The sunset lent a warm, almost cozy glow to the stacks of scarlet-washed terraces that supported the buildings of Mutul. It was a city stuffed with more pyramids than any place Neith-Ka recalled from her native Khamit. Her people might have buried their Pharaohs in monuments of equal or even more mountainous scale, but then these peculiar Mayabans would lay every one of their structures on top of a stepped pyramid, none less than two stories high, with everyone having to hike up a succession of stone stairs to reach the summit.
Neith-Ka shook her foot to dull the pain chewing away at her tendons. Already the woven papyrus of her sandals had started to splinter apart from wear. The Khamitan people may have taken pride in the grandeur of their own monuments, but never would their architects dare subject anyone to so many tortuous steps. You weren’t even supposed to climb the royal tombs back home.
Huya, her high steward, clicked his tongue with a frown. “You could feign a good attitude, Your Highness.”
Neith-Ka drew in a deep breath through her nostrils. “I’ve done my best. Please show some understanding.”
“I saw you pouting. And, I swear by the scales of Ma’at, I heard you mutter a curse while shaking that leg. You don’t seem to remember that you’re representing your father, your family, and all the Black Land here, princess. I’ll see no more lip from you tonight!”
With another inhale, Neith-Ka straightened herself up and nodded to her steward. As he and their entourage of guards and servants marched up yet another ramp of steps, she huddled close behind while keeping her focus on their destination on top. Looking back down the pyramid’s height could only intimidate her further. Even more so with the lighter brown locals crowding behind her with the gawks of strangers who had never seen even one darker-skinned person their entire lives.
The lip of the stairway connected to a platform that supported a ring of rectangular buildings around a courtyard, all plastered with a blazing red base. Yet these were not monochrome edifices, for each had mounted on its walls and over its doorways elaborate reliefs of jade-plumed gods, snarling gold leopards (or were those called jaguars over here?), and the strings of complicated square images that constituted the Mayaban culture’s written language.
To think that foreigners claimed that Khamit’s hieroglyphs were impossible to read! No mortal could possibly even draw their Mayabic equivalents.
From one short and wide building at the far end of the complex floated a faint yet spicy odor, with thin trails of steam snaking out from tiny windows in the walls towards its left edge. Dark green curtains, splashed with reds, golds, and purples hung behind the gallery of square columns that supported the remainder of the building’s length. Standing in front were a pair of native guards, stocky men in padded cotton vests who parted their obsidian-fringed spears upon noticing the Khamitans’ arrival.
Huya bowed at the waist to both guards. “Excuse me, my good man, but where would His Majesty the Ahau and his family be?”
“Already inside, waiting with as much patience as they’ve got,” one of the guards said.
The second glanced at Neith-Ka from the corner of his eye. “And you’re the one he’s waiting on, I presume. Not so ugly as far as your kind goes, if a bit overcooked. I’d advise you to stay clear of his youngest daughter.”
Neith-Ka gave him a subtle smile to hide the prickling sensation that crept up her back. “I’ll…uh, keep that in mind…my undercooked friend.”
“Princess! What did I say?” Huya hammered the butt of his high steward’s staff twice on the stone pavement.
“Aw, give your woman a pass,” the first guard said. “She was only telling my friend to show more hospitality. Right, Yaxkin?”
Strutting away from the two guards as they argued with one another in the Mayabic language, Neith-Ka plunged herself through the curtains into the royal dining hall.
All chatter within the dining hall halted upon her first step inside.
There had already congregated two circles of people at opposite ends of the space enclosed by the curtains and columns. To the right sat all women and girls on pillows fringed with blue and scarlet macaw feathers, whereas to the left were all men who sat around a stone platform tapered like a miniature pyramid. Both parties stared at Neith-Ka with slackened jaws and no words spoken, with a few of the men’s eyes glinting with that all-too-familiar male emotion.
She gave a nervous chuckle with a retreat towards the curtains, an uncomfortable warmth blushing within her cheeks. “Did I interrupt something?”
There sat on the leftward pyramidal platform a short man whose physique seemed much too gaunt to support his towering crown of deep green and red plumes, or even his necklaces and bracelets of gold, jade, and animal fangs. He raised a drinking cup of red clay and gave Neith-Ka a smile which dripped dark brown liquid from his wrinkled thin lips.
“No, no, we’re more than thankful to see you so soon, daughter of Amenhotep,” the bedecked old man said. “No need to worry yourself with formalities tonight.”
He released a belch that rumbled between the columns.
Neith-Ka raised an eyebrow. “Aren’t you the Ahau of Mutul?”
“Call me B’alaj. It’ll be easier on your tongue than all my titles. Now, before you indulge yourself in the finest cuisine of any of the Mayaban cities, I owe you my thanks for all that treasure you sent us. Mountains of ivory, ebony furniture, all those exquisite animal hides—even though, I daresay, your jaguars are rather dwarfish compared to ours—and then all the gold, copper, bronze…you Khamitans sure know how to buy yourselves a trade deal.”
Huya, who had already entered the scene with the rest of the Khamitans flanking him, bowed to the Ahau at the waist. “Glad to hear you appreciate our tribute, Ahau B’alaj.”
The Ahau extended his arm to the low table-like platform that sprawled over the central third of the hall, cloaked with jaguar hides held down by flickering gourd candles at the corners and then a vast, jumbled array of bowls and baskets holding food. “Help yourselves. Your hunger’s the limit. Though I say the tamales and the chocolate are the best.”
Neith-Ka had not come to the banquet with a bottomless stomach, but the variety of delicacies on display would have boggled even her father’s best cooks back in Khamit. Bowls held piles of multicolored beans, bulbs of squash, slender red peppers, and a lumpy paste that gave off the scent of avocado. In the baskets were stacks of thin yellow flatbreads, tropical fruits collected from the rainforest beyond the city, and cobs of maize scaled blue, red, and yellow. Roasted hunks of turkey, venison, fish, and even dog meat rested on the platters, and a fat pitcher streamed out a tendril of steam from its spout. Next to it sat a pile of folded corn husks stuffed with chili and some sort of dough.
After gathering a couple of these tamales for her plate, Neith-Ka poured herself a cup from the pitcher. What came out was a liquid the color of coffee from Habesha (the kingdom that bordered Khamit on the southeast), but this was thicker and frothier. “I guess this is your chocolate?”
B’alaj raised his cup again. “The beverage of royalty such as yourself, daughter of Amenhotep!”
Neith-Ka took her cup and tamales to the side of the room where the women of the Ahau’s family dined. They shoved themselves aside to give her a wider berth before she had even taken her own seat. None could manage to take their eyes off their Khamitian guest, even if they murmured unintelligible gossip from the corners of their mouths.
There was no point in calling them out on it, and not only because it would embarrass her entire civilization before the people of Mutul. As Neith-Ka and her people always like to say back in Khamit, those who hate would always hate.
She took a sip of the chocolate drink and grimaced, daring not to spit it out. It tasted every bit as bitter as the Habeshan coffee, except the Habeshans at least had milk and honey to improve the flavor if you didn’t like it plain. If only these Mayabans had the same!
“It’s an acquired taste, I know,” one of the Mayaban ladies said. “You’ll warm up to it later.”
Neith-Ka nodded as she took a second, longer sip. It pleased her no more than the first. “I’ll go look for some water next.”
Between two portly middle-aged women popped out the petite hand of a girl no older than six. “Why do you not like chocolate? Aren’t you Khamitans all covered in it?”
It was time to take another deep breath. Neith-Ka scooted herself a hand’s span further away from where the child sat, and then pinched the skin of her own arm. “We don’t paint ourselves with your chocolate, little one. It’s our natural color, see here? Am I to assume that your people paint yourselves bronze?”
“Don’t get too mad at my little Itzel,” the elder of the two women next to the girl said. “She won’t bite. She simply hasn’t grown out of her…mischievous streak yet. We’ve all been there at her age, haven’t we?”
Neith-Ka grumbled. “Fair enough. Though if we’re going to comment on each other’s appearances, I must say I like how your nose plugs looks. Are they green malachite?”
“Why, thank you, but they’re plain old jade. I don’t even know what that stuff you call malachite is. That said, you yourself have some exquisite gold on you, not to mention that seductive black eyeliner.”
“You mean the black kohl? It’s not supposed to be ‘seductive’. It helps protect our eyes from the desert sun’s glare and disease—”
Something tugged onto Neith-Ka’s braided hair.
She turned to see nobody behind her. “Who was that?”
All the Mayaban women responded only with blank, blinking looks. Neith-Ka noticed that the girl Itzel had disappeared beside her mother.
A second, stronger yank on Neith-Ka’s hair almost uprooted it from the flesh of her scalp. With a shrill yelp, she spun back and clasped her fingers on a small wrist.
Itzel was giggling without fear or regret.
“All you foreigners think it’s funny to touch our hair without asking, don’t you?” Neith-Ka asked.
“All my friends tell me your hairstyles are all fake,” Itzel said. “They tell me you women from Khamit always wear weaves because you don’t like how kinky and frizzy your natural hair is.”
Baring her teeth in a snarl, Neith-Ka tightened her grip on the girl’s hand to the point where she could feel the bones beneath the skin. “You mean wigs. And we only wear those after we shave for special occasions. The rest of the year, we’re as proud of our natural hair as any other women, and I won’t let a puny Mayaban brat like you tell me any different!”
The child squirmed and wriggled her arm with a piercing squeal shriller than a chimpanzee’s angry screech. “You can’t be mean like this to me, you nasty Khamitan woman! My father is the Ahau!”
“I don’t care if your father was none other than Amun’Ra in the flesh! Say sorry or I will rip you apart!”
Instead, Neith-Ka got a chomp into her arm. Blood trickled where the tiny teeth had punctured her flesh, and the girl had already scurried back to her mother.
Twice did the butt of a high steward’s staff bang over the floor, with two shadows looming over Neith-Ka. She shrank like a child in her own right before Huya and the Ahau B’alaj, both of whom glared down at her with the stern intensity of scolding parents. B’alaj’s face had even darkened into a reddish hue not unlike the plastered masonry around them.
The Ahau clenched his hand into a fist with one finger thrust down at Neith-Ka. “You do not threaten my Itzel like that. You do not threaten any of my children like that. I thought myself generous and forgiving to you, but you showed me my error in ever trusting your kind!”
“You see what you did there, young one?” Huya said. “I told you to represent our nation the best you could. You couldn’t even do that.”
Neith-Ka trembled, buckling under the crushing mass of shame these two men had thrown onto her—together with her own sizzling anger. “You think I’m at fault here? Listen, O Ahau of Mutul, you need to teach your children, and even many of your grown-up subjects, some basic respect for my people. Did you even hear what your daughter said to me?”
The Ahau shook his head with crossed arms. “She is only a child! You threatened to tear her into pieces, all for the ignorance every child is born with. And, since you talk of respect, remember that you are in my city, in the land of Mayab. You’d do well to respect your hosts.”
“And they would do well to respect their guests. It should go both ways!”
Huya’s features softened with a sigh. “In all honesty, the daughter of my Pharaoh raises a good point. This has all been a misunderstanding, O Ahau. How about both parties apologize to one another, make amends, and put this little altercation all behind us?”
B’alaj rubbed his hand over the graying hair that flowed below his headdress, humming in thought. His frown rose up into a grin, but his eyes had not lost their malevolent glimmer in the least. “I did have plans to entertain you with some sports next morning. How about…letting your princess play a little game of ball with us?”
Neith-Ka laughed, casting a glance at the guards she had brought as part of her visiting entourage. “You mean me and my men against yours?”
“Oh, no. You, alone, against my best team. You have played ball before, haven’t you?”
Not even the muggy warmth of the tropical night could melt the icy chill up Neith-Ka’s spine. She would not dare reveal it before this audience. “Of course. My sisters and I would chase each other around our palace with a warthog’s bladder filled with—”
“Pig’s bladder? That’s all? We’ll see how you fare with a real ball, then. If you, by the mercy of fate, were to win, I will pardon you for everything. Lose, and I shall deal with you as I would anyone else who has struck one of my family. In which case, please send my greetings down to the Twelve Lords of Xibalba.”
Huya turned to wedge himself between Neith-ka and the Ahau. “What? You can’t do that! She’s the daughter of our Pharaoh. That would amount to an act of war!”
“This is Mutul, and I am the Ahau. I may treat your Pharaoh’s daughter however I see fit!”
Every note of the Ahau’s croaking cackle sparked a shiver pulsing through Neith-Ka’s flesh. Whomever those Twelve Lords of Xibalba were meant to be, they sounded like demons in the underworld. At any rate, she doubted these Mayabans would even bother to preserve her body for that meeting.
The whimpering cry of a child moaned like an undercurrent beneath the rest of the commotion. Hugging her mother’s plump arm, little Itzel peeked back at Neith-Ka with cheeks still shimmering wet with tears.
“I’m sorry,” the girl’s lips spelled out.
A dense low mist swamped the alleyway that ran tight between two blood-red walls, each towering straight and vertical on top of the sloped terrace at their base. Already the moisture floating in the air, together with her own perspiration, had soaked the fringes of the band of cloth Neith-Ka had wrapped and tied around her braids. It all sharpened the cold tingle sweeping down her skin as she treaded down the alleyway, the dark-stained pavement stabbing her feet with stray particles of grit.
That her sandals, already worn beyond usefulness, had gone missing that morning had layered a stinging insult over her fear and shame.
Each of the two walls beside the court had a stout pyramid adjoining it from behind, with people filing out from its summit shrine to stand over the wall’s upper edges. Gazing down from atop the left wall were Huya and the remainder of the Khamitan envoy, the guards holding their spears and cowhide shields close while the servant women murmured nervous prayers. On the right wall were the nobility of Mutul, who parted to make way for their swaggering Ahau B’alaj.
He held between his hands a ball of dark gray rubber. “Welcome to our royal ball court, daughter of Pharaoh Amenhotep of Khamit. In a moment, you’ll be introduced to your opponents, none other than the finest players in all Mayab—though I may be biased in that regard. Ooh, what’s that? They’re already here!”
They emerged first as a line of hulking shadows in the mist, pushing it aside like buffaloes through reeds until they met Neith-Ka right in the middle of the pinched court. Padded bands of cotton covered the men’s torsos, knees, and elbows, all of it accentuating their already thickset forms. All wore helmets of shaggy, dark reddish-brown hair shorn from the scalps of Mayaban jungle bison, with the centermost player having the animal’s arching horns still attached to his.
He ran his eyes up and down Neith-Ka’s height with what could have either been a sneer or a leer. Or both. “You going to play against us in that puny linen tunic, woman?”
She could not deny the validity of his argument. Neither could she betray her resentment at the Ahau for not providing her with armor of her own. Not in front of this human gorilla. “I happen to think what I got suits my svelte curves better. As for you, big boy…all your curves go out instead of in.”
B’alaj laughed. “Khamitan or Mayaban, women will always be too vain to save themselves. These would be the Mutul Bison, our champions. It’ll be you against them, girl.”
He turned his head to face a third, even higher wall on the far end of the court, with a vertical gold hood gleaming near its lip at the center. “There will be eight rounds, each ending when either team passes the ball through that hoop. The team with the most hoops after round ten wins. Play ball!”
With the hoarse blare of a conch trumpet, B’alaj tossed the ball high up into the air. It shrank into a tiny dot within the sky before plummeting down from that zenith, whistling through the wind as it swelled to the size of Neith-Ka’s own skull.
Kicking herself up, she caught the ball between her fingers.
The Ahau puffed high-pitched notes through his conch twice. “One more rule I forgot to mention, my Khamitan guest. Never touch the ball with your fingers or palms, nor with toes or soles. Throw it up again.”
Shaking herself out of her initial disbelief, Neith-Ka obeyed. She lowered herself to the court’s floor with clenched hands, keeping her eyes focused on the descending ball.
The leader of Mutul Bison beat her to it. With his elbow, he batted it towards one of his teammates. Neith-Ka leaped to intercept it, but a third player bumped her off course with his shoulder. She skidded over the court floor, the grit raking down her skin, until she crashed into the left wall. Her own followers hollered with horror while the Ahau and his nobles hooted with glee on the opposite wall.
Neith-Ka staggered up to find the Bison gathered farther away, right below the hoop on the far wall. Their horn-helmeted leader had already knee-kicked the ball through it.
The conch screeched again. “Round one for the Bison!”
Neith-Ka fluttered her eyelids. She had only touched the ball once, and already these overgrown barbarians were on their way to beating her.
In a flash, the world turned dark gray before her. Firm rubber rammed onto her brow, flinging out white sparks.
Her vision cleared to show the Bison passing the ball between themselves with their elbows, shoulders, knees, and hips. Was that how these Mayaban players could move it around without palms or feet? How did the Ahau expect one princess from across the Western Ocean to match his best team in practice?
No, he hadn’t expected that. He would never have arranged this ordeal to begin with if he had.
“Round two to the Bisons! C’mon, princess of Khamit, even you could do better than that! Right?”
The ball hopped back towards Neith-Ka. She did not miss this time. With one swat of her forearm, she redirected it to the left wall. It was now her entourage’s turn to hoot, with the Khamitan guards pounding the spears on the stone alongside Huya with his staff.
Their jubilee halted once an opposing player claimed the ball with a strike of his shin. More passing between the Mutul Bison right up to the hoop again, and B’alaj with his conch announced a third round won for his team.
There could be no way Neith-Ka could overcome these giants. They had not only more muscle, but more practice and skill at their own game than she could ever achieve. She could not play ball the way they did.
No, why not play it the way she would with her sisters?
The third time the ball returned to Neith-Ka, she slammed it down with the back of her hand. She countered its next launch with her forearm, bouncing it between her limbs and the floor as she ran to the far wall. Her own people chanted her name with jubilant fervor, with only silence retorting from the Ahau’s side of the court. Even the Mutul Bison did nothing but watch her dumbstruck as she sprang and flicked the ball through the hoop with her wrist alone.
It was a low drone that came from the Ahau’s conch next. “I guess Round Four goes to the Khamitan princess. Tell me, girl, what do you call that trick?”
“It’s a technique, and we call it ‘dribbling’. Want to see more of it?”
She had already reached past the court’s halfway point away from the hoop, the ball still thumping beneath her forelimbs, with the Bison of Mutul stampeding after her. With one backward pivot of her leg, Neith-Ka dashed parallel to her pursuers towards the far wall. Her supporters continued to embolden her with their cheering songs.
She had not counted on one of the players sticking out his leg to trip her. Upon falling over, she had to roll aside to avoid the Mayaban team trampling her to reclaim the ball.
“Round Five to the Mutul Bison! Good work, my men!”
“Come on, that must count as a foul!” Neith-Ka cried out.
The Ahau grinned down at her with smug remorselessness. “Plenty of games allow tackling and roughhousing. Why not this one?”
After staggering back onto her footing, Neith-Ka stormed over to the left side of the court, growling the vilest curses in her mind. If that Mayaban tyrant would not let his men play fair, why play this stupid game at all? An all-out war between Mutul and Khamit would resolve the problem with much more fairness. No, it would also mean much more bloodshed, much more death, and much more loss for innocent people. Then what could Neith-Ka, daughter of Pharaoh Amenhotep of Khamit, do?
Something, albeit much lighter than the ball itself, rebounded off the back of her neck and rolled to her feet.
Neith-Ka’s sandals had returned to her. The condition of their woven papyrus strands had not improved, but somebody had sown thick scrappy pads of rubber to their bottom. She looked up to the top of the left wall behind her, yet she saw nobody new among the faces staring down at her with as much confusion as she. The only change in the heavens was ascendant sunlight beaming down on her through the fading mist.
“Thank you for this blessing, mighty Amun’Ra,” Neith-Ka whispered as she put the padded sandals on.
“Round Six to the Bison! Come on, Khamitan woman, stop dawdling and face my players once more!”
When Neith-Ka bolted over to catch the ball, it was with the velocity of a cheetah in full sprint. Never had she ran with such a sudden burst of speed. In less than half a minute, she had already won back the ball. She zipped in circles around the befuddled Bison, taunting them as they lunged after her and crashed into one another.
One player, the lead of the team, threw himself between her and the hoop. “Don’t think you can outrun yourself out of this one!”
“I won’t,” Neith-Ka said. “I’ll jump.”
She did thus twice. Once from the floor, the other right off the dumb brute’s helmet. A bat with her shoulder, and she had won Round Seven.
The leader of the Mutul Bison threw his dented headdress on the ground and crushed it further under his feet in a ranting fury. “You can’t get away with that so easily!”
Neith-Ka cocked an eyebrow up while still dribbling the ball. “Oh, really? Serves your team right for tripping me back in Round Five.”
“Let’s see if you can keep it up without your ‘improved’ footwear!”
Another one of his teammates, the same one who had tripped Neith-Ka before, swiped the back of his hand at her. She vaulted away from harm with two back-flips, at the cost of controlling the ball. The Bison of Mutul, who laughed among themselves with sadistic assurance, had it bounding back between their bodies right below the hoop.
Yipping the Khamitan war cry like a hyena on the hunt, Neith-Ka pounced onto the man who was next to receive the ball. One shove of her hips knocked it up into the hoop.
The Ahau blew his conch with a prolonged, bleating note. “Round Eight goes to Neith-Ka of Khamit, again. You heard that right, she won the last round.”
Everyone on her side of the court hurled themselves into a joyous dance of chants, hoots, clapping, and the clatter of Khamitan guards’ spears onto their shields. Even Huya, the high steward, twirled his staff around his body in an ecstatic frenzy.
Neith-Ka herself could not resist the music of her victory. Yelling in triumph, she skipped and spun about like a desert dust-devil on her legs, taunting her exhausted opposition with shakes of her hips and backside.
“Hold up, you didn’t win the whole game,” Ahau B’alaj said. “You won thrice, but my Bison won the rest. Give me my spear and thrower!”
A servant on his side of the court handed him the quiver of weapons he requested. The Khamitans’ celebratory dance ended when the Ahau fastened one spear to his thrower and aimed it down at Neith-Ka. “This is for my daughter!”
A girl screamed. A very small girl, no older than six. Hurrying over from the left corner of the ball court, little Itzel embraced Neith-Ka by the legs with a defiant glare at her distant father.
“You will not kill her, Father! I won’t let you!”
“Get away from her, my child!” the Ahau said. “She wanted to kill you, remember?”
“No, she didn’t mean to hurt me. I pulled on her hair and hurt her feelings. It’s my fault. Don’t kill her because of me!”
“What in Xibalba do you mean? I’m doing this for you, my little princess!”
“Then why won’t you listen to me?”
Only the rhythmic trebling of cicadas, and the chirping of jungle birds, passed through the silence that fell over the court. It ended with the clanking of B’alaj’s spear and thrower as they fell onto the bottom of his court, both splintering in half.
He took off his feathered crown and held his head low. “You speak with more wisdom than I have ever known, my daughter. I shall have her pardoned, with not one drop of blood spilled. Neith-Ka, daughter of Amenhotep, will you accept my forgiveness?”
Neith-Ka nodded to him. “I forgive you in turn.”
Tightening her hug on Neith-Ka’s legs, Itzel looked up with eyes still trickling tears. “Will you forgive me too, Princess of Khamit? I’m sorry I pulled your hair. I did it because these other girls in town said they’d be my friend if I gave them a lock of your people’s hair.”
She knelt to the child with a smile before playfully scratching her hair. “Those girls wouldn’t be your friends then. You need someone who will appreciate who you are as a human being.”
“But if I don’t make them like me, nobody will want to be my friend.”
Neith-Ka’s own eyes verged on melting. She may have enjoyed plenty of sisters to play with back in Khamit, but it was true that girls born into the comfort of royalty didn’t always win the love of their less privileged peers. Even children could learn to resent their socioeconomic superiors.
“Hmm…perhaps, instead pulling on Khamitan women’s hair, you need to show the other girls your positive qualities. Treat them with respect as you would your relatives. Share your toys, or your spare wealth…speaking of sharing—”
Neith-Ka took off one of her sandals. “Was this your work?”
Itzel grinned with the look of innocence while hiding her hands behind her. “My mother helped me with the sewing.”
“Maybe I should repay you, somehow. Hey, do you like playing ball too?”
Neith-Ka picked up the ball and twirled it on the tip of her finger. “Because, if you’d like, I could teach you to dribble like me.”