What Chel doesn't explain to them in detail is that she doesn't really care about Spain.
Oh, she goes along with all their plots and plans, their boats and ships and inevitable failures and subsequent pep-talks. She pulls her own weight, as she always intended to. But Spain is not an end goal for her the way it is for them (and occasionally, she suspects the Spain in their minds is just a fiction anyhow). She'd just wanted to leave El Dorado. For where ... wasn't important.
"Sometimes I think I miss it more than you do," Miguel says in that bland voice she's come to recognize. She hears it some mornings after Tulio spends the night in her tent and forgets to wake up early enough to slip out. Chel normally doesn't hold it against Miguel, but right now her nerves are frayed and she imitates his tone when she says, "Of course, I didn't trick people into bowing as I walked past and paying me tribute, so I can see why you would," and he rounds on her, eyes furious.
"Maybe I took advantage of them -- to start," he hisses, "but they were your people and you were just as willing to scam them as we were!"
Chel's fingers itch, prickly, and she keeps them rigid at her sides. There's a whirlpool of things she could say to him, things that would bring the crimson rushing to his ever-pale tender skin, but all she says is, "They still are my people."
Miguel's lip curls and he turns, stomping away through the shallow creek and stirring up trails of sediment in his wake, a murky swirl of muddled discontent. Chel sighs and squats where she is, coiling her hair up and stroking the cool, green water along her throat and breasts and arms. She cups a handful and lets it trickle down her back and even though he's approached quietly enough (for a Spaniard) she can feel the heat of Tulio's eyes on those drops winding between her shoulder blades. "He went that way," she says, pointing, and Tulio shifts back and forth for a moment. He alights long enough to press his mouth to her shoulder and nip at her ear, murmuring his thanks before hopping down the creek after Miguel. There's too much silt in the water now, and she leaves it.
She ducks into Tulio's tent late that night and finds him lying on his back with his knees up, staring at the covering cloth with unblinking blue eyes. Chel likes this about him, that she can see his mind working and working even when he's at rest. It's not all she likes about him. The way he wraps his arms around her and holds her gaze with his own when he's deep inside her is good, too; Chel doesn't care for lovers who retreat entirely into the flesh during sex. And she likes his dark hair. Miguel's yellow hair makes him look strange to her, unfinished. "Was he very upset?" Chel asks, pressing her leg against Tulio's side as she drops and sits back on her heels next to him. Tulio draws a long breath and looks at her, taking one hand from behind his head and rubbing her collarbone with his knuckles, back and forth. She tips her head enough so that her hair slips across his fingers and he raises his hand to cup her cheek, thumb against the corner of her mouth, as Chel slides her own hand around the back of his thigh and between his legs.
"I don't really want to talk about Miguel right now," Tulio says in a slow deliberate voice, and as she throws her leg over his hips Chel leans in to taste his mouth.
After far too long on a diet of greenish bananas and mostly-raw beans that leaves them griping and sore-mouthed, Chel decides to make her own meals. Tulio and Miguel don't show much interest in what she's doing -- they're engrossed in the idea of stealing one of their fellow Spaniard's ships, a plan which she can tell (having seen this Cortés and his men) is doomed from conception -- so she is thankfully free of their enquiries and company as she walks through the jungle.
The wet green leaves slap lewdly at her thighs, prickle plants scratching her ankles before folding up their leaves in indignation, stiletto blades of razor grass licking thin stripes on her wrists and elbows. Chel accepts each touch as she moves deeper, her mind and senses distilling to a focused clear, just as she was taught. She hums to herself as she stops, foraging here and there like one of the small heavy-haunched deer they raised back home that tasted so good roasted with chiles and white cinnamon. No deer, but she manages manioc and breadfruit and wild onions and she knows Miguel will at least have caught some of the long, bony silver fish that haunt all the waters here.
She collects other things while she's there, when she sees them, because the Spaniards aren't used to the different plants and bugs and creatures of her jungle and every little bite or scratch raises big red bumps on them or makes their eyes puff up. Tulio's had a worrisome rattly cough and some epazōtl, she knows, will help it; her fingers fletch the long leaves, bruising out a resin smell and stickiness, and Chel remembers the long hours wandering the herbage with Ixa and coming back with their baskets full and fingers tacky with sap. Ixa with her gold ankle bands flashing in the grass and her husky voice repeating the names and uses of these plants until Chel could recite them without thinking, Ixa with her long so-straight hair running to silver, fragrant and surprisingly cold against Chel's thighs and belly.
The memory makes her shiver and she picks up her pace, making it back to the camp fast and going to work with single-minded focus. By the time Tulio and Miguel come back, covered in what looks like milky sap and monkey fur ("Don't ask," Tulio says in response to her arched eyebrow), she's got a big potful of fish soup richly blubbing over the fire.
"Chel," Tulio exclaims in delight, scooping her up in an embrace while Miguel circles the pot with a look of anticipatory bliss on his face, "are we actually going to have real food tonight? Not just more grubs and bananas?"
"Who was eating grubs?" Chel wonders. Neither of them cares to own up, so she shakes her head -- Spaniards! -- and doles out fish soup into calabash bowls. "Be careful," she says as she takes out a bowlful for herself, "it's got more chile than you're used to--"
Both Tulio and Miguel have their noses in their bowls, Tulio's eyes wide in pain and shock and Miguel's face ruddy as rice, but after some huffing and sniffling, they're back into the food again so she grins and sits down with her own. The first taste makes her moan in slick pleasure, mouthfuls of hot smooth fatty contentment filling the crevices of her cheeks and tongue, and she dips her fingers in the bowl to catch pieces of starchy melting manoic. None of them talk until the fish soup is done, each drop wiped out with fingertips, each spindly fish bone sucked dry. Eating a proper meal makes them feel like proper people again instead of the tired, itchy, monosyllabic creatures they'd become.
"I'm going to teach you to cook," she tells Miguel as they're lying around afterwards, languidly palming and sucking on mango seeds. Tulio nods in approval; Miguel murmurs senseless assent, half-asleep and boneless, and Tulio catches her eye with a chortle. "Better get him to bed, or he'll start his cooking career by rolling into the fire and toasting himself alive," he says. Chel watches Tulio bundle Miguel up, long clever fingers latching on his hips, his ribs, and she can tell from the calculated drag-and-stumble of Miguel's slippered feet that he's nowhere near as drowsy as he seems.
They disappear into Miguel's tent. Tulio doesn't come out again, and in the morning she can see their fingerprints and the marks of their mouths all over each other. Miguel's got them on his wrist as he flicks up his sleeves, announcing, "Here for my lessons in scrumptiously tongue-scorching cookery, oh teacher!"
Chel is unsettled, but not for the reason Miguel thinks. She just doesn't like seeing the way their pale skin confesses its secrets so easily.
They skirt the coast for a week, judging themselves far enough from Cortés' flotilla to be safe venturing out from the enclosing jungle. It's nice to be on the beach; it's been a long time since Chel was last on a trip to the shore, and she'd forgotten how much she loved digging in the sand for tiny sweet mussels, climbing coconut trees to twist the green nuts free. The three of them forget forward momentum for a while and spend hours wading out into the water, jumping each time a breaker hits or diving under the frothy curl, chasing each other and splashing and giggling. They build an elaborate lean-to of enormous coconut fronds braided over pieces of driftwood, and sleep under it together, covered with her unfolded corte skirt to balance out the chill of the night breeze. Sometimes Tulio sleeps in the middle, and sometimes Chel does; Miguel never will. Chel doesn't ask why.
As it turns out, they were wrong about the flotilla.
It's only a small raiding party of Spanish soldiers that finds and captures them, and not Cortés himself, which Chel considers a lucky thing because these underlings won't do much to them without Cortés' say-so. She's separated from Tulio and Miguel and thrown into a caged cart with three other women. The soldiers wander off indifferently, not bothering to guard the women, who watch her with closed-off dark eyes as she investigates the latch and the smooth wood bars in mounting frustration. "No way out for us, little chih," one of the women tells her from a swollen mouth, "unless it's into the jaws of the jaguar."
"Then you're lucky I'm here," Chel answers, "because I already escaped the jaguar once and I'm not going to get caught now."
Her bravado seems foolish later when she's jolted from an exhausted sleep by Tulio's screams in the distance, horribly cut short even before the first answering sob escapes her body. The woman who called her a deer reaches out one arm and pulls Chel close, stroking her hair with a firm hand. "Hush, chih," she whispers against Chel's face, lips wet with Chel's wash of tears. "We don't cry where they can hear us." Chel wraps her arms around the woman, pressing her face first into her breasts and then sinking down against her belly, and when she feels the firm fecund roundness of it she looks up, terrified. The woman's face is shadowed, unmoving, and Chel slips into darkness herself.
Tulio's not dead. She sees him and Miguel dragged across the camp two days later, both looking exhausted and bloody but still moving, and her heart beats so fast and loud that she thinks she's going to pass out again. But pregnant Akhush pinches her fiercely and the fog clears, enough for Chel to catch Tulio's glassy gaze; his thin lips part in relief and then he resolutely turns his face from her as if she didn't exist at all. Chel sinks back to the dirty boards, breathing out all the air in her body.
"What are you so calm about?" one of the other women asks. "He hardly looked at you!"
Chel doesn't answer. Talking will cause trouble in a situation like this. But she and Tulio are of the same mind on this sort of thing, and she knows that his turning from her was a silent message: don't let on what we mean to each other, don't remind them that we were all together when they caught us. She retreats to a corner and curls up, trying not to hate the dull looks on the other women's faces, the smell of them, the smell of herself. Akhush eyes her and idly says, "They want to take us for tribute to their headman. Do you know what that means?"
"I know," Chel mutters. She pulls her knees up tighter, feeling a cramp in her belly. Sympathy, perhaps, as Akhush strokes a hand over her own ripening belly -- the gentlest of swells now, but in a few weeks, Chel can tell, it will be only too obvious on a woman who is fed nothing but mashed sweet potatoes once a day -- and continues, "They won't want a woman with a baby inside her, not for that. I'll be killed."
"Yes," Chel says, and regrets it instantly. She licks her dry lips and asks, "How do you know that's what they want us for?"
"There's a man who comes who told us," one of the other women supplies, and the third one nods with scared white eyes, "He's a high priest, one of the people, not one of the white Spaniards." "With a high forehead like so," the first woman adds, raising her nose in the air as the other pats her arms anxiously and hurriedly affixes, "--and a wriggling lip like so when he speaks," and between the two of them Chel's starting to feel even more twisting in her guts. It can't be, she tells herself as she curls deeper into a ball with her head knocking against the bars of the cage. It can't be, it can't be possible, he went down down down the whirlpool, taken to Xibalba. It cannot be him.
But Xibalba hurls him back up in the dead of night: High Priest Tzekel-Kan, fingers in her hair to roust her from her thin brittle sleep. "Little thief," he hisses, and the words sound strange, too full. Chel rips free from his grasp despite the pain in her scalp and glares at him, hoping he feels the scorch of her hatred even through the darkness.
"Little thief," Tzekel-Kan repeats. "You know what we are taking you for, little thief, you and the rest of these --" he gestures languidly at the other women, stirring uneasily though they can't hear, "--these cattle, these flesh tribute for the new gods."
"They are not gods," Chel says, "but brutal monsters like you," and spits at him. Tzekel-Kan smiles at her and she sees with a flash of horror that his teeth are broken, a mouthful of patchy sharp maize pushing against his lips. "What did they do to you?" she asks before she can help herself. "Let me see it."
"Your insignificant woman's magic is not for me!" Tzekel-Kan rasps, raising an imperious hand as if to dismiss all that she is, all that she's worked to be, and Chel feels like she's vomiting a mouthful of bile when she shoots back, "I was taught by Midwife Ixa, and even the gods smiled down on her sacred work!"
Tzekel-Kan doubles over, hands contorting into claws, and when he raises his head again his face is disfigured with ... hate, pain, Chel can't tell which. Something has come loose inside of him, that much is clear, and the hard shell of reserve from his days as High Priest is in fragments that hold in nothing. "You," he gasps, "you have no right to speak of my sister, not after what you did, how you poisoned her work, not after you caused her to lose favour with the gods!" His hands flail until he clasps the bars of the cage again to steady himself. Chel stares at them, the bloody marks around his wrists and the missing fingernails, and places one of her hands on his.
"You did not understand my love for Ixa," she tells him, trying to keep her voice steady and clear. Chel cried all her tears for Ixa long ago and released them as stars to the night sky, beautiful and meaningful and far from her now; but it's so hard to talk about Ixa, like this, with him. "We did nothing wrong. And even if you still think our love was wrong, all of Ixa's wickedness is paid for, as you said before you sent her ... sent her to Xibalba." It feels like a machete wound inside her to say those words. She's stubbornly not spoken about what happened to anybody and thought that was the right thing to do, to deal with it all herself and not make things messy. But opening up like this, in the hot wet darkness, feels like bleeding out rotten blood that's been backing up inside her, flooding her womb up to her heart. It's almost right, too, that it's Ixa's brother she tells it to, that his hand which did the sacrificing is under hers that was also to be sacrificed. They both lost her, in the end.
Tzekel-Kan shakes his head, speechless for a moment, and then takes a series of short, panting breaths to steady himself. He opens his hands on the bars and removes them from her grasp. "It should have been you who went to the spirit world," he said, "not my sister. You stole her from me. But you can do something now to amend for her wrongful death, her necessary sacrifice." He scans the other women with eyes that still look green as the jaguar, then nods at Akhush. "That one is burdened with child." Chel says nothing, but it seems he wasn't fishing for a confirmation. Tzekel-Kan reaches inside his Spanish-style trousers and brings out a familiar shock of green, pushing the epazōtl through the bars without touching her fingers. "See to it that you ... do away ... with her burden," he tells Chel, who just watches him as he backs away. Just before he disappears into the night, she hears Tzekel-Kan add in the most sibilant of whispers, "... and I will free you from this agonizing fate."
Chel is better at cons than Tzekel-Kan is; she doesn't believe his promise for a moment. He probably just wants to please Cortés, save himself from any worse tortures than whatever he's endured so far. Chel's not entirely without pity for the man, and she knows that pain will drive people to do any number of reprehensible things. But she wants to be better than that.
Akhush stirs from her sleep, coughing and dovetailing her knees. They only get one chance a day to relieve themselves, and she's been having trouble holding her bladder at night. Chel shifts over to soothe her, and tells her, "Go ahead, squat down close to the bars and go ahead." One of the other women, the one who isn't scared all the time, says sharply, "You better not be pissing in the cage!" and Chel makes a threatening noise at her. Akhush is reluctant but she's feeling too much pain to protest, and when she's done she and Chel do their best to clean the mess with some of the withered grass that the soldiers toss on the cage floorboards.
"They're fools," Chel tells her as they settle down again. "Pissing on something as foul as this cage can only make it cleaner." She means it -- there are many uses for healthy urine in medicine -- but for some reason she giggles, a little hiccup of a laugh, and then Akhush snorts as well and they end up clutching each other and laughing into each other's hair and uipilli.
"What is this?" Akhush asks, tugging at the bundle of epazōtl where Chel had pushed it into her blouse. Chel takes out a stalk, pressing it between her fingers and feeling the small dark seeds inside bruise from her touch, that sharp chenopodium smell rising from them.
"Your child," Chel says, not looking as Akhush instinctively cradles her belly. "I can bring her out of you now. If you want me to."
"Her," Akhush repeats, and then Chel is compelled to meet her eyes.
They sit there, holding each other's arms, until the sun starts to warm the horizon. Chel tucks the epazōtl back into her uipilli, and they both go to sleep.
In the end, it's a group of warriors from a nearby village who rescue them. Considering the bigger scheme of things, this isn't surprising; Tulio and Miguel are small-time, unaccustomed to dealing with situations as dark and treacherous as this one, and Chel has decided she wasn't leaving without the other women, which complicates any escape plans. The warriors break open their cage grimly, leaving the younger members to help the women out as their wretched legs seize up from the contortions of captivity. "What about their weapons?" Chel asks one, a solemn baby-faced boy dutifully wheeling her in small circles as blood rushes back to her feet. "Their Spanish weapons, the ..." she grasps for the word she's heard her own Spaniards use, "... the guns. How did you defeat them?"
"Our warriors defeated some of them before, hunting in the jungle," he tells her, "and we took their guns." The word sounds as awkward in his mouth as it probably did in hers and Chel feels a strange pleasure in their shared lips and tongues. She secretly hopes that Spanish words will always sound like that when she says them. "Did you find two Spaniards--" she begins, but then there's a shout from Miguel and Tulio's arms are wrapping around her, lifting her to her toes as he pushes his long nose against her ear and sobs, empty dry noises tearing his throat.
"Jesus, Chel," he manages, "I thought they'd kill you for sure."
Chel rubs her hands over his shoulders and up through his hair, tangled and knotted. "Tulio," she says, "haven't you learned by now that I'm not so easy to kill?"
He just hugs her tighter, and Chel doesn't mind.
They all go back to the warriors' Lamanal, and for the first few days Tulio and Miguel are quiet and withdrawn. Lamanal isn't the first village they've stopped at on their travels, the three of them, but where her Spaniards had usually been boisterous and cheerful, doing magic tricks and displaying their white skin to the curious people, now they're keeping mostly to their shelter and listlessly eating the food Chel brings them. She sleeps in the same hut as them, but they're all painfully separate and silent, none of the usual looping chatter until they each drop happily to sleep.
Akhush waxes fat and healthy after only a few days, and when Chel sees her she says, "Aa-ahhh, what a wonderful thing that we women carry the children!"
"Because men do not have the strength for this power," Akhush replies with a smile. They embrace and Chel kisses the other woman on the mouth. "Come for a walk with me," she invites, linking her hand with Akhush's. "I thought I saw something outside the village that deserves our attention."
When Chel returns to the hut in the afternoon, she can hear raised voices as she approaches and stops outside.
"You can see it in her eyes," Miguel is saying, "the way she looks at us."
"Well, what do you want me to do about it, Miguel?" Tulio's voice is strained, high. "You want me to ask her to close her eyes when you walk past? Maybe invest in blindfolds, one for each day?"
"Oh, don't even start with that. And anyway--" Miguel stops, and Chel hears him sigh. When he starts talking again, his voice is subdued, confused, more than she's ever heard it. "I'm not just talking about Chel. I'm talking about all of them."
Tulio is a consummate dissembler, and it's all through his flat response when he says, "I don't follow." Miguel knows it too, because he snorts.
"You do. You're not that thick. They all look at us like ... like we're like them." The word hangs in the air and none of them, not Tulio or Miguel or Chel eavesdropping outside, need more elaboration to understand he means the Spanish soldiers. "Like any moment, we could be just as vicious."
"You're imagining things," Tulio says shortly. "Nobody's ever been anything but nice to us."
"For now. But this ... it isn't going to stop, Tulio. They're going to keep coming. Cortés said Cuba, and you know what that means -- the New World. Spanish everywhere, taking gold and spices and people--"
"Slaves," Tulio interjects, a cruelty to his inflection that Chel hasn't heard before, and Miguel absorbs it and keeps going, "--slaves, yes, that's what's going to happen. And I don't know about you, but I don't want to keep being mistaken for one of Cortés' plunderers instead of me."
"You mean the you who'd pretend to be a god and make proclamations."
Miguel makes a frustrated, hurt noise and Tulio murmurs, "I know, I know I know. We didn't kill anybody or enslave them or rob them. No, wait, we did rob them, but we rob anybody. We ... we've got to get back to Spain, Miguel. Or we'll go crazy seeing what our own people are gonna do to this place."
The two of them are quiet for a while. "I don't want to leave," Miguel finally says. Chel decides she doesn't want to hear anymore and goes into the hut, ignoring their guilty faces and sudden stiffness.
"You have to come out of this hut some time," she tells them, cocking one hip to emphasize. "People are starting to wonder if you've been struck down with some disease."
"Oh," Miguel says, "er, yes. Well, we would, you see, it's just ...." He trails off and stares at Tulio with big eyes until Tulio shakes his head and steps closer to Chel, taking her bag from her and setting it down.
"We kind of get the feeling that we're a walking talking reminder of the Spanish soldiers," he tells her. "An unwelcome reminder."
Chel folds herself up on a bench and holds her ankles, looking at Miguel as he anxiously twists the edge of his shirt and Tulio as he bounces the side of his fist on his open palm. "So?" she says finally. The two of them exchange a look.
"Soooooooo," Tulio says, "it makes us feel kind of ...."
"Bad," Miguel supplies, and Tulio nods. "Bad," he repeats. "I mean, we're not like those other guys. They know that, right?"
Chel shrugs. "Ask them."
Miguel rubs the back of his neck. "That doesn't seem like a very good idea, what with, you know. The fighting and guns and things. We just," he comes over to Chel, sits next to her on the bench, "we just want to know what to do so people don't think we're like all the other Spanish who've been here."
Tulio shifts his weight from foot to foot as Chel considers this. "Well," she finally says, "maybe you should get your other Spaniards to stop attacking and looting, and then the people wouldn't think that's what Spaniards are like." Neither of them says anything for a long while, so she puts her arm around Miguel's shoulder and jostles him until he stops looking like somebody hit him with a pole. Tulio is rubbing his fingers across his brow and muttering to himself. Chel tries to imagine them anywhere but here, back in their home in Spain, maybe -- she imagines it steel and stone, pale skins and trousers on everyone -- tries to imagine herself there. Wearing trousers and carrying a gun. The image sparks and rips into rainbow colours and they're all wearing proper clothes again, and she's got a gorgeously embroidered tzute over her shoulder, hair dressed and twisted elaborately as she links arms with Tulio and Miguel, laughing and beautiful. It's probably all wrong. But still, she thinks, she'd like to try it.
Chel doesn't tell them this right now. Instead she digs in her bag, announcing, "I brought something for you to try!" and takes out a yellow pod, holding it in both hands as her Spaniards draw closer to inspect it. She breaks it open to reveal the big seeds inside, nestled in filmy white, and urges, "taste it." Miguel pushes his fingers in, hooking out a scrap of the white and bringing it to his mouth, and she and Tulio follow suit. It's sweet and light and fresh, and the three of them slide their fingers around in the slippery flesh, lick them clean, come back for more. Tulio tugs out a seed with some of it, grimacing, and Chel snatches it from him.
"These are for later," she tells them, and carefully lays aside all of the cocoa seeds. She'll roast them and grind them, then whip them up frothy in water with cinnamon and chile. Serve the cocoa in bowls that nestle perfectly between the hands. Miguel and Tulio will love it, and Chel will too, only more, because it will likely be the last time she'll taste that warm rich flavour on her tongue, feeding her soul. The drink of the people. The drink of the gods.
"I am going to name my daughter Ixchel," Akhush had told her when they'd walked out to the cocoa trees together, arms around each other and hips pressed close under the cool and shade of the leaves.
One day Chel will return, and see her a grown woman with gold on her ankles, running through the grass.