The Totem-Maker: Winter Alone (part ten)
“Yes, call me that. Depwoto.”
I patted the couch. He sat next me with a simplicity that made me think better of his kind. Whom had I met in this place unbeset by that crippling haughtiness that troubled the general and Jute? Lom’s kind sister Dessa; the northerners Depwoto and Egdoah.
I thought, in that very minute, of a refinement to my art.
The tablets were too breakable. Each man would like something, though, some charm to finger and remind himself he was favored, that he brought no curse to the great undertaking…
And the answer, as the god had put Dessa in my mind, was the legacy. I bade Jute fetch it. “You know well what I mean,” I said to her. “You will please make haste, come again to your duties at once.”
I believed I saw what balked her, and what meekened her that day (poor woman, the indulgences of her life no richer than this). It was that she had grown used to her privacy; that words she spoke inside herself were such the men surrounding her, ordering her about, could not understand, so doubly cached away.
She could carry her contempt as a cage round her heart…
But here were two who’d discovered news of her. Of Jute, daughter of a house…a house of kings, perhaps…
Daughter long missing.
Two who, meaning no great harm, would tell this to their comrades—a curiosity, a phenomenon.
There were so many things you could not help.
I etched my wheel on the first tablet. I placed the tiles. The captain’s luck was doubtful, although—
“You have a son?”
I glanced at Jute, who stood below the steps, clutching the tapestry.
“The heritage of one will prosper. You are to travel and not return.”
A smile, at Jute’s translation, came slowly over his face. She told me he wished to know if there were any glory in his death. The sixth hour’s tile was the cat. It was quite fair for me to interpret this as success, as quarry bagged. I told Depwoto…I did not wish to look away from his eyes…yes, there is glory in it.
And he rose, and I used my etching flint to cut the thread, that bound a shining black stone with white specks.
Of what I learned from this gigantic enterprise, as it proved (as you may well have suspected it must), I will go into, only so far as such lessons came to benefit my understanding.
You know, Reader, that from thinking myself to be one sort of creature—
(Myself to the world, I say…as I dare to suppose the Holiest, the God of All Gifts and All Deaths, crafts us each sovereign, having each a particle within of that All, thus when for me, or for you, the pattern locks, and our sixth hour arrives, we may ourselves have become god…or yet be shrunk lowlier than a grain of sand…)
To discover myself another, regarded powerful; and of powers in their way unlimited. I said that I might, given vanity and recklessness—Lotoq forbid me the curse!—have demanded indulgences. I might use fire and music to bewitch and terrorize.
But the only thing I have ever wanted was my own life.
If you care to live, of course you do not make of yourself an envied obstacle. The closest counsellor to the Prince was Wosogo. Wosogo, cautious and wise, had no rival, none to my knowledge…and I would not desire his place. The wealthiest man in our land was a brother to the Emperor, who stood at the imperial elbow, winning for his timely praises, small gifts. Only a patch of land, a bit of coast barely arable; only a detachment of knights to protect it.
The Emperor made errors; his brother did not.
And the wealthiest man in our land had no ambition to take his brother’s place.
Cime, on one of our rides, had spoken of this brother, a visitor sometimes to the House of Delia, which is to say the quarter in which all of this lineage lived. The mother of Lord Teomas, the second wife of the last Emperor before my time, had been aunt to Lady Nyma.
Cime’s teaching was for Mumas to hear; myself wanted, for my ignorance, to pose useful questions.
“So bearing the weight of office on one’s shoulders,” I said, “is an honor, but a bond. Whereas…”
“Yes, just that. When cannot Teomas make free use of his brother’s house, and stable, and fleet? Of all he desires. A day ends, another begins, Foundling. And all a man has feasted on, all the music he has heard yesterday, he will never enjoy better.”
“If Lord Teomas had the wish, besides those things, to hold his brother’s title and seat, while enjoying them?”
Cime laughed and made some remark to draw Mumas into our talk.
And on a winter morning, making comfort as I could…chilled and damp under a tautened skin arranged for a roof of sorts, one of many roped across the high deck, giving shelter to our traveling company…I recalled that I had laughed, myself.
I was liked by Cime, disliked by Mumas; but Mumas, his love or hate, I scorned.
I would not have told you so, Reader, had we spoken then. I rode at my master’s side in good cheer. I was well housed, protected by an officer of state; I was servant to the great Houses of Decima and Treiva, dressed in new clothes and seated on my pony…where the least of our people had no mount and made their way by the labor of their feet.
I was proud. I was blind to this pride, and called myself humble. I aligned my thoughts with what I believed to be Cime’s. Thus, as I sat then, and as I sit now, so far from my youth, and my place of birth, I impart to you this first lesson. We are not well with the will of the gods; never, having not their eyes to see, but least when we are certain of it.
The work I had to do could not be finished. Not before our setting sail became urgent, no more to be postponed. The plain we crossed, from the general’s outpost at the foot of the mountain, to the fingering ridges that brought us to the sea, were scenes that weighed on me; unfamiliar, I need not say. We rode four days, the land flat and climbing. We camped two, above a river.
A steep way dropped here, of bare rock implacable, and a chain of soldiers was set filling skins, passing them up hand to hand. For neither under sail, nor for our remaining days crossing this desolate plain, would we come by water easily. Their gloved hands were encrystalized in ice, as was the fur trim of their boots, when the lowest men came again to the top.
Beyond this river, gazing back the way we’d come, I could see a plateau of black mud…or in appearance more a heavy sand, that sparkled. From this height and distance the rectangles of roofs, the path of streets between, seemed plainly to assert themselves. I had never wished to know it. I had never thought to trade the legend of the buried city, that the child I’d been, found thrilling, even magical, for truth in its pitiful starkness. There below lay the great tomb. There, the people of the city, posed as death had found them.
No one named this city any longer.
I had time then, and I studied it. I felt their wish to be named, to be risen from burial, allowed a fresh chance to appease Lotoq—and their doom stayed with me. We reached a harbor town. This was called Sianka. The Prince had furnished himself with translators other than those slaves taken with Jute. The Siankans said nothing I, or the soldiers, could understand. They lived, a sturdy people, terse of speech regardless, suspicious as to the looks they gave, behind a seawall.
They had hammered a gangway, years of pounding rock on rock, making of a natural cliff this protector. Tunnels, they had hammered too, traversing from the path to the village…only stone huts thatched in dried seaweed. The Siankans were poor in sheep, horses unknown to them.
But the sea they knew.
The Prince bought dried fish, and a fermented broth of fish. A type of oil that burned well in lamps, and thickened in the cold air, making sails stronger against the wind, ships faster.
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(2019, Stephanie Foster)