Philip Tennant: The end of the beginning

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A different kind of hell – Speaking to the Gods – The King’s Sorceror – The oldest game – The seeds of destruction

People have often asked me about the danger I have put my children
in on my expeditions. They make a valid argument. Ships sink.
Dirigibles crash. Trees fall and crush the unwary child. Wild
animals, insects, fire, and above all human beings, all conspire
to make your child’s life a very short one. To make matters
worse, one cannot watch one’s children every second of every
minute of every day. It takes a leopard only a moment to kill
a child and drag it to some secret place for its children.
How can anyone have that on his conscience?

The answer to this is simple. Our children did not stay children
for long, but became adults before any others. We taught
Alexandra and Carl about the dangers of the jungle by the age
of seven. Rather than tell them cautionary tales about ghosts
and goblins and bogeymen, that they then have to unlearn once
they realise that ghosts are not real, and wonder what other
of these fairy tales are pure fantasy, we told them cautionary
tales about lions, crocodiles, venomous snakes, deadly plants,
the jaws that bite, the claws that catch. And they have seen
with their own eyes that these were true stories. It may have
robbed them of their innocence before other children their age,
but it hardened them to a harsh reality.

— Philip Tennant, “Parenting for explorers”

I am a patient man. During my time in the cursed city of Anctapolepl, I never lost the anger I felt at the fate of my beloved Itzel. And yes, dear reader, I know that Anctapolepl is not a Nahuatl word. It is no word and no name at all, ugly and unpronouncable, and that is how I want it to be. There were more sacrifices after Itzel’s death, but they all coalesced into one single sacrifice, one single death. I could watch them with a dispassionate expression on my face, the burning, the drowning, the decapitation, the torture. Every sacrifice I witnessed, I calmly added to the account, biding my time until I could destroy the corrupted, rotten head of this foul and ravenous beast. I knew that failure would mean my death in the most ignominious way imaginable, and I didn’t care. I knew also that success might mean my death, and I did not care either. All that I lived for was to see this roiling cauldron of evil destroyed. It only remained to determine how.

The City was built some four hundred years ago with the most important part, the temple, in the belly of an extinct volcano. Even when it was built, the main purpose of the city of Anctapolepl was concealment. A place where the most exalted and secret rituals could be performed. In the wars against the Spaniards, it had never been found, never betrayed, by the simple measure of never allowing anyone to leave once they had entered. Apart from the temple, which was a free standing structure, all dwellings had been carved into the living rock of the mountain, all round the circumference of the volcano. There was an upper level and a lower level, with rooms varying in size from that of an English dining room to that of a small church. Between the temple and the dwellings was a paved street with only two exits. The one through which I had entered was to the North, a rabbit-hole presumably known only to a few select people long dead. As the population of the City declined, the Northern half of the city was the first to be abandoned, which is why I had believed the whole City desolate. Whether I was lucky to be wrong or not, I cannot say.

To the South was the main entrance, the terrace where King Ilhicamina and I had witnessed the passing of Itzel, and the antechamber. Goods and produce were left there, and those inside took it and distributed it. It reminded one of a lock gate in a river. Only the most trusted of soldiers were allowed to move from the inside out and back. In its glory days, the City might have housed fifteen to twenty thousand souls in its belly and in the surrounding farms, but these days, most of the rooms were empty and unused. My chambers were west of the Priests’ chambers, which were next to the King’s chambers, the largest rooms in the City. My sleeping chambers and laboratory were larger than most of the dwellings. My foundry was outside, between wall and temple. Yaotl had moved my bed to one end of the laboratory, away from the noxious chemicals I worked with, though sadly not quite from the smells. A servant girl named Citlali had provided me with a curtain for a sense of privacy. She kept the place clean and tidy. Her husband, named Tenoch, would do the more heavy tasks that were below Yaotl’s dignity. They went about their duties quietly and quickly, leaving me time to study. When this was my hospital and place of recovery, Itzel had brought in sweet-smelling herbs to drive away the spirits of illness. With her gone, all I could do was meticulously close all my pots and vials before going to bed. I had also had Yaotl remove the green window to improve ventilation and allow more light in. As a side benefit, I now had a view over the green fields outside the city.

On the mountainside to the South was the City’s main wealth: large fields of beans and corn. The fields were tilled by peasants who lived in carved-out dwellings and wooden buildings near the fields. There was an ingenious system of irrigation. Between long narrow strips of cornfield were troughs through which flowed the water of a nearby river. These waterworks were constructed when the city was first built. They were carefully maintained by the farmers, as their fathers and fathers’ fathers did before them.

Corn and brown beans were the staple food, and were consumed in the form of gruel, or pancakes called tlaxkalli made from corn meal. These were flavoured with copious amounts of salt, which could be found in abundance nearby, red and green tomatoes, and hot chilli peppers that set one’s mouth on fire. It was a fitting flavour for Hell. To this day, Indian curries in England hold no fear for me, immunised as I am to the hottest of spices.

Meat was scarce, gathered by a specialist group of hunters, and reserved for the elite. There were a few llamas in the city, and about half a dozen alpacas, but these were not for food. Their wool was used for the king’s richly coloured garments. They were the most spoiled creatures in the City, more so even than the King himself. Fish was caught in the river that served as the City’s water supply. Occasionally, the hunters would find small gophers and green iguanas that were roasted on spits and eaten with great relish by the nobility. In addition, there were several dishes made from insects; locusts, or various larvae and maggots. As if that were not enough to set one’s stomach to boiling, there was a recipe more grisly still. Some of the sacrificial victims, their bodies empty and broken, were butchered, and their flesh stewed as a meal for the warriors. This was purely ritualistic in nature, and since I was no warrior, I was spared having to eat such dishes.

To wash down their feast, the rustics drank an alcoholic drink called octli which the Spanish call pulque, a drink fermented from the sap of the Agave Americana, a fleshy plant that took years to mature, but then yielded its sap for two more years. Octli was about as strong as dark ale, but nowhere near as pleasant. It must be noted that there were harsh penalties for over-indulging. A commoner would be cast out into the fields to live as an animal. For the nobility, being held to higher standards, punishment was even harsher. At any rate, the nobility would not be seen drinking such a boorish dreg. They indulged themselves in xocolatl, made, as the name indicates, from cocoa beans and flavoured with chillis and a large variety of spices.

Driven perhaps by necessity, there were many occasions for fasting. For the rustic, this meant to abstain from chillis and salt. For the nobility, to forego the more extravagant indulgences of the table. This habit was observed with great conviction even by the King, though some of the priests were less disciplined. As for me, I preferred the more simple foods, with perhaps the occasional meal of fish. My austerity at the table was duly noted, and grudgingly admired.

At the time I was there, the city of Anctapolepl counted maybe five thousand souls. Of these, simple peasants formed the greatest part, a willing workforce that had been in this situation for so long that they would probably be surprised to be called slaves, in the same way that fish have no word for being wet. It was the way of things. The King ruled supreme, and ordered the hour of their birth, and the hour of their death.

The King was assisted by about a score of High Priests, an unsavoury lot, each of which deeply mistrusted and despised the others. They enjoyed great privileges, because they were among other things the men who selected which of the people, man, woman or child, would be the next to be sacrificed, and to which god.

Every tenth man in the city was a soldier, though Anctapolepl had no enemies from the outside. They were the King’s whip hand, and he wielded them with carefully measured cruelty, rewarding good behaviour with a position in the Guards, and brutally punishing those who displeased him.

I occupied a curious position in the hierarchy. I could not hope ever to match the priests’ knowledge of the gods, but unlike them, I could demonstrate a result to my prayers. Immediately after Itzel’s departure, I adopted a sorcerous manner, as befitted one who received the words of Huitzilopochtli. My advanced knowledge of Alchemy, shared by a thousand shool boys in England, proved to be of immense value. I filled my chambers with crucibles, glass, candles, walls of secret ingredients labelled in Latin, and books filled with incoherent gibberish, designed to fool the ignorant. My real notes, where I documented the results of my experiments, I kept well hidden in a secret compartment underneath my writing table. The priests hated me with a passion, since I could speak with the King any time I wanted, a privilege none of them could have dreamed of ever obtaining. I was at a notable disadvantage dealing with these people. Not being a native speaker of Nahuatl, their conversation sometimes escaped me. The gist of their opinion did not. Each one of them wanted to see me dead. Which is ignoble and vile, but since I had similar desires for them, I can hardly complain. Somehow, I would make this snake eat its own tail. That this would let the poor people of this cursed city govern their own lives without the constant fear of death was a side benefit.

A few months after Itzel’s death, I had optimised my mixture of black powder to the point where a small barrel of it could demolish a wall, and was unlikely to advance any further. I now concentrated on making more and more of it, storing it in clay pots well away from my quarters. My forge produced better and better metal, and I was almost ready to start calling it steel. The main advancement was temperature. I went through copious amounts of charcoal to produce my own tiny spot of Hell in a kiln that I would use only once. Yaotl became more and more capable of producing axe-heads and small blades. Privately, I was satisfied with my achievements, but there was a danger. I could not simply make bigger and bigger explosions, and once I had fired one of my cannon at a statue and brought it toppling down, any improvement seemed like more of the same. I needed to produce rifles to please my King, of a quality similar to those of the cursed Conquistadores. It was little consolation that the Spanish muskets had gone out of fashion at least a century ago. Andrew Parsons would look at my feeble attempts and… well, not laugh, but calmly and correctly point out that there were better ways of making steel pipes.

To my trouble, I was not the only person who suspected this. One of the priests was named Nochtli, a name associated with a kind of prickly pear fruit, which well suited his temperament. While I could usually befuddle the King with coloured smoke, lights, or bubbling water, Nochtli cared little for all these ornaments. Having the advantage of language over me, he planted countless little seeds of doubt into his every conversation that I was not competent to catch and respond to. I did not have Itzel’s memory for foreign words. A confrontation was inevitable, and never in all my adventures have I been closer to death than that day.

At the end of one of my demonstrations of smelting, from which I produced an ingot of metal that I hoped to turn into a longer blade, I saw Nochtli exchange glances with the King. King Ilhicamina rose, and asked me to approach. From the look in his eye, and the concealed glee in Nochtli’s eyes, I knew something was up.

“Philip Tennant,” said the King. “As my High Priest Nochtli rightly points out to me, we of the Kingdom of Anctapolepl know what happens to metal when you light a fire under it. Let me show you what I mean. Follow me. Yaotl, join us and assist the King’s Alchemist if he needs it.”

It was immediately clear to me that this ‘Assistance’ would include dragging me if I were fool enough to refuse. Not that I would. On my single leg, I could not run, and it was much easier to outwit the King than to outrun him anyway. Nochtli, though, was a different matter. Evil he might be, but stupid he was definitely not. Assisted now and then by Yaotl, we went up to the Royal Chambers, then down a flight of winding stairs. With my crutches, it was a challenge to descend without falling. When I reached the end of the stairs, Nochtli raised a torch, and I held my breath. Gold gleamed at me from every direction. Call me feeble if you will, but I hold that not a man alive can be in the presence of that much gold and not feel the slightest tinge of avarice. It is what moved the Spaniards to conquer this whole land.

Nochtli pointed at one of the statues, a sitting figure with pronounced teeth that I recognised as Mictlantecuhtli, the Death God of the Aztecs, roughly comparable to Plutoon in the Greek pantheon. No doubt the old devil chose that statue as an example on purpose.

“As you can see, the artificers of Anctapolepl are well capable of shaping metal. You light a fire under it, and it becomes water. You remove the fire, and it becomes hard again. This is all you have shown us, Philip Tennant.”

“Gold melts easily,” I said. “Iron is much…”

Nochtli stood in front of me. “So you have to make it a little hotter, Inglese. That is all we have seen you do. Make it a a bit hotter than gold. Is that truly the knowledge bestowed on you through Sister Itzel by the Great Warrior Huitzilopochtli?”

“Itzel speaks to me constantly,” I said. “Do you doubt her faith? Do you think she faltered along the way perhaps?”

“No, Philip Tennant. Itzel is truly the manifestation of the Rainbow Lady Herself. To doubt her, is to doubt sunlight. It is you that I doubt. Does Lady Itzel truly speak to you, or are you lying?”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that Yaotl had positioned himself beside the door. As a means of preventing escape, that was as effective as bricking the door up. The King now looked at me with a gleam in his eye.

“Fortunately, Nochtli, there is a simple means by which we may test the King’s Alchemist. You may think you were the last to speak to Itzel, Philip Tennant, if we may call it ‘speaking’.” The King laughed quietly. “I am sure that what you did that night served to strengthen the bond between the two of you. But you were not the last to speak to her. In the early morning, she came to me, and we spoke. I asked her for a sign, and she gave me one. She spoke words into my ear, and only into mine. You may now ask her what those words are, and so will the truth be known. Your King is waiting.”

A shudder went down my spine as I looked from the King to Nochtli, who was by now openly grinning, and in his mind deciding which knife to use to slit open my belly and rip my heart out of my chest. With a stroke like the hammer of doom, I knew that I had failed, and that I was dead already. I closed my eyes, and prayed.

But then, almost as clearly as if she were really standing behind me, I heard her sweet voice in my mind, repeating… repeating… And in that dark place, I suddenly smiled.

“Thank you, Itzel,” I said. Then I looked the King in the eye, and spoke.

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves, did gyre and gimble in the wabe. All mimsy were the borogroves, and the mome raths outgrabe.

The King took a step back as though he had been struck. He clutched his chest, and took several deep breaths.

“Those were her exact words,” he said. “Words that mean nothing. Words that none could guess.” The King bowed his head. “Forgive me, Philip Tennant, for doubting you, and her. Please forgive me.”

Nochtli glared. Being an intelligent man, he knew exactly where this seemingly incontrovertible proof failed. Itzel and I could easily have prepared for just this occasion. But to bring this up now? Impossible. The King would have him executed where he stood. The old goat actually kneeled before me.

“Forgive me, Alchemist. I was blind, but now I see.”

I turned to the King. “You were right to test me, Your Highness. Forgive Nochtli his doubt, for it was an honest and justified one. I thank him for this opportunity to prove myself your humble servant, and Itzel the finest lady ever to grace Anctapolepl with the imprint of her feet.”

I looked at Nochtli, and he looked at me. Never have I seen such a look of pure hatred, and at that moment, I savoured it like xocolatl.

For my efforts, the King gifted me with a large gold statue of the Great Warrior Himself, to oversee my work. It weighed about eighty pounds, and was placed on a pedestal in a corner of my laboratory-cum-bedroom, squinting at me from the corner of its eye. Yaotl carried it there without any visible sign of effort, and I stood for a long time, just looking at it, thinking of Itzel. As I turned round to go back to work, I heard the soft noise of footsteps in the corridor, coming from the direction of the Royal chambers, and the priests’ abode. Then, I recognised the voice of another one of the priests, a man named Matlal.

“Citlali? Where are you? Come here, my girl. I have a job for you.”

I limped to the door and pulled away the beaded curtain. Citlali, the servant girl who tidied up my laboratory, stood just outside, shoulders hunched, looking behind her. Startled, she looked round at me. She opened her mouth to say something, but she was interrupted.

“Citlali? I know you are there. Don’t make me come to fetch you.”

I beckoned, and she came into my room. I heard her breath quicken as we heard Matlal’s footsteps in the corridor. I pointed at my bed. Citlali’s eyes grew large, and her lips trembled.

“Hide,” I whispered. “I’ll get rid of him.”

Citlali sprang up onto the bed like a startled deer, and pulled the curtain behind her. I turned towards the door. Matlal looked at me, frowning.

“Good evening, Alchemist. Have you seen Citlali perhaps?”

“No, tlamacazqui Matlal, I have not seen her since this morning.”

Matlal’s eyes narrowed. “Are you sure? I could have sworn that I heard her voice.”

I sneered. “Do you think I have her hidden away in my room perhaps?”

Matlal laughed in a most unpleasant way. “I wouldn’t put it past you, Alchemist. She is most charming and your rooms have been rather empty of feminine beauty of late.”

“Would I eat a tlaxkalli after you have already licked off all the sauce and salt? She is not here.”

“You are a fine one to speak, Alchemist, having enjoyed the company of Itzel for all these months. But you were not the last to touch her naked flesh.” Matlal’s teeth showed in an evil smile. “I was. The feel of her before I set my knife in her. I cut her slowly, Alchemist, and yet, she saw her own beating heart before her soul departed her body. A worthy offering for Huitzilopochtli.”

If I had a weapon, I would have killed him where he stood. Such things being unavailable to me, I calmly, coldly, added more weight to the balance. This man would die, by my will if not by my hand.

“Itzel is not in my room. Citlali is not in my room. All that is in my room is myself and a statue of Huitzilopochtli. And I have work to do, tlamacazqui.”

“Citlali likes a firm hand,” said Matlal. “Keep that in mind, just in the event that she does find herself here.” He turned round and walked away.

I took a deep breath, limped to my bed and pulled open the curtain. Citlali was sitting on the bed, arms round her knees, staring at her bare feet. I sat down next to her. She was about Alexandra’s age, with deep black hair tied in two thick plaits reaching half way down her back. She was slender, strong like Alexandra. She should be running round this city laughing, loved, happy. Instead, she was the plaything of a depraved old man, who would kill her when at last he tired of her.

As I put my hand on her shoulder, she breathed in, startled. She looked up to me with large frightened eyes. I pulled her closer, stroked her hair. She closed her eyes and put her head on my shoulder. Iris was always so much better at this than I was.

“It’ll be alright,” I said. “Everything will be alright. You will be fine. I promise.”

Citlali sniffed, opened her eyes and looked up at me.


I brushed the tears from her cheek and smiled at her. “It got him out of here. I didn’t mean it. You are almost as beautiful as my daughter.”

That got a little laugh out of her. I got up, told her to wait and looked up and down the corridor. There was nobody there, and I waved her on. She ran down the corridor to her home, her husband. Safe for perhaps one evening. I sat down at my desk, pulled out my plans. I used to think that I had all the time in the world. But that evening, I knew I did not. People were suffering. I had work to do.

Next: Alexandra Tennant: The French are coming to get us


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