From the author: This story originally appeared in IGMS in 2013, where it won a reader's choice award. It was later reprinted by Fantastic Stories of the Imagination. I've written a lot of short fiction since then, but this one still makes the archaeologist in me very happy. True story: I was nearly abandoned at Mesa Verde once because everyone else was tired of me staring at the postholes when there were "more interesting" things to see.
Ayin ducked into the temple, one hand wrapped around her ribs, the other one clutching her son’s hand. The poor filled this place—some had broken bones, some writhed with yellow snake fever. The priestesses patiently wended through them, administering bandages, salves, and teas.
“It smells funny in here,” said her son, Tzi.
A thick, wet cough tensed in Ayin’s lungs. She swallowed it. “Temples are a place of reverence. Speak softer.”
He rolled his eyes heavenward and sighed loudly. Only seven years old, and so dramatic.
One of the priestesses approached—a pretty woman with a round face. “Welcome to our temple. May the gods see fit to bring you healing.”
The cough clawed up Ayin’s throat. She dropped Tzi’s hand and covered her mouth. She hacked, throat burning. Tzi rubbed her back.
And then the cough faded. Ayin straightened, pulling her hand away. Orange mucous stained it. Before she could find a handkerchief, the young priestess was cleaning her hand with a rag smelling strongly of corn beer. “I need you to sit over here.”
Ayin nodded and followed her to a mat of woven palm fronds. Tzi managed to be reverent; he bit his lip and stared at his mother.
The priestess—she said her name was Cham—pressed her ear to Ayin’s back and listened. “Have you been to any Xook ruins lately?”
“I’m a looter.” She’d been at the ruins of a Xook flintknapping workshop last week, but someone had already used up the magic in the postholes. Two days’ trek through the thick of the jungle, and she hadn’t even been paid. That seemed to happen a lot, lately.
Cham looked in her throat, felt her pulse, and sighed. “May the gods watch over you, because I can’t. I’ve seen a cough like yours before. In their later buildings, the magic-hating Xook poisoned the bottoms of their postholes.”
“I have wet lung, don’t I?” Ayin’s chest twisted, this time in sinking dread. She’d hoped this was some regular cough.
Cham nodded. “It’s not contagious, at least.”
Ayin squeezed Tzi’s shoulder. Small comfort. Her merchant-minded husband wouldn’t return from the trading roads for another half-year at least. If she died in a month, who would care for Tzi? They had no other kin.
“Thank you,” Ayin said. She took Tzi’s hand and left the smells of cotton, herbs, and sickness behind.
“So you’ll cough up orange slime until you find some good-paying work. Not so bad, right?” Tzi asked. Despite his casual tone, his face pinched with worry.
Ayin wanted to scoop him up, cover his face in kisses, and assure him everything would be sweet as honey. But she’d never been good at lying, at putting on faces. Maybe she’d be a better mother if she were. She shook her head and stayed silent. Tzi scuffed his feet on the dirt road, matching her mood.
If her husband were here, he’d know what to say. Yunen made everyone laugh easily—that’s why he’d gone with the caravan to try and make their fortune. A laughing customer is a spending customer. She ached to see his infectious smile again. Too bad they hadn’t been able to pay passage for herself and Tzi on the caravan as well.
She should have headed home, but Ayin couldn’t resist looking at the cure for her ailment, even though she couldn’t afford it. Her feet pulled her deeper into the city, where the thatch and plaster of the houses gleamed new. Women wore shells on their skirts; necklaces of scarlet feathers adorned the men.
“Where are we going?” Tzi asked.
Ayin turned the corner and nodded just ahead. Some six postholes graced the building platform. They’d burned this temple down so recently the air still smelled of smoke, but it had stood and served the poor for ten years—enough time for the soul of the building to develop.
A pair of burly men with obsidian spears stood guard. Here, if you could pay, you could get real healing. A gray-haired man with a luxurious cape of blue cotton handed the magician pieces of jade. Ayin’s throat tightened. How many months of corn and beans could that buy? Her lungs squeezed, promising a cough. She tried to swallow it.
The caped man pushed a woman forward—much younger than himself, but with the same broad nose. Surely his daughter. A jagged scar marred her forearm. The magician settled her next to one of the postholes, then burned some sweet-smelling copal and chanted.
The postholes glowed. The building’s soul remained there, anchored by the strength of the earth, even though the temple itself was gone. Much healing had happened here—and the building’s soul remembered that.
A portion of the glow gathered in a ball, then floated upward. The magician chanted louder and it drifted to the girl’s arm. It sunk into her skin, removing the scar as it passed.
Ayin’s lung burned, then the coughing began anew. Hack after hack, her head swam, desperate for air. Tzi’s hand rubbed her back again.
When she felt too weak to breathe, let alone stand, the cough abated. Shakily, she straightened her back. No cloth smelling of corn beer here. She wiped the orange mucus on her skirt.
“Do you have anything to pay for my services?” the magician asked doubtfully.
Ayin didn’t have the breath to answer. Tzi did for her. “She’s a looter! If you heal her, she’ll find you some old, Xook buildings you can use!”
“Pah! Like there are any of those left. Leave, or my guards will remove you.”
Tzi helped her through the streets, back towards the small hut her husband built them before he left. “That magician was a thrice-damned, arrogant bastard.”
“Where did you learn such words?”
“I used them right, though, didn’t I?”
Ayin rubbed the bridge of her nose, trying to push away the threatening headache.
Tzi changed the subject back. “You’re a great looter!” His voice bled with indignation. “You can even read Xook. He’s an idiot for not healing you.”
“Yes, but magicians have already dried up the souls of all the easy-to-find Xook ruins. Work…isn’t exactly plentiful.”
Ayin bit her lip. She knew of one Xook building, still largely untouched. But the thought of selling the location turned her stomach. The place wasn’t safe, and she’d made a promise to keep it secret. No, she’d try to find work some other way. Not that anyone would hire a woman with wet lung.
At last they reached their own neighborhood. The thatched-roof homes were old, but neatly maintained. No one had a reason to burn these down to get at the postholes. Occasionally someone tried to use the poorest huts to curse an enemy, or the postholes of wealthy houses to ensure prosperity, but no one bothered with middling poor.
Would selling the house bring enough money to cure her? Maybe, healthy, she could find a job as a courier or a cotton picker. If she did, they wouldn’t have to sleep on the street for long. At least it was the dry season.
She’d been too busy thinking to even look at their house. A pair of guards stood at her door, each wearing a gleaming wooden pectoral carved with the name Yuknoom, Holy Lord of Kab. Royal guards.
Ayin froze, hand tightening on Tzi’s. They weren’t looking at her. Run? Lord Yuknoom had ruled less than a year—ever since a pavilion tragically collapsed and killed his father—but he’d already gained a reputation for cruelty.
Maybe these guards were here to offer her work—she did read Xook, after all, and the Lord’s brother was said to have a library of old Xook codices.
“Mother?” Tzi whispered this time.
Lord Yuknoom had executed more than one person who ignored a summons. Ayin swallowed. Work. Surely they offered work. She hadn’t done anything wrong. “Tzi, stay several paces behind me. If they grab me for an arrest, you run. Hide. Understand?”
He nodded, young face so serious that Ayin would have laughed if her stomach wasn’t a lump of limestone. She strolled forward. “Royal guards, may I assist you?”
“If you are Ayin, we’ve come to escort you to the palace of Yuknoom, Holy Lord of Kab.”
Ayin exhaled. The palace, not the hearing chambers or the salt mines. “His request honors one so humble as I.”
“I told you you’re a great looter,” Tzi said.
“Thanks.” What a good son she had.
They followed the guards through the city—past homes, workshops, and turkey pens—up to the palace. She only coughed once, a small splutter she wiped away with the back of her hand.
The Lord himself sat in an open-air pavilion, lounging on a throne of jaguar skin with a cigar in his mouth. His attendants seemed like so much furniture. Tortoise shells and feathers adorned his headdress; jade spools hung from his ears. Cape, skirt, and sandals all burst with color and ornamentation. But Ayin couldn’t focus on the riot of color and wealth. Lord Yuknoom’s hard, gray eyes were picking her apart.
“You are Ayin?” he asked, words cold.
Her throat threatened to close off. “Yes.”
“Your grandmother. She was Xook?”
“So she was raised.” Ayin spoke as smoothly as she could. “She was sixteen when the Xook fell.”
Lord Yuknoom took a pull at his cigar, then exhaled the smoke. It was rolled fatter than a baby’s fist. “Yet you’re a looter. Stealing from your own people.”
Ayin tensed. How else could she earn a living? All she had was a knowledge of the Xook—her grandmother had raised her.
“My questions bother you?” Lord Yuknoom appeared amused.
“No. I…I didn’t realize you wished a reply to your statement. I apologize. Yes, my ancestors are Xook. Yes, I work as a looter.”
“I guess that makes you more Kab than Xook.”
Tzi glanced nervously between her and the Lord, but thankfully he had the sense to remain silent.
“I suppose it does.” Her grandmother didn’t like magic, didn’t like the practice of burning buildings, but she'd adapted.
Another man strode into the pavilion. He looked much like the Lord, both in face and in the lavish cape and jade pectoral he wore. Ayin bowed low as he passed; Tzi did the same. He spoke a few quiet words with Lord Yuknoom.
“Yes, yes, you can stay,” the Lord said.
The newcomer turned and beamed. “I am Prince Kaloomte.”
Lord Yuknoom’s younger brother, the man rumored to have a Xook library. Ayin’s shoulders relaxed. Perhaps he needed another Xook scribe—surely that’s why she was here.
“My scribes have read me much that the Xook wrote. But one building always remains…evasive. Mentioned here or there, with never a location, never a description, as if the building were too holy for paper.”
He could have forced obsidian down her throat, and the result would have been little different. Ayin’s knees shook.
“Perhaps, given the infamous Xook reverence for life, it should not surprise me that they held dearly sacred their temple. Odd, though, that they only had one. And that they kept it isolated from their cities,” Prince Kaloomte continued. “Many have looked for it and failed. But as I’ve searched the mystery out, I’ve heard rumors. Rumors of a child who fell from a tree and lost both her legs in the process. No temple of ours is old enough or strong enough to restore limbs, but somehow, this little child walked again.”
A cough trickled up Ayin’s throat. She was that child.
Prince Kaloomte smiled. “Where could healing strong enough to grow legs be found? Only in the Xook temple, centuries old. It took quite some time to trace the rumors to you. The granddaughter of a Xook woman. Did you know that your grandmother’s mother was a Xook priestess?”
Lord Yuknoom shifted. Beneath all the finery, she saw what she hadn’t at first—his arm was missing. “You will take me to the temple, Ayin. I will reward you handsomely.”
She couldn’t go back there. For once, Ayin thanked the gods for her wet lung—coughing saved her from answering. Air wouldn’t come to her. Dots colored her vision. The ground keeled to the side as warm mucus splattered over her lips.
The world fell dark.
Little Ayin, you must never come back here, understand? Horrible things will happen. This temple is hidden for a reason. Promise me.
How old had she been? Six, maybe seven? About Tzi’s age. Ayin could still taste the horror of falling from that tree. The searing pain that stole her legs. The blistering infection that threatened to take her life.
Grandmother loathed magic as much as the next Xook, but she studied the codices Grandpa, a Kab magician, had used before he passed. Ayin never knew if they married for love, or if Grandma had been some kind of tribute after the war, and she’d never asked.
She remembered the long path to the Xook temple, carried in Grandma’s arms on the way in, walking on her way out.
Grandma’s eyes gleamed fiercer than jaguar’s teeth, making her promise. Promise. This temple is hidden for a reason.
She woke to a cool cloth on her head.
“Wet lung. That’s nasty stuff.” A priestess, in simple homespun white, knelt next to her.
“I’m right here,” Tzi said, with an exasperated sigh.
Ayin turned her head. She lay on a mat in the pavilion. Prince Kaloomte had left, but Lord Yuknoom still stared at her with those gray eyes. “It appears that you, too, could make use of the Xook temple. We will leave at dawn tomorrow, before you worsen.”
Lord Kaloomte leaned back on his jaguar-skin throne. The cigar was gone. “Can’t what? Refusal to obey my command is treason. I will find you, and your near kin, guilty if you prove stubborn.”
That could only mean execution. She was already dying, but the hard, gray eyes left no doubt that this man would kill Tzi and her husband, when he returned. Tzi must not have understood, because he still peered down at her, only concerned about the wet lung.
Ayin’s breath shook. “The temple…isn’t safe.”
“Guards.” A dozen men appeared at once. “Escort this woman and her son to a guest room. Then fetch my steward; I have preparations to make before we leave.”
In the morning, guards escorted Ayin and Tzi onto a palanquin; they said Lord Yuknoom worried she’d strain her health walking. Did he really think she’d die before they reached the temple? Or was this the easiest way to guard her?
The caravan—two magicians, four dozen guards, and nearly as many porters laden with food and tents—assembled with well-organized quiet. Prince Kaloomte was the only exception. Three small children clung to him, sobbing. He smiled sadly at them, kissed their heads, then embraced the woman behind them—surely his wife—before climbing onto the royal palanquin.
Lord Yuknoom strolled over to Ayin’s palanquin, feathered cape swirling against the ground. “I trust you’ll prove a helpful guide.”
Ayin hugged Tzi to her side, throat tight.
“Tell me which direction we start towards.” Lord Yuknoom ordered. He flicked a glance at Tzi, eyes hard with the threat of death.
“West,” Ayin spluttered.
Lord Yuknoom nodded and joined his brother on their palanquin.
The caravan quickly traveled through the bustle of the city and out into the countryside, heading towards the jungles and mountains.
“You didn’t look happy.” Tzi fidgeted with his sandal ties. “About telling Lord Yuknoom which direction to go.”
What else could she do? Let them kill her son? Prince Kaloomte had probably already guessed the temple lay westward, towards the heart of Xook lands. “I’m not happy.”
Fields flanked either side of the road, some heavy with corn, beans, and squash, some filled with manioc, some stubbled with cotton.
“But…can’t this temple heal your cough? Won’t Lord Yuknoom make us rich?”
Grandmother hadn’t given some idle warning. Like her Xook ancestors, Grandmother revered life dearly, considering murder the worst of crimes and healing the noblest of professions. If there was good to be had at the temple, Grandmother would have carried the infirm on her back to restore their health. But even when she took Ayin, she blindfolded her before they entered the building proper.
Ayin wished the woman was still alive, to stroke her hair and tell her what to do. Instead, she stroked Tzi’s hair. He depended on her to take care of them, as much as she wanted to depend on Grandmother right now. “I don’t think going to the temple’s a good idea.”
“You want to be sick?” Tzi gave her a look that seemed to fathom the depth of adults’ stupidity.
“You want to be poor?”
“Then stop worrying! Why didn’t you loot the temple a long time ago?”
Ayin spoke softly. “Grandma didn’t want me to.”
It began to mist, despite being the dry season. Oddly, the moisture rolled off them and the litter. Ayin frowned at the clean clothes she’d been given. Enchanted. It wasn’t uncommon among the well-to-do; pavilion shelters were ubiquitous, cheap to build, and easy to burn. Just some poles and thatch.
Tzi giggled and waved his arms, the mist magically swerving to avoid him.
The second day, they reached the jungle. Howler monkeys called from the tree tops; tiny white butterflies surrounded a patch of ash where some farmer had tried to clear a field. When they stopped for the night, Lord Yuknoom called her into his tent.
It was nearly as lovely as the palace. Rugs of yellow and green filled the floor; cloth banners of the same obscured the walls. Lord Yuknoom lounged on cushions, Prince Kaloomte kneeling next to him.
Outside, she could hear Tzi laughing. One of the guards had been amusing him with stories. She ached to be out there, on the other side of these cloth walls.
“Which direction do we head tomorrow? We’re nearly to the fork in the trail,” Lord Yuknoom said.
“Left.” But only for a little while. Not that she had to tell them that, now.
Lord Yuknoom peered at her, disgust in his eyes. “You have been granted a chance to help your Lord, and you show this melancholy temperament?”
“Women tend to be attached to their children,” Prince Kaloomte intervened. “You did threaten to kill hers.”
Lord Yuknoom waved a hand, dismissing her. Ayin bowed, then turned to flee, but the Prince stood. “Perhaps I might divert you into a scholarly discussion?”
“Not in here,” Lord Yuknoom grumbled.
Prince Kaloomte bowed his head politely to his brother, then escorted Ayin from the tent. Tzi sat on a fallen tree with the soldier. He waved enthusiastically. Ayin managed a half-hearted smile.
“I’m going to borrow your mother for a moment. Pitz, if you don’t mind continuing to keep an eye on him?”
“An eye? We’re trading warrior’s stories!” Pitz, the soldier, grinned.
“I got a tarantula once!” Tzi chipped in.
Pitz clapped him on the shoulder. “A daring feat!”
Ayin exhaled. At least Tzi was fine, for now. Prince Kaloomte led her to his tent. She hesitated briefly at the threshold. She was a woman. He was of the royalty of Kab. But his face held no untoward intentions. The interior was only slightly less lavish than his brother’s. He gestured her to one of the cushions. “It must be hard, to be forced to give up the last undefiled building of your people.”
Her people? She’d been raised in Kab. Knew their customs better than she knew those of the Xook. “It’s…more about dishonoring the memory of the woman who raised me. My grandmother.”
“Sometimes, I wonder if the Xook weren’t right, in banning magicians.”
Ayin stared at him. Was this some verbal trap?
“We use a building a little while, maybe five or ten years for a soul to develop, and then we burn it. Nothing is constructed to last. Few buildings are erected with beauty in mind. I visited the Xook ruins at Baaknal. The palace there is half-collapsed from looters exposing postholes, but I glimpsed murals, intricately carved roof combs. All hundreds of years old. All beautiful. In Kab, we don’t have that kind of history.”
Guilt gnawed at her gut. This Kab royal could conjure more grief over the destruction of Xook cities than she could.
“And yet they had one temple. Isolated. Rarely mentioned in texts. Do you…do you know why?” he asked, face cautious.
Prince Kaloomte wasn’t what she expected. Lord Yuknoom had a reputation of quick cruelty; she assumed he’d be the same. “I don’t. I didn’t even see much of it.”
He nodded, seemingly relieved. “Good. I’m sorry to keep you from your son—you should go. Sleep well, both of you.”
Odd, that he didn’t have more questions to ask. Ayin bowed and left.
The temple is hidden for a reason. Ayin stared into the darkness of her small tent, Tzi breathing loudly in his sleep next to her.
“What reasons, Grandmother?” she whispered silently to the night. She received no answer.
Maybe Prince Kaloomte was right to criticize her. To be Xook, yet aid magicians in destroying their buildings? But that all seemed so long ago. Grandmother, who smelled like mahogany—that was her heritage, her past.
And that wise, fierce woman had told her to stay away. To never come back.
Ayin laid a hand on Tzi’s shoulder. “Tzi.”
He mumbled in his sleep. Ayin knelt by his ear. “Tzi, you must wake up. Silent now.”
He tensed. Awake. Good.
“We can’t stay here.” Given Lord Yuknoom’s threats, they couldn’t stay anywhere near Kab once they fled. They’d flee northward, up the caravan road, and find Yunen. Surely they could remain in a northern kingdom, selling goods or some such thing. He’d be delighted to see them again, sooner than expected. Perhaps he’d already made enough to pay a magician to cure her wet lung.
“It isn’t safe.” Not that running through the jungle was particularly safe, either. She wished they had something more than sandals to guard against snakes. “We’ll have to move quietly. Can you do that?”
He nodded. What a good son she had. “Where are we going?”
“To your father.”
He sat up. It was too dark to see his face, but she could feel the smile radiating off the boy. “Father?”
“Yes.” How they’d make it up the caravan road alone, she couldn’t fathom. But they couldn’t stay here.
Ayin took his hand and pulled him to the tent flaps. The canopy of trees let little starlight through, but she could make out guards encircling the camp, watching for bandits and beasts.
Ayin gritted her teeth. She was an looter, not a warrior. How to get through them? Her eyes drifted skyward. Perhaps if they were very quiet, they could climb up a tree in the middle of camp, then travel from branch to branch until they passed the guards. Perhaps the guards would mistake them for howler monkeys.
It would be dangerous even in daylight. But Ayin couldn’t imagine it was more dangerous than the temple.
She stepped into the warm, humid night. A few quiet strides brought her to the base of a large tree, well shielded from view by tents and greenery.
“Up,” Ayin whispered, boosting Tzi. He clung for a moment to the trunk above her head, unmoving. Then he climbed, lithe limbs pulling him surely up, more than twice her height above the ground.
Then he screamed and fell. Ayin scrambled to catch him. He crashed into her; they collapsed in a heap on the loamy ground. “Did you break anything?”
“N-no.” His voice shook, crying. “Something bit me.”
Before Ayin could say another word, the deadly tip of an obsidian spear pricked her throat. “Trying to escape, and clumsily at that. We’ll see what Lord Yuknoom wants to do with you.”
But apparently no one dared wake Lord Yuknoom until morning. The guards tossed her in her tent, then surrounded it. She didn’t have enough light to look at Tzi’s hand, but she ran her fingers over the bump there.
“It burns,” Tzi whispered, voice small. “All up my arm.”
“Did you see what it was?”
“No. Just this sharp pain and…fire. It’s spreading to my chest.”
Ayin bit her lip. Likely a gray caterpillar sting. He’d feel like he was on fire for three days, but with enough water, he’d survive. She pulled back the tent flap. “Guards, I need—”
A spear butt cracked into her ribs. Ayin fell back, gasping.
“Mother!” Tzi yelled.
The guard snorted. “Didn’t we tell you to stay put?”
Ayin spluttered, felt her ribs. Nothing broken. “I’m sorry, Tzi. I’m sorry.”
There was nothing else for it. She made him drink the last of their water flask, then cuddled him, stroked his hair, and told him everything would be fine. Tzi didn’t seem convinced; she’d never been good at lying.
The guards dragged her and Tzi into Lord Yuknoom’s tent. Tzi collapsed onto the floor, rubbing his arms. Two dirty trails of perpetual tears ran across his cheeks. He whimpered quietly. Ayin knelt and gathered her son in her lap.
“What’s this?” Lord Yuknoom demanded, disgusted. Prince Kaloomte sat by him; each had a steaming cup of atole.
“She tried to escape last night with the boy by climbing up one of the trees in camp.”
Pity welled in Prince Kaloomte’s soft eyes; derision hardened Lord Yuknoom’s face. “Worthless wench! I should have your head here.”
“We’ll never find the temple if you do,” Prince Kaloomte said. “Aren’t you determined to get the better of those who cursed you?”
Ayin peered at the empty shoulder anew. Cursed? The postholes of a butchery shop could sever an enemy’s limb—but that’s why all such buildings were banned. If someone wanted to skin a deer or pluck a turkey, it had to be out of doors or under a lean-to.
“I’d prefer knowing their names and crushing them,” Lord Yuknoom muttered, eyes hot with hate.
He hadn’t seen them? Only the most talented magicians could affect a person from any distance. Perhaps she shouldn’t be surprised that Lord Yuknoom had made powerful enemies.
Prince Kaloomte nodded. “My men are searching for illegal postholes as we speak.”
Ayin held Tzi close. He was feverish, shaking. But she didn’t dare ask for anything for him—not at this moment.
“You’ll continue with us,” Lord Yuknoom snapped at her.
Ayin tried not to audibly exhale. He wouldn’t kill them outright.
“Your son, however, will be tied up in a tree. Isn’t that where you were trying to go?”
Tzi, in his feverish state, didn’t seem to hear, but Ayin’s throat turned into a desert. “You can’t—”
“Can’t? You seem fond of that word. Of course I can. I could have him gutted here in the tent if I chose.” He stared at her, daring her to contradict him again.
Ayin bit her lip hard.
“For his sake, I hope the temple is close. Once you take us safely there, we can return here and let him down.”
“A jaguar, or another gray caterpillar, or—”
“Did I give you the impression we were negotiating?”
Ayin clutched Tzi tight. Her boy. Her child. They couldn’t have him. She turned to Prince Kaloomte, but his eyes only held sad resignation.
“Guards. Take the boy,” Lord Yuknoom commanded.
Panic welled up in her gut. With it, came the cough. She doubled-up, pain flaring from abdomen to throat. Tzi’s small hands grasped at her; other hands yanked away. She struggled to hold onto him, to force the cough away, but when she finally regained the ability to breathe, her arms were empty. The orange mucus rolled off her enchanted clothes to the floor.
“You’re disgusting,” Lord Yuknoom sneered. “Get out.”
Her against Lord Yuknoom’s four dozen guards. She had no chance.
“I’m sorry, Grandmother,” she whispered to the trees.
Ayin took them to the left fork, then turned from the path. The porters set down the palanquins, then all continued on foot through the dense jungle. Perhaps, if she moved fast enough, they could return to Tzi by nightfall. Lord Yuknoom puffed near the rear of their party. She wished she could inflict more suffering on him.
They twisted between trees, vines, and ferns all morning. Sometimes she had to slide down the steep ground on hand and foot, though her clothes refused to become muddied. Midday, she stopped at a ravine.
Prince Kaloomte strode up along side her. “It seems you’ve reached a dead end.”
“No. It’s down there.”
Prince Kaloomte peered over the ravine edge. “I…only see water.”
“I’ll show you.” But first she asked one of the soldiers for a flask. She drank deeply, soothing her throat for the time being, at least.
Hand over hand, she started down the sheer ravine. The guards cried out, but Prince Kaloomte must have said something, for in a moment, they quietly followed her.
She worked slowly, testing her feet against the rock before letting her weight rest on it. At last her feet touched a broad outcropping, midway down. Water lazily flowed over the ravine bottom, ten times her height below.
A narrow opening led into the rock wall—impossible to see from above. “It’s here.”
The outcropping was just wide enough for two guards to join her.
Lord Yuknoom peered at them from the top of the ravine. “Is it as she says? Is there an entrance?”
One of the guard brushed past her, then returned. “Holy Lord of Kab, there is something down here, but it is too dark to see!”
Ayin swallowed hard, pulse racing. The opening looked like a sideways maw, ready to swallow her. Lord Kaloomte could have this place and whatever disaster it brought. “I’ve done as you’ve asked. I want to return to my son.”
“Am I healed? I’ll take no more insubordination from you,” Lord Yuknoom snapped. Then he turned to the guard. “Take her inside.”
It smelled like dust, like death. Hardly any light from outside could enter the crooked door. She drank from the flask again, silently apologizing to Grandmother. Perhaps horrible things would happen, but what could be worse than losing Tzi? Grandmother had braved this place to heal her, after all.
The next dozen guards brought torches. The light glittered off stalactites high above them. A family of rats scurried back into the darkness of the cave. But the scenery was hard to stare at, given the large building hunkering in the center of the cave. The flat roof and square stone pillars were as foreboding as they’d been in memory. Figures carved across the roof read, “A Holy Temple, for the Use of Our Gods.”
Ayin took another draw from the flask, to give her hands something to do. When she’d come here before, she’d seen those character, but hadn’t been able to read them. Grandmother had blindfolded her here, told her to be a good girl and not peek.
Prince Kaloomte gawked. “There were no pictures, no descriptions. I can’t believe I’m seeing this.”
“I can’t believe you’re standing here, when there is work to do,” Lord Yuknoom grumbled, pushing ahead. They must have used rope to lower him down. The two magicians followed half a step behind him.
Ayin had hoped to wait outside, but Prince Kaloomte strode up to her. “I’d like you to translate anything we find.”
“We…shouldn’t go inside.”
“Nonsense.” He smiled and started forward. Though he hadn’t spoken by way of command, Lord Yuknoom’s guards seemed all too accustomed to pushing her around. One nudged her legs with his spear butt.
Ayin stumbled forward. She’d leave this place as soon as she could. Gather Tzi. Care for him, while the caterpillar’s venom wore away.
She passed under the square doorway. Soldiers filled the spacious interior, some peering down side halls. The walls were made of stone, but in the center rose a dais. A tattered curtain hung around it on three thick poles. The fourth pole had been toppled and burned to reveal a deep posthole, reaching three hand spans into the earth. The magicians chatted excitedly over it.
Ayin couldn’t help herself. Morbid curiosity pulled her to the spot. Grandma must have burned it. She’d been healed right here.
The air was musty. It smelled of spider webs. But she was a looter—she’d been in places just as musty, and most of them had more rats.
Then she saw behind the curtain.
The limestone slab was long enough to be a bed, but rose as tall as her waist. The top had a human-shaped impression. Vermin had gnawed away most of the leather straps, but a scrap still remained, here and there, tied through holes on the slab. The stone should have been white, but dark brown stains marred the surface and sides.
Ayin bit her lip. There was writing. That would explain. She asked one of the guards to fetch her a brush from the supplies; he obliged.
Her knees shook as she knelt on the hard dais. Gingerly, she brushed away the grime, revealing a single line of text and a picture. “Man may not kill man. Life’s end is for the Gods alone to decide.”
The picture showed a man, strapped to the slab. Another figure, with a God’s huge eyes, tore a knife across the bound man’s throat. Ayin’s stomach heaved. This was no place of healing.
Ayin cleaned the God’s face. As she suspected, the art depicted a string behind the head—the face was a mask. This was a priest, killing a man for his gods.
No word of this in all the records she’d seen. No hint. Even here in the temple, they put a curtain around it. Had Grandmother known? She must have, to warn Ayin to stay away.
She heard one of the magicians. “Yes, Lord Yuknoom. Sit there. We’re ready to begin.”
“No!” Ayin’s scream echoed in the vacuous room. One huge room for slitting throats, as if all this emptiness could hide the truth of this place.
Lord Yuknoom glared. “Guards. Cut out her tongue.”
“No, look!” Her palms sweated. “This…this is a place of death. Look at this picture, at this altar. If the magicians call up the soul of this building…” Ayin swallowed, hard, as a pair of guards took her arms. The temple is hidden for a reason.
Prince Kaloomte held a hand to the guards and turned to his brother. “I believe she’s genuinely trying to help. There’s a frightening painting there. She’s ill, exasperated.”
A cough seized her. Not a strong one, but mucus dribbled from her mouth, rolled off her enchanted clothes, and splattered on the floor.
Lord Yuknoom wrinkled his nose, then he caught the image. His gray eyes widened. “Your words may have some truth. But you were healed here, as a child?”
“I…” Ayin couldn’t imagine how.
“Guards. Set her by the posthole,” Lord Yuknoom commanded.
They yanked her forward and down, between the two magicians.
One had already started burning incense. “Holy Lord, do you mean for us to use the soul of this place on her?”
“Cure her cough,” Lord Yuknoom commanded. “Does she not deserve a reward?”
“You can’t!” Prince Kaloomte said.
His brother turned, an odd look on his face. “And why not? Do you know something about this building that you haven’t spoken before?”
“No.” Prince Kaloomte’s composure returned immediately. He bowed gracefully. “But what if there is not enough magic left to restore your arm? It is no small magic to grow a limb.”
Lord Yuknoom frowned. “Magicians?”
The second, a wiry fellow with an oddly deep voice, answered. “The soul of this building throbs with magic. I imagine it could grow a hundred arms and cure a thousand cases of wet lung.”
“Very good. Continue,” Lord Yuknoom said. Pity filled the lines in Prince Kaloomte’s brow, but he said nothing.
Ayin struggled against the guards’ arms. She was more helpless than a one-legged lizard in a child’s grasp. Testing the magic on her. Had she expected the brute to be kind? She slumped, helpless, as the magicians chanted. Her knees numbed from waiting—such an old soul required time to coax. She remembered Grandmother doing it, voice soft as a lullaby. These men sounded like a dirge.
The posthole glowed. A cloud of shimmering specks rose from it. They shot into her chest.
Sudden, overwhelming guilt burned in her. Tzi. She hadn’t taken care of him. She hadn’t protected his life. And she’d endangered the lives of everyone present by leading them here.
She tasted hot blood in her throat. Pain pressed against her. The temple’s soul was going to kill her.
But she’d also called out. She’d tried to save Lord Yuknoom’s life, even though he threatened hers.
The pain abated. The tang of blood vanished. Her lungs cooled. Ayin stared at her hands. She could breathe properly; the wet lung was gone. What had happened?
“Bah! It works fine. You’re a treacherous monkey, to get yourself healed first. Guards, I want her removed so she cannot foul up my healing.”
“We saw some cells in a side chamber,” one of the guards said. “Would that suffice?”
Lord Yuknoom merely waved them away, then settled himself next to the posthole. The magicians began the long process over again.
Alive. How could she be alive? That altar wasn’t a decoration.
The guards brought her to a cell—a small square room with a wooden door. They tossed her inside, then barred it.
At least the door had a number of slits, allowing the torchlight into the room. Ayin hugged her arms to her chest. She was alive. Maybe the worst was over. Lord Yuknoom would heal. They’d leave this place. She’d find Tzi.
Ayin exhaled. Then she noticed the walls. Writing. She took her brush and gently cleared the debris.
“You stand accused of the grossest crime: murder. If you are found innocent, we will bathe you, dress you, heal you of any wounds, and set you free into the world. If you are found guilty, your Gods will send you to your afterlife.”
The text wrapped around a picture of a meditating man.
This was a court. The altar, the executioner’s block. She stood in a prisoner’s cell. One with an admonition to meditate. Some inmate had take the opportunity of his time here to sketch crude anatomy on the man.
No wonder Grandmother dared to take a child here. What crimes could a child be guilty of? This place granted her a pardon, restored her legs.
And then it had taken her wet lung away.
But it had almost killed her first. The building seemed accustomed to taking life. It only relented, only pardoned her, when her memories showed how she’d recently tried to save a life.
Lord Yuknoom. If this building’s soul judged those who used it, she doubted it would bless a man who left a child strapped to a tree in the jungle. Her stomach twisted. If he died, would the guards send her swiftly after? “Guards. You must stop Lord Yuknoom. He’s—”
One of them whacked her door with his spear butt. “Quiet!”
If only Pitz were her guard—he’d seemed like a reasonable man. Ayin frowned. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen him.
“Using the soul of this building will kill him,” she pleaded.
Another bang, followed by, “If you don’t sit still, we’ll beat you until you do.”
Ayin gritted her teeth. Why hadn’t she realized what this place was before? The Xook revered life. Of course they wouldn’t want to execute criminals in their cities, where killing might turn into a spectacle. A secluded, holy place, watched over by the gods—that suited their needs. They weren’t Kab. Weren’t so callous as to issue threats by holding a child’s life ransom.
Ayin kicked the wall. Surprisingly, part of it gave. This had been a cell—once. Time had begun its work. Perhaps she could dig her way out. She used the handle of her brush and chunked some plaster off.
“Hey! What are you doing in there?”
A wail from the main chamber cut her off. Ayin tried to dig faster. The brush snapped in two.
Six more guards entered the hallway. They burst into her cell and ripped her out, dragged her to the main room, then tossed her at Prince Kaloomte’s feet.
Lord Yuknoom lay behind him, his throat gaping open and running red with blood.
“You tried to save his life from the dangerous soul of this building.” Prince Kaloomte gave her a hand and brought her to her feet. “I cast no blame on you. You have my thanks.”
The guards found something to wrap Lord Yuknoom’s corpse in, then hauled it up the cliff. Between the slow carrying of the body and Ayin’s quick pace to find Tzi, their party thinned, threading through the jungle like a trail of leaf-cutter ants.
Ayin reached camp at dusk. Tzi sat high in the tree, pale, but looking better than she’d expected. “Mother!”
She ran to the tree. Oddly, a man sat at the base. “Pitz?”
“Prince Kaloomte asked me to stay behind and make sure no jaguars got him.”
Ayin frowned, confused.
Pitz shrugged. “It’s not like Lord Yuknoom would notice the lack of one man. Did everything go well?”
Ayin shook her head. “Let’s get my son down.”
Ayin couldn’t sleep. She sat next to Tzi in their tent, finger-combing his hair. In her rush to return to him, she hadn’t wasted time on thought.
She had plenty of time now.
Prince—now Lord—Kaloomte had tried to stop Lord Yuknoom from using the soul of the temple on her. He’d left Pitz here to take care of Tzi. Wouldn’t that have brought trouble, if Lord Yuknoom returned alive?
Ayin slipped out of her tent and approached Lord Kaloomte’s. The guards asked his permission, then let her enter.
Lord Kaloomte’s expression was mild, not unfriendly. Ayin bit her lip and seated herself on one of the cushions. “You knew. You knew what kind of place the temple was, before we arrived.”
“My library is as extensive as everyone says. Mention of the temple is rare, but I had enough information to hope it would rid Kab of my brother.”
She felt cold, hollow inside. “Murderer.”
“You’re brave, to confront a murderer alone.” Even now, his tone was kind. He leaned back and folded his hands over his chest. “My father died a year ago. You know that, yes?”
“Someone burned down his pavilion and staged the scene to look like my father died under a collapsing beam. No such mistake could be made if one saw the knife wounds in his body. And, if one saw the smugness on Yuknoom’s face, no one could deny he did it.
“Yuknoom’s favorite clothes disappeared afterwards, surely stained with blood. I enlisted a trusted, talented magician and tried to use those postholes to kill Yuknoom in turn. But one murder didn’t leave a strong enough memory in the building’s soul.”
“It took his arm instead,” Ayin whispered.
Lord Kaloomte nodded. “He became paranoid, suspicious. I couldn’t act directly without risking my head. But if I could find someone who knew where the Xook temple was…in any case, I’m sorry my plots endangered your family.”
“You’re not telling me this because you’re sorry,” Ayin said, shoulders stiff, legs ready to run.
“Ayin, the past five rulers gained the lordship through bloodshed. I have three children. If I don’t stop this legacy of death, they’re either going to kill me or kill each other.”
Ayin peered at him. “You think I can help?”
“Yes.” He leaned forward, fingers laced together. “How does the temple’s posthole work?”
“I…I don’t know,” Ayin faltered. “Maybe it healed me because I’ve never killed anyone. Or maybe because I’d just tried to save someone’s life.”
He nodded, thoughtful. “I tried to save your life and your son’s. That should be enough. I’m going to institute a healing at the Xook temple as part of the official coronation ceremony. Then no man can earn the throne by murder.”
Ayin gaped. “You can’t mean to do this! You killed your brother!”
“I brought him to judgment. I think the Xook would approve. I’ll return with my court after burying him. If I fail, my oldest son will face the posthole and sit in the lordship, instead. Xook law held all children guiltless. You weren’t judged against as a child.”
“You’d risk your life? Your son’s life?” Her mouth tasted like chalk.
Lord Kaloomte smiled sadly. “This nation has been ruled by killers for too long. I’d risk nearly anything to never see murder in my children’s eyes.”
“Most children manage to avoid patricide!”
“You don’t understand how corrupting power can be.”
Ayin shook her head. “So you’d keep and use the immense power of the temple.”
“I’ll have it guarded.”
As if guards were infallible. “My grandmother told me the temple was best left alone. She knew more about it than either of us.”
“A Xook woman advises against magic. Why do I find that unsurprising?”
If he’d seen Grandmother’s face, he’d understand she’d given no idle warning. “That temple saw more executions than pardons. What happens when it runs out of healing?” She had no words for the knot of dread growing in her chest. “Nothing good will come of your plan.”
Lord Kaloomte leaned his head to the side, considering her. “I want to offer you a position among my scholars.”
Ayin blinked. Had he not heard her?
“You’d have rooms in the palace, or nearby, if you prefer. You’d be paid well. My brother offered you a reward; I can think of nothing better.”
Never worrying about affording a magician’s healing. Never worrying about food. Yunen wouldn’t have to leave on caravan. It seemed like a dream too lovely to be real. “I can’t.”
Lord Kaloomte raised an eyebrow.
“The temple should be destroyed. If I joined your scholars, I’d spend all my research trying to convince you.”
Lord Kaloomte smiled. “I enjoy debate. Perhaps you’ll even change my mind.”
Ayin bit her lip. This man wasn’t like his brother. He’d listen. He might even relent. “If you kill yourself with this new coronation, I want a written reassurance I won’t lose my position.”
He laughed. “You’re blunt. Yes, I can arrange that.”
Lord Kaloomte dismissed her; Ayin bowed politely and left.
When she entered her tent, Tzi stirred. “M-mother?”
“I’m here.” She found his hand in the darkness. “How are you feeling?”
“The burning’s starting to go down.”
She stroked his cheek. Still warm, but not dangerously so. “If you want, I can pay for a magician when we return to the city. You’d be better at once.”
Tzi stilled. His voice dropped to a whisper. “You just robbed Lord Kaloomte, didn’t you? Did you grab feathers or jade?”
Ayin laughed until her lungs hurt.
This story originally appeared in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show.