My mistress was concerned about her water supply.
This may seem an odd preoccupation for an Aztec. After all, our city, Mexico, was built on an island in a freshwater lake and was riddled with canals, one of which ran past my mistress’s house. However, you had only to think of all the rubbish and other things that were tipped into them by the city’s thousands of households to know why the water we drank always came from springs. Some of these were within the city itself, but the city had long since outgrown them, and now the most important source was on the hill of Chapultepec, across the water on the western shore of the lake.
Years ago-before I was born-the rulers of Mexico had built a great aqueduct whose two stone channels linked Chapultepec to the city. Most households got their fresh water from men who filled their jars from the aqueduct near the point where it entered the city and carried them by canoe through the city’s network of canals direct to our doors. They were paid in bags of cocoa beans and most Aztecs scarcely reckoned the cost, being happy to be spared the daily chore of fetching their own water. Merchants, however, took worldly wealth more seriously than most of us. My mistress, Tiger Lily-the lady to whom I was bound technically as a slave, although in reality our relationship was a good deal more complex than that-was a merchant. This all had something to do with why I was standing in one of the aque-duct’s channels-the southern one, currently empty and closed for cleaning-with evil-smelling muck oozing between my toes and a fetid stench filling my nostrils.
“It’s free water for two years, Yaotl,” Lily had explained. “Just for standing around and watching a ceremony, and you can’t claim you haven’t done worse before. Not to mention the fact that you drink the water, too.”
“I know,” I admitted. “It still seems like an odd request, though. What can I tell a water seller that he can’t see for himself?”
Blue Feather, whose canoe brought a full jar to Lily’s house every day, had asked her for my services for a day. The newly cleaned and reopened northern channel of the aqueduct was to be rededicated to the water goddess, Lady Jade Skirt, and I was to watch the ceremony. I was to take careful note of every aspect of the proceedings, even down to precisely where the priest stood while he made his sacrifices-Blue Feather had been most particular about this.
My mistress’s face, framed in a mass of dark, silver-streaked hair, wore a frown whose meaning I could catch better than anyone. She obviously thought my assignment strange, too. “Does it matter?” she asked eventually. “He can’t be there because he’s got to make a sacrifice at Jade Skirt’s temple, but he wants to be sure every detail of the ceremony at the aqueduct is right. And you have to admit you’re a better person to observe something like this than most-after all, you used to be a priest.”
That much was true, although as I stood in the slime watching Jade Skirt’s devotee going through the ritual, I was still puzzled. This ceremony was not much like the bloody sacrifices of men and quails I had been used to when I had served in the temples.
The goddess’s priest balanced precariously at the edge of the full channel. “O Lady of the Jade Skirt!” he cawed in a harsh, deep voice. “O Goddess of the rivers and springs, accept this, our unworthy gift!” And so saying, he tossed the object in his hands into the water at his feet. It made a soft plop and vanished from sight.
The goddess had received many gifts that morning, each of them accompanied by the same self-abasing formula. Some had been humble enough-tortillas, ears of maize, drinking vessels, a ladle full of burning incense-but the priest had saved the best till last, and the offering he had just made had been splendid: a small gold statuette of the goddess with glittering emeralds for eyes. It had been paid for by the water sellers. A small crowd of them stood around, some with the priest on the edge of the water channel, others looking up from the empty conduit next to it. Their canoes jammed the canal running beneath us under the aqueduct. Others, including Blue Feather, were at the goddess’s temple, where more offerings would be made.
It was the southern channel’s turn in the regular maintenance schedule, which is why it was empty of water. I stood in it among the rest of the water sellers and the other spectators, waiting silently for the ceremony to end and fervently wishing I were somewhere else. A fine drizzle had begun to fall. It plastered the priest’s long, already lank hair to his pitch-stained temples and made his black cloak hang limply around him, and made me feel more miserable than ever.
“It always seems like a terrible waste to me,” someone nearby remarked.
“A waste of time, certainly,” I muttered. Then I peered around at the speaker. He had a plain, undyed cloak and the tonsured hair of a man who had never captured an enemy warrior in battle: the lowliest of commoners. I wondered whether he was one of the water sellers, but when he caught my eye he told me otherwise.
“I know what you mean.” He spoke quietly, for fear of upsetting our neighbours, although they were all huddled and shivering in their cloaks and probably longing to be elsewhere, too. “But we have to do it, don’t we? My parish provided the work detail that cleaned out that half of the aqueduct, you see, so we have to be here.”
“Cleaning these channels must be a nasty job,” I remarked sympathetically. One of the quirks of slavery among Aztecs was that it freed a man from many of the onerous duties that ordinary commoners were subject to, such as taking part in public works whenever the emperor or his officials demanded it. The only person I had to obey was my mistress. So I had no first-hand knowledge of the kind of labour that cleaning the aqueduct or shoring up the sides of a canal or whitewashing a palace might involve.
“Oh, it’s all right, unless you have a problem with filth, stink, and a back that feels like you’ll never be able to straighten it again.” The other man grinned. “Of course, with this particular job we always live in hopes-if you see what I mean. Never comes to anything, mind you. Like I said, it’s a terrible waste.”
I frowned. “I don’t follow.”
“Stuff like that gold statue,” he explained patiently. “And all the other jewels and things that get thrown in the water as offerings to the goddess. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that some of that would come up when we’re scooping all the muck out of the bottom? Never happens, though.” He sighed regretfully. “A man could live for years on just one find like that, but I suppose the goddess can’t spare it! All we ever get is the rubbish. She doesn’t seem so interested in the clay bowls and tobacco tubes. Funny, that, isn’t it?”
Eventually, the priest gabbled his way to the end of the ritual. It concluded with a sacrifice of his own blood, drawn from his earlobe with an obsidian razor and sprinkled on the water’s surface.
By the time I had returned home, Blue Feather was already there, passing the time of day in Lily’s courtyard and clearly itching to be told exactly what I had seen. He was all polite attention as I gave my account, but he might as well have been asleep, since he immediately asked me to repeat it.
After he had left, Lily and I agreed that we still could not understand what he was about. Still, as Lily pointed out, that was up to him, provided she still got her water.
She was less sanguine the next morning, when she found out that her water seller had vanished. And naturally it became my job to find him.
“I was looking for him in the marketplace,” she explained, “to get our agreement witnessed. But he wasn’t at his usual place by the canal, and no one could tell me where he was. Go and see if he’s ill or something.”
This was the start of a frustrating morning. Lily told me where he lived, and that part was easy enough. It was a typical Aztec house, two rooms opening onto a small square of courtyard, fronting a canal just broad enough for a two-man canoe.
I had to skirt a small mound of trash piled against one side of the house. It looked like the usual rubbish-ash from the hearth, broken shells of turkey eggs, maize husks, and so on-and I would normally not have spared it a glance, but I was surprised to see a hollow cane, the sort used as a smoking tube. This puzzled me because tobacco was expensive, imported from the hot lowlands for priests and lords; I could not understand what it would be doing in a humble water seller’s house.
The water seller’s wife was home: a weary-looking woman, fine-boned and grey-haired, whose patched and frayed blouse and skirt made the idea of her husband taking his ease with a pipe even more incongruous.
She received me politely, inviting me to squat in her courtyard and offering me food, as good manners required. It was a piece of a slightly stale tortilla which I had no hesitation in declining.
She had little to tell me. “He went out last night and didn’t come back.”
I waited for her to add something to that, but the silence merely dragged on. Eventually I said: “He didn’t say why?”
“Was he in the habit of going out at night?” Few Aztecs were. The night was widely feared: It was ruled by spirits, creatures out of dreams, and fateful beasts such as owls and weasels whose appearance could foretell a man’s death. Only those trained to overcome such things, such as priests and sorcerers, usually went out after dark, unless there was some very good reason.
“No, he wasn’t. That’s why I’m worried.” The woman did not sound especially worried to me. In fact, she was downright curt, considering I was trying to find her missing husband. It was almost as if she resented my questions.
“Is there anyone else at home?” I asked. “Anyone who might know where he went?”
She hesitated for a long time, her eyes on her lap. I suspected she was trying to think of a reason not to answer me, but at last she said: “My son. I don’t think he’ll help you, though. He’s probably down by the aqueduct, filling his jars.”
Blue Feather’s son was called Cloud Eagle. He was a tall, burly young man of about twenty, his muscles developed by years of hauling heavy jars about. I found him at one of the water sellers’ favourite places for filling up, close to where the previous day’s ceremony had taken place. Cloud Eagle was in a canoe on a broad waterway at the point where it ran beneath the aqueduct’s twin channels. He was standing upright and trying to keep his craft steady using a long wooden pole jammed into the canal’s bottom, while an older man poured water down towards him using a large clay jug. Unfortunately the boat kept moving, and while some of the water went where it was supposed to, tumbling into open jars with a hollow rattle, much of it ended up in the bottom of the boat, over the younger man’s head, or in the canal.
“Hold that thing still, can’t you?” cried the man on the edge of the aqueduct.
“I’m doing my best!” his colleague protested. He was sweating, his muscles straining with the effort of keeping the canoe where it was supposed to be. He was clearly not accustomed to this particular task and from where I stood, it looked as though he was making a mess of it.
“Cloud Eagle?” I called out from the bank.
“Yes,” snapped the youngster. “What do you want?”
“Sorry to distract you, but…”
The man on the aqueduct threw his jug down in disgust: It dropped straight into the canal, missing the canoe by a hand’s breadth. The young man in the boat sat down heavily.
“Sorry,” I said again, “but it’s about your father…”
With a sigh he got up and took up his pole again, using it to push the boat towards me. “All right. I’m coming. Don’t think I can help you, though.”
From above my head a voice snarled: “Keep it short. We’ve still got a living to make!”
Cloud Eagle did not get out of the boat. He was taller than I, so although the bank was raised a little above the water’s surface, we were almost eye-to-eye.
“My cousin lent me this boat,” he explained, indicating with a glance over his shoulder that his cousin was the elder man still glowering down at us. “He said he’d help me until Father comes back … or at least until we find his canoe.”
I felt my eyebrows lift. “Your father took his boat with him?” That was curious. His wife had not mentioned this. It was odd enough for a man to wander off by night for no apparent reason, but where could he possibly want to go that would mean he needed his canoe? It suggested he had not merely felt the urge to go behind the wicker screen hiding the nearest public latrine, and maybe fallen in a canal on the way. He had had some purpose in mind, one that meant travelling farther than he could easily walk.
“Yes, he seems to have done. I hope the boat comes back…. I mean, I hope he comes back, of course, but there’s no way we could afford to replace the canoe. In the meantime, Flint Knife up there has let us use his, and he agreed to help me fill the jars, just for today.” The lad grimaced. “I should have suggested we do it the other way around. I’m usually the one scooping water out of the aqueduct and pouring it out, while Father holds the boat steady. I hadn’t realised his part of the job was so difficult!”
I looked at the jars surrounding him in the boat. None was more than half full. “I expect you’re right and you can’t help, but have you any idea at all where your father might have gone? Or if he was, well, up to anything-well, you know what I mean…”
“I know,” said the young man sadly. “Anything he wouldn’t want my mother to know about, you mean? No, I don’t think so. If there was anything like that he didn’t share the secret with me.”
I sighed. I was going to have to go back to Lily with nothing to report, but I could think of nothing more to ask. “All right. If he does appear let him know that Tiger Lily wants to see him, won’t you?”
As I turned away, and Cloud Eagle picked up his pole again, a thought struck me. “How are you going to carry on now that jug’s gone in the water?” I asked curiously.
“Oh, that happens all the time.” He laughed. “I’ll just dive down and get it again. We’ve lost it in deeper water than this before! It’s only waist-high here, that’s one of the reasons we use this spot.”
Lily was, as I had anticipated, not particularly pleased at my failure, and the prospect of her two years’ free deliveries vanished somewhere beyond the city limits, but she was even less pleased the next morning.
“I don’t believe it!” The words, uttered in her shrillest voice, echoed around the courtyard of her house. “Both of them gone now?”
The bearer of the news was none other than Flint Knife: Cloud Eagle’s cousin.