The next morning, the Balam Ch’ab sent me home with Chahel.
When we neared my home, I found the Tzuhunik and the Etamanel Evan exchanging words with a group of the Chuchmox.
“There he is,” one of the women said when she saw me.
Women crowded me, demanding that I go with them to their underground citadel.
The Tzuhunik, trailed by the Etamanel Evan, stepped forward. “You women have no legitimate claim to Zaki. Last night it was agreed between the Cabicacmotz, the king, and the Balam Ch’ab that Zaki would have a lesson with us. We must not fight among ourselves like this.”
The last thing I wanted to do was spend time with anyone, except Hac and Cham. Maricua or the servants probably made a meal for me and it waited for me while the adults argued back and forth.
One of the women pushed the Etamanel Evan after he accidentally stepped on her foot. His face paled as hers reddened. Soon they would come to blows and he clearly could not match her ferocity.
“Stop,” a matronly woman cried, when it appeared a melee was at hand. The woman’s eyes were out of focus, as if her thoughts turned inwards. “The Paqal Paray has decreed that the men should be allowed to accompany the boy to the citadel. He can take his lesson with them while he learns from us.”
The Tzuhunik readily agreed, stating that it was an intelligent compromise. The Etamanel Evan seemed both relieved and frightened.
I could not believe how quickly the situation settled. I was not going to go off without food, though. When I told the women that still crowded me that I needed to go home to Maricua and a meal, they told me that Maricua knew I would not be home today and that they had food. Without giving me time to protest, someone put a hand on my back to move me forward. I tried to see who it was and saw it was the Tzuhunik.
“Be quiet and move. Don’t argue with the women,” he said. “We go as they say.”
Chahel roared a growl then. A path opened up for her through the crowd. I expected to see the women scared of Chahel or scream as she approached them, but instead they acted as if nothing was wrong and that there was no danger. A moment later, Chahel was walking at my side.
We arrived at the foot of a large hill that was west of the citadel proper. Everyone knew the hill because the sun set behind it every day. What people did not know was that it was the home of the Chuchmox, the female sentries. Underneath the great mound was an underground cavern system that hid these women. They could fight like men and their power was prodigious.
The women veered towards the southern ridge of the hill. At a juncture between two boulders, they turned into a short canyon. The canyon was devoid of life except for a cactus draped with long weeds. Behind the weeds was a jagged narrow entrance. We filed in and the women in front of me lit torches and small gourds to fill our path with light.
Winding halls of rock led through the system. A woman in the back, who wore a long skirt, instantly obscured the sandy ground where we passed. In that way, we left no trace. Dark pathways were constantly around us. I could not figure out how the women were able to direct us through the maze. Almost immediately, I lost my bearings. No longer could I discern where east and west were.
The Tzuhunik walked behind me. I heard him mutter to the Etamanel Evan that we were going in circles. I tried to remember the cavern walls around me to see if he was right, but the darkness prevented me from noticing features of the rock.
A short while later, no longer were they behind me. Instead, a trio of young women walked behind me. Someone, I realized, diverted them to different sections of the underground.
Moment by moment, my anxiety grew. The darkness in the passageways seemed to peer at me. My old fears, about the giant bats that dwell in caves, made me feel that my heart was being compressed into a small cage. I told myself not to worry as I placed my hand on Chahel’s neck. I calmed down when I realized she had no fear of the cave.
“Where are my other teachers?” I asked. The stale air of the mound thinned my voice and the rock absorbed the excess sound, causing my voice to sound hollow and dead.
“They are being shown their quarters for the evenings to come.”
This alarmed me more than anything else could. I could tolerate the idea that we would spend a night here, but more than that I could not bear. How horrible it must be, I thought, to live in darkness and not see the sun and breathe the clean air of the surface.
A few women behind me giggled, as if they heard my thoughts. Those giggles more than anything caused me to have an attack of nerves so severe that my thinking became disordered and frenetic. I walked without noticing anything around me as I tried to reorder my thoughts.
Soon I became angry at being forced to come here. The women around me looked like leering demons in the flickering flames. They looked like skulls when the lights hit their faces, especially when it blackened their eyes and under-eye areas. They were callous and rude, I thought, to listen in to my personal thoughts.
An old woman walking next to me said, “No thoughts are ever private, young prince. Ideas are communal and are shared by everyone, whether you like it or not.”
I turned towards her to argue when I realized who she was. To my horror I knew the woman.
At a war council of my father, this woman asked what the dark Toltecs had done with body parts of dead warriors. The spies reported that many foreign warriors were unmanned with obsidian knives when they fought against them and she asked what they did with the men’s amputated members. The Cabicacmotz told me that she was an expert in matters of black magic and rituals.
“When will we stop?”
“When you accept that you are here until we give you leave to go,” she answered.
“How did you divert the Tzuhunik and the Etamanel Evan. They were right behind me.”
“We took them away when they suffered moments of distraction at the same time you did. That is the time to perform such maneuvers. Men do not realize how attuned women are to them. We can sense distraction like a jaguar smells fear.”
“Like a dog that takes advantage of his master’s moment of daydreaming and eats a turd when he’s not paying attention,” one of the young women behind me said.
“You are not helping, Kaq Lez. Stay silent. No more colorful examples.”
I glanced behind me and saw who Kaq Lez was. She was a pretty girl with a grin on her face. When she saw me looking back at her, she turned to me and made a face that destroyed her appearance of prettiness. She put the oil lamp to her chest, so the light cast ghastly shadows on her face. Then she narrowed her eyes and stuck out her front teeth in a buck-toothed grin as she nodded.
The old woman turned around and before she finished turning, Kaq Lez lifted the lamp back up and put on a blank look. Now she was stunning.
The old woman humphed and shook her head. “Every sun, the girls seem to act younger and younger.” She looked over at me and said, “I know who you are, Zaki. Why do you not know who I am?”
“You have not told me,” I said.
“A great advantage can be had if one knows who is speaking. If you do not know, ask. There is no sense in your learning the art of governance if you do not take into account the personalities and specialties of the members of council. Governance is not a cold art, it is a breathing and living one which remains fluid and ever-changing because it involves humans,” she said. “What kinds of people, do you suppose, your father consults?”
I thought back to my day at court, when I heard the hideous reports of the spies. All of my teachers seemed to be there. Now I knew who she was.
“You must be the Pacal Paray, then.”
“Ah, good. I am glad to see that my brother’s son is not a dull-witted fool.”
“You are my aunt?” I asked.
“Not by blood, Zaki. I refer to your father as my brother because…well, we came into our power at the same time. We are cohorts.”