The Totem-Maker: The Citadel (part three)
A person in livery came walking, two child servants beating his path with fans woven of feathers, and blowing warnings through reed whistles. Their labor fluttered garment hems, head-coverings; they struck gently and blew piercing notes at those who shifted feet, stirring from their preoccupations with scant alacrity, such as a general or king might command from fear.
When to the crowd it dawned that the green-and-red-clad retainer sought the Totem-Maker, their movements gained the shape of an audience, clearing the street with good vantage in mind.
The fellow’s eyes sped past my own and found Castor’s. Then he shooed the children behind him, strode to me to lodge a staff in the dirt, and with this prop, half-knelt.
“Will the Totem-Maker honor my master, who is Tanka Torin, priest of Chosi A’ra, and be lodged under his roof this night?”
“I will,” I said, not allowing Castor to play lackey to me.
“The Totem-Maker accepts the hospitality of Tanka Torin!”
Castor produced a voice of carrying resonance, with the effect of the Vestalites stationed tier by tier at religious plays, whose duty is to sing again the words, to the far heights of the amphitheaters. For this disgrace, he gained me a smattering of applause.
I heard much low chatter.
I faced the envoy of Tanka Torin, and he faced me. I had gestured him to his feet. That encompassed all I could guess of a grand visitor’s duty. To be humble, as Castor advised was (trusting him or not) my choice, and polite, as both habits can but serve to illuminate vanity and rudeness in others.
“What is your name?” I said at last. “You may address me as Nur-Elom.”
I saw him digest Jute’s old insult, and saw by this, that he knew my first language.
“Of fame, across the sea, was a landholder Lom,” he said. “Came word many years past, of the traders, that the wrath… That a god worshipped…”
“Chosi A’ra I presume the ancient father I myself worship as Ami. Ami had no jealousy of Lotoq, but called him son. Lotoq is the patron god of my destiny. The city of this Lom, who kept slaves, was destroyed, and lies buried forever.”
“Ah. These things are well to know. I am Torin’s blood son, Serdik.”
“Serdik, I have a question for you.”
One of the children had taken the reins of my pony; one, too small for the burden, offered to carry Castor’s bundle on her head. With a pat in lieu of it, he ushered her before him, and walked last. He might vanish again into the shops, or the tents at the back of them. I hoped Serdik would carry on being helpful, and his respectful way of answering what was asked, furnish an example.
“What gift is proper for me to give the zhatabe?”
“No, there is none. They accept nothing.”
“But… I bring a very great gift. One I have been told kings will barter for. Shall I say on the street? I have four totems.”
“With Torin you may speak of totems. I confess, I cannot picture one, and I would suffer to my grave such ignorance.”
Reader, my purpose in these accounts is to teach my journey to a modest wisdom, that I must allow to be revered (for the poor of the land have only the wise to spare them tyranny), and to recall for the generations what peoples once lived in those nations unrepentant, which the gods with sulphur and fire have laid low; for the city of Lom was not the only to be sunk in ash, whose traces at times emerge, but whose inhabitants are scattered, whose learning cannot be taught, for it is forgotten—
Whose music cannot be sung, whose beauties cannot be admired, whose glory is rendered dust.
Tanka Torin, with his fine house of lacquered pillars, polished bone and purple shell petalling their chrysanthemum capitals, and marbled floors, and rich, red carpets, had no grandfatherly ways of welcome and help. I was young. An elder, kindly and managing, was yet my longing. To be taught, as a promising acolyte; with Elberin, I had never had this…
With Torin, I was not to have it. Torin disliked the idea of me, and disliked that I must embody it. “How did your state come about? On what authority, if I may ask, were you sent to the tollhouse?”
“I believe my old master so counselled the Prince.”
“He takes counsel? He is a foreigner.”
“Well,” I said. I lied then (it is possible). “His wife is kin to the zhatabe. Do you want to see one of the totems and judge for yourself?”
In the way of a difficult man, he accepted this practical answer not at all. Rather, he took some nameless offense, withdrawing physically from my person, as though I might spring an asp from my cloak.
“They might be real, or they might be…”
A trick or delusion, I finished for him, inside. And this was entirely true. “Perhaps you will pray to Chosi A’ra, and he may change your heart in the night.”
We ate—his feast for me lacking nothing—in silence, while I imagined he brooded. Was this Totem-Maker innocent or insolent? But Torin was often called to his door. My own god put this in my heart: that a priest at such a thoroughfare, with a thousand travelers to guide and bless, might in all his years have given thought to few things. His thoughts were interrupted; he was praised, thanked, lavished with coins…it was enough.
Then I must cease my jealous wish to be as lucky as some other foundling, known only from stories. Already, as to innocence, I had lived too long, and few wise sayings could pass me unchallenged. In wives’ tales it is less the intellect of the sage, more the void in his pupil—to have wanted learning that tattlers tell, tempters tempt, fire burns.
(2021, Stephanie Foster)