The Totem-Maker: The Citadel (part four)
Morning came, and I descried Castor, with the ponies, through a heavy mist veiling Torin’s lane. From discontented sleep, I had risen before the household.
I stepped outside, to give my usual greeting. “What news?”
As usual, he offered none, but took me astray. “Come away now, if you can roll your pack quickly. They would rather not feed you breakfast. We are expected at the Arca.”
I left him to gather my things, and didn’t until we were mounted, though the way to the Arca was short, ask: “How far to the Citadel from Aran?”
“It will depend on your choice.”
“Oh, fie! Enough of riddles!”
“No. The zhatabe are waiting. I do not dissemble with you, Totem-Maker. I give you the best advice I have.”
“Damp air at dawn is known to carry, but let me say it! False mysticism, senseless tests I am made to pass… I will cut through it, I promise you. I understand my mission, and it is not to waste my time on childish games, for the pleasure—which I would call beguilement—of a cowed people. They have no wealth, for the zhatabe supply all needs. They do not choose, for the zhatabe have chosen for them.”
I paused, having launched the sort of argument our minds construct in threes. A third eluded…and the space it might have filled told me my heart wasn’t in it.
“Stop,” said Castor. “You understand your own mission. You do not understand why the Prince agreed to send you here. Pity him. He believes in you.”
“Yes, he is superstitious. I know it.”
Castor shrugged. “It may be he believes you strangely wise.”
We arrived at the Arca, and I followed Castor’s lead in dismounting. The fog was dense, but pace by pace we climbed to the center, leading our ponies. The flagstones had a design of the heavens: the sun rendered in gold, the moon silver, the stars crystal.
Figures appeared, seven women.
“Zhatabe.” I gave a small, disgruntled obeisance.
“I am zhatabe,” said one. “My sisters are not.”
“Vlana,” I said, defiance now in my voice, lest the honor of my homeland be found provincial. “Do I learn I am to choose a way to the Citadel? Will you tell me the shortest?”
She gave me a hug; a ceremonial kind, hands on my shoulders, pressing her cheek to near touching mine. “Is it the shortest you prefer?”
“No, Vlana. I prefer the most magical, the way that will end all wars at once.”
They laughed, pleasantly, but all of them. However, Castor stood grim.
“You and I will play the War-Maker’s Game. I think you must enjoy it. I have one underway now with my brother Ami, four years’ long. But I may cheat him, having you. Say that in the northeast corner, your soldiers are thirteen, in the shape of a shorter ell, outside a longer one. Do I paint for you clearly?”
I found, as she had my arm, that we were progressing, that we had reached a threshold, a post-and-lintel construction pointing the straight path to a city.
“Your brother,” I said, “is named Ami?”
“When we are affirmed, we take the name of a patron god.”
“Any of many hundred.”
“You have not told me yours.”
“Neither have you told me yours.”
“Lotoq, does this way seem good?”
The six remaining sisters walked in graceful silence, and at our back had gathered. The warmth of my guide could not disguise the ceremony, again, in which I felt myself playing a prescribed role. But I thought also, that any of these impressions (impressions, in the truest sense) might be, must be, challenged.
“I am not affirmed,” I said “I revere Lotoq. I would not be called by his name.”
“Shall you be Nur-Elom?”
Somehow, I found I could not wish this either. The humor had gone flat. “Call me Meret. For I come to ply my trade.”
Parting the stairs, descending the way chosen for me, I wriggled free of the hand on my arm, and mounted again. This zhatabe (although the plural form could not be right), who had told me no name to call her, might mean to escort me on foot. Or the women might wave me on, myself and Castor.
What occurred was not precisely either. Cuerpha knew the pressure of my knees, and began a light trot. I did not leave them in anger, but wanted my movements rejecting of nonsense. True, I felt unsentimental about Castor’s matching my haste, or lagging so far behind as to be lost. The road would lead to the Citadel.
Bright sun crept on to bless the day, and a breeze of mountain coolness and fragrant meadow blew against my face, saddening me with nostalgia. I could not recall a time when I’d idly wandered such meadows. My childhood terrain had been Lotoq’s ashes, and the hard things growing there.
Then lessons, then Elberin’s refusal to care, whether his tasks were fair for my age, whether his corrections hurt me. And the old woman, and her chores, more of the house on my shoulders as the newcomers arrived, and she gave her days to bartering with them.
So what did this scent of the Citadel’s land make me long for?
I laughed at this, finding myself alone on the road. How sad for my race, if this longing affliction were as the gods had made us, raised by their other gifts of sun and gentle air! We must miss unhappy things; or things we had never had, and never would.
(2021, Stephanie Foster)