The Totem-Maker: The Citadel (part nine)
“Adzja, you may labor at your studies today. I am going down to the city.”
I looked at her, saying this, because I suspected her of being my watcher as well as my servant. But she finished cornering a cloth on my breakfast table, next choosing and arranging foodstuffs from a tray, while she said only: “Oh, that will be a help! Who’s taking you?”
“I will probably ask for Castor.”
“Then eat well, and I will go search him out.”
There was an upperhandedness here—and I had invited it, so could not complain. Adzja was of the nobility; I ought to remember. Her confidence would put me in the servant’s place, if I fell back to accustomed ways.
I didn’t want Castor… I had pictured myself alone.
But alone for the moment, I scouted my room for reminders, chose my pouch of totems, added my flute and tiles. These were the tools I would use in drawing strangers to me. The zhatabe—I had settled on this, dozing—were too mannered, too domineering. I was unable to read them, to know what calculations produced this charm. They were cheery, of course. Willing to aid me…by superseding any thought of mine with a better of their own.
I would gain a truer measure of the Citadelians by speaking to the Citadelians. A simple treachery might open doors; a bribe be enough. Else recruitment by the dazzle of magic.
Or a few kind words to the angry…
After which I had only to decide why I should want to; why invest my powers opening doors for the Prince, or to the Emperor’s ambitions. Perhaps I sought reason not to do this thing.
Castor, at the threshold, said, “Are you wearing what you propose to wear?”
I slung my pouch, placed a hat on my head. In this space of time, no answer superior to no answer occurred, and so in silence I descended by the porch. Along a graveled way none could walk side by side, I preceded Castor.
“Does a sentry prevent going out by the garden? Are you holding your tongue, just to see me look foolish?”
“There is a sentry, and he will stand aside in awe of the Totem-Maker, which by order of the zhatabe may do everything it pleases.”
“And is there a secret way out?”
“Yes. For the space of a minute, or less. But once you jump the wall, you have done a fatal injury to your plans.”
“Watch me laugh.” I turned to him deadpan. “Is it in the nature of the zhatabe to supply themselves secret spyways, or escapes, and to keep the knowledge of these from untrustworthy subjects, such as Pravor Castor?”
“Very much. Did you wish to stop in the garden? You must allow me to see you consult your totem.”
He was right, in that my Totem was active already, and I was suspicious of the shrubs surrounding an octagonal platform, where votary statues were arrayed to some purpose… The shrubs were cut into a low hedge, but the hedge did not root itself in earth. The rims of a trough were visible. Servants would lift these, and underneath would be a passage. I believed it; I allowed that it was not true.
“Do you know what ceremony they practice here?”
“It is a game, I think. Another game of augury.”
“Do you know why they are reluctant to have me cast tiles, or show them the totems?”
“I know a form of question that tricks one into revealing things. Who is to say they are? I have not seen it.”
Here we fell quiet, as we approached the gate. The sentries, two, surprised me, observing blandly, then snapping to a complication of reverent gestures with hands and feet. I eyed Castor. His small smile said nothing, while he augmented his mischief by stepping two paces behind me, and dropping to one knee.
I chose to nod in passing, a cock of the head to imply I was not responsible for my companion. I read in the eyes of one sentry…again, I believed I did…a sort of wisdom. I told myself, assume now that every servant is zhatabe. They understood Castor’s joking, but also they guessed my interest in the platform.
Along secret ways, I took my mind’s eye, and deemed distraction, followed by overwhelming force, the means of entry. Deaths few, taking wartime’s need for deaths into account. They might have guardhouses along the passage…but these would be traps as well as strongholds. The tunnel might be a short one, feeding to a city street. They could not honeycomb the rock they lived within.
Our steps between high-sided ramparts fed us to a second gate. I noted a puff of colored smoke linger on the air. The gate opened, as though by a hand invisible. Yet it slid into a pocket between the stones of the wall.
I frowned. Castor laughed.
At once we were amidst a crowd…its human components disguised by the volume of souls milling here. I had seen a panicked shoving, that yielded only trodden toes, follow the crass legerdemain of the gate. I felt a fingering at my belt, and so rooted there myself and withdrew the Totem. Sun at this hour breached the fog, a ray igniting the purple gleam.
I held it high, and sang to them, from the diaphragm: Aantahah n’kare amitar-abla, Tophe oclwa zhatabe Thante.
Castor, who knew I invoked the Father’s despise…on this sham magic, meant to cow the poor ignorant, and that I commended particular souls to the care of their ancestors, as witness the dark god Tophe, kept his face straight. My audience fell into crouches and moans.
Now who, I felt certain Castor would say, is the guilty one?
(2021, Stephanie Foster)