The Totem-Maker: The Citadel (part thirteen)
A cozy session in the chambers of Rithrith stole a day’s time from my mission. I had to dress in my new clothes for them, change these so that Bashtat could try them, offer my sweets to be bitten and laid aside, among a needless banquet of food and drink. The servants, the young trainees, took up instruments, and were demanded this song and that.
Bashtat, fancying my brooch, summoned me one of hers to take its place.
I said no to her, as to my votive figures. “They spoke to me, and wish me to command them.”
“Oh, very true. That is the way with the little gods.”
“But have this.”
Truly, I suspected her of using a phrase to belittle me. I laid a totem, a pleasant, sleeping one, with eyes that smiled, on the rug at her feet. “Have it at your bedside, for lucky dreams. Or ask any of your artisans to split it, and polish the fragments, and make lovely new things.”
“The stone,” I said, “though I have half-thought them seeds, seeds of the Mother Tree, must make enviable adornments. See the color!”
I lifted it, moving to the window.
They all watched…all fallen silent. At arm’s length, I let them see the purple, the green, the sun’s rays pick out a brilliant blue. I sat next to Bashtat, then, and told her the totem was my gift.
“Ah. I can’t accept this treasure, in the presence of Rithrith.”
“But Chos,” Rithrith said, “was first to be ordained.”
I touched the totem, proffered it on an open palm.
“Do not come to me and bow,” said Chos. “You need ask no forgiveness, our friend. We have such customs, yes, rare as foreign gifts are…but I will not take the totem. You wished Bashtat to have it.”
“Bashtat is so intuitive,” I said. I cared for my zhatabe; I did not aim to test them cruelly. “I teased about splitting the seed. It can’t be done. But you sense,” I said to her, “that this, though a good one, and mild-tempered, is not yours. I will consult with it, beg a sign. If it requests a task of you, will you perform it?”
Her face went wary, and brave. “I will. But, Chos, for me to be given a totem, and no one else… Won’t we call a council?”
“We should. Hold your gifts, Meret. But know this honors us, that any of our order be trusted to wield one.”
I itched—though I endured a round of Talents—to be alone.
I placed one of my little gods to mark a line of inquiry. Are the zhatabe afraid of the totems? Or do they feign to be afraid?
(Why should the wise and learned shy like dogs from thunder?
Yet, what gain from pretending a terror?)
The second god marked this: What were the zhatabe conveying to one another by this eruption into formal speech? Two exclusions were at play…my own from my hosts, and the low-ranking from the high.
At this, it came to me, by deity or totem, that the zhatabe were not a family of equals. There was a father or a mother. Luxuries, a daily life replete with them, and few (I would have said no) chores to be done by their own hands, but only the ordering of chores, gave the zhatabe wide freedoms in courtesy to their fellows. First turns in games they ceded; the thought of superior scholarship they ceded, prefacing lore they shared with, “I know far less of these matters than Chos.”
Or Rithrith, or even Bashtat…
Yes, Bashtat. Such a playful personality, I had missed the import. Seeking to please, seeking to deflect—
Nur-Elom, I told myself. You with your reading of tablets and scrolls, cannot read between lines. Bashtat was at odds; she was less than the others. I would venture that she was less for being somehow in the wrong, a fault of birth. Or she had once erred badly.
I gave a tile to the second god, that of the cat. This marked my intention to know Bashtat better. The Citadel and the city of Suma Fortesa were ruled by a single will, and this was not told to the people.
And I had not been meant to meet this leader.
(2021, Stephanie Foster)