The Totem-Maker: The Citadel (part ten)
But this path I had made before me separated the individuals I was seeing. Many were beggars, many disfigured, many shy a limb. Sellers carried trays strapped around their necks…as at Aran, they sold potions, poultices, amulets. I saw even a tray of purple stones, plainly dyed…though the man wearing it stopped his cry in my presence.
I toyed with scattering the lot, shouting above the din, of their unclean practices…
I chose not—the gods had not asked this, that I reform strangers, name some criminals, rescue others as I saw fit. If the sign came not clear to me, I would continue at the Citadel a proper guest.
“Name this city,” I said to Castor. Rudely, I snapped my fingers at him. “Yes, Diira refused. Ba’ahn employed some cleverness to evade me, but I believe he feared in earnest to name it. But you, Castor, I beg will not try.”
“The name is Suma Fortesa. That, Totem-Maker, is what the zhatabe permit, how on tablets it is written. The people we walk among have languages of their own.”
“Why is this poverty allowed outside the Citadel gates?”
He raised a palm. “I do not try you, nor jest. But the answer is because they do not allow it inside the gates.”
But this I found fair. The zhatabe ruled by their whims, and counted their whims faultless. “How often does a zhatabe venture into the city?”
“Never, I should think.”
The way down the hill was a paved road, winding. By the third turn, the walls had dovetailed with the earth, our view grown expansive. A river ran, the same seen opposite the great cliff-face, troubling the Prince’s army. The zhatabes’ servants manipulated the waters in this valley as well—I counted eight terraced lagoons, waterwheels at work.
I saw no structures, however, no mills.
“They raise fish, or eels?”
“Ah, those? I believe only to avoid the stink.”
“But why have the lagoons?” Yet, as I asked, the highest on the side we approached sank, its waters vanishing. The lower lagoons shuddered, and achieved their levels. Now a stir went through the crowd, persons on the streets below, merchants in the doors of their shops, purchasers fingering fruits or cloths, freezing in their movements. Diners on rooftops laid down their cups, took up jugs and cradled them on their laps. Some, with smiles, shook awake sleepers. Some pointed at those left dreaming, and laughed.
All the time, a terrible smell of smoke was in the air.
A thunder, such as only Lotoq might make, a boom, not a roll, shook the pavement. The sleepers jumped to their feet, a colorful wave passed below, of blankets thrown aside.
“They build great fires,” I said. “They run the waters over them, in channels, to make steam. But this weapon blows fire into the ranks of the enemy. How is that?”
“See the ceramic works, there?”
A low building, like that of any factory, spanned the field above the highest pair of lagoons. The yard was filled with the detritus of firing clay, heaps of shards, neatly corralled into smaller and dustier piles, a few hammers discarded. The kiln was vast, the size and shape of a wealthy man’s crypt.
“The steam feeds into the vessel, the vessel explodes. One end of the tunnel is blocked, and so the force of the explosion carries over the firepit.”
“It proceeds through a tunnel…? The flame goes but a short distance. The weapon is used, beyond fright, at times an army tries by force of manpower to achieve one of the…
“Passageways,” I decided. “That might lead them to the garden, from there to the houses of the zhatabe. Answer first, would the people surrender if the zhatabe were taken prisoner or killed?”
“So readily we might consider the card played.”
“Answer me second, how many such weapons?”
I digressed then, and asked Castor, “The city, as we leave the gates, appears well-ordered. The beggars congregate because they are rewarded.”
‘The young ones being trained for their ordination, are sent with food, castoffs, readings…”
“Readings! I feel sorry for them all.”
“But the poor are adoring of the zhatabe.”
“And they wait, never altering their lives, for this attention.”
“What, in the Totem-Maker’s scheme, ought we to do with the poor?”
“Arm them, Castor.”
He laughed, knowing I told no joke. “I feared it.”
I held this conversation, but in the back of my mind, I fixed a picture of the weapons. The tunnel of stone, that could bear so much fire, the vessel…raised into a chamber, I thought…the steam introduced by pinching its progression, through a narrowing way, until it billowed inside a mouth at the vessel’s base. The bursting inferno would run men mad, set their clothing aflame. The fire, fed its grim fuel, would spread. Yet not far, and this was all. Dozens, not hundreds, to die.
The kindling and the clay, the big logs needed to hold the heat, whatever use the Citadelians made of channeled winds, to bellow the flames white…the water, supplied by the river…
A party could make its way. Perilous work—but perhaps not so much. The zhatabe must first suspect it, that the river might be dammed upstream, that infiltrators might strike them here. I was not sure the zhatabe had the seriousness for long strategies.
I had for my Prince this much intelligence, then, that the vessels took time crafting, that seasoned wood must come from stocks, and these, for the greenness of new wood, could not at once be replaced.
Dare the dragon.
But taunt the dragon, coax the dragon. Feed the dragon no flesh, but have it spend itself.
(2021, Stephanie Foster)