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True North

by SeishinNoUwagi (精神の上着)
illustrated by Enkaiein

Listen, little one: In the beginning times, before the true dawn, the Gods made a man and a woman out of mud. They were the first people, and the man was sent to work the earth and the woman to weave thread and spin cotton robes. But mud is stupid, and the mud people could neither fulfill their tasks nor raise their eyes from the ground. They were imperfect beings, and so the Gods destroyed them.

The next people were made of wood. They were a race of giants, much larger than you or me. They towered like the trees that had sacrificed themselves for the Gods’ creation. The wooden people multiplied and filled every corner of the land. Wood is strong, but it is also forgetful. The new people forgot the Gods and did not pay them homage. They were destroyed with fire and flood.

The final race was made of maize flour. They were our ancestors, little one. They were hardworking and devout. The Gods were pleased and allowed us to prosper. So always remember, my child, that the gift of our lives comes with price. To turn the seasons and keep the stars in the heavens the Gods must have sustenance. They must have struggle and blood; smoke and life, and it is our duty to provide these things so that the sun may always rise and the tides flow and ebb in perpetuity. This is why we sacrifice of ourselves.

This is why we play the ball game.

~*~

My earliest memory was watching the Kaminali priests cut out my father’s heart and give it beating to the God of Maize. The God was no larger than a normal man. His hair was partially shorn, his face daubed in yellow and red. Far more magnificent was his red parrot helmet, its plumes reaching to the sky and twining with curls of incense and the ash of my dead king and queen, their sons and courtiers. He ate the hearts that were given to him, the blood smoking to fire on his chin, and when he was done he rose into the sky, out from beneath the shadow of the eastern temple, and into the rays of the new dawn.

I watched this with my head low and my mouth tainted by dirt. I was just a priest’s son, not worthy of the Maize God, and I wouldn’t die that day. Instead I was given to the ball court. My arms and legs were strengthened, my body toned to a suppleness that was pleasing in the eyes of the Gods. I was instructed by the sacrifices that came before me: trained in my skill and to my role. In each game we re-enacted the great battles of the past, the victories and the triumphs of the Gods, though as sacrifices we were always on the losing side. We were the Underworld Lords, or sometimes the armies of the conquered cities to the West and South. Once we were people of my own city, lost so long ago, and we played out the memory of our defeat. I scored a point that game – the white jaguar marker fell to my raid – but we’d barely crossed from the white court to the black when Kaminali’s young princes sent the ball through the Eastern ring and ended the match. A shameful loss, but I’d shown myself well.

I was still young then, and every sacrifice of a teammate struck me in a tender place that has since scabbed over and grown hard. Captains, guards, raiders, one by one they were consumed, not every game but often enough to appease the priests and the Gods that came to watch. The favorites of the people lasted the longest: the ones that could play to the crowd or hit two markers between the bounce of a ball. Even as a novice I aspired to join their ranks. I came to covet the admiration and the accolades, and I basked in the compliments my skills gained me. The common people could never be so familiar with their own young princes, and I was happy to accept the recognition in their stead.

And so I grew, in height and pride and arrogance. When my Captain was beheaded and his body given to the Cloud Serpent I was gifted the role of leadership and took on a team of my own. Our numbers were four: Sinik, my childhood friend and together all that was left of the city we once called home; Wakax, a recent captive and still chafing beneath his change in circumstances; and a third who barely lasted a game. When the ball took him in the mouth the priests transformed his body to smoke. It wasn’t until the next count’s raid that we found our forth. They called him Kulal. His own name had been taken, as sometimes happens with captives of higher rank. He completed the team, and he changed it, and me, and everything.

~*~

Here is the story of how the Maize God and his brother came to die beneath the earth.

Xi’im and Huchack were born before the dawn of the world, and if you are to know one thing about them it is that they loved to play the ball game. They played it whenever they were able, and the other Gods often came to watch. Soon, tales of their skills reached the Underworld Lords and so they sent their messengers to challenge the brothers to a game. The brothers accepted the challenge, not knowing the treachery the Underworld Lords had planned for them.

On the appointed day, the brothers met with the Lords between the roots of the world tree, bringing with them their leather pads and their black rubber ball. The Lords measured the ball and told the brothers it was too light. They exchanged it for a yellow ball, but what the brothers did not know was that the ball was actually an armadillo, curled into its shell. The match began, and it was clear that Xi’im and Huchack were far superior in skill. But whenever they struck at a marker the armadillo would stick out an arm or a leg and knock itself away. And so by the end of the match the Lords had beaten them handedly. Xi’im and Huchack were sacrificed, and their were bodies buried beneath the ball court.

~*~

“What do you think, Wakax? Do they make my ears hang too low?” I tilted my head, admiring the ear spirals in the polished pyrite, then turned so that the light caught the facets of jade just so. I pretended not to see the looks of admiration in the young men loitering behind the market stand; I knew full well that the ear spirals flattered me.

“I think you’ll come to regret their weight on the court. Besides, they’re garish things; they show no sophistication.”

“Right, the warriors of the highlands outfit themselves with much greater dignity. But then, I hear your people still use the reflections of stagnant ponds for dressing.”

Wakax had been bent over the mirror, admiring the yellowed image it threw back at him, but at the jab he stood and straightened his back with flustered dignity. He’d come from a city too poor to afford such luxuries, but to hear him talk it’d been the twelfth tier of heaven. “You’ve spent nearly all our offerings already. Will you waste the last of them on your vanity?” He shifted our sack of groceries from one, powerful shoulder to the other; a show of irritation since he could hardly be feeling the weight.

I counted and weighed several small pouches of cacao beans and offered these to the merchant. He nodded and smiled as he took them from my hand. “And what would you spend them on? Pots of Chicha? Sinik would skin you bloody. Besides, all will be replenished after the match tomorrow.”

“If either you or I live to see it.”

I waved away his grumbling. 8 Atun was hardly occasion enough to warrant sacrifices, and the priests hadn’t announced the coming of any Gods.

It was well after midday and the crowds had begun to disperse. The vendors were packing up their wares and taking down the awnings. Only the children and the fruit merchants lingered, the merchants offering sun-ripened leftovers for just a half a pouch of tobacco and the children reluctant to return home from their daily errands.

A pack of these followed at our heels, giggling and skipping within our sandal prints. Whenever they came too near Wakax would set them back with a scowl. At the Western temple steps I made a show of kneeling and working out the fatigue of my calves. This put me at a more approachable level and the children wasted no time swarming around Wakax like the tide around a boulder to pile up a little mound of pebbles at my feet. It was a pretty assortment: quartz, chert, and small flakes of obsidian that were likely stolen from the knife-maker’s stand.

“What’s this? Did you bring these to me for marking?” A few of the children nodded shyly, the bolder ones offering me their particular favorites. I took a knife from my belt and used it to prick at my thumb until the blood pooled. I pressed it to each of the little stones, leaving behind prints of varying blurriness. “And this one was yours. Are you coming to the match tomorrow?”

“This is a waste of blood, Cimi.” Wakax waved as if he were dispersing a cloud of flies. “Don’t encourage them. They should be at their chores and their studies. How will they ever become warriors with your pampering?”

Before I could reply, two young women who had been folding cotton in the shadow of the temple ran forward to scold the children. “Apologies to you Cimi, Wakax; we shouldn’t have let them wander.”

I spared Wakax a grin as I rose to my feet. “It’s no trouble. I only regret taking you from the shade and exposing your lovely skin to this summer sun. Perhaps I could offer something in recompense?” They demurred, blushing as I cut my forefinger and used it to paint out the glyph for ‘black’ and ‘mirror’ on a piece of slate, the last marker I’d scored on in the previous match.

One of the women took it from me with a sweet smile. “It’s lovely, Cimi. You write even more beautifully than the scribes. How did you learn such a thing?”

“I was a priest’s son, after all,” I told them, even as Wakax gripped my elbow and jerked me around.

“Enough! Do you think they’d risk a slave’s fetters just to bed you? They’re not so stupid.” The women drew back, scandalized reproach on their faces as they herded the children away.

I pulled my arm free. “Did it look like I needed your help, Wakax? Keep your guarding on the court.”

“What do you want with those Kaminali whores?” he sneered. “Nothing good would come from mingling with them, even if it weren’t taboo for slaves. Your offspring would be misshapen monsters, an affront to the Gods.”

“Oh yes, Wakax, fathering progeny was exactly what was on my mind. Thank the Gods you were here.” I stormed off, not stopping until we’d reached the barracks and the wattle-and-daub huts that served as our quarters. Sinik was waiting for us at the entrance to the courtyard, but I pushed past without a greeting, done with company for the day.

“I see you found some new baubles to amuse yourself with. Dare I hope you bought something for the evening meal as well?”

I gave a careless gesture behind me, leaving Sinik to help Wakax offload the bags of cacao and salt and the jars of balche. The palace servants were responsible for bringing our daily rations, but it was left to us to supplement the plain fare if we wanted anything at all appetizing. It needn’t be said that we never missed a market day, limited as they were to the hours before and after festivals.

Inside the communal hut, Kulal was busy polishing the leather pads we would wear for tomorrow’s match. I watched him for a moment, still irritated with Wakax’s caustic remarks. “You use too much oil. You don’t need to soak the thing until it flops like a dead fish. Didn’t they teach you anything in that backwater you come from?”

“I’m sorry, Cimi, I’ll be more careful.” Kulal continued rubbing with his bit of cloth, not even raising his eyes. This irritated me further.

“And you can soften the gloves when you’re done. I want them supple as fawn skin before tomorrow.”

“Yes, Cimi.”

The boy had all the personality of a stone.

That evening, Sinik insisted on delaying dinner to light eight sticks of incense for 8 Atun. He offered me the sacrificial bowl and an obsidian dagger.

“Sorry, fresh out,” I said, showing him the scabs on my fingers.

“Cimi, you’re the Captain, this is your duty.”

“If K’uhul Ajaw plays as he did during our last match, the Gods will be getting more than their fair share from me tomorrow.”

Sinik gritted his teeth, the tightening of his jaw revealing a hidden dimple that only showed itself in his anger or exertion. “This could be our last night alive. Is this how you’ll enter the road? Mocking the Gods?”

“No one is being sacrificed tomorrow,” I said, pulling my bowl of atol toward me.

“The priest’s knife isn’t the only instrument that delivers death. Or have you forgotten what happened to our last teammate?”

Kulal looked up at this. I winked at him. “Before your time,” I told him.

“Cimi!” Sinik pounded the table with the hilt of his knife. “Dispense with your blasphemy for once in your life. You are our Captain. It’s time you acted the part.”

“Acted the part?” I spooned some of the porridge into my mouth. “Remind me, who was it who scored off of black dawn, black eagle, mirror, and red maize during our last match? Who makes the crowds cheer even louder than for K’uhul Ajaw’s own firstborn? Who has kept this team intact for three short counts? You want someone to guide your soul? Find a priest. That role was taken from me when I was five. By the Gods’ blood it’s the truth that I’m your Captain, so perhaps you should meditate on that. Now sit down and shut your mouth before the Wahy have your nagging tongue out.”

Sinik sat, white-faced, but not before he’d slashed his arms, letting his blood fill the sacrificial bowl and defiantly placing it on the household altar. No one spoke after that, and we finished the meal in silence.

~*~

Now Xi’im had a wife whose name was Haahil, and while she was waiting for her husband to return from the roots of the World Tree she gave birth to twins. With their father gone the twins had no names, but they inherited his great prowess at the ball game. As they grew, Haahil told them tales of their father’s strength and wisdom and so the twins swore to her that they would journey below the earth and avenge the death of their father and uncle.

Soon the time had arrived for the twins to challenge the Underworld Lords. They came uninvited and knocked on their doors, and the Lords had no choice but to accept their challenge or else they would lose their honor. The Lords tried to take away the twins’ ball, saying it was too light, but the twins were expecting this and so offered instead a magic stone that tripled in weight whenever the Lords touched it. Not thinking that the twins could ever play with a ball so heavy, they agreed to use the stone. And so the game began.

~*~

Trumpets heralded the start of the match. The King and his brother were the first to enter from the Eastern end of the stucco court, their headdresses towering above them in shades of red and blue and vibrant emerald. Commoners cheered from the ascending tiers that circled the court, throwing down liana flowers and silver slivers of white topaz that flashed in the sun. Next came the King’s firstborn, Ch’amak, and his younger brother, Aayin. Both were shrouded in dusky jaguar pelts, their faces daubed with white clay and cinnabar red as blood.

“You see? I told you Aayin would play today. The cousin could not have healed so quickly.” My team and I stood in readiness at the Western end of the court, waiting for the King and his family to complete their eight circuits of the perimeter. I fell silent as they passed us by, the priests smudging their every step with sweetly acrid incense. “Some who were at the battle say he may never walk again.”

“Aayin is quick, and he has a good eye for the way the ball bounces.” Sinik said. “I’ve seen him on the practice courts. They won’t miss the cousin.”

Above us, the high throne of honor stood empty, but that didn’t mean the Gods weren’t watching.

“Let’s see how he handles the crowd. The people’ll have high expectations for him.”

By the eighth circuit the incense had made the court a floating cloud, the King parting the vapors in a way that hearkened back to the beginnings of the world, when the Cloud Serpent dragged the earth from the sea. The circuits finished, the royal family stood four abreast on the East-West line of the court. This was our signal to enter and make a circuit of our own.

I came first, head held high beneath my headdress of vines and Poinciana flowers, a pairing that was meant to represent the entrails of the Lords of the Underworld. The crowd gave voice and my every step rang with their cheers. Then came Sinik, my raider, and Wakax and Kulal, our guards. After our circuit we put arm to shoulder behind the royal family and were careful not to look them in the eye. The High Priest blessed K’uhul Ajaw while the acolytes daubed powdered hematite on our foreheads. Then they withdrew, taking our headdresses with them, and so the game began.

Normally I started play in red court, but for this game I chose yellow, facing Ch’amak, the first-born. He smiled at me with his finely chiseled teeth, and I dared to smile back. Sinik took the ball throw facing K’uhul Ajaw on black court, ceding it as we did every game and letting him bounce to Ch’amak. I feigned a block and he took the ball on his hip. One bounce, and Ch’amak sent the ball into yellow water with his knee, scoring the first point.

With that, the ceremonies were finally over and we began to play in earnest. I switched with Wakax, raiding white court and receiving a bounced pass from Kulal. The ball came in low and I slid, catching it on my ankle and sending it over Aayin’s head. The ball was heavy and my ankle blossomed purple immediately, but the crowed roared their approval and I knew the early injury was worth the save.

Sinik caught the ball on a shoulder and bounced it back to Kulal in red court. The boy was reserved in speech but he had an unexpected flare for ball play. He took the bounce on his chest and passed it high with his left hip, a perfect placement. I dodged past Aayin and tipped the ball toward white water. It connected with the satisfying smack of rubber against stone. The game was tied.

Things went well for us after that. White earth, white serpent and white chert fell before K’uhul Ajaw struck yellow earth. But we had six markers to hit within every court compared to the royal’s four, so it was no surprise that when we broke into black court they were already halfway through red. Then disaster struck. K’uhul Ajaw called a raid, and all four rushed into red court to strike red maize. We were unprepared, and by the time Sinik and I made it across the line they had already passed the ball three times between them. Aayin was the last to receive the ball. Knowing this, Wakax leapt between him and red maize and the ball deflected off his temple. He fell to the ground, unconscious. Worse, the ball bounced wild and rolled across black court to strike black thirteen. We lost a guard and half our points in an instant. A halt was called long enough to drag Wakax from the court. Then the game began again with us down a man and the royal team two markers from victory.

It was our fate to lose, the game couldn’t end in any other way barring a divine miracle, but to end the match still in white court… it was a disgrace I hadn’t endured since I was a novice. I pulled Kulal off guard and we all three went on the offensive, trusting our aggression to keep the royal team off balance. The new formation was almost completely unpracticed, and red deer fell while we relearned how to move with and around one another. But once the rhythm was found it seemed to enter our hearts and pump through our veins along with the blood. It was a feeling beyond description, a connectedness that made our bodies one body and our minds one mind; a state that could only be called divine.

By the time red buccal fell and the King made his play for the Eastern ring, we’d regained white court and had captured black mirror. If it weren’t for black thirteen it would have been enough points to win the game, and with us only three. The crowd had screamed their throats raw; not a single person remained in their seat. When Kulal sprinted past Ch’amak to send the ball into black eagle with a snap of his knee, I thought the stones would fall around us with their outcry. And in that one unguarded moment, Kulal seemed to shed his servility like a second skin. Pride etched itself in lines across his jaw and cheekbones, the muscles of his back flexing as if to bear up the magnitude of sound that thundered down upon us. But this was our last moment of triumph. Our bodies were all-over bruises and the sweat ran off us like rain. Each breath was a breath of fire and when the royal team raided red court and K’uhul Ajaw sent the ball through the Eastern ring, it was with relief as much as ritual that we pressed our hands to our mouths, kneeling over stucco spotted with royal sweat and sacrificial blood.

K’uhul Ajaw ascended the stone steps and took his place on the honorary throne, his children to his left and right. The High Priest held aloft the rubber ball, symbol of the primordial sun. He reminded us that the sun was No’oh, who journeyed every night through the dark underworld and, with the blood of our sacrifice, broke free at last to become the dawn. Then he spoke of the upcoming dead days of the count, and the great festival of rebirth that was to follow. We would be blessed, he said, by the visitation of Huchak, brother of Xi’im. In his honor we would hold a ball game.

I inhaled sharply and gagged on dirt, my chest caved in by a phantom blow. Heart frozen by a sudden stillness, I looked for Sinik across the tile. When our eyes met, they reflected the same terrible understanding: Huchak, God of rains, of floods and lightning and the damp that brought decay. Huchak, eater of hearts. The new count’s game would be our last.

~*~

The twins had an advantage in the game but the Lords were very strong and both sides scored one after the other. But as the game wore on the Lords began to tire, until they could barely run across the court without great huffing of their breath. The twins scored twice more and so the game was over.

The Lords begged the twins to spare their lives. The twins did so, but in return made the Lords give up the bodies of their father and uncle, and to relinquish their riches and swallow earth. The twins had planned to take the bodies with them out of the underworld, but their father’s body was nothing but slivers of bone and skin, all far too small to be carried. The twins told their father he would not be forgotten. They promised that one day they would see him rise again. So it was that the twins and their uncle emerged from the underworld at last.

~*~

“We’re not going to lose the match.”

It was the first of the dead days, the new count a crescent sliver on the horizon of our fears. The four of us sat huddled in our communal hut, Sinik picking at his midday atol while Kulal tapped ink into Wakax’s skin, completing an arc of perinone circles that circumscribed his shoulders.

Sinik barely lifted his eyes from the tabletop. “The words you speak have no sense.”

“Then listen again.” I sat across from him, beckoning for Kulal and Wakax to join us. “If we don’t lose then we can’t be sacrificed. The Gods won’t allow it.”

Wakax wiped blood and ink from his chest. When he sat the bench groaned beneath him. “Most of the Gods, perhaps. Huchak’s never seemed too picky on where his hearts come from.”

That goaded the rise out of Sinik that my words had not. Since the last match he’d spent his time in a fit of pious devotion, praying over an ever-smoldering pile of incense and lacerating his forearms and thighs to near-uselessness. Finally I’d taken his knife away and bound his wounds over his vehement protests. His fury had raged to a peak of brief violence before subsiding into an apathetic sullenness he then rarely emerged from. “Watch your tongue, Wakax. Or will you bring your heresy with you to the altar?”

“None of us will see the altar,” I interrupted. “Listen, we’re the best team to play in all the long counts within memory. In the last match we scored enough points to win, were it not for black thirteen, and we did it without a guard. We can do this. We can change our fate.”

Sinik still wouldn’t meet my eye and Wakax had turned his face away. Only Kulal – silent, inscrutable Kulal – met my gaze, an unnerving suggestion of percipience ghosting his features.

“What’s your strategy, then?” Wakax asked, doubt still heavy in his voice.

I stepped outside to gather sand from the courtyard. I poured it in handfuls onto the tabletop, smoothing it to a level evenness with my fingers. “First, we don’t give up yellow water. If they want our blood they can fight for every ounce.” I silenced Sinik with a sharp gesture. “Let me finish.” I drew the oval court in the sand, quartering it along the four noble directions. For the markers I made dimples around the oval perimeter: thirteen from East to West, and nine from West to East. “We’ll raid the entire game. Kulal, you’ll join Sinik and me in white court. Wakax will guard in yellow. It’s high risk, but I think it can be done.”

Wakax shook his head. “We may gain an early rush, but with only me on guard they’ll eventually think to press us on overturns and deflections. Once they understand what we’re doing, yellow court will fall soon after.”

“Yes, but that is when our strategy changes.” I drew lines in the sand, showing the movements that had already played out in my mind. “Once they cross into red court then all four of us will follow.”

Kulal cocked his head. “Red maize?”

“Exactly.” I circled the seventh marker, the only one in yellow or red court open to us. “We hit red maize, and only red maize. We score all our points here. And with the royals past yellow chert, we can raid and guard at the same time.”

“All eight of us in red court?” Wakax lowered his brow. “It’ll be bloody.”

“It should be; the ball court is a stand-in for war, after all. So you see?” I smiled at Sinik. “We keep our lives, and the Gods get their due. All are satisfied.”

Sinik shook his head. “Huchak will still have his hearts.”

“And don’t forget the Western ring,” Wakax said. “We don’t know how to score a ring goal. We’ve never had to.”

“So we practice.” I brushed the sand from the tabletop. “There are still four dead days left. And as for Huchak, they can find other teams.”

“Perhaps I should be the guard,” Kulal said, interrupting me. “Wakax could be the third raider.”

None of us spoke for a moment, too caught up in the absurdity of the suggestion.

“Me? A raider? I can barely bounce the ball.”

“We need your skills in red and white court. Without a strong offense we’re lost.”

Kulal considered this, his features still. “Perhaps,” he said finally, “they will use another team for the festival. We don’t know that they’ll have us play.”

Wakax shook his head. “The fear has broken him. He’s lost his sense.”

“We’ve played every festival for the last short court,” I said. “Why should the new count be any different? And we’re the best team by far.”

He shrugged and brushed at stray grains of sand. “Very well. Let’s practice for this new ritual, then.”

Never had I met anyone who confused me so. Wakax left to ready the practice court and Kulal took our pads into the courtyard for re-stringing. Sinik retreated to his alcove of incense. I watched him for a moment, wanting to follow, but unsure. Then I saw him shaking, and so I sat down by his side.

“Don’t fear, Sinik. I won’t let the Gods take us yet.”

“Who are you to deny them?” His shoulders had tensed when I sat, and his voice echoed the strain. “And I’m not afraid. It’s an honor to sustain the Gods.”

“You’re not convincing at all.”

He brought a hand up, to hit me or push me away, but I leaned into him, between his arms, and gripped him tight. He struggled at first, uncoordinated bursts like a pinned animal, but I didn’t relent and his thrashing gave way to stillness, and finally to silent sobs. I tugged him into my lap and stroked his hair, in the way that we had as children when I would sneak into his bed. He buried his face in my neck and though he trembled like he was weeping, I never felt a single tear.

“Shh, shh,” I crooned, laying us down and pulling him back against me, cradling him close. “Be still, be well. I’m here.”

He quieted, and then slowly slipped his arms around me. I rubbed at the nape of his neck, then lower, between his shoulder blades, soothing circles that were meant to comfort even as they sparked something warm in me. Hesitantly, I trailed my lips across the tip of his ear and pressed them to his temple. His skin was bitter with the taint of incense, but behind that I could almost recognize the scents of home. I had barely begun to parse these when Sinik shifted and touched a kiss against my jaw. Emboldened, I trailed my fingers down his arm and pressed against a bruise on his bicep. He gasped, bit at my lips, and curled his legs between mine. I slid my grip lower, behind his thigh, and began painting out the stripes he’d made with his knife.

Sinik was slowly loosening, relaxing into my caresses, and I turned him beneath me when I felt him go limp. I hesitated, traced his cheekbones beneath his closed eyes; whispered his name. But he didn’t respond, and so, growing impatient, I reached beneath his waist wrapping to fondle his bird, and wake it to my hand.

His eyes snapped open and he threw me back, glaring as he sat up. “What are you doing?”

For a moment I was speechless. I’d thought that full obvious.

“We’re not boys anymore, Cimi. We’ve outgrown those things.”

“But, I thought, you returned my attentions…”

“Disguised as comfort,” he objected. “If I thought your intentions were so base, I would never have allowed it.”

“Oh, so? I remember a time when you allowed quite a bit.” The words left me in a rush. I’d grown too angry to hold them back.

Sinik flushed, and I knew I’d made a mistake. His voice grew cold. “The transgressions of youth. We are men, now, and we must comport ourselves accordingly.”

“According to who, Sinik? The priests? The Gods have never spoken on such things.”

“It is unclean!” He stood, towering over me. Another mistake, mentioning the Gods; it was a struggle not to meet his challenge in kind. “Fasting, abstinence, prayer: these are the things that bring us closer to the Gods and our ancestors.”

With this I did stand. “Closer? We’re no Kings, Sinik, and when they rip us from our bodies you and I will go to the same place whether we abstain or no.” I pointed to the ground. “There’ll be no divine welcome for us.”

Sinik stared as if he didn’t recognize me, as if I were a muddy cur on the street. He turned and walked toward the door. “I’ll help Wakax set the court. Join us when you’re done relieving yourself.”

As soon as he left, I deflated. So much I’d done wrong, so much I’d misjudged; I should’ve known we couldn’t recover a time already lost. In truth I was slightly ashamed of myself, my actions had been better suited to the man I was trying to leave behind at last. Sinik was right: pretensions of virtue aside, there were other things to be focusing on right now.

Outside I found that Sinik had already left for the practice court, but Kulal was still sitting in the sun, lacing leather pads with strings of sinew. He gave me a polite nod, and not wanting to seem aimless I pretended to check his work. My mind was still heavy, however, and I doubt I was convincing.

“Kulal, were you noble?” The thought had been lingering at the back of my mind since 8 Atol, and it was the first thing I grasped to break the silence.

He looked up at me, sinew dangling from one hand. “Why do you ask that?”

“They took your name; they never do that if you’re nobody.” I couldn’t help glancing away. “And you’ve been on the team for less than a short count, yet you’re … nearly as good as I am.”

He smiled at that, then wider, showing the blunt tips of his teeth and tapping his forehead. “Do I look noble to you?”

“Not all nobility fashion themselves in the Gods’ image,” I said. “And how else could you play so well?”

“Even commoners can set stone markers and find green fruit for a ball.” He returned to his lacing, deft fingers pushing the cord through the breaches in the leather. “And you, priest’s son, where came this idea of changing your fate?” The question made me uncomfortable. It brought with it images of Sinik’s blood and Kulal of a morning ago, breath misting between his lips. “It’s an interesting idea: heresy, perhaps, but interesting. Shouldn’t we walk the paths the Gods have set for us?”

“The Gods will have me.” The anger came, unbidden. “They will have each of us. What difference to them whether it’s this count or the next? Time is nothing to a God. Why not let us keep what we already have so little of?”

“And what would you do with your reclaimed time? This time that is so precious you’d withhold it from the Gods?”

Change, become better, I thought, but did not speak aloud. Reach for something more.

“From what I’ve seen, you spend one day much like the next,” Kulal continued, as is reading my mind. “Whether you change your fate or not, you can always change today.”

“My fate? You mean ‘ours’. Isn’t there something you’d want to do if we live to see the new count?”

Kulal returned my question with a long, silent stare, his lips shading up into a curve. I didn’t understand the meaning behind it, so I told him to hurry with his work and retreated to the hostile, but familiar, company of the ball court.

~*~

When they emerged from the underworld the eldest twin continued into the heavens with the body of his uncle and became the sun, and the morning star, and the evening star, and the midnight sun. But the long road and the weight of his uncle fatigued him, and he was not able to continue his journey across the sky. Seeing his brother’s exhaustion the youngest twin took up a stingray spine and used it to pierce his ears and tongue and genitals. He collected the blood in a bowl and fed his brother the nourishment of his body. This gave the sun the strength to move across the sky. As he travelled with the body of his uncle he let the pieces fall down to earth as rain.

As the sun turned and the rain fell upon the earth, Xi’im sprung from the ground, whole once more. In his gratitude he gave his eldest son the name No’oh. To his youngest son he said, “You too must take your place with your brother,” but the twin did not listen. So Xi’im threw him into the heart of the sky, the hole around which the heavens turn, and if his father gave him a name it never emerged from the blackness or was spoken of again.

~*~

Much of that day exists only as flashes of memory in my mind. Fear and a sickening thrill combined to paint great swaths of darkness across the quieter moments of the morning, mostly spent in ritual and preparation. I must have spoken to Sinik, to Wakax, to Kulal, offering what gestures I could, but those conversations are lost irretrievably now, as if each word were an offering dropped into a great cenote. Only small things remain: Sinik’s fingers brushing my wrist, the musk of oil from our leather pads mixing with the steam of morning chocolate, and Kulal, strangely absent from himself, with attention only for the sky and the far horizons.

Outfitted in full ceremonial regalia, we waited in the ball court as the royals offered their invitation to the God. K’uhul Ajaw chose a stiletto of jade from a selection of holy implements and held it aloft for benediction. A screen of priests closed around him, securing his privacy as he used the blade to pierce his genitals. The high priest knelt to catch the noble blood on a sheet of parchment. The Queen then took the stiletto to puncture her tongue. She pulled a string of fine cotton through the piercing, and this was used to tie the parchment in a roll. The high priest took the offering, coated in both male and female royal blood, and cast it into a brazier, throwing the smoke into the sky.

There was a roll of distant thunder. Clouds gathered. It began to rain. The darkest of the storm clouds rolled inward, pieces of it dropping in tiers to the very summit of the Northern temple. A sudden bolt of lightning rent the black mass and once we’d blinked the dazzle from our eyes we beheld the God.

He stood at the pinnacle of the cloud stone steps, his features obscured by sheets of rain. Slowly he began to descend into our silence, each step echoed by its own low rumbling, until his sandaled feet touched the temple’s highest stone. All brought hand to shoulder and cast their eyes to the ground, even the royal family. Huchak made no sign of acknowledgment but sat cross-legged on the stone, and the high priest signaled it was safe to begin. The royals cast off their finery and climbed down into the ball court. Normally the presence of a God would demand even more esoteric forms of ritual, but the Rain God was known to have little patience for ceremony. All he cared for was the match.

I got into the position for the ball throw, and with K’uhul Ajaw facing me I tried to push all thoughts of the God from my mind. The crowd was eerily silent, understanding that the battle of the ball game was today quite literal. They expected to watch us die. When the ball was thrown my feelings of sickness and panic rose with it, and continued rising, leaving me in a shell of calm as I spun and took the ball from the air with my shin. All of the royals froze, uncomprehending, even as Sinik took the ball on his hip and, with no obstruction, easily sent it into white water. The first point was ours.

Their confusion continued as we took the next three points, but as Kulal struck white jaguar we could see understanding and rage finally build within them. They took heavy advantage of our unbalanced positions, scoring point after point. But even still we managed to cross into black court before Ch’amak took red dog. Then all of us descended onto red court and chaos descended with us. Neither of us could manage to keep possession for more than a bounce. Sinik was bleeding from nose and mouth, and Wakax was half-blind from a black bruise that swelled his eye shut. I was also bleeding from the nose and had lost most of the upper layers of skin on my arms and legs to the ball or the hard stucco. Only Kulal seemed to dance through the blocks and strikes unfazed.

Sinik passed him the ball and Kulal bounced it twice, from hip to knee, then pivoted and sent it into red maize. It bounced high. He caught it with a shoulder, took it low with a controlled drop, and nudged it with his hip to send it into red maize again. The crowd roared, the spectacle of two consecutive hits enough to push their fear of the God into the periphery. The royals were furious. They still had yet to hit red maize themselves and they began to play with even greater violence. Aayin grabbed my arm and dragged me to the ground. Wakax tripped over me and fell, but Kulal leapt over us both, received a pass from Sinik and scored again. If we were playing black court this touch would put us at black dawn. Victory was so close I barely felt my injuries as I regained my feet. I caught Ch’amak by the ankle and sent him stumbling out of play. I signaled Sinik for the ball. Then lightning struck, throwing us to the ground and into unconsciousness.

When I awoke I found that I’d been dragged to the side of the court, along with Sinik and Wakax. The spectator stands had been completely cleared. Only priests and acolytes remained. Kulal was kneeling at my side, his eyes focused on something above and behind me. I turned and followed his gaze. Huchak had descended from the Northern temple. He was near the honorary throne and altar, conversing with the head priest who’d prostrated himself before him with hand to shoulder.

“K’uhul Ajaw and his family were injured,” Kulal said, his eyes still fixed on the God. “They’ve been carried into the palace for treatment.”

“What do I care for them? Are the others all right?” I pushed myself to sitting, fingering a bruise that had blossomed on the side of my face.

“Still unconscious, but whole, I think.”

“What happened?”

Kulal gave his strange, half smile. “We’re about to find out.” Above us the high priest nodded, then nodded again. He pointed toward the court. At first I thought he was pointing at me and the fear rose like a shock of cold water. But as the acolytes hurried toward us, I realized he was pointing at Kulal. “I was afraid this would come to pass,” he said, still smiling.

The acolytes grabbed him and tried to pull him to his feet but Kulal shook their hands away. He walked unaided up the court steps. Then another priest rushed down and said between breaths, “The High Priest says to bring up the Captain as well.” And so I found myself following in Kulal’s footsteps, though with far less grace. My knees had given out. I had to be dragged.

When I reached the top of the court, Huchak was seated on the throne and Kulal was cross-legged before him. The High Priest was muttering quiet instructions to the acolytes as they quickly assembled plates and censers. As I was dragged toward the altar I thought my heart might give out before they could pull it from me, but then a voice rang out in the high keen of the prestige language, the tongue of priests and Gods.

“Let him be, for now.” It was Kulal, his eyes resting on me with a careful remove. “The rest of you, leave us.”

The acolytes let me go and fled. The High Priest prostrated himself once more and backed away down the steps of the court. I huddled against the side of the altar, small as I could.

“Well, Uncle?” Kulal turned back, still speaking in the Gods’ tongue. “I suppose you have something to say to me?”

This close it was clear that Huchak was far from human. His eyes were yellow, vertical slits, with a clear reptilian cast to his face that lengthened his jaw like a caiman’s. His mouth was a jagged mass of teeth.

“Only that living as a beast you must have lost your manners. First we will eat.”

Kulal nodded, and rose. I pushed myself further back against the altar, an ironic touchstone of comfort, but he showed no interest in me. Instead he uncovered a platter left by the priests. Arranged there were eight deer hearts, the venous and arterial flesh arranged in flowing curls. Kulal placed the platter before the Rain God and took for himself a jade censer. He supported it in his lap, leaning over it to breathe in the smoke. Huchak took up a heart and tore it in half with his teeth, swallowing the piece whole. He ate the rest in the same fashion, like a crocodile snaps up fish, only pausing with the last heart to suck away what veins and arteries still clung to it. He wiped his hands and jaw with a white cotton cloth.

“Now we will speak. Your Father wants you to return home. You have been gone too long.”

Kulal was watching tendrils of smoke disappear into the rain. He didn’t seem to be listening. Finally he said, “Strange, the last we spoke, Father showed no interest in keeping me near.”

“Still your tongue.” Huchak waved his arm. “This childish defiance is beneath you. Why your Father spared you I will never understand. Know your place, and return with me now.”

“No,” Kulal said, quite calmly. “No, I don’t think I will.”

Huchak roared. Lightning cracked down and splintered off great slabs of stone, sending them crashing into the ball court. The thunder that followed nearly deafened me.

“Shout all you’d like, Uncle, it will not make me heed you.”

“Obstinate fool. You have all the discipline of a monkey. Your Brother knows his duty.” Huchak pointed toward the sky. “And he performs it uncomplaining. You are barely worth his shadow.”

“I am happy my Brother takes joy in the role that Father gave him. And I am happy that you both can find fulfillment in dancing for Father count after count to bring Him forth from the earth, but that is not my path.” Kulal set the censer aside. “I fulfilled my familial obligations to both of you long ago.”

“Such obligations can never be fulfilled, only sustained.” Suddenly, Huchak sighed throatily and reclined in the throne. “So, you are not happy with the tasks your Father, in his wisdom, has given to you. What path would you pursue, then?”

“I am not sure,” Kulal said, but then his eyes strayed to me, if only for a moment. “But I think I may find the answer here, with time.”

“Here?” Huchak scoffed. “Here on the mortal plane, with the maize flour people? What is there to learn here? A jaguar could learn more from a rabbit.”

“You are wrong, Uncle, I have already learned much. So I shall stay a little while more.”

“Your actions defy understanding. If you insist on playing at this foolishness, why wear the skin of chattel? A maize flour king or priest would be as demeaning, but at least you’d have command of the rest of them.”

“I have been both of those,” Kulal said. “I tired of it and now I am this. Being so high brought me too close to the Family in any case.”

“Stop, this meaningless talk is done.” Huchak stood. “You will come with me, or I will send a flood and wash this city to mud.”

Kulal smiled. “You may do as you like, Uncle, but in a flood this corn husk I wear will surely perish, and then I must find a new one to inhabit, perhaps nearby, perhaps far, far away from here, who can say?” He shrugged. “It is your decision, but if Father wishes to find me, well, he’d then be better served trying to find a grain of salt on the ocean’s sands.”

Huchak’s expression became stony. For a long time he said nothing. Finally he walked past me to the edge of the platform, and then with measured steps ascended once more into the storm. “Enjoy this sport while you can. Your punishment will come, if you’re lucky by your Father’s hand and not my own. That is a certainty. Farewell, Nephew.”

Kulal followed him to the edge and stood with arms crossed, watching him go. “Farewell, Uncle.”

When Huchak left, so did the storm. The light of sunset broke through the clouds and painted everything in shades of red. Kulal stood quietly for a moment more and finally turned toward me. “Did you understand any of that?” He asked, speaking in the common tongue.

Still unsure of him, or what was between us now, I could only nod.

Kulal gave a short laugh. “That’s right, the little priest boy and his surprisingly thorough education. Your father must have been a great teacher to teach you so much in so little time, despite neglecting to instill in you any sense of piety or deference to the divine.” He sobered. “I am sorry you didn’t get to win the match, Cimi.”

Shakily I rose to my feet, clutching the side of the altar to keep my balance. “It’s fine.” I didn’t know what else to say.

“You’ve all lived to see the new count anyway, or you will.” Kulal gestured at the darkening sky. “I suppose that’s what matters.”

“Yes, I, you played well today,” I said, feeling a fool.

“Too well.” Kulal came toward me, then stopped a pace away, as if unsure how to bridge this sudden unease. “I knew my Uncle would recognize me eventually, but I wanted to help you win your time.” Suddenly he grinned. “Though I still don’t know if your plan would have worked. As if they’d simply drag out some other poor team. Easier by far to sacrifice the upstarts.” He sat on the edge of the altar. “And where you got this idea that the Gods won’t accept winning hearts over losing ones. As if we were that discerning. Your human ideals of honor and fair play mean very little on the higher planes.”

“Then I’m glad I’m not a God,” I said, only registering my mistake after the words had rushed back into my ears.

Kulal’s smile faded. “Yes, so am I.”

Unaccountably this made me blush. I had to look away to hide my embarrassment. “What will you do now?”

“Leave,” Kulal said. “My Father will be searching for me and I’m not ready to go home just yet. I guess I will join you in stealing back some time after all.”

“I don’t suppose you’d let me come with you?” From the corner of my eye I could see Kulal studying my face. “If you wanted…”

“You would do that? Leave Sinik and Wakax and your life here?”

That made me pause. The city was all I knew, but it meant nothing to me. And my life here was the life of a slave and a sacrifice. But Wakax and… and Sinik? Could I really leave them to face their fate, alone? I still don’t know what I might have chosen, but Kulal continued before I could answer.

“You couldn’t come with me in any case. My ways aren’t human ways, though I may resemble one now. I think I’ll have to abandon this husk after all.”

I said nothing, strangely relieved that the choice had been taken from me. It lent me enough strength to turn and face him. “Then farewell, Kulal. Thank you for all that you’ve done for us. It was more than we deserved.”

“I wouldn’t say that.” He stepped forward, closing the gap between us until I could nearly feel his breath on my lips. “You took good care of me, Captain.”

“I didn’t,” I mumbled.

He laughed. “It’s true, you didn’t. In fact you were a bit of an ass. But I came to regard you fondly despite yourself.” He took hold of my shoulder, brushing my neck with his thumb. “If you would like to make up for any of that, there’s a favor I would ask you.”

I looked up carefully, holding my breath.

“The priests don’t know my name; I never receive sacrifices. There is a long journey ahead of me and I barely have enough strength to sustain this form. Will you help me, Cimi?” He looked back and forth between my eyes, and this close I could almost see jaguar spots beneath his skin, could almost feel the tickle of whiskers. “Will you be my sacrifice?”

I inhaled, and swallowed noisily. Finally I nodded.

To my surprise he leaned forward and embraced me. His skin still gave off the scent of rain. “Thank you, Cimi. I won’t ask for more than you can give.” He took hold of my shoulders and squeezed. “Now, there’s little time. Make yourself clean.”

The priests had left purification tools near the altar. I washed myself, inside and out, and after a moment of hesitation I discarded my torn and bloodied waist wrapping. Then I combed and braided my hair. All the while he watched with a disconcerting scrutiny. I returned to him, arms clasped in front of myself. “What do you…?”

“Your essence, first.” His eyes had taken on a feline cast. “On the altar.”

I did as I was bid, climbing onto the altar and bracing myself with a hand behind me. I was still somewhat self-conscious as I took hold of myself.

“Spread your legs. I want to see you.”

That made me blush again. I opened my thighs, letting my legs fall off to either side. Unable to hold his gaze, but also unable to look away, I studied him from beneath my eyelashes, watching him watch me as I fondled myself to near-hardness and began to stroke. As my bird continued to stiffen in my hand, it suddenly struck me with full force that I was pleasuring myself for the pleasure of a God. A God who had slept near me, eaten with me, fought in the court by my side, and who was now raking me with a gaze that turned my skin to fire. Kulal, whom I once thought so subservient, was holding me down with his glinting, green eyes.

I gasped, rolled for a moment by an unexpected pleasure. Kulal padded closer.

“Faster,” he said.

I took hold of my lip with my teeth, trying to suppress a moan as I worked my flesh with an ever-increasing tempo. My hand had become sweaty and it slid easily up and down my length, slick and tight. The pleasure made me arch my neck. I was staring at him openly now, daring him to take me with his body as well as his eyes. But Kulal only watched, imperious, almost haughty, but with an intensity that seemed to work me like a second hand as I seized and cried out, releasing on my abdomen and chest. I collapsed onto the altar, shuddering with the after-effects of my pleasure, trying to get my gasping breaths under control. “I give unto you, oh God, my spirit, my essence, my water. Holy Lord, partake of my offering, for I give unto you in worship and humility.”

As my breathing slowed, I opened my eyes to find Kulal braced over me. He climbed onto the altar, straddling my hips, and then bent to lap my essence from my chest. I keened softly at the feel of his tongue rasping over my skin and nipples, a burn that I had to hold myself back from pushing into. I gripped both edges of stone, clenching my eyes shut, gasping through gritted teeth.

“Am I hurting you?” Kulal sat up, looking down at me with a hint of amusement.

“No Lord, it’s just, the sensation…”

His lips curled further. Slowly he began to run his fingers through the mess on my abdomen, trailing them across my ribs and over my flanks. He brought his hand to his mouth and licked them clean. “Better?”

I had begun to harden again. “Anything, please, Lord, please touch me.” I bit at my tongue, trying to hold back another moan. Then I bit at my lips, over and over until they gleamed red.

“Are you trying to tempt me?”

I bit harder, feeling the skin split. I brought my hand up and smeared the blood across my chin.

Kulal grabbed my wrist and jerked me flat again. He bent over me, staring me in the eye. Finally he lowered himself completely to lick the blood from my skin, tongue curling around my jaw. When that was gone he sucked at my lip, and then my tongue, an inaudible rumbling coming from his chest. I arched my back, wanting that feeling pressed all along my skin. Unable to bear it any longer I let go of the stone and gripped him behind the shoulders, pulling myself up and rubbing against him. He dug his fingers into the root of my braid to keep me still, yanking my head back to delve deeper into my mouth.

Finally he released me and I fell back, gasping, my lungs opening for the first time in what felt like hours. It was an internal ache that might have been painful, but I could barely distinguish it from the ache in my groin.

“You distracted me.” He sat back again, his body an agonizing weight in my lap. “I need more. Will you give me more, Cimi?”

I nodded furiously. Anything, everything, just don’t stop.

He slid from me, walking around the altar. It was a fight not to turn and grab him, a fight I’m sure I would have lost if he hadn’t rejoined me soon after. Kulal climbed up behind me and helped me to a seated position, and then pulled me back against his chest. He handed me a stingray spine.

“When you’re ready.”

I didn’t hesitate. Mimicking K’uhul Ajaw’s sacrifice from earlier, I gripped the spine by its tip and raked it over the head of my bird. The sudden sensation after so much neglect nearly made me scream. I steadied myself. The spine had left a stark red line. Not hard enough. I raked myself again, then a third time, until beads of blood appeared and mingled with the fluids already leaking there. Kulal stroked my chest and kissed my neck, sometimes pressing his cheek against my jaw as he watched me make my sacrifice. After I had added lines like stitches all around the head of my bird and along the shaft, and the blood had begun to flow freely, he whispered for me to stop.

I let the spine fall and collapsed back against him, my bird on fire and so hard it pointed toward the heavens. He reached down and traced my vein, from root to tip. I mewled and twitched against him. After another lingering caress with two fingers, he switched to painting across my lips. I felt the stickiness of my own blood before he bent and sucked it all away again. Carefully he stood, lowering me to the stone with a steady hand. I didn’t object; I was already trembling with anticipation. Kulal walked the length of the altar, trailing his hand over my chest, circling my navel, then down my stomach to brace at the join of groin and thigh. I couldn’t watch when he knelt to take me into his mouth. I could barely feel, I was feeling so much already, but at the first brush of his tongue everything in me began to writhe.

In the end he had to pin my hips to suck me, to hold me down hard so I didn’t thrash myself off the altar. The strength in his hands matched the strength of his mouth, the way his tongue curled around me and stroked hard against my length. I bit my hand to keep from screaming, my throat already sore and hoarse. The other I used to tug at my hair, unraveling and tangling my braid because I needed something to balance the intensity of that feeling.

I don’t even remember my second release. It all got swept away in his eyes and his hands and his tongue. I remember the skin of my back prickling against the cold stone and the cool breeze of night. I remember him caressing my thighs, and then leaning forward to grab a handful of my tangled hair. I remember our final kiss. And it was a real kiss. His lips against mine, no taking, just the commingling of our breath and the ebbing flow of our pleasure. He allowed me to explore him for a little while, as I came back to myself, and the velvet smoothness of his skin sliding beneath my fingertips almost eclipsed everything that came before.

But finally he drew back, and it was over. I climbed down from the altar, my legs rubbery, and he helped me wind the waist wrapping back around myself. I hoped he might come in close again, but his eyes sought out the low-hanging moon instead. I knew his mind, at least, had already begun his journey.

“Thank you again, Cimi. I hope you find what you’re looking for, in the time remaining to you.”

My heart was too full to tell him I thought I already had. Instead I said, “And you.”

I walked with him down the court steps, through the empty city streets and to the edge of the forest. There was nothing left to say, but still I couldn’t let him go in silence.

“I suppose I’ll never see you again.”

Kulal hesitated, then turned, looking at me with that same inscrutable expression that had baffled me many times before. “You may, if you want to.” The pain and confusion on my face must have been plain, even by the faint moonlight. “When your time is at an end, and the priests lay you across the altar, tell them to give your heart to me.”

“How can I?” I said with a cry. “When none of us know your name?”

“Ts’ii.” He smiled, then leaned close and whispered in my ear, as if it meant more the second time. “Ts’ii. Your soul doesn’t belong to the Underworld Lords any longer.”

For a moment I could only cherish that closeness. “But then, how will I find you?”

“I will hang a light for you,” he said, pointing North, toward the heart of the sky. “And don’t fear, it won’t turn with the rest of my Father’s sky. You will know it’s the one meant for you.”

I stared at the spot, memorizing it as I memorized Kulal’s face, knowing I would never see it in life again.

“Goodbye, Cimi.”

“Goodbye, Ts’ii.”

And then he was gone. But not forever, I reminded myself as I returned to the city; to the home I shared with Sinik and Wakaw, turning often to look at the black piece of sky that Ts’ii would mark for me. Really, not very much time at all.

~*~

And then came the dawn.

Author’s notes: The myth interspersed with the story text is a modified version of the Hero Twin saga, part of the Mayan Popol Vuh mythos.
Historically there is no Mayan God of the North Star. During the Classic period the part of the sky that we identify as ‘true North’ was empty black space that the Mayan called “The Heart of the Sky.” Polaris has only recently shifted to occupy its present day location.
For more story notes, information on the historic Maya, and a full list of resources, please see this story’s S2B2 wikipedia page.

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One thought on “True North

  1. Impressive! The world building here is very good and I got to feel that I knew Cimi and understood him in a way. The ending is bitter sweet of course, but I still loved the glimpse into a world that is almost impossible to grasp for someone outside it. Thanks for the journey!

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