xococ fretfully. "Very well. Where are you, Fogbound? I mean Iyac Mixtli, Come along." I privately thought we ought to bathe and steam ourselves and seek clean clothes before we presented ourselves to the Uey-Tlatoani, but I accompanied him without protest. As the page led us through the crowd, Xococ instructed me, "Make your obeisances humbly and graciously, but then excuse yourself and retire, so that the Revered Speaker may hear my account of the victory."

Among the plaza's new features was the Snake Wall surrounding it. Built of stone, plastered smooth with white gesso, it stood twice as high as a man and its upper edge undulated like the curves of a snake. The wall, both inside and out, was studded with a pattern of projecting stones, each carved and painted to represent a serpent's head. The wall was interrupted in three places, where the three broad avenues led north, west, and south out of the plaza. And at intervals it had great wooden doorways leading to the major buildings set outside the wall.

One of those was the new palace built for Ahuítzotl, beyond the northeast corner of the Snake Wall. It was easily as big as that of any of his predecessor rulers in Tenochtítlan, as big as Nezahualpili's palace in Texcóco, and even more elaborate and luxurious. Since it had been so recently built, it was decorated with all the latest styles of art and contained all the most modern conveniences. For example, the upper-floor rooms had ceiling lids which could be slid open to admit skylight in good weather.

Perhaps the most noticeable feature of the hollow-square-shaped palace was that it straddled one of the city's canals. Thus the building could be entered from the plaza, through its Snake Wall gate, or it could be entered by canoe. A nobleman idling in his oversized, cushioned acáli—or a common boatman paddling a freight of sweet potatoes—could take that delightfully hospitable route to wherever he was going. On his way, he would drift through a cavelike corridor of dazzling new-painted murals, then through Ahuítzotl's lushly gardened courtyard, then through another cavernous hall full of impressive new-carved statuary, before emerging into the public canal again.

The page led us, almost at a run, through the Snake Wall portal to the palace, then along galleries and around corners, to a room whose entire adornment consisted of hunting and war weapons hung upon the walls. The skins of jaguars, ocelots, cougars, and alligators made rugs for the floor and covers for the low chairs and benches. Ahuítzotl, a man of square figure, square head, and square face, sat upon an elevated throne. It was completely covered by the thick-furred pelt of one of the giant bears of the northern mountains far beyond these lands—the fearsome beast that you Spaniards call the oso pardo, or grizzled bear. Its massive head loomed over that of the Uey-Tlatoani, and its snarling open mouth showed teeth the size of my fingers. Ahuítzotl's face, just below it, was not much less fierce.

The page, Xococ, and I dropped to make the gesture of kissing the earth. When Ahuítzotl gruffly bade us stand, the Arrow Knight said, "As you commanded, Revered Speaker, I bring the iyac named—"

Ahuítzotl interrupted brusquely, "You also bring a letter from Nezahualpili. Give it to us. When you return to your command quarters, Xococ, mark on your roster that the Iyac Mixtli has been elevated by our order to the rank of tequiua. You are dismissed."

"But, my lord," said Xococ, stricken. "Do you not wish my report on the Texcala battle?"

"What do you know about it? Except that you marched from here to there and home again? We will hear it from the Tequiua Mixtli, who fought in it. We said you are dismissed, Xococ. Go."

The knight gave me a hateful look and slithered backward from the room. I paid little notice, being myself in something of a daze. After having served in the army less than a month, I had already been promoted to a level that most men might have to fight many wars to attain. The rank of Tequiua, which means "beast of prey," was ordinarily awarded only to those who had slain or captured at least four enemies in battle.

I had approached that interview with Ahuítzotl rather less than eagerly—not knowing what to expect—since I had been so closely associated with the Uey-Tlatoani's late daughter and her downfall. But it seemed that he had not connected me with that scandal; there was some advantage in having a common name like Mixtli. I was relieved that he regarded me as benignly as his severe countenance would allow. Also, I was intrigued by his manner of speech. It was the first time I had ever heard a man alone refer to himself as "we" and "us."

"Nezahualpili's letter," he said, when he had perused it, "is considerably more flattering to you, young soldier, than it is to us. He sarcastically suggests that, next time, we send him some companies of belligerent scribblers like yourself, instead of blunt arrows like Xococ." Ahuítzotl smiled as well as he could, even more resembling the bear's head over his throne. "He also suggests that, with sufficient forces, this war could finally have subdued that obstreperous land of the Texcalteca. Do you agree?"

"I can hardly disagree, my lord, with an experienced commander like the Revered Speaker Nezahualpili. I know only that his tactics defeated one entire army in Texcala. If we could have pushed the siege, any subsequent defenses must have been weaker and weaker."

"You are a word knower," said Ahuítzotl. "Can you write out for us a detailed account of the dispositions and movements of the various forces engaged? With comprehensible maps?"

"Yes, my Lord Speaker. I can do that."

"Do it. You have six days before the temple dedication ceremonies get under way, when all work will cease and you will have the privilege of presenting your illustrious prisoner for his Flowery Death. Page, have the palace steward provide a suitable suite of rooms for this man, and all the working materials he requires. You are dismissed, Tequiua Mixtli."

My chambers were as commodious and comfortable as those I had enjoyed at Texcóco, and, since they were on the second floor, I had the advantage of skylight for my work. The palace steward offered me a servant, but I sent the page to find Cozcatl instead, and then sent Cozcatl to find us each a change of clothes, while I bathed and steamed myself, several times over.

First I drew the map. It occupied many folded pages and opened to considerable length. I began it with the city symbol of Texcóco, then put the little black footprints showing the route of our journey eastward from there, with the stylized drawings of mountains and such to mark each of our overnight stops, and finally put the symbol for river, where the battle had been joined. There I placed the universally recognized symbol of overwhelming victory: the drawing of a burning temple—though in actuality we had not seen or destroyed any teocali—and the symbol of our taking prisoners: a drawing of one warrior clutching another by the hair. Then I drew the footprints, alternately black and red, to indicate captors and captives, tracing our westward march to Tenochtítlan.

Never leaving my chambers, taking all my meals there, I completed the map in two days. Then I started on the more complex account of the Texcalteca and Acolhua strategy and tactics, at least insofar as I had observed and understood them. One midday Cozcatl came into my sunny workroom and asked leave to interrupt me.

He said, "Master, a large canoe has arrived from Texcóco and is moored in the courtyard garden. The steersman says it brings belongings of yours."

I was happy to hear it. When I left Nezahualpili's palace to join the muster of troops, I had not felt it would be right to take with me any of the fine clothes and other gifts bestowed on me in the time before my banishment. In any case, I could hardly have carried them to war. So, although Cozcatl had borrowed garments for us to wear, neither he nor I actually possessed anything but the now extremely disreputable loincloths, sandals, and heavy tlamaitin we had worn to war and back again. I told the boy:

"It is a thoughtful gesture, and we probably have the Lady of Tolan to thank for it. I hope she sent your own wardrobe as well. Get a palace tamémi to help you bring the bundle here."

When he came back upstairs, accompanied by the boat's steersman and a whole train of laboring tamémime, I was so surprised that I forgot my work utterly. I had never owned the quantity of goods that the porters brought and stacked in my chambers. One large and one small bundle, neatly bound in protective matting, were recognizable. My clothes and other belongings were in the larger, even including my memento of my late sister, her little figurine of the goddess Xochiquetzal. Cozcatl's clothes were in the smaller bundle. But the other bales and packages I could not account for, and I protested that there must have been some mistake in the delivery.

The steersman said, "My lord, every one is tagged. Is not that your name?"

It was so. Each separate bundle carried a securely attached piece of bark paper on which was inscribed my name. There were many Mixtlis in these parts, and more than a few Tlilectic-Mixtlis. But those tags bore my full name: Chicome-Xochitl Tlilectic-Mixtli. I asked everyone present to help open the wrappings, so that, if the contents did prove to have been misaddressed, the workers could help repack them for return. And if I had been bewildered before, I was soon astounded.

One bale of fiber matting opened to reveal a neat stack of forty men's mantles of the finest cotton, richly embroidered. Another contained the same number of women's skirts, colored crimson with that costly dye extracted from insects. Another bale yielded the same number of women's blouses, intricately hand worked in an open filigree so that they were all but transparent. Still another bundle contained a bolt of woven cotton which, if we had unfolded it, would have been a cloth two-arms-spread wide and perhaps two hundred paces long. Though the cotton was an unadorned white, it was seamless and therefore priceless, just for the work—possibly years of work—some dedicated weaver had put into the weaving of it. The heaviest bale proved to contain chunks of itztetl, rough and unworked obsidian rocks.

The three lightest bundles were the most valuable of all, for they contained not tradeable goods but trade currency. One was a sack of two or three thousand cacao beans. Another was a sack of two or three hundred of the pieces of tin and copper, shaped like miniature hatchet blades, each of which was worth eight hundred cacao beans. The third was a cluster of four feather quills, each translucent quill stoppered with a dab of óli gum and filled with gleaming pure gold dust.

I said to the boatman, "I wish it was not a mistake, but it clearly is. Take it back. This fortune must belong to Nezahualpili's treasury."

"It does not," he said stubbornly. "It was the Revered Speaker himself who bade me bring this, and he saw it loaded in my craft. All I am to take back is a message saying it was safely delivered. With your signature symbols, my lord, if you please."

I still could not believe what my eyes beheld and my ears were told, but I could hardly protest further. Still dazed, I gave him the note, and he and the porters withdrew. Cozcatl and I stood and looked at the unwrapped riches. Finally the boy said:

"It can only be one last gift, master, from the Lord Nezahualpili himself."

"That may be," I conceded. "He trained me up to be a palace courtier and then had to cast me adrift, as it were. And he is a man of conscience. So he has now, perhaps, supplied me with the means to engage in some other occupation."

"Occupation!" Cozcatl squeaked. "Do you mean work, master? Why should you work? There is enough here to keep you in fair comfort all your days. You, a wife, a family, a devoted slave." He added mischievously, "You once said you would build a nobleman's mansion and make me the Master of the Keys."

"Hold your tongue," I told him. "If all I wanted was idleness, I could have let Armed Scorpion send me to the after-world. I now have the means to do many things. I have only to decide what I prefer to do."

When I completed the battle report, the day before the pyramid's dedication, I took it downstairs, seeking Ahuítzotl's trophy-hung den where I had first met him. But the palace steward, looking flustered, intercepted me to accept it in his stead.

"The Revered Speaker is entertaining many notables who have come from far lands for the ceremony," said the man distractedly. "Every palace around the plaza is crammed with foreign rulers and their retinues. I do not know how or where we can accommodate many more. But I will see that Ahuítzotl gets this account of yours, when he can read it in tranquility. He will summon you for another interview after things quiet down again." And he bustled off.

As long as I was on the ground floor, I wandered through those rooms accessible to the public, just to admire the architecture and decor. Eventually I found myself in the great hall of statues, through the middle of which the canal flowed. The walls and ceiling were spangled with light reflections from the water. Several freight boats came through while I was there, their rowers admiring—as I was doing—the several sculptures of Ahuítzotl and his wives, of the patron god Huitzilopóchtli, of numerous other gods and goddesses. They were all most excellent works, most skillfully done, as they should have been: every one of them bore the incised falcon symbol of the late sculptor Tlatli.

But, as he had boasted many years before, Tlatli's work scarcely needed a signature; his god statues were indeed very different from those which had been imitated and replicated through generations of less imaginative sculptors. His distinctive vision was perhaps most evident in his depiction of Coatlicue, the goddess mother of the god Huitzilopóchtli. The massive stone object stood nearly a third again as tall as I did, and, looking up at it, I felt my back hair prickle at the eeriness of it.

Since Coatlicue was, after all, the mother of the god of war, most earlier artists had portrayed her as grim of visage, but in form she had always been recognizable as a woman. Not so in Tlatli's conception. His Coatlicue had no head. Instead, above her shoulders, two great serpents' heads met, as if kissing, to compose her face: their single visible eye apiece gave Coatlicue two glaring eyes, their meeting mouths gave Coatlicue one wide mouth full of fangs and horribly grinning. She wore a necklace hung with a skull, with severed hands and torn-out human hearts. Her nether garment was entirely of writhing snakes, and her feet were the taloned paws of some immense beast. It was a unique and original image of a female deity, but a gruesome one, and I believe that only a cuilóntli man who could not love women could have carved a goddess so egregiously monstrous.

I followed the canal out of that chamber, under the weeping willows that overhung it in the courtyard garden, and into the chamber on the other side of the palace, where the walls were covered with murals. They mostly depicted the military and civic deeds done by Ahuítzotl before and since his accession to the throne: himself the most prominent participant in various battles, himself supervising the finishing touches on the Great Pyramid. But the pictures were alive, not stiff; they teemed with detail; they were artfully colored. As I had expected, the murals were finer than any other modern paintings I had seen. Because, as I had expected, each of them was signed in its lowermost right corner with the blood-red print of Chimali's hand.

I wondered if he was yet back in Tenochtítlan, and if we would meet, and how he would go about killing me if we did. I went in search of my little slave Cozcatl, and gave him instructions:

"You know the artist Chimali by sight, and you know that he has reason to wish me dead. I shall have duties to perform tomorrow, so I cannot keep looking over my shoulder for an assassin. I want you to circulate among the throng and then come to warn me if you see Chimali. In tomorrow's crowd and confusion, he may hope to knife me unobserved and slip away unsuspected."

"He cannot, if I see him first," Cozcatl said staunchly. "And I promise, if he is present, I will see him. Have I not been useful before, master, at being your eyes?"

I said, "You have indeed, young one. And your vigilance and loyalty will not go unrewarded."

* * *

Yes, Your Excellency, I know that you are most particularly interested in our former religious observances, hence your attendance here today. Although I was never a priest, nor much of a friend to priests, I will explain the dedication of the Great Pyramid—the manner of it and the significance of it—as well as I can.

If that was not the most resplendent, populous, and awesome celebration ever held in the history of the Mexíca, it certainly outdid all others I beheld in my time. The Heart of the One World was a solid mass of people, of colorful fabrics, of perfumes, of feather plumes, of flesh, of gold, of body heat, of jewels, of sweat. One reason for the crowding was that lanes had to be kept open—by cordons of guards, their arms linked, struggling to contain the jostling mob—so the lines of prisoners could march to the pyramid and ascend to the sacrificial altar. But the spectator crush was also due to the fact that the standing room in the plaza had been reduced by the building of numerous new temples over the years, not to mention the gradually spreading bulk of the Great Pyramid itself.

Since Your Excellency never saw it, perhaps I had better describe that icpac tlamanacali. Its base was square, one hundred and fifty paces from one corner to the next, the four sides sloping inward as they rose, until the pyramid's flat summit measured seventy paces to a side. The staircase ascending its front or western incline was actually two stairways, one each for those persons climbing and descending, separated by an ornamental gutter for blood to flow down. Fifty and two stairs of steep risers and narrow treads led to a terrace that encircled the pyramid a third of the way up. Then another flight of one hundred and four steps culminated in the platform on top, with its temples and their appurtenances. At either side of every thirteenth step of the staircase stood the stone image of some god, major or minor, its stone fists holding aloft a tall pole from which floated a white feather banner.

To a man standing at the very bottom of the Great Pyramid, the structures on top were invisible. From the bottom he could see only the broad dual staircase ascending, appearing to narrow, and seeming to lead even higher than it did—into the blue sky or, on other occasions, into the sunrise. A xochimíqui trudging up the stairs toward his Flowery Death must have felt that he was truly climbing toward the very heavens of the high gods.

But when he reached the top, he would find first the small, pyramidal sacrificial stone and behind that the two temples. In a sense, those teocaltin represented war and peace, for the one on the right was the abode of Huitzilopóchtli, responsible for our military prowess, and in the one on the left dwelt Tlaloc, responsible for our harvests and peacetime prosperity. Perhaps there should rightly have been a third teocali for the sun Tonatíu, but he already had a separate sanctuary on a more modest pyramid elsewhere in the plaza, as did several other important gods. There was also in the plaza the temple in which were ranked the images of numerous gods of subordinate nations.

The new temples of Tlaloc and Huitzilopóchtli, atop the new Great Pyramid, were but square stone rooms, each containing a hollow stone statue of the god, his mouth wide open to receive nourishment. But each temple was made much taller and more impressive by a towering stone facade or roof comb: Huitzilopóchtli's indented with angular and red-painted designs, Tlaloc's indented with rounded and blue-painted designs. The body of the pyramid was predominantly a gleaming almost-silver gesso white, but the two serpentine banisters, one along each flank of the dual staircase, were painted with reptilian scales of red, blue, and green, and their big snake heads, stretching out at the ground level, were entirely covered with beaten gold.

When the ceremony began, at the first full light of day, the chief priests of Tlaloc and Huitzilopóchtli, with all their assistants, were fussing around the temples at the top of the pyramid, doing whatever it is that priests do at the last moment. On the terrace encircling the pyramid stood the more distinguished guests: Tenochtítlan's Revered Speaker Ahuítzotl, naturally, with Texcóco's Revered Speaker Nezahualpili and Tlácopan's Revered Speaker Chimalpopoca. There were also the rulers of other cities, provinces, and nations—from far-flung Mexíca domains, from the Tzapoteca lands, from the Mixteca, from the Totonaca, from the Huaxteca, from nations whose names I did not then even know. Not present, of course, was that implacably inimical ruler, old Xicotenca of Texcala, but Yquingare of Michihuácan was there.

Think of it, Your Excellency. If your Captain-General Cortés had arrived in the plaza on that day, he could have accomplished our overthrow with one swift and easy slaughter of almost all our rightful rulers. He could have proclaimed himself, there and then, the lord of practically all of what is now New Spain, and our leaderless peoples would have been hard put to dispute him. They would have been like a beheaded animal which can twitch and flail only futilely. We would have been spared, I now realize, much of the misery and suffering we later endured. But yyo ayyo! On that day we celebrated the might of the Mexíca, and we did not even suspect the existence of such things as white men, and we supposed that our roads and our days led ahead into a limitless future. Indeed, we did have some years of vigor and glory still before us, so I am glad—even knowing what I know—I am glad that no alien intruder spoiled that splendid day.

The morning was devoted to entertainments. There was much singing and dancing by the troupes from this very House of Song in which we now sit, Your Excellency, and they were far more professionally skilled than any performers I had seen or heard in Texcóco or Xaltócan—though to me none equaled the grace of my lost Tzitzitlini. There were the familiar instruments: the single thunder drum, the several god drums, the water drums, the suspended gourds, the reed flutes and shin-bone flutes and sweet-potato flutes. But the singers and dancers were also accompanied by other instruments of a complexity I had not seen elsewhere. One was called "the warbling waters," a flute which sent its notes bubbling through a water jug, with an echo effect. There was another flute, made of clay, shaped rather like a thick dish, and its player did not move his lips or fingers; he moved his head about while he blew into the mouthpiece, so that a small clay ball inside the flute rolled to stop one hole or another around its rim. And, of course, of every kind of instrument there were many. Their combined music must have been audible to any stay-at-homes in every community around all the five lakes.

The musicians, singers, and dancers performed on the lower steps of the pyramid and on a cleared space directly in front of it. Whenever they tired and required a rest, their place was taken by athletic performers. Strong men lifted prodigious weights of stone, or tossed nearly naked beautiful girls back and forth to each other as if the girls had been feathers. Acrobats outdid grasshoppers and rabbits with their leaping, tumbling antics. Or they stood upon each other's shoulders—ten, then twenty, then forty men at a time—to form human representations of the Great Pyramid itself. Comic dwarfs performed grotesque and indecent pantomimes. Jugglers kept incredible numbers of tlachtli balls spinning aloft, from hand to hand, in intricate looping patterns—

No, Your Excellency, I do not mean to imply that the morning's entertainments were a mere diversion (as you put it) to lighten the horror to come (as you put it), and I do not know what you mean when you mutter of "bread and circuses." Your Excellency must not infer that those merriments were in any wise irreverent. Every performer dedicated his particular trick or talent to the gods we honored that day. If the performances were not somber but frolicsome, it was to cajole the gods into a mood to receive with gratitude our later offerings.

Everything done that morning had some connection with our religious beliefs or customs or traditions, though the relation might not be immediately evident to a foreign observer like Your Excellency. For example, there were the tocotine, come on invitation from the Totonaca oceanside lands where their distinctive sport had been invented—or perhaps god-inspired. Their performance required the erection of an exceptionally tall tree trunk in a socket specially drilled in the plaza marble. A live bird was placed in that hole, and mashed by the insertion of the tree trunk, so that its blood would lend the tocotine the strength they would need for flying. Yes, flying.

The erected pole stood almost as tall as the Great Pyramid. At its top was a tiny wooden platform, no bigger than a man's circled arms. Twined all down the pole was a loose meshing of stout ropes. Five Totonaca men climbed the pole to its top, one carrying a flute and a small drum tied to his loincloth, the other four unencumbered except for a profusion of bright feathers. In fact, they were totally naked except for those feathers glued to their arms. Arriving at the platform, the four feathered men somehow sat around the edge of the wooden piece, while the fifth man slowly, precariously got to his feet and stood upon it.

There on that constricted space he stood, dizzyingly high, and then he stamped one foot and then the other, and then he began to dance, accompanying himself with flute and drum. The drum he patted and pounded with one hand while his other manipulated the holes of the flute on which he blew. Though everyone watching from the plaza below was breathlessly quiet, the music came down to us as only the thinnest tweedling and thumping. Meanwhile, the other four tocotine were cautiously knotting the pole's rope ends around their ankles, but we could not see it, so high up they were. When they were ready, the dancing man made some signal to the musicians in the plaza.

Ba-ra-ROOM! There was a thunderous concussion of music and drumming that made every spectator jump, and, at the same instant, the four men atop the pole also jumped—into empty air. They flung themselves outward and spread their arms, the full length of which were feathered. Each of the men was feathered like a different bird: a red macaw, a blue fisher bird, a green parrot, a yellow toucan—and his arms were his outstretched wings. That first leap carried the tocotine a distance outward from the platform, but then the ropes around their ankles jerked them up short. They would all have fallen back against the pole, except for the ingenious way the ropes were twined. The men's initial leap outward became a slow circling around the pole, each of the men equidistant from the others, and each still in the graceful posture of a spread-winged, hovering bird.

While the man on top went on dancing and the musicians below played a trilling, lilting, pulsing accompaniment, the four bird-men continued to circle and, as the ropes gradually unwound from the pole, they circled farther out and slowly came lower. But the men, like birds, could tilt their feathered arms so that they rose and dipped and soared up and down past each other as if they too danced—but in all the dimensions of the sky.

Each man's rope was wrapped thirteen times around and down the extent of the pole. On his final circuit, when his body was swinging in its widest and swiftest circle, almost touching the plaza pavement, he arched his body and backed his wings against the air—exactly in the manner of a bird alighting—so that he skimmed to the ground feet first, and the rope came loose, and he ran to a stop. All four did that at the same moment. Then one of them held his rope taut for the fifth man to slide down to the plaza.

If Your Excellency has read some of my previous explanations of our beliefs, you will have realized that the sport of the tocotine was not simply an acrobatic feat, but that each aspect of it had some significance. The four fliers were partly feathered, partly flesh, like Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent. The four circling men with the dancing man among them represented our five points of the compass: north, east, west, south, and center. The thirteen turns of each rope corresponded to the thirteen day and year numbers of our ritual calendar. And four times thirteen makes fifty and two, the number of years in a sheaf of years. There were more subtle relevances—the word tocotine means "the sowers"—but I will not expatiate on those things, for I perceive that Your Excellency is more eager to hear of the sacrificial part of the dedication ceremony.

The night before, after they had all confessed to Filth Eater's priests, our Texcalteca prisoners had been moved to the perimeter of the island and divided into three herds, so that they could move toward the Great Pyramid along the three broad avenues leading into the plaza. The first prisoner to approach, well forward of the rest, was my own: Armed Scorpion. He had haughtily declined to ride a liner chair to his Flowery Death, but came with his arms across the shoulders of two solicitous brother knights, though they were of course Mexíca. Armed Scorpion swung along between them, the remains of his legs dangling like gnawed roots. I was positioned at the base of the pyramid, where I fell in beside the three and accompanied them up the staircase to the terrace where all the nobles waited.

To my beloved son, the Revered Speaker Ahuítzotl said, "As our xochimíqui of highest rank and most distinction, Armed Scorpion, you have the honor of going first to the Flowery Death. However, as a Jaguar Knight of long and notable reputation, you may choose instead to fight for your life on the Battle Stone. What is your wish?"

The prisoner sighed. "I no longer have a life, my lord. But it would be good to fight one last time. If I may choose, then, I choose the Battle Stone."

"A decision worthy of a warrior," said Ahuítzotl. "And you will be honored with worthy opponents, our own highest-ranking knights. Guards, assist the esteemed Armed Scorpion to the stone and gird him for hand-to-hand combat."

I went along to watch. The Battle Stone, as I have earlier told, was the former Uey-Tlatoani Tixoc's one contribution to the plaza: that broad, squat cylinder of volcanic rock situated between the Great Pyramid and the Sun Stone. It was reserved for any warrior who merited the distinction of dying as he had lived, still fighting. But a prisoner who chose to duel on the Battle Stone was required to fight not just one opponent. If, by guile and prowess, he bested one man, another Mexícatl knight would take up the fray, and another and another—four in all. One of those was bound to kill him... or at least that was the way the duels had always ended before.

Armed Scorpion was dressed in full battle armor of quilted cotton, plus his knightly regalia of jaguar skin and helmet. Then he was placed upon the stone where, having no feet, he could not even stand. His opponent, armed with an obsidian-bladed maquahuitl, had the advantage of being able to leap on and off the pedestal, and to attack from any direction. Armed Scorpion was given two weapons with which to defend himself, but they were poor things. One was simply a wooden staff for warding off his attacker's blows. The other was a maquahuitl, but the harmless play-kind used by novice soldiers in training: its obsidian flakes removed and replaced by tufts of feathery down.

Armed Scorpion sat near one edge of the stone, in a posture almost of relaxed anticipation, the bladeless sword in his right hand, the wooden staff gripped by his left and lying across his lap. His first opponent was one of the two Jaguar Knights who had helped him into the plaza. The Mexícatl leapt onto the Battle Stone at the left side of Armed Scorpion; that is, on the side away from his offensive weapon, the maquahuitl. But Armed Scorpion surprised the man. He did not even move the weapon, he used his defensive staff instead. He swung it, hard, in an up-curving arc. The Mexícatl, who could scarcely have expected to be attacked with a mere pole, caught it under his chin. His jaw was broken and he was knocked senseless. Some of the crowd murmured in admiration and others owl-hooted in applause. Armed Scorpion simply sat, the wooden staff held languidly resting on his left shoulder.

The second duelist was Armed Scorpion's other supporting Jaguar Knight. He, naturally supposing that the prisoner's first win had been only a caprice of fortune, also bounded onto the stone at Armed Scorpion's left, his obsidian blade poised to strike, his eyes fixed on the seated man's own maquahuitl. That time, Armed Scorpion lashed overhand with his defensive staff, over the knight's uplifted weapon hand, and brought the pole crashing down between the ears of the Mexican's jaguar-head helmet. The man fell backward off the Battle Stone, his skull fractured, and he was dead before he could be attended by any physician. The spectators' murmurs and hoots increased in volume.

The third opponent was an Arrow Knight, and he was justly wary of the Texcaltecatl's not at all harmless staff. He leapt onto the stone from the right, and swung his maquahuitl in the same movement. Armed Scorpion again brought up his staff, but only to parry the swinging sword to one side. That time he also used his own maquahuitl, though in an unusual way. He jabbed the hard blunt end of it upward, with all his strength, into the Arrow Knight's throat. It crushed that prominence of cartilage which you Spaniards call "the nut of the neck." The Mexícatl fell and writhed, and he strangled to death, right there on the Battle Stone.

As the guards removed that limp carcass, the crowd was going wild with shouts and hoots of encouragement—not for their Mexíca warriors, but for the Texcaltecatl. Even the nobles high on the pyramid were milling about and conversing excitedly. In the memory of no one present had a prisoner, even a prisoner with the use of all his limbs, ever bested as many as three opposing duelists.

But the fourth was the certain slayer, for the fourth was one of our rare left-handed fighters. Practically all warriors were naturally right-handed, had learned to fight right-handed, and had fought in that manner all their lives. So, as is well known, a right-handed warrior is perplexed and confounded when he comes up against a left-handed combatant who is, in effect, a mirror image striking him.

The left-handed man, a knight of the Eagle Order, took his time climbing onto the Battle Stone. He came leisurely to the duel, smiling cruelly and confidently. Armed Scorpion still sat, his staff in his left hand, his maquahuitl naturally in his right. The Eagle Knight, sword in his left hand, made a distracting feint and then leapt forward. As he did so, Armed Scorpion moved as deftly as any of the morning's jugglers. He tossed his staff and maquahuitl a little way into the air and caught them in the opposite hands. The Mexícatl knight, at that unexpected display of ambidexterity, checked his lunge as if to draw back and reconsider. He did not get the chance.

Armed Scorpion clapped his blade and staff together on the knight's left wrist, twisted them, and the man's maquahuitl fell out of his hand. Holding the Mexican's wrist pinned between his wooden weapons, as in a parrot's strong beak, Armed Scorpion for the first time drew himself up from his sitting position, to kneel on his knees and stumps. With unbelievable strength, he twisted his two weapons still farther, and the Eagle Knight had to twist with them, and he fell on his back. The Texcaltecatl immediately laid the edge of his wooden blade across the supine man's throat. Placing one hand on either end of the wood, he knelt over and leaned heavily. The man thrashed under him, and Armed Scorpion lifted his head to look up at the pyramid, at the nobles.

Ahuítzotl, Nezahualpili, Chimalpopoca, and the others on the terrace conferred, their gesticulations expressing admiration and wonderment. Then Ahuítzotl stepped to the edge of the platform and made a raising, beckoning movement with his hand. Armed Scorpion leaned back and lifted the maquahuitl off the fallen man's neck. That one sat up, shakily, rubbing his throat, looking both unbelieving and embarrassed. He and Armed Scorpion were brought together to the terrace. I accompanied them, glowing with pride in my beloved son. Ahuítzotl said to him:

"Armed Scorpion, you have done something unheard of. You have fought for your life on the Battle Stone, under greater handicap than any previous duelist, and you have won. This swagger whom you last defeated will take your place as xochimíqui of the first sacrifice. You are free to go home to Texcala."

Armed Scorpion firmly shook his head. "Even if I could walk home, my Lord Speaker, I would not. A prisoner once taken is a man destined by his tonáli and the gods to die. I should shame my family, my fellow knights, all of Texcala, if I returned dishonorably alive. No, my lord, I have had what I requested—one last fight—and it was a good fight. Let your Eagle Knight live. A left-handed warrior is too rare and valuable to discard."

"If that is your wish," said the Uey-Tlatoani, "then he lives. We are prepared to grant any other wish of yours. Only speak it."

"That I now be allowed to go to my Flowery Death, and to the warriors' afterworld."

"Granted," said Ahuítzotl and then, magnanimously, "The Revered Speaker Nezahualpili and myself will be honored to bear you thither."

Armed Scorpion spoke just once more, to his captor, to me, as was customary, to ask the routine question, "Has my revered father any message he would like me to convey to the gods?"

I smiled and said, "Yes, my beloved son. Tell the gods that I wish only that you be rewarded in death as you have deserved in life. That you live the richest of afterlives, forever and forever."

He nodded, and then, with his arms across the shoulders of two Revered Speakers, he went up the remaining stairs to the stone block. The assembled priests, almost frenzied with delight at the auspicious events attendant on that first sacrifice of the day, made a great show of waving incense pots around, and throwing smoke colorings into the urn fires, and chanting invocations to the gods. The warrior Armed Scorpion was accorded two final honors. Ahuítzotl himself wielded the obsidian knife. The plucked-out heart was handed to Nezahualpili, who took it in a ladle, carried it into the temple of Huitzilopóchtli, and fed it into the god's open mouth.

That ended my participation in the ceremonies, at least until the coming night's feasting, so I descended the pyramid and stood off to one side. After the dispatch of Armed Scorpion, all the rest was rather anticlimactic, except for the sheer magnitude of the sacrifice: the thousands of xochimíque, more than ever had before been granted the Flowery Death in one day.

Ahuítzotl ladled the second prisoner's heart into the mouth of Tlaloc's statue, then he and Nezahualpili descended again to the pyramid terrace. They and their fellow rulers also stood off to one side, out of the way, and, when they tired of watching the proceedings, idly talked among themselves of whatever Revered Speakers talk about. Meanwhile, the three long lines of captives shuffled in single file along the avenues Tlácopan, Ixtapalápan, and Tepeyáca, and into The Heart of the One World, and between the close-pressing ranks of spectators, and one behind another up the pyramid staircase.

The hearts of the first xochimíque, perhaps the first two hundred of them, were ceremoniously ladled into the mouths of Tlaloc and Huitzilopóchtli until the statues' hollow insides could hold no more, and the stone lips of the two gods drooled and dribbled blood. Of course, those hearts crammed into the statues' cavities would in time rot down to a sludge and make room for more. But that day, since the priests had an overabundance of hearts, the ones later plucked out were tossed into waiting bowls. When the bowls were filled and heaped with hearts, still steaming, some still feebly pulsing, under-priests took them and hurried down the Great Pyramid, into the plaza and the streets of the rest of the island. They delivered the surplus bounty to every other pyramid, temple, and god statue in both Tenochtítlan and Tlalteloco—and, as the afternoon wore on, to temples in the mainland cities as well.

The prisoners endlessly ascended the right side of the pyramid's staircase, while the gashed bodies of their predecessors tumbled and rolled down the left side, kicked along by junior priests stationed at intervals, and while the gutter between the stairs carried a continuous stream of blood which puddled out among the feet of the crowd in the plaza. After the first two hundred or so of xochimíque, the priests abandoned all effort or pretense at ceremony. They laid aside their incense pots and banners and holy wands, they ceased their chanting, while they worked as quickly and indifferently as Swallowers on a battleground—meaning that they could not work very neatly.

The hurried ladling of hearts into the statues had spattered the interior of both temples until their walls and floors and even ceilings were coated with drying blood. The excess blood ran out their doors, while still more blood poured off the sacrificial stone, until the whole platform was awash with it. Also, many prisoners, however complacently they came to their fate, involuntarily emptied their bladders or bowels at the moment of lying down under the knife. The priests—who, that morning, had been clad in their usual vulturine black of robes, lank hair, and unwashed skin—had become moving clots of red and brown, of coagulated blood, dried mucus, and a plaster of excrement.

At the base of the pyramid, the meat cutters were working just as frantically and messily. From Armed Scorpion and a number of other Texcalteca knights they had cut the heads, to be boiled down for their skulls, which would then be mounted on the plaza skull rack reserved to commemorate xochimíque of distinction. From those same bodies they had hacked off the thighs, to be broiled for that night's feast of the victorious warriors. As more and more cadavers tumbled down to them, the meat cutters sliced off just the choicest portions, to be fed immediately to the plaza menagerie's animals, or to be salted and smoked and stored for later feeding to the beasts, or to any distressed poor folk or masterless slaves who came begging for such a dispensation.

The mutilated bodies were then hastily carried by the butchers' boys to the nearest canal, the one that flowed under the Tepeyáca avenue. There they were dumped into big freight canoes which, as each was loaded, set off for various points on the mainland: the flower nurseries of Xochimilco, the orchards and produce farms elsewhere around the lakes, where the bodies would be buried for fertilizer. A separate, smaller acáli accompanied each fleet of scows. It carried fragments and chips of jadestone—bits too small to be of any other use—one of which would be put in the mouth or the fist of each dead man before he was interred. We never denied to our vanquished enemies that talisman of green stone which was necessary for admission to the afterworld.

And still the procession of prisoners went on. From the summit of the Great Pyramid, a mixture of blood and other substances ran in such torrents that, after a while, the stairway's disposal gutter could not contain it all. It cascaded like a slow, viscous waterfall down the steep steps themselves, it surged among the dead bodies flopping down, it bathed the feet of the live men plodding up, and made many slip and fall. It ran in sheets down the smooth walls of the pyramid on all four sides. It spread out across the entire extent of The Heart of the One World. That morning the Great Pyramid had gleamed like the snow-covered conical peak of Popocatepetl. In the afternoon, it looked like a heaped platter of breast of fowl over which the cook had lavishly poured a thick red moli sauce. It looked like what it was providing: a great meal for the gods of great appetite.

An abomination, Your Excellency?

What horrifies and nauseates you, I think, is the number of men put to death at that one time. But how, my lord, can you set a measure to death, which is not an entity but a void? How can you multiply nothingness by any number known to arithmetic? When just one man dies, the whole living universe ends, as far as he is concerned. Every other man and woman in it likewise ceases to exist; loved ones and strangers, every creature, every flower, cloud, breeze, every sensation and emotion. Your Excellency, the world and every least thing in it dies every day, for somebody.

But what demonic gods, you ask, would countenance the obliteration of so many men in a single indiscriminate slaughter? Well, your own Lord God, for one...

No, Your Excellency, I do not think I blaspheme. I merely repeat what I was told by the missionary friars who instructed me in the rudiments of Christian history. If they spoke the truth, your Lord God was once displeased by the increasing corruption of the human beings He had created, so He drowned them all in one great deluge. He left alive only a single boatman and his family to repopulate the earth. I have always thought the Lord God preserved a rather curious selection of humans, since the boatman was prone to drunkenness, and his sons to behavior I should judge peculiar, and all their progeny to quarrelsome rivalries.

Our world too, and every human in it, was once destroyed—and also, be it noted, by a calamitous inundation of water—when the gods got dissatisfied with the men then inhabiting it. However, our histories may go back further than yours, for our priests told us that this world had been previously scoured clean of humankind on three other occasions: the first time by all-devouring jaguars, the second time by all-destroying windstorms, the third time by a rain of fire from the skies. Those cataclysms happened, of course, sheaves of sheaves of years apart, and even the most recent one, the great flood, was so long ago that not the wisest tlamatini could precisely calculate its date.

So the gods have four times created our One World and peopled it with human beings, and four times they have declared the creation a failure, wiped it out and started again. We here, now, all of us living, constitute the fifth experiment of the gods. But, according to the priests, we live just as precariously as any of those earlier unfortunates, for the gods will someday decide to end the world and all again—the next time by means of devastating earthquakes.

There is no knowing when they may commence. We of this land always thought it possible that the earthquakes might come during the five hollow days at the end of a year, which is why we made ourselves so inconspicuous during those days. It seemed even likelier that the world would end at the end of that most significant year, the fifty-second year of a sheaf of years. So it was at those times that we abased ourselves, and prayed for survival, and sacrificed even more abundantly, and celebrated the New Fire ceremony.

Just as we did not know when to expect the world-ending earthquakes, so we did not know how the earlier men on earth had brought down the wrath of the gods in the form of jaguars, winds, fire, and flood. But it seemed a safe assumption that those men had failed sufficiently to adore and honor and make offerings of nourishment to their creators. That is why we, in our time, tried our best not to be lax in those respects.

So, yes, we slew countless xochimíque to honor Tlaloc and Huitzilopóchtli on the day of the dedication of the Great Pyramid. But try to look at it as we did, Your Excellency. Not one man gave up more than his own one life. Each man of those thousands died only the once, which he would have done anyway, in time. And dying thus, he died in the noblest way and for the noblest reason we knew. If I may quote those missionary friars again, Your Excellency, though I do not recall their exact words, it seems there is a similar belief among Christians. That no man can manifest greater love than to surrender his life for his friends.

Thanks to your instructive missionaries, we Mexíca know now that, even when we did right things, we did them for the wrong reasons. But I regret to remind Your Excellency that there are still other nations in these lands, not yet subdued and absorbed into the Christian dominion of New Spain, where the unenlightened still believe that a sacrificial victim suffers only briefly the pain of the Flowery Death before entering a delightful and eternal afterlife. Those peoples know nothing of the Christian Lord God, Who does not confine misery to our brief lives on earth, but also inflicts it in the afterworld of Hell, where the agony is everlasting.

Oh, yes, Your Excellency, I know that Hell is only for the multitude of wicked men who deserve eternal torment, and that a select few righteous men go to a sublime glory called Heaven. But your missionaries preach that, even for Christians, the felicitous Heaven is a narrow place, hard to get to, while the terrible Hell is capacious and easily entered. I have attended many church and mission services since the one that converted me, and I have come to think that Christianity would be more attractive to the heathen if Your Excellency's priests were able to describe the delights of Heaven as vividly and gloatingly as they dwell upon the horrors of Hell.

Apparently His Excellency does not care to hear my unsolicited suggestions, not even to refute or debate them, and prefers instead to take his leave. Ah, well, I am but a novice Christian, and probably presumptuous in voicing opinions still unripened. I will drop the subject of religion, to speak of other things.

The warriors' feast, held in what was then the banquet hall of this very House of Song, on the night of the Great Pyramid's dedication, did have some religious connotations, but they were minor. It was believed that, when we victors dined on the broiled hams of the sacrificed prisoners, we thereby ingested some of the dead men's strength and fighting spirit. But it was forbidden that any "revered father" eat the flesh of his own "beloved son." That is, no one could eat of any prisoner he himself had captured, because, in religious terms, that would be as unthinkable as an act of incest. So, though all the other guests scrambled to seize a slice of the incomparable Armed Scorpion, I had to be content with the thigh meat of some less esteemed enemy knight.

The meat, my lords? Why, it was nicely spiced and well cooked and served with an abundance of side dishes: beans and tortillas and stewed tomatoes and chocolate to drink and—

The meat nauseous, my lords? Why, quite the contrary! It was most savory and tender and pleasing to the palate. Since the subject so excites your curiosity, I will tell you that cooked human flesh tastes almost exactly like the meat you call pork, the cooked flesh of those imported animals you call swine. Indeed, it is the similarity of texture and flavor which gave rise to the rumor that you Spaniards and your swine are closely related, that both Spaniards and pigs propagate their species by mutual intercourse, if not legal intermarriage.

Yya, do not make such faces, reverend friars! I never believed the rumor, for I could see that your swine are only domesticated animals akin to the wild boars of this land, and I do not think even a Spaniard would copulate with one of those. Of course, your pig meat is much more flavorsome and tender than the gamy, sinewy meat of our untamed boars. But the coincidental similarity of pork and human flesh is probably the reason why our lower classes early took to eating pig meat with such avidity, and probably also the reason why they welcomed your introduction of swine with rather greater enthusiasm than, for instance, they welcomed your introduction of Holy Church.

As was only fair, the guests at that night's banquet consisted mostly of Acolhua warriors who had come to Tenochtítlan in Nezahualpili's retinue. There were a token few of Chimalpopoca's knights of the Tecpanéca, and of us Mexíca there were only three: myself and my immediate superiors in the field, the Cuáchic Blood Glutton and the Arrow Knight Xococ. One of the Acolhua present was that soldier who had had his nose cut off in the battle and replaced afterward, but it was gone again. He told us, sadly, that the physician's operation had not been a success; the nose had gradually turned black and finally fallen off. We all assured him that he looked not much worse without it than he had with it, but he was a mannerly man, and he sat well apart from the rest of us, not to spoil our appetites.

For each guest there was a seductively dressed auyaními woman to serve us tidbits from the platters of food, to fill the smoking tubes with picíetl and light them for us, to pour chocolate and octli for us, and, later, to retire with us to the curtained little bedrooms around the main chamber. Yes, I see the displeasure in your expressions, my lord scribes, but it is a fact. That feast of human meat and the subsequent enjoyment of casual copulation—they took place right here in this now sanctified diocesan headquarters.

I confess I do not remember everything that occurred, for I smoked my first poquietl that night, and more than one of them, and I drank much octli. I had timidly tasted that fermented maguey juice before, but that night was the first time I indulged in enough of it to addle my senses. I remember that the gathered warriors did much boasting of their deeds in the recent war, and in wars past, and there were many toasts to my own first victory and my swift promotion upward through the ranks. At one point, our three Revered Speakers honored us with a brief appearance, and lifted a cup of octli with us. I have a vague recollection of thanking Nezahualpili—drunkenly and fulsomely and possibly incoherently—for his gift of trade goods and trade currency, though I do not recall his reply, if he made any.

Eventually and not at all hesitantly, thanks perhaps to the octli, I retired to one of the bedrooms with one of the auyanime. I remember that she was a most comely young woman with hair artificially colored the red-yellow of the jacinth gem. She was exceptionally accomplished at what was, after all, her life's occupation: giving pleasure to victorious warriors. So, besides the usual acts, she taught me some things quite new to me, and I must say that only a soldier in his prime of vigor and agility could have kept up his part of them for long, or endured hers. In return, "I caressed her with flowers." I mean to say, I performed upon her some of the subtle things I had witnessed during the seduction of Something Delicate. The auyaními obviously enjoyed those attentions and marveled much at them. Having coupled always and only with men, and with rather crude men, she had never before known those particular titillations—and I believe she was pleased to learn of them and add them to her own repertory.

At last, sated with sex, food, smoke, and drink, I decided I would like to be alone for a while. The banquet hall was murky with stale air and layers of smoke, with the smells of leftover food and men's sweat and burnt-out pitch torches, all of which made my stomach feel queasy. I left The House of Song and walked unsteadily toward The Heart of the One World. There my nostrils were-assailed by an even worse smell, and my stomach churned. The plaza swarmed with slaves scraping and swabbing at the blood caked everywhere. So I skirted the outside of the Snake Wall until I found myself at the door of the menagerie I had visited with my father once, long ago.

A voice said, "It is not locked. The inmates are all caged, and anyway they are now gorged and torpid. Shall we go in?"

Even at that time of night, long past midnight, I was scarcely surprised to see him: the bent and wizened cacao-brown man who had also been present at the menagerie that other time, and present at other times in my life since. I muttered some thick-tongued greeting, and he said:

"After a day spent enjoying the rites and delights of human beings, let us commune with what we call the beasts."

I followed him inside and we strolled along the walkway between the cages and cubicles. All the carnivorous animals had been well fed with the meat of the sacrifices, but the constantly running water of the drains had flushed away almost all trace and smell of it. Here and there a coyote or jaguar or one of the great constrictor snakes opened a drowsy eye at us, then closed it again. Only a few of even the nocturnal animals were awake—bats, opossums, howler monkeys—but they too were languid and made only quiet chitters and grunts.

After a while, my companion said, "You have come a long way in a short time, Fetch!"

"Mixtli," I corrected him.

"Mixtli again, then. Always I find you with a different name and pursuing a different career. You are like that quicksilver which the goldsmiths use. Adaptable to any shape, but not to be confined in any one for long. Well, you have now had your experience of war. Will you become a professional military man?"

"Of course not," I said. "You know I have not the eyesight for that. And I think I do not have the stomach for it either."

He shrugged. "Oh, a soldier acquires callosity after only a few fights, and his stomach no longer rebels."

"I did not mean a stomach for fighting, but for the celebrations afterward. Right now I feel quite—" I belched loudly.

"Your first inebriation," he said, with a laugh. "A man gets used to that, too, I assure you. Often he gets to enjoy it, even to require it."

"I think I had rather not," I said. "I have recently experienced too many firsts too rapidly. Now I should like just a little while of repose, devoid of incidents and excitements and upsets. I believe I can prevail on Ahuítzotl to engage me as a palace scribe."

"Papers and paint pots," he said disparagingly. "Mixtli, those things you can do when you are as old and decrepit as I am. Save them for when you have energy only to set down your reminiscences. Until then, collect adventures and experiences to reminisce about. I strongly recommend travel. Go to far places, meet new people, eat exotic foods, enjoy all varieties of women, look on unfamiliar landscapes, see new things. And that reminds me—the other time you were here, you did not get to view the tequantin. Come."

He opened a door and we went into the hall of the "human animals," the freaks and monstrosities. They were not caged like the real beasts. Each lived in what would have been quite a nice, small, private chamber—except that it had no fourth wall, so that spectators like us could look in and see the tequani at whatever activity he might contrive to fill his useless life and empty days. At that time of night, all those we passed were asleep on their pallets. There were the all-white men and women—white of skin and hair—looking as impalpable as the wind. There were dwarfs and hunchbacks, and other beings twisted into even more horrid shapes.

"How do they come to be here?" I asked in a discreet murmur.

The man said, not troubling to lower his voice, "They come of their own accord, if they have been made grotesque by some accident. Or they are brought by their parents, if they were born freakish. If the tequani sells himself, the payment is given to his parents or to whomever he designates. And the Revered Speaker pays munificently. There are parents who literally pray to beget a freak, so they may become rich. The tequani himself, of course, has no use for riches, since he has here all necessary comforts for the rest of his life. But some of these, the most bizarre, cost riches aplenty. This dwarf, for instance."

The dwarf was asleep, and I was rather glad not to be seeing him awake, for he had only half a head. From the snaggle-toothed upper jaw to his collarbone, there was nothing—no lower mandible, no skin—nothing but an exposed white windpipe, red muscles, blood vessels and gullet, the latter opening behind his teeth and between his puffy little squirrel cheeks. He lay with that gruesome half head thrown back, breathing with a gurgling, whistling noise.

"He cannot chew or swallow," said my guide, "so his food must be poked down that upper end of his gullet. Since he has to bend his head far back to be fed, he cannot see what is given him, and many visitors here play cruel jokes on him. They may give him a prickly tonal fruit or a violent purgative or sometimes worse things. On many occasions he has nearly died, but he is so greedy and stupid that still he will throw his head back for anyone who makes an offering gesture."

I shuddered and went on to the next apartment. The tequani there seemed not to be asleep, for its one eye was open. Where the other eye should have been was a smooth plane of skin. The head was hairless and even neckless, its skin sloping directly into its narrow shoulders and thence into a spreading, cone-shaped torso which sat on its swollen base as solidly as a pyramid, for it had no legs. Its arms were normal enough, except that the fingers of both hands were fused together, like the flippers of a green turtle.

"This one is called the tapir woman," said the brown man, and I made a motion for him to speak more softly. "Oh, we need not mind our manners," he said. "She is probably sound asleep. The one eye is permanently overgrown and the other has lost its lids. Anyway, these tequantin soon get accustomed to being publicly discussed."

I had no intention of discussing that pitiable object. I could see why it was named for the prehensile-snouted tapir: its nose was a trunklike blob that hung pendulously to hide its mouth, if it had a mouth. But I should not have recognized it for a female, had I not been told. The head was not a woman's, nor even a human's. Any breasts were indistinguishable in the doughy rolls of flesh that composed its immovable pyramid of body. It stared back at me with its one never-closable eye.

"The jawless dwarf was born in his sad condition," said my guide. "But this one was a grown woman when she was mutilated in some sort of accident. It is supposed, from the lack of legs, that the accident involved some cutting instrument, and, from the look of the rest of her, that it also involved a fire. Flesh does not always burn in a fire, you know. Sometimes it merely softens, stretches, melts, so it can be shaped and molded like—"

My sick stomach heaved, and I said, "In the name of pity. Do not talk in front of it. In front of her."

"Her!" the man grunted, as if amused. "You are ever the gallant with women, are you not?" He pointed at me almost accusingly. "You have just come from the embrace of a beautiful her." He pointed at the tapir woman. "Now how would you like to couple with this other thing you describe as her?"

The very thought made my nausea uncontainable. I doubled over, and there in front of the monstrous living heap, I vomited up everything I had eaten and drunk that night. When I was finally empty and had recovered my breath, I threw an apologetic glance at that staring eye. Whether the eye was awake or merely watering, I do not know, but a single tear rolled down from it. My guide was gone, and I did not see him again, as I went back through the menagerie and let myself out.

But there was still another unpleasantness in store for me that night, which by then was early morning. When I reached the portal of Ahuítzotl's palace, the guard said, "Excuse me, Tequiua Mixtli, but the court physician has been awaiting your return. Will you please see him before you go to your room?"

The guard led me to the apartment of the palace doctor, where I knocked and found him awake and fully dressed. The guard saluted us both and went back to his post. The physician regarded me with an expression compounded of curiosity, pity, and professional unction. For a moment I thought he had waited up to prescribe a remedy for the queasiness I still felt. But he said, "The boy Cozcatl is your slave, is he not?"

I said he was, and asked if he had been taken ill.

"He has suffered an accident. Not a mortal one, I am happy to say, but not a trivial one either. When the plaza crowd began to disperse, he was noticed lying unconscious beside the Battle Stone. It may be that he stood too close to the duelists."

I had not given Cozcatl a thought since I had appointed him to keep watch for any sign of a lurking Chimali. I said, "He was cut, then, Lord Doctor?"

"Badly cut," he said, "and oddly cut." He kept his gaze on me as he picked up a stained cloth from a table, opened its folds, and held it out for me to see what it contained: an immature male member and its sac of olóltin, pale and limp and bloodless.

"Like an earlobe," I muttered.

"What?" said the physician.

"You say it is not a mortal wound?"

"Well, you or I might consider it so," the doctor said drily. "But the boy will not die of it, no. He lost an amount of blood, and it appears from bruises and other marks on his body that he was roughly handled, perhaps by the jostling mob. But he will live, and let us hope that he will not much mourn the loss of what he never had a chance to learn the value of. The cut was a clean one. It will heal over, in no more time than it takes him to recover from the loss of blood. I have arranged that the wound, in closing, will leave a necessary small aperture. He is in your apartment now, Tequiua Mixtli, and I took the liberty of placing him in your softer bed, rather than on his pallet."

I thanked the doctor and hurried upstairs. Cozcatl was lying on his back in the middle of my thickly quilted bed, the top quilt drawn over him. His face was flushed with a slight fever and his breathing was shallow. Very gently, not to wake him, I edged the covering down off him. He was naked except for the bandage between his legs, held in place by a swathing of tape around his hips. There were bruises on his shoulder where a hand had clutched him while the knife was wielded. But the doctor had mentioned "other marks," and I saw none—until Cozcatl, probably feeling the chill of the night air, murmured in his sleep and rolled over to expose his back.

"Your vigilance and loyalty will not go unrewarded," I had told the boy, little suspecting what that reward would be. The vengeful Chimali had indeed been in the crowd that day, but I had been almost all the time in such prominent places that he could make no sneak attack on me. So he had seen and recognized and assaulted my slave instead. But why injure such a small and comparatively valueless servant?

Then I recalled the curious expression on the doctor's face, and I realized that he had been thinking what Chimali must also have thought. Chimali had assumed that the boy was to me what Tlatli had been to him. He had struck at the child, not to deprive me of an expendable slave, but to mutilate my supposed cuilóntli, in the way best calculated to shock me, to mock me.

All of that went through my mind when I saw, slapped in the middle of Cozcatl's slender back, the familiar red handprint of Chimali, only for once not in Chimali's own blood.

Since it was then so late, or so early, that the open skylight in the ceiling was beginning to pale—and since both my head and my stomach still hurt so horrendously—I sat by Cozcatl's sickbed, not even trying to doze, trying instead to think.

I remembered the vicious Chimali in the years before he became vicious, in the years when he was still my friend. He had himself been of just about Cozcatl's age on that memorable evening when I led him home across Xaltócan, wearing the pumpkin on his head to hide his tufted hair. I remembered how he had commiserated with me when he went off to the calmécac and I did not, and how he once had given me that gift of his specially concocted paints—

Which led me to think about that other unexpected bequest I had received just a few days ago. Everything in it was of great value, except for one thing which had no apparent value whatever, at least here in Tenochtítlan. That was the bundle containing unfinished obsidian rocks, which were easily and cheaply obtainable from their nearby source, the canyon bed of The River of Knives, no long journey northeast of here. However, those rough chunks would be almost as prized as jadestone in the nations farther south, which had no such sources of obsidian from which to fashion their tools and weapons. That one "worthless" bundle made me recall some of the ambitions I had entertained and the ideas I had evolved in my long-ago days as an idly dreaming farm boy on the chinampa of Xaltócan.

When the morning was full light, I quietly washed myself, cleaned my teeth, and changed into fresh garments. I went downstairs, found the palace steward, and requested an early interview with the Uey-Tlatoani. Ahuítzotl was gracious enough to grant it, and I had not long to wait before I was ushered into his presence in that trophy-hung throne room.

The first thing he said was, "We hear that your small slave got in the way of a swinging blade yesterday."

I said, "So it seems, Revered Speaker, but he will recover." I had no intention of denouncing Chimali, or demanding a search for him, or even of mentioning his name. It would have necessitated some heretofore undisclosed revelations about the last days of Ahuítzotl's daughter—revelations involving Cozcatl and myself as well as Chimali. They could rekindle Ahuítzotl's paternal anguish and anger, and he might very well execute me and the boy before he even sent soldiers looking for Chimali.

He said, "We are sorry. Accidents are not infrequent among the spectators of the duels. We will be glad to assign you another slave while yours is incapacitated."

"Thank you, Lord Speaker, but I really require no attendant. I came to request a different sort of favor. Having come into a small inheritance, I should like to invest it all in goods, and try my success at being a merchant."

I thought I saw his lip curl. "A merchant? A stall in the Tlaltelólco market?"

"No, no, my lord. A pochtéatl, a traveling merchant." He sat back on his bearskin and regarded me in silence. What I was asking was a promotion in civil status approximately equal to what I had been given in military rank. Though the pochtéa were all technically commoners like myself, they were of the highest class of commoners. They could, if fortunate and clever in their trading, become richer than most pípiltin nobles, and command almost as many privileges. They were exempt from many of the common laws and subject mainly to their own, enacted and enforced by themselves. They even had their own chief god, Yacatecutli, the Lord Who Guides. And they jealously restricted their numbers; they would not admit as a pochtéatl just anybody who applied to be one. "You have been awarded a rank of command soldier," Ahuítzotl said at last, rather grumpily. "And you would neglect that to put a pack of trinkets on your back and thick-soled walking sandals on your feet? Need we remind you, young man, we Mexíca are historically a nation of valiant warriors, not wheedling tradesmen."

"Perhaps war has outlasted some of its usefulness, Lord Speaker," I said, braving his scowl. "I truly believe that our traveling merchants nowadays do more than all our armies to extend the influence of the Mexíca and to bring wealth to Tenochtítlan. They provide commerce with nations too far distant to be easily subjugated, but rich in goods and commodities they will readily barter or sell."

"You make the trade sound easy," Ahuítzotl interrupted. "Let us tell you, it has often been as hazardous as soldiering. The expeditions of pochtéa leave here laden with cargoes of considerable value. They have been raided by savages or bandits before they ever arrived at their intended destinations. When they did reach them, their wares were often simply confiscated and nothing given in return. For those reasons, we are obliged to send a sizable army troop along to protect every such expedition. Now you tell us: why should we continue to dispatch armies of nursemaids and not armies of plunderers?"

"With all respect, I believe the Revered Speaker already knows why," I said. "For a so-called nursemaid troop, Tenochtítlan supplies only the armed men themselves. The pochtéa carry, besides their trade goods, the food and provisions for each journey, or purchase them along the way. Unlike an army, they do not have to forage and pillage and make new enemies as they go. So they arrive safely at their destination, they do their profitable trading, they march themselves and your armed men home again, and they pay a lavish tax into your Snake Woman's treasury. The predators along the route learn a painful lesson and they cease to haunt the trade roads. The people of the far lands learn that a peaceable commerce is to their advantage as well as ours. Every expedition which returns makes that journey easier for the next one. In time, I think, the pochtéa will be able entirely to dispense with your supportive troops."

Ahuítzotl demanded testily, "And what then becomes of our fighting men, when Tenochtítlan ceases to extend its domain? When the Mexíca no longer strive to grow in might and power, but simply sit and grow fat on commerce? When the once respected and feared Mexíca have become a swarm of peddlers haggling over weights and measures?"

"My lord exaggerates, to put this upstart in his place," I said, purposely exaggerating my own humility. "Let your fighters fight and your traders trade. Let the armies subjugate the nations easily within their reach, like Michihuácan nearby. Let the merchants bind the farther nations to us with ties of trade. Between them, Lord Speaker, there need never be any limit set to the world won and held by the Mexíca."

Ahuítzotl regarded me again, through an even longer silence. So, it seemed, did the ferocious bear's head above his throne. Then he said, "Very well. You have told us the reasons why you admire the profession of traveling merchants. Can you tell us some reasons why the profession would benefit from your joining it?"

"The profession, no," I said frankly. "But I can suggest some reasons why the Uey-Tlatoani and his Speaking Council might thus benefit."

He raised his bushy eyebrows. "Tell us, then."

"I am a trained scribe, which most traveling merchants are not. They know only numbers and the keeping of accounts. As the Revered Speaker has seen, I am capable of setting down accurate maps and detailed descriptions in word pictures. I can come back from my travels with entire books telling of other nations, their arsenals and storehouses, their defenses and vulnerabilities—" His eyebrows had lowered again during that speech. I thought it best to trail off humbly, "Of course, I realize that I must first persuade the pochtéa themselves that I qualify for acceptance into their select society..."

Ahuítzotl said drily, "We doubt that they would long remain obdurate toward a candidate proposed by their Uey-Tlatoani. Is that all you ask, then? That we sponsor you as a pochtéatl?"

"If it pleases my lord, I should like to take two companions. I ask that I be assigned not a troop of soldiers, but the Cuáchic Extli-Quani, as our military support. Just the one man, but I know him of old, and I believe he will be adequate. I ask also that I may take the boy Cozcatl. He should be ready to travel when I am."

Ahuítzotl shrugged. "The cuáchic we shall order detached from active army duty. He is overage for anything more useful than nursemaiding, anyway. As for the slave, he is already yours, and yours to command."

"I would rather he were not, my lord. I should like to offer him his freedom as a small restitution for the accident he suffered yesterday. I ask that the Revered Speaker officially elevate him from the status of tlacotli to that of a free macehuali. He will accompany me not as a slave, but with a free partner's share in the enterprise."

"We will have a scribe prepare the paper of manumission," said Ahuítzotl. "Meanwhile, we cannot refrain from remarking that this will be the most quaintly composed trading expedition ever to set out from Tenochtítlan. Whither are you bound on your first journey?"

"All the way to the Maya lands, Lord Speaker, and back again, if the gods allow. Extli-Quani has been there before, which is one reason I want him along. I hope we will return with a considerable profit to be shared with my lord's treasury. I am certain we will return with much information of interest and value to my lord."

What I did not say was that I fervently hoped also to return with my vision restored. The reputation of the Maya physicians was my overriding reason for choosing the Maya country as our destination.

"Your requests are granted," said Ahuítzotl. "You will await a summons to appear at The House of Pochtéa for examination." He stood up from his grizzled-bear throne, to indicate that the interview was terminated. "We shall be interested to talk to you again, Pochtéatl Mixtli, when you return. If you return."

I went upstairs again, to my apartment, to find Cozcatl awake, sitting up in the bed, hands over his face, crying as if his life were finished. Well, a good part of it was. But when I entered and he looked up and saw me, his face showed first bewildered shock, then delighted recognition, then a radiant smile beaming through his tears.

"I thought you were dead!" he wailed, scrambling out from the quilts and hobbling painfully toward me.

"Get back in that bed!" I commanded, scooping him up and carrying him there, while he insisted on telling me:

"Someone seized me from behind, before I could flee or cry out. When I woke later, and the doctor said you had not returned to the palace, I supposed you must be dead. I thought I had been wounded only so I could not warn you. And then, when I woke in your bed a little while ago, and you still were not here, I knew you must—"

"Hush, boy," I said, as I tucked him back under the quilt.

"But I failed you, master," he whimpered. "I let your enemy get past me."

"No, you did not. Chimali was satisfied to injure you instead of me, this time. I owe you much, and I will see that the debt is paid. This I promise: when the time comes that I again have Chimali in my power, you will decide the fitting punishment for him. Now," I said uncomfortably, "are you aware—in what manner he wounded you?"

"Yes," said the boy, biting his lip to stop its quivering. "When it happened, I knew only that I was in frightful pain, and I fainted. The good doctor let me stay in my faint while he—while he did what he could. But then he held something of a piercing smell under my nose, and I woke up sneezing. And I saw—where he had sewn me together."

"I am sorry," I said. It was all I could think to say.

Cozcatl ran a hand down the quilt, cautiously feeling himself, and he asked shyly, "Does this mean I am a girl now, master?"

"What a ridiculous idea!" I said. "Of course not."

"I must be," he said sniffling. "I have seen between the legs of only one female undressed, the lady who was late our mistress in Texcóco. When I saw myself—down there—before the doctor put on the bandage—it looked just the way her private parts looked."

"You are not a girl," I said firmly. "You are far less so than the scoundrel Chimali, who knifes from behind, in the way only a woman would fight. Why, there have been many warriors who have suffered that same wound in combat, Cozcatl, and they have gone on being warriors of manly strength and ferocity. Some have become more mighty and famous heroes afterward than they were before."

He persisted, "Then why did the doctor—and why do you, master—look so long-faced about it?"

"Well," I said, "it does mean that you will never father any children."

"Oh?" he said, and, to my surprise, seemed to brighten. "That is no great matter. I have never liked being a child myself. I hardly care to make any others. But... does it also mean that I can never be a husband?"

"No... not necessarily," I said hesitantly. "You will just have to seek the proper sort of wife. An understanding woman. One who will accept what kind of husbandly pleasure you can give. And you did give pleasure to that unmentionable lady in Texcóco, did you not?"

"She said I did." He began to smile again. "Thank you for your reassuring me, master. Since I am a slave, and therefore cannot own a slave, I would like to have a wife someday."

"From this moment, Cozcatl, you are not a slave, and I am no longer your master."

The smile went, and alarm came into his face. "What has happened?"

"Nothing, except that now you are my friend and I am yours."

He said, his voice tremulous, "But a slave without a master is a poor thing, master. A rootless and a helpless thing."

I said, "Not when he has a friend whose life and fortunes he shares. I do have some small fortune now, Cozcatl. You have seen it. And I have plans for increasing it, as soon as you are fit to travel. We are going south, into the alien lands, as pochtéa. What do you think of that? We will prosper together, and you will never be poor or rootless or helpless. I have just come from asking the Revered Speaker's sanction of the enterprise. I have also asked him for the official paper which says that Cozcatl is no longer my slave but my partner and friend."

Again there were tears and a smile on his face at the same time. He laid one of his small hands on my arm, the first time he had ever touched me without command or permission, and he said. "Friends do not need papers to tell them they are friends."

* * *

Tenochtítlan's community of merchants had, not many years before, erected its own building to serve as a combined warehouse for the trading stock of all the members, as their meeting hall, accounting offices, archival libraries, and the like. The House of Pochtéa was situated not far from The Heart of the One World and, though smaller than a palace, it was quite palatial in its appointments. There was a kitchen and a dining room for the serving of refreshments to members and visiting tradesmen, and sleeping apartments upstairs for those visitors who came from afar and stayed overnight or longer. There were many servants, one of whom, rather superciliously, admitted me on the day of my appointment and led me to the luxurious chamber where three elderly pochtéa sat waiting to interview me.

I had come prepared to be properly deferential toward the august company, but not to be intimidated by them. Though I made the gesture of kissing the earth to the examiners, I then straightened and, without looking behind me, undid my mantle's clasp and sat down. Neither the mantle nor I hit the floor. The servant, however surprised he may have been by this commoner's magisterial air, somehow simultaneously caught my garment and whisked an icpali chair under me.

One of the men returned my salute with the merest movement of a hand, and told the servant to bring chocolate for us all. Then the three sat and regarded me for some time, as if taking my measure with their eyes. The men wore the plainest of mantles, and no ornaments at all, in the pochtéa tradition of being inconspicuous, unostentatious, even secretive about their wealth and station. However, their constraint in dress was a bit belied by their all three being almost oilily fat from good eating and easy living. And two of them smoked poquieltin in holders of chased gold.

"You come with excellent references," one of the men said acidly, as if he resented not being able to reject my candidacy forthwith.

"But you must have adequate capital," said another. "What is your worth?"

I handed over the list I had made of the various goods and currencies I possessed. As we sipped our frothy chocolate, on that occasion flavored and scented with the flower of magnolia, they passed the list from hand to hand.

"Estimable," said one.

"But not opulent," said another.

"How old are you?" the other asked me.

"Twenty and one, my lords."

"That is very young."

"But no handicap, I hope," I said. "The great Fasting Coyote was only sixteen when he became the Revered Speaker of Texcóco."

"Assuming you do not aspire to a throne, young Mixtli, what are your plans?"

"Well, my lords, I believe my richer cloth goods, the embroidered mantles and such, could hardly be afforded by any country people. I shall sell them to the nobles of the city here, who can pay the prices they are worth. Then I shall invest the proceeds in plainer and more practical fabrics, in rabbit-hair blankets, in cosmetics and medicinal preparations, in those manufactured things procurable only here. I shall carry them south and trade for things procurable only from other nations."

"That is what we have all been doing for years," said one of the men, unimpressed. "You make no mention of travel expenses. For example, a part of your investment must go to hire a train of tamémime."

"I do not intend to hire porters," I said.

"Indeed? You have a sufficient company to do all the hauling and toiling yourselves? That is a foolish economy, young man. A hired tamémi is paid a set daily wage. With companions you must share out your profits."

I said, "There will be only two others besides myself sharing in the venture."

"Three men?" the elder said scoffingly. He tapped my list. "With just the obsidian to carry, you and your two friends will collapse before you get across the southern causeway."

I patiently explained, "I do not intend to do any carrying or to hire any porters, because I will buy slaves for that work."

All three men shook their heads pityingly. "For the price of one husky slave, you could afford a whole troop of tamémime."

"And then," I pointed out, "have to keep them fed and shod and clothed. All the way south and back."

"But your slaves will go empty-bellied and barefooted? Really, young man..."

"As I dispose of the goods carried by the slaves, I will sell off the slaves. They should command a good price in those lands from which we have captured or conscripted so many of the native workers."

The elders looked slightly surprised, as if that was an idea new to them. But one said, "And there you are, deep in the southern wilds, with no porters or slaves to carry home your acquisitions."

I said, "I plan to trade only for those goods that are of great worth in little bulk or weight. I will not, as so many pochtéa do, seek jadestone or tortoiseshell or heavy animal skins. Other traders buy everything offered them, simply because they have the porters to pay and feed, and they might as well load them down. I will barter for nothing but items like the red dyes and the rarest feathers. It may require more circuitous traveling and more time to find such specialized things. But even I alone can carry home a bag full of the precious dye or a compacted bale of quetzal tototl plumes, and that one bundle would repay my entire investment a thousandfold."

The three men looked at me with a new if perhaps grudging respect. One of them conceded, "You have given this enterprise some thought."

I said, "Well, I am young. I have the strength for an arduous journey. And I have plenty of time."

One of the men laughed wryly. "You think, then, that we have always been old and obese and sedentary." He pulled aside his mantle to show four puckered scars in the flesh of his right side. "The arrows of the Huichol, when I ventured into their mountains of the northwest, seeking to buy their Eye-of-God talismans."

Another lifted his mantle from the floor to show that he had but one foot. "A nauyaka snake in the Chiapa jungles. The venom kills before you can take ten breaths. I had to amputate immediately, with my own maquahuitl in my own hand."

The third man bent so that I could see the top of his head. What I had taken for a full crop of white hair was really only a fringe around a dome that was a red and crinkled scar. "I went into the northern desert, seeking the dream-giving peyotl cactus buds. I made my way through the Chichimeca dog people, through the Teochichimeca wild dog people, even through the Zacachichimeca rabid dog people. But at last I fell among the Yaki, and, compared to those barbarians, all the dog people are as rabbits. I escaped with my life, but some Yaki savage is now wearing my scalp on a belt festooned with the hair of many other men."

Chastened, I said, "My lords, I marvel at your adventures, and I am awed by your courage, and I only hope I can someday approach your stature as pochtéa of achievement. I would be honored to be counted among the least of your society, and I would be grateful to partake of your hard-won knowledge and experience."

The three men exchanged another look. One of them murmured, "What say you?" and the other two nodded. The scalped old man said to me:

"Your first trading journey will necessarily be the real test of your acceptability. For know this: not all novice pochtéa come back from even that first foray. We will do everything possible to help you prepare properly. The rest is up to you."

I said, "Thank you, my lords. I will do whatever you suggest and heed whatever you care to speak. If you disapprove of my intended plan—"

"No, no," said one of them. "It has commendable originality and audacity. Let some of the merchandise carry the rest of the merchandise. Heh heh."

"We would amend your plan only to this extent," said another. "You are right, that your luxury goods would best be sold here in Tenochtítlan. But you should not waste the time necessary to sell them piece by piece."

"No, do not waste time," said the third. "Through long experience and through counsel with the seers and sayers, we have determined that the most auspicious date to set out upon an expedition is the day One Serpent. Today is Five House, so—let me see—a One Serpent day is coming up on the calendar in just twenty and three days. It will be the only One Serpent day in this year's dry season, which—believe me—is the only season for traveling south."

The first man spoke again. "Bring to us here your stock of those rich clothes and fabrics. We will calculate their worth and give you fair exchange in more suitable trade goods. We can dispose of the luxury items locally, and in our own good time. We will deduct only a small fraction on the exchange, as your initiatory contribution to our god Yacatectitli and to the maintenance of the society's facilities."

Perhaps I hesitated for a moment. He raised his eyebrows and said, "Young Mixtli, do not distrust your colleagues. Unless each of us is scrupulously honest, none of us profits or even survives. Our philosophy is as simple as that. And know this, too: you are to deal equally honestly with even the most ignorant savages of the most backward lands. Because, wherever you travel, some other pochtéatl has gone before or will come after. Only if every one trades fairly will the next be allowed into a community—or leave it alive."

I approached old Blood Glutton with some caution, half expecting him to erupt in profanity at the proposal that he play "nursemaid" to a fogbound first-time pochtéatl and a convalescent young boy. But, to my surprise, he was more than enthusiastic.

"Me? Your only armed escort? You would trust your lives and fortune to this old bag of wind and bones?" He blinked several times, snorted, and blew his nose into his hand. "Why, how could I decline such a vote of confidence?"

I said, "I would not propose it if I did not know you to be considerably more than wind and bones."

"Well, the war god knows I want no part of another farcical campaign like that one in Texcala. And my alternative—ayya!—is to teach again in a House of Building Strength. But ayyo!—to see those far lands again..." He gazed off toward the southern horizon. "By the war god's granite balls, yes! I thank you for the offer and I accept with gladness, young Fog—" He coughed. "Er—master?"

"Partner," I said. "You and I and Cozcatl will share equally in whatever we bring back. And I hope you will call me Mixtli."

"Then, Mixtli, allow me to take on the first task of preparation. Let me go to Azcapotzálco and do the buying of the slaves. I am an old hand at judging man-flesh, and I have known those dealers to pull some cheating tricks. Like tamping melted beeswax under the skin of a scrawny chest."

I exclaimed, "Whatever for?"

"The wax hardens and gives a man the bulging pectoral muscles of a tocotini flyer, or gives a woman breasts like those of the legendary pearl divers who inhabit The Islands of the Women. Of course, come a hot day, the woman's teats droop to her knees. Oh, do not worry; I will not buy any female slaves. Unless things down south have changed drastically, we will not lack for willing cooks, laundresses—bed warmers as well."

So Blood Glutton took my quills of gold dust and went off to the slave market in Azcapotzálco on the mainland and, after some days of culling and bargaining, came back with twelve good husky men. No two were of the same tribe or from the same dealer's slave pen; that was Blood Glutton's precaution against any of them being friends or cuilóntin lovers who might conspire in mutiny or escape. They came already supplied with names, but we could not trouble to memorize all of those, and simply redubbed the men Ce, Ome, Yeyi, and so on; that is, numbers One, Two, Three, through Twelve.

During those days of preparation, Ahuítzotl's palace physician was allowing Cozcatl out of bed for longer and longer periods at a time, and finally removed the stitches and bandages, and prescribed exercises for him to perform. Soon the boy was as healthy and spirited as before, and the only thing remindful of his injury was that he had to squat like a female to urinate.

I made the exchange of goods at The House of Pochtéa, turning in my high-quality wares and getting in return about sixteen times their quantity in more practical cheap trade goods. Then I had to select and purchase the equipment and provisions for our expedition, and the three elders who had conducted my examination were only too pleased to help me. I suspect they enjoyed a sense of reliving old times, in arguing over the comparative strength of maguey-fiber versus hemp-rope tumplines, in debating the respective advantages of deerskin water bags (which lose none of their contents) and clay water jars (which lose some to evaporation, but thereby keep the water cool), in acquainting me with the rather crude and imprecise maps they lent me, and in imparting all manner of old-expert advice:

"The one food that transports itself is the techíchi dog. Take along a goodly pack of them, Mixtli. They will forage for their own food and water, but they are too pudgy and timid to run wild. Dog is not the tastiest of meats, of course, but you will be glad to have it handy when wild game is scarce."

"When you do kill a wild animal, Mixtli, you need not carry and age the meat until it loses it toughness and gamy flavor. Wrap the meat in the leaves of a papaya tree and it will be rendered tender and savory overnight."

"Be wary of the women in lands where Mexíca armies have raided. Some of those women were so maltreated by our soldiers, and bear such a grudge, that they have deliberately let their parts become infected with the dread disease nanaua. Such a woman will couple with any passing Mexícatl to get her revenge, so that he will eventually suffer the rotting away of his tepúli and his brain."

"If you should run out of bark paper for keeping your accounts, simply pluck the leaves of any grapevine. Write on them with a sharp twig, and the white scratches on the green leaves are as enduring as paint on paper."

Very early in the morning of the day One Serpent, we left Tenochtítlan: Cozcatl, Blood Glutton, and I—and our twelve slaves under their tumplined burdens, and the pack of plump little dogs frisking about our feet. We set off along the causeway that leads southward across the lake. To our right, to the west, on the nearest point of the mainland, rose the mount of Chapultepec. On its rock face, the first Motecuzóma had caused his likeness to be carved in giant size, and every subsequent Uey-Tlatoani had cumulated his example. According to report, Ahuítzotl's immense portrait there was almost finished, but we could make out no detail of any of the sculptured reliefs, because that hill was not yet in daylight. The month was our Panquetzaliztli, when the sun rises late and well to the southeast, from directly behind the peak of Popocatepetl.

When we first stepped onto the causeway, there was nothing to be seen in that direction but the usual morning fog glowing with the opal light of imminent dawn. But slowly the fog thinned, and gradually the massive but shapely volcano became discernible, as if it were moving forward from its eternal place and coming toward us. When the veil of mist all dissipated, the mountain was visible in its entirety. The snow-covered cone radiated a glorious halo from the sun behind it. Then, seemingly from the crater itself, Tonatíu bounded upward and the day came, the lake glittering, the lands all around washed with pale gold light and pale purple shadows. At the same instant, the incense-burning volcano exhaled a gout of blue smoke which rose and billowed into the form of a gigantic mushroom.

It had to be a good omen for our journey: the sun blazing on Popocatepetl's snowy crest and making it gleam like white onyx encrusted with all the jewels of the world, while the mountain itself saluted with that lazily climbing smoke, saying:

"You depart, my people, but I remain, as I always have and always will, a beacon to guide your safe return."

I H S

S.C.C.M.

Sanctified, Caesarean, Catholic Majesty, the Emperor Don Carlos, Our Lord King:

Royal and Imperial Majesty, our Revered Ruler: from the City of Mexíco, capital of New Spain, this second day after Rogation Sunday in the year of Our Lord one thousand five hundred thirty, greeting.

Regarding the query in Your Esteemed Majesty's most recent letter, we must confess ourselves unable to report to Your Majesty the exact number of Indian prisoners sacrificed by the Aztecs on that occasion of "dedicating" their Great Pyramid, more than forty years ago. The pyramid is long gone now, and so are any records of that day's victims, if indeed any count was ever kept.

Our Aztec chronicler of that occasion, present on that occasion, is himself unable to set the number closer than "thousands"—but it is possible that the old charlatan exaggerates the figure in order to make that day (and that edifice) seem more historically important. Our precursors here, the Franciscan missionary friars, have variously estimated the number of that day's sacrifices at anywhere from four thousand to eighty thousand. But those good brothers, too, may have inflated the figure, perhaps unconsciously influenced by their sheer revulsion at such an occurrence, or perhaps to impress upon us, their new-come Bishop, the inherent bestiality of the native population.

We hardly require any exaggeration to persuade us of the Indians' inborn savagery and depravity. We readily believe it, for we have the daily evidence of this storyteller whose presence we endure at Your Most Magnificent Majesty's behest. Over these past months, his few utterances of any value or interest have been woefully outweighed by his vile and venereous maunderings. He has nauseated us by interrupting his accounts of solemnly intended ceremonies, significant travels, and momentous events, simply to dwell on some transient lust—his own or anybody else's—and minutely to describe the gratification of it, in all the physically possible ways, in preferably infructuous ways, in often disgusting and defiling ways, including that perversion of which St. Paul said, "Let it not so much as be named among you."

Given what we have learned from him of the Aztec character, we can readily believe that the Aztecs would willingly have slaughtered eighty thousand of their fellows at the Great Pyramid, and in one day, except that the feat would have been impossible. Even if the executing priests had worked unceasingly around the clock, they would have to kill fifty and five men every minute during those twenty and four hours, a rate of nearly one per second. And even the lesser estimates of the number of victims are hard to credit. Having ourself had some experience of mass executions, we find it difficult to believe that such primitive people as these could have managed the disposal of many thousands of corpses before they putrefied and engendered a citywide pestilence.

However, whether the number butchered that day had been eighty thousand, or a tenth of that figure, a hundredth, a thousandth of that figure, it still would be execrable to any Christian and a horror to any civilized person, that so many should have died in the name of a false religion and to the glory of demonic idols. Wherefore, at our instigation and command, Sire, in the seventeen months since our arrival here, there have been destroyed five hundred thirty and two temples of various sizes, from elaborate structures on high pyramids to simple altars erected inside natural caves. There have been destroyed in excess of twenty and one thousand idols of various sizes, from monstrous carved monoliths to small clay household figurines. To none of those will there ever again be a human sacrificed, and we will continue to seek out and cast down others as the borders of New Spain expand.

Even were it not the mandate and function of our office, it would still be our foremost intent: to ferret out and defeat the Devil in every guise he assumed here. In this regard, we invite Your Majesty's particular attention to our Aztec chronicler's latest claim—in the pages next following—his claim that certain of the heathens in the southern part of this New Spain had already recognized some sort of a single Almighty Lord and a seeming twin to the Holy Cross, well before the coming of any missionaries of our Mother Church. Your Majesty's chaplain is inclined to take the information with a measure of dubiety, frankly because we have such a low opinion of the informant.

In Spain, Sire, in our offices as Provincial Inquisitor of Navarre and as Guardian of the miscreants and mendicants at the Reform Institution of Abrojo, we met too many incorrigible reprobates not to recognize another, whatever the color of his skin. This one, in the rare moments when he is not obsessed by the demons of concupiscence, evinces all the other most common human faults and fallibilities—some of them, in his case, egregious—and others besides. We take him to be just as duplicitous as those despicable Marrano Jews of Spain, who have submitted to Baptism and attend our churches and even eat pig meat, but still in secret maintain and practice their forbidden Judaic worship.

Still, our suspicions and reservations notwithstanding, we endeavor to keep an open mind. If this loathly old man is not capriciously lying or making mock of us, then that southern nation's alleged devotion to an all-highest being and to a cruciform holy symbol could be an anomaly of genuine interest to theologians. Therefore we have sent a mission of Dominican friars into that region to investigate the alleged phenomenon and we will report the results to Your Majesty in due course.

In the meantime, Sire, may Our Lord God and Jesus Christ His Son lavish blessings on Your Ineffable Majesty, that you prosper in all your undertakings, and may you look as beneficently on Your S.C.C.M.'s loyal servant,

(ecce signum) Zumárraga

SEXTA PARS

I think I remember every single incident of every single day of that, my first expedition, both going and returning. On later journeys I became uncaring of minor mishaps and even some major ones, of blistered feet and callused hands, of weather enervatingly hot or achingly cold, of the sometimes sickening foods I ate and waters I drank, or the not infrequent lack of any food or water at all. I learned to numb myself, like a drugged priest in trance, to endure without even noticing the many dreary days and roads on which nothing happened at all, when there was nothing to do but plod onward through country of no interest or color or variety.

But on that first journey, simply because it was my first, every least object and occurrence was of interest to me, even the occasional hardships and annoyances, and I conscientiously set them down in my word-picture account of the expedition. The Revered Speaker Ahuítzotl, to whom I delivered those bark papers on our return, surely found portions of them hard to decipher, owing to their having suffered the ravages of weather, and submersion in streams we forded, and their having often been blotted by my own sweat. Since Ahuítzotl was a considerably more experienced traveler than I was at that time, he also probably smiled at much in my accounts that naively extolled the ordinary and elucidated the obvious.

But those foreign lands and peoples were already beginning to change, even that long ago, what with the incursions of us pochtéa and other explorers bringing to them articles and customs and ideas and words they had never known before. Nowadays, with your Spanish soldiers, your settlers, your missionaries fanning out everywhere, no doubt the natives of those regions are changing beyond even their own recognition. So, whatever less lasting things I accomplished in my lifetime, I would be pleased to think that I did leave for future scholars a record of how those other lands looked, and what their people were like, in the years when they were still largely unknown to the rest of The One World.

If, as I tell you of that first journey, my lords, you should find some of my descriptions of landscapes, of persons, of events, to sound somewhat vague of detail, you must blame my limited eyesight. If, on the other hand, I vividly describe some things you would suppose I could not have seen, you may assume that I am filling in the details from my recollections of later travels along the same route, when I had the ability and opportunity to look more closely and clearly.

On a long journey, allowing for both the arduous trails and the easy, a train of laden men could count on averaging about five one-long-runs between dawn and dark. We covered only half that distance on our first day's march, merely crossing the long causeway to Coyohuacan on the southern mainland, and halting well before sundown to spend the night there, for the next day's march would be no easy one. As you know, this lake region lies in a bowl of land. To get out of it in any direction means climbing to and over its rim. And the mountains to the south, beyond Coyohuacan, are the most precipitous of all those ringing the bowl.

Some years ago, when the first Spanish soldiers came to this country, and when I had first attained some grasp of their language, one of them—watching a file of tamémime trudging along with burdens on their backs and tumplines around their foreheads—asked me, "Why in God's name did not you stupid brutes ever think to use wheels?"

I was not then very familiar with "God's name," but I knew very well what "wheels" were. When I was a small child, I had a toy armadillo made of clay, which I pulled about on a string. Since the armadillo's legs naturally could not walk, the toy was mounted on four little wooden wheels to make it mobile. I told of that to the Spaniard and he demanded, "Then why the Devil did none of you use wheels for transport, like those on our cannons and caissons?" I thought it a foolish question, and I said so, and I got a blow in the face for my insolence.

We knew the utility of round wheels, for we moved extremely heavy things like the Sun Stone by rolling them on logs placed under and ahead of them. But such rollers would have been ineffectual for lighter work, and there were in these lands no animals like your horses and mules and oxen and donkeys, to pull wheeled vehicles. Our only beasts of burden were ourselves, and a hard-muscled tamémi can carry nearly half his own weight for a long distance without strain. If he put that load on wheels, to pull or push it, he would simply be burdened by the extra weight of the wheels, and they would be even more of a hindrance in rough terrain.

Now you Spaniards have laid out many roads, and your animals do the work while your teamsters ride or walk unladen, and I grant that a procession of twenty heavy wagons drawn by forty horses is a fine spectacle. Our little train of three merchants and twelve slaves surely did not look so impressive. But we transported all our wares and most of the provisions for the journey on our own backs and legs, with at least two advantages: we had no voracious draft animals to feed and care for, and our exertions made us the stronger each day.

Indeed, the hard-driving Blood Glutton made us all endure more than necessary exertions. Even before we left Tenochtítlan, and at every night's halt along the way, he led the slaves—and Cozcatl and myself, when we were not otherwise occupied—in practice with the spears we all carried. (He himself carried a formidable personal armory of long spear, javelin and throwing stick, maquahuitl and short knife, a bow and a quiver full of arrows.) It was not difficult for Blood Glutton to convince the slaves that they would be better treated by us than by any bandits who might "liberate" them, and that they had good reason to help us repel any bandits who might attack, and he showed them how.

After stopping the night in a Coyohuacan inn, we marched early again the next morning because, said Blood Glutton, "We must get across the badlands of Cuicuilco before the sun rises high." That name means The Place of Sweet Singing, and perhaps it was once such a place, but it is no longer. It is now a barren of gray-black rock, of waves and ripples and billows of pock-marked rock. From its appearance it could have been a foaming river cascade turned hard and black by the curse of some sorcerer. In actuality, it is a dried flow of lava from the volcano Xitli, which has been dead for so many sheaves of years that only the gods know when it erupted and obliterated The Place of Sweet Singing. That obviously was a city of some size, but there is no knowing what people built it and lived there. The only remaining visible edifice is a pyramid, half buried under the far edge of the lava plain. It is not square-sectioned like most in these lands. The Cuicuilco pyramid, or what can be seen of it, is a conical stack of round terraces.

The bleak black plain, whatever sweetness and song it may once have had, is now no place to linger in the daytime, for its porous lava rock sucks in the sun's heat and exhales it doubly or trebly hot. Even in the cool of that early morning long ago, that wasteland was no pleasant place to traverse. Nothing, not so much as a weed grows there, and no bird chirps, and the only sound we heard was the clangor of our footsteps, as if we walked across the great empty water jars of departed giants.

But at least, during that part of the day's journey, we walked upright. The rest of that day we all spent either hunched forward as we toiled up a mountainside, or leaning backward as we clumped down its other face, then bent forward again to climb the next mountain. And the next and the next. Of course, there was nothing perilous or even really difficult in our crossing of those first ranges, for we were in the region where all trade routes from the south converged on Tenochtítlan, and multitudes of earlier travelers had picked out the easiest paths and stamped them firm. Still, for one as inexperienced as myself, it was a sweat-wringing, back-aching, lung-straining drudgery. When we finally stopped for the night at a hostel in a high-valley village of the Xochimilca, even Blood Glutton was weary enough to make us go through only a perfunctory weapons practice. Then he and the others ate and flopped down on their pallets.

I would have, too, except that a homecoming pochtéa train was also staying the night there, and a part of its journey had been along some of the ways I intended to take, so I held my sagging eyelids open while I conversed with the pochtéatl in charge, a middle-aged but leather-tough man. His train was one of the major companies, with perhaps a hundred porters and as many supporting Mexíca warriors, so I am sure he looked on ours with tolerant contempt. But he was kindly disposed toward a beginner. He let me unfold my crude maps, and he corrected them in numerous particulars where they were vague or in error, and he marked the location of useful watering places and the like. Then he said:

"I made a profitable trade for a quantity of the precious carmine dye of the Tzapoteca, but I heard a rumor of an even more rare coloring. A purple. Something newly discovered."

I said, "There is nothing new about purple."

"A rich laid permanent purple," he said patiently. "One that will not fade or turn an ugly green. If such a dye really exists, it will be reserved for only the highest of the nobility. It will be more valuable than emeralds or the feathers of the quetzal tototl."

I nodded. "A really permanent purple never has been known before. It would indeed command any price one asked. But you did not seek to pursue the rumor?"

He shook his head. "One disadvantage of a ponderous train. It cannot feasibly be diverted from the known routes of march, or portions of it detached at random. There is too much of substance at stake to go chasing the insubstantial."

"My little troop can go where it will," I hinted.

He looked at me for a time, then shrugged. "It may be a long while before I go to those parts again." He leaned over my map and tapped a spot near the coast of the great southern ocean. "It was here, in Tecuantépec, that a Tzapotecatl merchant told me of the new dye. Not that he told me much. He mentioned a ferocious and unapproachable people called the Chontaltin. That word means only The Strangers, and what kind of people would call themselves The Strangers? My informant also mentioned snails. Snails! I ask you: snails and strangers—does that make sense? But if you care to take your chances on such fragmentary evidence, young man, I wish you good fortune."

The next evening we came to the town which was and still is the handsomest and most hospitable in the Tlahuica lands. It is situated on a high plateau, and its buildings are not huddled close together but set well apart and screened from each other by trees and shrubbery and other rich verdure, for which reason the town is called Surrounded by Forest, or Quaunahuac. That melodious name your thick-tongued countrymen have contorted into the ridiculous and derogatory Cuernavaca, or Cow-Horn, and I hope they will never be forgiven for that.

The town, the surrounding mountains, the crystal air, the climate there, they are all so inviting that Quaunahuac was always a favorite summering place for the wealthier nobles of Tenochtítlan. The first Motecuzóma built for himself a modest country palace nearby, and other Mexíca rulers afterward enlarged and added to that palace until, in size and luxury, it rivaled any in the capital, and far outdid them all in the extent of its beauteous gardens and grounds. I understand that your Captain-General Cortés has appropriated the palace for his own señorial residence. Perhaps I may be excused, my lord friars, if I remark spitefully that his having settled in Quaunahuac would be the only legitimate reason for debasing the name of the place.

Though our little train had arrived there well before sundown, we could not resist the temptation to stay and rest the night amid Quaunahuac's flowers and fragrances. But we rose again before the sun did, and pressed on, to put the remainder of that mountain range behind us.

In each stopping place where we lodged in a travelers' hostel, we three leaders of the train—myself, Cozcatl, and Blood Glutton—were given separate and moderately comfortable sleeping cubicles, while the slaves were squeezed into a large dormitory room already carpeted with other snoring porters, and our bales of goods were put into guarded safe-rooms, and our dogs were let to forage in the garbage heaps of the kitchen yards.

During five days of travel, we were still within the area where the southern trade routes radiated out from Tenochtítlan, or into it, so there were many inns conveniently situated for overnight stops. In addition to providing shelter, storage, hot baths, and passable meals, each hostel also provided women for hire. Not having had a woman for a month or so, I might have been interested, except that all those maátime were extremely homely, and in any case they neglected even to flirt with me, but concentrated their winks and suggestive gestures on the men of homecoming trains.

Blood Glutton explained, "They hope to seduce the men who have been long on the road, who have forgotten what a really pretty woman looks like, and who cannot wait until they get to the beauties of Tenochtítlan. You and I may be hungry enough to take a maátitl on our return, but for now I suggest we do not waste the energy and expense. There are women where we are going, and they sell their favors for a mere trinket, and many of them are lovely. Ayyo, wait until you feast your eyes and other senses on the women of the Cloud People!"

On the sixth morning of our journey, we emerged from the area where the trade roads converged. Sometime on that same morning, we crossed an invisible boundary and entered the impoverished lands of the Mixteca, or the Tya Nuü, as they called themselves, Men of the Earth. While that nation was not inimical to the Mexíca, neither was it inclined to take measures for the protection of traveling pochtéa, nor to put up inns and shelters for them, nor to prevent its own people from taking what criminal advantage they could of merchant trains.

"We are now in the country where we can likeliest expect to meet bandits," Blood Glutton warned. "They lurk hereabouts in hope of ambushing traders either coming from or going to Tenochtítlan."

"Why here?" I asked. "Why not farther north, where the trade routes come together and the trains are more numerous?"

"For that precise reason. Back yonder, the trains are often traveling in company and are too big to be attacked by anything smaller than an army. Out here, the southbound trains have parted company and the homecoming ones have not yet met and mingled. Of course, we are small game, but a bunch of robbers will not ignore us on that account."

So Blood Glutton moved out alone to march far ahead of the rest of us. Cozcatl told me he could only intermittently see the old soldier as a distant dot when we were crossing an extremely wide and flat place clear of trees or brush. But our scout shouted no warning, and the morning passed, with us marching along a still distinct but stiflingly dusty road. We tugged our mantles up to cover nose and mouth, but still the dust made our eyes water and our breathing laborious. Then the road climbed a knoll and we found Blood Glutton waiting for us, sitting halfway up it, his weapons laid neatly side by side on the dusty grass, ready for use.

"Stop here," he said quietly. "They will already know you are coming, from the dust cloud, but they cannot yet have counted you. There are eight of them, Tya Nuü, and not delicate types, crouched right in the road where it passes through a clump of trees and undergrowth. We will give them eleven of us. Any fewer would not have raised such a dust. They would suspect a trick, and be harder to handle."

"To handle how?" I asked. "What do you mean: give them eleven of us?"

He motioned for silence, went to the top of the rise, lay down and crawled out of sight for a moment, then crawled backward again, stood up and came to rejoin us.

"Now there are only four of them to be seen," he said, and snorted scornfully. "An old trick. It is midday, so the four are pretending to be humble Mixteca travelers, resting in the tree shade and preparing a midday bite to eat. They will courteously invite you to partake, and when you are all friends together, sitting companionably about the fire, your weapons laid aside, the other four hidden roundabout will close in—and yya ayya!"

"What do we do, then?"

"The very same thing. We will imitate their ambush, but from a farther surround. I mean some of us will. Let me see. Four and Ten and Six, you are the biggest and the handiest with arms. Drop your packs, leave them here. Bring only your spears and come with me." Blood Glutton himself picked up his maquahuitl and let his other weapons lie. "Mixtli, you and Cozcatl and the rest march right on into the trap, as if you had not been forewarned. Accept their invitation to stop and rest and eat. Just do not appear too stupid and trusting, or that too would give them cause for suspicion."

Blood Glutton quietly gave the three armed slaves instructions I could not hear. Then he and Ten disappeared around one side of the knoll, Four and Six around the other. I looked at Cozcatl and we smiled to give each other confidence. To the remaining nine slaves I said, "You heard. Simply do what I command, and speak not a word. Let us go on."

We went in single file over the rise and down its other side. I raised an arm in greeting when we sighted the four men. They were feeding sticks to a just-kindled fire.

"Welcome, fellow travelers!" one of them called as we approached. He spoke Náhuatl and he grinned amiably. "Let me tell you, we have come many one-long-runs along this cursed road, and this is the only patch of shade. Will you share it with us? And perhaps a bite of our humble fare?" He held up two dead hares by their long ears.

"We will rest, and gladly," I said, motioning for the rest of my train to dispose themselves as they liked. "But those two scrawny animals will scarcely feed the four of you. I have others of our porters out hunting right now. Perhaps they will bring back the makings of a more sumptuous meal, and you will share with us."

The speaker changed his grin for a hurt look and said reproachfully, "You take us for bandits. So you quickly speak of your numbers. That sounds unfriendly, and it is we who should be wary: only four against your eleven. I suggest that we all put aside our weapons."

Pretending purest innocence, he unslung and tossed away from him the maquahuitl he carried. His three companions grunted and did the same. I smiled friendlily, leaned my spear against a tree, and gestured to my men. They likewise ostentatiously put their weapons out of reach. I sat down across the fire from the four Mixteca, two of whom were threading the long-legged carcasses onto green sticks and propping them across the flames.

"Tell me, friend," I said to the apparent leader. "What is the road like, from here southward? Is there anything we should beware of?"

"Indeed, yes!" he said, his eyes glinting. "Bandits do abound. Poor men like us have nothing to fear from them, but I daresay you are carrying goods of value. You might do well to hire us to go with you for your protection."

I said, "I thank you for the offer, but I am not rich enough to afford a retinue of guards. I will make do with my porters."

"Porters are no good as guards. And without guards you will surely be robbed." He said that flatly, stating a fact, but then spoke with a mock wheedle in his voice. "I have another suggestion. Do not risk your goods on the road. Leave them with us for safekeeping, while you go on unmolested."

I laughed.

"I think, young friend, we can persuade you that it would be in your best interest."

"And I think, friend, that now is the time for me to call in my porters from their hunting."

"Do that," he sneered. "Or allow me to call for you."

I said, "Thank you."

For an instant he looked a little puzzled. But he must have decided that I was expecting to escape his trap through sheer bluster. He gave a loud hail, and at the same moment he and his three companions lunged for their weapons. At that moment, too, Blood Glutton, Four, Six, and Ten all stepped simultaneously into the road, but from different places in the trees roundabout. The Tya Nuü froze in surprise, all on their feet, all with their maquahuime raised, like so many statues of warriors posed in action.

"A good hunt, Master Mixtli!" boomed Blood Glutton. "And I see we have guests. Well, we bring enough and to spare." He dropped what he was carrying, and so did the slaves with him. They each threw down a severed human head.

"Come, friends, I am sure you recognize good meat when you see it,