Read Alexander C. Irvine Online

Authors: A Scattering of Jades

Alexander C. Irvine

BOOK: Alexander C. Irvine
5.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

 

 

Acknowledgements

 

Thanks to
Beth
,
for deciding that we should go south instead of north on her birthday camping trip; to the rangers at Mammoth Cave National Park, esp
e
cially Jim Norris and Chuck (whose last name I wrote down but can’t find); to Drew Frady, for the Battleaxe Notebook; to Sean Stewart for encouragement and careful reading; to Tim Powers and Karen Joy Fowler for examples; to Anna Genoese, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and especially John Klima at Tor; to Jenna Felice, gone much too soon; and to Thorn Davidsohn, for beers and conversation.

And
many thanks
to Wes and Donna at Dom Bakeries
in Ypsilanti, Michigan; Pam and Chad at Pat’s Pizza in Orono, Mai and Josh, Casey, and the rest of the baristas at Stella’s Coffee Haus in Denver, Colorado.

 

And when a great wise man had spoken well, and taught the people wi
s
dom, they would say
on tetepeoac, on chachayaoac;
there has been a so
w
ing, there has been a scattering of jades.

 

—Fray Bernardino de Sahagun,

Historia General de las Casas de Nueva Espa
ñ
a

 

P
rologue

 

It was midnight. And the gods all took their places around the
tsotexca
l
li
,
the divine hear
th. At this place the fire burned for four days … then the gods spoke; they said to Tecuciztecatl, “Now, Tecuciztecatl, enter the fire!” The
n he prepared to throw himself i
nto the enormous fire. He felt the
great heat and he was afraid. Be
ing afraid, he dared not hurl himself in, but turned back instead… . Four times he tried, four times he failed. After th
e
se failures, the gods then spoke to Na
nahuatzin, the Scabby One, and t
hey said to him: “You, Nanahuatzin, you try!” And as the gods had spoken, he braced himself, closed his eyes, stepped forward, and hurled himself into the fire. The sound of roasting was heard, his body crackled noisily. Seeing him burn thus in the blazing fire, Tecuciztecatl also leaped into the fire. When both of them had been consumed by this great fire, the gods sat down to await the reappearance of Nanahuatzin; where, they wondered, would he appear? Their waiting was long. Suddenly the sky turned red; everywhere the light of dawn appeared. It is said that the gods then knelt to await the rising of Nanahuat
zin as the Sun. All about them t
hey looked, but they were unable to guess where he would appear.

 

—Fray Bernardino de Sahagun,

“The Creation of the Fifth Sun”

 

I
zcalli,
11-serpe
n
t
—December 15, 1835

 

A bi
tter wind
gusted through the courtyard that separated the sister buildings of the crumbling tenement, animating strips of newspaper and swirls of powdery snow. Lupita shivered, clutching her woolen serape around her as she squatted on her bony haunches and peered into a cracked basement window.

Through the soles of her shoes Lupita felt the earth trembling, as if in anticipation, and shapes rose up in the snow around the courtyard. The ground she stood on had been a swampy pond not so very long ago, and she wondered what the ghosts of that water felt about the magic she’d laid in the earthen floor of the tenement’s cellar. Ghosts hated
nahualli
like Lupita, even though sorcery was the only way the dead could ever experience the world of the living; their irrationality was their power and Lupita’s danger.

“Shush, Rabbit,” Lupita hissed. The
Tochtli,
the Rabbit in the Moon, was angry tonight, and jealous, agitated because Xiuhtecuhtli had roused himself to keep watch over Lupita’s magic. Whenever the Old God stirred, rhe Rabbit chattered. Lupita looked up at the moon, then away again. She felt the Old God’s gaze upon her, and it made her afraid as only
nahualli
using one god’s magic in the service of another could be.

A little girl toddled into the dirt-floored cellar bathroom. Her mother followed, carrying a bucket of steaming water, a ragged towel, and a sliver of coarse soap. Lupita watched both of their feet carefully, breathing a sigh of relief when neither stepped on the patch of dirt inside the curtained doorway where Lupita had buried the little girl’s umbilical cord four years before.

As the woman had approached her time, Wide Hat had instructed Lupita to stay near, and had forbidden her on pain of death to use any potion to speed the birth. The woman’s labor, he said, would be short; if Lupita was not ready to deliver the infant and speak the benediction, the sun would pass five hundred twenty times before the signs fell properly into place again. Lupita had prepared herself, and when the woman’s time came, the old midwife was there. The girl had crowned less than an hour before the awakening of the sun, during the time most holy to Tlaloc, and Lupita realized that Wide Hat’s excessive precautions had been justified. If he truly knew where the chacmool had buried itself… she had whispered the required prayers and slunk to the basement with the umbilicus.

It had not been a task she wanted to perform. Lupita had felt the eyes of the Tlaloques, Tlaloc’s children, on her the entire time as she curled the gnarled cord and laid the scarlet-and-black pattern of sand around it. Xiuhtecuhtli watched as well, and the Old God was powerful even on a day sacred to his enemy Tlaloc. A balance existed between them, as between the two poles of a magnet, and what strengthened one also revitalized the other; if this was not true, the world would long since have flown apart into dust and its people been eaten by monkeys. The Old God kept fires, Tlaloc brought forth water from the sky and earth. In their opposition they made the world complete.

Never get between gods, Lupita thought. Yet here she was, turning fire magic to Tlaloc’s gain. She tried to keep her mind on her task. The girl was consecrated by birth to Tlaloc, and Lupita had only to collect her and make sure her father thought she was dead.

The charm would keep for four years, she had told Wide Hat after it was buried; beyond that, if she did not dig it up and replenish it, it would weaken. The little girl might be moved, or someone else—another young girl, perhaps, especially one born on a sacred day—could step on the charm and trigger the release of the
mocihuaquetzqui,
the fiery spirits of women who died in childbirth. They always hungered to add to their number, which was why pregnant women had to be kept from fire.

Wide Hat had not bothered to placate her. Keep an eye on things, he had said, and set out on another of his frequent journeys west and south, looking always for the chacmool. Lupita knew that he would never find it. If her charm worked tonight, and the
mocihuaquetzqui
burned the child correctly, the chacmool would find him.

The little girl stepped into the washtub. It was mad to bathe in the dead of winter, as the woman insisted they do every Tuesday; her god, whose name was Miller, demanded it.

And the madness might not end there. Xiuhtecuhtli’s hand would be in the events of this night, and might yet turn them in unexpected directions; he might well prevent his
mocihuaquetzqui
be
ing used in Tlaloc’s service. And, as if the Rabbit was playing one of his jokes, the girl’s mother—although neither she nor her husband knew it—was carrying a second child.

A parade of human figurines formed from the snow and danced along the sash of the basement window.
Snow is water,
Lupita thought.
Tlaloc knows what is happening here.
She spat into the figures and they fell into powder.

Jane, that was the girl

s name. Jane Prescott, born on the day I -Rain in the month of the beginning of the rainy season Toxcatl, in the last hour before the dawn during the eleventh year before the end of the cycle. Four times consecrated to Tlaloc, to He Who Makes Things Grow. The mother’s name was Helen.

Nanahuatzin who will make the sun rise,
Lupita droned under her breath as she watched Jane step into the washtub and lift her arms over her head. Her mother swept Jane’s dress off and Lupita saw that she was a big healthy girl, as befit one so closely bound to He Who Makes Things Grow. Jane stood shivering and dancing from foot to foot until her mother poured the water over her head. Then she sat down and began scrubbing herself as her mother stood before a mirror brushing out her hair.

Lupita looked again at the foot-square patch of recently turned dirt inside the doorway. She had tried to pack it down and scatter dust to disguise it, but to her eyes it stood out like a fresh grave. Not that it should have made any difference, as she had dug the charm up and reburied it properly with a new pattern of vermilion and charcoal, but this chance would only come once. Wide Hat would be furious if it was botched, and the
mocihu
a
quetzqui
were unreliable even when correctly confined. They could smell weakness in any magic and they bred like rabbits, and who knew what the Old God would do?

She turned her face up to the moon, which hung like a round white jade in the frigid night.
Do you hear me speak of you, Rabbit?
she thought.
I
mean no offense.

English was ruining her, and Spanish too; she must remember to speak the charm in the old language. As soon as the woman stepped near the patch of earth where her daughter’s umbilicus lay buried, the time would be perfect.
Do not fear, woman,
Lupita thought, laying a hand on the satchel between her feet. The warmth radiating from it brought a sting of returning circulation to her frozen lingers. The woman took a step away from the mirror, toward the curtain that hung swaying in the doorway.
Tonight you die as if in childbirth,
and in the
after
noon
you go on t
o the House of the Sun.

Then, disaster. The curtain was slashed aside and a Negro girl about Jane’s age dashed in, her huge dark eyes fixed on the privy, and planted one bare foot squarely in the center of the reburied charm.

The floor exploded away from the girl’s planted foot, and she was incinerated in a pillar of fire that mushroomed out across the ceiling and rained in fat droplets around Jane and on her mother. The woman screamed and tore off her burning scarf, batting at the embers that crawled across her back and scalp. As she fell to her knees, her boots and the hem of her dress bursting into flame, she threw the towel toward Jane. A swarm of the pinpoint-sized
mocihuaquetzqui
swirled around it, charring it to smoldering flakes that hung in the turbulent air.

Jane stood paralyzed in the tub, her screams forming an awful harmony with her mother’s. The water in the tub began to boil over the sides of the tub to hiss and jitter on the churning floor. Although none of the
mocihu
a
quetzqui
touched the girl, patches of skin blackened on her back and face.

Lupita fell back from the window, dizzy with fear and the sudden rush of petulant voices buzzing in her head. At least the charm was doing what it was supposed to, she thought absently; already the burns on the girl’s skin had taken on a pattern.

But the
mocihuaquetzqui
were also ferociously out of control. Apparently Xiuhtecuhtli had his own ideas about the girl’s destiny.

The young black girl had provided just the stimulus that the
mocihu
a
quetzqui
needed, bare flesh in contact with the earth that bound them. Now, loosed from the limits of the spell Lupita had pronounced, they shouted and whistled with malevolent joy. Already flames had begun to glow in the tenement’s ground-floor windows. People in the building across the narrow courtyard began lo take note of the fire; soon a crowd would gather.

Panicked by the thought of losing the girl, Lupita punched through the window and grasped the wooden frame, ignoring the glass that slashed her fingers. She hauled back with all het weight and jerked the window open.

A blast of heat dried her eyes and cracked her lips. “Jane!” Lupita screamed against the throaty crackle of the flames.

The woman, her hair and dress aflame, hoisted the wailing girl out of the washtub and turned toward Lupita’s voice. She took a step toward the window as her bootlaces flared simultaneously into latticed pale flame.

Lupita stretched her arms toward the panicked woman. “Give me Jane!”

Mocihuaquetzqui
raced around Helen’s head, burning off the rest of her hair and alighting on the back of her neck. Hot wind howled out through the window now, louder than the child’s ragged shrieks, and the sprites rode it in clusters, dancing in an updraft to the roof of the tenement, some catching in clotheslines and on windowsills, the rest swept away south with the main flow of the wind.

Helen thrust Jane up to the window, and Lupita saw that the
mocihu
a
quetzqui
had forgotten the pattern she’d carefully laid in the sand. The girl’s body was blotched with black and red, the hair burned from her head and one ear melted to a lump.

“Find Archie!” Helen shouted, one of her eyebrows vanishing in a tiny curl of smoke. A string of
mocihuaquetzqui
streaked out the window close enough to singe Lupita’s hair. “Find my husband!”

Blisters bloomed on Helen’s hands and arms as Lupita gripped Jane under the arms and pulled her through the window. Only a few of the
mocihuaquetzqui
remained in the cellar; Lupita could hear their questions in her head as they burned black streaks across Helen’s body—
Is she? Is she? I think—another girl—she’ll come with us!

Helen’s eyes widened as they met Lupita’s. She can hear them too, Lupita realized, as Helen’s mouth opened—what beautiful strong teeth she had—and the last of the
mocihuaquetzqui
dove gleefully down her throat.

Lupita turned with the screaming child and wove her way through the gathering crowd, hearing the futile squeak of a pump handle in the courtyard behind her and seeing the mother’s doomed gaze every time she blinked wind-driven snow from her eyes.

 

Her lungs raw
from the frigid air, Lupita crouched in a sheltered doorway off Mulberry Street, murmuring a soothing chant until the child’s screams subsided into quaking sobs.
You have wearied yourself, you have fatigued yourself, my little one, precious necklace, quetzal
feat
her. You may rest, you may repose.
She racked Jane gently, searching, the street for any sign of Maskansisil or his tribe. As out of control as the
mocihu
a
quetzqui
had gotten, any of the Pathfinders within a hundred miles would have been aware of the charm. Maskansisil himself would certainly know of it; she would have to leave the city as soon as she concluded her business with Wide Hat.

Lupita finished the midwives’ blessing, giving her ancient legs a chance to recover before she set off to meet Wide Hat.
Per
haps, wee
as you are, the Maker, He Who Make
s Things Grow, shall summon you
, shall call to you. Perhaps you shall merely pass before our eyes.

The
mocihuaquetzqui
still chittered in her head, away to the south. They would have to be reined in before they burned the entire island to the ground, or brought the Pathfinders to her, but
s
he had to get the girl to Wide Hat first. The sprites couldn’t move against the wind, anyway, and it wasn’t likely that any of the Pathfinders were near. Maskansisil was probably, in fact, the last of them; the whites had destroyed them as surely as they had the rest of the Lenni Lenape, using smallpox and whiskey where bullets and treaties failed.

A crowd, mostly men, materialized from farther north on Mulberry. Lupita tucked the naked girl under her serape and buried the child’s face between her scrawny breasts as she scurried out of the doorway and melted into the flow of people. Just as quickly she ducked away from them, though, like a fleeing slave who crosses water just to reverse direction on the other side.

The mob grew more boisterous as it flowed east onto Chatham and then south. The men around her were practically celebrating, some carrying crowbars and large sacks as they skipped along the snowy cobbled streets trailing a wreath of condensation and discordant song.

After the disastrous release of the
mocihuaquetzqui,
the appearance of the crowd struck Lupita as extremely lucky. She looked up and wasn’t surprised to see the Rabbit grinning in the Moon. Fickle,
Tochtli,
she thought. Next you will turn them all into turkeys. She let the crowd sweep her south, the press of bodies warming her a bit, until they came to Beekman. By then, her look up at the
Tochtli
had shown her something else, and she ducked away into the narrow quiet of the side street.

The southern end of the island was aglow like the horizon before sunrise, slowly brightening in the clear, terrible cold. Between that, the riotous buzzing in her head, and the mob’s fierce elation, Lupita guessed that her fears had been justified. The
mocihuaquetzqui
had ridden south until their progress was arrested by the crosswind that swept the Upper Bay. Then they had fluttered down to burn wherever they fell.

She crept into the overhung gap between Tammany Hall and its nearest neighbor. Pigs snuffled in horse manure shoveled into the alley by shopkeepers, and grunted as they wallowed deeper to keep away the cold.

At the rear of the Hall, a stair led down to a locked basement entrance. Lupita stopped under the alcove at the top of the stairs, relaxing for a moment until she realized how cold she was. She cut that thought off at the root; it would only excite the attentions of the sprites, and she had let her protections lapse. She stripped off her serape and wrapped Jane in it. The girl’s eyes were wide and unblinking, and she didn’t react when Lupita’s fingers, searching for a heartbeat, stuck to the blistered skin of her breast.

BOOK: Alexander C. Irvine
5.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Apocalypse Burning by Mel Odom
The Kid: A Novel by Ron Hansen
Opposite Attraction by Bernadette Marie
The Queen of Palmyra by Minrose Gwin
Roma Eterna by Robert Silverberg
A Beaumont Christmas Wedding by Sarah M. Anderson
Dragon Blood 1: Pliethin by Avril Sabine
Darkest Journey by Heather Graham