Authors: Marella Sands
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Thanks, of course, to those Alternate Historians, past, present, and honorary, who have helped me more than I can say in this small a space, including Laurell K. Hamilton, Deborah Millitello, Thomas Drennan, Janni Lee Simner, N. L. Drew, Rett MacPherson, Robert Sheaff, and Richard Knaak. Thanks, too, to Sue Bradford Edwards, who made me promise not to mention we'd been best friends for twenty years. Don't worry, Sue. It's not twenty years. NotÂ â¦ quite. Last, but far from least, I would like especially to thank Mark Sumner, who not only “discovered” me in his editorial slush pile and sponsored me into the Alternate Historians, but who also introduced me to his agent and (as if that weren't enough) also wrote a really cool computer program that allows me to convert Mayan Long Count dates to Calendar Round and Gregorian calendar dates. You didn't think I did it all in my head, did you? A million thanks, Mark!
“Red Jaguar of the East! Jaguar of Life, Jaguar of Morning! Protector of the innocent, prince of the powerful, terror to our enemiesâhear our prayer!”
Sky Knife shuddered as Stone Jaguar's words rang throughout the Great Plaza. Stone Jaguar's face was hidden behind a mask of feathers and shells and the voice that spoke from behind the mask boomed eerily into the night. Kneeling as he was just to the left of Stone Jaguar, Sky Knife could see the sweat drip down the man's neck. Sky Knife was glad he didn't have to wear a mask, too.
Though the night was hot, Sky Knife felt a cold tendril creep up his back. Sorcery. Tonight, Stone Jaguar would make sacrifice, for the old
had ended and a new one would begin. Stone Jaguar would petition the gods for luck, enough luck to carry the city of Tikal through the next twenty years until this
“Black Jaguar of the West! Jaguar of Death, Jaguar of Night! Prince of merchants and all those who travel. Punisher of the evil, terror in the darkâhear our prayer!”
Stone Jaguar threw his arms out wide, and his jaguar skin cloak blew back slightly in the sorcerous breeze. The bone and jade bead fringe of the cloak swung dangerously near Sky Knife. He drew back to avoid being touched by it; it would be bad luck indeed for the sacred cloak to touch a mere temple assistant during the ceremony.
Sky Knife himself was dressed in a simple cotton loincloth that had been dyed blue. Blue was the color of water, of luck, and honor. Solid blue garments could be worn only by those who participated in sacred ceremonies, to remind the gods of the luck they brought to Tikal.
“White Jaguar of the North! Jaguar of Rain, Jaguar of Evening! He Who Walks Among the Fields! Prince of the corn, protector of the farmer, terror to the unjustâhear our prayer!”
Sky Knife brushed sweaty palms against his bare thighs as a glow bathed the temple. The light was a sickly orange that flickered and changed in intensity so quickly it nauseated him. Sky Knife tried to ignore the musty, unwholesome smell that always accompanied the temple glow. It was as if it had crept up from a tomb full of rotting corpses.
Stone Jaguar stepped back and Death Smoke, also covered from head to toe with fine ornaments of shell and jade, stepped to the smaller north altar and placed a cigar upon it. Death Smoke spread his hands wide, closed his eyes, and clapped his hands together. The end of the cigar burst into flames. It sputtered for a moment, and a trickle of black smoke wafted up. Then the cigar glowed brightly red. Sky Knife relaxed as the cigar continued burning. Not only was tobacco sacred, but the death gods could not bear its smell. They would be driven away from the ceremony and their bad luck with them.
“Yellow Jaguar of the South! Jaguar of Heat, Jaguar of Day! Prince of the wise, vengeance of the strong, bringer of drought, terror to the unluckyâhear our prayer!”
Stone Jaguar finished the fourth and final invocation with a shout. A cold, dank gust of wind hit Sky Knife, and he shivered. That had never happened before. Sky Knife glanced up toward Stone Jaguar, but the priest merely waved his left hand and the strange wind died down to a ticklish breeze.
“Let the sacrifice come forth!” boomed the voice of Stone Jaguar.
A musician at the base of the pyramidal temple struck a tortoise shell with a stick in a slow, measured rhythm. The hollow
sounds echoed around the Great Plaza. The crowd gathered in the plaza was absolutely silent as a second musician, this one shaking a gourd filled with small pebbles, joined the first. No one besides the musicians dared make noiseâfor any quarrelling or other uproar would bring bad luck on the ceremony and drive all the good luck away.
As one, the crowd raised open hands to their chests, palms out, and hummed a single, low note. Heart pounding in excitement, Sky Knife did the same. It was the call for the sacrifice. The people of the cityâold and young, men and womenâsang for the sacrifice to stand forth.
Across the plaza, a flash of blue. Sky Knife's heart jumped in anticipation, staring at the spot where the sacrifice would first appear. Moments later, he did.
The young man was swathed in lengths of blue cotton. Blue paint stained his face, hands, and feet, as befitted his status as an unmarried youth. Head held high, the young man stepped forward into the plaza. He was preceded by young girls who flung flowers in his path.
The young man walked slowly, in time to the rhythm of the turtle shell drums. When he reached the base of the great pyramid, he paused and bowed to the priests and attendants on the temple platform above. The sacrifice mounted the red-painted first step of the templeâpast which only the priests, attendants, and sacrifices could go without bringing disaster to the city.
Sky Knife shivered in excitement. The smell that had nauseated him before changed the moment the sacrifice touched the pyramid. Now the subtle smell of sweet, ripe fruits and the spicy scent of flowers wafted about him, blown by the sorcerous breeze. The sickly orange light stopped its flickering and shone steady and white.
Sky Knife's spirits raised in joy. All the signs were good. Sky Knife prayed that they would remain so. He had no idea how the gods would plague Tikal if the sacrifice were found wantingâand he didn't want to know. Everything had to go perfectly. It
As the sacrifice mounted the stairs, he shed the lengths of blue cotton behind him as a moth sheds its cocoon. Finally, naked, he stood on the thirty-sixth and last step. He bowed again to Stone Jaguar. Shells on the jaguar-skin cloak chinked together as Stone Jaguar spread his hands wide.
Sky Knife and the three other temple attendants stood. Sky Knife's feet tingled as he straightened up; he didn't usually kneel on the stone temple platform as long as he had had to tonight.
The tingling passed quickly. Sky Knife and the other three attendants took their places around the circular altar on the platform. The sacrifice lay down on the altar. Sky Knife, acting tonight as the Attendant in the West, grasped the young man's left shoulder and pinned it to the stone below. The other attendants, each one at a cardinal point, held the young man down by shoulder and knees.
Claw Skull and Death Smoke threw
onto the burning coals in the stone bowls on the back corners of the temple platform. The heavy, musky smell choked Sky Knife even as it seemed to make him see and hear more clearly. He took a deep breath of the strange, heady odor caused by the
tobacco, and the sorcerous temple smell.
Sky Knife suppressed a sense of unease: the fourth priest, Blood House, was not in evidence, and the ceremony could not wait. Normally, four priests, four attendants, and the sacrifice formed a complete set of nine. With Blood House missing, there were only eight people on the temple. Although on occasion the ceremony was performed with fewer than nine, it seemed inappropriate to Sky Knife that this special ceremony should be short. Too much was at stake for anything to go wrong.
“All gods above the earth! All gods beneath the earth! ItzamnaâLord of All! Accept this lifeâthat which was freely bestowed by you is now freely returned!” Stone Jaguar raised his right hand. In it, he held an obsidian blade some eight inches long, hafted onto a handle made from the wood of the sacred
tree. The blade glowed a bright, bright blue. Sky Knife looked away.
The sacrifice shifted slightly. Sky Knife pressed down on the shoulder and glanced at the young man. Sweat marred the young man's face, leaving streaks behind in the blue paint.
It always happened. No matter that the sacrifice came of his own will, chosen among the dozens who had applied for the honor. It still always came down to this. Fear. Upon seeing the knife, they were always afraid. Afraid of the glowing blade. Afraid of the pain. Afraid of failure.
If the gods did not find this young man's sacrifice worthy, if even one thing went wrong, Tikal would suffer twenty years of bad luck. The young man had reason to fear. With so much at stake, how could he not doubt, just a little, his own worthiness?
Sky Knife wished there was something he could do to make it easier for the sacrificeâhe always did. But there was nothing he could do. What the sacrifice did, he had to do alone.
Sky Knife glanced up toward the sky. The Jade Necklace, a brilliant constellation of seven stars, touched the high point in the sky. The new
would begin at any moment.
With a final shout Stone Jaguar plunged the blade down into the sacrifice's stomach. Sky Knife bore down hard on the sacrifice's shoulder as the young man jerked and screamed.
Blood spurted out of the gaping wound onto Sky Knife, the other attendants, and the platform. But a glowing blue haze surrounded Stone Jaguar now, and the blood did not touch him.