After years of one disaster after another, the Emperor enjoys a brief respite. The lake water has receded; the doubling of taxes in the form of food has eased the famine, and Montezuma can attend to his regular duties—which even in the best of times is no small job in an Empire with over a million inhabitants.
The Aztec people are hard workers, fierce fighters, eloquent speakers, and excel in mathematics, agriculture and engineering. The culture is based on constant growth, expansion and change. The foundation of their daily life is a series of complex laws handed down from generation to generation.
The legal system is sophisticated and includes judges who handle everything from disputes between citizens and even villages to all type of criminal offenses. Courts are held every eighty days and attended by judges from throughout the Empire.
Parties are required to swear strict oaths in the name of the god Hummingbird Wizard to tell the truth and do so by touching the ground and then their lips. In this way, lying becomes an affront to the gods and can be punished by death. Lying in court can get you the same punishment as the person you were trying to protect or lying about. Documents and other evidence are introduced into the proceeding just as in any modern legal system.
Aztec judges have a great deal of assistance in their task of administering justice. They have messengers and constables to inform or arrest the accused. Jailers are also present and prisoners awaiting trial are placed in wooden cages until their trial date. Aside from these jails no truly long term prison system exists because either the convicted are executed (by bashing their heads with rocks or involuntary sacrifice) or draw some form of home punishment such as restitution or slavery.
Scribes are a fixture in the Aztec court system and serve the important functions of recording lawsuits between villages, acting as stenographers in court proceedings and compiling codebooks. Since the Aztecs use a complex pictorial writing system this requires a high degree of skill to draw and keep up with the proceedings.
When charges are filed, the accused party is summoned before the court and given a chance to confront their accuser. And while no lawyers are present they can bring a friend or relative to help plead their case. Trials are public and based on an inquisitorial process where it is the judges that question the witnesses, defendants and plaintiffs.
But even if Malinalli’s plight had become known, it is questionable what might have been done about it. Slavery is legal and slaves compose about 3% of the Aztec population. Many slaves are brought in from foreign lands to be sold in the central slave markets. The Empire strictly regulates the slave trade and once purchased, it is illegal to sell an obedient slave against their wishes.
Some slaves are sacrificial victims captured in war. The Empire engages in a continual process of expansion through conquest and sacrificial captives serve several purposes. First, the Aztecs firmly believe that their gods sacrificed themselves to keep the universe intact and believe that humans need to be sacrificed in order to keep the universe in order. Secondly, they increase the prestige of the captor as they gain special status when they captured their first four captives. Finally, the sacrifice of captives provides an example to the various vassal states of the price of defiance. Sacrificial slaves have no rights, but are expected to die with dignity.
But then there were the Aztec slaves: citizens considered commoners who had to sell themselves into slavery to survive, or became slaves in compensation for some crime they committed. Aztec citizens could sell themselves or another member of their family into slavery to support them.
Aztec slaves have a number of legal benefits, including exemption from taxation and military service. Many slaves even rose to positions of responsibility acting as overseers and estate managers, and Aztec law allows them to acquire land, property, and even slaves of their own. It is not illegal for slaves to marry and there is no social stigma attached.
In Malinalli’s case, although she is a child and was sold by her mother, she is noble born and was sold into slavery unwillingly in order to deprive her of her rightful inheritance. So her mother and stepfather could probably have been accused of both theft and kidnapping—the latter punishable by death.
So despite the sophisticated Aztec legal system, no judge nor Montezuma is aware of this crime, and thus the ultimate demise of the entire Empire is set into motion—exactly as predicted.