Short Fiction Wednesday! Dedication

Welcome to the seventh week of Short Fiction Wednesday, in which I feature the first 1.5-2k of a story from my ebook collection Night Bird Soaring and Other Stories, which features 17 different reprint selections ranging from fantasy to horror to alternate history. If you enjoy what you read here, you can purchase the full collection at Amazon or B&N for $2.99.

Night Bird Soaring and Other StoriesThis week’s selection returns us to the Aztec alternate history series known as The One World. This story–“Dedication”–first appeared in Dragons, Knights and Angels, and examines how some of the Mesoamerican religious practices have evolved into the future. Human sacrifice still survives strong, and has gained wider acceptance through the use of the Omitzmahuizyoti: people cloned from the general populace to be sacrificed on the temples in place of ordinary citizens. Not everyone agrees with this practice though, and when Quicaltia meets his own Omitzmahuizyoti named Tlacuilo, he’s determined to liberate his twin from his bloody destiny….

Dedication

The stone serpent’s ruby eyes shimmered in the crisp morning sun, its two-hundred-foot body stretching up the staircase, the head resting at the bottom and the tail disappearing onto the top-most platform. Workers painted its fang-bared face with glittering opalescence. Halfway up the pyramid stretched a band of frescos featuring frogs, fish, and egrets. Only the occasional shuttle flying silently overhead interrupted the clean blue expanse of the sky.

Quicaltia—the monument’s chief architect—counted a hundred and eighty steps as he and the construction foreman climbed the pyramid. “The second one-eighty is on the other side,” the foreman said. “The extra five are over there.” He pointed to the one-story blue temple to be dedicated to the rain god Tlaloc in two weeks. “The goldsmiths assure me the idol will be ready by early next week.”

Inside the temple, stone façade covered only one wall but several white-mantled workers were cementing a second together over the steel frame work. Another man worked on a mural of mountains and rain clouds on the one completed wall.

“Exquisite work,” Quicaltia said, stepping up for a closer look. He’d painted in his youth, before family obligations forced him to take up more tedious but lucrative work.

“A thousand thanks,” the man replied.

“It’s not very traditional though.”

“The new high priest desires something more realistic, so the god may feel at home in His new temple.”

Quicaltia stepped back for a full view. “Hopefully it won’t become too splattered with blood. I’d hate to see such beauty obscured by grime.”

“Rest assured I’ll keep it clean of the traditional ‘grime’, as you call it,” the city’s high priest of Tlaloc said as he stepped through the doorway. His stringy, blood-wetted hair hung around his shoulders like willow branches, and he wore a heavy black alpaca robe and large jade-stone plugs in his earlobes. He carried a computer pad in one hand and used his exceedingly long fingernails as a stylus. “I didn’t commission Tlacuilo here to paint this just to cover it in blood.”

“I didn’t mean to insinuate that you would,” Quicaltia replied. He held his breath when the foul-smelling priest stopped next to him. Why did he always land jobs designing the temple? He didn’t even believe in the gods they honored.

“If I had my way, he’d paint all the walls, but we’re already a week behind schedule and the temple must be dedicated before Atlcahualo,” the priest replied.

“Perhaps he can finish after the dedication.”

“Unfortunately, he’s part of the dedication.”

Quicaltia immediately felt foolish. Of course the painter was a Teteotlacualli—”The Food of the Gods.” All the workers were, as was evident by their light-weight white cotton mantles. It was such a stark contrast to him in his silver-embroidered purple linen mantle, tan pants, and soft leather shoes. He shifted his gold-braided belt and muttered, “So sorry to hear that.”

The painter—Tlacuilo—continued working, either oblivious to the conversation or not caring.

“I wish we could keep him longer, for he’s vastly talented,” the priest replied, admiring the mural with a smile. “But when the gods draw your lot, you must answer.”

“Glory to Him who shines on our backs or rains on our crops,” Tlacuilo replied.

“Indeed.” The priest smiled with pride.

A waste, Quicaltia thought as he scribbled notes on the temple plans displayed on his computer pad, to keep from looking at the condemned painter. “Does everything meet your standards? No last minute changes?”

“I have concerns about the council hall,” the priest replied, walking towards the door. Quicaltia and the foreman followed. “I specifically said there must be four doors into the room, but there are only three, and your foreman refuses to change the specs without your approval. We will gravely offend Tezcatlipoca if He doesn’t have His own doorway.”

Superstitious old boar, Quicaltia thought but he said, “We’ll go downstairs and see what to do.” He then turned to Tlacuilo and said, “Your work is exquisite. The world will be a little darker without it anymore.”

But when Tlacuilo finally looking at him, Quicaltia stared at him, shocked. His own face peered back at him. “You’re—” He couldn’t finish for his breath stuck in his throat. Tlacuilo was his Omitzmahuizyoti—”He Who Honors You”—Quicaltia’s sacrifice to the gods; grown from a drop of blood harvested from his heel on the day he was born; destined to die to feed the gods, to keep them from destroying the Empire, from destroying the world. Or so the priests claimed.

Tlacuilo bowed to Quicaltia. “You honor me with your kind words,” he said and returned to his work.

~

“He could have been my twin brother,” Quicaltia told his wife Xochitla as she made dinner. He leaned against the counter next to her, his cup of chocolate forgotten in his hand. “Though I suppose technically he is, since the government cloned him from me.”

“I would be honored to meet mine,” Xochitla said as she cut up potatoes into a pot. “I’d hug her and thank her for the sacrifice she will make for me.”

Quicaltia snorted. “Well, I felt like telling mine, ‘I’m sorry you have to die for archaic, barbarous religious practice.’ It’s a complete waste of life…and potential. You should have seen this mural he was painting.”

Xochitla paused. He’s a painter? Like you?”

“I’m not a painter anymore,” Quicaltia said. “Maybe if I’d stayed with it….” He shook his head. “You wouldn’t believe how beautiful his work was, Xochitla; mountains so real you’d surely wish to climb them. And the flowers….”

“You could always start painting again, you know.”

“I haven’t touched a brush in ten years. I don’t even know how to paint anymore.” The thought brought an unexpected flood of regret.

The front door opened and their fifteen-year-old son Cuetlachtli set his duffel bag down on the kitchen floor.

“How was ball practice?” his mother asked as she added diced chili peppers to the pot.

“I almost put one through the ring today. I was so close.” He took Quicaltia’s cup of chocolate and drank some. Seeing his father’s troubled look, he asked, “Tough day at the temple?”

“Your father met his Omitzmahuizyoti today.”

“Wow. I hope I get to meet mine someday.”

“You don’t have one,” Quicaltia replied. “Luckily you were born after the Emperor declared the practice voluntary.”

Disappointed, Cuetlachtli said, “But mom told me—”

When Quicaltia turned sharply to his wife, Xochitla lowered her eyes. “You didn’t,” he said, his voice just above a whisper.

Xochitla sighed. “Just because you don’t believe—”

“We agreed not to have him cloned!”

“You were being selfish,” Xochitla fired back. “Did you really want our son to leave this world owing the gods his share of the blood?”

“Rubbish,” Quicaltia replied.

“I’ve got homework to do,” Cuetlachtli replied and slipped out of the kitchen.

Xochitla tried to take Quicaltia’s hand. “Please don’t stay angry with me, dear. I did what I thought was best for our son.” But he left the kitchen without answering her.

~

In the morning, Quicaltia called his secretary. After several minutes of investigation on the other end, she told him where the city kept the Teteotlacualli, so he called the priest in charge of the colony and set up an appointment to interview painters for a mural job. He fully intended to hire only Tlacuilo though.

He arrived at the colony’s front gates just before noon. The priest escorted him to the temple hall for the interviews. Unlike Tlaloc’s temple, this one—dedicated to the Feathered Serpent Quetzalcoatl—sat upon the ground, tall and cylindrical in shape, perfect for the wind to curl around unobstructed. A giant open serpent’s mouth served as the door. A small group of white-clad men and women sat around a wooden table in the middle of the sanctuary.

For the next forty-five minutes, each showed Quicaltia examples of their work, many very nice and probably adequate for the little job he had in mind, but nothing like Tlacuilo’s beautiful mountains and storm clouds.

Once the last man closed his portfolio, Quicaltia told the priest, “They’re all very talented and I would be honored to have any one of them create this mural for me, but while touring the new temple yesterday, I saw a mural that was everything I’m looking for. I don’t see that artist here though. Is he still working at the temple?”

“That would be Tlacuilo, and no, he’s finished his work there. He’s due to journey to Tlalocan soon,” the priest replied.

“Then he’s not available to hire?” he asked, disappointed.

“We like to give the Teteotlacualli free time to do whatever they want before they leave us, but if Tlacuilo wishes one last commission, we’ll certainly grant him that. Come. I’ll take you to see him.”

Quicaltia followed the priest through the clean, paved streets, past white-washed houses decorated with stone and wood carvings of serpents, butterflies, and birds—all animals sacred to Quetzalcoatl. Everyone they passed greeted them with warm smiles and formal salutations.

“Tlacuilo is your Omitzmahuizyoti,” the priest said suddenly. They’d walked in silence until then.

“Is that a problem?” Quicaltia asked.

The priest shook his head. “Many wish to visit their Omitzmahuizyoti in their final days, to bring them gifts and honor their sacrifice.”

Quicaltia wondered how many people sought them out with the intent of liberating them from their grisly fate?

They stopped at a door that looked no different than any other in the neighborhood. The priest rang the bell. Tlacuilo answered a moment later, a half-eaten tortilla in his fingers. “You honor me with your visit, Tecciztlicoatl,” he replied with a bow. When he saw Quicaltia, he inclined his head. “So soon we see each other again.”

The priest and Quicaltia sat on large pillows on the floor while Tlacuilo sat on the hearthstone. “Quicaltia here wishes you to take one last commission, to paint a mural in his garden,” the priest said.

“Nothing elaborate,” Quicaltia said. “I have a wall overlooking a pond in my yard and would like to paint it with something to honor the gods. I was very impressed with the work you did at the temple and would be very grateful if you’d grace my home with your beautiful work.”

“I would be honored,” Tlacuilo replied.

“I trust you can provide him with a room?” the priest asked Quicaltia, to which Quicaltia replied, “Absolutely.”

Twenty minutes later, the priest waved goodbye as Tlacuilo and Quicaltia sped down the road towards town.
~~~

If you enjoyed this excerpt and want to know how the story ends, consider picking up a copy of the anthology at Amazon or B&N. (for non-US editions, please visit the Novel and Collections page for links)

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