The Totem-Maker: The Citadel (part one)
Our road began to descend. The trees clung less precariously to banks that did not vault, but sloped; soon the trees’ variety had much increased, and the loneliness of the mountain crags gave way to vivid life, to darting small game, birds that flitted alongside us, dropping to probe manure pats; or, when we camped, to steal a bite of meat from the spit.
Rockfalls no longer menaced. The way grew to a thoroughfare, broad and pebbled, with many wagons and riders making for the mountains. I could understand, having endured that nervous passage, the irony I heard in our guides’ voices, and the strangers’ answers.
“Live and return,” were the words of Ba’ahn and Diira.
The traders said: “Live in humility, with an empty purse.”
I asked Diira what was this curse, as her good cheer belied insult.
“We fast half-days under a waxing moon, until it has grown a seven-span, if the gods have allowed us peace on their road, and we spend nothing we carry from the plains.”
Ba’ahn slowed his mount, and fell in with us. There was space in this valley, which in shape was like the split logs, hollowed, that in Monsecchers brought water from the hills, for our company to spread and gather, gossip with those whose talk amused us most.
Ba’ahn said: “A new marvel for you, Totem-Maker. We will visit the palace in time, and you’ll see it, our gold and silver emptied into the zhatabe’s coffers.”
“Why? Or how?”
“For, that coins are not needed. Who has use for them? I want food and drink, shoes on my feet, a bed to sleep in, a garden where birds sing.”
“Yes, and so do I. But if I hadn’t these things, coins…”
He stopped me, and just as he spoke, I grasped what the zhatabe’s coffers had portended.
“In the city…but I will not name it for you…”
“He cannot. Some of our names are forbidden foreigners,” Diira said.
“Are they? And if I find favor with the zhatabe?”
“That is in their mind.”
I was puzzled. Her finality told me that the mind of the zhatabe…
But their. Was the zhatabe not a person, a sort of king…?
That, at any rate, the mind of the zhatabe…for a citizen to presume this…was another matter of the forbidden. “The city, Ba’ahn,” I reminded him.
“In the city all wants are provided.”
“Happiness, then, is universal? You have no lowly caste, no wealthy ones?”
“No.” But he spoke in a conditional way, and I felt he meant yes.
“You will see,” said Diira.
When the roadway had broadened further, and on both sides stone foundations supporting bright-painted wooden houses, showed a growing town, I craned my neck to see spires or domes, or any grandeur that might amount to a palace.
I asked a child’s question: “Are we there?”
“We are at the traders’ town. You see the signs for rooms and stabling.”
I’d seen and hadn’t seen, not knowing what the little flags communicated.
“It is permitted to name this town Aran,” Ba’ahn told me, smirking somewhat.
“It has a name you like better, but won’t tell?”
“Not I,” he said.
Think of that, I said to myself. The zhatabe will catch you in the same way, if you leave room for two answers. Tents came into view, at the bottom of the slope; guards stood where wings of cloth were drawn and corded, and others…officials certainly…walked the queues of waiting travelers. Who had something to declare, I surmised.
“Will we pass?” I asked, my face turned to Diira.
“How can I say? Where is your friend? He has disappeared.”
Castor, I counted a doubtful friend, if one at all, but (to my annoyance) he had disappeared; he had taken my mission under his own command, I could well believe, and appointed himself spokesman. Ahead the roads diverged into three, starring outwards across a plain. Grain waved, yet in plots separated by pathways, bordered by low stone barriers.
But from this busy place of hostelries and declarations, the plain was blocked by a circular structure of high, carved pillars, lintels perched on every two.
“No… Not as you mean. True, each city has a god, and each god has an altar, where the road begins. For blessing, if you ever travelled these ways, you would leave your offering.”
She paused, and so I said…I, the mischievous one this time…
“But I have no coins. I have given them all to the zhatabe.”
“Why should the gods be pleased with a coin?”
“Or why anything? If, Diira, you really mean to raise the question. Why do the Divine expect our offerings? Don’t they pity us enough to leave our puny wealth, when their own is boundless?”
“They do pity us. They know that nothing to them means too much to us. And if you cannot pass their shrine without the wish to cheat…”
(2021, Stephanie Foster)