The Totem-Maker: The Recalcitrant One (part nine)
My immediate fate was as I’d predicted. The merchant, Tazt Shenath, begged my company that short way up the road, to the stronghold of Lord Ei. He had jested about the game, but was in earnest as to games and more, feasting and entertainments, once lodged under protection of the Prince’s guard.
And that wife, the woman I’d seen on my sovereign’s boat, whose glances for me were wholly indifferent, had brought against boredom, Shenath told me, her cousin Darsale. Sente, a friend whose news would delight me, had not come.
But if Darsale, then Jute. I had made a promise to Jute, to help her if I could. Arriving in this state, I would be to my old servant something new. I was sorry I’d embraced Jute’s mocking name for me, put Nur-Elom about as my preference. If I found no cause to speak with her, how would it seem?
Taztam Shenath, the son, saw in me a contemporary. This was true, we were of an age, though for so long now I’d abandoned youth. I had to counsel others, manage the tolls, conquer this object I carried, make it be for me. I knew it, and did not know what I myself would be, as Totem-Maker.
“They at the Citadel will know you have it.”
“But if they were frightened, they would send an embassy. Why be conquered? They must believe in their fire-weapons.”
“What do you say?” Shenath asked.
“I have been told it.” I had forgotten the teller was Lotoq. “By some means, by ductways we may suppose, as with any engine of fire, they make their roads impassable. To which I would answer, no magic about it, we will not fall upon them by road, then. We will learn the better way in.”
“The totem will tell you.”
This from his son did not please Shenath. He doffed his hat and struck Taztam a blow on the chest, harmless.
“No…but truly, Taztam, it is the Prince who makes war. I should hardly come into it.”
“But is it,” Taztam said, when we’d made camp and he no longer pulled a wagon, so closely quartered with his father. “Is it a wishing stone?”
I lifted a hand. The matter needed thought, the answer stating well; I did not want my hesitation to look like the concealing of dire things, a charlatan’s trickery. The answer, like the handy-come story of Alchas, was paid to me at once (wicked beast of a totem, how I would be rid of it!), couched in my moments-ago reflection. “Yes, Taztam, if you ever wish to wish for something…”
I smiled. “You may meditate for many years, like a player of the War-Maker’s game, threading out each effect of your desire to make one change in the world’s pattern. In Ami’s scheme.”
I mentioned Ami. Taztam, and others nearby listening, made the sign of piety. I did not; I hadn’t the habit. The priests did not, for priests were regarded of a caste with the lower gods. Elberin I had mirrored, growing up. I saw that I could not be a friend…no one’s ever, it would seem. They took this difference for a Totem-Maker’s semi-deity.
Now, what sort of home made a border stronghold in these lands? The clan of Ei had theirs on a promontory, perched in good defense, the winding way up unsuited to a large company.
Over the sea in the first country, our rock was soft. One type light as earth, crushable to sand with a few hammer blows. This mixed with crop seeds and broadcast over our fields kept off disease, made the soil black, the new leaves vivid. Another type made a clay that drank water, and when hardened, repelled it.
In this second country of the Alëenon, rock stood stark from the plain, deckling like leaves bound in a book, flinty grey, iron red. Sometimes the great tomes of the gods were flung on their ends. Sometimes they lay sprawled on their backs.
The rock was not much shaped by the natives. They came rather to its terms, as the Siankans had done. All the corner-posts of Lord Ei’s house were planted trees, forest lands being sparse on the Balbaecan plain…and the living trunks were studded with bone. This bone served for anchoring. That anchored, what the people had in abundance—grasses, woven into dense mats, hung in pairs, fleece stuffed between. Water flowed from the mountains, and was channeled under the flooring. The floor was snugged flagging, those myriad flat stones scattered the length of the cave road.
The plain-dwellers were herdsmen and burned manure for heat; their water-channels constructed to carry through furnaces, kept alight outdoors. And while the smells were strongly of hair and fat, and green ferment, the large unpillared rooms were swept clean, warmed with a heat that misted the skin, counter to the driving winds that had pushed us along the road, parched our throats.
At the start of our climb, the household came out bringing sweets and wines to refresh us, walking the way with us…this was the goodwill, the charm of the Balbaecan people. We entered a lower room…the levels of the promontory dictating those of Lord Ei’s house. Shenath met, and was ushered indoors by a household steward; a woman came also, who served Noakale, the Prince’s wife. We would eat with the servants and lesser retainers—an arrangement wholly contenting to me. Lifelong I had been of that quality. But Shenath himself betrayed me, though with kindest intentions.
“You must fly to your mistress and tell her our companion is the Foretold, the Totem-Maker. Mera, Lord Ei will not care to know the sal’nuhr-ostre had been under his roof, in any part denied its revered place. We should all be cursed.”
He said this, stressing all.
I did not know enough, but thought he winked at formality, put an air on for private amusement. The cursed one was not me (my impression strong that this was Jute), but I stood cursed in appearance, too odd to all eyes not to be known at once. And was I the Foretold, now, as well?
(2020, Stephanie Foster)