Ixkaab Balam, third of the name, first daughter of a first daughter of the greatest trading family of the Kinwiinik, had been fully trained in the ways of the Locals, the Xanamwiinik. She had learned their language, their dances, their uncomfortable manner of dress.
She had learned these things over the course of years in the Balam family compound in Binkiinha, in between her more important studies of the five major trading partners and her missions on behalf of her family. She had enjoyed their study, as the people across the sea to the north were profoundly different from those of the civilized world. But she had never expected to find herself actually stationed in this backwater, among the people with skin the color of ant eggs. What’s more, here, even the elders of the family watched her with suspicion and exchanged rumors of the disaster that had chased her here.
It had been seven months since it had happened (she avoided thinking about the specifics as she would avoid passing too close to a sleeping jaguar), but she still hadn’t accustomed herself to being in disgrace. She passed her nights embroidering ideas of how she could serve her family and regain their trust—but every morning, all such thoughts evaporated beneath the unblinking eye of reality, these people’s weak and pallid sun.
Here, in reality, there was to be a feast when the sun set tomorrow. Kaab had spent the last four hours stuffing dried maize husks and banana leaves with various preparations of maize dough and seasonings. It would not be a feast to dignify the family name without several thousand tamales. Her aunts and cousins and family servants had mostly kept their conversation among themselves. Or perhaps it was simply that Kaab, ignorant of the daily minutiae of their lives here, had no means of entering it. She wished that she had never gone on that mission to Tultenco. Or at least that soldiers of the Tullan hadn’t been searching the coast for a woman of her description. Wishing so fervently for impossible things made her clumsy: she lost track of her hands and dropped wet, warm dough on her bare foot instead of on the banana leaf.
“Oh-ho,” said one of the older women, a distant relation whose name Kaab hadn’t quite managed to learn. “Tired, little bee? Or are you daydreaming? Found a boy you like here in just five days, already?”
The other women, including her Aunt Ixsaabim, laughed and turned to Kaab, who went red-faced as she kicked the dollop of wasted dough to one of the hairless black dogs that lingered for scraps from the kitchen.
“Fast work, cousin!”
“From what I hear of our little bee, it’s more likely a girl than a boy that has her tamales looking like crooked snakes.”
Kaab looked down at the ones she had just finished. Her mother had trained her well: they looked even and plump, the same as the others. Perhaps she couldn’t quite manage the seashell and bean decorations of the old women trained from birth for the kitchen, but she was hardly a daydreaming amateur!
Kaab raised her just-wrapped tamale, an indignant protest on her lips. But it died when she saw the friendly, laughing faces of the women around her. They were her family, even if she still couldn’t tell her twin cousins apart or remember all of the elders’ names. Aunt Ixsaabim reached across the great basket stacked with tamales ready for the steaming pots, and rubbed Kaab’s shoulder.
“Perhaps I have been a little distracted,” Kaab said contritely. And then, with a flare of inspiration, she quoted, in Tullan-daan:
“The woman I desire is a maize-flower
The morning after rain.
Oh, giver of life! Giver of rain! ”
The elder Aunt Ixnoom nodded in appreciation. “The great Tullan masters are good to know, child. Your mother, may she never be extinguished, may she never disappear, taught you well. I was married into the Nopalco court, you know. When my husband died I returned home. Long ago. But I do remember the poetry.”
The other women nodded, the older ones sadly. There had been a war with Nopalco just at the turn of the last century; they had rebelled against the demands of Tullan empire tribute, and the poems said the river Amaxac had run red with their blood for thirteen years. Judging by her age, Aunt Ixnoom must have escaped that great massacre. She must have endured hardships that made Kaab shiver to imagine. And yet she had survived to be an elder, far away from home, but still with family. Perhaps by enduring Kaab could redeem herself from the disaster that had made her father insist she leave home, without even a promise of return. Perhaps, even in this backwater, strategically important to family affairs but woefully lacking in any kind of refinement, she could find the means to honor her mother’s spirit. Was she not the daughter of Ixmoe, legendary in her own time for her exploits among the peoples of the southern seas? Was she not dedicated from birth to the sacred art of trade—which was to say, the sacred art of...