Visions and Incense

by Elliott Bell

Itza worked carefully but quickly, wiping dust off the ornate figurines with a damp cloth. Women weren’t supposed to be in here, but Tlan hadn’t shown up for his duties and there was no one else to do it. The consequences he might suffer if it were left undone – they didn’t bear thinking about.

Itza had lived at the Temple of the Sun since she was just ten years old, and Tlan strongly reminded her of her younger brother. When her family was split up by the Servants of Earth, she only had a moment to say goodbye before she was placed in a cart and taken to the Temple to become one of the Dedicated. She knew it was wrong, but when she looked at Tlan her heart filled with affection that she knew rightfully belonged to her brother. But her chances of ever seeing him or her parents again were slim – the Dedicated rarely left the Temple, and only the holy men were allowed to associate with visitors.

She swiftly finished the dusting down and was just headed toward the door when she heard voices outside. She silently cursed. She shouldn’t have waited so long for Tlan to show up, before entering the sacred chamber to clean it herself. She looked around frantically for a place to hide. There was a decorative screen behind the altar, and she ducked behind it.

She had just enough time to arrange herself in a neat crouch, making her invisible from almost every angle in the room. As the doors opened, the heavy perfumes from the ceremonial incense drifted in. Lows voices murmured prayers of gratitude for permission to enter the shrine. Itza felt a burning guilt in her center. She was not supposed to be in here. Suddenly, what they might’ve done to Tlan for neglect seemed to pale compared to what they might do to her for intruding.

She listened to the soft invocations and the rustle of robes as the Sacred Servants lit more incense. Itza’s thighs began to burn as the minutes ticked by. Above her, motes of dust flickered in the rays of the late afternoon sun coming through the skylight. She tried to focus on their whirling paths, but soon she was about to give in and attempt to adjust to a kneeling position. Then a sudden piercing cry of pain and fright filled the room.

Itza froze, halfway between a crouch and a kneel. There was some kind of commotion on the other side of the screen. The outside door hadn’t opened, but one of the priests was screaming in agony. What was happening? Itza’s burning legs moved of their own accord, taking advantage of the noise to collapse down into a kneeling position. She barely noticed. Her heart raced as she heard the other two Sacred Servants grunting and shuffling, as if trying to contain a wild animal. The sounds of the struggle more than masked whatever noise she might’ve made adjusting her position.

Suddenly it was quiet except for the heavy breathing of the men on the other side of the partition. Itza stared at the delicate patterns in red and gold, curiosity and terror fighting for dominance of her mind. She tried to keep her own breathing as soft and silent as possible. She considered peeking out from behind the screen. She reminded herself that the punishment, were she to be found, would be severe. Still, she began to lean forward slowly towards the edge of the screen –

Then a voice began talking, and she froze again. He did not speak in Sacred Tongue of prayers. Itza was shocked to hear one of the devout Servants profane the shrine with common language.

“Brothers…” he croaked, his voice raw. Itza thought he must’ve been the one who screamed a moment before.

“I have had a vision.” His voice shook with emotion, and she heard soothing noises made by one of his fellows.

“Shh, shh.” His whisper was rushed and fearful. Itza did not know if he feared to voice words in the impious common tongue here in a sacred space, or if it was the state of his brother disturbed him.

“Brothers,” the man said again, stronger this time.

“I witnessed a terrible thing! There was fire, fire everywhere..” He made a strange gulping sound, almost as if he were choking.

“Our city, our beautiful city was in ruins! Brothers!” His voice rose to fevered pitch.

“Brothers! We are doomed! I have seen our fate, and during his Festival, Juetzal will punish us for unknowable sins and his jubilant crowds will burn and burn, his hunger will not be sated until we are all destroyed!”

At this revelation, the man began to weep.

“Brothers, I have seen our families…”

There were no more sounds of soothing. Instead, a tremulous voice whispered, “What of our families, Katal?”

Itza could barely understand the priest Katal through his sobbing.

“Dead! Everyone burnt and screaming, I was there and I smelled their burning bodies, Brothers, I could smell them burning!” After this last statement, his speech degenerated into unintelligible sobs and choked whispers. Itza nearly forgot her current predicament, she was so focused on making sense of his sobs. She only made out one last word word, a haggard whisper, “Juetzal”, and then she could hear the other men shifting and moving, and in a moment the door slammed shut.

Itza sat there, behind the screen in the sacred shrine, in silence. Her mind whirled and her chest felt heavy. She prayed that her intrusion into the sanctuary had not been the cause of the terrible vision. Gradually the skylight above her darkened and the stars emerged. The silence grew deep, and Itza watched them shimmer and thought of her family, and of bodies burning in the streets.

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