In a narrow cave of a hot green earth that circled a red sun, I faced off against a woman who would command the world. The battle had raged ten years; fought on wheat-dusty plains, on the tops of woven sky-trees, on the crusty foam of sand-flecked oceans. Now I pulled ahead, now she. But these last three years had closed around me. My companions had been stripped away, my defenses sundered, and now the pitch-black of the cave slashed me from Mother Sun. Yan, Bloodwoman of the Plains, enslaver of two races, closed her hand on my throat.
I am only the last of the maar, the sun-beloved maar, and she had broken my feather-wove wand with a blow of her hatchet.
The maar have sheltered the people of the jungle since shortly after humans were first birthed from sunlight and coal, since the gods saw that the cruel leaders of the blood-drenched plains would overrun the peaceful junglefolk. We are the last gift of the gods—human with a purpose, we say. Sworn to bring freedom.
Here in the blackened cave I was at the mercy of the Bloodwoman of the Plains. But I could still spit.
Yan released me. “After a decade, I will not martyr you,” she said. “You should never have dared look at me, let alone challenge.” I could see her only in the haze of her spellglow—Yan would never risk fire near me, fearful I could draw from it the way I could the sun. Her lips and eyes were blood-red, a magical affectation. No surprise that the Bloodwoman of the Plains would use power drawn from sacrifice to her own glory.
“I’d dare anything for my people,” I said. My hand closed on my broken wand.
Yan stomped the cavern floor like a thundering bafalo. “Your people? The junglefolk don’t care about you. You think you fight for them, but they see us fight, and to them it is like trying to understand the skirmishes of the gods. They don’t care that you’ve spent your life for their...what is that word you cry, that word of your sun-deviled maar tongue?”
“Freedom,” I said. “It is not so untranslatable.”
“I have yet to hear a definition I like,” said Yan. She pointed a taloned finger at me. “You may think about your failure. You will have time.”
“And so will you,” I said. “Will not one who maintains her own life through others’ blood come to regret it? How long can you live before they tear you limb from limb? You are not a goddess, Yan. I bid you remember that.”
A tight cruel smile was the only answer. “Essan y temporo.”
The blood-power of Yan was legendary. She had presided over so many sacrifices that blood caked under her nails and would not leave; blood coated saltily over her teeth and would not flake free. A child of the maar has the might of the sun when it is visible, has her wand to tide her through the night. Yan’s power was accessible any time, any place. A searing wave of ice swept me.
There is one spell you can do with a maar’s broken wand. I set it free. Free to turn against the one who shattered it, if that was its wish.
Such was Yan’s blood-given power that ice swept up my feet and shins before the wand had half fallen from my hand. By the time she put the last locking words on, I was encased.
The outside world stopped for me.
It is an old saying that the maar can track a jaguarro by understanding the heartbeat of the sun. Like all sayings about the maar, it is truer than you think. But I tell you, take away that sun and we are as helpless as any.
In that coal-dark cave, time ran for me like a hobbled spider, now fast, now slow, lurching as the world ran ‘round its clock. For the first century I thought of strategy. What I would do with the changed world when I was freed, for Yan could not live forever. In the second century I found solace in remembering the tales of the gods, in repeating to myself the words of their failures and miseries, triumphs and joys.
For the third I thought only of food. Bafalo haunches spitted and roasted over fire, crackling crisp black-gold on the outside. Tender spinica leaves, folded around melting pepperpear fruit. And chokolat, always chokolat. The human part of me overcame my maar heritage, and I spent my precious time arranging menus.
Thus three centuries passed for me: the last of the maar, frozen in ice, unable to fulfill her sworn purpose.
Pleny was the one who freed me. I knew her not then; but as a many-great granddaughter of my sworn enemy, I knew her soon enough.
The first I saw of her was a light in the cave, interfering with a tender reminiscence of warm artikokes in the spring. The light might as well have been a sound, a touch. At first it seemed impossible to reconcile with something my eyes could use, so unaccustomed was I to vision.
Pleny prepared a spell, I understood later. For next I saw the dusky copper blur of her as water shimmered across my eyelids, melting down my cheeks. The ice cleared my nose and smell returned immediately, perhaps because I had been priming it for the last century. But it was not the fresh earthy smell of artikokes.
It was the dark acrid tang of a blood-powered world of sacrifice.
Ice dripped from my eyes like tears as I saw that the world had continued to fall without me. It had not righted itself, and—I knew not how, yet suddenly cold fright ripped through me—Yan was yet alive three centuries hence. Living on blood, a mosquito Queen.
When the ice fell from my lips, Pleny asked me my name and my greatest wish. Waterlogged as I was, I recognized the reference. Had I not comforted myself with this very tale a mere century and a half ago? When the goddess of grief was imprisoned as a cloud, she became thick and grey, and drought swept the land. The hero Mashavo soared to the heavens on a phenyx and released her with flame. As the rains fell, he fell with her, fell broken on the land. Dying, he begged of her to tell him her greatest wish.
Though I would not rate any descendant of Yan near a hero, I appreciated the courtesy.
“I am Ifit,” I said, “and I wish for only what the grieving goddess once wished for: that a desolate land should be rejuvenated with the water of tears.” Which was true enough, though for this land to be reborn, the jungle people needed freedom from the plains. Needed to be left in peace to gather their pepperpears and trade peacefully for bafalo. Not pressed into blood-caked service, sacrificed to the glory of a despotic ruler with a thirst for gore.
I did not say that. When one is half immobilized, one should see which way the wind is blowing...before it topples you over.
A wise move, that was. Pleny finished dissolving the ice that held me, led me up the riverbed and into a new world.
A world with a long road that led straight from the river to the heart of town. At that heart I saw her, a massive golden statue of —
“Yan,” said Pleny, touching the pulse of her throat in obeisance.
My head swam as we started down that long road. Carts jangled around us, crossing back and forth through town; new styles, new colors. Gentled bafalo pulled machinery whose purpose I could only guess at. And everywhere I looked I saw the black straight hair of the plains, the brown curls of the jungle, all mixed together, some pulling carts, some riding in them. What new world was this?
I shivered, wondering why the rising dawn was not restoring my warmth, my spirits. My bones felt thick and cold, and they ground against each other like stone in my sockets. Surely Mother Sun had not forgotten her final child.
Yet even a forgotten maar knew her duty. Freedom. It was time to think of strategy once again, and not sun-warmed artikokes. “Tell me,” and I closed my eyes against the cacophony of new, praying my insight on my release was correct, “do you have need of me?”
“Yes,” Pleny admitted. Something in my eye may have reminded her of my heritage, for as she knelt, the pearls on her gauze veil thumped the dirt. A bafalo rumbled behind her, its mere presence reminding me of my stomach.
“Rise, my child.”
She was wary, and her veil trembled in front of erratic breaths. “Though it was high hubris to advise, I counseled the great Yan not to release you. Yet she has said you shall help us, and not harm. Is it so?” I picked out her words slowly, hearing the shifted tones, the new slurrings, the whims of three centuries of change.
“Place one drop of the venom of the siniss in one well of purest water,” I said, “and the water does not kill but cure. But why is Yan so sure?”
“Oh, no!” she said, ignoring my pointed question. “Teachers. Run!”
One man and two women suddenly appeared out of the cart traffic. The man held a fishing net; the women ropes. The man swung his net for us, but Pleny pushed me aside, pulling out a stone knife. Despite her veiled costume, she seemed competent at this form of fighting. Perhaps, too, the Teachers were bound not to hurt us, for though the women tried again to circle us, they did not bring forth weapons.
I was cold inside. There was no sunlit warmth to draw from. I could not even protect myself.
Perhaps I was not forgotten, but being punished. Retribution for my failure of three centuries ago.
Pleny dragged me behind her, off of the main road, cutting through side streets. My frozen joints stumbled behind, my thoughts numb and circling. “You said we’d been released by Yan herself.”
“Won’t matter to them,” said Pleny. She dug at her belt. “The traitors stop at nothing.” Quick flips and sharpened notched discs went flying from her fingertips. One of the women yelped and went down with a disc sticking from her thigh. The man was nowhere in sight, but the second woman angled through a crunch of people and still chased us.
“Who are these Teachers?” I panted.
Pleny maneuvered us around a sight-blocking wagon, darted into an alley and yanked me down it. A black door stood an inch ajar and she tugged me through the doorway, into a room stocked with grain and curing bafalo hocks.
“They are disbelievers,” whispered Pleny, and her veil shot out in sharp puffs. “They reject the worship of all gods and treat the well-known history as children’s tales.” She clambered onto a cocoa-colored barrel, limber despite her heavy skirts, and peeped out a dirty window set high on the wall. “Last one’s gone. Come, we will go out a side door.”
I was shocked at the foolishness of these Teachers. “Surely they are addled,” I said. “Three centuries may bring strange changes in man, stranger even than his syntax or fashion.”
Pleny did not answer. She tugged on my arm to follow her. This I saw, but did not feel. My arm might as well have been made of stone. Had it been stone when Pleny touched me upon my awakening? No, I had clearly felt the water running down my cheeks.
Yet I was not all stone. When Pleny led us through a crowded kitchen, my old cold stomach roared in answer. Fire flashed on a hearth and men shook copper pots of grains over it. A man sliced bafalo sausage against his fingers, dropping it into a massive, pitted iron pot. The sharpness of pepper and fennel, the richness of fat and starch shook me like a physical blow. But I suppressed that earthly desire. My century of food dreams were meant to be instructive and comforting, much like the century of the stories of the gods.
My gods, my beloved gods.
My Mother Sun.
We slipped past a cloakroom and out the side door of the restaurant, for such it was, though taverns were never that grand in my day. The women unveiled themselves at breakfast, I was glad to see. Perhaps the overwhelming modesty I had seen on the streets was merely a fashion choice, though an unflattering one.
Still, my mind was on our gods, on the foolishness of the Teachers. “Consider the two moons that light our night sky,” I said to my modern guide. “Who placed them there if not the god of suffering, hoping against hope that his beloved, the god of justice, would return home from the war? As long as the moons hang in the sky, we are all watching for justice to return.”
“The Teachers do speak of a power known as Natural Causes,” said Pleny.
“Like unto a god?” We turned on a street filled with painted carts. Men in striped aprons accosted me with speared pineapple, pancakes folded around pepperpear and coconut curls, sticks of peppered bafalo. I touched my lips, wondering if they tinged with drool I could not feel.
Pleny strode through this bounty, uncaring. “Like unto,” she replied. “And yet, not. It is a featureless power, stripped of all personality, bereft of possibility of human understanding.” She stared down a man holding a lockable metal box, open to display morsels of chokolat. “We are not interested.”
But I could not seem to move my feet past that spot, and the man knew it. “Melted chokolat inside,” he said. “Warm and nourishing. The drink of Altea, the goddess of love as she seduced the human scholar Timon. ‘Come, my love and drink your fill / Be warmed and readied at my touch / Wet your tongue, my love, and come, come in.’“
“You blaspheme to the last of the maar,” said Pleny. “She is not interested in your tales.”
I saw her grab my arm and then I was pulled along again, out of that bustling street and back down alleys.
“He was correct that Altea drank chokolat,” I said, trying not to think of its warmth. “It is one of the few earthly foods so blessed.”
“He was quoting a play performed by the Teachers,” said Pleny. “One by one the gods revealed to be impotent fools. The glorious romance of Althea and Timon is played as a lustful farce. The chokolat is mud.”
The changes of this modern world reeled in me like the hunger that tortured my cold bones. I felt as struck dumb as the Heroine Menyna when she surrendered her tongue to the god of honor for the sake of a sword to slay all men who had even a drop of evil in their hearts. When her little brother pricked his finger on the swordspoint and died, Menyna shouted her rage and betrayal at the gods, and that tongueless cry was heard from ocean to ocean.
Pleny’s veil trembled. “Do you understand now why the great Yan has need of you?”
I had never thought I might join forces with my greatest enemy. It still hardly bore thinking on. Yet I was the last child of the last gift of the gods. Was I not bound to uphold the truth and glory of them in this bewildering modern age?
“Lead me to her,” I said.
With a weather eye out for more Teachers, Pleny led me among the alleys and houses. As we passed a myriad of strange things, I asked questions, and Pleny spoke to me of the changes of this modern world; of the new fashions, the new style of roofing, advances in sanitation. She spoke of a world that was greatly improved in the mingling of blood and the mixing of races, strange though that sounded to my observations of two tribes that had hated one another.
Yet I discerned that other oppressions had befallen the city. A weak puppet king ruled, a bloodfollower of Yan. Women were second-class citizens who could not own land or money, a concession Yan had been forced to grant the puppet king’s great-great-grandfather. Meanwhile the Teachers (and Pleny spoke of them with scorn and fear intermingled) were making frighteningly fast progress, gathering their forces to overthrow the current rule.
I had no time to sort through my thoughts on the current situation before we arrived back on the main road, heading to the statue of Yan. We were very near it now, and here the crowds thinned; no people or carts impeded our progression to the monument.
The statue was perhaps twenty feet high, of a heavy naked woman sitting crosslegged in the waterlily position. She was a deep reddish gold, as if blood had mingled with the metal when it was poured. Her eyes were garnet, and her skin was studded with sharp crystal structures that glittered in the steadily-rising sun. It seemed a perfect likeness of Yan, though not as I had known her. This Yan was old and obese, her burnished cheeks and breasts full and drooping. Whereas the Yan who had faced me in the cave was middle-aged, trim and athletic, a fighter Queen.
We went right up to the statue, and Pleny placed my hand alongside hers on the cold gold knee of Yan.
“Great Yan, I have brought you the evil one,” said Pleny. She inclined her head and the pearls on the veil clacked against the statue’s thigh. “She is ready to hear your wisdom.”
Shocked by Pleny’s words, my gaze fastened on the cold garnet eyes. It was not a statue of Yan, it was Yan.
How could this be?
“I have calcified while you sat,” Yan said. The statue did not move, but her words resonated inside my skull. “The tail of your wand’s curse caught me. But for all that, I am still here, and you are a forgotten anecdote of a forgotten war.”
“Wait for the sun to hit noon,” I said boldly, “and I will rally my people soon enough.”
Silence. Then Yan laughed, and it rumbled the earth under my feet. “Did you ever before have to wait for noon?”
“No,” I admitted. “But never was I frozen for three centuries. I expect it takes more time to feel the power return in me. It is a slow working to warm my old bones.”
But I did not believe this, and Yan knew it.
“The benefits of a lifetime of service—no! Of an entire family’s lifetimes of service,” said Yan. “Your centuries in the cave have severed you from your weakling goddess. The gods are nothing compared with my host of souls.”
Pleny pointed dramatically down the road with her free hand, as if she understood what grand gesture the gold and diamond statue would make. I noticed then that Yan sat in a shallow depression in the rock. Two troughs formed long canals on either side of the road, from Yan to the distant end near the river. I had thought them gutters, but now I understood why they were the color of rust.
“Every day they march to feed my glory,” said Yan. “They hate it—still they come. Oh, your people are equal enough now. Junglefolk, plainsfolk—they all mingle together, dally in the sheets and knife each other for coin. And every day they make sacrifice. Blood I get. Toes, ears, fingers. Lives. And all willing...so to speak.”
I ignored Yan’s familiar boasting. “I heard they have broken with the old gods,” I said. “This troubles me greatly. Why have you not stopped their foolish ways sooner?”
“I am powerful beyond imagining, yet your curse caught me and I cannot move. Pleny is my eyes and ears here in town, but it is not the same. Women are not as they were in my day—oh, the whole climate’s changed.” The golden form rumbled regret.
“You no longer rule,” I said. “They bring you gifts and blood, wrong though it is. But you no longer rule. A handful of men hold this city; I am told others hold groups in the jungle, wagons on the plains. Afeared, the cityfolk all praise you...but you no longer rule.”
“Which is why you shall be my commander,” said Yan. “You have the power to roam. You will fight the others back from this city, and take it for us.”
“I am shocked you woke me for so feeble a reward,” I said. “Of course I have no interest in your plans.”
“You are the last of the maar, and you are bound to protect your people. Your people and my people are now the same. Win back the city and we shall praise the gods once more.”
“You cannot think that I would help you!”
“Our people want peace,” said Yan. “You are sworn to aid them to get it.”
By some rumbled transmission Pleny knew that our audience with Yan was through. She pulled me down the long road away from the statue as I mulled my options.
Ever did Yan mistranslate freedom as peace. Still, protecting my people from the crazed and foolish rule of the Teachers? Yes, on that, at least, we might agree.
Yet my natural stubbornness warred in me. Aiding my lifelong enemy was so repugnant I could scarce countenance the thought. The last child of the maar was not a coward, but surely the gods did not reward a lifetime of service by severing me from them and suggesting I enslave myself to a bloodthirsty monster.
“I do not understand why Yan has need of me,” I told Pleny.
Her veil trembled, a motion I had begun to associate with her smoothing away her natural fear, replacing it with a learned courage. I admire learned courage, for our inner selves are not easily mastered.
“Our goddess is great,” she said. “We who worship know it. But a man named Ton has come to prominence in the city, and he would have our goddess destroyed. Our goddess is unwilling to smite him with her own hands. Thus she needs you.”
“Unwilling?” I said. I hardly dared hope that my wand, child of my heart, had done a slow working against the terrible Yan. “Unwilling—or cannot?”
Pearls clacked as her chin raised. “Do you need to be told that you malign the great Yan?”
“I would assist our people,” I said. “I need to know what I work with. When did Yan last use her power?” I imagined my wand working against her, turning her slowly immobile. Until all she could do was receive blood worship, but not send it out.
“Yan has plenty of ability to strike with you. That is all you need know.”
I could not stop my loose tongue from talking. “But what is this of your goddess? Does Yan claim to speak for one of the goddesses?”
“Yan has become one,” Pleny said. “She is our goddess.”
I sucked in my breath, appalled.
“You will see Yan at sundown,” Pleny said sharply. “Then you will believe.”
“Blasphemy,” I said. “Yan is as human as you or I, for all she has four centuries of blood-debt accrued to her name. When the gods take her at last, she will be not the tender morsel of a single human soul, but an entire feast.”
“There is still time to return you to your cave,” said Pleny. “I might claim that my poor mastery of the spell failed to fully restore you from your icy bonds. Alas, you sickened and re-froze by nightfall.”
It was the first spark of independence I’d seen from her. As one who loves freedom I was pleased, though her words rang too close for comfort. As the last of the maar, I was not skilled in practicing cowed submission, so I only said, “I am well-reminded that the world has changed,” and touched the pulse of my throat.
I could not feel the lifeblood beating in my heart.
I wandered the city all that morning, picking through crowds, on feet I could no longer feel. Though Pleny was clearly reluctant to allow me my liberty, Yan had told her to let me go. I was bid to return at sundown to see the miracle of which Pleny spoke. The miracle that would make me believe Yan was a goddess. Little enough chance of that.
The people were endlessly surprising to me, with their mixtures of plains hair and jungle skin, and vice versa. I did not know how I felt about it, but I reminded myself that these people were not the same as the people I knew three hundred years ago. If my people were free, than I would be content, even if it was in a way I could not have predicted.
But were they free?
Yan spoke of the Teachers as the oppressors, threatening our folk. I studied the people in the market, listening for words to support this. Yet what I heard were men speaking quietly that the Teachers would liberate them from their blood duties (for through the puppet King, Yan demanded it twice a month from one from every household). This was what she meant by voluntary sacrifice? I was unsurprised.
I heard women fluttering behind veils that the Teachers believed in the equality that had been practiced as recently as two centuries ago. I heard scholars, concerned with the Teachers’ blasphemy yet willing and eager to learn their strange theories about Natural Causes. I even heard whispers of my own name, spoken in deepest secret yet. They have brought back Ifit, they whispered. The last of the maar will know what to do.
And I saw a man from the government grab an urchin for pickpocketing, and another man said: “They’ll cut his throat for Yan tonight, sure enough....”
When at last the Teachers approached with their feeble ropes I let them take me.
When the Teachers uncovered my eyes I found I was in a dark building that smelled strongly of husked grain. A low noise thrummed like rushing water—why did its beat seem so familiar?
I held out my hands, bound with twine I could not feel. “You may untie me,” I said. “I wish to hear from your own mouths what your plans are.”
“We shall not,” said the man who held my blindfold.
“Then perhaps you might feed me,” I said. There was a cauldron of stew on a hearth and I was far too aware of it. A common stew, with tubers and grains and bafalo bones reducing to give up their hidden marrow. “I have not eaten for three centuries.”
“Bah, lies,” said another. “Trickery. If you claim to have just woken today, then tell us what you have learned since you returned.”
The rushing water sound filled my skull. They had denied me freedom, food—they would not deny me this. “I know where we are,” I said quietly. The man with the blindfold started to speak, to accuse, but I did not let him finish. “One gift of the gods will always know another. I must see Moxwith’s Wheel for myself.”
A man with the hair of the plains and the skin of the jungle stepped forward then. “Let her,” he said, and he opened the door, filling the room with the thundering of the rushing water.
On the river at my feet turned an immense golden wheel, pouring a crashing waterfall that glittered like glass and diamond. Moxwith’s Wheel.
The waterwheel is one of the seven gifts of the gods; this one from Moxwith, best known for creating the mountains for the love of Maenea, who spurned his gift and dropped him down one of his own volcanoes besides. In fire and ash he ran to the sea and his burning feet left gouges for the Many Lakes. The Wheel has been turning since our earliest recorded history; it will no doubt still be turning when the stars are still and cold in their beds.
In my day it had powered a mill, and it seemed that it did the same now. In fact, it looked exactly the same. Exactly the same after three hundred years. Somehow this struck my heart harder than any of the new I had yet seen.
Tears poured from my eyes and I wept on the riverbank beside Moxwith’s Wheel, wept for my lost life. I had vowed to bring freedom and failed, vowed to destroy Yan and failed. What use a life so spent? I had as little to show for it as Moxwith did for dedicating his life to Maenea. Less, for he had made a fine range of mountains. Yet here I was, grasping to understand the intent of the gods. Why had they gifted me at all?
“You have seen the Wheel,” said Ton, for this was the leader who had stepped forward. “Now tell us what you have learned.”
I straightened, my face wet with tears and spray. My mind raced as I translated some of my thoughts into words. “Your city is faced with a problem,” I said. “Yan blasphemes by calling herself a goddess. You blaspheme by denying the gods. Is the gods’ jealousy greater than their need for worship? Or do they have other tricks up their sleeves? I am only the last of the maar, and I do not pretend to know.”
Ton took the blindfold from the other man and dried my cheeks. “We have had enough of the old ways,” he said. “We would bring freedom to all men and women.”
My heart leapt to hear how casually he said the word.
“Freedom,” I breathed, and heard how that word sounded in a world where it was known. It was as rich as chokolat on my tongue.
Ton untied the bit of twine that bound my hands. “You say you are the last of the god-given maar,” he said, and I saw the stubborn set to his jaw that must have helped garner him his followers. “So prove yourself.”
“Alas, I cannot,” I said.
“Those who worship the statue claims she talks to them, tells them of her power,” said Ton. The churning of the Wheel was an undercurrent to his words. “Yet the tales of the Bloodwoman of the Plains died nearly two centuries ago. What fools are we to think that a golden statue is the same woman? We are not such fools, to believe stories from generations ago, when our ancestors were gullible and easily tricked by pretty trinkets and tricks. Your story of being frozen may have swept the city. The legendary maar will know what to do, as our city schisms itself.” He dropped the bit of twine into the river, where it was whisked downstream. “But as a rallying cry you are a disappointment.”
“The gods do not explain themselves,” I said, “and yet we may interpret their wishes through their actions.” It was true, and yet what was I to interpret from inaction? If Mother Sun had not forsaken me, then I would have had my tools. I might have joined with Yan and destroyed the Teachers. Or I might have understood how to strike at Yan. Yet I had nothing. What was I meant to learn from this?
“What actions?” said Ton. His narrow shoulders shrugged. “I see no gods today. Today we believe in the power of man’s mind. In the power of the Natural Causes that allow a waterwheel to turn a river into energy.” He gestured at the gleaming golden wheel, raising his voice over the spray. “Man has made many copies of the Wheel, and yet, what else have we done? Once we free ourselves from this tyranny, we will have the freedom to create our own miracles, to learn from ourselves. I had hoped, that as one sworn to freedom, you might be on our side. But perhaps you are afraid of Yan. Afraid of death.”
“I would rather die in her trough than know that the gods have deserted me,” I said quietly. “The maar were put here for a purpose. A purpose of keeping all peaceful men free of their warring neighbors, a purpose that is nearly swept past. Who would have foretold that the tribes would merge? Who would have foretold that the last of the maar would be separated from her ancestors and appear in the world three centuries hence of her birth?” Who indeed but the gods, the same gods who had gifted us Moxwith’s Wheel.... A strange thought formed in my mind.
Ton shook his head, but I pushed through.
“Yan was ever a divider. If she is against your people, it is because you would unite. Hubris was ever the chink in her armor, and the gods have used it to convince her to release me. They have a purpose in mind. I am told there is a ritual each night at sundown?”
“A perverted mass delusion. Fools impressed by tricks.”
“Yet I bid you come tonight and observe,” I said. “I am the last gift of the gods, and who among you would not choose to see how the last gift is spent?”
Ton shook his head, his dismissal of the gods plain on his stubborn face. “Leave her,” he said to his followers, “She’s of no use.” He waved dismissal, but he did not turn to see the faces behind him.
Faces who had grown up with belief.
There were thinking men among this crew. Scribes and orators, men who would use their senses, women who would be led by logic. Logic said that the last gift of the gods must have a purpose, and Moxwith’s Wheel had suddenly given me hope that I knew what that purpose was.
Whatever happened tonight, they would observe its truth.
I walked all that long-falling afternoon. Made my way from Moxwith’s Wheel to the plaza of the Bloodwoman of the Plains. Mother Sun sank lower in the sky, and I, wearier and wearier, pressed on without her help. I thought longingly of those bafalo sausages I’d seen in the restaurant, oily and laced with fennel. If I were to have a last meal, I would request those, and the poyenta I had seen cooking in the pot, with peppers and onions, and besides all that a ceramic bowl of warm chokolat, spiced with pepper and drizzled with cream.
I might be the last of the maar, but I spent my last minutes being all too human. Wearily I dragged myself on, though my bones stiffened with every step, though the ankles I could not feel twisted and swelled, though the feet I could not feel left blood in my sandals.
I made it with a few minutes to spare.
The crowds pressed in around the square, watching for the daily miracle. They marched along the road, slit their fingertips or shins to bleed in the stone trough. The blood seeped into the statue. Pleny stood by her goddess, veiled and nodding at the endless line. The pickpocket had already been brought forth, or so I counted the small body at the foot of the statue.
As the sun sunk to the horizon line, it reflected off Yan. Dully her gold skin glowed, and her glass and crystal bits sharper than that, glittering, focused. In that light Yan seemed beautiful, in that light she seemed to move and smile down on us. Her reflected light filled the plaza in gilded rays, and we were all red-golden with light.
Light heavy with pain, heavy with the scent of blood.
I am the last of the last gift of the gods, and I am sworn to bring freedom to those who desire it. I am not here to uphold their glory, for if they are gods they have no need of that. It was an irony of the gods that men who would finally bring freedom were unbelievers. Yet here at the last I did not doubt.
After all, the gods put a golden waterwheel on earth for men to copy and improve their condition. Surely these gods are not afraid of men who think and aspire to new things?
I am their waterwheel. I am their child. And if I have broken like a feather-wove wand, then as surely they have set me free.
I opened my arms to the Bloodwoman of the Plains and then Yan’s rays filled me, filled the plaza. It was the warmth I had wanted all day, but from a debased source. Tears streamed from my eyes as I used Yan as if she were my goddess. I let all the darkness of the Yan-touched rays into me, let them out again, let everything focus and build until the sunlight drained from the plaza and focused only on golden Yan, and she was too bright to see.
I screamed, I knew not what, but cleverer humans than I wrote it down, later. And if they translated the words of the last of the maar into words to school a world, into words to free them from false idols, from a blood-soaked currency—they translated what was in my heart. I may have screamed simply from the pain of being the weapon to smite the Bloodwoman of the Plains, screamed as my stone-cold form burst into a thousand cracked shards. I may have forgotten, in that moment, who I was.
I may have forgotten, but as Yan cracked and melted, I knew it all the same.
When the gods take up Yan in their arms tonight, they shall find a feast. The million souls Yan has collected, come home at last. There will be rejoicing in the heavens tonight.
But I pray I may be their one perfect morsel, chokolat on the tongue.