“Mahaway, what are you doing? We need to get back to work.” Yochi frowned as he watched his partner lazily scratch circles in the dirt in front of the large rock they had been assigned. They were transcribing the latest tales of their new King, Jasaw Chan K’awiil II.
“Jasaw will be disappointed if this is not finished before the end of the month.”
“Relax Yochi, we’ll finish,” Mahaway murmured.
“We only have three more days.” Yochi took away Mahaway’s stick.
“Hey!” she said. “I was doing something.”
“Didn’t look like anything to me. Now come on, get back to work. I don’t want to face the consequences if we—”
“If you what, Yochi?” Nacon, one of the top soldiers of Jasaw’s army, stepped out from behind the uncarved boulder. He was tall with bulging muscles, and his uniform was almost too small for him. He had an air of self-assuredness.
Yochi stiffened. “Nothing. There’s nothing to be concerned with here.”
“Oh no?” Nacon strolled around the rock, touching his hand along the rough outlines they had begun to etch. “If I were you, I’d be concerned. You only have three days left to finish and it looks like you’ve barely started this stela. You know King Jasaw would hate that.”
“Come back in three days. You’ll see.” Mahaway had gotten up and brushed the dirt off her scribe’s robes. She looked Nacon in the eye.
“Mahaway, you look lovely as ever,” Nacon said. “I’d hate to see you have to be punished.” He walked over to her, brushing his hand down her waist and letting it linger on her thigh. “Maybe I’ll be the one to carry it out,” he whispered.
Mahaway took a step back. “Excuse us,” she said. “We have to get back to work.”
“Yes, by all means.” Nacon turned and started walking away. “I’ll be back in three days.”
Yochi waited for Nacon to be out of earshot, and then breathed a sigh of relief. “He can be intimidating.” He turned to Mahaway. “Are you ok?”
Mahaway looked as if she were far away. “Sure. At least we don’t have to make weapons.” She jerked her head towards the workshop down the road, where workers had to spend their days crafting arrowheads from obsidian—fatal objects that would someday be used to kill their own kin.
Yochi broke into a smile and slapped his best friend on the back. “Good. Now back to the rock.”
Rolling her eyes, Mahaway trudged back to the boulder. How could things go so wrong in such a short amount of time? Just a few weeks ago she and Yochi were happy, allowed to roam freely in the hills. Then Venus came to invade their sky, accompanied by war horns, and soon soldiers followed. Now every day was spent building something—pyramids, ceramics, stelae. All to show King Jasaw’s glory. His glory of bloodshed and murder, which he had started by decapitating their beloved queen.
“I need a minute,” Mahaway said. She stomped off, too lost in her thoughts to notice where she was headed. Before she realized it, she had walked out of the city. Amazed she had been allowed to leave, she took a hard look at her surroundings, trying to memorize every fern and vine that was living free. Not looking where she was walking, Mahaway lost her footing. She screamed, trying to catch herself, but it was too late. She had fallen through a hole, and now she was sliding down into a dark cavern.
Helpless, Mahaway let herself fall, and soon found herself flat on the floor of a strange room. What is this place? she thought, taking it all in. Bits of hieroglyphs were scratched onto the rough walls, and the room was mostly bare, except for a small chair in the corner. Before she had any time to look closely, Yochi called.
“Mahaway!” His voice echoed. “Are you all right?”
“I think so. How did you get past the guards?”
“I followed you. Well, first I threw a rock in the bushes, and told them I thought I saw a poisonous snake. When they weren’t looking at me, I snuck out. Not the brightest bunch.” Yochi chuckled. “Hold on. I’ll find some rope and get you out.”
A few moments later, Yochi grabbed Mahaway’s hand as she climbed out.
“So what was down there anyway?” Yochi asked.
Mahaway brushed dirt off her clothes. “I think it was some sort of secret room. Anyway, that’s enough for today. Let’s head home, and worry about the stela tomorrow.”
Together they walked back to their city, Ox Te- Tuun. Mahaway slid her arm through Yochi’s, making him blush. For a moment they could pretend they still lived their lives pre-war.
“Mahaway, I worry about you,” Yochi said.
“Someday your carelessness will get you into trouble. And what if I’m not around to save you?”
Mahaway sighed. She cared deeply for Yochi, but sometimes found his overprotectiveness irksome. “Oh Yochi, you know—”
Yochi jumped when he heard a loud crack. A man had just rammed his cart into the side of a building, trapping another man. They were screaming at each other, the trapped man trying to push the cart away while the other man slapped at the cart in anger. Stalks of maize fell from the cart, and several children rushed to pick them up. The man with the cart noticed, and he started chasing the children in circles. The trapped man freed himself, then caught up with the other man and punched him in the face, knocking him to the ground. A crowd started to gather, and it wasn’t long until other men joined in the fighting. The women stayed at the edges of the scuffle, yelling at the men to stop and calling their children to safety. Blood started to mix in with the fallen maize.
Mahaway and Yochi stood on the outskirts and watched, Mahaway shaking her head. Her fists and jaw clenched.
“This is the result of war! The streets aren’t safe because we have to fight for food and water. People are getting scared. We have to stop this!” Mahaway raised her hand, ready to join the fray.
Yochi grabbed her, forcing her hand down. “Not here, not now.” He pushed her down another street, away from the mob. “This is what I’m talking about.”
Mahaway hissed through gritted teeth. “Something needs to be done. If this is happening after just a few weeks, what will happen in a month? Two months? Who knows how long this may last.”
“I know, Mahaway.” Yochi gently stroked his friend’s face. “But you need to stay calm for now. We have to be smart.”
“I know, I know. It’s just—shh, hold on.” Mahaway went completely stiff. She backed up against a wall, gesturing for Yochi to do the same.
“What? What’s going on?” Yochi said.
Mahaway pushed her hand hard against his mouth. “Hush,” she mouthed, jerking her head to the right. Around the corner, Kish, one of the king’s advisors, was yelling at a guard.
“You have to have tighter control over your city. Too many outbreaks and these peasants may start getting ideas. We’re so close now, and we can’t risk fighting within our conquered territories. What if they got angry enough to start tearing things down? What if they found—”
“Kish! Kish!” A soldier ran up to them, panting heavily. “You’re needed. Now.”
“Oh, what is it this time?” All three men headed towards the palace being built on top of the pyramid.
“What was that about?” Mahaway said, when the men were out of earshot.
“Oh, sorry.” Mahaway took her hand off Yochi’s mouth.
Yochi wiped his face with his sleeve. “I don’t know. And I don’t want to find out.”
But I’m going to, Mahaway thought.