Manah Cocom, still holding the letter the servant had given him, went to his north window and looked out into the twilight.
He had known, when he first donned the mask of the rixinkun, that the office he was assuming was not an easy one. If he’d had any idea how thoroughly he was to be tested, however, he would have found another way to serve the Batab.
He stared, unseeing, at the sinking sun. By Ahkin of the Waves, he missed Palenque. He missed the broad lanes, the fragrance of jacaranda, the way Kinwiinik girls’ hips swayed in the summer as they passed by gossiping.
But most of all, he missed Huech.
What had it been like, being stoned to death? Had the gods been kind? Had they gathered their child right away, his beautiful face crushed like rotten fruit? Or had it suited them to allow him to suffer, buffeted by rock after rock until he had been nothing but deep, cruel bruises? Had the stone that struck the final blow been slate? Porphyry? Granite? Obsidian?
It had been a year and a half since the death of his “cousin”—for so the polite fiction had named his beautiful, beautiful beloved—and still questions like these haunted him night and day.
One thing he knew for sure, though, more surely than he knew his mother’s name. Huech had died cursing the name of the woman whose brazen selfishness had sentenced him to death:
But enough of this. Manah was here to do the will of the Batab, not to dwell in his own past. His inspection had taken far longer than usual, precisely because he had arrived believing the Cocom would be better stewards of the chocolate monopoly than the Balam—and it was his sacred duty to make sure that his ultimate decision was based not on his own hatred but on the good of the Batab. He had spent his time here searching his conscience, excavating his thoughts, examining each one for bias as it passed.
His examination was finished. He knew now whether or not he would allow things to remain as they were or deal a crushing blow to Kaab and the finances of the Balam by enabling his own family, finally, after decades of struggle, to be first among Traders in riches, influence, and power.
He stepped over to the south wall, bent over the mahogany box that held his most secret papers, released the trap hidden in the mouth of the feathered serpent, raised the lid. Reached in, pulled out the writ of the Batab, complete but for a name.
Approached the table on the west wall that held his brushes and ink.
But first, the letter. The Xanamwiinik who had delivered it, according to the plump and too obsequious servant downstairs, had said several times that it was most urgent. Manah sat down, laid the writ on the table, and opened the letter. Read it. Read it again. Set it down.
If he had all but made his decision, the contents of this letter made it for him.
He went to bed then, earlier than usual. He had important business to conduct the next day.
The young men of the University were widely known to be an indolent tribe, given to sleep and not overly fond of the morning, passionate in their leisure and in their loving, warm in their resentments, lethargic in their study. Among the many customs that an outsider who spent any meaningful amount of time observing them might notice was that they were quick to seize upon any opportunity to drink.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that, after the brief and tasteful memorial ceremony held early the next morning in honor of the late Duke Tremontaine (a strictly University affair, honoring a benefactor), a goodly number of the students who had been in attendance got very, very drunk. They did not care a fig about the late Duke Tremontaine—in fact, some of them had already been drunk enough during the ceremony that they did not entirely apprehend its purpose—but if pretending to do so allowed them to retire to the Drunken Phoenix and call for the barkeep to uncork a bottle of wine, they were all for it.
After the first bottle came a second, and a third. As their talk grew louder, other young men joined them, and more bottles were uncorked, until a good two dozen of them sat or stood in the small space—two of them lay splayed out on the floor, in fact—and the conversation turned to what they did care a fig about, which was the school founded by one Rafe Fenton, recently of their number.
“Just what does he think he’s doing?” shouted Oliver. “The Duke William Alexander Tielman School, indeed.”
“No,” said Simon. “He’s calling it something else now. Don’t know what.”
“I remember when he came up with the idea,” said Oliver, who was slightly less drunk than many of the others, though not by much, “and was telling everybody about it.” He paused for a lengthy draught of Ruthven red. “I told him I thought it was inane.”
“You should have told him he could bed you if...