Heart Rot

It didn’t.

Two revolutions of Ina the timekeeper went by.

Something rustled and clunked over to his right. Tliichpil lifted his head and looked over. Behind the strap of Lotlixya’s hammock he caught a flash of movement; as his eyes adjusted it resolved itself into a human figure, crouched near the floor.

“Comalpo?” he whispered. He got up, slipped under her and padded over.

“I thought -“

“You didn’t think.” He took the spindle and roving from his brother’s hands, tucking them back into the basket and the basket back into its niche.

Seated on the warm hearth, Tliichpil squeezed his hands between his knees, guilt and shame curling like pitch in his stomach - it seemed so terribly cruel, to be separate from the pain, to not be able to offer anything to help but useless words and clumsy embraces.

Unclear words from outside. Their shadows, thrown away by the lamps on the windowsill, flickered across the open doorway. In the dark, Comalpo and Lotlixya seemed like nobody he knew. For a moment, they all did, even the little ones in their hammocks, like there was a deep fracture separating him apart and it was only growing, heartbeat by heartbeat.

Even in more things than age, he and Comalpo had always been similar. They laughed at most of the same jokes, liked most of the same foods, had gone and still did go most nearly everywhere together. One unit in two parts, matching halves like on the moons-tapestry.

He curled his lips in a silent snarl. It wasn’t as though it was surprising that that symmetry was starting to fall apart, though - it had to. They were twins, and in every set one twin was good and one twin was evil. The opening of that great a gulf would undoubtedly be preceded by some foreshocks. To attempt to wish them away might be understandable but it was also incredibly foolish - there was no defying doom.

So did this have meaning, good or evil? Did this mean that Comalpo was going to be the evil one, that he was going to go mad entirely? Or did it mean that he was himself the evil one, selfishly sitting here in persistent not-suffering no matter how hurt Comalpo was?

A sudden urge to go find them washed over them, to go kneel before Comalpo and say forgive me, forgive me, I should be able to save you, how can I say I love you and yet fail to save you -

Salt Water

Oquio pulled the hood of his overtunic closer around his neck. It was always cooler on the water, and the most so just before dawn, when the earth had had the most time to soak up the lingering suns-warmth. He turned back to look upriver again, noting with some satisfaction that no other boats or people could be seen.

In about one palmsbreadth they would all be waking up. Would all be pulling on aprons, tunics, and skirts, would all be leaving rooms for the morning meal. His sisters would plait one another’s hair while it warmed, like they did every morning. His mother would drink warm honeyed tea, wrapping her hands around the cup and sighing obviously - his father would stand behind her, lean over, and kiss her on the cheek.

And then someone would say where’s Oquio? and they would be calling him and when he did not come they would be searching the house, finding his hammock empty, running outside, going and striking on neighbour’s doorjambs and asking if they had seen him. And everyone would say they hadn’t, and then - then, his predictions shivered apart, depending on whether or not they noticed his canoe gone. Depending on whether or not they realized the reason he had fled, and the direction.

He maneuvered his canoe away from the clay-coloured shadow of a bar, churning up a swirl of sediment. There was at least one set of rapids lower down, that he would have to portage around, and then he would come to the Black City, which was as far away as he had ever travelled before - it took a full seven days there and back.

That would give him seven days more to plan what he would do beyond that. He could stay there, seek labour with a fishing family like everyone who worked for his father. That might be one of the first places they would seek for him, though, once they realized what he had done. For certainly his family would not simply let it be - they would be terribly, terribly shamed if they did not at least make an effort to retrieve him, to drag him back home and force him to acquiesce.

See, if he had had family outside of the City of Steps, he would likely be able to flee to them - but no, all his aunts, uncles, and cousins had been a backbone of the city’s trade network since long before anyone could remember. None of them would find better prospects anywhere else, and so they had never left.

A dead snag loomed dark in front of him, and he had to dig the oar in savagely to keep himself from running aground on it. One step at a time, he reminded himself, dragging his attention back to canoe, and water, cautiously maneuvering around. That was how his father and the workers had taught him to mend nets - untangling the twine before cutting any of it, making all the cuts before tying any of the knots, going slowly and methodically in order. That was how he had learned to plane and carve wood, and had made the oar sitting in his palms - split, then blank, then plane, then polish, never skipping ahead to any step before the previous step was fully completed. Don’t skip ahead. He only had to reach the Red Bar today, and he would be making good time. He could choose what his plan would be once he had reached the Black City and had slightly more space to think.

The rim of Teyo slipped over the horizon, sending orange-red bars of light across the water’s surface as it shone between the trees. A rush of warmth ran over the side of his face, and he sighed. Maybe this was a good omen? Maybe he would have some luck, at least, as certain as the suns rose.

He had not been surprised to find Limazi in his house when he returned to it - that was generally considered an inherent part of having a best friend, that they knew where you lived and could invite themselves over when they wished or if they were seeking you.

What had surprised him was that Limazi had not been alone - his father and mother, as well as Oquio’s father, mother, and older sister and brother had all been there in the atrium, and had all turned to look at him as he had pushed aside the screen and walked in. “What?” he had said defensively, under that massed stare. His gaze had flicked over to Limazi, hoping to get some clarification - when they had been much younger, had not even had ten years in age, they had fairly frequently been dragged before their families together to be criticized for playing pranks or bothering people at their work, but that had not happened for many years now, as both had grown older and now needed to represent their families’ honour.

“Oquio.” His mother had stepped forward, her eyes shining with pride and anticipation. “We have seen how close you and Limazi are. You are to be his husband, now, for he and his family have asked for you.”

He would have been significantly less surprised if they had shoved him through the hatch-opening and he had fallen down into the river. He had had a vague sense that someday he would be married, of course - barring his untimely death it would be necessary that he make a marriage, which would help solidify his family’s trading bonds among the dominant families of the city. But he had expected it to be much further away. He had expected that he would have been given more of a hand in the choosing - his older sister and her husband had almost browbeaten their parents into arranging them together, so firmly had they discussed their desire for it beforehand. Even his older brother had courted his wife for a few months on their parents suggestion before they had officially been wed.

And, if he was being perfectly honest, he had expected that it would have been a woman.

Of course, it felt a little bit petty to admit this, even secretly to himself - so you would reject a perfectly nice person, just because they’re not a woman? You would embarrass your family and yourself and your spouse over that?

But Oquio had considered, and realized that he probably would, if he thought he could get away with it. He had had vague thoughts about who he would find amenable for a spouse when he finally did wed, and every single person he had considered had been a woman. He would have liked to be a father someday, as well, and if he married Limazi that would never happen.

Likely he had spent too much time with the workers, down on the banks and in the canoes with the water under their soles rather than the sustaining stone. Nearly all of them came from significantly poorer families and could wed whomever they wanted, more or less, without consideration of how it would affect their family’s standing in the social structure of the city. So there had been a lot of conversation, about their standards for a spouse. One of them had sworn that she would never marry a man who was skilled at cooking, “Because I’m not good at it either and I don’t want him showing me up!” One of them said he only liked short-haired women, but that was all right because it had been his wife who had requested his hand first and had been fully willing to cut her braid if he thought it was more beautiful. They had never seemed ashamed of the possibility of rejecting people out of hand for such characteristics, and so Oquio had thought it was perhaps not terrible, if he did not desire to marry any man.

He had forgotten that the standards for him were much higher.

Limazi had come forward and taken his shoulders, and the joy on his face had almost been painful; Oquio had wanted to hide his eyes from its blaze. “Oquio,” he said, “for years I have loved you, and I have wanted nothing more than to be with you forever. I am so grateful that your family thinks I am worthy of it.” This was how animals felt, he had thought, when they were caught in a snare - to go forward, to agree and let himself be wed to Limazi would be a lie. He cared about him, of course, only not as a husband; and he had realized in that moment like a sudden burn that he would grow to hate him over time were everyone to continue under that impression.

But to go back, and to admit in front of all his family and Limazi’s parents that he did not want this, he would not take this marriage would be even worse. It would shatter all their relationships - his father would have no trading partners still willing to deal with him, if they knew he had a son so disloyal. His mother and siblings would hate him.

And so when Limazi had leaned forward to kiss him he had forced himself to remain still, not to pull away, despite the cool and worm-like feeling that had been Limazi’s flesh on his. He had been blushing shyly when he pulled back, as though afraid Oquio would disappear if he did more, and Oquio had selfishly wished that were indeed the case.

His sister had saved him, to an extent: laughing and coming forward and hugging him, ruffling his hair like he was a child again. “Look at you,” she had said, “my baby brother has a husband now.” And that had broken the tension stretched like a sinew line through the room, and they had all fallen to congratulating him and Limazi, patting them on the backs and heads, offering jokes about married life. Oquio’s father and Limazi’s mother had started a conversation that they had evidently dropped off just before he had entered, for it began right in the middle of a thought. It was only when his brother asked, “So who’s going to go live with who?” that she turned and said, “Oh, but surely you shall come to our house. We would be so glad to have you as a son, and since Limazi’s sister went to the White City with her husband there is more than enough room.”

And his parents had offered Limazi’s family food, and the conversation and celebrating had gone on. Limazi had been pressed leech-like up against his side, and his skin had crawled with every touch and his thoughts had closed down to just wishing, over and over again, that nobody noticed how his smile had stiffened like day-old meat.

Wind Dance

Zintlāchmina wished she didn’t have to wake. She had ducked her head outside of the blanket and then immediately withdrawn it against the cold. There had been frost on the ground in the mornings, coating the grass-blades and filigreeing the rough edges of the stones, for the last several days. Surely the first snow of the season would not be that far away - and then the hunting and training season would be over, all the pikas and quail, squirrels and rabbits nestled into their burrows, sleeping until the snow retreated months hence.

So regardless of what she wanted, her time was limited. She had to make good use of it. Groaning slightly, she sat up and swung her legs out of the hammock, pulling her blanket up around her shoulders to conserve a little bit of the warmth while she tied on her aprons and her sleeveless tunic underneath it. She regrettably had to shed it and stand to reach over and fetch her deerskin overskirt and long-sleeved overtunic. She tucked her braid into her collar, shoved her feet into her felted boots, and quietly padded over to where Ochon perched. Below his perch was a niche built into the stone wall where she kept a small bag of meat strips as rewards for him, as well as her hand-guard and the hood she sometimes used for him, if they were travelling somewhere unfamiliar. But he spent most of his time unhooded - like now, when he had tucked his head down almost into the curve of his wing. His feathers were fluffed up too - she supposed he was not any more enthused than she was to be heading out on such a cold morning.

Zintlāchmina wrapped her hand-guard around her right palm and wrist, then clucked gently and knocked the back of her hand against his feet. “Come on.” With only slight hesitation, he stepped onto her wrapped hand, and she took his jesses in her fist.

Opening the door-screen only a crack so as not to wake the rest of her family, she stepped out into the thin periwinkle light of the morning. She drew a deep breath of frost-scented air; the grasses and shrubs all around sparkled like they had been carved out of quartz like the amulet hanging around her neck.

There was, of course, no falcon-hunting permitted within the village. Every young person tried it, once, and then found out why they couldn’t hunt rats away from the grain stores like that, once their falcon leapt upon dog and kid and all the other small, scurrying, yet important things one found in a village. But the goats had been brought down from the higher meadows already, as the grasses had started to brown and die and the vegetation had started to redden in the cold, and so she hiked upwards, winding in a zigzag pattern back and forth up the face of the mountain.

She broke out over an outcrop, and suddenly the whole landscape became patent before her, falling away into sharp arêtes, bright ridges of greys and taupes, the gleaming ribbon of a stream as it wound into the pine forests sweeping up to the feet of the highlands and lining the valleys. With a laugh, she cast Ochon off, and he rose up into the sky just as a line of liquid copper swelled and bubbled along the edges of the facing ridge.

And the air broke into layers of gold and orange and scarlet, pouring like honey down the slopes and over her in a rush of warmth. The disks of the suns crept over the horizon, rendering Ochon a small silhouette wheeling against it. She wished she could join him - how beautiful would it be, to watch the suns-rise pouring over the world below like a flood and to rise with it, suspended on the arms of the wind.

Then he pulled in his wings and dropped - like a stone, like a dart, like a star broken away from heaven and tumbling to earth. He disappeared into the scrub for a moment, and then emerged with something large clutched in one foot. Even larger than the usual mice and songbirds he brought back to her - as he approached, she saw it was a rabbit, white rump flashing in the suns-light. With the extra weight, his landing was somewhat clumsier than normal; the rabbit’s head was crushed between his toes and her arm.

Zintlāchmina pulled out a scrap for him before he could start digging into its skull for the rich, fatty brain. “Good boy,” she said, reaching up to ruffle the feathers on his chest while he gulped it down. She took the rabbit from his talons and tied it onto one of the loose loops on her belt. They would be having fresh rabbit for the nightmeal tonight - let this be her present for her brother Pazomez, he loved rabbit.

Ochon chirred expectantly. “Ready?” she asked him, grinning. His eyes fixed on her free hand. She held up her fingers, and then flicked them upwards. “Go!” Ochon launched himself up off her arm, and she could hear his wingbeats fading away as he gained height.

Zintlāchmina smiled and pushed her fingers into the soft niche in the side of her neck, until she could feel the beating of her life there, and continued up the path. This was one of her first memories - her grandfather, holding her in one arm and his own falcon on the other wrist, taking her small hand and pressing it to his own lined throat, to show her how he timed flights. She remembered being very impressed, not wanting to take her fingers away even after Tolchar, his favourite falcon, had landed again, presenting a beaten songbird.

Her grandfather had been the best falconer - her mother had demurred, saying only within the memories of the village, but Zintlāchmina knew better: in the whole wide world, across the whole of time. People had brought their falcons to him whenever they had troubles with behaviour, illnesses, failures to perform, and he would fly the birds just once and would be able to return them to their owners with advice that never failed to come sure.

She remembered sitting beside his knee on dark winter nights, listening to him tell her tales of heroes and ancient battles, underscored by the howling of the wind outside. Of Cuexochitl, who instead of an ass rode into battle a great cat and filled her enemies with fear before her spear came near to them; of Quohue, who had slain his own sorceress-sister and taken over her empire; of Macui, who had stood one-handedly against the much greater host of foes that had come to burn his village to the ground and drag off its inhabitants as bond-servants, for there had been none other able-bodied within it - and who had died one-handedly there as well, unburied and witnessed only by his killers and Hualma. “That,” her grandfather had told her, there in the leaping firelight enclosing them away from the night, “is true honour, Zintlāchmina. It is doing what you know to be right - when there will be for you no commendation, and when no-one would know if you took the easier path.”

Turning a corner, she lifted up her hand, waved it, and whistled.

Ochon turned, descended, and began winging his way back towards her. Zintlāchmina reached into her hip-bag for a slip of meat to reward him with, and raised up her wrist. He definitely deserved a good reward for that - this was the longest time yet that he had remained in flight and yet came back as soon as she signalled. They had been working up flight times for the last year and a half, about, starting with ten-heartbeat times, then twenty, gradually increasing until they were into the multiple hundreds.

His jesses swished over the scrub as he approached, the beating of his wings heavy like running footsteps. And just as his talons reached out for her hand, just as his wings blotted out the sunslight, something large leapt out from the shadows. Ochon spooked, one wing striking her shoulder painfully, and flapped away in a swirl of feathers and flash of scaled skin. Zintlāchmina heard herself scream and flinched, although it was useless - there were no predators so big up in the mountains but the panther, and the list of people she had ever heard of to survive a panther attack alone she could have counted on one hand with room to spare.

But no, she realized: the scream hadn’t been hers. And there were no sharp claws digging into her arms, no jaws shattering her bone. She dropped her arms from her face to see, cringing back against the hill-face, a young woman. She seemed almost more afraid than Zintlāchmina herself, still cringing back, hiding her face from sight.

“Who are you? Why did you do that?” Zintlāchmina demanded. One did not make sudden movements around falcons if one wanted to keep all their eyes or fingers, or the eyes and fingers of anyone else in the immediate vicinity.

An indeterminate frightened sound was the only response. She softened. “Are you all right? What’s the matter?”

A response wound its way thinly out between the folded arms. “Your eagle…”

Despite herself, Zintlāchmina chuckled. “He’s not an eagle,” she explained, “just a ruddy falcon.” To hunt with an eagle… not even she would have dared to dream such a thing. The laugh must have put the other woman a little more at ease - she peeked out, and then straightened up.

Now that Zintlāchmina could take a better look at the woman, though, it was clear that, whoever she was and whyever she had been afraid of Ochon, she had recently met with hardship. Her clothing was not mountain clothing - she wore only undertunic and aprons, unadorned and heavily dirtied, and her legs underneath it were bare and covered in thorn-scratches. That might explain it a little bit - if she was from the lowlands, then she would not know much about falconry. But why would anyone from the lowlands be here in the mountains, alone and suffering?

“Please don’t tell,” the woman blurted. A rush of pity poured through Zintlāchmina - she wanted to ask why, ask what the woman thought she would do to her, because it wasn’t a crime to be out in the highlands no matter how much one was struggling. But she had been afraid of Ochon’s very presence - that question would probably scare her away entirely.

Come to think of it, where was Ochon? He probably wouldn’t have gone too far away - she cast around over the grass and scrub, and then looked up the mountainside. A rough, high spur of broken rock jutted out above the path, and a russet-and-white patch perched on a ledge caught her eye. She whistled and held up her hand again. “Come on, Ochon!” she called. “It’s all right! She’s not a panther!” He stomped on the ledge, but did not raise his wings to descend towards her. Ugh. Her falcon was apparently a coward.

A gust of wind whistled around the spur, tossing the loose threads of Zintlāchmina’s hair into her face. The woman gave a full-body shudder, pulling her arms around herself and shutting down her face. On impulse, Zintlāchmina dragged her overtunic off over her head and held it out. The wind rushed over her bare skin, drawing a wave of frission over her skull and down her spine.

“No, I couldn’t -“

“Take it,” she insisted. “At least for now. You look like you’re freezing.”

Hesitantly, the woman took it from her - her nailbeds looked bruised, darker than they should have been from the cold, and Zintlāchmina winced - and shrugged it on. The sleeves flopped down over her hands, making her look like a child dressing up in an older sibling’s clothes. The grimy mat of her hair tumbled out when she pulled up the hood.

“Have you been living out here?” Zintlāchmina asked, knowing what the answer must be - nobody with a home to go to could be quite so wretched. A timid nod confirmed her expectation. “Where?”

The woman shook her head resolutely. Clearly, she was running from something. But what?

“Look,” Zintlāchmina said. “I can help you.”

“Then swear,” she begged. “Swear on your honour that you won’t tell anyone about me.”

She swallowed. “All right. I so swear.” She whistled a third time, and pulled a scrap of meat out and waved it around for good measure. “Ochon! Get down here, you little idiot!” He flapped clumsily down and snatched it out of her fingers before settling himself down on her wrist. She stroked his head and back, and smiled her best comforting smile at the woman. See? He was very tame. No need for fear. “So, your camp…?”

The woman turned and led her off the trail, through red willow clusters and low-growing bayberry. With Ochon resting against the side of her ribcage, Zintlāchmina followed.

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