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EXCERPT: “La Barceloneta – A Joining of Houses”

So here’s the thing, kids:

Those of you who’ve been following my story know that I’m writing my first novel, and that I recently conducted a Kickstarter campaign to fund my efforts. Sadly, that effort failed, but it DID show me that there are so many amazing and awesome people out there who are willing to support independent authors and artists.  I’ve decided to table the Kickstarter idea for right now, and go directly to the people. But I don’t expect you to buy a pig in a poke, my beloved Hordelings. Nosirree.

So, here’s the prologue to the novel. For your reading pleasure. Check it out, and let me know your thoughts. If you’re interested in supporting independent authors and artists, I would encourage you to donate by using the PayPal button in the upper right-hand corner of this blog (you can also donate at my Tumblr, if you’re more accustomed to encountering my lunacy on that site).  Since I’m no longer Kickstarting, I can’t really hew to the list of “goodies” associated with that campaign, but rest assured that everyone who donates will receive, at a minimum, a free copy of the eBook.

Check it out, and spread the word, my friends. I’d also (as I said) love to hear your thoughts. Your feedback matters more to me than you probably realize.

And now, without further ado, I give you:

PROLOGUE: A JOINING OF HOUSES

The party was an enormous success. Its formal name, in the language of the People, was “Chalquitli’s Amusement at the Joining of Houses,” but most people – even the boy’s parents, sticklers for protocol if ever such existed – referred to it simply as “The Amusement.” Nearly everyone in the GoldenCitywas there; the grassy mound just outside Aztlán was covered with families stretched out on blankets or lounging on the stone benches scattered around the terraced hillside. A great deal of pulque had been consumed, along with dishes both savory and sweet, but the massive stone tables were still heaped high with offerings of all kinds, and the great undying agave from which the purest and most potent pulque flowed in endless rivers remained effusive. The two families to be joined by the marriage promise – one dressed in bright feathers and gold, the other in dark furs and glittering silver – were seated on thrones of bone and mesquite set into slots on a stone dais. The burdens of rank and privilege kept them from expressing their merriment as exuberantly as those on the hillside, but even the relatively muted celebration of royalty was a merry thing to behold. The Doom that had hung over the People was to be averted at last, by some clever, mystical scheming of the great Houses, and that was as much a reason to celebrate as the joining of the two most powerful houses in Aztlán. From least to greatest, the People on the hillside were aglow with relief and merriment.

All of them, that is, except the boy.

The boy did not want to be at the party. He did not want to be standing next to his parents on the dais while his father gave a boring speech to all the other Families. He did not want to be wearing his ceremonial finery; the circlet of gold on his brow, thick with carvings and top-heavy thanks to the enormous topaz-and-feather sun set into the band, kept sliding down his brow and blocking his vision. The cloud of dander floating up from the dusty cape of feathers made him sneeze. The scaled-down macahuiza his father had strapped to the boy’s waist was heavy even with round stones in place of the shiny black ixtli blades. The pommel, a marbled turquoise ball the size of a chicken egg, kept digging into his ribs through the side-ties of thick leather breastplate.

Nor was his attire the only reason for his unhappiness. Yesterday, he had been just one of his father’s many sons – first among equals, perhaps, but still only a boy, free to run and explore the jungles, fields and fens that surrounded Aztlán. Then the girl in the purple cape had come, and he’d been pulled away from his brothers (except for his twin, who paid little attention to any sort of rules and went where he pleased) and stuffed into armor normally reserved for the Feast of the Unconquerable Sun before being told he was now a man, and that the pale, raven-haired girl in the dark cloak was to be his wife.

He was not, in a word, amused.

“The Houses of Day and Night are well-matched, are they not?” his father said quietly, drawing the boy’s attention away from his sweaty discomfort for a moment. The crowd ceased its murmuring, and all heads turned toward the dais. His father’s voice had that effect on people.

“The red flower of love – a flower that grows thick and lush in the garden of the heart, domain of lovely Chalquitli— must be planted in rich soil. It must be tended carefully and with vigilance, but the blossom it bears is worth limitless toil.” He pulled his wife close to him and kissed her, eliciting a chorus of hoots and whistles from the crowd. The boy in the cape studied the dais, hoping to find a hole large enough to fall into. His father released his giggling wife and placed a hand on his son’s shoulder. His hands were large and square and topped with golden rings. His touch was, as always, almost uncomfortably warm. The boy raised his eyes, holding his headdress with one hand. His father’s sharp eyes were blazing coals underneath the golden bill of his hummingbird crown, which cast a dark blue shadow across his forehead in the bright noontime sun. The man squeezed his son’s shoulder affectionately and then raised his hands to take in the entire gathering. “Today, we celebrate the planting of the red flower by two families kept too long apart by petty bitterness and sullen anger.” The families seated on the dais and on the hillside hooted and slapped their palms against their thighs. The man laughed and called for silence. “My heart is gladdened to welcome the House of Night into our councils once more.” He nodded at the man seated in the Jaguar Throne, who returned it with a wry smile. “But this wedding promise – this Amusement, as the women would have it – is also a triumph for the People as a whole. In this union of Houses lies the salvation of all worlds, for it will undo the Doom of Tlaloc.” Murmurs ran through the crowd, whose jubilation was now tempered by confusion. Across the dais, the girl in the purple cape turned her hooded face toward him. Was she looking at him? What did his father mean? He turned to his mother, who smiled at him sadly. The boy turned back to the murmuring crowd, some of whom were rising to approach the dais.

The man cupped his left hand behind his ear and closed his right in a fist over his mouth – a man cannot both speak and listen. The crowd fell silent, but a few figures – mostly older, powerful People who would not be intimidated by anyone, even their king – walked to the edge of the dais and sat down on the benches there. The boy’s father nodded to them respectfully and then continued. “Long have we sought a way to forestall the destruction of this world, and the darkening of those that will follow,” the tall man said. Unlike his scowling son, he did not seem bothered by the weight of crown or cape, despite the fact that the feathers of his cape were carved from wafer-thin sheets of mica, turquoise and other precious stones. “Many are the hours my esteemed cousin” – he nodded again to the swarthy man in the Jaguar Throne; the man brushed an invisible piece of dust from the spotted-fur collar of his black velvet cloak and returned the other man’s nod with a another inscrutable smile – “and I have spent applying our collective wisdom to this problem.” He fanned his hands and hooked his forefingers; the hunter sets the trap. “Our wisdom has proven sufficient to the task.” His hands closed into fists, one atop the other; the snare is full. At this, the people seated on blankets across the hillside raised their arms to the sky, shouting “Ahua!” The tall man allowed this to go on for a few moments before raising his hands to silence the throng once more.

“The Scion of Cipactli remains a threat. He is a knot in the fabric of time that cannot be unmade or cut.” Another murmur, louder this time, ran through the crowd; the tall man raised a closed fist to his chest and moved it in a clockwise circle over his breastbone; our sorrow is deep. “We cannot unmake him, but neither can we allow him to grow to fullness unchecked.” He paused and looked down at his son, who squinted up at him in sweaty wariness. The man reached out and touched his son’s face tenderly, then slid the crown up the boy’s forehead and back into place. He turned back to the crowd. “With no one to oppose him, his shadow will stretch across all worlds and cast them into chaos.” A bank of clouds chose this moment to pass in front of the sun, and the murmurs from the crowd grew louder; a few people raised their heads as if to scan the heavens for signs of imminent attack. Several of the smaller children burst into tears.

“Be at peace,” the man said. The sun emerged from behind the clouds and beamed full upon the dais. “In this matter, as in other challenges faced by the People since Ometekuli and Omekivat, the father and mother of all, brought us forth, the answer lies within our combined strength.” He turned and lifted his scepter from the brackets mounted on the arm of his throne and held it aloft; the solid-gold snake (made, some whispered, from the severed arm of his dead sister, who he’d dismembered and beheaded when she’d dared to attack their mother) that formed the handle was chased with silver, and the mirror it held in its fanged mouth was blinding in the restored sunlight. He held the scepter aloft and chanted briefly; the mirror flashed and then seemed to grow larger, filling the space above the dais with a shimmering field of white. He gestured to the man in the black cloak, who rose to his feet with grace and, taking up his staff, made his way across the dais. He walked with a pronounced limp, but was nevertheless as graceful as a cat. He raised his staff, which was capped by another gleaming obsidian mirror; his chant was more guttural than the tall man’s, but similar in effect; the image above the dais firmed and took on depth and shadow.

“Behold, the Doom of the Tlaloc, and the bane of all peoples,” said the man. The image above him shifted and flowed like water, slowly resolving into an image of massive planet wrapped in red seas and dotted with lushly verdant island continents. “The world we made for all Children of the People,” said the man in the feather cape. Beads of sweat had formed on his forehead, and his voice was strained. “The outer gardens of Tlalocan, called Circe by the Children of the People.” The man closed his eyes, lips moving soundlessly; the image dissolved, refocused. It now showed a bustling community, one of the coastal cities of the north, below the migratory islands the Children called The Dancing Sisters. The city sat on a hillside much like the one occupied by the Amusement. The day was peaceful; the red waters of theNorthernSea, rich with life, were calm beneath a placid blue sky. The People watched in silent apprehension. The boy in the feathered cape looked up into the sky, wondering how he and the crowd could be seeing the same thing; he was curious and mechanically-inclined by nature, but after one look at the mask of concentration on his father’s face he opted to table his questions for later.

The two men – one fair, one dark – chanted in unison, and the image drew closer to the city; individual citizens appeared, going about the tasks of the day. There were members of every race of Children on the streets: Fellis and Itzcuint; Legartine and Quetza; Kumati and Xoc; dozens more. But most populous by far were the Children of Ozomatli, cleverest of apes. Many credited the tall man standing on the dais with making them, but that was just good PR; like all the Children, the humans took after their father – and their father was the Monkey King (a figure conspicuously absent from the festivities this sunny afternoon…an absence that did not escape the notice of those gathered).

It was one of the humans who noticed things were amiss. Their senses were dull compared to the other Children, but their technology was unrivaled, and one of them, a bespectacled, lithe man with a shock of red hair, ran out into the streets, screaming. His words, distant in both time and space, were difficult to hear even for creatures so mighty as those assembled on the hill outside Aztlán, but snippets floated up and out from the image. “…sensor buoys eleven through forty-six!” cried the tiny red-haired man. He had grabbed another human, a woman, by her shoulders. From the heart of the city, sirens began to blare, a steady WHOOP-WHOOP-WHOOP that threatened to drown out the man’s cries. The two men on the dais chanted again, sweat pouring down their faces now, and the image drew closer to the two humans standing in the middle of the suddenly-empty street. When the man spoke again, his voice was louder, but so were the sirens. A young man with a dreamy expression and flowers in his hair rose from his seat near the dais and broke into a gliding dance; a series of elegant steps forming a complex pattern in the sand beside the fire pit. The flowers in his hair opened, releasing their scent into the breeze as the boy spun around twice and then raised his right hand, which he closed into a fist. The sirens stuttered and fell silent as he took his seat once more, and the two men on the podium gave a shared nod of thanks as words of the figure floating in the sky-image became clear.

“Morgan, it’s not pirates this time. This is…this…it’s huge, do you understand me?” The young man’s face was almost as red as his hair. “Those sensors are what, a mile apart? It ripped through thirty-five of them without slowing down. They deployed both their artillery and mines, and everything just…vanished.” He released his grip on the stunned woman and ran a hand through his sweaty hair. “I don’t think we can – ”

Whatever the man had been about to say was lost as a roar shattered the sky. The people on the hillside recoiled in terror, and the two men holding their scepters aloft grimaced in agony and exhaustion. The image roiled and shimmered before firming up again. The boy in the feathered cape watched his brother scramble under their father’s cloak. He longed to join his brother, but he was a man, now – he would not shame the House of Day by acting like a terrified child. Even so, he gripped the hilt of his macahuiza tightly and stepped a pace closer to his father.

In the sky above the hillside, an abomination appeared. It rose from the crimson waters of theNorth Sea, water streaming from its pebbly hide. Hideous eyes, each easily the size of an elephant and black as jet, were scattered across its misshapen head above a mouth so wide it and toothy that it extended beyond the borders of the visible image. It reared and lurched toward shore, impossibly tall. As it drew closer, more mouths, smaller but no less toothy, became visible. They were set into the chitin of the thing’s armored belly and ran the length of its twisted limbs. It raised one massive claw and smashed the fleet of ships sent out from the harbor to meet it. The mouths set into its huge talons made quick work of even the heaviest frigates, and whatever passed under those devouring, gnawing horrors did not emerge again. The beast roared anew, making the hillsides above and below tremble. Clouds blotted out the sun of both skies, thick and black, plunging the viewers and the viewed into twilight.

The screams of the terrified populace were echoed on the hillside of Aztlán. The creature, they knew, would let neither flesh nor soul escape its attentions. It would devour the planets, the stars, the very foundations of heaven itself, before coming for them. This was a thing beyond their blackest nightmares; even the most insatiable in the crowd, the ones who demanded the blood and offal of living creatures as tribute, recoiled from the all-devouring, endless hunger of the thing in the sky above them. Here was a hunger that would not, could not be satisfied. Here was oblivion, stony and implacable, with no regard for reason or sanity. Here was the end of all things, cast in fetid flesh.

The beast reached the city. It strode from the waves on stubby, misshapen legs, its gargantuan tail thrashing, sending tidal waves to destroy cities on distant coastlines. The image pulled back, and the crowd watching from the hillside could see citizens trying to escape, pouring from the city in ragged streams toward the distant mountains. Their efforts were futile; the massive head, miles wide, descended with uncanny speed; the entire city, including most of the desperate citizenry, vanished into its slavering maw. It raised its head and howled in triumph, a lunatic sound that spoke of endless hunger and the mad silence between the stars. For a moment, what may be threatened to destroy what was. Existence spun on the head of a pin, and none of the People dared move, lest they knock it from its slender perch.

Then the men on the dais groaned in unison and collapsed against one another, sliding to the cold stone platform. The image winked out, and beams of sunlight broke through the heavy clouds. The children in the crowd burst into fresh sobs, joined by more than a few of the adults. The boy’s brother emerged from under their father’s cape and stood over him silently with a curious expression on his face. The boy in the cape recovered his wits and shoved his brother aside, moving to help his father find his feet. His brother stumbled over a loose stone and fell against their father’s throne. He slid to the ground in front of the heavy chair, gripping the massive bone leg and staring at his brother uncertainly. His forehead was bleeding, but he appeared not to notice. The boy in the cape scowled and tugged at their father’s shoulder. His mother rose unsteadily and grabbed the man’s other shoulder, and together the boy and his mother pulled his exhausted father to his feet. All over the hillside, the more sensitive of the People were being helped to their feet by younger or hardier members of their Families. The vision in the sky brooked no argument; the creature, and the Doom that waited in its slavering maws, must be averted at all costs.

The tall man shook his head and inhaled deeply; his eyes, cloudy at first, found their focus again as sunlight returned to the dais. He smiled looked at his wife and then his son, and murmured his thanks. Behind them the man in the black cape was climbing slowly to his feet with the assistance of his staff. His own wife – she of the laugh like water leaping over stones, whose amusement at the plotting of her husband and his lordly cousin had given shape and name to the gathering – was out among the crowd, her jade-studded skirt glittering in the sun as she sang songs of comfort to the frightened and confused. The dark man hobbled over to the chair where he’d been sitting and said, “Come out, daughter. It is only what might be. Come out.”

The thick skirt of ocelot pelts that hid the base of the dark man’s throne twitched aside, revealing a pair of lambent green eyes. The boy in the cape of feathers took an involuntary step backward, reaching for his macahuiza. Then a pair of small white hands emerged, and the girl – his future wife, he reminded himself – pulled herself out into the sunshine, blinking. Her father helped her to her feet, and then led her over to where the boy and his family were standing. The two children stood and regarded one another silently for a moment, and then the girl reached out to take his hand in hers. She was trembling.

“There is no light without shadow,” said the dark man, speaking for the first time. “Nor are the four moons lit but by the grace of the sun.” He seemed to have recovered more quickly than the boy’s father, who was still leaning on his wife. “All have seen the future that waits if we take no action. All understand that the birth of such a creature will be the ruin of this world, and the ones that follow. It is only in this union, in the heirs of a shared House that hope for survival may be found.” He reached out and closed his hands around the clasped hands of the children. The man’s hands were not square and strong like those of the boy’s father, but dark and slender and clever – and they were very cold. The man wore no rings, but his fingers were capped with thin silver sheathes, embossed with flowers and jungle cats.

“Before all the People, do you swear to love and respect one another? Will you pledge to be honest in your dealings, and in your arguments, fair? Will you create from your love a House that brings honor and glory to the People, for all the days until the last?”

“I will,” they said together.

“Then I wish you love,” he said, smiling his tiny smile.

The girl’s father released their hands and stepped aside; the boy’s father took his place, his big, rough hands bringing welcome warmth. He inhaled deeply and squeezed their hands, gently. “Before all the People, do you swear to honor your aspects, and those of your sires? Will you heed the call of the Children, and honor their sacrifices with service and protection? Will you be moderate in your demands, merciful in your judgment, and generous in your rewards?”

“I will,” they repeated.

“Then it is the will of this Council that the Houses of Day and Night shall become one in three year’s time,” said the tanned man in the hummingbird crown. “And by such a union, produce the one whose strength shall be the strength of all Aztlán; one whose might will turn aside the Doom of Tlaloc and destroy the Scion of Cipactli.”

He released their hands, beaming. “I wish you love,” he said, and clapped his son on the back.

The boy’s treacherous crown chose that moment to slide down his forehead to rest on the bridge of his generous nose. The hillside and dais erupted into laughter and thigh-slapping. The boy blushed and raised his hands to push the crown back into place, but before he could do so, the girl said “Here, let me,” and pushed it back into place with her tiny white hands. They were slender and clever, like her father’s, but cool rather than icy. She brushed a stray lock of auburn hair from his sweaty forehead, tucking it under the band of the crown.

“Thanks,” said the boy, shifting his feet. This close, she smelled of hyacinths and cool earth, as well as something harder to define – something primal that made him think again of her eyes glowing like green coals in the shadows of the throne. She smiled at him, shyly, and it seemed to him as though her small, sharp teeth took a bite right out of his pounding heart.

“The Houses of Day and Night are indeed well-matched!” cried his father, laughing. He grabbed their hands in his massive paws and lifted them both onto tip-toes. “Thus are promised my son Chilticuatli and Itzoxeloti, daughter of Tezcatlipoca – and by their union shall gods and men alike be saved!” The crowd roared its approval.

Red Eagle, Prince of Heaven, eldest son of Juitzlipoc and Avatar of the Unconquerable Sun, felt his crown starting to slide again. He scrunched his nose, willing the heavy gold circlet back up his forehead, but it was no use. It slid down his forehead and over one eye, eliciting another roar of cheers and laughter from the crowd. On the other side of his father’s massive chest, the girl called Obsidian Ocelot – the Daughter of Twilight, Guardian of the Twin Horizons – met his eyes with hers and smiled.

And inside his secret heart, the boy felt a red flower bloom.

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