"I am Ashwan, grandson of Ahalo, the astronomer, and son of Halach Uinic, supreme ruler of all lands and cities under his power. I am an astronomer like my grandfather, who taught me patience to observe the heavenly bodies as they move across the sky. I strive to discover the secret of the changing seasons and how our crops grow with the harmony of the universe."
"Many years ago, you were the granddaughter of Oconte, a nobleman scribe, and daughter of Oconte the second, who is my father's scribe. The necklace you wear was given to you by Oconte's wife, your grandmother, on the day we met."
At that point, a roar from the stadium below turned their attention to a perfect view of a sporting match that seemed to be coming to an end.
"Ah, the pok ta pok game is ending," Ashwan said. "It has been going on for several days, but it seems that the red team has scored the one goal needed to win. I think you may not want to watch what happens next. Though you were always fond of watching the games, you never enjoyed the final act."
"Are you kidding?" Delora bristled. "I haven't missed a football game in Miami for the last four years, and some of the best plays went right down to the wire."
"And how many players from the losing team do they behead?" Ashwan asked.
"Did you say ... behead?"
Delora watched, riveted, as the teams assembled in two lines facing each other, seven players on each side. She took in the sloping walls that bounded the playing field. The walls were carved with reliefs of games and spectators.
"See the ball?" Ashwan asked. "It bounces off the targets on the walls to mimic the movement of the stars in the sky. The opposing teams symbolize the struggle between the gods of the underworld and those of the sky. That is why a sacrifice must occur, to ensure the earth's fertility."
"Now you're scaring me," Delora said, as she watched one player from the green team being led to a platform at the far end of the stadium. Then, a large man with a gold breastplate and an elaborate headdress ascended the steps at the back of the platform.
"That is the priest and executioner," said Ashwan. "Sometimes, prisoners of war are executed at the end of the game instead of ball players, but today, there are no prisoners."
Delora couldn't believe what she was witnessing. As the athlete kneeled on the platform, the priest raised his sword and with one swift blow, the head was severed from his body. The head rolled a few feet before settling, and the athlete's body collapsed on the platform.
Delora let out a high-pitched scream. Ashwan grabbed her and covered her mouth with his hand.
She swatted his hand away. "Let go of me! I don't rattle easily, but I want to know what's going on!" Anger welled up in her as she struggled to squirm loose from his grip.
Ashwan took her by the shoulders and looked into her eyes. "You have witnessed a common ritual in our culture," he said. "I am sure your life is very different now in your Mi-a-mi, but your life used to be here. Give it time, and you will remember."
"What if I don't want to remember? What if I just want to go home?" Her usual ability to remain calm under pressure was beginning to fail her.
"Come with me, and I will tell you the whole story." Ashwan extended his hand to help Delora up.
"Not so fast," she retorted. Looking up at this devastating stranger, who stood a head taller than she, Delora calculated her ability to outrun him.
"Then listen to me here and now. Many, many years ago, when you were fifteen years old and I was twenty, you and I loved each other ... deeply. Our families were estranged because our grandfathers had quarreled over a discrepancy in astrological calculations. I do not think anyone remembers why the feud continued, but it did. Your parents and mine knew of each other but had never met, so when you and I met by accident at the cenote closest to our city, we did not know each other. It was only later that your father became my father's scribe."
"Back up a minute," Delora said. "What's a cenote?"
"You must remember the cenotes. They are immense caverns with deep, cool water. Some are completely underground and some are open to the sky. The cenote where we met is called Cenote Dzitnup, and it is sacred to our city. Without it, our people would die and the jaguar and monkey would leave our jungle. It has no bottom, so when we offer a sacrifice to the cenote, it lands in the lap of a god."
"Would any of those sacrifices be human?" Delora asked, shuddering.
"Yes, sometimes virgins are sacrificed to the gods. I could not let that happen to you, which is why we married so quickly."
"We're married?" Delora had to laugh. "Please, give me a break. Don't you think I'd remember that?"
"Do you not recall, my love? We spent our wedding night under a canopy of stars much like this evening," Ashwan said, turning his gaze to the heavens. "Our lovemaking ignited a passion that could not be quenched."
"Well, don't expect an instant replay. And please, knock off the 'my love' business." Like this guy would be interested in her. Come on. It was all just too weird.
"I should call you what I called you when we were together, then. You were my 'Little Fearless,' like your name, because you were not frightened to take chances."
"I'm certainly a risk taker, but I don't plan on staying here long enough for you to get used to calling me anything."
"How can I convince you that what I say is true?"
"Well ... Ashwan, is it? Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that I spend a couple of days here. Don't you think my parents and boyfriend will miss me?"
"We should consult with Valuso. He is an old and wise scribe. You were very fond of him in your life here. He has also been anticipating your return, and he will know how this happened. Come. Please. It will be dark soon, and the steps will be difficult to see."
At this point, Delora felt she needed to find some sane people to rescue her or make a break for her car.
"All right, let's go see this Valuso," Delora said, thinking she'd play this game until she saw a chance to escape. She tentatively tested her legs. They were still a bit wobbly, but she could make it down. Unlike her ascent on the deteriorating steps, the steps she descended were solid. Just like new.
As they made their way down the steps, Delora noticed people who looked like peasants or slaves working to light torches as twilight dimmed the skies. She strained to see anyone dressed like a tourist, or perhaps a policeman, but she saw no one who looked like they lived in modern times. She tried to get her bearings regarding the location of her car. She looked in the direction she believed her car was located, but in the place of the parking lot and booths of souvenir vendors stood a large red palace.
The pyramid wall they were descending was in deep shadow, so they were hidden, but as they reached the halfway point, Ashwan stopped on the steps and held his arm in front of Delora.
"You must not be seen. The people who knew you will think you are a ghost, but in very strange clothes. Only your hair looks as it should."
Delora's straight brown hair was pulled back in a long braid that ended between her shoulder blades. Her necklace bounced against a green and orange University of Miami t-shirt, and her khaki cargo shorts ended about mid-thigh. She wore hiking boots, with the hint of orange socks peeping out the top, and she carried a dark green University of Miami backpack with the Ibis mascot stamped on the front pocket.
"What, they don't recognize a co-ed when they see one?" Delora asked.
She didn't know why she was following this guy, but she felt he meant her no harm. He'd already had abundant opportunities to bop her over the head or drag her into a corner. If he tried anything, she'd be better off in the village where she could make a run for it.
Suddenly, it dawned on Delora. This whole thing was a new reality TV show, and she was being considered as a contestant. That beheading wasn't real; they'd created an elaborate set. She slapped herself on the thigh and steeled her resolve. It made sense. She was athletic and daring. She could compete. Damn straight! She'd be the best darn contestant EVER.