The Totem-Maker: A Mother or a Father (part nine)

Collage of wary person looking over shoulder

The Totem-Maker

Chapter Eleven
A Mother or a Father
(part nine)







Returned to my room, I emptied totems, emptied other toys and games, onto my table. They were my trade’s tricks, mostly failed. I peered at my candle, thought with seriousness of setting the floorcloth afire.

Give up, Nur-Elom. Pack up, and walk free.

I found it likely no one would stop me. Summon a court, and put the Totem-Maker on trial.

This pleased me better. When my servant brought food, I said to her, “I want a clay flute. And I want, when you bring that, Castor, and Chos. And a good square of cloth, and some inks.”

Adzja gathered her tray and asked: “A plain cloth?”

“I am going to draw a map. So you need not go in curiosity.”

“Then I will bring a proper square. If Chos should wish a servant, is that allowed?”

“Chos has the rule of this house. Defer to him in all his wishes.”

She left…without any face, any fleeting sideways glance. Adzja respected Chos; I would have gambled on signs otherwise at the name of Ami.

Before her return, Chos stepped in and came at once to help with the table. I would arrange the totems, the four remaining, as the four posts of the gate at Monsecchers; left, in dread of Lotoq after his great wrath, to lie as they’d fallen. This, too, pleased me. I did not care if Chos could see nothing in my design.

“You would like it here, just before the steps to your porch?”

“So that you may sit elevated, as a judge.”

“Oh, I am to sit? And hold court in your chambers?”

“And how do you feel about Castor? Is he my advocate, my fellow prisoner, the Prince’s envoy, who merely observes?”

Footsteps entered, that I knew were Adzja’s. “Give those things to me,” I said. “I will sit on the floor.”

“Adzja,” Chos said, “where is Castor?”

“I found him in the garden. I expected him to follow, and… I believe he made a joke. He said, ‘the Totem-Maker invites me to my execution’.”

I laughed, and Chos laughed—making a moment of camaraderie. I am corrupting my judge, I told myself.

A voice, churlish: “What am I wanted for? My Lord Chos, you must order an end to this creature’s performances.”

Chos assumed his judgment seat, and down upon Castor, who stood no further than the door, said, “Approach. I name you Emperor’s advocate. The Totem-Maker means to stand in opposition, or it may be, to stand as advocate for the masses.”

“Lord Chos, I stand as advocate for the Heavens, and the Heavens stand for the people.”

“Lunacy,” Castor said.

Chos answered soberly: “The court will weigh all arguments given.”

On the flute I played an air, left-handed while I inked my map.

Feet, Castor’s, shuffled behind me. “No one here seems ready.”








“I will tell you why I work this way. Because you must attend, not knowing my purpose, and that—even that—gains me your small regard. But I ask, Castor, in reason, how can I persuade a man who calls my mission lunacy? I have never dismissed your own business out of hand.”

“My business. If you were a potter, I would be your vessel’s hollow. If you were a player of tunes, I would be the space between your notes.”

Chos spoke, in a false marvel somewhat cruel, “This is high poetry!”

“No, my lord. Castor is lying, but he means to express a truth. See here, the face of the Citadel. And these are the terraces, the lagoons. Hills surround us, a river cuts the valley, but you have captured this river, and use its waters for your dragons.”

“Dragons? I do not know them to exist.”

“Your steam machinery.”

“The Prince, from his first approach, has known our fortress is protected by fire. He throws his men against the walls; he spares them no agonies. That is because he values a good report to his Emperor more than the life…or easier death, we may say, of a soldier.”

“Thank you, My Lord Chos. I agree. Castor will tell you how little shy I am of condemning the Prince.”

“But instead,” Castor said, “I’ll warn you. The Totem-Maker’s provocations are pitfalls, laid on a path the Heavens illuminate. Why not believe it? The Totem-Maker sees ahead, and the Totem-Maker guides the unwary.”

“No,” Chos said. “I understood I was baited. Yet the point is worth recording. And I spoke to you, Castor.”

“There is no scribe present…”

Castor’s face turned sour. I had not thought of this myself, but had my map to bend over, to hide my surmises. Chos might have placed more than one spy.

“Here I add the sea,” I said, “which we know to lie south of these mountains. The Emperor will hold his blockade of your road. You will lose your trade with him, and hurt for it.”

“He will hurt for it.”

“True. But he will choose discovering a fresh route to the eastern lands. He has ships. He has slaves and mercenaries. He is losing his power to the northerners, by so wantonly employing them, but the Prince’s people are also your enemies.”

Chos exhaled. An acknowledgement, not a sigh.

“The zhatabe,” I said, “have no answer to this. Vengeance for the dead is meaningless. The dead ought to have lived their lives, been respected when it mattered to them, not force-marched into a war they care nothing for. But vengeance makes a lovely rallying cry. That river…I have said it, Castor…will be stopped. Your terrible engines, Chos, will choke on their last vapors. The Citadel will be overrun, and the people of Suma Fortesa slaughtered.”

“In years’ time.”

“I have seated you in judgment, my lord. Despise my words and mete your punishment. But why judge, or why lead…why claim to, only to pursue a futility ordained? A failed leader steps humbly down, does he not?”






A Mother or a Father

Virtual cover art for The Totem-Maker with volcanic eruptionA Mother or a Father (part one)

















(2022, Stephanie Foster)




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