High Priests of America

Chapter 6

⚞ ♗ ⚟

The notary and the priest did indeed arrive as one package. The fleet of the rival conquistador, Pánfilo de Narváez disembarked at Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, the original Spanish outpost. There the notary and the priest accused Cortés and his expedition of treachery in front of the captain of the local garrison. As a result, on the man’s orders they were captured, bound and carried by the locals all the way to Tenochtitlan, where Cortés would be awaiting them, and they were welcome to deliver their insults and demands to him in person.

On their way to Tenochtitlan however, these men would be substituted by much wiser, more agreeable diplomats who already knew well how to play Cortés’ game. This was the plan.

The execution, however, was not as simple.

On Blaze’s part, the switch was not much of a problem. He was ready to abandon the body he was in and possess the priest that accompanied the notary at any time. Distance did not matter, as he could travel formless, through the spirit world wherever he needed to be. Meanwhile, Shaazgai was busy planning suicide.

Blaze asked him a bit surprised why he wouldn’t just leave Ixtli’s body and move on, it wasn’t like the man had any agency anymore or could harm their new forms in any way. But his accomplice made up weak excuses until Blaze realized what exactly the problem was. Shaazgai could not switch bodies without dying.

That made his regular browsing of obsidian blades and inspection of ropes at the local market take on a new, morbid light. Blaze watched those preparations with mild horror. It was one thing to be annoyed at the man, and another entirely to think of Shaazgai taking his own life. At least the aura around Shaazgai, and that of his evil master Ahriman, was reassuring. It really did seem that the man would be able to come back from death.

Everything was ready now, their bodies were minutes away from meeting Cortés, and Shaazgai was playing with the blade he chose, looking distant and seemingly carefree.

Blaze approached him, offering a small clay vessel. “I have a better way out for you.”

“Huh?” Shaazgai looked at him in confusion, clearly lost in his own thoughts. He stared at the small clay pot and arched a brow. “Poison? I don’t want to make this longer or more painful than necessary. I’ll just stab myself in the neck, or fall on the knife, thanks.”

“I pity your enemies and you both if you do not know of painless poisons.” Blaze looked at him with some sadness.

Shaazgai frowned. He watched Blaze for a long moment, knife in hand. And for a second there, Blaze remembered how this very man tried to stab him on several occasions. There was the same dark determination in Shaazgai’s eyes now. Then he set the blade aside and accepted the poison from Blaze. “Is this one truly painless?”

“Yes,” Blaze said solemnly. “If you really must die, then I promise this one will be almost like falling asleep. Your heart will slow down and stop. Drink it now, all at once.”

Shaazgai fidgeted hesitantly, then gave him one last suspicious look and nodded. He downed the poison in one go, flinched, set the empty vessel next to the knife and looked incredulously at Blaze.

“Sit down.” Blaze put a hand on his shoulder and guided him to do so. “Or better yet, lie down.”

Shaazgai did, and Blaze rested beside him. Shaazgai was frowning. His eyes were moving restlessly, he was probably searching his sensations for the early effects of the poison and so far finding none. He looked up at Blaze with open unease. “This better not be slow and agonizing. If it is, I trust you to cut my throat.”

“Just trust me,” Blaze said, and found that there was a strange emotion to his voice. Faced with Shaazgai’s death, all the frustration he had previously felt with the man and his machinations suddenly ceased to matter.

Shaazgai sighed and looked at him attentively in silence. His breath was steady and his features stiff and severe. But as moments passed, and his lids started to grow heavy, something else stirred in his eyes, and his eyebrows furrowed. His hand tentatively found Blaze’s own. “I don’t like dying,” Shaazgai said softly.

“And I don’t like you dying.” Blaze pulled Shaazgai towards him and up a little, until the man lay partially in his arms. He held his hand and looked at him with a certain unrest as well. “I trust you are going to come back like you said you would.”

“Just trust me,” Shaazgai echoed at him and smirked. He blinked, and his eyes stayed closed for longer. He let his head rest heavily against Blaze’s chest and looked at him, smiling peacefully, no longer afraid.

And Blaze felt afraid all the more for this beautiful snake, who had repeated over and over that he was immortal, but who was known to scheme and lie. He did not tell that to the man, but if his reincarnation proved to be a lie, or should anything in it go wrong, then Blaze was prepared to resort to measures beyond this world to retrieve his soul and put it back into his body. He hugged Shaazgai closer, his free hand stroking the man’s hair.

Shaazgai nuzzled his hand, barely conscious now. His eyes opened one last time, then slowly closed. His breath remained even for a little while longer. He shuddered and moments later grew entirely still.

Blaze pulled Ixtli’s dead body to him one last time, and he pressed a kiss to the man’s head. Then he closed his eyes as well, and leaving a confused supervising high priest wondering why he was holding another dead high priest’s body in his arms, Blaze searched for Shaazgai in the spirit world.

His relief was infinite, when he felt a familiar presence not too far away. Through the darkness and whispering silence of the underworld, he floated towards it.

⚞ ♝ ⚟

Shaazgai came to his senses on the ground in front of the Spanish cohorts. Cortés was half-way through a profuse apology to him — the court notary — and the priest that was accompanying him. He was deeply sorry for the inconvenient journey they suffered, caused by his well-intentioned but often rash captain Sandoval of the coastal garrison. Alfonso Shaazgai looked at the Spaniards as disoriented as they would expect. He hardly listened to Cortés. He knew what the man would be saying, as always he was shifting the blame and presenting himself as their new best friend. This was not important. 

Instead, the court notary turned to look at his companion. He searched for the sign of recognition in the eyes of Antonio Guevara. The outraged, frightened priest beside him froze, and it seemed that for a moment the man forgot to breathe. Then his chest heaved again, and his angry expression slowly melted into the same soft look that Shaazgai saw just minutes before, as he lay dying in Blaze’s arms. Only this time the worry in the priest’s eyes had been replaced by relief. 

Cortés kept on talking. Neither the Spaniards ahead of them, nor the natives behind them noticed that a swap had just taken place.

Shaazgai smiled and nodded ever so subtly to his co-conspirator. Then, as would be expected of him, he turned his full attention to Cortés. And so did Blaze.

* * *

The two men who met with the captain of the Spaniards on that day proved very open to his ideas, as he toured them around the grand capital city of Tenochtitlan, and treated them to a feast. Of course, it became clear to them now that he was not a traitor but a loyal servant to King Charles, keeping the city and these conquered lands for His Royal Highness.

In the morning the next day, granted a horse each, with their pockets lined with gold, and even more gold in their saddlebags to take to Cortés’ prospect allies among the Narváez’s expedition, the notary and the priest rode out of the city on the lake. They headed back for the coast in the company of four other mounted Spaniards to keep them safe in their travels and bring back the horses after they’ve reached their destination. 

And perhaps as Cortés’ sent the two men on their swift and convenient journey back, a thought strayed into his mind that they had been as reasonable and easy to talk to as certain two priests in Cholula.

⚞ ♗ ⚟

Blaze had never ridden horses, but his body had. It did not take too long before he adapted, and the ride became somewhat bearable. Shaazgai on his horse, had a wild and free look in his eyes. Blaze had never seen the man like that. He knew that Shaazgai loved these majestic hoofed beasts, having lived with those steppe nomads he sometimes talked about, but he did not expect just how real that love would prove. The Mexica had initially thought that the rider and the horse were one being, and if any of the mounted Spaniards they encountered looked anything like Shaazgai did now, it had been an honest mistake to make.

Barely an hour’s ride out of the city they stopped briefly, allegedly to rest and relieve themselves, but in truth to retrieve their previous bodies’ belongings they had hidden away there, then rode for the rest of the day. When they stopped for the night, Shaazgai took care of his horse, gently grooming and feeding it and talking to it tenderly in Spanish all the while. Blaze watched him in bewilderment. The man had never shown any such kindness to a human being. Was this where all his empathy had gone? Blaze was glad that it went somewhere at least. Though he was beginning to suspect that there was a deeper, much deeper and thickly veiled level to Shaazgai. It had taken Shaazgai dying for Blaze to finally be admitted a single glance beyond that veil, but he vividly remembered Shaazgai’s hand seeking out his like it never did before. That gesture had been a very human one. As was this. Perhaps there was some hope yet for Shaazgai. Perhaps Blaze had to look again, look deeper.

Blaze tended to his own horse, but when Shaazgai came over to show him how it’s really done, he just smiled and let him. He loved to see such passion, and watching Shaazgai and the horses beat thinking about the impending fall of civilized cultures of both Americas by far. He was similarly thankful that the Spaniards expected him to say prayers with them in the evening — getting into his role of the servant of the Christian god offered another very welcome distraction.

In the morning, before they set out again, Shaazgai was back to bustling between his own and Blaze’s horse. As soon as the priest was in the saddle, Shaazgai began correcting his position and his grip on the reins and looked very pleased to find that Blaze listened to him just as gladly as the day before and adjusted according to all his tips.

But all that had been nothing. It was only during their stop to rest beyond Cholula that the court notary demonstrated prowess beyond the wildest dreams of any paper-pusher. To the utter astonishment of the priest and the four Spaniards — the latter of whom had initially thought the notary had gone mad from the sun’s heat — Shaazgai galloped around their camp, standing on top of the saddle, then dropping back into it. He did that only to moments later throw himself off of it, down onto the ground, and run next to the horse just to jump back into the saddle seemingly as light as a bird, all that with the horse never slowing down. He impressed all of them so much that all five began applauding him and then never stopped. 

Those were not the only tricks Alfonso Shaazgai and his horse, that he only rode for a day, showed them. In the end, looking appropriately exhausted, because the body he possessed was not as fit as Shaazgai would have liked, the notary grinned and bowed, to Blaze in particular. He looked so utterly alive and genuine that Blaze was happy to temporarily forget all his dark thoughts. Instead he wondered amused what a bizarre tale the Spaniards would bring back to their leader.

By the time they finally made it to the coast and rode into the Spanish outpost of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, Blaze learned that he never wanted to ride a horse again. Well, perhaps in Europe, after a long time had passed. He did not know how Shaazgai could look and act so fresh after this constant journey on horseback. He did not fathom how one could be enjoying this at all. But mercifully the torment ended at last. Before their Spanish guards took the horses away to rest in the stables of the outpost, Blaze and his trusty mount looked at each other in mutual understanding one last time. This parting was for the better. And yet he thanked the horse. Thanks to this experience, he had nearly forgotten all of his brooding. One could simply not think of things of grandeur while shaken up and down like that and with saddle bruises on one’s behind. He thanked the new god as well — in the absence of capacity for more profound thoughts, reciting the prayers from the mind of Antonio Guevara to the rhythm of their bumpy ride had proven a true saving grace as well.

From there, Shaazgai led the way. Panfilo Narváez and his forces were still camped in the vicinity of their ships for fear of Sandoval and his allied natives burning or sinking them like Cortés did with his own, should Narváez stray too far. Shaazgai seemed to pale a shade as he looked at the ships that towered over the beach in the distance, though Blaze did not make much of it at that time, thinking the paleness to be from exhaustion that had finally caught up with the man. 

They purposefully procrastinated reaching Narváez himself and spent a long time among his men instead. Shaazgai walked among the foot soldiers and dignitaries alike, singing Cortés’ praises, marvelling at his generosity and strategically redistributing the riches to back those claims. He also delivered letters that the captain of the Spanish had passed through them. Blaze knew that display for what it was, the last bout of spreading chaos to the glory of Shaazgai’s dark master. And well, if chaos was what Shaazgai wanted, then Blaze supposed his accomplice would not mind that in the meantime, he went around the vast encampment, telling the soldiers about the importance of understanding the native culture and preserving its achievements, including the codices of the Mexica and the Maya, in which deep wisdom on all kinds of matters could be found. This way he and Shaazgai went about the camp, until finally Narváez was informed of their arrival and intercepted them. 

In front of him, the notary and the priest both pretended to not be all that fond of Cortés after all. They avoided phrasing their own thoughts into words and instead Shaazgai presented Panfilo Narváez with a final letter that Cortés addressed to the man himself. That did the job for them. 

They listened to Narváez’s yelling about traitors for the next hour, and Blaze was almost certain he would have them chained at least, but he had underestimated the Spaniards’ fear of acting against a man of God. In the end, they were reprimanded, forbidden to spread more lies about the Indians and Cortés between the soldiers, and simply left to their own devices. And they were perfectly satisfied with that outcome, as their engagement ended here anyway.

After long years in America, Blaze would finally be crossing the ocean back. He smiled to himself, as he strolled the beach, breathing in the smell of the breeze. Shaazgai did not know that he had seen the other side. They had shared some things from their past with each other, but not too many. But there was time. Their cooperation was merely beginning.

For now, they waited. Blaze practiced priestly duties, reaching into his body’s mind to re-learn the trade, while Shaazgai, seeming more and more restless for some reason, slinked around and listened to rumours. It looked like Narváez had started corresponding in secret with Moctezuma, who while pretending to be the greatest friend to Cortés and his men, was still looking for a way out of his hostage situation. It amused Shaazgai greatly, though he kept his joy discreet. It was going to be a Spaniard eat Spaniard world out here, he said. But seeing the look in the priest’s eyes, he swiftly assured Blaze again that by the time the chaos would reach its peak, and the two Spanish armies clashed, they would be long gone from here.

The opportunity presented itself soon indeed, and in a rather unexpected way. It turned out that news of Cortés declaring his independence from Cuba’s governor had finally reached the Spanish Crown, and as a consequence, a true royal magistrate was sent to audit Narváez’ expedition and stop it from interfering with Cortés and his conquest. Even though the magistrate was working on the king’s orders, Narváez was so infuriated by the intervention that he had the man bound soon after his arrival, and shipped back to Spain. Blaze and Shaazgai bought their way onto that ship, and thus they were off. Though they were slightly delayed as the ship, originally headed to Castille, changed its course after the magistrate declared the ship’s captain was committing treason and threatened him with hanging. Now they were sailing to Santo Domingo instead, to deposit the magistrate at the royal tribunal where he wished to report what had transpired. Shaazgai, who looked sicker each day, but refused to talk about it, was not too pleased with having to stop, yet said he would not interfere with the matters of the Crown. But before they reached Santo Domingo, he himself had a gold-laced chat with the captain, to ensure they set sail again right after and make haste to Spain.

Having achieved that, with what seemed to be a way angrier but at the same somehow weaker burst of plotting than his usual, Shaazgai returned to their small shared cabin and asked to be left alone. And he did it in such a tone that the magistrate’s previous threat of hanging the captain and his crew sounded generous compared.

Blaze did not dare protest.

* * *

They had been sailing for days now, and there was no land in sight anymore, just the beautiful but merciless vastness of the ocean and sky. 

Blaze had not been out on the water like this for centuries. The feeling and the view were fascinating to say the least, and so was the new faith that he was familiarizing himself with more and more each day. He learned it not only from the mind of the man whose body he took over, but from nearly everyone onboard the vessel. Blaze spent a lot of time up here on the deck, discovering how it was to be a priest among the seaman. 

The Christian God, his Son, the Holy Ghost and Saint Mary were all present in these men’s lives. Prayers were spoken with such regularity even on bright and sunny days with favorable winds that Blaze could only imagine how abundantly they would flow on stormier days and nights. He played it safe and merely felt the prayers, mapping out the course they took for now, keeping nothing for his own, not even as he felt his ties with the deities of the Mexica becoming more and more strained, until one day they became severed completely. He was here, and they were left out there. Tlaloc and Quetzalcoatl must have drawn a breath of relief to finally be free of Blaze, but they had much more serious concerns now than an old leech such as him.

Since the priest helped on deck as much as he could, and often assured the crew that God had their ship in his care, he quickly became well loved among them. To the extent where he had to retreat back to Shaazgai, and bang on the door to their shared cabin until the man let him in, so that Blaze could partake in some of the silence and solitude that Shaazgai seemed to currently prefer.

They had barely talked for the past week, and not for the lack of trying on Blaze’s part. Shaazgai kept to himself so much that the priest began to find it unsettling. Not only was it utterly unusual for Shaazgai to act this way, but the man was also supposed to be his guide in the new country, where Blaze knew nobody else. The priest wished to remain on good terms with him as they had managed to be for the last two decades, but now he was starting to be afraid that this voyage would affect their partnership. Shaazgai finally assured him that it was not going to be the case, he merely despised sea travel.

But the longer they sailed, the surer Blaze became that it was hardly all there was to it. Something else had been gnawing at Shaazgai ever since he laid his eyes on the ship, and even as he tried his best to hide it, his mask was slipping more and more with each passing day. 

The man who, despite expressing disgust in private, had bravely withstood ritual cannibalism back in Cholula, now struggled with every meal onboard the ship and sometimes outright professed a lack of appetite, even while his body proclaimed otherwise. It was not seasickness or any other physical affliction, like Blaze had thought at first. It wasn’t fear either, as both of them had divined the fate of this ship and were confident in the safety of their journey before it even began. 

A week into the voyage, when the sky above the ocean sea grew darker, waves rose and crashed against the ship to the whisper of prayers, Shaazgai turned into a haunted shadow of a man. Yet strangely, even though he had been staying in the cabin before, now on these darker days Blaze caught him up on deck instead, staring almost longingly into the North horizon and muttering something in yet another unfamiliar language.

It only got worse from then on. The man slept little and fitfully, and began waking himself and Blaze with mutterings and even cries. He would apologize to the priest profusely, but never explain what was the source of his misery, despite Blaze always trying to inquire. If he could not understand what the matter was, how could he help Shaazgai? But ever since they met, Ixtli had always kept him at a safe distance, and while he was clearly in agony of some sort, he was not dying, so Blaze could not trick him into letting himself be comforted. 

It was on one of those stormy nights that Shaazgai sat up gasping on his cot in the darkness of their cramped little cabin. There were tears in his eyes and sweat was beading on his skin. He lay back down weakly and pulled the covers tightly around himself, muttering quiet apologies.

Blaze turned to him, boards under his cot creaking. Whatever had been going on for the past few nights, was entirely unlike the Ixtli and the Shaazgai he knew. But then again, what was twenty years, faced with the countless lives they both had been through?

Contours of things were barely visible in what shred of moonlight managed to fall in through the single tiny window, but that did not matter.

Blaze reached out with words through the darkness. “Do you want to finally tell me what is troubling you?”

Silence, then a soft, melancholy whisper. “No.”

“Would you like to talk about something else instead?”

A longer silence.

But the night was longer still, and Blaze was patient.

“Would you like me to just talk to you, so that you can listen?”

“Yes.” Shaazgai did not turn to face him, but from the tension in his figure it was clear he wasn’t going to sleep anytime soon.

The priest nodded. Finally they were getting somewhere.

“Believe it or not, but there was a time when you would not have needed to make this journey on a ship or boat,” Blaze began after a moment. “Far to the North, it was possible to cross over on foot. It took much shorter too, for the continents are much closer to each other out there. While I do not think you would have found those times exciting otherwise, judging by your current… indisposition, you would have probably liked at least that about them.”

“What is up there in the North? Are there really dark-faced people with bows?” Shaazgai half-turned, sounding genuinely curious.

Blaze smiled, he had hoped to elicit this reaction. “Most of the peoples of the Americas, as you call them, are proficient with bow and arrows of some kind. I have not been that far North for a long time, and I am not sure which tribe lives there now, but the people I have seen there, were no darker than the Mexica but definitely more used to the biting cold. They wore thick fur around their faces to protect from the biting winds and they knew how to walk on the snow and ice, and how to hunt giant creatures that live in the ocean. They then built their huts out of their bones and skins of smaller water creatures.”

“Hvalr? Nāhvalr?” Shaazgai perked up and now turned around to face him. Despite the sickly look and the dark circles under his eyes he looked more alive than he did in days. “Do you mean the giant fish that spits into the sky with a mouth that fits a boat? And the spotted corpse fish with the spear sticking out of its head?”

“Yes,” Blaze smiled in the darkness. “The giant creature was the fish that spits water into the heavens. But while they hunted the other creature with the great horn as well, nāhvalr, as you say, that was more rare and the skins on their huts were not usually from it. What I meant is a smaller creature that enjoys coming out on the shore, one with many folds on its skin. Think dogs of the sea. And a bigger kind of a creature similar to it, with fangs so long they would sometimes touch the ice.” 

“Oh, I know what you mean! I have not seen them myself, but I was told of them.” Shaazgai was smiling too. “Tell me of the North people. Did they mention meeting pale faces from across the sea? With fiery hair and bright eyes?”

“Pale faced people with red hair? I have not heard of such, but I left the North very long ago. I have spent the last few millennia in the South. Is it their language that you used to name the ocean creatures? Is it the same language that you address the waves with?”

Life drained from Shaazgai’s face, and he averted his eyes. His face was blank now and he said nothing.

Blaze did not ask again. Instead he told him more about the northern people and their way of life, he told him about bears and foxes with fur as white as snow. But Shaazgai remained despondent, and Blaze understood that he would rather not talk about the North anymore. 

So instead Blaze told him about huge peaceful leaf-grazing creatures of the distant past, creatures too passive and unafraid of men even as first men in America hunted them down to the last one. He reminded Shaazgai of the Tlaxcalan tales of giant men that lived in their lands and the huge bones that some of the chieftains kept in their possession. Those were the bones of those very creatures, that when standing upright, could be mistaken for giants. He told Shaazgai about saber-toothed cats and enormous birds, and Shaazgai began asking questions again.

This way they spent the night, Shaazgai listened, and Blaze told him stories from the past, slowly charting out the borders of something in Shaazgai’s past that words should not touch.

Finally, comforted and lulled to sleep by Blaze’s words, Shaazgai visibly relaxed and let his heavy eyelids close. He slept peacefully for the rest of the night.

⚞ ♝ ⚟

Come morning, Shaazgai found himself well-rested for the first time in days.

He was alone in their cabin, and it was late in the day. He dressed, tidied up, found a bite to eat and sought out Blaze. He found the man on the deck, and to his greatest relief, Blaze seemed not to loathe his presence. In fact, the priest welcomed his company and made some idle conversation, which Shaazgai allowed to stay mostly one-sided. After a while there was nothing more to discuss of their current situation, and Blaze fell silent. Shaazgai stared at the horizon, standing beside the man and leaning on the taffrail.

Silence stretched on, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. He felt Blaze’s presence, and it soothed him. He never had someone like this in his life. Someone he could lean on when he was at his lowest point. Someone who had the wisdom and decency not to turn him away when his emotions got the better of him. He wasn’t going to let Blaze’s kindness go unrewarded. Just as he decided on that, Blaze spoke again.

This time it wasn’t anything about the ship. It was a story from the past. One about the Incas for a change. How the empire was founded. Shaazgai smiled and let Blaze’s words transport him far off this dreadful sea and onto solid rocks of the mountain strongholds of the Empire of the Sun.

Blaze’s stories continued the next day and next night, and all days and nights that followed. Shaazgai said he never knew Blaze had so much to say, and Blaze answered that he never knew that Shaazgai wished to listen. They did not know each other, even after two decades they were not even close to that, but this sea voyage would change that, at least to some extent.

While the knowledge Blaze was passing onto him was not useful or related to where they were going, unlike Shaazgai’s tales of Spain and Europe, it was fascinating and a wonderful distraction. Shaazgai found himself eating and sleeping almost normally. For once, despite being on a boat, he was in good spirits.

One night Blaze was telling him about enormous wooly elephants, and Shaazgai got the concept perfectly, having heard detailed descriptions of hairless elephants from the Mongol soldiers that had warred in the far South-East of the empire. But out of curiosity and to mess with Blaze, he pretended that he knew nothing of the kind of animal Blaze was describing and coaxed the man to draw him one with paper and ink. He kept the memory of that drawing among those precious brighter spots of his life that he would revisit many times in the future.

And then since they had paper and ink in place, it was easy enough to make Blaze draw the llamas, giant sloths and other creatures as well.