Imperial II

With the people dying outside, the nobles of Tenochtitlan took Cenyautl and dressed him in all the finery befitting a noble blessed (all blessed of sufficient strength were nobles). They held a festival, a small thing in comparison to some Cenyautl had seen, though the largest he’d attended. Usually he would be expected to sacrifice a captive in thanks to the gods for their gift, but with plague ravaging the whole of the empire and the flow of tribute and captives from the Aztec vassals halted, that was forgone.

He heard mutterings and whispers from the gathered merchants during the festival. Cities and tribes that had been under Aztec domain were now rebelling, refusing to pay their tribute. Instead, they threw their lot in with the Spanish. The Spanish hadn’t kept running back to wherever they came from after they had been driven out of Tenochtitlan. For now they stayed in Tlaxcala, gathering local warriors. For every warrior that joined the Spanish, one left the Aztecs.

Those at the festival tried to ignore this, but their faces sometimes betrayed the truth. The gods appeared to have abandoned them. People from over the ocean, with strange animals and weapons. A plague. These were, in fact, the opposite of good omens. The priests were strangely silent on the matters.

He discovered that he could move certain types of stones. He could sense any of the stones he could move in a fairly large radius, and control them should he so choose. The more there were under his control, the harder it became to maintain fine control over them. Obsidian was one of the ones he could sense, though. Another caveat was that size did not matter. He could get a head sized chunk moving just as fast in the same amount of time it took for a pebble. He hadn’t tried moving anything larger, though he could sense some larger boulders below his feet.

And none of it matters, because my entire family is dead. He still felt numb. Are we being punished for not finishing off the Spaniards?

The festival concluded, the assembled nobles wished him well, and he returned to the military encampment. He was now expected to lead other warriors into battle, and as such had received a high quality set of armor and shield from the emperor’s personal stores. Of course, they had yet to coronate a new emperor, but the royal storerooms did not depend on the emperor to exist, at least in the short term. I’m keeping my spear though.

He left the minor palace in the direction of his few personal objects, a woven bedroll, his spear, and a small carved totem of the war god. He’s supposed to protect warriors, isn’t he? In time Cenyautl would receive his own land and retainers, once the crisis ended. If it ever ends. Until then, he decided to remain among the rank and file, albeit more respected than the common warrior.

Many of the other warriors had fallen to the plague, the same as the rest of the population. Roughly four out of every five, so far as Cenyautl could tell, grew sick and died. There was no rhyme or reason to why someone would sicken or not. It had spread to the other cities on the lake at about the same time it hit Tenochtitlan. No one was spared.

Night fell by the time Cenyautl limped back. His knee still hadn’t healed, even remotely. He sat at his bedroll, mind blank. Soon, someone joined him, sitting down next to him without a word. It was the warrior Cenyautl met the night they drove the Spaniards out. Together they stared out over the city.

“What are you doing?” asked Cenyautl after some time.

“I observe. I observe much, and this is… unprecedented,” the warrior waved vaguely over the city.

The buildings and temples, painted brightly with dyes and blood, took on a grey hue in the dark, bleached and lifeless. The markets, a month ago playing host to exotic goods from the far north deserts and the forests to the south, appeared dilapidated and worn down, the customary merchants, buyers, and servants for upkeep no longer frequenting them.  Whereas the other night had been an apprehensive silence, this was the silence of a crypt. Most of the people were dead or dying, and the diseased bodies being burned cast a pall over the city. No one knew what was going to happen next. Given recent trends, it would probably be very bad.

“I never asked your name,” said Cenyautl.

“And that’s best,” said the warrior. They spoke no further.

Cenyautl eventually drifted off to sleep, the image of the broken city in his head.

***

The Spaniards returned a couple months later, their march to the capital once again unopposed. This time, however, they lead a huge host of warriors eager for Aztec blood. An empire is not won with kindness and consideration to the conquered, after all.

The new emperor, Cuauhtémoc, showed more courage than Moctezuma ever had. He immediately set about preparing the defense of the empire. He called for allies, though most had joined the Spanish. Cuauhtémoc, however, executed those who suggested bending the knee. Served the cowards right. Even when an estimated quarter million enemy warriors, from all around the valley of Mexico, came with the Spaniards, he exhorted the warriors to hold the bridges and causeways of the city at all cost. He’s actually only a few years older than me. Cenyautl observed after a passing glimpse of the man.

Immediately the Spaniards took control of the outlying villages and began constructing large canoe things. Cenyautl had heard stories from the coast of the large walled rafts (that’s somewhat inaccurate, but I don’t know what else to call them) with large areas of cloth hanging from poles in the middle of the raft. Aztec warriors in standard canoes raided the Spanish and allied warriors as often as they could. They didn’t fully stop the construction of the Spanish rafts in spite of their efforts.

The Aztecs received an unpleasant surprise once the Spanish rafts began sailing. The Spaniards mounted a couple large metal tubes on each raft, similar to the smaller ones Cenyautl heard rumors about from the east. These tubes let out a great crack, a deafening explosion of some kind, and a lump of stone would hit wherever the tube aimed. They are cowards who would kill from afar, rather than actually fighting.

While slow and impractical in street to street fighting, mounted on a mobile and fast raft, one that was defended by the metal clad Spaniards who would outnumber the warriors attempting to board the raft, these weapons controlled the lake around Tenochtitlan. There was one blessed who did manage to manipulate the waters into sinking one of the rafts, but the Spaniards made it a point to kill him immediately the next time his canoe set out.

Some nobles and elite warriors used the metal weapons taken from dead Spaniards. They weren’t as sharp as the obsidian clubs traditionally used, but they didn’t break nearly as easily. Once the Spaniards made it a point to assassinate particularly important warriors, priests, or blessed, the Aztecs in question began disguising themselves, dressing differently from their usual armor. Their usual armor was rather distinct from person to person, brightly colored with many feathers and other adornments so people in battle would know who to fight for the greatest glory.

Cenyautl didn’t have this problem. He led, but was otherwise indistinguishable from the men he commanded. His men were the remnants of other warrior companies from the eastern edge of the city where Cenyautl hailed from. They fight well enough.

This low scale fighting happened over a month or so. Other than the occasional probing attack, always beaten back, no large scale assault was launched on the city itself. But something else happened.

The Spanish began torturing and killing those who remained faithful to the Aztecs in the villages and towns they controlled. The Spaniards put their heads and various dismembered body parts on display in full view of the defending warriors. Apparently this was meant as intimidation. They want the city without a fight. They don’t like fighting, real fighting anyways.

There were rumors that one of the Spanish blessed had a power which made him excel at torture. Certainly the screams and pleas of those who fell into the Spanish hands echoed over the waters of the lake and to the edges of the defenses.

The Spaniards sent five local men to talk about the terms of surrender. Cuauhtémoc received them, and immediately had them sacrificed. Once the Spanish received word of this, they did not immediately assault the city, like Cenyautl would have. Instead, they destroyed the aqueduct which brought fresh water into the city. As the aqueduct began a fair ways into territory Tenochtitlan no longer controlled, there was little the warriors could do about it. The Aztecs were reduced to drinking the brackish water from the lake itself.

Then the assault began.

***

The Spanish pushed up the bridge again, this time lead by men on the large animals they rode. The thunderous sound of their feet on the stone bridge intimidated the defending Aztec warriors. Their confidence wavered. The Spaniards may have controlled the lake, but any naval landing would be swiftly overwhelmed, as the Spaniards discovered.

“Hold! Hold!” yelled Cenyautl, even as he saw the mass of enemy warriors swarming behind the Spaniard’s charge. Wait, I can use that. He kept forgetting about his power, he usually tried to avoid thinking about how he got them in the first place. He began disarming warriors, tearing weapons out of their unsuspecting grasp and throwing them into the lake. He could have simply clubbed them to death with their own weapons from a distance, but that was cowardly. Spaniards killed at a distance like that.

His concentration shifted to more immediate survival once the Spaniards on their animals hit the barricades. The barricades the Aztecs set up on the entrances to the city had held off the other warriors for a week, but the animals were a different matter. They simply bashed through the barricades or jumped over and into the massed warriors behind the barricades.

The animals simply crushed any warrior who tried to stand in their way, the momentum and size of the animal working to the Spaniards’ advantage. The Spanish atop the animals kept them moving forward, swinging their swords at any exposed warrior. A wooden servant of a priest managed to knock one down, but the Spaniards held torches, and they burned the servant while keeping out of its reach.

Cenyautl dodged to the side, out of the way of the nearest animal or swung sword, ignoring the chronic pain in his knee. He moved forward once the immediate threat moved on, stabbing at the animal’s flank. The Spaniards had covered the animals in the same armor the Aztec warriors wore; combined with the speed it moved the thrust did nothing.

They forced Cenyautl to back up. He used three large stones to help deflect their blows, but their numbers and the fact that he couldn’t kill them made him back up. And his defenses weren’t perfect, he took a fairly deep cut to his forearm. I only have two eyes. Then the warriors on the Spanish side hit.

The Aztecs, especially those under Cenyautl’s command, had begun to rally, in part because Cenyautl held off four Spaniards at once at one point. But the wave of reinforcements for the Spaniards pushed them back further, into the city proper. The Aztecs split up with their main line of defense gone, going down different streets and drawing the attackers out. Luckily, the animal mounted Spaniards followed a different group. Unluckily, a group of Spaniard infantry followed Cenyautl’s, supported by more native warriors. In front of them was a stone servant, held together with dark green cords. He knew it was hostile because it crushed a good portion of an Aztec warrior who wasn’t quick enough to get out of the way.

I think I can contribute here. Cenyautl took control of the stones he could in the servant, disrupting its movements. Need to concentrate. He stood at the front of the Aztec line now, his focus less on keeping himself alive and more on stopping the servant.

Just then, he heard the war cries of reinforcements, and was able to take a step back to relative safety. Whoever controlled the servant began applying more of his or her power to it. This forced Cenyautl to devote more of his attention to the mental battle and less on the more physical battle around him. Something pushed him, and he staggered backwards further.

He wrenched one of the stones free of the cords, and felt the resistance it had towards his power disappear. Then another. The integrity of the servant began to fail. He used the stones under his control, including one in the road larger than any he’d wielded before, to thrash the servant and anyone unfortunate enough to be near it. He would usually prefer to kill face to face, but servants weren’t exactly noble opponents.

He heard shouting from a Spaniard, pointing at him. Cranking sounds began to come from the Spanish lines. Cenyautl knew that they would loose bolts at incredible speed and strength, going through armor and shield like feathers. But I just figured out who to kill.

The hail of stones eventually found their mark, crushing the man’s head. The servant, already staggering and flailing, fell apart completely soon after. Magic did not last long after the caster’s death. However, before Cenyautl could congratulate himself, the other Spaniards took note of him. He was the only Aztec, in the middle of a swarm of them, standing in a sort of peaceful way.

A loud crack sounded, followed by a lance of pain in Cenyautl’s lower rib cage. The pain almost made him collapse. Other warriors rushed around him, preventing the nearby enemies from finishing him off. The other warrior he’d met in the night dragged him back behind the lines. How… did he react… so quick. He’d been shot by one of the invisible Spanish arrows, that much he could piece together. The other warrior dragged him into an out of the way alley.

He rested Cenyautl’s back against a wall. Cenyautl felt the pain receding. Well I’m dead. He would die in battle, no doubt he would go on to the war god’s heaven. The other warrior moved Cenyautl’s cotton armor to the side around his wound.

“You’re like her,” he muttered. Cenyautl looked down and stared. The massive bloodstain in his armor circled a rapidly closing wound. Come to think of it… He checked his arm, where he received a serious cut earlier. There was the corresponding cut in the armor, but his arm underneath showed no sign of injury. So why does my knee still hurt?

The other warrior interrupted his thoughts. “I’m sorry, but you must be killed now. You cannot do what you will do. It will cause ruin to more than you could imagine.” Cenyautl stared at him without comprehension. In the other warrior’s hand suddenly appeared a glowing golden… thing. Cenyautl couldn’t tell through the glare, but it might have been vaguely rod shaped. That can’t be good.

There were no stones close enough, though he drew them towards himself anyways. He lost his spear sometime after he was shot. I’m not dying without a fight. Cenyautl, propped up on one arm, made a slow fake grab for the thing with his free arm, then turned it into a strike towards the eye of the other warrior who seemed intent on killing him. His finger struck home, he was slightly faster than the other man leaning over him.

None the less, he barely rolled out of the way of the thing as it struck the ground where Cenyautl was. There was a bright flash, and the thing in the other warriors hand was gone.

“No, you fool,” he snarled with one eye closed as Cenyautl stood upright. Another thing, or maybe it was the same thing, appeared in his hand again.

Cenyautl responded with a fist sized stone which struck the other warrior directly in the lower spine. That was somewhat dishonorable, hitting him from behind like that. I think I’ll be able to cope with the shame, however. This brought the man to his knees, and the glowing thing vanished again.

Cenyautl put a large stone in position to crush the man’s head. “Are you insane? What are you talking about?” I bring about the ruin of the empire? Is that what you’re talking about? It’s obvious you’re blessed of some kind.

The other warrior (no, man. He’s not a warrior) gritted his teeth, and in his hand appeared a box of some kind, over a hand long and made of dark black metal. The hole in the end pointed towards Cenyautl. Is that… one of the Spanish weapons? No, can’t be. He still readied a rock once it appeared. The man gripped it shakily, then his finger twitched rapidly. Loud bangs, worse than the one that shot Cenyautl in the first place, rang from the weapon in the man’s hand. Something hit the stone Cenyautl placed between him and the dark thing with an astounding amount of force, but nothing came of it otherwise.

Cenyautl willed the stone above the man’s head downward, as fast as he could get it. Right before the stone could crush the man’s head, he vanished, still firing. The stone hit the ground, leaving a small indent in the packed dirt.

Cenyautl sat down again, feeling numb again. The distant sounds of combat faded, and not just because Cenyautl stopped paying attention to them. You cannot do what you will do. It will cause more ruin than you can imagine. What? What was that nonsense? That came out of nowhere. I was just going to fight. Does that mean I could do more to save the city? What just happened? Now that he thought about it, he couldn’t describe any physical features of the man he’d known and fought beside for a month. Did he ever tell me his name?

***

The pattern of slowly being forced back by superior numbers and weapons continued for three months, until the Aztecs only held the northern third of the island. The enemy started using wooden clubs Cenyautl couldn’t effect, especially once they knew the extent of his power. He could control near fifty individual stones now with some degree of fine control. Size still didn’t matter.

Cenyautl had become well known enough. He’d often saved pockets of beleaguered warriors, and they followed him afterwards. I’m just a warrior. They could go their own ways. He told them as much, but he now had quite the command.

“There is nothing more we can do,” said a noble Cenyautl did not recognize as he strode into the makeshift palace at the head of ten other elite warriors, three of whom were also blessed. Cenyautl was recognized at the court now, most of the other qualified war leaders dead or otherwise occupied.

All of the nobles with spines are dead or continuing the fight in the streets right now. Only the weak and fat now surround the emperor. “We must leave, fight them in the countryside,” continued the noble. By which he means surrender. He probably wants to strike a deal with the Spaniards once he leaves the capital, fealty for leniency.

Five of Cenyautl’s warriors stood by the only entrance to the room, the others surreptitiously standing near the royal guardsmen. All of them, including Cenyautl, were only interested in the proceedings, nothing more. The high priest, a bloody man with matted, uncut hair who smelled of smoke and burnt flesh, met Cenyautl’s eye. A fanatical light burned in the priest’s eyes and his grip on his obsidian dagger left his knuckles white. The priest nodded, then returned his attention to the emperor.

The head of the Jaguars, a man who Cenyautl had personally fought beside, made note of what was happening, and slowly crossed his arms across his chest, placing his hands far away from his weapons. He won’t jump to defend those who suggest defeat, but he won’t be a traitor.

Another noble said, “Our warriors hold the streets, but there is nothing keeping the outsiders from simply withdrawing and letting us starve to death. They have no honor or decency. Fighting here does us nothing gainful.” They think us a spent and broken force.

Cuauhtémoc himself sat on his ‘throne’, a simple wooden stool in the center of the room. He appeared healthier than most Aztecs nowadays, but the stress of leading the desperate defense of the last city of one’s empire for three solid months would take a toll on anyone’s health. Whereas most of the surviving Aztecs were gaunt from lack of food, water, and a plethora of diseases, Cuauhtémoc merely looked haunted and stressed. Your decision here is very important. The emperor rested his chin on his fist, oblivious to his surroundings.

He raised his head after some consideration. He looked ashamed. No. “Perhaps you are right. They have us trapped here.”

“No,” said Cenyautl, cutting him off. And with that, his warriors moved. Four near the door barred the exit, two looking out, two looking in. The last one moved to cover Cenyautl’s rear, ready to move where she was needed. The five in the room itself struck at the guards and nobles who spoke of surrender. The high priest immediately stabbed his knife into the chest of another priest at his side. The Jaguar slowly receded, back against the wall, arms still crossed. Cenyautl himself made for Cuauhtémoc.

Cuauhtémoc stood the instant the fighting broke out. He was unarmed, his guards dead or unable to help. He did not run. I can appreciate that. He won’t die completely cowed. He even attempted to fight back, but Cenyautl had spent months fighting far more fit opponents. He drove his spear into Cuauhtémoc’s gut, just below the ribcage and angled upwards. Cenyautl withdrew the spear and stabbed once more into Cuauhtémoc’s chest, to make the end quick.

He looked around. The cowardly nobles lay dead. A couple guards still fought, but Cenyautl deprived them of their weapons, and his warriors finished them quickly. The door guards caught his glance and shook their heads. No one.

Cenyautl knew he should feel ashamed at what he had done, but for the life of him couldn’t. You cannot do what you will do. He had changed that. He would have continued fighting like a good warrior, but according that man, that would lead to ruin. Wouldn’t it? Prophecy is always vague, even in stories. He guessed that man was sent by the gods to test him, he couldn’t think of anything else.

The room watched him in silence. One of his warriors asked, “Now what?”

“We fight,” said Cenyautl simply. “We drive them out or die to the last man. No more consideration to the advice of cowards and weaklings.”

The high priest nodded, his hands bloody from the two other dead priests he’d killed. The Jaguar said, “Now what are we going to tell the warriors? That the emperor who they fight for is now dead in a pool of his own blood?”

The high priest said, “They will need someone to lead them.”

Cenyautl shrugged. “You two can work it out. There are still nobles who fight, perhaps one of them.”

The Jaguar said, “We’ll need something more than that.” The priest and other warriors nodded. I don’t want power. I want this to be over with.

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Imperial I

The largest and greatest city in the world, and for once in the night there were no sounds to be heard. No hushed conversations of its citizens, no clamor from the royal dwellings. Only the sounds of crickets and other insects emanated from the lakes and gardens and canals of the city. Fires burned on the tops of the temples, and in the captive palaces; the only sources of light beyond the moon and stars. The entirety of the city waited for the next day.

Cenyautl rested by his spear and shield, drifting in and out of sleep, along with the rest of the men keeping watch over the palaces. Some whispered that the Spaniards stabbed or strangled the former emperor Moctezuma the day after he had plead for them to lay down their arms and cease attacking the Spaniards. It didn’t matter. Moctezuma shamed himself by siding with the invaders. His brother, Cuitláhuac, now ruled, Moctezuma being pelted by rocks before the Spaniards dragged him back inside. They released Cuitláhuac so that he would convince the warriors besieging the Spaniards to surrender. He immediately seized the crown and rallied the Aztec warriors.

Cenyautl got up to relieve himself. Cuitláhuac will drive out the outsiders, not invite them into his home. Rumor ran everywhere, but the general gist Cenyautl got was that Moctezuma entertained the Spaniards in his own house. Then one day the nobles celebrated a festival. Without provocation, the Spaniards attacked and killed everyone in attendance. This happened a couple days ago, and Cenyautl and the rest of the warriors in the capital attacked with fury, but were unable to dislodge the Spaniards or their Tlaxcalan allies from the palace. So they and the rest of the city waited.

As Cenyautl returned, a woman’s cry came from his left. “Mexica, come quickly!  Our enemies flee. They run like cowards in the night!” Indistinguishable shouting rose up and accompanied Cenyautl on his dash towards his gear. Someone began beating a drum.

Cenyautl grabbed his spear, a length of wood ending in a razor sharp tip of flint, and joined the rush of nearby warriors. Some nobles and officers were already dressed, leading their troops towards the clamor of fighting. Who fights out of the view of the sun? More drums, and a couple horns blew. Cenyautl could not find anyone he knew nearby, but knew where to go. They rounded a corner.

The Spaniards and Tlaxcalans barely staved off the surrounding warriors while attempting to flee the city as fast as possible. They were forced to make a desperate push for each bridge, each causeway. The Mexican warriors, for their part, attacked at every opportunity, clubbing and stabbing the invaders when their guard dropped for even a moment. The streets were dark and chaotic, Cenyautl swore at one point he saw a Spaniard stab a Tlaxcalan ally in confusion. Flames briefly flared from another Spaniard, warding off the three warriors closing in on him.

Then Cenyautl was running again, following the lead of one of the nearby nobles. He and his warriors possessed an air of pride and honor Cenyautl found lacking in the fleeing Spaniards. The warriors around the noble, and the noble himself, wore higher quality armor than any Cenyautl or his fellow rank and file warriors could attain. “This way! This way!” they cried, motioning down a street which would intercept the Spanish escape route. Cenyautl followed. I don’t like the looks of those animals some of the Spaniards ride. Rather not face them head on. He’d seen one cave a man’s head in with a solid kick.

They rushed down the street, Cenyautl still not recognizing anyone around him. That didn’t matter, they were united in purpose. The sound of battle over the buildings separating them grew, reaching a fevered pitch. Screams, blood, furious war cries from the Aztecs. The Spanish responded with shouts in their own, alien tongue. They’re outnumbered and outmatched. Why won’t they just die? They’re already running, it’s not as though they have much else to lose.

Suddenly, they found more Spaniards ahead of them, cutting their way through the warriors defending another bridge. Cenyautl, in the middle of the group, joined in the charge. Some around him flung spears and javelins, though none brought down a Spaniard. The charging warriors jumped or dodged around the corpses in the streets, then collided with the defending Spanish as they crossed the bridge.

Chaos. The screams and splashes of blood and other assorted bodily fluids were up close and personal now. Don’t think. Just fight. Cenyautl saw more than one man with a missing limb or spilled organs. Some strange sounds came from further behind Cenyautl. One of the blessed, probably. The gods are the only logical way mere humans can do the impossible things the blessed do. He heard the clatter of a priest’s servant, a magically animated construct traditionally made of obsidian or wood or bone, battling off to his right with a servant of the Spaniards.

Technically they were supposed to fight individually, warrior to warrior. That way was madness this night. The armor the Spaniards wore could deflect most blows even the best warrior could dish out, and they supported one another. So the Aztecs did the same, and there were a lot more Aztec warriors than Spaniards. We aren’t just going to stand there and let them kill us.

Instead, the Aztecs swarmed the Spaniards. Most of the warriors resorted to grabbing at them, their simple wooden clubs utterly ineffective. Cenyautl’s focus narrowed as he came face to face with the invaders, the men before him dead or on the way. They died well. If you’re going to die, might as well be in battle. That was what he’d always been taught anyways. It seemed faintly hollow when men screamed out their life in front of you.

A Tlaxcalan swung his club at Cenyautl’s head. Focus. He ducked and thrust with his spear, still moving forward. The Tlaxcalan mercenary dodged to the side. There was a twang and the whistle of a bolt coming from the Spanish lines, barely missing both the Tlaxcalan and Cenyautl. It struck a warrior off to Cenyautl’s right; he went down with a scream. Lots of screaming going on.

Cenyautl had let himself get distracted. Though momentary, it provided an opening for the Tlaxcalan to take another swing, this time at his knee. Cenyautl regained his senses, moving to turn it into a glancing blow, as opposed to a crippling one. The Tlaxcalan followed through with a reverse swing aimed at Cenyautl’s upper body. Another glancing blow, as Cenyautl stumbled due to the sudden pain in his knee. Up, up. Now. He was saved by a fellow warrior, who wielded a two handed mace. He brought down the mace, shattering the Tlaxcalan’s shield. Cenyautl drove his spear into the Tlaxcalan’s gut. He withdrew his spear and moved on. Don’t think about it. Just stay focused.

The main melee had moved further down the bridge. Cenyautl and the mace warrior ran forward towards the same somewhat isolated Spaniard, standing on the edge of the river. Cenyautl led with his shield, they collided and sent the Spaniard stumbling into the water below. He did not resurface, metal armor is not known for its buoyant qualities. The other warrior kept Cenyautl from joining the Spaniard in the canal. Wordlessly the two continued.

Through the night they fought. Many Spaniards were captured and dragged to the tops of the pyramids. They were stripped, reduced to slaves, unfit to receive a warrior’s death. The priests carved out their hearts and threw them into the sacrificial fires. For the gods and for the emperor.

For all that, some Spaniards still escaped the city with their lives. Cenyautl and the other warrior kept each other alive that night. Cenyautl did not do his wounded knee any favors by running on it and fighting continuously for hours, but it was almost worth it in the end. The invaders were gone, but his knee forced him to watch impotently as the rest escaped. He and the other warrior leaned on each other, returning once the fighting finished.

***

“Mother, Cenyautl’s home!” shouted Cenyautl’s youngest brother, spotting as he limped towards their house on the outskirts of Tenochtitlan. Cenayutl’s family came from a line of craftsmen, rather than peasants which composed the majority of the population. Thankfully, this area was nowhere near where the fighting had occurred over a week ago. Some fires had broken out in those areas in the chaos, though were put out quickly enough before they got out of control.

Cenyautl was the second child of four. His first brother, older by two years, would follow in father’s footsteps and inherit the workshop they maintained together. I wonder if he’s still as arrogant, with everything going on. His first sister died during childbirth, nearly taking mother with her. Mother recovered and had Cenyautl, for which he was duly grateful. As were, no doubt, his younger brother and sister.

His sister only about a year younger, was the closest of his siblings to his age. They got along better than most other siblings Cenyautl had seen. Their respective duties to father (for Cenyautl) and mother (for his sister) often kept them separated. That didn’t mean that they were always apart. They often played games as children, and she insisted she could do anything Cenyautl or any of the other boys could do. She was almost always right.

He knew she expressed interest in joining the army, which made him uneasy. True, women warriors were not unheard of, though some priests and nobles looked down on them. But blessed warriors were not to be turned away, no matter their gender. They won enough renown that even ordinary women could fight, should they so choose, which was rare. He told her as much, and she made it a point to prove him wrong. I still don’t like it. He’d heard stories from other men in the encampments. Bad ones. On the other hand, if a woman wanted to join the army, she was capable of killing and defending herself, which meant she qualified for soldiering. And warriors of all kinds were respected in Aztec society, at least by the common people.

His youngest brother, currently opening the door for Cenyautl to go inside, only around eleven years old. He hopped up in down in excitement with something to break the monotony of work. Besides the invasion, but that qualified as less fun and more terrifying, though that no longer posed an issue. The remains of a nasty gash ran across his cheek, making his smile lopsided. Scar tissue wasn’t quite as flexible as normal skin. We were doing… something stupid and childish. I can’t even remember anymore. He was even younger, I doubt he remembers at all.  Cenyautl shifted his spear and pack to his left hand, then gave him a brief embrace as he entered. He set his things to the side.

Mother had been making tortillas when Cenyautl walked in. Of course she stopped the second he walked in and smothered him in a hug. She was taller than average, of almost the same height as Cenyautl.

“I’m fine, mother,” said Cenyautl over her happy, near indecipherable babbling.

“Now out. Shoo. Not everything in here is ready,” concluded mother, making a waving off motion towards both Cenyautl and his brother. They left the somewhat cramped, smoky interior of the house.

As they left, his sister ran up to them with a grin, matching Cenyautl’s and his younger brother’s.

“Hey! You’re alive!” were the first words out of her mouth.

“Indeed! As are you. And what did you two do to mother? Her hair is going grey.”

“You capture anyone important?” Promotions were earned by capturing enemies for sacrifice. Normally only nobles and others in the upper strata of society operated like that, but social mobility could be attained. He knew of one old friend of his who was one short of becoming a Jaguar warrior. I’ll just fight to stay alive, thank you very much.

“No,” said Cenyautl, shaking his head. “I did put a couple outsiders in the canals though. They sank quick enough.” So they talked and talked and talked. Asking questions about what he did, how life in the army was, if he killed anyone else. He neglected to mention that, right before he returned home, news had reached them about the remaining Spaniards. The men of Otumba failed to finish them off though they still fled back to Tlaxcala in the east. And to the west, the Tarascans, a completely different nation, were beginning to marshal their forces, sensing weakness in the Aztecs.

Eventually father joined them. And he’s also getting old and grey too. A kind of no nonsense man, at least when it came to child raising. He was an only child, his other siblings having been lost to various causes over the years in their childhoods. He still cracked a small smile at the sight of Cenyautl.

“Too worthless for the army?” he asked in a friendly mocking tone. That’s my father!

“Nah, apparently you need working legs to stay in fighting shape. Who knew?” A representative of the local noble Cenyautl joined had told Cenyautl to go home and recover. Cenyautl did not complain.

The other warrior Cenyautl had met, the one with the two handed mace, found him before he left. Over the sounds of celebrations he said “I do not believe this is over yet, no matter what the priests and nobles say. We still may have need of you.”

But Cenyautl wanted to see his family again, and told him as much. The other warrior simply nodded and wished him well. I never did learn his name. He never really did talk outside of necessities like “duck”.

“What happened to your leg?” asked his sister with some concern.

“Took a club blow to my knee. It hasn’t hurt too bad, but it’s been slowing me down and the officers know it. I’ll probably be working here until it heals up.” If it heals, he didn’t add.

“Your brother should be along shortly, and Mother should be cooking now. And I’m sure there are other things which you can occupy your time with, like helping her,” he said, eyeing Cenyautl’s younger siblings. They were about to complain, but a stern look from father sent them running anyways. Don’t make him discipline you.

After a silent moment, father opened his mouth. Cenyautl cut him off with, “No, I’m not expecting to sit in here for free. I haven’t found a woman to marry if you and mother haven’t. Anything else?”

Father smiled. “That about covers it. Good to see you, son.” They chatted as they headed back towards the house.

***

One month after the Spaniards had been driven out, and everything was falling apart. Disease ridden corpses of the dead filled the streets of the greatest and largest city in the world. No one had the time or energy to move them. The gods are punishing us for not killing the last of the Spaniards. There is no other possible reason for this. Or perhaps the gods have abandoned the empire entirely. A disturbing though, but he couldn’t shake it from his mind.

Nine out of every ten people were sick. Of those sick, almost all died. The pestilence came out of nowhere. There were rumors, vile rumors, that even the emperor himself lay sick and dying, along with at least half his court. Cenyautl knew that everyone else in his family lay sick in their house. Cenyautl thought he felt the sickness himself, but forced those thoughts from his mind. Focus. No black sores on your skin, at least not yet.

The markets were empty, with all of the merchants and porters who usually brought in produce and other exotic goods from all corners of the world also dying horribly. Not nearly as much food to be found as before. The peasants were also dying, which puts a damper on food productivity. Cenyautl did have some food for his family. He limped back home, clutching his spear in one hand and food in the other. People no longer respect the laws of gods or men. They’re probably too desperate to care.

Mournful drums began to rise over the din of lamentations and coughing. Cenyautl stopped, as did the few other people still walking. No. No. That means… Cuitláhuac, the new emperor, was dead. He saw people begin to weep, though not as many as when Moctezuma or Ahuitzotl, their father, died. Many grimaced and continued in their quest for survival. Cenyautl nearly dropped his food. No. The emperor is supposed to guide the people, not succumb to pestilence.

The presence of the other people reminded him to keep moving. Focus. Just… just focus. Get back to your family. The rest of his family, especially mother and his younger brother, probably wouldn’t make it, but he trudged on anyways. His fears were confirmed once he reentered the house. His older brother was the only other one not bedridden, though he looked close. The two of them had never truly gotten along, but now he met Cenyautl’s eye and shook his head. The only other movement was from father’s weak cough and Cenyautl’s younger sister breathing.

In a daze, Cenyautl dropped the food and headed back outside. His thoughts were too scrambled to make any sense. He stopped at some arbitrary distance later and saw a pebble at his feet, so small and simple and meaningless in the grand scheme of the cosmos, move seemingly of its own volition.

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