“Now they can be married.”
“Married? They’re too young.”
Bacal said, “That is our custom. At what age do girls get married in your village?”
“I don’t remember,” Nic said.
They walked for a few minutes in silence. Then he asked, “Do you know Ixchel?”
“Yes,” Bacal answered. “She lives near our house.” She looked at him with interest. “Do you want to marry Ixchel?”
“Her father told me she can’t marry. Do you know why?”
She looked perplexed. “I don’t know.”
Nic said, “She told me she would be honored at the full moon.”
“Oh!” Bacal answered. This was evidently news to her. She was silent for a moment, then said, “That is good. We will have more rain.”
“Do you think she’s happy about it?” Nic pressed. A crease appeared between Bacal’s eyebrows as she looked at him.
“Happy? I don’t understand.”
Reminding himself that the concept of individual happiness might be meaningless to Bacal, Nic decided to take a more direct approach.
“Does the High Priest give her something to help her?”
Understanding dawned on her face. “Oh! The High Priest will send her soul to heaven before she is sacrificed.”
Finally he was getting somewhere. He pressed on. “How does he send her soul to heaven?”
“With the jade amulet.”
Nic asked, “Where does he get it?”
“Nachancán carves the amulets for the High Priest.” She smiled with pride. “It is a very important job.”
“Can you show me one?”
Bacal looked shocked. “Only Nachancán and the High Priest may touch the amulets.”
At least it had been worth a try. He hoped Bacal wouldn’t mention his interest to Nachancán. He didn’t want him wondering why his strange guest was so interested in the amulets. He could see he was going to have to resort to cunning if he was going to get his hands on one.
They arrived at a house at the other end of the village where a delicious aroma filled the air. Bacal smiled at him and went to join the other women and girls hurrying in and out of the house. Nic saw huge chunks of meat spitted and roasting over an open fire. He guessed it was the deer from the day before, and his mouth watered. Men were setting up long trestle tables. He saw Nachancán in the middle of a knot of men, looking more sociable than usual. He was holding a gourd in one hand and gesturing with the other as he talked. Ixchel was with the other women, who were setting wooden bowls of food out on the tables. She blushed and looked away when he glanced in her direction. Someone handed him a hollowed-out gourd and Nic took a tentative sip. It tasted like fermented honey and he realized it must be mead, the wine of the Mayas. Making a face, he looked around to make sure he was unobserved and poured it out at the base of a tree. He longed for a drink of pure water.
A man, dressed in feathers and shells, his expression stern, approached him. Nic steeled himself. He bowed his head and greeted the other man, who took his arm and said, “The High Priest wants to speak to you.”
Nic looked for Nachancán, but he had disappeared. He followed the man into the house, where the High Priest, still in his red finery from the baptism, but without the miter on his head, was seated cross-legged on a rug on the floor. Nachancán, next to him, nodded at Nic. Flanking them stood two muscular men dressed in embroidered loincloths like the one Nic had on today. Both held long spears in their hands and their black almond-shaped eyes looked right through Nic.
Nic stopped in front of the High Priest and bowed. He wished he had learned the ceremonial forms of courtesy while researching ancient Mayan customs. Of course, he had never imagined he would need them.
The High Priest held out Nic’s i-Pod. “What magic is this? What is it for?” His face looked like a thundercloud.
So Nachancán had given it to him. Nic couldn’t blame him—it would certainly earn him favored status in the High Priest’s eyes. And who knows what kind of trouble Nachancán might have been in had he been discovered with the i-Pod in his possession. Though he had never before experienced it, Nic was beginning to understand what life was like in a society in which individual rights and freedoms did not exist, where one man held ultimate power over his subjects’ lives and deaths. The High Priest continued to glower at him.
“May I show you?” he asked, keeping his eyes lowered. He took the i-Pod from the High Priest’s hand, turned it on, and handed him the earbuds. “You put these in your ears,” he said, pantomiming it. The High Priest did so, his haughty black eyes fixed on Nic. When the music began—Nic had chosen the same Mayan folk song he had played for Nachancán and Bacal—the priest gave a slight start and his eyes narrowed, but he maintained his regal posture. He listened until the song was through, then removed the earbuds. He held out his hand and Nic surrendered the i-Pod. The priest placed it carefully on the rug next to him, crossed his arms across his chest and looked at Nic with an expression that was even grimmer.
“Have you come to conquer our people with this magic?” he demanded. When Nic didn’t answer, he said, “Speak! I command you.”
Unable to come up with a plausible story, Nic said, “No, I haven’t. It’s. . . it’s a gift for you.”
The High Priest continued to glare at him. “Where did you come from? Who are your people?”
“I’m sorry. I can’t remember. But I have nothing against your people. I’m very grateful that you have taken me in.”
The High Priest turned to Nachancán and spoke in a low voice. Nachancán nodded. The priest turned back to Nic and said, “You will live with Nachancán for now. He will tell you what to do. You may go, but remember, I will be watching you.” Unsmiling, he gestured toward the man who had escorted Nic in, and he was led out.
Outside, he looked for Ixchel, but couldn’t find her. He approached one of the girls who had been with her at the baptism and asked where she was. She lowered her eyes and told him Ixchel had gone to get water from the cenote.
Nic thanked her and wandered through the crowd, edging nearer the jungle which surrounded the village. He made sure no one was looking, then ducked into the trees and tried to orient himself. Where was the cenote he had gone to the first day? He realized he had no idea how to find it, and there was no way to be sure Ixchel had gone to that one anyway. She must have taken a path, he thought.
Keeping the clearing in sight, Nic circled it, forcing his way through the thick undergrowth while staying hidden behind the outer row of trees. Soon he came across a narrow path. Scratched and sweaty, he turned onto it and walked quickly away from the village. The steamy heat of the jungle rose all around him and sweat ran into his eyes. Ten minutes later, he came out into a small open space. He saw Ixchel across the short grass and started forward, then stopped. What if she wasn’t alone? He stepped back into the cover of the jungle. She was kneeling at the edge of the cenote, looking down. Nic scanned the rest of the clearing, but saw no one.
He walked toward her, calling her name in a low voice. She spun around, and Nic realized she might feel threatened seeing him in that isolated place. He lifted both hands and walked to a spot on the other side of the cenote, where he sat down, dangling his legs over the edge. Ixchel had been drawing water from the green pool, whose surface was a good ten feet below them, by means of a small hollowed-out gourd attached to a long cord. Beside her sat a much larger wooden container half-full of water. String in hand, she stared at him, paralyzed, the gourd floating on the surface of the water.