The Totem-Maker: The Citadel (part six)
And what was the Citadel, when finally I saw it?
Not for the first time. When long ago I had spoke to Wosogo, I had seen that odd configuration, the plain at the foot of vast stoneworks, the green valley safe on the other side, the tents of merchants from every land, arrayed there.
Yet truly they could not be called works, these cliff-faces. They seem even now beyond describing. They were pillars of a hexagonal shape, fissured at intervals, as ancient columns. But we know by edifices we have built ourselves, that the marble is shaped, hoisted by winch, by oxen team, and fitted to its tenon. Yet these of the Citadel rose tiered in a fat cone, truncated at its top, and must in time beyond human reckoning have been intact. They rose by a measurement easy to guess, at the center of sloping bluffs. For trees grew full-height here, and so the Citadel’s front vaulted the lengths of six great oaks, from earth to sky.
At the foot of all this were a mountain of rocks. But for that they were boulders, merely, one could suppose further of the pillars had collapsed in a heap. I learned soon that the road to the highest apartments of the zhatabe began between this mountain and the Citadel’s tunneled under-levels. Centuries of burrowing and building, of masoning rocks mined from the interior, into posts and lintels, walls, and the frames of houses, had riddled that monument the gods must have set in place.
But we approached by the road above. Our view perhaps was not unlike a god’s, for from heaven’s height we looked down on the conflicts of men. The Prince had not waited for my mission. The people of the Citadel for some time had known it. Noakale had failed to persuade him, and my own persuasions had come unfixed.
His cavalry and chariots were camped, and I dared think it was my Prince had marred the land, ordering these ugly terraced paths, fresh-scarred among the grasses, at the height of the slope descending towards the mound of boulders. The poor young men, the foot soldiers, were on the flat below, the earth seen to have an odd pimpled quality…
I intuited the cause, and said to Castor: “They have waterworks under the ground, these clever Citadelians. They can dissolve the soil to mud when they like. And that mire is what the Prince means to drive his battle through. The fallen will become the road his charioteers grind over.”
“It may not go as badly as that. I thought you came armed with clevernesses of your own, which you will use to knit these adversaries.”
“Together? As a blanket, or a neck-scarf?”
He laughed at me. “How can I know? All proceeds from your own plan.”
“No,” I said, aware of interested ears surrounding me. “As, first, I haven’t got a plan. As second, if he thinks to threaten the zhatabe… Why!” I mastered some anger. “Even if he could conceive, gazing upwards at this magnificence the gods approve to the zhatabe and the people of the Citadel, or they would have cast them out, that a weak position looks stronger in the light of puny defiance…”
“You disappoint me. Please don’t, or what have I left to believe in?”
“Oh, I disappoint you? How can I serve you then, Pravor Castor?”
Not crestfallen, he said: “By hearing what I have said to you more than once. Do your affections, where you bestow them, cloud your sight in every case? Samatho acts by all he deems may please the Emperor, and do himself honor. He told you he would die here. His eyes may never see the slaughter he has wrought.”
“And yet, you mean the slaughter he may wreak. Nothing in his nature, none of those things he is able to think of, will turn him aside. He embraces the old, distrusts the new… He cannot count such expenditure of humanity as waste. He cannot see that life only too much goes on, after great death and sacrifice, and that his own death and failure, are as the ashes of his fires. The Citadel will make the terms of trade more punishing, and the Emperor will find his next prince.”
“Well. I suspect he won’t, as he has very little money. He will be overthrown.”
“Samatho wouldn’t rather bargain, and become the instrument of that overthrow? Retire, to a lovely province, which he might be given command of?”
“I think you know that cannot be at all.”
“And, Wise Castor, is it stupidity? When a man could have some of what he likes, be alive to have more of it later? He would—as the Prince does, I do know it—feel his loyalty to the Emperor a matter detached from any fondness for him. Of which he has none.”
Egdoah, I had been separated from on this journey, by Castor’s dispositions (you will recall how we spread ourselves along the mountain road, and recall the great confusion in the town of Aran). He at last had trotted up to ride a head behind me. On my right, in the trusted place Castor left untaken. Throughout our talk Egdoah made noises of agreement. I allowed he might even have progressed, for I had given him tiles to play with, told him words to name them by, showed him how their juxtaposition could form sentences.
In the northern language, I said: “Egdoah. Can you yourself carry a message to the Prince?”
He frowned for long minutes.
Thus, I gestured across the valley. “That is the Prince, camped below. He has counsel he prefers to mine, and has done what I warned him not.”
“I am yours, Meret. I will go if you say go.”
I smiled, pleased more than dismayed to know Egdoah’s ears had been somewhere at my back. Unless my choice of name were bandied all amidst our strange parade, which entered now, clattering with a great noise of hooves down a paved avenue, between walls of growing height, to the paradisical indulgence of the zhatabe’s garden.
(2021, Stephanie Foster)