Sun and Moon

by Deborah L. Davitt

Part I: Birth and Death

Pisco knelt in the terraced farmland held by his ayllu outside the village of Vitcos, loosening the soil around the roots of a potato plant with practiced fingers. His long hair fell into his face as he glanced up, looking north along the winding mountain road that led deeper into the lands of Tawantinsuyu. It led from the great cities of Ollantaytambo and Cusco before sweeping past this small village to the larger provincial capital of Willkapampa like a river made of stone. Low stone walls lined the edge of the road for as far as he could see.

He’d spotted a black dot on the road earlier in the day, surrounded by a haze of dust, but the folds of the mountain had concealed the dot from view for much of the morning. But this time when he looked up, it had grown so large that he could see the shapes of men inside the cloud.

Pisco stood, stretching, and picked up his rawk’ana, a hoe made entirely of wood, and prodded at the ground. All up and down the steep, stepped terraces, members of his ayllu did the same. None of the others bothered to look at the growing dot; no invaders ever came from the direction of the capital these days, and tax and tithes weren’t due until harvest. And if it happened to be a party of priests, or some delegation from the Sapa Inca, the First Inca, looking for a different sort of tithe?

Bad news could wait for their attention.

Besides, if they took their attention from the fields, there would be no potatoes in winter, and no tax to pay the Sapa Inca—or tithes to pay the priests.

The business of each ayllu, or clan, was their hereditary work. Farming ayllu farmed. Potting ayllu made pots. Crafting ayllu worked gold and silver. Every member of an ayllu was bound to a patch of hereditary land—except for the women, who were sent to other ayllu to marry. Fresh blood. But every woman retained membership in her birth ayllu, and could inherit its land—assuming that any land was available to inherit. The women wove fabric to clothe their families, took care of the children, and helped with some of the less back-breaking labor in the fields. But none of them worked the fields today.

A wail of pain broke through Pisco’s thoughts as he stabbed at the roots of weeds infesting his potatoes, reminding him why the women weren’t here.

His wife, Totora, had been in labor since last night, and had yet to pass the babe from her body. So great was her pain that she couldn’t even hold to traditional, stoic silence in the face of childbirth. He clamped his teeth together and did his best to shut out the sound, humming under his breath as he worked at his terrace. There was nothing he could do about her agony, and he wasn’t Chimori—the men of those fresh-conquered barbarians to the west, it was said, stood behind their women during childbirth, holding them upright while they squatted out the child. When everyone knew that it was bad luck for a man to be anywhere near his wife at such a time! His mother and grandmother knew what they were doing, and would help Totora.

Besides, the sun was almost overhead. He could take a break and go drink from the chill water flowing through the canal—and then carry that water down from the canal to his terrace’s potato plants after that. If I don’t work now, there will be no food to feed the babe in winter.

An hour later, Totora’s cries sounded weaker, and the black dot had become a line of men and women, carrying their belongings on their backs, or leading llamas, laden with heavier goods. A small herd of alpacas, looked after by children, followed along behind the grim-faced men and women, and behind that? Inca soldiers, in heavy tunics stiffened with wood slats for protection, carrying heavy wooden macana swords or spears. Each weapon held about a dozen razor-sharp, rectangular blades of obsidian, wedged artfully at regular intervals between the two halves of the wooden blade before it had been glued together. The weight of the sword or spear alone would break bones; the obsidian blades ensured that blood would flow.

Pisco looked down at the all-wood body of his hoe, and wondered, fleetingly, if it would work better if it had a stone blade, like the bottom of his foot-plow. But that would make it a tool for war, and not a tool of planting, part of his mind whispered. And war is not your place.

The people at the front of the line straggled to a halt, so and soldiers moved up the line, frowning. Even from as high above in the terraces, Pisco could hear the argument as they reached the head of the column. “We have walked all day without water. Please. Our people must drink.”

The soldiers gave in, approaching the bottom of the terrace where Colo, Pisco’s grandfather, and the mallku of the ayllu, stood, leaning on his own hoe. On seeing the soldiers advance, Pisco scrambled down several other terraces to reach his grandfather’s side. A mallku was the ‘condor,’ the highest of his clan, but Inca soldiers came from every tribe and village in the whole of Tawantinsuyu. They might not show his grandfather respect if he didn’t have strong backs beside him.

The soldiers didn’t even glance at him. “These people are of a tribe undergoing mitma,” one of them explained. “They have recently been conquered by the Sapa Inca and his glorious armies, and are being resettled in an area north of here. May they and my men drink from your canal, mallku?”

Colo nodded gravely, the lines to either side of his mouth bracketing his lips like chisel-marks in stone. “We have but little, but it would be our privilege to give food to the army of the Sapa Inca as well,” he rasped.

Pisco went still beside his grandfather. But if we give any of our food to the soldiers, he thought, we will still need to give our tithe to the Sapa Inca and the priests. We will starve this winter. Oh, when the rains do not come, the storehouses of the Empire open to us, and we do not starve. But this hasn’t been a bad year. Our lord will say that we were wasteful and gluttonous. He glanced up at the huge red stone that loomed atop the terraces. The Stone held the village wak’a. And Pisco prayed earnestly to the god-in-the-stone, Let the soldiers not be hungry.

But the small god held no sway over soldier bellies, for the leader of the soldiers nodded without smiling. “Thank you, grandfather,” the man said, unwrapping a bola from his waist. “We will share your hospitality, and I will set my men to hunt.” He turned to the column. “We’ll rest here, and push on to Willkapampa in the morning,” he shouted, to the desultory relief of the tribesmen and the louder cheers of his men.

“Grandfather,” Pisco murmured.

“If I did not offer, they would only have demanded,” Colo whispered sharply. “Better to be generous. And those people? They have been forced to leave behind their land, grandson! They may have lived there on it as long as we have lived here. Their ancestors are all buried there. Their wak’a will have only strangers to worship it, and they? They will have only the greater gods to call on, high in the heavens or deep under the earth, unless a new wak’a takes pity on them, wherever they are sent. We are rich compared to them, grandson. We have our own land. And we have the god-in-the-stone, who knows us.” Colo made a dismissive gesture, as another grinding cry of agony drifted down the slope. “Go and see if you have a son yet,” he added. “A full day and a night of labor… you will be lucky to have both the child and its mother at the end of this.”

Pisco had stiffened again at the sound, reflexively embarrassed that his wife could not restrain her cries. But looking into his grandfather’s pouchy, rheumy eyes, he asked, shaken, “For truth?” This is our first child. I have seen labor take a day before, haven’t I?

At that moment, a man in a red and yellow alpaca cloak, finely woven, wearing a headdress of black and red feathers, approached. The man’s head, under his headdress, was oddly shaped, rising to a point like the peak of a mountain, rather than having a rounded scalp, like an ordinary human’s.

Pisco swallowed and dropped to his knees before the man, noticing as he did so that his sandals and legs were covered in road-dust, just like any other mortal’s. “Forgive us,” Colo said, also on his knees. “We did not see you, revered priest.”

Pisco registered a benevolent wave of a hand out of the corner of his eyes. “It is of no great moment,” the priest assured them in a rich, cultured voice. “I wished to thank you for your hospitality, and offer my assistance. I can hear the cries of suffering from your village. May I go to your houses, and ask the gods for their favor on the woman who cries out so?”

Pisco swallowed raw terror. The greater gods were powerful and terrifying; he only prayed to them when required, including Inti, the sun-god who ruled above all others. Inti was the father of the Inca themselves, who had conquered the region, and demanded that all of Tawantinsuyu honor their gods, in addition to local deities. The greater gods weren’t like the wak’a, comfortable and familiar in its weathered red stone—they hungered. “The gods will need an offering worthy of their attention…” he whispered.

“The gods are always welcome in our village, revered priest,” Colo cut in, loudly. “We thank you for your offer, and will attempt to be worthy of the gods’ attention.”

* * *

Guacamaya, the priest, paused outside the hut. Identical to four others owned by this ayllu, the hut was circular, windowless, and had a roof crafted from hundreds of thin branches woven together densely to keep away the rain and snow. The priest sighed. This mountain village was a long way from the glories of Cusco or the Sapa Inca’s summer retreat at Machu Picchu, where even highly-skilled craftsmen owned houses with a second story—and the king’s palace had several. Born to the Inca tribe himself, Guacamaya believed that he was a descendant of the sun-god, Inti, and though he lacked the rank of the Sapa Inca, he was still as far above these poor farmers as the gods were above him.

He cleared his throat and called, “I come bringing the gifts of the gods!” before sweeping the hide flap in the doorway out of the way and ducking down low enough that his headdress wouldn’t catch on the frame. It wouldn’t do to enter into this place to call the power of the gods, only to have his symbol of authority tumble to the floor.

Inside, no furniture beyond reed mats to cover the dirt floor. And there, a young woman squatted naked, clutching the hands of two female relatives. Too exhausted to keep herself upright, tears had cut channels through the dirt on her face, and she looked up at him dully, too weary even to be ashamed of her nakedness before a stranger. The other women appeared torn between kneeling and holding her up, but his hand gesture kept them at her side.

His eyes tracked down, and he saw tiny legs dangling out of her body. “Well, that’s the problem, then,” Guacamaya murmured. “Have any of you turned a child before?”

Even the older woman, gray-haired, shook her head, looking weary. “One of mine needed turning, revered priest,” she whispered. “But that was done for me by my grandmother.”

“Let her lie down,” he instructed, and then raised his hands and began to chant, calling out to the greater gods. “Mamaquilla! Hear me, your devoted servant! You who are wife to Inti, beloved of the sun, friend of women, bring your gaze to bear on this woman!”

He found feathers to burn, and continued to chant as he prepared a special drink for the young woman. The grandmother gave him a sharp look, but Guacamaya didn’t permit her any questions as he ground pieces of dried sacred vine between two stones, mixing in traces of bark and other traditional medicines. He poured the powder into a bark cup, and poured water into it from the clay jug by the door. And then, cradling the young woman’s head in one hand, he poured the vile-smelling fluid into her mouth.

Weakened, she almost choked, but then swallowed obediently.

The root will take her out of herself. If she vomits later, weak as she is, she may die of it. But for the moment… no pain. And the gods may work through her.

It took time for the medicine to work, but eventually her body eased, and she turned her head to stare at the stone wall, eyes wide. And then Guacamaya went about the bloody work of trying to turn the child. “There isn’t room,” he declared, in some surprise. No matter how I push… “I will have to cut the child from her.”

Both older women began to wail softly, but the mother said nothing, far from herself and her pain now. “Some women have survived, legend says,” he told them. “But there is no choice now. Either way, she will die. The only question is if the child dies with her.”

He found the sharp obsidian knife he carried, and murmured prayers over it, trying to brace himself to cut into a living body. He’d sacrificed animals before. Butchered their carcasses. Soldiers did the same all the time, but with deadly intent. Trying to cut into a woman’s belly to release the child that was killing her? Quite a different thing.

The exhausted woman, lost in her trance, closed her eyes, and her breathing slowed till he couldn’t even see her breasts moving. And she didn’t cry out, mercifully, as he cut into her belly and found, to his great surprise, not one, but two living children. Ah, gods. Feeding one babe with a dead mother will be bad enough. How will this ayllu ever be able to sustain two?

The women took the children and wiped them with hides, weeping openly as they did so, and Guacamaya began to chant over the mother’s body as her spirit slipped from it. Praying that the gods would be merciful to her. He found a woven blanket to wrap around her body, tightly, so that her husband would not see her belly opened so. Soon, however, they would have to wash the body, press it into a fetal curl, and bury it with a few of her belongings. Before any malign spirits were attracted by the presence of death.

“What’s this?” the grandmother said, sounding surprised, and scrubbed more vigorously at a newborn foot with the soft hide. “There… there is a mark!” She sounded terrified, and darted a glance at the priest.

He stood, holding his hands out for the babe. With manifest reluctance, the woman turned the infant over to him, and he studied it. “Both girls?” he asked. He hadn’t really had a chance to look till now.

“Yes, revered priest.” The grandmother locked her eyes on the floor.

“Identical?” He pointed to the girl-child’s heel, where a blood-red mark blazed in the shape of a crescent moon.

The grandmother trembled. “The other girl is unmarked, my lord.”

Relief coursed through him. “Then the gods have spoken,” Guacamaya declared. This village, already diminished by the death of the mother, won’t have to shoulder the burden of keeping both girls alive. “They demand this girl-child’s life.” He took her closer to the doorway, where more light streamed in from outside, and studied the tiny features and the mark more clearly. If it were a sun-burst on her heel, it would be Inti who demanded her, and she could be raised in a noble’s home for six or seven years, fed on corn and meat, and then, dressed in the finest robes, we could lead her onto one of the holy mountains. And then, drugged so that she could speak to the gods, we would shatter her skull, and leave her there, locked in communion with the greater gods of the sky. Our link to them. Our pledge of undying loyalty and service, in exchange for their favor.

“But the mark is that of Mamaquilla,” he murmured. “Goddess of the moon and the sea.” The goddess I invoked to save the mother’s life. The goddess answered. “She speaks to me,” Guacamaya murmured with all the conviction of his office, but hearing no actual words in his heart. Nor did he expect any; the gods spoke in signs to be interpreted. He held aloft his right hand, still cradling the marked infant in his left arm. “She says that for the other child to live, this one must become their servant. Their aclla.”

He phrased it gently, though he felt certain that his senior priests would agree that the girl must die into eternal service. But not every aclla died; some simply spent their mortal lives in service within temple walls, and some even wound up married to nobles, later in life, if they did not pledge themselves as brides to the gods. Best that they have hope. “It is the will of the gods.” Who understand that for the villagers to survive, for them to grow their crops for themselves, the Sapa Inca, and the temples, they must not be burdened by two mouths with no milk.

“And the other girl?” the grandmother asked, her voice shaking. “How can she live?”

“There are llamas and alpacas among the belongings of the people we are relocating. Some of them have just given birth. We will give her their milk, until a wet-nurse can be found.” The priest shrugged. Llamas and alpacas were difficult to milk, and gave little of the precious fluid once their own infants were weaned. There might be enough to keep one child alive. But not both.

As the gods surely knew.

* * *

Pisco slumped beside the red stone above his village, leaning against it. Praying to the wak’a within it to lift his grief, but burdened with both that and knowledge. Below, inside his hut, his grandmother and mother wailed softly as they washed and bound the body of his wife, their voices wafting up to him through the mountain air.

They’d let him see her for only a moment, her face terribly still, and her hair freshly combed over her shoulders, rather than trapped in a braid. Let him see the miracle of the two sisters—twins, born to his family, a blessing of abundance twisted horribly.

He sat there, holding the only gift he’d been able to give his wife during the year of their marriage—a blue pottery bead on a leather thong. She’d loved it. Worn it daily. And now, he’d bury it with her, along with a hide-scraping tool she’d favored, and the blood-soaked blanket that they’d once shared. This is my fault, he thought dully. I thought that she was young, and that she cried in pain because she didn’t have my mother’s self-control. He glanced across the fields to where two of his brothers now stood, talking with the crowd of people being moved across Tawantinsuyu by the decree of the Sapa Inca. Begging, on his behalf, that if they had any nursing mothers, that they share some of their milk with the village who’d shared food and water with them.

Dark, resentful expressions on those faces. They look at us, and see Inca, Pisco thought numbly. Nevermind that our tribe was conquered in the time of my grandfather’s grandfather. Divided into ayllu. Our land split in three parts—one for our own use, one for the corn we raise for the temples, and one for the Sapa Inca’s storehouses. To feed the army that pushes out further every year. And even that isn’t enough—we must build temples and roads, as well, to extend the power and glory of the Empire. Mit’a. Another sort of tax, one paid in our sweat.

He’d never had these kinds of thoughts before—or if he had, he’d never allowed himself to think them so clearly. Part of his mind was horrified at his own selfish resentfulness. But our lives are service to each other, and to the Sapa Inca, that voice told him. It sounded like his grandfather. The only way in which we can all survive, is to work for one another. With one another. Yes, we raise corn for the temples, and for the gods. Yes, we raise food to give to the Sapa Inca’s armies… but those armies protect us from outsiders. Like those who live over the mountains, to the east. The ones who hunt other tribes to take slaves, and to offer sacrifices to their hungry gods. Yes, the greater gods demand lives in sacrifice… but they’re our lives. Freely given. We don’t hunt men for sacrifice, call it deer-hunting, and laugh.

He swallowed, clutching the bead so tightly that it cut into his palm. The priest called on the greater gods. A shock of anger passed through him, almost with a relief. The greater gods took my wife. It’s their fault, not mine or the god-in-the-stone… he couldn’t fight them any more than I can. But now, having taken her life in payment for two healthy children, they demand more. They always demand more.

“I won’t give them anything else,” he whispered hoarsely. “God-in-the-Stone, do you hear me?” He swallowed. Everything in the world had two spirits—one that had made it, and one that filled it with life. “Illapuka.” He whispered the Name of the spirit in the stone, even though only his grandfather had the right to speak to the spirit directly. “I won’t give them the life of my daughter. They took my wife. That’s enough tithe. Will you help me?”

The wind died, as if the world held its breath. And then a voice grated in his mind, I cannot fight the greater gods. They have the belief of thousands. I have the belief of your ayllu. Fifteen people. And you believe in me more strongly than most of them do.

Pisco sat shaking, not having expected an answer. “What can I do?”

The sun beat down on him as he watched people below setting up camp for the night. None of them laughed or sang—the children were too weary from their long walk, and the men and women too anguished at having left behind everything they had ever known.

Finally, the spirit whispered, The priest does not care about the unmarked child. He only cares about the other. Take her. Wrap her warmly, and make sure she’s fed well from one of the women with a toddler among those being relocated. Tell anyone who asks that you wish to honor her mother by bidding your daughter good-bye before the priest gives her to the gods. And then, under dark of night, steal one of their alpacas and follow their trail towards Cusco.

What?” Pisco swallowed, dazed. “The soldiers will hunt me!” He remembered the obsidian blades in their wooden swords and shuddered. And we’re forbidden to leave our ayllu’s land except to go perform mit’a. We’re bound to it, and to each other… Again, that sounded like his grandfather’s voice. He respected his grandfather. He’d been brought up to believe that the elders were closer to the ancestors, to the dead, and therefore, had wisdom and power. And yet…

Your tracks will be much harder to find in a confusion of hundreds left recently, Illapuka replied calmly. And I can reach you for some distance along the road. Longer, if you take a piece of my stone with you. I can make it so that no one will see you.

Pisco stared at the rock. For twenty years, he’d taken it on faith that a spirit dwelled inside of it, silent but enduring, like the stoic strength of his family. “Why do you help me now?” he whispered.

I could not save your wife’s life. She was bound to the spirit of her ayllu’s wak’a. But I am bound to your family, and your daughters are a part of me, as I am of them. Even if the moon goddess has put her mark on the first-born. Go. Name them. And then save the one that you can.

Pisco nodded, reached down, and found a loose rock. Struck the red stone several times, with sharp, rapping sounds, until an edge flaked free, and took it. “Thank you,” he whispered. “Thank you.”

And then he ran, leaping down the terraces, to do as the spirit had bidden.

The marked child, he named Sawsi, or Willow, resting a hand on her head as his grandmother held the child. And the other, he named Palta, or Pear. He kissed the younger, and wrapped the thong with the blue bead around Palta’s little wrist. “You’re not giving it to your wife in the grave?” his mother asked, shocked.

“She should have something of her mother’s,” he mumbled. It’s the only way to say good-bye. I will likely never see this daughter of mine again.

That night, having buried his wife, and the two infants off in the care of his mother for the moment, he sat alone in his empty hut, which smelled faintly of blood, even though the hard-packed dirt floor had been dug up and sprinkled through the fields. He put a few tools into a length of cloth, which he tied to the haft of his hoe.

Twenty summers and twenty winters blurred together in his mind. Huddling together with his brothers for warmth, when they’d lived in his father’s hut. The wailing two winters ago, when his father had died of a cough, which the priests had proclaimed as sent by the gods as punishment for a sin that hadn’t been confessed and spat out into a twist of grass. They’d all had the same cough, but only his father had died of it, so surely it must have been his father’s sin.

The wretched look of numb misery in his mother’s eyes after they’d buried him. The joy she had taken when he and his brothers had each married, in turn, and given her grandchildren. Of his brothers’ children who’d survived their first years, there were now three. Sturdy assistants in the fields. Warm brown eyes and faces that looked like his. I shouldn’t go, Pisco thought, but picked up his hoe and the belongings dangling from it, anyway. How can I leave them all? For one girl? They will feel betrayed. One less set of hands to bring in the harvest may mean starvation in winter. We are all part of each other. Responsible to each other.

Still, he tucked the bit of red stone into a pouch he wore around his neck, so that the spirit’s gift hung over his heart. Found his mother’s hut, where she slept with all her grandchildren nestled around her tonight, for comfort. Found his two sleeping daughters, and in the darkness, ran his fingers over their arms, till he determined which of them wore his wife’s necklace around her wrist. And took the other one, who thankfully didn’t wake with an ear-splitting wail as he did. Thank you, Illapuka, he thought, relieved, and left his mother’s hut with Sawsi on his back, wrapped against a backboard for easier carrying.

He slipped past the guards, knowing his own land better than they could. Moved through the camp on silent feet, and found an alpaca with an infant. Got a leather thong around the creature’s neck, and started away with it, its infant trotting docilely along behind its mother. And then found himself face-to-face with one of the migrants—a tall man with a scarred face, who loomed up out of the darkness.

For an instant, Pisco despaired; the man could clearly see him in the last flickers of light from a dying campfire. He was a thief. Thievery was punishable by death. He was also a heretic, stealing an appointed sacrifice from the gods.

“You’re the one whose wife died today?” A dark rumble of a voice.

Pisco nodded.

“Bad omen for us to stay here,” the man replied. “The water and food you gave us could be tainted by the death.”

He closed his eyes and shook his head. “My grandfather gave you what we had in good faith. Before she died.”

A pause. “The priest wants to sacrifice one of the children?”

Pisco nodded, resigned. The priest might say all the right words about her serving the gods, but everyone knew what happened to boys and girls who were too beautiful. They became another kind of tithe. This one paid to the gods themselves. Still, he had no way to get away before the other man raised a shout. And no way to fight the man, carrying a baby on his back.

A pause. “May the gods of the underworld come forth from their caves and eat the sun-god of the Inca,” the other man replied, and Pisco’s eyes opened in shock. He saw the other step out of his way. “Take your child and go. Cursed by her mother’s death or no, I never saw you here. And take the alpaca. She belonged to a family who died along the long march to our new home.” The man turned his head and spat. “Put her to better use than feeding Inca bellies.”

Pisco didn’t question his good fortune. He nodded quickly, and left, trying not to run. Slipped past the inattentive soldiers, and stuck to the trees for a while, before brushing out his tracks and taking to the great road to tread in the footsteps of those forced to walk the road before him.

Do you not trust in me to make you invisible to the eyes of the sentries? Illapuka chided.

Yes, but there’s never anything wrong with helping the gods, is there?

Whether because of the spirit’s intervention, or because her belly was full, Sawsi didn’t awaken until the moon had moved two thumbs’ width through the sky. Her first chirrup of hunger warned him, and he hastily lashed the alpaca mother to a tree. Then he held his daughter under the beast, helping her to find a teat, even as the young alpaca butted its head under its mother, as well. The mother shied from the strange touch, and Sawsi wailed so loudly that Pisco expected soldiers to spring out of the underbrush instantly.

None did. And eventually, the animal relented, and Pisco stood there, smelling its fur and the leaves under his feet, listening to the squeaks of chinchillas as they emerged from their burrows and skittered past him. The deep darkness under the trees frightened him. I’ve been this far from home before, Pisco reminded himself. We’ve had to provide mit’a service to build temples in Vitcos and other towns. And while the work had been hard, there had been a sense of community to it, of coming together with all the ayllu of the region for a common goal. The women had chewed corn and spat it into bowls to ferment, making chichi beer to soothe the men’s aching muscles—and to pour out as libations for the gods.

But the long walks to and from the other towns had all been done during daylight. Night was the time of the jaguar, of the bear, and of the supay, the creatures who lived in caves, and were subject to the great god of death, Supay himself. Pisco shuddered, cleaned his sleepy, replete daughter with leaves, and bundled her onto his back again. Then clutched the pouch at his neck. “Illapuka,” he murmured, “keep me safe. And you, Mamaquilla,” he added, staring up at the moon, “you want my daughter for something. She needs me, if she’s to stay alive.” His throat went dry at speaking so directly, so disrespectfully, to one of the greater gods. “Please,” Pisco added hastily, “help us in any way that you can.”

And he set his feet on the trail once more, trying not to think of all he’d left behind.

* * *

“What do you mean, vanished?” Guacamaya demanded at dawn, his brow furrowing.

The mallku of this small clan, a gray-haired man bowed by years of hard labor, ducked his head, his hands trembling. “When my daughter awakened this morning to the cries of one twin, the other was missing,” Colo replied, his eyes on the ground. “And my grandson is not in his hut.” He darted a glance up at the priest, which Guacamaya caught and held. “Is there… any chance that the gods who marked the child, took her for their own?” Colo asked.

Guacamaya’s eyes narrowed, understanding the plea behind the words. Just let it be, the old man meant. Perhaps the gods took the child that they wanted, and spared my grandson the burden of living with his grief.

“It would be a pretty tale,” Guacamaya replied tightly, “but for the fact that the child and her father disappeared together. Your grandson obviously took her, defying the will of the gods.” He nodded, feeling his lips thin into a frown. I am born of the sun-touched Inca, he thought grimly. We have been chosen by great Inti to rule these lands. To lift up the other tribes, to unite them, to make them part of us. We allow the worship of all the gods, yes, but to ours, the most respect must be given. I cannot allow this ayllu to defy the gods. Or the authority of the Sapa Inca, who is Inti’s hand on earth, as expressed through me.

The pause had gone on too long. The old man’s lips formed some silent prayer. Guacamaya shook his head. “Your grandson has given me no other option,” he informed the grandfather sternly. “I am sorry, but the gods were clear—one of the twins must be given to them. If he were here, I could have him punished for stealing their chosen child as I would punish anyone who stole from a temple’s grain and beer stores. I would have his hands and feet cut off, and, if the gods permitted him to live, put him by the gates of a city, to tell everyone who passed of his crime.” Guacamaya’s frown felt as if it cut straight through his flesh and to the bone. “But the crime of one member of an ayllu is the crime of all in it; you prosper together, and you fall together. As such, you must offer recompense for the theft of the god’s offering.”

Colo looked dazed. “Recompense? What recompense can we make?”

Guacamaya shrugged. “You will turn the other child over, immediately. She will travel with me until these people,” a gesture at the migrants assembling their possessions on the road, “are settled in their allotted lands. Then she must accept the fate allotted to her sister.” He folded his arms across his chest. “And you may thank your grandson for depriving you of both your grandchildren in a single day,” Guacamaya added, feeling nothing but contempt for the young man who had fled his duty to his people and his gods.

Colo closed his eyes and his shoulders drooped. “It is right and just, revered priest,” he replied. “And I thank you for the mercy that did not require me to pay with my own limbs for my grandson’s crimes.”

Guacamaya snorted. “A better man would have offered those limbs,” he informed Colo coldly. “But no matter. Bring the child to me. The column will move out soon.”

He returned to the soldiers with whom he’d marched for days now, his face a mask of irritation. Having caught some of the discussion, their leader, a middle-aged man from a tribe further south in Tawantinsuyu, offered, “Revered priest, I have reprimanded the men who were on watch last night. All swear that they saw nothing out of the ordinary.”

Guacamaya grunted, but didn’t speak. After a moment, the soldier went on, carefully, “Should I have some of my men look for tracks?”

The priest turned his head incrementally to stare at the other man. “Of course.” His voice held the same edge as a fresh-hewn obsidian blade—glass-sharp and lethal.

A red flush tinged the soldier’s ears, and he hastened away, shouting orders to his men. But while there were signs of disturbed earth near the road in many places, where the migrants had buried their refuse and trampled here and there, there were no tracks leading away from this ayllu. “Should I have men backtrail, and see if he used yesterday’s tracks to cover his own?’ the soldier asked.

Guacamaya made an impatient gesture. “No. We need your men to keep the migrants in line.” He turned to give the soldier a flinty glance as one of the women of the ayllu crept from her hut, and deposited a squirming infant at his feet. In her forties, her brown eyes had red-rims from recent weeping. “Get one of the migrant women to carry the child,” he ordered, still seething internally over the whole affair.

“But the man who defied the gods—” the soldier began to object.

“The gods will see to his punishment themselves,” Guacamaya returned coldly. The woman flinched at his words. “I have no doubts that what they want, they will claim in time. But it is our duty for now to divert their wrath at having been denied their proper sacrifice.” And to prevent anyone from thinking that the authority of the Sapa Inca and the priesthood can be flouted by a single man. I did what I could for his wife, and this is how he repays me and the gods? “That is the way of things; we owe loyalty and obedience to the gods, and to the living incarnation of Inti, the Sapa Inca, he who also holds all the wisdom of his ancestors.” He made a reverent gesture, and one of the migrants picked up the child. “We’ll leave word with the karaca of Vitcos of this treachery. The lord will send out his own men to deal with the matter.”

And then they left, Guacamaya not looking back at the forlorn cluster of huts and the people of the ayllu who stood outside of them, their terraced fields untended as the long snake of tribesmen and their animals slithered past. Heading north, to the new lands assigned to them by the Sapa Inca, to be held under the purview of a noble Inca lord.

* * *

Many small villages stood between Vitcos and the next large town east of his home, Ollantaytambo, Pisco knew. That city was an incredible three thousand tupu from his home, and it would require five or six days to walk there, along the steep roads, carrying the infant and chivvying the alpaca along.

But Pisco didn’t know if he dared to venture to that particular city; it had been razed to the ground years ago, and then rebuilt by the ninth Sapa Inca, Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, as his personal estate. Like the fabled mountaintop city of Machu Picchu, a place about which Pisco had only heard fabulous tales, it was a private retreat for the First Inca and his close-kin, where they could rest from the rigors of rulership in Cusco, and listen to the voices of the gods. Even the land around it wasn’t farmed by low-caste ayllu, like his own, but by the personal retainers of the ruler.

And the current ruler, Túpac Inca Yupanqui, like all the others, was the living incarnation of Inti on earth. Though with a name that meant ‘accountant,’ this embodiment of the god took an unhealthy fascination in the taxes of the mortal realm—something that made him almost as feared as his potential for military reprisal. Pisco knew that if he chanced into the view of the Sapa Inca? The First Inca would know that he had left his lands without authorization. Had stolen a child marked for sacrifice. Of course gods-made-flesh knew these things.

“What do I do?” Pisco asked the stone in the pouch around his neck on the second night, close to tears. Alpaca milk barely filled his daughter’s belly, and her cries of hunger tore at his soul. Water, while she sucked it eagerly from the edge of the poncho thrown over his shoulders, just went right through her. And then she’d start to scream again. Perhaps it would have been better to let her die at the priest’s hands, he thought blankly, than to let her starve to death here in the forest, where her cries will just draw jaguars.

The stone in the pouch didn’t answer. He was far from his family’s wak’a now. Perhaps the spirit simply couldn’t make itself heard at so great a distance.

At nightfall, he found a village and paused long enough to rub a coat of mud over Sawsi’s feet to cover the mark of Mamaquilla before hastening towards the huts, the bawling infant in his arms his sole introduction.

To his great relief, the people of this ayllu, while suspicious of him, had a kindly woman who was still nursing her two-year-old son, and had plenty of milk with which to still Sawsi’s pitiful cries.

“Where did you say you were from?” one of the men asked him, his brow furrowed.

“Vitcos,” Pisco replied, not knowing what else to say.

“And do you have dispensation from your karaca to travel away from your ayllu?”

Pisco thought about the noble who governed Vitcos itself. He’d only seen the lord, usually carried by servants in a chair, a few times a year—when he and the priests blessed the fields in spring, when he and his family came into town to serve their mit’a or to attend major rites in the temples… and in autumn, when tithes were due. A tall man, with the pointed head of the high nobility, and earrings that had pulled his earlobes down to touch his shoulders, a hooked nose, and a bored expression. The karaca claimed to be descended from Kon, god of wind and rain—yet his prayers never seemed to bring rain when the fields were parched.

“I didn’t need dispensation to go to the ayllu directly to the east of us, but there were no women there who could feed this little one. And with my wife’s death… ” Pisco lowered his head. The falsehood, touched as it was with truth, tasted strange on his tongue. He raised his head, meeting the other man’s gaze. “I’ll go back in the morning, and hope that my lord will forgive me for my trespass,” he added. “Perhaps there will be a woman to the west of my village who has milk.”

The plump, motherly woman nursing Sawsi smiled at him. “Oh, I hope so! She’s such a good, strong child. Although you somehow got mud all over her feet.” She rubbed at Sawsi’s heel, playing with the little foot.

Pisco’s hands shot out to stop her, but he was too late. The woman frowned. “She has a birthmark, poor thing. The other children will make fun of her, see if they don’t.”

Her husband gave Pisco a narrow-eyed stare. “You’d better go back tonight,” he advised. “The longer you’re away, the less lenient your lord will be.” He shrugged, stretching in the light of the small fire inside the hut. “Then again, who would want to leave their lands? Their families? The wak’a who know them?”

Pisco left at sundown. Footsore as he was, he could barely face another night on the road, but while the wife encouraged them to stay, and to let the baby feed a few more times, her husband’s suspicion wouldn’t abate. Grandfather let a tribe of strangers sleep on our land, gave them food and water willingly. But because I do not come with a sword in my hand, just a baby, I’m turned away, Pisco thought wearily, leading the alpaca and its infant back towards Vitcos initially. Then he swung south, and skirted back around the village he’d just left, and toiled eastwards once more, never knowing if there were men behind him or not.

Two more villages along his path had similar friendly women, happy just to dandle a baby on their knees. But on the fifth day of his journey, exhaustion caught up with him, and he lay down in a glen off the side of the road, with Sawsi on his chest. “Just a little nap,” he murmured. “You stay asleep, too.”

The baby never moved. The alpaca and its infant settled in to doze as well, and didn’t snort a warning.

What woke him was the feeling of cold, sharp pressure against his throat. Pisco opened his eyes, and found himself meeting the gaze of an Inca warrior. High-caste, by the peaked brow, long earrings, the fine alpaca wool tunic in vivid red, green, and black, which hung to the man’s knees… and the hardwood sword with its obsidian blades, digging into Pisco’s neck. “Who are you, trespasser?” the man asked, his eyes as cold and black as the blade in his hand. “What are you doing on my land?”

Pisco raised his hands slowly, and tried to look terrified, which wasn’t difficult. “My wife died,” he said, the easy truth first. “I have traveled from my ayllu to find a wet-nurse—”

“And you look for one on my hunting grounds?” One dark eyebrow rose.

“I did not know it was your land,” Pisco replied hastily, but the sword dug further into his throat.

“If you came from near here, any of the ayllu that look to me for defense and protection,” the noble said slowly, “you would know that this is the land of Karaca Ozcollo, right-hand of Túpac Inca Yupanqui. Given this region for faithful service in war and in peace.” The man’s eyes stayed narrow. “Now tell me the truth.”

Pisco thought rapidly.

At that moment, Sawsi opened her eyes and began to wail, drawing the noble’s eyes. Pisco tensed, but the sword remained firmly against his throat. “What’s that on her foot?” the noble asked, finally pulling the sword away from Pisco’s throat. “It looks like a moon.”

“She was born with it,” Pisco admitted, sitting up cautiously and holding the sobbing infant to his chest. “My wife did die, leaving me with Sawsi, my lord. Please, I must find someone to help me feed her.”

“You aren’t on your own lands,” the lord said, but his eyes remained fixed on the infant. “You have left behind duty and honor for this child.”

“What good are duty and honor if she dies, my lord?” Pisco demanded, greatly daring, but days of the screaming had worn him down until he almost didn’t care what he said or did.

The lord’s eyes swung back up to his. “My wife has dreamed for five nights now, since our son died in his sleep,” he told Pisco. “Every night, the moon comes to her, and she cradles it in her arms. I told her that it was just a dream. But now I see that the gods have sent this child to comfort my wife in her grief.”

Pisco ducked and turned, instinctively shielding Sawsi with his body. “Please, my lord! She is the only thing I have left of my wife—you cannot take her!” I gave up everything for this child! You cannot take her from me!

He heard a soft whispering sound, and turned his head in time to view the edge of the many-bladed weapon sweeping in at him. Pisco managed to scream. Then his limp arms and body fell to the ground, nearly crushing the baby, as her father’s blood bathed her face and body.

The lord rolled Pisco’s body out of the way with his foot, and awkwardly picked up the child, as if he’d never done so before. “Sawsi,” he murmured. “A pretty name, little willow, but a peasant’s name doesn’t suit you.” He leaned down, and picked up the leather thong from around the neck of the corpse. “A rock?” he said, on peering into it, ignoring the infant’s cries for a moment. “A charm, perhaps. You will have better than this, little one. Much better. Rugs to keep your feet from touching the cold earth. Gold necklaces and fine robes. You will never want for anything as my daughter.”

He turned away, tossing away the rock cut from the wak’a’s shrine beside Pisco’s body. I’ll send my men to bury him, he thought. Wouldn’t want any spirits attracted by the death. Ozcollo stopped on the road for a moment, however, struck by the coincidence that had separated him from his hunting party and had resulted in him finding this perfect baby girl for his grieving wife. “He died so that you might live, little one.”

And when he offered the tiny, squalling, red-soaked bundle to his wife, watching as all her women clustered around her, staring at the baby in a mix of awe and fear, he told her, “This is the gift that the moon sent to you, Nyunyuma,” and brushed her hair back from her face gently.

Their marriage, like most in Tawantinsuyu, had been arranged—in their case, the Inca Coya, sister-wife of the Sapa Inca, had settled the matter personally. Mama Ocllo had given Nyunyuma to him in marriage as a special mark of distinction, in the same fashion that the Sapa Inca had given him these lands. Both gifts had honored Ozcollo for his service in the conquest of Chimor, near the great sea.

During the conquest, when Inca forces had been unable to overwhelm the Chimori capital, the Inca Coya had personally sent a letter to the queen of the region, telling her that her indomitable refusal to surrender to the Sapa Inca had earned her and her people the respect of the Inca. And that they would leave the city be, respecting her right to rule, so long as she held a banquet in honor of their ambassador, on ships out in the great sea, with sacrifices to the sea gods.

And with the queen of Chimor and her warriors safely out with the tide, Ozcollo and his men had stormed the defenseless capital, taking hundreds of prisoners and slaughtering thousands more. The once-proud queen of Chimor now served as one of the Coya’s personal servants—as a reminder to all that Mama Ocllo was cunning, ruthless, and never to be underestimated.

His marriage to Nyunyuma had, therefore, not been born in love. But Ozcollo had come to feel affection for her; in fact, he had taken no other wives as yet, though the Inca Coya had offered him a second just this past year. And he didn’t like to see Nyunyuma as grief-stricken as she had been this past week.

Now her dark eyes widened, and she cradled the infant to her breast. “Oh, thank the gods I have not yet lost all my milk!” she said, and looked up at him, eyes shining with tears. “Thank you, husband, for bringing the moon’s gift to me.”

“Why is she covered in blood?” one of the servants muttered uneasily, bringing a soft cloth and a jug of water with which to clean the infant.

Ozcollo shrugged. “A criminal tried to keep her from me. I executed him.” And that, for him, was nothing more than the truth. “She’ll need to have her head wrapped,” he added, looking at the servants. “I just hope that I brought her home in time to begin the process.”

“Oh, no, her head is still soft, my lord,” one of the women assured him. “She won’t grow up ugly.” And they began binding cloth tightly around the baby’s now-clean head. Over the years, her head would grow into the fashionable peaked shape that echoed the appearance of the great mountains, and would mark her out as a noble’s child, not some peasant’s brat.

“What should we call her?” Ozcollo asked his wife, who’d just found the mark on the infant’s heel.

A radiant smile from his wife. “Quillachaki, of course! Moon-foot!”

“Perfect,” Ozcollo agreed, and left her and her women.

Part II: Visions

Rearing and educating children remained the sole purview of women. Thus, Quillachaki had few memories of her father, Ozcollo, before the age of six. She knew him as the stern-faced man who went off to war, and who returned with his head held high. Her mother greeted him with demure deference in public, but wept on his neck in private at the relief of seeing him alive.

Quillachaki knew, even at a young age, that she wasn’t like other children. Her younger brother Caquingora, and her younger sister, Cuxi, for instance, wore the usual sandals of Inca nobility, the usuta. Short-soled, usuta left the balls of the feet and the toes bare, allowing their toes to grip mountainous terrain more easily. She, on the other hand, had to wear odd, closed-in shoes, like bags of leather around her feet. She hated them. But her parents had commanded, and her parents were to her, as the Sapa Inca and the Inca Coya were to the rest of Tawantinsuyu: gods, or nearly. She owed them her duty.

Her parents also planned to take her younger siblings to court in Ollantaytambo now that they were old enough, to present them before the Emperor and Empress. They had yet to present her, and the eight-year-old girl had discerned an unmistakable message in that: They are ashamed of me, she thought, sitting atop one of the thick, stepped walls that ringed her father’s house, as family retainers worked diligently in the terraced fields between the defensive walls, prodding at weeds among the corn stalks.

The sun streamed from the east, lulling her into somnolence, as it always did. For some reason, she felt sleepy and dull during the day. Her mother’s servants periodically pinched her spitefully for being slow, lazy, and stupid.

But only when Nyunyuma couldn’t see them.

Quillachaki’s eyes rose to the forest beyond the area cleared for farming, seeing it as a kind of green lake, with the tallest, airy fronds of the trees poking up irregularly, like waves, moving and surging as the wind caught them. It’s like the sea, perhaps, she thought absently. Not that I will ever see it. But oh, how I wish that I might.

“Quillachaki!” a voice said behind her reprovingly, and she turned, startled, to regard her mother. “How many times must you be told not to sit on the walls? You will ruin your dress. Which was the work of many hours to make.”

Quillachaki yanked her dangling legs in, and tried to stand without snagging any of the fine threads of her alpaca dress on the stones. “Come inside. It’s time for weaving,” Nyunyuma added, putting a hand comfortably on her shoulder. Quillachaki turned her face away to hide her grimace. In truth, she looked on the chore with a mixture of loathing and anticipation. Because sometimes when she wove, the dreams would come to occupy her mind while her hands moved endlessly.

Her mother preferred to weave outdoors when the weather permitted, beside one of the smaller gardens. Here, the huge, tightly-fitted stones of the villa rose behind them, warm in the sun. In winter, hides covered the few windows that looked down on them here against the chill. Inside the villa, many of the rooms had walls hung with tapestries woven by the skilled hands of women, to keep out winter’s chill, and brightening the gray stone with whorls of geometric color.

Fingers of morning sunlight slipped past the tall walls, revealing the vivid colors of the dyed strands of alpaca wool, fitted into wands that would dance across the warp threads already attached to the loom. Each loom was a simple affair, consisting of a long rod at the top, which hung from a cord attached to a wooden post, driven into the dirt, and another bar, near the end, which kept the warp threads stable.

“Mother,” Quillachaki asked after her first few desultory passes of her wand through her assigned pattern, while her sister sat not far away, learning to spin thread from wool, “why must we weave so much more cloth than we can ever wear?”

The other women looked over quizzically, but Nyunyuma replied, “Everyone woman in Tawantinsuyu weaves, little one. Other nations wrest gold and silver from the earth. But we of the Land of the Four Quarters know where true worth is. In labor. In skill.” She nodded firmly. “Each piece of cloth can be measured in the amount of time it took to make. The more elaborate the pattern, the greater its value. We give the best of our cloth as tribute to the Sapa Inca and Inca Coya, and they, in turn, give gifts to us. It’s the same as when the men go and build temples. The work of their hands is worth far more than some lump of metal—and that metal can be used to adorn the temples and the cloth we make. Or the statues of the gods. Real worth lies in your hands.”

Quillachaki thought about that for a moment. “Buy then why—” she caught the long-suffering looks on the other women’s faces, but persisted anyway, “why don’t the peasants have more clothing, then?”

Her mother looked up from her work. “What do you mean?”

“I looked down from the walls before the festival last week. The women had washed their families’ work smocks and set them out to dry atop the bushes. And the children ran around naked until it was time to put on their festival shirts.” She threaded her wand back through the hanging threads. “Each person only had one smock. But they keep llamas. They must make more cloth than that.” She glanced at the seemingly-endless supply of wool that would surely keep her hands busy for the rest of her life, and sighed internally.

“Ah,” her mother said. “That’s because whatever they make, that they don’t need, they give to their karaca, your father. And he keeps it for them, safely stored, until they need another shirt. He stands as a father to them, just as the Sapa Inca is the father to everyone. Which is why much of what we make goes to the Sapa Inca and the Inca Coya, darling. They have the wisdom of the gods in them, and we are as their children. They know what is best for their children, just as I know what’s best for you.”

Quillachaki considered that, her eyelids dragging down in the warm sunlight. “So the work of hands is the only tax,” she mumbled.

“Yes, dear.”

“Then why do we and the farmers have to give food to the Sapa Inca and the temples?”

“I have never heard a child ask why so much in my life,” one of the other women muttered.

Nyunyuma gave the woman a reproving look. “I don’t think it a bad thing that the daughter of a karaca understands how this land is governed. She may, after all, marry well enough that she will have to help govern estates.”

The woman ducked her head, flushing, and Nyunyuma turned away, gentling her voice to tell Quillachaki, “That isn’t tax, dear one. That’s the free gift of every citizen to the Sapa Inca and to the gods. And if there is a bad harvest in one region, that gift is passed along to those who need it more. So, from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.”

Quillachaki frowned, but accepted her mother’s words as truth. “And we need more clothing than the peasants do?”

“Certainly!” Nyunyuma laughed. “How else would anyone, looking at your father, know that he is a karaca, if he did not wear a headdress, if he did not wear striped robes when he goes before the Sapa Inca—fresh ones, unstained by sweat?” She smiled. “Did you know that the Sapa Inca, as a god incarnate, wears his garments only once, and after that, they are burned? Each is woven of vicuña wool by the hands of virgin aclla.” She held up a hand, extending her forefinger. “Woven so finely, that there are three hundred threads in the space I could cover with this fingertip,” she added.

Quillachaki stared at her own loom, which held only fifty strands of wool, and shuddered. I still don’t understand how it’s fair that the peasants have so little, when we have so much. But I suppose that they don’t go off to war to fight, and Father and his men do. Perhaps that’s it? But she knew precisely how far her mother’s patience for her questions extended, and this wasn’t an area into which she dared to venture further. Still… “Mother,” she asked softly, “will I ever appear before the Sapa Inca?”

She looked up from her threads in time to see what looked like fear cross her mother’s face. “Oh, daughter,” Nyunyuma whispered. “I hope not any time soon. You’re too beautiful. You’re… marked. The priests and the Sapa Inca might make an aclla of you.”

Her little sister Cuxi dropped her spindle in the dirt, getting her wool filthy, and ran to Quillachaki to hug her tightly. “They can’t take Quilla,” Cuxi declared tearfully. “She’s my sister! They can’t take her!”

“Hush,” Nyunyuma murmured. “There is no reason to weep if nothing has yet happened.”

Quillachaki returned to work, shaken. She’d never heard of this possibility before. Being taken and made to weave until her eyes bled and her fingers knotted didn’t sound good, but the fear in her mother’s voice couldn’t be about weaving. Or being married to the gods, which didn’t sound so bad, either. You never heard the gods yelling at the hunters for having thrown a spear badly. You never heard the gods at all, in fact. Other than what the priests might pass on from them. She said marked. It’s all about that spot on my foot again. I wish I hadn’t been born with it… I wonder why the gods don’t just talk to us directly. What makes the priests so special?

Quillachaki stifled another yawn, and slid her wand through the weaving in silence, listening to the other women talk about their children and husbands. And in the colors of the strands in front of her, bouncing and dancing as the wand passed through them, shapes started to form, and Quillachaki, bored and sleepy, let them, as she had many times before. Let the voices fade into the sound of waves beating on the shore of a distant sea.

She’d been six the first time the threads had shown her the visions. Hands. Hands just like mine, the same size, the same shape. Pulling a wand through a loom filled with hundreds of threads, as fine as hair. Impact—someone just hit me on the back of the head! Who is that, looking down at me, with a face like a piece of dried fruit, all wrinkles? I’ve never seen her, but I know her. Apichu, a priestess married to the great god Ilyapa, the thunder-lord.

The half-dreams usually removed the monotony of a dull chore. Today, however, she saw something different. Stumbling up the side of the mountain, feet aching with cold, snow up to her waist, though she followed in a trail broken by the men ahead of her. All their feather headdresses and brightly-colored robes standing out starkly against the brilliant white all around. A look over her shoulder showed that the green world of forests and trees had been left thousands of feet below this ever-cold, ever-white place of desolation.

She blinked; the pictures skewed and warped. Something was wrong with her dream-eyes, but she pushed herself back into the vision, wanting to see what happened next.

The tall priests made her kneel in the snow, and she slumped there, their faces fading in and out of focus, as if on edge of sleep. They stood in a circle around her, arms raised to the heavens, chanting and praying. Sprinkling her with ashes and herbs. And then, one of them picked up a big, ugly black club made of obsidian.

Quillachaki tensed, her hands stilling on her loom. “No,” she whispered. “Get up. Run away. He’s going to hurt you.”

She didn’t notice the heads around her in the garden lifting from their looms. The man with the club disappeared somewhere behind her, but she didn’t stand. Didn’t run away. Couldn’t run away. She could barely keep her eyes open. Shock of impact, just as when the old priestess used to hit her up along the back of the head.

And then nothing.

A scream clawed at the back of Quillachaki’s throat. Pulling out of the crumpled body, watching as the priests set the girl back into a proper kneeling posture once more. Arranged her shining black hair over the smooth, round dome of her head—no daughter of the karaca, this—and bathed away some of the blood. Adjusted her fine clothes—clothes that she’d spun and made herself, under the stern tutelage of Apichu—and then turned and filed back down the mountain, singing and chanting, their faces exalted. Leaving behind them not one girl’s body, but a dozen other frozen, dead statues of boys and girls of various ages. All dressed finely. All kneeling, skin as brown and wrinkled as dried fruit—besides the face of the newest, freshest, youngest girl.

Her face was Quillachaki’s own, as she’d seen it in water held inside shallow, dark basins, or reflected in the smooth side of an obsidian knife.

The scream couldn’t be denied any longer. Quillachaki threw herself from her loom, sobbing. “They killed her! They brought her to the mountain, and left her to die! Mother, they murdered her!”

* * *

“She’s sleeping,” Nyunyuma told her husband hours later, her lips compressed into a thin line.

Ozcollo frowned. “Do you wish her beaten, for putting on such a show, embarrassing you before your women?” He snorted. He’d had no problem, a week earlier, lashing his young son Caquingora with a rod for refusing to practice with his little wooden sword. Children need discipline. They also need to be tough enough to survive whatever the world brings them—drought, floods, war, famine, or disease.

His wife shook her head. “No. She’s never thrown a tantrum before. She usually has no energy at all during the day.” She settled down on one of the reed mats in their sleeping room, softened somewhat by a luxurious alpaca covering. “To see her passionate about anything was surprising enough.” She swallowed. “And then to hear her speak of what she saw—”

“Says that she saw,” Ozcollo put in quickly.

Nyunyuma gave him a direct look. “Do you think that she would lie?”

He hesitated, but then shook his head. “Still, visions?”

“Did I not have dreams that foretold her coming to us?” she countered, reaching up to adjust one of the golden-beaded bands that held her straight black hair out of her face.

Ozcollo stilled. Quillachaki had been so long in their lives now, that some days, he genuinely forgot that she hadn’t been born to them. “Truth,” he acknowledged, dropping to a crouch beside his wife. He didn’t like to sit on the floor for long periods; while he wasn’t yet thirty, the cold of the stone tended to seep into a deep, old scar in his right thigh, and then he had to conceal a limp afterwards. Better to squat and force the leg to work.

After a moment or two of reflection, he sighed. “This is the month of women,” he reminded Nyunyuma. “The Inca Coya rules the empire for the moment, and every woman in every home rules her family until the fields have been sowed. What would you have me do?”

“Advise me,” Nyunyuma whispered, lowering her proud head into her hands.

Ozcollo felt unusually helpless as he planted his elbows on his knees and locked his hands in front of him. This isn’t an enemy that I can face with my sword or my spear. Nor is this a dispute between two peasant ayllu that I can adjudicate after hearing both sides. “You fear that she sees her own future?” he asked bluntly.

Nyunyuma nodded rapidly, still covering her face.

“And that if we bring her to the court, that we will make this future real?”

Another nod, followed by a deep inhalation as his wife sublimated a sob. Ozcollo bit his own tongue, tasting his own blood, and prayed silently to the greater gods, hoping they’d take this small sacrifice and hear his words. Let this not be so. Let the Emperor and Empress be beneficent when they realize that we have kept this child from them—a child that they might rightfully have claimed for the greater good of the Empire. No one is above the needs of Tawantinsuyu. Not the lowest peasant or the highest karaca. If a child is demanded, a child must be given. A tithe of flesh.

He swallowed, keeping his face outwardly stern, as befitted a warrior. But inside, though he could never admit to it, his heart ached at the thought of losing their moon-given daughter to the life of an aclla. Thought it would be better than losing her to sacrifice. I know that it is a great honor to have a child called to serve the gods. I know it. Every ayllu is bound together, to the whole of Tawantinsuyu, by the community of loss, of sorrow. By knowing that the children of this tribe or that one have been raised up to the gods. But I do not wish to see my wife grieve again over a child. Our first son, and the infant last year… have the gods not already taken enough children from us?

The silence had gone on too long. “I would like to speak with Quillachaki myself,” he told her. “And ask her if she thinks that this is the future.”

When their daughter appeared before them, her eyes were red-rimmed and swollen, and she appeared sleepy and disoriented. Good. She won’t have her wits together enough to lie. Ozcollo stared at her, and rapped out harshly, “Why did you never tell us about these visions before?”

Her eyes widened, and she dropped to the floor, lowering her head. “I didn’t tell you, Father, because I didn’t know what they were. I thought I was making them up. Entertaining myself. I’ve seen her hands as she weaves before. I’ve seen her learning to count on quipu knots, just as I have. But I… always knew she wasn’t me. She knows people that I don’t know.”

“Such as?” Ozcollo demanded.

Her small brows drew together. “Apichu, a priestess. A tall, old man named Guacamaya—she always hid from him. He has eyes like a bird’s. Piercing through everything.” She shivered.

Ozcollo’s throat felt dry. She could know those names from having heard us speak, he thought. “So, this dream you had today,” he said slowly. “Is it about your own future?”

Beside him, Nyunyuma lifted a hand as if to stop the words that already hung in the air like smoke.

Quillachaki shook her head vehemently. “No, Father! It’s already happened!” Her eyes squeezed tight. “I felt her die.” Her body shook. “Why would they murder her, Father?”

Ozcollo looked at his wife, who swallowed and said gently, “Because every year, some children who are found to be worthy of becoming servants to the gods, are brought to the high places, and given to them. Just as you saw.” As their daughter’s eyes opened in horror, Nyunyuma went on hurriedly, “It is a very great honor. But they must be beautiful, and perfect in every way. Or… otherwise exceptional. Unmarried, untouched, fed on food reserved for the temples’ use for at least a year. It is… an honor that we would like to avoid for you.” She looked down, her face desperately ashamed for a moment. “Please don’t tell anyone that I said that,” Nyunyuma added softly. “It would be taken as disloyalty.”

Ozcollo, still crouching beside the mats, unlatched one of his hands, and rested it on his wife’s shoulder in a rare demonstration of public affection.

Quillachaki looked down and whispered, “You think that the mark on my foot would make me exceptional enough?” She screwed her face up. “Then have Father take his sword and cut my foot off. I would rather spend my life as a cripple, here, with you, than go to meet the gods and die that way. I’ve already died once, through her. I don’t want to do it again!”

Her voice rose in pitch as she spoke. And while Ozcollo didn’t like to see anyone around him lose control of their emotions—people died in battle, if they couldn’t control their fear—he forgave the fear his daughter felt. She was, after all, only eight, for all that she spoke like a girl on the cusp of womanhood. “My brave daughter,” Ozcollo told her gravely. “I have cut limbs from the bodies of my men before, when their wounded flesh has rotted. But I would never willingly do that to you, my own.” He sighed. “We may not have a choice in your fate,” Ozcollo went on, watching her face crumple. “But I give you my word that in every way that I can, I will protect you.” He turned to his wife. “It is, of course, your choice at the moment,” he told her. “But you asked for my counsel. We should take Quillachaki to Cusco, at once, and petition the Inca Coya for her advice. She is cunning and wise, but not as apt to anger as her brother-husband.” He glanced at his daughter. “It should never leave your lips, that I have said this,” he added. “I’ve served the Sapa Inca in battle for twelve years. I know his temper well.”

He raged and threw rocks at anyone who approached for nearly a full day after we lost the battle of Chan Chan. Raged until his wife devised the deception that delivered the whole of Chimor into our hands. And the last man who tried to keep his daughter from being taken as a lesser wife, by marrying her off to another noble? Had his lands confiscated, and his daughter made an aclla instead. After a year or two, she was found to have been ‘unchaste’ in her captivity, and was pressed to death under a stone.

His wife nodded, her expression tight. “I will throw myself on her mercy.” Nyunyuma managed a smile. “She sometimes demonstrates that quality,” she added softly. “After all, is not the queen of Chimor still alive, if one of her servants?”

* * *

A noble family never traveled alone. Dozens of servants and guards traveled with them to Cusco, forming a great procession that walked up and down the mountainsides along the steep roads. The guards formed up around the family, a wall of bodies and obsidian-edged weapons, and the servants carried them in great chairs supported by wooden poles. Her mother and father had their own chairs, carried by four men each; Quillachaki and her siblings crowded into a single one themselves. Caquingora and Cuxi had never endured such a long journey before, but no matter how bored they were, or how much daylight wearied her, none of them dared sleep; they had to cling to the chair arms during downhill stretches that lasted for hours as the bearers plodded along, their footsteps making the whole platform shake. I would rather have walked on my own feet, Quillachaki thought, nauseous. Even if I fell, I would be in control of my own steps. My own destiny. Something about that thought seemed important, but then the chair jostled her into Cuxi again, and she lost the notion to nausea.

It took them close to a week to reach the capital, and they did so on the last day of the month during which women ruled the Empire. As they entered the great city, Quillachaki sat up in her chair, eyes wide. The great fortress of Saksaywaman loomed up, three sets of huge stone walls rising like the terraced fields she knew so well—but these steps housed weapons and armor, not potatoes and corn. Each stone in the wall was taller than she was, herself, and looked just as tightly fitted as the stones of her home villa.

And the Inti Kancha, the great temple of the sun-god, blazed under the noon sun—its stones had been covered in plates of beaten gold, and the great mask of the god had been moved outside for this festival day, so that even at a distance, she could see the god’s face, and the rays of his beneficent light radiating out from the center. The reflected light blinded her, and she had to cover her watering eyes.

And yet… for all her awe, she couldn’t help but remember her mother’s words about how gold was fundamentally worthless compared to the work of a someone’s hands. If it’s worthless, Quillachaki thought, then why do we cover the temple of Inti with it?

People bustled through the streets of Cusco, each person dressed in specific colors and patterns that demarcated their social class and occupation at a glance. They looked like a great flock of jungle birds, constantly swirling around the chair and guards. She’d never seen so many people at once in all her life—there must have been hundreds, even thousands!

However, as she turned to whisper to her siblings about it, voices trilled, and she half-turned to see who approached. Their bearers hastily set them down, and her parents beckoned their children to their sides impatiently, so that they could all kneel in the dirt together.

“What’s happening?” Quillachaki hissed.

“Hush!” her father ordered tightly. “The huacas come. The sacred bodies of all the Inca Coyas who have ever sat on the throne of Tawantinsuyu, whose spirits yet live in their dead bodies—and in the living body of the Inca Coya, too. Always and forever present, always and forever ruling. Our link to the gods, made manifest.” He lowered his head in profound reverence.

And then, yes, a procession of chairs made its way through the crowd with the bearers moving at solemn pace, accompanied by priests and priestesses, all chanting and singing, Praising the gods, and the names of the Inca Coya whom they carried on their shoulders. Desiccated body after desiccated body, their brown skin like wood, clinging tightly to the shapes of their bones. Hollow cheeks and closed, sunken eyes—all covered in the most beautiful of robes and golden jewelry.

Quillachaki trembled where she knelt, picturing again the line of kneeling corpses in the snow. And suddenly, numbly, she knew. Someday, I will be such a thing. I will be one of those bodies. Whether in gold or in the snow, I do not know. But oh, gods, please don’t let me be trapped in my body. Unmoving, unspeaking, unfeeling, and blind. Please, anything but that.

She’d lost track of the chanted words, but as the last priestess passed them, she heard, “Anahuarqui! Mother of the god-that-lives, Túpac Inca Yupanqui! Protect and guide your son, so that he may always protect and guide us, his children. Watch over us all, see us all, help us to know our duty to our families, the gods, and the land in which we live!”

Finally, her parents helped her back to her feet, and the servants continued carrying them towards the palace of the Sapa Inca. But as she swayed once more in the chair, she thought she saw ghostly images of the women who’d been carried ahead of them, now walking alongside them, their hair cut short as if in mourning, and their proud heads bowed. And just ahead of them all, as if leading the way, a tall woman strode—but her skin was scaled like a fish, all in the blue-green of fine turquoise, and her long black hair tumbled down her back like a tide of midnight. She never looked back, so Quillachaki couldn’t see her face, but somehow, in her dreamlike state, she knew that the woman’s eyes were the same white as the full moon drifting in the heavens.

Part III: Life at Court

Mama Ocllo, the great mother of the Empire, had just turned thirty. No white had yet touched her hair, held back from her face with bands of woven vampire bat fur, decorated with gold beads and brilliantly colored feathers. Her robe and cloak held every color that the jungles and deserts of her wide land might offer, and she sat on a throne carved from a single block of stone, sheathed in gold foil beaten over its bas-relief figures. Her husband, Túpac Inca Yupanqui, stood beside the throne today, but would resume it tomorrow. And the golden sun-mask that usually hung around the neck of the Sapa Inca, today gleamed between her breasts.

Huayna Capac, the sole living son of these two rulers, sat beside his sister, Cusirimay, a step below the throne, on a mat of fine wool. His sister leaned into him and giggled, whispering a joke about one of the lesser wives of their father, seated another tier down—between them and the concubines. Huayna managed a quick smile for his sister, but let his eyes rove the audience chamber, bored.

He was used to the impassive faces of his parents—almost identical in every feature, and no wonder, for not only were Ocllo and Túpac brother and sister, but their own parents, Pachacuti the great and Anahuarqui the wise, had also been brother and sister. And someday, he’d have to marry Cusirimay, whose neck seemed too frail to support the weight of her earrings and golden headband. Even now, she put her head on his shoulder, sighing wearily from the weight.

Nobles hurried around the great stone room, fetching items for the queen, cooling her with feather fans, and the like. For here, in this court, the great lords of the karaca were but servants to ones greater than themselves. Still bored and sweating in his heavy, fine robe, Huayna blinked as a family of nobles approached the throne. He recognized Ozcollo as one of his father’s finest generals, but the rest of them, barefoot and carrying symbolic bundles on their backs as a gesture of respect? He didn’t know any of them. And one of the girls was extraordinarily beautiful, and looked about his sister’s age. He leaned down to Cusirimay and murmured, “You may have a new friend soon here at court.”

His sister sighed. “They usually go back to their estates just as soon as I’ve gotten to know them. Or Mother finds them husbands.”

“Or their families want something,” Huayna whispered cynically.

Cusirimay tilted her head to look up at him. “It would be nice to have a true friend,” she admitted forlornly.

The wife of Ozcollo was introduced by one of the other nobles as Nyunyuma, and now stepped in front of her husband. When Ocllo gestured for her to speak, her voice shook. “Inca Coya, great mother of all of Tawantinsuyu, you have honored me many times in the past. You gave me to a good man in marriage ten years ago, for which I am grateful. But I ask your forgiveness now, for having been remiss in my duties to you and the land, for not having presented our eldest daughter, Quillachaki, before this.” Nyunyuma wetted her lips, and Huayna’s interest, which had been fading, returned at the curious dread in her face. “She is dear to me in a way that the other children are not. There are mothers throughout the Empire who have been given foster children by your hand. Children of conquered nobles of this tribe or that. And they have been given the task of raising those children to be Inca. Not Chimori or Killke or Moche, but Inca. Members of the greatest Empire the world has ever seen.”

Huayna shrugged internally. He had, at last count, some thirty half-brothers and half-sisters, all children his father had begotten on this lesser wife, that concubine. Most of them came from the lesser tribes, but all of his siblings were Inca now. Not just because of his father’s blood, but because they’d been raised up to become Inca. Which was, surely, the greatest blessing there was.

Nyunyuma’s voice became quieter as she continued, “Eight years ago, the gods saw fit to take my little son from me.”

“I grieved for you when I heard of this,” Ocllo said suddenly. “But what does any of this have to do with your daughter?”

The woman lowered her head. “From the moment of his death, I dreamed that the moon came to me, and I held it in my arms. Less than a week later, my husband found a criminal on our lands, fleeing justice. He had a child with him, and when my husband slew the law-breaker, he brought the child to our home. This was how Quillachaki was born again to us.”

Huayna’s eyes widened. Dreams given by the gods were rare, indeed. He darted a glance at the girl, whose mouth now hung open in shock, her eyes filled with consternation and tears. She didn’t know, poor thing, he thought distantly. What must that be like, to have always known who you are, but suddenly, not to know at all? He looked at the back of his own hand for a moment. His servants bathed and dressed him daily without touching his sacred skin. The only physical contact, unshielded by hide or wool, he’d ever experienced, was between him and his immediate family… or on the practice floor, where those he sparred against had to apologize and offer their lives if they touched him. He never accepted, of course. His father’s stern words always echoed in his head: Your enemies on a battlefield will never apologize for cutting your head from your shoulders.

His attention returned in time to hear Nyunyuma continue: “She is as much our daughter as any child raised by a new family. We love her as our own.” Nyunyuma sighed. “But she might have been ours only for a while. For she carries the mark of the moon on her. And she seems to have experienced a vision in the past week. Please, Mother of All… forgive my selfishness in having wanted to keep this daughter of mine a little longer.”

Huayna sat up straight, his sister’s head falling off his shoulder, his heart hammering in his chest. His fingers stole up to his breastbone, where, concealed under the finest wool, a birthmark in the shape of a sunburst rested over his heart. He stole a quick glance at his mother, whose face remained impassive, but he wanted to demand, loudly, What does this mean? What have the gods planned? Is she… is she to be one of my wives? He darted another quick glance at the girl, whose face remained pale and terrified as her whole world melted around her like a honeycomb tossed in a fire.

* * *

Ocllo hadn’t survived thirty years of court intrigue, and three attempts by lesser wives to frame her for disloyalty to Túpac, by being a fool—or by being foolishly sentimental or lenient. “Step forward, child. Let me see this supposed mark. And let me hear of this vision from your own lips.”

She watched the girl step forward, finding her unprepossessing. The mark on her heel did seem crescent-shaped, but signs and omens could be made to mean anything, in skilled hands.

But the vision… the girl’s words, hesitantly spoken, sent buzzing whispers all around the audience chamber. Still, Ocllo remained skeptical. “You experienced the moment of death through another’s eyes?” she asked, putting on a show of interest. “What did you see after? The gods?” Did her parents put her up to this? Nyunyuma has never shown any ambition before this—which is precisely why I gave her to Ozcollo, who claimed such glory in Chimor when he was but sixteen. Any ambition he had, needed to be tempered by an unassuming wife with few political connections of her own.

“I didn’t see the gods then,” the girl replied earnestly.

Ocllo pounced, hoping to be able to discredit the story. “Not then?” She raised her eyebrows. “Have you seen them at any other point?”

“I’m… not sure, my lady,” the girl stammered. “I thought after the parade of the huacas… I saw women who looked like reflections in water, but stood upright before me, trailing after the chairs. All on foot, with their rich robes dragging on the ground. A tall woman led them—taller than any man, with blue-green skin, scaled like a lizard or a fish. I… don’t know who she was,” she added, sounding terrified as every head in the court turned to stare at her. “But sorrow and love poured out from her like water from a jug.”

Challwa, the erstwhile queen of Chimor, a sea-going nation far to the west, had been waving a fan of feathers obediently for Ocllo. Now she dropped that fan—and then likewise dropped to her knees, begging forgiveness before picking up the golden handle and frantically dusting the feathers free of dirt. Her face had turned the color of milk.

That is not how we usually depict Mamaquilla in our temples, Ocllo thought, her lips pursing. But it is exactly how Challwa described the greater goddess to whom she conducted her last sacrifices on the night my husband and I reft her kingdom from her hands. Her fists tightened in her lap. So, a girl-child, marked by Mamaquilla herself? The goddess I serve as her highest priestess? A goddess who has never once whispered in my heart? Her eyes hooded momentarily. The karaca could rally around her. Suggest that she be married, when of age, to my brother, giving him a true priestess of the moon to replace me as Inca Coya. She glanced at her brother sidelong as Túpac turned his face aside to cough.

Ten years her elder, Túpac’s health had started to fail in the last year. Ocllo suspected that one of the lesser wives was using magic or poison on him and her children, in a bid to get one of the other, lesser-ranked sons on the throne when Túpac died. But she had unable either to prove it, or stop it.

Her daughter, Cusirimay, always sickly, had grown more frail this year. But Huayna Capac, her son, remained healthy and strong in spite of everything. And she knew why. Inti put his hand on my son. Mamaquilla put hers on this girl. There is a reason for it. Perhaps I will make her one of my son’s lesser wives. He must, after all, marry Cusirimay as his Empress. Hmm. Perhaps better to send her to a temple as a virgin, married to a silent god, well out of the way.

“Thank you for your honesty, Quillachaki and Nyunyuma,” was, however, all she said for now. “I must have time to consider this matter. It is good that you have brought it to my attention, however belatedly.” She gave Ozcollo a stern look. “It should never have been permitted to be a secret for so long. It is obvious that your daughter is a treasure of the entire nation, not merely a jewel for the two of you to enjoy.”

She saw them wince, as well they should. “However, I am content for her to remain with those she has called parents until such time as I may render judgment. Stay here in the palace, as our guests, until I do so.”

Nyunyuma bowed her head. “Thank you, my queen,” she whispered, and backed away.

* * *

Quillachaki longed for the freedom of tongue to ask her parents why they had never told her that she hadn’t been born to them. If you took me from a criminal, then who were my real parents? What were their names? Did the thief steal me from them?

But there were so many strangers in the palace, and she was old enough to know that everyone around them was watching to see how she and her family behaved. So she said nothing. But in the rooms that they’d been given, behind a cloth hanging’s feeble offer of privacy, Caquingora wrapped his sturdy little arms around her and declared fiercely, “I don’t care who you were born to. You’re my sister, and always will be,” while Cuxi cried, begging their parents for reassurance that Quillachaki wouldn’t be taken away.

Reassurance that they couldn’t give.

Still, as days dragged into a week in the palace in Cusco, Quillachaki’s fear of instantly being taken from her parents dissolved with it. And since there were so many torches and lights at night, for the first time in her life, she was allowed to sit up past sunset. And to her surprised delight, she felt alive at night, her fingers taking on new skill as she wove, attempting intricate patterns she’d never thought possible before. But while she half-expected visions to come, none did. But then… the person whose eyes I saw through is dead, she thought, feeling hollow inside. How can I see, when her eyes are closed forever?

At the end of the first week, the Inca Coya brought a woman in to meet them, a woman with silver hair and a face like dried fruit. On seeing her, Quillachaki yelped and hid behind her mother.

“Mind your manners,” Nyunyuma told her sternly, dragging her back out into view. “What’s the matter with you?”

“That’s her! That’s Apichu! I’ve never seen anyone from the visions before in waking life,” Quillachaki whispered, cringing away from the old woman’s hands, which nevertheless caught her face and tilted her features into the light.

“There is a superficial resemblance to one of my former aclla,” the priestess rasped after several moments’ intent study. “It’s hard to say. A peasant girl named Palta. Pretty enough, but in a very common way, with none of the refinement of this girl’s features.” A disparaging sniff. “Adequate in her weaving. She’d been given to a temple in Chimor, and she was sent on to us when she was six years old.” She spoke as if Quillachaki weren’t even present, looking directly at the Inca Coya. “I can send word to that temple, and ask them who left her with them, but chances are that her parents died in the, ah, hostilities, and the rest of her ayllu couldn’t care for her.”

Ocllo shrugged. “Send a messenger, but I doubt anyone there will remember. There were many orphans in that region eight years ago.” Her tone held an indifference that chilled Quillachaki. “So,” the woman said, staring once more at the girl, “We have verified that the visions are at least real. But we have no idea as to why you experience them.”

“The will of the gods is mysterious,” Apichu intoned.

Quillachaki caught the quick, impatient glance Ocllo gave the older woman. “Yes, indeed,” the Inca Coya murmured. “You and your family must continue to stay until I determine what’s to be done with you, child.”

Her mother prodded her shoulder, and Quillachaki hastily lowered her head and murmured her gratitude for her continued hospitality.

After that, she found herself invited to spend time with the other children of the court, including the many sons and daughters of Túpac Inca Yupanqui. One day, while playing hide-and-seek with the other girls her age, Quillachaki found herself in an open courtyard, and hastily ducked behind a tree for concealment. And then didn’t dare move as several of the boys burst into the area, including Huayna Capac, the heir. All of them carried practice swords. Two older men, guards of the heir, followed them to the courtyard, their faces impassive.

“Again?” one of them complained softly—Atoc, she recognized. Son of the erstwhile queen of Chimor. “We practiced this morning!”

“There are other things in life besides swords, brother!” another boy said, laughing. Huari, Quillachaki thought, peeking around the tree. Mother said that he was Túpac’s son by his favorite concubine, Ciqui. He dares to call the heir brother, to his face? They must be as close as I am to my own siblings…

“Like what?” Huayna jeered, advancing on Huari and Atoc with his sword in his hands, held low. “Perhaps you want to go for a swim in the sea, eh?” A jab with the sword, which Atoc parried. “Go for a ride on one of your mother’s boats?” Another jab, this one barely deflected in time.

Atoc’s face flushed. “My mother has no more boats,” he told Huayna stolidly. “All of our boats now belong to the Land of the Four Quarters.”

“Best that you not forget it. You’re Inca, not Chimor,” the heir told him. Taunting his friend, trying to get him off-balance and angry.

“What else is there besides swords, brother?” Huari put in now, trying to weave around behind the heir—but Huayna wouldn’t let them split up. He backed away, maneuvering to keep them both in front of him. “There are girls.”

“The girls of court should be treated as if they are aclla. You lack honor,” Huayna retorted, and as Huari’s face darkened into real anger, the duel began in earnest, all three boys using every ounce of strength and speed they had.

Quillachaki peered around the tree, wincing. She’d often watched her father’s soldiers at practice, and it was clear to her that Huayna dominated both of the other boys. Faster, stronger, more skilled; the other boys scarcely got a single attack in for every two that the heir launched. The guards watched from near the exit, faces impassive. Fighting was a necessary part of a noble’s life. Practice now could save their lives someday.

Finally, Huayna swept his half-brother’s legs out from under him, catching him behind the knees and sending the other boy flying, and then swung around to parry an attack by Atoc. Their swords met, and Atoc’s splintered at the force, while Huayna’s carried through, the wooden blade arcing up into Atoc’s face with a loud crunching sound.

Atoc crumpled, catching his cry of pain between his teeth and pressing one hand to his face, even as Huayna aggressively pressed the attack. “Mercy!” Atoc cried.

“Does the Sapa Inca give quarter or show mercy?” Huayna demanded, his lips pulled back from his teeth in a jaguar’s snarl. “Does the prince of Chimor surrender?”

Quillachaki glanced up, and saw that neither guard had moved to intervene, though she saw blood pouring out from between Atoc’s fingers. “Leave him alone,” Quillachaki called, startling herself as she ran out from behind the tree. “You’ve hurt him—let him be.”

“You can’t address the prince that way!” one of the guards blurted as she ran past Huayna, turning her back to the heir to the kingdom—an incredible display of bad manners, she realized later—and dropped to her knees to pull Atoc’s hand from his face.

The boys around her started to laugh—whether at her, Atoc, Huari, or at Huayna, she didn’t know—but their mirth died as she moved Atoc’s hand away. The practice swords held no obsidian edges, but the impact of the wood had shattered Atoc’s nose, crooking it over until it almost touched his cheek, and a deep gash on it had sliced through the nare, leaving the socket below open to view.

“Oh, gods,” she heard Huayna murmur behind her through the sudden silence that had fallen. “I didn’t know it was that bad—”

Not knowing what else to do, Quillachaki reached out and touched Atoc’s ruined face. Felt something welling up from deep inside of her—pity, perhaps, or something better: compassion. And as her fingers touched his skin, that compassion poured out of her in a flare of soft white light, bathing his face. She saw Atoc’s dark eyes, and he pulled away, but she followed him. Urged the light into him.

And when the white tide left her, she felt exhaustion seep through her, but she had the pleasure of seeing his face, whole and mended, though still covered in blood. “Mamaquilla,” Atoc whispered. “Mamaquilla has touched you. Our lady of moon and sea.”

That was when two new soldiers raced into the courtyard past the original guards, and dropped to their knees. “Prince, you must come with us,” they implored. “Your father is dying.”

* * *

Huayna Capac stood rigid for a moment, unsure that he’d heard the guards correctly. But having seen what he’d just seen, and with the guards’ words ringing in the air, he tossed his practice sword at his half-brother and caught Quillachaki’s arm in his own hand—a hand he’d been told since birth was as sacred as the gods themselves. “Come with me,” he snapped, and half-dragged her with him.

Her sandals—strange-bag-like things that encased her whole foot—slipped and skidded on the flagstones as he hauled her with him, almost at a run, to his father’s chambers. The dozen or so lesser wives and concubines in the antechamber outside crowded so thickly that his guards had to shoulder a path for the heir. And then Huayna pulled Quillachaki past the shocked faces of the women and into his father’s rooms.

There, his mother knelt beside his father’s pallet, wiping the man’s face with a damp cloth, while priests chanted, played flutes, and burned sacred. “Help him,” Huayna ordered Quillachaki. “Heal my father!”

“I don’t know how!” Quillachaki wailed, trying to back away, but Huayna pulled her right to his dying father’s side and pressed her hands onto his father’s sacred flesh.

“What are you doing?” his mother demanded.

“She healed Atoc after an accident, moments ago,” Huayna snapped back. “His nose was broken and bleeding, and now it’s not.”

“Such things can be staged—”

The priests in the room all turned to stare at Mama Ocllo. One of the guards, from the doorway, said apologetically, “Forgive me, my lady, for speaking out of turn, but I witnessed it with my own eyes—”

Huayna didn’t hear them. He stood behind the girl, keeping her cringing hands planted on his father’s sweating chest, and spoke in her ear. “My father must live,” he whispered. “If he doesn’t, there may well be civil war.”

“But I’ve never done it before—it was an accident—”

“Try!” That was a shout. He couldn’t help it. His father was dying, and this girl kept protesting, instead of using the power in her.

She lowered her head. And once again, the white moonglow seeped out from her, in front of so many witnesses this time, that no one could deny it. The priests stopped chanting. The flutes stopped playing. Quillachaki sank to her knees, and the light began to fade. “I don’t know what to do,” she finally said, her voice barely audible. “It’s not a wound.”

“Try harder,” Huayna ordered. “There’s nothing in the world that can’t be beaten.” He believed that with everything in him. “You just have to be willing to try.” But… you’re not willing, are you? That anguished thought rose up out of him. “Don’t let him die!”

“If your power cannot heal him, then what good is it?” Mama Ocllo’s voice held all the venom of a tree viper’s bite.

Quillachaki tried to recoil, but Huayna still stood behind her, and he gave her nowhere to go. “It’s something that has grown inside of his chest,” she protested. “And it’s grown so large that now he can’t breathe.” She sat up, her eyes dazed and vacant. “It feels like a stone inside of him, pressing down on every breath.”

Tupác’s eyes had opened, and he nodded now, wheezing as he said, “Yes. Exactly.” He sucked in a breath. “Thank you… little one… for easing the pain.” His eyes slipped past the girl to rest on Huayna. “Thank you… my son. But the gods call me. And even I… must obey.”

He passed from life later in the evening. Ocllo hadn’t permitted Quillachaki to leave the royal apartments—his mother clearly wanted to keep the girl with the god-given powers in arm’s reach, under royal control. As such, she sat curled in the corner, watching them as if they were scorpions.

Huayna couldn’t even weep—couldn’t allow himself to be seen weeping, in spite of the intolerable ache in his chest. My father is gone. What am I supposed to do? How can I rule? I’ve trained hard, but I don’t have a man’s strength. I can’t fight in battle yet, and that is what gains the respect of the karaca. A sinking realization. Who will be the first to rebel?

And even as his mother painted his face the black of mourning, and servants prepared fresh clothing for him, carefully settling it over his head without touching his sacred flesh, soldiers came to the royal apartments to inform them, “My queen, Ciqui and her son Huari have fled the villa. People in Cusco report that she is already spreading rumors that her son was named heir by the Sapa Inca on his deathbed.”

The Sapa Inca was, technically, selected by the other members of the karaca. The honor could fall on any male child born to a previous Sapa Inca—including those whom Huayna called cousins and uncles. Legitimacy was helpful, but to be named heir by the dying ruler? To be selected by him to be the vessel of his essence, the repository of all the divine wisdom of the previous rulers? Pivotal.

Huayna raised his head, stunned by the words, by the utter betrayal. “No. . . not Huari. He wouldn’t—”

His mother looked up, her dark eyes glittering and fierce. “Order your men to pursue them,” she told her son. “Ciqui must die for her betrayal. And for so long as Huari is alive, he will remain a threat to your power. He must die, too.”

Huayna reeled. “Just this morning, we laughed together, and he told me that there was more to life than swords—I can’t order his death, Mother—”

“Your great-grandfather, Viracocha,” she told him, her eyes hooded now, “had two of his own brothers put to death for threatening his rule. And he had two of his own sons executed as well. I remember my uncle’s deaths quite well.” She leaned forward, bringing her eyes level with his own, so that he couldn’t avoid her stare. “You can and you must order his death. Or everyone in Tawantinsuyu will know that you do not have the will of Viracocha in you.”

Huayna closed his eyes, dazed. Felt within himself for the voice of his father, for the grandfather he didn’t even remember. And found nothing there, beyond the power of Inti, burning as always just under his heart. If I’m the receptacle of their wisdom, I don’t know it yet. And no. The karaca and the rest of the empire cannot know that.

Over his mother’s shoulder, Huayna could see Quillachaki’s eyes, locked on both of them. And his stomach roiled as he turned to his guards and gave the first order of his reign: “Pursue Ciqui and her son. Bring them to the palace. And then I will decide what is to be done with them… always heeding the counsel of my advisors, of course.” There has to be a better answer than killing my brother! I know he didn’t think of this himself… he’d never agree… or would he? To become Sapa Inca? To become divine?

He looked down at his hands. His mother had told him that he shouldn’t let anyone see the gifts that Inti had given him until he was older. Till it became necessary to demonstrate his true power and authority. I think that time has come, Mother.

Part IV: War and Sorrow

Mama Ocllo insisted that a powerful, loyal warrior like Ozcollo must remain in the capital to support the young Sapa Inca—and thus, his family remained as well. But when she moved to have Quillachaki dedicated as an aclla, safely removed from the world of politics, Huayna intervened, officially marrying his younger sister, Cusirimay, investing her with the title of Inca Coya and high priestess of Mamaquilla—divesting his mother of both titles in the process.

After the elaborate wedding ceremony had been completed, Cusirimay turned to walk down the steps after her brother-husband, and Quillachaki had seem her foot catch in the hem of her long robe. She stumbled, falling down the steps—an unpropitious omen!—but Huayna, with the reflexes of a jaguar, somehow caught her by the wrist, steadying her. The court applauded, and put on a great show of relief, but Quillachaki had been appointed as one of Cusirimay’s ladies-in-waiting. And as she helped the young queen undress for the night, she saw the livid purple bruise on her wrist. “Oh, gods,” Quillachaki whispered. “How hard did he squeeze your wrist?” She could clearly see the marks of cruel fingers.

Cusirimay laughed, an oddly sheepish sound. “He didn’t. I just bruise easily.” She sighed. “Some nights, when there’s been a pebble under my mat, I’ve woken with bruises all over my back, having tossed and turned to get away from it all night.”

Quilla frowned and checked the conjugal mat for pebbles. Helped the young queen slip naked under her blankets. But her new husband did not arrive to consummate the marriage—though the people of the court whispered that this was understandable. Most women didn’t marry until they were sixteen. But still, it’s inauspicious for the sun and the moon not to be propitiated with the holy mysteries, the union of their two highest priests, people whispered.

But Huayna took no heed of rumor, and promptly left the capital to attend to several breakaway provinces intent on civil war, leaving his mother infuriated that her regency had become advisory, and that she no longer held the power to direct political alliances through marriages and temple appointments.

Day after day, Quillachaki helped Cusirimay her with her hair, heavy robes, and jewelry as the eleven-year-old girl oversaw the court and rituals in the Temple of the Moon. And wove the finest vicuña cloth, just as if she’d actually become an aclla, after all. And during the long hours spent at the young queen’s side, she found herself privy to more confidences and secrets than she could ever have expected. Cusirimay suffered from frequent, prolonged bleeding from the nose—something that could not be known to anyone but her closest body servants. Blood was sacred, and the blood of an Inca Coya doubly so. For it to emerge from the body without cause sounded like a curse—and Quillachaki was entrusted with both this knowledge, and the responsibility of burning any piece of cloth used to clean up the blood, lest someone wicked get ahold of it, and use it, with a wak’a’s help, to curse Cusirimay further.

And after the first time Cusirimay’s moon-flow came, there was so much blood that the older servants looked terrified, and the young girl seemed exhausted at the end of it all, her face ashen. “I don’t suppose you could heal me?” she whispered to Quillachaki one evening as her trusted servant helped her remove her robes before bed.

Quillachaki hesitated. “I can try, my queen,” she murmured. “But I will need to put my hands on you—”

Cusirimay smiled wanly. “My brother told me before he left for the campaign that no matter who your parents were, it’s clear that the gods were behind your birth. Which makes you, he says, as holy as we are. In private, you never need to worry about that with me.”

Quillachaki swallowed, not knowing what to make of those words, and put her hands on the other girl’s shoulders, lowering her head. She liked Cusirimay, and felt deeply sorry for the girl’s constant exhaustion and illness. Compassion filled her, and poured forth as white light, illuminating the stone chamber of the queen. But when she opened her eyes, she’d only managed to heal the most recent bruises on the girl’s body. She knew that she hadn’t healed the deeper problem, which lurked deep inside Cusirimay. Hiding in her blood.

Still, Cusirimay patted her on the shoulder and slowly, carefully lowered herself to her pallet, where she lay naked until Quillachaki pulled the covers up over her body. “Perhaps when my brother returns from the war, he will consummate our marriage. I hope he will.” She sighed. “Mother says that I must give him children quickly.” A smile crossed Cusirimay’s face. “And Mother has repeatedly told me of the importance of having second and third wives with whom I can get along.”

Quillachaki had learned to control her face in the last year at court. “You don’t sound uncomfortable with the thought, my lady,” she ventured politely, distantly.

Cusirimay waved a thin hand. “He’ll always love me best,” she told her friend with a laugh. “I’m his sister! No one will ever be higher-ranked than I am, as Inca Coya. There’s nothing to be jealous about. Most of the other wives will be political marriages to hold the empire together, and so what if he prefers this concubine’s bed, or that one? That’s just sex.”

“That’s your mother’s counsel, my lady?” Quillachaki asked, smoothing the covers.

The smile wavered on the other girl’s face, and then faded completely. “It is,” she admitted with a sigh.

“Then I expect that it is good advice,” Quillachaki replied noncommittally. Though I would prefer a marriage like my parents’, in which my father has taken few concubines, and no other wives. “The palace could not function without the many wives to run it. And the Sapa Inca must have many children, so that the strongest will rule after him.” And so that his voice may echo through his descendants, she thought, her inner voice mocking. What a wonder that Huayna doesn’t sound like a chorus when he speaks. Her thoughts skittered to a halt. Oh, I must never say such things aloud. They’d stone me to death for blasphemy.

Cusirimay sat up suddenly, clapping her hands. “I have it! The gods gave you to us for a reason, I think. I’ll make you my brother’s second-wife!” She kissed Quillachaki on the cheek; royals could always initiate contact, though they rarely chose to do so, since purification rituals were required even after the Sapa Inca allowed a favored concubine to caress his sacred flesh.

Quillachaki stood rooted to the spot. “I thank you for the thought, my queen,” she replied apprehensively, “but I would greatly prefer not to marry your brother.”

Cusirimay looked bewildered. “But being a wife of the Sapa Inca is the highest honor there is. Besides being married to one of the gods, of course.”

But he’s cruel! Quillachaki wanted to shout. He ordered several of his brothers banished, and had Huari executed. He’s arrogant—he taunted Atoc and Huari when they were sparring, and never apologized for the injury he did to Atoc. He’s proud. Yes, he’s the Sapa Inca, and has every reason to be proud, but he has no mercy in him. He ordered me to heal his father, and I think he still believes that I failed on purpose. Her lips tightened. He’s left a standing order for me go to the temple of Mamaquilla at every full moon to heal anyone who comes there with a wound. The disconnect in her own thoughts tripped her up, and she hastily rationalized, But he surely has me do that to ensure the good-will of the peasantry.

Before leaving on campaign, he’d sent gifts for her to her parents’ house once a month. And to her mother’s chagrin, Quillachaki had refused those gifts. The last one had been fine usuta to replace the little boots she’d always worn. “You can’t keep sending these back!” Nyunyuma had exclaimed in horror. “Gifts are how the Sapa Inca honors us—and we must send gifts to him in return. He will be offended if you do not accept these!”

“Give the sandals to my sister and let her wear them to the next feast at the palace,” Quillachaki had replied stubbornly.

Nyunyuma had thrown up her hands in exasperation. “I remember when you were a polite and respectful girl,” her mother had chided. “Becoming handmaiden to the queen has bereft you of manners and of wits!”

Naturally, Huayna had noticed her lack of those sandals on the next occasion on which they’d met, when he’d approached them without giving her family time to remove their shoes in respect. His eyes had flicked down, and though his expression hadn’t changed, he’d spoken only briefly to her parents before withdrawing.

Mama Ocllo’s eyes had bored holes through Quillachaki throughout the whole exchange—eyes that she never seemed able to escape for long. In fact, the queen regent had summoned her to her rooms later that same week to chastise her for her ingratitude and churlish behavior, and had reminded her, “Even the smallest act carries political meaning in the palace, child. Refusing a gift from my son aligns you with rebellious factions. They see your behavior, and they assume that your parents must surely share your clearly-evident disobedience. They’ll seek to try to influence your father—or discredit him.” Mama Ocllo had bitten into a piece of fruit and added, coldly, “You might consider the ramifications to your family the next time you behave like a selfish, rude child.”

Quillachaki hadn’t relished that lecture. Had chafed and burned internally at the unfairness of it. “Please,” she’d whispered. “I don’t want anything—”

“Nonsense. Everyone wants something.” Another bite of fruit. “What do you want?”

“To go home, my lady,” Quillachaki had blurted.

Mama Ocllo had laughed at her. “Dear child. This is your home now. My foolish son has deftly ensured that you won’t be sent to some quiet temple to be a bride of the gods, in spite of the fact that he should never allow visible power to be split. He should consolidate your power, co-opt it for his own. If he’s smart, he will, in time. So you must accustom yourself to the fact that your very existence is political, and that you belong here, at court. Where we can keep an eye on you, your power, and how you exert your influence.”

And with those words, Quillachaki’s resentment at being trapped in Cusco shifted in part from Mama Ocllo, her first jailer, to Huayna himself. My influence? she’d seethed as she retreated from Ocllo’s rooms. What influence? How can my refusing a pair of sandals truly mean that much to anyone?

However, ever since, if there’d been gifts, Quillachaki wasn’t aware of them, and suspected that war had ensured that Huayna had no time for whatever political game had been behind the tokens. But her father had given her new earrings, which she wore today, hearing them jingle softly as she moved.

The silence had gone on too long. “I… would prefer to be married to a man of lower rank, but greater affection,” she finally managed, averting her eyes.

Cusirimay laughed, putting her head down on her soft wool pallet once more. “Oh, how little you know him! He has a good heart! You will see, in time.”

“Atoc at least makes me laugh,” Quillachaki offered hesitantly.

“Oh, don’t be silly. I can’t have you choosing your own husband! Then everyone will expect to, and nothing will ever get done.” Cusirimay giggled. “Oh, all the time that people would waste, when most men and women come to have a very proper affection for their spouses, eventually.” She gave her friend a teasing look. “Or so the older women tell me.”

* * *

Far to the north of Cusco, Huayna and his men proceeded cautiously through the deep jungles of the lands of Quito. The initial conquest of this green, densely-forested land had begun in the time of his grandfather, Pachacuti, and while the Quitus people were militarily weak, they’d seen an opportunity to slip in the Inca yoke in the turmoil over his ascension. Huayna wiped sweat out of his eyes, listening to the drone of insects. His strike force walked almost silently through the jungle, not speaking. Setting each foot down cautiously, avoiding loose branches. And every man strained his ears for other sounds—for the telltale rustle that might presage an ambush.

His friend Atoc had his right flank; the older general, Ozcollo, had his left, and Huayna knew that every man around him was at least as much there to protect him, as to meet the foe. He chafed a little at that, but understood—he was an untested lad of fourteen. He had to rely on the wisdom of proven generals like Ozcollo for strategy. And while he seemed to be growing rapidly, and now actually was taller than many older men… if he died here, due to inexperience, the entirety of Tawantinsuyu would convulse in civil war, not just these peripheral provinces.

“Do you hear that?” Ozcollo whispered harshly, signaling for a halt.

“I don’t hear anything,” Atoc replied quietly.

“No birds,” Huayna returned, and pulled his macana from his belt. Wood and obsidian, he’d never used it in real combat before. The few skirmishes they’d fought so far, his generals had insisted that he stay at the back; this time, Huayna had demanded to be allowed in the vanguard. I will never win anyone’s respect leading from the rear, he’d told the generals. And, perhaps thinking that this region was relatively safe, they’d acceded.

Catching the concern in Ozcollo’s eyes, Huayna thought that the other generals might have been sorely mistaken. “Form up!” Ozcollo called, his voice low but urgent.

And that was when a flight of darts flew out from the trees on both sides of the column, tiny skewers of wood that pricked the throats and faces of the men at the edges with pinpoint accuracy. Huayna saw the men slap at the darts, as if trying to dislodge biting insects… and then their eyes glazed and they began to topple.

“Poison!” Atoc shouted, getting his body between Huayna and harm.

Huayna hefted his own rectangular shield, raising it to cover his face and throat, and snapped, “They’re on both sides. Left files, turn and engage! Right files, turn and engage! Don’t pursue! Don’t let them draw us apart!”

He caught a brief flicker of consternation on Ozcollo’s face as he pre-empted his general’s orders, and reminded himself to discuss the matter with the man later—a Sapa Inca cannot apologize, but he can avoid strife—and he and Atoc headed right, while Ozcollo faced left. The file previously to his right became a row of men ahead of him, and he knew that Ozcollo and the other files had his back. So, raising his shield, Huayna called, “Forward!” and his men sprang through the cover of trees, bushes, and vines as one, looking for the ambushers.

Three steps into the jungle, off the rough, muddy track they’d been using, they might as well have been lost. Green and shadow folded in around them on all sides. It would be beautiful, if it weren’t so terrifying, Huayna thought, looking for an enemy—any enemy. No room to throw our bolas here. The archers might have better luck, if their arrows don’t get caught by branches.

“Anyone see them?” Atoc called hoarsely.

“There! The dart-blowers are pulling back—” That, from the left somewhere.

“Don’t chase!” Huayna called, urgently. “They’re baiting us back—”

But as disciplined as his men were, another series of darts from deeper in the underbrush enraged them, and the front rank advanced without his order. Damn it! My voice doesn’t have enough authority for them? Huayna seethed, and called to his own rank, “Move up and support! It’s probably a trap!”

The screams from the men who’d moved ahead, through the deep veil of green, shattered the silence, and proved him correct. Taking a deep breath, Huayna led his men deeper into the jungle, and jade gave way to red. Red dripping down from the broad leaves above him, like rain. Red on the twisting, writhing bodies of his men on the ground. Red of the entrails pouring from a man’s belly. Red dripping down the torsos and legs of the men still upright and fighting. “Hit them! Hit them now!” Huayna shouted, the words scraping the back of his throat. “Forward!

Then everything seemed to fade and slow. Go distant, somehow. The way the leaves on the forest floor came up in a cloud, following a mistimed spear swing as an enemy sought his heart. The slick-wet feel of them, covered in blood, as his feet slipped on them. Tumbling forward, tucking into a roll that saved both his dignity and his life, and then back up onto his feet, rising somehow inside the spearman’s reach, safely away from the spear’s deadly point. And then sweeping his macana across the man’s belly. The surprised look in the man’s eyes as he looked down—he didn’t expect to die today—and then kicking the man backwards, seeing ropes of entrails bulging out.

Then onto the next man, and the next, no time to think, just to react. Rage boiling under his heart. You were already conquered once! You could have stayed home and saved your lives, but you came against me and mine—you don’t get to do that and live!

Vaguely, he knew that the sword in his hand felt hot as he swung it at the next man, taking off a head. He could smell burning wood, and as he attacked his next opponent, he heard Atoc shout, “It’s on fire! Huayna, it’s on fire!” and then he realized that his friend meant his wooden sword, which had indeed somehow caught alight, billowing red flame and gouts of smoke as he swung it. It didn’t burn him, but the man he was fighting looked wild-eyed—

—and then the sword fell into charred splinters and ash as he parried another blow from his opponent. Atoc shouted wordlessly and lunged forward, catching the enemy with his shield and throwing him back, while Huayna stared at the ashes in his hand numbly. “I need a sword—” he began to say, and then saw Atoc lurch, thrown backwards and to the ground by a savage kick.

And then the enemy was on him, and he had no sword. He caught the first blow on his shield, and then dimly realized that even his shield was on fire now—where is it coming from? Do they have a wak’a helping them? Why doesn’t this hurt?

He ducked the next blow, and reached up with his free hand. Caught his opponent’s wrist and held it as Atoc scrambled back to his feet. Heard the man scream in agony, and smelled burning flesh. And stunned, Huayna saw flames pouring out of his own skin, spreading up from his palms, surging up over his wrists to his elbows like a river of fire. His opponent battered frantically at his shield, trying to force him to let go, and Huayna’s lips pulled back from his teeth as he snarled, “I’ve had enough of you!”

And then he wrapped his arms around his opponent, the full body-contact that he usually wasn’t permitted as warrior, king, and god, and let the fire come. The smell of burning flesh intensified, and the screams tore at his ears and his soul, but he didn’t dare let go. Didn’t dare let what was happening, stop happening.

And when he stood, the grease and char of his enemy covered him from head to toe in black, and the carbonized bones fell to the jungle floor, and Huayna threw back his head with a shout, letting the fire pour through him—this time as the radiance of the sun. All those around him who’d paused in their individual battles to stare in horror at what was happening, screamed and clutched at their eyes. Through the golden haze around him, Huayna could see that Atoc had managed to look away in time, but many of the enemy soldiers had bleeding pits where their eyes had been.

“Lay down your arms and surrender!” Huayna shouted. “And I may have pity on your families, if not upon you, who took up arms against me!”

He stood there, letting the light fade from him, and quaked as their ambushers threw down their swords and allowed themselves to be bound. The smell—the reek of the burning flesh—followed him wherever he went, and now that the battle was over, and the rage that had sustained him had drained away? Waves of nausea pounded through him. The acrid odor of burned flesh. The foulness of intestines and shit. The way the sun, breaking through the canopy, glistened off viscera, and the low, terrified, agonizing cries of dying men.

It all overpowered him, and he had to stagger away to where the enemy soldiers couldn’t see him, and there, he threw up, miserably and violently, until there was nothing left to come up but bile.

His own men didn’t dare come near him at first. Finally, Ozcollo and Atoc checked on him, and Ozcollo managed a facsimile of his usual firm, stoic tone, telling him, “First real battle usually takes people that way. I’d say you get used to it, but… I never have.”

That, from the hero of Chimor, meant something. Still, when Huayna looked up, he could see the older man start a little at meeting his eyes. Saw Atoc—sensible, good-hearted Atoc—pull back from him. “Never?” Huayna asked weakly. “For truth?”

“I learned not to eat before battle.” Low, gruff words, but still, an undercurrent of shakiness. “Most battles don’t last all day. I’ll survive if I miss a meal. Vomiting doesn’t maintain my reputation of having a gut carved from jade.”

Huayna managed a snort, and saw them both relax incrementally. “I suppose there are reasons for the prohibition on touching the royal family,” Atoc murmured quietly now. “If your ancestors could do that, my lord—or did that by accident, when startled? An entirely reasonable precaution.”

Huayna closed his eyes and leaned against a tree as his stomach gave another threatening lurch. “I’ve never been that angry before.”

“Gods prevent me from ever inspiring that rage in you,” Atoc returned, his tone heart-felt.

* * *

Quillachaki’s hands had frozen on her loom, and tears coursed down her face. “Oh, gods, I don’t want to see anymore!” she wailed, and felt hands on her shoulders as she shook. “Why are the gods forcing me see this? I don’t want to see them taking their fallen friends’ swords, and making sure that the enemy corpses are really dead! I don’t want to see them dragging the bodies—oh, gods, the bodies—” they’re so horribly slack and still, and I can already see flies and beetles crawling on some of them—“to be burned!”

She closed her eyes, but it made no difference. Nausea uncurled inside of her, but the hands on her shoulders shook her insistently. “Do you see my brother?” Cusirimay demanded urgently. “Is he alive?”

Quillachaki opened her eyes, dazed. “I don’t know. I see my father and Atoc, talking to me—or to whoever’s eyes I’m looking through. They’re both fine. They look shaken, but haven’t put on the black face-paint of mourning, so your brother must be alive.” Their faces are covered in red spray and mud. A different kind of paint. She swallowed down a surge of bile, and looked down at her arms, trying to scrub away the black ashes she saw there. “I saw what this person did,” she managed to whisper, peripherally aware that Cusirimay had shooed the other women out of the weaving chamber. “He burned a man alive. With living flames that came out of his chest and arms. Who could do this? And wasn’t it enough just to hack them to pieces?”

She buried her face in her hands. It was one thing to know, objectively, that her father went off to war and fought, and came back alive. It was quite another thing to find herself in the midst of a battle suddenly, when moments before she’d been drowsing over her work.

“Perhaps that was just a metaphor,” Cusirimay told her comfortingly, and wrapped her frail arms around her handmaiden. “Perhaps the gods wished to show you something that wasn’t literally true.”

Quillachaki put her head on her friend’s shoulder and wept. “I’d ask you to cut out my eyes if I thought it would do any good,” she told the young queen miserably. “But even when I close them, I still see what the gods want me to see.”

With her head down, she couldn’t see Mama Ocllo standing in the doorway of the weaving room, a speculative light in her eyes, and a frown upon her lips. But Cusirimay could. And the young queen looked at her mother, and gestured sharply for the queen regent to go away.

* * *

Huayna’s forces took the city of Quito inside of a week. The rumors of the young king’s sun-touched powers ran before them, decimating armies before men even took the field. He only had to demonstrate his powers once or twice more—once at the outskirts of Quito itself—and the city’s resistance crumbled.

He’d taken prisoners from the royal family, including several princesses, because that was the custom. Hostages tended to ensure the good behavior of a conquered province, and either giving such hostages to favored warriors as wives, or a ruler taking them as his own, fostered bonds of kinship throughout the far-flung reaches of Tawantinsuyu. In theory.

There was a lovely princess named Cava who’d been married once before, and looked about nineteen, who’d particularly caught Huayna’s eye. He wasn’t sure, however, if he wanted to do anything about the attraction. He had an unconsummated marriage to his sister back in Cusco to attend to, and he also knew that he needed to marry Quillachaki at some point, to align her moon-given power with his sun-given ones. If she ever stopped declining his gifts, anyway. He chafed a little at her stubbornness. She was the same age as his sister, and thus, marriage wasn’t an immediate prospect, but… in addition to the political realities, he’d desperately wanted to see her smile for years now.

He’d felt sorry for her from the outset, a stranger at court, and even a stranger to herself and her family, once the truth of her birth had been revealed. He could only shelter her from his mother’s dislike in so many ways, but thought that his sister was doing an admirable job with that so far. But while she’d occasionally smile at Cusirimay or laugh at some joke from Atoc, nothing Huayna himself did or said brought light to her eyes or a curve to her lips. I have to be serious in public, every move I make either freighted with ritual or heavy with command, he thought, turning over and trying to find a more comfortable position on his sleeping mat. I’m the high priest of Inti and ruler of twenty-seven million people. I can’t joke like Atoc, who has no responsibilities beyond keeping me alive. But I wish I knew what would make her smile.

Foolish, to let thoughts of one girl dominate his thoughts so, but thinking of the intransigent Quillachaki was certainly better than dwelling on how men screamed when they burned. Or worrying what would happen if he took a woman in his arms. What if it’s not just rage that brings the flames? What if it’s passion, too? What if my ancestors’ insistence on marrying their sisters was to protect other women from the flame—no, most of my ancestors had lesser wives and concubines. But… how many of them had the flames? None in living memory…

A tap at the doorframe of the room he’d taken in the palace, and a cleared throat. “What is it?” Huayna asked irritably.

“There’s… someone here to see you, my lord,” Atoc replied, sounding strained.

“Another noble come to swear fealty? Have him come back in the morning.”

“… no, my lord. I think you should speak with him.” A pause. “I’ll help you dress.”

Huayna rolled to his feet as Atoc slipped into the room and held a fresh robe out for him, before pinning it closed under Huayna’s arms. “Who is it?” Huayna muttered.

One who would give you a gift, young king. The voice held warmth and power, and Huayna turned, stunned, to meet blazing golden eyes set in a tanned face—a face with an expression of noble wisdom and a particularly long nose.

Huayna dropped to his knees. Rise, my son, the god said calmly. Do you know me?

“You’re Inti,” Huayna whispered, awed. “You’re the sun.”

God of the sun. Not the sun itself. It’s rather too large and too far away for me to claim. A note of whimsy in that powerful voice.

“I… don’t understand.”

You don’t need to, my own. As I said, I brought you a gift. A sword that will not fail you in the battles you will fight—save one. The god had held his hands behind his back all this time, but now brought them around in front of him, holding out a sword that looked as if it had been carved of night. Obsidian, from point to hilt. Heavier than the wooden swords of your men, but you’ll be strong enough to wield it. It will neither chip nor shatter. And when you channel my fires through it… the stone will remember the shape that it should be, and while it will carry the heat of a volcano’s heart within it, it will not melt.

Huayna’s mouth had gone dry. “What… what have I done to deserve this gift?” he managed, but his hands still yearned upwards for the blade, which he now found balanced across his palms.

A dry laugh from the god. Nothing, yet. But hold this land together for fifty or sixty years, and that would be a good start, don’t you think?

“You said it would fail me once,” Huayna said, his voice hardly audible. “It will fail on the day of my death, then?” He looked up, wanting to thank his godly ancestor for this great boon—and discovered that the god had vanished. And concentrating, his dazed mind couldn’t remember any detail about Inti now, beyond the sun-chip eyes that had blazed into his own.

“Atoc?” he said quietly.

“Yes, my lord?” Atoc sounded as thunderstruck as he was, himself.

“That really just happened, didn’t it?”

“The sword you’re holding does look very real, my lord.” Atoc’s sense of humor couldn’t be suppressed, even in the face of gods, it seemed.

Huayna gave the blade an experimental twirl. It felt heavy, no doubt about it. But Inti himself had told him that he’d be strong enough to wield it. “Why don’t you go wake Ozcollo and tell him that I’d like to march home tomorrow?”

“I’ll… go do that, my lord.”

* * *

It took time to march back to Cusco; the seasons had turned, and winter had draped the mountain roads in snow. Huayna and his men wintered in the valleys, relying on the communal stores of meat and maize distributed across the empire, and made the final march home in spring, passing through a town called Vitcos. His bearers carried him past the farms held by dozens of ayllu, and he noticed one in particular that was marked by a huge red stone high above the fields, near the canal. But none of the peasants stopped their work for more than a moment to stare at his men marching past. And, in a hurry to get home, Huayna didn’t call for a halt here, either.

On arriving in Cusco, celebration ensued; his victory in the north, much as it reeked of ash and char to him, needed to be marked by the citizenry, and the power of the Sapa Inca reaffirmed in every heart and mind. And his sister and he also marked their latest birthdays, which had been carefully noted by priests who kept both the calendar and an eye on the heavens.

He hadn’t expressly forbidden his troops to talk about his powers, or about the sword of Inti that never left his side. But neither did he encourage singers to spread the tale, either, which his mother thought was foolish of him. “You must show your strength now,” she reminded him. It was one half of a constant refrain with her these days; the other half was: “You need an heir. Cusirimay is a woman now—old enough to bleed. You must consummate the marriage.”

And, when she didn’t bring up the topic, the priests did: “Without the union of opposites, the divine union of the sun and moon, the crops will wither, and the people will starve, my lord.”

But Cusirimay still looked damnably frail, with dark circles under her eyes, and an unhealthy pallor to her skin. Always at her side, Quillachaki made a startling contrast, already filling out into womanly curves, and a healthy bloom in her cheeks—though still, she never looked at him if she could avoid it. Huayna knew which of them he’d vastly prefer to have in his bed, if she’d just smile once in a while. He knew he had a duty to his sister, and a political need to marry Quillachaki to align her power with his own, and keep her out of the hands of other major karaca families… but only after consummating his marriage with Cusirimay. And in and around that, I have to ascertain if I’m going to kill any woman I bed, he thought glumly.

While he revolved that thorny issue in his mind, Challwa, Atoc’s mother, came to his rooms. In her thirties, the erstwhile queen of Chimor had been his father’s concubine and his mother’s servant for decades. He’d never liked her; her eyes reminded him of a snake’s, black and cold—but she was beautiful, even though she was old enough to be his mother.

To his great surprise, she entered his chambers as if well-accustomed to doing so, and settled on his sleeping mat. Stretched back, offering him a clear view of her generous breasts, and murmured, “So. Have your father’s sleeping memories awakened yet, my lord? Do you remember what he liked to do with me?” Her smile could have been coy, if it hadn’t lacked all warmth. “Perhaps we could explore some of his favored options?”

I think I’d rather couple with an anaconda, Huayna thought, but kept his face blank before coughing into his hand. She wants something. Power over me, probably. A lifetime at court had taught him cynicism beyond his years. She did manage to wheedle concessions out of Father now and again, only to have them blocked by Mother. And now she thinks she can do the same with me? “I find that I can’t summon the memories at will,” he replied carefully. Truth. “Perhaps if you remind me?” Nothing’s reminded me yet, but who knows?

She laughed, stood, and beckoned him with her. Reluctant, but wanting to see what game the older woman was playing at, Huayna followed her, and wound up in a room of the palace that even he hadn’t known existed. On niches of stone that thrust out from the walls on all sides, stood pottery figurines depicting hundreds of couples. . . coupling. With more form and variety than he’d ever imagined. “The Moche were my people’s ancestors,” Challwa murmured. “They understood the practices of sexual magic, of union, far better than the Inca do. Which is why when your father took my city, and saw our ancient treasures, he took them for himself. Hid them from your mother. And brought me here to explore all their… configurations.”

Huayna swallowed, but no memories surged up from within. And while the pottery figurines set him on fire, the thought of doing any of that with Challwa—Atoc’s mother!—left him cold. “With the greatest of respect,” he replied, “I have no memory of that.”

He caught the way her eyes slitted in annoyance. And then she recovered, offering throatily, “Ah, I’m old for you. Your father always did prefer youth.” She smiled, all teeth. “That princess of Quito—Cava? Bring her here. Explore the intricacies of pleasure with her.” A wicked gleam in her eyes. “And then bring that knowledge to your little queen’s bed.”

Huayna glared, and then dismissed her abruptly. If she had any daughters of her own who hadn’t been made into aclla to prevent them from claiming the throne of the queens of Chimor, she’d have offered me one of them, in the hopes of claiming Tawantinsuyu through their offspring, eventually. What’s her game now? Does she have a fallback option, a potential alliance with Cava, if Cava gains my favor?

He stared at the figurines. I need heirs. But I can’t risk Cusirimay’s life. Not till I know… if my touch is death. He swallowed again, hard. Cava, I can risk, he thought, hating himself for the brutal calculation he’d just made. Not my sister or Quillachaki. Not yet. Not till I know.

Hours later, he’d taken the Quitus princess partially into his confidence in the room of cavorting figurines. He watched her eyes widen with shock at some of them, and then she covered her face to stifle a giggle. She was five years his elder, but seemed more like an older sister, than like the motherly figures of most of his father’s erstwhile concubines. More approachable, certainly. “You’ve been married before,” he began, feeling like a blundering fool, an idiot with no gift for words. “While I’m married, I haven’t yet approached my sister-wife’s bed. I do not wish to alarm her or hurt her.” Both true statements. “I swear to you, that my sister and I will find you a good husband, one who will not abuse or mistreat you.” He grimaced.

“You brought me to this chamber to discuss my marriage?” Cava asked, still giggling.

“I brought you here to ask you for the favor of your… guidance.” He grimaced and added, trying not to sound uncomfortable, “As I said, I don’t wish to hurt my sister.”

Cava chuckled. “Oh, my lord, every one of the acts shown here would likely not be comfortable! They’re not using the, well… ” her face flamed. “Let’s say that they’re not going about it in a way that would result in children. Perhaps some sort of… Inca ritual?” Her tone turned speculative.

He turned and frowned at the closest figurines, and comprehension dawned. Well, Father probably wouldn’t have wanted to beget children with Challwa, no… children who could stake a claim to his titles. Flustered, he cleared his throat. “I wasn’t—I mean, I wouldn’t—these are from Chimor.”

Cava approached him, looking relieved. He couldn’t even remember the last time he’d laughed, himself, and for a moment, her merriment made her deeply attractive. Filled him with yearning for the things he wasn’t sure would ever be truly within his grasp. “For a conqueror, you’ve been kind to me and mine,” she told him softly, deepening that yearning for a moment. But then he caught the flicker of her eyes, and wearily recognized an expression he knew very well—that of a courtier hoping for political gain. “I’ll be your concubine for however long you wish, my lord.”

He sighed. At least Quillachaki’s dislike of me, however incomprehensible, considering the honors and villa I’ve bestowed upon her family and the protection I’ve provided her from my mother’s machinations, is honest. Cava doesn’t really think I’ve been kind. She just wants to protect her family and herself. It’s reasonable. I understand it. But I hate the pretense. “It shouldn’t take more than once,” he informed her gruffly, she frowned, affronted. Then he caught her in his arms and pulled her in for a kiss, trying not to think.

Things continued along more or less as he’d expected, if quite a bit more agreeably. Cava’s previous marriage had taught her much about the ways of pleasure, and she encouraged his hands and mouth to venture many places beyond her lips. Just when he thought that he’d brought her joy, and had the relief of knowing that no flames had singed her soft skin, he noted that the room seemed somewhat brighter. But with his own pleasure hanging just ahead of him, his discounted that information and moved faster, harder, looking for his own completion, and then it hit

—and Cava screamed. Huayna jerked back in consternation as she covered her eyes. “The light! I can’t see!”

Stunned, Huayna pulled her hands from her eyes, which had been dark, but now appeared bloody around the edges, as burned out as the soldiers’ had been in the jungles. He stood, heedless of his current naked state, and ran to the door to shout for a guard. “Get Quillachaki! Now!” Gods, I didn’t think of the light. I only thought about the flames. This is my fault.

* * *

Quillachaki’s years at court had taught her to keep her face impassive under almost any circumstances, but healing Cava’s ruined eyes while Huayna stood near the door, obviously hastily-dressed, tested her composure. “Will she be all right?” he asked her as she stood to leave, and Cava blinked repeatedly, sitting up to stare at her hands. “Will she see?”

What kind of a monster are you? How could you put out the eyes of a woman in your bed? Quillachaki wondered, locking her hands at her waist. She kept her voice neutral, however, as she replied, “Her vision returns, my lord. But I can’t say how well she will see after this.”

“Thank you,” Huayna told her, reaching out as if to catch her shoulders and squeeze. Quillachaki recoiled and fixed her eyes on the floor, and his hands fell away before he made contact. “I’m… not sure how I can repay you for this kindness.”

Send me home. The words hovered on her lips, but she swallowed them. Too many witnesses, between the weeping princess and the guards peering interestedly in from the corridor. If she made that request, she’d just hear about her ingratitude all over again from Mama Ocllo.

So she stood in awkward silence until he remembered to dismiss her. As left, she could hear him addressing Cava, “I didn’t anticipate this. I will hold to the letter of our agreement, if you wish it. A good husband, as promised. A future. I swear.”

Her lips curled as she hastened away. No apology. And what sort of a man has to bribe to women to climb into his bed? Isn’t being the Sapa Inca and commanding it enough? A corollary notion appeared unbidden in her thoughts: What if he commands me to do the same thing? She shuddered. Still, while he’d once sent gifts to her family’s house, he hadn’t apparently done so in some time. His interest in her seemed to be purely political and religious. Of course, as everyone reminds me constantly, marriage is politics. It’s how treaties are sealed, how the empire is bound together. And marriage is religion, too. Just look at his marriage to Cusirimay.

In Cusirimay’s chambers, she couldn’t prevaricate with the queen about her brother’s activities. Had to describe the whole sorry scene to his sister-wife, Cava huddling naked under a blanket, her bleeding eyes, everything, in the most neutral tone she could manage.

But Cusirimay just shook her head and sighed. “Poor Huayna,” she said sadly as Quillachaki combed her hair.

“Poor Cava, I would think, my lady,” Quillachaki retorted with all the freedom of tongue that being in private allowed her with her friend.

“He couldn’t have known! And for him to do this? He must be preparing to come to my bed at last.” Cusirimay’s face lit up, and she reached out and caught Quillachaki’s arm with a thin arm. “And as soon as he gets me with child, I will arrange your marriage to him. And everything will be in proper order at last.” That, with a firm little nod and a smile. “This is my command to you as the Inca Coya.”

Her stomach roiled, but Quillachaki knew that the young queen wasn’t jesting. All she could do was pray that Cusirimay would forget it by morning.

* * *

A month later, having mostly recovered from the shock—and after several more pointed reminders from his mother and the priests—Huayna resignedly made his way to his sister’s rooms after nightfall. He usually felt sluggish almost as soon as the sun went down, and tonight was no exception.

It was a kind of torture to realize that Quillachaki was his sister’s attendant this evening, and the servant in charge of removing his wife’s garments with ritual formality and bathing her limbs with equal solemnity. He wanted, desperately, to talk to her. To explain that he hadn’t intended for anything to happen to Cava, but that his need to know had outweighed the risk. That he was guiltily glad that it hadn’t happened to Cusirimay. That Cava had been settled into a good marriage to a lord near Chimor, and would be lady of wealthy estates for as long as she lived.

But he couldn’t say a word to her. Couldn’t stroke a lose strand of hair back under the fine bands meant to control it. Not when he was here to consummate his relationship with his sister-wife, and when Quillachaki refused to look at him, as if he were repellent.

“Quilla, stay in the corridor outside,” Cusirimay told her friend lightly. “I’ll probably want you after my brother and I are done.”

Huayna grimaced internally. It was common for lesser wives to serve greater wives. Bathing away sweat and seed and helping them through childbirth. And Quillachaki wasn’t his wife, not yet, anyway. But the thought that she’d hear everything that passed now… bothered him. “Why don’t you give her the night off? I’ll be your servant,” he offered Cusirimay.

“Oh, don’t be silly. I want her to understand certain things,” Cusirimay told him lightly, and leaned up to whisper into his ear: “Not least that you’re not a monster.”

Huayna swallowed. “Just promise that you won’t open your eyes,” he told his sister. And I’ll try to get this over with as quickly as I can.

But the truth was, Cusirimay held not an ounce of attraction for him. How did my father and grandfather manage to do this? he wondered bleakly after a shamefully slow start to the evening. But looking at his sister’s painfully thin form did nothing, and thinking about Cava only brought back images of bleeding eyes. Which put a damper on the proceedings.

“Should I call Quilla in here?” Cusirimay murmured after a while.

“What?” he snapped, frustrated and humiliated beyond belief, and all-too aware of the servants and nobles outside the chamber. Witnesses to his embarrassment during what should have been a sacred rite, the coming together of two children of the gods.

“You do watch her, brother.” No jealousy in her soft voice. “I love her, too. I wouldn’t mind if you called her in here and, ah… ” She flushed. “Got ready with her.” She rolled to her side, and smiled at him. “Did you know, Mother used to order Challwa to pleasure her, on nights when Father didn’t call for either of them? I think it was to humiliate Challwa and show Mother’s power… but I think it might be at least a little fun if Quilla let me kiss her.” She leaned in and whispered, “Does that shock you?”

Huayna gritted his teeth. “She wouldn’t be willing to join either of us. And I certainly don’t want to alienate her even further. Just… let me think for a moment.” Damnably, the images, once planted, wouldn’t leave. And in short order, he was ready. There, it’s done, he thought later on a vast tide of relief. Now I don’t have to hear about it for at least a month.

For all his distaste for the act, Cusirimay seemed to enjoy herself, and kissed him sweetly before he left. And he passed Quillachaki in the passage, her expression looked as rigidly distant as his own must have been in that incredibly awkward moment. But out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that she was wearing the earrings he’d had sent to her house before he’d left for the campaign… and a tiny flicker of hope rose in his heart.

* * *

Quillachaki endured the whispered confidences of her friend and queen over the next several months. When all that divided many rooms in the palace from one another were beaded curtains, most people had no real privacy, and there was no way to avoid the reality of sex. Still, she was grateful that Cusirimay seemed, inexplicably, to enjoy her relations with Huayna. “He’s always so gentle. I hardly ever seem to have bruises,” the frail young queen told her friend, smiling.

Then, a missed set of moon-courses, and Cusirimay’s eyes shone with impossible hope. “I don’t want to tell him till I’m sure,” the young queen told her confidante one night. “But soon, I think everyone will know. And then, to protect the child while I’m carrying it, I think it would be best if he had a few concubines. And certainly a second-wife.” A sly look at Quillachaki that indicated that the Inca Coya had not forgotten her plans at all.

“And then I’ll be trapped here forever,” Quillachaki blurted, finally driven into honesty, years of resentment and fear boiling out of her at once. “Trapped as he and Mama Ocllo have kept me for years now. Never to leave Cusco again, when I’ve prayed to leave this place nightly since I arrived!”

The words tumbled to a halt as Quillachaki saw the expression on Cusirimay’s face. “You… want to leave?” Cusirimay sounded forlorn. “You’ve never liked it here? Not even once? Not even when I have musicians play flutes for us when we weave? Not even when I’ve had us carried up the slopes of the mountain in summer, just so we can walk in the snow when the sun is blazing hot?” Tears welled, and Cusirimay looked away, her face hardening slightly. “You… don’t really like me, do you? You’ve never really been my friend?”

Quillachaki threw herself to the floor at her queen’s feet. “I am honored by your friendship, my lady,” she assured the other girl hastily. Even though you’re as much my captor as anyone else here. “I always have been. But I don’t belong here.” She cast about wildly for an excuse, and found one. “No one even knows who my true parents were—”

“The people who raised you are your parents.” Cusirimay turned away, raising a hand in dismissal. “Leave me. You may return in the morning to help me dress.”

Quillachaki swallowed, realizing that she’d made her life much, much worse. Cusirimay’s friendship had been all that made the palace tolerable. “I’m sorry, my lady. You’ve been nothing but kind, even when I haven’t deserved it. I just want to go home—” The longing broke in a wave, leaving her throat aching. Away from here, away from Mama Ocllo’s eyes, and the politics, and everyone’s expectations.

“I said, leave me.”

Unable to sleep, and damning herself for having presumed on their friendship enough to have expressed her true feelings, Quillachaki tossed and turned on her sleeping mat. Hours later, she was rousted out of bed by the palace guards, and hurriedly marched through the palace to the royal apartments that she knew so well. Oh, gods, she’s already come to a decision about me. She’s going to have me sent off as an aclla because her feelings were hurt…

… only to find Huayna there, once more seizing her by the wrists, and pressing her hands to another dying body. This time, he didn’t order her. In fact, he only spoke one word: “Please.”

Tears coursing down her face, Quillachaki tried. Over and over again, with every ounce of strength in her body, she tried to revive her dying friend. Cusirimay managed to lift her head and open her eyes. Smiled when she saw Quillachaki and Huayna. And then fell back into unconsciousness. Judging from the blood all over the mats, it had been a miscarriage, one that had torn something deep inside Cusirimay.

And when Quillachaki collapsed, Mama Ocllo came into the room and took the body of her daughter into her arms. “What good are your powers, child, if you can’t do anything with them that matters?” she demanded, turning away to rock Cusirimay in her arms, as if to soothe her into sleep.

“Did you have no visions of this?” Huayna demanded of Quillachaki abruptly, pulling her to her feet.

She shook her head, dazed and guilt-stricken. I did this. I upset her so much that she lost the child. She was so frail. I never… I’ll never get to talk to her again. To tell her that her friendship did mean something to me. She might have been flighty and proud, but she was my friend, and I hurt her, and now she’s gone.

“No, my lord.” Her voice shook. “I’d tried to heal her before this, but it never worked. It was a sickness inside of her—”

“Never say that again!” Mama Ocllo hissed from where she rocked Cusirimay. “Disease is the product of sin. No member of the royal house, the children of the gods themselves, can ever be accused of sin.” She turned her head away. “Oh, my poor darling. I shouldn’t have pushed for an heir. Your body wasn’t ready… ”

Quillachaki was too tired and heartsick to know if that was political reasoning or Ocllo’s genuine belief. She just stared at the ground, a lump in her throat. “My only visions were of battles while you were gone.”

His face remained as unreadable as that of the golden sun-mask he wore over his heart. “Then the gods did not consider my sister’s life important enough.” His voice rasped, and she thought she heard contempt in it—contempt enough to match her own self-loathing for having failed her friend.

“Or she didn’t want to save your sister,” Ocllo spat, her voice harsh with anger and grief. “Perhaps she wanted Cusirimay’s position for her own.”

Quillachaki had backed away, shaking her head so vehemently that her heavy earrings pulled at her lobes, jangling and clattering, even as her stomach churned at the accusation.

* * *

Though Huayna’s advisors recommended that he remarry immediately, as Cusirimay’s death left the world cosmically unbalanced, without a female goddess-incarnate to stand partner to the male god-incarnate—the young Sapa Inca refused, merely re-appointing his mother to head the priesthood at first. He wore black face-paint for a year in mourning for his sister, and the entire court followed suit.

To Quillachaki’s dull surprise, Mama Ocllo didn’t immediately send her away to become an aclla. Having failed to save Cusirimay’s life, she fully expected some terrible punishment daily… which never came, though Ocllo’s burning eyes rested on her frequently.

Several minor rebellions flared up, and Quillachaki didn’t know whether to breathe a sigh of relief every time Huayna left the capital with his men to march to Chimor or other provinces to put down revolts… or to fret over her father, who’d steadily risen to become one of the boy-king’s chief advisors, and thus accompanied him to every battle. And of course, the intolerable visions of war came to her whenever they left, leaving her retching and tear-stricken—and without Cusirimay there to chivvy her into better spirits. All Ocllo said when the visions came was, “Stop sniveling. By your age, I’d already marched to war beside my husband twice, child. And when I was but a few years older, Chimor fell at my command.” Ocllo’s lips curled. “You may as well enjoy your powers, child. No one else will.”

And after that, Mama Ocllo made a point of having runners send word all over the capital and its outskirts whenever Quillachaki had a vision that showed a victory by Huayna’s forces. Never when there was a defeat, Quillachaki noticed. And she writhed inwardly when, carried through the streets, she heard the runners on the street corners spreading the word of her prophetic visions. And saw people believing in them. Saw the awe in their faces as she was carried past, their hands reaching out to touch her robe, her chair. Why is Mama Ocllo doing this? Quillachaki wondered. Why is she suddenly turning me into a huaca before I’m even dead?

And the answer came to her, as if a wak’a had whispered it in her ear—maybe one had: She’s doing what she said Huayna needed to do all along. Co-opting your power, and adding it to the royal house. Making you a tool of the empire. And what can do you about that? Stop reacting when you have the visions, pretend not to have them anymore? Except everyone in the palace knows what it looks like when you fall into the trance now. She buried her face in her hands. They’re never going to let me go.

But then, a year after leaving off their mourning paint, Mama Ocllo, former Inca Coya and regent to the young king, fell ill. And while Huayna sent for Quillachaki, his mother refused to allow the young woman to touch her. She wouldn’t even permit priests to attend to her, to take her confessed sins from her lips, spat into a twist of grass. To the last, she insisted that the divine royal blood was incapable of sin. Infallible.

Quillachaki had long harbored doubts about that divine blood. Oh, the gods were real—her visions and healing powers were proof enough of that. But Quillachaki had seen enough to doubt almost everything else in her society. Most other supposed powers seemed a lie. Oh, she’d seen light radiating out of Cusirimay’s bedchamber when Huayna came to his sister’s bed, and she’d put two and two together with Cava’s blinding, and the rumors whispered by the soldiers, who all claimed that Huayna really was Inti, incarnate. She had the testimony of her own visions about fire in battle, and she’d come to the sickening conclusion that every battle she watched, she saw through his eyes. But she strongly suspected that the fire was a metaphor, as Cusirimay had suggested long ago.

Certainly, the gods wouldn’t give him power. He has so much already over the lives of everyone around him. Her lips curled downwards slightly as she helped care for the dying queen. Helped bathe her shaking limbs, never touching the royal skin with her own.

And for the rest? She’d never seen Ocllo or Cusirimay evince even a whisper of magic. How much of what we’re taught from the cradle is a lie? How much does everyone in power know to be a lie? she thought.

But she knew that Mama Ocllo’s eyes remained as piercing as ever, and didn’t dare meet them. Just in case the queen could read the doubts and anger in her own.

Quillachaki was changing the soiled pallet for the third time that day, when Huayna came to speak with his mother. She saw how Mama Ocllo clutched his arm with her thin fingers, and heard the rattle of hurried, agonized advice: “Remember, you must never apologize. You are a god. You speak with the voices of all the Sapa Incas before you, infallible in their wisdom. To apologize is to show weakness. Fallibility. This, you must never do.”

“Yes, Mother. You’ve said so many times. You should rest.”

“I will rest when I am dead. Which won’t be long now. You must not show weakness. Strength is the only language that’s spoken in every quarter of our empire…” Her voice trailed off. Became an incoherent mumble. And by the time the moon rose, Mama Ocllo was dead, at the age of thirty-six.

Quillachaki put on her mourning paint, trying to conceal her relief. The weight of Mama Ocllo’s suspicion and disapproval had been heavier than she’d even realized. But her parents weren’t relieved—the Sapa Inca was now just seventeen. “Will we ever be able to leave Cusco?” she asked her parents plaintively after the funeral.

Her parents exchanged troubled glances. “And to think that you once begged to come here,” her mother replied.

That was over six years ago, Quillachaki thought despairingly.

Part V: Best-Laid Plans

A year later, when the court’s latest period of mourning ended, Huayna came to their villa for a feast. And after dinner, in an anteroom of the great house, her parents informed her that he had requested her in marriage. “You will be the Inca Coya!” Nyunyuma said, her eyes filled with happy tears.

“But I don’t wish to marry him!” No amount of court training could keep her quiet now. Her mother looked as if Quillachaki had struck her, but the words couldn’t be denied. “Even when Cusirimay—” she stumbled over the dead woman’s name, fearing to invoke her spirit, “ordered me to do so, I would not.” The old guilt over her friend’s death washed over her anew, but she couldn’t give in. Not now.

Ozcollo and Nyunyuma stared at her, thunderstruck. “You defy your mother’s authority?” Ozcollo asked, slowly and deliberately. “It is a daughter’s duty to obey her mother in all things. It is the duty of every subject of Tawantinsuyu to do what is best for the nation.” He paused, and added with great force, “No true daughter of mine would ever refuse to do her duty.”

Her mother shook her head, disappointed. “You’ve watched your friend’s huaca paraded with the bodies of every other Inca Coya many times now,” she reminded her daughter sternly. “You should honor her memory by obeying her wishes, not by continuing to defy them.”

Their words cut through her like obsidian knives, along with the vivid image of her dear friend’s dead face, sunken in and dried to the bones, carried in her chair through Cusco. Since having learned that she wasn’t, in truth, their daughter of flesh and blood, Quillachaki had worried that they didn’t really love her. Had done everything she could to earn their affection. She hadn’t thought, by this point, that there was anything she could do that would lose her that love, that approval. But now, as her father turned away from her, his face rigid with disapproval, Quillachaki’s heart died inside of her, along with most of her rebellion.

“Please,” she begged softly, collapsing to her knees. “Don’t make me marry him. I hate him. I hate the court. Everything here is made of lies.” Tears sprang to her eyes. “Please don’t make me do this vile thing.” Don’t make me into one of those wretched dead huacas like my poor friend, paraded around, covered in gold and silver, trapped in my own rotting body forever after death, and trapped here for all my life before it.

“Vile?” a voice said behind her, and she turned, embarrassed beyond belief when she realized that Huayna had heard the whole conversation. She’d thought he’d left, along with his escort, just after dinner. “Marriage to me would be vile?”

Withering, she turned on her knees to face him, hearing rustles of clothing behind her that suggested that her parents had just knelt, as well. To her surprise, Huayna reached down and tipped her head up, his ostensibly divine skin touching her mortal flesh. “If I am so vile,” he asked, his voice and eyes distant, “why do you now wear the earrings I sent you three years ago?” He sounded genuinely puzzled.

Her hands flew to her ears. “My lord,” she said tightly, “I didn’t know that these came from your hand. My father gave them to me, and did not mention your name.” She pulled them free and set them at his feet, feeling humiliated. He’s seen me wearing them daily since. That explains much. Though I’m sure that his pride is such that he probably never thought I would say no. “Have there been other gifts?” she asked, the words limping out into silence.

“The bracelets, headdress, and robes you’re wearing,” Huayna replied, taking his fingers from her face. “Will you remove those, too?” His eyebrows rose.

Blindly, she stripped off the headdress and bracelets, letting them fall to the floor. She found the pins that held the robe in place, but in her haste, she couldn’t work them. Suddenly, the soft wool felt as if it were lined with nettles.

“Stop!” Huayna ordered, and she fell motionless. “You didn’t tell me that she still held me in dislike.” That, clearly, to her parents, his voice flat and cold.

“We, ah, thought that it would be best if she didn’t feel pressed, my lord,” Nyunyuma murmured. “A little time to outgrow her childish resentments seemed in order. Time to look on you with the eyes of a woman, instead of a peevish child.”

Outgrow my resentments? Peevish child? Quillachaki bit her tongue, incensed. She’d thought of herself as an adult since becoming Cusirimay’s handmaiden, and certainly had been treated as such by most of the court. To be shamed by her mother in such a way, and in front of him, too? It was her mother’s right to do so, but it was intolerable.

Ozcollo cleared his throat, putting in, “There’s been enough pressure over the years, from various sources, that’s only set her in her defiance. And we didn’t wish you to be offended further by her lack of gratitude—”

“Pressure? What pressure?” Huayna’s voice was sharp.

“Ah, your late sister made many comments over the years,” Nyunyuma murmured.

Huayna grimaced. “Wonderful. She doubtless thought that was her duty, as the Inca Coya arranges marriages for everyone at court. However, had I known, I would have asked her not to do my courting for me.” He sighed, shaking his head. “As for the rest, with the best of intentions, you took it on yourselves to accept my gifts on her behalf, and gave them to her on your own. A diplomatic lie that let everyone save face. Except that the truth was lost along the way.” The young Sapa Inca’s voice turned grim. He paused, and then went on, quietly, “I will give her time, as you suggest, but the time has come to do our clear duty.” His voice sounded distant. “The gods knew that my sister would be frail and sickly, and that I would need an Inca Coya as filled with the moon’s gifts as I am with the sun’s.”

If she’d been listening with more charitable ears, she might have heard the pain in his voice as he spoke of his sister. But she only chafed at his words, remembering Cava’s blinded eyes. And she raised her head and spoke, out of turn and against all protocol. “Father, you promised once to protect me from my fate.” Her voice broke. “Don’t you remember that?”

“From the fate of becoming a sacrifice on a mountainside!” Ozcollo snapped. “I’ve fought beside two Sapa Incas so far, and this one truly is touched by the gods! And even if that weren’t the case, he’s earned my respect by caring for his men and leading them in battle. I shouldn’t need to protect you from glory, daughter!”

Quillachaki turned her head aside, her lips compressed to a thin line. She felt as abandoned and bereft of support as if she’d been left naked at the steps of a temple by her birth-parents.

Huayna sighed. “I’ll leave now. I don’t want to make this situation worse. As you said, my lady, a little less pressure may be what’s needed for the moment.” But before he left, he caught Quillachaki’s chin once more. “The gods require this marriage of us, Quillachaki. It does not have to be, however, a vile thing.” Again, if she’d been listening with more charitable ears, his voice might have sounded pleading, though his face remained a graven mask.

But she didn’t meet his eyes. And finally, he left.

“Go to your room and think about how you have this family,” Nyunyuma ordered her sharply.

“Is there any garment that I own,” Quillachaki asked her mother defiantly, “that did not come from the Sapa Inca as a gift?”

Her mother sucked in a breath, and both of her siblings tried to melt into the walls. Ozcollo answered instead, his voice harsh, “Everything that we have, child, is a result of the generosity of the Sapa Inca, and his father before him. You should reflect on that, in the silence of your room.”

“And pray to the gods that they give you better sense and manners in the next few weeks, and a greater sense of gratitude,” Nyunyuma added, sounding entirely done with the matter.

* * *

At the palace, Huayna stalked into his chambers and ordered his servants and guards to leave. And taking a look at his face, they scattered instantly.

And in the void that their sudden absence left, Huayna found a place where the priceless tapestries, the products of so many skilled hands, didn’t cover the stone walls. And then placed his own hands, agents of destruction that they were, against the blameless stone, and let the fires come. He didn’t shout. Didn’t curse. Just poured his rage and desolation into the rock. Damn it, he thought, damn them. And damn her. The priests are right to say that the world is out of balance without a high-priestess of the moon, a wife for the Sapa Inca. The dry winds have come in over the ocean, and crops are failing all through the land. This isn’t a question of choice, but of necessity. We must please the gods, so that they will send rain.

A bleak stab of fear and guilt jabbed at him. Of course, history has shown that I’m not good for the women in my life. But if the gods require this of us… perhaps they’ll make her strong enough to bear my touch. He pushed images of Cusirimay’s broken, bleeding form out of his mind and focused instead on watching the rock turn red under his fingers, till the stone itself melted like ice around his fingers, leaving his palm-prints etched into the rock. What have I done to make her hate me so? he thought tiredly, his rage ebbing. I can think of nothing I have done or said to her that should make her think me vile. He’d seen how Quillachaki recoiled from him in the past. But he’d put it down to understandable fear. Not loathing. She was Cusirimay’s friend—my sister would have told her that I was not a bad husband.

A throat cleared in the hall outside, and he lifted his head. Atoc stood at the entrance. “My lord?” Atoc asked, eyebrows raised. “Has there been an attack somewhere?”

Huayna looked down at his hands, and doused the flames there. “Only to my pride,” he told his friend, shrugging it away.

Atoc looked past him, to the hand-prints slowly cooling in the wall. “Ah, yes, my lord,” he said. “Was it a mortal wound?”

Huayna glared at him, and Atoc raised his hands apologetically for the ill-timed joke. “I’ll survive,” he replied tersely, and went to listen to couriers recite messages about poor maize harvests.

* * *

Rumors flew on wings as sure as a condor’s at court, and Challwa, former queen of Chimor, heard all of them. She smirked slightly when she learned of the young king’s rage on returning from a visit to the home of the goddess-touched girl. She had once reigned over a vast kingdom of her own, and, through the lies and treachery of Mama Ocllo, had been turned into a servant and a concubine by the former Sapa Inca, who’d wished to make it clear that he and his wife had conquered more than just her lands. Her daughters, her heirs, had been forced to become aclla. Two had been sacrificed to the mountain gods, and one remained a virgin priestess. And her son, Atoc, had been turned into a proper Inca by a foster-father here at court.

Thus, anything that discomfited those who ruled Tawantinsuyu suited Challwa perfectly. That it came as the result of some action by Quillachaki? All the better. The girl had seen Mamaquilla as the people of Chimor knew the goddess—moon and sea, commingled, their chief goddess, she who protected their reed ships as they plied the waves. Challwa saw potential in all of this. The girl could be pivotal, if I could get her to my people in Chimor. Use her as a rallying cry for my people to rebel against this weak young king. Oh, they say he’s a fearless leader in battle, and there are all those grandiose lies about him glowing like the sun… but can he truly administer an empire this large? Challwa ran her nails over her teeth, considering her next moves carefully. He won’t be able to recover from the symbolic blow if his promised moon-queen flees from him and takes up arms against him. The question is, how do I convince her to do that? She’s been in deep with the royal family for years. She may actually be loyal to them… but the fact that she’s rejected him? A delicious opportunity that must be pursued. Challwa revolved the question in her mind. She favors my son Atoc with smiles. Which could be all to the better. A marriage between them, and the line of queens in my homeland could be restored.

But first, she had to see if the girl could be persuaded. As such, Challwa asked permission to leave the palace and pay her respects at the home of Ozcollo. Even after so many years, it grated on her to have to beg permission to come and go.

At the karaca’s house she politely chatted with Nyunyuma and her daughters over their looms in the garden, until the mother and the younger daughter were called away, and Quillachaki looked up sleepily, almost stupidly, from her wool, murmuring, “I’m sorry. I’m a terrible hostess. Is there anything you’d like to speak of, that we haven’t already conversed about?”

“Your future,” Challwa told her bluntly. Caught the flicker of resentment cross the girl’s face, and rejoiced at it. She smiled, leaning forward to whisper rapidly, “You are not without allies, child. You should not be forced into a marriage against your will.” She smiled, raising her hands. “You show all the gifts of the moon, little one. Surely, if you can heal when it’s full, you can cover yourself in shadow at moon-dark, and sneak out of the palace.”

“And go where?” Quillachaki asked practically. “And alone?”

“Alone, but for my son Atoc, perhaps. He would be an admirable guard.” Challwa lowered her voice. “Have you had no visions, no guidance from the goddess?”

“An ushnu in the snow. Beyond which, the bodies kneel, frozen in their service to the gods.” An ushnu was a libation-place, a three-tied platform of stone, used to offer sacrifices of chichi to the gods. The girl’s voice sounded dreamy as she continued, “The name of the place is Maucallacta. Where the oracle dwells.”

Challwa froze, disconcerted. She’d expected to be able to twist the girl into heading west, towards Chimor. Maucallacta lay far to the south, on the mountain of Coropuna. Still, getting her out of the palace alone might be enough to make Huayna look weak. Unable to control his own household. And who knows? A long journey together, alone on the road? Things might well bloom between my son and this girl. Certainly, no one will believe that she’s a virgin by the end of it. Challwa smiled again pushed at the girl’s hesitance at taking such a bold action. “It’s a long journey, but you’ve been carried to Machu Picchu in the summer before,” she told Quillachaki persuasively. “Won’t it feel better to walk somewhere of your own choosing? On your own feet, in control of your own destiny?”

The girl’s eyes shone suddenly. “You understand,” she told Challwa. “You understand me better than my own mother.”

“It’s entirely possible that you’re one of my people,” Challwa replied. “After all, you don’t know who your birth-parents truly are. Perhaps there’s a reason your mother cannot understand you. Perhaps the sea flows in your veins.” Believe it, she thought with satisfaction. Take it as a truth you can cling to, child. Start to think of me as your mother, your confidante, and my work is half-done.

* * *

Unfortunately, while she secured the girl’s agreement to make the attempt at flight, her own son balked at the notion. “Mother, have you run mad?” Atoc told her, his expression furious. “Huayna had his own brother executed for treason. You want me to carry off his intended bride?”

“Shhhh,” Challwa whispered, waving her hands at him. “Not carry off. Rescue! Did she not heal you, when you were children, in her first real exercise of power? She clearly has a special place in her heart for you. I’ve seen you laughing together many times—”

“Not since Huayna started sending her courtship gifts.” Atoc’s tone was repressive. But seeing her expression, he relented. “I’ll consider the matter, Mother, all right?”

There was a time, Challwa thought tiredly, when men obeyed me without question or argument, because I was their queen. Now, I have to convince my son to work to advance his own interests.

* * *

She would have been both infuriated and terrified to know that her son, having both a healthy respect for and fear of his liege, headed straight to the Sapa Inca’s quarters and begged for an audience. And for the second time in a week, Atoc watched as Huayna Capac had to fight down his temper. “Do you ask for your mother’s life?” Huayna grated.

Atoc shook his head numbly. He’d seen Huayna’s power turned loose on the battlefield several times, though he and the other soldiers who’d witnessed it had feared to tell the full details on returning to Cusco, for fear that they wouldn’t be believed. He’d tried to describe it to his mother once, and she’d told him it was nothing more than illusion—something conjured up by a wak’a to make Huayna look more powerful than he truly was. “She’s actively working to undermine you,” he told his sovereign unhappily. “I can’t defend her. I won’t defend her. Though she is my blood, she has… lost my loyalty.” Gods. What a thing to say.

Huayna let the fires around his hands die, and put one on Atoc’s shoulder in a rare gesture of esteem. “And I treasure your loyalty.” He grimaced and touched his nose with his free hand. “Little though I have earned it, at times.”

“That was an accident, my lord.” Atoc touched his own nose, smiling briefly up at the taller man. “And the words before it? We’ve all traded worse on the practice floor, to goad one another. To get the blood up, to see who loses control of his temper first—and pays the price for it. You’ve rewarded me well for loyal service many times since then.” His smile faded, and he asked slowly, “But what will you do with my mother?”

“There’s only one punishment for treason, and that is death.” Huayna exhaled. “However, in her treason, I see a kind of opportunity.”

Atoc’s eyebrows went up. “How so, my lord?”

“Quillachaki has taken me in extreme dislike, and I have no notion as to why.” At those words, Atoc frowned. He’d been aware of a certain cool distance in Quillachaki on the subject of Huayna, but she treated almost everyone at court with that same reserve—as if she knew, on some instinctive level, that many of them saw her as useful towards their own ends.

Though she certainly trusted my mother quickly, he thought wearily as Huayna went on, irritably, “As I require a queen who is not actively at odds with me to rule when I am away at war, I need to know why she hates me. And perhaps remove the cause of that hate.” Huayna shrugged. “A journey with her, alone, with her at least initially thinking me to be you, might at least get her to speak her mind without her parents being present.”

Atoc’s mouth dropped open. “Your advisors will never allow you to make a long journey like that unescorted,” he blurted out, forgetting all honorifics.

“I don’t propose to go unescorted. I’ll have my guards initially follow us in hot pursuit, to add to the illusion that she has, in fact, made her daring escape with you.” Huayna’s eyes twinkled, a rare sight. “After a while, they’ll join us and escort us to Maucallacta.”

Atoc gave his sovereign and sworn brother a dubious look. “And she won’t be humiliated by the ruse, or by the thought that your entire guard is in on the joke? My lord, if you want to make her not hate you, this might not be the course of wisdom.”

Huayna’s expression twisted into a grin here in private. “If she thinks I’m so very vile, perhaps I should actually earn that epithet, at least once.” He held up a hand to still Atoc’s retort. “So, yes. I will tell my guards that I’m courting her, but won’t shame her by telling them that she’s actually trying to run away from me.” He looked up at the ceiling, and shook his head. “Some days, I wonder why the gods hate me so.”

Atoc licked his lips. “If she genuinely dislikes you, my lord,” he said quietly, “is this the right thing to do? It seems… disrespectful.”

Huayna glared at him. “I’m not going to force her,” he informed his friend crisply. “She wants to consult the oracle. I’m allowing her to do so. Just with my personal escort. Perhaps the gods will be kind enough to tell me through this oracle, precisely what I should do. Because I need her.” He looked away for a moment, then added more quietly, “I need her to see that this is about duty and necessity, and that it’s as much her burden as it is mine. Explain to me how I can make her see that, if she won’t talk to me, or listen to my words?”

Atoc sighed. “I have no answers. I am no oracle.” He swallowed. “If your use of my mother’s treachery goes well… would you be at all inclined to show her clemency?” I don’t know whether or not I should push for that. My mother’s life is currently an embarrassment to me. But she is, nevertheless, my mother. Damn her.

“I will consider it. But only when I return.”

* * *

Huayna’s meeting with Ozcollo and Nyunyuma resulted in some dubious stares from the older couple. He raised his hands to them, and swore, “I will treat her with all honor and respect. I will treat her as if her flesh were as sacred as my own. Which, in my eyes, it is. She is the incarnation of Mamaquilla. We all know that.” But as the moon hastens through the skies, always fleeing from the sun, she flees from me. “If my assurances aren’t enough, I invite you to join us for the journey south.”

Nyunyuma looked at her husband, and then nodded. “I will accept your invitation with gratitude, my lord,” she murmured, with exquisite tact, “not because we doubt your honor, but because Quillachaki should not feel alone in a camp filled with servants and guards.”

Huayna smiled. He liked Nyunyuma, in the main. She was a far more pleasant mother than his own had been. But Mama Ocllo had been the queen Tawantinsuyu had needed, in her time. Quillachaki wouldn’t be able to afford to be as kind as Nyunyuma. But he hoped she’d retain some of her adopted mother’s gracious ways when she became Inca Coya. Assuming she doesn’t jump into the sky and run over the air to the moon, next, he thought glumly.

* * *

A week later, Quillachaki slipped out of her parents’ house, not knowing if she’d ever return. She’d found her mother’s tight embrace that evening puzzling, but had put it down to her own emotions, which ran high at the moment. She doesn’t know I’m leaving, she told herself, reaching out around her for the darkness. It wasn’t a skill she’d practiced, the way she’d developed her healing over the years, but… just as Challwa had suggested, it did seem possible to wreathe herself in shadow, and she slipped past several palace guards unseen to wait in a garden near the gates, where Atoc was supposed to meet her with supplies.

She waited for so long that she’d begun to fear that he wouldn’t appear. And when a tall male form loomed up out of the shadows, she yipped faintly, only to feel a warm hand cover her mouth in a hushing gesture.

Then he handed her a llama-wool cloak to drape over her fine dress, and gave her a heavy pack to carry on her shoulders. She caught glimpses in the low light of a feathered helmet beetling low over his brows, and heavy wood-and-cloth armor over his body, along with a macana sword. But his features were lost to shadow, and his silence was as unnerving as it was complete. “Thank you for doing this,” she finally whispered as he caught her arm and started moving towards the gate. “I don’t know why you’re risking yourself for my sake, Atoc. But I’m grateful to be leaving this den of lies in the company of the only honest man in it.”

He didn’t answer. Just grunted under his breath, which she took as a warning to keep quiet.

Out through the twisting streets of Cusco, past the houses of sleeping weavers and goldsmiths and potters, past the great temples and storehouses of the empire, and then, finally, out onto the open road, which led south, up and down through the mountains. “Would we make better time, taking the road to the plains, and only going back up into the mountains when we’re close to Coropuna?” she asked as he urged her to a kind of shuffle-trot. Her shoulders ached from the heavy pack, but she didn’t want to complain.

“They’ll expect that.” His voice was a harsh whisper, strained and distorted. She frowned slightly, not recognizing her friend’s tones.

He’s probably as frightened as I am. Oh, gods, what am I doing? She stopped in her tracks, and blurted, “Oh, no, no, no.” Quillachaki bit her lower lip. “Go back, Atoc. He’ll have me pressed to death under a stone, and he’ll have you flayed for helping me escape.” She shuddered. “You’ve already helped me enough. I… don’t want to be responsible for your death.”

A strangled snort from her companion in the darkness. Then his fingers caught her elbow again. “Then don’t be caught,” he hissed. “Look back.”

She turned and her eyes rounded as she saw torches moving through the city behind them. “They’ve already discovered that I’m gone?” she said in disbelief, her heart pounding. “Oh, gods. We’d better run.”

“In the dark? Don’t be foolish. Can’t track us till morning. Just keep moving.”

Something still nagged at her about his harsh whisper, but she plodded after him along the road, her knees shaking.

* * *

Huayna didn’t like scaring her, but he did have to admit to a certain amusement bubbling in his chest. He rarely got to play jokes on anyone—his life was too steeped in ritual and solemnity, and he had almost no private life. The last time he could really remember laughing had been with his sister, over some idiocy at court. But the irony was strong, and he somewhat looked forward to her reaction when her mother, their servants, and his guards joined them.

For the moment, it was simply exhilarating not to be himself. Everyone had told him that when his father died, all the previous Sapa Incas and their collective wisdom would then speak through him. He had yet to feel even a whit wiser. There was just the responsibility for millions of lives on his shoulders, the constant barrage of his advisors’ counsel, and duty. Nothing more.

To set that all aside, to pretend to be carefree Atoc for a while, with a pretty girl’s hand on his arm, and no servants, priests, advisors, or generals around? Yes, it wasn’t honest, but it was delicious, nonetheless.

When the gray light of false dawn started to slip through the world, he took them to the side of the road. “There’s a cave ahead,” he whispered. “We’ll shelter there. Let any soldiers go past us during the day, and then return to the road in the evening.” He couldn’t keep his identity from her forever, but the longer he kept to the shadows, the more time he had to pursue the ruse. But the plan did call for them to walk into his guards’ camp tomorrow night. Just enough of a march for her to be grateful for a chair, he thought, suppressing a grin.

“A cave?” she whispered, sounding afraid. “Don’t the supay live in such places?”

Supay the god of the dead—and he shared his name with his minions, the little supay who were said to dwell in the earth, feeding on the unwary who entered the underground world of the dead.

“It’s an old mine, yes. Used for ochre. The miners have never reported supay or wak’a,” he whispered back. “It’s used often enough that no jaguars should lair there, either.” Of course, he’d ordered the site cleared of miners last week.

Once inside the cave, he settled her against a wall and took a position against the same wall, several paces away, near the exit, as if on guard. “There’s a gourd with water in your pack,” he whispered. “Drink. Eat, if you’re hungry.”

He could hear her fumbling in the pack now, and did the same himself, chewing on hard llama jerky. Meat was a prestige food, usually limited to soldiers and the nobility. “So,” he whispered, unable to keep from prodding her a little, “I’m the only honest man in Cusco? You think that the Sapa Inca is a liar?”

“They all are,” she replied, her voice thin. “His father held no power from the gods. His mother didn’t, either. His sister, dear as she was, had none. It’s all a lie. Perhaps they were born of Inti once. Hundreds of years ago. But now, it’s just a lie to ensure that everyone obeys them.” Her tone was dispirited. “The priests lie, too—otherwise, they could have helped heal his sister or his mother. And my parents lie to themselves, and believe that lie.”

He’d frozen in place, fighting down the surge of temper that her words provoked. “How do the lies of his parents make the Sapa Inca a liar?” Huayna managed, between his teeth.

“Because he’s never shown any more power than the rest of them,” she muttered between bites. “Even his sister thought my visions of light glowing out from him in battle were a metaphor.”

His teeth clenched. The gods themselves show you the truth, but you won’t see it, he thought, incredulous. And I told my sister many times about the powers. Did she just not speak about them to Quillachaki after that? He couldn’t say that now, however. His imposture denied him the words. “And you? You think you’re better than they are, because you have?” he shot back instead in a harsh whisper.

“No,” she replied, her voice utterly miserable. “I wish I didn’t have them, or this mark on me. Then I’d still live at home in Ollantaytambo. Or maybe whoever my real parents were, they wouldn’t have lost me.” She exhaled. “There are days when I wish I hadn’t been born at all.”

“But you were,” he returned between his teeth. “You’re here. The gods put you here for a reason.”

“I know,” she replied, her voice resigned. “I just don’t know what that is. Or why I keep seeing the face of the girl who looks like me, as she kneels, dead in the snow. Perhaps they want me to take a place at her side.”

Another flicker of temper. “The gods did not bring you into this world, give you all these gifts, and then expect you not to use them,” he told her sharply, in his normal tones, and saw the shadow of her head jerk up. “You might consider living the life you were given, instead of constantly fleeing from it, whether in mind or body.”

But before she could muster a reply, something in the cave laughed at them. A long, scraping, chitter of a laugh.

Huayna launched himself to his feet, pulling his obsidian macana from his belt—Inti’s gift. “Who’s there?” he demanded.

We might ask you the same question, came a chorus of voices that sounded like stone scraping on stone. Two intruders on our realm. Two little points of light, who’ve entered the underworld. You belong to us now, humans. Your lives will be our forfeit!

Behind him, the cave mouth collapsed, and Quillachaki yelped as rocks rattled down from the ceiling. And no longer concerned with imposture, Huayna shouted at her, “Shield your eyes!” and reached down for the power he carried under his heart.

Light erupted from his skin, like the sun at noon, blazing into every corner of the wide cavern, revealing a dozen tiny creatures with skin the same rough gray as the stone around them, but with gem-colored eyes—malachite and moonstone and garnet. Each creature barely came to Huayna’s waist, but they had jagged teeth like stalactites and stalagmites in their gaping maws. And they screamed and cowered at the light radiating from him.

Supay, he thought, feeling oddly calm as he put himself between Quillachaki and the wak’a. “Put your hands on my belt, and stay behind me,” he warned, hoping she’d looked away in time. She’d never been trained to fight. Her powers only seemed oriented towards healing and night. “You fear the sun, light, and life,” Huayna guessed, addressing the supay. “Let us go. We’re not your prizes. We’re not subject to your master.”

All mortals are subject to our master. Eventually. The creatures began to creep towards them in spite of the light, and Huayna shook his head, keeping his sword ready, feeling Quillachaki pressed against his back.

The first creature leaped, and his stone sword rang against its rocky flesh—without any more effect than chipping it slightly. Huayna stared at the blade numbly, and backed away, keeping Quillachaki behind him. It had never failed him in any battle before this. Inti did say it would only fail me once. Is this where I die? In a hole in the ground, with so little accomplished? And if I die, she’ll die with me—no. I can’t let that happen. She wouldn’t even be here, but for me. Memories flickered across his mind—Cava’s bleeding eyes. A bed filled with blood. Not this time.

“Stone against stone,” Quillachaki said, her voice trembling. “What works against rock?”

Huayna jerked his mind back to the present. “Fire does. If you make it hot enough—” Two more leaped at them, and Huayna threw himself in front of them. He wrapped his arms around the closest, and it clamped its teeth into his shoulder. Vicious, wicked pain as the jagged teeth tore his flesh, and then the rage inside him wouldn’t be denied. He dropped his stone sword and let the fires come, bursting into life along his hands and arms. Scorching his clothing, but turning the little supay red-hot in his arms.

It squealed and struggled, but its body liquefied and poured down to the ground, splattering there like the blood of the earth. Quillachaki leaped back from the searing liquid, staring in awe and terror at the dark shape of the man inside the nimbus of blinding light—and the other supay backed away. “Pick up my sword,” the man told her. “Before it gets too hot for you to hold it.”

This isn’t Atoc, Quillachaki thought, too awed and frightened to think beyond that. It’s him. It’s Huayna. She managed to find the sword on the floor. “Both hands. Keep the point low,” he ordered. “Any of them come near you, try to stick them with it. Maybe their eyes are vulnerable.” He turned slightly, and then ordered the supay, his voice cold, “Open the cave entrance.”

No! There are other ways to kill you, and an essence as strong as yours will be a feast!

The ceiling overhead trembled, and more rocks began to fall, one clipping Quillachaki’s shoulder. The man in front of her put his hands over his head, against the stone of the ceiling, and she could see it turning red from his touch as he tried to manipulate the raw rock with heat and will. Caves, she thought dimly. Caves are the road to the underworld, yes, but they’re also wombs. Mamaquilla is Moon and Sea, but above all else, she’s a mother.

And she reached out with her own power now, white light pouring out of her. Suffusing the cavern, and the trembling suddenly stopped.

What’s she doing? one of the supay demanded. How is she stopping us?

“I don’t propose to explain myself to you,” Quillachaki said, feeling as if she were floating above herself. “Leave now. Quickly.”

The supay hissed between their teeth, but didn’t dare approach, for fear of the man shrouded in light and flame. And finally, vexed, they disappeared down into the stone floor, fleeing.

“That’s all well and good, but that doesn’t leave us with a way out,” Huayna muttered, letting most of the light fade. And as he turned back towards her, Quillachaki quailed.

“It really is you,” she said softly, not knowing now if she should be more afraid of him than of the supay.

“Should I apologize for disappointing you?” he returned shortly.

A little spark of her usual spirit managed to manifest itself. “I was under the impression, my lord, that you never apologized for anything.”

They stared at each other, and in the light pouring from his skin, she could see blood pouring from his shoulder in equal measure, black lines against his brilliant light. He took that wound defending me, she thought, abashed, and reached out a hand, saying, “I’m sorry—let me heal you—” but he knocked her hand away impatiently and moved toward the cavern entrance, putting his palms against the stones there. The light died to a dim red glow, and he shaped the rocks he heated like wet clay, carving a tunnel through the fallen rocks, back out towards daylight.

It took hours. At the halfway point, when he had to put his head against the rocks in exhaustion and rest, she asked him again, her throat closing on itself and on the choking taste of dust, “Please. Let me tend the wound.”

Huayna finally sat back and let her approach. Twitched as her cool hands landed close to the wound, which burned with all the fires of infection. And then her cool light flowed into and through him, and the sensation, along with the cessation of pain, was so sweet that his back arched and he had to stifle a groan. “If I’d known,” he managed after a moment, “that all I needed to do to get you to touch me, was to take a wound? I’d have let something bite me years ago.”

She pulled away. In the dim light, he could see her eyes widening, a thousand questions clearly on the tip of her tongue. And then, unable to resist that tide, she demanded, “Why did you do this? Why pretend to be Atoc?”

“Because I wanted to be able to talk to you,” Huayna spat, disgusted with the whole affair now. The plan was fine. The execution has been utterly destroyed.

“… oh.” She swallowed visibly. “Was Challwa a part of this… this deception… all along?”

He snorted. “No. In fact, she told you only what you wanted to hear, and you believed her. She wants her throne back, Quillachaki. She wants to see me and my family dead for having deposed her. Technically, by aiding her, that makes you a traitor, but I’m overlooking that, because you had no intentions of raising an army against me.” He rolled his eyes. “All you wanted to do was escape a loving family and a pleasant place to live—oh, and marriage to a vile liar who has no power from the gods at all.”

He looked up from the stone, realizing that his irritation with her, anger at Challwa, and fury at their predicament had gotten away from him, and that he was effectively bludgeoning her with his words. Her eyes widened, but for once, she hadn’t backed away.

Bitterly, Huayna turned his attention back to fashioning their escape tunnel. “Are there any other ways in which I’m not a good man, that you’d like to tell me about?” he invited now, his voice harsh. “Did my sister ever complain about me as a brother? As a husband? Did I beat her, abuse her, harm her in any way?” He closed his eyes on a fresh vision of his sister’s bleeding body in her bed. That was the gods’ doing. However much it felt like my fault, women die in childbirth. It happens.

“No,” Quillachaki whispered, staring at him as he continued to dig through the rock.

“Then what?” he snapped, giving her a quick, angry glare. “What else convinced you that I’m so evil and depraved?”

She bit her lip. Put that way, and in the face of everything else she’d seen today, most of her dislike and resentment seemed as childish and petty as her parents had accused her of being just a week ago. “You had your brother executed,” she offered, her voice thin.

“Huari.” His voice sounded raw. “Yes. My mother and twelve of my advisors recommended that, over exile. Because there would always be those who believed his mother’s lie, that my father had appointed him heir on his deathbed, and he’d remain an on-going threat for the rest of my life. And let me put it plainly—his mother wasn’t going to stop with just exiling me and my family, either. She’d have stopped only when we were dead. So I executed her. And then I executed one of my favorite half-brothers, because he didn’t tell his mother no. Didn’t do what Atoc had the great good sense to do. To come to me and say, ‘Huayna, I’m loyal to you, but my mother’s plotting against you. Let’s stop this before it starts.’”

He looked over at her. “Let’s say that you are the Inca Coya,” he told her. “And Challwa’s fate lies in your hands.” His face and eyes shut down. “Say that she’s conspired against your family, and turned one of them against you with words. Has had every intention of rising in rebellion, and murdering, say, your husband. What would you do, Inca Coya? You, in whose wisdom, the fates of twenty-seven million people lie?”

Quillachaki curled into a small, tight ball like an armadillo, wanting to cry at the hurt in his voice. He always kept an impassive face in front of other witnesses, but for the first time, she realized that he had to wear a mask at court. Had to lie with his face and eyes, so that no one would know what mattered to him. So that they couldn’t use that to control him. “I don’t know,” she admitted softly.

With a kick, Huayna knocked the last stone out of the way, letting fresh air and sunlight into the cave. “Anything else?” he asked sharply. “Any other reasons you might have to detest me? Come now, let me hear them.”

She buried her face into her arms and stayed where she was, curled up tightly. “I’m sorry.”

There was a moment of silence, and then Huayna finally replied, sounding baffled, “I don’t understand.”

“Of course you don’t. You’re not allowed to apologize, because it gives people power over you.” She remembered Mama Ocllo’s dying words to him so clearly now. “That’s why you never apologized to Atoc for hurting him—”

“I’ve made him my closest young advisor, and one of my principal body-guards!”

“I… understand that now. That’s… how kings apologize.” She rubbed at her eyes, feeling dirt smear there, mingling with the tears. “I’m sorry that I… was so angry. And I wasn’t even angry at you, I think so much as… angry at where I was. Angry at your mother and her suspicions, and her keeping my family captive, so that she could use me, and no one else could. A hostage in all but name, and we’d never even earned it, by rebelling or standing against you.” Her shoulders slumped. “And I was angry at your sister’s constant suggestions that that I… that we… ”

Another moment of silence. “Oh.” He sounded uncomfortable, as well he might. “I really wasn’t aware that she was trying to persuade you. I knew she loved you, in her own way—”

“She was my best friend,” Quillachaki said emptily. “She’d have been so happy if I’d just said yes to a betrothal, but then I’d just have been confirming your mother’s suspicions, and I’d have had to live even more under her eyes than before. And I’d have spent every waking minute in the tomb that is the palace.” She swallowed, not uncovering her eyes. “And the first time I saw the huacas, I knew that I was going to end up like them, or like the girl in the snow, a dead body turned into a shrine for the living to venerate, and I don’t want to be dead but still alive in my dead body. Not even if it’s up on a mountain—”

Scuff of feet along the rock floor, and then an awkward, unaccustomed set of arms wrapped around her, rocking her into his chest gently as he sat down beside her. “It doesn’t have to be that bad,” Huayna told her, his voice as gentle as she’d ever heard it. “I haven’t heard my father’s voice since he died. And I’ve been listening,” he added glumly. “Hoping to hear something that didn’t sound like the inside of my own head, or memories of his advice. I think that when we die… we’re just dead. Perhaps the gods take us, and we dissolve into them.”

“But I saw them,” she whispered, looking up. “I saw the spirits of the dead women trailing along behind the procession—”

“Have you seen my mother following behind her body, since she died?” Faint apprehension in his voice. “Or my father, following behind his mummy in its chair, during those processions?”

She shook her head.

“Thank the gods,” he muttered in a tone of relief. “Maybe it only happens to particularly venerated ancestors. Or maybe, those spirits weren’t real. Perhaps that was an actual metaphor. Unlike this,” he added wryly, letting his hands glow again briefly.

Quillachaki blinked. “I… never thought of that,” she admitted.

“Perhaps we should talk more often,” he told her. “Though at the moment, I’d like very much to kiss you.”

She blinked, startled at the notion. But didn’t move away as he leaned in and kissed not her lips, but her cheek. “Are you going to marry me?” he asked.

She swallowed. “Can… can we go to the oracle anyway?” she asked quietly. “I’ve had visions of it for so long. I think I’m supposed to go there.”

“Of course. When my guards and your family and the servants catch up, I’d always intended to go there anyway.” He shrugged. “Leaving Cusco and walking barefoot on the earth, without servants running before me to put rugs down, lest I soil the divine personage with the earth, is always pleasant. Yet I’ve never been able to do so, except to go to war. It seemed as good an excuse as any to leave the capital.”

“You don’t like it there, either?” That seemed important.

“It’s home. And it’s a prison.” He shrugged, leaning back against the cave wall. “I was born into it. My sister was, too. She understood duty.” He gave her a long, tired glance. “Custom and tradition have brought our people this far. And I’m as much a prisoner of ritual and tradition as anyone else in the Empire. I’ve broken it today. Just to talk to you.” A faint, sad curl of his lips. “Tomorrow, it cages us again.”

“Does it have to?” she asked. “Couldn’t you just… free all the peasants from their lands and… ”

“And what? Allow twenty-seven million people to starve just because I don’t want to do the job I was born to do?” he asked, leaning his head against the wall of the cave. “If custom and tradition don’t keep me in my place, keep me from breaking the laws, what’s to keep anyone else from slipping from their duties?” he asked, shrugging. “Nothing at all. That’s why we all have to serve. Most people come to understand that. It’s a cage, yes. But a necessary one.”

He sounded so alone in that moment, that compassion welled up in Quillachaki, filling up the place inside her that had once been filled with resentment. I’ve never been able to heal anything that wasn’t a wound, she thought sadly. But I’d like to heal him. That might be the best way to say I’m sorry. And she turned into his loose embrace, and reached up to kiss his check, just as he’d kissed hers.

Startled by her movement, he turned to look at her, and their lips met. Clung. He slid a hand into her hair and held her there for a moment, deepening the kiss, and then pulled away, smiling as light started to radiate from him once more. A muffled sound in his throat made her eyes widen. “As much as I’d like to do more of that, I did tell your parents I’d treat you as sacred while on this trip,” Huayna told her ruefully. “I don’t think I can kiss you, and hold to that oath.” He reached down and picked up her hand, shaking it slightly to draw her attention to the white light glimmering there now. “It feels far too good.”

Her eyes widened in surprise, and she swallowed, confused by the emotions churning inside of her. “So what do we do?” she asked.

“Go to the oracle, and see if the gods advise you to marry me, I suppose. My guards should be here soon. And your mother, too.”

At her squeak of embarrassment, Huayna chuckled.

Part VI: Balance

Guacamaya the priest had been assigned to the temple at Maucallacta for five years now. A runner had come several days ago, informing the priests at the ushnu that the Sapa Inca and his bride would be arriving shortly. He watched from atop a crag as their chairs and bearers ascended the switchback trails that led up the steep slopes of the glacier-decked volcano. He knew that the mountain’s own wak’a slept for the moment; they’d had no avalanches or earth-tremors of late. Why would the Sapa Inca need to consult the gods here, when he could consult them in Cusco? Guacamaya wondered fleetingly.

When their august visitors finally arrived at the ushnu, Guacamaya joined his fellow priests in the rituals of greeting, keeping his eyes locked deferentially on the ground as he chanted with the others. Guards assisted the young woman to the ground. No vicuña robes for her yet, of course—she wasn’t yet the Inca Coya.

And as her sandaled feet touched down on the soft rugs spread before her, to keep her toes sheltered from the icy cold of Coropuna’s slopes, Guacamaya lost his place in the chant, and dropped to his knees with a cry. “It’s her!” he croaked as the flutes stopped playing, and his fellow priests lost their place in the chant. “The marked child, the one the gods demanded in sacrifice!”

Having harbored that memory for fifteen years, and justified his decisions to many other priests within the hierarchy, Guacamaya no longer even questioned his own interpretations. The only thing he could think was what next came from his lips, as he raised his hands to the heavens in the exaltation of having been right all along, and acquitted of his failure at last: “The gods have brought you here to make you their servant at last! As your twin sister came before you!”

Guards stepped between him and the young woman, half-drawing their macana. And the young Sapa Inca, a healthy young man not yet twenty who wore the gold mask of Inti at his chest and vicuña robes that marked out his station, rapped out harshly, “No one will touch her! On your lives—her person is as sacred as my own!”

The young woman stepped forward, taking a position just to the Sapa Inca’s left, and said quietly, “My… sister? Could that be the face I’ve seen so often in visions, kneeling in the snow with her eyes closed.”

Stirring from the other priests as she went on, her voice soft but still carrying clearly through the snow-draped buildings of the temple complex. “I saw the moment of her death through her own eyes. Now… I’d like to see her. Her name was Palta—what was mine, before I was stolen from my parents?”

“Stolen from your parents?” Guacamaya said, wild-eyed as the Sapa Inca’s guards crowded in around him, weapons at the ready. “It was your father who stole you from me. Twins, a propitious birth, if one that cost your mother’s life. And one twin born marked by the goddess, to an ayllu too poor to raise her?” Guacamaya snorted. “He refused to allow you to be dedicated as an aclla, and then sacrificed properly, in the fullness of time. Your fate became your sister’s.”

The young woman frowned, confused. “But would that mean that my father killed… my father?” She turned towards the Sapa Inca. “Does that mean that the man Ozcollo thought was a criminal, trespassing on his lands, was actually my father? Does the man who raised me have the blood of my real father on his hands?”

The young man stared at her, and then sighed. “Only the gods know for sure, and Ozcollo has spent fifteen years raising you as his own. There’s no way to prove it.”

Ignoring all of this as irrelevant to the real urgencies at hand, and carried away on a wave of exaltation at having been right all along, Guacamaya kept talking to himself, only half under his breath: “But now, today, the will of the gods can be done. Their anger will pass from this land as you give your life to them—”

The young Sapa Inca somehow heard that. He turned towards the priest, a black scowl on his face. “Are you the oracle?” he demanded harshly. “Do you dare to speak for the gods? This woman is to be my wife. She carries the powers of Mamaquilla within her, and has used them to relieve the suffering of hundreds already. The gods do not make their tools just to throw them away. Nor will I permit this to occur.”

His hands burst into flame, and the other priests backed away from the wrath of the Sapa Inca. And, with the earthly incarnation of Inti glowering at him, Guacamaya’s tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth.

* * *

High on the mountainside, the light of the sun blazed back from the white snow all around them in the dry shelter of the glacier. The well-worn sacrificial trail terminated in a snowfield, where two dozen bodies waited. Some had curled up into small balls, trying to fend off the fatal cold. Others, like the young girl at the front of the line, still knelt there, dressed in the finest wool. Dressed like a princess, with her eyes shut as if sleeping, and.

“She looks just as she always has in the visions,” Quillachaki said, shivering in the cold, in spite of the rich fur cloak around her shoulders. “Why did the gods bring me here to see her?” she asked, glancing over at Huayna.

He shrugged. “I’ve never had a vision,” he admitted. “Perhaps so that you would know your past. Perhaps so that you can accept your future.”

The others had remained at a respectful distance, with the old priest who’d recognized her under tight guard to prevent him from further ranting and raving. “You can’t marry me,” Quillachaki told Huayna, her voice tight. All the new notions and burgeoning hopes of the last week withered inside of her alongside the delicious memories of stolen kisses, and the way their powers could pour through each other. Given the strict nature of the caste system? It all meant nothing. “I was born a peasant—”

“And young men and women taken from villages all over Tawantinsuyu start off as Chimori or whatever tribe, but become Inca. You were born to Pisco and Totora, but Nyunyuma and Ozcollo made you karaca. And the gods themselves made you what you are today.” He reached out and touched her hair, very lightly. “Accept it,” he said quietly, his voice low and raw. “Accept me. It… doesn’t have to be any more of a cage than we make it. In our minds.”

She reached up and caught his hand, which had settled against her scalp, feather-light. And with her other hand, she reached out to touch the small, frozen face, so like her own. “I wish I could do something for her,” Quillachaki whispered. “But I never had the power to heal your mother or your sister, and they were still alive.”

He snorted. “If there’s anyone in all of this who deserves death—other than Challwa—”

“You still think so? Not Ozcollo, my father?”

“Pisco’s death seems misadventure to me. But Challwa harbors ill-intent When it is in your power to judge, I think you will think the same.” He cleared his throat. “No, the only person in all this who deserves death is the priest. The one who substituted his own judgment for that of the gods, and nearly had you killed before your gifts could be known.” A faint, awkward pause. “Before I’d even have met you.”

She glanced up and back at him. And even with the guards and servants close by, his eyes looked angry and bleak. “I was wrong about you,” she told him softly. “Yes. I’ll marry you. I’ll be your Inca Coya.” She sighed. “You won’t be alone in your cage anymore.” He’s lost his father, mother, sister, and at least one of his brothers so far. How many more people will we lose?

The answer that flittered across her mind chilled her: All of them, probably.

But his eyes closed in what looked like purest relief, and he slid his hand to her shoulder, his fingers digging through the fur and into the flesh beneath. “It won’t all be bad,” Huayna swore. “I promise you that.”

She leaned towards him. “It’s odd, but when I’m standing beside you, even though it’s day, I don’t feel tired. And I feel awake, as I never usually do in daylight.”

“Perhaps that means that together, we can be whole.” His voice sounded hoarse. “We just have to be willing to try.”

After a long moment like that, she stood. “Bring the priest here!” Quillachaki called. She didn’t know precisely what she planned to do. But she knew that she needed to demonstrate resolve and will, if she were to become a good Inca Coya. And part of her wanted the priest to surrender. To admit to being wrong. It was hard enough for me to admit to that. Most people are as incapable of that, as of apology. But this one will. He’ll submit. Or… She swallowed. “The priest has to die, doesn’t he?” Quillachaki asked slowly, as the soldiers dragged him forward.

“Unless you want him to spend the rest of your life shouting from every hilltop that the Inca Coya refused to sacrifice herself here, in the snow, so that the gods would be pleased, and rain blessings on her people? Unless you want him to say every day for the rest of our lives, that we do not know what duty is, and that because we do not, no one should have to obey us?” Huayna looked down the mountainside, towards the green valleys so far below. “Probably, yes.”

The guards brought Guacamaya to their feet, and a spear pressed to his kidneys made the man kneel. Quillachaki swallowed. “What was my name?” she said, her voice sounding surprisingly normal in her own ears.

The priest blinked, puzzled. “Sawsi—Willow. That’s your name, child—”

“No. That was my name. My parents, the ones who raised me as their own, gave me a noble’s name to go with a noble family. I am Quillachaki.” She swallowed, putting a hand on her dead sister’s small shoulder. “And you owe my sister an apology, priest. You owe her a life. Taken from her for no better reason than your pride. Pride, because you could not be seen to be wrong, in front of those of lesser rank.” Her eyes flicked towards Huayna, and he looked away, his face stern. “There is a difference,” she went on, “between pride and necessity. There is a difference between convenience, and the will of the gods.”

Oh, gods, I hope that I know the difference. I don’t know if marrying Huayna is necessity, convenience, or the will of the gods. I know that he’s a better man than I ever thought him. I know that duty torments him, but he’ll stand by it and endure it until the end of his days, because it’s the only thing he knows. But this priest didn’t act out of duty or necessity, but pride. I… can sense it, somehow.

She licked her lips. “Can you make amends, for a life wrongly taken?”

The priest shook his head vehemently. “Someone had to give the gods their due! It should have been you, but it was her—”

“She paid.” Quillachaki felt as if she were floating above herself, and for some reason, the light of the sun overhead seemed to be growing dimmer. The guards looked up, and began to mutter in awe and terror. “Now it’s your turn.”

She set her other hand on the priest’s shoulder, and reached out blindly with her power. Poured herself into her sister’s body, with all the apology and compassion and sorrow she felt, for a life cut short. For the person whose life she’d experienced in visions through their earliest years. “I’m sorry, sister,” Quillachaki murmured. “I’m so sorry that I wasn’t there for you.”

Energy poured through her, startling her, and for a moment, as she looked up, the sky looked almost as dark as twilight, though she knew that it was noon. Through her, and then out once more, from the priest’s body, and into the body of dead sister. She looked up into the sky, dizzy, and saw a strange thing—the moon had crossed over the face of the sun, leaving only a ring of fire around the moon’s shadow.

And at the moment where the moon’s shadow was greatest, the priest collapsed into the snow, and Palta opened her eyes and began to cry, hiccupping, fearful cries of utter incomprehension. “Why did they hit me?” the girl wailed. “I didn’t do anything wrong!”

* * *

Tales of the miracle went before them as they returned to Cusco for their wedding. The gods were very pleased with their young Sapa Inca and Inca Coya, and gave the pair long lives and a healthy reign over their great Empire. Their union of sun and moon, male and female essences, ensured that the rains came, and the crops did not wither. Quillachaki was particularly beloved by all, for she did her best to ensure that the lives of the peasants were less harsh, and limited the number of children taken as sacrifices.

Palta, when she came of age, having been raised in the court and well-educated, was given to Atoc as a wife, for his faithful service and loyalty. And she didn’t seem to mind that fate at all, finding his smiles and jokes a far better fate than eternity on a cold mountainside.

Huayna and Quillachaki lived long enough that they saw when traders began to work their way down the eastern coast, in tall boats made of wood instead of reeds, with great white sails. These men were strangers, with long, pale hair braided back from their faces and silver and gold bands around their throats, who carried swords made of shining metal. But they came, they said, in search of peaceful trade. Their gods were as strange and foreign as their language and appearance, but they understood what gods were, which gave them all common ground. And looking at the fine weaving of Tawantinsuyu, it was clear that these strange, foreign men knew, too, that true worth came from the work of skilled hands.

Deborah L. Davitt was raised in Reno, Nevada, but received her MA in English from Penn State. She currently lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and son.  Her poetry has garnered two Rhysling nominations and has appeared in nearly twenty journals; her short fiction has appeared in InterGalactic Medicine Show, Compelling Science FictionAltered EuropaSilver Blade, and The Fantasist. Her well-received Edda-Earth series is available through Amazon. For more about her work, please see www.edda-earth.com.