Grand Priest Umu tightened the rope around the kneeling woman’s neck. He crouched to look into her unfocused eyes. Was she seeing the next world already? Its crystal heavens and golden palaces?
He smoothed the hair from her face, and she moaned at his touch, a tender sound that faded in and out of the summit winds. Her cheeks, still rounded with youth, were flushed. Her breathing was rapid.
He took up the rope’s slack in loops around his wrist. Hardwood incense in the thin air awoke memories of other mountain tops, of other messengers delivered to the gods. This woman had been stronger than most; she had climbed most of the way to the peak on her own.
Silhouetted priests stood at the edges of the plateau, their voices a wordless chant. Beyond them, evening colors dressed the surrounding mountain gods. Everything was right. Umu rose, adjusted his age-spotted hands on the rope, and gently pulled until the woman’s head tilted.
With a cry, he stomped forward onto her chest and pinned her to the ground. The line snapped tight. The woman’s hands flailed at her throat, at the rope, at his foot. He worked another loop around his wrist and leaned back, grunting through clenched teeth.
She was magnificent in her passing. No food or rest for three days, yet still so much life to give. He had to be as strong as she was, as worthy as she was. His knuckles burned, his arms shook to the brink of failure, but he kept pulling. He would not abandon her between the worlds.
Blood rimmed the woman’s eyes. Her lips parted, and her tongue surfaced, crimson and fat. Her hands stiffened, fingers splayed, and drifted downward. He kept pulling until the wind in her hair became her only movement, until he was certain she had safely reached the other side; then he let her go and slumped to the ground. On his hands and knees and gasping for breath, he smiled at her.
His men spread a blanket of beaded shells in front of them. He gathered her up to lay her on the shroud and removed the rope from her neck. Ice crystals already glittered in her eyes.
Standing with his side to the setting Sun God, he bowed. “Lord Father Inti, Giver of Light and Life, know your people’s love through this woman. Allow her to caress you and soothe you as you journey beneath the world.” He bowed again. “Merciful Father, your people honor and serve you. We do not question why you took your white llamas from us. We beg only forgiveness of our offenses. Show your joy in your children and bless us again with your most holy of beasts, that they may serve us in celebrating your glory.”
He crouched, lowered his head between his knees, and quickened his breaths into pants. Twin ovals of light chased each other on the ground in front of him, reflections off the palm-sized, golden disks swinging in his earlobes. His cheeks warmed and his vision blurred. A phantom note rang in his ears. He breathed faster and harder, forcing his body to the edge of consciousness, and when he felt the blackness coming, he touched his fingers to his lips and sprang upward. His hands reached to deliver his kiss to the Sun Lord. The mortal world spiraled away.
He was alone, drifting, sinking, until a figure appeared in the distance, eyes masked in darkness. The woman, he thought, come to thank him. Tears rose in his eyes. He kissed his fingers and lifted them to her, then lowered them.
This was a boy, a boy wearing the red fringe of sovereignty across his brow—an heir. The child clawed at a rope around his neck. Blood flowed over his fingers.
Umu rushed toward him, but with a crack and a tidal roar, the shadows between them split and a river flooded into the gap. He waded in, pushing the water with one hand, shielding his eyes from the spray with the other. He had to see the child’s face, had to know which heir it was.
The waves lapped up to his chest, his shoulders, and then they were over his head and he was looking up through the undulating surface. Flames curled from the ends of the boy’s hair before blazing into a disk of light. The ground dropped away, and as Umu sank deeper, everything but that brilliant disk dimmed. Then, it too was gone, and he was alone in the darkness, sinking.
He bumped against the bottom. The water chilled and his body shivered. Riverbed stones bit into his back.
His eyes blinked open to a blanket of stars close enough to touch. The silvery visage of the moon goddess, Mama Quilla, provided light but no warmth. A priest kneeling beside him helped him sit up, and a quick glance told him the woman had already been buried near the center of the summit. They’d finished the ceremony without him. A nod to his men showed his gratitude—he didn’t normally drift between the worlds for so long. He stood and shook the ice from the wool mantle draped across his tunic. After a few unsteady steps, he was able to walk alone. His men fell in behind him, torches high.
Near the edge of the plateau, he stopped and looked back at the firelight playing over the stone lid of the woman’s chamber. She had carried the love of her people beyond their reach. The songs of her journey would become legends, and the honors to her family would sustain it for generations.
But she hadn’t been enough.
The vision’s meaning was clear. The royal fringe across the boy’s forehead; the rope around his neck; the blazing disk of light—Father Inti wanted another to join his celestial court. He wanted more than just this noble-born woman. He wanted an heir.
There were no plagues or droughts to break, no coronations or conquests to celebrate. It was the beginning of the rainy season and the first harvests were underway. Other than the unexplained deaths of the sacred white llamas, the four quarters of the Inca nation were prosperous and content. Did Inti think his children ungrateful?
Umu looked into the frozen night beyond the torchlight’s reach, the world as it would be without Inti’s shining love, then shivered and buried his arms beneath his mantle. He was the Grand Priest, the Villac Umu. For two generations he had served as the conduit between his people and the divine beings who controlled disease and flood and famine. Had he failed to anticipate the needs of the highest of these beings? The gods’ king? The very Father of his people?
He pushed his men to a faster pace. They would return to Cusco without rest. Inti could not be denied.