Crystal Rain


Tobias Buckell



PROLOGUE 


Brown vines dried and crumbled along the village Refojee-Ten’s edges. Everything thirsted for the impending rainy season: the dry jungle, the hard-packed dirt roads winding through the village, the two wells, and the drooping emerald ears of corn. 

Wiry elders sat hunched over rickety tables outside playing cards, their eyes scanning the late-afternoon sky as they shuffled and dealt. 

In the distance over the green fringe of the treetops, the hazy Wicked High Mountains cut and shredded dark clouds, forcing them to release sheets of rain several days’ walk away from Refojee-Ten. The elders flicked their cards, flashed their gums, and licked lips as they eyed the pictures in their calloused hands. 

Rainy season tugged at their joints. It made them feel older, creakier, and yet thankful life was about to return because soon the jungle air blowing into the streets would be wet, the roads muddy, and the corn so fresh you could hear it grow at night in the fields. 

Yes, rainy season would burst in any day now. 

So no one jumped when the thunder cracked the sky. They looked up and nodded, wise to the land’s regular cycle proving itself for yet another year, as it had all the many years of their lives before. 

But the thunder did not die and give way to fat raindrops. It continued to boom louder and louder until mothers ran away from their wash-lines to grab their children. Men stopped and looked up at a fiery smoke trail that crossed the sky. 

The elders dropped their cards and stood up, shielding their eyes to watch in awe as a white-hot fireball flew over the village. The ground shook as it disappeared into the jungle with a distant explosion. Panicked birds swirled into the air to create confused patterns of bright plumage above the trees. 

The smoky trail remained in the sky until dusk. 

By that time the greatest hunters in Refojee-Ten had taken up their rifles and walked off into the dangerous night with torches to see what this curiosity was. 


#


Two days later the hunters found a section of the jungle where the trees had been blown down like mere sticks. 

Cautious, they followed the destruction inward. To walk over the hot ground, they bound their feet with aloe and arm-sized leaves. They choked from the smoke. When they could walk into the destruction no longer, they turned around and found a weary-looking man sitting on a steaming metal boulder. 

He wore a top hat, a long trench coat, and black boots. His eyes were gray, his dreadlocks black, and his face ashen. It was as if this man had not seen sun in all his life, but was born brown once. 

He spoke gibberish to them, then touched his throat several times until the hunters understood his words. 

“Where am I?” 

Near the village of Refojee-Ten, they told him, which is as far from the north coast as it is from the south coast, but a week’s walk from the Wicked High Mountains. 

They asked him if he came down from the sky, and how he did it. 

The man ignored their questions. He leaped from the metal boulder and landed among them. He pointed at their rifles. 

“These weapons, you got them where?” 

They told him they traded with northerners for them: bush hunters and merchants. It was an infrequent trade, but enough to let the villagers understand the world outside the jungle’s depths. The rifles, they knew, were made in a place called Capitol City. 

“And how would I get there?” 

Go north through the jungle, they said, to Brungstun, and then use the coastal road. Or wait for a northerner to come trade with us and go with them. 

This satisfied the stranger. He seemed harmless, tired, and thin. He looked much like a pale insect one might find in the mud, so they took him back to the village. On the way back he ate their dried foods and acted as if they were the finest meats. 

He only stopped eating once: to stare at a bush by their side. A jaguar leapt out, and the stranger grabbed its throat and slung it across the road. The hunters watched the cat drop to the ground, neck twisted at an odd angle. 


#


The stranger stayed in the village for a week. He ate anything offered to him and gained strength. When he left, his muscles bulged. His skin looked like earth now; a proper and healthy color for a man. 

He chose, against all their protestations, to walk north through the dangerous jungle to go find the rest of the world. He asked one last question while among the Refojee-Ten villagers. “How long do I have until carnival?” 

They told him the number of months. Though, they knew, some towns celebrated carnival on different days throughout the land. When they asked him why he wanted to know about carnival, the man smiled. 

“I’m looking for an old friend, one who never misses carnival.” And that was all he said. 

After he left, the hunters talked at length about what they had seen and wondered who he was. But the elders shook their heads over their cards. Not who, they said to the hunters. What. 

When pressed for further details, they shook their heads and turned back to their cards, waiting for rainy season to start. 


Chapter One


The Wicked High Mountains loomed around Dennis and his men as they skirted house-sized, reddish slabs of rock jutting from the soil, avoided deep, echoing chasms, and paused at a tiny stream to fill their canteens. 

Above the tree line the air cooled enough that Dennis could see his own breath. Yesterday he would have been amused. Today his huffing betrayed how fast he moved over the crumbling ground. 

Dennis looked around at his men. Mongoose-men. Nanagada’s best bush warriors. They hopped from rock to rock with grunts. Some had long dreadlocks down their backs and full beards. Others had short, cropped hair. They came from all over Nanagada, and despite being smeared with mud and colored chalk to help them blend into the shadows, they had skin ranging from mountainside and Capitol City soft brown to south-coast dark black. 

Each man dressed in gray: heavy canvas trousers, long-sleeved shirts, and floppy wide-brimmed hats. All over this dull uniform sticks and leaves jutted out, glued on in random patterns. 

Out of the jungle and on the rock they stood out like shaggy gray-and green creatures. 

Still, this was the quickest way to Mafolie Pass. 

The second moon rose. A dim double-lit darkness would be far better than the blatant daylight they’d been running in. Dennis glanced at the sky. 

They’d be less likely to get spotted by an Azteca airship at night. 


#


Earlier, many miles downrange of Mafolie Pass, they’d captured an Azteca scout. Much to their surprise, the Aztecan knew several code phrases. The mongoose-men had few spies among the Azteca. It was a rare encounter. 

Most Azteca who came over the mountains fled for Capitol City: Nanagada’s farthermost northeastern point. As far from their past as they could get. 

This Aztecan said his name was Oaxyctl. O-ash-k-tul. His teeth chattered. He had barely made it over the mountains. Shivering, hungry, and hardly understandable, he told them Mafolie Pass was under attack. 

“That happen sometimes,” the mongoose-men replied. Azteca threw various-sized attack parties at the pass randomly to test the thick walls and Mafolie’s perfectly placed guns, but the pass remained impenetrable. The mongoose-men based Nanagada’s defense from Mafolie Pass. 

“Not from the pass,” the spy hissed, his back against the rough bark of a turis tree, his legs in the mud. 

“Mafolie Pass the only place any big army able to cross,” Dennis objected. 

The spy wiped his face with a dirty sleeve. “They dug a tunnel,” he spat. 

“You understand?” 

They blinked. “A tunnel? Under the whole mountain? We would know about that.” 

“Nopuluca,” the spy cursed at them. “Azteca dug for a hundred years now. 

They fooled you into thinking they were still testing the pass while always digging. But they’re here. Believe me. We are dead men.” 

He’d begged water and food off them. They’d told him where the next low-mountain station was. Then the strange spy scrambled off down the mountainside. 

“If we all done dead,” they called after him as he clambered down into the thick greenery, “why you come here? Where you think you going?” 

But he had already disappeared into the bush. 

Dennis and his mongoose-men broke their camp after a minute’s consultation, leaving anything they couldn’t carry where it sat, and started the run for Mafolie Pass. 


#


The heavy morning mist made it impossible for Dennis to see more than a few trees ahead. Small animals skittered around them, noises amplified in the dimness. The mongoose-men relaxed a bit, back in the jungle now. They were still three hours from Mafolie Pass. Better they relax now and not fray their nerves before getting closer. 

A twig snapped. Dennis signaled stop by flicking his wrist. 

The group’s rifle barrels rose in quiet unison. 

“Pddeeett?” chirped a voice from deep in the mist. It sounded birdlike enough to fool any townie. 

“Pass?” Dennis called out. 

“Plain porridge,” came the answer. “No sugar.” 

Everyone lowered their rifles. Their best runner, Allen, had dropped his packs and gone ahead yesterday to scout. Now he pushed through a pricker bush, sweat dripping from his forehead, and grabbed an offered canteen. He splashed water on his face. 

“Come follow me.” Allen wiped his face on his sleeve, smearing dirt over his cheeks and breaking a leaf off his hat. 

“Azteca?” Dennis asked. 

Allen nodded. 

No one slung their rifles. 

Allen led them down through a ravine, then back up the other side. They followed him, leaning into the sharply angled ground, arms loose, zigzagging up. A small dirt road cut through the bush at the top. Next to it a stone sentry-house perched on the ravine’s edge. Thick moss clung to the cracks in the wall and dripped with condensation. 

“You had see anything?” Dennis asked. 

Allen shook his head. His baggy canvas shirt was stained with sweat over the chest and armpits. “It real quiet now,” he said. “Come.” 

Together they walked forward. Allen pointed at a dead animal beside the sentry-house. Flies buzzed around it. Dennis walked over; saw a pair of hands bound with rope. “Look upon that.” He pushed the flayed body with his boot. 

He managed to roll it over, breathing through his mouth to avoid the smell. He pulled his machete free from its scabbard strapped to his lower leg. “See that?” 

He pointed at the ragged hole between the corpse’s second and third ribs. 

“Them cut through for him heart,” a mongoose-man said. 

“Warrior-priest in a hurry, don’t want cut through no breastbone,” Allen added. 

Dennis didn’t see an eagle-stone imprint. Some passing Azteca warrior did this in a hurry without the usual Azteca equipment. Typical of a small hunting party come over the almost impassable Wicked Highs . . . but this was here in the heart of the mongoose-men’s world. 

Allen pointed to the sides of the dirt road. “See that crush-up leaf and footprint? I guess a thousand come through. At least.” 

A thousand. No small hunting party. A full invasion swing toward Mafolie Pass, but on this side of the mountain. Just as the spy had said. 

Dennis glanced down the road, imagining the tightly packed throng of bright feathers and padded armor marching down the mountains and into Nanagada. If they destroyed Mafolie Pass, Azteca could come over the mountains with ease. With enough time and supplies they could march anywhere in Nanagada. The Azteca would rule everything if no longer held back by the mountains. 

“Got some decisions for we make.” Dennis squatted by the road. He leaned forward on the machete’s handle for balance. The dark blade dug into the dirt. “You all ready for some heavy reasoning?” 

The mongoose-men stood in a loose circle around him. Two stood up on either side of the road, looking around the curve for any surprises. 

“Mafolie Pass probably already run over,” Dennis said. “We late. So what next?” 

Allen shuffled in the dirt. “No wheel imprint here.” He looked up at everyone. 

“These Azteca all moving on foot, seen?” 

“Make sense, wheel don’t do you much good in the mountain.” 

“They have no supplies with them. They moving light, moving quick. But they go have to get supply coming behind them if they want eat.” 

Dennis thought about the hungry, tired spy. How much food could these Azteca carry? A few days’ worth at the most. 

There had to be supplies on the way. 

“Yeah. More Azteca go be coming down the mountain,” Dennis agreed. 

“We could choose to run down the mountain to warn people, or we can slow down Azteca supply.” 

“Could do both, if we split up,” Allen said. 

Dennis cleared his throat and looked around, an unspoken question in the air. Who stayed to face more Azteca, and who got to run down the mountain to do the warning? 


#


They drew straws. Four men would split with Allen to run down the mountains and find the nearest station with a working telegraph. If all the wires were already cut, they would do their best to make it through the jungle to warn any towns they came across. 

“Pddeeett!” 

Dennis looked up. One of the men doing watch down the road. “Yeah?” 

“Azteca!” 

“Supply or warrior? How many?” 

“Jaguar warrior party, no supply-men,” the lookout yelled back. Dennis’s stomach churned. A supply group would have been easy to ambush. “A hundred. 

They got clubs and packs and guns. A bunch of regular-looking warrior coming behind as well.” 

Allen looked at Dennis and unslung his rifle. Dennis shook his head. 

“Leave. Now. We go hold them down a bit. You run. Get the word out. Hear?” 

Allen nodded and shook Dennis’s hand. Then Dennis pushed Allen away and picked up his rifle. He jogged toward the bend as Allen grabbed his pack, strapped it on, and disappeared down the ravine with four mongoose-men following him. 

Dennis slowed and inched his way up the roadside, using the heavy bush as cover. The lookout scrabbled his way over on his elbows and carefully parted a pricker bush for Dennis to look through. 

Azteca feathers and standards flapped animal likenesses in the wind. The first scouts appeared down the road. Then the first row of regular Azteca marched out, a dust cloud rising around them. 

“Some say a cornered mongoose the most vicious,” Dennis said. “We go be even more ferocious.” 

The rest of his handful of men crawled into the bush near him. They dug around for the best hiding positions. One mongoose-man monkeyed up a tree, his feet kicking off loose bark. 

Dennis raised his gun and sighted the lead banner carrier. “When you ready.” 

A rifle cracked from up in the tree. The Azteca line slowed. The mongoose-men opened fire and the first row of Azteca dropped to the road. Dennis fired. The gun bucked into his shoulder. He blinked his eyes clear and reloaded, levering the still-steaming spent cartridge out with a practiced flick. 

The Azteca return fire ripped through the bush around him. Pain exploded down Dennis’s arm. He grabbed his shoulder, trying to stop the blood spurting into the leaves around him. Feet pounded the ground as Azteca slashed through the branches at them. 

Dennis heard more shots from his men, branches snapping, grunts, gasps, and screams as Azteca and mongoose-men fought hand to hand. 

A light-skinned warrior jumped past Dennis, smacking him in the head with a club. 

He struggled to raise his rifle with one hand, but it was knocked free. Two Jaguar scouts grabbed his legs and pulled him out onto the road. They aimed their weapons down at him. 

Dennis lay there and looked up into the sky. 

The mist had cleared away. Between the blotchy green leaves and branches he saw that a strong wind was pushing clouds rapidly through the sky, far above him. 

Against the sound of the pitched jungle battle, the two rifles above him fired, one just after another. 



CHAPTER TWO



John deBrun sat in a canvas chair and doodled on a piece of paper with his good hand. His left hand, a simple steel hook, rested with the tip dug into the chair’s wooden arm. He drew a semicircle on one side of the paper with a swoop of his quill. He did the same on the other side to form an egg. Then he shaded shapes onto it. Wicked spikes. Shadows in the crevices. John added water dripping from the spikes, a slight déjà vu moment flitting through him, and then held the piece of paper back at arm’s length. 

Just a spiked sphere. That’s all. He set the paper on the floor. 

Several other sketches lay on a varnished table in the basement’s corner. A giant metal bird with a beak that writhed into a human face. A half-finished sketch of a woman melting into a fiery sun. 

The largest painting hung from the ceiling. John often lay beneath its chaotic blue ocean-wave landscape. When salt spray drifted in through his shutters, John recalled sailors’ screams and water streaming across the deck. Cold, frigid water. 

Half-sunk into the earth, his house remained nice and cool, despite the heat outside. Wonderful protection as dry season came to the lowest slopes of the Wicked Highs. After all day fishing the Brungstun reefs, John often retreated down here. But even at the basement’s coldest, it never compared to the chills he got when looking at the painting. 

“Hey,” said a familiar voice. The twenty-year-old memories of his sail north fled. John turned. His thirteen-year-old son, Jerome, sat on the stairs. 

“Mamma done cooking. You go come up to eat or what?” 

“What’d she cook?” John didn’t sound Nanagadan. He’d spent enough years listening, but he kept to his own strange language patterns. Despite his son’s teasing. Or the in-laws’. It was the only thing he had from his past. 

“Saltfish stew. Rice-n-pea,” Jerome said. 

John loved Shanta’s cooking, but could never find enthusiasm for her weekly dose of saltfish. Just rice and peas for him today, then. 

He leaned forward and stood with a grunt. The scars down his legs ached. Jerome grinned and ran up the stairs. 

“He coming, he coming,” Jerome yelled, headed for the kitchen. 

Shanta leaned around the corner, then turned her attentions back to the iron skillet of rice. Coal burned in the square stove’s bin, heating the kitchen’s confines. Her white dress shifted against her curved hips. 

“What take you so long?” Shanta berated him. “I call you already.” 

John sat down at the scarred table. A plate of fresh johnnycakes still glistened with oil in the middle of the table. John reached over and speared one with his hook. 

Jerome turned in his chair. “He using he hook to eat he food.” Jerome grinned as he told on his dad. Shanta turned around and gave John a look. 

John avoided her eyes and pulled the fried dough off his hook. 

Shanta set the skillet on the table. “Quit playing,” she warned. 

Father and son exchanged meaningful mock glares, blaming each other for drawing Shanta’s irritation. 

“You want to go into town with me, tomorrow?” John asked Jerome. 

Jerome scrunched up his face and thought about it. 

“Yeah. Where?” 

“I need to go out to Salt Island.” The salt bin had reached the halfway mark last week, and John needed to make some extra fun money as well; carnival started in two days. He didn’t want to be broke during the food fair. It was his favorite time of year. “If you help me, I’ll give you some money for carnival.” 

Shanta filled Jerome’s bowl with saltfish stew and then nudged the pot toward John. He shook his head. She sighed and handed him the skillet of rice and peas. “Be back before dark. You know how I get when you out late.” 

John nodded. It would be Jerome’s first sail out of the harbor. “We’ll be back in time.” Jerome kicked him in the shin and John winced. “Don’t do that,” he warned in his best “danger” voice. It was halfhearted. Jerome had been a surprise after six years of marriage. Shanta had been thirty-six and they both had worried throughout the pregnancy. John doted on his son as a result. The strong emotions still sometimes startled him. 


#


Later, once Jerome slept in his room, John helped Shanta with the dishes. She cleaned. He rinsed and set them on the rack. 

“He excited,” Shanta said. 

“Yeah, he’ll enjoy the trip out.” John’s hook hit a pot and clinked as he balanced the last wooden bowl on the other dishes. Shanta flicked the water off her hands. John moved up close to her when she turned. “Hello, Miss Braithwaite.” 

“Mr. deBrun. How you doing?” 

“Fine. Fine.” John kissed her and held her close; his tanned and weathered skin against her deep brown. “I thought about you when I was fishing today.” 

“What you think?” 

“How much you would have liked to salt those groupers we netted.” 

“Hey! Man, why you tease me so?” 

“ ’Cause I love you.” 

“Ah.” She leaned into him. Then: “John?” 

“Yeah?” 

“When you painted . . . you remember anything?” 

“No.” He kissed her hair and noticed several gray streaks. More and more had been appearing. Yet she never commented on the fact that when she’d met John, he’d looked older than her, and now he looked younger. “Don’t worry about it.” He loved her for caring. Shanta didn’t talk much about the gap in John’s memory. Yet sometimes it seemed to him she secretly worried about it more than he did. Did she want him to stop thinking about it because it always tore him up so? Or did she worry about some past secret that might be exposed that would tear them apart? 

Shanta grabbed a towel and dried her hands. “I don’t want Jerome going sailing much after this.” 

“Why not?” John took the dish towel from her hands and hung it up on a peg. “What harm is there in it?” 

“I remember when they pull you up out the water. Twenty-seven years, John, but I remember. You all wrinkled. Strapped to some floaty thing . . .” 

“You were young.” John remembered her standing on the beach. Then he remembered the gray streaks in her hair and regretted saying it. 

“Huh,” Shanta snorted. “Twenty-two. Old enough to give you plenty grief.” 

John had struggled with the fact he couldn’t remember anything before he had washed up on the beach. He had taken his name off the silver necklace around his neck with the name John deBrun written on it. Even though he didn’t speak like everyone else, he understood Nanagadans. Which meant he must have been exposed to the land before. 

John stayed to sail boats in Brungstun, hoping to regain his memories. He could picture maps in his head as if they were before him. He could navigate by stars, sun, map, and with his eyes closed. But he started out a horrible sailor. He had known nothing about winds or the tides or the waves and weather around Brungstun. 

“He won’t be like me,” John said. “None of that adventuring spirit. He’ll grow up, be respectable. A town banker, right?” Shanta mock-punched his arm. “He won’t break any young girls’ hearts,” John teased, continuing. 

“Won’t leave for Capitol City . . .” Shanta’s grin disappeared. 

After six years learning the sea with local fishermen, John had trekked to Capitol City with a small group of mongoose-men led by Edward, a bushman who became a close friend for the trip there. 

Shanta stepped away from him. “Don’t talk about Capitol City, John. Not tonight. I never slept when you was sailing the ocean. I don’t want ever think you was dead again. You know how horrible—” 

“I’m sorry.” John pulled her back to him in a hug. “I’ll shut up.” During the trip John had looked for clues to his past in other towns on the way north, and in Capitol City itself. He’d been offered a chance to join a trio of ships as navigator. The expedition was to see if there was land to the north, but in the dangerous, icy waters of the north seas John had found nothing but death, and some fame as he navigated the single surviving ship back to Capitol City. He’d been forged into a captain and a leader during that horrible trip back to Capitol City from the icy north. Or maybe that had been something always in him. “I came back, right? I’m here now.” 

Shanta shrugged. She spun away from him. “No excuse for all that.” 

“Let’s quit being glum. Carnival’s almost here.” He turned around with a large grin. 

Shanta sighed. “You and carnival. Lookat you. You like a little boy, all excited.” 

John extended his good arm and danced a quick circle around her. “Just a couple days.” He smiled. 

“Come on.” She smiled back and pulled him along. John followed her down the hall to their room. Shanta paused at the doorway. “It really cold there up in the north, like you say?” 

“You could see you breath.” John imitated her accent to make her laugh and, at the same time, remembered that the cold had almost killed him. He helped Shanta unstrap the hook. She didn’t need help with his loose shirt, and by now he could undo the back of her dress with one hand. 

“Please don’t go adventuring north again,” she whispered. 

“Once was enough. Never again.” 

They made love. She chased the chill out of him. 

For the night. 



CHAPTER THREE 



Oaxyctl ran through the jungle toward Brungstun in the double-shadowed light of the twin moons that peeked out from between a break in the rain clouds. He was so close to safety since making it out of the mountains, skirting well wide of Mafolie Pass and a few mongoose outposts along the way. He’d come too far not to make it now. 

The padded cloth strips wrapped around his feet pulled loose. Round trellis leaves slapped him and left conical stickies and dripping sap down his chest. Oaxyctl slowed down and hopped, pulling one foot up to his hands. 

He tore the last piece of dirty white cloth off his right foot and threw it into the trees. The movement tripped him up, and Oaxyctl pitched forward. 

He threw his hands up and slid through sweet-smelling, half-decayed leaves. He scrambled over a root, caught his balance again, and wiped away dirt stuck to his forearms. 

He knew he was easy prey. He left tracks. Tracks all over the place: the footprints, the cloth, the broken twigs, and the dirt falling from his arms. 

Even if he left nothing to betray him, it would still follow. This was a desperate dash for freedom. Oaxyctl leapt over vines twining themselves over the ground and twisted past tree trunks he couldn’t put his arms around. 

Any magical abilities inside the tall, domelike ruins he’d stumbled on a few hours back had failed centuries ago. The men who had grown the buildings’ rock outer shells had died not long after, and no one would think to occupy a building of the ancients this deep in the jungle. Oaxyctl had hoped just to shelter from the rain for a night in them. But when he’d pulled himself over the glassy, slick stone and looked down, he’d seen flesh and metal hanging from a hook forced into the wall beneath him. A wall that he could have shot a gun at and not chipped. Two hearts lay tossed in the mud underneath. 

Oaxyctl had looked at the broken saplings and torn vines throughout the courtyard, claw marks in the mud, and known exactly what he saw. 

A Teotl, a god, was surely here. 

He had let go and slid down the side, not even noticing as he banged his chin against the lip, and run back into the forest. 

Now Oaxyctl burst out of the steaming, cool rain forest and into a copse. 

Mud stretched out before him for two hundred yards. Beyond that he could see tamarind trees waving in the gusting wind. Rain fell, and then poured down, in sheets. It spattered into tiny pools that collected in kidney-bean shapes across the sea of brown. 

He looked down at his bare feet. Cold freshwater rushed in to encircle them as his feet sank down into the mud. 

Footprints, Oaxyctl gibbered to himself. Footprints everywhere! In his mind’s eye he could see the long line of prints leading across the muddy copse he would leave as he ran. 

“Sweet, sweet, Quetzalcoatl.” He dug at his left hand with a fingernail. He scratched until blood trickled down into the skin between his index finger and thumb. Quetzalcoatl didn’t accept blood sacrifice. Many others demanded it, though, and Oaxyctl had to try something. He scratched and scratched until the blood flowed freely and mixed with the rain. 

“This is not even my land,” Oaxyctl said. “But I would fertilize it with my own blood for mercy.” 

A trellis tree snapped and shook in the wind. Oaxyctl jumped. He looked around, his eyes wide. The wind died. The world fell silent. In the distance a frog let out a long belching croak, then shut up. 

Oaxyctl broke from the protection of the forest and sprinted across the mud. The ground threatened to slip out from under him. He flailed his arms to keep balance. Hyperventilating and sloshing through puddles, he got halfway across the two hundred yards before he heard a long, sharp whistle in the air above him. 

He froze. 

The Teotl landed in front of him with a wet explosion of mud that plastered Oaxyctl from head to toe and threw him backward from his feet. 

Oaxyctl sat up and huddled forward. He shook with fear and averted his gaze. 

He wasn’t scared of dying. No. He was scared of far worse. Oaxyctl feared the pain that was sure to come. 

“Notecuhu,” he whimpered. My lord. “Please, it is a great honor.” He crawled forward, not taking his eyes off the mud that almost touched his nose. 

Squelch, squelch. The sound of the clawed feet slushing forward sent shivers roiling down Oaxyctl’s gut. He tasted bitterness coming up his throat and his nose flared as he smelled rotted flesh. Face this like the warrior you are, he urged himself. Be noble. Meet an honorable death and give your heart willingly. 

He thought these things even though some deeper instinct in him raged to fight tooth and nail to the last gasping second. 

But that would accomplish nothing, Oaxyctl knew. His body tensed like rope about to fray and snap, and Oaxyctl steeled his soul. 

“Amixmähuih?” the deep and raspy voice of the Teotl asked. 

“I am not afraid,” Oaxyctl said. 

“Cualli.” Good. The Teotl wrapped two sandpapery thumbs around Oaxyctl’s neck. The four fingers rested on his spine. “Quimichtin. Spy. Traitorous creature, we know of your betrayal. But we are not done with you.” 

The Teotl cupped Oaxyctl’s chin with its other hand. It drew a long bead of blood up his neck with its second thumb. The hand was ribbed with tatters of pale, blue-veined skin. 

“I was found out.” The Nanagadans had caught him and sent him back over the mountains to work for them. “What could I do?” 

The Teotl ignored his rationalization of double treason. “What you will do now is what I bid you. You know where other quimichtin are here, ones that you have not betrayed just yet. Give them away. The black human warriors that live on this side of the mountains will trust you and let you walk among them if you give them this information, and if you fight on their side.” 

Oaxyctl dared to look at the Teotl’s legs. External bones ran down the midnight black cartilage of its thighs. On each side of the Teotl’s hip, rain and pus quivered along the joints of tentacles, one of which stirred, coils shifting to reveal tiny jaws. 

“I will do so.” Oaxyctl looked back down. 

The Teotl shifted its grip and pulled Oaxyctl out of the mud. Oaxyctl struggled for air as two thumbs pressed down on his chest and the Teotl’s fingers on his back pushed his shoulder blades in. He dangled above the mud. 

Oaxyctl faced the god and panted. Here stood a being whose kind dwelled in Aztlan’s sacrificial pyramids. It wore a cape of flayed human skin, the empty, floppy arms knotted around the Teotl’s neck, feet twined around the tentacles by the god’s hip. 

It shook rusted locks of hair and looked at him through oval steel eyes. 

“We hunt men who may stop this invasion. Now we hunt the man who will try to go north,” it hissed. The silver jaw and gray gums did not move as the Teotl spoke. The whisper wormed its way past from deep in the fleshy throat. “You are to find a man, here. He has great secrets within him. You must get codes from him. Then you will kill him.” 

“The man who goes north?” Oaxyctl gasped. “I don’t understand.” 

The hand holding Oaxyctl’s chin up caressed his cheek. Blood ran down the sides of his neck and collected in the V of his chest. 

“He will try to leave the land for north. This man is dangerous. But important.” 

The god puffed wet air. “Any moment now . . . we will push in greater numbers over these mountains. We will have men sacrificed before us in this land. We will destroy their gods, our ancient enemies. But we must have this man.” 

“So how will I know him?” Oaxyctl croaked. His vision danced as he tried to pull a full breath. 

“His name is John deBrun, and we think he lives near this town. We are sure of it. We smell it faintly. He has the secret codes that set free the Ma Wi Jung. Torture them from him or bring him back to us alive. That is your choice, for you can walk among the nopuluca as I cannot. He must not die before releasing the codes to the Ma Wi Jung.” 

“Lord,” Oaxyctl shook in fear for his impudence. “May I have Jaguar scouts to help me capture him during the invasion?” 

“You do this now. Only days remain before we begin to march again, and there are those who do not want to risk this man living, no matter what we may reap. They give no orders to save him, as I wish. They are weak-minded and miss potential. So we charge you with this mission. As we all invade, you find this man. Keep the human alive and obtain his secrets. Do well, you will be rewarded well. Fail . . .” 

The god did not finish but let go with a snort of steam. Oaxyctl dropped into the mud, his legs folding painfully under him. 

“Remember.” The god turned around. “The Ma Wi Jung codes. I will be near you again.” 

Oaxyctl inhaled deeply and watched the Teotl walk back into the forest. Somewhere near the trees it slipped into the shadows and Oaxyctl was alone. 

He lay back into the mud. Without thinking he put a hand over his heart. It still thudded. He was alive. He’d thought he was dead when he’d crossed the mountains and the mongoose-men captured him, and he’d thought he was more dead when the god had landed in the mud in front of him, yet he was somehow still alive. 

It was almost the end of rainy season, but the heavy clouds opened up anyway. Oaxyctl lay still in the downpour and began shaking. Several hours later a Brungstun mongoose-squad circled him. Their guns hung easily by their sides, dangling from leather straps, and their canvas clothes dripped 32 rain. Their unshaven but quite human faces looked down at him with suspicion. 

Oaxyctl cried with relief to see them. But even now he realized there was still nowhere to hide. The Teotl could walk almost anywhere, Jaguar warriors would be coming over the hills any day now. The gods still commanded him. There was nothing he could do against this. 

Nothing. 

The mongoose-men tied his hands and dragged him off to Brungstun. Oaxyctl shook all the way there. 


CHAPTER FOUR 



John sat at the table the next morning, buckling his hook’s metal cup tight onto the stump of his hand. He levered the straps until they bit into his wrist’s calluses and looked up to see Jerome in the doorway. 

“Hey, Son.” John smiled. 

Jerome blinked. He picked up a piece of bread and some cheese from the counter by the stove. He had something on his mind. “You always have to do that?” 

John nodded. 

“You wrist all scar up. It hurt?” 

“Sometimes.” 

Jerome took that as a good enough explanation. 

“You ready for a good sail?” John asked, changing the subject. 

“Yeah, man.” Jerome waved the bread in the air. “Ready for sure!” 

“Good.” John packed a bag with extra bread and cheese wrapped in wax paper, added a bottle of ginger beer, and picked up a heavy canvas bag, brown and stained with use, from the stairs. Dry salt crusted the two loop handles. “All right, let’s go.” 

They walked out and waved at Shanta, hanging clothes up to dry on the line in the yard. Shirts and pants flapped in the wind. 

“Take care,” she called. “And bring me back plantain to fry up.” 

The walk to Brungstun took twenty minutes, the footpath passing by boulders near where John sometimes watched the ocean below explode up into the air, spraying and hissing as it turned into a tangy mist when it reached him. Then the rock under their feet turned to dirt, and then into a shiny rock road made by the old-fathers that followed the coast’s curve through Brungstun to Joginstead, where it stopped. Brungstun houses, pink and yellow with sheet tin roofs, lined the road’s edge. 

Brungstun nestled in a carved-out nook in Nanagada’s coastal cliffs that dipped down into a natural harbor. The rocky trailing edge where the Wicked High Mountains entered the water protected the small village from the ocean’s worst, and the jagged offshore reefs made a natural breakwater that made a large area around Brungstun safe for fishing. The Wicked High Mountains themselves protected Brungstun and the rest of Nanagada from the Azteca. 

John and Jerome passed a farmer selling fruit along Main Street, and Ms. Linda waved at them and asked Jerome if they had any sweet tamarind. She would bring some by, she said. The post master told John the telegraph was down, yet again, and he hoped it would be back up soon. He asked John to pass the message on if he was going to Frenchtown. It took another twenty minutes just to walk down the slope of Main Street to the boats as people chatted with them. Five thousand people lived in Brungstun, and they all knew John. 

“Here we are, finally,” John said. “Jetty number five.” 

His small boat yanked at the pier cleats while the ones out at anchor bobbed, their masts swaying. Water stretched out for miles beyond the harbor, dark in some places, light in others that indicated reefs just under the surface. In the hazy distance, rock chimneys jutted above the water. 

Jerome dropped the two bags he’d carried with him. “It windy.” 

“No worry,” John replied, stepping into the fifteen-foot wooden boat, Lucita. Water splashed around the bottom. He leaned over and grabbed the calabash-gourd bailer. As he scooped out the water lapping over the floorboards, he continued, “It’s a good day for a sail. Sharp and steady.” 

Still somewhat dubious, Jerome said, “We won’t capsize or nothing?” 

John held up his hook as he walked forward and put the two bags under the bow’s lip where they would stay dry. “I swear by the hook.” 

Jerome laughed. He sat down on a wet seat. “Okay then.” 


#


The snappy wind leaned Lucita over. They passed through the forest of anchored boat masts. The harbor steamer paddled by, going the opposite direction. The passengers on their side waved at John and Jerome. Jerome held on tight to his seat and didn’t move. He jumped at every unusual crack of the sail and squeak of floorboards. 

John skirted some smaller reef, then sailed north. Eventually he tacked and turned northwest for Frenchtown. 

After half an hour he tacked again, pushing the tiller over and ducking the boom as it flew by his head, ropes and blocks rattling. It snapped taut and they continued forward. John shifted to the higher part of the boat. 

The water lightened into aquamarine. John let the sails out with his good hand controlling the mainsheet, his hook on the tiller, and Lucita slowed. Another reef. He dodged the boat left toward darker blue, and thus deeper, water. Jerome relaxed, leaned over, and trailed his hand in the water. “How far Frenchie Reef?” 

“Not too far.” People who didn’t sail needed patience. John sighed. You didn’t just get in a boat and show up somewhere. 

In the distance a long line of white breakers roared. John skirted them and followed another reef line, edging up against the wind until palm trees magically rose from the clear water. Frenchtown, Salt Island. 

John closed his eyes and looked at his mental map of the area around the Lucita. Sharp, clear, and in his mind’s eye he could rotate it around to examine it from different directions. The Wicked High Mountains rose to John’s left in the west, splitting the continent in half as they ran north and south. 

They trailed off into the sea to make a commalike curve of rock chimneys and reef. Inside that protective curve lay Brungstun. Among the reefs were the flat islands the Frenchi lived on. 

It was all an impassable, jagged maze. No ships ever got out from this protected area into the ocean. No ships got in. In this safe basin the Brungstun and Frenchi fishermen existed. 

“Mom say the water dangerous. Story does say that old metal airships from the old-fathers fell into the harbor water. We could wreck on them.” 

John opened his eyes and nudged the tiller to adjust their course. “I’ve never seen that. Just the reefs I need to watch out for.” 

Nanagada’s coasts were too rocky and clifflike to land on. Except for fishermen in Capitol City’s great harbor, a few traders from Baradad Carenage on Cowfoot Island on the continent’s other side, and the fishermen in this protected area, no one sailed the ocean. The towns settled on inland lakes or rivers. Safe, with calm weather and easy wind. 

John smiled as a gust leaned the Lucita over. They didn’t know what they were missing. 


#


Lucita pulled into Frenchtown’s flat, still water. Huts clustered on the beach’s edge, and bright-colored fishing skiffs lay canted on the sand. 

The water depth shortened to three feet. John moved forward and pulled the daggerboard up. It sat in a little well just behind the mast and dripped water as it slid out. John could see water, and the sand beneath it, passing under his boat. Without the extra ability to point into the wind, Lucita skittered sideways. 

John ran back and grabbed the tiller. He expertly wobbled the boat the rest of the way to shore and dropped the sail as the Lucita’s bow hit the beach. 

Then he grabbed Jerome and threw him into the water. 

“Hey, man!” Jerome stood waist-high in it, dripping wet. 

“Hey, you.” John jumped in after him. Jerome splashed at him as John pushed the boat as far up the sand as he could. 

“DeBrun, that you?” someone called. 

“Yeah.” 

Troy, a fisherman, sat in his boat with a paint tin. Troy’s white skin flaked from sunburn. His straight blond hair hung down to his shoulders. No locks, just limp strands. “Where you been all this time?” 

“Busy fishing. Have to make a living.” 

Troy laughed. 

John couldn’t help looking at the bad sunburn on Troy’s pale skin. Frenchies could put on an accent so strong he had trouble understanding them. But they were very white. That was uncommon. On Cowfoot Island off Nanagada’s southeastern coast, and northeast up the peninsula in Capitol City, yes, he had seen some white people. But that was it. John reached over the prow and pulled out the canvas bag. 

“More paintings?” Troy asked. 

“Yes.” 

“Good.” Troy put down his brush and hopped out onto the sand. He looked down at the canvas bag. “I go trade with you.” 

Jerome wandered down the beach toward several Frenchie children. His darker skin color stood out, oddly enough. He joined them kicking a leather football down the beach, laughing when it hit the water and stuck in the wet sand. 

John smiled and followed Troy in toward his small beach store. Two old, wizened Frenchies sat on the porch smoking pipes. They nodded as he passed, then continued playing dominoes, enthusiastically slapping the ivory pieces down with sharp bangs. Once inside, John set the canvas bag on the counter. Wooden shelves of tinned food lined the back wall. A few burlap sacks leaned against the counter’s foot. 

Troy opened the bag and pulled out the two paintings. 

“I like this. Is a righteous picture,” he said. A ship listed at sea, mast broken. Giant waves smacked at it. “This other one”—Troy pointed at a sketch of the Brungstun cliffs—“I sell me cousin that.” 

“Those took a lot of work,” John said. 

“I won’t go thief you, man.” Troy reached under the counter and pulled out a gold coin. 

John sucked his breath in. “You’re too generous.” Frenchies dove along the reefs to supplement their fishing. Sometimes they found strange machines that had fallen from the sky in the days of the old-fathers and would strip them for any precious metals they could find. “You’re making carnival very sweet.” 

“Is a time to enjoy.” Troy smiled. 

“You coming to town?” 

Troy laughed. “I know I go see you there, right?” 

John chuckled with him and looked at the sacks on the floor. “I’m going to need some salt.” 

“I get you a sack. Hold up.” Troy disappeared and came back out with a hefty bag he dropped on the counter. John made to go pay for it, but Troy held up a hand. “You coin no good with me.” He smiled. 

“Thank you.” John grabbed the sack as Troy cleared his throat. 

“John . . . the painting. They ever help you memory yet?” 

John looked down at the burlap between his fingers. “No. Not yet.” He wondered if Troy bought his paintings out of pity. “Maybe they never will. You still buying?” 

“Anything for an old friend, John.” Troy smiled. 

John hefted the sack. “Thanks, Troy. See you at carnival.” 

“See you at carnival, John.” 


#


When John stepped back out of the shop, he paused. The two old men had stopped playing dominoes and stared at the sky over the water off the Wicked Highs. Three bloated metallic slivers crept their way back toward the Azteca side of the Wicked High Mountains, circling around the mountain chain over the reefs and rock chimneys. 

According to legend and some older folk, Nanagadans once lived on the land on the other side of the Wicked Highs. The coast over there was just as inhospitable, so no Azteca ships ever took to sea. But small airships could climb over the peaks, and larger airships sometimes skirted out over the ocean to fly over Nanagada. Dropping spies into the jungle here, no doubt. John usually saw one a month when out fishing. 

The old man nearest to John harrumphed and slapped down a domino. 

“They running more and more of them things these days. I already see five this month. Watch and see if Azteca warrior don’t soon start walking over the mountain to cause trouble.” 

“Them feather-clot won’t be coming over the mountain anytime soon,” his partner said. “They had a whole army that try that once on Mafolie Pass. The mongoose-men gun them down something wicked.” 

“Yeah. Maybe that true. Hey. You lose you game.” 

“What?” The other old man was startled. 

John walked out onto the sand. He knew he lived close to the mountains and that the Azteca lay on the other side. It took something like this to remind him how close the Azteca were. Sometimes, when John wondered where he’d come from, he imagined he was a Nanagadan spy who had been trying to escape from the Azteca at sea and been shipwrecked. 

That was just a fantasy, though. Thinking about Azteca made him nervous. 

“Come on, Jerome,” he said. “We have to go now.” 

Seeing the Azteca blimps stole any positive feelings from the day. He wanted to go home. 



CHAPTER FIVE 



People peered out their windows to see the excitement as Dihana and thirty ragamuffins marched the two blocks to Capitol City’s waterfront. A drunken fisherman paused at the street’s corner, swayed, then retreated back into the alley’s shadows when he saw them. 

The ragamuffins slowed down in front of warehouse fifteen. A trio of mongoose-men guarded the large doors, deadly long rifles held in the crooks of their arms. They surveyed the street and the ragamuffin force with cold calm. 

“Is better you wait up some,” the first mongoose-man said. 

Dihana shook her head. “I am the prime minister of this city, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails.” Over a hundred thousand people lived inside Capitol City’s walls and she accepted responsibility for them all. “You tell me I can’t go where?” She’d learned that particular verbal tone from Elijah, her father, well before he’d died and she inherited the position of prime minister. 

The mongoose-man nearest the door cleared his throat. “Let she through. Alone.” 

The rusty side-access hinges squealed as the mongoose-men pushed the door open. Dihana walked through, her skirt filling out and brushing the sides of the doorframe with the motion. 

In the middle of an empty expanse of dirty concrete floor, a man stood over five dead bodies. Blood settled in several footwide pools underneath each victim. Knife strokes had left tattered and sliced shirts on both the dead and the alive. 

One corpse’s throat still seeped blood from a bullet puncture. 

“General Haidan.” Dihana kept an artificially calm composure. The mongoose-men’s leader usually stayed out beyond the city’s immense walls. “What the hell have you done here?” 

“Repaying a debt, as an old friend of Elijah.” His dreadlocks had grayed, and his face looked more leathery. A man who always braved the elements. A man who had always stood by her father. “You go listen?” 

Dihana bit her lip. This was irregular. “Okay. Go ahead.” She did her best to ignore the death by her feet. 

Haidan turned to the mongoose-man by the inside of the door. “Bring them two we got over here.” He folded his arms. 

Dihana shook her head, impatient with his cryptic approach. “Last time we met, Haidan”—just after Elijah had died and she’d been struggling to handle her new responsibilities with no time for grieving—“you said you’d honor the contract between the city and the mongoose-men. That you always would protect us. Why couldn’t you have just asked me what you needed done in the city. It’s suspicious when mongoose-men start just showing up in the city in numbers.” A mongoose-man pushed two men with burlap sacks over their heads through the door. 

“Shut the door,” Haidan ordered. The door squealed and slammed shut. 

Dihana flinched. She’d made a mistake, gotten trapped. The Haidan she knew as a child would never have done this. But things changed. Hundreds of mongoose-men had actually come inside the city tonight. Maybe alliances were being made in the dark behind her back. 

“The ragamuffins know where I am,” Dihana said. Haidan had encouraged her when she’d struggled to run the city after Elijah had died. She wanted to say she felt sorry he no longer felt she was the best choice for prime minister. She hoped this new Haidan would exile her somewhere pleasant, and that the bush hadn’t changed him enough for him to kill her. 

Haidan frowned. His locks swayed as he shook his head. “Don’t be silly,” he growled. She’d read him wrong. “Them man can’t even test with me mongoose. I don’t want the city, we protecting it. Me and you, we go have to reason things out. Things happening.” 

Dihana almost shuddered with relief. Deep inside, she hadn’t believed, couldn’t believe, that Haidan would do such a thing. The mongoose-man stopped in front of them and ripped the burlap sacks away from the two men’s heads. Dihana stared at them. 

“You’re familiar,” she whispered. She hadn’t seem them since she’d become prime minister. Councilmen. They’d all abdicated the Council, disbanding it when she came to power, leaving her confused and without any help except for Haidan. They’d hoped she’d fail, she knew, and that they could return to run Capitol City. 

But she hadn’t failed. And they’d remained in hiding all this time. 

Dihana looked down more closely at the corpses. Two she recognized as other Councilmen from her father’s circle. The other three: poorly dressed farmers. Or maybe shopkeepers in work clothes. Haidan caught her eyes when she looked back up. The two Councilmen shuffled nervously. 

“Them two claim they was here to meet a Vodun priestess,” Haidan said. 

“She a trap for we,” the nearest man said. He glared at Dihana, and she looked back at Haidan. 

“This ain’t no Loa doing.” Haidan shook his head. “Is Azteca.” 

“They don’t look like Azteca,” she said. 

“When you promise a desperate man gold, land, woman, power, whatever, he would do anything. Even against his own people. This ain’t the first Councilman we find dead. Seen many more outside Capitol City.” Haidan looked at the two nervous Councilmen. “More go die if them keep try hiding.” 

“Why?” The Councilmen had hidden themselves well enough all this time. 

“Azteca activity like nothing before. And we lose communication with Mafolie Pass. Them dead quiet. Street whispering say any Councilman head go be repaid in it own weight in Azteca gold. So them Councilmen need you, Dihana. They ain’t go say so, but they need you bad.” He looked at her.

Dihana let the pause hang between them all. Let them stand and fidget for a few seconds, she thought. Haidan folded his hands over his belt buckle and waited. He could be fully trusted, she thought, though she wondered why he hadn’t come to talk to her before any of this. Dihana turned to the two Councilmen. “Get to the Ministry building. We have space for you. Call all the other Councilmen you can in.” 

They stood still. Maybe they thought there was some negotiation to be hammered out between them. 

“If you smart,” Haidan ended any such thought, “you go do it.” 

The two Councilmen looked down at the dead men by their feet. “We accept,” the one nearest Dihana said, the words forced. “But we expect to stay in the East Wing rooms.” The best rooms in the Ministry. 

“We’ll see what we can do,” Dihana said as Haidan shouted orders to reopen the doors. Two mongoose-men and some ragamuffins led the Councilmen down the street from the door. 

Haidan turned to Dihana. “Still got time?” 

“Yes.” Dihana looked down at the bodies. “But not here.” 

“Fair enough,” Haidan said. “Ministry?” Dihana noticed, for the first time, the powder marks on Haidan’s right hand. He looked down, rubbed the hand against his thick pants, and shrugged. 

“Yes. Yes, that would be good,” Dihana said. 


#


Capitol City’s walls towered above the rooftops, taller than anything anyone in the city could build. A reminder, always, of the secrets Dihana’s ancestors died with. Only they could have built something like Capitol City. The great amphitheater-shaped city perched on the rocky peninsula’s end created a natural harbor inside its protective walls and housed Dihana’s hundred thousand fellow city dwellers. Just outside, an ever-shifting population tended to farms and grain depots that supplied Capitol City. To secure a fast and constant supply of food, Dihana had presided over the construction of train tracks, the Triangle Tracks, that extended out 250 miles from the city. She wasn’t sure how many villages or towns had sprung up along those tracks, but one of her projects included a new census that would start among the towns and villages along the tracks and into the bush, all the way down the dirt roads and coasts to the Wicked Highs. But the planning for that was just beginning. 

The Ministry building had the only real parkinside Capitol City, a long, rectangular green spit that extended until it stopped in front of the waterfront warehouses. Dihana and Haidan walked the road back to the Ministry building, the parkwi th its shadows and shifting trees on their right. On their left the city’s buildings blazed with lights from their windows, supplied from the proliferation of electric cables that draped between them like jungle vines. 

They walked two blocks in silence. Haidan’s mongoose-men remained at the warehouse taking care of the bodies, and Dihana had ordered the ragamuffins back to their nightly patrols. 

Haidan nodded at the two ragamuffins standing watch when they passed through the Ministry’s gates. 

“Someone waiting for you,” the ragamuffin on her right said. “By the step them.” 

“Mother Elene,” Haidan said, pointing out the Vodun priestess who sat waiting for them. 

Mother Elene stood up, her shaved head gleaming in the light as she raised her chin. Gold earrings flashed near the knotted handkerchief around her neck. “Thank you, General, for your warning.” 

Haidan nodded, then stepped back, watching both Dihana and Mother Elene with interest. “Me, Mother Elene, and them Councilmen were invite to come talk at that warehouse.” 

“We think the Azteca were hoping to set we against you, Dihana,” Mother Elene said. She smiled and glided past Dihana with a rustle. 

“And now you’re leaving, just like that?” Dihana had clenched her hands into fists. She opened them. 

Mother Elene paused just behind her. “Maybe time come for we speak again. The Loa wish it. You?” 

The city’s gods, the Loa, had opposed Dihana’s leadership along with the Councilmen. Only instead of hiding as the men had, they had continually critiqued and opposed her decisions through their priestesses all throughout the city. They had opposed the expedition she’d created to explore the north lands, and they’d resisted her creating the Preservationists, who scoured the city and the lands for insight into their past, and the past’s technologies. 

“Why the change?” Dihana finally asked, but got no answer. Mother Elene had left. 

Haidan put a hand on Dihana’s shoulder. “Come.” Instead of heading for the large steps up to the storm doors, he turned right. “I want show you something where the light don’t shine so.” 

“I used to do that with Dad.” 

“Yeah. Back then.” Haidan followed the hibiscus bushes inside the wrought-iron gate. “A lot change since then.” Dihana sighed. “You don’t think I did things right?” 

“Dihana.” Haidan shook his head. “The airship you sell me mongoose, that alone worth all the trouble you stir up.” He stopped. “You know Elijah and I disagree a lot, back then?” 

“No,” Dihana said. “It would have been nice to have heard that, at some point.” Haidan sat down on a stone bench. Dihana sat next to him and folded her arms. “You left me just like the Councilmen did. But at least you didn’t hide.” Haidan had continued taking the mongoose-men defense taxes, purchased weapons from the city, and sent telegrams from wherever he hid in the bush. The Councilmen had just disappeared. “I had to deal with the Loa alone—” 

Haidan interrupted with a snort. “Dealt? You cut them out of any chance to direct the city. Instead of keeping them close, you push them away. Now they doing everything from deep in the dark where you blind.” 

“They lied to my father, Haidan.” She’d had every right to deny the manipulative Loa their demands that she cease building airships, or their order that she stop helping fund a fishing fleet, or that she shouldn’t allow villages and farms to grow along the tracks. The Loa agenda was to keep them stuck in a fallow state. 

“You think he didn’t know that? Girl—” 

“I am no girl, mongoose-general.” Dihana glared at him. Haidan rubbed his nose and looked down at the ground. “The Loa promised him things they could not deliver. Could never deliver. And they strung him along with those promises.” 

“I know, Dihana.” Haidan stood up with a grunt. “I tell him so, often enough. But Elijah say that using old metal technology would doom us, like it had doom everyone in his time. He insist the only way for we survive is for we adapt the Loa organic knowledge. We had to grow we weapon, not hammer out the metal.” 

“I changed that.” Dihana had created the Preservationists, a society of people who dug up everyone’s past and investigated it, found things. “It was not a mistake. We have better rifles, better airships, steam, all no thanks to the Loa.” 

“I know. I had ask you dad for something like what you doing now.” Haidan took her arm and she stood up. “Even though I was Elijah’s closest man, he never agree with me there.” 

“Dad’s closest man.” Dihana closed her eyes. “How come you were never mine?” 

“Trust me, Dihana, you did fine. I had mongoose-men to look after, I had to make sure we was strong, that Azteca couldn’t cross the Wicked Highs, couldn’t mess with the city. I couldn’t be here the same for you as I had for you father. Until now.” 

“Now?” 

Haidan put his arm around Dihana’s shoulder and turned her around, pointed up into the sky at the Spindle. “It’s changing, Dihana. Did you father ever tell you about that? What that mean?” 

“Yes.” Dihana looked down at the grass. Her father had taken her out on this same piece of lawn once and told her about the Spindle. “The two jets that come out of either side have stopped. No one can see that with their naked eye yet.” When Elijah had taken a young Dihana outside, he’d explained that no one in Nanagada understood the stars anymore. All that knowledge had been lost and he couldn’t re-create the science. The Loa had counseled him not to. 

But he’d been insistent that she understand something about the Spindle. It wasn’t just something pretty in the sky, he said. It had been the path to Nanagada from all the other worlds, as legend hinted. 

“Elijah tell me if the Spindle ever shrink, all hell breaking loose,” Haidan said. “He said Azteca believe gods go come through it when it ‘stabilized.’ ” 

Dihana nodded. “He told me that too.” That was why she had Preservationists scanning the Spindle with telescopes. 

“I been preparing all the mongoose for fighting.” 

“I increased the size of the ragamuffins.” 

Haidan looked back down at the garden. Dihana looked around at the hibiscus bushes and their shadows. They seemed to hide dangerous things now, and she wanted to go back inside. 

“I go stay here in the city.” Haidan walked her back toward the building. 

“We all need to work together. We go need to figure out what the Azteca doing. What trouble they causing.” 

“I’ve been ordering more things built,” Dihana said. “Airships, larger guns . . . ever since I realized.” 

Haidan gave her hand a brief squeeze, and Dihana remembered Haidan picking her up and holding her in the air when she was a girl. “I should have come and talk to you sooner.” 

“Yes,” Dihana said. 

“We probably need the Councilmen too. See if we can figure out what they have the Azteca want.” 

“We need more of your men back here in the city. If you can’t contact Mafolie Pass, that might mean Azteca are trying to attack it right now.” 

“I know,” Haidan murmured. “Trust me, I know.” 

As they reached the steps, Dihana looked at Haidan. “Are you worried?” 

Haidan tapped his boots on the stone. “Wicked nervous. Something dangerous going on. I feel that in me bones. But at least we ain’t go work across each other.” He sighed. “Got a lot of thing for me arrange, moving headquarter back this direction, getting more fact-them out the bush, but I go be in close touch, okay?” 

“Okay.” 

“And, Dihana?” 

“Yes?” 

“You know me long enough to call me Edward, you know?” Haidan turned around and walked off toward the gates. 

“You haven’t quite earned that back just yet,” Dihana said. But he was too far away to hear her. 



CHAPTER SIX 



Jerome was having trouble getting to sleep, so Shanta sat by his bed. “A tale? Is a tale you want?” 

“Yeah, yeah.” 

She smiled. John melted back into the kitchen and made a sandwich. 

“Okay then,” Shanta said. “I see, I bring, but I ain’t responsible.” Her voice dropped, and her accent thickened a bit. The way Brungstunners spoke was fluid. It changed depending on whom they talked to, and how they felt. John sounded different. People in Brungstun called him north-sounding, yet that wasn’t it. Up north in Capitol City everyone still sounded like people in Brungstun, just not as heavy, whereas John sounded as if he’d grown up away from them all. Though, the longer he was around Shanta, the more he sometimes tried to sound like her. Usually it was when he was relaxed, not trying to. 

Shanta began her tale. 

“A long time ago, all we old-father them had work on a cold world with no ocean or palm tree. It was far, far from this world. It was far, far from them own world, call Earth! They had toil for Babylon. In return, Babylon oppress many people. And eventually them Babylon-oppress people ran away looking for a new world, a world far from any other world so they could be left alone. 

“All sorts of people left. Some pale-looking man like Frenchi and Bridish come. And there was Afrikan. And there was Indian. Carib. Chinee. All of them had join up for the long, long voyage. All color of skin leave. Year and year and year them travel till they had discover this sweet world we live on, just like all the original island on Earth. Here were some cool wind and easy sun. 

“Them old-father had some massive power. They find a worm’s hole in the sky between all them other world to get here. And when they wiggle through them hole, they had fly down from the sky to land here and begin a new life, free from oppression. 

“But the evil Tetol come in from other worm’s holes that had been all around for long time. You see, the Tetol is dangerous, nasty things, who want to rule and own we all. But some other great being, the Loa, weren’t evil, but help and guide we against the Tetol . . .” 

The original ragamuffins would save the day, John knew. The ancestors of the ragamuffins of today who policed towns and kept civil order. The ragamuffins flew out in giant airships to destroy the worm’s holes and cut this world off from further Tetol invasion. Yet the ragamuffins had not been able to destroy the Tetol on the ground. The Tetol created the Azteca and made them a fearful warrior race. 

Thinking about the Azteca’s masters wandering unchecked over the world disturbed John. It reminded him of their airships flying near Brungstun. He stepped out onto the shaded porch and watched the sun slip behind the brown boulders. 

Shanta tiptoed out behind him and lit a lamp. “Good day?” 

John nodded and slipped an arm around her waist. “Yeah. Looking forward to carnival tomorrow.” 

Shanta chuckled. The final sliver of sun slipped behind the boulders in time with a faint scraping noise from behind the house. 

“Thunder?” John asked. The eaves blocked their view. 

Shanta shook her head. “No.” She stepped off the porch and lifted her skirt above her ankles. “Something different. Come.” 

John followed her out and around behind the house, where the Wicked Highs loomed large over the tall trees. The sound got louder. Branches snapped and cracked. Three seagulls flew away with loud protests. John wondered if he should get a machete, or maybe one of his guns from the cellar. 

“Shanta,” he yelled. She’d already reached the edge of the bush around the house. Her determined form stepped barefoot around the pricker bush and hibiscus. “Damn.” He picked his way around the same bush. Mud oozed up between his toes. 

“John. Up in here.” 

He followed her voice to a large mango tree and looked up. Silver fabric draped between the branches. A small airship lay spread over several mango tree canopies, the tip poking out through the tree closest to their house. A harness dangled from between a nook in the branches farther back, a man struggling in it. 

“Is he Azteca, or is he one of ours?” John asked. 

Shanta gave him a withering stare. “That don’t matter.” 

Chagrined, John looked up again and saw the man turn in his harness to face them. He had tight curly hair, and a black face. Not an Azteca spy, then. 

“Hey,” Shanta yelled upward. “You have to hang on. We coming.” 

John shuffled to his left. “The branches up that high look weak, but I bet 

I can reach him.” 

“I go get a machete. We could hack he out—” Shanta got halfway through saying that when the man groaned. He fumbled at his waist. 

“Hey!” John and Shanta warned together. The clasp clicked open and the man dropped. His leg caught on a branch. It spun him around and he hit the ground by the mango tree with a thump that scattered leaves. 

“Shit!” They rushed forward. The man wore heavy clothing to keep him warm in the high air. He had an air bottle strapped to his thigh, and the hose ran up to his neck, where it was fastened to a necktie soaked in blood. The man had been shot. In the chest, and in the side, maybe some other places, it was hard to tell. 

The aviator groaned and stirred. He opened bloodshot eyes. The skin around them creased with crow’s-feet. “Help,” he whispered. 

“We go do what we can,” Shanta said. “But it look like you done lose plenty blood, and you fall . . .” 

The man slowly turned his neck to look at them. “I dead,” he said, words just audible. “Been shot seven time. I come for warn you, and any mongoosemen here, any ragamuffin that near.” 

“We’ll get someone,” John said, trying to calm the man and get him to relax. “What’s your name?” 

“Allen.” The low hiss of his voice turned urgent. “Listen now. Or you all dead. All of you. Hear? Dead.” The man took a long, deep breath, shuddering as he did so. “Azteca coming down the side of the mountain. Understand? Azteca. A lot of Azteca.” 

He closed his eyes. 

“He still alive?” John asked. 

“I think,” Shanta said. “I won’t go move him like that, though. He need a stretcher. And Auntie Fixit.” 

John stood up. “I’ll wake up Jerome and have him run for your aunt, then. I’ll come back with a piece of board we can strap him to.” 

“Yeah.” 

When John stood up and looked around, he realized it had gotten much darker. The bush and the trees around him hid in shadows and shifting leaves. They rustled in the dark and threw shadows all around him. Too many scary stories, he thought. Most by Shanta. 


#


Jerome tried to get back under his blankets and pretend to be asleep. John didn’t bother berating his son. He pushed the lighter button on the gas lamp. It took three tries before the spark caught and the room slowly filled with yellow, flickering light. 

“I need you to fetch your aunt Keisha.” 

Jerome’s eyes widened. “Auntie Fixit? What happen? Mama okay?” 

John nodded. “She’s fine. Just go for your aunt.” Keisha’s house lay a mile between town and John’s house. Jerome could make it in seven minutes. He could sprint like the wind. “Be careful, it’s dark.” 

Jerome nodded. “I gone.” He reached under his bed for his shoes. 

Azteca coming down the mountain . . . “And Jerome?” 

“Yeah?” 

“Tell Harold to bring any Brungstun ragamuffins he can get with him.” 

John debated for a second whether to tell Jerome to stay at Harold’s house, closer to town and safer, but then realized that the safest place would be next to Harold, a ragamuffin himself. 

“Okay.” 

“Go then.” 

John jogged down the steps to his basement. He found a plank he’d planned to use for a bench but had never got around to building. It would do. 

He held it with his good hand and steadied it with his hook. He hurried back through the rear door into his yard, stopping by the kitchen to grab some linen strips. 

“Here,” Shanta called. She squatted in the muddy ground next to ripe, red mangoes and dead twigs. John handed her the board. “Careful.” They grunted and slowly rolled the aviator onto the plank, John careful not to gouge the man with his hook. He handed Shanta the linen. She ran the straps under the board and tied the man down as John lifted first one end, then the other, with his one hand. 

“Okay.” 

John had gauged the board’s length just right; they each had a good two inches on either end. They picked up the makeshift stretcher and walked back toward the house. They paused halfway there while John shifted his grip, using his other forearm to rest the weight on. 

“Kitchen?” John asked. 

“Yeah. For now.” 

They got the stretcher in, placing it on the kitchen table. Shanta washed and dried her hands, opened the valve on the gaslight, then pushed the lighter button. It clicked. Darkness fled from the room, remaining only in the corners and behind cupboards. 

“Come.” Shanta took out a pair of scissors and began cutting away the man’s thick overcoat. John removed the man’s air canister and necktie. When Shanta cut away the shirt, she sucked her teeth in annoyance. Neat, round holes punctured the skin. Blood oozed from them. “He lucky he still alive.” 

Lucky, John thought. Or determined. He remembered the Azteca airships flying over the sea and wondered what had happened. He looked at the bullet holes. Azteca coming? How? In airships, or maybe they’d shot this man before he’d gotten in an airship? 

John left Shanta with the dying man and went down into the basement. He paused in front of the large oak chest, then walked under a large beam. With a hop he jumped up and grabbed the brass key off the top of the beam and knelt down at the chest. 

The large padlock snapped open, and John tossed it aside. He opened the lid and looked inside at two rifles and a pistol. 

He took the gun out with his good hand and looked it over. Then he put it down. He broke open two airtight cases of ammunition, using his hook to pry open the edges, and awkwardly loaded the breech, swearing silently as he almost dropped the gun. 

If Azteca came and he had to defend his family, it would not be much of a battle, but at least with the aviator’s warning he could get ready. 



CHAPTER SEVEN 



Hooves clip-clopped down the packed-dirt road. A horse snorted. Keisha and her husband’s concerned voices floated in. Seconds later Keisha herself burst into the kitchen. John stood at the basement door, keeping out of the way and holding the rifle like a staff, the butt resting on the top wooden step. 

“What happen?” Then Keisha saw the kitchen table, the bloodied man, and gritted her teeth. “Where he come from?” 

Jerome pushed into the kitchen from behind her and started at the man. 

“He fall from he airship all stuck up in we mango tree.” 

“Get from here,” Shanta ordered. “This ain’t for children.” Jerome dallied, still staring. “Now,” Shanta said. Jerome retreated. 

Two mongoose-men came in with Harold, Keisha’s husband. John walked over, leaned the rifle against the door, and shook Harold’s large, calloused hand. “I didn’t realize there were any mongoose-men here.” 

“Several of we came in town a few days back,” the first man said. “Been working outside and around town with an Azteca who’s mongoose. He help us flush out a couple informers, but now he and a couple we men missing, so we came in town to see if anyone seen him. We worried. And General Haidan go be mad if he missing. Azteca mongoose-men hard to find.” 

“Haidan? Edward Haidan?” John had left Brungstun for Capitol City with a young Edward Haidan, a mongoose-man, years ago. 

“Yeah.” 

“He’s still in Capitol City?” 

“Sometimes. Let’s get out the way here.” 

“Yeah. Living room.” John dropped the line of inquiry and moved them away from the wounded man on the table. He had seen enough torn bodies in the north seas. Rotted toes and blackened fingers that had to be cut off. People crushed by equipment or hanged by ropes as they fell from the rigging. He didn’t like facing such horrors in his own home. 


#


The four men pulled up chairs and spoke to each other in whispers after John relayed the aviator’s warning. 

“If a hunting party coming down the mountain, we should find them. You sure he didn’t say how many?” 

John shook his head. “He was scared. Must have been a large group.” 

“Twenty Jaguar scout could wreak some serious havoc,” Harold said. “Carnival starting up next morning. What you think I should do?” 

“Don’t take any risk,” the mongoose-men advised. “It might be a small group, but get you ragamuffin to tell anyone outside town to come in for carnival. Keep ready for anything. We need to try and contact Mafolie Pass anyway, something wrong with the telegraph.” 

“That telegraph thing hardly ever work,” Harold noted. “You could wait a day and see if it down for sure.” 

The mongoose-men shook their heads. “We going now, just to make sure. And if Mafolie okay, we go ask them for men to go out and scout.” 

Harold nodded and turned to John. “You could come stay with us for carnival.” 

“Thank you,” John said. “Can Shanta and Jerome leave with you right now? I’ll follow tomorrow, but I want to pack some things up and take them with us, in case this stay ends up being long.” He wouldn’t risk returning to the house until they knew for sure that they were safe. This, along with the strange Azteca activity in the sky, turned John’s thoughts toward finding a small place to stay in town for a while. 

“No problem, man.” Harold stood up. 

Keisha had been leaning against the doorframe. “Sound like a good idea. I don’t feel safe out here, and I don’t want me sister here either.” She took a deep breath. “The man dead. Sorry.” 

“Damn,” John and Harold said together. 

The mongoose-men stood up and walked over, jaws clenched. “We go find who did this and make them pay.” 

John cleared his throat. “We can bury him here, I have a plot out in the jungle. If you need.” 


#


The man’s burial was a simple, somber affair. John and Harold stood by as the two mongoose-men dug a shallow grave. Keisha and Shanta packed a few changes of clothes back inside the house. 

One of the mongoose-men reached in his pocket to retrieve a medal. It glinted in the moonlight, and after driving a sharp stick in the ground, the man hung the medal from it. 

“Least a man can do, seen?” 

John and Harold nodded. Leaves shook and stirred softly as they walked back inside, boots clumping up the stairs. 


#


Shanta wasn’t thrilled John was staying behind. She hefted a bag full of clothes. “Why you can’t just come with us now?” 

“It could be long,” John explained. “When we were out with the Frenchies we saw airships flying over the reefs. Maybe more Azteca will be harassing people inside the towns. We need all our stuff.” 

“Be careful,” she warned. “Please be careful. If you hear anything, just leave as quick as you can. You hear?” 

John kissed her on the forehead. “I’ll be careful.” 

“I thought I lost you when you left for north. Don’t leave me again.” 

“I’ll be there before lunch tomorrow. I’ll join you at carnival, okay?” They hugged, then Shanta got onto the buggy behind Harold and Keisha. Jerome perched next to her. 

“Hey, Jerome,” John called out. “We’ll have some fun tomorrow. I’ll buy you any lunch you want, okay?” 

Jerome smiled, though his eyes were a bit bleary. “You think you go find me during carnival?” 

“What, you have plans?” John asked. 

“I go be hanging with me boys,” Jerome said. “We go get a good seat to see carnival.” 

“I’ll hunt you down.” John smiled. Harold looked over. John nodded. 

“Hah!” The horse looked back at Harold, turned around ever so slowly, then picked its way down the road. John stood and waved until they turned a bend and disappeared. 

The two mongoose-men stood at his door. 

“I have extra rifles for you, and I can pack you food and water.” John smiled. “Don’t worry about taking them”—he held up his hook—“they’re damn hard to fire with one of these.” 

“Thanks, man,” they said. 

He supplied the two mongoose-men with food and watched them disappear straight into the jungle, not even bothering to use the road. Then John walked around, finding valuables and packing them onto a cart. He stopped only once, to hold up a pendant he’d given Shanta just after they’d married. He smiled at the chiseled engravings of scudder-fish hanging from the silver chain. Then there were Jerome’s toy boats, and illustrated books, to pack. 

Outside the open windows the bushes shook in the wind, constantly rustling as John packed their lives onto the cart, making decisions about what to leave so he could pull it down to Brungstun in the morning. As John walked around the house, turning off all the lamps one by one as he retreated down into the basement, he lingered at each room’s doorway. He loaded the pistol lying in the bottom of his chest, an easier task than loading the cumbersome rifle. He held it in his good hand and slept on the basement floor next to the chest. 


#


A sound woke him. A single footstep creaking the kitchen steps. 

John sat up, looked down at the pistol, and wiped the sleep from his eyes with his good hand. 

The kitchen door creaked open. 

John tiptoed quickly across the basement past his easel. He stopped at the far window, on the other side of the house from the kitchen. Mouth dry, he slowly opened the window and pulled himself up onto the sill with his elbows. 

They scraped along the concrete, leaving skin. John wiggled through onto the grass and pulled his legs through, then closed the window. 

Another door creaked inside, and he heard whispers. 

He jogged across his lawn toward the road, keeping as low as he could. 

The bushes to his right rustled. 

“Ompa. Ompa, nopuluca!” 

Shit. John ducked and fired at the voice. He fumbled, trying to hold the gun to his chest with the hook and reload it as he ran. 

“Nian,” the voice screamed. 

John shook the spent cartridge out and got the new one in. As he turned, a lead weight smacked him in the face. Netting draped around his feet and hands. His vision watered and his nose dribbled salty blood. 

He stumbled and fell, unable to see through his tears. The netting tightened around him as he struggled. Slow down, he told himself, listening to feet pounding closer. He still had one shot. John blinked the tears free. The first moon lit up the area enough for him to see that three Azteca surrounded him. Younger warriors with sandals, simple loincloths, and painted from head to foot. They yanked on the net, pulling John through the grass. 

He aimed the pistol and they froze. Three more warriors stepped up and pointed rifles at John’s head. They pointed their chins at his pistol and jabbed the rifle barrels at him. 

John let go of the pistol. They snatched it from him, fingers grabbing in between the netting, then kicked him in the side. 

Every Azteca horror tale flicked through his head as the warriors laughed with each other and dragged John across his own lawn in the moonlight. He didn’t understand a word they said. John yanked at the netting. All it did was snag his hook until he couldn’t even move his arm. He screamed, but the Azteca only laughed. He grabbed the netting with his good hand and pulled his back off the ground so he could see his house one last time, then he let go and slumped into the netting. 

At least Shanta and Jerome were safe, he told himself. 



CHAPTER EIGHT 



Jerome had been annoyed to have to pick a few favorite toys and clothes before the ride to Auntie Fixit’s house. Uncle Harold was okay, he’d given Jerome a cookie before he’d rushed off for town. But Auntie Fixit insisted he go to bed right away. No one in the house slept, though, least of all Jerome. 

The adult voices kept him up, so after a few hours he went out and opened the door to the kitchen. His mother looked tired, and Auntie Fixit’s dress was still stained with blood. 

“Could I get something to eat?” Jerome asked. “I can’t sleep.” 

Auntie Fixit sighed. “Okay. Help you-self.” 

Jerome found some bread, then tooka red velvet pillow from the couch in the living room. He walked out onto the porch so they could keep talking without him. He sat on the wooden porch bench and looked at the stars. The Spindle was out tonight. So was the Triad, the Eastern Cross, and Brer Rabbit. His mom came out and sat next to him. “You okay?” she asked. 

“Never seen no man all shot up before. Make me feel sick.” 

“Me too.” She hugged him. “What you doing, watching the stars?” 

“I thinking about that one story you tell me. Ten mirror.” 

“Ah. Ten mirror. Ain’t too late already for stories?” 

“No!” Jerome wiggled around and laid his head on her lap. 

“Well, remember, I see, I bring, but I ain’t responsible—” 

“You always say that,” Jerome interrupted. 

“It mean the story change sometime when we tell it,” Shanta said. “And that sometime the thing people do in it may not be right. It’s just what it is. No more, no less. Okay?” Jerome nodded. She continued, “See, them oldfather realize Nanagada was too cold to live upon. So they build great big mirrors, ten of them, to fly up in the sky and heat the ice. That was when they had fight the Tetol hard, but was losing.” 

“That’s where the ragamuffin had come in,” Jerome said. 

“Right. Most of the ragamuffin already dead, trying to stop the Tetol. So the ragamuffin Brung thought hard for a real-real long time. Then he crack the sky in explosions and killed all the magic machine the Tetol was using, and destroy the worm’s holes. But he also kill all the magic machine our oldfather in Nanagada use. 

“For a long time people struggle to live, but you could still see them ten mirror in the sky. But then they began to fall and burn. Most landed in the ocean. But one time a mirror fell into the middle of Nanagada, by Hope’s Loss. It left great slivers in the forest that would twinkle at night. One day a little girl lost in the forest—” 

“Hope’s Loss?” Jerome squirmed. 

“East, in the middle of Nanagada, where the Tetol dropped rocks from the sky and destroyed the land. They say the land still poisoned today, and no one can live there.” 

“Oh. That why the Triangle Tracks don’t go through there to come here to Brungstun?” 

His mom looked over at him. “No,” she said sadly. “No train tracks come from Capitol City to Brungstun because of the Azteca. If they ever came over the Wicked Highs, they could get back to Capitol City before people had time to prepare.” 

Mentioning Azteca ended the tale for the night. They both fell silent, looking west back toward their house. Jerome got off the bench and stretched. His mom grabbed his waist and looked Jerome straight in the eye. “You dad been all over the world, first by road all the way along the coast to get to Capitol City, then by boat to sail the north seas. He go be okay just getting stuff out the house.” She smiled. 

Jerome nodded. But he wasn’t sure whom she was reassuring: him, or herself. 

“I know, Mom. He fine.” 

He left her out on the porch, looking out at the stars. Dad better be in town by lunch. Jerome would look him up and make sure he bought him a big, tasty meal. And maybe Jerome would show him where he was going to watch carnival from. Dad always loved carnival; he’d like the place Jerome had found to watch carnival from. 



CHAPTER NINE 



Someone knocked on the door. Dihana looked up from an expanse of opened letters. The city’s landlords were refusing to board the hundreds of mongoose-men Haidan had in the city unless they got upfront payment. 

“Come in.” 

A Councilman cautiously walked in. “Prime . . . Minister.” He choked on the words. 

Dihana stood up and extended an ink-stained hand. “Mr. Councilman. This is a pleasant interlude in a long day.” The man looked at her with suspicion. “I trust,” Dihana continued sweetly, “you are adjusting well to your accommodations on the Ministerial Grounds?” 

“You talking strange,” he said. “You mocking me?” 

Dihana cleared a swath of space on her desk. A few letters fluttered to the floor beside the desk. She thickened her accent, easy to do with all the bottled-up anger in her. “It was unpleasant when you had all run away like a bunch of yellow-belly when Elijah die and left me to be prime minister. I ain’t too sympathetic, seen? And I remember your name, Councilman: Emil. Sit.” 

Emil sat. “You ain’t strong enough to protect we. Elijah couldn’t protect himself, how better you go do? We too important to sit in the open just to help you.” He folded his hands and bit his lip. “We been here since the beginning. We go still be here long after you die.” 

Dihana ground her teeth. The Councilmen were hundreds of years old, just as her father had been. They should have worked with her. She could have done great things with their ancient knowledge. 

Maybe she still could. 

“You think because you have Nana in your blood you’re superior,” Dihana said. Emil looked startled. Yes, Dihana knew what kept the Councilmen almost immortal. Elijah had tried to explain Nana, but the young Dihana had been hurt and confused when he’d said she didn’t have them. “Why not?” Dihana had demanded. “Why can’t you give me Nana as well?” 

Elijah had sat stiffly on the other side of the minister’s desk. “I wish I could,” he had said. “The Loa say they can, but I don’t think they’re right, though they promise me—” She wondered later how painful it must have been for him to live knowing he’d see her die. 

“So then we should do it, we should try to make Nana again, like the oldfathers did,” Dihana had said. 

That had brought a dangerous glint to Elijah’s eye. “No. We can’t.” 

And that was how that remained. Always. Until he died. Shot through the heart by an Azteca assassin. 

“Nana wasn’t enough to save him,” Dihana told Emil. “A bullet for him was like a bullet for anyone else.” 

Emil shifted, maybe reminded of his own mortality. “We know.” 

Dihana stopped moving the letter opener from hand to hand. She pointed the silver point at him. “Why did you run? With all the knowledge you have? You could have helped.” 

Emil crossed his legs and grabbed his knees. “You bring electric light here, right? You and the Preservationist know how it work. But you think the people in the city using it know? All they know is they turn the switch on or off, or replace a bad bulb.” 

Dihana understood. “You’re ignorant. In the middle of wonders, you just accepted them, never understood them. And when they were taken, you didn’t know how to bring them back.” Strung along by her father’s promises of technology from the Loa and giving him their full support. Dihana now saw them through adult eyes. “Do any of you know anything useful?” 

“Of course.” Emil straightened his back, insulted. 

Dihana picked up an opened letter and started folding it to keep her fingers busy. “What things?” 

“History, real events, explanations. We remember the real thing, not any legend,” Emil said, talking up his percieved importance. 

“Okay,” Dihana said, trap set. She put the paper down. “Talk with the Preservationists. Have them come here to you. Tell them everything you know. Everything. And I’ll be reading their notes.” 

Emil nodded. He didn’t get up though. 

“We have a favor to ask,” he said. “We missing a man. He out with the Frenchi. We want mongoose-men to bring him back.” 

“Why?” And why did they need mongoose-men to fetch him? Were the Councilmen pushing at her more? She bit down the impulse to automatically refuse them their request. 

“He ain’t a Councilman, but he know all of we. If the Azteca catch him, they go know who we all is.” 

They were hiding something. She wanted to reach over, smack the superior look off Emil’s face, and find out what. “How many mongoose?” 

“Fifty.” 

Fifty mongoose-men for one man? “I’ll think about it.” Dihana crumpled the paper under her hand into a small ball. Now to worm out what it was. 

“But . . .” 

Her door opened. No knock, but Haidan stood silhouetted in the corridor light and she bit back an annoyed order to be left alone. Haidan kicked the door closed with his bootheel. He grabbed the back of Emil’s chair. “Hey . . . ,” Emil protested. “This an important talk.” 

“Not any longer.” The veins stood out on Haidan’s forearms. “Mafolie Pass been take by Azteca. Some mongoose-men from the Wicked Highs used a courier blimp to fly to Anandale. They say it a whole invasion. Brungstun and Joginstead both cut off the telegraph line. Azteca coming over, Dihana. A whole army.” 

“Oh, God,” Emil whispered. “Oh, God.” 

Dihana pitied Emil for just a brief second. Azteca in Brungstun might capture this important man the Councilmen worried about. Now they really depended on her protection. Any other day this would have drawn a smile out of her. Right now she put it aside. “Okay. What now?” She felt numb. This was crisis mode, she would show no shock, but silently she kept thinking: Azteca are coming over the mountains. Azteca are moving toward the city. 

Azteca. 

Haidan’s locks fell forward off his shoulders. “I order back all the mongoose into Capitol City. We need recruit more. The Loa, the Councilmen, you, me squad-leader, the head of Tolteca-town, and several other go all need meet. As soon as possible.” 

“Meet with the Loa? After that last encounter?” Emil stood up. “We refuse. We ain’t stupid.” He fumbled open the door and slammed it behind him. 

Dihana shook her head. She was living in a three-hundred-year-old nightmare. 

The Azteca loose in Nanagada. Not just spies and scouting parties, but hordes. The thought brought a clenching sourness to her stomach. One hundred thousand people were now vulnerable in the city. How many more in towns along the coastal roads before the Azteca ever got to Capitol City? After Joginstead came Brewer’s Village, and then Anandale, and then . . . 

“I headquartered in the city,” Haidan told her. “A house from back when I had live here. Where should I put the mongoose-men coming in?” 

“Let them camp in front of the Ministry while I try and find places,” Dihana murmured. Details, just details against the fact that she would probably see Azteca camped outside the city walls. “How long before the Azteca get here?” 

“Don’t know.” Haidan looked tired. Bags under his eyes. “Five or six week. Maybe more, maybe less. Depend on how much food they carrying, if any. How long they stay at each town. And how we try stopping them. But once they reach Harford and get on the Triangle Tracks, it go be quick.” 

“We need to know,” Dihana stepped back from the edge of despair. It felt like falling, but inside her head. “There’s a new steamship the Preservationists are finishing. In the harbor. I was planning another expedition north into the ice with, but you could use to scout the coast.” It wasn’t much. 

“May be useful,” Haidan said. “We need everything. Councilmen, businessmen, fishermen, ragamuffin, Loa, we all need to plan together. We need to agree on how we release this information. We need calm while getting organize before the word get out.” 

Dihana sighed. “You’re right. But, though I hate agreeing with Emil, I don’t want to involve the Loa in any discussion.” 

Haidan let go of the chairback. “If you all can’t use the Loa like the Loa use you,” he ground out, “then you might as well just wait for the Azteca to come and rip you heart out on a stone in market square.” He backed away. 

“You tell me when that meeting go happen, okay? Or I take all me men and head out deep into the bush, become a mongoose biting the heels of the Azteca, because this city the only place we can break that tide for sure.” 

The door slammed shut. 

“Haidan?” He was angry. Maybe a bit scared. And that made her even more scared. Dihana swept every single letter off her desk. None of that crap mattered right now. 

Azteca were coming. 


CHAPTER TEN 



Down Brungstun’s Main Street one of the town’s few steam cars pulled a large float coated in strips of multicolored cloth. Men on top drummed steel pans, the music echoing off the sides of the houses and warehouses they passed. Horses pulled more floats behind them, and costumed dancers followed. 

Along the sidewalk wooden booths sold patties. Or curried chicken. Or johnnycake. Or sandwiches. Jerome could buy bush tea, maubi, malt . . . the list went on. 

Jub-jub pranced down the street, covered in black paint, demanding money from the crowd. Along the procession’s side Jerome spotted moko jumbies on their tall stilts. One rested against a balcony, taking a break from his frenzied dancing down the street and talking to some women watching the parade. 

Too bad Dad wasn’t here yet to enjoy it. Mom said he’d show up for at least some of the celebration later this morning. 

Jerome bought a brown bag of tamarind balls and popped one in his mouth. The sweet sugar coating dissolved. He puckered his lips as he sucked on the sour part and wandered along. A woman danced right past him, stiff feathers from her peacock costume sticking out all over from her back, bouncing around as she shook herself down over the cobblestones. She headed for the waterfront toward the judges. 

Jerome wasn’t going with the parade toward the waterfront. Jerome had a goal in mind: the tall four-story warehouse and store called Happer’s. From the top he and his friends could see the whole town. 

A piece of patty hit his shirt, staining it brown. Jerome brushed off meat flecks and looked up. “Why you got to be always testing me?” 

“Easy target, man. Easy easy.” Swagga’s cheerful face looked over the edge of Happer’s, way up on the roof. He looked proud. Jerome picked up a nice oval pebble lying by the street side and pocketed it for when Swagga wouldn’t expect it. 

Happer’s had an iron fire-ladder on the alley side. Jerome grabbed the first rung and pulled himself up carefully, checking to make sure the rungs wouldn’t pull out from the green concrete wall, and climbed up to the rooftop. 

“Finally.” Swagga gave him a hand up and over. Jerome looked around. Other friends, Schmitti from school and Daseki from half a mile down the road, sat on a tablecloth. They had ham-and-cheese sandwiches and a pitcher of lemonade. 

“That you mum’s cloth?” Jerome asked Schmitti. 

“That he bumba-clot,” Swagga yelled. They all burst out laughing. None could cuss more wicked than Swagga. 

“You want a lemonade?” Daseki asked. 

“Yeah.” Jerome walked over. The unpainted concrete rooftop already shimmered with heat. But the view made up for the lack of shade. Daseki poured a glass of lemonade. Jerome sipped it and walked over to the other side of Happer’s so he could see the carnival parade. “You won’t believe what all happen to me last night.” 

“What?” 

Jerome held the lemonade between both hands and told them about the mongoose-man who’d died in his kitchen, and how he’d run to get Auntie Fixit. By the time he was done the lemonade tasted way too sweet. He looked at the bottom of the glass and saw clumps of sugar. 

“Man,” Daseki said. “Everything cool happen to you. You father have a hook, you mom cook well, and someone fall into you garden last night.” 

“The post master had tell my dad the telegraph ain’t working before we had gone sailing, so we can’t warn anyone in Joginstead that some Azteca scout around. And everyone has to stay in town,” Jerome finished. 

“Yeah,” Schmitti said. “We staying here tonight with me cousin.” 

They compared notes about how many Azteca might be around. It seemed weird. Unreal. But the adults didn’t seem to think it was too much of a threat. They said scouting parties were all that could come over the Wicked Highs, and if everyone stayed in town, the mongoose-men and ragamuffin around town and in the bush would protect them. Carnival went on. In the distance the raucous clash of four or five different steel-pan bands playing different tunes floated up. Most of the parade had already turned around and was making the final leg down the waterfront to pass in front of the wooden stands the judges sat in. 

Schmitti held up a leather bag. “You want go play some marble?” Schmitti 

had taken Jerome’s best marble last week. “I be easy on you.” 

Daseki snorted. “Don’t fall for it, he too good.” 

Jerome noticed a pillar of smoke rising from the forest outside Brungstun. 

Someone burning space for a new farm, he thought. That time of year. Had to be. He sat down to lose his next favorite marble. 

“Swagga, you go play?” Daseki asked. 

Jerome pulled the pebble from his pocket. He winged it, hard, and it struck the wall along the edge. Swagga jumped into the air and everyone laughed. “That’s for the patty you throw down on me shirt,” Jerome said. 

“And you lucky I didn’t aim at you. You coming to play?” 

Swagga shook his head. “No. Come over and look at this here, man.” Daseki sighed elaborately and they all went over to the edge. 

“What you see?” Schmitti asked. 

Swagga pointed. Jerome looked down. The man Swagga pointed out walked down Hilty Street into Brungstun from the south. He wore a long coat. Shoulder-length dreadlocks straggled out of a black top hat. 

“You ever see him before?” Daseki asked. “He look real serious.” 

“No. He look Frenchi, though.” 

The man had light brown skin. Not as light as a Frenchi, but definitely not like that of anyone in Brungstun. It reminded Jerome of his dad. 

“I bet you he from up near Capitol City,” Schmitti said. 

“Then why he coming in fromthe south on Hilty road, uh?” Swagga asked. 

Schmitti sucked his teeth loudly. 

“Man, don’t schoops me like that,” Swagga said. “He ain’t from here: he looking all around them building like he new.” 

The man looked up at Happer’s, and they all dropped down to the ground as one. Daseki’s eyes were wide. “You think he see us?” They weren’t supposed to be up here. Their mothers would get real angry. 

“I dunno,” Jerome said. “I hope not.” The man in the top hat and coat made him nervous. He looked around. The heavy wooden trapdoor down into Happer’s was bolted shut from the inside so thieves couldn’t get in. And neither could they. The only way down was by the fire ladder. 

“Someone look over,” Swagga ordered. Jerome bristled. Swagga was a friend, but sometimes . . . 

Swagga sighed. “You all yellow-belly.” He pulled himself up over the wall and glanced over, real quick, and crouched back down. “He coming up the ladder!” 

“We in trouble! He got tell we parent we was up here and we all go get in trouble!” Schmitti started shivering. His dad was famous for a good hiding. Swagga grabbed the bag of marbles and gave them to Jerome. 


“You have the best throw,” Swagga said. “Maybe if you hit he hard, he go leave to look and tell someone we up here instead of coming up and seeing who we is. Then we can run.” 

“Yeah.” Jerome swallowed. 

Daseki nodded and whispered, “Bust he in he head good, Jerome.” 

Jerome took a deep breath, then leapt up. He leaned over the edge. The brim of the man’s hat wasn’t even ten feet below him. Jerome leaned in and threw the leather bag as hard as he could. 

The man’s head snapped up and he caught the bag in his left hand. Jerome looked down at gray eyes as the marbles made a scrunching sound. 

“Oh, man,” Jerome said, jumping back from the small wall. “He go kill we dead.” Something cold in the man’s eyes made him stop worrying about his parents finding out and made him wish he were anywhere but on the roof of Happer’s. 

Schmitti started to cry. “Swagga, what we should do?” 

Swagga backed away from the wall, going the other direction from Jerome. 

“Split you-self up. Maybe he only catch one of us, and the other three can run down the ladder.” 

Jerome’s heart thudded, he could hear everything: his leather shoes crunching as he walked over pieces of gravel, Schmitti sniffling, Daseki’s wheezing breaths. A gust pushed dust into the air, making him blink. 

And just like that the man leaped over the wall. His coat swirled out around him, then settled down. He threw the bag of marbles out in front of him and took his hat off. 

“Hello,” he said to Jerome. “I think you dropped something.” 

He sounded northern. Almost like, Jerome made the comparison again, his dad. This man had a weathered face too. He looked old, but in a young body. 

His muscles filled out the coat. When he moved his arms, Jerome could see his biceps through the heavy cloth sleeves. 

“Who you is?” Swagga demanded. “You the Baron?” Swagga was right, 

Jerome gulped. This man dressed fine, like the Baron Samedi, Death himself. Top hat, coat. 

“The Baron?” The man frowned. “Samedi?” He snorted. “That’s good, but I’m not that kind of legend, no.” He smiled at the four boys. “Call me Pepper.” 

He walked forward, boots clicking on the concrete. “The view up here is very good. I like it.” 

Jerome nodded, trapped. Behind Pepper, both Daseki and Schmitti ran to the edge of the wall and climbed down the ladder. Pepper looked over his shoulder at the disappearing boys and turned back around. 

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said to Jerome and Swagga. “This is just the best lookout in town. But since you two are here, I was hoping you could help me. I’m looking for John deBrun. I know he never misses carnival. I’ve been in the jungle for weeks trying to get here before carnival. Do any of you know John deBrun?” 

Dad! Jerome shot a look at Swagga. Say nothing, he willed his friend. For once in his fool life, Swagga kept his mouth shut, still looking at Pepper with wide eyes. 

“Why?” Jerome asked. 

“We’re old friends from a long time ago,” Pepper said. 

Yeah, right, Jerome thought. And Dad wasn’t in town yet anyway. Maybe 

Uncle Harold could handle Pepper and figure out if he was a friend for real. 

“I could take you to someone who know him,” Jerome said. 

“I’d appreciate that,” Pepper said. “See, I only just arrived after a long, long journey. I’ve been spending a lot of time looking for old friends all over Nanagada, and if John deBrun is here, I would love to see him again.” The words sounded cheerfully fake. 

He pulled what looked like binoculars covered in bumpy rubber out from his coat and looked east toward the Wicked Highs. 

“There usually that many airships in the air over there?” he asked. Five sliver-shaped ships floated in the air above the mountain slopes. 

Jerome shook his head. “Never seen five all together before.” 

Pepper put the strange binoculars away. “Odd,” he murmured. Then he looked at Jerome. “Let’s go see this man of yours who knows John.” He indicated that Jerome lead the way. 


#


As Jerome led Pepper down Gregerie road toward the waterfront, and Uncle Harold, Swagga pulled close and whispered, “You think he really you father friend?” 

“I don’t know.” 

The sound of steel pan increased, and the few people along the street’s side this far from the real crowd down Main Street at least bounced to the rhythm, if not outright danced. Jerome turned left heading home, east for half a mile, to dodge the worst of the crowd. Almost no one was here. The music faded away. Jerome figured they could pick up the waterfront from farther down and come back up on the judging booths easier this way. 

A scream echoed down the street at them. 

“You hear that?” Swagga asked. 

“Yeah,” Jerome said. 

“Sound like a jumbie, man.” Swagga turned back around. “I’m going back this way.” He ran off toward the crowds. 

“He has the right idea.” Pepper sniffed the air, like a dog. 

Jerome kept walking. “We just need to get around the corner here. We can cut through and end up on waterfront.” He turned into an alley, and Pepper trotted past him. Jerome could see the harbor past the cobblestones and a green fishing boat that bobbed out at anchor. All they had to do was turn and walk the waterfront down to the crowds. 

“Come on, child, quick.” Pepper looked up and down the waterfront. 

Jerome turned the corner after him. Distant song and the nearby lapping of harbor waves against the waterfront’s concrete edge mixed in the air. Jerome hurried to keep up with Pepper. He almost smacked into the man when Pepper froze, looking into the shade of Harry’s bar, empty since it was this far down the waterfront. The best spirit in town sign squeaked. It hung from a wooden roof that shaded the tables on the sidewalk, propped out over them at an angle by poles. 

“Tlacateccatl,” Pepper whispered. Jerome squinted. And saw. 

An Azteca warrior stood inside. He wore a bright red cape that came to his waist, feathers braided into his hair like one of Jerome’s aunts, and leather bracelets. Blood ran off the grooved mace in his left hand. It was crowned with several black metal blades. 

The warrior looked up from his work, smiled with full, black-colored lips, and moved to unsling the large gun strapped to his back. Pepper’s left hand ducked beneath his coat. He pulled out a gun not much bigger than his hand. It spat, not nearly the loud bang Jerome expected. The Azteca warrior staggered back into the bar with a bloody hole in his chest. Pepper walked in, gun still in hand. He fired three more times, looked down at the man on the ground, then walked back out. 

He carried the Azteca’s long gun with him. 

“Come on,” Pepper said. “You need to introduce me to this man who can find John deBrun. There seems to be an Azteca problem here. We don’t have much time to dally.” 

Jerome trembled. “Uncle Harold said ragamuffin and mongoose-men would be out guarding the edge of town. He said it were just a scout party. How that warrior get in?” 

He could have died. Right there. And he’d just seen Pepper kill that Aztecan without missing a beat. Again Jerome found himself trying to puzzle out what kind of person Pepper was. 

He had to be a soldier. 

And should he tell him the truth about his dad? 

“I ran into Jaguar scouts coming out here,” Pepper said. “I’m getting to know more about these Azteca than I want. That warrior was a tlacateccatl, he commands many warriors. Not a good commander, he’s too far ahead of his men, even if he is a scout. An unblooded warrior. Probably got too excited about making sure he got a couple captures before the general attack. Either way, seeing him, my guess is that a whole army is creeping into this town.” 

Jerome almost jogged to walk as fast as Pepper. “They would have just secured the town’s border after I got here,” Pepper said. Jerome kept as close to Pepper as he could. He was more scared now than when he went out at night and the wind made his skin prickle. Right by Pepper’s side seemed to be the safest place right now. 

What about Dad back at their house? 

Everything around them, the shadows the cheerfully painted buildings cast, the gutters, the faceless windows, everything seemed sinister and dangerous. 

It destroyed the comfortable feelings Jerome had about Brungstun. 

And even though Pepper had saved his life, he still scared Jerome. Even more so now, as Pepper’s face hadn’t even changed when he’d killed the Azteca. 

The waterfront curved out in front of them, menacing and dangerous. 



CHAPTER ELEVEN 



The Azteca had dragged John deeper into the bush that night until they reached a clearing with a large black stone in the middle. This wasn’t a small scout party. John saw enough different Azteca to guess that hundreds of Azteca warriors crept around the bush near Brungstun. Maybe more. 

Three sleeping men lay tied next to a downed mango tree. Blood and dirt caked their clothes, but John recognized them as mongoose-men. John had been shoved against the tree, his cheek scraping bark. A few deft kicks to his knees and stomach dropped him to the ground, and the Azteca scout by his side had bound John’s hands and feet together, then roped him to the mango tree. A warrior clubbed John’s head to knock him out for the night. 

It still throbbed when he woke up late in the morning. 

John now wriggled his back up against the tree and looked across at the awake mongoose-men. 

“What are your names?” he whispered, but they remained silent. “My name is John deBrun. I’m from Brungstun, who are you?” 

The man with a battered face next to him looked off in the distance. “Is best we don’t know each other. Trust me.” 

“We have to get free,” John said. “No one could expect this many Azteca. We have to warn Brungstun that so many are here.” 

“Shut up, man, just shut up,” a second mongoose-man hissed. “We ain’t escaping, and you ain’t making this easier.” 

John’s thighs cramped underneath him. “What do you mean?” 

The man next to him, the first to speak, shifted. “Make you peace. Because soon we go die.” 

A faint sob, a cough, and silence fell again. 

Peace? How? He didn’t remember who most of himself was. He’d settled, taken a family, and been happy. But now that he’d had the barrel of a gun pointed down at him, he felt soft, mushy, unprepared. 

Frustrated. 

The white-hot feeling made him jittery. Frustrated that with only a few hours left of his life, he still could not remember a thing from before that singular moment when he’d washed up on the Brungstun beach. 

A single thing. 

At least the men around John had an entire life to regret, or miss. He was going to die not even knowing who he really was. And how selfish, he berated himself, that this frustration ate at him almost as much as the helplessness of being unable to run out and be by his wife, his son. 


#


Azteca moved and shouted. Last night’s captors surrounded the tree and pointed at the four captives, coming to a decision. They sliced the ropes free and made two mongoose-men stand up. To his shame, John felt relief. As the two men stumbled off, John turned to the man next to him, the only one to talk to him. “Please,” John begged. “Tell me your name.” 

The man closed his eyes. “Alex.” 

“How many will they take?” 

Alex shrugged. “It varies.” 

The two men were dragged off around the tree’s branches, out of sight toward the black stone at the center of the clearing. For several minutes only a few jungle birds fluttered and cawed into the silence. Then the screaming began. It stopped after a high-pitched hiccup, a groan, and a joyful shout in Azteca. 

A minute later the second man started screaming. 

When that stopped, John and Alex sat with their backs to the mango tree, avoiding each other’s eyes. They remained silent, waiting for the Azteca to come back for them. 



CHAPTER TWELVE 



It took forever to get closer to the carnival crowd by following the waterfront. All around the gentle U of Brungstun’s edge the warehouses and shops clustered, and then behind them, inching up the coast’s steep slope, the residential areas of town jutted out in cheerful colors highlighted by the drab roads cut into the bright green brush and jungle. Jerome jumped at every sudden noise. 

They encountered the edge of the carnival crowd: a couple kissing near a doorway, someone selling fruit on a table where the juices had leaked out and stained it black in patches. Five fishermen milled about, talking about their boats. 

Jerome slowed down. “We should warn them,” he said to Pepper. He yelled, “Azteca coming! The Azteca coming!” 

No one paid him any attention as they moved farther into the thickening crowd. The more people around, the more the shouting and jumping of carnival drowned out Jerome’s voice. They pushed their way toward the large wooden scaffolds by the bank building and post office. 

Jerome couldn’t see Uncle Harold up in the sheltered judges’ benches. Half the judges were gone. Was it because most of the judges were Brungstun ragamuffin and off investigating the gunshots? 

Another scream floated over the chaos of carnival. Jerome shoved and elbowed through to the street. He couldn’t see Pepper anymore, but the peacock-costumed woman he’d seen earlier came proudly walking down the street. Behind her a band of women costumed as birds twirled batons with streamers on the end. 

Shots echoed from the alleys. People paused. Steel pans fell quiet as three parrot-costumed women at the end of the street turned around. Fifteen men with blue-feathered bamboo masks and stiff cotton pads marched toward them. 

“Azteca,” Jerome screamed into the still. 

The masked men pulled out clubs and nets. The first one to reach a parrotcostumed woman knocked her out. The two behind him threw a net over her and pulled her down the road, back toward other Azteca stepping into the street. Jerome whirled around. Azteca warriors trickled out from between buildings at the far edges of town. Both sides of the waterfront were blocked. 

Azteca shadows stood in the alleys. Everyone in Brungstun stood corraled on the waterfront as hundreds of Azteca poured out. They moved into the edges of the crowd, knocking people out with clubs and carrying them away in nets, working at the edges with quick, practiced calm, and stopping anyone from running away. People screamed and babies wailed while everyone shoved at everyone else. The air smelled sour. 

Just a few hundred feet from Jerome two farmers with machetes ran forward to slash at one Azteca before getting shot. Blood ran along the cobblestones. 

A moko jumbie on fire ran toward the pier. He wobbled on his stilts and then fell to the ground. He didn’t get up. 

The crowd surged as several thousand people tried to pull back from Azteca nets and weapons. Jerome fought to keep standing. 

A hand grabbed Jerome’s collar. He screamed. 

“Quiet.” Pepper picked Jerome up, tucked him under an arm, and started running through the crowd. Jerome’s feet slapped against people as they passed, and Pepper paused once to pull out his silent gun to shoot a lone Azteca who had pushed too far into the crowd. The Azteca grabbed for ankles as he fell. People trampled and kicked him. Pepper ran down to the docks toward the steamboat, but Jerome twisted around. “Take that sailboat,” he yelled, pointing at Lucita. “The steamboat take too long to warm up.” 

Pepper dropped him to the dock and Jerome staggered for balance. A splinter caught his heel before he stopped, but he barely noticed it as he jumped into his dad’s boat. 

The mast swayed a bit. 

“Mr. Pepper,” Jerome yelled. “What about me mother?” 

Pepper threw the aft painter into the cockpit. The rope’s end stung Jerome’s cheek. Pepper ran along the dock and grabbed both the bow and mid painter in his two hands. He yanked on them hard and the cleats ripped free with an iron-nailed shriek. 

“Pepper! I need to find her.” Jerome’s hands trembled. He grabbed the mast. “She out with the Azteca. What they go do?” 

Pepper pushed the boat out from the dock and leapt in, bringing the rear down. Jerome caught his balance. Several others in the crowd were leaping to boats. A crowd had gathered on the steamer and a small trickle of smoke wafted over the boiler. 

Jerome ran to Lucita’s stern and grabbed the gunwale’s wooden lip. Pepper found the oars, shoved them into place, and began to row. Each strong pull shook them forward away from the dock. 

“You have to do what you have to do,” Pepper finally said. “Now would be a good time to jump.” 

The oars hit the water, slap, then drained as he lifted them into the air. 

They bit back down into the water again. 

“I’m scared.” Jerome sat down on the rear seat, ready to cry, holding his stomach. His eyes burned. 

“Drop the tiller and steer us,” Pepper said. 

Jerome turned back around and loosened the rope to the oval-shaped rudder. 

It splashed down into the water. 

Several Azteca in stiff cotton lined up on the waterfront and aimed guns at them. Pepper stopped rowing. His gun huffed a few times and three Azteca fell, one into the water. Others ran for cover, feathers bobbing. 

“You know how to get the sail up?” Pepper asked. 

“Yeah.” 

“Do it.” 

Jerome hustled to get the sail unlashed from the boom while staying out of Pepper’s way. Pepper pulled at the oars like mad, pointing them into the wind. Bits of the sail draped over the boat’s side, some dragging alongside in the water. 

Dad would have yelled at him. 

Jerome cried silently, wiped his eyes on his sleeve, and pulled the sail up as far and as tight as he could while the wind yanked hard at it. The boom swung around and banged. When Jerome tied it down, Pepper pulled in the oars and took the tiller with the mainsheet in his hand. He pulled it in, bringing the boom and sail in closer to the boat. 

Lucita tilted over and picked up speed. Pepper, still calm and serious, sailed them away from the waterfront. 


#


The sun beat down on them. Pepper hadn’t said a word in the last twenty minutes; he lay against the side of the cockpit, one leg steering them upwind, one arm in his jacket, the other trailing in the water. They weren’t really going anywhere, just making three legs of a triangle around and around some imaginary spot in the ocean. 

Occasionally Pepper would take out his rubber binoculars and look back at Brungstun. 

At one point they’d come near the light water of Severun’s Reef, but with- out needing a warning, Pepper had tacked hard, the boom swinging violently as the wind eased up on it. He must have known the harbor well. 

A dark knot inside Jerome kept threatening more tears. He’d left his mother in Brungstun to die and his dad trapped at the house. He’d seen people die! Get shot. Captured by Azteca. He shivered. The image of blood dripping into the street sewer grate as if it were only so much wastewater, that image he felt he would never shake as long as he lived. 

He couldn’t do anything. He had never felt so helpless as he did now. 

“How you do it?” Jerome asked Pepper. 

“What?” Pepper blinked his gray eyes and looked around. 

“Stay calm like that.” 

“Damned if I know,” Pepper muttered. “The only other choice is running around screaming.” He scanned the horizon. “Doesn’t look like anyone else made it out of the docks.” 

That was what they had been waiting for. 

Pepper shifted and adjusted the tiller. Lucita’s tiny bow aimed for Frenchi Reef. 

“Where you from?” Jerome asked. “Out by Capitol City?” 

Pepper shook his head. “Further.” 

“How much further?” 

“What did you learn about in school about where we all came from?” 

In school? School taught him the same tale his mother told him. 

“We came from the worm’s hole, up in the sky,” Jerome said. “You come from the worm’s hole?” 

Pepper nodded. “We came from different places. Some settled in orbit. Others settled up north. Many people from the Caribbean came here to Nanagada, looking for some nice equatorial sun and peace. We were just a tiny bunch of refugee camps and lake fishing villages, hoping we could hide in this far-out corner and be left alone.” Pepper stretched, and the bench beneath him bowed slightly. He eyed the water, then continued, “Very few on Earth knew we were here. Hell, some people in orbit didn’t even know about all the islanders along the coast and jungle. Better times,” he sighed. “Before the wormhole was destroyed.” 

Pepper talked as if he had seen these times firsthand. 

“They say the old-father didn’t survive them times, just like the machines,” Jerome said. “How come you here?” 

“They lie,” Pepper said. “Those of us well protected, those who knew what was about to happen, survived while the Pulse, nukes, and engineered diseases took everyone else. A few survived: some Teotl, Loa, and others like me. Many marooned in hardened escape pods. Three hundred years of floating in space, though, that’ll screw you up.” He snorted. “Here’s the result around us. Mostly only on-planet islanders survived.” 

“And Azteca.” 

“Yes, them too. When I left, the Azteca were religious fanatics who worshiped the Teotl. Who started breeding and using them as cheap, savage troops. The Teotl love using our weaknesses against us.” Pepper shook his head. “I hope you all have the resources to buck them off the mountains.” 

The conversation had returned to things that made sense to Jerome. 

“Most of the mongoose-men up in Mafolie Pass, or back around Capitol City them,” he said. This was common knowledge. There were squads scattered all throughout the mountains and lands. 

Pepper leaned over and splashed some salt water on his face. “What we doing now?” Jerome asked. “Hiding on Frenchi Island?” 

“No. I’m dropping you off. Giving myself some time to think. Then I need to start looking for John.” 

Jerome swallowed. Pepper had saved his life, and he seemed to be honest. 

“Mr. Pepper.” Pepper raised an eyebrow. “I fibbed you. I know where John deBrun is.” 

“You seemed to be holding something back.” 

“He . . .” Jerome’s voice quivered. “That’s my dad, see? He in the house, outside town, last night.” Jerome looked down at the brackish water sloshing about the boards by his feet. 

Pepper hit the seat with a fist “That complicates things.” 

“I’m . . . sorry.” 

Pepper leaned forward and looked at Jerome, straight in his eyes. “I never would have taken John for the settling-down kind.” 

Jerome avoided the gray eyes. Maybe he should tell Pepper about his dad’s memory loss. Dad and his mother did their best to hide it from him, but he picked it up from their whispered conversations when they thought he wasn’t listening. And the way she looked at Dad’s paintings sometimes. As if they scared her. 

But that was something personal. Jerome figured his dad and Pepper could sort that out if they ever met. 

If his dad was alive. 

Pepper adjusted the tiller. “Tell me what your dad looks like. Describe him to me. I haven’t seen him in a long time.” 

Jerome struggled. Dad was just dad. But he did his best and told Pepper about Mom, Dad, his family, and the airship that had floated into the trees behind their house. When he finished telling Pepper about Dad’s hook, Pepper turned his attention back to sailing, which relieved Jerome. He wanted to go sit on the bow and pretend he was alone on the boat. 


#


Frenchi stood waiting when Lucita’s bow struck the sand. Troy walked forward. 

“Something wrong?” he asked. “Ms. Smith say she see smoke from Brungstun when she was out fishing.” 

Pepper splashed into the water, his coattails floating on the surface. 

“Azteca attacked Brungstun. They’re moving along the coast now towards Capitol City, is my best guess.” 

Troy had a shotgun behind his back. He pulled it out and aimed it at Pepper. 

“I know Jerome, here. I don’t know you.” 

Pepper held his hands in the air. “Easy. I’m not staying. I’m dropping the kid off.” Jerome bristled at being called a kid. Pepper walked backward. 

“Jerome, jump off.” 

Jerome leapt onto the sand, and Troy put an arm around his shoulder. 

“You okay?” 

Jerome nodded. 

“I’m going to leave,” Pepper explained. “I have things to do. But I would appreciate some food. Preferably salted.” 

One of the men behind Troy asked, “You going back to fight Azteca?” 

Pepper nodded. Then he frowned. “You look familiar,” he told Troy. 

Troy ignored him. “Give he all the saltfish and jerky he need. And some johnnycake.” He put down his gun. “That man hard,” he told Jerome. “A killer. Better we help he leave.” He walked back up to his store. 

Jerome stood shakily on the beach, his feet sinking into the sand as the occasional wave washed up and wet them. 


#


Troy and one of his cousins helped pack several canvas bags for Pepper, placing them in Lucita’s forward stow-hatch. Pepper told the Frenchi that they needed to have somewhere to run to, or some defense against the Azteca, as they would eventually come. 

“There is reef we can hide behind, sand and coconut trees, we boat them to run in.” 

“You can last a month or two like that, maybe, if you were well prepared,” Pepper said. “What then?” 

They smiled. “That go be long enough to see what happen. Any longer, and all Nanagada done for anyway.” 

“True.” Pepper nodded. 

Jerome watched them all nod as despair rolled over him. What he wanted to tell Troy and everyone else was that it wasn’t worth it. The Azteca would come for them all anyway, and they could do nothing to stop that. They could only make a stand and fight, he thought. Bash them back something wicked. But running was futile. 

He looked out over water and clenched his fists. He felt utterly unprepared in any sense for the new shape of the world that had dropped on him. 


#


Pepper waited until the sun started slipping beneath the far-off reefs and breaking waves before he seemed ready to leave. He walked down the beach to where Jerome sat alone by a coconut tree. 

“You leaving?” Jerome said. 

“Yes.” 

“I want to go with you.” 

“And do what? What skills do you have that I need? I know what I need to know, I have the boat. It is up to me to track down your father, if he’s still alive.” 

Jerome banged his head against the tree’s rough bark. “What I can do?” he cried. “What?” 

“You can tell me this.” Pepper loomed over Jerome, dreads dangling down like snakes. “Did John ever talk to you about the Ma Wi Jung?” 

Jerome shook his head. “I dunno.” 

Pepper grabbed him by his shirt and picked him up. He pushed Jerome against the coconut tree, hard enough that Jerome’s spine hurt when it scraped against the bumps in the trunk. 

“Look right here at me,” Pepper hissed, “and tell me if your father ever told you anything about the Ma Wi Jung.” 

Jerome squirmed, scared at the sudden ferocity. He had no doubt that Pepper could snap his back against the tree and leave him for dead. 

“I swear,” Jerome wailed, a tear rolling down his cheek. 

“No coordinates? No secret rhymes that give its location that you’ve sworn never to tell anyone?” 

“No! Never.” Jerome sobbed, scared for his life again, scared of Pepper. In a night his world had been flipped. What was once safe had become dangerous. And people he had thought safe were dangerous. 

Pepper dropped Jerome to the sand. “I’m sorry. If I see your father, I will tell him you are alive. Tell Troy I’ll sink any boats in Nanagada; make it harder for the Azteca to come out here.” 

That was it. 

Pepper had that calm face Jerome remembered. When he’d shot the Azteca. Jerome watched Pepper walk down the beach to the Lucita, coat swishing. He pushed off, pulled the sail up, and never looked back. Jerome sat by the coconut tree, watching the sail grow smaller back toward the Nanagadan coastline, where a long, black pillar of smoke, lit orange at the base, snaked up over Brungstun. Somewhere at the foot of that fire Schmitti, Swagga, and Daseki were alone with Azteca. Along with his mom, they would die, or be savaged by the Azteca, or . . . he didn’t know what. 

Jerome could not take his eyes away. He didn’t move until Troy came over with a wool blanket, picked him up, and carried him back to one of the shacks by the beach.


 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN 



John stood up and rested his wrists on the mango tree to hold himself up. His leg muscles cramped. The Azteca holding the rope to his neck tugged a warning. John glared at him. The Azteca hollered and walked up to him, the rope drooping to the ground between them. 

“What?” John spat. 

He got a solid punch straight to the face. Spitting blood, his upper lip throbbing, John stared right back at his captor. The Azteca smiled and pointed his head at a point just past the tree. Seven Azteca warriors stood waiting. A handful more stood around the clearing’s edges watching the scene. Campfire smoke trailed over the trees nearby. Another couple hundred Azteca nearby? 

“Ompa.” 

John looked in the direction of the black rock. The two bodies from earlier in the morning lay next to it. 

“We dead,” Alex said, next to him. “We dead.” 

The stone was soaked black with dried blood. 

“Will they kill everyone?” John coughed as he was pulled forward. 

“Not everyone.” They shuffled around the fallen tree’s branches and leaves to approach the sacrificial stone. “Healthy people first. They save women and children for later. Some end up slave.” 

The Azteca standing by the stone took off his mask. Extra feathers swung from his unbraided, clumped hair as he walked forward and pulled out a long, black knife. It soaked up the late-afternoon sun. 

The warriors around John backed away reverently. 

“Warrior-priest,” Alex whispered. 

The warrior-priest walked forward. He grabbed Alex’s head and pricked his left earlobe with the obsidian knife. Blood ran down Alex’s neck. He jerked back, trying to kick at him, but the warriors stepped forward and hit him until he stopped struggling. 

I can’t just watch this, John thought. 

He took a breath and ran backward until the noose choked him. The Azteca stepped forward and beat him to the ground with fists, quickly and calmly, accustomed to the antics of those about to be sacrificed. 

Gasping and bruised, John watched from the ground as they untied Alex’s hands. Four warriors stepped forward and threw Alex to the ground. They grabbed his hands and feet, picked him up, and carried him up onto the stone. They crouched as they pulled on his feet and his hands, keeping Alex still and giving room to the warrior-priest. 

“Nopuluca,” one chuckled. 

The priest straddled Alex, looked up into the sun, then plunged the knife deep into the supine man’s ribs. Alex screamed. He screamed as the priest cut and snapped bone, and he didn’t stop until the priest grunted with satisfaction. 

The tearing sounds continued until a final whimper, and then the priest held Alex’s dripping heart up toward the sun. 

The clearing erupted in Azteca cheers as the priest shoved Alex’s limp body off the stone and two warriors grabbed John’s hair. He felt tugging on the back of his wrists as they untied him. Before he could move, warriors had his hand, his hook, and his two legs in firm grasp. They swung him up into the air and then downward. John’s back slapped against the sacrificial stone. 

It was warm. 

He looked up at the fluffy clouds above him, the sun off to the right. This was the last thing he would see. His frantic straining and pulling couldn’t dislodge the sinewy hands holding him down. He was trapped. Helpless. Waiting for the knife. 

When the priest stood over him, John fought the desire to shut his eyes. He tried to stare down the priest. One last tiny act of defiance. Someone in the distance shouted. 

Something hissed. The priest turned and then crumpled to the ground, impaled by a four-foot-long spear. The warriors froze, stunned. 

They let go of John and reached out toward the priest. Only one warrior paused to scan for the spear thrower, shock still on his face. 

Waste no opportunity, John thought. 

He sat up and swung his hook into the belly of the closest Azteca. It punctured thick cotton and finally skin with an extra shove, then a pop. The warrior hiccuped and looked down. 

John yanked the hook out to disembowel him. 

The man’s ropy intestines slithered out onto the ground. John rolled off the sacrificial stone to grab the dying Azteca’s gun. 

Another spear hissed through the air. Another Azteca was pierced and thrown backward. John pulled the gun barrel up with his bloodied hook and fired point-blank at the only Azteca on his side of the stone. 

Not sure how to reload Azteca-designed guns, he threw it aside and picked up the one dropped at the impaled warrior’s side. 

With a scream an Azteca leaped over the stone. John blew a good-sized hole in the man’s chest, then turned and ran. He heard a scream and a thud, another spear no doubt, and kept running. 

He tasted sweat. It burned his eyes, but he didn’t slow down from his full, zigzagged sprint until pricker branches started slapping his face and he tripped over a vine. 

His right knee popped when he stood back up. He ached all over, and a good nick on his shoulder must have come from a close bullet. 

But he was alive. 

If it wouldn’t have spelled death, he would have shouted with elation. But the Azteca who had been watching from a distance would start tracking him or calling their brothers nearby to come help. 

John hobbled through the bush, getting deeper in. 

After a good half an hour, he slowed down and rested against a tree. He used a large leaf to clean the blood from his hook. Then he used the hook to cut at the rope around his neck. He threw the strands onto the ground. 

“You are lucky to be alive,” said a voice. 

John jumped up. 

“Easy.” The man stood just behind John with a spear pointed down at the ground. He looked unmistakably Azteca, with high cheekbones and smooth brown skin. He wore his hair brushed forward, the neat trim bordering his forehead. 

But he wore mongoose gray, complete with pieces of glued-on bush. 

“My name is Oaxyctl.” O-a sh-k-tul, he pronounced it. He looked down at John’s hook, then back up. 

“You threw the spears?” John asked, eyeing the barbed point near the dirt and leaves. His hook remained by his side, ready to try to knock the spear aside if needed. 

Oaxyctl nodded. 

“Who are you?” John asked, alert. Carelessness meant death. Then it dawned on him. “The mongoose-men in my house last night said they were looking for you.” 

“What’d they say?” 

“They were worried. You went missing with some other mongoose-men.” 

“Yes. We were attacked. I made it. They didn’t. I work for the mongoose- men. I teach them about Azteca and sometimes spy for them.” Oaxyctl looked back past John toward the clearing. “You did well back there. They get confused if you get the priest first. But scouts will be coming quickly. We need to move out of here if we want to live.” 

“Okay.” John dropped his hooksligh tly. “But thank you, thank you for intervening.” 

Oaxyctl smiled tightly. “I’m sorry I couldn’t rescue the men with you.” He edged forward. “Now, what did you say your name was?” 

“John. John deBrun.” 

“Ahh. Good. A very good name. Good.” Oaxyctl sounded relieved. 

The Azteca-turned-mongoose-man trotted between the trees, and John followed him. “I’m from Brungstun.” 

Oaxyctl used his spear to push aside a branch for John. “Brungstun is occupied. 

If we go south, and then east, we can skirt the invading army and make our way towards Capitol City. It will be safer there.” 

The words sucked the elation of being alive from John. Brungstun gone? Shanta, and Jerome, dead or slaves? His chest hurt. He followed Oaxyctl numbly, trying to organize his thoughts. Going to Brungstun would just kill him as well, as cold as it sounded . . . 

Capitol City. “I would like to travel there with you,” John said. At Capitol City he could join any fight to push the Azteca back, recapture Brungstun. Oaxyctl was his best chance to live. 

“Good.” Oaxyctl sounded pleased with that. 



CHAPTER FOURTEEN 



During a small pause to catch their breaths, John watched chitter-birds swoop around the trees in sudden bursts, moving from one tree branch to another. In the distance a monkey chattered angrily from the treetops. Shadows crept out as twilight approached. 

“How did you end up near the clearing?” John asked, voice low. 

“I was skirting Brungstun looking for the quimichtin who killed my friends,” Oaxyctl said. “Then I heard the screams.” 

“Quimichtin?” 

“Spies,” Oaxyctl whispered. “Like me, but that look like you.” 

John crossed his arms, chest still heaving. “I didn’t realize there were so many.” He wondered who among the familiar faces he’d seen on the streets, or on fishing boats, had been a spy that had helped the Azteca. 

Oaxyctl shrugged. “Lots of spies here. Not many in Aztlan.” He sat next to John and unfastened a tin water flask from his hip. He opened it and drank, water dribbling down the corners of his mouth, but didn’t offer the flask to John. 

“That’s understandable.” John fingered a buckle around his wrist. “I’m sure Azteca over here would rather not go back.” 

“You think Aztlan is that detestable?” Oaxyctl took another swallow. 

“If life there is anything like what just happened to me, yes. Fucking savages.” 

John spat. “I have a family in Nanagada. My wife, her name is Shanta, and my boy is—” 

“Dead,” Oaxyctl said calmly. “They are all dead. Even if they still breathe this second, they are prizes, slaves, or gifts to hungry gods. They will be sacrificed to help the crops grow, or for battles to swing in Azteca favor, or even just because the gods demand it.” 

Each word struck John like a pelted rock. He raised his hook and pointed it at Oaxyctl. “Are you trying to goad me, Azteca?” 

Oaxyctl capped his flask and returned it to his hip. 

“Quiet or you’ll kill us,” he hissed. “I’m not Azteca anymore, John. I’m a mongoose-man. I fight by their sides to kill Azteca spies. I betrayed my own kind. You are a just a townsman. I did not have to stop and save you when I heard the screams of the sacrificed on the eagle stone. I did not have to risk my life to save yours. And I certainly did not do all this for you to call me or my people savages.” 

“The blood spilled speaks for itself,” John growled. 

“It does. But speak ill of just the Jaguar scouts, not all Azteca. Or maybe I will kill you.” 

John took a deep breath. “I don’t understand you.” 

“Maybe you should try,” Oaxyctl snapped. “The mongoose-men lie with their hearts ripped out. That could be you, or me. So here we are together, John deBrun. Let us both live with it.” 

John let his hook fall slowly down to rest beside him. “I was better at hardships before I married Shanta. My son and my wife are a part of me now, understand? This is like losing half your body.” 

“What makes you think that I didn’t leave my family behind when I came over the mountains?” 

John wasn’t sure yet how to judge Oaxyctl. It was usually an easy thing for him to decide whether he trusted someone. But John sensed many different muddled things in Oaxyctl that sometimes didn’t feel right. 

He’d saved John’s life though, that meant something. 

Oaxyctl held up a finger, then carefully picked up a sheaf of five-foot-long spears and slung them over his back with the leather strap. “We must move.” 

A long rod with a notch at the end dangled from Oaxyctl’s right hand, ready to fit in a spear and throw it. 

“Azteca?” John asked. 

“Maybe. Not sure.” 

John stared into the forest. Why had he been arguing with the man who had just saved his life? He had to snap out of himself. 

“Capitol City is a long way from here,” John whispered, looking around the large, shady leaves for attackers. “Weeks by a good road.” Oaxyctl had a large pack of supplies. But John knew it wasn’t enough food and water to last a walking trip all the way to Capitol City. 

“I don’t plan on walking there,” Oaxyctl whispered back. He stepped toward the leaves and led them farther into the heavy jungle, quietly aiming down a nonexistent path south, away from the coast. John followed just as carefully. The more miles they walked, the more he could try to erase the feel of the sacrificial stone, warm and smooth against his back. 


# 


The deeper into the jungle, the less they could count on any paths. Oaxyctl sliced his way through the thick bush, sure of his direction even as night fell and they continued on. Neither of them were interested in stopping due to the dark. Not with scouts behind them. And both knew it was stupid to fashion a torch that would give them away. 

“The nearest town to Brungstun is Joginstead.” John had visited Joginstead on occasion. It was due east from Brungstun. “Are we going there after we go south to avoid Azteca?” 

“We’ll get close,” Oaxyctl said. 

Eventually Oaxyctl gave John his flask for water as they continued in silence. 

But Oaxyctl mainly kept to himself, and John focused on strengthening his mind for the long voyage ahead. 

Survival. The instinct bubbled from deep inside him, past the nonexistent memory. John knew he was good at that. And when he was stronger and more prepared, there would be revenge. As much death as he could bring back on the Azteca. It felt comfortable to think that way. 

Maybe he’d been a soldier before he’d lost his memory. 



CHAPTER FIFTEEN 



Dihana held on to the door’s top edge as the steam car turned hard into one of Capitol City’s angled streets. She tried not to yawn despite its being late morning already. She’d just finished a live telegraphing session with the mayor of Brewer’s Village, Roger Bransom. The telegrapher on her side had translated her request into stutter, and the telegrapher in Brewer’s read the stutter out loud to the mayor. After a pause the machine in Capitol City would chatter, and the telegrapher would read the reply to Dihana that had been spoken 370 miles away down the coast. 

Dihana had asked Mayor Bransom several questions based on the mayor’s last visit to Capitol City to verify his identity before talking about any particulars of the impending invasion. 

The open vehicle bounced through a pothole and she winced. So now she knew Brewer’s Village had not been overrun. Brewer’s was sixty miles away from the several days’ silent Joginstead. According to Haidan, that meant Brewer’s Village had three to six days to prepare for an invasion. Dihana and Mayor Bransom agreed that he had to immediatly send the village’s women and children up the coastal road to Anandale. 

She’d had similar live “conversations” with mayors in Anandale, Grammalton, and Harford. They’d decided to send women and children up the coastal road while the men remained to fight. They’d head south into the bush if the Azteca army proved unstoppable. 

Which it would. Eventually Capitol City would be packed with refugees who would be unable to fight a siege. 

Something else gnawed at her. She didn’t pay much attention to anyone on the street waving or saying hello. Her telegrapher had told her that her secrecy was pointless. Word buzzed on the street that an Azteca army had got past Mafolie. The announcement was supposed to be released by papers the next morning so that Dihana would have more time to coordinate with mayors throughout the Triangle Tracks before panic broached, so this was a problem. 

Lines were starting to form at banks, people changing city notes for gold. Speculation was spreading, mutating, and turning dark. 

The steam car lurched to a halt as a ragamuffin with an unbuttoned shirt waved them down. They had stopped in the middle of Baker’s District, although Dihana hadn’t seen any bakeries on this block since childhood. 

Crowd noise one street over surged. People shouted. Glass broke. 

“What’s going on?” she asked while the ragamuffin caught his breath. 

“We found a dead man,” he said. “Sacrifice, Azteca-style, heart torn out and all.” 

They had stopped just outside Tolteca-town, where most Azteca immigrants clustered. Dihana’s mouth dried as she saw a brown-skinned man stagger out from an alley holding a bloody rag to a gash in his head. “City people out in that street?” she asked the ragamuffin. 

“People standing around, trying to get in to see the body. Word spreading.” Dihana tapped the driver on the shoulder. “Get back for more ragamuffins.” 

She opened the door and got out. The driver looked at her. “Go. 

Now.” 

“Just four ragamuffin here,” the ragamuffin standing by her said as the car hissed and groaned, then lurched away. 

“Take me there.” 


#


It was the hair Dihana noticed. Fifty or sixty men with black, straight hair cut in a fringe across the forehead, clustered on the street around an abandoned building. They faced the crowd, their backs surrounding four ragamuffins who nervously held their rifles in a semiready position before a broken-in door. 

“They found it inside this old store. Flies coming out got people suspicious.” 

Xippilli, an Azteca nobleman Dihana knew well, pushed through his fellow men and approached Dihana. The Capitol City crowd gave them room. The words prime and minister fluttered through the crowd. “When we realized what we had, we sent for ragamuffins,” Xippilli continued. “And the pipiltin”—Tolteca-town’s Azteca nobility, Dihana knew—“ordered me to round up as many men as I could find to stand guard so nothing got meddled with. What should we do next?” 

Dihana walked Xippilli back into the Azteca crowd and leaned in close. 

“What am I supposed to do, Xippilli? We offer Azteca—” 

“Tolteca,” Xippilli interrupted. 

“—sanctuary in this city. Even despite the fact we know this allows spies in.” 

“We are Tolteca,” Xippilli said. “Tolteca spurn the worship of the war god. 

It is only Quetzalcoatl who deserves our attentions. And not with people’s lives. We left that behind. We ran from it. I climbed the great mountains myself, my child strapped to my chest, to leave that behind.” 

“I know that, Xippilli, I swear to you I understand. The Loa opposed me on this, many opposed me on this, but I worked hard to convince the city to allow Tolteca-town. But no matter what you choose to call yourself, Tolteca or Azteca, you came from over the Wicked Highs to live here. You were once Azteca, and that is all that matters to these people in the street right now. 

They’re understandably suspicious, and nervous. And on top of all that, the news is breaking around the city that the Azteca have crossed over the mountains.” 

Dihana had told the pipiltin herself the same night she’d found out. “I don’t want to go in, I don’t want to see this.” 

Xippilli turned and rested his backagainst brick, looking out at the murmuring crowd. Maybe a few hundred milled about right now, Dihana guessed, facing them as well, to Xippilli’s fifty men and the five ragamuffins with rifles. 

“What would you have us do, Prime Minister? Go back out into the open land? Where Jaguar scouts will find us? We face the same horror you face now. You now are in the nightmare we have feared ever since any one of us has slipped over the mountains for what we thought would be freedom.” Xippilli sagged and looked down at the deteriorating cobblestone sidewalk. 

“I will do what I can to help, Xippilli, but the solutions may be hard. This is bad. Both these things together, bad. I’ll have to get Haidan, we’ll need to coordinate a plan to patrol Tolteca-town.” 

“Do you have any idea who broke the rumor?” 

Dihana shrugged. “Could have been anyone. A telegrapher, a newsman, a Tolteca.” 

Someone pushed up close to the Azteca cordon shouted, “What did they do to that man in there? We have a right to know what they did!” 

“We don’t know anything yet,” Dihana shouted back at him. “Have some respect. Let the ragamuffins do their job.” 

“How raga go protect all of we if the Azteca live in the middle of everything?” someone else yelled. 

“The same way they protect you from any other criminal,” Dihana returned. 

“We want justice!” 

“You get justice by hunting down the man that did this,” Dihana told the crowd. “Not by kicking out your neighbors. We don’t even know if an Azteca did this.” She ended the conversation by turning her back to the crowd and facing Xippilli. 

Xippilli leaned closer. “Do you know for sure Azteca march at us?” 

Dihana pulled back and stared at him. “What do you mean?” 

“When you met with the pipiltin, you said Mongoose-General Haidan gave you the evidence that the Azteca were coming. Did you verify it with anyone else?” 

Dihana’s stomach churned, making her feel light-headed. She couldn’t talk about her father’s warnings about the Spindle, it would seem ridiculous. 

But, “Brungstun and Joginstead don’t reply to any messages.” 

“Did they report an Azteca invasion before going quiet?” Xippilli’s dark eyes seemed like dark wells. “Any raids by Jaguar scouts in Brewer’s Village yet?” 

She shook her head. “No.” 

“I will say this, and then hold my tongue. If I wanted to take over this entire city, with a smooth transition, I would snip the telegraph wires to the first two towns along the coastal roads, station patrols to stop anyone in them from walking up to Brewer’s Village. Then I’d convince the prime minister to invite mongoose-men into the city to prepare for the invasion. And suppose there’s a riot as a result of the Azteca rumor. I could get the prime minister to invite more mongoose-men in quickly. I would have them position themselves all over the city in the name of preventing rioting.” 

“If Haidan wanted the city he could take it,” Dihana said. “He has thousands of mongoose-men to my hundreds of ragamuffins.” 

“I never named names. Haidan could be just as fooled as you are.” The crowd’s muttering pitched higher; a scuffle developed down at its end as more people joined and jostled for space. 

“You know something I don’t, Xippilli?” Dihana hissed. 

“All I know is that the mongoose-men are incredibly talented.” Xippilli remained calm, as if chatting about tea. “And Mafolie Pass is impregnable. The mongoose-men own the Wicked Highs, Dihana, trust me, I personally know how hard it is to get over. How did the Azteca do it in large numbers?” 

Dihana shook her head. “Even if you’re right . . . no. I can’t consider this right now.” Why was he trying to sow so much doubt in her mind? Was Xippilli a spy, trying to confuse her? Or maybe he was just right. 

“The crowd is getting larger. We have retired warriors amongst us,” Xippilli said. “Maybe you should deputize some of us.” 

“No. I can’t afford to have a war start inside the city over that.” The scuffling at the edge of the crowd increased: ten mongoose-men and a pair of ragamuffins arrived, yelling at people to move aside. “Xippilli, the man inside. What is he?” 

“What do you mean?” 

“You know what I mean.” 

Xippilli bit his lip. “He isn’t Azteca.” 

“Prime Minister. Rubin Doddy.” The first mongoose-man joined them and shook her hand. “We got a car coming in quick with ten more mongoose.” 

“What about ragamuffins?” Dihana asked. 

“We nearest. Ragamuffin coming, just not here yet,” Rubin said. 

The crowd, now maybe five hundred up and down the street, filled the air with discontent. “There’s a body in the shop. Give the ragamuffins what time they need to investigate. Then we need to wrap it up and get it out of here as soon as possible. Get your men to clear out this crowd.” 

“Heard.” Rubin turned around and signaled his men. They fanned out. 

The car of promised extra mongoose-men steamed down the street, and ten more mongoose-men leapt out and added themselves to the cordon. The ragamuffins walked into the broken building. 

“What about you, Prime Minister?” Rubin still stood next to her. 

“Where is Haidan? I need to talk to him.” 

“Down the Triangle Tracks now, in Batellton.” 

“Doing what?” Dihana asked. He hadn’t told her he’d leave the city. 

Rubin looked at her if she were crazy. “Preparations. Prime Minister, the word is spreading throughout the city that something wicked happened in Tolteca-town.” Too quick, Dihana thought. Far too quick. Most rumors were slower to spread. “Haidan didn’t give orders for anything like this, but I think we can get more man out on every street corner-—” 

“No.” Dihana knew what she was going to do. She steeled herself, projected authority, made the leap. “We’re getting all the ragamuffins out on patrol.” 

“That don’t make no sense,” Rubin said. “How many ragamuffins you got?” 

“Enough to let everyone know we’re serious. Everyone knows the ragamuffins. For some they’re family. For others, it’s just the familiar uniform. We don’t need outsiders patrolling the streets.” Dihana looked out at the crowd. “But we need mongoose-men to lock down Tolteca-town. No one goes in, or out, unless at a checkpoint. Who do I have to talk to to get that started if Haidan isn’t here?” 

“Gordon is second-mongoose,” Rubin said. 

“Xippilli, come with me. We need to find pipiltin to come with us. We’re going to quarter all the mongoose-men right here, in Tolteca-town, and get them off the Ministry’s grounds.” 

“The city’s going to explode,” Xippilli said, and Rubin nodded in agreement. 

“The ragamuffins will take bullhorns and read an announcement. We’re going to distribute paper explanations. Tonight we’re going to explain that the Azteca are coming, and that the Tolteca are helping by quartering the mongoose-men who will fight the Azteca army.” 

She stood in front of the two men and raised her eyebrows. They looked at each other, then Rubin whistled for the car, pointed out two mongoose-men, and leaned in. “My two best mongoose will ride with you. Get out quickly. When more come, we’ll push them out. We will start securing the area. Good luck convincing Gordon.” 

Dihana pulled Xippilli into the car. One mongoose-man took the wheel and began pressurizing the boiler. The other sat next to her. “Keep low,” he said. “You probably a target. Don’t risk you own head.” 

She complied. Xippilli bent down and looked across at her. “I hope this works.” 

Dihana nodded. 

She did too. 



CHAPTER SIXTEEN 



Pepper tracked his way through the bush in the stolen cotton garb of the higher nobles: thick, starched cotton, the inner sides layered with blue and fiery-red parrot feathers. He carried a round shield with leather fringes hanging from the bottom. He’d ripped off the gold decoration. Gold was universal currency, he could use it later. 

He could barely see out of the heavily stylized wolf’s-head mask. It hadn’t been made to fit him, but it hid his dreadlocks, and the original owner didn’t need it anymore. Yesterday Pepper had waited offshore until night before he landed. He had found the high-class warrior guarding the docks and killed him, then destroyed all the boats in the harbor with explosives taken from the Azteca’s own stores. 

Disguised as this warrior, Pepper had visited the town’s center to find records. The Azteca loved documentation. They had a whole class of scribes dedicated to it. And the scribes were busy: all around Brungstun, Azteca lords were taking inventories of food supplies and farms. Some moved into the nicer houses, while the empty barracks at the end of the wharf had been filled with Jaguar scouts. Brungstun children milled about in pens surrounded by barbed wire. 

Pepper found deBrun’s address and lit all the records on fire. 

He’d be damned if any Azteca used them to hunt any Brungstunners hiding from them still. 

He killed three Azteca with their own macuahuitl on his way out, dashing their brains out against the whitewashed wall with the effective wedge-shaped clubs. Then he climbed up a wall in the nearest alley, walked over several roofs, and jumped back down to the ground. 

He walked out of town unchallenged. 

Fifteen minutes out of Brungstun, Pepper found the smoldering ruin of deBrun’s house. He followed tracks from there to find a sacrificial stone in the middle of a cleared area not too far up the coastal road. The Azteca had sacrificed a few victims just before and during the attack on Brungstun, asking their gods for a good battle. 

It was an odd scene, though. Several Azteca lay dead on the ground. One lay suffering from gunshot wounds. 

“Great sir!” three warriors called out in Azteca when they saw him. 

Though Pepper wore dark blue colors from the nobleman he’d killed, and they wore red, they looked to him as a superior. “Our priest was slaughtered yesterday like an animal by a one-handed savage. Some of our brothers have broken the orders to stay here. They chase him and his accomplice in the forest. May we have permission to join and hunt the nopuluca?” 

Nopuluca: barbarian. Pepper grimaced behind his wooden mask. He slapped the macuahuitl he’d gained into the ground thoughtfully. He knew enough Azteca to understand what he heard, but he doubted he remembered enough to speak well. He’d last taken to learning it so long ago. He rubbed his throat, readjusting to speak Azteca. 

“Gather before me,” he told them. 

Several frowned at his badly pronounced Azteca words and fractured grammar, but they obeyed. Pepper adjusted his pronunciation. “Describe to me about one-handed man.” 

An eager young warrior, looking to curry a lord’s favor, spoke up. “A man with one hand killed them. We saw it from the clearing. He should honor the war god with his blood. Instead he runs. Our brothers ordered us to stay here and wait for orders, but we wish to chase the heathen.” 

How many one-handed men lived on the outskirts of Brungstun? Pepper wondered. The four warriors moved closer. 

Time to act before they spread out enough to make this harder. 

Pepper swung the macuahuitl in his left hand up with enough force to smash the nearest warrior’s jaw into his skull. In the same breath Pepper fired into the group with his own gun, wading forward through the bewildered Azteca and swinging the macuahuitl in long bone-jarring arcs. Those that still stirred afterward, groping around in their own blood, he calmly executed with their own guns to save his bullets. 

He saved one, wrapping a dropped net around the young man. The warrior flailed and tripped back against the sacrificial stone. 

“Tlatlauhtilia . . . ,” he whispered. I beg . . . “Kill me now.” 

Pepper crouched next to him. “How many warriors here?” he asked in fractured Azteca. 

The warrior shook his head. Pepper sniffed. He could torture the man, but many Azteca resisted torture well. This one looked young, inexperienced, so he would start with something easier. He looked the warrior in the eyes and pulled his right hand out of the netting to find a pulse. 

Pepper took several deep breaths. “You number only in thousands, here to capture people for sacrifices?” 

The fluttered eyelids, slight blush, negated the warrior’s lying nod of agreement. 

“Is this a . . . Flower War?” Pepper asked. Slight pause. Different Azteca regions, as far as he could tell from both ancient history and the tiny regional wars fought in the Azteca areas when he had last left Nanagada, waged ritual wars on each other to capture sacrificial victims. “Is this a small war?” Long pause. “A big war?” 

The warrior smiled. “We will take this whole land as ours and rule it as ours. We will destroy your gods in Capitol City. We will take your machines and technologies, your—” He stopped as Pepper folded the warrior’s fingers back almost flat with his wrist. 

“Speak when I ask,” Pepper growled. “Your warriors who move forward, tens of thousands?” That was on target. It was in the way the warrior’s broad face allowed blood to heat it. All these things—flutters, unconscious gestures—told Pepper more about people than people often knew about themselves. 

“Our gods command us. We march through towards your great city.” 

Pepper leaned close to the netting over the warrior’s face. Black face paint had rubbed off onto the net’s knots. “How did you get over the mountains?” 

The warrior hesitated. 

“By airship?” Pepper asked. No, he saw. “Boats?” Not that either. “Did you cross mountains somewhere?” The right direction. “Where?” 

The Azteca ground his teeth. He would not answer this one. 

Pepper pulled the man’s hand forward and folded it into a fist. He cupped it in his own, large hands and squeezed. A cracking sound came from each of the Azteca’s fingers as they snapped. 

Both men locked eyes, not wavering. Pepper squeezed harder and kneaded until he got a whimper. “I destroy hands and feet. You will be cripple. No honor, no glory?” He wished he were more fluent in Azteca than this. “Your bones will be dust if you do not answer.” 

The Azteca groaned as Pepper squeezed again. “Tunnel,” the warrior whispered. 

“Through the mountains.” 

“How long it take to make tunnel?” 

“Many generations. The gods directed it. We obeyed.” 

“And Nanagada people don’t know about this?” 

“It is hidden from them. Their spies are few and are lied to.” 

Pepper dropped the man’s hand and wiped the blood off his own on the grass. This was ugly. The Azteca didn’t have a supply chain. He only saw warriors living off the land, pillaging for their food as they moved toward Capitol City. That was a huge gamble for the Azteca. They could starve before reaching Capitol City, could all likely die here. But many Azteca remained in Brungstun. If the Azteca kept each city and captured its supplies intact, and used the population as slave labor, they could set up a limited resupply system as they advanced up to the peninsula. Taking Capitol City would be almost impossible with an initial unsupplied mad dash, but this method would deliver the entire coast into Azteca hands. Bad news. 

A grimmer thought was that the Teotl were most likely also hunting the Ma Wi Jung. Three hundred years later those damn creatures were still carrying on their war against each other, with humans caught in the middle. 

Pepper looked at the prints leading away from the sacrificial stone and into the jungle. “Time to think about catching up, John, isn’t it?” Pepper said. The Azteca struggled, confused by the change in language. Pepper ripped the heavy mask off. It bounced in the grass. Behind the netting the warrior’s eyes widened. Pepper slammed a macuahuitl down into the man’s ribs. 

“Die slowly.” Pepper left the Azteca on the crude eagle stone gasping through a punctured lung. He followed tracks to a tree where a second pair of boots joined the original pair and then headed south. Together. 

John had a friend. How interesting. 


CHAPTER SEVENTEEN 



Aman born under the sign of Ocelotl, even if of nobility, could only struggle toward a better life through fasting, sleep deprivation, and the application of his intelligence. 

So it was said. 

When Oaxyctl’s parents presented him as a newborn to the Calmecac chiefs at a sumptuous banquet in the heart of Tenochtitlanome, the chiefs asked his parents for his sign. Upon hearing it they gravely shook their heads. “Children born under this sign grow to become thieves,” they said. “If this child were female, we might offer you the honor of waiting until she grew hair to her waist, then place her head between two rocks and offer her to Tlaloc for a better rainy season.” 

Oaxyctl would not be a priest, or a judge, or a leader of warriors. 

He attended the Telpochcalli instead, with dirty kids and commoners. 

They sang history and trained to become simple warriors. The instructors pricked his skin with thorns when he forgot his lessons. 

When he grew old enough to fight, Oaxyctl left for a small village far away in Imixcoatlpetl’s shadow, the Cloud Serpent’s Mountains, known to most simply as the Great Mountains. Back then nopuluca lived on the Aztlan side of the Great Mountains. Oaxyctl captured many to gain respect, feathers in his hair, and eventually a wife. 

The pipiltin of Aztlan then gave Oaxyctl the chance to become quimichtin and spy on the lands on the other side of Imixcoatlpetl. Since then his life had become a complicated mess of double spying, fear, blood, and long journeys over the Great Mountains. He’d turned in many spies he had once called friends. And then killed many mongoose-men who thought him a friend. 

And he’d repeated the cycle again in Brungstun to hunt for John deBrun. 

Oaxyctl did not believe in curses, or unlucky life signs, but about now he was beginning to change his mind. Oaxyctl had once never believed in gods either. He’d assumed they were the results of men who dreamt too much. A suspicious man, Oaxyctl sneered at all mystical things. The priests in Aztlan smelled of death, were painted black, and had shaggy, snaggled hair soaked with the blood of the sacrificed. Their shredded earlobes and bitten lips caused Oaxyctl to avoid them. And what they did to their genitals with knotted ropes . . . 

He’d thought them mad until the day the priests brought the chairs to his town. And inside them sat the ancient, pale, squinting gods. 

So unhuman. So different. Oaxyctl shivered. If he’d been wrong about the gods, then maybe he was wrong about his life. 

Maybe he needed to fast more, sleep less. 

But the practical warrior in him told him that right now, those actions would lead to death. Better to stick with the application of his intelligence. 

And what did his intelligence tell him? 

Something had worried Oaxyctl since he’d met the Teotl: the god’s explanation that there were those who wanted John dead, no matter what. 

Were there really other gods who might kill him for doing what he was doing as it was against their wishes? Did the gods argue often? He’d never heard such a thing. And how did he make sense of such a thing, him, Oaxyctl, just a mere human? 


#


Oaxyctl wished that he’d had more time. Then he could have taken John and tortured him for the Ma Wi Jung secrets at leisure. 

Gods. He’d barely rescued the man in time from the Huitzpochli offering, and that involved shadowing some very good Jaguar warriors and waiting for exactly the right moment. He’d prayed that it would work, offering blood from his cheeks even, that John could escape from the eagle stone as Oaxyctl struck the warriors down. He’d come so close to failing, he still shook slightly when he thought about it. 

But he’d done it. Found the right man from talking to people in Brungstun, gotten to the right location, and done his god’s bidding. 

Oaxyctl’s own countrymen still chased them. And Oaxyctl needed time to make the right potions and tools to force the truth out of deBrun. With the invasion happening, he knew time was something he didn’t have. 

Could he risk stopping, letting the warriors get to them, and claim he was one of them? Too risky. Suppose they killed deBrun in the process? The god said they had no orders to save deBrun, but rather to kill him. 

The god would not like that to happen. Oaxyctl was sure he’d suffer if it did. He felt sick remembering how close deBrun had come to death. 

Once deBrun released his secrets, Oaxyctl could return to Aztlan and forget this foreign wilderness in the gods’ good graces. He wouldn’t have to worry about whom he really spied for anymore. He could go back to a normal life. He missed having a wife. 

He couldn’t remember much about her; he had left many years ago to become a spy. By now she must have given him up for dead and have a new husband. Yet he still fantasized about that life. Two of them alone in a small home, cuddling by a stove fire and the small statue of a local pulque god on the wall, while a mountain fog rolled by at night. 

He liked how soft women were, bringing flowers and scents into the environment. He hated mud, sticky sweat, blood, and long, long treks for his own life. He missed the way things had been, for a small time in his life when he lived on the foothills of the other side of the Wicked Highs. 


#


John deBrun had been muttering about Joginstead and a bath under his breath, while every once in a while Oaxyctl caught the long-off look of mourning in the man’s eyes. 

They spent part of the early morning asleep under a tree, covered in twigs and leaves. Oaxyctl gave John jerky and dried fruit, and some water from his canteen. Both slept uneasily; John kept crying out and waking up sweating. At noon they stretched and kept walking. But well before Joginstead, Oaxyctl veered off to the east even farther. They walked a good many miles before they came to the clearing Oaxyctl aimed for. 

If John deBrun died before giving up information about the Ma Wi Jung, then Oaxyctl would die a horrible death. He knew this with certainty. And if any Azteca caught them, Oaxyctl could still not figure out how to guarantee that John would remain alive. 

So he had chosen a different path. 

Gaining himself more time. 

Oaxyctl tramped through the clearing, knelt in the middle, and cleared off leaves and dirt to reveal trapdoors set into the ground. “We are here,” Oaxyctl declared. 

“But this isn’t Joginstead,” John said. 

“I never said we were going to Joginstead. It is probably also occupied.” 

Oaxyctl pulled the oak doors up with a grunt, then let them drop open on either side. He led John down the stone stairs of a mongoose-man depot known only to a few courier mongoose-men. Two of them lay dead back in Brungstun. 

Oaxyctl felt for the controls set against the wall’s corner, groping along in the dark. When he triggered the switches, air hissed and spit. A large hole opened above them; flush hangar doors slid aside despite the heavy weight of earth and vines carefully arranged over them. Dirt spilled down over the edges. 

In the new light they could both make out a shapeless gray mass of an airship’s unfilled bag. It hung in midair from ropes and nets fastened to the large cavern’s underside. The Nanagadan military, nopuluca though they were, had some fascinating tools they’d taught Oaxyctl how to use when he’d trained with the mongoose-men once. 

“We’ll take this emergency mongoose-courier airship to Capitol City,” Oaxyctl said. “First we need to fill it, though.” 

John deBrun nodded. Oaxyctl saw trust grow in the man’s eyes. 

Oaxyctl smiled. 

With the help of spies in Capitol City, Oaxyctl could drug and take John somewhere to interrogate him. He could take the careful days he needed to slowly pull the information out of John while the Azteca warriors slowly made their way up the coast toward the peninsula. 

Better dangers he knew in Capitol City than Azteca warriors here. Oaxyctl wondered what it meant that he felt more comfortable among the Nanagadans than his own warriors. 

Nothing, he told himself fiercely. 

With a definite plan before him, though, for the first time in three days Oaxyctl relaxed somewhat. 

He would accomplish his tasks. The gods would respect him yet. 

Oaxyctl was not cursed. 



CHAPTER EIGHTEEN 



John watched as Oaxyctl checked the hoses leading to the gasbag, then followed them back to the cavern walls. Oaxyctl then spun the valves open. 

The hoses straightened and filled out, and after a slow hour the airship’s bags started to visibly fill. The floppy lengths of fabric expanded and filled the cavern. 

In the dusky light John cocked his head to look at the airship. Amazing. 

The cavern itself, a natural sinkhole, must have had its top shaped with dynamite, and the courier airship roped into its hidden hangar beneath the jungle clearing. Several netlike lengths of rope hung on the airship’s dull-colored gasbag, just like rigging on a ship. Presumably to allow maintenance of the whole structure. 

Oaxyctl ran around shutting valves. He yanked on small ropes leading up the sides of the hoses. They popped off with puffs and dropped away from the airship. 

“Get on,” Oaxyctl ordered. 

“How?” John asked. The ground dropped away to darkness just a few feet in front of the steps leading in. John kicked a small pebble with his muddy boots. It jumped forward and disappeared, occasionally hitting a wall and bouncing. Finally a distant plop floated up and weakly reverberated around the cavern. 

Oaxyctl pointed. A rope ladder ran from the side of one of the walls to the airship’s undercarriage. “You first,” he said as he looped his bundle of spears over his back. 

John put a hand to the cavern wall. The rock chilled his fingers as he slowly walked along the edge toward the rope. 

“Are you sure this is secure?” John looked out to the end of the rope ladder attached to the airship. The ledge beneath his feet slimmed down to mere inches. 

The cavern echoed their voices back and forth between its walls. 

“You scared?” Oaxyctl asked. 

“No.” John looked at the rope ladder. It rose upward at a slight angle and swayed slightly as a gust from above played with the airship. “I’ve been on rigging like this. But it was my rigging.” 

He crouched and grabbed a rung. Why this angle? Climbing straight up presented no problem, but here the ladder lay almost horizontal. John studied it for a second, well aware of the different ways the hook on his left hand would get in the way. 

To lope across the unsteady ladder he kept his hook folded into his chest, straining across with just one arm and his legs. He only missed a rung with a foot once and instinctively hooked a rung with his left arm to prevent falling. 

He reached the undercarriage fairly quickly, grabbed the bamboo side rails, and pulled himself into the small basket. 

The whole undercarriage was bamboo, he noticed. 

He turned around to help Oaxyctl, watching the five-foot-long spears on the mongoose-man’s back warily. 

“What is that anyway?” John asked about the long handle with the notch at the end. “I haven’t seen anything quite like that.” 

Oaxyctl took the spears off his back. He used the leather strap to tie them to a bamboo rail. “Atlatl. You launch darts with it. It triples the length of your throw.” 

He busied himself securing his pack. Then he used the cloth straps on the chair to buckle in. John copied him, though the buckle eluded him at first, as he had only one hand. Once he was strapped in, John looked up along the dirty fabric half a foot over his head. 

A wooden panel with brass dials and knobs swayed from the undercarriage’s struts above Oaxyctl’s head. Hoses and pipes led away from it. 

At the top of the stairs the airship had looked huge. Up close, all John could see above him was the dark expanse of airtight canvas, the light playing off the varnish over its side. All around the cavern, menacing dark edges loomed close, lit by the gap in the earth just big enough to fit the airship through. 

Hopefully they wouldn’t hit anything on the way out. 

Oaxyctl shifted, causing the undercarriage to squeak. Even though apparently designed for two, their thighs were still mashed close to each other. 

John’s pants had rips in several places, and it looked as if Oaxyctl had cut slits in his that allowed him to run faster. 

“Ready?” Oaxyctl asked. 

John nodded. 

Oaxyctl held a box with a single switch on it. A wire ran from it all the way to a cavern wall. He flipped the switch up and threw the box over the side. It clanked against the rocky sides. 

Sixteen ropes held the airship down. Several groaned from the strain of keeping the lighter-than-air vehicle tethered. They now snapped backward like whips in reverse. 

The airship rose into the air. The cavern lip moved past them and gave John a glimpse of the clearing once more. Then they rose over the trees, the wind blowing them into the highest branches, where startled monkeys howled at them in protest. 

A hot air gusted, free of the shade below. The airship skipped, then rose over a green sea that stretched before them, rolling all the way to the horizon’s edge until it met the blue skies. 


#


Oaxyctl leaned back after loosening the straps some. He grabbed a wooden handle on the end of a string and started yanking at it. Once, twice, three times. 

John craned around to look. Behind the undercarriage was a large wooden propeller blade with a flap behind it. Just like the propeller and rudder of a fast steamship, John thought. He’d seen a design like that in Capitol City. Oaxyctl yanked once more, and the engine roared to life. 

John recognized the stench quickly enough. He turned around. 

“Alcohol?” he yelled over the engine. 

Oaxyctl nodded. He grabbed a lever with a polished brass and cherry inlaid knob between his legs. When John looked backward again, the large flap behind the propeller waggled, then turned all the way to one side. “

It doesn’t have too much fuel,” Oaxyctl said. “And we don’t have enough power to fight the wind. But it can help guide us.” 

The airship slowly changed direction, though the wind still blew them off course, and Oaxyctl kept looking out at the sun to line them up properly. 

They were getting blown back toward the Wicked Highs to the west, not going northeast toward Capitol City. 

“Will we be able to make it to Capitol City?” John asked as a cloud of blue-and-gold parrots burst from the treetops to flee before them. 

“There is a great wind high over the Great Mountains that blows east. We must climb higher into the air to find it. If your ears hurt, you pretend to chew.” The airship rose faster. “We don’t have air tanks with us, so watch your breath. We must be careful not to choke.” 

John settled farther back into his seat. The horizon seemed to move farther back, but at the same time he could see more of the land all around him. A curl of smoke in the distance rose from Joginstead. 

The next time he leaned over the bamboo rail and peered down, John sucked in his breath. He could no longer see branches, just a smooth carpet of green. 

“How high are we?” he asked. 

“Very high,” Oaxyclt said. “High enough that if you fall, maybe you’d have a few seconds to flap your hands hard and pretend to fly.” 

John didn’t find that funny. 

They gained height slowly, still getting blown sideways and west. Oaxyctl began to turn the airship to face the mountains. John frowned. The Wicked Highs rose, an impassable wall before them. The air rushed them toward the jagged peaks and valleys. John could see where the trees stopped and bare rock poked into the air. 

“How much have you flown machines like this?” John asked. They weren’t too far up that he couldn’t look down and see that they were moving quickly over the ground toward the Wicked Highs. 

“Enough to know what I’m doing,” Oaxyctl said. 

The air played with them. John’s stomach lurched as the airship dropped down, then rose up. It shook several more times, the air stirring them up as they approached. 

“It will get rougher,” Oaxyctl said. 

And it did. One drop, the airship being shoved down against its will, almost convinced John he would die dashed against the side of the mountains in this contraption. 

“Just hold on.” Oaxyctl spun dials on the panel above him. Hoses leading from thick tanks lashed to the carriage’s underside hissed. The airship rose faster. “Near these mountains at this time,” Oaxyctl explained loudly, “the winds seem to be sucked in just above the surface of the land. Then they rise right up the side of the mountain, and then higher in the air they go the other way. We can use that.” 

The winds were changing, bearing their airship up the mountain’s side. 

This was like sailing, in a way, John thought. But you could go up and down as well. 

Oaxyctl jockeyed them higher, and when they rose as high as the Wicked Highs’ top peaks, the wind changed and they flew quickly eastward, as Oaxyctl had predicted. So now they were sweeping in the right direction: mostly east. Eventually they needed to turn north to aim for Capitol City, but at least they were being blown away from the Azteca. 

Everything smoothed out, and as they flew away from the mountains, Oaxyctl stopped the engine. 

Off to the north by the coast, a thick pall of smoke rose. A burning Brungstun. John looked away from it with burning eyes, looking east at the long expanse of thick-jungled land. 

There was hope in this direction. 



CHAPTER NINETEEN 



John watched tall clouds heavy with water drop down toward the airship, blocking out light. Waves of chilly wind gusted over John and Oaxyctl and shook the airship. They both shivered in the undercarriage. Compared to the massive clouds that spread in all directions and towered up into the sky, they were nothing more than a small dot. 

It rained softly for an hour. Rivulets trickled down the sides of the airship to form a miniature waterfall of concentrated raindrops that soaked them. 

John looked up at the dripping panel above Oaxyctl and hoped someone had waterproofed it. 

Eventually the steady drenching ceased. Water randomly dripped down off the gasbag to fall far down to the ground. John shook himself to get the pockets of water on his lap off and kept shivering. 

“Will you be okay?” Oaxyctl asked. 

“It’s cold,” John said. 

Oaxyctl nodded. He adjusted dials and the airship lowered. “I can’t go too far down or we’ll lose our wind. But let’s warm up.” 

The sun appeared: long shafts of a welcome golden light beamed at the ground as the shower clouds dissipated. Oaxyctl maneuvered them low enough that the cold didn’t pierce John’s skin to his bones. The wind wasn’t as strong. John couldn’t tell for sure, but it looked as if they were moving over the ground at a more leisurely pace. 

If he had a sextant, he could tell for sure, though the beginnings of a mental map were suggesting itself to his mind’s eye, as it usually did whenever John traveled. He looked around for anything he could adapt to make sightings with, but saw nothing. He took off his shirt and wrung it out over the edge, then laced it to the bamboo handrail to dry off. The lowest edge of the gasbag’s rope net swung near him. 

With a mighty shiver John wrapped his arms around himself and rubbed his skin real hard to warm up. 

“Food?” Oaxyctl offered. He opened his pack and dug around. Oaxyctl had more jerky. But he also had some chewy, stale johnnycake and a small jar of honey. They dipped the johnnycake in the honey as if it were dessert and sipped at the canteen as they passed over a swatch of land shaped in squares. Farmland out in the middle of the jungle. Some group forging into the virgin land. 

“Do you think about your family much?” John asked, looking out for some familiar landmark. Right now every hour in the wind was an hour away from the coast most familiar to him. 

“My wife.” The wind lessened and Oaxyctl twisted dials. Hoses hissed. “I think about her.” They slowly rose. The wind picked back up. 

“My wife’s name was Shanta.” It hurt John to use the word was. He realized he had started to bottle up the black scar, his loss, into the middle of himself. Words like was were a first step. 

What scared John was how easy it came to him. Some long-forgotten instinct allowed him to cauterize his emotions. What kind of person could do that as a matter of fact? Someone who had lived a rough life, John thought. 

Maybe that was why he had no memories of it. 

He shivered. Not because of cold, but a sense of dread that settled in on him. 

A small figment of the past, and not returning in some hazy, forgotten dream. 

“Necahual,” Oaxyctl said, after the long moment’s silence. 

John shook himself. “I’m sorry?” 

“Necahual was my wife’s name. It’s a common one. It means ‘survivor.’ ” Oaxyctl smiled. “And for her, appropriate. She could sniff out positions that would help me earn respect with a second sense I admired. I wonder sometimes what she is doing now.” 

John smiled as well. It was hard to picture the hardened warrior, once bloodthirsty worshiper of human sacrifice, as having a family life. 

“Do you have children?” John asked. 

“Children . . .” Oaxyctl paused to check the dials above him. He cleared his throat. “No.” He bit his lip. John wondered what emotions Oaxyctl struggled with. “Didn’t have time for children before I had to cross the Great Mountains.” 

“I’m sorry.” 

“So am I.” Oaxyctl dug around in his pack and pulled out a dirty blanket. 

His fingers turned white as he pulled the knot loose that bound the blanket into a small, tight package. “Here. Wrap this around your neck and head, it should keep you warm while we fly.” 

John did so, then chuckled. 

“What?” Oaxyctl asked. 

“You suddenly seem to have a soul.” 

Oaxyctl looked at him. “After saving your life, John deBrun, it would make no sense to let you die.” 

John blinked and bit his lower lip. “True. I owe you much.” He settled into his seat as best he could. More questioning advice from his deepest instincts bubbled up. Did he really trust this man? 

Yes. Of course. 

Okay, the tiny instinct guided him. Next he needed shelter, water, food, sleep. Act strongly only after sleep. The mind without sleep is not geared for survival, he thought to himself. 

The words and concepts made sense. 

“Would you mind if I took a nap?” John asked. 

Oaxyctl shook his head. 

They flew on into the clear skies, moving with the wind over the land. Occasionally a bump would force John to unconsciously grab something with his good hand. 


#


Something shook John awake. His eyes fluttered open, and he realized that his good hand clutched the straps holding him in. They chafed hard against his chest. 

The airship dropped suddenly, shaken by the air. John felt as if his chest had been shoved under several feet of water; he had to suck at the air to get rid of the suffocating feeling. 

“What’s going on?” he asked. Wind buffeted them again. 

Oaxyctl had a strained look on his face. “We’re being followed.” 

John looked around. Many miles behind them a larger craft followed, though John squinted to make it out. Oaxyctl had sharp eyes. 

“I’ve climbed as high as I dare,” Oaxyctl said. “I have some length on them, but they gain on us.” 

“Why don’t you use the engine?” 

“It won’t do us much good, not enough fuel, and we need that fuel to navigate when we get lower to the ground.” 

“Damnit, what do we do?” 

Oaxyctl tapped a dial. “For now we try going higher.” 

The airship lay over on its side like a ship as more wind hit them. Oaxyctl led the lighter-than-air machine even higher in search of faster winds. John hoped he could handle that sort of tossing. 

And not pass out for lack of air. 



CHAPTER TWENTY 



The Azteca airship chasing them looked larger than their own courier airship. 

John guessed its gasbag to be easily twice the size of theirs. Highly stylized terra-cotta-colored feathers ornamented the nose, and a pair of propellers jutted out from the sides of the canopy. 

Three sharp cracks spat through the air. John instinctively ducked, then looked upward. 

Oaxyctl nodded. “They’re trying to drop us out of the sky. They don’t want us to get north with any reports on where they are.” Oaxyctl turned around and yanked on the cord. The motor coughed and spluttered, but did not start. “We’re too high. We need to drop our altitude.” 

More shots pierced the wind’s low roar. Oaxyctl grimaced and worked a lever. John heard hissing, not from the hoses, but from farther up on the gasbag. 

They dropped. 

John turned around and looked. The Azteca airship followed. 

The sound of wind passing them picked up, and John’s stomach flipflopped. 

They were falling fast. 

“How much air did you let out?” John asked. 

“Helium.” Oaxyctl twisted dials and the hoses leapt to life. Condensation ran along the bottom of the black rubber tubes leading under the carriage to the tanks strapped underneath. Oaxyctl yanked on the cord behind him again. Once, twice, three times. On the fourth try the alcohol engine cleared its throat and groggily roared to life. 

Oaxyctl pushed the lever throttle on the panel above him as far forward as he could. They both turned around to look through the blur of the propeller. 

“Where’d he go?” Oaxyctl peered around. 

John looked up at the stained canvas above him. Oaxyctl followed his gaze. “Damn.” 

They heard another series of shots. A bullet whizzed past, too close. 

Oaxyctl unbuckled the straps holding him into his seat. 

“What are you doing?” John asked. 

“Going up the side to see where they are.” 

John shook his head. “You have to fly this thing.” They’d fallen far out of the sky, and even with more gas in the airship, he could feel them still dropping. 

He yawned to pop his ears. “Do we have a gun of any sort?” 

“There is no way I’ll let you go up there.” Oaxyctl pointed at John’s hook. 

“I don’t know who’s more dangerous, you or them.” 

John grabbed a strap on his wrist and popped it off. He ignored the smell of unwashed skin as he pulled the rest of the straps loose to remove his hook. 

“You could die,” Oaxyctl said. 

“We stand the best chance of surviving this way.” John tried to keep the nervousness out of his voice. Heights never bothered him. But he’d never been on rigging in the middle of the sky. 

And what was in Oaxyctl’s deep, calculating eyes? John couldn’t tell. But after furrowing his thin eyebrows, Oaxyctl nodded. “Here.” He reached down beneath his seat and forced open a first aid box. He pulled out a flare gun and a cartridge of flares. 

John wrapped the gun and ammo in his shirt and tied the bundle in on itself with a knot. “Just don’t make any sudden movements, okay?” 

Oaxyctl nodded. He didn’t look happy about this in the slightest. John would have thought anyone would be relieved to stay in the undercarriage, but Oaxyctl looked more nervous than John did. 

John unstrapped himself from the chair. He wrapped a foot around the rail and leaned out. He looked down, saw the world far below his knees, and looked right back up at the distant and safe horizon. He grabbed the rope net swaying from the gasbag with the outstretched fingers of his right hand. 

John held his breath and wrapped his good wrist around the thin rope. He hopped forward and hung in the air by one securely wrapped hand. 

He let his legs dangle out and pushed his left arm up through netting until he hung from his elbow. Then with his right, John pulled himself up. 

Once he had his legs hooked into the netting, he could scramble up; he’d done this on ships’ masts without a hook before. 

John followed the pregnant curve of the airship up toward the sky. 

The wind rushing past the sides of the machine pulled at him, but it didn’t tug hard enough to startle him. What did make him jump were the sounds of three more gunshots. John crabbed his way along the netting and looked up to see the Azteca airship above them. Someone leaned over the side to point a rifle. 

John flattened himself as close to the varnished canvas as he could. He wrapped his legs around the netting and untied his shirt. 

Years of sailing had taught him to gauge the distance without a second thought. The Azteca sharpshooter, used to stable ground, couldn’t aim accurately enough to hit them yet, thanks to the swaying and wind. 

The Azteca airship, though, kept trying to drop down closer for an easy shot. 

John laid the flare gun against his forearm to aim it as best he could. It looked small and not very accurate, but he’d used something similar to fire ropes to other ships. He didn’t fire yet; he waited, getting a feel for the wallow of the airship. Just like at sea. The Azteca airship, above and slightly behind them, sank even closer. John squinted, waited for the great mass of fabric and gas beneath him to shift, and fired. 

He quickly snapped the gun open and emptied the spent cartridge. It spun off with the wind down toward the distant ground. 

Nothing happened. He’d missed. Yes, he saw the flare well over both airships, shining and smoking its way slowly back to ground. 

John slid another flare in, snapped the gun shut, and fired again. They had given him their belly, and he took advantage by aiming for the tanks slung to the midsection of the undercarriage. 

The warrior leaning over the edge started craning around. Looking for John. The Azteca aimed several more shots, but if he couldn’t hit the airship, John guessed only a fluke shot would hit him. So he stayed carefully wrapped around the netting and fired again. 

A fireball exploded out of the side of the Azteca airship. One of the engines caught fire and exploded, the propeller spiraling fire as it fell down through the air. 

“Got them!” John yelled. 

He opened the gun, slid in another flare, and fired at the Azteca gasbag. And then again. That was the last flare, but he saw it melting through a section of the gasbag. 

The fire quickly leapt along the entire undercarriage. One of the warriors jumped from the edge. Spread-eagle, his pants on fire, he screamed as he dropped past John’s airship. Up above, the Aztecan machine staggered in the air as numerous holes appeared in the bag. It dropped. Slowly at first, then quickly. 

Shit. 

John scrambled down the netting. He dropped the flare gun out into the air, not wanting to try holding on to it with only one good hand. He folded his legs around netting and let go with his hand, falling to swing upside down, his head level with the bamboo rail. 

“Go go go go,” he yelled at Oaxyctl. “Go right! They’re coming down on us.”

Oaxyctl swore in his own language, a long fluid series of vowels, then he spun dials. John jackknifed his whole body and swung out from under the airship as best he could to look up. 

Flames and smoke. 

Something struck the top of their airship and screamed. The whole thing shook. John tensed his leg muscles as he swung back and hit the side of the airship. An Azteca warrior slipped down the side of the netting, grabbing for anything but not succeeding. 

He fell down toward the ground. Though from John’s inverted point of view, it looked as if he fell upward. John pulled himself upright, still watching. 

Things took forever to fall all the way down to the ground, John thought, waiting until the Azteca disappeared into the green. Oaxyctl finally coaxed the speed he needed from the airship, and they aimed down at the ground to pick up speed. John couldn’t tell if his imagination was playing tricks on him, but he saw ripples race across beneath the netting. 

They couldn’t let out that much gas. 

Could they? 

No, the undercarriage swung violently as the airship tilted. They’d been struck. Hoses hissed loudly as Oaxyctl filled them with gas again. It sounded as if he’d spun the valves open as far as they would go. 

They rose into the sky, now. John watched the flaming wreck of the Aztecan airship fall quickly away beneath them. As they rose, he gave himself time to let out the breath he’d been holding. 

But even then he only had time for a breath before Oaxyctl yelled at him. “Check for fire!” 

John unhooked his legs and scrambled up toward the top of the airship. 


#


After several more panicked minutes, John found only smoldering netting. 

He used his shirt to beat it out. Once he was sure it wouldn’t reignite, John made his way back down. 

When John clambered into the undercarriage, hanging on with a single hand and swinging his feet in, he found that Oaxyctl did not look relieved. 

“There isn’t any fire,” John reported. 

“No,” Oaxyctl said. “But we lost a lot of helium getting out of that. It will be only a matter of time now before we have to land.” 

John strapped himself into his chair. The once creaky and unsafe-seeming undercarriage now felt like firm ground compared to scampering around on the netting. 

“How long do we have?” John asked. 

“Maybe a few hours.” 

John looked up at the material over his head. “Is it still safe to fly, then?” he asked nervously, the image of the large Aztecan airship plummeting to the ground still strong in his head. 

Oaxyctl nodded. “I will fly it until the last moments. Then we land. And hopefully we live.” 

Hopefully? John looked over. He grabbed the straps holding him in. At least they were far away from the advancing Azteca. A small consolation, but he would take it. 

“Any landing we make that we walk away from,” the Aztecan said, “will be a good landing.” Then he muttered to himself, “I truly was born under an unlucky sign.” 



CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE 



Oaxyctl had taken the airship as high into the clear sky as he could get it with the remains of the gas in the tanks strapped to the underside of the bamboo carriage. John noticed that they hadn’t climbed high enough to pick back up the strong winds that would take them all the way to Capitol City. 

They drifted slowly, like a ship without sails. 

Fortunately they still drifted toward the east. One of the two moons was out, barely visible in the daylight. 

Oaxyctl swigged water from his canteen and looked over the edge. “Look at that.” He pointed. A brown, arcing scar in the earth. 

John leaned forward. He knew where they were. “It’s called Hope’s Loss.” 

Oaxyctl folded his right leg underneath himself. “Hope’s Loss?” 

“You’ve never been to Capitol City?” 

“No.” Oaxyctl shook his head. “But I know much about it. I have friends there.” 

“Twenty-two years ago I journeyed through the bush to Capitol City with a friend of mine. Edward. A mongoose-man. A damn good one. He wanted to investigate Hope’s Loss. He wanted to see if the stories were true.” 

“Which stories?” 

“Ah.” John picked up his hook. “You haven’t lived around here long enough.” He slid the cup over his wrist and began to strap the hook on. The leather edges bit into his sore skin. He avoided Oaxyctl’s curious gaze, lowering his eyebrows. “Supposedly, during the last days”—John grunted and levered the hook on—“evil beings rained rocks on this land, killing many people. It wasn’t stopped until all machines of destruction, on all sides, were destroyed. There are other more fantastic stories, but there is one thing they all have in common.” John leaned over and looked at the scars. “They say the land here around Hope’s Loss is poisoned, for nothing will grow there.” 

Oaxyctl also leaned over and looked around. “And is it true?” 

John nodded. “I held four of my friends in my arms as they died, just weeks after walking through there.” John took a deep breath and let it out. 

“Edward, he always remained sick after that. Just the two of us arrived in Capitol City. As the people said, a poisoned land.” 

“Were you sick?” 

“For some reason, I’ve always been fine.” 

“Lucky.” 

“Yes.” John leaned back against his wicker seat. “Very.” 

“There are similar stories in Aztlan, on the other side of the Wicked Highs. About cursed lakes that are perfectly round. People from villages that try to settle them, once a generation or so, die. We share a lot of similar history and destiny.” 

John looked over Oaxyctl. “Tetol?” 

“Teotl,” Oaxyctl corrected. 

“Those beings were what the legends say caused most of the trouble. They rule your people, they tried to destroy my people—” 

“My ‘people,’ as you called them,” Oaxyctl said, “are varied. Some of them know no better, as all society is dictated by the Teotl and the priesthood. 

They know only what is told to them: that only blood can appeal to the gods, only blood brings the food, and only blood ensures your soul’s survival into the afterworld. And even then, many only follow this out of fear from the Teotl and instruments of the priests. There are the Tolteca who have fled over the mountains to live here, and there are also people like me, Azteca who have joined the mongoose-men to fight the people that were once my own.” 

“I’m sorry,” John said. 

“All our ancestors have been cast down from greatness. That is all we know for sure. All else is confused and muddied, because the Teotl, my people, your people, and the Loa that the Teotl have sworn to destroy are all in conflict. 

And you and I, John, are just tiny drops in that ancient storm.” 

The airship had lost height, but it looked as if they would pass well over the scarred land. 

“Okay.” Oaxyctl’s outburst surprised John. He kept what was on his mind silent: no matter the madness of the circumstances, or history, for him nothing justified the pillaging and disregard for life the Azteca brought to Nanagada. 

Nothing. 


#


Oaxyctl guided the ponderous lighter-than-air machine down toward the long, rolling upper canopy of Nanagada’s deep inner jungle. He started the engine as the wind pushed them backward. 

“Do you see a clearing of any sort?” he asked, after several minutes of scanning the horizon. 

“No clearing,” John said. 

“Damn.” Oaxyctl looked up at the dials on the wooden panel over his head and bit his lips, seeming to wish for more lift. “We should land now, while we still float. Who knows when it will begin to fall.” 

He aimed them at a lower section of trees, and they sputtered along. Now, as John looked down, he could perceive breaks in the steady stream of green beneath the canopy. Oaxyctl leaned over, shifting the bamboo undercarriage, as he appraised the area. 

“This is as good as anything,” he said. 

John nodded. 

“Hang on then.” Oaxyctl pushed the levers by the side of his seat, forcing the whole motor-mounting behind them to squeak and swivel upward. The airship tilted down, slowly, and then Oaxyctl gunned the engine. The airship settled down toward the trees. 

The top branches, thin and laden with rich green leaves, brushed the undercarriage. 

It sounded like sand underneath a skiff. Only it got louder as they sank in between the branches and leaves. The soft sifting transformed into a violent scratching. A large limb snapped. The snapping continued. Like firecrackers. 

The airship came to a stop. 

“Can you reach anything?” Oaxyctl asked. 

John looked around at the bowed branches poking through the gaps of the undercarriage. The nearest branch, one of the stronger ones that had stopped the airship, looked large enough to hold his weight. “Yes. You?” 

Oaxyctl unstrapped himself. His actions were careful, he didn’t move any faster than he needed. He moved to a crouch and picked up his pack and spears. “You will have to go first,” he told John. 

John fumbled at the straps. Steady, he told himself, reaching out. He grabbed the edge of the branch with his good hand. Then he slung his hook out over into the branches and hopped off. The branch bowed down, a good four or five feet below the undercarriage. John arched his back and got his feet up around the branch and crawled his way upside down toward the trunk. He grunted and pulled himself onto the crook and leaned his back against the bark. 

“Okay, I’m here,” he called out. 

Oaxyctl swung off. The branch bowed again. The branch cracked. Oaxyctl looked startled and pulled himself up as quickly as he could. John gave him a hand up onto the crook. Far below them the ground peeked out from between the tiniest cracks in leaves, where the sun turned into hazy shafts of light that penetrated the cool shadows. 

“It’ll be hard to see the sun once we are below the trees,” John said. “Do you know where we are?” John’s highly visual internal map was beginning to build a picture for him. 

“Not really, but that’s okay.” Oaxyctl lowered himself down to the next branch. John hung by his hook from an overhead branch and grabbed Oaxyctl’s hand. The mongoose-man half-turned. “What?” he snapped. 

“Watch your step.” 

The branch beneath Oaxyctl’s leather boot crumbled away in a puff of rotted dust. It smashed down through the leaves, shaking loose drops of condensation, seeds, and dirt, which all trickled down through the air in a sifting shower. 

“Thank you.” Oaxyctl swung over to another branch. John followed him down, blinking as everything got dimmer and dimmer. 

Oaxyctl paused to notch a dart into his atlatl. With a burst of energy he whipped the dart at the gasbag, puncturing it. 

“That will keep it from getting into the air again,” he explained, “now that our weight is off of it.” 

The airship, without them in it, had been struggling to rise again. 

At the base of the tree Oaxyctl took out a compass, oriented himself to north by the needle, and shifted his pack and spears. “We’re much further away than I wanted to be. We need to keep moving; our airship will be visible if any other Azteca airships are close and saw all that and are hoping to catch us.” 

He struck off, and John followed. “Would we make that much of an important target?” 

Oaxyctl shrugged. “If we were an airship that had taken photographs showing the size and details of the Azteca army, and of exactly where they are, it might be worth their time to consider sending another airship and small group of warriors to find us.” 

Good point. John picked up the speed of his walk. 

More walking, he thought, brushing aside a prickly vine draped in front of him. But in the right direction. 

North to the city...





Thank you for trying out the Crystal Rain sampler. The book itself is available at most regular neighborhood bookstores, or at a variety of online vendors. See 

www.Crystal-Rain.com for ordering info, including info on how to get signed copies. 

The book's webpage, www.Crystal-Rain.com also includes a book blog, as well as an 'exclusives' area, deleted scenes, chapter by chapter commentary, and short stories related to Crystal Rain. 


About the author 


Tobias S. Buckell is a Caribbean born SF/F author who grew up in Grenada and the US and British Virgin Islands. He has seen over 25 short stories published in various magazines and anthologies. His second book, Ragamuffin, is out June 2007. 

He keeps a blog and website at www.TobiasBuckell.com