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C H A P T E R

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I

dragged myself to the f lat roof of my house. It was the main build- ing of my clan, and we called it a palace. In fact, it had nothing in common with the real palaces such as the Moonwalk People had built in their city. It was simply a block of adjacent family homes united by many gardens, f lower beds, and cascading ponds.

In that palace, where too many people hummed around doing too many things, my only place of solitude was a blackened, cracked deerskin tent, a relic of my military campaigns that I had installed in a small roof garden. There I collapsed and slept, thankful to have no dreams until the setting sun touched the top of our main pyramid we called Serpent Hill farther up the mountain. While I slept, the servants made a slow fire in two clay braziers on both sides of my bed mat, which kept me warm despite the evening chill outside. The nap refreshed me a little. The heavy feeling in all limbs, usual after being in the Void, had gone away, and I felt quite normal. I came to the edge of the roof and stood there, watching the town beneath me.

Preparations were underway for the Flaying Festival to begin in a few days, and the air rang with a cacophony of musicians rehearsing in the many temple courts. Thick columns of smoke rose from the pyramids’ top platforms. One f lute was particularly loud near Serpent Hill. An invisible player slowly repeated the same musical sequence over and over. His tune showed much practice and skill, but the lack of heart, so common for rehearsals, brought melancholy.

A long-forgotten feeling swept over me. I used to hate the hills

and ridges of Tlaxcala when I was a boy. Our land seemed broken and unpredictable, and, even though it was my country, it felt foreign to me. The faraway peak of Blue Cloak Mountain with the smaller Split Head at its side, their slopes linked with childish legends of dark witchery, seemed to watch me like two guardians intent on keeping me in my place. I felt a prisoner and wanted to escape, like the Moonwalk People who had escaped their bowl of water surrounded by mountains. I wanted to burst through to the sea, as our neighbors had, and open my vision to the ocean’s endless horizon. But the Moonwalks broke through first, and we missed the change around us. One day they were our timid brothers, munching on larvae in the middle of their brackish lake, and, in the f lutter of an eyelid, they stood at our door-steps, demanding tribute and blocking our trade routes. How did we miss the change? When did we become enemies?

And now boatloads of outlanders had started to come to the coast three years ago. The old men began telling tales of how we had all been foreigners here once and how, after a while, we had come to own the land. Every woman gossiped about them, and kids made toys imitating their boats from drawings that traders had brought from the south. Everyone knew about these new people, yet what did we do? We kept gossiping. Even Plume, that most observant sorceress, sensed the menace only at their third arrival.

I looked at the familiar boxy houses of the town, its orchards and temples, the arcades of the marketplace empty of trade that evening, and everywhere I saw people behaving no differently than usual. A distant yell suddenly reached me from far away. It alarmed me because that was the direction where my son was supposed to return from his bird-hunt. I wasn’t ready for another child of mine to get into trouble. The shouts soon subsided, however, and I relaxed. We were in the fourth year of a trade blockade by the Moonwalk People, and our warehouses were starting to run empty. We still had food, the beautiful f lesh-colored maize that gave our city its name, Place of Bounty or Tlaxcala, but if the blockade continued, even my children would soon be eating maize gruel and wearing clothes of cactus fiber. Street fights, although infrequent, happened at times,

t h r e e

C H A P T E R T H R E E

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