The Totem-Maker: The Citadel (part eleven)
We shed our train of the curious. A fluting whistle from the region of the gates tempted them back; and I, glancing behind to see if the assignment of alms were given to Adzja, saw Egdoah. He erased expression from his face, and entered a shop I and Castor had passed a moment before.
My friend Egdoah had no spycraft; I felt he projected, by the strength of his effort to seem he did not, a wish to speak to me.
“Castor, you have no private business in Suma Fortesa? We are having a stroll, learning as we look, lunching perhaps, visiting a shrine, if the Fortesans…I imagine them called so…keep shrines to their gods? If to them such visits are mannerly, and do not offend?”
“Why do you make me this pretty speech? What mischief would you be about, if I were to leave you?”
“I want to visit the shops, and I want to buy things.”
“I had better find you a porter, then, to carry them.”
“But, Castor, you were once a peddler. I’d hoped you might bargain for me.”
“I have never bought or sold by bargain. I filled my wagon with all I took in payment, and sold to whomever met my price. You know very well my trade was in news.”
He showed impatience, and had been showing it, to be gone from me. I supposed the gift had come unexpected, the Totem-Maker’s furnishing him excuse for a town venture. He was free of the zhatabe; freeing himself of company altogether would perfect his plans.
“Find me an excellent porter, however many candidates must be interviewed. I am unlikely to leave this street before midday.”
I bowed Castor off, my own mood merry, while for some reason he looked conflicted in his mind, and backed from me unsmiling. I stepped first under the nearest awning, and found that I might here acquire some of the votary figures seen in the garden.
“There is no prohibition to touch them?” I asked the woman, who like most vendors, sat on a stool at her shop’s center.
She shook an incredulous head. Our acquaintance was too early for my judging whether I spoke her language so ill, or had asked a stupid thing.
“How pretty!” I exclaimed. I picked up two figures, a feline with human head, and a winged eagle-being, with human torso and legs. They were of a stone I hadn’t seen, black with veins of rusty brown, and gilt was laid into their costumes.
I thought of any blasphemous way I might handle them, the tiny gods. I made the eagle-god fly, and the cat-god leap; I tangled them in mock battle, and gave them growls and shrieks.
The woman rocked and laughed.
I spoke an invocation to Aeixiea, as it was her coins I offered in payment. The woman took as I gave, and asked no more.
I waited on the street, gazing down at the lagoons, but no ripple altered them. Castor was not visible, ruling out not all means of his following my movements. I crossed, and bantered for a time with a cheerful seller of powdered clays.
“But if I want tablets, and I don’t care to make my own…”
“Four,” I decided.
“This fine yellow.” He showed me a new thing, the dipping of a cropped stick that he shaped in his mouth, into a black ink; the characters drawn, rather than etched. He poured water over the tablet, and the writing sat unchanged.
“I like that green,” I said. “I’ve not seen green clay.”
“You have an eye for the cheapest.”
“Oh, very much.”
I did not yet need a porter. But Egdoah would willingly fill that role. It seemed, as I passed other shops, and men and women who sold from carts, and as I purchased enough sweet buns to require juggling, that word was making its way…along the Viga Renta, the thoroughfare of Suma Fortesa…that the Totem-Maker spent like a rich naïf, who had never learned of dickering down prices.
I could not, at this rate, befriend them all. But I hoped to try the shop that sold cloaks and mantles, and that within its doors carried a display of silver broaches and leather belts. The doyens of fashion freely told a number of things, I knew, as they taught the ill-clad how to show themselves better.
Egdoah arrived at my elbow.
“What fun I’m having!” I said. “Do you wish to take a few of these?”
He nodded. I had seen the concentration on his face, of one whose words fail him, in the saying of a particular thing.
“I think,” I said, entering, “that Castor won’t join us after all, so you will choose, by scent or by sight, what…”
My hostess anticipated me. And with no shyness at eavesdropping.
“Leave all your packages here and go through that door. My son and daughter have the eating place you will find at the bottom of the stairs. They are roasting lamb with herbs, bascal and esmar. There is a good smell!”
It was. “Think for me, while we dine, vlana, of my colors, and that I was born under the Sower.”
She beamed, and touched us both, often, kindly little pats to steer us, while her hands removed our burdens and placed them in those of a servant.
“Esmar!” I said, making a turn at the door. “That name is very like a princess in a story I know. She follows me, it seems.”
(2021, Stephanie Foster)