The girls' calmecac: the House of Tears, a school where the children of the wealthy, as well as those vowed to the priesthood, would receive their education. I had never been there; the clergy of Mictlantecuhtli was exclusively male, and I had trouble enough with our own students. I couldn't imagine, though, what kind of magical offences untrained girls would commit.

  'Are you sure?' I asked Yaotl but, characteristically, he walked into the building without answering me.

  I suppressed a sigh and followed him, bowing slightly to the priestess in feather regalia who kept vigil at the entrance.

  Inside, all was quiet, but it was the heavy calm before the rains. As I crossed courtyard after courtyard, I met the disapproving glances of senior offering priestesses, and the curious gazes of young girls who stood on the threshold of their ground-floor dormitories.

  Yaotl led me to a courtyard near the centre of the building. Two rooms with pillared entrances opened on this. He went towards the leftmost one and, pulling aside the curtain, motioned me into a wide room.

  It seemed an ordinary place, a room like any other in the city: an entrance curtain set with bells, gently tinkling in the evening breeze, walls adorned with frescoes of gods – and, in the centre, a simple reed sleeping mat framed by two wooden chests. Copal incense burnt in a clay brazier, bathing the room in a soft, fragrant light that stung my eyes. And everything, from the chests to the mat, reeked of magic: a pungent, acrid smell that clung to the walls and to the beaten-earth floor like a miasma.

  That wasn't natural. Even in the calmecac, there were strictures on the use of the living blood, restrictions on the casting of spells. Furthermore this looked like the private room of a priestess, not a teaching room for adolescent girls.

  'What happened–' I started, turning to Yaotl.

  But he was already halfway through the door. 'Stay here. I'll tell Mistress Ceyaxochitl you've arrived, Acatl- tzin.' In his mouth, even the tzin honorific sounded doubtful.

  'Wait!' I said, but all that answered me was the sound of bells from the open door. I stood alone in that room, with no idea of why I was there at all.

  Tlaloc's lightning strike Yaotl.

  I looked again at the room, wondering what I could guess of the circumstances that had brought me here. It looked like a typical priestess's room: few adornments, the same rough sleeping mat and crude wicker chests found in any peasant's house. Only the frescoes bore witness to the wealth of the calmecac school, their colours vibrant in the soft light, every feature of the gods sharply delineated. The paintings represented Xochipilli, God of Youth and Games, and His Consort, Xochiquetzal, Goddess of Lust and Childbirth. They danced in a wide garden, in the midst of flowers. The Flower Prince held a rattle, His Consort a necklace of poinsettias as red as a sacrifice's blood.

  Dark stains marred the faces of both gods. No, not only the faces, every part of Their apparel from Their feathered headdresses to Their clawed hands. Carefully, I scraped off one of the stains and rubbed it between my fingers. Blood.

  Dried blood. I stared at the floor again – at what I had taken for dark earth in the dim light of the brazier. The stain was huge – spreading over the whole room, soaking the earth so thoroughly it had changed its colour. I'd attended enough sacrifices and examinations to know the amount of blood in the human body, and I suspected that the stain represented more than half of that. What in the Fifth World had happened here?

  I stood in the centre of the room and closed my eyes. Carefully, I extended my priest-senses and probed at the magic, trying to see its nature. Underworld magic, yet… no, not quite. It was human, and it had been summoned in anger, in rage, an emotion that still hung in the room like a pall. But it didn't have the sickly, spread- out feeling of most underworld magic. Not a beast of shadows, then.

  Nahual. It had to be nahual magic: a protective jaguar spirit summoned in the room. Judging by the amount of blood in the vicinity, it had done much damage. Who, or what, had been wounded here?

  I had been remiss in not taking any supplies before leaving my temple – trusting Yaotl to provide what I needed, which was always a mistake with the wily slave. I had no animal sacrifices, nothing to practise the magic of living blood.

  No, not quite. I did have one source of living blood: my own body. With only my blood, I might not be able to perform a powerful spell; but there was a way to know whether someone had died in this room. Death opened a gate into Mictlan, the underworld, and the memory of that gate would still be in the room. Accessing it wouldn't be a pleasant experience, but Huitzilpochtli, the Southern Hummingbird, blind me if I let Ceyaxochitl manipulate me once more.

  I withdrew one of the obsidian blades that I always carried in my belt, and nicked my right earlobe with it. I'd done it so often that I barely flinched at the pain that spread upwards, through my ear. Blood dripped, slowly, steadily, onto the blade – each drop, pulsing on the rhythm of my heartbeat, sending a small shock through the hilt when it connected with the obsidian.

  I brought the tip of the knife in contact with my own hand, and carefully drew the shape of a human skull. As I did so, I sang a litany to my patron Mictlantecuhtli, God of the Dead:

'Like the feathers of a precious bird

That precious bird with the emerald tail

We all come to an end

Like a flower

We dry up, we wither…'

  A cold wind blew across the room, lifting the entrance-curtain – the tinkle of the bells was muffled, as if coming from far away, and the walls of the room slowly receded, revealing only darkness – but odd, misshapen shadows slid in and out of my field of vision, waiting for their chance to leap, to tear, to feast on my beating heart.

'We reach the land of the fleshless

Where jade turns to dust

Where feathers crumble into ash

Where our flowers, our songs are forever extinguished

Where all the tears rain down…'

  A crack shimmered into existence, in the centre of the chamber: the entrance to a deep cavern, a cenote, at the bottom of which dark, brackish water shimmered in cold moonlight. Dry, wizened silhouettes splashed through the lake – the souls of the Dead, growing smaller and smaller the farther they went, like children's discarded toys. They sang as they walked: cold whispers, threads of sound which curled around me, clinging to my naked skin like snakes. I could barely make out the words, but surely, if I stayed longer…

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