Sky had just hidden the scribe’s bowl under a pile of cushions when big sister Peacock burst through the doorway.
“You are so lucky,” said Peacock. “Papa’s not going to make you eat peppers for being late. Mother made up some story about your dress ripping and how Toucan couldn’t find the thread to fix it.” Peacock walked over to the cushions and, winking, pulled out the bowl. “You could learn a thing or two about being sneaky from Mother. I knew all about this, by the way. Mother asked me for ideas to bribe you.” She replaced the cushions. “Anyway, Papa barely opened his mouth to yell when Mother fell to her knees and said she shouldn’t have lied. The truth, she said, was that you had been hunting in the forest and forgotten about the time. Oh, she really told a good one. You were supposedly tracking a wild pig to bring home for Papa.”
“I’m sure Papa knows she’s lying,” Sky said. She tried to brush off the dirt on her dress, but gave up. The afternoon rain had set the dirt as surely as spilled chocolate.
“Of course. But the story saved face, didn’t it?” answered Peacock. “That’s what palace life is about. Keeping up appearances.” She grabbed Sky’s hand. “Now, come with me.”
Together they ran through the palace, ignoring questions and quizzical looks from the courtiers. When they got to Mother’s courtyard, they found Toucan waiting with bowls of water, a comb, and someone else’s white tunic. Peacock yanked out the tangles in Sky’s hair and braided it. Toucan scrubbed and dressed Sky and sent her off with a warning. “Remember, you are a princess. Act like one.”
By the time Sky got to the main courtyard, she saw the rest of the young royals all dressed in white and with a white cloth on top of their heads. Sky saw cousins and cousins of cousins just close enough to the bloodline to be labeled nobility. Hummingbird stood next to Shield, claiming the position of tallest girl even though she wasn’t. Maybe Hummingbird thought she should be first in line because she was, indeed, the prettiest of the girls. While everyone had had their foreheads shaped by wooden boards when they were infants, hers was the only one that looked like an ear of corn. And even though all the nursemaids faithfully hung beads over the newborns’ eyes, Hummingbird’s were the only ones that really crossed to the middle.
Sky looked at Shield whispering in Hummingbird’s ear. He was a male version of Hummingbird. Slanted head, crossed eyes, hooked nose, he had it all. Actually, they looked more like brother and sister than Sky did with Shield.
“You’re late,” called Shield. Sky slipped into line next to him. “So they caught you? I knew they would.”
Sky thought about telling him about the plan with Cuc but decided against it. There was trouble between them already. She said, “They found me. I could have gotten away, but Mother bribed me.”
“Well, then, you’re already an adult, dealing and compromising.” He snorted. “No need to go through with the ceremony.” Shield nudged her, she nudged back, and they happily pushed and shoved each other until the clay whistles shrieked.
“The King, the King,” announced conch shells booming throughout the palace.
Three Crocodile sucked in his stomach and rearranged his necklace. Shield stood tall and thrust out his chin. He did look like a noble, Sky admitted to herself as she slipped into her proper place in line.
Servants, as always, led the way. One carried the royal mat and cushions so Papa could sit comfortably. The next two held giant feather fans to keep Papa cool. Finally, the food, just in case Papa wanted a snack. A boy, probably performing his first palace duty, balanced slices of watermelon and bowls of nuts as he edged his way to the royal platform.
Except for the call of someone’s pet parrot, all was silent. The air, heavy with the next rain, made the tunics heavy and damp. No one moved.
Three Crocodile, in a tone so low it was almost inaudible, cleared his throat. Papa stood in the court archway.
Papa had a royal way about him. Sky wondered if the people would look up to Shield when he was king, like they did Papa. For example, now, even though everyone knew extra feathers had been added to Papa’s headdress to make him look taller, no one thought of pointing it out to him. Maybe, she wondered, it was because Papa lacked a sense of humor.
Papa looked down the line. When his gaze rested on Sky, he commanded, “Begin!”
Three Crocodile began with Shield, thinking it might please Papa and Mother. It was the wrong decision, of course, because Shield was the shortest of the boys, and this merely called attention to it. Three Crocodile, nevertheless, boomed out, “My son, have you committed any great sin?” He shook a wooden wand of snake rattlers over Shield’s head as he waited for an answer.
Shield was surprised he had been chosen first. He fumbled with his shell wrist cuff and looked at the ground. Sky knew why he hesitated. Last moon, Shield had taken one of Mama’s quetzal feathers to add to his own headdress. Mother, of course, knew immediately who the thief was and called Shield to her courtyard. Shield said he was innocent. His pet monkey, he claimed, had shown up with the feathers one day. He had no idea to whom they belonged.
Shield gave a sideways glance to Mother, who simply nodded.
“No, I have not committed any great sin,” he said, stressing the word “great.”
Crocodile blessed him and tapped him on the head nine times. Then he rapped Shield’s forehead and the spaces between his fingers and toes. Mother stepped forward and removed the white square of cloth off his head and lifted his beaded lock of hair. Waiting a moment or two, making sure all eyes were on them, Mother then snipped off the symbol of childhood, the red bead.
Crocodile ran down the line of boys, asking if each one had committed any crime. He paused just moments before anointing them. Sky wondered if he was afraid one of the boys would confess a sin, or maybe he simply wanted the ceremony to be over before the next rain storm.
All went smoothly until Three Crocodile came to Hummingbird. He was halfway through the ceremony with no disasters, so he shook the rattler wand enthusiastically. The rattles rasped like angry snakes and made more than one adult in the audience glance at the floor and raise his foot. Hummingbird tracked every move of the wand as it came closer and closer to her head.
When Three Crocodile lay the wand on her head, Hummingbird pushed it away. “Get it away,” she squealed.
Hummingbird’s aunt pushed her way to the roped off square, but Three Crocodile held up his hand to stop her. He put the wand behind his back and asked her, once again, if she had committed any great sin.
“No, I have not,” she said, smiling widely to make up for her slip.
Was that a glimmer of blue Sky saw? Had Hummingbird already inserted a piece of jade into one of her teeth? Girls weren’t allowed such vanities. Sky was wondering how to use that information when Three Crocodile moved in front of her.
“Princess Six Sky, have you committed any great sin?” He lifted his eyebrows up and down, up and down, hoping to remind Sky of her promise to behave.
“I am clean of sin!” Sky shouted, hoping for a laugh from the adults, and getting one. Papa frowned.
Mother moved fast. In a few moments, she had removed the white cloth from Sky’s head and snipped the red bead from her waist.
Three Crocodile ran through the girls as quickly as he had the boys. Mothers scurried over, removing square cloths, cutting beads off their daughter’s waists. After, the mothers held the beads and cloths high above their heads. For the 13 royal youth, childhood had ended.
Sky noticed that Papa, like the other fathers looking at their sons, puffed up like a papa turkey. When Papa looked at her, though, it was with the eye of a different kind of bird. He was more like a hawk, circling its prey. What did he have planned for her next?