Malinalli’s first days in slavery are a frightening experience. She doesn’t understand the language and there are no friendly faces to comfort her. But the overseer, the man who purchased her, assigns one of the older women slaves to look after her and teach her the Mayan tongue so she can be a productive worker for the household.
Day by day, word by word, she learns while she hones her weaving skills alongside the old woman. Soon Malinalli is making dresses for all the other slaves and is able to speak to them as well. The next time the overseer pays attention he is surprised to hear the young girl speaking their language almost perfectly.
Malinalli becomes popular among the women for her beautiful garments; for she knows how to dye them brilliant colors as her mother taught her. Red dye is made from cochineal which comes from crushing tiny female coccus insects that live and feed on the prickly-pear cactus. And yellow is derived from mulberry or rabbit brush.
She has many other skills as well and begins teaching the slaves how to read. The overseer is even more stunned to discover Malinalli not only knows how to write, but also can count and do math. Within a year, the girl is helping him keep records for the household.
The next year Malinalli comes to the attention of the Lord of the house, a high chief of the town, when his wife points her out.
“She is the one who made this dress you like.” She informs him, it is a bright yellow garment with a red flower woven into the fabric.
The Lord calls for the overseer to ask about her.
“Yes, that one is called ‘Grass’.” The overseer explains. Malinalli was called that when she couldn’t speak their language and kept pointing to the grass in the field and the name stuck.
“A clever girl, a most valuable purchase Overseer; you are to be commended.”
“Thank you my Lord.” The overseer doesn’t even want to tell his owner all she can really do.
“Where did she come from? She must have had an education.”
“I do not know my Lord, I found her in the slave market. I believe she must have come from the Aztec lands judging from her language.”
“Ah, that would explain it. But she was legally purchased?” The Chief doesn’t want to incur the wrath of the Empire, but also doesn’t mind putting one over on the Aztecs either.
The two cultures are in a constant state of wary truce dating back centuries when the ancestors of both peoples had an unfortunate disagreement. A king of the ancestors of the Aztecs asked for the daughter of the king of the ancestors of the Maya. The Mayans thought he was asking for her hand in marriage and agreed only to discover during what they thought was the wedding ceremony, that the Aztec had sacrificed her and the chief priest was seen wearing her skin. The Mayans then drove them out, but over the last century the Mayan power had declined in the face of the superior Aztecs.
“Yes sir. We paid two pieces of jade for her.”
“Ah, even somewhat of a bargain. This girl is pretty and skilled; who will you mate her with?”
“She is not yet of age, my Lord. She is only twelve.”
“Really? That is quite astonishing. Well, protect her well she is a valuable asset.”
Malinalli continues, if not exactly to thrive (after all she is a slave without freedom), but at least to survive. She makes the best of her situation, both learning and teaching, until she comes of age and the overseer is faced with handling her journey into womanhood.
The old woman who first taught the one they call Grass how to speak takes the overseer aside one day.
“The blood came for Grass last night, she is a woman now.”
“Does she favor any of the other boys?” The overseer inquires—a fact that would make his task easy.
“I do not think so, though more than a few favor her.” The old woman answers with a smirk.
The overseer watches Malinalli briefly as she weaves. He is not surprised since the girl is tall and vibrantly pretty. The only problem is that she talks a lot, but given her skills…
“Have you taught her about being a woman, about how not to get pregnant?” He asks, struggling with the problem.
“If you so desire, I will see to it and teach her the ways.”
The overseer has a personal stake in Malinalli: she secretly assists in certain complex tasks of the household. If she would marry he would likely lose this since her husband would discover this secret—which would be an embarrassment for him.
“Yes, teach her. I think she could use a few more years before taking a husband, but I don’t want her with child before that.” He commands, delaying the issue a while longer…
But the years pass quickly and soon the Lord of the house summons the overseer to inquire about her.
“This girl Grass has blossomed into a beautiful woman.” The Lord says. “Are there marriage prospects?”
“There have been a few inquiries, but of course any arrangement would have to have your approval.”
“Well, one of my sons has taken an interest in her.”
This news rocks the overseer. While it is not unheard of for nobility to marry a common slave it is very rare. But what really troubles him is that if Malinalli marries into the family or even just shares a bed, she will gain tremendous power. His own position would be in jeopardy.
“While her lips may be pretty my Lord, they move a lot. You may find her distracting.” He finally says, pondering a way to derail a possible match and calculating what he can do to get rid of her.
“I see, that is not unlike my own wife. But I shall leave it up to my son.”
Malinalli is of course unaware of this discussion. That night as every night, she says her one and only prayer: That Feathered Serpent will return to save her people from Hummingbird Wizard…