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       Aztec Fire, p.1

           Gary Jennings
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Aztec Fire









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  Table of Contents

  About the Authors

  Copyright Page

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  For Joyce Servis


  Many people helped bring this book to fruition. We particularly wish to thank Tom Doherty, Linda Quinton, Christine Jaeger, Sessalee Hensley, Eric Raab, Melissa Frain, Elizabeth Winick, Hildegard Krische, Maribel Baltazar-Gutierrez, Jane Liddle, and Nancy Wiesenfeld.

  Even jade will shatter,

  Even gold will crush,

  Even quetzal plumes will tear.

  One does not live forever on this earth:

  Only for an instant do we endure.

  —Death Song by Nezahualcóyotl,

  philosopher-king of Texcoco

  There is nothing like death in war,

  nothing like flowery death

  so precious to the Giver of Life:

  Far off I see it: my heart yearns for it.

  —Aztec War Song

  (Sahagún, Historia general de

  las cosas de Nueva España)




  Tula, Valley of Mexico, 1811

  BEFORE MY AZTEC uncles were hanged, they took me to the mystery city of Tula to teach me the Way of my people. They expected to die there and even brought along a yellow dog—which, according to our beliefs, would guide them through the Nine Hells after death.

  I was sixteen years old.

  I will tell you more of the Nine Hells, the Mystery City, and Yellow Dog in a moment, but first let me introduce myself. My name is Mazatl—which means “Deer” in the Aztec tongue, Nahuatl—and Mazatl is the name I have always answered to in our village. By law, however, I must have a Spanish name, and in their language I am called Juan Rios.

  The Spanish call all indios “Aztecs,” which many of my people resent. In the Spaniards’ minds, slaves are beneath contempt, and we indios are indeed enslaved. Few Spaniards acknowledge that we have had a culture rich in art, architecture, medicine, and astronomy and that our culture thrived long before they arrived and destroyed our towering monuments to the majesty of the past. Nor has it occurred to these people whose roots are in Europe that people of the Americas did not need to be “discovered.”

  In truth, however, I am heir to an even older and mightier people than the Mexica, the first people whom the Spanish condescendingly call Aztec: I am of the Toltec, a civilization that scholars call the first true “Aztec” because those civilizations that followed—the Mexica-Aztecs, Mayan, Zapotec, and all the others—shamelessly aped Toltec civilization in their art and architecture, most notably in the construction of their own cities and in the rendering of their finest artworks.

  Like the Mexica-Aztecs and other empires in central Mexico, the Toltec speak Nahuatl—the melodious tongue of the gods.

  My people were a mighty empire when the Mexica-Aztec, the People of the Reed, wandered naked and defenseless, the prey of snakes and crocodiles, jaguars and wolves, living on grubs and weeds and worms. These uncouth savages feared our fury and lusted after our prodigious riches—all the while trembling before our soaring pyramids and illimitable empire. Most of all they stared in awestruck wonder at our Scintillating City of Turquoise Gold, our Invincible Citadel and Sacred Shrine—Tula. To the Aztec, Tula was a city of golden turquoise-laden palaces, where meat, maize, beans, avocados, and honeyed sweets were plentiful as earth and air, where mescal, corn beer, and fermented chocolate flowed like water.

  Perhaps most of all, the Aztec envied our science and our skill with numbers. To them our learning must have indeed seemed inscrutable as the sun and stars. Rather than working fields, the people of Tula probed the heavens and through their celestial science and godlike wisdom divined the future.

  My Toltec ancestors raised wondrous plants—which cured all the ills that human flesh is heir to. Erecting vertiginous temples and magnificent monuments, we even placated the implacable gods.

  Aztec emperors would later claim lineal descent from Tula’s royalty, while its high nobility truckled after Toltec wives.

  Now all that remained of Tula’s golden grandeur was shards and slivers, wrack and ruin—the centuries-ravaged wreckage of a five-tiered step-pyramid dedicated to Quetzalcoatl; cracked, crumbling foundations of other toppled temples; ruins of two ball courts, and the scattered, shattered remains of a Sun King’s grandiose palace.

  The terraces of the step-pyramid’s sloping sides were still embellished with painted and sculpted friezes of marching jaguars and ferocious dogs, of birds of prey devouring human hearts, and of human faces, trapped and staring wild-eyed inside the gaping jaws of serpents.

  No, nothing before or since had equaled the Toltec—including the Mexica. Ignorant of art and architecture, the Mexica ransacked the culture of my people. When building their own great city, Tenochtitlán, they pillaged Tula’s religion, culture, art—even the concept of themselves as warrior-priests of the sun god. Thus most “Aztec” myths, legends, their pantheon of gods, pictographs, temples, and palaces were imitations of our own culture, our infinite creativity.

  Even now the grandeur of our lost Toltec world could be felt—despite the barbarism of the Spanish. Indio ruins throughout the colony were shaped to resemble Toltec edifices, including those of the magnificent Chichén Itzá monuments in the land of the Maya to the far south.

  Ayyo … Tula had been a great empire a thousand years before I was born—though now it was only an abandoned ruin. The city, however, was not abandoned by the gods of my people—I sensed their presence the moment I reached the pyramid’s summit and walked among the forest of giant stone warriors now known as the Atlanteans, a name drawn from the legend of the lost continent of Atlantis rather than the history of my people because no one knows the true name of these mighty warriors.

  These fierce stone warriors, standing nearly three times the height of a man, evoked visions of great wars and conquest by a people far superior to those that walk the land today.

  I have lived my entire life in a village in the mountains to the east of Tula. The village is small, fewer than a hundred huts and not really big enough to support a church, though we had our own small chapel. It was said that our village was so small and poor that only priests being punished for transgressions against God and the Church were sent there.

  No Spaniards lived in the village except for the priest, and as would be expected for a man sent to purgatory on earth, he was neither a very good Spaniard nor a very devout priest.

  Mexico City was two long days’ walk to the south.
I had never been to the great city, though I had heard many tales of its savage wrath and majestic wonder.

  The people of my village subsisted on the maize and beans and peppers we grew. We also mined a sulfur pit in a nearby mountainside.

  My people did not grow rich off the sulfur. Unlike gold or silver, it is not precious. There would be a time when we used the sulfur as an ingredient in black powder, but we never profited from the sale of the black powder.

  In the end, however, that damnable gunpowder doomed my uncles—and had forced our journey to Tula to fight our last battle.


  WE WERE AN unprepossessing army to say the least—an indio in a frazzled straw hat, homespun cotton clothes, and rope sandals; determined to hurl a spear at a hated foe in his last battle; a priest in frayed and faded clerical garb who said a prayer each time he reloaded his flintlock pistol.

  And me—the least dangerous of all.

  For the first fifteen years of my life, I had not traveled from the village of my birth any farther than a one-hour walk. But that had been the year before. After my people rose up against the Spanish last year in a War of Independence, my life was turned upside down, and I left my village many times.

  Although I had been taught many legends about the ancient city, this was my first visit to Tula. Unfortunately, today we had not journeyed to that golden city to study history but so my uncles could look death in its obsidian eye—and die with honor.

  I call both of them my uncles, though neither man acknowledged that tie. Moreover, they themselves are diametrically different and sharply at odds with each other—divided by culture and blood: one is Toltec, the other Spanish.

  To understand the colony and its people, one must first be familiar with the Spanish concept of blood purity. To the Spaniard, honor was not determined by knowledge, artistic ability, or even personal achievement, but by the blood in their veins. Not even great wealth made a mixed-blood silver-mine owner sit taller in the saddle than a lowly Spanish muleteer whose blood was unadulterated. With unsullied Spanish blood, one was presumed to possess all the noblest virtues of manhood—moral strength in life, bravery in battle, and domination over weaker men and women.

  Both of my uncles had pureza de sangre, purity of blood—though one was Toltec, the other Spanish. While our Spanish masters claimed to respect pure indio blood, they only esteemed Spanish blood. And even the blood of Spaniards had an unwritten hierarchy: Spaniards born in Spain who came to the colony to administer it—and rape its wealth and women—were called gachupines, wearers of spurs … spurs that roweled and bloodied the backs of the indigenous peoples. Spaniards born in the colony were called criollos.

  European-born Spaniards believed that being born in the colony made one’s blood less potent, and they reserved the great offices of government and the Church for themselves. Thus the colony’s social order demanded that the gachupines dictated to the criollos; the criollos chafed under the contempt of the gachupines while they oppressed the mixed bloods called mestizos and mulatoes and the full-blooded indios.

  This business of blood was unfathomable to a boy of my tender years, but one thing was clear: The Spanish were my masters. To show disrespect was to invite the shackle and the whip. To contest their superiority by word or deed was to entice death.

  My Toltec uncle was called Yaotl, which means “war” in the language of our people. His name, given at birth, suited him well because he was a true warrior, the strongest and bravest man in our village. Short for a Toltec—and certainly shorter than most Spaniards—he was nonetheless solid and massively muscular with a powerful chest and limbs.

  Yaotl practiced the Old Ways, the traditions of warriors who served long-dead indio kings and gods. From him I learned to hunt and fish, to survive on what the land itself provided, whether in arid wastes or in sweltering snake-infested jungles. I could hunt my prey on the run with my obsidian dagger and rock-sling, and I could divine water in places where even lizards shriveled up and died.

  My other uncle, Fray Diego, was Spanish. He came to our village before I was born. My people had not seen a priest for years before his arrival. The cynics among us believed the Church had waited until a priest fell so grotesquely from grace they could justify banishment to our embarrassingly barren parish.

  Others suspected Fray Diego had provoked his superiors in an internecine power struggle, infuriating them beyond all reason. Fearing retribution, he chose a remote village as distant from their vindictive reach as he could find. The good fray came here to go to ground and officially disappear—rather than to administer the sacraments. Whatever his motives, the fray found more personal absolution in the sacred grape than in holy prayer. The fray himself once suggested that his sojourn in our village was a punishment and a penance for his plethora of sins.

  My Spanish uncle was nothing like Yaotl in body or mind. His body was plump, more resembling the bottom half of an hour glass, a consequence of his gluttonous love of tortillas, frioles, and holy wine. But food was not his only gluttonous transgression. Devilishly curious, he devoured knowledge of every sort. Reading voraciously and questioning everything, his skeptical curiosity had not endeared him to the Holy Mother Church.

  Fray Diego taught me many things. Because of him I grew up speaking Spanish as well as Nahuatl. He educated me to read the books of our Spanish masters, to write their language; and he introduced me to books and plays in that tongue. His true love were the works of the Siglo de Oro, the Golden Age of Spanish literature two hundred years ago, but he introduced me to the works of many writers and poets, including the plays of Vega, Molina, Calderón, and Moratin, the poetry of Sor Juana, and the novels of Cervantes.

  No ordinary priest, he was also not an ordinary man. Omnivorously curious, he admitted to me that his indefatigable investigations of his own Holy Trinity—Women, Wine, and Cards—had predestined his downfall.

  His impious passions and amorous adventures were widely reported throughout our village. Some villagers implied on one of his wayward wanderings that he had bedded my mother and conceived a bastardo son, namely me.

  Those same wagging tongues in the next breath, however, imputed my paternity to Yaotl as well.

  My mother rejected all such tales, maintaining that the ancient Toltec god, Quetzalcoatl—deviously disguised as a royal prince—had entered her bed and, yes, herself as well … but had spawned her doting son not with mortal seed but through more immaculate means. The truly vicious argued instead that she was little better than a village puta, who had bedded down both the priest and the warrior in the selfsame night and did not know who my father was.

  As for me, I was comfortable having two uncles and no father. Tall and slender like a reed, I looked like neither man, so I accepted that my origins were immaculately conceived and divinely inspired.

  When we arrived at Tula, my heart was leaden with dread, and my mind churned with churlish thoughts. My uncles had forbidden me to accompany them to this last battle and had carefully watched the trail behind them after they left the village, intending—if they caught me tracking them—to thrash me within an inch of my life and send me limping back home.

  Ayyo. I had left the village before them and stood defiant on the outskirts of Tula when they arrived. Amazed at my audacity, they decided I could accompany them to the ruins of the city, where they would instruct me on the greatness of our people. I promised to return to the village before the Spanish arrived and the battle began—a promise I was determined not to honor.

  That promise would be the only lie I would ever tell them.

  I was sworn not to run from the enemy of our people, and I had hidden weapons before my uncles arrived.

  I was committed to fighting my first and last battle shoulder to shoulder with my uncles.


  YAOTL MADE SWEEPING gestures with his arms.

  “Long, long ago, this was one of Tula’s ball courts.” He held up a rough, crudely made rubber ball. “A ball like this was used in t
he game.”

  He bounced the ball. It struck the stone floor with a heavy thud and came back up. He hit it with his hip, sending it to me. I caught it but it was heavy and knocked me back, almost off my feet.

  “The game is called tlaxtli by our people,” he said. “It’s a game of life, death, and of war.”

  “A game of war?”

  “Tlaxtli was played as if it were a battlefield. Professional teams traveled from town to town, playing the game. They formed leagues and had great championships every year at El Tajin, the city of thunder north of Veracruz on the coast of the Eastern Sea. The city had twenty ball courts. All the teams went there to play the final champion match. They wore uniforms that represented animals: jaguar, eagle, snake, frog, fish, deer, every kind of animal.

  “Like warriors going into battle, their uniforms were padded to protect them against the violence of the matches.” Yaotl pointed at his shins and knees. “Wood and leather pads protected the legs. Around the waist, a wide wooden waist yoke absorbed the hardest hits. Helmets protected their heads.”

  “A hard, savage, brutal contest,” Fray Diego said. “You shouldn’t glamorize it for the boy. A heathen game, pagans played it, often to the death. One of the many barbaric indio practices we Spanish thankfully abolished.”

  Diego helped himself to his wineskin.

  Yaotl shook his head. “No more savage or brutal than the games called jousts that your European knights played.”

  “The barbarity of medival knights does not justify heathen folly.”

  My uncles didn’t see eye to eye on many things, but they both agreed on the most important issue—all the people in the colony should be treated equally.

  Diego wandered off with his wine-boda while Yaotl enthused over the game of tlaxtli.

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