Previously: Neldo has failed to procure a potion or drug to prevent Soshay from having a vision. He sought the help of his grandmother, who warned him about the Unnamed God and Soshay’s importance to defeating Him.
Neldo hurried from his chambers to answer Tenoch’s summons. He felt a dull ache in his stomach, an ache that had become a constant companion to him for fifteen years. Sometimes he wondered how he continued to allow Tenoch to persuade his compliance. At first Neldo had been a willing participant in Mitlan’s downfall. He had been passed over for the position of High Oracle because of Keron, and Keron had been found and trained by Mitlan.
Nelodo had never believed he had a great gift of prophecy, but he had worked to train the greatest oracles the Temple of Twilight had ever possessed. He had devoted years of study in the temple archives, seeking the ancient methods of training and potions. It was he who had reintroduced the regular use of liuqui to the training of new oracles. He watched student after student, find their abilities paled in the face of Keron’s skills, and thus be sent away to the edges of the empire to serve as tools for others. Or worse, he watched them fail their initiations, unable to have visions without the liuqui or sun opener tea. It was his teachings that gave Soshay control over her ungovernable visions, as it was his idea to use her gifts to line his own pockets.
After a few years of Tenoch’s schemes, Neldo had grown frightened of the man, but Tenoch had a knack of talking him into continued compliance. Now, Neldo knew he was in to too deeply. If Tenoch fell, it would be inevitable that Neldo would also fall. And now, Neldo knew that he had failed Tenoch, again. He knew that this would be the last time Tenoch accepted a failure from him.
He found his thoughts kept returning to his grandmother’s warnings. He still doubted her veracity, but the exchange nagged at his thoughts. Anacoana had no stake in Soshay. It did not affect her if the girl lived or died, but she was concerned. Soshay can’t possibly be that important. He thought. She is just another oracle. Neldo had to admit to himself that Soshay was the most powerful oracle he had ever seen, but Anacoana’s apocalyptic ramblings were too impossible to believe. He tried to shake off the thoughts.
Neldo knew that Tenoch hungered for a place at the side of the Imperator, a position that would allow him to guide the Imperator back to the traditional beliefs of the Cetza. Neldo knew that Tenoch’s vision of the Cetza’s past was ahistoric at best, a mishmash of myths and hatred of foreigners the foundation of his vision.
He stopped at Tenoch’s door and straightened his mantle and cringed seeing his ruined hands. Once he had believed in Tez and all the gods. Once he would have considered his scars evidence of Tez’s power. Staring at the tight, puckered skin on his hands and knowing his face matched, he prayed for the first time in many years. Forgive me.
Tenoch’s voice called from behind the door, “Enter.”
“Second-Priest,” Neldo inclined his head, before sitting himself.
“Neldo, you have failed more spectacularly than I expected.” Tenoch smiled at him.
Neldo bristled at the words, but hid his anger. He lowered his head in response to Tenoch’s criticism.
“Of course, out of your failure, I have once again found a solution to our problem.” Tenoch poured them both cups of chocotle.
Neldo jerked his head up, “What do mean?” He felt a twinge of hope. If Tenoch was happy, it may mean a reprieve. Tenoch would need him to rule over the City of the Jungle, and Neldo knew that the man trusted no one else within the temple to take that role.
Tenoch paused drinking, “Your visit to the witch Anacoana was inspired, even if it came to nothing.” He nodded toward Neldo’s cup, “You do not drink, my friend?”
Neldo glanced at the cup, and raised it to his lips, but only pretended to drink. Perhaps it was the visit to Anacoana that left him on edge.
Tenoch watched him drink and seemed to accept Neldo’s ruse. “I am surprised that the old witch wouldn’t help you, you are after all her grandson.”
Neldo roughly set his cup on the table. He wondered how Tenoch had discovered his secret. Neldo had gone to great lengths to hide his connection to Anacoana before coming to the Temple of Twilight. He felt his anger toward Tenoch growing, and wondered, not for the first time, if it was time to take the profits from Soshay’s prophecies and leave the temple entirely.
“Don’t be angry, Neldo. I would never reveal your shameful past,” Tenoch said, his voice growing softer, “Even if you have failed me, again, visiting her was an inspired idea. Her skills with potions are known even to me.”
Neldo felt his anger draining away with Tenoch’s words. He realized that this was always the way it worked; he would start to think about giving up all of their plans, and with a few words, Tenoch could have him believing again. “Inspired?” Neldo finally asked.
“Yes, inspired by Tez himself.” Tenoch gave Neldo a sly smile, as both had long abandoned any pretense of piety. “Your plan to find a way to prevent Soshay from having visions was very clever indeed.” Tenoch paused and sipped at his drink again, his eyes trained on Neldo.
Neldo reached for his own cup, realizing that he feared the cup was poisoned. Beads of sweat dotted his lip and forehead. He thought of Anacoana’s drunken ramblings about all poisons having a signature, a method of detection. He swirled the liquid, watching how it moved, seeking a clue to the poison. Tenoch would have limited access to poisons, as he lacked any herbcraft. Pretending to drink again, Tenoch inhaled the fragrance again, and believed he detected the sweet hint of Oaco. The leaves of the plant were used in many medicines, but if prepared correctly created a poison that made the heart lose its rhythm. With Tenoch’s eyes on him, he pretended to drink again. “But I did find a way to prevent her visions.”
Tenoch’s smile grew, “I have found a way.” He pulled a clay jug from under the table. “You sought a potion, something that would work in the opposite fashion from liuqui,” he set the jug on the table.
The sheer size of the jug would be enough to prevent every active oracle in the temple from having visions. The jug was covered in glyphs to Zel, and Neldo wondered if Tenoch had persuaded his lover, Setch to bring him the potion. “Will it take all of that to block Soshay’s visions?”
Tenoch laughed, “This is for all of the oracles.” He narrowed his eyes at Neldo, “We cannot have them revealing out plans, can we?” He hissed at Neldo. “With Mitlan coming to preside over her initiation, we cannot leave anything to chance. You have kept her prophecies out of her codex?” Tenoch snapped.
Neldo blinked at the abrupt change in topic. “When she was under my control, I made certain that only a few accurate predictions were entered into her codex, but I cannot know what prophecies she has given to Keron.”
Tenoch interrupted and waved away the concern, “And you kept no official records and kept her patron gifts for yourself no doubt?” He ignored Neldo’s bumbling attempt to deny the accusation, and continued, “I do not care about the money, Neldo. Only making sure this girl fails.”
Neldo hesitated not wanting to anger Tenoch, but his grandmother’s warnings rose like moths to batter his mind. “Expelling her from the temple would be easier. We could send her to serve with Tzi’s witches and be done with her. The Temple of Midnight does not use oracles, so her power will be wasted there anyway.”
Tenoch scowled at him, “She must die. How many times must I tell you this?” He paused to drink. When he spoke again his tone had changed. His voice was cajoling, “Neldo, my friend, you know she is your enemy. Look what she did to you. You want her to suffer for the damage she inflicted on you.”
Neldo found himself nodding in agreement and felt his anger at the girl rising again. Anacoana’s warnings drifted from his thoughts. Soshay was responsible for inflicting the terrible scars he bore, and Keron would be devastated by the loss of the girl. Neldo felt himself smiling and nodding in agreement.
Tenoch’s voice took on a tone of command and truth. “Neldo, you must use the potion that you procured to prevent all of the oracles in the temple from having visions. Replace all of the liuqui in the temple with this potion. Make certain that you use the remaining portion in the food served tonight. That should be enough to prevent any of them from having visions for the duration of Mitlan’s visit.”
Neldo found himself frowning. His thoughts growing confused, as he remembered leaving the old witch’s shop empty handed. “I didn’t procure the potion, Tenoch. I failed to get it.”
Tenoch tsked at him, “Neldo, you remember going to visit the old witch. You remember that she gave you this potion.”
Neldo nodded slowly, his memories rearranging themselves to suit Tenoch’s will. “I will switch the potions and add the remainder to the food tonight Tenoch.”
Tenoch smiled and nodded, “Once you are finished, you will leave the jug in your chambers.” His eyes drifted to the cups before them, “Now drink your chocotle.”
Neldo nodded again, and picked up the cup. The beverage was still hot, and he sipped a small amount. He tasted a strange sweetness under the bitter brew, and his thoughts cleared.
They were interrupted by a servant’s knock. One of the many nameless kitchen boys entered with Tenoch’s permission and began removing the cups. Neither man paid any attention to the sharp eyed kitchen boy. But the boy, Pelo, noticed the jug and wondered about its contents.
Neldo used the interruption to try and collect himself. His heart raced, and he knew in his bones that he would follow Tenoch’s commands, but some small part of him still warned that this was wrong. Something still nagged at him. His eyes fell on the cups the boy collected, and he knew that Tenoch had poisoned the cup.
As his heart pounded in his chest, Neldo saw all of Tenoch’s plans. With his own death, Tenoch could lay blame at Neldo’s feet should the plans to drug Soshay be revealed. Neldo had to get out of the chamber quickly, without alerting Tenoch. Neldo smiled, “I will begin my tasks, Second Priest.” Neldo said rising.
Tenoch nodded, “Yes, soon this will all be over.”
Neldo forced himself to leave the chamber at a normal pace, and to maintain a leisurely pace back to his chamber.
Once inside his chamber, he leaned against the door, panting his head pounding as the poison coursed through his blood. Can I reach Anacoana for an antidote? But the thought of leaving the temple without first replacing the liuqui made him tremble. I drank very little, and in small doses, Oaco cannot kill. He recalled both his mother and grandmother selling such a tincture to warriors and servants of Mat who sought vigor and stamina.
Replacing the liuqui was easy, but his thoughts ran in circles trying to figure out how to get the potion into tonight’s dinner. Then he remembered the servant cults. The servants of the Cetza Empire were renowned for creating their own strange cults and religious rites. He remembered as a child the poorest children in his neighborhood. They had created some complex worship of a local stray cat. They had holy days, rites and rituals, and even an altar to the mangy beast. In the capitol, he knew many of the servants had formed a cult of worship around the foreign Empress. They seemed to have melded her Suyu heritage into their unfathomable rites. Within the Temple of Twilight, he knew that they had long had a cult to the True Bride, and now that Soshay was called the True Bride, they had shifted their worship to her. He only had to find out when they met for their strange rituals, and he would find the kitchen empty.
With the problem of getting into the kitchen solved, the urgency to finish the job lessened. He made his way to the kitchen. Inside the many servants were busy at work preparing the evening meal. It would be hours before it would be served.
“You, boy” Neldo called out to one of the younger children.
The boy looked up from his work kneading dough and his face paled when he found Neldo standing in the doorway.
“Come, I need assistance.” Neldo said, and turned from the door, expecting that the boy would follow. Neldo was not disappointed. The boy followed a few steps behind him.
Neldo headed for the novice’s courtyard. At this hour, it should be empty and he wanted time alone with the child.
The boy followed his outside, all the while watching Neldo warily. “My Lord, Priest, how can I help?” The boy finally asked.
Neldo smiled at him and began to coax the boy into telling him about the cult to the True Bride.
When he arrived at his grandmother’s shop, he found a line of customers outside of the shop. He scowled at the endless line of farmers and tradespeople. Instead of waiting, he walked around to the back of the shop and let himself inside. Anacoana glared at him through the curtain, but she continued her business of handing out charms and potions.
Seated the table, Neldo fidgeted, terrified that every pain he felt was a symptom of the poison. He wondered again, if he had caused his own death by waiting to get an antidote. But he had known at the time that he had to complete Tenoch’s orders. Tonight, during the evening prayers, the cult of the True Bride would hold their strange rites, and he could use the potion.
He paced in the kitchen impatiently. The old woman knew he was there, but still she dallied with her customers. As his eyes flickered around the dingy kitchen, he began to notice things were missing. The room was still dim but not in the squalid disarray of his childhood, but the shelves were bare and all the remained was broken crockery. It struck him that while, Anacoana’s potions and charms were popular, but he had never seen a line of people. Most of her customers preferred anonymity.
Finally, as the sun began to set, she finished with the last customer and locked the front door, before coming into the back.
“Whatever you want, speak quickly.” She said, and began pulling a bag out from under the table. She pawed through the contents.
She gazed at him sadly, “You have poison on your lips, my grandson. Is this how your service is repaid in the Temple of Twilight?”
Neldo jerked in his chair, “I seek an antidote for oaco?”
She glanced at his eyes, and laid a hand on his chest before pronouncing, “It is not enough to harm you.” She untied her bag and rummaged through the contents. She pulled a small, wax sealed bottle out. “Here,” she handed him the bottle. “If you are worried, take a draught of this. Keep it with you.” She closed his hand around the bottle. “Now go, I must be off before the full darkness. My way through the jungle will be hard enough.”
Neldo uncapped the bottle and drank from it. “You are leaving the City?”
She paused in her packing. “I warned you once already. You seek to destroy the True Bride, and I already live with Tzi’s curse upon me, I will not risk the Lord of Death’s wrath as well. You should not tempt their wrath either, my grandson.”
Neldo glared at her, “That bitch is no bride of the god. Do not tell me the business of my temple. Your witch-goddess may torment you, but my god is silent.”
Anacoana simply shrugged at him. “If you were wiser, less concerned with your petty revenge, you would have seen the signs too. The Unnamed One wakes. My sisters in the Temple of Midnight have already marked the signs. They have come to me to confirm this.”
Neldo rolled his eyes. “So you have terrified your foolish customers with your vague tales of cataclysm. That explains the line of customers.”
She laughed. “You doubt the Unnamed One. But He rises. The signs in the Temple of Midnight all point to your oracle, and her destruction imperils all the Cetza.”
Neldo glared at her, “So you believe your own foolish tales.”
Anacoana narrowed her eyes at him, “In the Temple of Twilight, we make our own choices. We are bound by no law. I give you knowledge and choice, my grandson. You have entered into a dangerous game, one that extends far beyond your petty quest for power. Choose, but know the consequences of your choice are on your head.” She rose and slung the bag onto her back. “I am leaving the City of the Jungle. Those that live in the wilds of the jungle will shelter me. I only hope it will be enough to keep my hidden from the eye of the Unnamed. He and I have unfinished business, business I fervently seek to avoid. Even in death, I risk His rage.”
Neldo narrowed his eyes at her, something in the words rang true, but he recalled the lies about the chair. “I sought information on your chair in the records of the Temple of Twilight, no such thing exists.”
She offered a tired smile, “Why would it? The throne, the vessel of the Unnamed has never been part of the Temple of Twilight. Seek audience with the High Priestess of Zel, if you wish to see it.” She reached for him, as if to stroke his face, and stopped. “The High Priestess, Este, is under sway of the Unnamed One now, and she will free the bastard-god, unless Soshay lives.”
Neldo rose. He did not want to believe his grandmother, but her fear was infectious. “I am bound in this plot. To leave now is my death, and I do not hurry to meet Tez. Soshay will fail her initiation and she will die in the undertaking.”
Anacoana’s eyes blanked and her expression was slack for a brief moment. Then her expression changed and her eyes shone with knowledge beyond his understanding. “You stand at a crossroads, servant to my Brother. He is jealous and protects what is His.” Anacoana’s voice had lost the rasp of age. It flowed smoothly, like water over rocks. A small smile crept over her lips, “Your chamber bears the images of the story of his Jaguar Woman, yet you do not fear his wrath. You steal a mountain of wealth due to Him, the product of his Bride’s labor. Do not try and take more of what is His, grandson of My servant.”
Neldo froze hearing the words. He recognized the trance state and knew how easy it was to fake, but the words themselves seemed to pour through him, filling him, making him cold with fear. Anacoana could not have seen his chambers, and how could she know of the wealth he had collected from Soshay’s prophecies.
“You have more enemies than friends within your Temple. My Brother has turned his favor from you. Be wary, grandson of My servant.”
He watched as Anacoana blinked, her eyes becoming focused.
She caught his gaze, “I do not want to hear what She had to say.” She opened the door, motioning him out. “I only hope it means that I have been forgiven.”
Neldo was unsteady as he made his way out of the house. He tried to think of something to say. It seemed to him that something should be said, even if it was only to tell her he did not believe her act. He watched her lock the shop door.
She looked at him and shook her head. “Goodbye, may the gods watch over us all.” He started to reply, and she waved him to silence, before walking away.
Neldo watched her walk through the alley. He glanced at the sky, noting the sun nearing twilight. He wondered if the barbarians that lived in the jungle would really shelter the old witch, or if there was truth to the tales about them. The barbarians who lived in the jungle were said to be cannibals. The stories claimed they lived in the wild and sought to destroy civilization. Watching her disappear between two buildings, he hoped the tales were lies.
He still held the bottle in his hand. He made certain that the bottle was sealed and slowly walked back towards the Temple of Twilight. He had plotted for so long with Tenoch that no escape existed for him. He knew he was not noble enough to sacrifice himself to save anyone, not even the entire empire. He passed the other shops listening to the voices of the vendors and people alike. The babble of their voices washed over him, and he found it soothing. It is impossible that all Cetza could be washed from the earth, as if we never existed. If this Unnamed One is real, would He destroy us all? He must want followers, worshipers, all the gods do. Would serving Him be any hardship?
He watched a young wealthy couple, resplendent in their heavily bejeweled clothing, walk through the market arm in arm. He assumed they were recently wed. The woman wore her hair up in the complicated twists and bun of a married woman, but her hair lacked sophistication, like she only just started wearing it up. He imagined that to many observers, they appeared happy, in love and starting a new life. He only saw the marks of their class. The bejeweled clothing, the heavy jewelry, even their bearing marked them above everyone else in the market. As he watched them, all he felt was envy. This was the status Tenoch had promised him. To rule the temple in the City of the Jungle would elevate him beyond his origins. He would have the status the couple took as their due because of the quirk of birth. As he continued to watch the couple, his vision blurred.
He had a sudden image of himself, sitting in the chair of High Priest. The altar room was empty and silent. Outside he could hear the screams of the people, the clash of battle, and the roar of fire. He watched the temple of Twilight crumble around himself, and for a moment felt the weight of a million tons of stone, slowly crush the life from him. He struggled to breathe for a moment, before he shook off the image.
While he had vied against Keron for the position of High Oracle, even he had no illusions of the difference in their power. His power of prophecy was strong enough to qualify him as an oracle, but only just. He had experienced enough visions to know the image was a vision. It was the first he had ever experienced without extensive preparation and liuqui.
He stood gasping for air as the vision faded. He could not escape Tenoch’s machinations, but he could save Soshay and thus himself. He still shook with rage at the girl’s attack upon him, but he forced himself to accept that being the High Priest to a temple of rubble was no reward. If the girl must live, so be it.