Tonauac stepped out the grand entrance of the Axayactal palace, the humid breeze of his homeland flushing his entire body.
Tonauac closed his eyes for a second, feeling the warm mid-morning sunlight recharging his inner spirit. Tonauac liked to take a moment each morning to soak in the sun, although it had been hard to find time to do so with the arrival of this strange people. How precious each day was to this Earth, more precious than human life. Huītzilōpōchtli, god of the sun, did not give his precious power away freely. Even now, as Tonauac opened his eyes to see the Temple across the main plaza, people were being sacrificed. Prisoners of war from far away villages, sometimes even volunteers from inside the city willing to give the ultimate sacrifice to appease the gods and bring the rain and sunlight their society so desperately needed.
Tonauac made his way down the steps of the palace pyramid, passing waves of statesmen and palace servants as they bustled in and out of the Emperor’s abode.
The arrival of these strange people, these white-skinned metal men, these Spaniards, as they called themselves, had put the city in a ruckus. Thousands of people flocked just to catch a glimpse of one of their armored caravans as they patrolled the streets of the city. They rode these immense four legged animals, looking like deer but acting like the llamas of the mountain peoples far south. Larger and stronger than the biggest jaguars of the jungle, constantly kicking and restless, Tonauac wondered how these strange peoples had managed to tame the creatures, to tie them down and place baggage on them.
Some of these men had also tamed these other beasts, growling, yapping creatures with a metal ring around their neck. They seemed to constantly sniff the ground, always looking for some sort of prey they had a mission to track down. They looked like the foxes that lived here in his homeland, but their maws were short and compacted, and they were much larger and stronger, standing taller than a man’s waist.
Tonauac thought about the strange men themselves as he traversed the crowded plaza, bumping into the denizens of the city as he went by.
These Spaniards stayed close together at all times, rarely going out into the streets except when in a large, intimidating group. Rarely did they remove the metal casings from around their body, and never did they take off the weapons from the waists. They were sophisticated and orderly, keeping to their own and acting as if the entire city were inferior to them. Never did they learn the language of his people, they always wanted the people to learn their language. And now, they have taken the Emperor captive. It was more official than actual, the Emperor was just not allowed to leave the palace. It was a power move, signs that the Spaniards felt uneasy being in the heart of Tenochtitlan with no reassurance of their safety. Tonauac was chosen by one of the Emperor’s officiaries to serve as a manservant for the Spaniards not because of his low status, but because Tonauac was smart. He picked up the white men’s language quickly, was imposing enough to be a symbol of the Empire’s strength, and was a loyal scout able to carry out the mission to find out more about these Spaniards. Was their leader a god returning to Earth? Were they men at all? How did they fight? How many were there? And most importantly, what did they want? He was to report to the council with any information he found.
Tonauac thought about Pedro.
How easy this man came to anger, to annoyance, and how frequently he asked questions. Tonauac had fun nicknaming him Tonatiuh, had enjoyed his frustration with every new thing Tonauac did to him. Tonatiuh means ‘sun’ or ‘sunlight’, a reference to the golden-blonde hair that Pedro sported. Many of the Spaniards had hair as black as the Aztecs, but Pedro was different.
Tonatiuh was not even a nickname Tonauac had come up with, all over the city the people were speaking about this Tonatiuh’s blonde hair and how it shined like a white hot fire.
In truth, Tonauac liked the man. Perhaps after this mysterious meeting Pedro was called to he would give him a taste of the refined xocatl he wanted so badly. That, and cunningly interrogate him to find out what went on in the meeting.
Tonauac was glad that he truly liked the man. He didn’t have to fake a friendship to get the information he needed.
It came naturally.
“Take a seat, my friend.” said Hernán Cortés, graciously ushering him into a small wicker chair on the opposite side of his desk. “I trust it you slept well?”
Pedro looked into the eyes of his long time friend and commander. Hernán boasted his same rugged features as always, his skin tan and his thick beard dark. Hernán also bore thick curved brows and brown irises, genetic remnants of the Moorish conquerors that captured Spain centuries ago. But today he looked off, his dark eyes rimmed with purple and his mouth in a tight expression despite the smile on his face. Hernán was also already in his full riding regalia, dark leather breeches, a thin white undershirt and a loose poncho over his gold-embroidered breastplate. Pedro knew something was wrong. This man was always cool and well mannered, even in the face of battle.
“Well, it sure looks like you didn’t. What is it, Hernán? What’s wrong?” asked Pedro, raising an eyebrow.
“Sí...you know me well Pedro. Too many years together in this New World for me to hide anything from you.”
Pedro sat up in his chair.
“It’s our old capitán, Diego Velázquez. We both know he was the one that gave us the charter to explore deeper into the lands of Mexico, and it is because of that charter that we are here today in Tenochtitlan. As you know, he tried to revoke the charter just days before we left on the expedition, but I did not want to be under the shackles of that man anymore. I wanted to explore, Pedro, to conquer in the name of Spain! Can you understand why I ignored his decree to cancel our expedition?”
“You know I understand, Hernán, or else I would have never embarked with you in the first place. He cannot stop us, he has no right to. The King himself endorses our expedition, it’s not right to halt us.” said Pedro, clenching his fists.
Hernán Cortes looked into his old friend’s icy blue eyes, assured of his feelings.
“I cannot express my gratitude to have been by your side all these years. I am glad at least one of my old friends has remained true.”
“What has Diego done?”
“The dog has sent fourteen hundred of his own soldiers out from Havana in secret. That’s twenty cannons, eighty knights, one hundred and twenty crossbowmen, and eighty arquebusiers under the command of a rat named Pánfilo de Narváez. That’s most of the Cuban garrison, under order to capture me, kill any under my command, and bring me to trial for a court martial. They landed in Mexico just days ago, I having heard of this news only this morning.”
Pedro leaned back in his chair, blinking his eyes in disbelief. He had known Diego, had sung songs with him, had drank with the man as he played this beautiful old guitar he brought everywhere. And now Diego wanted him dead?
“I have to face the troops before they reach the city. As you know, the situation here is already intense. The Emperor is imprisoned here to ensure our safety as negotiations go on and we rest from the journey. For now the people know nothing about it, but the rumors are bound to spread. I can think of only one man that can take care of the city while I’m gone.”
Pedro looked up into Hernán’s tired eyes.
“Yes. I know you can handle things, keep the city together. I will only be gone for a few weeks, all you’ll have to do is continue negotiations and keep everything friendly.”
“How are you going to stop Narváez’s men? We have what, a little over three hundred troops here, not counting the Tlaxcalan allies, and you’ll have to leave a force behind with me of course. How are you going to send off a force of men 4 times stronger than yours?”
Hernán smiled, his white teeth gleaming from within the black forest of beard.
“Well, that’s the only good news I have. These are Spaniards after us, not Moors, not savages. It’s very likely they are thirsting after the very same things that drove us here into the jungles. Legendary cities of gold, danger around every corner, behind every tree trunk. Honor and glory, your very own estate carved out of the wild jungle lands. I’ll have to eliminate Narváez, and convince the men to come with me back to Tenochtitlan. I’ll probably leave eighty Spaniards with you here, that’s usually the number it takes to make our patrols. I can also leave you with the entirety of the allied army. The Tlaxcalans are a strong people with no reason to plot with their sworn enemies, the Mexica. You can trust them, and I will recruit more on my way back.”
Pedro was surprised.
“So it’s really a...recruiting mission? Just march over, take out Narváez, and come back with some new friends?”
“Well...if everything works out, yes. Really the hardest part of this plan is maintaining the uneasy peace we have here in Tenochtitlan. Have you got any ideas for that yet?”
“I -uh... know little about these people. I don’t know how to control them. Even after our extreme distaste of the human sacrifices they perform daily, they continue to slaughter people in hidden places around the city. I only really know one person that can actually speak Spanish well enough to converse. My manservant, Tonauac. But he’s...difficult”
“Then talk to him. If he’s difficult try to learn more about him, connect with him more. Become his friend if you have to. Form a plan to halt all human sacrifice, that will be the first step in establishing civilization here, eventually making this a colony for Spain. If all else fails, show them the power of our guns, they have not yet seen our cannons fire or our arquebusiers get to work. They are already afraid of our horses and dogs, our armo-”
“I apologize for the interruption capitán Cortés, but the men are ready.” said a lieutenant in full plate mail, raising his visor in a salute. He nodded to Pedro.
“Ah, gracias Sir Hector, I’ll be there in a moment. You are dismissed.” said Hernán, returning the salute. Hector stomped down the hallway, his armor clanking.
“You’re leaving already?” asked Pedro, confused.
“I have faith in your abilities Pedro, there’s no point in waiting any longer. You can do this. Find out more about these peoples, find what scares them, what they want. Avoid all conflict at all costs.” said Hernán, grabbing his polished helmet from the desk. “Farewell, Pedro. May we meet again in a few weeks time.”
“...Farewell Hernándo.” said Pedro, still dazzled by all the news.
And with that, Hernán Cortés left down the hallway.
Pedro fell down into his bed, clutching his temples. His headache had returned.
He fumbled at the buckle of his swordbelt for a minute before the clasp finally came loose, his rapier falling to the foot of the bed.
All day he had dealt with the sudden switch of leadership in the garrison, tracking down the remaining lieutenants and making sure his men and the allied force were still organized after Cortés’ sudden absence. Although thankfully none had any issues with Pedro being placed under command, all had questions as to why Cortés had left so suddenly with no briefing to his men as to where and why he was going.
Pedro was still shaken himself, and he knew the men could sense it. He had hoped Hernán could have at least left secretly, but his proud march down the main causeways had assured to any possible rebels that the Spaniard presence in the city was weakened.
Pedro wanted to be the strong leader Hernán is, but he felt increasingly lost every second in this strange new city in a strange new world.
He only wanted to see a familiar face.
“Need sword clean?” asked Tonauac, once again a silent obelisk standing in the doorway.
Pedro snapped out of his thoughts, hurriedly wiping a tear off his cheek. He couldn’t help smiling at Tonauac. At least some things don’t change, and it looked like Tonauac’s slight frown was one of them.
“As a matter of fact, yes...thank you Tonauac.”
Stooping into the room, Tonauac took a seat in a woven chair across the room. He reached down to the ground, inspecting the weapon in his calloused hands.
“Your sword, all Spanish sword, is....shiny. How?”
“Well, it’ll be even shinier after you clean it.” chuckled Pedro before awkwardly cutting off his laugh at the sight of Tonauac’s unamused face.
“It was my father’s sword and his father’s before him. Fátima was made in Toledo almost a century ago by one of the greatest swordsmiths in all of Iberia.”
Tonauac drew the blade out of its leather scabbard, admiring the metallic hiss as it slid from its sheath. He ran his hands along the winding hilt and crosspiece forged into the likeness of a venomous snake curling around the handle.
Pedro laughed as the memories flooded back to him.
“That was the name of a wench my father met in the final days of the Reconquista. He made me promise to never tell my mother about it and I never did.”
“Where father now?” asked Tonauac.
Pedro’s laugh faded away.
“I’m not sure. He was bedridden, taken by an unknown sickness when I left for the New World and I haven’t gotten the chance to write to him since. I can only pray for his health, but I fear for the worst.”
Tonauac’s stoic visage melted for just a moment.
“I’m sorry, Tonatiuh.”
Pedro nodded, appreciative of the gesture.
Tonauac gripped Fátima tightly, swinging it like a log. He frowned as he felt how thin the blade really was as it sliced through the air. The steel blade was little over an inch wide.
“Too...small, weak.” frowned Tonauac, reaching behind his back.
“Well you weren’t wielding it right.” explained Pedro, making sparring motions with his gloved hands. “It takes years to learn how to properly brandish a proper blade and-”
“This. This good weapon.” Tonauac took out what looked like a flattened club. The wood base was smooth and polished, with a round leather handle. The sides were entirely encompassed by sharp, black glass, giving the weapon the appearance of a black sawblade on all sides. Tonauac grasped the weapon with trained expertise, darting the weapon in and out in slicing strokes.
“This a maquahuitl, good for cutting man in two part.” smirked Tonauac.
Pedro raised an eyebrow. He had seen the allied Tlaxcalans carrying these as well, but none had been able to speak with him. As weapons, he had no doubt they could be deadly. Pedro realized this was exactly what he needed to know, what Hernán had said he needed to figure out.
“Does every man have one of these?” asked Pedro.
“All warrior learn how use the maquahuitl, some learn bow and arrow or atlatl too. All Spanish learn metal sword?”
Pedro wished to know more about these atlatl’s, but he didn’t want to make the question seemed forced.
“No, not all. Traditionally only nobles learn the sword, the enlisted soldiers of España are trained in the use of crossbows, halberds, pikes, or arquebuses.”
Tonauac burned the troop types into his memory. His superiors would like this.
“What are those? Crossbow and other?”
“The crossbow is a high powered device that can launch a bolt hundreds of yards and with enough power to pierce the thinner parts of plate armor. Is that at all similar to this...atlatl of yours?”
Tonauac hesitated. He paused for a moment, as if deeply considering what he was saying and if he should say it.
“Atlatl is a....device too. Long wood, help arrow go far, like crossbow.”
Pedro nodded. He hadn’t seen any of these atlatl’s yet, he would have to check around the city some more. He hoped they couldn't penetrate steel.
“Tonatiuh, why you here? In Tenochtitlan?” asked Tonauac.
Pedro looked deep into Tonauac’s eyes, looking for any sign of his true intentions. He had a suspicion Tonauac was asking strange questions, but his search for treachery proved fruitless.
“We are here in the name of his majesty Charles V, sent to procure a colony for the Empire of Spain.” said Pedro, giving a clear answer yet vague enough that Tonauac wouldn't be able to find out too much if he was looking for information. Just in case.
Tonauac gave a slight smile.
“Goodnight Tonatiuh, I be here in morning.”
Pedro shared the expression.
Pedro watched the hulking man stoop off into the hallway, taking the burning torch with him. He sat in the darkness, pondering their conversation. Tonauac asked a lot of questions, questions he wouldn't have never answered for an enemy. But Tonauac wasn’t an enemy...right? Pedro refused the possibility, he liked the tower of a man too much.
Surely any of these savages would have asked the same questions, it was just curiosity.
Pedro struggled to fall asleep, seeds of doubt circling around his mind.