The Totem-Maker: The Citadel (part two)
“Then why is a poor traveler in greater danger than a rich one? You, here, in the City Without a Name must have at least one such story, of highest sacrifice. In my first country, the story was…in fact…”
(I addressed myself when I said in fact, for I thought of the Kale Kale.)
“Of a great plague. The noble houses, the lords and ladies, all had thrown their gold into the smelting pot, and massed their gemstones in a pile. Celebrated artisans made glittering effigies of all the pantheon, hoping to offend none…”
“But they overlooked Ioka, did they not? The troublemaker.”
Castor spoke. He had sidled up through the crowd, as we were by now dismounted and leading our ponies at a shuffling pace.
“Another story, Pravor Castor. Mine is that where the plague vapored off, in the shimmer of a rainbow, when the Two Beggars brought their parcel of roots, which they had dug all that morning for their only meal.”
I sounded unbecomingly sarcastic, and had wandered far from the point. Which was no concern of Diira’s. She had left me and our talk, when Castor arrived.
“What news…?” I was not far from ending, have you been ferreting after?
“None much. But I bade a messenger be sent to the palace…on your authority. We may save a day or two’s wait.”
“Why,” I asked, after those we stood behind had moved the length of half a storefront, and we had followed suit, and Castor, by raising two fingers and hooking them towards us, had undermined my steadfast refusal to buy a cup of whatever liquid the shop’s proprietor was pouring from her array of urns and basins, “do we wait, in any case? The weather seems gentle. We can provide our own lodging, and… Thank you.”
I nodded at a hopeful face, sipped a sweet and bitter something, placed a benign smile on a mouth that might have puckered. The woman made a bow of reverence.
“Castor,” I stopped him answering me. “That word, I do not wish to have go out. You have not been mystifying among the people here, on the name of Totem-Maker.”
He struck one of his poses, hand on chin. “Well…if you tell me so. I have not been every place in the world, certainly. Of lore, I have read little. If I were to invent a name for myself, I grant you, how could I guess the name were not identical to one of legend in another land? An embarrassment for you, to call yourself Totem-Maker, then travel to the Citadel and find they have been expecting such a person.”
“I ought to have questioned you sooner. When will we have a private talk?”
“We are having a private talk. The people here don’t know our language.”
“Of course, some of them do.”
“Yes.” He sighed at me. “If my jests must make you a tedium, who worries at all meaning. If the Totem-Maker dares be only serious. But in seriousness, it makes no difference what you say to anyone. Or are overheard to say.”
I asked him again for what reason we stood in this procession.
“The one they await is meant to arrive humbly, to regard itself as of the common lot. It looks well in you.” He backhanded me between the shoulders, which I bore with common patience; I accepted from the hands of a stranger some wafers, folded triangles of dough, fried…his greased fingers relinquishing them, mine growing oily in turn.
“But pomp,” Castor finished, “will acknowledge you soon enough, when the zhatabe send their escort.”
“Tell me what that means, zhatabe. Is the Citadel ruled by tribunal?”
“The Citadel is not ruled. Not precisely. The zhatabe are not a tribunal.”
Knowing him, I said: “They are not a council. They are not a married pair. They are not an assembly of elders. They are not…”
“Yes, yes, Tedium. They seek signs, the present zhatabe, among the generations of every twelfth year, and these children are sent to the Citadel…to be educated, to be followed by scribes and their sayings recorded. None of these holy matters is the affair of a street gossip like myself, and so I cannot answer much, if you wish to know what manner of education, and what manner of sayings…”
I did, but I was not shy to ask this face-to-face of the zhatabe; one member of the group, or all collectively. The education must be a sort of priestly training, the children to be themselves zhatabe, and the sayings would be like my own—too much anticipated, too often repeated, too deeply studied.
Another stranger, a wizened person carried in a sling on the back of a son, approached me with downcast eyes, and a bouquet, of four-petalled blooms, orange-red.
“How nice these are!” I said. I could catch a direct look from neither, yet they watched, and so I fixed the flowers, one and another, in my hair among the plaits. The son said something marveling to the mother; the mother answered in a parched voice, and with a nod of certainty. The son bowed off, moving backwards, while the silent crowd behind made way.
“And you tell me…” I said, very low-voiced. “You don’t know this language, and can’t translate…”
“Have I ever said so?”
“But the townspeople here do not speak as the traders do, or I could have made out the words myself.”
He gave a shrug, greatly acted, and I felt somewhat at fault. I had not found the sensible questions; my accusation was unjust, my implication as well.
“Ahead you see the Arca,” Castor said.
“The stone circle that Diira and Ba’ahn had told me is a crossroads…more than a crossroads, a map almost…pointing the way to many cities.”
“I know of four languages spoken in this town of Aran. I can distinguish the sound of each, and I know what lands the speakers hail from.”
“Can you name them for me?”
“The lands? What the natives call themselves? How they call their speech?”
When I made to answer, he cut me short.
“All those things, yes. Will you remember?”
“Castor, I wish only to know if I was kind as I might be, to the poor woman. While also, I hope she does not find me holy.”
(2021, Stephanie Foster)