Ayin bit her lip. She knew of one Xook building, still largely untouched. But the thought of selling the location turned her stomach. The place wasn't safe, and she'd made a promise to keep it secret. No, she'd try to find work some other way. Not that anyone would hire a woman with wet lung.
At last they reached their own neighborhood. The thatched-roof homes were old, but neatly maintained. No one had a reason to burn these down to get at the postholes. Occasionally someone tried to use the poorest huts to curse an enemy, or the postholes of wealthy houses to ensure prosperity, but no one bothered with middling poor.
Would selling the house bring enough money to cure her? Maybe, healthy, she could find a job as a courier or a cotton picker. If she did, they wouldn't have to sleep on the street for long. At least it was the dry season.
She'd been too busy thinking to even look at their house. A pair of guards stood at her door, each wearing a gleaming wooden pectoral carved with the name Yuknoom, Holy Lord of Kab. Royal guards.
Ayin froze, hand tightening on Tzi's. They weren't looking at her. Run? Lord Yuknoom had ruled less than a year -- ever since a pavilion tragically collapsed and killed his father -- but he'd already gained a reputation for cruelty.
Maybe these guards were here to offer her work -- she
read Xook, after all, and the Lord's brother was said to have a library of old Xook codices.
"Mother?" Tzi whispered this time.
Lord Yuknoom had executed more than one person who ignored a summons. Ayin swallowed. Work. Surely they offered work. She hadn't done anything wrong. "Tzi, stay several paces behind me. If they grab me for an arrest, you run. Hide. Understand?"
He nodded, young face so serious that Ayin would have laughed if her stomach wasn't a lump of limestone. She strolled forward. "Royal guards, may I assist you?"
"If you are Ayin, we've come to escort you to the palace of Yuknoom, Holy Lord of Kab."
Ayin exhaled. The palace, not the hearing chambers or the salt mines. "His request honors one so humble as I."
you you're a great looter," Tzi said.
"Thanks." What a good son she had.
They followed the guards through the city -- past homes, workshops, and turkey pens -- up to the palace. She only coughed once, a small splutter she wiped away with the back of her hand.
The Lord himself sat in an open-air pavilion, lounging on a throne of jaguar skin with a cigar in his mouth. His attendants seemed like so much furniture. Tortoise shells and feathers adorned his headdress; jade spools hung from his ears. Cape, skirt, and sandals all burst with color and ornamentation. But Ayin couldn't focus on the riot of color and wealth. Lord Yuknoom's hard, gray eyes were picking her apart.
"You are Ayin?" he asked, words cold.
Her throat threatened to close off. "Yes."
"Your grandmother. She was Xook?"
"So she was raised." Ayin spoke as smoothly as she could. "She was sixteen when the Xook fell."
Lord Yuknoom took a pull at his cigar, then exhaled the smoke. It was rolled fatter than a baby's fist. "Yet you're an looter. Stealing from your own people."
Ayin tensed. How else could she earn a living? All she had was a knowledge of the Xook -- her grandmother had raised her.
"My questions bother you?" Lord Yuknoom appeared amused.
"No. I . . . I didn't realize you wished a reply to your statement. I apologize. Yes, my ancestors are Xook. Yes, I work as a looter."
"I guess that makes you more Kab than Xook."
Tzi glanced nervously between her and the Lord, but thankfully he had the sense to remain silent.
"I suppose it does." Her grandmother didn't like magic, didn't like the practice of burning buildings, but she'd adapted.
Another man strode into the pavilion. He looked much like the Lord, both in face and in the lavish cape and jade pectoral he wore. Ayin bowed low as he passed; Tzi did the same. He spoke a few quiet words with Lord Yuknoom.
"Yes, yes, you can stay," the Lord said.
The newcomer turned and beamed. "I am Prince Kaloomte."
Lord Yuknoom's younger brother, the man rumored to have a Xook library. Ayin's shoulders relaxed. Perhaps he needed another Xook scribe -- surely that's why she was here.
"My scribes have read me much that the Xook wrote. But one building always remains . . . evasive. Mentioned here or there, with never a location, never a description, as if the building were too holy for paper."
He could have forced obsidian down her throat, and the result would have been little different. Ayin's knees shook.
"Perhaps, given the infamous Xook reverence for life, it should not surprise me that they held dearly sacred their temple. Odd, though, that they only had one. And that they kept it isolated from their cities," Prince Kaloomte continued. "Many have looked for it and failed. But as I've searched the mystery out, I've heard rumors. Rumors of a child who fell from a tree and lost both her legs in the process. No temple of ours is old enough or strong enough to restore limbs, but somehow, this little child walked again."
A cough trickled up Ayin's throat. She was that child.
Prince Kaloomte smiled. "Where could healing strong enough to grow legs be found? Only in the Xook temple, centuries old. It took
some time to trace the rumors to you. The granddaughter of a Xook woman. Did you know that your grandmother's mother was a Xook priestess?"
Lord Yuknoom shifted. Beneath all the finery, she saw what she hadn't at first -- his arm was missing. "You will take me to the temple, Ayin. I will reward you handsomely."
She couldn't go back there. For once, Ayin thanked the gods for her wet lung -- coughing saved her from answering. Air wouldn't come to her. Dots colored her vision. The ground keeled to the side as warm mucus splattered over her lips.
The world fell dark.
Little Ayin, you must never come back here, understand? Horrible things will happen. This temple is hidden for a reason. Promise me.
How old had she been? Six, maybe seven? About Tzi's age. Ayin could still taste the horror of falling from that tree. The searing pain that stole her legs. The blistering infection that threatened to take her life.
Grandmother loathed magic as much as the next Xook, but she studied the codices Grandpa, a Kab magician, had used before he passed. Ayin never knew if they married for love, or if Grandma had been some kind of tribute after the war, and she'd never asked.
She remembered the long path to the Xook temple, carried in Grandma's arms on the way in, walking on her way out.
Grandma's eyes gleamed fiercer than jaguar's teeth, making her promise. Promise.
This temple is hidden for a reason.
She woke to a cool cloth on her head.
"Wet lung. That's nasty stuff." A priestess, in simple homespun white, knelt next to her.
"I'm right here," Tzi said, with an exasperated sigh.
Ayin turned her head. She lay on a mat in the pavilion. Prince Kaloomte had left, but Lord Yuknoom still stared at her with those gray eyes. "It appears that you, too, could make use of the Xook temple. We will leave at dawn tomorrow, before you worsen."
"I . . . I can't . . ."
Lord Kaloomte leaned back on his jaguar-skin throne. The cigar was gone. "Can't what? Refusal to obey my command is treason. I will find you, and your near kin, guilty if you prove stubborn."
That could only mean execution. She was already dying, but the hard, gray eyes left no doubt that this man would kill Tzi and her husband, when he returned. Tzi must not have understood, because he still peered down at her, only concerned about the wet lung.
Ayin's breath shook. "The temple . . . isn't safe."
"Guards." A dozen men appeared at once. "Escort this woman and her son to a guest room. Then fetch my steward; I have preparations to make before we leave."
In the morning, guards escorted Ayin and Tzi onto a palanquin; they said Lord Yuknoom worried she'd strain her health walking. Did he really think she'd die before they reached the temple? Or was this the easiest way to guard her?
The caravan -- two magicians, four dozen guards, and nearly as many porters laden with food and tents -- assembled with well-organized quiet. Prince Kaloomte was the only exception. Three small children clung to him, sobbing. He smiled sadly at them, kissed their heads, then embraced the woman behind them -- surely his wife -- before climbing onto the royal palanquin.
Lord Yuknoom strolled over to Ayin's palanquin, feathered cape swirling against the ground. "I trust you'll prove a helpful guide."
Ayin hugged Tzi to her side, throat tight.
"Tell me which direction we start towards." Lord Yuknoom ordered. He flicked a glance at Tzi, eyes hard with the threat of death.
"West," Ayin spluttered.
Lord Yuknoom nodded and joined his brother on their palanquin.
The caravan quickly traveled through the bustle of the city and out into the countryside, heading toward the jungles and mountains.
"You didn't look happy." Tzi fidgeted with his sandal ties. "About telling Lord Yuknoom which direction to go."
What else could she do? Let them kill her son? Prince Kaloomte had probably already guessed the temple lay westward, toward the heart of Xook lands. "I'm not happy."
Fields flanked either side of the road, some heavy with corn, beans, and squash, some filled with manioc, some stubbled with cotton.
"But . . . can't this temple heal your cough? Won't Lord Yuknoom make us rich?"
Grandmother hadn't given some idle warning. Like her Xook ancestors, Grandmother revered life dearly, considering murder the worst of crimes and healing the noblest of professions. If there was good to be had at the temple, Grandmother would have carried the infirm on her back to restore their health. But even when she took Ayin, she blindfolded her before they entered the building proper.
Ayin wished the woman was still alive, to stroke her hair and tell her what to do. Instead, she stroked Tzi's hair. He depended on her to take care of them, as much as she wanted to depend on Grandmother right now. "I don't think going to the temple's a good idea."
"You want to be sick?" Tzi gave her a look that seemed to fathom the depth of adults' stupidity.
"You want to be poor?"
"Then stop worrying! Why didn't you loot the temple a long time ago?"
Ayin spoke softly. "Grandma didn't want me to."
It began to mist, despite being the dry season. Oddly, the moisture rolled off them and the litter. Ayin frowned at the clean clothes she'd been given. Enchanted. It wasn't uncommon among the well-to-do; pavilion shelters were ubiquitous, cheap to build, and easy to burn. Just some poles and thatch.
Tzi giggled and waved his arms, the mist magically swerving to avoid him.
The second day, they reached the jungle. Howler monkeys called from the tree tops; tiny white butterflies surrounded a patch of ash where some farmer had tried to clear a field. When they stopped for the night, Lord Yuknoom called her into his tent.
It was nearly as lovely as the palace. Rugs of yellow and green filled the floor; cloth banners of the same obscured the walls. Lord Yuknoom lounged on cushions, Prince Kaloomte kneeling next to him.