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Moths, fluttering in the night.
Swirling around her.
The silent beating of frantic wings felt instead of heard.
Teasing her skin.
Big moths. Their dancing passage caressed Clan Keeper Blue Heron’s dreams throughout that night.
As if dusted by them, she came awake, her skin oddly dry and itching. She could still feel the soft puffs of their passage—as though the insects had fled but an instant before her eyes opened.
Morning light—gray and cool—filtered in from the narrow gaps where her thatch roof overhung the plastered bedroom walls.
She groaned. Images of blurred wings, of darting shapes, and the sweetly dangerous fragrance of narcotic-laced nectar lingered in the fringes of memory.
Pus and dung! What had possessed her? Moths, of all things? Granted, they were the sacred kind: humming moths. The big ones with yellow-and-black-striped abdomens. The kind that thrived in darkness and feasted on tobacco, datura, and nightshade—plants bursting with Spirit Power. Dangerous plants whose use granted visions and opened doors into the mirror realms of the Dead and the Underworld.
Blue Heron’s heart beat with a sense of dread—as if the moths had borne tidings of some occult threat.
Shaken, she tossed her blanket to the side and sat up. Fitting her feet into woven-cord sandals, she reached across for her dress: a colorful thing decorated in chevron patterns of red, white, black, and yellow.
Getting control of herself, she attended to her toilet and ran a comb through her graying hair before knotting it into a bun and securing it with a copper pin that ended in an embossed plume.
What terrible thing is coming now?
Humming moths were creatures of the night. They hovered above datura blossoms, long tongues sucking the sweet nectar, dancing with Sister Datura’s dulcet seduction. Feeding as they did on narcotic plants, it was said they carried messages to and fro between the disparate souls of the Dead.
Their larvae—large green caterpillars—greedily devoured the leaves of the deadly plants, seemingly immune to the toxins that would send a human being’s souls drifting so far from their comatose body that they could never find their way back.
She stared up at the Four Winds carving behind her bed: the four-spiraled symbol of Cahokia’s ruling clan. Across from her, brightly colored tapestries hung on the dividing wall. Below them were her intricately carved and inlaid storage boxes and baskets.
Blue Heron sighed—circling moths still clinging to the edges of her consciousness—and walked out into her palace’s main room.
In the center of the mat-covered floor a cheery morning fire crackled and snapped sparks toward the high, thatch ceiling. Smooth Pebble—her cousin and political assistant—poked at the fire with a stick, rearranging coals under a ceramic pot. Smooth Pebble was berdache, a woman’s soul born into a man’s body. Well past the age of forty, her hair had started to gray and was worn in a bun held in place by a shell comb. Today she had dressed in a utilitarian gray skirt.
Dancing Sky, Blue Heron’s new head of household, was dipping water from one of the jars that had been carried up from the creek. The woman—in her early fifties—had shared a long and checkered history with Blue Heron.
“Keeper? I take it you didn’t sleep well?” Smooth Pebble asked as she took Blue Heron’s measure. Rot it, the woman knew her too well.
“Nightmares,” she muttered before sinking onto her litter where it rested atop its dais just behind the fire.
Smooth Pebble poured steaming black drink—a tea made from roasted yaupon holly leaves—into a cup and handed it to her before asking, “Hopefully it wasn’t that accursed southern snake god.”
Blue Heron smiled warily, then blew on her tea to cool it. They’d just avoided disaster—and who knew what kind of chaos—in the wake of a Mayan lord’s arrival from distant Chichen Itza. He’d appeared in Cahokia bearing a hideous snake god that had resided in a specially carved standard. She and Night Shadow Star had managed to destroy both the kukul and its human companion by the narrowest of margins.
“No snakes.” She paused. “Humming moths.”
Both Smooth Pebble and Dancing Sky studied her thoughtfully before Smooth Pebble asked, “You doing something with Spirit plants that I should know about?”
“I have enough nightmares just dealing with the plots, politics, assassins, and our beloved living god up on his mound.”
At the mention of the living god, Dancing Sky made a face. She would remain a heretic, a disbeliever, until the day she died.
As humming moths and the Powers of the night preoccupied Blue Heron’s thoughts, she fingered the scar on her throat where an assassin’s knife had come within a whisker of ending her life.
“I don’t have any idea why the creatures should have filled my dreams.” She took another sip of tea.
“You are the Keeper of the Four Winds Clan,” Dancing Sky replied. “Your family is tied to Power. It runs in your veins along with your blood.”
Blue Heron smiled and stared into her tea. Power and insanity. The legacy of the Four Winds Clan.
“Your line was always filled with madness,” the old soul flier, Rides-the-Lightning, had told her once, “It was made worse when Morning Star was reincarnated in Black Tail’s body. The god’s Power has carried down among his descendants in ways a human being’s souls cannot contain.”
The body that now hosted the living god had once belonged to her nephew, Chunkey Boy. His brother, Walking Smoke, had turned out to be an insane murderer. Blue Heron’s niece, Night Shadow Star, ended up so possessed by Spirit Power that her souls spent half their time walking in the Underworld. And the youngest sister, Sun Wing, was a soul-broken woman who whispered to herself, broke out in tears, and rocked back and forth while she stared at nothingness through vacant eyes. So much for her brother’s children.
As Blue Heron sipped her morning tea, she wondered. Power—the energy that infused Creation—permeated everything. Power might be likened to the Spiritual blood of existence. It flowed from the great two-headed eagle, Hunga Ahuito—who perched at the zenith of the domed sky—down through the descending levels of the Sky World, to the Earth, and then into the Underworld all the way to where Old-Woman-Who-Never-Dies sat beneath the World Tree’s roots at the lowermost level of Creation.
And where do I fit in?
Having just popped into her head, the question startled her. She’d never given it much thought. Her world, her skills—as Cahokia’s master spy—were in the tortuous mazes of human ambition, greed, passion, and desire. As the most feared woman in Cahokia, her tangled web of informants was second to none. While others spent their lives placating the Powers of Sky, Earth, and Underworld, she spent hers in the frantic quest to maintain her great city’s peace and harmony. No matter how many heads she had to crack to do it.
The ways of Power—while she respected them—remained carefully removed to the sidelines of her life and concerns.
At least until humming moths infiltrated her dreams to leave her shaken and unnerved. A sign? Or just something she’d seen or overheard that stuck in her souls?
Moths or not, it was going to be a miserable day. Matrons and high chiefs from the Four Winds Houses that ruled districts across the great city were gathering. At the Four Winds Clan House they would assemble to pick a new clan matron, the supreme ruler for the entire Four Winds Clan.
Smooth Pebble—reading her thoughts—said, “The position has been left open since your sister Wind was appointed tonka’tzi. That was last spring. You know it has to be done.”
Tonka’tzi, or the “Great Sky” was the titular head of state, the political leader of the great city, and subject only to the will of the Morning Star.
“Spit and blood, woman, don’t I know it? It’s just that the battle between the Houses to pick a new clan matron is going to be long and acrimonious—a miracle if it doesn’t end in bloodshed and civil war.”
She ran another swallow of yaupon over her tongue, enjoying the flavor, sensing the quickening of her blood as the tea hit her stomach.
Movement at the door interrupted her thoughts as String Runner appeared. In his early twenties, spare of frame, with a face like a wedge, he bowed low.
The sensation of unease returned with a passion. Phlegm and weak piss, if it wasn’t one thing, it was another.
“Enter,” she called, and the household went still as the lanky man crossed the great room and carefully dropped to his knees before the fire. His chin was so pointed she wondered if it would stick in the floor, but he only touched his forehead to the mat. Then he raised his head. His face was tattooed with the traditional pattern of the Surveyors’ Society, done in lines and angles.
“String Runner,” she greeted warily, “you’re here early. Concerned about your missing Spirit Bundle?”
“Yes, Keeper. My master, High Line, is most unsettled. The Bundle is one of our most important possessions. To have it gone, who knows where, is not only disturbing, but dangerous.”
She considered the deep-seated worry behind the young man’s dark eyes. Not that she didn’t have her own stake in the matter. The living god had sent his lop-jawed and scarred old war chief—a man called Five Fists—with a personal message that Morning Star would like the missing Bundle found and returned to the Surveyors’ Society post haste.
One didn’t disappoint the Morning Star. Not and remain healthy. Those who displeased the living god found themselves strapped into a wooden square on the Great Plaza while the crowd burned their naked bodies with fiery torches and cut little pieces of flesh from their bones.
“I am aware, String Runner. Believe me. All of my people are working on this.”
“Hearing that relieves us, Clan Keeper. But it has been four days now. Surely there has been some word. Some clue.” A flicker of panic glinted behind his eyes. “That anyone would desecrate our temple so? Dare to place hands on the Bundle, let alone remove it? It’s just … well, unheard of. Not to mention the Power inherent in the Bundle. As it is, when it is restored, it will have to be purified. Ritually cleansed. The disruption that will cause…” He winced, unable to finish.
Blue Heron fingered the wattle of loose skin beneath her chin. “My agents have had their noses in every basket, box, and pack in the city. We’ve made some progress.”
“Enough to determine that this wasn’t just any theft. A dirt farmer didn’t happen to wander into your temple, scratch under his arm pit, and pick up the nearest sacred bundle he happened upon. Had he, word would have gotten to us through the Earth Clans. This was a planned operation. Conducted by someone who knew exactly what they were after and how to get it. That being the case, it has narrowed the field of suspects considerably.”
“Then, you know where it is?”
“We have an idea.”
And by Piasa’s swinging balls, if I’m wrong about this, it will mean my hide.
She told him, “One of my best people is attending to our most promising lead. Even as I speak.”
“I would hope so. The Bundle can only be entrusted to someone of impeccable character. A pious person of outstanding virtue, celibacy, and restraint of bodily urges, a man without blemish. A reverent individual dedicated to circumspection and moral rectitude.”
Blue Heron swallowed hard, hoping to hide her slight wince.
Copyright © 2017 by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal Gear