If I bent over the cenote until I could see the bottom of the water…

  If I…

  No. I wasn't that kind of fool.

  With the ease of practise, I passed the flat of the knife across the palm of my other hand – focusing on nothing but the movement of the blade until the image of the skull was completely erased.

  When I raised my eyes again, the crack had closed. The walls were back, with the vivid, reassuring colours of the frescoes; and the song of the Dead had faded into the whistle of the wind through the trees of the courtyard outside.

  I stood, for a while, breathing hard – it never got any easier to deal with the underworld, no matter how used to it you became. Still…

  I had seen the bottom of the cenote, and the Dead making their slow way to the throne of Lord Death. I had not, however, made out the words of their song. The gate to Mictlan had been widening, but not yet completely open. That meant someone in this room had been gravely wounded, but they were still alive.

  No, that was too hasty. Whoever had been wounded in this room hadn't died within – yet I didn't think they'd have survived for long, unless they'd found a healer.

  'Ah, Acatl,' Ceyaxochitl said, behind me. 'That was fast.'

  I turned much faster than I'd have liked. With the memory of Mictlan's touch on my skin, any noise from the human world sounded jarringly out of place.

  Ceyaxochitl stood limned in the entrance, leaning on her wooden cane. She was wearing a headdress of blue feathers that spread like a fan over her forehead, and a dress embroidered with the fused lovers insignia of the Duality. Her face was smooth, expressionless, as it always was.

  I'd tensed, even though she had barely spoken to me, preparing for another verbal sparring. Ceyaxochitl had a habit of moving people like pawns in a game of patolli, deciding what she thought was in their best interests without preoccupying herself much with their opinions, and I seldom enjoyed being the target of her attentions.

  'I don't particularly appreciate being summoned like this,' I started to say, but she shook her head, obviously amused.

  'You were awake, Acatl. I know you.'

  Yes, she knew me, all too well. After all, we had worked together for roughly nine years, the greater part of my adult life. She had been the one to campaign at the Imperial Court for my nomination as High Priest for the Dead, a position I neither wanted nor felt comfortable with – another of her interferences in my life. We'd made a kind of uneasy peace over the matter in the last few months, but right now she was going too far.

  'All right,' I said. I brushed off the dried blood on my fingers, and watched her hobble into the room. 'Now that I'm here, can we dispense with the formalities? Who was wounded here, Ceyaxochitl?'

  She paused for a moment, though she barely showed any surprises. 'Hard at work, I see.'

  'I do what I can.'

  'Yes.' She watched the frescoes with a distracted gaze. 'What do you think happened here?'

  I ran my fingers over the traces of the skull I'd drawn on the back of my hand, feeling Mictlan's touch cling to me like damp cloth. 'A nahual spirit. An angry one.'

  'And?' she asked.

  It was late, and someone was in mortal danger, and I was tired, and no longer of an age to play her games of who was master over whom. 'Someone was wounded – at Mictlan's gates, but has not yet gone through. What do you want to hear?'

  'The nahual magic,' Ceyaxochitl said quietly. 'I mainly wanted your confirmation on that.'

  'You have it.' I wasn't in the mood to quarrel with her. In any case, she was my superior, both in years and in magical mastery. 'Do I get an explanation?'

  She sighed; but she still didn't look at me. Something was wrong: this was not her usual, harmless games, but something deeper and darker. 'Ceyaxochitl…' I said, slowly.

  'This is the room of Eleuia, offering priestess of Xochiquetzal,' Ceyaxochitl said. Her gaze was fixed, unwaveringly, on the hollow eyes of the goddess in the frescoes. 'Most likely candidate to become Consort of Xochipilli.'

  The highest rank for a priestess of the Quetzal Flower. 'And she was attacked?' What was Ceyaxochitl not telling me?


  I stared at the blood on the frescoes – felt the anger roiling in the room. A nahual spirit would have had claws sharp enough to cut bone, and even a trained warrior would have had trouble defending himself against it.

  'Did you find her?' I asked. 'She needs a healer, at the last – if not a priest of Patecatl.' There were healing spells – meagre, expensive things that the priests of the God of Medicine jealously hoarded. But a priestess such as Eleuia would surely have a right to them.

  'I've had my warriors search every dormitory. We don't know where Priestess Eleuia is. No one has been able to find her, or to find her trail. She is the only one missing in the whole calmecac, though.'

  My heart sank. If it had been a beast of shadows… there were ways, and means, to track creatures of the underworld. But a nahual… There were too many of them in Tenochtitlan at any given time: any person born on a Jaguar day could summon their own nahual, though it would take years of dedicated practise to call up something material enough to carry off a human, or even to wound.

  'I can attempt to track it,' I said, finally, even though I knew it was a futile exercise. Nahual magic was weak to start with, and the coming of sunlight would annihilate it. We had perhaps four hours before dawn, but I doubted that would be enough.

  Ceyaxochitl appeared absorbed in contemplation of the brazier: a studied pose, it suddenly occurred to me.

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