For Mayana, the only daughter of the Chicome family whose blood controls the power of water, the old emperor’s death may mean that she is next. Prince Ahkin must be married before he can ascend the throne, and Mayana is one of six noble daughters presented to him as a possible wife. Those who are not chosen will be sacrificed to the gods.
Only one girl can become Ahkin’s bride. Mayana and Ahkin feel an immediate connection, but the gods themselves may be against them. Both recognize that the ancient rites of blood that keep the gods appeased may be harming the Chicome more than they help. As a bloodred comet and the fading sun bring a growing sense of dread, only two young people may hope to change their world.
Rich in imagination and romance, and based on the legends and history of the Aztec and Maya people, The Seventh Sun brings to vivid life a world on the edge of apocalyptic disaster.
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The Great Star was fading.
Most of the palace slumbered, enjoying a respite from the daily routines that secured the favor of the gods. Prince Ahkin, however, splayed his hands across the surface of a carved stone table with a heavy sigh. Charts of star movements and accompanying religious texts lay strewn before him, detailing the knowledge the Chicome people had collected since the time of the Second Sun. Muted light from the moon, forever jealous of its glorious brother, filtered in through the palace window along with the stifling humidity of the jungle beyond.
He slammed his fist against the table. Why were the heavens being so secretive tonight? His calculations were accraute; he had repeated them several times just to be sure. The Seventh Sun had set much earlier than it should have last night. And just after the first stars had blinked awake, a comet appeared in the heavens. A comet the color of blood. If the gods painted their warnings in the skies, then what were they trying to tell him? There must be an answer.
"M-m-my lord?" came a tremulous voice from behind him.
"What is it?" The prince refused to lift his gaze from his calculations. The servants usually knew better than to disturb him so late into the night.
Shuffling footsteps grew louder. "I am so sorry to interrupt, but you are needed to ... to ... raise the sun."
A stone seemed to settle in the pit of his stomach. The sun was not his responsibility — not yet.
He whirled to face a familiar middle-aged man dressed in traditional white cotton cloak and loincloth. Olli. White feathers crowned the top of his head — a symbol of his status as one of his father's most loyal servants. Olli's face gave the impression he had seen a spirit wandering in the land of the living. The hair on the back of Ahkin's neck rose.
Ahkin's eyes narrowed. "Why is my father unable to perform the ritual?"
"Emperor Acatl has begun his journey through the underworld." Olli dropped his chin to his chest.
Ahkin lunged from the table and grabbed the servant's shoulder, a sound like rushing water filling his ears.
"Coatl. Summon Coatl. What are you waiting for?" The command poured from his lips with the power and authority of the emperor — which he realized, with a start, was a title that might actually belong to him now.
"We summoned the healer immediately, but it was too late.
Your father is gone, my lord."
The prince stumbled back. Folding his hands behind his head, he paced in a small circle, urgency racing through his veins along with the blood of the god of the sun.
"We do not know how. Your mother discovered his body when she awoke." The wretched servant held his hands over his face.
Air rushed from Ahkin's lungs as if he'd taken a blow to the stomach. If his father was gone, then that meant ...
"And my mother?"
"She is preparing to fulfill her duty to the emperor as we speak."
"My lord, there is nothing you can do. The codex stipulates that she must take her life so that she may accompany your father on his journey. If she does not, she will dishonor the emperor and the gods themselves."
Ahkin ignored him and sprinted from the room. The Eagle warriors standing guard outside of his room called after him in concern.
Shadows of night still clung to the dark hallways of the palace. He removed the obsidian dagger from his waistband and sliced the blade across his thumb. The moment the blood of the sun god oozed through the cut, the power of his ancestor coursed through him. He threw out his hand, calling every trace of light from the palace torches, even the reflected rays of the moon itself. The light obeyed his command, pouring into the hall and illuminating the path ahead.
His heart threw itself against his ribcage, almost as if it could escape and run the distance faster on its own. The wailing of servants filled his ears as he passed one of their residential halls. Though many emperors before had been ruthless and cruel in their reigns, his father had been as well-loved as he was respected. Several servants fell to their knees and prostrated themselves before him as he passed. He traded the anguish rising up inside him for numb disbelief. He didn't have time to feel. He had to get to her before it was too late.
Ahkin rounded the corner into the emperor's chambers. The light that had followed the calling of his blood flooded into the room behind him, but it did little to ease the dark shadow that seemed to hang over the room like an otherworldly presence.
The empress of the Chicome stood before a small group of Tlana priests, her yellow-and-gold robe glittering in his summoned light. Ahkin took in the body of his father, unmarked and peaceful, resting upon the bed mat as though he were sleeping. Even in death, his father's lightly lined face seemed far too young. Had something internal been plaguing him without their knowledge? Had the gods simply decided it was his time and taken him? Only the healer would be able to answer those questions, and Ahkin would ensure he did. The image didn't seem real, as though his father would sit up at any moment and greet them with a beaming smile. But if what the servant said was true ...
Had the signs in the heavens been a warning?
His mother's coal-dark eyes found his own, and he swallowed hard. "Mother ..." But Ahkin couldn't think what to say. He couldn't ask her to stop, especially given the pointed stares of the priests surrounding her like spirits waiting to escort her to the depths of Xibalba. He clenched his teeth, restraining the beast within him that longed to fly across the room and pry the obsidian dagger from his mother's fingers. This was not right, no matter what the codex demanded.
"My lord prince." One of the priests stepped forward, the many beads and ornaments hanging around his neck rattling like bones. "The blood of Huitzilopochtli must be shown the respect it deserves. It is not to be summoned merely in lieu of finding a torch to light a hallway."
Condescension dripped from the priest's tone and crawled underneath Ahkin's skin, but he bit his tongue and returned his attention to his mother.
"You can't leave me. I need you. The Great Star is fading and ..." The empress swept forward, a ray of sunlight penetrating the gloom. She placed a hand against his cheek. His throat tightened in response. No matter what had happened in his life, she had always been that continual source of comfort, a steadfast presence that never wavered.
"You will be fine without me, dear boy. You are the emperor now, and you will not be alone. It's your turn to select a wife who can stand by your side, one who will fill your world with vibrancy and life and color. Someone to complete your duality."
"It's too soon. I'm not ready. There's still so much I need to observe, to study, to learn ..."
His mother gave a soft laugh. "You always think that knowledge gives you power, but you will never learn enough to feel ready. There are some answers in this life that will elude you, Ahkin. Sometimes, there are none to be found. Those are the times where you must trust the will of the Mother."
"What about Metzi?" he threw out in a pathetic attempt to change her mind.
"There is not enough time for me to say goodbye to her. We don't know how long ago your father entered Xibalba, and I must accompany him. That is my duty and my honor."
"Please tell your sister that I love her, and remind her that she must do her duty to the family." Her watery smile betrayed no fear or regret.
"Mother — please wait ..."
"Honor the rituals, Ahkin. It is your job to protect our people now, and you must not anger the gods." She spoke with such finality that Ahkin knew better than to argue. His mother's faith never faltered. It was as steady as the mountains. Her strength and dedication to the gods had always earned their favor in the past. How could they demand this of her now? Demand her very life?
"I will," he choked out. His throat was thick, as though he had swallowed cold honey. A vicious battle waged inside his heart. He knew the rituals kept his people safe, that there was nothing more important than pleasing the gods, but despite that knowledge, part of him raged against their cruel demand. How could they take her away from him?
His mother's smile widened. "I will always hold you in my heart."
And she plunged the dagger beneath her breastbone.
Ahkin spread a hand across his chest as if the dagger had pierced him as well. Blood drenched his mother's fingers, flowing down her dress in a river of scarlet. She slowly lowered herself to the floor as the priests surrounded her and blocked her from view — separating them forever as the last of her life force faded. The smell of the holy incense burned his nose and the chanting prayers of the priests faded against the rushing in his ears.
Where he was supposed to feel pride in his mother's dedication, he instead felt a hollow emptiness, as though a torch had been snuffed out leaving only a darkness. Honor the rituals, she had said. Honor the rituals. The rituals that protected their empire, pleased the gods, and kept the sun aloft. The same rituals that had just taken his mother away from him.
Olli's hand touched his shoulder lightly and he jerked away, numb with disbelief.
"My lord ... the sun. Please."
He rose to his feet and rubbed his eyes with a thumb and forefinger. His parents were both gone. A weight like a cumbersome cloak settled onto his shoulders, making it hard to breathe. How could this have happened so suddenly? How could everything change in the course of a single night?
Shoving down the suffocating pressure building in his chest, he tried to focus on the jobs that needed to be done — to honor the gods, protect his people, follow his mother's final wish. As usual, the rigid boundaries of the codex's holy texts quelled the chaos in his mind. Despite how he felt, at least he knew what he had to do. That was part of the beauty of the rituals.
"Are we prepared for the morning ceremony?" He willed his voice to remain strong and calm.
"Yes, my lord. The sacrificial papers are waiting for you on the altar."
This day would've come eventually. He'd prepared for this moment his entire eighteen calendar cycles of life, but he always imagined there would be more time. His father dying in his sleep — not even Coatl, the healer, could have prevented that. His father hadn't been ill, at least not that anyone knew of. Perhaps he had hidden his condition because he didn't want to appear weak? Or had his body failing really been a silent surprise? The will of the gods was sometimes as baffling as it was terrifying.
He crossed the lush gardens of the central courtyard, his sense of purpose growing stronger with each step. The heavy scent of the night-blooming flowers washed the incense from his nose. Fountains trickled through the snaking pools, their joyous music feeling out of place. Monkeys chattered and darted between branches as if spreading news of the new emperor's approach. All around him, the palace began to rouse. Servants that had not yet learned the terrible news busied themselves in the storerooms, preparing the day's first meal. Birds twittered in their wooden cages, greeting the aviary with their morning songs.
The entire Chicome Empire now relied on him. Hundreds of thousands of lives depended on his blood. He and his twin sister, Metzi, were now the only two surviving descendants of the sun god. Dread filled his stomach at the thought of waking her after the ceremony. She would be devastated. Still, he wanted to be the one to tell her. She was the only family he had left — until she left for Ehecatl to marry the oldest son of the Storm Lord. A wife would soon replace his sister at his side.
Becoming emperor. A wife. Children. How could he endure so much change without his parents? He would never again seek his father's wise counsel. His mother would never know the joy of grandchildren.
Reaching the foot of the Temple of the Sun, he gazed upward at the hundreds of steps ascending the sloping sides of the tiered pyramid. The temple loomed like a golden mountain atop the volcanic plateau, casting its massive shadow over the capital city in the pale light of the glowing moon. Behind the distant mountains and the miles of dense jungle that separated them from the city, a pinkish glow hinted at the sun waiting just below the horizon.
Waiting for him.
He turned to the servant, Olli, who had been trotting along in his wake.
"Notify the matchmaker Atanzah and send representatives immediately to the six other city-states to inform the lords of the noble families that Emperor Acatl is dead. They are to send their chosen daughters as soon as possible. I want to begin the ritual of selecting an empress in no more than a week's time."
"Yes, my ... my emperor."
The prince squirmed a little at the new title. "I am your emperor in spirit, but not in name until I find a wife."
"Yes, my prince. Please forgive me." Olli paused, seeming to chew on a question before continuing. "Should we anticipate any resistance? The noble families are all aware of ... of ... what happens to the daughters who are not chosen?"
"They will not question what the gods have ordained, or they risk bringing another apocalypse upon us all."
Ahkin pursed his lips but did not respond. Ehecatl, city of storms, was still under his rule, and the tension there would hopefully ease with the upcoming wedding between his sister and their oldest son.
Olli inclined his head before rushing back to the palace.
Ahkin took a deep breath and straightened his spine. He wasn't ready for this — for the responsibility, the title, even to be married. How had he missed the warning signs of such a life-altering event? He should have been able to divine the answers from the stars.
He would consult with the high priest after the sun had risen.
His sandaled foot slid onto the first smooth golden step, and he began the climb toward his destiny. A low-level Tlana priest waited at the top, bouncing nervously on the balls of his feet. Giant feathers protruded from the priest's elaborate headdress, and his blood-red ceremonial robes glittered with beads and adornments of various gemstones. Wrinkles like tiny bird feet creased the corners of his ancient eyes, but there were more creases on his brow than usual.
Ahkin crested the final step, panting slightly from the exertion of so many stairs, and greeted the priest with a small nod.
The priest returned the greeting with a slow, sorrowful incline of his head and gestured toward the altar, darting an anxious glance to the dim glow on the horizon and back to the prince. So many depended on the timely ritual that brought the sunrise.
Standing over the strips of maguey paper scattered across the altar, Ahkin drew the blade of the ceremonial knife across his palm, a far larger and deeper cut than the one on his thumb. The image of his mother's blood flashed before his eyes and he blinked furiously to remove it. The gods demanded blood, and it was blood he must give them. With a wave of his hand, red stained the papers like raindrops the color of cinnabar. He gathered them together before throwing them into the massive brazier that burned atop the temple. The heat of the flames rushed against his face, and he released a breath. He had watched his father perform this same ritual thousands of times, never thinking the burden would fall to his own shoulders so soon.
Clenching his injured hand into a fist, he ignored the sting of the cut. Coatl would heal the skin later. A feather of smoke from the burning papers curled into the air, and the city was bathed in light. Fed by the blood of Ahkin's ancestor, the god Huitzilopochtli, the sun's glowing face greeted him and began its journey across the sky. Ahkin let its warmth creep across his skin, savoring the feeling and thanking the Mother goddess for the light of the Seventh Sun — that the Chicome Empire even had a sun at all.
Their sun had been destroyed six times. First by water, then by fire, then famine, sickness, beasts, and storms. After each apocalypse, the creator goddess Ometeotl allowed one of her divine children to sacrifice themselves to save civilization. The gods paid their blood as the price for the lives of the people, and the people owed them blood in return. The compulsion to repay that debt was ever present in their culture, even though it had been hundreds of calendar cycles since the last sun was destroyed. And there was an undercurrent continually whispering at the edge of Ahkin's mind ...
When would this world end?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Seventh Sun"
Copyright © 2019 TK.
Excerpted by permission of Blackstone Publishing.
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