The Totem-Maker: The Citadel (part eight)
“What games or contests do you have, then, to while your hours?” I asked them. “Do you race?”
Oh, certainly, they raced. The eagles, those I had seen in the garden, were trained to dive after prizes. The prizes, by elected citizens, were thrown from the parapet running the garden’s perimeter. Panthers the Citadelians kept, beasts trained to mount to the saddle from their private boxes, as their individual steeds (led by mere humans) circled the arena. These liveried feline knights charged mock-towers and destroyed them, by this performing feats of prognostication.
“How? What is the trick there?”
“No trick. The gods dispose. The fall releases pigeons, and the pigeons have names and signs, in scrolls on their legs. The cats drop their prey at their trainers’ feet, liking their bits of fish better. The criers read the fortunes, the secret names the players have called themselves, so that they alone know if it is blessings or evil of heaven commanded them.”
Chos answered me, and I said to him in turn: “These are entertainments.”
I spoke with an openness, and for the zhatabe it was no labor to find endorsement in my words. Each nodded and beamed.
“But leaving the War-Maker’s game aside, what might we play tonight?”
“Talents!” said Bashtat.
Carved sticks in a brass pot were brought, not by a serving apprentice, but by Rithrith, who lit away to a cabinet and rattled out the parts of this game. She laid before us each a wheel of wood, painted green, red, yellow, blue—eight cuts to the pie. Each slice carried its familiar symbol, of sun, tree, cat, fish; of Love, Death, Age, Youth. The rules bore on what the player before you had drawn, whether he or she would allow you the fruit of your own drawing, or deny it.
My mind, or my totem, told me, observe. They were wise, the zhatabe. They knew most languages and histories; they knew the map of the world, and all the gods of all the states and cities. They knew the stars and comets, the millennia of the heavens; which stars had gone, and which comets had come. They knew how temples were constructed; how weapons of terrible cruelty were stoked and discharged.
I supplied them a holiday, perhaps, the excuse of feasting, joking, pleasing their idea of themselves with generosities, engaging in mild rivalries over negligible diversions.
We played Talents and I lost well, sparing myself the acting of it. I ended with the Talents least welcome (to my three hosts), of Age and Fish, but saw no insult here.
“Yet I recall there is a saying of fish and guests.”
They laughed, and told me I was not a guest.
“We like you. You may stay.”
My porch, in the cool of the night, was utterly fogged. I preferred it so, for sleeping. But I would not sleep, not for a time, if my totem aided me. The Emperor’s arm-twisting I found a threadbare tool. No terms I could expect the zhatabe to regard, were priable by this, by appearing at their door with threats. They were wise.
They were kind, eager, inquisitive…and I mistrusted them.
They could be goodhearted at every pass, and still prevent my ever broaching the Emperor’s aims. They could, and I knew it perfectly, offer me a place of honor, teach me to be one of them. Even, they might have perceived this—that I was not of the Emperor’s western blood, nor the Prince’s northern, and that I did not revere attachments.
I could feel safe in this unassailable fortress, affined to this life of scholarship, not shamed in the least to abandon old masters for new friends.
My loyalty lay one way, in completing a task I’d put forward myself, and in doing myself credit. Then which shiver, my Totem, of the universal clock, marks the wave of this small-statured large ego? I pictured the water-clock, in the square before the Palace of Justice, how when the wheel turned its convolutions, a ripple flowed to the end of the coffer.
Sundials could not account for minutes, and the law’s precision demanded more.
But the planets and the bright beings that strode the heavens at night moved in their spheres; they did not cross paths with one another, but free above all things, were yet enslaved. And the seasons moved, wheeling into the narrow winters, expanding again to the broad summers.
And where trees grew thick was forest, and could not be desert. And where fathers lived, sons could not inherit…
Why seek good or bad, or secret designs, in the zhatabe, or imagine that Lotoq had not set me on my path with a nature to fit every tile to its place? My pleasure in doing so could not be vanity…for it was assurity…
The fog above my head seemed to show me a great, blank board, on which the thousand times thousand pieces advanced, and advancing, repelled. Like the Talent a player held, and could choose the next player’s fate…
But could not.
The fate was Have or Lack. And even that choice existed only because the preceding Talent swayed.
Before me appeared a terrible prospect. I was driving myself to a supposition, that horrors were not the consequence of malevolence, but of benevolence unrealized. How could the all-powerful zhatabe comprehend their own natures, the goodness or efficacy of their works—
When trifles contented them wholly?
Treats and games, intellectual pursuits, days frittered into nights. All the while, this unshakeable faith they were mothers and fathers to the people of the Citadel…
Because they wished to be, liked themselves so, counted themselves at labor towards this end. An accounting that looped back, continually, within the shortness of time; a perennial belief that the future sat like a storehouse of accomplishments, to be arrived at.
(2021, Stephanie Foster)