Short Fiction Wednesday! Night Bird Soaring

I haven’t done much promotion of my ebook Night Bird Soaring and Other Stories, mainly because I was lazy, but I figured it would be nice to at least try to make back the money I spent on the cover art, so I’m giving some try to promotion. Every Wednesday for the next seventeen weeks, I’m going to post the first 1.5 – 2k of each story in the collection, hopefully to get readers hungry for more. And in some cases, that means readers will get a full story!

Night Bird Soaring and Other StoriesOur first selection comes from the collection’s title story, Night Bird Soaring. It follows the life of Totyoalli, who was selected at birth to be the flesh representation of the Mexica god Tezcatlipoca and is destined to die at the sacrifice on his thirtieth birthday. But Totyoalli has his heart set on becoming an astronaut and isn’t about ready to let destiny get in his way. This story originally appeared in Greatest Uncommon Denominator and made the long list for the BSFA and was a finalist for the Sidewise Award. It also appeared in audio format in Escape Pod, narrated by Mat Weller (who did a fantastic job with the tongue-twister names).

Without further ado, on to the story….

Night Bird Soaring

On his sixth birthday, Totyoalli’s parents took him to the holy city to see the Emperor Cuauhtemoc, but the plane ride proved the most exciting part. He kept his nose to the window, taking in the vast lands of the One World, from the snow-capped mountains of his home in the northern provinces to the open plains of Teotihuacan. He marveled at the miniature cities and cars passing below. All his life he’d dreamt of flying, ever since the first time he’d seen a bird gliding through the air.

From the airport, they took a cab to the royal palace on Lake Texcoco. Tenochtitlan, the single largest city in the world, sprawled around it for miles. The cab buzzed across one of the royal causeways, the water blue and shimmering in the hot sun. Inside the walled royal complex stood the Great Temple, meticulously maintained by a crew of thousands, its sacred Sun Stone keeping watch over the visiting crowds.

At the palace, two genetically-engineered royal jaguar knights escorted Totyoalli’s family to the Emperor’s gardens. Totyoalli watched their tails swish behind them, fascinated. Their heads looked so soft he wished to pat them between the ears, but when he tried to talk to them, they bared their fangs and gripped their spears a little tighter.

Ahead, a doorway opened onto a stone patio overlooking an expanse of grass and trees. Marigolds and birds of paradise choked the flower beds. Cranes stepped gingerly through the ponds while monkeys chattered in the trees.

The Revered Speaker stood at the crest of the nearest hill, his hands behind him and his back to them. “Good of you to come, Totyoalli.” He didn’t turn. “Let me take a look at you.”

Unafraid, Totyoalli hurried to him. His friends claimed the Revered Speaker was seven hundred years old, that he’d been emperor when the Spanish Devil Cortes tried to bring the One World to its knees. Some said Cuauhtemoc was the War God himself, or maybe the Fifth Sun incarnate, come to Earth to lead the Mexica through a thousand years of glory. Totyoalli had expected someone very old and wise.

But in fact the Revered Speaker looked hardly out of his teens. He wore green robes with the sacred day symbols embroidered in gold and silver thread, and his long black hair was tied back in a complicated knot. Blue, red, white, and black tattooed lines formed the profile of an eagle on the right side of his face.
Cuauhtemoc knelt and kissed the earth at Totyoalli’s feet, quoting dedications and blessing him. He then took the boy’s head in both hands and granted him the kiss of Divine Grace on his forehead.

“Now that we have the formalities out of the way, walk with me.” Cuauhtemoc took Totyoalli by the hand and they moved down the hill, past the egrets, until his mother and father vanished from sight. They sat on a stone bench under a grove of willow trees. “So, how is calmecac?”

Totyoalli shrugged.

The Revered Speaker’s smile widened. “Haven’t much interest in studying?”

“I like the learning part, but the other boys say I should go to the telpochcalli with the rest of the poor kids, and they pick fights.”

“You haven’t told them you’re the Night Wind?”

“Mother told me not to.”

Cuauhtemoc nodded. “She’s not pleased with your destiny.”

Totyoalli shook his head. His mother wished he weren’t the Night Wind; in fact, she’d gone to great lengths to plan a home delivery, so the priests and government augurs couldn’t record the exact time of his birth. His father had thought her ridiculous, but respected her wishes, and studied the instructional books to prepare for delivering their baby himself. No doctor would attend; Totyoalli’s mother suspected they were spies for the Temple.

But she couldn’t fool the gods. After eight intense hours of screaming with no sign of the baby, Totyoalli’s father lost his resolve and called an ambulance. Just seconds after midnight, surgeons brought forth their son through caesarian and his parents named him Night Bird. The next morning, the local priest—dressed all in black and stinking of the rancid blood he smeared on his body—came to inform them that the god Tezcatlipoca had chosen their son as His Teotl Ixiptla, to represent the god on earth for the Toxcatl—the Festival of Dryness—during his twenty-ninth year. Totyoalli’s mother had cried almost daily since then.

“How do you feel about it?” Cuauhtemoc asked Totyoalli.

“It’s always a great honor to serve the gods in such a personal manner,” Totyoalli replied, quoting what his father had told him.

“You don’t mind dying before you’re thirty?” Cuauhtemoc pressed.

Death shadowed every aspect of life in the One World. People died daily at the sacrifices, usually broadcast on television, and Totyoalli and his friends played at death all the time, pretending the dog-god Xolotl was guiding them through the nine trials of the underworld to reach Mictlan. Those who ran home crying from scuffed knees or a bloody nose lost the game and the other boys teased them for days. “You’ll open death’s door and find Xolotl left only a pile of shit to guide you!” they’d chant mercilessly. Totyoalli’s mother thought such games disrespectful and would he find it so funny when Xolotl sent him into the underworld alone?

The Revered Speaker was awaiting an answer, so Totyoalli replied, “Do you fear death, My Lord?”

His face suddenly guarded, Cuauhtemoc said, “Why do you ask?”

“My friends say you’re one of the gods. Is it true? Did you kill the Spanish Devil?”

“I’ve seen more than most men.”

“But are you a god?”

Cuauhtemoc chuckled. “You’re an inquisitive little boy, Night Bird. You do well in the sciences, don’t you?”

“I’m very good at math,” Totyoalli said unabashedly. “My teacher says I’m his best student, and someday I’m going to be an astronaut.”

Cuauhtemoc raised his eyebrows. “That takes many years of work, perhaps more than the gods have granted you.”

“I’m very good at math,” Totyoalli insisted.

Cuauhtemoc patted him on the back. “Come see me again next year and we’ll talk some more.” He led Totyoalli back up the hill to where his mother and father waited. As they departed, Totyoalli looked over his shoulder and waved at Cuauhtemoc. The Revered Speaker waved back.

But his mother grabbed his hand and hissed at him, “I will not have you playing cute with the man who ordered your execution.”

~

Totyoalli’s father bought him a telescope for his tenth birthday, and he spent nearly every evening out on the back porch, studying the stars’ steady progression across the sky. His father often sat with him, testing his son’s growing knowledge and listening to anything new he’d learned. When cold weather moved in, Totyoalli merely donned his coat and hat for stargazing, if the skies permitted, and his father always had a cup of hot chocolate waiting. In the summer, they took the telescope along on camping trips and his father promised, “Next summer I’ll take you to see a rocket launch at Yoatitlan.” Totyoalli counted down the days on his calendar.

Then one night, on his way to the bathroom, he overheard his parents talking about him.

“It’s not good for him to dream so much,” his mother said. “He’ll never go to space. Cuauhtemoc wrote his destiny the moment he was born.”

“That’s how it’s always been,” his father replied.

“I just can’t bear to see him struggle for nothing—”

“It won’t be for nothing. He’ll grow up to be man, perhaps have a family of his own—”

“Until Cuauhtemoc cuts his heart out in front of an audience of millions!”

“I’m not talking about this any more.”

Hearing his father approach, Totyoalli hurried to the bathroom. Before returning to bed, he went to the kitchen and saw his father sitting outside on the porch, staring at the telescope and sipping a glass of milky-white octli mixed with soda water. He didn’t come back inside for the rest of the night.

~

At the Revered Speaker’s request, Totyoalli had been visiting the palace twice a year. His mother didn’t come along again after that first trip; Totyoalli’s father said she never would have gone at all if the Emperor hadn’t insisted on meeting her. His father passed the hours with silent prayer at the Great Temple while his son spent the afternoons in the gardens with Cuauhtemoc, talking about his classes and interests. Over the years, the Emperor had come to seem something of a second father to the boy, but when Totyoalli arrived at the palace that summer, his mother’s bitter declarations about Cuauhtemoc’s intentions weighed heavy on his mind.

“Have they taught you the names of the planets yet?” Cuauhtemoc asked as they followed the winding brook to the south end of the gardens.

Unable to resist showing off his knowledge, Totyoalli rattled off the long list. “Piltzintecuhtli, Quetzalcoatl, Cem Anahuac, Huitzilopochtli, Tezcatlipoca, Xipe Totec, Ometeotl, and Tlaloc.” He was one of the few in his class who could recite the names from memory.

Cuauhtemoc smiled, impressed. “Your father tells me you’re very handy with your telescope. You’re still planning to be an astronaut?”

“Mother says I’m wasting my time. She didn’t want father to get me the telescope.”

“Knowledge is never a waste of time.”

“She also says you’re going to cut my heart out.” Totyoalli hadn’t intended to bring it up, but it just spilled out. He couldn’t meet Cuauhtemoc’s gaze. He hated that his mother thought so badly of his friend, yet he knew she spoke the truth.

Earlier that month, the priests had called him to the temple to watch the Toxcatl broadcast. “It’s time you began learning what’s expected of you,” they’d said. He’d feigned illness and his father hadn’t made him watch on television, but how much longer could he avoid it? He didn’t want to see anything that might alter his friendship with Cuauhtemoc.

After a moment of silence, the Revered Speaker replied, “It’s not a day I look forward to. I’d rather it never came.”

“Then she’s right. It’s all a waste of time.”

Cuauhtemoc set a firm hand on Totyoalli’s shoulder. “Everyone meets Xolotl; you just know ahead of time the exact moment and place He will visit you. Eighteen years is a long time, and there are still many opportunities to pursue your passions. Living is not wasted time. Always remember that.”

“I can still be an astronaut, then?” Totyoalli asked.

Smiling, Cuauhtemoc replied, “We’ll discuss that when you’ve finished calmecac.”

That evening, they sat in the royal observatory, Cuauhtemoc telling tales of the stars, the planets, and the gods that named them, while Totyoalli gazed at Quetzalcoatl through the telescope’s super-powered lens. He imagined a giant feathered serpent swimming through its swirling yellow clouds, His home since conflagrating Himself on a pyre of wood and snakes and ascending to the heavens as the Morning Star. Someday I’m going to visit Him, he thought. If the gods will allow it.
~~~

If you enjoyed this sample, please consider picking up a copy for yourself at Amazon. I am working on getting it available on Nook, but have encountered issues with Pubit! that could delay the release. I will post a link to it as soon as it’s for sale.

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