The Totem-Maker: Lore and Lessons (part five)
Lore and Lessons
The sickness touched all who had been near the stones, all who had borne them in baskets, all who had bent their faces close to admire what had seemed only loveliness. The three artisans, their servants and their apprentices, were dead. Others died, though in these the sickness prolonged itself, and the attack of it was not apparent on the outer flesh.
Rathinihama, who had reached a hand to caress the crystals, saw that hand, next the arm, wither. As the limb blackened, already he felt the agonies of the bowels, and understood himself doomed; he did not have the surgeon brought, to axe his arm above the elbow and cauterize it with the iron, knowing he would suffer what had killed some for the pain alone, and be fated no more mercifully for it.
His wish at the last, perverse to his attendants, was to have the adornments meant for the Emperor, things of a beauty surpassing all joy and pleasure, carried to his bedside on a low table. They pulsed there in the rays of sun, with a promise of evil…which the eyes of the Kale Kale could now recognize.
The attendants, for piety, had dared it, masking themselves and gloving their hands. They, like Bani’s father, fell ill, but recovered within the month. Rathinihama was wrapped in fleeces, and sunk in Lotoq’s lake, as were Takel’kale, Allel, and Mafi. All the dead, eighteen of them, were made to vanish.
Bani’s father, and the men of the mission, met with the elder’s successor, Zetihama.
“Ilota, Falzi, you men of the water, what do the people say?”
“Some have seen the dead and most have not. Most believe a plague came from the god, and they have made their altars, and they have refrained from meat and things of animals.”
“Most is a troubling word.”
“Hama, the men of our party had no cause for silence.”
“I will give you cause.” Zetihama rang, and a servant crept in. The Hama gestured, and the servant, not containing his breathing or the small cries he uttered, took a stick and raised a cloth. Under the cloth was a box of lead.
“I had fasted for four days. For four days more I held vigil for Takel’kale. For four days more I held vigil for Allel, and for four days more I held vigil for Mafi. This was when the god spoke to me, and bade me have their bodies given him in sacrifice. Will it defile your holy place, father, if I command you the others? I lay prone before the altar and did not stir until the god had blessed me with the parting of the clouds. The sun struck the Cicerca. I sat then, took nothing to eat or drink, but prayed one hundred times. I fell into a trance. Morning came, and again the god blessed what he had put into my thoughts. The jewels were taken from the room of Rathinihama, and placed in this coffer. I have laid hands on it myself. The god speaks truly; he cannot speak falsely.”
Long minutes passed. Zetihama said to them: “A fairer vessel must be crafted, to contain this leaden one.”
Ilota spoke. He knew himself out of turn. He had looked at his betters of the council; had seen their eyes fixed on the weavings of the mat under their feet.
“Make a gift of these to the Emperor.” These deadly stones, he thought.
“No. We will show them to the Emperor, and he will give us gold for them.”
“The Emperor,” said a man called Takel’kalem, the brother of the artisan, “will put us to the torch for this.”
“I allow,” Takel’kalem answered the Hama, “that we may sow some confusion. We may have time.” By this, the council found themselves in the thick of their plot, without the stating of it in words.
A feast, again, would supply a first excuse, sickness the wages of drunkenness and gluttony; they must hold off until the full of the moon, the Rainmaker’s Moon, the casks of winter wines to flow…
The coming ceremony would give reason for the village to buzz, if spies were curious. The ladies of the city to have their robes and headdresses; the men their feathered cloaks, jeweled sheaths, circlets for their brows…
The stage where priests would conduct their burnings and auguries must be assembled and festooned within the amphitheater…there too, on the days prior to the feast, the throng of a holiday market, goods displayed along the lower seats…
“We will have riches. Even the smallcrafters who are cheated, who last year lost all their labor to a company of soldiers, will…”
Takel’kalem had by this time warmed to possibility. “Be compensated. For a man of the Emperor may be shown the stones in private. He will carry word these glories are too well hid to be discovered, and will be destroyed in the lake of Lotoq, if we do not get our price.”
“But we must be well on the road before the curse overtakes them. Here!” Another unfolded a cloth, a painted map of known ways to the borderlands. “The road east meets this coming north and going south. Two roads, no more. They will suppose us to make south, for the sea. It is wise to escape by sea. Then, if we go north, to the barbarous lands, I point out to you, that is but a second way of two.”
“Yet north it will be. One day’s march. After, away into the hills. We have no other hope. We will…”
Zetihama lapsed into thought. Bani’s father began to fear he sought the god’s blessing, and that they would wait without food or drink, for the Hama’s meditations to end.
But he returned. “We will raid the soldiers’ barracks, for forged weapons. We must gather the rosira seed.”
“We can’t. They always pour out a cup for the table slaves, when the drink is of our brewing.”
“Lightly,” Zetihama said. “A seed or two.”
Lore and Lessons
(2021, Stephanie Foster)