The Totem-Maker: A Mother or a Father (part eight)
A Mother or a Father
“Egdoah, tell our soldiers your stories, of the Great Fire, and the passing of the Greyclad.” I gave my flute to Suz. “Yours now! It is an easy instrument to learn. Enchant them.”
These directives I spoke while ushering Castor a step or two up the hill. I knew he had abandoned trading words with me before my audience, and his silence was all inner weighings, all fear of reporting failure to the zhatabe.
“Escmar will leave us. We will eat and you will tell me only truths.”
“Why even raise the question, as though I could hope to lie…”
“I don’t say truth as in words that carry no contradiction.” I tapped my heart. “What shall we plan to do, between us?” We were out of earshot, Egdoah loud in his halting Fortesan speech, while I fancied the young people listened, too, emphatically—wanting to understand as they hoped to be understood.
I said: “I have come to stop this war.”
“I know it. And you betray your trust.”
“But, Castor, to whom? I serve Lotoq.”
He elbowed me aside, hurrying through Escmar’s entry. She, in her kitchen, met my eyes, and withdrew to the garden. Castor sank on a bench.
He put his head in his hands.
“No, I don’t keep still and quiet.” I sat to face him. “The zhatabe might put me to death, if they wish me to cease rousing the crowds.”
“Which act would fail miserably. And how can you say it…of yourself?”
“Because I mean it. You know there is no rug to sweep me under. They placed great stock in playing Bashtat against me, and I captured her and set her to work. She wears an austere robe now, and speaks in tongues, and the merchants of Suma begin to revere her, to hear in her preachings their own minds. The zhatabe are wary. I feel Chos is much attracted to me. He would like a totem, and I have one for him.”
A space, and though Castor let me hold his gaze, he found no answers.
“Castor, I don’t believe Ami is the Father or Mother zhatabe. I can almost believe Escmar is. But Ami would be willing to have me die, to have his fears at rest. I have a totem for Ami.”
I said these last words in the way of seduction.
“They won’t be challenged by you.”
“The zhatabe will do the one thing, or they will do the other thing.”
Commotion, down the hill, filtered into our shelter. Chos shouted the crowd to disperse. Castor jumped to his feet and rushed through the passage. I sought my totem, listening.
Rithrith cried words too rapid for my translation. Another spoke authority to the soldiers, and in moments the chorus of voices dwindled. I rose to find my sack of possessions, extracted my totems, tiles, and charms…secreted these in my garments. I did not make contraband of what I gladly shared; I wanted to know if they would search my person, if by force or abuse dare lay hands on magic.
Chos stepped in. The authoritative one entered at his heels.
And spoke: “Do you know the end you’ve been seeking, Totem-Maker… Merrit, as you choose to be called? The time has come.”
“The time has passed,” I said. “But I ask you, Ami, who leads the zhatabe? Who disguises his power under the pretense of theirs? Is it you?”
The face showed dismay, a dart of eyes at Castor. An angry fixing of the mouth. Even this one who’d stolen the name of Ami, this one waited upon by the others, believed in my sorcery. Yet the trick was simple….I have said it before: The fortune-seeker cares, to distraction, what is predicted. The fortuneteller cares not at all.
Then had he said, “Ami is not my name,” I would have replied, “Ah. I am mistaken.”
But Ami supposed that I knew by some means. “I have all I need,” I told him. “Arrest me. Let me have my trial this day.”
Rithrith laughed. Chos came near a smile. Rithrith and Chos were allies together, winnable to my side. They would be allies, but mute, if Ami exerted some hold…
A hold, yes. Castor was anxious. I had not believed it Castor’s nature to be anxious.
“Walk with us,” Ami said, and turned his back.
We went a way among the trees guarded from sight of the soldiers, up the hill at first, and when descended, arrived at the temple’s rear. The temple was empty, its walls broken. Sentries stood garbed in fear, in heavy masks and dark draperies, holding the four corners of the ruin, lances in their hands.
“You have not killed Bashtat, your sister?” I asked.
“Bashtat is at the Citadel.”
“Be honorable, Ami. Rithrith, Chos, be dutiful to the will of the gods.”
“Merrit…” Rithrith said. “That summoning voice of yours. I beg you won’t curse me.”
“What have you done?”
“Nothing! Bashtat is well!”
“You will, if ever you take vengeance, take vengeance upon the instigator of these events.” Charged with a voice to summon the gods, I made full use of it. “That is the Totem-Maker.”
“It is not!” said Ami. “It is the Prince.”
“No, no. How will you pass judgment on me, if you cannot see that the Prince punishes himself beyond any reach of yours?”
“And do we seek to punish? We seek peace.”
“What is peace to Eco, to Suz?”
“He doesn’t understand you,” Rithrith said at last.
A Mother or a Father
(2022, Stephanie Foster)