The Totem-Maker: A Mother or a Father (part one)
A Mother or a Father
A Mother or a Father
Noakale was Egdoah’s sponsor. I had known it at the point of demanding to know.
“What have you sent to the Prince’s wife already?”
He bowed his head, too frightened of my strange powers, to ask why my divination fell short of this answer, too.
“Who is your courier?”
The word was unfamiliar; rephrased, with finger gestures of scurrying legs, the question brought the response, Diira.
“Is that possible? She carries her message to Aran, and another…”
I interpolated the gesture.
“…a trader, delivers it below, to the army camp. Or do you tell me she is not there, Noakale?”
“She has the camp of her own.”
“Her own army? And what is her plan? Vengeance, when the Prince dies in his battle, or will she keep the siege and parley for herself? I would like, Egdoah, to speak to her.”
“Not me…? Ah. I see, though.”
He nodded, confident in me. I saw that she would not allow this talk, for I would tell her just that…he will die. He wishes to die, he cannot—I’ve said it to you once—see less than death as having spent all, the last gasp of breath, the last flex of muscle to grip a blade. He hates me somewhat, because I hold this out, this tempting thing—
This war-maker’s game, where every piece shifts in value with every move, and sages spend their lives calculating the decisive poise of advantage.
The Prince is wrong. You know it, Noakale, and I know it. He sees nobility in his willingness to share any fate he asks of others. You and I see nobility only in the death that spares death.
Yet love is a fault you will acknowledge in yourself.
The Totem-Maker cannot love, not as the fatuous, romantic heart loves. I must call anyone to account…with pity, but without indulgence.
I walked again into the city of Suma Fortesa, threats against several on my mind. All threats I could wield dwelt in the totems. Bashtat wanted and feared hers. Chos, sanctioned his by the council, would be slowly overtaken. By power made generous, by generosity egged to play favorites, he would soon divide his friends. Rithrith was a friend he would lose. I knew too little of Ami to judge.
Bashtat, I would raise myself, as a rival power.
“Why is it,” I asked Castor, “that Egdoah spies for Noakale, and you don’t?”
“We see the creature’s artistry. Shall I feel accused and indignant? Shall I blunder into confession? No. Egdoah spies for Noakale, thank you for that.”
“The information is surplus, as Castor spies for no one. But be welcome.”
“I’ve told you I spy to sell what I learn. For no one…or, you may say if you like, for anyone.”
“But it can’t be true. The Emperor would seize you and burn you, if you peddled news by shouting it on the street. You sell to some select few. Is Noakale among them?”
“Mightn’t I lie?”
“Not now. I have seen you choose your words, evade. Why let a lie come tardy, when the truth has slipped ahead?”
“Lady Nyma would not accept that as evidence.”
“I hope a friendly chat, as we see the sights, doesn’t feel to you a trial.”
I knew he wanted rid of me.
“What I seek today, Castor,” I said, “is that hill yonder, the temple at the summit, and if we might climb its stairs to overlook our path from the Citadel, to view the city, and the edifice, whole.”
“A great part of the Citadel, you are aware, is below ground.”
“But those parts house the steamworks, and the soldiery, the passages where goods are carried by the ordinary, above to the quarters of the zhatabe. And there will be in some tower house, the Ruler’s quarters…or centered, surrounded by private gardens. You see, Castor, I can’t picture it. I will have to eye it.”
“You are not prohibited the temple. Go, as you like.”
Airily, I said to him: “I return your words. Be about your gathering, give no thought to mine. My blessing upon your labors. Sell high.”
He stared at me.
I fell sober. “Castor.”
“Totem-Maker. Do you not think of dying, with your mischief? Because the zhatabe…”
“Yes? I haven’t the habit of observing merely what I am shown. I expect they employ jailers, to whose judgment prisoners are abandoned; that to harm me would sadden them, but they would feel the matter out of their hands. Castor, my plans are not mischief. The zhatabe conceal, and the Totem-Maker reveals. So it will be.”
“One of those I’ve traded with,” he said, “told me this of you. That you were warned. That you were trusted with… Or, for that habit you boast of, your wonderful truth-telling…”
An odd face. I would have said contempt and anguish mixed; and I watched him accept a phrase he’d thought of, dissatisfied: “Your guidance. Your seeing. Trusted to understand the warning, but it was given by…”
“She who enjoined you to silence. Who gifted me a book, of her ancestors. Castor, I am at fault. I am coming sideways at a point worth making bluntly. Noakale confides in me. You don’t. You appoint yourself my gadfly, to learn what I am about. I tell you…and you would like to believe another thing. If I have lies from you, Castor, and not truth—”
He looked away, a sudden glance downwards.
In cold triumph, I said: “Your conscience bids you to an errand. Tell the zhatabe what I suspect. Leave me and do it.”
A Mother or a Father
(2022, Stephanie Foster)