The cold wind had begun over the Western Sea, blowing over mountains, over fields new-sown with grain that would ripen in its own time, over fat oxen and goats heavy with milk, over deep valleys twisting with rivers, but by the time it reached the City, no one cared whence it had come or what it had seen; they thought only of the evening’s bonfires and the warmth they would offer.
For the Night of the Flames had arrived.
The origins of the festival, one of the few to have survived from the days of the old gods, before the Kings rode south, were but vaguely adumbrated in the minds of a few learned men, the true significance of its customs long given way to children’s superstitions and the fancies of gossiping old women, but an undercurrent of excitement ran nonetheless through the streets. The Siege of Riverside, as it had come to be known by the denizens of that island, had been lifted, its instigator sacrificed in a manner of their own choosing, and they had already begun to return to the thieving and whoring and license in which they preferred to spend their time. In the Middle City, the merchants grumbled in public at the day’s trade lost and sighed with relief in private, some of them, at the rare opportunity to loosen their collars. The proud songbirds and sober lords of the Hill were about to begin the annual round of winter balls and banquets and fetes with which they vied to outdo each other in splendor, the winners smiling in malicious, glittering triumph and the losers retiring to nurse secret poisons and resentments until the next year.
Only the Kinwiinik paid the imminent revel no heed. They had more important rites to attend to.
The old consonants still felt strange in Kaab’s mouth, but after stumbling her way through what seemed like countless holy days in the months since her arrival, she no longer found the sensation surprising. She couldn’t remember the last time she had heard the traditional, archaic pronunciation of the sacred tongue in Binkiinha, but here in the Land, nobody, it seemed, would think of using anything else. At times she felt it brought her closer to those who had come long before her. More often it made her feel like her great-mother.
“Heart of Heaven,” she began, and, shivering, realized that, no matter which pronunciation she used, she needed to speak louder if she wanted to be heard over the wailing. She wished she were wearing a jacket—of course, her quilted coat had already proven unequal to the cold spring winds; it would soon, she understood, be even colder. Maybe it was time to surrender to reality and buy a Xanamwiinik fur.
Her hair had been unbound for long enough to begin to knot, and she wanted very badly to take a bath.
She shook her head, and began again.
Heart of Heaven, Heart of Earth,
Give me strength, give me courage,
In my heart and in my head,
As my mountain and my plain.
My grandmothers, grandfathers,
And the numberless souls of the dead,
May all of you together give strength
To the reading I have undertaken.
And then she read, the assembled crowd at her back, the tale of how the gods created the earth and the mountains and the valleys, divided the waters, made the animals, ground yellow and white maize to mix the dough from which they fashioned the First Mothers, four of them, and, while they slept, made the First Fathers from their rib bones, to be helpmeets and companions.
She almost smiled, remembering her childhood insistence, to her mother’s great annoyance, that the gods ought to have asked the First Mothers whether they wanted the First Fathers as helpmeets and companions before going ahead and making them—but only almost. Her people disapproved enough as it was of her steady manner, her even voice, unbroken as she read, her face dry. She herself disapproved. She wanted to collapse in tears, in sobs, in lamenting, as so many of the Kinwiinik in the compound had done so frequently in the days since her...