The Totem-Maker: The Recalcitrant One (part eleven)
“No, I won’t rush you.” He had made to rise, but sank again, while the fingers of a hand concealed under pillow-fringe tapped.
I told him, “I am not a general. You do not want me for advice you had sought and trusted without…or long before…you’d known of my existence. You could name me now who travels with you, who sits with you, when you propose your attacks, when you hold that sort of council. I have at times been gifted by my patron-god Lotoq with vision. Vision tells me we do not know these people of the Citadel. My own mind says persuasion is better than brute force.”
He shook his head, and made me sorry. On his face was disappointment. “I ought to find the educated ones, the lawyers. And the talkers, the courtiers…convene a mission of dissemblers, offer sweets to the zhatabe. Forgo my attacks.”
He waited for my appreciation. That I had said something unmilitary, and with distaste, and that he mimicked this manner.
“Your aggressions,” I said.
Now he laughed aloud, but furthered his point. “Pass years in talk, make ceremony of deciding whether a line inked on cloth or paper…there! Decide that first! Shall we record these dealings by your means, or by theirs? My people record nothing. Every important matter of my life, of my charge, I can tell you now.”
“You gain something in memory from those things Wosogo keeps on your behalf.”
For this, he gave me a near hug, a hand on each shoulder, pulling me towards him. I felt my difficulty again, some wish outside propriety…
He was only telling me…
“Nur-Elom…will that do? You have a way, Nur-Elom, and it settles me. If you are this Totem-Maker as well, that is for Elberin…for Lord Ei perhaps, who, if you do not know, is captain over the city of Balbaec. For any such men as care for a thing I never have, to be thought clever.”
“They care to not be thought unclever.”
“You,” he said. “You see a difference.”
“But my Prince. All I am telling you lies…if I may be of some use…in what you took a moment ago for cleverness. You flatter me, and I like it. I don’t possess that holiness to hold myself above it…I can bed down, as it were, very cozily, in flattery. In sweets.”
I lifted one, a Balbaecan fried cake stuffed with milk curds. He took it, and returned me half.
“In admiration,” I listed on. “And in office, riches, at length in an idea of myself. I could be angry with you, or with any who sought my wisdom, and did not revere me properly. Withhold my gifts if you dared doubt my glory.”
“I do…I doubt your word. I reserve opinion as to your glory. But foresighted is foreguarded, is it not?”
“Well, yes…and I’ll not go that route. Foresight is a blessing, to be sure, but you see my meaning…I have a weakness. Lotoq loves me more than others, but he does not love me. Then, Vlan, are you only charmed, or do you understand that weakness of yours I ask you to consider?”
“Count me a poor student. We have talked too long, and I’ve forgotten.”
We lay on our cushions, alone in this room, sharing trifles and bantering. And I felt immensely flattered, teetering on my own prediction.
How many times, I asked him, are we certain in our lives of untested things? I favor the trying, when the risk is only the answer of no.
“And who is to refuse what?”
“The zhatabe. To receive a visitor. When I see him, I shall even tell him I am there to look and learn, and to carry my discoveries back to my Prince.”
“Because he’ll know it.”
“And because you are persuasive, he will surrender all to the Emperor. Thus we avoid bloody war.”
“Why…I ask you back…why war at all? Let me answer. I can live peacefully, with my tollhouse and my sheep, making and selling. I can live prosperously, may I know, at whatever time it pleases Lord Ei to tell me, whether I am a tenant, or an inheritor, or occupy my house by virtue of my totem-raising, wherefore I claim a share as mine by rights.”
“No one, I will end the mystery for you, knows what you are.”
But they had legends I seemed to belong to…
“My Prince,” I said, “name any trade other than that of soldier for which there is no need, no place, no duties…no… In fact, all these you’ve mustered for your invasion of the Citadel have trades of their own, and you’ve harmed everyone by taking them, leaving their work undone. Then, regard how the Emperor, in his endless wars, has enlarged his standing army. Here we have not the case of our fortress guards, our city guards, or the household knights of Decima and Vei…”
“Not true, I think. You are saying these guards keep order, patrol their masters’ lands, fetch and carry for him, at times. And the soldiers…”
“The Emperor’s soldiers,” I interrupted. “Don’t they…? Is your life so rarefied you have never heard the people’s complaint? Everyone despises the mercenaries. They seize the farmers’ harvests, and their good animals. Daughters become second or third wives of men who, yes, have the wealth to keep a guard of their own. Young men without fortunes cannot marry their loves. The soldiers steal wine, though they call this tribute. A bribe, in common terms, to prevent them breaking and burning. Our peasants flee to the hills, when wine fuels the army’s rampages. There is no portion for taxes, the poor farmer can’t be held to it, and if there were, that tenth of his grain and grape must go to feed the army. The Emperor wants to be rid of them, and to fill again his coffers…then, you know very well the sequel. You are living it.”
(2020, Stephanie Foster)