Art by © zolotareva_elina.
From the author: The Great Lord of the Mayan city Copan is dying and his only child The Lady will do anything to save the city. Humble jade carver Two Frog makes magical amulets, but he is so far beneath The Lady he cannot even look at her face. Make me a man! I want to live forever! The Lady demands . . . but fate has another plan for Two Frog and The Lady.
HEART OF JADE
"Lazy! You should have finished that last week," Two Frog's crippled wife said, poking her head in his workroom.
"Finished?" Two Frog asked, puzzled. He realized, chagrined, that she meant the jade ornament in his lap, commissioned by the great maize merchant.
People said that Two Frog was Copan's finest jadeworker, perhaps the best in all of the Mayan lands. Two Frog didn't think of himself that way. But despite his wife's nagging, he knew that time had to be taken, whether he prayed to the Gods of Xibalba to put special magic in an ornament or merely worked the green stone for its beauty.
"You'll be punished. The merchant will have no mercy. It's not even close!" She pointed at the jade ornament in Two Frog's lap.
"I know," Two Frog said. She was right. The amulet wasn't ready for polishing. "But it's better to do things properly, isn't it?"
"You'll be fiddling around trying to do things properly while they drag you off to cut out your heart and feed it to the Jaguar Lord of Skulls," she snapped. "And besides," she said with a superior-sounding sniff, "You've got a surprise coming. You just wait." She disappeared through the sisal screen, her graying braids swaying betwixt her twisted shoulders.
Sighing, Two Frog made a few half-hearted strokes with his awl. She'd shattered his concentration. If his wife had been so concerned about his being late, why had she interrupted him?
How had she grown so sour? As sour as the city had gotten lately. Three bad harvests in a row. Even the warriors were looking thin and sickly. And perhaps, he thought, with such bad harvests, the maize merchant would not be so quick in paying as Two Frog was in finishing his ornament.
They'd take him away? Sacrifice him? She knew how to torment him. He'd always had a horror of the killing places, for that was where the Guardian Lords had taken his brother when Two Frog was still a young apprentice. Even though she knew of this, his wife loved to speak of those terrible places; they fascinated her. She worshipped the Jaguar Lord of Skulls, while Two Frog made homage to the good gods of Xibalba. Two Frog trusted them, though if he was honest, many days they answered no prayers at all. He didn't know how his wife could worship the Jaguar Lord, cruel and bloody betrayer that he was.
Two Frog's surprise came in the form of a pair of long gray shadows slashed across his workroom, marking the same place his wife had stood moments earlier. Two Guardian Lords of the Daughter of 20 Rabbit peered at him from long-toothed jaguar heads, spotted pelts thrown haughtily over their shoulders.
Were they there to drag him off? For being late with the maize merchant's carving? They wore the insignia of the greatest Mayan royal family, which made little sense. Could they really be from . . .
"The Lady," one of them announced.
And there she stood. No one ever called the daughter of the Great Mayan Lord of Copan anything other than "The Lady."
Two Frog scrambled to his feet, his tools scattering over the reed mats. Good gods of Xibalba, he prayed, help me now.
The Lady stepped into the workroom, her delicate hooked nose wrinkling. Her thick black hair was pulled away from her face with combs of gold, and below the combs, it was braided in dozens of slender plaits. The collar of her robe was sewn with brilliant Quetzal feathers. Her breasts were bare, as round as papayas, and golden brown.
The hot midday sun shone past the two scowling Guardian Lords, casting The Lady's face into a sculptured relief as timeless as the carvings on the Great Temple.
And in that moment, though he was unaware, Two Frog fell a little in love with The Lady, as a lonely man will fall. But he was conscious only of the long spears of her Guardian Lords, and his breath caught in his throat. One of them might stride forward and pierce his belly at any moment. Or use the spears to prod him off, just like his brother. Toward the killing place.
The Lady strode imperiously around Two Frog's workroom, absolutely silent, examining the displayed jade ornaments. She picked up the maize merchant's amulet, which was a breast ornament worked like a snake turned upon itself, and made a little clucking sound back in her throat.
At last, she spoke. "You will make something like this for my father, for his twentieth anniversary as Great Lord of Copan. You will give it the magic of Xibalba. You will make him a God."
Xibalba, the underwater world of souls and gods. And Two Frog knew that The Lady's arrival had nothing to do with the maize merchant. Two Frog dreamed each night and swam in waking dreams each day in the gods' underwater world. And he had some little magic, for at times when he carved his jades, he could see things in them.
He had seen a vision of his son born into the world in the fine jade snake clasp he'd carved for his wife. A true vision. They had called the baby Little Frog. His only child.
In that same snake clasp, Two Frog seen Little Frog's death from fever which had come five months later.
After that, no other child came, and people began to say that Two Frog's wife was barren.
Two Frog had never told his wife that he'd seen her barrenness in the snake clasp or Little Frog's death. For many years, he'd told himself that the visions were false, products only of his fearful mind. But deep inside, he knew that the visions held true.
Two Frog's fellow artisans had urged him to put his wife aside, for they knew how she treated him. In addition to her sour temper, she was a poor cook, and could barely sweep out the house each day without becoming exhausted. She had a hard, bony hump between her neck and shoulder blades, her chest was spindly and weak, and her legs bowed curiously outward.
But Two Frog would never put his wife aside. He supposed that, in the way of people who had been married many years, he loved her. The good Gods of Xibalba meant for people to be faithful to each other. And as for her barrenness, the jade carvings had become his children; children who could never die, and to which he was both mother and father.
And now came The Lady with her spearmen and her request. And it was no ordinary request. The Gods whispered: "do as she asks, Two Frog. You must try."
He looked into her glistening, hard black eyes and said, "yes."
He would carve the ornament for her great father. But make him a God? Ridiculous, but he couldn't say that. Not at spear point.
As The Lady nodded, he wondered how she knew of his magic. He had kept that secret as close as...Two Frog drew in a sharp breath as he remembered his wife's words and warnings, and her curious and sudden disappearance.
He had told a soul about his magic.
The Lady smiled, holding up the maize merchant's ornament. She examined it a moment, then let it drop casually through her fingers, as if it was a rolled-up banana leaf and not a heavy circle of precious jade.
Two Frog stared, immobile. What if the jade shattered? He would not be merely behind, he would be finished. The maize merchant, a cruel, vain man, would never believe that The Lady had visited Two Frog. Nor could Two Frog say that she had broken it. Not if he valued his life.
The amulet fell to the floor, but did not break. The Guardian Lords grinned in the door, fingering the shafts of their spears.
The Lady did not smile. Her deep black, almond-shaped eyes seemed to look through Two Frog, rather than at him. Her glance was bolder than any woman's he'd ever known.
He had heard tales that the Daughter of the Great Lord 20 Rabbit was without fear, more like a man than a woman. The tale-tellers also said that she was spoiled, the only child of the Great Lord, though everyone knew that the line would end with him, for no woman could be Great Lord, no matter how proud. Some blamed the bad harvests and trouble on her, or on her father, for having no sons.
And even though she would never be anything but the Great Lord's daughter, The Lady was as far above Two Frog as he was above the winged red cockroach his wife kept in a tiny reed cage. She could destroy his entire workshop and he would have to thank her for it, if he cared to continue breathing and avoid the killing room.
The Lady began to smile, as if she knew his thoughts.
She knelt in one graceful movement and picked up the merchant's ornament, handing it to Two Frog. All Two Frog could hear was his own ragged breathing, rasping in and out of his chest.
The Lady laughed, still gazing in his eyes.
"What an ugly little man you are," she said.
"Yes, Lady," he whispered, looking down at his matted floor.
It would have been better if she had slapped his face.
Her laughter faded. She stepped close, and he felt a strange excitement, even as hot, shamed blood rushed in his cheeks.
Her voice was a bare whisper. "Look at me, little man," she said. "Look into my eyes. Make me something of magic for my father, who I love. And teach me as well. I would learn more of you."
Her eyes were like the eyes of an anaconda, mesmerizing a poor little frog. Her voice sent chills down his spine and made his legs weak.
Her lips brushed against his neck, hot and silken. "I would learn of magic and Xibalba. I would live forever."
Two Frog shivered. He realized that she whispered because she did not want the cruel, grinning guards in their jaguar cloaks to hear. Then she pressed something round and cool into his hand.
"Get you to work on my father's pendant. Come to me in my father's palace. Soon. Show me the magic."
"Why?" Two Frog asked. She terrified and excited him. And Two Frog was still a man, even if The Lady stood in relation to him as he stood in relation to his wife's pet cockroach. And, cockroach or no, he did not like being called an ugly little man.
"Why? Because it is what I wish," The Lady said. "Question me again and . . ." She let her voice trail away. And then, he felt something warm and wet on his neck, and then something hard, pressing against his flesh. He nearly fainted. Her tongue, he realized. Her teeth. She had kissed his neck.
Then she turned, sweeping her feathered Quetzal robe about her and left as quickly as she'd come.
Two Frog opened his trembling hand to see what she had given him. A clay disk, pressed with the emblem of her father, Great Lord of Copan, 20 Rabbit. Two Frog was under the protection of the Great Lord himself, as long as he had the disk. He could travel where he wished, even to the Palace itself.
He slipped the disk into the woven reed pouch he kept tied around his waist, and then strode from his workroom in search of his wife. The Lady's kiss rippled through him as if he was a pond, and she'd thrown a stone into him. His stomach was knotted with terror and desire.
He knew that somehow, some way, his wife had told. Of his magic.
The old, bitter crone would get them both killed.
The house was unswept, as usual. Yet his wife was not in her corner by the cooking fire, nor was she in back of the house, where they kept the hens. Two Frog's wife was nowhere to be found.
No one knew where Two Frog's wife had gone. When he returned to his workroom, he thought a moment, then opened the woven reed case where he kept the most valuable of his finished pieces and his best tools. It was empty.
Enraged, Two Frog realized that while he had slept the night before, his wife had taken his precious carvings, many of them full of his magic. She had not only betrayed him, she had stolen! And such things she had stolen: several years of work, and his entire livelihood.
Why? What had he done? Protected her. Cared for her.
He fingered the clay disk in his pouch. Perhaps his wife had gone to the Palace, though he couldn't imagine that they'd tolerate such a creature there. And why had she stayed around to announce The Lady's terrifying visit? Perhaps, he thought darkly, she had wanted to see his fear and humiliation. Perhaps it had been required of her in order for her to get her payment, for reasons that he couldn't fathom.
Sighing, he looked about. At least she hadn't taken the pieces he'd kept out on display. That might have tipped him off. Might have spoiled the plan.
The merchant's large breast ornament lay on his workbench where The Lady had left it.
Two Frog picked it up, feeling the smooth coolness of the jade, and thought of The Lady's kiss, and her voice. He thought of how he desired and feared her, and of how she had called him an ugly little man.
And then he thought of his wife's betrayal. And with these feelings coursing through him, he put his magic into the ornament, holding it close to his chest.
The ornament became an amulet filled with Two Frog's rage and desire and deep sense of betrayal. While outwardly, it still glistened beautifully, the form he could scry beneath its exterior was as ugly and as twisted as anything he had ever seen.
"Where is my wife?" he asked the jade.
It would not speak. Two Frog knew that his wife had not touched the breast ornament, for that was how his magic worked.
But The Lady had touched it. Held it for long moments.
So, he asked the amulet about her. "Where is The Lady? What does she really want of me?"
And the amulet became a window. Through it, he saw the palace. He saw the flanked Guardians in their jaguar cloaks. He saw the servants at work amid great luxury.
He saw The Lady's chamber. She lay asleep on her couch, curled sensuously upon herself like a snake. He saw her father, 20 Rabbit, seated beside her, his chin resting in his hand, watching.
The Great Lord's face was lined. His neck was withered, as were his shoulders and his chest. And there were awful, weeping sores on his face.
How old, tired and alone the Great Lord looked. Two Frog saw that he did not have long to live. And he sat, watching his sleeping daughter, who was not married, nor was she a man to carry on his name, nor had she had a child. When the Great Lord died, his line died with him.
Two Frog trembled, for the magic had him now and he could not turn away.
He saw the great city of Copan in flames. He saw hordes of barbarian warriors, not men of Copan, nor even of Tikal. They strode up and down the great avenue of the Temple, burning each house. Two Frog watched the strange warriors cut the throats of any man they could find: boys and old men as well as men in their prime. They dragged women from the houses, raped them as they shrieked, and then slit their bellies. Crying out, he watched them take a boy much like Little Frog and dash his brains out on the steps of the Temple of the Moon.
And then they roasted and ate the bodies of those they had killed. Particularly the children.
"Great gods of Xibalba," he whispered. "Did the terrible things I felt make this thing?" For he was ashamed, as well as fearful. He'd put his magic into the ornament when he had been full of mad lust and betrayal. That was wrong, he thought. Wrong to use the magic that way.
The amulet went dark, making no answer.
"Should I go to the Palace?" he asked it.
He knew the answer. He sensed the Gods behind the power of the amulet laughing at him, though it had become merely a carving of jade again.
Drawing a deep breath, Two Frog slipped the amulet in his reed pouch. Then, he took out the clay disk, and set forth for the Palace.
On the way to the Palace, he passed through a quarter where he had not walked since he was a boy. He remembered it as a place of great market stalls filled with maize and beans and fish and fowl for sale. The stalls were still there, but there were only a few stalks of poor-looking, fungus-covered maize for sale. The merchants were sullen-faced, staring at Two Frog as he passed.
Children with legs like sticks and swollen bellies played listlessly here and there. Some of them begged for food. He threw them a few shells that he had in his pouch, though he'd seen nothing for sale that they could with them. When a gang of older boys started to come after him, he showed them the disk, which took them aback a moment. But only for a moment. And then he ran.
The Lady waited by a small blue pool in her private courtyard. She trailed her bare feet lazily in the water as she sipped from a gold cup.
Chocolate, Two Frog thought as he approached. The drink of the Great Lords. But as sat near her, he could smell that it was pulque.
Women did not drink pulque.
"You are late, little man," she said. The sound of her voice told him that she was a little drunk.
Two Frog wondered what to say, finally stammering, "forgive me, Lady."
She snorted and sipped the pulque. "What did you think when you found all of your best pieces and your tools gone?"
Two Frog gasped. "How did you know?"
She gestured to a carved stone casket at her side. "Open it," she said. Two Frog gingerly lifted the lid. His carvings and his tools were laid neatly inside, wrapped in a finely woven towel. Such a fine length of cloth would cost Two Frog half a year''s work.
"My wife's doing," he said.
"Yes," The Lady said. "She has been well paid for her work." And that was all she would say.
Two Frog knew that his wife had touched all of the carvings in the box.
He could pick up any one of them and they would show him where she had gone. But he was afraid. And somehow, now that he had his work and his tools back, what had become of her didn't seem to matter as much.
He sat back at The Lady's feet and waited for her to speak.
Her dark eyes glittered as she drained the pulque.
"Now that you are here, you will show me how to use the magic." She did not mention the piece that she'd asked him to carve for her father.
Two Frog's palms grew damp. How would he teach her? He had been born with the magic. He had no idea how it worked, much less how to teach it.
But how could he tell her that? The Guardians were beyond the agave plants around the pool, waiting for her slightest gesture. They would kill him in an instant.
"I ...do not know..."he stammered.
The Lady laughed. "There will be time," she said. "You think me a fool? I know such things cannot happen in an instant."
Then, she rose. "Do you not see the magic in me, little man?"
Her body blocked the sun. Two Frog could not see her face, only the smooth lines of her thighs, the rounded curve of her belly, and the shape of her breasts. He felt himself drawn upward, inexorably.
And even though the Guardians stood a few paces away, and even though he feared her as he had never feared before in his life, Two Frog wanted her more than he had ever wanted any woman.
There was bitter pulque on her lips, but it tasted like honey to him. She was made of honey and fire as he slipped his arms around her slender waist.
And even as he touched her hot flesh, swirling down into a black, watery, consuming magic he had never imagined, he heard the distant voices of the gods of Xibalba.
He felt them turn from him in shame, to see his weakness, and his lust.
He was certain that he would be killed for touching her. She would have him killed ...if he did not touch her. And those two things being so, why should he not take pleasure while he still lived?
The Lady moaned and writhed in his arms like a snake, and he moaned as well.
More of the gods turned away as Two Frog's fingers traveled her body.
And at last, the only god who did not turn away was the darkest one of all. The Jaguar Lord of Skulls. The dark lord of death watched over Two Frog and The Lady.
"Make me a man with your magic," The Lady whispered. Two Frog shivered. "Make my father live forever and turn me to a bold warrior to fight for him. To make Copan great once more."
Two Frog trembled as The Lady cried out, caught in her own passion, unaware of his distress. His desire fled in an instant. It was impossible. Not only impossible: insane. And he heard the great god's deep voice like tumbling rocks in the great river. And his spirit trembled in fear as he realized that the Jaguar Lord of Skulls laughed. Without stopping. Eager for Two Frog''s heart and his soul. When little men dared to fly ... too close to anything like that ... they fell, he thought. Hard.
In days to come, Two Frog slept on a reed mat in The Lady's chamber. When she did not need him, he worked on the amulet for her father, the Great Lord 20 Rabbit. He tried to avoid thinking of his inevitable fate: what would happen when The Lady realized that he could never, not in thousands of years, give her what she wished.
Even in his terror, Two Frog's desire for The Lady grew relentlessly. He whispered her name as he worked, though he had not forgotten his wife. He was not entirely sure why, but he'd never tried to find his wife, though he both missed her and wished for some sort of revenge. Or at least, an answer.
Why had his wife betrayed him? Could it have been for money alone? The Lady would say nothing more of that day. Two Frog knew better than to keep asking, for she had a fierce temper and he wished to live as long as he could.
There was a sensuous quality to the amulet he carved for the Great Lord. It had the head of a Quetzal bird and a woman's body.
The Lady's body.
Two Frog knew this was "wrong," but he was putting his magic into the jade with every stroke of his tools. Since he was certain that he would be killed when he finished the amulet, he was both taking his time and doing the work as he wished. Making the amulet thrilled and terrified him at the same time. Just as The Lady did.
Since he'd lived in The Lady's quarters, he'd eaten foods beyond his wildest dreams from plates and bowls of hammered gold. Fish of a kind he had never seen, with rich pink flesh. The finest, most delicate maize. Tiny ears of many colors, tender and sweet. Tamales as light as air, sweetened with honey, baked in banana leaves, rich with their fragrance. Once, The Lady had given him a sip of chocolate. Hands trembling, Two Frog had taken the gold cup and touched his lips to the chocolate. It was rich and silky on his tongue, but also bitter. He did not like it, but he said that he did. To please her.
And pulque, of course. Always the pulque.
One day, as Two Frog sat cross-legged, working the amulet in his lap, two Guardian Lords burst into The Lady's chamber.
This was it, he thought. They'd eviscerate him, then put his head on a stake. Children would pelt it with stones. Macaws would make a meal of his eyeballs.
"You will come," one of them demanded. "And bring the trinket."
His heart in his throat, Two Frog followed them, clasping the amulet to his chest. As he walked, he stared at his brown feet, which were already growing soft in the new sandals that The Lady had given him. And wondered why she'd bother to give him sandals just before she had him killed.
The Guardian Lords led him through a winding maze of halls and chambers until they came to a small, cruciform room, lit only by two flickering torches.
It looked like a killing chamber.
"The Great Lord," one of the Guardian Lords said. He bowed deeply, kissing the floor. The other followed his example.
Two Frog did the same.
The Guardians backed from the room, leaving Two Frog alone, his lips pressed against the cold, polished stone floor.
"Get up," said a reedy voice. "Come close. Give me the thing you have made."
Two Frog did as he was told. As he approached the source of the voice, he saw the form of the Great Lord of Copan. The Great Lord sat on a granite throne, wrapped in a plain, heavy blanket.
Two Frog's terror diminished, replaced by wonder. When he saw the Great Lord's face clearly, a sudden burst of pity overwhelmed him.
The sores on the Great Lord's face were worse than what Two Frog had seen in the vision that the amulet had shown him. Open, raw, and weeping.
He laid the amulet in the Great Lord's lap, his fingers trembling.
"I cannot bear the light," the Great Lord said, fingering the amulet. "You see what has happened."
He touched his face, then smiled. Rows of grinning skulls carved in granite framed the throne. Their expressions mirrored the Great Lord's face.
Two Frog did not need one of his amulets to tell him that he was in the presence of death.
"Great Lord, if there is some way I could help—"
"I am dying. There is no help."
Two Frog sensed the dignity of this man who had ruled Copan for a generation. He looked down, falling silent, because he felt that anything further that he said would only injure that dignity.
"I called for you because we must speak." The Great Lord began to cough, long tortured hacks which wracked his chest. Two Frog waited, wishing that he could help, and knowing that he could not.
"You have been meeting my daughter's bodily needs," the Great Lord said when the spasms subsided.
Two Frog began to apologize, but the Great Lord waved him silent with an imperious gesture.
"Say nothing. I know my daughter well and I hold you to no blame. You are not the first common man she has taken." The Great Lord paused, clearing his throat and humming a bit to himself. "But I dare say that you may be the last."
Then, he chuckled, setting off another bout of coughing. Two Frog wondered if the Great Lord's mind had weakened along with his body, and some of the terror he'd felt earlier returned.
"What I mean," the Great Lord continued, "is that my daughter has never been like other women. Not other noble women, certainly not the great Lady of Copan she was born to be."
"She is exceptional," Two Frog whispered.
Whatever his infirmities, the Great Lord had not lost his hearing. "You are right," he said. "Now listen to me."
The tale that the Great Lord told chilled Two Frog to the core. He spoke not only of the death of Copan, but of Tikal, as well. He said that he had seen the great green jungle, all in flames. Had dreamt of the proud stone cities and temples and every Maya, taken by death. Their world would be consumed in bloody destruction. The Great Lord's reedy voice whispered, on and on.
"I am not Lord of Copan for nothing," he said to Two Frog, after he had spoken for some time. "I know of your vision. I know of your magic. But I was born with vision of a kind as well. Such is the burden of being Great Lord."
"Yes," Two Frog whispered, his heart leaping in his chest. He felt the Great Lord's burdens weighing upon his own conscience.
And as the old man continued, Two Frog realized: that was the Great Lord of Copan's intent.
"There is more," the Great Lord said. "Bearded white men will come. I have seen them. They will come in the time of our children''s children. They will bring death for our people. Death and enslavement. So the Jaguar Lord of Skulls has told me. What comes before, you have already seen. The blood-drinking barbarians from the north. But that is just a taste of what is to come."
"Gods of Xibalba, save us," Two Frog said.
The Great Lord coughed and laughed at the same time. "Our Gods have no power over what is to come. They are little Gods only, Two Frog. Do you not see that? Sometimes—" and the Great Lord paused, sighing. "Sometimes I have wondered if it were not better for us to feed them with blood to make them strong, as the barbarians of the north do."
"But the barbarians are violent and brutal. Surely the Gods would not desire—"
"Their desires are not for us to understand," the Great Lord said. "It is a matter of time, and of change. The only certainty is death, little man."
Little man! Two Frog felt anger rising in him, even as his heart burst with pity for the Great Lord and his burden. He trembled in anger and in fear of the terrible doom the old man was predicting. The doom was real. Two Frog had known it was real since the amulet had shown him the vision.
But what had this doom to do with Two Frog? Though a man might learn his fate, there was nothing any man could do to avoid it. If the Great Lord of Copan had fallen into such despair, what could a man such as Two Frog do? A little man, as the Great Lord and his daughter had called him. An ugly little man.
The Great Lord seemed to read the emotions in Two Frog's expression, for he laughed once more.
"Has my daughter told you what she wishes?"
"To carve this amulet for you, Lord," Two Frog said, leaving out the mad things that she'd asked. "But it is not finished."
The Great Lord fingered the jade in his lap. "I see that. It is no matter." He paused, gazing into Two Frog's eyes.
Two Frog shook his head. "She charged me with carving this for you. I have been—"
"You have been nothing," the Great Lord snapped. "You know as well as I that what she asks is impossible."
Two Frog looked down at his hands, dusted with chips of jade. He nodded. Now that the Great Lord had spoken to him, surely he would call for the Guardian Lords, and they would finish him off.
Two Frog dared to look up into the old Lord's ruined face. "I love her," he said, simply.
Something, which could have been pity, flickered in the Great Lord's eyes. Perhaps it was sympathy.
"Little man, I am the last of the Great Lords of Copan," he said. "And you see what I have become. My daughter wishes for me to live forever, and thinks that this can be accomplished through your magic."
Two Frog staggered back across the cold stone floor. Surely the Great Lord knew that her wishes were impossible. "There is no such—"
"No such thing in your magic? Well I know."
"I fear that she must be—" Two Frog caught himself before he said the fatal word. "Mad?" the Great Lord asked, laughing. "Ah, little man, you have no idea. What else could such dreams be? That I could be immortal, like a god of Xibalba?"
The Great Lord's ragged breath echoed through the cruciform room. He clutched at the arms of his granite throne. "And turning herself from woman to man, if I should not become immortal. So that our line will not end with me."
"Great gods," Two Frog said. "I cannot do such a thing. The gods cannot." He could say no more.
"I have made many mistakes," the Great Lord said, though he no longer seemed to be speaking to Two Frog, but instead to himself, for his eyes wandered about, as if he perceived spirits hovering about his secret throne. "And none greater than how I have raised my daughter."
"What can I do?" Two Frog asked, though he was no longer certain that the Great Lord saw or heard him.
The Great Lord sighed and ran his fingers slowly and painfully along his ruined cheek, smiling bitterly at the corruption and the pain. Then he seemed to notice Two Frog again.
"You must tell her the truth, little man," he said.
"She'll kill me," Two Frog exclaimed.
"Perhaps," the Great Lord said. "But I have not the courage, nor does anyone else. Only you can do it. That is the only way where hope lies."
"But these things will come true," Two Frog said. "I know. I have seen, and you have seen."
The Great Lord shrugged. "Yes, but we can't understand the purposes of the gods. And there is some hope, even so."
"Hope? I cannot make her—"
"Into a man? Of course not. But there may be something more. She could bear a child. I have seen it."
"She's—" Two Frog held back. He couldn't possibly contradict the Great Lord, though The Lady was not at all young; and had never been with child. And Two Frog had been with a barren wife for years. He knew what a barren woman was. And perhaps he was a barren man. That was one thing he'd never had the courage to try to see in the jade.
"Do you know that when maize is grown in the same field for many years, it grows weak and feeble? Twisted, sick and diseased?" the Great Lord said.
Why was he speaking of maize? Two Frog recalled the maize in the market quarter. How it had been covered with fungus, sickly and unappetizing.
"Yes, we are like that corn," the Great Lord said. "See what I have become. Look at my daughter. The last of the proud line of Great Lords of Copan."
"Oh, Lord," Two Frog whispered.
The Great Lord paid no attention. "When maize becomes diseased in the farmer's fields, you know what they do, don't you?"
Two Frog knew what they did.
"They burn it. To the roots."
The Great Lord covered his face with his blanket.
"Go," he said fiercely. "Think on what I've told you. Find a way out, little man." He moved forward, groaning, and offered the amulet to Two Frog. Two Frog took it, bowing deeply.
"Yes, Lord," Two Frog said, though he had no hope and felt as if the Jaguar Lord of Skulls had dragged him down the deepest river of death in the heart of Xibalba.
The Guardian Lords reappeared, grasping Two Frog's arms and pulling him from the torch-lit room.
"It must be burned. All of it."
The Great Lord's voice echoed through the halls as they led Two Frog away.
"Burn it," he heard in the distance. "Down to the root."
The Lady came to Two Frog as he sat in her chamber, staring at the amulet in confusion, unable to touch it with a single tool.
Her eyes glittered from too much pulque, and her breath was hot and bitter.
"Take me, little man," she said. "Plow me."
Two Frog thought of burning fields of maize as his body responded to her.
And as they made love, she whispered the mad things to him, which she desired.
"Take your magic and make me," she said as she pressed herself against him. "A great warrior. A man. Strong and virile."
Two Frog was silent.
"If I were a man, Copan would be strong. A great city once more. And am I not stronger than a man? Wiser? More powerful?"
Two Frog shivered.
"The warriors of the north come against us. Tikal does nothing. No other Mayan cities send envoys. We are alone. And we must fight."
"Perhaps," Two Frog said. His body grew cold and unyielding. He rested his hands on her smooth back like lead weights, then let them fall away.
She continued writhing against him a moment, then she stopped, as abruptly as she'd begun.
"Little man," she snarled. "No one does this to me!"
He turned his face toward the wall.
"I'll have them cut out your heart," she said, her voice full of venom.
He knew that she meant it. He closed his eyes and hoped that he would be able to show some dignity as his heart began to gallop in fear.
Two Frog pulled away from her and sat, crossing his legs. He rubbed his arms as if they were pieces of jade, and he was polishing them.
"You know these things cannot be," he said.
Her eyes narrowed in fury. "You dare," she said. "I'll have you——"
"Cut into bits and fed to the dogs, I know," he said, astonished at his boldness.
If it was possible, her face showed even more astonishment. "You! Why, you're just an—"
"An ugly little man who'll make your father live forever?"
"If that's how you want me to say it," she said, her brow wrinkling with doubt.
Two Frog looked up at her. And he still loved her, but he was filled with cold fury. He might have been a cockroach and a nothing to her, but he was still a man. If they were all to die, why would it matter how and when he died? In the killing room? Here in her chamber?
"The Great Lord your father spoke to me," he said. "He told me to tell you the truth. That I cannot do this."
She stepped back, her mouth and eyes wide. "That foolish, meddling old man!"
"He has more sight than I do," Two Frog said, gazing steadily at her. His fear was melting away moment by moment. He got to his feet and approached her.
"Don't touch me," she said, stepping back.
He put his hands on her shoulders.
And he saw the fear and doubt in her eyes, and the weakness that lay at the heart of her bluster and fierceness. In the pulse of the fine veins where her neck met her shoulders, he heard all of her terrors, as if the gods of Xibalba had whispered them, though they had said nothing.
He knew why The Lady was barren. And knew what to do about it.
"You don't want to be a man," he said.
"No," she said, trying to pull away, but her movements were weak. She didn't mean it.
He kept his hands on her.
"You just want to save your father, save Copan."
Her eyes grew moist. She shook her head. "Yes," she whispered.
"And something more," he said.
She looked away from him, then up at the painted ceiling, where jaguars entwined with Quetzal birds and great macaws flew. "What more," she whispered.
Two Frog put his right hand gently on the back of her neck and pressed her face toward his.
"You know much, Lady," he said, "but you know nothing of love."
And he kissed her deeply, as a man kisses the woman he loves, and who loves him.
At dawn, Two Frog woke in The Lady's arms. She sighed and turned in her sleep. He watched her tenderly for long moments, then reached for the Quetzal amulet with her body, which lay on the table at the side of the bed.
And as soon as the tips of his fingers touched it, he saw the barbarians, striding through the jungle, faces painted with horrible black streaks, feathered loincloths tied about their naked waists. They held wicked spears, shorter and broader than those of Tikal and Copan. Their mouths were open and blood red, their teeth filed to sharp points. They were screaming.
"Lady," he said, tearing himself from her arms and sitting up. "Get dressed."
She stirred and murmured, stretching lazily.
He grabbed her shoulder and her eyes flew open. "Get dressed," he said once more. "They are coming."
She began to laugh, but then realized that he was serious.
"Father," she said, reaching for her cloak. Then, she called for her servants.
No one came.
Two Frog realized that the Palace was absolutely silent. A macaw called outside the window.
She called again for the servants, then for the Guardian Lords. All had fled, Two Frog knew.
He grasped her hand. "We're alone," he said. He knew without being told that they'd all fled, perhaps for Tikal, or perhaps for other cities to the south.
"Father!" she cried, as she realized what Two Frog meant.
"We've got to run," Two Frog said. He took a deep breath, because the amulet had whispered to him that the jungle would be safe. He would take her into the jungle.
He had never seen her so vulnerable.
"Please," she said, her eyes begging him. "Let us find Father first. We'll bring him with us."
Two Frog's chest knotted in fear, but he nodded. "Quickly," he said, helping her with her cloak and sandals. He put the amulet in his pouch, not entirely sure why he did so, but feeling that he shouldn't leave it in that place.
They started through the Palace, and saw no one. The torches had guttered out during the night. Ashes lay unwept on the cut stone floor.
"This way," she said, leading Two Frog down the passage which led to the hidden throne room.
In the shadowy cruciform room, the torches still burned, but the throne was empty. The walls were damp and glistening with moisture.
"Where is he?" she asked, searching the room.
"Perhaps he is still sleeping," Two Frog said. He touched the throne, and couldn't help gasping, for the stone spoke to him just as the jade spoke. "Let's go," he said, touching her arm, for he suddenly wanted to take her from that place.
"He doesn't sleep much," she said, smiling uncertainly. "He would have been up long before we were."
She started around the throne.
"No," Two Frog said, grabbing her wrist.
But she pulled away.
To find the pitiful figure there which Two Frog had seen through the magic of the throne's stone.
The Great Lord of Copan, 20 Rabbit, curled upon himself in a pool of his own blood, a second mouth slashed in his throat, horribly wide, where no mouth should ever have been.
And The Lady truly was a daughter of the line of the Great Lords of Copan, for she did not scream, nor did she weep. She knelt and caressed her father's thin, gray hair, embracing his lifeless body.
Two Frog watched her silent grief.
"Such a thing should never have come," she said.
"We must go," Two Frog said. For he heard noises. They were no longer alone.
Her father's dagger was still at his waist.
"The cowards were afraid to touch it," she said. She meant the guards. The ones who'd killed out of useless fear and despair. She reached for its haft, but Two Frog stayed her hand.
"Let me take it," he said. Looking about the room, he knew that they'd have need of it. As they started down the passage, Two Frog wondered why they had been spared. Why hadn''t the murderers come for them as well? And he asked The Lady.
She stopped in the passage, looking into his eyes.
"You don't know?"
He shook his head. "Surely they would have wanted to kill us, if they killed your father."
She smiled coldly. "They were all afraid of you," she said.
Two Frog stepped back, amazed. "Afraid? But I'm just a—"
"Afraid of your magic," she said. "That you would curse them, or cast a spell."
"But I cannot—"
"They do not know that," she said. "Though I do," she added, and she kissed his cheek, squeezing his hand.
At the other end of the passage, Two Frog heard unfamiliar voices. Rough, and angry.
"Come one," he said, pulling her back in the direction they'd come.
"No," she said, leading him forward. "There's a passage. No one knows. We can get out that way."
Two Frog followed her, heart pounding. They entered a narrow hall, the ceiling so low that even Two Frog had to bend down to pass. In moments, they entered a dark room, where a single torch sputtered, nearly spent. The flickering light showed things that chilled Two Frog's heart.
Wet-slimed rock walls. The reek of rotten flesh. A rat, scurrying, round eyes bright and red for a moment in the torchlight. Long white bones. A skull.
"What is this place?" he asked, though he knew.
The killing room. Where all his life he had feared he would come.
The Lady took his hand and led him through the room. Their sandals made wet, squishing noises on the damp floor. Water, Two Frog thought. Please let it be water. Two Frog heard the Jaguar Lord of Skulls, chuckling softly.
"Quickly," The Lady said, voice full of fear. There was something else under the fear, but Two Frog wasn't quite sure what it was. Outside, the strange voices grew louder.
And the torch flamed brightly one last time, illuminating one long wall.
Two Frog saw a pale form flattened against the wall, shaped like a woman's body, but all wrong. How could a body be flattened so? Held thereso...and ...Two Frog realized that it wasnot a body, but a skin. The skin, taken off someone's body, and nailed there. To dry, or cure.
"Come," The Lady said. And Two Frog realized that she had not wanted him to see the thing on the wall.
"That," he said, holding her shoulder and pointing at the flayed skin.
Two long gray braids hung from what had once been the body's head, pulled away from a strange, flaccid hump. And he knew what body had once borne that skin, and that hair.
His wife had not been a large woman, but skin looks very large, once it's been stripped from flesh and bone.
Two Frog remembered The Lady's voice. She has been well paid for her work.
"Yes," The Lady whispered. "That is your wife."
"You killed her," Two Frog said. And his heart was full of pity and remorse. His eyes filled with tears. He raised his hand, fingering the blade of the Great Lord's dagger as he looked into The Lady's agonized face. "Why?" "Go ahead," she said, her eyes narrowing as she drew her cloak aside. "Use the dagger. Yes, I had it done."
He shook his head. His hand fell to his side. It was pitiful and horrible that his wife had come to such an end, but he'd known that The Lady was capable of such savagery. Hadn't he?
Yes, he had known, and he'd never tried to find his wife. Not even once. Had he really cared? Did he care now? He didn't know how he felt. Outside, the voices grew very near. "Why did you kill her?" he asked The Lady. The Lady turned toward the passage into the killing room, saying, "We've got to go. They''re nearly here."
Two Frog shook his head. "There's been enough death," he said. And he knew that was true. He fingered the amulet in his pouch, and felt the gods of Xibalba nodding their approval. Yes, it was right. There had been far too much death. Outside the Palace, Copan was burning.
The Lady took his arm, tugging at him. "Let's go. We can talk later."
Two Frog held fast. "No. We stand. Here."
Her eyes widened. "What?" he asked her. "Are you afraid to die?"
Her lips formed a tight line. "No." "But I don't want to die," he told her.
"If we don't run, we will," she said.
He shrugged. Perhaps. The amulet was speaking to him. It said that the barbarians were coming, but that if he held fast, he might survive. Perhaps.
"I'll see you soon," the Jaguar Lord of Skulls said, grinning.
"No," the other gods of Xibalba said. "Perhaps not, black heart."
"I'm afraid," The Lady said, as the barbarian warriors of the North burst into the room. They rushed toward Two Frog and The Lady, stopping suddenly in horror as the flickering torch showed them what lay there.
"This is a bad place," one of them said. They stood still, their spears pointed at Two Frog and The Lady. He fingered the dagger, then dropped it to the floor.
"No!" She knelt, grabbing for the dagger, but Two Frog stayed her.
"There's been enough killing here," he said.
The faces of the strange warriors reflected a mixture of rage and fear. More fear than rage, Two Frog thought, though perhaps he deceived himself. He remembered what The Lady had said about the warriors of the Palace: "they're all afraid of you."
"You'll be mine soon," the Jaguar Lord of Souls said once more, but his voice was distant.
The other gods spoke to Two Frog through the amulet. They told him to stand fast.
And Two Frog held the amulet forth, just as the flickering torch guttered out and the killing room was cast into darkness.
The barbarian warriors howled in terror. Two Frog heard them running about in the blackness. One of them bumped into him, taking him for one of his fellow warriors. Two Frog stepped aside, holding The Lady close.
"Say nothing," he whispered to her. He sidled away from the barbarians, pressing their bodies against the cold stone wall.
"There's nothing here," one of the warriors said.
"Let's get out of this death place," one of the others replied. "Those were ghosts that we saw."
"No," one of the others said. "That was a high-born Lady. Didn't you see her cloak? And the ugly little bastard with her had jade in his hand. Worth a lot."
Two Frog heard them gathering together in the dark. His heart pounded wildly. The Lady clung to him, as the amulet grew warm in his hand.
"We can try to run," she whispered.
"No," he said. The gods were telling him once more to hold fast.
To be unafraid.
He had something to live for, they told him. And they showed him the life that grew in The Lady's womb.
"Your wife hated you," the Jaguar Lord of Skulls said. "Because you were a weakling coward. Because your seed was weak. It was not she who was barren, little man." And the black god laughed loudly.
Two Frog thought of his wife's skin, spread out against the wall as he held the trembling Lady close.
"Let's cut their throats!" one of the warriors cried.
Two Frog heard the warriors begin to search the room by feeling along the floor and the walls.
"His heart is strong," the other gods said.
The Jaguar Lord snorted in derision. "He succumbed to the temptations of a false woman! You're all weaklings, leading your people to despair. But they are mine now. All of them."
The Lady drew closer to Two Frog. She pressed her lips against his cheek, and they were cold, not warm, and trembling. "I love you," she whispered. "I love you little man. I am not afraid to die with you."
And Two Frog held her close as the warriors moved forward.
"Your wife betrayed you," she said. "She told me that it was she who had the magic, but I knew that she lied. And she would have had you killed. There was a blackness in her. A terrible evil. It was not I who took her skin, but the priests. I asked only that she be banished."
Two Frog knew that she was ashamed of what had been done in her name.
"I never knew," Two Frog said. But he realized: yes, he had known. And remembered what he'd pushed aside all those years. How small his wife had made him feel. The amulet might have shown him Little Frog's death, but if his wife had cared properly for Little Frog, perhaps the child might not have died of fever. Perhaps she had blamed herself. Blamed him, for not forcing her to take care of the child properly. Perhaps that was why she had betrayed him and turned to the Jaguar Lord.
"She was mine," the Jaguar Lord said. "Always. And she did my bidding. I'll have revenge on your royal whore for killing her."
Two Frog realized that the Jaguar Lord not only hated him, he feared him. And that was why he so desperately wanted his heart and his spirit. To control them. Destroy them.
For he was not a little man at all. Inside Two Frog's body was a heart of . . .
"Jade," the good gods of Xibalba said in unison. "Purest jade, hardened from our tears and made strong by our love."
"I am here," Two Frog said, stepping forward, protecting The Lady with his body. "Take me and spare her."
And the amulet began to glow, casting a soft green light over the terrible killing room, illuminating the faces of the amazed northern warriors.
"He's a god," one of them said.
And one by one, they all bowed.
"Forgive us," they said. "Don't kill us."
Silently, Two Frog held up the amulet. It glowed more brightly than any torch.
The Jaguar Lord of Skulls cursed him thoroughly and bitterly, but Two Frog paid him no mind.
"Go," Two Frog said. "Leave this place. Leave this city."
Even as he said this, Two Frog had a vision that the city was in flames. Many had died. More would die soon.
As the barbarian warriors retreated, he turned to The Lady.
"We can't stay," he told her. "The city is dead. Burned."
Like the maize, he thought, as the Great Lord had spoken. Burned to the root. So that new crops could grow.
"I know," The Lady said.
In the light of the glowing amulet, Two Frog raised her face to his and kissed her once more.
"We must gather the people who are left," he told her, after they parted. "And live close to the gods. Simply. As they intended."
And smiling, he took The Lady in his arms, with his glowing heart of jade between them.
Nine months later, their son 1 Rabbit was born.
After Copan, Tikal did fall, and every other Mayan city. And the white, bearded men did come.
Yet in the deep, dark greenness of the Guatemalan jungle the maize grows fresh, and if you listen closely, you can hear the still, strong beat of a heart of jade.
This story originally appeared in Black Gate.
Mel's 16, blind, and in a wheelchair. She gets the chance to be one of the first interstellar explorers but she loves John and doesn't want to leave him behind. The Instrumentality of Women includes Mel's story along with 13 other stories about how much things will change for women and how much they could stay the same.
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