Once upon a time, if you would ask the powerful Tepanecs who had dominated the fertile Mexican valley around Lake Texcoco up to the mid 14th century, the Aztecs were no more than pushy newcomers, coming out of the southwest, poor and semi-nomadic, bringing along nothing but trouble.
The lands of the Mexican Valley were amazingly rich, dotted by large city-states, with Azcapotzalco, the Tepanec Capital, the most powerful of them all. Of course, there was the aristocratic Toltec Culhuacan, sprawling upon the southern side of the lake, as influential and as strong, even if Azcapotzalco’s Tepanecs refused to admit it.
The densely populated region was well under control. Still, the unabashed newcomers streamed in, managing to find themselves a relatively favorable piece of land on the western shore of the lake, fertile and abounded with streams. There they began to flourish, while the suspicious mood of their powerful neighbors grew proportionally. Those Aztecs would not be contented with a small role of another city state, could see the elders of Azcapotzalco. And nothing more would be tolerated.
The tension grew and, toward the end of the 13th century, Azcapotzalco rulers had expelled their troublesome new neighbors. But for the rulers of Culhuacan, it could have been the end of it. For reasons unknown, Culhuacan had decided to allocate the expelled Aztecs a little land at the empty barrens of Tizaapan. Maybe they wanted to keep an eye on those fierce groups of foreigners, to make sure they would not grow too strong. Azcapotzalco’s people were doubtful, united in their suspicions. The further those troublesome newcomers would be drove off, the better. Yet they did nothing, as the rivalry between the two powerful cities went back generations. If one decided to expel a nation, the other would support it, even if halfheartedly. So they watched carefully as the Aztecs seemed to be assimilating into the Culhuacan’s way of life.
Then the unspeakable happened! A few decades later a scandal washed the Texcoco Lake’s shores. The new ruler of Culhuacan had given his daughter to the Aztec’s ruler to marry. Or so he thought. The Aztecs promised to make her a goddess – a fate great enough even for the haughty Culhuacan princess. Well, the cultural differences showed when the princess was sacrificed in order to assist her reaching the promised status by joining the other deities. It was said that the priest, wearing her flayed skin as a part of the ritual, appeared at the very festival feast her father had honored by his presence.
The Culhuacan ruler and his nobles were not amused. The roaring declaration of war could be heard in the distant southwestern realm of the dwindling Anasazi, it was said.
Azcapotzalco’s Tepanecs shook their heads. Had the Culhuacan Toltecs really thought they could tame the wild beast? But now they had their own dilemmas to contemplate. Should they side with Culhuacan, or would they better stay neutral? Or maybe, just to spite their old rivals, they could actually assist the despised troublemakers, as those faced a certain defeat and banishment?
The warriors’ leaders argued in favor of destroying the Aztecs once and for all, even if it would result in helping Culhuacan. The rulers, on the other hand, found it difficult to miss the opportunity to sneer at the old insult, when just a few decades ago, Culhuacan had sided with Aztecs against Azcapotzalco’s better judgment. Why not let them eat the meal they’ve been serving their old neighbors and peers?
What will the Tepanec Empire do?
She shook her head with amusement. “Why are those Cul-hu-a-can people so arrogant, if they are living in your city? Are they warriors also?”
“Like us, some of them are warriors. The rest do their trade or work the land, do crafts or worship the gods. They have their own city. Culhuacan is situated on the northern side of our lake. They are arrogant bastards with no common sense. They always have to make all the mistakes. There were those pushy newcomers, from your regions by the way, but definitely not your people. Very fierce warriors. Azcapotzalco expelled them in the summer I was born. But Culhuacan? Oh no, they had to find them a piece of land, to spite us of course. And now, twenty summers later, those newcomers Mexica-Aztecs with no finesse, sacrificed a Culhuacan princess. So it means war, and it only took them twenty summers to understand what we saw in the very beginning. Stupid, isn’t it?”
“They had sacrificed a princess? You mean they killed her?”
“Oh yes. The priest showed up wearing her flayed skin in the middle of the celebratory feast. The Culhuacan ruler, her father, and the rest of their nobility did not take it well.”
Sakuna gasped. “Wearing what?”
He turned to watch her, amused. “Insane, isn’t it? They promised to make her a goddess, but Culhuacan nobles didn’t think they meant literally to introduce her to the realm of the gods.”
“And to such a place you were offering to take me?”
“No, of course not. Those were the wild Aztec barbarians. Azcapotzalco priests are not flaying their sacrificial offerings, and they would never touch a princess or any irrelevant person. Our gods receive nothing but the captured enemy warriors who answers all the criteria. We are completely civilized.”
She seemed as if shrinking as he talked. “You kill captured warriors? Why? And what if you get captured?”
He banished the unwelcome memories. “A good warrior doesn’t get captured. But should it happen, to be sacrificed would be the only way to redeem one’s honor. By dying honorably, offered to a mighty god, the warrior restores his good name. The more difficult the death, the more the honor. People worship such man and name their children after him.”
“Can’t you just try to escape?” she asked in a small voice.
He straightened up, startled, wincing at the sharp pain in his leg. “You are not asking this seriously, aren’t you?” She seemed as if shrinking against the warm stones. “To escape, to run away, would be beyond any contempt. No warrior would do this, however cowardly he might be inside. Such a man would never be accepted, never! Such a man would place himself beyond the law of human beings, he would be hunted and killed, and his name would be spat upon.”
He exhaled loudly. What a horrible thought! How could she even think about something like that, let alone say it aloud? She was a peasant all right. A beautiful, reliable and very courageous, but a farming girl nevertheless. It has something to do with the upbringing, he thought. You have to be brought up in the right class to understand a proper behavior.