The Totem-Maker: The Citadel (part seven)
My quarters were unremarkable. After my stay at the fortress of Lord Ei, I was versed in these eastern styles, where screens served for moveable walls, and woven pictorials were more often the shelter from drafts, than the skins we used at home. Winter approached, and so my chambers were dark and baffled in, the screens placed in pairs.
But I had a porch, and seated there I could view the gardens. The people of the Citadel, living inside a mighty chimney, worked their marvels with vents and steams. The shrubberies were green, flowers bloomed, trees seemed to bear continuous fruit, and creatures too exotic for the season slunk and scurried. This artificial warmth made mists, which by their arts the Citidelians enhanced, reflecting sunrays from silken cloths. These might be lean-tos, awnings, even paintings after their fashion, and the servants went out at particular hours to adjust them.
I was introduced to the servant who would be mine; an honor I, consulted, would have refused. She was a zhatabe apprentice, thus I dared suppose her of importance, as to family.
“Tell me, is it an exercise in humility?” I asked Adzja. “As pupils climb the ladder, to the level of the council, they are given tasks and trials?”
“Meret, I serve you gladly.”
“And if I ask for a thing, you will bring it to me? And if I desire some errand performed, my bidding is done?”
As a young one, she could not disguise her wariness. But she said: “Done.”
“And so when I require of you that you answer me in plainest terms, withholding no information your good conscience tells you I seek, whether your training tells you otherwise, you will obey?”
She laughed. “Meret, I will tell you, then, that as beginners we are given a place…”
“At the lowest rung, but not lowly. I have come here from slavery and service, and I have no parentage known. If you offend me, it will never be for words.”
“I call no one low.”
“I believe it. Now, find me whom I shall have dealings with. And tell this person, or these, that I have the Emperor’s conditions. I want those of the zhatabe.”
“You have been here hours.”
“I’ve eaten, though, and washed. My pony is stabled. And you are very nearly at war…”
She interrupted. We were on more suitable terms already. “No one can breach the Citadel. We can never be at war.”
“Adzja, I have breached the Citadel.”
I astonished her. But she composed her face, as an apt student ought, absorbing this. Then she left me.
“And how, when the day comes, will an enemy overthrow you?”
My three zhatabe gave me gentle looks, and the one who named himself Chos, and the woman I had ridden with, who called herself by a god I had never heard of, Rithrith, and another, naming herself Bashtat, who wore her face painted with stripes, and her eyes darkened like a cat’s, made busyness, of adding more sweets to my plate, more wine to my cup…
Bashtat adjusting some fault in my costume. And when she had fixed my sleeve at the elbow, she took one of her bracelets and slid it over my hand.
“Aha, better. We love pretty things.”
I was to keep it. I was being flattered and pampered to near docility, but I pursued.
“How, when the day comes.”
“Is the question serious? I don’t mind games.”
“I don’t play them, Chos.”
Rithrith quibbled, a playful wag of the finger. “But you are a great War-Maker. I hold you to your promise—Ami and I, and a newly laid board. Oh, I know, I presume the promise. Take it all back, as you like.”
They were making my head hurt, with frustration. Now Bashtat took a preoccupation with changing my hair, and began to undo one of the plaits. Difficulties at this table, I had imagined as veiled anger, the rightful complaint of their peace being troubled, their time wasted.
Or contempt at myself, too paltry an offering.
To which I would say, the Emperor is a child. What else? His whims are not disputed. They are his whims and must be brilliant, applauded. Toadies surround him to give applause, to do his bidding. He knows of no time and place for remarks, but makes them as they occur. I have heard of him order his chariot halted, to summon a woman seller from the street, that he might ask what accident had made her so ugly. He wished once to buy a gamecock, and the man who got his living by it let dismay for an instant cross his face. The Emperor had a soldier dash the bird against the stones.
But of the Prince (should they ask), can you parley with the Prince? The Prince believes he will cut off your road and starve you, throw the tide of his army against you, and wear you to defeat by numbers. You might take such a man to Aran and show him the Arca, and all the trade roads that remain to you. You might wreak witness upon him, of terrible sufferings, with your engines of fire. But the Prince, being what he is, must be broken before he accepts he can be.
I thought they would not trouble, after this, to name ministers and lords one by one, but even as to these, even of Cime and Sente, I had crafted my reasons against.
Journey-long, I had prepared arguments. This stronghold was not impregnable; the day of the Citadel’s fall was ordained. This is so? For indeed, the gods themselves say no earthly thing shall last an eternity. Backwards from the worst of scenarios I would guide them, to one by comparison tolerable, one at the last acceptable.
The zhatabe would have minds to allow, at the end of our discussion, what they had flatly refused at first.
Then to begin negotiations in earnest.
(2021, Stephanie Foster)