That posting received a flurry (to me) of publishing possibilities, one of which is still in the works. To whet whatever appetites are out there for this story, I thought I'd share the rest of the first chapter. It introduces the unnamed female co-protagonist who aids Gardener Menq in his quest. You'll learn her name only when the story gets published, one way or another. Let me know here if your appetite does get whetted. Or not. And if you never read the first installment, click here. – Rudy Ch. Garcia
The Enigma of the Grandest Gardener of Texcoco (cont.)
The Princess had been born into a life most people would have died for. She'd never wanted for any luxury, much less necessity; servants and sycophants had surrounded her from birth, showering her with attention and extravagant gifts.
"None of them are here with me now," she said, shifting herself on the floor of her darkened confinement, wondering how soon her captors would return.
In the room adjoining her first nursery, a queen's ransom of jewels, feathers and gold had piled up, later expanding to more rooms filled with tribute from the ever-widening Aztec conquests.
"I remember frolicking with my nagual bear cub in the warm furs and brilliant-feathered ornaments and clothing," she said, not forgetting the dismay of nursemaids and waitpersons charged with caring for her and her belongings. Within a handful of years, glittering yellow teocuitlatl nuggets and sparkling fire opals or treasured turquoise would lose their infantile allure. But the Princess had always most loved the exotic animals and plants from all the three continents. "Strange--I don't miss them as much now as I once did," she murmured, a half-lie to hold onto her sanity.
She'd been destined to miss nothing in life. Born under the sign One Flower typically meant that such a person was destined to love life, and their time on Earth would intertwine with that of Xochiquetzal, goddess of love.
The Princess had lacked almost nothing, save meaningful time with her parents--and the loving care that came with that--the Emperor and Empress themselves busy running the expanding Empire. Early on, she came to comprehend this, this vacuum unsated by objects or servants, no matter their value or devotion.
She'd attemped to alleviate her longing for companionship with sheets cut from amate, on which she painted scenarios or fashioned elaborately costumed figures, or flowers and wildlife. But the largest, most colorful were of a family of four, her spirit-bear included. She'd labored at her art like a shunned, foster child, with no sibling at her side to ever hold her hand.
Her everpresent tutors from the Arts of the Regal Court had instructed her in the skills and knowledge a future queen needed to rule, to survive the burden of royalty. And she was more than bright enough to nudge them into instructing her in studies like zooology and medicine, normally reserved for males and not taught in her females-only calmecac. Her intellectual and artistic talents, admitted by every teacher, grew as rich as her treasure rooms.
Unfortunately, of all the blessings in her life, her physical features proved most onerous. Wherever she went in the palaces or realm, sincere-to-fawning comments engulfed her. Had she believed them, then there never had been a female child to compare. Poets vied to describe her fairness; painters competed to portray her exquisitive features. Pages and parchments about her wondrous eyes, spellbinding smile and later, her goddess-like physique, made her parents prideful, the envy of royalty, but not sufficient to draw her closer to them.
Now recalling a stanza from one idolizing poem, into the hollowness she yelled,
"But whose joy
serves raven-haired beauty,
in the darkest sleep?"
Her question echoed, unrequited. She ran her fingers through her hair, combing what had once shone like threads of obsidian.
Near the end of her time on Earth, her allurement had naturally attracted the most wondrous hero of the Valley. And then, unnaturally, the most despicable of gods. Which had landed her here. Alone.
"Better I had been born a bear, or at least homely." Her remark made her regret again having to part ways with her nagual-spirit bear, when her death had broken their bond. In sillier moments, she'd pretended she was playing with her little black brother.
Here and now, the maiden Princess sat, waiting, struggling to defer her apprehension with daydreams. Not of how it had been, but how it might have been.
"The verdant splendor I created in my mind these past thirty years can reach fruition"--he chuckled at his pun--"only with the acreage, terraces and irrigation systems of the royalty, like here in Prince Nezahualcoyotl's gardens." That he could never be the lord of a large estate bothered Menq not one gnat's worth. He simply wanted to be the best at nurturing one of the Middle Continent's finest gardens, and to reach that, he'd adhered to the Elders' Precepts of duty, temperance and self-discipline. Following that regimen had brought him this far, in his own inimitable fashion.
"Just so long as I can become a--," he whispered, absentmindedly brushing aside what they hadn't shorn off of his neck-length hair. With its abbreviated bangs, his usual hairstyle typified those who hadn't secured a profession. Despite being an experienced gardener, he'd worn his that way to symbolize he hadn't attained his life-long goal.
He watched other gardeners peering toward the massive, carved double doors that captured everyone's attention whenever another candidate entered. Directly above the second-story roof there, with its raised walls protected by inconspicuous cotton awnings, the Prince himself might stand to contemplate his gardens or the heavenly bodies. Only the highest nobility and most valiant warriors earned the right to erect two-story buildings. At the moment, Menq could hear buffered sounds of excited discussion emanating from uptop. Rooroot's perked ears and quizzical look indicated it might be more than parlor chatter.
Higher up, to the southeast, the volcano Popocatépetl's gray-pink plumes rose, a lover's sorrow beckoning the gods, hence its name, Smoking Mountain. Two or three times a day he rained flaming rock and volcanic soot on nearby mountain villages. Popo, he was endearingly called, by the many tribes who commiserated with the legendary prince's loss of his beloved Iztaccíhuatl. On especially active days like today some called it Chain-Smoking Mountain.
As if awakened, Popo released a medium tremor loosening crumbles from the walls, until it passed and people shrugged it off. Life in the Valley. Though lately, much more eventful.
"At least Popo has his Sleeping Woman . . . at his side for eternity," Menq said, referring to Popo's legendary love Iztaccíhuatl, the more expansive, snow-covered peaks to the left of Popo.
Menq grimaced, averted his gaze downward and brushed at a moyote buzzing his face. Apparently the last Grand Gardener hadn't planted sufficient moyote-luring bushes around Tezcozinco's immense perimeter. Menq would remedy that, first thing, if he secured the position.
Actually, almost nothing he'd seen on his way in merited criticism. How could it be otherwise? The Gardens belonged to the greatest man of the mid-continent, respected as the intellectual center of the all-conquering Triple Alliance. These Gardens would forever be the Valley's most magnificent. Menq leaned against the wall and shut his eyes to again savor his bliss when traversing the flourishing paradise this morning.
Dawn had just broken when the queue of applicants entered Tezcozinco Gardens. Sunshine flooded and unveiled the Valley with a view that heated everyone's anticipation into excitement.
Situated near the base of Mt. Tlaloc, Tezcozinco yet overlooked the capitol Texcoco and, further below, the largest of the Five Lakes. The summit garden's hundreds of acres poured westward, landscaped with nitlapan terraces flowing north to south, surfeiting the mind and senses with their jade-to-viridian greenery punctuated by clusters of massive coniferous ahuehetl cypress, cedar or spruce, some reaching two hundred feet, as if supplicating rain from the god Tlaloc. Shorter though no less impressive carved stone stelae of the gods guarded three streams meandering toward the Lake, accented with white churning cascades fed by stone aqueducts that channeled cool sweet alcecec from high, melting snows. A gigantic tapestry woven of thousands of plant species.
As they descended the five hundred stone steps, past heavily scented manicured beds of gilted marigolds and capuli bushes scantily adorned with red berries, the candidates noticed few xitómatl, ahuácatl or other cultivated crops stocked the oasis, but they did pass fabulous horticultural beds of medicinal, spiritual and other practical plants, annuals, evergreens, grassses, perennials, shrubbery and vines of every variety. It required more a thousand workers and slaves to maintain the verdigris retreat with its multiple nurseries where the Prince himself was known to study his revered plants.
The zenzontle, the bird that mockingly serenaded visitors with its four hundred voices, the migratory atototls dipping slender legs into the garden's pristine marshes and ponds, and of course the "most precious" rainbow-rich quetzaltotolin bird, as well as innumerable other avians, inundated visitors with musical greetings. An integrated zoological park where many non-threatening species freely roamed.
"All this could be--." Menq had tempered his enthusiasm by letting his eyes and mind fill like a child in a chocólatl shop; he was in a horticulturist's Tollan, and would've believed he'd died and gone there.
The final stepping-stones--chiseled of plum-streaked porphyry quartz--guided them through the bottom, stark passageway carved through solid rock, a landscape version of life's last stage when only glorious achievements ameliorated one's passage into the underworld. The god Tezcatlipoca's sudden tremors while walking in the tunnel had reminded everyone of the devastating earthquakes seventy years ago, and rattled more than their strides.
Now, as his old acquaintance Reaper Icacam scampered by, Menq felt guilty about instinctively shading his face with his hand. His friend wore maxtlatl clothing tied around his waist to skirt his hips, and a smile that brightened more than it delivered, like a saguaro's topmost flowers attempting to distract a harvester from the stems' prickly spines. The Reaper's carrot-top hairstyle protruded in any crowd. Upon noticing Menq, Icacam halted to retrace his steps.
"Menq, what luck! I got a good one for you." He spoke to insure everyone on the bench heard. "It'd even make Tezcat howl. You remember I got a measly job transplanting some Bimini reeds, on that peninsula across the Inland Sea? Well, turned out the oracles foretold barbarians will invade from across the Great Ilhuicaatl, and they wanted the plants protected. A useless assignment if I ever heard one, since everybody knows there's nothing on the other side of that ocean. It's so big anyway, why would anybody be dumb enough to cross it?" The Reaper checked the others' faces and continued despite finding few who acknowledged his exhortations.
Icacam had always been a talker, a wannabe comedian incessantly seeking audiences. Probably came from his day-sign being so close to the Trickster God's. It bothered Menq, too, that he had used the profane version Tezcat, instead of the god's full name. Had the usage been spreading recently?
"Anyway, let me know if you need any of those plants to set up a fountain of youth. I got enough to fill one of Tezcat's teopans, minus all the horrid altars and mesmerized worshippers. Of course, the stuff does invigorate the body and immunize against diseases. Turns you into the worst, robust-est womanizer, though most of the complaints I get are from the males, if you can believe that! But, don't like the name myself--'fountain of youth.' Sounds like it'd give you eternal life. Ha! Imagine what'd happen if the invaders landed here. I can hear them now: Where's the fountain of youth?' Answer: in everybody's backyard. They'd never believe it. Ha, ha!"
After Icacam left, satisfied his not-so-hilarious telling had lifted everyone's spirits, Menq wondered, "At what point might abusing the god Tezcatlipoca's name bring repercussions?" Menq recalled the earth tremors the past week and decided that when he was done here, he'd better take this to the attention of one of his contacts on the Council. It would be his minor contribution to keeping the balance of the Close and the Near. "Gotta remember Tezcat. Gotta remember Tezcat," he repeated softly, to make sure he wouldn't forget.
[end of chapter one]
Of course, if you know of an editor or publisher or agent looking for a unique 20k-word cross-over story, let her or him or me know. There is an editor who has exclusive review of it at the moment, so if you want to see more, cross your dedos because this is the last Internet posting of any more of the tale.
es todo, hoy,
Rudy Ch. Garcia