The Totem-Maker: The Citadel (part twelve)
The wood trim of the house, and the rail where our backs rested at the edge of a small cliff, were painted turquoise. A rug was brought, a carpet to stack atop the grass mat that always covered the pebbles by day, if the day were an outdoor one; then cushions, too, in quantity, and the low table of tradition.
For all Egdoah was keen to unburden his heart, I searched for other diners. I wished to draw them with a wave, and a friendly face, but they stood to pick up their tables, and circled themselves at a distance from us. We might have been musicians, or players, come to perform.
The broad, shallow bowl of brass was laid between us, made hot so that a stone was set on the cloth, while a servant stirred the lamb, the greens, the roots, the nuts, and our host poured the sauces. When our food no longer sizzled, they laid jugs of wine, and bowed off.
Egdoah, forestalling me, put his fingers in. “Good, good. Take care.”
He stretched a calloused hand near one of mine.
I picked out a bit of meat, popped it in my mouth, picked out a few other morsels to chew together, as one did.
“What do you know, Egdoah?” I said, after a time.
“When we rode through the mountains, when it was winter, when you stayed with the guides.”
“Yes, with Diira, and Ba’ahn.”
“When you stayed with the guides, and when we passed lower, when spring again had come, when at length we entered the town of Aran.”
Catching a glimmer of his purpose, I gave a somber nod. It was a way of the northern people I had forgotten, that their sagas began with perhaps a hundred such whens (or easily more). When the father of this fellow, the brother of that, and the generations descended, and when the event marking a known time had marked that time for the sake of these descendants knowing of it…
As once, the terrible burning of the forest, in the lifedays of Hoclau; the great storm of ice commanded against the godless Clotha the Upstart, by the good Queen Gatt…
And when there had been the Strangers, clad in cloaks of grey, though yet their weapons had shown of pure gold, who had crossed the mountainside in silent procession, and none had known their tongue, and they had gone and come no more…
Egdoah, I conceived, had pondered the marvels of the Citadel, of Suma Fortesa, the fire-weapons, the fountains and steams, the trained beasts, the zhatabe and their magic. He was a simple soldier. We had traveled and taken lessons together, but along the way he had watched me rise to become the Totem-Maker.
This formal speech was his idea of reverence to the Holy, and I did not know how, quite, to break in.
“And I and Castor were permitted inside the homes of the zhatabe—”
“And you were left to your own devices, I can only suppose. Have you enjoyed the city? Have you found things of interest?”
“Or,” I said further, “have you bided your time, and kept an eye on chance, and waited to tell me…?”
His sense of right conduct was better pleased by this suggestion. “Why do you trust Castor?”
“You don’t imagine I do?”
“Castor is to stop you.”
Our host arrived now with sweets wrapped in grape leaves. “Vlana…” He peered and nodded, some labor invested in using the foreign term the Totem-Maker preferred.
“She has closed her shop to show you all she has.”
“How delightful!” I praised the goodness of the honey, began a sweeping gesture to bid him sit a moment. This, in a nervous way, he evaded.
“No, I must not honor myself so, I fear. I have the kitchen fire…”
“Of course. We want our fires tended by the surest of hands. Go at once!”
They conferred to me that power, to summon or dismiss the merchant class, higher than my own. And to blame themselves, if the Totem-Maker seemed almost unserious, jesting.
“Egdoah,” I said. “Castor is the Prince’s man, and the Prince frets that I will succeed, that I will persuade the zhatabe to accept the Emperor’s money, which the Emperor must cease his wars and expel his mercenaries, must restore the fields to fruitfulness, to obtain, that his trade with the people of the Citadel prosper, that he can afford to be taxed for the use of their road, and their guides, for whom the mountain gods have patience, as for the Emperor’s soldiers they do not; and the Prince distrusts the zhatabe, rightly enough, but nothing will it profit him to trouble on that account, for they will, indeed, find means to purchase more of the Emperor’s debt, and gain lands under the Emperor’s sway in payment for subtleties the Emperor hasn’t the brain to suspect, nor to understand when it becomes apparent to him he has been tricked, and his sons, who are stupider still, will concede to the traders far more, and the Empire will fade, and from the East at length will come again the Greyclad, and the Citadel will fall, and the land we know, from these mountains to the shores of Monsecchers, will fall itself under a darkness, but light will come again.”
And dark as well, endless as the contest between sun and moon. I did not prophesy on, in cadence to seduce a northern heart I otherwise loved and pitied, for I spoke not from vision but of history. Egdoah gazed at me in fearful humility, and I knew whoever it was had set him to spy in opposition to the spying of Castor, I would have that name.
(2021, Stephanie Foster)