In Binkiinha, in the mornings of the last three days of the month of Hok, the young priestesses of the corn goddess would wake before dawn to collect flowers from the nearby forest and return in a procession down the Avenue of the Dead just as the sun was rising rosy and blond in the east. The girls walked barefoot on the smooth white limestone, loose hair crowned with garlands of red and white flowers that fell down their backs in swaying, sweet-scented capes. Kaab used to crawl to the top of the great market wall just to see them those mornings, to sigh and catch the eye of her latest crush—who was in every way forbidden to so much as talk to her. The precious blossom, name unknowable, would nonetheless glance upward and smile and blush the color of her rose plumeria cape when she raised her hand to catch the white lily that Kaab had waded through the garden pond to find for just this moment—a sweet dawn smile of shy desire.
Walking alone through another dawn on the other side of the world, Kaab felt a pang for those beautiful priestesses who would now be too old for the ritual. Kaab had a head of sunset on her pillow every night, she was no longer a baby possum of an adolescent crying for a glance of her latest love, and yet she found her heart swelling awkwardly in her chest and sinking to her liver. Her mother had been alive back then. She had caught Kaab crying in a tree in the garden, holding a lily in some kind of fevered invocation of that one fleeting look, and told her to focus on her lessons: “Loves will come and go, little bee,” she had said, “but family is forever.”
And in this far-off place where Kaab had at last found a love worth a thousand predawn lilies, family meant more than she had ever suspected in her home across the mist and ocean: It meant language, it meant food, it meant jokes that someone would understand if she told them, complaints that someone would echo if she made them, it meant late nights over dangerous cups of pulque constructing towering scaffolds of poetry and dance with the other learned women of the court and trade. She loved her Tess with a passion as deep as the holy cenote of Cehtuun, but she despaired of her maize-flower ever becoming family.
She despaired, but still, she would try.
After her run-in at the warehouse, both Chuleb and Saabim had been adamant that Kaab not return to the Balam compound. It would be too dangerous, they had told her, if someone recognized her returning to the bosom of her family after her supposed estrangement. Unfortunately, a week away had meant a week suffering through her beloved’s home cooking without even a calabash seed to pierce the gray, and there was only so much oatmeal even the most patient and attentive of lovers could eat before she was hurling it out the window.
Ixkaab Balam, though in many ways a fine and satisfying lover, had never been accused of patience. Which was why she had devised this plan in the early morning hours, listening to her beloved breathing by her shoulder and her stomach gurgling further below. She didn’t dare return to the Balam compound, but no one had actually forbidden her from visiting the compound of another Kinwiinik family, now had they? The Chel family compound was the second oldest in the Kinwiinik section of the Middle City: It had been deemed politically expedient to invite Chel participation in the new trade within a few years of making first contact. Their compound—like everything about the Chel, really—was more modest than the Balam, but tasteful and judicious. Unlike the Cocom, the other great trading family of the triple alliance, the Chel were content to remain in their supporting role to the Balam, secure in the knowledge that fewer risks meant stable granaries.
Kaab waited until she spotted a pair of servants heading to the gate of the Chel compound, a bit down the road from the Balam home. She jogged up behind them as they were chatting with the guards, and held up her basket filled with dried corn husks, providing the guards with an uninteresting explanation for her presence and hiding her face in case an attentive one remembered the most recently arrived member of the Balam family. This trip might not be forbidden, but it would get back to Saabim if she visited openly, and just to bring back some food, at that. The Chel weren’t actively ambitious, but they were Traders; they would use an opportunity if they found one. Kaab could just imagine Ixkutz, the head of the Chel family in the city, humbly mentioning how she had fed and sheltered the poor daughter of the Balam, so subtly implying that Kaab’s own family could not. There would almost certainly be many carry-weights of cacao to pay for that breach of social standing in the eyes of their junior trading partners.
So Kaab lowered her gaze and broadened her accent. “Ran out before we finished the tamales,” she said, by way of explanation. “Sent me to the Cocom for more.”
The two men, attired in Local clothes...