The Totem-Maker: Crafter Becomes Maker (part three)
Crafter Becomes Maker
Wosogo gave me his two hands. I did not miss, in greeting him, the old man’s signal to the cook. Angry a bit with me, she had laid the table and ordered the lunch be spread…a tray of roast fowl, dainty in size and eight in number. Boiled grains sculpted to the bowl that held them—the first servant turned this over and carried it away, the second pouring on a red sauce lumped with fruits. A stick of bread was torn and arranged in a bowl of cream. Nuts and figs rimmed the tray.
The old man took the jugs of wine and lowered himself, his back to the stone, placing the jugs at his feet. Wosogo and I had room to share.
“Lavish,” I smiled at him, sitting. I was constrained in this smile, but let it be ironic. I was curious to learn what was being played at…
Wosogo, circumspect, praised the hospitality of Lord Ei.
“Why, all the house and grounds are splendid!” I said. “This Kinship of Ei, what besides duty do they owe our Prince? Will it be a cousin marrying Jute?” I discomfited my friend, but felt I had good reason for it.
“Those things I do not know.”
“What are we to talk about, Wosogo? I have been listing my needs…” I tapped my forehead. “But you arrive too soon. Taken out of order, then…the Prince will vouch for the Emperor’s authority? Has the Peddler been found? I do think of it, Wosogo, that to translate my speech to the zhatabe, his to me, weakens our parley, just there. On that point of whom to trust…or…”
I was putting the old man off his guard, and he had gone so far as scooting from the stone to watch our faces. Wosogo from his belt drew beads, undid a knot, and moved one, another, one more. He tied them captive, raised his face to mine.
“Mero,” I said to the old man. “Partake!”
In the Balbaecan language, he said that he was servant to the two of us, guests of the house, and needed nothing. The old man knelt then at our table, to pour our cups of wine.
“That interests me,” I said. I stood, and walked.
A terrace below the house was spanned by this garden, but the house could not be seen. Behind us the fortress wall, topped with pines, appeared natural to the eye. Boulders concealed places of defense; at fearsome labor they must have been dragged to where they sat, grown so mossy…small trees, even, rooted in their crevices.
From the garden’s lower wall—a crafted thing, plainly so, of fitted stone—the terrain fell to a wide grassland, cut by three streams, and ringed in hills that steepened to mountains far distant.
“Interests you.” Wosogo came to my side.
“The zhatabe, in his wrath…we shall say…would pour his army through those passes yonder. They would make their great camp below. Some, sent to forage for food, must climb to this fruitful spot, and…am I right? Lord Ei would not wish them struck down with arrows, though easily he could command it done. He would not have his enemies know he had not fled before their numbers, but held his forces yet within his stronghold. He would take these foragers prisoner. Now the dilemma! How to question them? How useful it would be, to dress spies in the prisoners’ garb and have them slip to the camp by night… How impossible, though…”
Wosogo, I would have said on, I know so little of military matters. Wosogo, given new thoughts to remember, was at his beads again. The old man had come to hear these things, and my role needed no further acting. I met his eye, and he met mine.
“Who is the Totem-Maker?” I asked him.
“Do I understand you?” Lord Ei answered. “I have commanded these watches many and many years. But we are all children, and you… You have some magic, spat at your feet by Mother Earth, the Mother of Ami, in the form of totem-stones. You instruct me that I am blind.”
‘No, Vlan. Will you take the place I held, and let me sit at your feet? That will be more fitting. No, Vlan…” I led the way. “I ask to be given a mission. If I am told the means by which neither to anger the zhatabe, nor be swindled by him…I know nothing of his honor…if I am told what Prince and Emperor would agree to, rather than war-making… If I am told none of your secrets, you mighty lords, I must suppose myself the child. Am I to charm our enemy? Is he to find me precious? Shall he wish to keep me?”
This (though inside I was warning myself to not, in fact, be pert with Lord Ei), seemed a genuine danger…one I hadn’t guessed at. A totem’s advising. The Peddler could speak to the zhatabe; I could not. The Peddler could make this gift of the Prince’s offering, in exchange for open gates, sound dazzling and rare. I, to spare my life, could dazzle, assuredly…I could terrify, I could spin dreams close, very close, to the heart of my subject…
I would not. Not any of it. If I were let well out on the road, with a long journey’s provision, I might forgo the Citadel, make my own way…
A picture rose, of my shedding this go-between, captaining my own company, leaving him bereft. I envisioned a mountain pass, a threat of lowering weather… And blamed this temptation on the totem. All I wanted was to order my mission in practicality. We do business with those who are helpful, useful. They need not be best-loved. But I found it truth, and better faced before any such pass materialized. I, too, could be left behind.
Truth, that I disliked the Peddler; no less for our long separation. I saw his upper hand was my weakness. And this I might remedy.
Crafter Becomes Maker
(2020, Stephanie Foster)