Late Summer 1516
I had challenged Talon to the ballgame because my daughter Dew had been his slave as long as she knew how to walk.
At that time, I wasn’t yet the military leader of Tlaxcala, our small nation still unconquered by the Mexica, but I was already entrusted with an army of eight thousand warriors. Talon, himself a commander of a large Mexica garrison at our border, seemed delighted to test his strength against such an enemy as I.
We believed the ballgames foretold the outcome of wars, and our war with the Mexica was about to resume after the harvest celebrations. They had invited us to their festival under the pretext of praying together for a good crop. But we knew they really wanted us to witness the sacrifice of our warriors captured in the last war season. We knew they wanted us to understand the futility of our resistance and to lose our will to fight. The enemy’s lavish display of power didn’t disturb us, however. We only came to get my daughter back.
The ballgames were a usual part of the festival, and it was common for prominent warriors to challenge one another over matters of honor or in a statement of strength. Winning a game was a legitimate way to reclaim Dew. Another good way was to conquer their city; but who could conquer the city of Cactus Rock, the Mexica’s oversized nest that had become the foundation of heaven?
Talon and I faced each other across a ball court, with the bulk of their Great Pyramid blocking the sky on our left. The court was oriented north to south, so no team had to play against the sunlight, which at that hour was blinding. Its floor 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 flawless, 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 flickered 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.
Surrounded by my enemy’s family at the platform above my goal, Dew gave Talon a big smile. She was seven that summer, and her smile had lots of missing teeth. Like the other children of her age, she wore her hair short. Her broad face and round eyes were just like her mother’s; in fact, she resembled my wife Broken Plume so much that I almost cried out in pain. How stupid was I to have lost her. I waved to her, and she regarded me as if I were a stranger. An old woman next to her, who seemed annoyed with the excitement of the crowd around them, pointed at me and said something to Dew.
My team dominated the next few passes amidst the boos and whistling of the spectators, and we almost made it that time. But Talon deflected the ball I threw to the goal and, keeping it in the air with his knees, dashed to my side of the field. With a powerful twist of his hips, he almost scored.
The crowd erupted into a cacophony of screams. Playing to that passion, the Game Master picked up the ball from the ground and held it high above his plumed head, yelling praises to the Mexica. As I stood brooding, Eagle tapped the rubber helmet on my head. “Listen,” he said, “I know Talon wanted your daughter to watch this game.”
“Do you want us to take her away?”
“Why would I want that?”
“So you can focus on the game. You’re distracted.”
With surprise, I noticed that he seemed sincere. “I’ll have her see me win,” I said and pushed him away.
The Game Master returned the ball to the game. Mist caught it on his chest and passed it to me. I was good at the game, having played it since my early days in a temple school with the boys from our clan. I attacked, and soon we dominated the field once more. My thighs went numb from hitting the solid rubber ball, yet we carried on attacking.
Our enemies were accomplished players, too. Stern Lord and Eagle concerned themselves with blocking our offense, and Talon kept changing his manner of play to confuse us. At times he seemed bent on getting to the goal on his own, playing as if his teammates didn’t exist. Then he’d fall into defense, and we’d all but forget about him, until he appeared out of nowhere to threaten our ring.
Once, I broke through and positioned myself to the left of the enemy’s ring in one of the best spots from which to score. I felt the eyes of the spectators on me, heard their booing, and caught the expressions of hate on their faces. Among that hostile mob, only one smile lit up for me, right above the target, where my daughter sat. “Papa!” she yelled.
So unexpected was her scream that I almost halted. How did she recognize me, a stranger only a short while ago? Did someone in Talon’s retinue point me out to her?
I bounded into the air, giving the ball a careful kick with a knee. Suddenly, someone smashed into me from behind, sending me headlong into the wall. I was crushed against the stones, but never took my eyes off the ball.
A second person slammed into me, and my head struck the wall just when the ball neared the ring.
I stood despite the pain, trying to make sense of what had happened. Had I scored?
No one was watching me; all the eyes were on Talon, dancing his way around my teammates, bouncing the ball to Eagle and back. With a roar, I dashed after him.
I was late. Moving with confidence, Talon placed himself to the left of the ring, received the ball from Eagle, and sent it into the goal. It was a beautiful hit, an act of skill.
Dew understood that the game was lost, I believe, for she sat there staring down at me as I stood in the court looking up at her. She appeared oblivious of the audience raging with joy all around. Just as she opened her mouth to shout something to me, the old matron led her away.
Talon gave me a friendly pat on the back. “Are you crying, brother? You mustn’t be disturbed. I’m treating my slaves well.”
“Sell her back to me,” I said.
“To you?” He removed his helmet and spat on the ground, appearing to consider my words. “I may sell her, brother. But I won’t sell her to you.”
No one bothered me after that. I sat with my back against the wall, waiting for the game court to empty. The harvest festivities were over, and the next month our war would resume. That war had lasted since before I was born, and it used to be a sport for me, a chance to advance my fortunes. But in that moment, it became a special war for me, too.
Two years later, in the autumn campaigns of our war with Cactus Rock, I fought Talon in a duel of commanders before a battle and captured him alive.
— — — —
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