This excerpt comes from The Bend of the River, the sequel to The Serpent and the Eagle. At this point in the campaign, Hernando Cortes has already won many important victories over the local forces and has forged key alliances with aggrieved Mexica vassals. For the sake of context, it is also worth mentioning that Mexica people are often referred to as Aztec today and that Doña Marina is better known as La Malinche today.
Cortes stared over the edge of the stone causeway. Built a lance above the water’s surface, he doubted a fall would hurt all that much. Nonetheless, he suspected a tumble would be fatal since his heavy armor would ensure he sank to the bottom of the murky lake. He shuddered. What kind of people would build a city in the middle of a lake?
Whatever their reason, the Mexica were obviously blessed with gifted architects. The stone causeway would put the Romans to shame, one section of it stretched for almost two leagues, and not one corner of the city touched dry land. He took a deep breath. By mid-morning, he would be entering the floating city with his army.
And when we leave the city, we will possess an incredible fortune. He shaded his eyes to study the army’s formation. Footsoldiers made up the bulk of his army, and the various contingents were separated by a single row of eight horsemen riding abreast of one another. It had taken half an hour to assemble his men in the proper arrangement and, had it been necessary, he would have spent half the morning organizing them.
He wondered what Motecuhzoma, Great Speaker of the Mexica nation and undisputed leader of the Triple Alliance, felt when he looked upon Cortes’ army. Hopefully fear. The Great Speaker also had an eye for pomp and flair so the careful organization was probably not lost on him. Motecuhzoma perhaps had too much interest in such matters—Cortes and his men had been standing on the causeway for almost an hour now because they were being treated to an extended dirt-kissing ceremony. Cortes’ mare pawed the ground, and he dismounted so he could rub Arriero’s neck and whisper comforting words.
Whether it was the heat or the waiting that bothered Arriero, he did not know. Doña Marina did not seem bothered by either, and her remarkable composure was just another reminder of her impressive strength. He reached out to squeeze her hand, but a quick glance from her made him think better of it.
“Do you remember what I told you?” she asked. “About the way Motecuhzoma will speak?”
He nodded. “Yes, yes. In opposites, I remember.”
“Not with everything but with much. If he says he has greatest respect for you, he has little respect for you. If he insults himself, it is to show you his greatness.
He smiled. “Our nobles employ quite a bit of false flattery, too. Usually have to bring out some wine to get some honesty.”
Doña Marina furrowed her brow and said, “He could use many honorific titles to address you, but he would do same with any visitor. The praise is hollow so do not think much of it.”
Cortes nodded. “Thank you for the explanation. I am in your debt.”
She looked at him askance. “Are you in Aguilar debt, too?”
Cortes turned away from her. He did not want to explain again that Aguilar had to be included even though she was a better translator. There were some aspects of Spanish culture she would never understand.
Up ahead, a series of conch shells blared in unison. He clambered onto his mount for a better view and was delighted to see that the army was finally moving again. As the rearguard trudged forward, he realized the stone causeway often gave way to removable wooden sections. If the Indians removed the wooden planks, his army would be unable to escape the city on foot.
He cast his gaze toward the island of Tenochtitlan. Connected to the mainland by three different causeways, he wondered if all of them were built with the removable sections. Intuition told him yes, but he had every confidence he could compel the Mexica to repair the causeways if need be. Even the proudest of warriors could be forced to grovel and beg if their families and their homes were threatened.
Still, it would be wise to have a contingency plan. What with the army’s experience in Tlaxcala, he understood quite well that some Indians had more tolerance for suffering than others. He glanced at some of the canoes floating nearby. Some were so large they could accommodate dozens and some were so small they could only carry one person, but all of them sat low in the water. The lake seemed shallow in most places, many of the boatmen plied the placid surface not with paddles but with long poles, but he doubted it would be possible to walk or even swim to shore from Tenochtitlan. We will need to build shallow-draft ships.
He pursed his lips. Judging by the sheer size of the city, tens of thousands lived inside Tenochtitlan and he was sure he could find some ship-building supplies at one of their markets. It would take a few weeks to build ships of the proper size, cordage and sails would have to be sent from Vera Cruz, but that would be more than enough time to convince the Indians to accept him as their lord.
Cortes straightened his back. He had never entered such a large city before and figured the city had a bigger population than Seville or Granada. He knew for a certainty, however, that even the highest castle towers in his hometown could not match the height of the stucco-covered pyramids or the blocky palaces of Tenochtitlan. How could a place this beautiful stay hidden for so long?
The causeway soon gave way to a very wide and very beautiful avenue, and flat-roofed houses, crafted from a combination of pale adobe and dark stone, now flanked him on every side. Curious onlookers studied his army from behind ledges and half-open windows, but they offered no kind words of welcome. Nor for that matter did they jeer. For the most part, they were silent besides the occasional whisper. If the Mexica intended to ambush his army, it was very likely a signaler was hidden amongst the onlookers. He squinted to study each face. No warmth in any of those stoic expressions. So why are they letting us enter their city and meet with their sovereign?
The army ground to a halt, and the vanguard stopped in front of a large group of Indians. Cortes tensed and dropped his hand to his sword hilt. If the Mexica meant to ambush his army, the soldiers would make sure they paid dearly for the mistake. Not one crossbow needed to be loaded and not one gunpowder weapon needed priming; Cortes had every hope his army would be peaceably received but that was no excuse to shirk battle preparations.
The loud bang of a drum prompted him to turn around. A litter-bearing delegation was approaching his army from the rear. He turned his horse around and ordered the rest of the rearguard to do the same. He kept his hand on the hilt of his sword and watched as a group of attendants, dressed in splendid cotton robes that melded colors of varying hues, swept the avenue with long, bushy brooms.
Much as their colorful robes demanded attention, it was the jade-studded litter that truly captivated him. Coated in silver and gold, it was festooned with feathers as long as his forearm and wreaths woven entirely from flowers. The attendants carrying the litter stopped twenty paces away and lowered it to the ground with a practiced grace.
Cortes dismounted from his horse and gestured to his translators. Today, Doña Marina and Aguilar would be more valuable to him than his guards. He handed the reins of his horse to a nearby servant just as a man stepped out of the litter.
Taller than him by half a hand, the man had a well-defined midsection and thighs the size of tree trunks. Besides the small wrinkles around his eyes, few of his features betrayed age. His thin beard, trimmed short, contained no gray hairs and if there were any on his scalp, they were completely hidden by his massive, green-feathered headdress.
While he could not tell if there were gray hairs on his scalp, Cortes was confident the man carried no weapon. His finely embroidered loincloth seemed ill-suited for such a task and he wore no other article of clothing, save a shoulder-draped robe and some thick sandals.
What he lacked in clothing, however, he made up in piercings. Plugs the size of plum pits dangled from both his ear lobes, and a brilliant gold labret hung from his lower lip. The man strode toward him, utterly sure of his power and his wealth. Cortes’ heart skipped a beat. The man in front of him could only be Motecuhzoma.