A Hole in the Fifth World
I felt it when it happened, even from where I was: sitting atop the platform of my pyramid temple, so high that the city below seemed a mere child's toy.
It was as if the entire world were exhaling: a slow, ponderous shift that coursed through the streets and the canals of Tenochtitlan, through the closed marketplace and the houses of joy--extinguishing the glow of the torches in the water, muffling the voices of the singers and the poets in the banquet halls, and darkening the moon in the sky.
The Revered Speaker Axayacatl-tzin--the protector of the Mexica Empire, the link between us and our patron god Huitzilpochtli, the Southern Hummingbird--was dead.
I looked up at the Heavens. The sky was clouded, but a faint scattering of stars shone through, already smeared against the dark background, their light growing stronger and stronger with every passing moment.
They were coming down. The star-demons, eager to walk the streets and marketplaces of the city, to rend our flesh into bloody ribbons, to open up our chests with a flick of their claws and pluck out our beating hearts. Huitzilpochtli's divine power, channelled through the Revered Speaker, had kept them away from the Fifth World, the world of mortals.
But not anymore.
I took a deep breath to steady myself. It was not unexpected, by any means; but still... The boundaries between the worlds had become weak, effortlessly breached; and the work of summoners would be easy. Creatures would soon prowl the streets, hungering for human blood. Not a propitious time. We needed to brace for it; to be ready for the worst.
Footsteps echoed beside me: my Fire Priest, Ichtaca, second-in-command of my order. In one hand he carried a wooden cage with two barn owls, their yellow eyes wide in the dim light. The other hand was tightly wrapped around the hilt of a sacrificial obsidian knife.
"Acatl-tzin," Ichtaca said, curtly bowing his head. The "tzin" honorific was muted, added to my name almost as an afterthought. In that moment, that I was High Priest for the Dead and he my subordinate didn't matter: we were both kindred spirits, both aware of the magnitude of the threat. Until a new Revered Speaker was invested, the whole of the Fifth World lay defenceless, as tantalising as feathers or jade to an indebted man.
I nodded. "I have to go to the palace." I had a place in the funeral preparations: small and insignificant. My patron Mictlantecuhtli, Lord Death, was not the god most honoured in the Empire. But, nevertheless, I couldn't afford to stay away at a time like this. "But let's see about the wards first."
Ichtaca didn't move for a while. On his round face was something very close to fear; unnerving, for Ichtaca had faced down gods, goddesses and underworld creatures without ever losing his composure.
He shook himself like an otter out of a stream. "Yes. Let's do that."
We descended the steps of the pyramid temple side by side. The temple complex lay below us: low, one-story buildings fanning out around the central courtyard, shimmering with the remnants of magic. It was not an hour of devotion, and most of my priests were sleeping in their dormitories. Everything was eerily silent, the examination rooms deserted, the bells sewn into the embroidered entrance-curtains gently tinkling in the breeze.
The pyramid temple was in the centre of the courtyard. At the foot of the stairs leading down from it was a large stone circle, engraved with the insignia of Lord Death: a skull, a spider and an owl. Dried blood stained the grooves, remnants of the previous times the wards had been renewed.
Ichtaca and I each took an owl from the cage before moving to opposite ends of the circle: I at the foot of the stairs, Ichtaca facing the temple entrance.
At my belt hung my own obsidian knife, blessed with the magic of Lord Death. I slit the owl's throat open, feeling its warm blood stain my hands. Then, with the ease of practise, I opened up the chest, and sought out the heart between the ribs, balancing it on the tip of the blade. The obsidian quivered, beating on the rhythm of coiled power. I laid the heart, carefully, on the boundary of the circle; and, with the blade dipped in blood, traced the contours of the circle with the knife. Blood pooled in the recesses of the carvings, shimmering like dust in sunlight.
Ichtaca started chanting.
"Above us, below us
The beautiful place, the home of our mother, our father the Sun
Above us, below us
The region of mystery, the place of the fleshless..."
It was nothing so spectacular as the aftermath of Axayacatl-tzin's death: rather, green light slowly suffused the circle, a faint, ethereal radiance that carried with it the dry smell of dead leaves, the crackling noise of funeral pyres, the rank taste of carrion: the breath of Mictlan, the underworld.
I slashed both my hands, let them hang over the skull, as if in blessing.
"Above us, below us
An order as solid as a rock
The mountain upheld, the valley held in Your hand
We, Your servants, Your humble slaves,
We give our blood, our precious water
For that which maintains life
For that which maintains the Fifth World..."
The light slowly spread, sinking into the earth and the frescoes of the buildings until nothing but wisps remained hovering above the circle. Overhead, the stars were fainter: an illusion afforded by the protection, for nothing but Huitzilpochtli's power would banish the star-demons.
Ichtaca rose, carefully, his silver lip-plug glistening in the moonlight. "It's done. Hopefully they'll last long enough."
I tore my gaze from the sky, unable to dismiss the heaviness in my stomach. If experience had taught me anything, it was that whatever could go wrong usually did so. "Let's hope they do. I'll leave you to wake up the priests while I go to the palace. Can you spare me Palli? I'll need an escort, if only to keep up appearances."
Ichtaca grimaced. He was much fonder of forms than I was. "It goes without question. You will--"
"--change into full regalia. Yes." I sighed. "Of course."
"And the rest of the priests?" Ichtaca asked.
"You know it as well as I do," I said: a recognition of competence, with no animosity. "Prepare the mourning garb and the chants."
"I'll see to it." Ichtaca's gaze was sharp again, his mind set on the tasks ahead.
Mine, too. However, there was one significant difference. Ichtaca was looking forward to his work. I, on the other hand, had absolutely no wish to go into the palace--not late at night, not right after the Emperor's death, when the infighting would have started in earnest. A Revered Speaker's successor was not determined by blood ties, but appointed by the council; and the council could be bribed, coerced or otherwise convinced to vote against the best interests of the Mexica Empire.
Not to mention, of course, the fact that more than half the people awaiting me at the palace despised or hated me, with the whole of their faces and of their hearts.
The Storm Lord strike me, it was going to be an exhausting night.
As I'd promised Ichtaca, I changed into full regalia before leaving. The owl-embroidered cloak and the skull-mask were definitely magnificent, calculated to impress even the most arrogant of noblemen, but it was a warm and sweltering night: I felt ensconced in a portable steam-bath, and it did not promise to get better any time soon.
Palli was already waiting for me in the courtyard, and he followed me in silence. It was scarcely a time for meaningless gossip. There was a hole in the universe around us, one that jarred with every heartbeat, every movement we made. Anyone with magical abilities could feel it.
Our temple, like all the major ones in Tenochtitlan, lay in the Sacred Precinct: a walled city within the city which made up the religious heart of the Mexica Empire. In spite of the late hour, most temples were lit. Most priests were awake making their usual devotions, though their blood penances and prayers had grown more urgent and desperate. May the sun remain in the sky, may the stars not fall down into the Fifth World...
The palace lay east of the Sacred Precinct; we went through the Serpent Wall to find ourselves dwarfed by its sandstone mass. Torches lit up the guards who let us pass with a deep bow.
Like our temple, the palace was a mass of buildings, except on quite a different scale: a maze of huge structures opening on courtyards and gardens, including everything from tribunals to audience chambers, warrior councils and workshops for feather-workers and goldsmiths.
I made straight for the Imperial Chambers, which overlooked a wide courtyard paved with limestone. Normally, it would have been empty of all but the highest dignitaries; now, however, noblemen and warriors crowded on the plaza, a sea of gold-embroidered cotton, feather headdresses, jaguar pelts sewn into tunics, and the shimmering lattices of personal protective spells. But I barely had to push in order to make myself a passage: I might be the least important of the High Priests, but I was still the representative of Lord Death in the Fifth World, wielder of magic beyond most people's reach.
Steps rose from the courtyard towards a wide terrace with three doors closed with entrance-curtains: the middle one was the Revered Speaker's reception room; the other two were rooms for the other rulers of the Triple Alliance when they visited the city. If they weren't there already, they would soon be. They had a place in the funeral rites; but more importantly, they would vote, along with the council, to designate a new Revered Speaker.
Indistinct speech floated through the entrance curtain of Axayacatl- tzin's rooms. Two pairs of sandals confirmed I hadn't been the first one to arrive. Who would be inside? In all likelihood, my adversaries, here to remind me of my small place in the scheme of things...
No point in worrying before the sword-strike. I added my own sandals next to the those already there.
"Wait here," I told Palli.
Then I pulled aside the entrance-curtain in a tinkle of bells, and entered the inner chambers of the Emperor.
I had never been there before. My work as High Priest had taken me as high as the audience chambers, but one had to be consort or wife to behold the Revered Speaker in his intimacy. But death took us all and made us all equal, our destinies determined only by the manner of its coming--and, in its embrace, no privacy would remain.
It was a large, airy room, with a window at the back opening on the gardens. There was little furniture: a handful of braziers, a few low chests, and a reed mat on which lay the body. Frescoes wrapped around the columns of the room, representing animals from jaguars to the ahuizotl water-beasts, all tearing apart small figures of men in a welter of blood.
"Acatl-tzin, what a surprise," a sarcastic voice said.
There were only three people in the room: the one who had spoken was Quenami, the newly-appointed High Priest of Huitzilpochtli the Southern Hummingbird, his lean face suffused with the arrogance of the nobility and with the knowledge that, as priest of our patron god, he was our superior both in magic and politics. I had disliked him from the first moment I'd seen him, and he was doing nothing to change that opinion. He wore the blue-and-black makeup of his god; his cloak was of quail and duck feathers; and more feathers hung from his belt, opening out like a turquoise flower.
Acamapichtli, High Priest of Tlaloc, scowled at me with undisguised animosity. I was not surprised: the Storm Lord had recently tried to seize power in the Fifth World, and I had played a significant part in repelling the attempt. Now Acamapichtli was in disgrace, and he blamed me for all of it.
I'd expected to see Tizoc-tzin, Master of the House of Darts, the heir-apparent and favourite for the succession, but he wasn't there. I didn't know whether to be relieved or angry: my relation with him was icy at best, but his place was here with his deceased brother, not planning the gods knew what manoeuvre to secure his accession to the gold-and-turquoise crown.
The last man, instead, was Tlilpopoca-tzin, the She-Snake and vice-emperor of the Mexica: a short, slight man wearing unrelieved black, and who was said to have played the game of politics from his mother's womb.
The She-Snake was also the only one who had not removed his sandals, a privilege afforded only to him. He and the Revered Speaker were two sides of the same balance, near-equals: one male, one female; one in charge of external policy, and one keeping order in the city and in the palace, just as men waged war while women managed the daily business of the household.
I bowed to the She-Snake, and to everyone else in turn.
"My lords," I said. "I have come, as custom dictates, for the body of the Revered Speaker, Huitzilpochtli's chosen."
"We surrender it willingly," the She-Snake said, in the singsong accents of ritual. His voice was grave, inviting trust. "We all must leave this world, the jades and the flowers, the marigolds and the cedar trees. Having nourished the Fifth Sun and Grandmother Earth, we all must leave the world of mortals. For those who died without glory, they must go down into the darkness, and find oblivion at the end of their journey. Let the Revered Speaker be no exception to this."
I did not know where he stood. Rumour had it that he opposed Tizoc-tzin; that he might even want to become Emperor himself instead of the eminence behind the Revered Speaker. He probably believed in the gods only distantly: like his father, who had viewed religion as a tool, and not as the life and breath that kept the Fifth World whole.
"Let the Revered Speaker be no exception," I repeated, and broke off the ritual with a bow. Now that the formalities were out of the way, I could finally approach the body.
Axayacatl- tzin lay on his reed mat, relaxed as only death could make a man. His face--the face upon which no mortal had been allowed to gaze, back when he had been alive--was slack, every trace of divinity since long fled. He looked much like any other corpse in my temple, save for the turquoise tunic that denoted him as Revered Speaker. He was painfully thin, the bones of his arms visible through the translucent skin; and his body smelled faintly unpleasant, the rancid odour of a man old before his time. He'd died of war wounds gone bad; of the decay that had settled into his bones and muscles. No foul play here. Not in a palace barricaded by protective wards, not under the watchful gaze of so many priests.
"Satisfied?" Quenami asked. The High Priest of Huitzilpochtli still looked even more smug. I hadn't even imagined that was possible.
"I expected to be," I said, turning back to face him. "You know that the corpse isn't the problem when a Revered Speaker dies."
Acamapichtli snorted. "The star-demons? You worry far too much, Acatl. Last time, the wards held for more than a month. And I should think our fighting abilities haven't diminished since then."
I wasn't a fighter, and he knew it. "When we are talking about beings that want to tear us apart, yes, I'd rather worry."
"Worry, then, if you wish. The interregnum will be short, in any case. We'll soon crown a new Revered Speaker, whom the Southern Hummingbird will invest him with His power."
I turned towards Quenami, who made a small grimace. "Yes," he said. "It might be worth considering them. The palace wards will be reinforced."
He was young; he was newly come into his role--elevated from the nobility through connections and privilege, and not from the clergy. He had no idea of the stakes. "You take this far too lightly," I snapped. "If you'd seen the creatures that prowl the boundaries, you wouldn't laugh."
Ahuizotls, creatures that feasted on the eyes and fingernails of drowned men; Haunting Mothers, babies and toddlers into pieces; and star-demons, crouched above us, waiting for us to make a mistake, waiting for their time to come...
Gods, it wasn't a time for levity or carelessness.
have no idea of the stakes," Acamapichtli said, with obvious contempt.
This, coming from a man whose god had tried His best to topple the Fifth Sun. "Do dispel my ignorance," I said.
Acamapichtli crossed his arms over his chest, looking down at Axayacatl- tzin with no expression on his face. "He might not have been a great Emperor. He was did not carve our territory out of the forsaken marches, or elevate us from tribe to civilisation.
But he held us together."
What did he mean? "As will the next Revered Speaker."
The heron-feathers in Acamapichtli's headdress rippled in the breeze. "If he can be chosen."
"Tizoc-tzin was the Revered Speaker's choice," Quenami said, as seamlessly as if they'd planned it together. Considering the wide distance they kept from one another, I rather doubted it; but then again, Quenami had amply proved in the past that he knew how to sway a conversation. "His brother, the Master of the House of Darts, the commander of the regiments. He holds the loyalty of the army's core."
Politics. Power-grabbing. Always the same. "I still don't see what that has to do with us. Whoever becomes Emperor will want to maintain the boundaries. They will want the Heavens, the Fifth World and Mictlan to remain separate. They will want us to survive
The She-Snake spoke up, in a calm, measured tone. "That's what they want to tell you, Acatl-tzin. That the council might dither. That it might not want to confirm Axayacatl- tzin's decision, that of a sick old man whose mind was halfway to Mictlan, after all." The She-Snake's voice carried the barest hint of sarcasm. He had to be one of the other candidates the council was split over; and his adversaries had just embarrassed themselves in front of him.
I thought of the stars overhead, growing larger with every passing moment. It would probably only be a few star-demons prowling the city, but even a few was too many. "If they wanted to dither, they should have done it before the Revered Speaker's death. It's too late now. Every passing day, the star-demons prowl closer to us." There would be remnants of Huitzilpochtli's protection: tattered pieces, so easy to grind down to nothingness. There would be wards, such as the ones in my temples, drawn by devotees of other gods--the Flower Prince, the Feathered Serpent, the Smoking Mirror... But nothing like the impregnable wall that had been in place during Axayacatl- tzin's reign.
"Nonsense," Quenami said. "In the chronicles, they sometimes took entire weeks to decide on a new Revered Speaker. It never seemed to harm anyone."
"This is not a good time," I said. "The moon grows closer to the sun. The calendar priests have been warning about an eclipse for some time. We stand in its shadow; and this means that star-demons will be able to breach the boundaries." As the moon loomed closer to the sun, eating into its radiance, She of the Silver Bells, the moon goddess, grew stronger; and her brother, Huitzilpochtli, our protector, weaker. "In previous reigns, perhaps we were made of stronger stuff," I said, a slight jab at Acamapichtli and Quenami, who didn't react. "But today we are weak and defenceless. I have seen stars tonight, bearing down upon us. They are already coming to us. Have you ever seen a star-demon, my lords? You wouldn't laugh, believe me."
They were all looking at me with mild interest, as if I were trying to sell them a mine of celestial turquoise or a quarry of underworld jade. They didn't care. They thought it was an acceptable risk, so long as the end result allowed them to rise to greater power and influence.
They disgusted me more than I could express in words.
"My lords," I said, bowing. "I will attend to the body, and leave you to the mundane matters--"
I never finished the sentence. The entrance curtain was cast aside in a discordant sound of bells slammed together, and someone strode into the room. "Acatl-tzin!"
"Teomitl?" My student, who also happened to be Axayacatl-tzin's and Tizoc-tzin's brother, wore more finery than I'd ever seen on him: a gold-embroidered tunic, a quetzal-feather headdress, and black and yellow stripes across his face. He clinked as he moved, from the sheer weight of jade and precious stones on his body.
Both the high priests and the She-Snake bowed to him, deep. Tizoc-tzin had many brothers, but, should he attain the gold-and-turquoise crown, Teomitl was likely to be anointed Master of the House of Darts in his stead, heir-apparent to the Mexica Empire. Ignoring him would have been a mistake.
Teomitl made a dismissive gesture. "There's no time for pomp. Acatl-tzin, you have to come. Someone just killed a councilman. In the palace."
Excerpted from Harbinger of the Storm by Aliette de Bodard. Copyright © 2011 by Aliette de Bodard. Excerpted by permission of Angry Robot, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.