The Totem-Maker: The Recalcitrant One (part ten)
Noakale descended, herself. “Why it’s you! Such a mystery they make! And what terrible thing that cannot be named have you brought to us? Come, come…someone may like to have a talk with you.”
This fulsomeness of nature I would not have suspected. She took me up the steps with little pats and chuckles. I thought Jute had risen in fortune, that she was an intimate now of her mistress. I was daunted, but I was glad for her. I went further…it was not hard to ignore Noakale’s chatter…I hoped for Jute all the haughtiness in greeting me (refusing to do so, perhaps), that her heart seemed to feed on.
The person I was led to was the Prince.
His dwelling was a chamber made from screens and draperies; he had placed himself in his wife’s quarters, kept secret from the Balbaecans. Of their adopted tyrant’s presence, Shenath was not to be told. But Shenath stayed for hours only, and I must now stay for days.
Food was brought. That particular generosity never ebbed; among these people one did not move from outdoors to indoors, room to room, without sustenance.
Lord Ei’s cook ordered a stone loosed from the floor, a fire below fanned. A great, almost conical basin was mounted above, on four ornate feet of bronze. One servant brought a board, angled it against his hip and chopped at a slab of meat, pieces falling like tiles, sizzling out their fat. Another chopped root and leaf; from the basin’s two sides, these ingredients crossed in air, a showy dance…the cook herself finished the dish by pouring in a cup of wine.
I could not mind, as it smelled so good…but I was amply fed that evening! The rule, as in my own country, was to banquet when banqueting, show enjoyment of that given, invite no evil by speaking of evil. For such ingratitude, harvests might fail, cattle be stricken. If I must be the exemplar of the gods, then, I must be apt in manners, resting against these pillows on this carpet, tended by both households, the Prince’s own faithful, and Lord Ei’s…
Word would soon be carried to him, I thought, of the personage come to his house. Here was another I must not harm, bring anxieties to; while saying this, I confess I sat in mind of our purpose, and framed a question for the Prince:
“And so, soon you would have traveled on, in disguise as you arrived. You meant to see with your eyes this, and the others.” I withdrew the totem. I offered it, and he waved a hand. I longed for anyone to show me that courage of touching it, and my sovereign most of all. But I had not proved the opposite case, that his reluctance was cowardice.
“But,” I said, “do you see the face?”
Did he? I feared not, and that also sat with me badly. “We meet by fortune. I daresay you don’t believe it yourself. The Balbaecans are a kind and honorable people. Wise, no doubt, as regards their bargain. I have not met the ruler of the Alëenon. He trades with the Citadel. The risk is bitter, that he aligns with you, and the day will come… When he my friend the Peddler called the zhatabe will sue the gods for this land’s destruction. Well, you have seen Lotoq’s wrath. When a cause is righteous, the vengeance of those Ami’s hand restrains is more, loosed, than mankind can imagine.”
“What, again, do I not believe, my subtle young friend?”
Reader, I had set this snare, then placed my foot…his mockery I’d earned. Pride makes for temper, and temper had goaded sententious speech. “I apologize, my Prince. I’d meant to say, did you seek me at the tollhouse, the rumor would fly, though to your face they should pretend ignorance. The Balbaecans would conclude you marched with the summer.”
“I intend it. But I cannot make a secret of the seasons. It is the only time…sooner than that. I wait another muster, another fleet. The supply trains go to the first outpost, and the companies follow, when the scouts return.”
A servant poured wine. I could not know any longer, having bonded to this totem, if I acted, or was prompted to act. I sipped, wanting not to overdo…but wine or no, I resolved to leave Lord Ei’s house with the mastery. What I decided I would choose. These hints in my ear must cease, for I would hear them no more.
My advice was contrary to the Prince’s belief, that he could not spare to gather his forces over another winter, make his attack less in good, than in the best, of time. Hurry in warfare? Surely never advised…I wanted to ask, what will you do when you array your army there, when you see the Citadel rise towering to the clouds? You cannot besiege them, because you cannot get round them. Your soldiers are not your men. They are the men of three nations; they are not loyal to one another. Evil weaponry will rain agonies upon them…and what, shrinking in terror, haunted by the burned and maimed, feeling they gain nothing of worth to them now, by your promise of gold… What persuasion other than the iron fist? You will order them to keep to their camps, as though the camps could be redoubts, not doorstones for beggars. When most have deserted you, the Emperor also, because you have made yourself too weak to protect him, will ask some other Prince of your land to be his protector.
“And so, I impress you little. You sit with an arch face that disapproves. Yet in silence. Let me then repent, whatever I have done.”
Of course he was humorous.
With no formal plea for my counsel, he asked it. He, not in his own home resting more than a quarter of any year; he, the sagest of the battleworn, wanted what they all did. A magical person, whose notions about things were none such, not the equal of any thoughtful soul’s, but willed by heaven, mysterious. He would not consult his common sense, for having above mine the sum of two decades.
(2020, Stephanie Foster)