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Chapter 1
Chapter 1

It all started several months earlier in Xukpi, the boys home city, on the night Boar Hunter of Water Mountain was relieved of his heart. The foreign lord had been held in captivity for almost two years, and only the previous day, on the seating of the month, had played for his life in the narrow ball court that abutted Lord Bleeding Heart's sprawling palace. Played and lost, for an audience made up of the city's elite, and so had been sentenced to kiss the executioner's obsidian blade.
Pitch-pine and tree-cotton torches lighted the steep stairways and gaping portals of Xukpi's blood-red temples, and Lord Bleeding Heart himself danced, twirling and gliding through a haze of incense smoke that parted for him like a gauzy curtain. Emerged from the smoke transformed, he slithered to the summit of the One Monkey House while spectators perched on the eastern slope of Jaguar Mountain chanted: "Bleed-ing Heart, Bleed-ing Heart, Bleed-ing Heart . . ."
Long before that night it was often said of him that his third nipple dispensed milk as savory as frothy cacao and as nourishing as maize gruel.
A voice among the crowd, 3Sky watched with wide eyes and clenched hands, hoping for a glimpse of the famed third nipple, but the details of Lord Bleeding Heart's narrow chest were concealed under bark-cloth, macaw feathers, and strands of earthstone spheres the size of gum-tree fruits.
Admission to the acropolis had required donations of dried meat, woven cloth, or freshly-cut flowers. But in exchange, gourdfuls of oil-popped maize kernels had been distributed to the rabble -- handfuls of which had been raining on 3Sky's head from the moment he sat down.
"Maize storm!" someone would shout, and another downpour would commence, accompanied by much playful shoving and disingenuous remonstration. Those who had come for spiritual succor were hopelessly outnumbered.
With seating arranged by city precinct, the kernel throwers and their targets were well acquainted and a mood of irreverent merriment prevailed. Fending off lustful grabs from drunken young men, women giggled behind hands stained red with berry paste. Infants wailed, protesting the thick evening heat, their cotton swaddlings, their empty bellies. Several stairs above 3Sky, a group of his teenage peers collided shoulders in a rocking motion that threatened to avalanche everyone into the plaza.
Most of those in the crowd would have sacrificed fingers to have attended the royal ball game or observed the removal of Boar Hunter's heart from its flesh and bone cage. But 3Sky, who cared little for ball games and less for sacrifices, was content to bask in the gentler pleasures the night offered: the mingling aromas of incense and wood smoke; the coolness of the stairway's plaster-faced stone against his bare legs and back; the pulse-quickening sounds of horns, drums, and flutes; the downpours of popped maize . . .
Flaring firepots on the south side of the plaza brought to life the nine-portaled temple that topped Macaw House. Priests armed with mosaic mirrors directed the light against the grand stairway that climbed its northern face, whose thousands of speaking-stones provided a chronicle of Lord Bleeding Heart's dynastic line. Similar fires on the north side of the plaza threw light on the unnamed mound that was soon to house the body of Bleeding Heart's wife, Lady Rainchaser, dead almost a year now, as a consequence of childbirth.
Descending the opposing mounds, as though poured from the cave-like mouths of their temples, came processions of musicians and dancers, priests and courtiers, soldiers and captives, many dressed in animal masks, bulky headdresses, and plumed backracks.
"Why don't White Eternity's acolytes just soar down?" someone in the crowd asked nastily, referring to the priest who ministered directly to Bleeding Heart.
"Because it's not yet midnight," another answered drunkenly.
"Quiet, lowbrows!" 3SKy's paternal uncle said in false reproach. "We supposed to be marveling at this."
"Beer is the only marvel I know."
The comment set half the crowd laughing; the other half counseling for silence. Someone farted; another burped; a third vomited on the stairs, scattering a huddle of young women with colored yarn braided into their hair. His own laughter stifled by a minatory look from his father, 3SKy held his tongue and sharpened his gaze.
Returned to human form atop One Monkey House, Lord Bleeding Heart had reappeared from the temple and was descending the stairway, whose uppermost steps were slick with Boar Hunter's recently let blood. His nose, lips, and earlobes held plugs of green earthstone and his feathered crown enveloped the head of a jaguar. Trophies of war dangled from the broad belt that braced a cumbersome panache of arching quetzal coverts. Great strength and agility were required to descend the shallow high-rise steps without losing balance, but Lord Bleeding Heart carried the weight of the world lightly and did not falter.
Behind him stepped White Eternity -- the Fearful One -- high priest of the palace, dressed in a sleeveless robe of fig-bark cloth, whose edges were ornamented with snail shells.
The kop sah's minions trailed him -- White Eternity's prayermakers, soothsayers, and daykeepers -- along with a quartet of aged but fearsome men known as the Time Watchers, who carried lightning staffs and blood-filled gourds. Last in line came the heart remover, the cutting edge of his black obsidian blade lustrous with blood.
Conch horns blared from the steps of Lady Rainchaser's temple, where members of the royal family and the nobility were gathered on the mound's rounded tiers. Musicians preceded them down the stairway, while servants hurried alongside, scattering flower petals and sprigs of fern.
"Play something we can dance to!" one of 3Sky's friends shouted before a harsh cuff from the youth's mother nearly sent him somersaulting down the stairway.
From Macaw House marched a train of prisoners led by their warrior captors. Tallest among them walked Bleeding Heart's imported war chief, Bloody Apron, his long hair a testament to his fearlessness in battle, his naked arms graced with the fleshless human jawbones of slain opponents. But central to the procession rode the captive princess, Waterlily Macaw, in keeping with her station as the widow of the now heartless Boar Hunter. Together, she and Boar Hunter had lorded over a city to the northeast known as Water Mountain, though the princess herself was native to an even more distant city called Dznote -- Deep Green Pool -- which was close to the sea that encircled the lands of the Real People.
3Sky had first set eyes on her the day Boar Hunter, his family, and a treasure in tribute had been conveyed into Xukpi along the raised roadway that entered from the east. Waterlily Macaw had been seated on a litter that day -- as she had the second time he saw her, almost a year later, on the death day of Bleeding Heart's wife. Then, only a week ago, he had seen her once more, in among a parade of noble captives, imprisoned in a wooden cage like some forlorn songbird.
The fact that she had only grown lovelier in his eyes and more dreamlike in his heart made it hard to accept that she was next in line to kiss the executioner's blade -- if not for some few days to come, on the occasion of Lady Rainchaser's burial. Dire urgency attended the coming funeral, for Lady Rainchaser's tormented spirit had been haunting the city since her untimely death.
Even harder to accept was the rumor of Waterlily Macaw's eagerness to part with her life. Or so 3Sky's best friend, Flint, had led him to believe. Ear-to-the-ground Flint, who was seldom wrong about such things.
Plying currents of incense smoke, the processions of warriors and captives and musicians and courtiers converged at the foot of One Monkey House, where Bleeding Heart and his priests awaited them. Opposite the stairs stood a newly planted monument that depicted the Lord of Xukpi balanced on the bowed back of Boar Hunter. Conch shells and whistles sounded, and again the crowd took up the chant, enhancing it with the rhythmic stomping of bare and sandaled feet: Bleed-ing Heart, Bleed-ing Heart, Bleed-ing Heart . . .
A hand signal from White Eternity silenced the tumult.
One of the priest's Time Watchers stepped forward with his gourdful of blood and splashed it against the carved face of the monument. Immediately, an acolyte moved in with a length of cotton cloth and pressed it to the bloodied stone. Withdrawn, the cloth bore in mirror-image the figures of Bleeding Heart and Boar Hunter, along with the word-signs that told of their contest and its resolution. The cloth was delivered into the hands of a messenger wearing a red mantle; and the ritual was repeated until four such messengers held speaking-cloths.
When the runners had raced from the plaza to spread word of Bleeding Heart's achievement far and wide, the Lord extended his hands above his head, plucking the Wasp Star from the sky and setting it atop the stately roof-comb of One Monkey House. Quickly then, the rest of the stars began to fall like glowing ashpots, blossoming into huge flowers that etched the night with streams of color. Embers drifted down on the city, only to become fireflies long before reaching the ground.
And so great were their numbers and so bright the winking fires of their tails, that torches and candles throughout the city were extinguished, and the crowds of witnesses were able to return to their homes as if by the white blush of a full moon.