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By K. Michael Wright Medallion Press, Inc. Copyright © 2006 K. Michael Wright
All right reserved.
Chapter One ONE REED
The Island Named Paradise, the Eastern Sea
The Toltec year One Reed, the season of the quetzal-May 455 AD
When night had grown long, and the fires of the village had died, Topiltzin, alone, climbed the high cliffs at the sea's edge. With warm salt air in his lungs, he knelt and searched the stars before dawn swallowed them. At least the skies had not changed. He had never been certain how far they had traveled through this ocean before reaching the island; but he knew at least that these were the same stars he had studied from the Hill of Shouting when he was young. Through all the years of his exile, Topiltzin had watched this sky. He had carefully tracked the path of the Blue Stars against the horizon. He had marked the days.
He was old-fifty and two years, the same age his father would have been when Topiltzin left for his last rubberball game in the Southland so many years ago in Tollán. Topiltzin's skin was aged; his beard, long and white-gold; the tangled locks of his hair along the sides were silvered, but his eyes were still a steady, sharp, blue ice as they searched the face of the sea.
Topiltzin heard a rustle, and turning, he discovered Paper Flower had followed him. She was there, suddenly beside him. That was her way, jaguar eyes, silent, a soft wind you did not notice until you felt it lightly brush your skin.
When Topiltzin had died his first death, when the Lord of the Shadow Walkers had slain him, Paper Flower's had been the first face he had seen from death's abyss. He was certain death had already tasted his flesh, accepted it, and Topiltzin had nearly slipped away forever-there seemed no reason to remain-but when he looked back one last time, he saw her. She had been dabbing at his blood with a wet cloth, and when she realized he was watching, she gasped, startled. Glancing at her now, Topiltzin remembered that moment so clearly-her face that first time, how it cut against the acid blue of the sky behind her-her sharp features, her raven hair, the small lips, her eyes, quick, tender. In that moment, it had been as though Paper Flower reached across the quiet of death, touched Topiltzin's heart, gently, softly ... and brought him back.
One score years and four had passed, yet she looked this night more beautiful than ever; her jet hair was now silvered in streaks that played in the moonlight. They had grown old here, upon this isle of the sea. They had born children beneath the white sun. They had laughed, they had wept. Life had played itself out in measured breath, and now Paper Flower was a part of him, their flesh one flesh. There was now a little of Topiltzin in the eyes of Paper Flower, and she in his, a warmth, a knowing touch, a tenderness almost like a wound.
Topiltzin turned back to the horizon. It was there, the talisman, the Morning Star. It ran herald of the sun, and Topiltzin knew she had traced its path as carefully as he had. He knew how she had feared this particular dawn for many years. They simply had never spoken of it. Yet it had come in the night like a thief, and now it was as though the future were kneeling there with them, as though part of what they were had already become memory.
"The Son of the Morning passes through the house of the Raven," Topiltzin said. "This is the year One Reed."
She quickly brushed aside silent tears, as though irritated with them. "Is there no way I can touch your heart?" she whispered.
Topiltzin kept his gaze upon the horizon-partly because he did not want to see her tears, he did not want to break. He had broken inside over the past few days many times and now he was determined to be strong and so he kept his gaze on the sea, the face of it, like blue leather, rippled with the rose of dawn. "You own my heart," he said, quietly.
"And yet you are going to leave."
"I have no choice in that, Paper Flower."
"You have choices. Choice is what you gave us that day on the beach when the Lord of the Shadow Walkers came for our souls. It was your gift to us, but also, it was our gift to you. We gave you life, we offered you choice, and now comes the moment you must choose. Choose between us and your ghosts, Topiltzin."
He sighed, finally turned to her. Paper Flower's eyes searched his, angry. He touched her cheek, but she pulled back. He could sense her anger, but all he felt in response was sadness, far, a sadness that just watched. "Somewhere," he said, softly, "love is marked-all we have shared-as love could ever be."
She shook her head. "No. Not this time. You speak with a silvered tongue, my prince, but there are no words to make this pretty."
Another tear crossed her cheek. Topiltzin reached to catch it, but Paper Flower angrily brushed his hand aside.
"You want to take my tears? You could. You could take them all if you wished. It is a simple thing to take them. But if you do what you are thinking, Topiltzin, then I shall keep these tears." She waited for a response and when she didn't sense it forthcoming, she turned away sharply, slipping over the steep side for the climb down.
"Wait! Paper Flower!"
He reached for her, but she was too quick, and she did not look back. For a time he stared after her, sadly, but then he turned to look again at the sea and forced the sting of sadness away. There was no time for it; there could be no weakness in him now. These many years, Topiltzin had listened to the silence that carried across these waters, but what was more, what he could not turn from-he had also listened to the screams. Perhaps that day on the sand-long ago in the land of Tollán, when he had faced the Shadow Walker-perhaps he had cheated death. Topiltzin had taken these years like a thief, but now it had turned, time had curled about the earth in full circle. The dawn sun would mark the Bundling of Years. It was time to return to Tollán.
* * *
Paper Flower crossed the white sand of the beach beneath the cliffs. She had first started toward her hut; but knowing Topiltzin would come later, she decided he should find it empty. He should get used to empty; empty was his choosing now. She had loved him these many years, full and rich and with all her heart, and their sons and daughters, they were like sparkling jewels. She had tried to teach him to forget, but she had failed, and in failing to reach Topiltzin's heart, it seemed she had failed in everything. Her sadness was as endless as the sky this night.
She made her way to the wide, half-moon beach where the sand glittered as though diamonds might have been tossed. It was one of the most beautiful places she had ever known, and there were memories here-good memories, cherished.
Near a shelf of blue rock that curled fingers against the dark, ancient stone of cliffs, she slid onto one of the ledges and sat back, searching the curl of the waves for an answer, for comfort, for anything they might offer.
He had been a good father, Topiltzin. When his sons, born of thirteen queens, had grown old enough to touch manhood, Topiltzin started to train them. Paper Flower watched as their children first played mock games, wrestling for control of hillocks or groves of coconut trees; and in the beginning, she had smiled. It seemed the games built strength and courage, teaching them well. They laughed as they struggled in mock battles; but as they grew older, Topiltzin's sons carried shields that were as well crafted as any she had known in Tollán. They fashioned deadly spears and bows that could sink their oiled shafts deep into the trunks of palm trees; and not long after, the laughter-their innocence and youth-started to leave their eyes. More and more the peaceful valleys of the island they had named Paradise filled with the chilling echoes of the Flower-Song, the words the ancient heralds had given war in the Land of the Reeds. Then she knew; she realized what he was planning. Topiltzin was going to return. And he was going to take their sons.
Excerpted from Tolteca by K. Michael Wright Copyright © 2006 by K. Michael Wright. Excerpted by permission.
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