Circle at center
In the perfection of the warrior does the Seventh Circle achieve her ultimate ideal.
But perfection is honed to a double edge, for the shiny blade of humankind reflects the specter of apocalypse.
Dawn swelled on the horizon beyond the volcano, and Natac was glad that he would see this place once before he died. The celestial unveiling was utterly serene, lavender merging into rose and pale turquoise, all advancing with a majesty that tightened his throat and brought tears to his eyes. The swath of soft blue expanded skyward from the conical mountain, and he dared to imagine that the eternally smoldering summit gave birth to this day. Scarcely breathing, he wondered at the perfection of the dark cloud that twisted upward from the massif to hang like a serpentine banner over the Valley of the Mexica.
It seemed fitting that his life would end here, today-that Natac, who had provided so much blood, so many lives, to the hungry gods, would at last offer his own heart on an occasion of high honor to the fearsome immortals who ruled over every aspect of the world. He would give his life on the altar of his enemies, the Aztecs-or Mexica, as they arrogantly styled themselves. Yet Natac was content to know that his heart would sustain the gods and allow life here and in his own homeland of Tlaxcala to continue to flourish.
On this day Tlaloc and Tonatiuh, voracious gods of rain and sun, would be feted with many hearts. Deities of wind and nightfall, of motherhood and spring, of maiz and catfish and herons, would gain strength from grand ritual. And of course, here in the city of the Mexica the Aztec god of war, Huitzilopochtli, would be offered the greatest number of hearts-Natac had been told that a river of blood would flow from his temple during the ritual.
For a moment he felt a small glimmer of regret, knowing that Tezcatlipoca, the Smoking Mirror, would receive little acknowledgment from the Mexicans, who were far more concerned with the needs of their insatiable war god. Silently, Natac extended a prayer into the cloudless dawn. He thanked Tezcatlipoca, who was also called the Enemy on Every Side, for his warrior’s life, and for the many enemies he had been allowed to take in battle. Every one of them had been sanctified to the glory of the gods, had died knowing that his lifeblood would sustain the world, and Natac had no doubt but that the immortals had been mightily pleased by these blood offerings. As he prayed, preparing for his journey to black Mictlan, the realm of death, he realized that never in his life had he seen a finer sunrise.
And he knew that there was no better way to die.
A guard, a respectful young stripling apprenticed to an Aztec Eagle Knight, stood uneasily several paces away. He was a big fellow bearing an obsidian-tipped spear, garbed in practical armor of padded quilting that protected him from groin to shoulders. Still, he had certainly heard of Natac’s reputation-doubtless he believed that the prisoner could have broken his neck at any moment.
But perhaps he perceived another truth as well: The Tlaxcalan Natac had no thoughts of escape. Since the moment he had been fairly captured in war, he had known that his life was ended. He was satisfied to be playing his final part in tasks laid out by godly scheme.
By the time the eastern sky was blue, people moved around the temples, pyramids, and other ritual sites that came into Natac’s view. Priests lit torches and beacon fires, while slaves swept the flagstone surface that would soon be the host of a great gathering. A servant approached with a copper plate, offering maiz and beans to the honored captive. Natac, his eyes still fixed to the brightening eastern sky, made no acknowledgment of the offer-he had purged his body over the previous days, and would leave no unseemly waste on the sacrificial altar.
Soon Mexicans by tens, and then by hundreds, began to filter through the constricting entries into the plaza. Some were richly dressed nobles trailed by courtiers and slaves as they sought good vantages for the day’s rites. Others were families, fathers bearing little girls on their shoulders, boys playing warrior, darting about with make- believe bows, spears, and maquahuitls. Already the square grew crowded as people filled the broad swaths of space between palaces and pyramids.
Finally bright light flamed along the western ridge crest, a swath of brilliance creeping slowly downward, driving back the lingering shadows of night. The great pyramid, whitewashed stone steps flanked by bright, serpentine images painted red, blue, and green, gleamed with supernatural brightness. Atop the steep structure stood two altars, sacred sites dedicated to the rain god, Tlaloc, and martial Huitzilopochtli. Viewing the lofty temples, rising so far above the great city of the Mexica, Natac couldn’t help but feel awe.
Closer by he saw the flat simplicity of the Warstone, a circular platform only a few paces in diameter. Four stairways, perfectly oriented to the earthly directions, led to the top of the ceremonial stage, which was just over a tall man’s height above the ground. On that stone surface, later this morning, Natac would die.
Like countless others today, his blood and heart would be given to sustain the fierce and immortal gods. But of all those who would perish, only Natac was being granted the high honor of sacrifice by combat. As any priest could affirm, this ritual killing of a well-known and esteemed war leader of Tlaxcala would be highly pleasing to the god of war.
By the time the line of sunlight had marched well down the western ridges, the great plaza of the Aztecs teemed with people. Intrigued by his first peaceful encounter with his lifelong enemies, Natac unabashedly looked around. He easily identified the nobles, each trailed by a slave who bore aloft an ornately decorative banner proclaiming his master’s exalted status. The feathery pennants floated like kites over the crowd, in colors of yellow and sapphire, crimson and violet, brighter than any hues Natac had ever seen.
In fact, everything was more colorful, here-from the plumage of heraldry and headdress to the splendid mantles worn by so many, and the twisting mosaics of bright paint that framed the ceremonial centers and palaces in this vast square. For the first time Natac’s warrior’s mind perceived how the Aztecs, by controlling all the realms around intransigent Tlaxcala, had strangled his homeland, blocking trade for the brilliant plumage of the Maya country, or the pure, vivid dyes from the coast.
The young guard blinked in surprise, but made no objection when Natac walked toward the Warstone and, with measured paces, ascended to the raised platform. From here he could see over the heads of the gathered throng of Mexica commoners, and even above the feathered heraldry of the nobles. A hundred paces away the great skull rack, with its many thousands of fleshless, bony heads, was a shadow-encased trophy of Aztec might. Other structures rose above the people, too-every one of them grand and imperial, many with ornate facades or columned porticos, pristine whitewash accented by brightly colored paint.
He found himself facing the Smoking Mirror, the temple of Tezcatlipoca atop its own angular, terraced pyramid, of a size eclipsed only by the great pyramid itself. From this great edifice the jaguar image of the Enemy on Every Side looked from his temple over this corner of the world. Natac shivered, touched by an uncanny sense that he looked into that Smoking Mirror and saw his own death reflected in all of the men he had killed.
Turning his gaze to the purpled slopes, he admired the distant borders of the valley. Closer, the ridges surrounding the great island city and its lake were green with forests, verdant woodlands now brightening in spreading day. To the southeast, the warrior beheld the lofty magnificence of that great volcano. North, and still farther east of the conical summit lay Tlaxcala.
For a moment he let himself remember his wife and sons. His devoted bride had, somehow and almost unnoticed by him, become an old woman, but he knew that her comfort would be assured by his estate. He was also confident that his boys, young men now, would prosper, and he was content that his people would be free of Aztec domination for a long time.