Moon Blood and Salt Flowers

bytalismania©

She twisted in the Spaniard's grasp to speak to the villagers. "Do not weep!" she shouted. Salt flowers were drawn to human tears, which carried the essence of souls.

Her thighs rested upon the corregidor's powerful ones and his manhood thickened to press against her buttocks as he urged his beast forward. The host of soldiers followed, leaving Kullaka behind.

Hours later, as they approached the town of San Lazaro and stars filled the sky, the corregidor bent over her, his beard crisp and tickling as he spoke into her ear. Both his breath and his words were warm.

"He wants to know if you see demons here," Padre Ignacio, who was riding beside them, translated.

Too frightened to speak, Amaya shook her head. The moon had been reborn since the soldiers had died and now was full. No salt flowers clung to San Lazaro's mud buildings or the dark stone walls of its church. More words, melodic and masculine, caressed her ear.

"He says you are to stay awake tonight," the priest said. His lips pressed in the frown they had worn since leaving Kullaka. "Watch for demons. He says you can sleep tomorrow on the road to Potosi."

She knew then the corregidor believed in salt flowers, even if he did not understand them.

* * * *

More days of riding followed, making her body stiff and her neck raw from being nuzzled by the bearded man who held her. If Amaya did not sleep on the road, she got none at night. Should her eyes drift closed, the men of the watch prodded her.

Each night Fernando brought food to her and talked with her, his face shining as he described the marvelous city of Potosi, which he had never seen, and the mountain that enriched all of Spain. Each day they passed trains of llamas carrying bags of coins destined for the coast.

As the fifth day ended, they entered Potosi. Hundreds of fires dotted the violet-shadowed slopes of the city's fabled mountain of silver but the city itself was still rosy with twilight. Their horses' hooves clattered on streets paved with neatly laid stones like those of Inca walls.

The corregidor kept his arm about Amaya, clasping her to his steel-armored chest as he and his men rode onto a boulevard of silver bricks leading to an immense building of white stone. Once inside that palace he gave her over to a trio of dark-haired native women in wide skirts. The women took her arms and propelled her through confusing corridors into a chamber with cold floors and a huge stone tub. There they removed Amaya's clothing. They tossed her best wool skirt, her mantle and her tunic of coarse cotton onto the floor before kicking them aside. Silent workers poured pails of hot water into the tub, into which she was dumped when she did not want to step in.

All three women scrubbed her limbs and torso with soap and a brush and lathered her hair several times, each time dunking her head under the water until Amaya emerged gasping.

"Why am I here? What do you want?" she asked, again and again. If the women understood her, they did not answer. They kept scrubbing under her breasts and arms and between her legs as though they wanted to remove her skin.

When they thought her clean enough, they dried her skin and hair with soft cloths, pulled a loose ankle-length shift of wool over her head and urged her along more cold corridors into yet another room.

The corregidor sat in a chair with a tall, gilded back. He had removed his breastplate, helmet, and other armor, and his dark doublet and breeches blended with the shadows. A pleated cotton ruff framed his narrow, pale face and his beard looked even redder in the light of a fire burning in a cove opposite the window. A woman with black eyes and the face of an Inca princess stood by his side.

"My name is Beatriz," the woman said, her words cast with noble vowels. She indicated the corregidor. "He says you are much prettier now that you are clean. He can tell a Spaniard enjoyed your mother."

Amaya kept her eyes downcast. The headman had told her that mother had been pretty.

"He asks if you have been with a man."

"No." She flicked a look at Beatriz, who did not appear offended by her lack of experience.

"He asks if being with a man would take away your ability to see demons."

Her fate waited on her answer but she could not truly give one. Ama sua, ama quella, ama lulla, she remembered the lesson from childhood. Don't lie, don't steal, don't be lazy. Those were the only three laws her people truly practiced. She chose not to lie.

"I don't know," she murmured.

The corregidor's lips pursed in a frown at hearing her words. He gestured with his right hand.

"He wants to see you. Remove your dress." This time Beatriz's voice was hard, clipped with accusation.

Slowly, certain this was wrong but remembering Padre Ignacio's instruction to submit to examination, Amaya lifted the white shift, revealing her legs, then her hips and at last her shoulders and breasts. Her nipples hardened upon exposure to the air, despite the scant heat from the fire, and Amaya quickly folded the garment and held it across her chest to conceal them.

The corregidor said something in his low growl of a voice and Beatriz walked forward to take the dress from her arms. Night had fully fallen over the city and the light in the room was so dim she looked into the woman's eyes and saw the soul behind them: amber, shadowed and torn.

With a gesture, the corregidor summoned Amaya near. She stepped forward. From her earliest childhood she had been taught that a man or woman of Spanish blood was to be obeyed. Always. There were no exceptions.

She approached across a jewel-colored rug. The corregidor reached up and touched her lips and she allowed his thumb to trace their full shape open and push at her teeth. The travels of his thumb were gentle, indulgent, as though her lips needed exploration. Apparently pleased by her compliance, he dropped his hand to skim the line of her shoulder, assessing the knit of her muscles and the texture of her brown skin. Amaya gasped when his hand followed her arm and detoured abruptly, his cold palm cupping and kneading one of her breasts. He found her nipple and began squeezing the dusky pink areola between his thumb pad and thick fingers, as though he wanted to milk her.

Lust glowed in the corregidor's eyes, so bright it masked his soul.

While his right hand fondled her breast, his left found her thigh and slid upward along the inside until he reached the folds of her sex. Amaya quivered, catching her breath. This man's hand aroused her by mimicking the ways she rubbed and touched herself alone in the night when she'd think of brooding village youths who taunted her by displaying their hard, swollen members . . . and, more recently, nights haunted by dreams of Fernando and the green-eyed Spaniard's strong body pressed hard against hers.

Deeply shamed to find herself growing wet for this man, she closed her eyes.

Stop, she wanted to beg the corregidor, but knew she must not. He fingered her as he might a piece of fine wool, testing how well she accepted his touch, teasing her excited slit until it grew slick enough to please him.

She clenched her teeth when he pushed his thick digit into her channel.

He laughed and said something. Beatriz must have hesitated to translate because his next words cracked across the room like a whip.

"The rutting dog says you are so hot and juicy he knows that when it's time for you to be useful to a man you will enjoy it. He does not know that his hairy penis and lumpy balls are so disgusting no woman ever enjoys him."

Cheeks burning and thighs damp, humiliated by the corregidor's finger wiggling in her passage, Amaya looked over at the woman, seeing something new in the noble face with its high cheekbones and strong nose. The disdain she had detected was for the Spaniard, not her.

The corregidor's right hand abandoned her breast and sought his lap instead, where he fumbled with the fastenings of his breeches. The red stalk of his penis pushed free of the opened garment and jutted into view. Just as Beatriz had said, it was nearly hidden by coarse, tangled hair.

"Diego!" The name and a flurry of sharp Spanish words flew from Beatriz's lips. Among them Amaya heard words she recognized. She heard the words for 'priest,' and 'king,' and 'God.'

She flinched from the corregidor's sharp answer and the abrupt removal of his finger from between her legs. With a ferocity that made her yelp, he grasped her left arm by the wrist and yanked her forward, placing her hand upon his rigid shaft. It filled her fingers like the handle of a pestle. His sour breath carried more words to her ears.

"He wants you to grip his penis and tell him if you can feel it." As Beatriz translated, her lips teased the words. "Say something complimentary."

"I feel it. It is very small and furry, like a mouse," Amaya whispered, relishing something she and this woman of her people shared.

Whatever Beatriz said to the corregidor made him grunt with pleasure, for his smile grew large and satisfaction creased his eyes. He released Amaya's hand and she pulled it back. She edged away as he growled something, maybe a command. She stood still, thankful, as Beatriz restored her shift and helped her shrug into the dress. Without another word, she was led from the room and only breathed in relief when the door closed behind her.

"He wants to enjoy you," Beatriz said as they walked corridors soft with night and the light from the candle in her hand, "but you are a virgin and he fears to disrupt your magic."

"It isn't magic," Amaya said, "I see salt flowers because I have no soul to blind me."

"I know." Beatriz opened the door to a tiny room with a bed. "Ultimately these Spaniards do not care whether we have souls or not. All they value is our utility and our gold—or in this case, silver. You see demons? You may be better prepared for their world than those of us who do have souls."

"Is the soldier Fernando in this house?" she dared to ask.

"Fernando? Did he tell you his family names?"

"No." She flushed at not having gotten that information.

"There are many Fernandos. You are a fool if you think any of them want more than to enjoy you." Her lips thinned with resentment. "I am a daughter of the Sapa Inca and this man, this Diego, married me in exchange for a big estate from my father, the man he robbed and later helped to murder. But he does not call me his wife. That woman lives in Lima. To the Spanish, I am his concubine, his whore."

As Amaya would be if she were not careful.

* * * *

The next morning Amaya faced three men: the corregidor, an overseer of one of the mines, and a priest. Wearing an ill-fitting Spanish dress Beatriz had given her, she stood before them while the overseer asked questions. Amaya answered carefully, fearful of disappointing the corregidor and being turned over to the priests of the Inquisition. Even in Kullaka she had heard tales of men and women being taken away and tortured for not sufficiently demonstrating their piety. When asked what she did when she saw demon flowers, she lied.

"I pray to the Virgin," she said. The priest, at least, looked pleased by that answer.

"But they said you protect the village. How? If prayers to the Virgin helped, they would not need you." The overseer, short and dark-skinned with a thin nose and hair only on his chin, served as questioner and translator.

"I awaken the sleepers," she said. "Salt flowers do not move far from where they sprout. People can escape them."

"Not if they can't see them." After shooting a glance at the corregidor, who merely watched with his red-bearded chin in one bejeweled hand, the overseer continued. "We believe we have demons in the mine. Mines are dangerous, but usually I know why my workers die. New workers, healthy, go into the mine and never come out. We find them; they are dead with blood in their eyes and mouths. They die in the tunnels, they die in the sleeping places. Those who have seen these men die say whatever kills them is invisible, but cold to touch."

They looked to her but she could not confirm this. She had no memory of a salt flower's touch.

"Workers are valuable, skilled workers more so," the overseer said. "We cannot afford to lose so many. If the pace of these deaths continues, we will not be able to bring in new workers as fast as we are losing them."

"I don't understand what you want me to do."

"Go down into the mine tonight and tell us if your demon flowers are our problem."

* * * *

The priest gave Amaya a rosary of black beads with a silver cross to wear around her neck and it was agreed that the state of her soul required she reside at the convent of San Francisco. Amaya went gladly, aware of the corregidor's thwarted eyes. Once inside the convent walls, the chief of the women listened to the priest and directed Amaya to a tiny room where she was to wait.

Rolling the beads of the rosary in her fingers, Amaya shivered.

She dreaded doing what the men wanted. She had heard men tell of entering the mountain and never seeing the sun again until the day they emerged, months later, wearing blindfolds to protect their eyes. Inside the mountain they dwelt in squalor, drinking foul water, breathing bad air with only a single candle to see by. The tunnels, they said, were hot and noisy, disturbed by the sounds of silver being cut piece by painful piece from the mountain's entrails. And all too often the mountain thundered and men died in darkness, crushed by stone or suffocated by foul air.

She did not want to go into the mine.

A servant appeared at the door, interrupting her thoughts, and signaled for her to follow. Amaya looped the rosary over her head again, in case she was being taken to the priest. Though a man waited for her, it was not the one she feared.

"Fernando!" she cried in pure joy, delighted when he also smiled to see her. "I was told this was a house only for women."

"You are a guest, not a novitiate. You can have visitors."

He looked so handsome she blushed. He had changed his filthy clothes and now wore fawn breeches, polished boots cuffed at his calves, and a doublet of green velvet quilted and dotted with gold. Under the watchful gaze of the servant, he took her right hand and kissed it.

"Have you come to take me home? Fernando, I do not want to be here. Tonight the corregidor is going to send me to the mine."

The way he averted his eyes told her he had known this. "The mountain is important, Amaya. The king requires its silver. The Viceroy commands the mita be taken because of this mountain. Everything, because of Cerro Rico de Potosi. It feeds . . . no, it fuels, all empire. Nothing can be allowed to stop the flow of silver. Too many indios—your people—die."

Because of the Spanish. Because their hunger for treasure never ceased.

"If they die, it is not from something I can see! Salt flowers do not sprout under the moon or this far from the salt lakes."

"Then it must be something else."

"I go to the mine tonight. If I do not see any salt flowers, will the corregidor and the priest let me go home?" She saw the question in his eyes, asking if she would be truthful. "Tell me!"

Fernando nodded. "Yes. I take you back to Kullaka myself."

"And if I do see salt flowers in the mine, what then? Will they make me stay?"

After a long moment, he nodded again. He looked desolate. She understood why.

If she did see the demon flowers, her importance to the corregidor and his successful operation of the mine would be too great. The Spanish would want to keep her in the tunnels to warn the overseers, help save the workers who mined the silver.

Not wanting Fernando to go, she asked another question. "Why are you here, not with the soldiers?"

"Because I am not soldier. My uncle sent me to ask questions, learn truth."

"About the mine," she guessed.

"This mine and others. There are many mines and this mountain is very rich."

There was nothing else she could say about the mines, so she asked, "What are your family names?"

"What?" He looked surprised by her question, as though he thought she knew already. Or it could be he found her interest in him curious.

"There are many Fernandos among the Spanish. Which one are you?"

He laughed aloud. "Fernando Vasquez de Mendoza."

"Mendoza," she repeated.

"I am the Viceroy's nephew. My family comes from Castile. What are your names?"

"Amaya Clara Tunquni Jarankaya Perez."

He lifted his eyebrows. "Many names for so small a girl!"

"The Spanish name is from the man who violated my mother. The priest wrote it in a book and makes me wear it."

"Clara Perez."

"No. Amaya Tunquni. Call me the other name and I will start calling you Qala."

"Rock?"

"People should keep their own names, not be given ones that try to change them into what they are not."

"But Clara is a beautiful name. It means you are bright, like a star, like the sun—"

Except she was dark. A moon child, made of blood and dark magic. The headman's wife had named her the day she had spoken her first word, assigning her to the appropriate spirits. "What does Fernando mean?" she asked instead, because Spaniards could not be argued with. He would just talk to her as the priest did about giving up her people's ways.

"It means I was named after my father's bastard cousin, who is powerful at court."

He took her by the hand again and led her to a window at the far end of the room. Together they looked out over the city.

Above a sprawl of whitewashed walls and dark tile roofs, the mountain's perfectly symmetrical peak bisected the sky. Though the Spanish mined silver from within, the mountain itself was red like blood. Paths snaked up the steep slopes, crowded with moving flecks like trails of ants. The mitayos, she realized with cold understanding, the men taken for the mita, toiling like beasts, pulling riches from the mountain's heart.

Fernando bent toward her until his forehead touched hers and his warm breath, fragrant with cinnamon and chocolate, brushed her skin. Were it not for the old woman standing near the door and glowering in their direction, Amaya would have lifted her face and pressed her lips to his just to drink of his taste, fill her nostrils with his rich scent. Instead she raised her hand and held it palm outward and he did the same, only their fingertips touching. A desire for forbidden things tingled along the nerves of her hand, flowing inward.

"Tell me more about these flowers," he said.

* * * *

Like all evil things, salt flowers came from the world below. No one knew what caused them to appear, save that they never sprouted during the day or in conjunction with moonlight. Spells and charms had no effect on them, neither did weapons of iron, but the touch of gold caused them to disintegrate.

Salt flowers appeared only within a day's walk of the salt lakes and the river flowing into Lake Poopo. If they appeared elsewhere, she did not know of it, but she had heard the headman say salt flowers were why the Incas covered the floors and walls of their palaces with gold and wore gold adornments.

Descriptions and images of salt flowers by those who had seen them were always the same: thick ghostly stalks without leaves and mottled inflorescent pods like elongated heads. Each pod had a single six-petal orifice from which tendrils emerged and into which the flower hooked the ensnared souls of its victims. Inca engravings showed salt flowers arching over fallen enemies. In truth, though, the flowers preferred infants, jilted lovers, grieving widows, prisoners and any other source of tears. Perhaps they were drawn to vessels of sorrow and despair; certainly they delivered those things.

The legends of Amaya's people said salt flowers had destroyed the civilization of Tiawanaku, the city of ruins standing empty beside Lake Titicaca.

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bytalismania© 24 comments/ 32837 views/ 21 favorites

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