Part 11 - Ceremony

As darkness descended over the city Zyanya glided across the palace gallery, her white robe like mist in the night and her mood as buoyant as the sparse clouds above. Her hand maids followed with carefully practiced steps of silence, and the young princess almost felt unwatched and alone. Although for many it had been a sombre day with the news of Yaotl’s mysterious death, for Zyanya it had been quietly rewarding. Her help had reached Itzli just in time, and that untrustworthy Momotzli was made to suffer the failure of his plan and also the loss of his son. Now as the balmy night steadily progressed she could imagine the painfully hidden misery on the face of the High Priest as he sobbed over the prone body of his great warrior son. She had done similarly not too long ago when given the news of her village’s destruction. 
All through the city torches and wonderfully coloured fabrics had been put in place for the great spectacle that was due for sunset tomorrow, and the palace gallery was buzzing with members of state and aristocracy sharing gossip. As Zyanya and her maids made their quiet passage, the princess found herself politely obstructed by a squat and fattened man she had met once before, but whose name she couldn’t recall. His wife came in tow and together they posed proudly. 
“My beautiful princess, Zyanya. I’m surprised Lord Huemac allows you to travel the palace like this – after all, we hear you will soon be a true queen, once his royal seed takes firm root, the man said with a smile. 
I take your words with gratitude, but I am also a little surprised. Surprised that you can speak so easily with a face as fat as yours.” 
His mouth hung open at the insult, and his wife’s eyes were as wide as a full moon. Zyanya and her maids proceeded on their way. The rest of the nobility in the gallery thought better of approaching her and let her carry on. Whoever that noble was had disrupted her calm. She despised this city, and she never wasted an opportunity to express that. Everyone in Huemac’s palace knew it also, most of all lord Huemac himself - although he made it very clearly that her contempt for him, was what made her attractive. 
Zyanya and her maids arrived at the temple of Huitzilopochtli, where inside the preparations for tomorrow had already been completed, and where Tenoch was being prepared by a delegation of chosen holy men. The temple was a formidable stone structure just outside the palace boundary with a cavernous hall inside that lay before an altar plated in gold. Before the altar stood a group of priests, engaged in animated chants and incantations. Zyanya ordered her maids to wait by the door while she quietly crept along the side of the hall behind the wall-mounted torches until right beside the priests deep in prayer. 
Lying at the feet of the priests was the body of Tenoch, decorated almost beyond recognition. He rested on his back in an ornate crib with flowers and colourful ribbons tied onto its side. His legs were wrapped in thick red cloth covering the deformation on the lower half of his body and enough paint and feathers were adorned to his face and hair that his curse was nearly indistinguishable. He was almost like a new born baby as he slurred his words. Zyanya remembered how her own vision blurred and swirled and how her words tripped over her tongue as the powerful potions of the priests worked through her blood on her way to this very temple to be wed to Huemac. Tenoch’s small frame would have succumbed to the intoxication easily.  
The intensity of the prayer over Tenoch’s body grew as food was brought from behind the altar and put on offer before him. This cursed child would be treated with the upmost care and delicacy. After the feast, he would be bathed before being put to bed on the holy altar upon which he would be sacrificed tomorrow. Zyanya had seen enough. Creeping back to the entryway she quietly summoned her maids and left the temple. 

Later that night a gentle tug from one of her maids roused Zyanya from a sleepless slumber. She slipped from under her bed cover and into a thick cotton robe. Of course she was quiet, but had the advantage of not having to share a chamber with Huemac this night on account of her monthly bleeding – or so she would have him believe. “I will walk to the prisoner’s cells tonight. Like last time, ensure I meet no question,” the princess casually told her servants. With her cotton robe wrapped snugly about her she placed her jade headpiece over her braided hair and left her chamber. The headpiece was one of the few things that would identify her to any passer-by, but if she were to be caught, it would be better to be caught as the wife of lord Huemac, as opposed to a rogue servant. 
Outside, the palace was asleep. With the exception of Huitzilopochtli’s temple there were only sporadic spots of orange light as sentries reservedly carried out their night duties. However the temple could be seen setting the night sky on fire with the heat from its torches and grand sacrificial flame. Every holy person in the city would be there tonight, hoping to share in the glory of Tenoch’s sacrifice – and the end of Huemac’s curse. 
Zyanya and her maids, all dimly dressed, carried on in secret to the prisoner holding cells. It was close to where the palace beasts and livestock were kept, and the smell of faecal matter was potent even in the cool night air. It was a dire place, in which it was pointless attempting to imagine how many prisoners had died within its cramped space, as she was sure it would be nearly all. Over the months she had been here, Zyanya had known men to survive longer on the tortuous hanging sticks in the city centre than they did in the dungeon before her. 
Waiting in the shadows, Zyanya issued one of her servants forward in approach of the dungeon guard. He recognised her from the last time, and after a brief moment of suspicion dragged her away into one of the darker spots of the compound. With the coast clear Zyanya and her remaining two maids casually waltzed into the prison. 
Inside her jewellery heralded her presence as it clicked together. At the rear of the dungeon, behind a thick wooden cage, slumped the man she had come to meet. His head picked up at the sound of her approach, but she doubted he could see – his swollen eyes oozed from the slits between his eyelids. He had not been cleaned since he was brought here, and she couldn’t tell if the mess before him was his own or the food that they had brought. “How are you, Necalli?”Zyanya asked. 
His voice whistled between the gaps in his teeth, “Oi, you have food?”  
You know, you and your son are much alike.” 
Necalli snorted, “What’s it to you! Why don’t you be a good little girl, leave the food and water and piss off.” 
Zyanya felt stiffened by the vileness. Begrudgingly she waved her servants forward to deposit a skin of water and some tightly wrapped meat. “I’m not leaving because you tell me to, but because what I need to do is accomplished.” 
“Which is what?” 
“Keep your strength up.” 
Necalli looked quizzically at the skin of water and the well wrapped roast meat, “With this shit? What’s in it - Magic?”        
Annoyed, Zyanya thought of an insult to say, but doubted she could think of something crude enough to offend the man. “The food will help, but so will the knowledge that Itzli defeated Yaotl and made it past the last northern checkpoint. There is still hope for you and Tenoch.” 
The news didn’t seem to affect Necalli, who took it like a piece of trivia. “There shouldn’t be any hope, and Itzli knows that. No one alive now has ever set foot in Aztatlan. It’s a place some used to say was up to 150 leagues north from the city. If he sees it, it wouldn’t have been without help. The problem with Itzli is that he’s stupid; never known when to back down. It will cost him. 
Isn’t that the ‘courage’ you warriors are always on about?” Zyanya asked, failing to understand Necalli’s point of view. 
“ No. Facing your punishment is courage. Chasing gods is stupidity.” 
“Yet if he were to return, with a god, you will be the first to embrace him!? How ungrateful!” 
“If he returns, and I’m still alive, I’ll be the first to smack the grin off his mouth. But we shall see - it’s all in the hands of Teotl.” 
Zyanya shook her head – this man was impossible. What chance did any child have with a father so vulgar? Standing between her two maids Zyanya left the confines of the dungeon and sought to make her way quietly back. She made no further words with the embattled former soldier, his reaction to her news had been very disappointing. She had hoped to galvanise him, increase his fighting spirit. Instead he managed to drag her own mood down. Yet she kept hope. When Itzli had stormed the hall that night, slaying Huemac’s men mercilessly, she had seen in her husband utter fear for the very first time. And she maintained her belief that it would not be the last. 

Momotzli stood back from the chamber entrance to allow Itotia through. The youthful and solidly built warrior had a fearsome reputation, developed during many flower wars, and was a logical second in command for Yaotl as well as a loyal friend to him from childhoodItotia’s head hung low as he walked past the High Priest to gaze on the prone body of Yaotl lying on the chamber bed. Only his face was exposed while the rest of him rested under a blood soaked sheet. The warrior turned to the High Priest, “Thank you for inviting me. May I confide in you something?” 
Momotzli nodded before making his way over to the seat beside the bed, under the room’s single torch. 
I’m finding it hard to come to terms with this,” Itotia gestured with his head to Yaotl. “I have smashed the skulls of enemies countless times. I’ve seen the death of brothers – but here lies a man I thought immortal. Nothing stopped him, no enemy, no wound, no sickness – he was blessed. If he were to be killed it should have taken one of the gods themselves to strike him down. But that fucking rat, Itzli...? 
The warrior’s grief was boiling over, Momotzli made no attempt to ease it. The High Priest rose from his seat and shrugged off his robe. “I have no more curses for Itzli,” he said under his breath. He walked over to the chambers small table and dropped his arms heavily across its surface. The table held the skin of water Itotia had given him, and a ceremonial dagger – already tinted in drying blood. 
“You look unwell, High Priest,” Itotia said. 
“I am unwell. 
Itotia placed a hand on Momotzli’s shoulder, “I understand. I shall leave you now. You should drink the water, it may help.” 
Momotzli resented the touch but allowed Itotia to turn away before collecting the dagger from the table. Gripping it firmly he plunged the dark tip into the side of Itotia’s neck. Momotzli leant all his weight onto the dagger, driving it through to the bone, and then forward to tear away the jugular.  
With Itotia’s blood on his hands and across his face and chest, the High Priest watched the warrior struggle for life. Itotia clasped his hands around his throat to stop the blood escaping, but he was soon on the floor, squealing as he tried to call for help, eyes panic stricken as he tried to make senseMomotzli then fell upon him, shoving the dagger into his gut, and upwards. The shape of the tool left gaping holes all over Itotia’s body, which quickly pooled with deep blood. Yaotl’s second in command ceased to struggle. 
Momotzli’s hands shook, and he breathed as though he had just run across the city, but he couldn’t pause for rest. As Itotia’s heart began to weaken, the High Priest ripped him open from the belly upwards with several rigid cuts. Reaching in with both hands he cut and grabbed at the muscle and sinew within until eventually clasping the faintly beating heart. Hacking away at the flesh and organ tissue around it Momotzli brought its shivering mass out in a coating of thick crimson. 
Not wasting time, the High Priest got to his feet and turned to where Yaotl lay. Throwing back the stained sheets, his son’s body lay with gash along its length where his heart had earlier been removed. Momotzli pushed Itotia’s weakening heart into the empty cavity in Yaotl’s chest. Taking the skin of blessed water from the table the high priest emptied its content into his fallen son.   
“My son will rise again. With the help of you, Huitzilopotchli, on this the penultimate day before the biggest offering to you will ever be made. Let my son rise like the true Eagle that he is.” Momotzli shut his eyes tightly as he used his hands to press together the two parts of Yaotl’s chest. He could feel pulses, not from himself but in the very air. His son’s chest began to bubble and rise with scalding water that soon forced through his open chest and mouth. 
Momotzli fell back as his arms and legs went into spasm. His eyes danced as he tried to focus on the multi-spectral swirls that arched across them like the most vivid rainbow. The gods had answered him, and come to his aid. Unable to see, Momotzli continued to recite his prayer blindly. The room was drowned in the sound of gushing water and the hollow whistle of air being dragged mercilessly away into cavernous lungs. But the one thing the sickly High Priest heard above all else, was the screeching cry of an Eagle, ready to spread its wings and test its talons.  

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