Smoke Quetzal stood in the jungle, his pack and that of the two boys with him bulging with the writings of his people. In the distance, he heard the cry of macaws, not the happy sounds he’d grown used to as a boy—this was the sound they’d made ever since those who called themselves the Spanish came to the shores of the Maya.
When they first arrived, the Spanish had shot macaws and other birds out of the trees with their firesticks. And they’d done it not for food or for the highly prized feathers, which the people used in sacred headdresses, or as an offering, but for fun.
Because they could.
How lacking of spirit — how far from the gods — must these people be to kill for sport?
And yet they criticized Smoke Quetzal’s people, were horrified by the sacrifices that had been practiced for as long as the Maya had endured. Honorable sacrifices. Many of them willing — like the ball players who knew the price of loss was death. Or the servants of the nobility who were sacrificed in the tombs, following their lords and ladies into death. And why not? They would ascend to the skies with the nobles. The depths of Xibalba would have no grasp on them.
Smoke Quetzal thought the Spanish were hypocrites; he’d seen how they hurt his people. Father Landa was a special enemy: a man who preached of a loving god but acted more like the devil he sought to burn out of Smoke Quetzal’s people, torturing those Maya who would not willingly turn to his religion.
But it was what they did to the books, to the carvings and statues, that had made Smoke Quetzal set out on his quest.
The smell of all those books burning in the square would never leave him. The glee on the face of Landa as he preached his “word” while bark and precious ink went up in flames. Surely the great kings of Calakmul, of Tikal and Palenque and Copan could smell the scent of a people’s history burning. Surely they were raging.
Time — the Spaniards wanted to destroy the history that would have endured forever but for them. Smoke Quetzal and the other scribes had been so careful to record it. In ways both beautiful and detailed.
Everything written was rooted in time, the baktun, the katun, the tun, the winal, and the kin. Measures of time that set things so firmly there was no question when and where and who did what or owned what. The beautiful glyphs, the same no matter what language of the Maya was spoken. The center of learning, Copan, training the scribe masters who taught the common writing system to the young scribes in the cities. Smoke Quetzal had leaned from the son of a Copan master.
“This is the glyph for jaguar. And so is this. And this.”
“Why so many, master?”
“Because this isn’t just writing, my child. This is art. This is expression. This is life stilled for a moment in stone or on bark so it must be beautiful — and honor life in all its versions.”
Smoke Quetzal had felt the weight of his craft that day, as he’d perfected the first of the symbols for macaw. As he’d combined it with the dots and lines and shells of the numbering and calendar system. As he’d tied it to the name of the ruler of Chichen Itza.
His beautiful city. Abandoned now. Swallowed up by the jungle. Just as Smoke Quetzal would soon be swallowed up. He was old—no, he was ancient. This would be his last journey.
“We go the other way,” he told Jaguar Rain and Falling Corn. He did not want to risk running into the Spanish, and he thought the macaws would not make those noises for his people.
The boys looked disappointed. Had they thought to sleep under cover instead of under the great trees tonight? After all this time on the run?
But they didn’t argue, just turned and trudged off after him down the path.
Smoke Quetzal sat in the mouth of a cave, watching as the rain came down. It was risky, carrying his precious books around during the season of Chac, but it was the only way to know if a cave was dry or not. During the season of sunshine, any cave might appear dry. It was only when the torrents came that a cave would prove itself a suitable resting place for the books or not.
But he and the boys had to take care. Had to wrap the books in waxy leaves that would protect them from moisture, then keep the leaf-wrapped packets in woven bags that were lined with more of the leaves and with the feathers of waterfowl.
Every town they went to, they collected what was left. From frightened people who knew they’d be killed if the Spanish found out they’d hidden the writings from them. These people should take their place with the Hero Twins, in Smoke Quetzal’s opinion. They risked all and not for the present or the past, but for the future. Smoke Quetzal would hide the books well. If he did his work right, the books would not be found for a baktun.
Except for the four he had already hidden. In more obvious places. They were lesser books, but they were a start. The boys hadn’t understood why he did it, why he’d leave some of their precious, dangerous cargo in more obvious places.
Each journey started with a single step; knowledge would come the same way: glyph by glyph. Someone would stare at the writing and see more than the beautiful pictures—they would begin to understand, to read.
The boys were good and loyal, but had already lost some of what had made the Maya great. Their skulls were round like the Spanish — the pressing boards the Maya had used on their children were destroyed by the Spanish whenever they were found.
Barbarism, the Spanish had said. They could not see that it was for a reason — they did not care that it was for a reason. It was their way or death.
A simple law to remember, Smoke Quetzal supposed. If he were a conqueror and not just attacking a city that was also Maya, but some remote area, perhaps it would be what he would do, too.
Although he hoped he would ask why the people he’d defeated did something. Why are your skulls shaped that way? Why are your woman’s teeth filed? Why do you have jade embedded in yours?
The boys had no jade or malachite in their teeth. Their teeth were square and unadorned. As were their cousins. As would be the children of their cousins.
There would be no children of these boys. They, too, were making their last journey, although they didn’t know it.
Smoke Quetzal loved the boys. He wished he could trust them to never reveal the location of the writings, but he’d seen what the Spanish could do, how they could make a person say anything. It was kinder to end the boys’ lives his way — with cacao laced with a sedative, his obsidian knife finishing the job once they were relaxed and halfway to Xibalba already.
He wouldn’t die that way. He would lie down by his books and guard them as was his duty until his heart stopped beating and his breath refused to flow. His bones would crumble, but the books would survive.
The rain poured down, great streams of water gushing into the latest cave Smoke Quetzal had chosen to explore. It had seemed dry but now water was gathering at the bottom, the puddle turning into a pool.
“Soon it will be too treacherous to climb out,” Falling Corn said, touching Smoke Quetzal’s arm gently.
“The aluxob play tricks on us.” Jaguar Rain crossed his arms over his chest. “Each new cave seems dry and then the rain comes. Why won’t they help us?”
Smoke Quetzal sighed and gestured for Falling Corn to lead them out of the depths of the cave, and they sheltered near the mouth. Jaguar Rain took care of their torches, covering the pitch-covered tops with more of the waxy leaves and securing them with cord fashioned from the intestines of a deer.
Jaguar Rain was an excellent hunter. His parents had been of the nobility, before the Spanish got their hands on them, burning them for leading the people into evil.
Smoke Quetzal closed his eyes, trying to drown out the memories of his friends screaming. He’d put his hands on Jaguar Rain’s shoulders—the boy had wanted to face his parent’s death in the old way, with pride and honor. But he’d cried later that night, in the sleeping pad Smoke Quetzal had given him, when he’d taken the boy in rather than leave him for the Spanish to stick in one of their children’s homes.
The children in those homes forgot how to speak Mayan. They could not read the glyphs. They lost touch with the old ways. This would not happen to the child of his friends.
Falling Corn had run away from one of the homes. Smoke Quetzal had found him in the jungle, just days after he’d begun his quest. It was through him that Smoke Quetzal knew what happened in the homes. How the children were beaten if they were caught speaking in their own tongue. How much the whip hurt — and the cane, if a strap didn’t make a child mind fast enough.
Falling Corn still had scars on his back and shoulders. A warrior would wear battle wounds with pride, but these weren’t battle wounds. No one who followed the gods would make war on children the way the Spanish did.
Lately, though, Falling Corn seemed less shy about his scars. The quest had given him a reason to be proud. There were times Smoke Quetzal thought the boy knew that death waited at the end. It was in his eyes, when he touched the books, the reverence. The seriousness when he explored the caves.
He had the look of a man hungry for rest.
Jaguar Rain was still a child in so many ways. Smoke Quetzal had gone out of his way to shelter him. It was a weakness, but it also allowed him to teach the boy the old ways, how to read the glyphs — and how to write them. Back then, he’d thought it important the next generation have scribes who could carry on.
Back then he hadn’t imagined anyone would burn everything that mattered in his world.
Now, there was no place for scribes, but let the boy think there would be. That he would someday use his skill again in safety. It was kinder than telling him the truth: that this journey was one way only.
“The alux doesn’t want us here.” Jaguar Rain was watching a dark corner of the cave. “I’ve tried to tell it we mean no harm, but it isn’t happy.”
Smoke Quetzal glanced toward where the boy was looking. He could see nothing. He closed his eyes, breathing deep from his belly, relaxing as much as he could, silently saying the words the priest used to say when pacifying the local aluxob.
Then he opened his eyes. The alux was visible, barely. It did, indeed, look unhappy.
Smoke Quetzal said softly, “We will go when the rain lets up.”
The alux pointed toward the doorway. Its message clear: “Go now.”
Jaguar Rain was watching him, and Smoke Quetzal nodded, making sure the packs were secure before getting ready to head out into the downpour.
“Wait,” Jaguar Rain said, and stopped him with a strong hand on his forearm. He turned to the alux. “You like tricks.”
The alux nodded.
Jaguar Rain smiled. “We’re playing the biggest trick of all.”
Smoke Quetzal saw the alux’s expression change from one of hostility to curiosity. It gestured for Jaguar Rain to continue.
Smoke Quetzal glanced at Falling Corn, wondering how much he could still see. The boy had spent three years at the children’s home before he ran away.
The confusion in his eyes told Smoke Quetzal that it had been enough time to rob him of this — the ability to see the trickster spirits that were part of the very land itself, that looked like Maya warriors, only in miniature.
Jaguar Rain knelt down, opened his pack, and pulled out a book, which he unwrapped carefully. “This is a weapon.”
Smoke Quetzal smiled. It was indeed. Knowledge was the most powerful weapon of all. The boy had learned well.
“This is our past and our future,” Smoke Quetzal murmured, the alux turning to look at him. The thing’s eyes were golden like a jaguar’s and gleamed as if lit from within. “We are hiding it from someone. It’s a big trick.”
“The biggest,” Jaguar Rain said.
The alux stepped forward and sniffed the book, then touched it. It smiled slightly.
“The men who kill with the firesticks. Do you know them?” Smoke Quetzal moved his hands over his head as if outlining one of the Spaniard’s helmets.
The alux’s expression changed, the smile disappearing as his eyes narrowed. He held up his hand and clenched his fist.
“Yes, they’re evil. They don’t respect the land.” Smoke Quetzal leaned in. “They don’t respect you.”
The alux met his eyes, and Smoke Quetzal realized the thing knew they were playing it. But it enjoyed the knowing. Because it also knew that they were speaking the truth.
What do you seek?
The words rang in his mind, not in his ears. Smoke Quetzal thought Jaguar Rain couldn’t hear it — his expression held no surprise.
Smoke Quetzal pictured the kind of cave he needed to make sure the books were safe. A dry cave, one that would stay dry even in the wettest of rainy seasons. One that wouldn’t collapse and ruin the books. One that was safe from predation of animals seeking a den. From robbers.
From anyone. Until it was time for the words of the Maya to be read once again.
I require something. The alux looked at Jaguar Rain. You plan to kill him. Give him to me, and I will keep him safe until it is time to read the books again.
Smoke Quetzal frowned. He had to be sure the books were safe. No one could know where they were.
No one will. He will roam the world in many forms. Ocelot, Jaguar, Serpent, Macaw, and your namesake, the Quetzal. He will keep me company until it is time for him to be born a human again.
A human who will understand this land. The alux stared at him. For the biggest trick of all, is this such a price to pay? He will live.
Smoke Quetzal glanced at Falling Corn. Could he, too, live?
He does not want to. In the alux’s voice was a world of regret. And he could not see me even if he did want to. They pulled him into their world.
Smoke Quetzal closed his eyes and nodded.
Follow me. The alux walked out of the cave, and as it moved, the rain stopped.
They sloshed through the wet jungle floor after him. Or Smoke Quetzal and Jaguar Rain did—Falling Corn just followed them. As they walked, the screams of macaws sounded around them, and there were flashes of blue and red and green in the trees.
Smoke Quetzal felt a rush of sadness. Would the Spanish kill all these magnificent birds that were so linked with his people?
They will endure.
The alux turned to the east, led them for perhaps four hundred more steps, and then stopped. Here.
Smoke Quetzal could see nothing. Where?
Jaguar Rain pushed past him. “Here. Can’t you see?” He moved the brush aside, and an opening showed. It was graded in such a way that the cave went up before it went down, and Smoke Quetzal realized water would never flow into it.
Jaguar Rain said, “We must make fire first. We cannot see in the dark as you can.” He handed the firestarter to Falling Corn, then stood back up while Falling Corn twisted the sticks.
Smoke Quetzal met his eyes. “You can hear the alux?”
The boy nodded. He looked at Falling Corn, as if he didn’t wish to speak in front of him.
He knows you would have killed him. The alux watched them with interest. Then it smiled at Jaguar Rain. He forgives you.
Jaguar Rain nodded, but there was still some hurt in his eyes—this boy had seen too much in his young life. Then he turned his attention to Falling Corn, holding the torch near the fire the other boy had starting on the dried grass they carried with them. The torch caught, slowly at first, guttering a little, then burning steadily, and he lit the second from that.
They followed the alux into the cave. The tunnel curved, the walls going from slightly damp near the entrance to bone dry as they finally descended.
Unlike other caves, no ceramics were in this one. No bones of sacrifices. No black marks on the wall from the torches of those who came before.
This is my cave. For the biggest of tricks. For my new son. The alux looked at Jaguar Rain, a look more acquisitive than fond on its face. Then something like mercy took over, and it smiled at Smoke Quetzal. He will fly. He will run. He will hunt. He will be all the things that are in this land. And then, when it is time, he will read again. It is good, no?
Smoke Quetzal watched as Jaguar Rain set the pack down. The boy would live as none ever had. “Yes, it’s good.”
He had Falling Corn make a small fire. Using the last of their water, he heated the ceramic container over the fire, then added the chocolate paste to it. He took their three small cups and poured the chocolate in. Then he added the sedating herbs to Falling Corn’s cup and handed it to him.
Jaguar Rain took his cup and drank it down quickly. At Smoke Quetzal’s frown, he said, “It wants me now.”
“Who wants you?” Falling Corn began to yawn and then he lay back, his eyes closing.
Smoke Quetzal turned back to Jaguar Rain, who was changing before his eyes, turning into a true jaguar, his spots laying out a pattern of the cities that once were filled with their people. His eyes shone.
Then he bounded out of the cave, the alux on his back.
Smoke Quetzal took his knife and knelt next to Falling Corn. “I’m no priest. I can’t make a sacrifice of you and give you honor. I can’t sanctify your blood. But it is blood, nonetheless, and it’s spilled for our people. You’re a hero.”
Falling Corn mumbled and turned away slightly.
Smoke Quetzal drew his obsidian blade across Falling Corn’s throat. The boy didn’t wake or struggle, and Smoke Quetzal thought it was the alux’s doing. The sedative wasn’t strong enough to send someone as deeply asleep as Falling Corn was.
Smoke Quetzal lay down between the boy and the books. He was ready. He lay, waiting, the cave silent around him.
Death, it seemed, was not ready for him.
He sat up and saw set before him the inks and brushes he would have had in his workroom. He touched them in wonder.
Tricks are best when understood.
Smoke Quetzal laughed and picked the best place to start. Then he drew the first glyph on the wall of the cave, a calendar glyph, setting this moment’s place in time. His hand shook a bit and the cave wall was nothing like smooth bark, but still, he managed to make the glyph one he could be proud of.
Someday, someone would find these and read the story of his people — and of an old man and two boys and an alux. It was up to him to make sure the story was told well.
[Gerri Leen lives in Northern Virginia and originally hails from Seattle. In addition to being an avid reader, she’s passionate about horse racing, tea, and collecting encaustic art and raku pottery. She has work appearing in Nature, Strange Horizons, Galaxy’s Edge, Deep Magic, Daily Science Fiction, and others. She’s edited several anthologies for independent presses, is finishing some longer projects, and is a member of SFWA and HWA. See more at gerrileen.com.]