CITY OF CUECOLA
YEAR 1 OF THE CROW
I have done great deeds both good and evil, and who is to judge me but the gods, and what shall they say to me but that I dared?
—From The Manual of the Dreamwalkers, by Seuq, a spearmaiden
The sun had not yet risen on the first day after the new year’s winter solstice, and it felt not at all as if an age had ended, but Balam knew better.
He left his home well before dawn, a purse of cacao, a small clay cup, a mirror, and an obsidian knife on the belt at his waist, and he walked. Normally, he would bring servants with him. A man to carry his purchases home, another to guard his person, although there were very few things he feared. But today he went alone.
He traveled the wide, spotless avenue that ran the length of Cuecola, past the still-sleeping market, and through the city gates. He walked past the farming village of Kuharan with its oval houses and thatched roofs, past the jail where’d he found the Teek woman, and into the surrounding jungle.
It had rained all night, and the air here was heavy and wet. Water dripped from wide, notched leaves, and the ground was soft under his sandals. He had worn a long white cloak that fastened across his chest, and he had wrapped his hair in a matching white scarf. Jade hung from his ears and nose and encircled his wrists and ankles. He had also painted the top half of his face blue.
His destination was a small temple, one of many that had been abandoned after the Treaty of Hokaia had forbidden the worship of the jaguar god. The stone building had once been beautiful, colorfully painted and well-tended, but now it ran to decay. Cracks marred the wide steps, and the verdancy of the jungle had taken over much of its facade. He was careful not to disturb anything as he entered.
He made his way to the altar off the central courtyard. He was not a pious man, at least not in the way most people meant it, but he revered power, and here once had been a place of great power. He pressed his hands to the cold stone and bowed his head. He murmured a prayer that had not been heard in this place in three centuries. And then he sat on the steps, purse in hand, to wait.
It did not take long for the thief to arrive.
The man did not see Balam there, sitting so still in the shadows. The jaguar lord watched, curious, as the man walked the length of the courtyard, admiring the fading stone reliefs, the elegant decay. The thief carried a woven sack over one shoulder. He wore an unadorned white loincloth, and his black hair was cropped close to his head in an unfashionable bowl, but his face was handsome and young, and there was an intriguing audaciousness that glimmered in his eyes. It was that spark of impudence that had brought him to Balam’s attention to begin with, and then to learn that he had access to the royal library, well, it had come together nicely.
“Welcome,” he greeted the thief, standing to reveal himself.
The man startled. “Seven hells,” he swore, glaring. “What kind of person sneaks around in a place like this?”
Balam smiled as he always did, mouth closed to hide a predator’s teeth. “This is the house where my ancestors worshipped long ago.”
“Well, it’s eerie. I don’t see why we couldn’t have met in the city. Perhaps over a drink.”
Balam lifted an elegant brow. “I was clear that this endeavor required the utmost secrecy. You have not told anyone of our meeting, have you?”
“No,” the man said hastily. “I kept my word. Now you keep yours.”
Balam motioned for the thief to ascend the stairs and join him in front of the altar. He hesitated, so Balam shook the purse of cacao in his hand. That seemed to dislodge the man’s doubt, and he quickly climbed the steps.
“Did you have trouble entering the vault?” Balam asked.
“A few days of planning, a sweet word to the night guard. I don’t think anyone has tried to break in before.” The thief made a face as if he thought Balam a fool.
He ignored it. “May I see it?”
“This is the first time I’ve been hired to steal a book.” The man drew a large bound manuscript from his bag and set it on the altar. “Is there a market for it? Might you have some friends who need a man with quick hands and soft feet?”
Reverently, Balam opened the cloth cover and unfolded the bark pages. They stretched out in a long continuous sheet of glyphs and phonetic symbols. He recognized the archaic language he had long studied, confirming that this was the knowledge he desired as his own.
“Can you understand it?” the thief asked, curious.
“Of course,” Balam said absently. His mind was already focused on the writing before him, his eyes devouring the first page. You hold before you the Manual of the Dreamwalkers. Those who eat of the godflesh and practice the spirit magic therein risk madness, as my sisters may attest from their cold tombs. But for those who do not fear, unfathomable power is yours.
“What does it say?”
“The book. What does it say?”
Balam brought his attention back to the present. He folded the pages into the book and closed it before giving the thief a wry look. “Do you wish to become a sorcerer?”
“Me?” The man laughed, leaning back against the altar. “I have no use for magic.”
“There was once a time when thieves practiced shadow magic as part of their profession. It is said to run in their blood.”
“Old superstition,” he said, before spitting on the floor. “A sucker’s endeavor, something for the feebleminded. I’ll stay in the light of reason, thanks.” He touched his fingers to a pendant around his neck, a small golden replica of the sun.
Balam’s eyes flicked in irritation at the globule of spittle on the ancient stone floor. He ran a tongue around his teeth, as if clearing them of words better unspoken, and said instead, “And if I told you that even the Sun Priest’s power was simply magic derived from the old gods?”
“I’d tell you that you were a fool, too, esteemed Lord.” He bowed mockingly. “But it’s none of my business why you want the book, truly. My only god is that which you hold in your hand.”
The cacao. Balam gestured for the man to give him the sack. He did, and Balam slid the book back inside and set it at his own feet. In return, he handed the man the purse of cacao. The thief’s eyes shone with greed as he opened it. Balam watched as the man mentally counted the sum. Possible futures flashed across his features: new jewels, the best drink, the most beautiful women.
Balam slipped his knife from its sheath. “There is one other thing I need from you.”
“Name it,” the man said, eyes still focused on his new wealth.
Balam calmly stepped forward and slid the knife into the man’s belly. He jerked upward until he hit bone. The thief gasped, the purse falling from his hands. Cacao scattered across the stone floor, cascading down the altar steps. The thief beat feeble fists against Balam’s chest. He ignored it, lifting the man to lay him on the altar. He stepped back and watched as that brazenness that he had admired drained from the thief’s eyes.
Then he got to work, first collecting the fresh blood in his clay cup. When he had enough, he dipped his fingers into the bowl and painted vertical lines on the bottom half of his face. Then his palms and the soles of his feet. When he was ready, he placed the mirror on the ground and poured blood across its surface. He chanted the words to call forth the shadow. A circle opened before him as if reflecting off the mirror. The gateway was a bubbling darkness, frost sizzling and cracking along its boundaries. He hoped he was correct, and the thief’s blood would ease his way through the shadow world and, if not, that the offering of the thief on the jaguar altar would make his ancestors look kindly upon his journey. He slung the sack over his shoulder, whispered his destination, and stepped into the darkness…
… and out into his own private rooms, gasping. He dropped the sack and collapsed. His skin was glazed with a thin layer of ice, and his breath puffed white before him. He dragged a nearby blanket from his bed and wrapped it around himself. He lay there, shuddering, unable to do more until, finally, he began to thaw.
Once he felt himself, he made his way to an adjacent room where a steam bath already awaited him. He cleaned the blood and shadow from his skin and donned a simple pair of pants cut in the northern style. He called for a servant, who came immediately.
“I am not to be disturbed,” he explained, as he arranged the table in front of him: an abalone shell, a brick of copal, a small wooden box, and, next to it, his new acquisition. “It is very important. Do you understand?”
“Of course, Lord.”
“Not by anyone,” Balam insisted. “The other lords, my mother, and certainly not my damnable cousin.”
His cousin, who had once been called Tiniz but had kept the honorific Powageh as xir name since returning from Obregi, had been haunting his doorstep. Balam was not interested in what his cousin had to say, what case xe wished to plead on Saaya’s son’s behalf. Frankly, he thought his cousin compromised, addled by age and sentiment. Powageh had always loved Saaya to unhealthy extremes, and it seemed now xe had transferred xir affections to her son. Understandable, he supposed, if a bit shortsighted. Powageh had waxed on about guilt, of all things. How the boy didn’t deserve his fate, how in the end Powageh had had second thoughts.
Balam had listened to his cousin that day as long as he could before exasperation forced his tongue. “Have you forgotten what we do here? We are breaking worlds, realigning the very course of the heavens. We manipulate powers not seen in three hundred years, no, a thousand. Against all odds, all reason, Saaya rebirthed a god, and now you wish to insult him with your mawkishness?”
“We raised him up only to die for our schemes.”
“Would that the whole of humankind had such divine purpose!”
“But we did not even ask if it was what he wanted.”
Balam had scoffed. “We made him a god, Cousin. He is not a maiden deciding which dress best suits her eyes. He was a weapon, and a fine one at that.” And by now, he would have slain the Watchers, thrown the sun from its course over Tova, and ushered in a new era.
Yes, Serapio had done his part. Now it was time for Balam to do his.
He opened the book and began to read.
The dreaming minds of all human beings are open to you, but the dreams of the creatures—furred, finned, and feathered—will remain closed. They dream in a different world from ours.
“Well enough,” he murmured. He had not thought to manipulate birds and beasts, anyway.
You may eat the godflesh whole, but it is better to make a tea of it. One cup may keep you in the dreamworld half the day and will exhaust you upon your return. It is best only to Walk when another spearmaiden can watch over your corporeal form.
Ah, yes. The spearmaidens who practiced this forbidden magic had always been paired. Well, that was not an option now. He read on.
It is best to begin with inquiry into the victim’s mind. Once you are confident, you may begin to plant thoughts and desires and return again and again to cultivate their growth. You cannot kill outright in a dream, but you may convince the victim to harm themselves or others because their dream demands it. Beware! It is a delicate thing to manipulate minds. Do not get entangled.
He read all day and well into the night, not eating or sleeping, and his household did as instructed and did not disturb him. So many warnings of death and madness coupled with promises of power beyond imagining. Balam suspected the author had been quite mad herself by the time she committed the magic to writing. But the text was all that was left of the practice; no dreamwalkers were known to have survived the purge that came after the signing of the Treaty of Hokaia.
He would be the first in an era, and he was ready.
He lit the copal and fanned it until it burned steadily, filling the room with sacred smoke. He donned the regalia of his station, similar to what he had worn to the temple, but now his cloak was rare white jaguar skin, and he wore white shell around his neck and in his ears and nose. He extinguished the lanterns, leaving the room in semidarkness, the moon through high windows the only light.
He took the godflesh from the small wooden box he had set on the table. He ate a piece the size of his fingernail and settled himself onto the cushions to wait. He did not wait long. The dreamworld opened to him. He marveled at its beauty, and at its terror.
And Balam went hunting.