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The King's Mirror, artwork © 2019 Rachel Quinlan

CONTENT WARNING:



The king had already enslaved two grinders for failing him. I didn’t want to be the third.

Sitting in the best room of the grinders workshop, I rubbed the almost-finished hematite mirror over and over with a grindstone of fired clay, specially tempered for polishing. The king stood behind me, his gaze burning the back of my neck. Sweat beaded in my hair, between my elbows, under my knees. With a word, he could doom me to a lifetime of hard labor and rip me away from everyone I loved.

I kept polishing.

Through the window came the rhythmic hammering of a nearby stonecarver’s workshop, the call of small jungle birds, and the whisper of my fellow grinders’ tools as they shaped jade into beads or etched glyphs on shells. Usually they talked and laughed as we worked. Not today.

I paused only to brush dust off the surface of the mirror. It was the largest we’d ever made—nearly as long as my forearm.

You aren’t finished yet, craftsman? Holy King Kinich Yonal Ahk’s booming voice matched his broad chest and face. With jade dangling from his ears and shells and feathers adorning every inch of the rest of him, he looked divine. Almost.

If he actually had the favor of the gods, we wouldn’t be in this room together.

I kept my eyes humbly downcast on my polishing. No, my king. We need one more day, if you want the mirror to be as bright and flawless as possible.

Of course it must be flawless! If you grinders had made perfect mirrors in the first place, the gods would have already sent me visions of how to defend this city.

Waxak-Ok and Hun-Chikchan had both presented him with beautiful, elegant mirrors. Now they were gone. Yes, my king.

He leaned over me to peer at the mirror, all his ornamentation rustling. Over the past five years, our city had lost more than a dozen small villages to Lakamha. Holy King Kinich Yonal Ahk couldn’t blame the gods for being silent, he wouldn’t blame himself, and so he blamed the mirrors—and the guild that made them.

Is that a single piece? he asked.

My throat knotted. I polished harder, as if that familiar motion would protect me. We don’t have anything so large, my king, and you requested a bigger mirror.

His disdain made the air taste heavy, like a thunderstorm was brewing. It looks whole. Explain.

Yes, my king. We made a mosaic of hematite on a slate backing, pasting the two together with clay. The cracks are filled with hematite dust from previous mirrors.

Mirrors that had not produced visions. Mirrors that had gotten Waxak-Ok and Hun-Chikchan enslaved. My fingers cramped around the ceramic grindstone and my mouth was chalky, like I’d breathed in too much dust.

I’ll return tomorrow afternoon to collect the mirror myself. See that it is ready. He swept imperiously out of the room.

I stretched my quivering, aching fingers. Did he really think we’d been giving him less than our best? That we were intentional traitors to Yokib?

People said he was a weak king, that he’d displeased the gods somehow. I didn’t doubt either statement. But an impious, impotent king could still easily crush someone like me. Maybe that’s why he lashed out at grinders—we couldn’t fight back. Here was one battle he was guaranteed to win.

I gently brushed the surface of the mirror, gathering the precious hematite powder into a clay jar. My own reflection lay dark against its glossy black surface, like a shadow from the underworld. But the edges of the mirror gleamed like water. Dark and light together.

Oh gods, I murmured, wondering if the prayers of craftsmen even reached them. Whatever our king did to upset you, please let him see visions in this mirror. Maybe you don’t care about Yokib and Lakamha, but I’d appreciate it if you cared about the grinders.

My breath fogged the mirror. It shouldn’t do that—the surface was warm from polishing. I peered closer, the mirror filling my vision. When my breath cleared, I no longer saw hematite underneath.

 


 

My younger sister, eighteen, sits on the floor of our home, a backstrap loom around her hips. Ixnaab works the cotton with deft hands, a smile on her face. I see myself sitting next to her, frowning.

Looking at myself from the outside makes my head spin. This has to be a vision—but only holy men and women are entitled to those. Something’s wrong.

You fuss over me too much, brother. I’m fine. I’m happy, even, Ixnaab says. Strangely, she wears a length of cloth wrapped around her head.

You’d laugh at a hungry jaguar and shrug away a fever, I hear myself counter. Telling me you’re happy doesn’t tell me how you’re doing.

So dour! Wak-Lamat, you could worry about flash floods on a clear day.

You’re wincing. I know you’ve got another headache. Please rest.

It’ll pass. But then she drops her weaving shuttle. One side of her face twists with pain as the other side droops.

I scream for help. Aunts, uncles, and cousins rush to our patio. Somewhere in the mix I see my parents’ ashen faces. The littlest children wail and cry in the chaos. Mother fights her way to Ixnaab and props her up, but all of Ixnaab is limp now, her breath of life gone.

I stare at her sagging face. My sister can’t just die like this.

The mirror pulls me deeper, inside Ixnaab’s skull. Something grows there, like mold over the frilly flesh of her brain. It’s blocked her blood and burst her veins. Inside her skull, everything is red and gray.

A woman’s voice fills my marrow, silent and penetrating—and as ancient as stone itself. Ixnaab will die in one month. She cannot be saved.

 


 

My knees dug into the packed earth floor of the workshop. I stared at the mirror. It was just glossy hematite, now.

My stomach churned, Ixnaab’s dying face bright in my mind.

I’d seen a vision. But why would the gods show me something I couldn’t change? Why had they talked to me at all? I was only a grinder—not some holy person, entitled to visions.

My father dashed into the room. You’re still here, he exhaled in relief. The king didn’t enslave you?

I kept staring at the hematite, numb to his words. An irritable king seemed a small thing, now.

If I’d known that the Master Grinder sent me to deliver commissions so he could give you this task … Father’s voice was as tight as the muscles in his neck.

Master Grinder Kin-Akbal chose me because I’m the only one skilled enough who wouldn’t leave a wife and children behind if our Holy King felt like enslaving another grinder today. He was trying to be kind.

Don’t defend him. That coward ought to be in here himself. You look wretched. I’ll fetch you something to drink.

I let my father coddle me and bring me a warm mug of atole. I drank without pleasure, the sweet corn as flavorful as mud. The priests taught that visions were the gods’ way to protect and guide our city—but knowing Ixnaab’s fate wouldn’t let me save Yokib or my sister.

A month. She ought to have longer than that. She ought to have a full, happy life ahead of her.

Father anxiously looked over my work. Do you think this mirror will finally please our king?

Do you think you’ll be spared, he meant. He was worrying about the wrong child.

The mirror was certainly capable of giving visions. But Kinich Yonal Ahk might not like what he found in its depths. I don’t know.

 


 

Ixnaab met us on the road outside our house, grinning immensely and rocking from side to side, her hands clasped behind her back. I have good news!

I only had horrible news.

Oh? Father asked.

Mother wants to tell you herself. You’d better both hurry in to supper, or I’ll blurt it all out. She wore her best clothes—a colorful blouse and wrap-around skirt she’d woven herself. Her usually unruly hair was neatly braided and shone like obsidian. Some of the little cousins aren’t feeling well, so it will just be our family eating outside tonight. But we must make merry enough for a crowd!

I followed her in. Staring at the back of her head, all I could see was red and gray. Blood spreading, oozing, then cooling as her body did.

Mother sat on the patio, a festive array of food in front of her: a small mountain of tamales, quartered guavas, tomato relish, and chunks of braised pumpkin. She looked as proud as a lord hoarding tribute. What kept the two of you so late today?

The king came to our workshop, Father replied.

Mother’s face fell. Ixnaab grabbed my arm. Did he enslave anyone else?

I shook my head.

Gods preserve us, Mother muttered.

Only the gods can. Do you know what I saw on the way home? Father asked.

I’m sure I don’t want to hear, Mother said.

That didn’t deter Father. He sat and peeled a steaming tamale bit by bit, trying not to burn his fingers. The stonecarvers have begun a stela featuring Queen Katun and the princess. I talked to the foreman, and it all but names the child her father’s heir! A three-year-old girl, next in line to rule Yokib. That’s how unstable our city is. I’m surprised Lakamha hasn’t overrun us already.

Mother glared at him. I said I didn’t want to talk about it.

You’d rather be ignorant? Father loved being the first to know such things.

I’d rather have supper in peace! Mother said. I have good news to share.

It would be a waste to spend one of Ixnaab’s last days fretting about a future she’d never see. Let’s hear it, then! I prompted.

But Ixnaab ignored me. Is it true? She glanced between me and Father. About the stela?

I … wasn’t paying attention, I admitted. My thoughts had been elsewhere. With Ixnaab’s cooling body.

It’s an unusual choice for the king to make, Ixnaab remarked.

I doubt he did, Father grumbled. "He ought to take another wife, but Queen Katun’s too powerful to allow it. Mark my words, this stela is her doing. Our king never should have married a foreigner. Foreign queens are always ambitious.

Without her support and the warrior-nobles she brought, Yokib would have already fallen to Lakamha, Ixnaab countered. She enjoyed politics almost as much as Father. Maybe she’d rather argue than celebrate?

So I didn’t interrupt them. I sat quietly and chewed slowly, letting the beans inside the steaming dough melt in my mouth and down my throat. As if food could keep me warm and filled.

Our king hardly rules us as it is—we might as well be a vassal to Lakamha. Better that than under Queen Katun, Father said.

Mother kept glaring, but neither of them took any notice.

I’m not sure why you’re so against her. Ixnaab grabbed another piece of guava. She’s helped this city immensely, and she’s done nothing worse than positioning her own child to become the next ruler.

She’s foreign. She’s robbed the king of his authority and his confidence, weakening him and making him paranoid—even cruel—on occasion, Father said.

On two occasions, at least.

Blaming the queen for his shortcomings seems about as reasonable as enslaving grinders for a lack of visions. Perhaps we should stop shifting blame away from the one who deserves it, Ixnaab said.

Gods preserve us—I won’t have such treasonous words in my house! Mother tossed her hands in the air. I don’t know why people always accuse old women of being horrible gossips. I know how to keep my tongue and not ruin a perfectly good meal.

Father huffed. It’s not gossip, it’s news. You can’t close your eyes to what’s happening around you.

I can’t do a thing about Queen Katun or about Lakamha raiding our hinterlands. What’s the point? To live in constant anxiety? Mother asked. War comes or it doesn’t. I don’t want to spend my every breath worrying about it.

I felt the same way about my vision. I wished I hadn’t seen it. Knowing didn’t let me help Ixnaab—it just made me aware of how useless I was.

Father snatched another tamale. I have a clever daughter; shouldn’t I enjoy debating with her?

You mean your wretched daughter who abandoned her own good news to encourage your fear-mongering? Mother retorted.

Ixnaab winced.

Mother wouldn’t criticize her like that, if she knew what I knew. Maybe the gods had given me that vision simply so I wouldn’t make the same mistake. I couldn’t make Ixnaab’s life longer, but I could make her last month better.

Don’t talk like that, I cut in. The three of them stared at me. I wasn’t sure if they were surprised by my bluntness, or were just remembering I was here, too. I self-consciously cleared my throat. As you said, today is a happy day for Ixnaab. We should be kind to her. Mother, weren’t you going to tell us about it?

Father reluctantly kept quiet, and Mother pulled herself up like a great orator. I’ve finalized things with Matchmaker Ixkuk. We have a date for the wedding—ten days from now.

W-wedding? I stammered.

For me, silly! Ixnaab gave my shoulder a friendly nudge.

Though, once his family brings their wedding gifts, Mother said, we can afford to start looking for a match for you, too.

I didn’t care about getting married—not right now, anyway—and I pitied the family about to expend a small fortune in gifts for a daughter-in-law they couldn’t keep. I … don’t know what to say.

Mother’s been working on it for ages, Ixnaab said, but we didn’t want to tell you until it was official, so you wouldn’t be disappointed if it fell through. I’m marrying Ho-Ben. You’ve always spoken so highly of him.

The pit of my stomach fell away.

Wak-Lamat! my sister teasingly reprimanded. I demand you look happy for me. Do you have cotton in your ears? I’m marrying your best friend.

 


 

No one deserved to be a widower so young. Even if Ho-Ben could afford another marriage, who’d want to marry him if his first wife died so suddenly and tragically? He’d look cursed. Maybe he was cursed—him, and me, and Ixnaab most of all.

I headed to the men’s house, where all young bachelors slept. Some nights, a priest would lecture us about our role in the public sphere as subjects of our Holy King. But he hadn’t come tonight, so the men’s house was filled with the cheers and groans of gambling and the smell of corn beer. The racket made my head pound. I needed quiet.

Apparently the gods, like their Holy King, enjoyed toying with grinders. They hadn’t given me that vision so I could pamper Ixnaab. They’d shown me so I’d be forced to choose between my sister and my closest friend. Didn’t the gods have better things to do—like saving Yokib?

I lay down on my mat and wished I was still a boy, sleeping at home near my family with the clean smell of cotton and tamales all around me.

You look ill.

I cracked an eye. Ho-Ben. He sat next to me. We’d come to the men’s house at around the same time, five years ago. He’d been a solid friend ever since. Better yet for Ixnaab, he was honest and not given to gambling.

I would have been proud to call him my brother-in-law. No, I’m not feeling well.

Worry wormed across his face. I trust you haven’t had … unpleasant news?

He knew about the marriage, and thought I was upset. I sat up and smiled broadly. If only I could wish away that vision of Ixnaab’s death. I’m thrilled. For both of you.

His shoulders relaxed. You’ve sung her praises so often and so freely. I can’t wait to meet her.

She’s overjoyed, I assured him.

Why the melancholy, then?

Saying nothing was as good as robbing him and his family. Didn’t he deserve to know the fate of his bride-to-be? But if I told him, shouldn’t I also tell Ixnaab?

I didn’t know if I could do that. If I should do that.

The Holy King visited the guild today, I said instead.

He clasped my arm. Was anyone …?

I shook my head. No enslavements this time. But Master Grinder Kin-Akbal assigned me to work on the mirror.

What a coward! Kin-Akbal should be there himself.

I shrugged. Kin-Akbal was the least of my worries. He doesn’t feel guilty for assigning me. I wouldn’t leave a wife or children behind.

Bah. Let’s get you married—then Kin-Akbal will have to take a long look at his own conscience.

As if I could get married so quickly. I’m finishing the mirror tomorrow.

Ho-Ben stilled. He spoke quietly. Matchmaker Ixkuk set our wedding date for ten days out. You never know.

I shook my head. I didn’t want to start any such thing until I could be reasonably sure Holy King Kinich Yonal Ahk wouldn’t snatch me away. It wouldn’t be fair to my bride.

Just like this marriage wasn’t fair to Ho-Ben.

Do you need anything? Ho-Ben asked.

Sleep, I answered honestly.

I’m so nervous, I don’t think I’ll sleep for ten days. Get enough rest for the both of us, then.

He turned, and I watched him walk away.

Gods sent visions to protect the city. Maybe Ho-Ben would, at some future moment, be crucial to the fate of Yokib—if only he didn’t enter this doomed marriage. That was the only explanation that made sense. I’d received the vision because I was in a better position to act than our Holy King—I knew Ixnaab and Ho-Ben.

I almost called out. I almost told him what I’d seen.

But if I said nothing, Ixnaab would spend her last days happily anticipating her wedding, then celebrated as a new wife. I couldn’t—wouldn’t—rob her of that.

Ixnaab should enjoy the rest of her life as a doted-on bride-to-be. Ho-Ben shouldn’t become a young widower, impoverished by wedding expenses. Yokib shouldn’t fall to Lakamha. Maybe I could make all three things happen.

 


 

Matchmaker Ixkuk sat with me on her patio, next to her garden of chili plants. She graciously offered me a mug of atole, which I took.

I’m surprised to see you here, young mirror maker. Your parents have already paid me for my services toward your sister. She searched my face with her unnervingly sharp gaze. I hope you haven’t come for yourself. I won’t tolerate such improper behavior.

I’d come prepared to offer a bribe. I’d have to try flattery, instead. Of course not, honored matchmaker. It’s about my sister’s wedding. With your reputation for wisdom and kindness, I was sure you’d want to help.

She peered at me. Sipped her atole. Other members of the household bustled about the courtyard doing morning chores while small birds chirped at them from the thatched roofs.

Help? she cautiously asked.

Please move back the date of the wedding.

She stared at me like I was mad. You doubt that an old woman like me knows anything about the calendar? Think you can better choose a more auspicious day because kings and priests buy your handiwork?

No! We simply can’t be properly ready for the wedding in a mere ten days. My mother is worried sick that she’ll embarrass our family and embarrass these new in-laws. That much at least was true. Please, wise matchmaker. What is the next auspicious date? It will be a more joyous occasion with at least a month to prepare.

Pride tightened every wrinkle in her face. In forty years, I’ve never been so insulted. Do you think the calendar and the heavens can be rearranged by human whim?

I was perfectly aware how little power humans had against fate. Matchmaker Ixkuk, I mean no insult. Please, select a later date. Please, remove this burden from our family.

And from Ho-Ben’s.

Matchmaker Ixkuk’s voice was as cold and sharp as obsidian. If that’s all you have to say, it’s time for you to leave.

 


 

If the gods thought I’d sacrifice the happiness of an already-doomed sister for my friend and my city, they were wrong. I’d ask Ho-Ben if his family couldn’t persuade the matchmaker to delay the wedding a little—but if not, I’d choose my sister over everyone else.

Everyone else would still be here in a month.

I showed up at the workshop later than usual. Father and Master Grinder Kin-Akbal fought on the patio.

Are you volunteering to take over for him, then? Kin-Akbal demanded. He was taller and broader than Father, with a paunch that hung over his breechcloth.

Of course I am! Father snapped.

I rushed between them. I’ll keep working on the mirror. I promised the king yesterday that I’d finish it.

See? Your boy will do it. Master Grinder Kin-Akbal folded his arms over his belly, satisfied.

Father scowled at me. Wak-Lamat, I won’t put you at risk again.

I laid a hand on his arm. Don’t fight me. Mother would be devastated if the king took you.

You think she’ll be dry-eyed if you’re sold off as a slave?

No, but Father was the more skilled artisan. He could provide for her better. Or maybe I was just being selfish. I was already losing Ixnaab. I didn’t want to lose him, too. You can’t win this argument, not with me and Master Kin-Akbal against you.

 


 

Afternoon arrived, and still, Holy King Kinich Yonal Ahk hadn’t shown his face. Perhaps he had better things to do today than harass grinders.

I tried not to look at the mirror as I cleaned the finished surface with a damp cotton cloth. But I couldn’t forget what it had shown me. Gray and red. Falling limp. Breath of life, gone. I never wanted to see my dark reflection—or anything else—in hematite again.

Silently, I cursed the Holy King for commissioning this mirror. I cursed Lakamha for setting themselves against us. I cursed Queen Katun for having so much power—enough power to set her three-year-old daughter up as our future ruler. Enough power to make a king paranoid and weak.

Or maybe Ixnaab was right and he’d always been paranoid and weak.

Outside, the chatter of the other grinders stopped. Was the king finally showing up?

I glanced behind me, then back to my work—and caught my reflection in the mirror. I looked watery, like the shadow of something dropped into a cenote. My body turned rigid. I couldn’t stop looking at the mirror, closer and closer—as if the hematite had become a cavernous mouth, rising up out of the ground to swallow me whole.

 


 

I see a woman, with round limbs and expensive adornments. A young girl leans against her knee as a noble scribe paints their image on a great, smooth stone. It has to be Queen Katun and her little daughter, Princess Huntan Ahk—posing for the stela the carvers are working on right now. The one that names the little girl her father’s heir.

The vision blurs and shifts. Once again, I see Queen Katun, but her hair is gray, and her daughter is two decades older.

I talked with Father’s new bride all morning. She’s a lovely conversationalist. Quite clever.

Queen Katun purses her lips. She couldn’t stop the king from marrying a second wife after all. Does she worry this new woman will have a son? Another heir?

You don’t look pleased, Mother. Are you upset with him?

Yes. She doesn’t try to hide it.

The princess’s forehead crinkles. But you hardly talk to him. I didn’t think you’d be jealous. We all ought to be friends—she’s delightful.

Oh, my sweet daughter. Queen Katun gives her a pitying look. She’s from Lakamha.

He married the daughter of our enemies?

She didn’t come to make friends, Queen Katun continues. She’s here because your father tires of defending Yokib. He’s given up. Marrying her, welcoming her and her entourage of warrior-nobles here, is almost the same thing as surrendering. Yokib will never again be a great city. We’re now just the in-laws of the King of Lakamha.

Are you sure? the princess asked. Apparently she didn’t inherit her mother’s aptitude for politics.

Of course I’m sure.

The image shifts again. Queen Katun reluctantly dribbles poison into her husband’s cacao, then froths the drink herself, pouring it from one vessel to another. She offers it with congratulations on his nuptials. Holy King Kinich Yonal Ahk is stiff and dead before daybreak.

Then the vision shows me Queen Katun embracing her daughter. This time, the queen weeps. If there’s a fight over the ascension to the throne, we won’t be strong enough to throw out this Lakamha woman and her warrior-nobles. I’m sorry. I always knew there’d be a political battle to put you on the throne, to see a woman seated as Yokib’s ruler. I thought I was ready. I thought I couldn’t lose. But I hadn’t planned on your father welcoming Lakamha into our midst. I can’t fight that battle now, not without Yokib falling. I’ve supported your cousin and given him the throne. Forgive me.

Mother … I don’t need a throne. I don’t care. I just miss my father.

Of course. It was tragic of the gods to take him from us so soon. She manages to sound sincere.

Then decades of Yokib’s history whir past me. Our new Holy King keeps Yokib free from Lakamha. The city won’t fall. It flourishes.

None of this has anything to do with my sister or Ho-Ben. They’re not the reason for the first vision.

Why? I ask wordlessly. Why show me Yokib’s future? Why torture me with my sister’s fate?

I’m not noble. I’m not holy. I didn’t ask for visions, and I don’t want them.

The goddess’s voice, as ancient and terrible as thunder, answers. The first vision is our thanks for your help. That knowledge is the gift you would have asked for. The second, because we cannot any longer ignore the king’s pleas. But we also cannot show him this.

 


 

The vision ended, leaving me dizzy and faint. I pitched forward, but caught myself before I fell. A gift? The goddess spoke nonsense.

Did you fall asleep? Holy King Kinich Yonal Ahk asked, his usually booming voice hissing in my ear.

Panic surged through my weak, shaky limbs. How long had he been here? N-no, my king. I was … thinking.

You stutter like a drunk, but you don’t smell like one. His eyes narrowed in his broad, square face. You saw a vision in the mirror.

It wasn’t a question. He raised his thick hand to strike me, but then lowered it quivering to his side, all his jade and feather ornaments jangling. The gods favor you—a craftsman. Why?

I … I was here, I suppose, I fumbled.

The Holy King of Yokib crouched next to me, half-whispering. What did you see? What does the future hold?

He’d end up destroying the city if he knew. But my throat sealed itself up at the thought of lying to him—even though a goddess had enlisted me to do just that. This man was still a Holy King with divine blood in his veins.

He softened his tone. If it showed you something against the queen, don’t be afraid. You may tell me. I won’t be angry with you. Will her actions bring the downfall of Yokib?

No. She is—or will be—fiercely loyal to the city. She put its welfare above her own glory and power, and above her daughter’s. She refused to hand Yokib over to Lakamha, unlike the man in front of me.

Strange. I thought the future would hold otherwise.

I swallowed hard.

Will Yokib stand if I manage to exile her? he asked.

Did he think he could actually dethrone her in the first place? In my vision, Holy King, I saw Queen Katun rejoicing over the stela the carvers are making of her and Princess Huntan Ahk. Then I saw her weeping when her daughter did not succeed you. Your heir will continue the proud legacy of Yokib. Making a move against the queen could easily alter this happy future.

But why did the gods show you this? he murmured again, peering darkly at me. A grinder receives a vision when a king cannot.

He’d be even more despised if anyone knew. If I had to lie, I might as well lie boldly. I’m just a simple grinder. But the gods are angry you enslaved my peers. Return them, and I am sure the gods will never speak to me again.

The king frowned, staring at me like he’d rather enslave me too, but didn’t quite dare harm someone favored of the gods. I’ll return them. An act of mercy from a gracious king. But you will not speak of this vision to anyone.

His tone held a command and a warning. If I threatened him, he’d destroy me, whatever my connection to the gods. You are most wise and generous, Holy King.

 


 

The visions churned through my head for the rest of the day. A gift. A gift as thanks for lying to a king. It seemed more like a punishment.

At home that evening, Father told everyone—aunts, uncles, and cousins—how the king had been so impressed with my work that he’d freed Waxak-Ok and Hun-Chikchan. I smiled through the praise and cheer, but it made my teeth ache. I didn’t want their attention. I wanted to spend time with Ixnaab, while I could.

Stop fretting over me. You’re making me nervous, she complained in a whisper as I tried to pass her another tamale. What’s wrong? Did Ho-Ben cancel the wedding?

Of course not. I quickly changed the subject to something Ixnaab couldn’t resist: politics. I saw the stela of the little princess today.

Father jumped in, cheerfully supplying all the details while Mother wrung her hands and wailed about the two of them, ruining a party with worries and woe.

I leaned back on my hands, watching them. Rivers of stars gleamed above us. I’d rather not hear about things I couldn’t change. But I saw the same hunger for knowledge in my sister that I’d seen in the king—even if his face was cruel and hers was kind.

Ixnaab would want to know.

When the conversation lulled, I quietly asked her to meet me outside. I thanked all my relatives for their kind words and protested that I needed to be off to the men’s house.

I found Ixnaab waiting for me on the path just outside our home. She’d folded her arms, like she was warding off a chill. You’ve been acting strange lately, she said.

I pursed my lips, searching for the right words. There were no right words for this. I’ve kept something from you—but only because I thought it was kindest to say nothing.

So tell me already. She was too much like Father. Or I was too much like Mother. Reluctantly, I told her about both visions.

She grew still and stiff, like a stalk of maize in a field without a breeze. She listened to every word. By the end of it, her face was ashen.

I’m sorry. I didn’t know what to say. If I should. Or how to say— I paused, took a deep breath, and tried again. Ixnaab, after talking to the king today, and then seeing you debate politics … I felt like I shouldn’t stay silent.

She laid a hand on my shoulder. Even at a whisper, her voice was hoarse. Thank you for telling me.

 


 

The next day, Master Grinder Kin-Akbal bought roasted breadnuts for all the grinders in the guild to feast on and loudly praised my name. He was sure that, as the craftsman who finally appeased the king, my work would always be in high demand. But the only time I felt any true joy was when Waxak-Ok and Hun-Chikchan embraced me.

At least some good had come of all of this.

Walking home, I heard Mother before I saw her. Foolish girl! Foolish, stupid girl!

I ran into the courtyard where uncles, aunts, and cousins all stared at Ixnaab.

Her head was as smooth and bald as a kernel of new corn. W-what happened?

Ixnaab was smiling. I sold it. To the wig-makers. We’ll have to delay my wedding, of course, but didn’t it seem wrong that I was getting married first? Now that everything’s calm at the workshop, I wanted to help pay for your own matchmaking.

We didn’t need such help! Mother cried.

All the better. I did spend most of it on gifts. Ixnaab hugged Mother and spoke soft, soothing words to her. Then she handed her a new comb.

She handed out other presents. Allspice for Father. Red thread for an aunt. Sweets for all of the children.

Then she came to me, her showy grin fading into the ghost of a smile. She handed me an avocado—my favorite treat. I’m glad I get a chance to spoil everyone, a little bit, before the end, she said, her eyes bright as mirrors with unshed tears.

The gift of that vision wasn’t for me. It was for her. The goddess said it’s what I would have asked for. And she was right. A month from now, I would have asked for anything—anything—to improve my sister’s last days.

And Ixnaab wanted to know.

I still wished that I didn’t. But as Ixnaab composed her face and bounded away to hand out more treats, I whispered a prayer of thanks to the gods—an honest, grateful prayer.



M. K. Hutchins often draws on her background in archaeology when writing fantasy and science fiction. Her newest book, The Redwood Palace, is forthcoming in 2019. Her short fiction appears in Strange Horizons, Podcastle, Fireside, and elsewhere. Find her on the web at mkhutchins.com.
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14 Oct 2019

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