Salt And Ashes

by Igirisujin (イギリス人)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/135979.html)

I will not fail.

The words burned like a thousand suns in Zolin’s mind as he knelt on the cold stone floor of the priest house.

It had been a long five days. Zolin was exhausted. Blood trickled down his neck from the piercings in his earlobes. He glanced around at the ash-smeared faces of his fellow priests. A few men met his eyes. Some whispered prayers underneath their breath. Most ignored him. Zolin recited his mantra in the privacy of his own skull.

I will not fail.

The preparations for the festival of Etzalqualiztli lasted for five days; five harsh days of penance and purging. The ordeal winnowed out the old, the very young, the weak and the unlucky. The priests who passed the ritual earned the right to wear the ceremonial headdresses and offer sacrifices to the rain god Tlaloc. Tlaloc punished the priests who failed.

Failure during the ritual’s first four days earned a fine. Failure on the fifth day meant expulsion from the priesthood. It was nearly morning, but the ordeal was not yet complete. There was still time.

I will not fail.

Zolin had passed the ritual every year since joining the priesthood at the age of seven. He was determined that he would pass this time. The omens had been good so far. It was the year of One Reed, a lucky year in the Mexica calendar. Only one priest had been found wanting. Zolin had grown up with the unlucky man, but he had dragged him to the lake edge and half-drowned him in the water anyway. He had felt the watchful eyes of the senior priests on his back as he walked to the lake, and he had made sure to duck the failed priest especially vigorously in the water when his turn came. They had cut the unlucky man’s hair and left him alone on the shore. Zolin had not dared even to glance at his former friend over his shoulder as he returned to the priest house. The priesthood of Tlaloc did not tolerate weakness.

I will not fail, Zolin thought again.

The thought of the humiliation sickened him, but not as much as the thought of being unable to participate in the festival. He hoped that he would see Matlalihuichi at the warrior’s dance.

And maybe, just maybe, Matlal will see me.

The senior priest, Ezhuahuacatl, cleared his throat. His white robe gleamed like snow in the dim light as he rose to his feet and gave the command that marked the end of the purification ritual. “Rise,” he said. “Rise and bathe yourselves in the lake. Tlaloc has judged you. You have been purged. You have been perfected. You are fit to do his bidding.”

Zolin rose triumphantly to his feet. I have not failed, he thought. I am still a priest. And Matlal will see me wield the obsidian knife.

The shamed priest was gone by the time they returned to the lake. Maybe he was hiding. Zolin did not look too hard. He bathed with the others, splashing and shouting to frighten the lake monsters away. His body tingled with triumph and cold water. When it was over he went with the others to the temple, where he painted his face and daubed his body with white ash before settling down to wait for dawn.

***

“Tlaloc, great god,” intoned the priest.

The sun burned in the sky over the temple like a golden shield. It was nearly noon. Zolin blinked in the bright light. Sweat streaked his black face paint. The chanting priest was a spindly silhouette in front of him.

“Tlaloc, great god,” the priest repeated. “The maize, your sister, withers in the dust. Stretch out your hand, great god. Water the earth, for the earth, the stalks and the living creatures, all remain. We cry out for water, great lord. Do not take our life away.” His voice was hoarse.

No wonder, Zolin thought as he adjusted his grip on the hilt of the obsidian knife. It’s the tenth sacrifice this morning.

He took a deep breath and looked back down. The warrior spread-eagled on the killing stone stared frantically up at him with wide eyes. The captive’s back arched like a bow as the four priests restraining him tightened their grip.

“We dedicate your death to Tlaloc,” Zolin said as he brought down the knife. The polished obsidian blade cut cleanly through the skin. Zolin felt a moment’s resistance as the blade divided the thick membrane that divided abdomen from chest. He pulled out the blade and thrust his hand into the man’s chest to yank out his heart. The organ was still beating as he drew it from the warrior’s corpse.

A good omen, Zolin thought as he held the heart high. “This brave warrior has given his life to Tlaloc so that our life may go on!” he called down to the crowds at the base of the temple. The people cheered. Zolin felt a rush of pride. He handed the twitching heart to another acolyte, who placed it on a smoldering brazier. As the smoke curled upwards, Zolin imagined the warrior’s spirit twisting in the air as it travelled to the next world.

The priests released the body and stepped back. A pair of men struck of the corpse’s head and rolled the decapitated body down the temple steps towards the crowds waiting below. Blood splashed down the blue and white steps. The last captive, halfway up the staircase on his own journey to oblivion, skidded in the mess as he tried desperately to avoid the flailing corpse.

If this does not call forth the rains, nothing will, Zolin thought grimly.

He handed the obsidian knife to another man and stepped back to join the other priests around the shrine. The air was thick with the scent of blood and burning human flesh. Zolin was drenched in gore. A fly buzzed in his ear and he swatted it away.

“You did well,” somebody said.

At first Zolin mistook the soft voice for the buzzing of another fly. He looked around as the words repeated, and noticed the old priest who had been chanting standing behind him. The old man’s ears were calloused from years of blood sacrifices. He sounded as weary as Zolin felt, and his face was kind beneath the mask of thick black paint. Zolin recognized him immediately. Kindness was not an emotion usually associated with the priesthood. “It is my honor to serve the gods, Cipactli,” he said.

Old Cipactli nodded. Both men glanced up at the blue sky that hung like a polished blue bowl above their heads. No clouds were visible. Without clouds, there would be no rain. Without rain, the harvest would fail.

Zolin felt the weight of his position press down on him. The priesthood was the thin red line between the Mexica people and utter oblivion. Without the hearts of men; without blood sacrifice, the rains would not come. The people would die. The priests would have failed.

“Do not worry,” Cipactli said softly.”It will rain soon.”

Zolin lowered his eyes. He glanced down at the crowds far below. No warriors danced among the throng. Neither had he seen Matlal in the crowd of warriors that delivered the small group of captives, hands bound, to the foot of the temple.

Zolin fought a wave of disappointment. The temple was small compared to the grand temple in Tenochtitlan’s great square, but it was the largest in the district. Maybe he is at another temple.

He would have liked to go and look, but there was no time. Cipactli intoned the closing ceremonies and Zolin stood solemnly with the rest of the priests. When the ritual was over, he followed the others down the steep steps to the courtyard at the base of the pyramid. The blood on the steps had clotted in the noonday sun. Zolin descended carefully, his eyes glued to his feet. The path was treacherous.

By the time he raised his head the people had gathered to collect the sacrifices. Nothing would go to waste. All would serve the gods. A group of warriors whirled in triumph in the dusty courtyard as the heels of the dead men left tracks in the dust.

Zolin examined each face carefully. The older men circled in a stately dance; their triumphs encoded in the details embroidered on their long capes, the patterns on their breastplates and their elaborate hairstyles. The younger warriors, men with only one or two kills to their name, kept a respectful distance. Their dance was much less solemn. They had none of their elders’ glory, but their dancing was athletic and hence more pleasing to the eye. Zolin recognized a couple of the men before he saw Matlalihuichi.

The sun shone on Matlal’s scalp, shaved except for one long lock; a sign that he had taken one captive. Indigo dye streaked his face. His movements were sinuous and graceful, his skin smooth as a snake. The fine muscles moved in his arms and legs as he danced the serpent dance.

He is beautiful, Zolin thought instantly. He sings with his feet. No one here dances as well as he does.

Matlal had not even attained the lowly status of a one captive warrior when Zolin had last seen him. He wondered which battle Matlal had participated in, and wished that he had been the one to accept Matlal’s captive at the temple.

Maybe I will meet him in the streets during the night’s festivities, he thought hopefully. A casual encounter, in the pulque-fuelled excesses of the festival, had the potential to lead to so much more…

A curt command broke his reverie, “Zolin?”

Zolin looked up and met Ezhuahuacatl’s glare with level eyes. “‘Honored One?”

“You did well today,” Ezhuahuacatl said.

Only Zolin’s training kept his jaw from dropping to the ground. He had not expected anything from Ezhuahuacatl, least of all a compliment. “I serve the gods,” he said.

A smile tugged at the old priest’s thin lips. “Then you will serve them well tonight,” he said.”Take the shell trumpet and walk the hills. Guard us from the spirits. Guard us well. Tlaloc will watch you. We shall watch you.”

Zolin stifled a groan. A priest patrolled the path around the city every night to protect the city from ghosts and demons. It was a long path, nearly twenty miles. Zolin would have to walk all night long. He would have to make blood offerings at each of the many shrines that marked the path. He set his jaw. “I am honored,” he said. It was nearly true. Zolin would have considered himself honored on any other night. There would be no celebrations for him. No maize porridge. no pulque. No chance to find Matlal in the crowded streets…

Ezhuahuacatl’s smile widened until it resembled the grin on the face of a skull. “Excellent. You’ll go far,” he said, and turned away.

At least twenty miles tonight, Zolin thought, but he said nothing. The dance had already finished by the time he turned back to the courtyard. The warriors had vanished into the crowd. He could not see Matlal.

Zolin fought disappointment as he took leave of his fellows and returned to the priest house to prepare. Even though he did not want the duty, or maybe because he did not want it, he prepared thoroughly and well. He went down to the lake and rinsed the blood from his skin and from his matted hair. When he was clean, he dried himself in front of the fire and smeared his body with handfuls of grey ash from the hearth. Before he left, he removed the jade earplugs that were part of his festival regalia and pierced his earlobes and tongue with a cactus spine. Blood dripped onto the floor and merged with the earth.

“On noble one, Tlaloc,” Zolin muttered through a suddenly swollen mouth. “Stretch out your hand. Remember our land. Remember us, your people. Bring us rain.”

He ducked under the low threshold and looked hopefully up at the sky. There were no clouds. As the first rays of the setting sun turned the whitewashed steps of the temple pyramids golden, Zolin realized that he was already late.

He grabbed his cloak and headed for the hills.

***

It was full dark when Zolin reached the first hill’s peak. Panting from the steep climb, he leaned against a tree and looked down at the city. Tenochtitlan stretched out below him. The ritual fires that burned atop each temple seemed close enough to touch. Their reflections rippled in the lake that surrounded the city. The sight filled Zolin with reassurance and comfort. He climbed on, and reached the first way-marker not long after. Zolin performed the rituals. He lit a fire and spat blood into the flames. When the fire had sizzled out he blew his shell trumpet and set off for the next shrine.

He had taken only a few steps when he felt a stab of pain lance his foot. He limped a few paces to the nearest tree and wedged the torch high in a tree branch. Bracing his arm against the trunk, he stood on one leg and examined his foot in the light of the torch. A thorn had embedded itself into his heel. Zolin gritted his teeth as he worked the thorn free. He flicked the splinter away into the jungle and put his foot down tentatively. As he reached up for the torch, he heard a quiet voice that whispered his name.

“Zolin?”

Zolin grabbed the torch. He swung the brand in a wide circle, searching for the sound of the voice. He saw nothing. The priests’ patrols kept the demons and evil spirits that haunted the darkness away from the city and confined them to the jungle where they belonged. Zolin had walked the path many times, but he had never seen a spirit or a demon. He had presumed that this meant he had performed his tasks well.

Maybe I was wrong, he thought as he thrust the torch towards the trees in what he hoped was a threatening manner. “Come out!”

There was a rustling sound behind one of the trees. A man stepped into the circle of light from Zolin’s torch. Zolin relaxed a fraction. Demons did not usually assume the forms of men, much less handsome men, much less…

“Matlal?” Zolin nearly dropped the torch in surprise.

“Zolin?” the warrior replied. He had brought his own torch, little more than a brand, and now he raised it to his lips and blew it out. When Zolin did not answer, he paused. “Your name is Zolin, right? I asked Cipactli.”

Zolin nodded. “What do you want?”

Matlal held his hands out wide to show Zolin that he had brought no weapons. “I just wanted to talk.”

“What?” Zolin said in surprise. It was his greatest dream and his worst nightmare. He had never imagined that he would be in a position to act on his desires. He had never thought that he might one day have to choose between his duty to his god and his longing for Matlal. “No. I have work to do.”

Matlal pressed on. “Aren’t you curious? I’ve seen you at the temple. The other priests watch the girls. But you watch me.”

Zolin had never imagined that Matlal even knew his name. “How did you know I was here?”

Matlal swatted an insect from his face. “I told you. I talked to Cipactli. He used to be my uncle, before he joined the priesthood. Don’t worry. He doesn’t suspect. If nothing else, I’ve learnt to hide my nature.”

“Which is?”

“Like yours.”

Zolin didn’t even bother to deny it. Matlal would see through his lies as easily as clear water. “I don’t have to act on my desires.”

“Maybe not. But you want to.”

“It’s against the rules.”

“Whose rules? Not mine.”

“The gods’!” Zolin hissed. Priests were supposed to be celibate, but he knew that some of his colleagues visited women. However, breaking vows with a woman was one thing. Breaking them with a man was something entirely different. Unnatural. The priests would kill Zolin if they found him with Matlal. They would kill them both.

“Have you ever seen the gods? Have you seen them even once?” Matlal swallowed. “Maybe they don’t even exist.”

“Of course they exist!” Zolin retorted. He felt as if the warrior had dragged him to the edge of a very deep pit.

Matlal’s eyes gleamed in the torchlight. “Why?”

“Because if they don’t; all the pain, the blood, the sacrifices, it’s all for nothing. The gods exist. And this-this is against their rules.”

Matlal cocked his head. “The gods gave us grain to eat and water to drink. Why did they give us desires to be left unfulfilled?”

Zolin shrugged. “Who knows the ways of gods?”

“So you’ve at least considered it?”

Zolin nodded. The thought of having Matlal was tempting. A stab of paranoia lanced through him. If this is a test-

He forgot it all as Matlalihuichi stepped forwards and kissed him. His mouth was sweet, and salty with the taste of blood. Zolin was just starting to enjoy it when Matlal pulled back and wiped his mouth. He looked startled.

“Blood sacrifice,” Zolin explained, “It’s nothing.” He spat onto the ground and leaned back to evade Matlal as the warrior leaned in for another kiss. “Wait.”

Matlal frowned. “That is the very last thing I want to do.”

Zolin jammed the torch into a forked tree branch. “We must be quiet. The gods might kill us for this, but the priests will definitely kill us if they hear us.”

Matlal nodded. He looked eager. “So how-”

“Just keep quiet,” Zolin said, and kissed him.

Matlal did not pull away this time. His lips curved against Zolin’s mouth in amusement. “I thought priests had hearts of stone.”

“Maybe they do,” Zolin said absently. He pushed Matlal’s cape aside. The ashy tips of his fingers left pale spots on the warrior’s skin. Matlal was sleekly muscled, not gaunt like the ascetic priests. Zolin liked it. He walked his hands up Matlal’s body. Gripping the other man’s broad shoulders to hold him still, he reached up and bit Matlal’s earlobe.

Zolin’s teeth were sharp. Matlal grunted.

Warriors, Zolin thought.

He left Matlal’s ears alone anyway; leant his head in the hollow of the other man’s collarbone and ran his hands down his back, stopping only to explore slick ridges of scar tissue with his hands. Matlal smelt of sweat, musk and something wilder that Zolin guessed came from the jaguar skins that warriors wore for their dance. He lifted one hand and licked his own fingertips experimentally. His skin tasted of salt and ashes.

Matlal slid his hands over Zolin’s hips to grasp his buttocks and pulled him closer. Zolin’s doubts fled. He did not resist as Matlal slid a hand between their bodies and untied Zolin’s loincloth. The cloth slipped and Zolin kicked it aside before it tangled around his ankles. He looked up at Matlal’s face and then down at his body. The warrior’s eyes were dark with desire. His high cheekbones gleamed in the copper light. Matlal’s own loincloth hung awry, and his arousal was obvious.

Zolin doubted that he looked half as magnificent. He was naked as a slave and his ashy body paint was streaked and smeared. Matlal’s hand moved to his member, and he groaned and forgot to care.

“Have you-” Matlal asked.

Zolin felt the rush of blood to his cheeks and thanked Tlaloc for the dim light. “No.”

“Hmm. I knew priests weren’t supposed to. I just didn’t think they meant it.”

“I want you.” Zolin said. His mouth was dry. His world narrowed down to the circle of torchlight and the musky scent of Matlal’s body. “I mean that.”

“You won’t regret it.” Matlal said, so fast that his words tripped and stumbled over each other. “I mean-”

Zolin kissed him. He felt the gentle touch of Matlal’s hand. The movement was alien, but so, so good. “Shut up. And get on with it. Before I change my mind.”

Matlal did not waste any time. He broke the kiss, placed a hand on Zolin’s shoulder and pushed, spinning him around to face the tree. Zolin did not resist. Matlal locked an arm around his shoulder and Zolin breathed in the sweaty scent of him. He hooked an arm around Matlal’s hip, reaching backwards, and tugged at his loincloth. His meaning was clear.

Matlal shifted and groaned. He fumbled left-handed at the knot, his breath hot against Zolin’s cheek. Zolin closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against the rough bark of the tree. He felt hands slide over his buttocks, felt Matlal’s fingers pierce his body. It was not comfortable, but it was nothing when compared to the pain that Zolin had endured during years of rituals.

Matlal worked his finger deeper, rubbing gently. “Is that-?”

“Yes.” Zolin murmured as he gradually relaxed. He even began to enjoy it. Matlal ground himself against Zolin’s hip, leaving a trail of wetness behind. By the sounds he was making, he was more than enjoying it. His hand danced the serpent dance along Zolin’s shaft.

Neither of them spoke as Matlal pulled his finger abruptly out and replaced it with a blunter, harder pressure. Tentative at first, the push between Zolin’s legs became more insistent. When Zolin did not object Matlal pushed harder.

Zolin bit down convulsively on Matlal’s hand as the warrior sheathed himself. He could feel Matlal warm against him and inside him. It felt…strange, at first. After a while, it began to feel pleasant.

“Is that-is it good?” Matlal’s voice sounded a lot more hesitant than Zolin had ever heard it.

It’s a good thing we’re of a height, Zolin thought. Else this would have been impossible… He nodded firmly and said “Yes.”

Matlal caught his breath and then, very slowly and gently, he began to move his hips.

Yes, Zolin thought again.

Matlal’s hand grasped Zolin firmly and jerked in time with the motion of his hips. At first he moved as slowly as a branch swaying in the wind, but gradually his movements became more confident. His hand moved more quickly on Zolin’s shaft. Zolin’s nails left scratches in the bark of the tree. He blinked sweat from his eyes. His vision was a blur. He could no longer hear the sounds of the forest past the roaring in his ears. His world shrank down to Matlal, and then only to the press of Matlal’s cock inside him and the motion of Matlal’s hand.

Gods, Zolin thought, unsure if it was prayer or blasphemy. He writhed, lost in sensation. He knew that he was very close. Yes, he thought again.

Matlal groaned. He gripped Zolin’s hips and pushed hard, surging in and out like the waves on the lake. At the moment of climax, he jerked convulsively, snarled like a jaguar and bit Zolin’s neck. The sensation wrung a new spasm from Zolin. He held his breath to stop from crying out and came so hard in Matlal’s hand he thought that he was dead.

As his consciousness expanded, he heard the drops spatter on the ground and thought I dedicate this death to Tlaloc.

Nothing replied.

Matlal gasped. Zolin felt him soften and slide out. The cold chill of sweat at the back of his knees and the stinging bites of flies reminded him he was still alive. Matlal pulled away and fumbled for his loincloth. He said nothing. There were smudges of white ash on his chest.

Zolin wasn’t sure what to say himself, so he kept silent. He picked up his own loincloth and tied it around his waist. The salty smell of sweat hung in the air. Zolin’s body ached. He felt sated. Finally he spoke. “Was that-?”

“Yes.”

“It-”

“Yes. I’ll be gentler, next time.”

Hope flared. “Next time?”

“Yes. Uh. If you want to.”

“Yes.” Zolin consented quickly. Next time, he thought, I will not submit so easily. His body greedily requested more, and now. But Zolin had not become a priest by giving into temptation. He stretched, reached for the shell trumpet where it had fallen and raised it to his lips. The sound echoed over the sleeping city by the lake. A dog barked and fell silent.

Color flushed Matlal’s high cheekbones. “Do you do this duty often?”

“Often enough.” Zolin lowered the trumpet. He was spent, his desire a faded shadow of its former self. He wanted nothing more than to curl up and sleep like a dog beneath the low branches of a tree. “I- I should return to my work. Somebody will notice.”

“And I should go back to the city.” Matlal said. He didn’t move.”My friends will be feasting.”

Zolin wanted to stop him. He knew that he could not. Every moment that he spent away from his duties and every moment Matlal spent away from his warrior friends was a moment that could be missed. He drew on priestly discipline and said “Go, then.”

“Until next time.”

Zolin nodded. “Until next time,” he said quietly.

Matlal smiled, a brief flash of white teeth against his dark face, and vanished between the trees. Zolin heard branches crack as Matlal made his way down the mountainside, and then nothing.

He picked up his torch and his trumpet and trudged towards the next way marker. He knew that he should confess his sin and submit himself for punishment as soon as he returned to the temple. He knew that he would not.

He felt as naked as the corpses splayed upon the rain god’s altar; his heart held high for everyone to see. Raising his face to the wind, he felt the first drop of rain against his cheek. A macaw croaked sleepily in the trees.

At last, Zolin thought euphorically, Rain.

A second thought followed fast on the heels of the first. The gods cannot disapprove, if they have sent rain.

Zolin smiled, already anticipating the next time he would be sent on night watch.

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