The Opinionated Wench  

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Copyright Shannon Ward 2002
This is the full story of Ysabel, my second KiSS doll

Night falls over Tlaloxtecatlan. Artisans and farmers thankfully end the day's work and retire to their homes, their wives, and their fresh-cooked dinners. It is a moonless night, but three silhouettes may be dimly seen atop the Pyramid of the Moon, at the South end of the Plaza Mayor. These belong to Nahui Tecpatl, the Elder Priest of Cihuamiquitzli, and two younger priests of the same Goddess, Xicuei Yolli and Ce Cueyatl. They are watching the sky, for, in the night sky can be seen a bright light that is neither star nor planet, and growing nightly ever closer. Tonight, though there is no moon, the bright light appears far closer than any natural satellite. It appears to hesitate for a moment, then splits into two. One half plunges groundwards, gathering speed and brightness until it is a fiery streak in the sky. It disappears from view beyond the horizon, but a few moments later is heard a ground-shaking roar. Nahui Tecpatl bangs his serpent-headed staff on the stone bricks, satisfied.

"The portents have all been fulfilled," he tells Xicuei Yolli and Ce Cueyatl. "Cihuamiquitzli has arrived."

* * *

Many miles away, beyond the furthest reaches of cultivated fields, a lone air-to-space jet graces the plain, at the end of a long line cleared of rocks. It is an Explorator class jet from the Auctorite de l'Aerospace de la Colonge, inventively named Explorator IV. For the last month and a half it has been home to Capitaine Liselotte Patriquin and her crew, all star graduates of the Academie de la Colonge, and Donha Ysabel de Aguilar y Espinosa, Duke's daughter of Aguileria. The hatch of the jet slowly opens.

"I mean, can you believe this runway?" Lte. Therese Ferrier is saying. "And those weirdo symbols all along the sides? It's like they knew we were coming or something."

"Perhaps they did," says Donha Ysabel. As well as not being in AAC uniform, she has a fairer complexion and is much more delicately built than her companions. She is the only one of the group who is blonde.

The other girls roll their eyes. Pilote Charlotte Barras says, scornfully, "Oh, yeah, they had a vision or something."

"Look, Ysabel, there's no industrialization whatsoever on this planet. As far as we can tell, they don't even know how to work metal. There's no way they have the technology to know we're coming," says Capitaine Patriquin.

"Yeah these weird lines and stuff are probably for some religious ceremony or something," says Pilote Barras, wrinkling her nose as she says the word religious. "This runway probably isn't really a runway at all. Kinda convenient, though, huh, girls?"

Donha Ysabel keeps her own counsel. She is sorry her companions have no room for the truth in their hearts, but for all their cleverness with these clockworks and airships of theirs, they are nothing but sad romps and commoners and cannot be expected to exhibit true intelligence.

The four aeronautes immediately get to work unloading the cargo hold of the jet. Out come a large, squat ATV, a military-issue tent, kitchen and bedding supplies, surveying instruments, and an extensive array of field lab equipment. "I suppose it's useless getting Ysabel to lend a hand here," mutters Lte Brandimarthe Ladouceur.

* * *

Sun rises over the plain. The aeronautes have set their tent up near their jet and enjoyed their first night on solid ground in almost two months, unmolested by any sort of large animal. Biting insects, a more insidious problem, have been neatly dealt with by liberal use of nylon mesh. Appearing over the horizon is a small convoy consisting of Nahui Tecpatl, Xicuei Yolli, Ce Cueyatl, and an exquisitely dressed young woman, all resting on elaborate palanquins borne by slaves. Donha Ysabel pokes her head out of the tent, squinting, though the sunlight is not particularly strong.

"Capitaine Patriquin, I believe we are like to have company," she says.

Inside the tent, the Capitaine and her crew all scramble out of their cots, jostling each other on their way to the door.

"Wow, cool! Our very first aliens!" exclaims Lte. Ladouceur.

"Ysabel's an alien," Lte. Ferrier reminds her.

"Oh, yeah, right," agrees Lte. Ladouceur. "Wonder if they'll be as weird as her?"

Capitaine Patriquin is first to the door, pushing Donha Ysabel out of the way. A flicker of annoyance passes across her face, but she retains her composure.

"Ysabel, there's nothing here," she says dismissively after squinting at the horizon.

"I assure you," Donha Ysabel says.

Capitaine Patriquin glares at her, but says, "Hey Barras, you got the binocs there?"

Pilote Barras hands a pair of pan-wavelength binoculars to her captain, who holds them up to her eyes. After a moment of focusing, the captain slaps Donha Ysabel on the back. "You got good eyes there, Ysabel," she says.

"I'll thank you to not be quite so familiar with me, Capitaine," says Donha Ysabel in a low voice. Ltes. Ferrier and Ladouceur are fighting over the binoculars.

"Lemme see!"

"No, lemme see first!"

Pilote Barras, with a second pair of binoculars, pushes past her crewmates and raises the binoculars to her eyes. She says, "You'd think they could at least invent the wheel!"

As the convoy comes closer and closer, Capitaine Patriquin paces back and forth, muttering the scripted greeting prescribed for her by the AAC and the Presidente of la Colonge. Lte. Ladouceur fidgets with her gun, a high-powered semiautomatic pistol. "What if they're hostile?" she says.

"They are not like to be," says Donha Ysabel. "Did you not say the Auctorite has now made contact with eleven other colonies and domains? I understand there have been no hostilities to date. This will be my third contact. I have every confidence we will be received pleasantly." Despite her assurances, she slips a finely chased dagger into the front of her corset and another up each sleeve, preparations which go unnoticed by any of the aeronautes.

"Yabut, I just wanna be sure," replies Lte. Ladouceur. "Just in case, y'know?"

"Lte. Ladouceur, if these people have failed to invent the wheel, and cannot work metal, I am sure they will not be intimidated by something they must perceive as nothing more than a fancy toy," Donha Ysabel says.

"Wait'll I start shooting them," growls Lte. Ladouceur.

"Hey, hey, Brandy, ask questions first, shoot later, in this instance, okay?" interrupts Lte. Ferrier.

"You'll thank me when I save your ass," says Lte. Ladouceur.

The visitors are now less than 100 metres away. Capitaine Patriquin comes to stand next to, or rather, in front of Donha Ysabel and her crew. She hisses at them to put their guns away and stand up straight. Donha Ysabel takes a deep breath. She can smell the anticipation and anxiety on the aeronautes, a mildly guilty pleasure. The welcoming party is a bit more of a mystery to her. So far, all of the people she has met have seemed exactly the same, had the same sort of smells, projected the same sort of energy. The only exception until now has been the youth Gianni, who projected a darker, more powerful sort of energy, and who gave her this gift of enhanced perception. She is grateful for it, for it tells her that these people are subtly, indefinably different, and puts her on her guard.

As the convoy reaches the party of aeronautes, Nahui Tecpatl gives the order to the slaves to set the palanquins down. The three priests of Cihuamiquitzli and the young girl alight, then walk forward, heads bowed. When they reach the party, they drop to their knees as behind them the slaves follow suit.

"Cihuamiquitzli," says Nahui Tecpatl, with reverence. The Tlaloxtec have warm brown complexions and glossy black hair. The three men are dressed in white shirts, black pants, and colourful sashes. Nahui Tecpatl himself is old and wizened, and missing several teeth. The two others, while younger than Nahui Tecpatl, are paunchy and middle-aged. The young woman, likely younger than Donha Ysabel or any of the aeronautes, is dressed in an elaborately-patterned calf-length poncho. All four wear large jade spools in their earlobes and smaller spools through their septums and lower lips. The young woman also wears an ungainly gold headdress inset with semiprecious stones. The slaves are naked but for their loincloths.

"Um, uh, loquaminine lingua latina?" asks Capitaine Patriquin haltingly. Donha Ysabel is tempted to think that even if they do speak Latin, it will be of little avail to the captain. The Elder Priest looks at the captain in incomprehension, saying something in his own language. The aeronautes look at one another in helplessness and confusion. Donha Ysabel feels her heart sink. The man is speaking a language like no other she has heard. However, since she now knows five languages she might as well try to make herself understood. She starts with her native tongue.

"Habla Aguilereno?" she asks.

The man's face lights up. "Hablamo Caxtillan," he replies. The accent differs, but the words are similar enough.

"Do, please get up," Donha Ysabel invites the visitors in her own language. "We are honoured to receive you at our humble camp."

"Cihuamiquitzli," says the man again, "we are honoured to be in Your very presence. May I humbly present myself as Nahui Tecpatl, Your most devoted servant, along with Your lesser servants Xicuei Yolli and Ce Cueyatl."

Donha Ysabel is mystified by the extreme reverence, but introduces herself and the aeronautes.

"Since we had the portent of Your coming, Your priests have worked tirelessly to prepare a suitable dwelling for You and Your handmaidens in Tlaloxtecatlan," Nahui Tecpatl says. "We would be greatly honoured if You will accept our hospitality during Your stay here."

Donha Ysabel would like to accept, but Capitaine Patriquin is in charge of the mission. "The spokesman has kindly offered us a dwelling in their city for the duration of our stay," she explains to the Capitaine. "Should you like me to accept the invitation?"

"Uh, I guess so. Is that usual?" Capitaine Patriquin says. Throughout the voyage from la Colonge to this new planet she has been very sure of herself and her ability to lead this mission, and somewhat resentful of Donha Ysabel's inclusion. Suddenly, she is glad of her presence.

"Are we going to be in any danger?" asks Lte. Ladouceur, fingering her gun again.

"An offer of hospitality is usually a friendly gesture," Donha Ysabel says. "I am certain if we do our best not to appear threatening we will be in no danger at all. Shall I accept, then?"

"Uh, yeah," says Capitaine Patriquin tentatively. Then, when she sees her crew looking at her curiously, she says, "That is, tell them we're happy to accept their invitation."

Donha Ysabel says to Nahui Tecpatl, "We would be honoured to accept your hospitality."

Nahui Tecpatl wipes the beads of sweat off his brow in relief.

* * *

Shortly after, the small convoy heads back towards Tlaloxtecatlan. The four aeronautes are travelling in the ATV, pulling a small flatbed trailer with the bulk of their supplies. Donha Ysabel is riding in a palanquin with the young lady. The spokesman, Nahui Tecpatl, has expressed concern that such a conveyance is not exalted enough for their guest from the Sky, but Donha Ysabel has assured him she is honoured to see and experience the life of her hosts. In reality, she is anxious to have some time away from the four aeronautes, common girls that they are, and eager to spend some time with a young lady who appears to be her social equal.

Donha Ysabel and the young lady ride at the front of the convoy, with Nahui Tecpatl behind them, the two younger men behind him, and the ATV bringing up the rear. Pilote Barras drives. Capitaine Patriquin sits in the front passenger seat, silently studying her files on previous contacts and trying to project the dignity and authority she feels she lost earlier. In the back seat, Lte Ferrier is saying,

"Anyone else get kind of a funny vibe from those guys?"

"Yeah, a bit," replies Lte. Ladouceur.

"A vibe?" scoffs Pilote Barras. "You guys are as bad as Ysabel."

"No, really," Lte. Ladouceur says. "It's like they're just not ... right, somehow. Or something"

"Yeah, Ysabel's kinda funny too," says Lte. Ferrier.

Pilote Barras rolls her eyes. "You guys, they are aliens, you know."

In the palanquin, the young lady appears tongue-tied. Donha Ysabel asks her, "Do you speak Caxtillan too?"

"Y-yes, Great Lady," her companion stutters. She looks away shyly and blushes a dusky colour.

"Now, there is no reason to be shy of me," says Donha Ysabel. "It is true that my companions and I came from the sky, but we are no different than you."

The young lady's blush deepens. "It is very kind of You to say so, Great Lady." She is silent for a few moments, then appears to find her nerve. She takes a deep breath. "Great Lady, it is true Your handmaidens are no different than us -- well, no different than a Fire Serpent, actually, but You are Cihuamiquitzli!" She looks at Donha Ysabel wide-eyed. Clearly, she expects Donha Ysabel to understand her meaning.

Donha Ysabel does not understand her meaning, and calmly prepares to explain. During the previous contacts she has made, she has not experienced this degree of reverence. Neither the Kytherans nor the Silverhoolters had been expecting visitors from the sky, and, though initially suspicious of the all-female exploration parties, had eventually welcomed them and agreed to trade. In her own land, of course, her father's astronomer, with his telescopes, had been observing the approach of the explorers' ship for almost a week before its arrival and had known to expect something. When the explorers had arrived, her father had received them as the soldiers and merchants they were. Here, Donha Ysabel is not quite sure what to think. It is almost as though they are being received as social superiors, though their hosts are clearly not of base birth themselves.

"I very much fear - things are different here than they are in the sky," Donha Ysabel ventures. "I hope you will be so good as to explain things to me as they come up."

Her companion becomes extremely worried. "Oh, no, we're not doing everything wrong, are we?"

"No, no, not at all. Every place does things differently. Your way is the right way for you. But you must tell me what things are, so that when my companions and I are visiting you, we will also do things the way that is right for you. For instance, what is a Cihua - Ci -" Donha Ysabel stumbles over the unfamiliar word.

"You don't know who You are?" squeaks the young lady.

Donha Ysabel sighs. It is proving extremely difficult to get any information out of her companion. She almost begins to wish she had chosen to sit in the ATV with the aeronautes. "I know who I am in my own country. I know not who you think I might be."

The young lady has a flash of insight. "It's a test!" she proclaims brightly.

"Yes, a test. Can you tell me what it is?"

"It is You, Great Lady."

"Exactly so. Now tell me, if you can, what a circular definition is," Donha Ysabel snaps.

* * *

Upon arrival in Tlaloxtecatlan, the convoy is feted by a joyful crowd lining the Plaza Mayor. Everyone except the young lady sharing her palanquin with Donha Ysabel is in extremely high spirits. The young lady is subdued and silent. Rather than stopping at the foot of the Pyramid of the Moon, the slaves continue up the side. The aeronautes in their ATV are left cursing at the bottom. Donha Ysabel is shown to a sumptuous suite deep in the heart of the pyramid. Though it is the middle of the day, no daylight reaches this sanctum, but the inside is brightly illuminated by countless candles, set in sconces on the walls and hanging from the ceiling in four gold polycandela. Daybeds and stools are covered with intricately woven, brightly coloured cloths. A staggering array of foods and beverages are laid out at a low table.

Bowing low, Nahui Tecpatl says, "I hope this will suit, Great Lady.""You are too gracious, mine host," says Donha Ysabel modestly. It is not more sumptuous than the apartments of Castle Ravensburg she grew up in, except for the liberal use of gold, but it is far grander guest quarters than she has so far been offered in her travels.

The young lady Donha Ysabel rode with from the landing site has now passed from subdued to resentful. Donha Ysabel casts a quick glance at her but says nothing. It is an issue for another time. For now, she says to Nahui Tecpatl, "I would be grateful if you would allow me and my companions to rest and break our fast. Perhaps a little later we might be able to meet with your leader?"

Nahui Tecpatl, bowing and scraping, says, "Yes, yes, Great Lady. Anything You wish shall be done!"

* * *

"Can you believe we've been left out here like this?" exclaims Capitaine Patriquin, getting out of the ATV and gesturing angrily at the Pyramid.

"Yeah, it's not like you're in charge of this mission or anything," mutters Pilote Barras. The captain looks daggers at her, and she backs away, putting her hands in the air. "Hey, hey, I didn't mean it that way or anything. It's just, well, you are in charge, but Ysabel thinks she's so much better than us, and she's all Ms.-I've-been-on-ten-contact-missions-already-so-I-know-exactly-what-to-do and --"

"I know what to do, guys," says Lte Ferrier, getting out of the ATV and heading up the stairs of the pyramid. "They went this way, we go this way."

Capitaine Patriquin and Pilote Barras continue to vehemently express their negative opinion of Donha Ysabel, but all four start climbing. Capitaine Patriquin keeps looking nervously back at the ATV, as though the inhabitants of the city might steal it or take it apart. The reach a doorway in the middle of the pyramid, through which they saw the palanquins pass. Lte. Ladouceur proceeds into the passageway, lit flashlight in one hand and gun in the other.

"Ysabel?" she hollers into the darkness. A well-muscled young man, dressed similarly to the ones who greeted them earlier, steps into view and bows.

"You are the handmaidens of Cihuamiquitzli?" he asks in Tlaloxtec.

Lte. Ladouceur does not know any Tlaloxtec, nor yet much Caxtillan, but she does recognise the word these people used to describe Donha Ysabel earlier. "Yes. Uh, I mean si. Cihuami -- These guys couldn't have picked a language that was harder to pronounce, could they?"

The man bows low and says, "Please come this way," in Tlaloxtec. Luckily for Lte. Ladouceur, he also gestures.

"Hey, this way, guys," she calls to her crewmates. She starts to follow the man, and they follow her.

"He's pretty cute," Lte. Ferrier comments to her in an undertone. Both Ltes. spend a few moments admiring the ripple of his muscles as he guides them down the hall.

"Yabut, he's got that funny vibe," replies Lte. Ladouceur. This comment does not stop her from watching.

"Will you two shut up with your vibes already?" snaps Pilote Barras.

In the suite that has been allotted to them, Donha Ysabel has seated herself as elegantly as she can on the floor, but she rises at their arrival. "Capitaine," she says, "I am sorry you were left behind outside. Our hosts cannot have known your ATV could not climb the sides of this edifice. As you can see, they have left us with a generous nuncheon, and I have requested an audience with their leader after we have dined." She gestures towards the table laden with food.

Mollified, the captain and Pilote Barras look at each other before sitting down.

* * *

Elsewhere in the Pyramid of the Moon, the priests and priestesses of Cihuamiquitzli are sitting down to their midday meal. Nahui Tecpatl sits at the head of the table, and Donha Ysabel's erstwhile travelling companion at the foot. She is completely silent and eats her food mechanically. The priests discuss the various magical implements the Goddess and Her maidens have brought from the Sky Country and the implications these have for the nature of the Sky Country. The priestesses gossip, cattily, about how Cihuamiquitzli did not find the Sacred Vessel satisfactory and preferred to retain her own body.

"Perhaps the current Vessel is too old," suggests one, glancing sidelong at the girl at the end of the table. "Cihuamiquitzli is eternally young, after all."

"Not beautiful enough," suggests a second.

Their target has enough self control to retain her outward composure, but inside she feels as though her heart is sinking into a bottomless black void. She has been tested and found not worthy.

"Too biddable," suggests the third priestess nastily. All three priestesses snicker.

"Break it up, girls," orders Ce Cueyatl. "Cihuamiquitzli is not a Goddess of discord."

* * *

Donha Ysabel and the four aeronautes help themselves to generous servings of the food that has been laid in front of them, but find they are unable to eat as much of it as they would like. There is colourful vegetable stew, little flat cakes, mashed beans, fragrant rice, and more, but every dish is liberally seasoned with a strange spice much more acrid than pepper. It makes their noses run, and Capitaine Patriquin's eyes are watering. The only beverage is a rather unusual sort of ale that seems to have mild euphoric properties.

"Oh, man, my mouth is on fire," moans Pilote Barras. She continues looking at the mashed beans on her plate. "Well, maybe just one more bite," she says, popping another morsel into her mouth. "Oh, wow, is that hot!" she exclaims, her mouth full of food. Donha Ysabel refrains from reminding her not to speak with her mouth full. Over the last two months she has discovered that it is impossible to teach any semblance of manners to the aeronautes. Pilote Barras takes another gulp of her ale.

Donha Ysabel delicately wipes her mouth with her napkin, then rises from the table. Lte. Ferrier is teasing the captain about not being woman enough to take the food. Pilote Barras is sprawled on the ground, rubbing her stomach. "I'm sooo full," she announces. Donha Ysabel hears a distant footstep.

"Pilote, do get up," she orders. "It is time for our meeting with the leader of this place."

"I'll get up when they get here," Pilote Barras says sullenly. She intensely dislikes doing anything Donha Ysabel has asked her to do, considering her bossy and arrogant.

Capitaine Patriquin and the two Lieutenantes, however, have also risen from the table. The captain pokes Pilote Barras in the ribs with her boot. "Come on, greedy. How are we s'posed-ta make a good impression with you lying on the floor like that?"

"It makes an impression that says, "I haven't seen a man in months and I'm ready for ya, baby"," says Pilote Barras, but she gets up off the floor anyway, just in time for the young man who guided them earlier to appear in the doorway. "'Specially him," she adds in an undertone.

The young man bows to Donha Ysabel. "Great Lady, I am Once Ixtli, Your devoted student. I am honoured to conduct You to Your audience with the Lord of Tlaloxca."

"Please," replies Donha Ysabel.

Once Ixtli conducts them through the corridors of the Pyramid of the Moon. Lte. Ladouceur notices that neither he nor Donha Ysabel appear to require any light to guide their way. She, on the other hand, has no intention of bumping into walls she cannot see, and turns on her flashlight again.

* * *

The audience with the Lord of Tlaloxca runs very smoothly, despite the necessity for two sets of translations. Donha Ysabel translates Capitaine Patriquin's Colongeoise into Caxtillan, which Once Ixtli translates into Tlaloxtec. The Lord of Tlaloxca is delighted, nay, honoured to play host to such illustrious visitors as Cihuamiquitzli and Her maidens. He is almost speechless when Capitaine Patriquin suggests a trade arrangement, but Once Ixtli manages to convey that such a trade is an un-dreamed-of honour and of course the Sky Maidens must take anything they please. Donha Ysabel casts an appraising glance at the gold fixtures and accessories in the audience chamber. Gold seems to be the only metal the Tlaloxtec have mastered, but they appear to have more of it than they know what to do with. Her father the Duke would be beside himself if he had even a fraction of what has been used here.

By the end of the afternoon, the Lord of Tlaloxca has agreed to accept the woollens, pottery, and other trade goods the aeronautes have brought with them in exchange for the brightly patterned Tlaloxtec cloth, large rainbow-hued feathers, and various stone goods. It is a bit of a struggle to get him to agree to trade some of his gold -- such a base and common substance is surely not fit for trade with the Sky People -- but eventually Donha Ysabel convinces him that gold is highly prized in the sky. As they are concluding their negotiations, Pilote Barras says,

"Oh, uh, see if you can get him to throw in some of that spice that was in our food, would you? Man, was that good!"

* * *

On the way back through the Plaza Mayor, Pilote Barras asks, sneeringly, "So what'd your vibes tell you about that guy?"

"No bad vibes from him," Lte. Ferrier says.

Barras opens her eyes wide in faux-innocent surprise. "No bad vibes?" she repeats.

"Look, just drop it, okay?" Ferrier exclaims.

"Yeah, cut it out with your vibes already," says Capitaine Patriquin. "Look, we got this super-fashionable cloth, don't you guys just want to have your next dresses made out of this? And a nice feather for Ysabel's hair." She sticks one of the rainbow feathers into Donha Ysabel's circlet. Donha Ysabel scowls, but the captain holds up one of the highly polished stone mirrors in front of her. "Look, you're a real guy magnet now," she says.

Donha Ysabel studies her reflection and admits to herself that the feather is quite dashing. "The latest fashion," she comments, patting the feather more firmly into place.

"I get a funny vibe from -- that building!" Barras announces, pointing randomly at one of the buildings lining the plaza. Lte. Ladouceur rolls her eyes.

Donha Ysabel slows her pace to walk beside Lte. Ferrier. "What do you mean by bad vibes?" she asks in an undertone.

Lte. Ferrier is surprised. She hesitates before answering -- after all, she gets bad vibes from Donha Ysabel as well -- but eventually replies, "Just, uh, funny vibes, y'know? Like there's something not quite, oh, human about them or something."

"But you do not get the same ... vibe from the Lord of Tlaloxca?" Donha Ysabel continues.

"Um, no." Ferrier says hesitantly. Then she blurts, "I get a funny vibe from you, too. I thought it was maybe because you were all aliens or something."

"Or something," Ysabel repeats. She's not quite sure how much of a change, if any, was wrought by the potion Gianni prepared for her. Her senses are now much more acute than they were, but have there been other changes?

"And I get a bad vibe from the captain here, and --" Barras is carrying on.

"'Course you get a bad vibe," growls Capitaine Patriquin good-naturedly. "I'm about to hit you!" She takes a swing at the pilot with the length of cloth she is carrying. Laughing, Barras ducks out of the way.

* * *

As the day draws to a close, the four aeronautes are shown to small guest quarters in the lower levels of the pyramid.

"'Kay, Ysabel, tomorrow the girls and I need to start our return fuel and start surveying, so are you on board to keep translating for us?" says Capitaine Patriquin.

"I am always glad to be of service, Capitaine," Donha Ysabel replies, by way of leave-taking. "I shall see you in the morning, then?"

"Hah, that's rich," snorts the captain when Donha Ysabel has rounded the corner. "Ysabel, of service."

"Well, you gotta admit, we'd be pretty lost if we didn't have her to translate for us," puts in Lte. Ferrier. She is starting to warm up to Donha Ysabel, despite the funny vibe. It can't be anything too sinister. Probably just her funny upbringing.

Donha Ysabel returns to her suite, higher up in the pyramid. It occurs to her only after she has entered the suite that there were no torches in the corridors and she has made the entire journey in the dark. Somewhat disturbing, but on the other hand, if the aeronautes can have clockworks that enhance their abilities, why shouldn't she, Donha Ysabel, have a potion to do the same?

She strips to her smock, carefully laying out her garments on a nearby stool. She should by all rights have maidservants to do such menial tasks for her, but during her journeys with the Colongeoise she has discovered them to be entirely indisposed towards any personal service for their betters. Perhaps tomorrow she will request the services of one of the Tlaloxtec maidens.

As she is making her way round the suite, extinguishing the multitude of candles, she feels rather than sees or hears the presence of another person in the room. One of the unusual ones. She turns around to see the young lady whose palanquin she shared, half-obscured by darkness. The young lady drops to her knees.

"Great Lady, of Your mercy grant me audience," she requests.

"Of course," says Donha Ysabel. She hopes that finally some of the mysteries of this place will be cleared up. She is beginning to suspect that the Tlaloxtec believe her to be some sort of powerful supernatural being, but she's not. Is she? "Please make yourself comfortable," she says, gesturing to one of the stools. Another flash of mild resentment from the young lady. Donha Ysabel pulls her lace gown back over her shoulders. It does not really provide much more coverage, but she feels more dignified. Besides, the aeronautes go around in less every day.

The young lady sits.

"Why don't we begin with who you are, and what your function is?" suggests Donha Ysabel.

This has a very startling effect on the young lady. She becomes extremely distraught, and whispers, "Please, Great Lady, I am Your Sacred Vessel. Why have I been found wanting?"

Donha Ysabel hesitates. "Do you mean, I am meant to inhabit your body?" she asks.

Sniffling, the girl nods.

Donha Ysabel says, "That is very generous, but I prefer my own body."

The girl pokes the cushion on her stool with a gilded fingernail.

There is an awkward pause. Finally, Donha Ysabel says, "Your senior priest said you had a portent of my coming. Can you tell me about it?"

"In the First Days," the girl begins to recite, "Xicome Coatl prophesied that Cihuamiquitzli would come to us from the Sky in a golden bird, to usher in new and glorious era when the Tlaloxtec would mix freely with the Sky People. Xicome Coatl was told we would know of Cihuamiquitzli's coming when we saw a bright light coming in the night sky, and that we should clear the Sacred Plain of rocks to make a space for the golden bird to roost." She stops reciting and addresses Donha Ysabel. "All of the portents happened as Xicome Coatl prophesied, and You came in the golden bird and everything, though it's not really gold, it's kind of white. But why do You not know Yourself?"

Donha Ysabel improvises. "Perhaps a Sky Youth came to me in my home and caused me to drink a potion which made me forget my true nature, or which changed my true nature," she says.

"But You are Cihuamiquitzli, right? You are eternally young and beautiful, right?" asks the girl anxiously.

Donha Ysabel is startled. That is exactly the effect Gianni claimed the potion would have. Might he have been right? "I don't know," she admits.

* * *

"It was an unkind trick for the Sky Youth to play on You," says the girl after a thoughtful pause, "so it is lucky that Nahui Tecpatl in his wisdom recognized You regardless. You must allow me to remind You of everything You have forgotten." Without waiting for a response from Donha Ysabel, she launches into a comprehensive history and ethnology of the Tlaloxtec and soon Donha Ysabel knows everything she never thought she would need to know about 221-day calendar rounds, pulque, and the history of human sacrifice.

"Back in the before-time, Cihuamiquitzli used to demand the still-beating heart of a willing sacrifice before She would allow the sun to rise every morning, but then when the Select were brought to Tlaloxtecatlan, there weren't enough people for that, so Xicome Coatl decided to try to appease Her with a measure of his own blood, and She was satisfied."

"You mean, people bleed themselves every morning?" asks Donha Ysabel in disbelief.

"One person is selected by lot for each morning of the year. It is a great honour," the girl replies, as though there is nothing even remotely disturbing about the process.

"How utterly barbaric," thinks Donha Ysabel. She decides she will introduce the Tlaloxtec to the New Revelation as soon as is possible. "I thank you for acquainting me with your lore," she tells the girl. "I hope you may tell me more later, but for now, it is very late and there is much to be done on the morrow."

"Oh, yes, like the sacrifice," says the girl. "Now that You are here in Your own incarnation, You must accept the sacrifice personally."

"I should be delighted," mutters Donha Ysabel, sounding anything but. The girl does not, or chooses not to take notice of her tone of voice.

"The other priestesses and I shall come to You before daybreak to prepare You," she says. She bows her way out of the room and Donha Ysabel reclines on the sumptuous bed. She has just closed her eyes when the girl is back.

"What is it now?" Donha Ysabel asks, somewhat abruptly. The girl cringes.

"Please, Great Lady," she pleads, "if I do not stay here with You I shall have to stay with the other priestesses and they're horrid!"

"Can you not stay where you usually stay?" Donha Ysabel snaps.

"Before You came I was accustomed to stay here, Great Lady," the girl replies. Her tone of voice is placating but she is harbouring a great deal of resentment.

Donha Ysabel sits up on the bed, quite taken aback. "Dear me, I am sorry. Why did you not say anything sooner? Of course you must stay in your own chambers." She moves over on the bed to make room for the girl. The girl hangs back. "Is it not done for young ladies to be bedfellows?" Donha Ysabel asks. It is quite common in her own country, especially on cold winter nights, but she knows the Colongeoise to have an inexplicable horror of it, as though sharing a bed is of itself an unacceptable carnal act.

"No, Great Lady, it is that You are Cihuamiquitzli and I am only Your humble vessel." replies the girl. "No, not even that," she adds miserably. "Since I have been found wanting, I am nothing but a disgrace to the priesthood. I ought to just go back to Mother and Father, if they will even take me." Her voice becomes fainter and she bursts into tears. Donha Ysabel can't take it any more.

"It's nonsense!" she declares. "It's all nonsense. You are not disgraced by my choosing to remain in my own body because I am not a Goddess. I'm just an ordinary girl and so are you. Now dry your eyes and come to bed. You must guide me with this sacrifice of yours in the morning, and you shall be my chief lady-in-waiting, if that will help you stay out of disgrace."

"Th-thank You, Great Lady," sniffles the girl.

"And I would not have you call me Great Lady any longer," Donha Ysabel adds. "You must call me by my Christian name, which is Ysabel, and I shall call you by your Christian name, if you have got one."

"Please, Great Lady, I do not know what a Christian name is, but I was used to be called Mahtlactli Malacaxtli before I became Your vessel. Malacaxtli for short."

"Now are we bosom friends," comments Donha Ysabel sarcastically.

* * *

After a few short hours of sleep, the other priestesses of Cihuamiquitzli arrive. They fuss over Donha Ysabel, pointedly ignoring Mahtlactli Malacaxtli. Donha Ysabel sips a mug of pulque, the euphoric maize beer, as the priestesses dress her hair and slip rings onto her fingers and toes. Soon she is arrayed as Mahtlactli Malacaxtli was yesterday, with golden headdress, gilded nails, and jade ornaments. The patterned poncho, called a quechquemitl, is shorter on Donha Ysabel than on its original wearer, and she insists on wearing her smock and riding skirt beneath it. Though she does not much care for the style, she feels her dignity has been much restored by having a handful of maidens attending to her. When they have finished the preparations, they bow their way out of the room.

"You know, Sacred Vessel, it's no longer your place to accept the sacrifice," one of the priestesses says to Mahtlactli Malacaxtli, making her title a sneer. "You'd better come with us."

Donha Ysabel says, improvising, "Lady Malacaxtli is become my chief handmaiden by virtue of holding my place for me before my arrival. I wish to honour her by allowing her to attend the sacrifice with me. The rest of you may be dismissed."

The other priestesses, awed, bow and leave the room. Mahtlactli Malacaxtli, awed herself, falls at Donha Ysabel's feet. "Thank You, Great Lady," she breathes.

"It is nothing," says Donha Ysabel. "And you are forgetting we are now to call each other by our Christian names. Now, where am I to sit to receive this sacrifice?"

"I suppose it is nothing to You, but it is a very great honour for me to be assured a place as a Sky Maiden when I die," replies Mahtlactli Malacaxtli. "Come, we go this way."

She leads the way through the dark corridors, climbing ever upwards. At last they come out onto the open plateau at the top of the pyramid. Donha Ysabel looks over to the east, where the sky is just beginning to grow rosy.

"Come, You must sit on Your celestial throne," hisses Mahtlactli Malacaxtli in an undertone. She indicates a great stone chair with vividly painted carvings on the sides. Xicuei Yolli and Ce Cueyatl stand on either side of it, feathered spears in their hands. Donha Ysabel sits, resting her hands on the serpent-headed armrests. Mahtlactli Malacaxtli, after a moment's indecision, sits at Donha Ysabel's feet. This morning, she is attired, as the other priestesses, in a white smock, a black shawl, and a colourfully patterned skirt.

Once Ixtli, the junior priest, hurries around placing candles here, incense burners there, looking harassed. In fact, this is likely the case, because Nahui Tecpatl is stumping around after him, alternately barking commands and nagging in Tlaloxtec. After placing the final item, a glossily polished jade bowl, at Donha Ysabel's feet, the two descend the pyramid. There are a few moments of silence. The red glow grows on the eastern horizon.

The three junior priestesses ascend the pyramid, playing a complex rhythm with beribboned drums and rattles. When they reach the top, they begin to sing a hymn in praise of Cihuamiquitzli. Donha Ysabel watches, fascinated. Such a complex ritual for such a misguided purpose. As the priestesses are singing, Nahui Tecpatl and Once Ixtli ascend the pyramid, escorting a solid-looking man of middle years. Nahui Tecpatl is visibly out of breath. Once Ixtli is carrying a long, extremely sharp object. The sacrifice, Donha Ysabel notices, does not give out the same "vibe" as the priests. Like the Lord of Tlaloxca, he appears to be a perfectly normal human being.

Nahui Tecpatl, Once Ixtli, and the sacrifice all kneel at Donha Ysabel's feet. First the elder priest, then the junior priest, lead the sacrifice through a lengthy prayer of supplication and praise. About half of the service is spoken in Tlaloxtec, and Donha Ysabel begins to suspect that Caxtillan is a language reserved for the priesthood. Throughout the service, a crowd has gathered in the plaza below, whose presence Donha Ysabel senses rather than sees or hears. The sun is a scorching red sliver on the skyline.

At the climax of the prayer, Once Ixtli ceremoniously hands the sharp object to the sacrifice. From this distance, it appears to be a spine from one of the dangerous-looking plants native to Tlaloxtecatlan. Donha Ysabel holds her breath. Though she is accustomed to the creative cruelties of her father's court, she isn't certain she wants to see this part. The man utters a quick prayer in Tlaloxtec, then plunges the spine through his tongue.

He falls from his knees to rest on all fours as the blood rushes out of his tongue around the edges of the spine and flows into the jade bowl below. Donha Ysabel can feel the joy and the pain of the sacrifice, the anxious anticipation of the priests and priestesses, the intensity of the crowd below. Strongest of all, she smells the pungent scent of the fresh blood as it pools in the jade bowl. After an eternal moment, Nahui Tecpatl and Once Ixtli help the sacrifice to his feet, then guide him to an elaborate palanquin a few paces away.

Donha Ysabel looks around, wondering if the ritual is over, but it is evident that it is not. Tension mounts. The priests and priestesses become acutely anxious and the crowd grows restless. There is an uneasy pause.

Finally, Mahtlactli Malacaxtli elbows Donha Ysabel in the leg. "You're supposed to drink it!" she hisses.

Everyone is still looking at her expectantly. Donha Ysabel hesitates. Drinking human blood is surely as barbaric as it gets. Even her father never did anything so unnatural as this. Yet, if so small an act will assure continued acceptance of herself and the aeronautes by the Tlaloxtec it cannot be wrong for her to drink it.

She rises from the chair, telling herself firmly it is for the good of the party that she is doing this, and not because of the appetizing smell. Surely, it smells putrid -- her desire to taste it is a product of the pulque she drank this morning to refresh herself. Steeling herself, she accepts the proffered bowl from Mahtlactli Malacaxtli and downs the contents in one draught.

It is like fire and liquid light in her mouth, more intoxicating than any liquor and more pleasurable than any carnal act. The world spins before her eyes, a riot of colours, shapes, sounds, and emotions. She looks around, all her senses heightened. The priests and priestesses are satisfied and relieved, the crowd well-entertained and joyful. Somewhere in the middle of the crowd, Donha Ysabel's attention focuses on four bleary-eyed aeronautes.

"Great. Now she's set herself up as some sort of goddess or something," mutters Pilote Barras to Capitaine Patriquin.

In the east, the sun begins its steady ascent into the sky.

* * *

Donha Ysabel can see and hear everything with dizzying clarity. Her thoughts race faster than the ship that brought her here. She stands riveted to the spot, letting the universe come to her. Dimly, she hears Mahtlactli Malacaxtli saying,

"Great Lady, the ceremony is ended. Shall you break Your fast in Your chamber?"

Dazed, Donha Ysabel lets the girl lead her back through the dark corridors, now alive with colours and sounds. Back in the chambers, another sumptuous feast has been laid. Mahtlactli Malacaxtli asks Donha Ysabel if she would like to have her maidens join her, and an affirmative answer issues from her mouth. The whole world whirls to a halt. Was that her voice? Did she say that? It all seems so far away, as though she is no longer controlling her own body. She tries to say something else.

"I feel very strange," she hears herself say.

"Perhaps the sacrifice has brought back Your memory of Yourself!" suggests Mahtlactli Malacaxtli brightly.

"I don't think that's it at all," says Donha Ysabel. She tries to lower herself to a seating position in front of the table and finds that she succeeds remarkably well. The aeronautes arrive, but spend the meal berating Donha Ysabel for taking part in such a silly ceremony and convincing the poor gullible Tlaloxtec that she's some kind of goddess. Remember, all that religion stuff is just a bunch of superstition. Everything can be explained by science. One part of Donha Ysabel's consciousness listens to them, but the other, more important parts, are far away, experiencing the sensation of being Donha Ysabel as never before.

After the meal, which Donha Ysabel barely registers as spicy, yet senses every grain of rice and every tiny particle of spice as distinct from one another, she allows her body to go through the motions of accompanying the aeronautes and translating for them. Once Ixtli, as yesterday, translates from Caxtillan into Tlaloxtec, and Mahtlactli Malacaxtli tags along, fussing worriedly over Donha Ysabel. The party visits the master brewer's, located in the bowels of the Pyramid of the Sun, constructed with special shafts to let light in and ventilate the pungent workshop. Of course the master brewer is honoured to help the Sky Maidens produce the special pulque their golden bird consumes before flying. They cross the Plaza Mayor towards the palace of the Lord of Tlaloxca. Donha Ysabel finds the sunlight to be very bright and very hot indeed, much more so than it was the previous day. She squints and draws close the curtains of the palanquin she is riding in.

Lte. Ladouceur, who with the rest of the aeronautes and Once Ixtli is walking, sneers, "Ysabel's so delicate. If she did anything for herself she would probably break a nail or something, and that would just be a terrible tragedy."

Donha Ysabel has become much used to such comments from the aeronautes, but this time she is finally able to honestly tell herself it doesn't matter. She deserves special treatment. She is as much above the aeronautes as she is above a mere insect. She is the Goddess Cihuamiquitzli. And if she, Donha Ysabel de Almendariz y Espinosa, can be elevated to divinity, that must mean that the Angels --

The universe lurches to a halt again. For a moment, everything is still and quiet again, as it was before the ceremony this morning. If Donha Ysabel, a mere human, can be worshipped as a goddess by a more primitive colony of humans, surely the Angels, worshipped as divine by adherents of the New Revelation, are only more advanced humans and not divine at all. Capitaine Patriquin's insistence on scientific explanations spins around in her head.

It's all so devastatingly clear now. The youth Gianni, being more primitive than the Angels, though surely cultured by normal standards, mistook the Angels for divine. He passed on his mistake to Donha Ysabel, who in turn passed it on to the three daughters of the Landgraaf of Silverhoolt, who were even now spreading it throughout the known galaxy as the newly revealed truth. All because of Donha Ysabel's terrible mistake. How could she have been so blind? She must fix everything, now.

"It's not true!" she shouts. "It was all a terrible, terrible mistake!"

She pulls back the curtains on the palanquin so she can shout her message to the world. "Do not be deceived! There are no gods, only rational explanations!"

"Finally, rational thought from Ms. Superstitious," mutters Pilote Barras

Donha Ysabel continues to shout her message to the world, but the world only stops, curious, to look at the raving Goddess Cihuamiquitzli. "You're all wrong! You're all wrong!" she repeats, finally collapsing into sobs at the enormity of her task.

"Capitaine, d'ya think maybe they slipped something into her uh - blood this morning?" Lte. Ferrier asks the captain in an undertone. "She's been acting like she's high on something all day."

"Yeah, high on herself," replies Patriquin.

Mahtlactli Malacaxtli eases Donha Ysabel back into the palanquin. "Great Lady, please calm Yourself," she says, trying to sound soothing but only succeeding in sounding panicked. "Priest Ixtli!"

Once Ixtli comes to stand beside the palanquin. "The Great Lady is much overcome," Mahtlactli Malacaxtli says in an undertone. "We had best return to the Pyramid of the Moon for the rest of the day."

"No, no! There are too many mistakes to undo! We must begin now!" Donha Ysabel cries, struggling with Mahtlactli Malacaxtli to leave the palanquin.

"Huh, Ferrier, I guess you're right. Not her usual anal-retentive self at all," Patriquin says. She addresses Donha Ysabel. "Hey, Ysabel, we're gonna put off the surveying until tomorrow, so just tell these guys to go back to the pyramid for now."

"We're not going anywhere until I -- " Donha Ysabel begins, but Once Ixtli has given the slaves the command to move and Mahtlactli Malacaxtli pulls the curtains closed on the palanquin, pressing a wet cloth to Donha Ysabel's brow.

In her agitated state, Ltes. Ferrier and Ladouceur are hard-pressed to escort Donha Ysabel back through the darkened corridors to her suite, one at each elbow. She is surprisingly strong and extremely reluctant, and she continues to insist that she must leave right now to prevent this terrible mistake from spreading any further. As they enter the suite, she looks at them with loathing and says,

"I hope it will be on your heads when people are blinded by their own incomprehension!"

"You have any clue what she means?" Ladouceur asks Ferrier.

Ferrier shrugs. "No idea. Really funny vibes today though."

"Huh. Yeah." Ladouceur agrees. "'Cause she's high on something, I guess."

Donha Ysabel has stopped struggling, but looks daggers at the two Ltes., still guarding the door. Mahtlactli Malacaxtli undresses her gingerly, fearing the wrath of her Goddess.

"Please, Great Lady, you must rest now," Mahtlactli Malacaxtli tells Donha Ysabel, who docilely lies down on the mattress and closes her eyes.

"No funny stuff, there, Ysabel, we're watching you to make sure you don't leave while you're still high," Ladouceur warns.

Mahtlactli Malacaxtli retreats to a corner with her spinning, praying that the Goddess did not find this morning's sacrifice unacceptable. She fears there are still too few Tlaloxtec to allow the sacrifice of a human life.

* * *

Having made up her mind to prevent the spread of the New Revelation throughout the known galaxy, Donha Ysabel dreams of a universe in which the New Revelation is not heeded. Ugly clockworks and great belching factories, such as obtain on La Colonge, sprawl out over the land, covering every green surface of every planet in the galaxy. Her father's descendants, and the descendants of the other noble families of the galaxy, toil alongside the descendents of commoners and slaves, wearing plain grey and blue serge. The beautiful homes she has visited are all razed down, replaced by concrete factories and identical concrete hovels. There is no beauty, no culture, no music.

Just when she thinks it will never end, this dreadful uniformity, Donha Ysabel's dream changes, gains colour, becomes a universe in which the New Revelation is accepted as the truth by nearly all peoples, with the stubborn exception of the Colongeoise and a few others. Although these people live in the same industrialised squalor as she saw before, elsewhere scions of noble families wear beautiful clothes, dance, and read poetry in tastefully appointed salons. Fields, forests, and gardens abound, and all know their proper stations in life. Teachers of the New Revelation are welcome in homes of all stations, promoting peace, prosperity, and education.

* * *

Donha Ysabel awakes, feeling refreshed, and knowing that, whatever her personal beliefs, she must continue to promote the New Revelation. The next morning, she again accepts the blood sacrifice as Cihuamiquitzli, and the morning after. She still gets that dizzy, heady feeling, though each time a bit less, and she does not again lose control of herself and become agitated as she did the first morning. She can't help but think that if she just had a little bit more each morning, she would be able to recapture that feeling.

"I think you're becoming addicted to that stuff. Yuck." says Barras one morning after the ceremony. They are lounging on cushions under a canopy atop the Pyramid of the Sun while Ltes. Ladouceur and Ferrier direct the priests of Tlaloc in the placement of surveying equipment. The priests of Tlaloc are not sure how they feel about being ordered around by Sky Maidens who can't even speak their language, but the Pyramid of the Sun is 10 metres higher than the Pyramid of the Moon and Lte. Ladouceur is determined to do her surveying from here.

"Yeah like, you've been high as a kite every day since we got here," Capitaine Patriquin adds. "Blood, yechh. They must be putting something in it. Everything's a hallucinogen around here."

"It is what they expect of me," Donha Ysabel replies. This is what she keeps telling herself as well, that she continues to accept the sacrifices because it is expected of her, and not because she enjoys it as she has never enjoyed anything before.

"Yeah, well, just don't get any ideas about drinking our blood or anything on the way back to La Colonge," says Barras, but her attention has been caught by something new. Once Ixtli, who has been learning a little bit of Colongense, has arrived to assist with the surveying process. Barras gives him a wolf-whistle and he turns in her direction, smiling suggestively. Barras licks her lips.

"Once Ixtli is much taken with Your maiden," comments Mahtlactli Malacaxtli to Donha Ysabel in an undertone.

"Yes, and she with him, it seems," replies Donha Ysabel.

"Well, I suppose, he is very handsome," says Mahtlactli Malacaxtli slowly, as though she has never really thought about it before.

"He does have a fine form," Donha Ysabel concedes, but she reserves judgment on whether men with giant jade spools through their ears and noses can really be considered handsome.

"I could not marry him, of course, but I suppose one of Your maidens might," Mahtlactli Malacaxtli comments.

"I am sure she does not intend marriage," Donha Ysabel comments dryly.

Mahtlactli Malacaxtli is shocked. "You mean, Sky Maidens are not required to remain chaste?" she asks.

"Some Sky Maidens are more chaste than others. It was my ill luck to be sent with maidens who wish to be extremely unchaste," Donha Ysabel says. She does not mention her own experiences with carnal acts, which were surely different circumstances entirely, and circumstances she is not eager to repeat with unfamiliar men.

"I suppose there are a few men I might like to be unchaste with," Mahtlactli Malacaxtli says dreamily.

"Why do you not? You are a Goddess," Donha Ysabel says.

Mahtlactli Malacaxtli's eyes light up. "I could," she says brightly. Then her spirits fall significantly, and she sags back onto the pillows. "Oh, I could not," she amends.


"It would be a great honour for the Goddess to share her body with any man. The first man so honoured would have to be Nahui Tecpatl," Mahtlactli Malacaxtli says, the corners of her mouth curling in disgust.

"Oh," says Donha Ysabel, feeling as put off as Mahtlactli Malacaxtli.

* * *

A week passes productively. The Tlaloxtec and their visitors are beginning to learn a little of each others' languages. The Lord of Tlaloxca has worked up the nerve to ask the Goddess and Her Sky Maidens to dine with him, and has further confided to Mahtlactli Malacaxtli, who promptly passed on the news to Donha Ysabel, that he hopes one of the Sky Maidens might like to marry his son, a junior priest of Tlaloc. The other leading families of Tlaloxtecatlan, eager to acquire some of the Sky goods, have agreed to trade some of their own goods to the Lord in return, and have sent discreet inquiries through the priests of Cihuamiquitzli as to whether more Sky goods might be forthcoming. Lte. Ladouceur's geographic survey is progressing nicely, and Lte. Ferrier meets with cooperation wherever she goes in describing and analysing the local flora and fauna.

The only unusual thing, other than Donha Ysabel's continued acceptance of the sacrifice, which the aeronautes find very strange and disturbing, is the Tlaloxtec's apparent reluctance to discuss large fauna. At first, questions on the matter get no further than Once Ixtli or Mahtlactli Malacaxtli, the two interpreters.

"Such matters are mysteries for the priests of Tlaloc, Great Lady," says Once Ixtli apologetically.

"You mean Fire Serpents and Were Jaguars, right?" Mahtlactli Malacaxtli asks. No, Donha Ysabel doesn't think that's what she means -- Fire Serpents and Were Jaguars are humans, members of the two moieties that make up Tlaloxtec society. The moieties seem to have more to do with who can marry whom and who can become a priest. The Were Jaguars are the ones who give Ltes. Ladouceur and Ferrier funny vibes, and Donha Ysabel has noticed, especially under the influence of the blood sacrifices, that there is something very different about them when compared with their Fire Serpent compatriots. Once she thought she caught Mahtlactli Malacaxtli's reflection in a mirror, but instead of a girl she was a large spotted cat.

Eventually, Lte. Ferrier acquires enough Tlaloxtec to ask a farmer, haltingly, if there are any big animals. The farmer grins and breaks into a torrent of Tlaloxtec, pointing proudly first at himself, then at Once Ixtli, who is helping Pilote Barras carry a sample she clearly doesn't need help carrying. Lte. Ferrier frowns and shakes her head. She doesn't understand.

Later, Once Ixtli sits in the shade with Donha Ysabel. "Why does Your maiden wish to know about Were Jaguars?" he asks her.

"No, not Were Jaguars, just large animals," Donha Ysabel replies.

"What will she do with them? Will she crush them up in her mortar and pestle like she did with the maize?" Once Ixtli asks. He seems very concerned.

"I don't think so," Donha Ysabel says. She beckons Lte. Ferrier to join them.

"No, no, no, of course not!" Ferrier says when she has the question repeated to her. She goes on to a lot of very big scientific words Donha Ysabel doesn't clearly understand, about analysing the nutrition content of the grains by measuring their molecular weight before explaining that with animals she merely intends to take pictures, attempt to classify them by family and genus, and get tissue samples, perhaps of hair or feathers.

"I think it is to help her understand the order of the Great Chain of Being," Donha Ysabel tells Once Ixtli. "She will not harm them."

"Were Jaguars are sacred to Tlaloc," says Once Ixtli pensively. "We would have to consult Omei Quiauitl, but Tlaloc's-eve is coming up. He might permit it."

* * *

Omei Quiauitl, the senior priest of Tlaloc, is very much opposed to the idea of the Sky Maidens studying the Were Jaguars. "I have nothing against Cihuamiquitzli, you understand, but it simply isn't fitting for Her maidens to be prying too deep into the mysteries of Tlaloc. I think they had better stay inside the Pyramid of the Moon on Tlaloc's-eve," he tells Once Ixtli firmly.

Once Ixtli reports the refusal to Donha Ysabel and the aeronautes, but, making eyes at Pilote Barras, says he will see if he can't do something to help his maidens.

"Looks like you've got an admirer," the captain teases Barras.

"Well, no big deal," Ferrier says. "I didn't really want to study the people anyway. They're just people. Maybe there are no big animals on Tlaloxca. I haven't seen any yet, have any of you?"

* * *

As though to make a gesture of goodwill, or perhaps at the urging of the Lord of Tlaloxca, Omei Quiauitl invites the priests and priestesses of Cihuamiquitzli, Donha Ysabel and the aeronautes, and the Lord of Tlaloxca and his family to a large midday feast on the day of Tlaloc's-eve, which Ladouceur suggests marks the night of the full moon.

Lte. Ferrier and Macuilli Ehecatl, the Lord's son of Tlaloxca, make halting conversation with each other as they stroll around the courtyard below the Pyramid of the Sun. Once Ixtli and Pilote Barras, taking a less subtle approach, sit on a bench where they think no-one can see them, cuddling and nuzzling one another's necks.

Omei Quiauitl addresses Donha Ysabel. "Great Lady Cihuamiquitzli, know that I have every respect for You and Your maidens, and take no offence from my devotion to Your brother Tlaloc, but I entreat You that on this night which alone among nights is sacred to Tlaloc, You and Your maidens will remain in the Pyramid of the Moon and leave us to our devotions."

"I will respect your wishes, Omei Quiauitl," Donha Ysabel says. From the looks of it, she will have no trouble keeping Barras inside, at the very least.

They return to the Pyramid of the Moon, where Mahtlactli Malacaxtli apologetically tells Donha Ysabel that she will not be able to wait on her this afternoon or tonight, as even she must pay homage to Tlaloc. Once Ixtli furtively informs Donha Ysabel that if the Great Lady and Her maidens would be pleased to peek out through the middle entrance to the pyramid they might witness some of the ceremony, but he will be in trouble if they are seen. He glances nervously over his shoulder. Both he and Donha Ysabel can sense the approach of Nahui Tecpatl.

"You may give this to Your maiden, to grind up in her mortar and pestle," Once Ixtli says quickly, handing Donha Ysabel a lump of plant material.

"What is it?" she asks sceptically, turning it over in her hand.

"It is the sacrament of Tlaloc," Once Ixtli says, gesturing for her to conceal it. "You must not eat it. It is only for Were Jag--" He breaks off as Nahui Tecpatl comes within earshot.

"Come, young Ixtli," Nahui Tecpatl barks. "It is well for you to continue your devotions to the Sky Maidens but tonight is for Tlaloc." He bangs his serpent-headed staff on the stone floor for emphasis. "Great Lady, You will obey the wishes of Omei Quiauitl? We do not wish for conflict between Yourself and Tlaloc."

"My maidens and I will keep to ourselves tonight, Nahui Tecpatl, have no fear." Donha Ysabel reassures him.

"Come, then, Ixtli, the sacrament is ready," Nahui Tecpatl orders the junior priest.

"You must not be seen," Once Ixtli mouths at Donha Ysabel as he follows Nahui Tecpatl down the corridor.

* * *

"What'd he say this was?" asks Ferrier, turning the lump over and squinting at it.

"The sacrament of Tlaloc," Donha Ysabel repeats.

"What is it with all this religious stuff, anyway?" demands Capitaine Patriquin. Ferrier slices off a small chunk of the sacrament and begins to prepare it for analysis in the clockwork Once Ixtli has been referring to as a mortar and pestle. In reality it looks very little like the common Tlaloxtec implement, though it performs a similar function of grinding up anything put into it, afterwards displaying a number of arcane symbols and numbers on a glass panel lit from behind.

"Yeah, like, rituals to make the sun rise and stuff? Give me a break," says Barras. "Religion is for people who don't know how to make sense of what's right in front of their eyes. I mean, everyone can see that planets revolve around stars and not the other way around or something."

Donha Ysabel refrains from mentioning that her father's astronomer had discovered this fact only a few short months before the aeronautes' arrival, and that the two other planets she had visited still firmly subscribed to the theory of celestial spheres.

"And for people who can't accept that when they die they're just dead," adds the captain. This is a direct dig at Donha Ysabel, who has told them that since the New Revelation there is a place for all people in Heaven, as all are part of the Angels' plan.

"Well, if you ask me, for these guys religion is just a big old excuse to get stoned," says Ferrier.

"Yeah? You got something there?" asks the captain.

"Not yet, but I bet you it's some kind of drug. We've already got THC in the pulque, cocaine in the coca leaves, caffeine in the cacahuatl, and whatever they're lacing those blood sacrifices with that Ysabel is drinking. Plus, those pet toads of theirs are secreting something from some gland on their backs and I even think that capsicum stuff you guys can't get enough of in your food is addictive. C'mon, who's gonna go watch this ritual with me?"

"It's just another ritual," the captain says scornfully. "I think all these drugs sitting around are a bad idea, so don't you guys do any. We've already seen what happened to Ysabel. When you gonna be done your surveying work, anyway? We should probably leave as soon as you guys are done. They didn't trade us any drugs, did they?"

"Just the cacahuatl and the capsicum," says Ferrier, retrieving her camera and an infrared filter from her pack. "Those aren't so bad. Not, you know, mind-destroying or anything. You guys, am I the only one that wants to see this?"

Her crewmates continue to sit where they are, looking at her like she has grown a second head or something.

"You don't, like, want to find out what's up with the Were Jaguars, and why they keep saying there are no large fauna here?" Ferrier asks in disbelief.

"Sorry, girl, you're on your own," Ladouceur replies, not sounding very apologetic.

"I've got a date with Once Ixtli later," Barras brags.

"You have no fellow-feeling, the lot of you!" Donha Ysabel exclaims critically, rising from her chair. "I will admit to being curious."

"Great. Knock yourselves out," the captain mutters by way of encouragement.

* * *

"You sure you don't want a flashlight or something?" Ferrier asks as they make their way down the corridors. "Brr, this place really gives me the creeps tonight."

"I assure you, I can see perfectly well. Once Ixtli stressed the importance of secrecy; I gather he will be in some disgrace if we are seen."

"Huh. Can all of your people see so well in the dark? Do you see in ultraviolet or infrared?"

"I'm sorry, do I see in what?" Donha Ysabel asks. More arcane scientific words.

"You know, like, do you see people's shapes by their heat, or does white stuff glow?"

Donha Ysabel thinks for a moment. "That would be an accurate description of it, yes," she replies.

"Both?" Ferrier asks incredulously. "Cool! So, everyone on your planet can see like that?"

"No," Donha Ysabel replies, "I was given a potion."

"A potion that makes you see in infrared and ultraviolet," muses Ferrier. "And the effects don't wear off?"

"Not that I have noticed," Donha Ysabel replies. She does not mention what she has noticed, namely that with every sacrifice she accepts, her ability to see in the dark and sense other things beyond human perception grows. "You do not disbelieve me about the potion?" she inquires. "It isn't very -- scientific."

"Sure it is," Ferrier replies. "A potion is just, like, a chemical compound or a synth-grown fluid, right?"

* * *

In Once Ixtli's quarters, Pilote Barras encounters the junior priest in the process of undressing. "How sweet," she says in Colongeoise, advancing towards him. "You wanted to slip into something more comfortable for me."

Although he does not speak her language, Once Ixtli has no trouble taking her meaning. He takes her in his arms and she runs a hand over his bare, muscular chest. "Gracious maiden," he says in Tlaloxtec, "I will not say I am ill-pleased that you have come to me, but tonight is just not the night." He tries to make his regret evident in his face as he pushes her gently away from him.

"Oh, don't be shy," persists Barras. "I won't hurt you, you know." As she takes another step towards him, Once Ixtli feels the pull of the moon take hold of him and he takes on his reflected form. Barras stops dead in her tracks, eyes wide. Once Ixtli, perceiving she is more surprised than alarmed, rubs his body against her leg, purring loudly. Barras stares in disbelief at the large, dappled cat which seems to have replaced the object of her affections. "Too much pulque," she says eventually, shaking her head to clear it of what she is sure is a hallucination. She stares at Once Ixtli for another long moment, then turns to leave. "That's it," she comments as she walks out the door, "I'm cut off."

* * *

Donha Ysabel and Lte. Ferrier arrive at the door in the side of the Pyramid of the Moon in time to see a ritual in progress atop the Pyramid of the Sun. Rather, Donha Ysabel sees it and Ferrier fiddles with her infravision equipment. The form looks somewhat similar to the daily rituals for Cihuamiquitzli, but it is a little too far for her to hear anything that is said. Once again, a crowd throngs at the base of the pyramid.

The priests and priestesses of Tlaloc ceremoniously shed their robes. The moon, which has been steadily growing in size and brightness over the past week, appears as a sliver over the horizon. "Come on, what's the matter with this stupid thing?" Ferrier mutters, jiggling the connection between the two pieces of her equipment. "It was working back in the common room!"

As the gathered crowd below the pyramid begins to undress, Omei Quiauitl passes something small to each of his fellow priests and priestesses. Donha Ysabel presumes it to be the sacrament of Tlaloc. She begins to wonder if the festivities on Tlaloc's-eve do not amount to a giant orgy when she sees the priests and priestesses, having consumed the sacrament of Tlaloc, fall to their knees and begin vomiting uncontrollably. Feeling a little queasy herself at the sight of it, she turns away.

Ferrier, who has got her infravision equipment working, leans forward to look through it. "Yechh!" she comments. The moon continues to rise.

Omei Quiauitl recovers enough to rise, unsteadily, to his feet. "Let the Eye of Tlaloc gaze upon our true forms!" he declares, loud enough that he can be heard across the plaza. As the moonlight falls first on the top of the pyramid, and then on the crowd below, the gathered Tlaloxtec seem to turn into large spotted cats right in front of Donha Ysabel and Lte. Ferrier.

"Uh," says Ferrier hesitantly.

Donha Ysabel squints out at the mass of cats in the plaza. "How very curious," she comments.

"You mean, you saw that too?" Ferrier asks.

"I am not certain what I saw," Donha Ysabel replies.

"Yeah, me neither. I mean, people don't just, uh, turn into cats or something. It's not scientifically possible. Come on, let's go. We musta had too much pulque or too much blood or something."

Donha Ysabel casts a long look out at the plaza as they turn to head back into the pyramid. Jaguars frisk and fight playfully in the plaza. One old, grizzled jaguar sits motionless atop the Pyramid of the Sun, staring straight at her. Running is beneath Donha Ysabel's dignity, but she turns on her heel as fast as she can and pulls Ferrier through the corridors of the pyramid, not stopping until she has turned a corner.

"Besides, people aren't s'posed-ta turn into giant cats when the full moon comes up. That's why they're called were-wolves, not -- oh." Ferrier is saying. "Well, there's no such thing, anyway." Donha Ysabel can sense her fear, very thick on the air. She wonders what the blood of a fearful human would taste like.

No, that's very wrong. She swore to leave all tortures behind when she left her father's court. She takes a deep breath. It's very tempting -- but she will not.

"You don't think they'll come in here, do you? Maybe they're tame. They didn't look very vicious --" Ferrier stops babbling momentarily as she notices Donha Ysabel looking at her strangely. "What's with you? You're not gonna turn into one, are you?"

Donha Ysabel grinds her nails into her palms to distract herself. "Go straight for about 60 paces, then turn left. Keep following the right wall round until you get to the stairs," she instructs Ferrier.

"What, you're not coming with?" Ferrier asks. She's not sure which she dreads more -- a trip through the dark without Donha Ysabel to guide her, or a trip through the dark with Donha Ysabel. Right now, all she can see of her in the dim light is glittering eyes and glittering teeth. Her vibes tell her it might be better to go alone.

"Just -- go," Donha Ysabel says, with some effort.

Running is not beneath Lte. Ferrier's dignity. She runs.

* * *

By the time she reaches the common room she is sharing with the other aeronautes, Lte. Ferrier has regained some of her composure, but remains unclear on what exactly she has just experienced.

"It's like, I saw them all turn into cats or something, but Ysabel said she saw it too, and then something really spooked her out so we went back inside the pyramid, but then something weird happened and Ysabel said for me to go on without her and --"

"She didn't die or something, did she?" asks the captain, alarmed. Little as she likes her aristocratic passenger, it would be a black mark on her record if anything happened to someone she had charge of during a mission.

"No, no, she was just looking at me real funny, and, like --" Ferrier starts to explain, sounding distressed.

"Hah! I knew it! She tried to come onto you!" Barras exclaims triumphantly. "I always knew she was a dyke!"

"Shut up, Barras!" Ferrier spits. "It wasn't like that either. It was like, uh, I dunno," she finishes gamely, sagging onto one of the low chairs. "Maybe that sacrament of Tlaloc stuff is such a powerful hallucinogen you can absorb it into your bloodstream just by touching it."

"Come on, Ferrier, nothing's that potent," Lte. Ladouceur puts in.

"What about garlic?" Ferrier counters. "That stuff really made them puke though."

"If we have osmotic hallucinogens that make you puke, I say the sooner we get out of this place the better," says the captain. "You two better finish up your surveys soon."

* * *

Mahtlactli Malacaxtli appears much refreshed the following morning. Ysabel chooses her words carefully.

“When the Eye of Tlaloc looks down upon you, He sees you in a different form?”

Mahtlactli Malacaxtli smiles. “Yes, Lady. He sees us in our true forms. We Were Jaguars are grateful to You, of course, for allowing us to be as one race with Men, but it is very nice for use to assume our true forms on Tlaloc’s-eve. Come, we will be late for the sacrifice.”

After the sacrifice, Ysabel draws Lte. Ferrier aside.

“I am very sorry for my behaviour last night,” she says. “I do not know what came over me.”

“No problem,” mutters Ferrier, though she is clearly still uncomfortable. “There was a lot of weird stuff happened last night. Barras won’t even tell us what happened when she went to see Once Ixtli. I wonder if they released hallucinogens into the air or something?”

Later, Once Ixtli surreptitiously approaches Ysabel. “Great Lady, I allowed one of Your Maidens to see my true form last night,” he confesses. “She will not tell Omei Quiauitl?”

“Indeed, she did not even tell the other maidens,” says Ysabel. “I fear my maidens and I are ill-equipped to comprehend the mysteries of Tlaloc.”

Relieved, Once Ixtli bows. “I am glad I have not upset the Great Order, Lady,” he says.

Nahui Tecpatl, having earlier been seen in heated argument with Omei Quiauitl, looks dubiously at Ysabel and the aeronautes for the rest of the day, but says nothing.

Ysabel asks Lte. Ferrier if she will not feed the hairs of a Were Jaguar into her clockwork, as was suggested by Once Ixtli.

Ferrier becomes somewhat distressed. “You know, if those guys really are turning into jaguars, I don’t want to know about it.”

* * *

Some days later, the scientific reports of Ltes. Ferrier and Ladouceur are nearing completion, and Barras and the Captain have begun to make regular trips back to the ship in order to prepare it for departure. The master brewer is gratified to learn that the Sky Maidens’ golden bird will accept the special pulque he brewed for it under their direction. Both Once Ixtli and Macuilli Ehecatl approach Ysabel to ask for advice about the Aeronautes they have been courting.

“This type of Sky Maiden does not marry,” Ysabel tells them. “I am sure they have been greatly pleased to receive your attentions, but you must not exercise yourselves overmuch about them. Even if they could be convinced to marry, I am not sure they would make you good wives.”

“If they are required to remain chaste, surely our attentions will bring them dishonour?” Once Ixtli asks.

“I did not say they remain chaste, merely that they remain unmarried,” replies Ysabel. “You must not worry about their honour, for it is like that of a man’s and remains undiminished by affairs of the heart.”

Once Ixtli and Macuilli Ehecatl look at each other, greatly pleased, then quickly take their leave of Ysabel. Later, neither they nor Barras and Ferrier are anywhere to be found. Later still, Ferrier appears, somewhat flushed and dishevelled, in Ysabel’s chamber.

“Man, I don’t know what you said to Mac, but thanks!” she says.

Ysabel feels a slight melancholy. Not all of her experiences with men have been unpleasant. Perhaps the honour of a teacher of the New Revelation is also like that of a man’s. She resolves that it shall be so. After all, the youth Gianni never said anything to the contrary.

* * *

As is their usual practice, the other priestesses of Cihuamiquitzli gossip amongst themselves while preparing Ysabel for the morning ceremony, favouring Mahtlactli Malacaxtli only with stony silence. Undaunted, she chatters to Ysabel. This morning, she is saying,

“I dreamed that the Sky People and the Tlaloxtec worked together to hatch a giant Sky Serpent, that was so big that even when its tail was on the ground its head was way up in the Sky country. When the Sky People came to Tlaloxca, they could slide down the serpent’s back, and the Tlaloxtec could even climb up the serpent’s back and see the sky!”

At some point, the other priestesses have begun listening to Mahtlactli Malacaxtli’s story. “Tlaloc honours you by revealing a prophecy to you,” says Once Tletl.

“Is it not the Great Lady who has given Mahtlactli Malacaxtli the prophecy?” Nahui Pulque asks tentatively. The priestesses look to Ysabel for clarification.

“I believe the prophecy has come to Mahtlactli Malacaxtli from the Angels, who are supreme among the Sky People,” says Ysabel. She has been gradually versing Mahtlactli Malacaxtli in the teachings of the New Revelation, but here is a chance to spread her message further.

The priestesses look at one another. “We do not know of Angels,” says Xicome Yolli questioningly.

Ysabel smiles and begins to explain.

* * *

After the ceremony, Ltes. Ferrier and Ladouceur join Ysabel and they break their fast. Capitaine Patriquin and Pilote Barras have been away at the ship for the last two days.

“So I had this crazy dream last night,” says Ferrier.

“Yeah?” asks Ladouceur around a mouthful of food. Though Ysabel cringes inwardly at her lack of table manners, she has long since given up trying to correct them.

“Yeah, remember Amelie Marchant? I dreamed that she was coming here to build that space elevator of hers,” says Ferrier.

Ysabel’s attention is engaged. Part of the New Revelation teaches that the Angels send guidance through dreams, and there has already been one interesting dream this morning. “What, pray tell, is a space elevator?” she asks.

Ladouceur and Ferrier laugh. “Oh, well, it’s this crazy idea one of our classmates had,” begins Ferrier.

As they are explaining the space elevator, which sounds suspiciously like a Sky Serpent in scientific clothing, Capitaine Patriquin bursts into the room, papers in her hand, followed closely by Pilote Barras.

“Hey, what’s up?” asks Ladouceur.

“They’re sending another ship,” says the Capitaine. “You two are going overland to meet them at the equator. Ysabel, think you can get the Lord of Tlaloxca to send a work party with them?”

“For what purpose?” asks Ysabel.

“Get this. We’re gonna build a space elevator!” the Capitaine replies.

Ferrier’s knife slips through her fingers and clatters to the table. She and Ladouceur look at each other significantly.

“What’s up with you two?” asks Barras.

“We were actually just talking about space elevators when you came in,” says Ladouceur after some hesitation.

The capitaine laughs. “What a weird coincidence!” she says, sitting down. “Hey, you guys didn’t leave any breakfast for us!”

* * *

After hearing the full plans for the space elevator - apparently one has already been built on La Colonge, and construction is under way on Aguileria and Silverhoolt - Ysabel summons Mahtlactli Malacaxtli to her.

“I wish you will tell the Lord of Tlaloxca of your prophecy, for a second golden bird carrying Sky People comes to Tlaloxca bearing a Sky Serpent’s egg,” she says.

Mahtlactli Malacaxtli’s mouth forms a small o. “Your Angels honour me greatly, Lady,” she whispers reverently.

The Lord of Tlaloxca seems well pleased by the news, and immediately agrees to recruit volunteers to help with the hatching of the Sky Serpent. The priestesses of Cihuamiquitzli are excited and seem to have found new respect for Mahtlactli Malacaxtli. Nahui Tecpatl professes enthusiasm, but seems put out, perhaps because he was not the recipient of the prophecy.

While waiting for the audience to end, the four aeronautes gossip amongst themselves. Capitaine Patriquin finds herself slightly annoyed that Ysabel is in there negotiating the construction of the space elevator instead of herself, but has to admit that Ysabel’s inclusion has made this mission a much greater success than it might have been.

“That was pretty freaky how you had that dream and then it came true right away,” says Ferrier to Ladouceur in an undertone.

“Yeah,” Ferrier agrees. “I think she said that Mahtlactli Malacaxtli had the same dream too. Pretty big coincidence.”

“Hey, you guys better make sure you don’t end up going native while you’re staying here,” sneers Barras, breaking into their conversation.

“Nobody asked you!” snarls Ferrier.

“Look who’s talking!” adds Ladouceur.

“Orders are orders, guys,” the capitaine reminds them.

“Yabut, she doesn’t have to get so superior about it!” cries Ferrier. “It’s not like she’s exactly maintaining an objective and professional manner during the course of our mission!”

“I have eyes, you know. It’s not like I’m allowing it to interfere with my work,” says Barras pointedly.

The argument continues and has almost come to blows when Ysabel emerges from her audience with the priests and the Lord of Tlaloxca. The merest lift of her eyebrows is enough to bring the aeronautes guiltily to attention. She notes with satisfaction that she must be having some influence on their standards of behaviour after all.

“The Lord of Tlaloxca will have a party ready for travel in two weeks,” she says.

* * *

The Lord of Tlaloxca has no trouble recruiting volunteers to travel with the Sky Maidens to found the Sky-Serpent-town, Ilhuitcatcoatlan. The next few weeks are filled with busy preparations. Barras and the Capitaine continue readying the Explorator for the journey back to La Colonge. Ferrier and Ladouceur focus on creating a map of the route they will take using their GPS system and providing guidance to the Tlaloxtec on what supplies to take.

Mahtlactli Malacaxtli, having received the vision, is immediately recognised as the spiritual leader of the expedition, with Once Ixtli and Macuilli Ehecatl as her lieutenants.

The night before the aeronautes and the travellers are to depart, the Lord of Tlaloxca hosts a celebration in the Plaza Mayor. Food and pulque are provided in great abundance; everyone is dressed in their ceremonial best; there is singing and dancing. Ysabel sings a song in her native tongue, accompanying herself on the lute. After much coaxing, the aeronautes sing a raucous drinking song, the words of which Ysabel is glad the Tlaloxtec do not understand. The junior priests and priestesses of Tlaloc and Cihuamiquitzli, most of whom are making the journey, act out an improvised burlesque of the origins of the world. The finale to the evening’s entertainment is to be a ceremonial ball game between the future Ilhuitcatcoatec and the Tlaloxtec.

Tables of food and barrels of pulque are cleared away from the centre of the plaza, and spectators take seats on the lower steps of the pyramids at either end. The players strip to their loincloths and enter the court.

Mahtlactli Malacaxtli sits next to Ysabel and tries to explain the rules. “Our ancestors used to play ball in the before-time to determine who would live and who would die. Now we play on Midsummer’s-Day and Midwinter’s-Night and to honour the Sky People. See, our team has to get the ball, like that, and then they’ll try to - oh!” she cries suddenly, jumping up. “How are we supposed to win if you give them the ball!?”

Depending on which team they are supporting, the other spectators either cheer or shout criticisms in Tlaloxtec. Ysabel is not much taken with the game, but the aeronautes seem to be having a good time. Well, the aeronautes except for Barras, who, along with Once Ixtli, is nowhere to be seen among the crowd.

Nahui Tecpatl comes to sit next to Ysabel. “Great Lady, I crave private audience with You,” he tells her quietly.

His eyes glitter strangely, and she can tell that he wants something of her. She would not welcome his amorous advances, but there is no telling that is what he wants. She fingers the dagger she keeps in her corset for reassurance and follows him back into the pyramid.

* * *

In her private chamber, Nahui Tecpatl falls at Ysabel’s feet. “Of Your mercy, Great Lady, I beg You will grant me eternal life,” he pleads.

Ysabel is taken aback. “I am sure such is not within my power,” she says.

“As our blood sustains You, so but a single drop of Your blood would sustain me,” Nahui Tecpatl explains. He looks at her beseechingly.

Ysabel doubts whether this is so, but even if it were so, she is not certain that she would grant eternal life to Nahui Tecpatl, or anyone else.

“How shall I know you are deserving?” she asks, improvising.

Nahui Tecpatl prostrates himself even further, his desperation clear. “Have I not served You faithfully all my life? Have I not passed on Your lore to a new generation?” he asks, his voice cracking. “Why have I been found wanting?”

Ysabel looks down on him with loathing. Though he is saying what he believes is the right thing, she has a feeling that if granted eternal life or any other sort of Sky gift, he would only use it to try to gain power over his fellow Tlaloxtec. As with many clerics Ysabel has met in the last few years, though he sees himself as a good man, corruption lurks just below the surface.

“Eternal life is a gift not lightly given,” she tells him. As with many other times when she has found herself making pronouncements as Cihuamiquitzli about the way the world is, she speaks with caution, trying not to say anything too revolutionary. “My maidens and I have appreciated all that you have done for us during our stay, but if I were to grant immortality to all who asked it of me, soon there would be no mortal men left.”

Nahui Tecpatl sags to the floor, waves of despair washing over him. Suddenly, Ysabel has had enough. Perhaps Nahui Tecpatl has served Cihuamiquitzli well, but only because it serves his own purposes to do so. If he does not do as she bids him now, she will snap his sorry neck and drink him dry.

“You are no longer welcome in my sight,” she growls, advancing towards him.

Nahui Tecpatl starts back, suddenly fearful, and scrambles out of the chamber in haste, half running and half crawling. Though focused on the ball game still in progress in the Plaza Mayor, some of the Tlaloxtec notice a hunched figure running away towards the west, and it will be said in later days in Tlaloxtecatlan that to request eternal life of the Goddess Cihuamiquitzli is to invite her never-ending wrath and an eternity in chains in the Underworld.

* * *

Ysabel watches Nahui Tecpatl’s terrified departure, taking deep breaths to calm herself. How dare he presume to request such a thing of her? When she has regained a little more of her composure, she has a terrible realization. What was she thinking, to consider killing him so dispassionately? Even in her father’s court, where cruelty is valued above all else, taking another’s life is unacceptable. The business of being Cihuamiquitzli must have gone to her head. She vows to put all the trappings of divinity behind her as soon as she leaves this place. Though she is superior in station to most that she has met, she is not so far above them as to decide their fates. Such work is only for the Angels.

Ysabel’s strange impulses are not the only thing that continues to trouble her long after her conversation with Nahui Tecpatl. Why do the Tlaloxtec recognise her as so powerful a goddess? Surely her nature does not differ so very much from their own. It is true that the draught she and the youth Gianni drank has increased her powers of perception, but it cannot truly have prolonged her life, and it certainly cannot have given her the power to grant eternal life to others. She falls into a fitful sleep.

In her dream, she sits across a table from a handsome redheaded girl wearing strange white garments and with a large charm of Cihuamiquitzli round her neck.

“So, you’ve really been around since the Dawn of the Empire?” she asks.

“It’s so,” Ysabel hears herself replying.

“But that was like, almost 600 years ago!” the girl exclaims.

“It’s so,” Ysabel says again.

“Wow!” the girl says, her eyes wide. “Will I live that long?”

“If you are clever, there is no knowing how long you may live,” Ysabel replies.

* * *

The sun rises on the day of departure. Cihuamiquitzli is honoured threefold with a treble sacrifice, and speaks a blessing over Fire Serpent and Were Jaguar, Tlaloxtec and Ilhuitcatcoatec alike. The Ilhuitcatcoatec set out to the north from the Plaza Mayor, laden down with heavy packs. More supplies are loaded in the ATV and on the flatbed trailer it pulls. Ysabel and the two remaining aeronautes ride palanquins back to the Explorator south of the city, accompanied by the Lord of Tlaloxca and the two remaining priests of Cihuamiquitzli.

Many ceremonial farewells are said, and more gifts are given by the Tlaloxtec. Finally, leave is taken and Ysabel and the two aeronautes climb into the ship.

“Man, I’m so happy we’re finally leaving!” exclaims Barras as she locks the outer hatch.

“Yeah, me too,” the capitaine calls from inside the flight cabin.

“Ysabel, you better not think we’re gonna start sacrificing our blood to you every morning or something,” Barras snaps at Ysabel. She has closed the inner hatch and is beginning the procedure to seal the airlock.

“Please, Pilote, what do you take me for?” asks Ysabel, trying to keep the exasperation out of her voice and almost succeeding.

“Well, you’re the Great Goddess Cihuamiquitzli, aren’t you?” Barras sneers.

Ysabel sighs inwardly. This will be a long trip.


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