Desperation was an unfamiliar feeling for Itzli. His face burned from the blows of Yaotl’s club as well as the shame of failure. He couldn’t bring his eyes to meet his father, who lay sprawled across the floor in blood. And the last he saw of Tenoch was a fleeting image of his older brother being smuggled away by his wretched uncle, Momotzli. Itzli screamed at the failure he had thrust upon his family, made even worse by the sight of Huemac standing astride his fallen father. He clenched his eyes shut as tightly as his arms were bound and hoped for a sudden death for himself or his enemies.
“Itzli,” Huemac called, “I have no punishment for you. You barge into my palace, disrupt my moment of glory, and bring disgrace on yourself and your family. You believed you could enter here and defeat my warriors... defeat the great Eagle, Yaotl? You are barely a man, but still much the child.” Huemac paused and strolled back to his throne, chest full of confidence. “I won’t kill you. That would be merciful. You, I will have you serve me. And in three days your brother will be offered as Chiconahui, the goddes of fertility. Only this will appease Huitzilopochtli, along with the blood of your father for his treason. I will seal these things as the last sights of those youthful eyes of yours, and you will serve me forever more in darkness. And I would suggest you think before daring to attack me again – as you will be hunted down, you will be followed until the land sinks into the great sea. My men will kill you, even if they must poison an entire river to do it.” Lord Huemac stifled a laugh, like vomit trapped in the throat. “Take him away.”
Yaotl grabbed Itzli by the hair and hauled him upwards like a loathed burden, and when on his feet, the giant warrior saw his club was well satisfied with the feel of Itzli’s back.
“Wait!” a muffled cry came from the fallen Necalli. Unable to stand, he called out. “Wait, Lord Huemac, grant me just one thing – as former warrior brothers, let Itzli go. This is not his curse, his life is his own.”
“Fool!” Huemac snapped, “You should be begging me not to kill you where you are! In my city I decide who lives and who dies, who is free and is not – and your sons, neither of them are free.”
Yaotl and his warriors turned to drag Itzli away. The young warrior thought to comply, feeling no fight in his heart. Only out of stubborn habit did his feet not move. A hand shoved him, but he stood his ground. A fist struck the back of his ear, causing him to stumble, but he kept on his feet. His mind worked, turning over his next action, weighing pride against his shame. It was then he dropped to his knees.
“Lord Huemac!” Itzli declared, “I agree to serve you. I put my life in your hands, and pledge to strive for this house. I only ask opportunity to prove my loyalty.” Itzli bowed his head to the floor, for no other reason than to hide his face from his father.
“Get up you little shit!” Yaotl kicked Itzli onto his side, only for the young warrior to scramble with bound arms back into the same position of submission. Lord Huemac raised a hand to halt Yaotl’s swift club.
“You agree to serve me? You accept me as your lord and ruler? Ha! And what would you do to prove your loyalty...? Sing? Dance!?” Huemac scoffed and turned the remainder of the hall to laughter.
“If Huitzilpochtli will be satisfied by the blood of my brother in the guise of Chiconahui, then I will offer him something far better - the blood of the true goddess of fertility.” Itzli didn’t know what to expect with his words. He was anxious with the feeling of failure so close to him, pressing on him like how his head pressed against the floor.
The hall was silent, all waiting for Huemac to speak. He seemed too amused for words. “You believe you can bring a god here? You are a fool! Take him from my sight.”
“There are three days before my brother is to be sacrificed,” Itzli cried, “I will bring you your god by the sunset of the third day. I have failed my brother and father once already, if I cannot do this then I do not deserve them as family.” Itzli could sense his words being mulled over, whether seriously or for amusement he couldn’t tell.
Lord Huemac called for his High Priest, “Momotzli! Have you heard this boy’s words? He fears me enough to face our very own gods!”
Momotzli arrived silently from the shadows, followed momentarily by the clatter of the lady Zyanya and her jewellery. “My lord, he speaks out of desperation. To capture a god has never been done, their lands are far to the north in Aztatlan, and all who have ventured there have never returned. And it is unknown what damage this can do the mortal world.”
Huemac held his response for some time. “So if he fails he will die in the wilderness, killed by a beast or maybe die of starvation. Yet, if he succeeds...”
Huemac thought on before speaking quietly to his priest, “Must three days be observed before the offering of his brother? Our need is urgent – yours more so than mine.”
Momotzli sneered, “I would very much like to begin this all now, but three days is the minimum to have Tenoch prepared in the right way, bathed and fed as the embodiment of the fertility goddess. We cannot risk being ill-prepared with our offering.”
The hall fell silent for some time more, and Itzli listened intently. There would be sporadic exchanges of whispers between Huemac and Momotzli, and in between he could hear his father’s heavy breaths nearby. Itzli could only wonder where Tenoch was and what they were doing to him. He pressed his forehead deeper into the ground as his frustration grew.
“Yaotl,” Huemac suddenly ordered, “Place the boy in a cell. Tell my servants to bring him before me in the morning. Until then, make sure he causes no trouble. If he does, kill him and his father.”
Yaotl grunted disappointedly, before dragging Itzli to his feet. The young warrior found he could ignore the curses of the giant and his warriors as they dragged him away. It felt as though his brain was swelling to block his ears, as his mind was overflowing with worry and self pity. He made a quiet oath to himself – he would never fail his family or himself ever again.
The night was ferociously dark, eating away the warm light from the torch just outside his cell. Left naked and bruised, Itzli shivered, but not from the cold. His shame was boiling into an anger that motivated his body into fever. He had spent his time exercising, shadow boxing, desperate to keep his thoughts from settling on his family and their cursed fate. Itzli mimicked the actions he had witnessed his father do many times each morning, limbering himself up briefly before attacking the air before him. Each punch he threw crushed the face of his uncle or Lord Huemac. Each kick was aimed to the jaws of the giant Yaotl. Itzli worked himself into a furious sweat, afraid to rest and risk seeing the image of his father, beaten and disfigured and his brother taken and imprisoned.
The dungeon of Huemac’s palace was full of the echoes of dying men and the screams of the tortured, but even they seemed more at ease than the young warrior did as the night pressed on endlessly. It was a night that threatened to be uninterruptable - until the young warrior heard the jingle of jewellery approach him. Instantly he recalled the magician who had visited his home just before all this began. Itzli prayed for him to come within arm’s length...
The clatter of jewellery moved closer with very measured steps. Itzli could hear more than one approaching, their movements subtle and synchronised. The young warrior’s fists were ready to speak.
The space outside his cell grew in illumination as his visitors approached. The walls and floor began to dance with torch light reflected from the visitors’ jewels. Itzli held his ground, ready to destroy the magician, when before him came to stand a girl of the utmost beauty. She wore a jade headpiece, with a robe studded with gold plates. Her wealth was evident in her dress, but more so in her stature and the unspoilt skin of her face. Her eyes failed to move, even though the eyes of her and her two servants travelled quickly across his exposed form.
“Is this the one, my lady?” a servant asked.
Itzli watched as the soft featured girl stepped closer, peering deeply into the cell. “He is the one. He is Itzli.” The young warrior could only look on quizzically. “My name is Zyanya,” she said as she revealed to him a subtle smile.
Without another word a servant untied from her back a sash of lovely fabric. Placing it on the floor she unwrapped it, revealing several fruit, and a few strips of roasted meat. The second servant untied from her waist a drinking skin and handed it down.
Zyanya removed her headpiece, seemingly relaxing without the burden of it on her shoulders. Her hair was braided intricately and it slowly uncurled down the length of her neck. She knelt and picked up a piece of fruit, “You should eat, or else you will never make it.”
Itzli knelt and reached through the wooden cage of his cell. “So does Huemac accept my offer? He will let me bring him the goddess of fertility?”
“He will,” Zyanya chewed subtly, swallowing her piece of fruit as though it were a sip of water. Itzli tried to remain composed, but tore through the food with healthy appetite. Zyanya continued, “There are three days before your brother is to be sacrificed. Momotzli is against it. If not for the fear of Huitzilopochtli they would have sacrificed your brother in minutes. But they’re more afraid of upsetting him than anything else – which suits Huemac’s greed. He will give you the three days to bring him what he wants, the ultimate sacrifice. Do you think you can do it?”
Itzli didn’t know what to say. His offer to Huemac was made in the heat of a moment he wanted to forget for the rest of his days. “I will try,” he said, finishing the last bite of food and moving his hands over to the water skin.
Zyanya moved closer beside him, “You have to do more than try. The life of your family depends on it. My life depends on it too.”
Itzli gulped the skin dry, “Who are you to Huemac? Why would this affect you?”
“I am his wife...” Zyana reached a hand through the wooden cage and clasped Itzli’s arm before he could stand and distance himself. “Wait! I am not his wife by choice. My father gave me to him, gave me away like a trinket, and all just to save himself. Huemac returned to my village the day after our marriage, he killed all the men, my family, and sent all the women and children to the Empire as an offering. He let my father watch all this before leaving him in this dungeon to die. Do you think I want this man’s seed to fester inside me?”
“Then what do you want?”
“I want to help you. Your brother won’t cure Huemac, I know it. Why should he die for no reason other than that fools vanity! That’s why you must bring back the goddess of fertility. Or you can escape, I can help you if you take me with you.”
Itzli sneered, “And I if bring back the goddess, I suppose you will be fine to carry his child – what difference does this make to you? If I run, my family are at risk, not yours.”
Zyanya slid her hand from Itzli’s arm to his thigh, leaning forward and swinging her braided hair to one side to reveal the unspoilt nature of her neck and shoulders. Her lips uttered words beside the young warrior’s ears, forcing him to attention. “I want to help you...” she turned the young warrior’s head towards her. “...because I hope by the time you return to already be with child. That’s why I’m here. I am a queen, but I give myself to you. Do what you want to me. Take what is his, like he took what is yours.”
Zyanya drew Itzli’s head through the cage towards her while she pushed her chest forward. Itzli pressed his lips against her collar, hungrily tasting the sweetness of her skin. The feel of her on his tongue, and in his hands was better than he ever could have dreamed. The softness of her lips, and the pleasure in her groans made even better by the thought of this being Huemac’s wife.
Itzli had never felt a touch so smooth as her hands cooled their way across the heat of his anger. She smelled otherworldly, like nothing he had ever smelled before. She pressed herself against the cell and summoned Itzli with the warm feel of her skin. The young warrior clutched at her from his prison, his hands feeling their way through the fine fabrics of her robe. He would begin exacting his revenge on Huemac with her delicate frame. He would give her more than she would ever want and send her back to her ruler as a ruined beauty.
Zyanya held him firmly, pulling at his hair as she bit his lips. “This cage is in the way... break it. I know you can do it, I saw how strong you are...”
The cell was nothing; he could break it and then take her, on the floor. But the young warrior paused, and with a sudden jerk tore himself from Zyanya’s embrace. It felt like he was severing a limb. Zyanya’s servants remained still with their backs towards them.
“What’s wrong?” the soft featured girl asked with her brow tied into a confused knot. “Doesn’t my body please you?”
It pleased him more than he wanted to admit, but these actions were not his own. “My brother has been taken, my father beaten to shit and humiliated. How can I lay with you knowing that? If Huemac has agreed to let me go, then it means that my family are safe for at least three days. I won’t risk that. I’ll have my revenge on Huemac in my own way. You will need to find someone else to sleep with tonight.”
Zyanya cursed like a thwarted child. “I want you to take me - do you understand? I want you inside of me, give me a child, a child that bastard will raise and love like his own! I want him to look in my eyes on the day he dies when I tell him his only child is truly the son of his enemy. You have to give me that!”
Itzli watched her, partially glad for the cell protecting him from pouncing on her pert and petit frame. The young warrior stepped back into the corner of the cell, and Zyanya furiously banged on the wooden structure. Not wanting to bask in the embarrassment she quickly picked up her head piece while her servants collected what little evidence of a meal there was.
She refused to look his way when she next spoke. “Aztatlan is to the north. Have you ever seen a real god?”
“I don’t know.”
“Most people have but never know. They sometimes live amongst us, watching what we do. People like Huemac and Momotzli fear them, but they fear us also. We are different but at the same time alike. They know you’re coming.”
“Good.” Itzli said coldly. “How do you know these things about gods?”
“I know only what I hear the holy men of dogmatic cities whisper.”
Itzli crept forward, “What else do they say?”
His words were met with a blank shrug of the shoulders and then the soft movement of Zyanya and her servants as they left, taking with them the warmth and light of their torches, and the radiant beauty of the fair lady. Itzli tried to calm himself, however now more than ever, rest was an impossibility.