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2

F I V E D A N C E S W I T H D E A T H

3

P R O L O G U E

oriented north to south, so no team had to play against the sunlight, which at that hour was blinding. Its f loor of beaten earth was so thoroughly cleaned that it had almost no stones in it, setting an all but unattainable standard of perfection. I was happy to notice a few small pools of water from the last night’s rain at the edges. The Mexica weren’t f lawless, after all.

Like most people, Talon was shorter than I. He was also almost too slight for a warrior, and, for a moment, I felt a sense of discordance between his thin physique and an elaborate shape of the warrior lock above his right ear that signified he’d captured five seasoned warriors in combat. A mix of shame and envy seethed in my heart, for I was two captives behind him. He studied me with a restrained curiosity, a polite smile stretching his thin lips.

Two men stood next to him, both committed enemies of Tlaxcala; his half-brother Charging Eagle, an older and wiser man in charge of the vast Mexica armies, and his uncle, Stern Lord, the ruler of their nation and the most powerful man in One World. I thought it unusual for Stern Lord to play a game in full view of his people, for, back home, we portrayed him as an aloof and inaccessible despot; but the fire in his eyes told me he was as keen to enjoy the contest as any one of us.

My aides were a general and a young merchant, Scarlet Mist. I trusted the general, but Mist . . . I had invited him to my team because he was almost as nimble as I, more nimble than any of my warriors, but in his smooth face I only saw the shame of his trading profession. No matter how powerful he had trained his body to become, he was still a merchant, to be used when needed, but never to be trusted. He wore his hair in a straightforward peasant style; although in no way distinguished, that style had the advantage of hiding the lack of his left ear, which he’d lost in one of his battles.

The Game Master, elaborately dressed as was usual during their ceremonies, recounted the rules. His lower lip, just visible beneath the blue and green plumes of his headdress, was so weighted down with a chunky jade plug that he wasn’t able to close his mouth. “Only your hips, elbows and thighs can be used in the game,” he intoned and

pointed with his plumed hands, looking like an oversized bird from the hot forests near the sea. “Your goal is that small stone ring at the top of your opponent’s wall.” Both rings were carved in the shape of serpents and fixed vertically into the walls above the height of a man. I had checked the openings in their middle before the game, and they were even more narrow than usual, just a finger wider than the ball itself. It was only possible to score from a side.

I interrupted the Game Master, eager to begin. “And the winner will pass the ball into the goal. Shall we start?”

A smile f lickered on Talon’s lips. “Want to surrender now, Wasp?” he asked. His confidence made the pit of my stomach tighten. I touched a delicate leather wristband on my left hand, made of the skin of my long-dead friend Golden Shield. He had given me that strip of his skin before killing himself in the mountains. Its smooth surface gave me the strength of the man whose skin it used to be, who had taught me many a lesson of courage. The tension in my stomach faded away.

Following the Game Master’s signal, we put thick rubber helmets on to protect our heads. He threw the ball in. The people watching us from all around cheered. I knew that most had bet against me, and they couldn’t expect large winnings. But no one was here for the usual wagering. They had come here to hate us, and I felt their hate burning my skin.

Talon attacked the general protecting my ring from the left. Stern Lord jumped in front of Mist, pushing him back with his body, making himself open for a dangerous pass. Mist stumbled, and Talon, roaring as if he was in the midst of a battle, kicked the ball to Stern Lord. With my shoulder, I smashed the Mexica leader out of the way, intercepted the ball and sent it high above our heads. Mist recovered from his fall and caught the ball on his chest, then sent it with a mighty knee thrust toward the enemy ring across the full length of the court. The ball thwacked into the wall next to the goal, missing it by a palm width. I controlled my rage at the trader’s lack of ability. Why strike from such distance? Mist threw a glance back at me, frustration and guilt mixed in his smooth face.

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