Stealing the Sun
by Juan Paulo Rafols
Qohil, war chief of Sun-Eyed Sky Jaguar and overseer of the conquered city of Xitlan, was not amused by the bloated body floating down the canals. It was an unsightly thing, dishonoring the main waterway between palace and ball court.
“Bring it to me,” he ordered.
Sun-bronzed ferrymen prodded the corpse with sapling poles. The body drifted closer until it slapped against the bank. Men seized its water-logged clothes and dragged it onto grass-sprinkled cobblestone.
Qohil stood over it, the shadows of his feathered headdress darkening the distended face. No stranger to death, he was more irritated than disgusted.
A woman returned to his side with light footfalls. She clasped her hands behind the back of her huipil, the square-cut blouse falling past her thighs.
“What did the ballplayers see, Xoc?” asked Qohil.
Xoc, the youngest of his wives, answered. “They saw it as they were gathering at dawn for morning practice. It was snagged upon the reeds.”
Qohil spat into the canal. He squatted and rubbed the soaked robe between two fingers. Ceiba fiber.
“Wealthy attire,” he muttered.
“Ritual raiment or dance dress,” suggested Xoc. “The dye has bled out.”
“The flesh has been bled as well, but where is the wound?” Qohil grasped the body’s shoulder and pulled. The body flopped onto its stomach.
A crest-bearing hilt rose from the corpse’s back like a sneering totem. Qohil seized it and drew out the obsidian knife. Ignoring the stench, he wiped the pommel with his thumb, bringing into clarity the square form of a carved letter.
“A carved letter,” Xoc observed.
“I can see that,” Qohil grunted. “What does it say?”
“How would I know?”
“Useless,” grumbled Qohil. He sheltered his eyes with his palm and peered upwards. A dark pyramid cut into the resplendent morning.
“I know who to ask,” he murmured.
* * *
The four-sided temple of the Plumed Serpent towered over the city of Xitlan. Four sets of stairs ascended the pyramid, each constituting exactly ninety-one steps.
Qohil cared little for the numbers of astronomy; his concern was hauling a bloated body up a steep incline. He dropped it like a putrid sack before the doorway of the temple. Even the incense could not quell the stench.
Soft steps announced Xoc’s presence behind him.
The priest emerged, thin body framed by stone and stele. Caught without his raiment, the Plumed Serpent’s Tongue was merely an old man in a loincloth, leaning heavily on a walking stick.
“Tehuan,” Qohil spoke. “Do you know who this is?”
Tehuan limped forward to examine the corpse. The priest’s ankle was scarred by a cut hamstring. Qohil had cut it himself.
“Yes,” said the old priest. “My acolyte, my student. Ill-fated, it would seem. What happened to him?”
Qohil ignored the question. He pointed an obsidian knife’s pommel at Tehuan. “Can you read this?”
Tehuan exhaled in exasperation but acceded. “Yes. The style is a little archaic and traditional, but yes.”
“Let us see. The logograph for the left hand, the phonetic tz’i…. I’m afraid I can’t tell you what this means.”
“You just said—”
“It is one half of a parallel verse. Incomplete. The meaning is unclear without the other half.”
“Unclear or no, tell me what this half means.”
Tehuan sighed. “Grasping, perhaps. To take. Or to seize in claiming. Or to steal—”
“As I said, overseer, it is but half of a verse.”
“Useless,” snapped Qohil. He threw down the knife blade-first and it sank once more into the corpse.
Tehuan, whose duties included wearing the skins of captives, did not flinch. “You are not the only one with cause to be upset. Lying at my feet is the student I had cultivated for two years. Now I am to see to the sprout’s rites alone, without so much as an explanation as to what is going on.”
Qohil’s face twisted with contempt. He jabbed his forefinger at Tehuan, “Know your place, servant of a conquered line. You should have ascended the altar before your liege. You outlive him in disgrace.”
“I live on because our uncultured conquerors know not of the passage of stars nor of planets. Prisoner or no, you need me for the rites of succession.”
Qohil crossed his arm across his chest as if to backhand the insolent priest. This time, Tehuan shied away pitiably. Qohil sneered; he hated pitiable men.
“Perhaps, Tehuan, it is you who killed your acolyte. Perhaps you felt threatened by a man who might succeed you.”
The priest retorted, “I, a cripple, descended the ninety-one steps in the dead of night, slew my young, fit protégé, and returned by morning? By what sorcery, overseer? With what wings?”
Qohil lifted his fist. This time, he truly intended to hit the old man. Xoc cleared her throat, interrupting.
“Who wrote the verse?” she suggested.
“Yes.” Qohil lowered his hand. “If this was half a message, then there is a messenger. Aside from yourself, Tehuan, who in this city knows the old letters?”
“Any member of a royal family would know poetic verse.”
“Who else?” hissed Qohil.
“The artisans. The potters and the stonecarvers. The scribes.”
Without a word, Qohil turned away and descended the many steps of the temple.
Terror visited the workshops of Xitlan that day. Artisans were hauled from their homes and questioned. Those who were not vouched for were beaten for answers. For all of that, Qohil uncovered nothing but banalities and infidelities.
* * *
The second body was found in the cerulean waters of the cenote. Qohil watched the porters haul it up with sisal rope. They unfurled the net, dumping the sodden cadaver onto limestone shore.
The war chief kicked the body onto its stomach and knelt. As expected, there was an obsidian knife buried in the back, bearing a second letter. Even he recognized the glyph of the sun.
Xoc arrived to the sound of rustling fern.
“Well?” demanded Qohil.
“She was the merchant-governor of jade,” replied the young wife. “Last seen three nights past, during a feast beneath full moon.”
“And no one noticed her missing?”
“She was to depart on the sacbe in the morning, to arrange for the purchase of gemstones.”
Xoc spoke of the white road, the limestone highway that ran to glittering sea. Without the jade stones to offer to the egrets, the rites of succession would be delayed even further.
Qohil spat. His liege would not be pleased. “Question the caravan porters again.”
Xoc lowered her head and turned. Qohil’s hand shot out and seized her wrist.
“Remember, woman, that I spared you from the fate of the other palace servants because of your fertile hips and your subservient wit. So far, one of those has failed to yield fruit. Do not disappoint further.”
Their eyes met. A breeze filtered through jungle palm. Qohil let her go and Xoc disappeared into the tree line.
* * *
Qohil bowed in apology before Sun-Eyed Sky Jaguar. His forehead nearly scraped against stone painted by brazier fire.
“And that is the priest’s judgment?” The elderly conqueror had a voice as rough as sharkskin.
“Yes, Lord. ‘I will steal the Sun.’ Such is the translated threat.”
“Raise your head, warrior. I can barely hear you.” Sun-Eyed Sky Jaguar shifted on his throne. Qohil obeyed but could scarcely suffer to look upon his aging liege, upon the skin that hung loose beneath ornaments too large.
“Lord. Tehuan says the deaths mean delay. The earliest the rites can take place is on the twelfth day of Mak.”
The monarch steepled wrinkled fingers. “Mak is an auspicious month. So be it.”
“We need not rush the succession, Lord. Give us time to find this assassin.”
Sun-Eyed Sky Jaguar cleared his throat with a wet cough. Perhaps he chuckled. “Qohil, I ask you this. Xitlan is a city of tens of thousands. How was its conquest accomplished with but a few hundred deaths?”
“The farmers of Xitlan are indolent cowards, no match for the hunters of Pecahuan.”
“That may be. But look beyond warriors, Qohil. Warfare is an affectation of noble-born. The common man cares not for it, nor does he care for the exact name of the one on the throne. That is for the best, for what horror would it be if all men participated in battle?”
“Forgive me, Lord, what does this-“
“Qohil. The farmers of Xitlan expect but one thing of us. The royal family must appease the gods, in a time and manner that pleases the heavens. War is a trifle; the choice between feast or starvation is what they care for.”
“If these farmers cared as much for arms as astronomy, they would not have been conquered.”
“Perhaps.” Sun-Eyed Sky Jaguar leaned into a throne recently-carved with dawn, symbol of his line. “I am old, Qohil. My son, my sprout, must succeed me with all the grand omens of the divine if he is to rule both Xitlan and Pecahuan. ‘I will steal the Sun,’ says this assassin. Does he mean to steal my life, or the life of my child?”
“I will allow neither, Lord,” vowed Qohil.
“See to it.”
Day and night, the palace crawled with warriors clad in the skins of jaguar and panther and shark. Qohil took his place among them. Weeks slipped away in uneventful hunting and the month of Mak arrived.
* * *
All Xitlan gathered in the grand plaza between temple and ballcourt, palace and pyramid. The people-sea was attired in reds and oranges, blues and violets. Feathered headbands and painted faces tilted upwards to witness the spectacle.
At the pinnacle of the pyramid of ceremony, the royal family basked in noontime brilliance. The sprout stood before the altar, ready to receive his name. Lady Jaguar had pierced her tongue and ran a cord through the wound; in feverish ecstasy, she pronounced great deeds to come.
Qohil stood guard before the steps, attended to by his warriors. His face was painted for battle, shadowed by carved beak.
“The priest is late,” he muttered.
A warrior responded, “He spoke of delays. He will come at the divine hour.”
“This is the divine hour. I will cut his other foot if he does not hurry.”
He heard the commotion before he felt the shadow. Gasps, shouts, and cries of dismay culminated as inchoate mob anger. Qohil looked up to see light vanishing before an advancing crescent. It was a solar eclipse—an evil omen for a coronation.
The sun was being stolen.
Qohil growled, “Guard the royal family.”
“Where are you going, war chief?”
“I hunt a thief.”
Qohil fought his way through what was swiftly becoming a riot. He bashed people aside with his plumed shield. His macuahuitl swung wild, the obsidian-studded sword splitting scalps.
“Tehuan!” he shouted as he sprinted up the ninety-one steps.
“Tehuan!” he bellowed as he burst into dim temple.
The old priest stood before the altar, dressed in the raiment of sacrifice.
Qohil approached, “You will regret your deceptions.”
“I regret only the death of my student, the one other who could have predicted the celestial bodies.”
Qohil leveled his macuahuitl. “Worry not, priest. I will kill you as you have killed him.”
“You are mistaken, overseer. It is not I who slew the acolyte and the merchant-governor. Nor was it I who carved the letters.”
Pain cut through Qohil’s throat. He dropped his shield, sputtering as he grasped at the arrow shaft sticking out of his neck. He spun, slashing blindly with macuahuitl.
“Xoc,” he burbled, blood flowing from his lips.
She stood in the doorway, drawing another arrow. “Xoc is the servant’s name I took to save my life. You will address me as Lady of Split Places, daughter of Stone Panther of Red Places—the rightful lord of Xitlan. The lord you murdered.”
The Lady of Split Places calmly aimed. “I have stolen your sun, servant of a soon-to-be-conquered line.”
Qohil saw but the glint of obsidian before the arrow pierced his eye.