Virtual cover art for The Totem-Maker with volcanic eruption

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

TOC

 

1. The Little I Can Tell
2. Jealousy
3. I Am the Cause
4. To Be and to Choose
5. Winter Alone
6. Use for Use
7. The Recalcitrant One
8. Crafter Becomes Maker
9. Lore and Lessons
10. The Citadel

 

 

(more to come)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eight

Crafter Becomes Maker

 

 

I was given to Noakale to entertain, or to be entertained by. Please allow me, I told her, to share in the needlework. For as Shenath’s visit will have had you guessing, Reader, the household prepared for a wedding.

“Do you do such things? You?”

“I do any chore, as need be. And then, I am happy to learn…happy always to be of help. Vlanna, you do not find me grand?”

“Not at all.” Teasing.

The women I sat with were Noakale and her two maidservants, her cousin Darsale, and Darsale’s sister, Jute. The company being so, you must also guess that Jute was to be bride. I was curious to know Darsale, and what I could know, for she sat mostly silent, was spoken in her frosty coloring, and her armored trimmings. The phrase rose inside me, sarcastic…I thought of Sente, and saw no joy for my friend here.

Noakale, strong bones to her face, wore her dark hair plaited, singly, a furred skin falling from her shoulders as tunic over her gown, and her feet bare indoors. Darsale’s hair sat woven through a golden cage, a headdress not of our people…one I supposed of the north, her particular tribe. It gave her height yet more inches. Her wrists were metaled and her neck collared in metal.

“She should not by rights hold this place,” Jute said to me. I had taken a cushion beside her, in case she would confide. It was Noakale she meant.

“You mean to say the Prince, because she is good and generous, is truly fond of her…and has married for love, not birth.”

I said this, hard with Jute in my determined naiveté, because she invited me to dislike Noakale’s antecedents, for such reasons the northern people disliked one another. I knew none of it, and would have none.

“Oh, is that so, wise creature? Her father paid his price. It is all the price, to gain or to lose, and the bit more, if the bargain comes too readily. The Prince has agreed to take…”

I was in thought, and when I’d sorted her pause, said: “Take? Some other father’s purse of gold…his cattle, soldiers. You are not grateful.” I tested, saying this. I did not think she ought to be grateful.

“At my age! But then, there are old men also who rule countries. Yes, his soldiers are needed. Their blood is hungered after. His younger wives I will put aside.”

“Bless you, then.”

I was not surprised that she made a face as though I’d said curse you.

 

 

 

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Noakale kept me at her side during those days the suitor and his entourage filtered into Lord Ei’s establishment. She was certain of her strength, quite untroubled by the loftiness of Jute and Darsale. United the sisters were in this; at daggers, privately, otherwise.

We had not been alone, my Princess and I, so I waited my moment.

“Come help me choose my gift,” she said one morning, and led me by the hand.

I was at the window, watching a rider I could recognize at last as Wosogo. Another I must couch myself with…perhaps beg of my Prince the favor of his arranging it. I spoke when Jute’s stare after us was eclipsed by a falling curtain.

“A gift for Jute? Or does Lord Ei bring back his wife?”

“Lord Ei has no wife. The gift, yes, is to adorn the fine gown, and the gown is a gift, as well. All kindnesses to my cousin Darsale.”

“And no personal kindnesses to Jute?”

“Personal. There’s a word. But this honors me, your piercing eye. My husband puts great store by it, frets putting himself under that eye’s disapprobation.”

“He does not!” I was a bit wondering…

I’d wanted this power. I was cowed to have got it, when I wished…I discovered I did…to have felt more cunning, more victorious. He fretted over his great undertaking, fretted he would fail. I knew the northerners…fail to die at the right moment. Live to the disgrace of diminishment. Had I felt differently, I could have seen my Prince diminished for this…failing indeed. But I saw him endearing.

“Oh, yes. What a creature you are! There is no ill-luck in these stones?”

Rather than hand the collar to me, she drew behind me, and fastened it round my neck. The stones were luminous pearl, not rock. Silverwork in traceries held them.

“I fear asking Ami’s blessing. Jute despises my charity.”

Noakale’s laugh was knowing. My admiration for her husband she knew, and laughed at that too. “You’ll learn to have better fun. Of course she despises charity. Just why we go out of our way to give it.”

A moment, and I asked, “Would you have me bear this to Jute now?”

“Do you wish, at all, to wander the grounds? I have not been keeping you from your totem…? You shall have the garden all to yourself, dear, and I will give the order.”

I made motions towards the obeisant ways I’d been wont to use, when last I’d served a kind mistress, but Noakale had many years’ wisdom on Pytta. She dismissed this. “Go now, and have your lunch. The servants will trouble you long enough to lay it. Nur-Elom, I feel you have been trying to ask me things.”

Catching me with this, as I’d turned to leave.

“I wish,” I said, clasping my hands at my waist, “you would tell me how you yourself came to marry. I don’t conceal my reasons. Jute and Darsale…”

 

 

 

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“Are Wolgan. Wolgan himself was the son of a white eagle, and an exiled chieftain’s daughter. I am Kale-Kale. We have no home, our people, but we have wealth, and there is a story how that came about.”

But saying so, she shooed me on my way. I had no time to ask if she could believe a man had been sired of an eagle, if in the north they had even seen such things.

 

 

I explored the garden’s squares-within-squares, thick-needled shrubs outermost…but tracing the path to the very wall, I found that outside this were berrying brambles. Access, to steal—and I doubted not most thieves were fourlegged—made too daunting.

Second to the shrubs were the vines, climbing wooden posts and beams, each bunch of grapes threaded into a carved notch, to hang below the netting. Third were the household grains, blue-leaved and yellow-leaved, as much altogether as a small field might supply. Then the fruiting and rooting vegetables, herbs, and in the center square an orchard, where I counted sixteen trees, four each of four sorts.

As you observe, it was not a pleasure garden; but so arranged, it pleased the eye. Stones gave seating at the center plot’s corners. I withdrew my totem. If it would manifest, tell me it preferred a garden…I would then surrender my office…

Or if it would portend for me, in some way, my Prince’s fortunes in war…

In the sunlight, under lucence of pale clouds swept from a shore not far away, the creature was lovely. The purple showed a depth, a maturing. The eyes were closed, and I braced to see them open. I was in error, of course…it seemed my totem helped me only upon this theme. Counsel not good nor bad, but steady, insistent.

You are not right. Solve your problem.

And I had sworn to choose my own path. Who would I be to the zhatabe, arriving at his great Citadel…

Not alone. I saw myself have an entourage, my importance to be impressed upon these people. That was the wiser course of diplomacy. Then, what costume? Did my dress matter? My present state of dress was an embarrassment, and so I guessed that Noakale, in speaking to me of finery, hinted as well. I knew I had been embarrassed before the women; while not feeling this in the least, I saw the apparency of it…information gained to sharpen my picture. Of who, when the balance tipped, would prove my friend.

Bodies clustered at the edge of vision. When I turned to them, I saw Lord Ei’s servants. The cook bore a table to set before me; her minions bore the parts of my lunch. But I sat in consultation with the Cannot-Be-Named, and even the phlegmatic cook showed a dread to enter its sphere.

“Here, there is nothing to trouble you,” I called, standing, and patting the object into its pouch. The little group, who trod each other’s heels, met with a new pressure. Wosogo strode down the path, an old man in plain tunic at his side…falling behind, though, for not quickening his own pace.

 

 

 

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Wosogo gave me his two hands. I did not miss, in greeting him, the old man’s signal to the cook. Angry a bit with me, she had laid the table and ordered the lunch be spread…a tray of roast fowl, dainty in size and eight in number. Boiled grains sculpted to the bowl that held them—the first servant turned this over and carried it away, the second pouring on a red sauce lumped with fruits. A stick of bread was torn and arranged in a bowl of cream. Nuts and figs rimmed the tray.

The old man took the jugs of wine and lowered himself, his back to the stone, placing the jugs at his feet. Wosogo and I had room to share.

“Lavish,” I smiled at him, sitting. I was constrained in this smile, but let it be ironic. I was curious to learn what was being played at…

Wosogo, circumspect, praised the hospitality of Lord Ei.

“Why, all the house and grounds are splendid!” I said. “This Kinship of Ei, what besides duty do they owe our Prince? Will it be a cousin marrying Jute?” I discomfited my friend, but felt I had good reason for it.

“Those things I do not know.”

“What are we to talk about, Wosogo? I have been listing my needs…” I tapped my forehead. “But you arrive too soon. Taken out of order, then…the Prince will vouch for the Emperor’s authority? Has the Peddler been found? I do think of it, Wosogo, that to translate my speech to the zhatabe, his to me, weakens our parley, just there. On that point of whom to trust…or…”

I was putting the old man off his guard, and he had gone so far as scooting from the stone to watch our faces. Wosogo from his belt drew beads, undid a knot, and moved one, another, one more. He tied them captive, raised his face to mine.

“Mero,” I said to the old man. “Partake!”

In the Balbaecan language, he said that he was servant to the two of us, guests of the house, and needed nothing. The old man knelt then at our table, to pour our cups of wine.

“That interests me,” I said. I stood, and walked.

A terrace below the house was spanned by this garden, but the house could not be seen. Behind us the fortress wall, topped with pines, appeared natural to the eye. Boulders concealed places of defense; at fearsome labor they must have been dragged to where they sat, grown so mossy…small trees, even, rooted in their crevices.

From the garden’s lower wall—a crafted thing, plainly so, of fitted stone—the terrain fell to a wide grassland, cut by three streams, and ringed in hills that steepened to mountains far distant.

“Interests you.” Wosogo came to my side.

 

 

 

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“The zhatabe, in his wrath…we shall say…would pour his army through those passes yonder. They would make their great camp below. Some, sent to forage for food, must climb to this fruitful spot, and…am I right? Lord Ei would not wish them struck down with arrows, though easily he could command it done. He would not have his enemies know he had not fled before their numbers, but held his forces yet within his stronghold. He would take these foragers prisoner. Now the dilemma! How to question them? How useful it would be, to dress spies in the prisoners’ garb and have them slip to the camp by night… How impossible, though…”

Wosogo, I would have said on, I know so little of military matters. Wosogo, given new thoughts to remember, was at his beads again. The old man had come to hear these things, and my role needed no further acting. I met his eye, and he met mine.

“Who is the Totem-Maker?” I asked him.

“Do I understand you?” Lord Ei answered. “I have commanded these watches many and many years. But we are all children, and you… You have some magic, spat at your feet by Mother Earth, the Mother of Ami, in the form of totem-stones. You instruct me that I am blind.”

‘No, Vlan. Will you take the place I held, and let me sit at your feet? That will be more fitting. No, Vlan…” I led the way. “I ask to be given a mission. If I am told the means by which neither to anger the zhatabe, nor be swindled by him…I know nothing of his honor…if I am told what Prince and Emperor would agree to, rather than war-making… If I am told none of your secrets, you mighty lords, I must suppose myself the child. Am I to charm our enemy? Is he to find me precious? Shall he wish to keep me?”

This (though inside I was warning myself to not, in fact, be pert with Lord Ei), seemed a genuine danger…one I hadn’t guessed at. A totem’s advising. The Peddler could speak to the zhatabe; I could not. The Peddler could make this gift of the Prince’s offering, in exchange for open gates, sound dazzling and rare. I, to spare my life, could dazzle, assuredly…I could terrify, I could spin dreams close, very close, to the heart of my subject…

I would not. Not any of it. If I were let well out on the road, with a long journey’s provision, I might forgo the Citadel, make my own way…

A picture rose, of my shedding this go-between, captaining my own company, leaving him bereft. I envisioned a mountain pass, a threat of lowering weather… And blamed this temptation on the totem. All I wanted was to order my mission in practicality. We do business with those who are helpful, useful. They need not be best-loved. But I found it truth, and better faced before any such pass materialized. I, too, could be left behind.

Truth, that I disliked the Peddler; no less for our long separation. I saw his upper hand was my weakness. And this I might remedy.

 

 

 

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“Lord Ei. The Peddler is known to you.”

Lord Ei sat stony; I, dutifully at his feet, but laying my argument as an equal…and he had not ventured to his garden expecting to be interviewed, only to see me with his own eyes. I was not at fault, but could fault my approach. I lowered my voice to humility.

“Lord Ei, my reason for asking…”

“Hush,” he said. From his seat he saw, but I soon heard, the descent by stages of a man using a stick. Others, in softer shoes and bearing weapons, came after—but as good household knights will, held back, finding places of vantage.

Wosogo stood first; Lord Ei did not stand at all. I stood…while if I were choosing the rank of servant, I ought to have crouched and studied the earth. In the face of Jute’s intended I stood, as I presumed. He was not greatly old; he might have fallen, even, some years shy of his bride. He was lamed, but not otherwise battle-weathered…an accident, or a bad birth. His face was not handsome, but humorous.

“I see you transformed, Lord Ei!”

Lord Ei made a noise. “Why do you say so?”

“Well, disappoint me if you must. Perhaps the Totem-Maker arrives, and can shed no light on your ignorance. Now, what of mine, Oracle? Tell me a fortune.”

He was more than humorous. He was a wag. “To know your name is of the first essence. And the day and hour of your birth. Me, you may call Nur-Elom.”

As taller people were prone to do, he put a hand on me, clapping me somewhere between the shoulder blades. “Me, you may call Tnoch.”

His Balbaecan speech was of a dialect…at least, his consonants were differently said. Later scholarship gives me the spelling (this ruler of men unlettered as most), that I give to you, my reader, and a pronunciation: Nohsh.

“Pravor Tnoch,” Wosogo said, “is captain of the city of Hudor, the only other of the Alëenon coast.”

I thought, and said after a moment, catching that waggish eye, “Not Lord Tnoch?”

“No. I am a climber. I offend by it. But what land should a bride want, where inheritance cannot be? I give her the management of my house, and if she is wise, she may take my son in hand as well.”

 

 

I was owed two stories by Noakale.

I longed for them, and found I’d made a tedium for myself. When there are a thousand things to do, and an ordinary day’s hours in which to do them, good judgment suffers. I chafed, being included in talks among the lords, trying Lord Ei’s patience, bearing gibes from the friendly Tnoch…while I knew I learned things of great value.

 

 

 

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Hudor had its troubles with pirates, as had the Emperor at Monsecchers. The Emperor could spare a portion of his fleet, gaining against loss, if it meant the pursuit of them to their hideouts and destruction. The brigands disposed of plunder by the traders’ route, each making, after spoils were divided, for his separate home. The homes were hovels, of small fishers along the coast.

The pirate ships they burnt. A light, fast construction was the practiced skill of this loosely banded people, a thing to be achieved in more or less a trice…with timbers poached from the imperial forest, as why would they not be?

And the ceremony of a maiden vessel’s launch, and the ceremony of her death, were rites of their odd religion. I could damage this faith, if I could speak to them—but the pirates were no concern of mine. They were my Prince’s solution to the problem I’d given him; he had brooded off and returned with this makeshift to busy his men, to teach the virgin warrior his craft.

“The traders, then,” I said. “No one has advanced upon them a persuasion of loyalty; even, I suppose, a leaning to our side. Strangers come blocking their roadways, encamping themselves in their fields, starting the game and trampling the flowers; naturally this argues for their choosing an allegiance…”

“Now you understand,” the Prince cut me short. It was well he did…though he told himself a falsehood. The whole of the Citadel, the reason for making war upon the zhatabe (might I regret I’d viewed this cause without sympathy), was in the traders’ disregard for sides. “The Emperor wills not to rely on a treacherous people, on such as weigh the greater profit in one choice or another.”

“Are they treacherous?”

“Less of that!” Lord Ei spoke. “To be put through paces at every turn! I will answer to Ami, Totem-Maker, and if in your power you can produce him, bring him forth. Great Ami, let my sword shed no innocent blood. There!”

“Well, there,” I said.

By some means, Noakale was inspired to join our conclave. (The means a sign from the Prince to Wosogo.)

I was taken off to—as he had demanded—trouble my host less.

She tugged me by the hand, speeding me through three of the Balbaecan rooms, divided from one another by curtain or tapestry or skin. I did not know the etiquette of this arrangement, and dared never pop round my head…to discover to my embarrassment whose privacy I invaded. But Noakale had the run of Lord Ei’s home.

We arrived at her chamber. “It is all gifts with me, rejoice! Today my treats are for you. One of irreplaceable value with which I am going to trust you, and another very dear to me, for the many hours I’ve devoted to it.”

 

 

 

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Speaking, she rummaged in a chest. These threats pleased me not, but if she would trust me, I might exalt upon that and ask my god’s forgiveness later. In this silence of calculating the politic answer, I lost my chance to demur.

“Ah,” I said, as with pride she held the object under my eyes. “A book.”

A bound book, a most painstaking thing to create, each page decorated in colored inks, each left-hand border stitched in looped embroidery, looped again into its place. Of such, my people made none.

“I had said there was a story to my tribe, and this contains it.”

“It bears no curse of holiness?”

My face made her laugh. “Open it now before my witness. We shall both be struck dead, if your Ami, who is not my god, flings down his bolt!”

I opened it, and leafed it, keeping my fingertips from touching any of the text. No part of the story could I have read. The alphabet seemed to run from the top to the bottom of the page, odd to me.

“Why?” I said, simply.

With posturings very self-pleased, but acted in good humor, she gave me her second gift, a smaller chest taken from the other. A tiny key was lodged in a tiny lock, but unturned. I opened the chest, and found ribboned scrolls.

“How is your success at learning our language?” Her hands told me, pick one, unroll it.

I did, and began to understand. “But Depwoto could teach me nothing written, and he is busy with his army affairs. You are making a sort of lettering of that tongue the Prince tells me is never set down. I may use your notes to study the history…”

She smiled. “That history is recorded in the language of the Citadel. Work steadily, Nur-Elom, and master for yourself the mysteries!”

 

 

I was little consulted as to the ordering of my own affairs, but proofs of my mission finding itself peopled and supplied appeared daily at the margins of my attention. When permitted, I lay on my stomach in the garden, solving Noakale’s puzzles. She and the women would seat themselves nearby, and when she had finished her dispatches…

 (How, I wondered, was Lord Ei ever to return his servants to their old management? And how haphazard might this have been? He ought to marry his cook…I did not suggest it, but had shared the thought, I felt, with Tnoch, a glint of the eye and nod of the head between us…)

I stood and knelt again, to ask my three or four questions.

“Enough of foolery!” Noakale tapped me with her fan. “You must not make such sport with the zhatabe.”

When her women had gone their ways, I said, “I show you respect for their sakes. Most certainly I will play this game wherever I go.”

 

 

 

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She laughed then until her eyes wanted dabbing. “Well, you are a courtier, less diplomat…but to your credit, you don’t believe yourself!”

“And so your people, the Kale-Kale, are descendants of those at the Citadel. Tell me this word…tell it in my language and in yours.”

The word was conflagration. Anfer, ashfal. In the beginning, the tribe of Kale-Kale had commanded a great city perched on a plain above black sand, whose bay lay pinched between the finger and thumb of a giant’s hand. Hoto, the defeated, a Mighty Man of their heaven; Toboro…so they had called the city under shadow of a vaulting fire-mountain. Noakale’s people too recorded that life had begun among the clouds, that calamitous warfare had brought the descent of, to the gods, a diminished remnant; but to ourselves, the great ancestors of magic and power, whose gifts—for still they warred with one another—were by their own hands, at length by the anger of Ami, destroyed, denied them.

The Kale-Kale called their Ami Euka.

But he was the same, and the great city might have been Monsecchers.

“We are all cousins,” I said to Noakale. It  was on the morning of the wedding, when I was reciting to her as much of the history as I’d translated, then scratched into tablets and pressed onto clean linen. My people used a panel of gold to read our linens, turning the reversed print right…it was a priestly act, done in temples. I had thought of the written word so, cloaked in the hush of sanctity and the light of candles. For candlelight and the reflection of gold were the media of prophecy, the illumination of sudden passages. This, in Monsecchers, we’d known to be the will of Lotoq expressed, such as he ordained his priests deliver to the Lords and Judges of Delia, Decima, Vei, Treiva…

But I spoke to invite. We of the coastal lands were a type, the northerners a different type. As were also, from what I’d seen, the traders…a third type. Noakale had not the face of the Citadel, or properly, of the lands beyond; she had not quite my own face, but we were alike in coloring.

“Yes, I confess to taking some pleasure in the sight of you. I confess too, for you won’t discount me, that I was happy in Monsecchers. More, I mean, than at home.” She was in sighing mood, weary from these preparations. And the greater to come, when her husband and his army left her behind in this house. “A woman of my tribe makes her home where she finds it. You note the Prince and his ilk are only a small thrust…or, to make a picture, let me say better. A drip of water below the roof tiles. The roof looks sound, but it will fall.”

Darsale on a chair held aloft by servants, called to Noakale…from the hilltop, not ordering herself carried lower.

“I’ll go up to her,” my Princess said, the containment in her voice telling all the story.

 

 

 

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The Kale-Kale had built Toboro on the strength of their fine craftworkings: the potters, the stonemasons, the jewelers, the weavers. They lived on the sea, they traded by the sea, but did not much sail or fish. The fire mountain left them untroubled, its bowl a lapping turquoise lake. Lotoq…I hardly could avoid filling my imagination with familiar haunts, when all descriptions tallied…had been quiet these hundreds of years past. He had not been summoned by his chosen to rise and rain wrath on the impious…

I might be biased in supposing so. He was quiet, but the malenchantment that invaded the city came from his dominion.

 

 

As Monsecchers today (I pray it be; so it was, when these thoughts were in my mind) the landscape was formed of its ridges and terraces. The high places and the fertile were commanded by villas, the low and hardscrabble by the shanties of the poor. The hillsides served with their winding, trampled paths—human figures like ants in file climbing and descending daylong—for the stacking of one structure on another’s roof. A threshold within jumping space of the path made for a shaded perch, very narrow, below the floor beams of an upper shanty; the roof of a lower jutted to make for upstairs neighbors a sleeping place in the night air. And where the chasm walls came nearer meeting, ladders were laid from one side to the other, becoming the by-streets of the shantytown.

A scene for you, if I conjure well, of a jumble of dwellings, four-walled but off-square, balanced at hazard. Gay, though, in the weavings of cloths used to cover drafts, the glaze of tiles pasted on for beauty alone, with that strong clay dug from the bottoms of ravines.

And under the weak light of many a candle, the poor earned their bread, taking the needle and the chisel and the brush into their teeming rooms, and on their backs bearing bundles to the lower town, the Old Town, as I have described it to you, in speaking of Vlanna Madla’s workshops and the house of Mumas.

They walked with their bundles, and odd, fearful things began to plague them. A woman would lay down the weight to fetch a drink, and a deadly asp slither out. A man would feel a sudden sharp pain, and find his cloths afire. The children who trailed their parents would shriek at masklike faces darting from the trees, bone white, with rolling yellow eyes, mouths in the shape of the turtle shell.

It is one of the tiles, which foretells thus: whatever tile is turned after, that fate will be yours and your love’s, twinned. One a windfall, the other bankruptcy. One recovered from illness, the other stricken. But when a child is to be born, the fate takes this shape, that of ending the line, no child ever born to that house again.

Turtles are never touched or troubled among our people. Nor, I must suppose, among these older brothers and sisters, the Kale-Kale.

 

 

 

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The people did not live insensible to their vulnerability; they feared and were cautious of fire. But the laborers of the shantytown were not a tribe. Their priests were the city priests. They knew that in the temples they were not wanted, that worshippers with clean shoes and coins to offer commanded these temples, and that when the poor peered in, they were swept aside. One priest, however, a blind man who had taken upon himself a sequestered life, as the unsighted often do, was said to pray day and night for the succor of these least.

A’an, he is recorded, which must in an early tongue like to our own, mean father; he was so addressed by pilgrims seeking his intervention with Euka, or with lesser deities. He was not thought to love children, but a child was lowered to him in his seacliff cave, to whisper the horror of the masked spirits.

“They are not spirits.”

This was abrupt; the child dared: “They are evil men?”

“Oh, indeed.”

“Why do they invoke the turtle?”

“For, child, that there are other lands than ours. Places of unbelievers, infidels. You must tell your father…your father has given you this task?”

“Yes, A’an.”

“Tell him he will go to the lake, at the mountaintop. He will see for himself.”

“But, A’an…”

“They give no instruction to children in the shantytown.”

It was a question, stated flatly. The child knew it to contain a snare which agreement or disagreement would spring alike. Such were the comments of adults.

“No learning, no, Lord.”

“No…you do not call me lord.”

The child fell to a wary silence.

“I make a mild point. You will carry a message from me to the Emperor. You will give it to the guard at the gate, by this token.” The blind man went to a basket; he did so with not a pace more or less than needed. He gave the child a tile. “The message is that he must send to me an emissary and…you will hear more of it later. You.” Saying this last, he tapped the child meaningfully on the shoulder.

I will hear more.”

“That is a business of my own,” the old man said. “I digress. Your lesson is this: when a child is given a chore he performs it. He does not say ‘but’ to an elder. What will you tell your father?”

“That he must go to the lake.”

 

 

 

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“His knife he must carry. His two companions wait for him below the ridge that encircles the lake. He will in great stealth approach. With speed and in secret descend, and tell what he has seen.”

Some of these words were new to the child, while the priest’s diction made even the familiar obscure, but the two things assigned he carried out. He later learned himself recommended to that quarter of the city where only the holy dwelt, to be educated there; and in old age had authored my portion translated, this child. He told the reader so at the outset, in preamble, a dedication to his savior.

The father and his companions discovered the bowl with its sulphurous waters, its spined encircling ridge, become a camping place. Strange works were underway, handcarts brought to the lake’s edge by gangways; most, natural in their courses, but cut to widen and smooth. These paths, the men thought found in quiet forays, and the labor, which seemed the hauling of many rocks, proceeded also without a shout. The rocks were placed, not thrown.

The carters made off, at a pace deliberate, zigzagging to what looked a tunnelway. Why should they do it? There was some good in the rocks that made them worth stealing… The men discussed this, speaking low, glancing often over their shoulders. Like maggots, the strangers would eat away at the sacred mountain, leaving bones. Or, until some evil were awakened.

“The emperor…what does it mean, that token your Bani carried to the guard?”

“The old man said. A business of his own.”

“Do we go to the guard ourselves, then?”

Together they sat, having reached a shelf of rock that overlooked their town. They saw past and future in these movements, that passed below in innocence, loved ones and loved homes… They could not speak their fears, each doubting, without words to express it, that the Emperor would not act against the Law. This was never flouted by those Kale-Kale most in need of faith, the law no blood be shed on Lotoq’s flanks. The Emperor was a conqueror from afar.

“Why is it us they terrorize?”

“Here is truth,” Bani’s father said. “Where the tunnel leads, that we must learn.”

 

 

And did they learn? And did these events lead to their exile? Yet it was in exile the poor had grown wealthy…

“Please.” The woman was one of Darsale’s. “Please, I am to summon you. The games begin soon.”

“I am in the way, I suppose.”

She ushered, my remark too conversational for her comfort.

“How does my Lord Sente?” I asked her, pushing to my feet and collecting things.

 

 

 

126

 

 


 

 

“Please,” I offered in return, a space later. “I will accept gossip. Drop your pebble into this well, its depths cannot be plumbed.”

Now she stopped, now I’d played the expected part, speaking in phrasings of mystery; now she turned, low-voiced. “It was no trouble to him, to wave his wife’s party off.”

“Tell me another thing. Was there a time he tried, or she? Has the match fallen cursed, or was it born so?”

“He lives with a woman at her own villa.”

I felt a touch of joy—Ami forfend—for Sente and Caleyna. Pity, yes, for Darsale. Her happiness no greater than Jute’s, the ambitions of her parents…

And here I stopped, because I would only have said a condemnation, to the daughters, lacking heart. But I must have Noakale’s marriage story to understand the northern daughter’s expectations. I was fond of Sente, because he had been fond of me. I knew, for that, the worst of him—and if rude, short speech and mockery were all he would grudge to Darsale, she lived in high vexation. She envied Jute’s better luck, and this pill was bitter, as Jute to the girl Darsale had been legend only…

And that, one of fatedness. Among a people to whom all fates were deserved.

A kind person, then, who does not intervene, who won’t champion you in your humiliation…yes, more angering than a kinsman’s wife cold-natured, known to be…

The Prince would have Sente’s life if Darsale asked. He would rather not, keeping Sente for use, if his cousin held off, if the matter slept. If, by showing sympathy, Noakale were to breathe life into that slumbering pride…

I laughed, at the intricate irony I had discovered, and Darsale’s woman laughed too, nervous to seem disagreeable to a person such as me. Puzzled, otherwise, and fearful of this outburst, no doubt.

When I’d followed her through the hidden archway, and up the stairs, and out into Lord Ei’s proper playing fields, I’d expected to be seated and to watch. I found the carpets for guests had not been laid…nothing made ready but the roasting pits, the bridal pavilion…

But targets for archery were hung. I saw the gates through which bareback riders charged at the drop of a flag, racing a path to the plain on which the daring plunged over switchbacks, sparing stages of descent.

The gates stood stoppered against the wind. Barked trunks stood fixed in pits, and a guest or performer practiced his acrobatics here, vaulting to alight on one foot, hoisting the pole to spring with it to the other trunk-top, keeping his balance by keeping in a constant motion.

I heard and felt a bundle land at my feet.

 

 

 

127

 

 


 

 

“I know you can make a decent showing for yourself, unless…” The Peddler toed my wrapped bow and arrows. “This living inside the scholarly head proves a rusty affair. A poor man like myself must hunt to eat, as he would rather than not…”

“I’ll bow out, thank you,” I said.

“No, you won’t. Not sporting.”

I disliked the way he made his speech a satire, on a manner of speaking not mine.

“Tell me about these games. I’ve seen the races…Lord Ei is fond of them. Shall I guess the targets are weighted, carry themselves downslope, and that the archer places inside the ring to win…to score the prize?”

“I’ll set one for you.”

This was answer, and so I had to scramble, fitting arrow to bow. The target came scuttling, twisting this way and that (the weight in such games was a skin of wine, a deep berry red, to fountain pleasingly when punctured); I saw, too, distracting markers laid, and my mind wished to explain them, thus I missed the ring, missed the sharper portion of hillside, where the painted sack moved its fastest.

By the set of his shoulders, and returning swagger, I knew the Peddler would top this performance, and that he knew it himself. He flapped a hand at me, to run draw a target to its starting place.

I decided I would…sport with him…later to insist he at last give me a name, if we were to travel together; later say, “I am no grand person, Mero, but I prefer to be spoken to.”

He struck the ring, and someone shouted: “None of that!”

The wine had stained my shoes, but—thinking in time—I’d hurried from the worst. The Master of Games arrived with two underlings, one of whom nobly put his mouth to the wound. “These are for the competition. Over there, if you want practice.”

I looked for anyone who wanted me, for events in our few minutes of idling had come in a rush. Now servants unrolled carpets, lowered tables and set them with winecups and baskets of fruit. The guests came to overlook their seats prepared. Servants holding cloths upright made a moving tunnel through which the bride entered her pavilion unseen.

The Peddler tapped my arm. “I, being your instructor, hope to see my pride untarnished. Show me you can still take at least the gourd.”

The gourd was the loser’s consolation. The prize itself whatever some prankster cared to put inside. But also, the loser was toasted by all the winners, a second consolation my tolerance for spirits could hardly have borne.

I fitted another arrow and loosed it where I stood. Bravado rewarded me; my shaft trembled from the bull’s-eye.

The Peddler whooped. “I’ll have a wager!”

Custom required that bride and groom be serenaded, the groom to the taking of his seat among us, the bride calling her answers from the curtained pavilion. I was happy to sing, in a sea of voices indifferent as my own, happy to hear Jute chime in with near gusto. I was happy to drink and eat, of delicacies…

 

 

 

128

 

 


 

 

I was sorry I must play, and carry small sums to their owner’s losses.

They seated me with the bride’s family. “Vlanna,” I said to Darsale. “A good day.”

The words were tradition, their meaning impersonal. But she returned me what had preyed at her, what some cover of conviviality permitted. “My husband admired you. I haven’t seen reason for it.”

“Admired?”

“Sente spoke of you for a time. Before this journey, nothing.”

“Oh. Well, but he wouldn’t have known me to be at Lord Ei’s.”

She nursed her wine.

“Vlanna, I am not clever. I was acquainted with Sente slightly…you will have the right of it. He has forgotten me.”

She smiled. Within the poverty of her opinion, my small labor had earned me a rise in status. “No. He would much welcome your magic. He loves a woman other than me, he wants not to die for his transgression, he wants…and why should lovers not want? To be free, to be bowered in luxury, to be wholly safe. I pity him, and I love no one, so I forgive more than he supposes. But…”

She said this last, catching me when I’d nodded, deeming her argument fair. “Never so forgiving, as not to wish him pain.”

“Fair enough.” I found my answer the same. Given her vantage, fair enough. “Does the House of Vei die, then? While its master lives in charity.”

“Consult your tiles.”

And she shook her head, but smiled more warmly. I knew this smile forestalled my humble denial, of any intent to get information from my foolish questioning. A time will come—perhaps the totem said it—when you will cease to charm. Can you guess why?

Yes, I could. If I could have stood from my seat to walk myself through these thoughts, I would have left them all at that moment.

 

 

The bride and groom held the honored places; the games could not begin until the ceremony had ended…and so began the ritual, which must be lively. The bride was summoned by the groom. The curtains shuddered, but she held herself hidden and sang to the guests, “Shall I marry this man? Teach me his faults, I wish to be sure of him.”

Tnoch was treated to raised cups, and a long round of faults—that he was lame and ugly, that he ate more than he earned, that he was poor at sums, the Peddler’s gull, that he spent too much on tasteless finery, that he had been cuckolded many times by his late wife…

Not one of the male guests defaulted at his turn, and Lord Ei counted off fingers for some minutes.

 

 

 

129

 

 


 

 

Jute, at a round of applause, stepped out veiled, and made a pretense of searching faces. “Lord Ei I know, and Pravor Castor, brother of that man Tnoch…”

She spoke to the Peddler, giving me a mild thrill. Also, a minor treasure in information, that I must slot into place at another time.

“But this man you describe must be quite hideous.”

“So I am, my love!” Tnoch, on his brother’s arm, stood.

“Oh, is it only you, then?” The veil was flung back. “Well, we shall be married!”

And they were, with a handclasp and a kiss.

We dined, a Balbaecan feast to eclipse all abundance past, though from the start the Prince’s visit had been celebratory. When the sun fell to its third station of the day, horns were blown.

“Pravor Castor.” I bowed to my new acquaintance.

“Totem-Maker. To the archery field!”

An animal larger than Cuerpha was brought, and I was made to mount without saddle, as did the racers. My stunt, which I learned of only now, would be to drive my horse at a trot around the moving targets…

And I missed them all. I had never hunted this way. I had not ridden this way, either, but the horse was used to being ridden so. Pravor Castor among the watchers, his rueful face a poor disguise, was paying out sums of money. I saw Tnoch, who knew his brother, shake his head and refuse to bet.

“Again!”

The call came from several of my partisans, delighted with this comedy. I stilled my horse at the starting line, worried I’d neglected my totem, that it might jog out of its pouch. I felt fresh arrows fill the quiver at my back, a slap on my horse’s flank—which he wisely ignored. With the barest pressure from my knees, he then hit his pace, and I patted the totem to assure myself.

A bit of luck? I asked it.

I fitted an arrow, gave my horse a trifle more kick. I leant…and the motions of target, animal, arm, hand, flight, these comings together, were suddenly to my higher mind the workings of a machine, every shift sequencing to its apex. I woke from this vision at the spouting of a third wine-sack. I let the arrow fly wide at the last, halted, and the crowd came running with their cups to catch the bounty.

This success was too much, I dared not do more.

Castor took his money back, and I knew he hadn’t meant yet to spring the trap. He came on me quickly to stop my efforts, in the act of springing to earth. Tnoch, limping to his side, handed me a triumphal cup, as I guessed…and guessed again I was meant to toast the gods, lifting it above my head. I did. I downed it.

 

 

 

130

 

 


 

 

“Yes, alight,” Castor said now. But when I was landed at his feet, he said, “Toish seems well fresh, do you think, brother?”

“No grass for the lad. See the groom keeps his head up. But have him watered.”

Slip away, I counselled myself. I was not, by the hand of Castor, permitted to do so. “Come, the races begin at the gate.”

“No one will like my attempting it.”

“Why say a foolish thing? The gods favor the Looked For. You, that is to say…supposing you are.”

“But,” I said, low, “I carry the totem. I will surely not win… But I must beg its help, not to be trampled, as I am not that sort of rider.”

“Now, creature. None can tell the turn of the world.” He offered this adage with unbecoming pleasure. “Do you know Lord Ei has held six courses…and that in the normal run of six courses, one rider would die? No one has died. You and I do not want to set off for the Citadel under a cloud of foreboding. Two courses will be run today, before night falls. You understand, I hope.”

“Will you ride?”

“I can’t.” He laughed down at me. “I am not a small, nimble person. That would be far too much fleering at the Fates, to put my weight on a runner’s back.”

All I knew of my own people, and of the Balbaecans, told me this was true and inescapable. The courses were deadly…some perverse deity had chosen not yet to gather in his sacrifice.

“But they know…” I eyed Tnoch, who seemed, for my scarcely having met him, more my sympathizer. I patted the totem’s pouch.

“Oh, more than that. They are all consumed with curiosity. They thoroughly enjoyed your sorcery with the targets. The Prince, Noakale, my wife, all, will be eager to see what next.”

“Then I will lead the prayer myself.”

The brothers patted me along, until we arrived at the steps mounting the rock face from which the race to the plain could be watched. Toish was led to me; I was lifted again onto his back.

“Salo-Ami, Aeantahah, mightiest father of gods, Sala-Aza, Aeantha-aeantha, hidthar sala-leomar, mother of all, Salo-Lotoq, my protector, grant that your hand and grace be in this task you have bestowed upon me.” I withdrew the totem, held its purple to the light, starting a wave of shrinking behind deflecting arms, murmurs of Salo-Ami, spare, from the riders circling me, and over the crowd of wedding guests. I sensed a duty here, a kindness I ought to perform. “Sala-Aza, be openhanded as a loving mother, bless the wedded, Tnoch and Jute, hold no fault of mine against their happiness. Salo-Ami, Aeantahah, take what you will, give what you will. Be content.”

All prayers of ceremony ended with this phrase.

 

 

 

131

 

 


 

 

As when my feet had slipped off the cliff’s edge, and but for the scream of the eagle I should have died, I felt in those feet a nervelessness; in my hands the same. The reins were two thongs…one to wrap around each wrist. Six riders their grooms drew to an even line, Toish led center. I sought for some serenity my totem might pity me with, but was very conscious of myself, apart from my horse, and from this enterprise altogether.

If Toish would hold back, I might trail the others, fall, to at least survive. Rise to perform for my audience—a poor inept, and comical. Win with charm forgiveness…

The flag was raised.

I tested with my knees the surety of my seat, crouched low as I could, having seen racers (with, confessing it, some excitement for the mayhem) come a hair’s-breadth from death, barely skimming the undersides of rock shelves. The Prince, high above, stood to give the shout.

The flag dropped. Toish lunged at once with the other five. And this, I thought, barreling and clinging, was my mount’s race, not mine. We flew to a narrow sharp turn. Toish, among stallions, proved a fierce leader, my miracle and my brush with misadventure. He did not intend any turning…he brought his rear legs together and flung at the low wall. We were up, over, plummeting, the leading two charging hard to meet our landing. Instinct, or divine help, made me shift my weight.

Or, the horse might well have known his own plan, with or without this human burden. He kicked again, laterally, the wall making a curve to the next switchback, and Toish’s feet came in touch with earth, one of mine striking a poor rider’s head as we sailed above, no one now in front of us. Toish ran, less inspired, while I felt safe at last; feeling too that my frozen limbs would need breaking to ever remove me from his back. Then a tattoo of hooves, a command shrieked in ragged exhaustion, and a scrabbling noise. We’d come to a shallow straightway, that opened before me just where a rider leaped a broader hump of gravelly stone, and took the lead.

This was what my horse had needed. My hard fast lesson made me wise enough to lean into his sudden thrust, and I and the other rider rollicked to the waiting flaggers. I won, and I lost, though the horse’s delight could not be diminished because his rider hadn’t known the rules.

And if I’d snatched a flag and carried it off, I would have been less the people’s Totem-Maker, of magic too strong for the good Balbaecans. They liked me humble, and even humorous, yet…

This sorcery was nothing of mine. Toish had won his race. I’d had common sense come to my aid—that memory for useful details; that gift for certainty in what to leave aside and what to choose. I was alive. But another had died.

And I’m sorry to say I can never account for that foot of mine. The dead man had lost his seat and been mauled by pounding hooves.

 

 

 

132

 

 


 

 

To Jute, before she rode away south and east, to the city of Hudor, I beckoned, wanting her attention. I would have run down the steps, but she urged the white bridal pony, the bells of its harness making music, and came my way. I was with the Prince’s company, aloft on that same viewing place above the plain, waiting to see Tnoch, wife, and entourage, off.

Not minding appearances, I trotted to the first level, then leapt the wall.

And not allowing her head above mine, Jute slid from the saddle.

“Now you had said to me you would divest your husband of his younger wives. It emerges he is a constant man and takes only one.”

“Nur-Elom, do you chide me?”

“I hope I send you to your joy.”

“Well, I am of the north. This is the height of my joy. I have feared worse things than showed themselves true, a fault the gods mark.”

“Let me intervene. No, this bauble carries no more than its own beauty, do you find beauty in it.” I had drawn the stone, which was Pytta’s. A jeweler had pried it from the copper setting, ensconced it again in gold…a ring once, now an ornament for the hair.

Jute’s eyes filled. Truly, I thought her too haunted by superstition; at fault for it, though never would I have chided. “We are bargaining, my dear,” I told her. “You begged me to help you, at a time past, when your pride whispered to you death was better than your sister’s household. You feared your age, the coarseness of long servitude, would render you despised and at her mercy…”

“Enough. That child’s mercy is no punishment, no. You don’t mean to comfort me, reminding the gods how much they have in balance against the weight of my soul?”

“I mean to quit you of an obligation, if you will quit me. We won’t see each other again. But my hand may gain some reach in the fullness of time. Jute, I will always help an old friend. You, though…you won’t fail to live your life, rely on your new friends? Forget me, have me out of your thoughts. Now and then wear this ornament, and remember in peace.”

Weeping still, she gave me a kiss, mounted and rode where her husband bided for her.

 

 

Our first stage was to the Tollhouse; the Prince and Noakale, his own and her noble Knights of the Household, escorting us grandly. We settled in the flower meadow, making two camps. Pravor Castor, perverse in his amusements, had me leader, and couched suggestions as servile queries: “Will the Totem-Maker have the scouts survey the road ahead, until the moon achieves her half-night post, and report to us, returning, whether the way is clear for wagons?”

 

 

 

133

 

 


 

 

“That I would have thought of for myself. But give the order.”

He bowed, and his first retreating steps he took backwards. Unless he were incurable, he would not keep this up. Egdoah was joined to our party, a pleasure to me, learning the Prince had so decided. Moth came to sit with us at our fire. The sun was setting, a number of slaughtered sheep roasting—the meat, salted, to keep us the whole of our journey.

“The traders will not let me alone. They ask for fortunes, and I tell them I am only a poor placeholder. And never to be Totem-Maker.”

“Well, fairly, we don’t know that I am. But I will take the rest away and make what I can of them. The Prince means Lord Ei to appoint you tollkeeper. Then, Moth, you had better not permit the traders wagging you about.”

“Be solemn,” Egdoah said. “Be of heavy face, and hand like so.” He thrust a hand palm-up, eyes and mouth assuming a stone-carved mien. Castor laughed, I smiled…and Moth nodded, somewhat laughing, somewhat afraid of Egdoah, and suspecting him. Perfume wafted to us, the night perfume of a meadow breathing before the fall of rain. And the perfume that heralded our Princess.

Her husband was at her side, but they had come in full trust, without servants.

“We are in accord, we have haggled our way to it. He balks at auspices, and I tell him the Totem-Maker commands the auspices. The Prince will beg a simple casting of you, and the holy ones will not oppose a night of storytelling.”

“Noakale dares,” the Prince said. “Her tribe has ranged far, and the strange gods of the Alëenon may recall them, in mercy.”

“Noakale,” I said, “commands the Totem-Maker.”

With the hint of a wink, I said it. I busied myself with tablet and tiles, looked no one in the eye, and did not perform all of Castor’s jests. My mission was to please the zhatabe…who might be a great lover of ceremony, or wry of humor…

Or—so well surrounded by sycophants—distrusting of abasement, demanding of it nonetheless. My casting was of the hours, never time enough for deeper puzzles. The sixth hour of this night’s date, fixed otherwise at such time as the gods ordained, received the fish—but this simple game cannot foretell where wealth will go. The ninth hour we know much diminished in might and gold, but in troubles and heavy labors also.

We would all be asleep by then.

Yet the ninth was wev. Meaning that as fortunes flowed, lessening, so would they go forwards; if by little, a slow descent to life’s dark midnight, and rebirth. If by much…

“But,” I said to the Prince, “one night’s fortunes will end in dreams and the promise of day.”

“This is no trick? The gods do not move those hands of yours to tell me my own fortune…?”

 

 

 

134

 

 


 

 

“Vlan. The gods do as they will.” I made the sign, only because he had startled me to confess such a fear. He made the sign himself, clumsy at it; he copied me, I felt. I had never seen him pious.

“We sit at the second hour and are blessed by the owl. Tell on, Lord Prince, how it was you took the daughter of Kale-Kale for your wife.”

 

 

He was a younger brother. He did not count himself a man contented in his nature. The land his father permitted his watching, was sparse of such fertile shallows where crops thrive. Samatho—the Prince named himself for the first time in our acquaintance—liked well enough to see things grow. His sparrow mind could bear wandering in cool pines, gaze flitting to the clouds that augured rain or sun, down again amid duff and straw, to spy strange jeweled domes and velveted pennants. It was forbidden to trap young things in spring, and so he idled and knelt, and studied what he knew were dwellings of the woodspirits, shimmered visible in the witching times of greening and browning, winter’s and summer’s ends; while in the spirit world these brief purples and reds, these mushrooms and blooms that fold and rot, have passed an age.

He could not be made a farmer, but a good dinner on the table pleased him. (Though writing so, I feel I must say that this is something of our own expression, my people’s, our tables carried to our couches, our use of cutlery and golden cups, our hands cleaned between courses… The northerners take meals around their fires, their women and men seated alike on skins, the poorer on gathered leaves. They rise with their flint-knives and drinking vessels, they sport half-dangerously over the spitted meat, they sup from skulls of animals sacred to this clan or that, and our southern ways have no civilizing virtue, for returning to their homes the northerners forget of their sojourn among us.)

He had nothing constant in the stars of his birth. His patch was a grudging offering, as Samatho was one place from the heir. Which is to say, the eldest son lived, two middle sons had died, and a younger still a child counted for little, being sickly, and the mother sickly, a bounty bride. The craggy hillside overlooked the lush encampments of the Kale-Kale, who endured the vagaries of the floods, keeping their wealth aloft in stilted houses. This camp was a sight, a bafflement; a source of jealousy, this tribe who traded with the traders…yes, those same of the land beyond the Citadel, who wend westwards for miles uncounted, and eastwards again.

Restless of foot, Samatho climbed down to the plain, seeing activities among the Kale-Kale, a circle of drummers and dancers, a parade of women whose dress to his eye seemed fine and bright. This tribe always had fringed the skirt of his father’s kingdom; they were dark with the love of the sun, and their hair was dark, and long.

 

 

 

135

 

 


 

 

Barking of dogs stopped the dance. His own had run ahead, while he wavered, disguised by the bole of a tree, one whose roots clung to rock as though a winter jug of honey, lightly warmed by fire, were poured there to bead and ooze. He had wanted to hide from the eyes of women, not thinking of his companion.

The fathers of the tribe sat busy at their talk, careless hands tossing scraps from the feast. Samantho’s dog, Ia, joined in the fray…

And was indulged, patted on the head, spoken to.

“Out from there, fellow,” the Kale elder, the others making way, called up, striding forth with his staff.

Samatho, unclean, ungracious in manners—which awareness of his fault could not correct—stumbled down to them. The steep slope and its pine straw brought him to a sudden seat, mortified.

For a while he kept there, from pride, the elder coming to stand over him. “Call your dog, will you?”

Their speech had a music to it, the words half-understandable, as to myself with the Balbaecan tongue. Samatho heard laughter…and if much had not been female, he might have drawn his knife in challenge.

Sullen, he got to his feet. “Ia! Ia!”

The dog ignored him.

“Samatho, is that your name? Son of our protector, the King Dars Gesvar.”

(A pale-haired man, come to his land a stranger, as the name translates from the northern speech to this.)

“I have never seen you.” Sullen, Samatho gave this answer.

“A solitary youth, who does not fit himself for company, who walks the forest, plays upon a bone flute, wishing to entice the birds to his snares. But birds have wisdom, and Samatho has not.”

“Ia!” he shouted. “Ia!”

At once, he felt he had erred. Dogs must fend for themselves, choose their homes…so it is always, and so he ought to have turned on his heel. He did now, consoling himself as very slowly he climbed, and still his feet slipped, and still he heard the laughter of girls, that he would never see them again. He would not make this mistake twice.

A sense of eyes on his back made him turn. That, of this day, his only other memory. A tall girl, an older girl, stood next the tribal chief, and Samatho disliked what her smile promised.

The sickly boy was dead. He had died before that day, but Dars had closed his fortress in mourning, and sent no message. Mourning, he did not feel. Now the bride could offer him nothing, he had ordered her poisoned.

 

 

 

136

 

 


 

 

Yet King Dars knew himself in peril with the gods. He scorned Samatho for an heir; this son was not obedient…

“He said that I was not obedient. I was not reverent to him. The Darsdena count the death of an eldest death of the house. For, true, my people henceforth will bear my own name.”

“Only…you have no son or daughter?”

“I have both.” The Prince laughed—that I had thought so.

“Noakale is your favorite wife,” I guessed. “But, children of her tribe do not…?”

“No, we have none, the two of us. In that you are not mistaken. And no, her children could not, had they been born, be called Darsdena.”

“But at this telling, your elder brother still survived.”

“Perhaps you anticipate how it was his marriage brought me back to the Kale-Kale.”

Invited to, I could. “Your father was spendthrift, drained his treasury, sought to restore it. Drained, spent…both those things, perhaps? Finished, for wives whose families would accept an old man. And the fortune he coveted needed wooing by fortune.”

“Hmm. Well, you have the right of it. But when he borrowed of the Kale chieftain, he would not speak for himself. Lower himself. By means of gossip he had gained…you will not be astonished…a picture of far more than had occurred. You have befriended them, he said to me. Hach’kale Liben you have spoken to, he will recall you. My father put four coins in my hand. I assumed this man he named was that elder I had been insulted by. Never from that day had I had to do with them.”

“Insulted by,” Noakale said.

Her husband reached for her hand, kept it in his, but did not banter.

“Each coin represented a sum requested. And that was how the bidding of your father was conveyed.”

“Yes. By custom.”

“My Lord Prince, I am not prompting you to finish quickly. I surmise, because this is the custom everywhere.”

“Totem-Maker.”

He left off, leaving me to surmise further that I’d gleaned too much of his contempt for his father, expressed this observation too openly; that I would tuck another lesson away, as to caution and familiarity.

Noakale spoke to him in their own language. She shot me a glance, that said you and I have a secret. To ward away speculation upon myself, then, I brought out the totem and meditated. The secret was that her tutorials had broadened my understanding…I knew what they said.

 

 

 

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She told him that by the will of the gods, I could not be possessed or controlled. That I was patient, but that I need not be. That I would return and bring news, but that I need not return.

And while I kept my face preoccupied, the Prince said in reply, this emissary I would lose gladly enough. All our conversations have been a thwarting of my plans. Now I am to be on tenterhooks, unable to act…and she I rely on for counsel, counsels ignorance.

Oh, does she?

Please, peace. Do not pretend.

There are those I count wiser than myself. In the legends of my own people…

She cut herself short. Disquieting. Bravehearted, ever sensible Noakale, had thought of words she feared to speak. I came close to lifting my eyes and asking her: What legend?

But I asked this instead of the totem in my hands. Its color, for a moment, shimmered green.

“Totem-Maker, accept my apology. Now… I was careful of my state, and descended by the road, and a company of my father’s men marched behind. I felt the showing was good…for the girl’s sake. I recalled her scorning me.”

“Your memory played you false.”

“I recalled I’d thought it. My memory plays in a simple key, love. And if it were not for simplicity you chose me…”

“Ha. It was your face. And that your pride needed breaking, or you would do yourself an injury.”

Hach’kale Liben knew the soldiers stood for threat, and gave orders for a grand hospitality, rivers of wine. In his own house, with his wife and daughters, he feted Samatho more circumspectly.

“One coin for a thousand, two coins for two thousand, eh? Four coins, then, and not five? How much above the purchase does your brother want? When you eat under my roof you are family. I expect, between you and me, frankness, Samatho.”

Liben spoke the Darsdena tongue, a hidden gift. But Samatho did not lie, in his bewilderment. He understood of this negotiation only one thing, that Liben expected profit from his investment.

The gong sounded. The means of climbing to the lower stage of this manor, sprawled over its forest of legs, was a cage of rope. Below much village living took place. Berries grew in pots, flowering vines in baskets, singing birds were kept in cages, sellers of crafts sat on cushions, their wares at their feet. A trio played longnecked instruments, a fisherman emptied his net for Liben’s cook, and two at a jogging pace—readily seen, for the Kale-Kale constructed flights of open decks with moveable walls of woven reeds—left the road returning and made for Liben’s entry.

 

 

 

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That road. Samatho fell entranced for a moment, thinking of it. A way beyond his father’s land that others, in liberty of whim and choice, travelled. The newcomers climbed, hailing Liben, who rose and called to his wife. She with her daughters was curtained away, their chamber reached by steps that also served for benches…below, where the men held important talks. Samatho was told to go up to the women.

“I have news. The news may concern you, but I shall have to hear it. We’ll see, we’ll see…”

Liben was off, whistling an air, lending a hand to the messengers, and Samatho, in difficulties with his pride, passed through the curtain. He refused food and drink; he gave short answers to Liben’s wife. But her learning surprised him…she spoke Darsdena to best her husband, and knew of the king’s late conquests, and the state of his purse.

She sent two daughters to perform an errand, the exchange low-voiced, glances and smiles sent his way; while Samatho, piqued, sat deaf to all he might have half-understood.

“My middle girl, Karabitha Noakale. What lands does your father promise you upon your own marriage?”

He did not dwell in such isolation as to miss this close comingling, of daughter and marriage. “Unless my father and brother both were dead, I expect nothing at all.”

Liben’s wife thrust at him a stick of peeled bark. “Now, now. Put that in the fire. Pray Chos, forgive me. Carry my words by the west wind, lest the sun set on them.”

He knew the prayer. He understood he was to repeat it. The girl, Karabitha Noakale, tapped him on the shoulder. “Stubborn? Pray Chos-kit steal away mischief from your heart. Suppose, boy, you were to marry wealth? Is it in that heart to wish ill on your father and brother, when you have no need of theirs?”

He pushed the stick in the fire, and said, loudly enough to draw a laugh from the other side of the curtain: “Pray Chos forgive me.”

She tapped him again.

He finished. “Carry my words by the west wind, lest the sun set on them.”

(Chos-kit was the god’s bastard, the only of his two hundred children not born of his wife. She, this great mother of the northerner’s faith, was then no Aza, who could not have spawned so unseemly.)

“You wonder why Noakale had her way with me. I knew my position, and I knew my danger. Not even from displeasing Liben, but for displeasing my father. And if I cost my brother his ambition, he too would have my head. Then, Liben’s wife, who was my elder and a lady… And the girl, of course. She had insulted me badly to call me boy. But she touched me, and I felt something lingering in it.”

Through all prompt and balking, rage and fear, longing and reluctance, the Prince had seen clearly one thing to do. He put himself right with the god he had paid few respects to.

 

 

 

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“There,” Liben’s wife said. “Now perhaps Liben, for the sum he is willing to lend, would prefer some assurance. Life, for fighting men, has its perils. Your brother has no house of his own, and the house a son builds ought to stand against the father’s. As to do justice.”

She lifted her shoulders, apologized if she spoke badly in this difficult language, but surely Samatho saw her meaning. She offered him tea, and he gulped it down this time, rather than dare think. The house a son builds ought to stand against the father’s.

No, there could not be…

“But he may become husband to the daughter of King Tubalt, and die that very day.” She drew a roll of bark, tossed it in the flames. “God send the young man health and joy.”

 

 

When Samatho returned to his father, he reported the Hach’kale so impressed that Dars Gesvar should honor his house with such unlooked for, most humbling, patronage, as to insist on a greater sum than asked. Samatho with the care of all his heart, unpacked the clay tablet he could not read, nor any of his father’s household.

“Father, Liben would marry me to his daughter. Her name is Karabitha…”

“No.”

“Father…”

A faint smile had for a moment encouraged Samatho. The King might jest. He had never been seen to do so, but the jar sparkling its gold coins, the second jar, and the third, laid at the King’s feet by a ceremonious train of servants, had put a flush in his cheeks. Tubalt, there for the concluding of the bargain, and Samatho’s brother Dobran, leant to bask in the heft and music of wealth.

Tubalt nodded to Samatho, a frozen figure on knees, proffered hands clutching the tablet; this, and its bearer, unaccepted. “A contract, Dars! A contract, set down in terms. What does it say, boy?”

“I don’t know.”

“Have you married the girl already? What have you bound your father to?”

A rough way King Tubalt had about him, nothing intended ill…

But Dars, hard-handed and vain, woke to suspicion. “Contract? In Kale hen scratchings on mud! What do you mean, Tubalt, bound? He has not my authority to make agreements. Never with the Kale-Kale! Begone, you will not marry this girl! I will make a marriage for him.”

Samatho was dispatched to a different exile, made lieutenant to one of Dars’s captains, to our own Emperor subjugated…as mercenary, for a first campaign of ten years. A first sea voyage. The wife the king had chosen was sent to him.

“She dwells even today in the Emperor’s household. She pleases him.”

 

 

 

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I did not ask the Prince if he doubted the parentage of the boy and girl. Noakale stood, decisive, and her husband went to her side.

“That, my Princess, is not all the story.”

“No,” she said to me. “But enough. And what you cannot divine, I will tell. Tubalt, having gained a son-in-law and a fortune in gold, rid himself of the son-in-law and kept the gold.”

 

 

I knew the answer I would receive. I knew the scouts would return, report the way passable, that I would sleep my first night in a third country. We could not hope, though with a dawn beginning, to make more than seven leagues. Yet visible from where I stood were the sentinel stones marking the border.

To my eyes visible, while the sky remained clouded and moonless, the hour of sunrise unheralded by birdsong. I had my strong totem in my right hand, one of the lesser in my left. Mine had declared itself for wisdom…my good counsellor, my annoyance. It warned me of things, augured for me I should never again set foot on the Balbaecan plain, never see Moth, which grieved me. Never Lord Ei, Jute…I had known this already…nor never merry Pravor Tnoch. Never the forbearing Lady Darsale.

I would not return to Monsecchers, true, and known, also.

I sensed no parting complete from the Prince and his wife. But the totem spoke of a troubling fate, of a power to undo a world, even a world of one heart, which I doubted could be. Yes, the second. The power I believed in; I did not want to face it, and discover its nature.

At this thought my totem said, and yet. I said, to remind it of duty, “Courage. But, Totem, courage can’t be the name for this virtue I seek. Say resolve. Resolve with…”

My vision was a legend, how the great flood came to overrun the earth.

 

 

The gods had invited their enemy Iokka to feast with them, to accept their gifts and to offer his. For Ami, despairing of his bickering children, would endure no more.

Each had a province and a people, who prayed and burnt the entrails; the six daughters and the six sons equal in wealth and honor. But Iokka, seventh and last son, had no province, as none remained. He sought endlessly to harm his elders.

“Is it a horse you’ve brought? A fine animal…how do you propose, little brother, to divide it in twelfths?” This from the firstborn, Amira.

“But Brother, you know my poverty. You would not care for such trinkets from my house as I could spare. You must, therefore, be wise, and make trade among yourselves. I have sacrificed the best thing I have, which is more than the least of you can say.”

And Iokka, in his troublemaking way, saying least, looked at his youngest sister Zaza. He saw her bridle and blush, cast eyes at the little purses she had woven from dews and sun-sparkle. Amira had given each a magical egg, each to hatch a wish.

 

 

 

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“Zaza, break your egg and wish you had made better gifts,” Iokka whispered to her. She snatched up her treasure instead, cradling the egg safe as though he might steal it.

To his brother slowest of wit, Iokka whispered next: “Amira poses us a puzzle, does he not? I confess myself too dull to solve it. Shall I take back the horse?”

He willed his sister Bisha to speak. She, inclined by her nature to tally what others made use of, said, “Now? At the end of the feast when the meat and bread are gone and the wineskins are emptied? Congratulations! To have played such a trick on the honor of your hosts!”

To Gunda the Slow, Iokka spoke again, low-voiced. “They malign you. Who is cleverer than Gunda, yet cannot see the way clear? Use Amira’s gift. Your land is sunny, and your barns are full. Have you a horse as fine as this? I have not named him. I leave that to his new master.”

Gunda might have wished the horse his own…

He did wish it, but thought too late of this solution. Dazha, of the Misted Forests, the wise and quiet sister, had sense enough to wish the horse multiplied by twelve, but belayed by an impulse towards Iokka, she hesitated in cracking her egg, and amended this to thirteen. Amira spied the loom of chaos, but had no egg of his own, and could only rain upon deaf ears a repetition of: “Peace! Brothers and sisters, peace!”

Bisha, who was Goddess of the Rivers and travelled by barge, wanted the horse a broken nag, to teach Iokka that trickery earned its desserts. Zaza wished the horse at home again in Iokka’s stable. Leuntha, god of the Night Skies, dared wish for his father’s great mind in this, to divine the True Answer. In short, each sibling (though I have never heard this story give a complete list of the twelve wishes) broke the egg at the same moment, asking a different fate—upon the same poor animal!

Under the great pavilion disaster burst, a herd of fierce-tempered stallions…first twelve, then twenty, then a hundred, some worse for being lamed or crazed…mounted the tables, terrified the shrieking servants and musicians, broke the dishes, summoned a cacophony of dying cries from the trampled instruments…

And brought at last the four massive tentpoles down, escaping frenzied to run riot over the earth. The strike of each hoof raised a spring, fountaining in a thousand jets until all the land lay submerged and silent.

 

 

My Totem would have me contemplate this fable. From my childhood, when the old woman had told me it, I had thought of Dahza most. The impetus to be kind had stopped her being first to wish, and if she had, all the brothers and sisters would have got their share, eleven eggs (counting Iokka’s) remaining. At that small age I could not believe in a world so full of goodness that a generous act would be repaid by other generous acts; the chain of goodwill to repeat itself forever. But I sympathized…how I sympathized…with the goddess, for meaning, for trying. For failing, because we must fail.

 

 

 

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Here it was dawn, and time to say goodbye. Or soon, when cold limbs stirred, and even a prince might rise at the smell of breakfast… To the left-hand totem I said, do you understand? It is not courage I invest you with, but goodwill.

The face sharpened and the eyes closed like a cat’s, an acquiescence.

But this totem I felt obeyed me. I felt strong, and accepted its wish to be ruled.

Moth I found playing servant, on padded feet entering my tent to empty it. When he had chivvied me away, he folded this, helping to tie, with one of the soldiers now under my command, my baggage on Cuerpha’s back.

I moved myself further and further from those who worked, and I watched the Prince’s camp for an embassy, the party I thought surely would cross the meadow to say farewell, fortune attend you, return with good speed…

Noakale came out, her gaze fixed on me as she approached.

For the cold she was well-wrapped in skins, and wore a hat of combed shearling, and strode tall, refusing me by some means, with her hard steps and grave face.

I knelt. “Do not,” she said.

“Princess, this totem I have made is yours. If the Prince requests one…”

“Why, what will he use it for?”

Standing small before her, I felt detected, seen for what I’d meant to do. “I would have made one that would counsel him…”

“Against war,” I finished.

“And what do you call that quality, to oppose war? Can you make a totem of peace?”

“No. Of clemency. Of…reluctance.” My voice half-deserted me. “Of inaction?”

“Creature. Are you a maker?”

“Today I am. Yes. But I falter because you know. I had been going to tempt you. Test you, perhaps.”

“I believe I have treated you well.”

I might have wept for the austerity of this. “But I have made a totem of goodwill. You could not do much harm with it. Won’t you like…”

Suddenly she bent and hugged me, and I was forgiven.

“Give your gifts to the zhatabe. And be a scholar, as I’ve told you. Read my people’s history. Things of earth are wise, and we use them. Things of the gods…? No, not for the Kale-Kale.”

Her husband stood off; I hadn’t known it of the northerners, but Egdoah explained. He used a word, fhewen, and gestured with his fingers trotting like a horse. He turned his back to me, then grinned round.

Which gave me to understand that partings, figures receding to invisibility, frightened them, awaked their terrors of the ghostly realm. They did not follow this with their eyes.

 

 

 

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Chapter Nine

Lore and Lessons

 

 

I ordered my mission as Cime’s old teachings, as stories I knew, and my intuition compelled. Before us in stages, we sent our scouts. They returned, and reported the way clear, or needing the labor of clearing. Pravor Castor, far more travelled than I, told me we must ride, and our drivers guide the wagons, well-spaced through the mountains. Within shout of one another if bandits showed, but for the practicality otherwise, of falling boulders killing only a few, destroying only a part of our supplies. On our third day (I got it from him, patient in outfacing his sly jokes), Castor forecast a month’s ride, the gods giving kind weather. Else a winter in camp.

“Castor, the Prince will long since have counted our cause lost, in such case.”

“Totem-Maker, he has never counted our cause but lost.”

“He will hold off attacking, do you think? For the time a reasoning man would allow we might yet send word?”

“A reasoning man! When I see him, I will tell him you said that, at once.”

“I love the Prince, but Noakale is all his reason. Does he not say so himself? Now, answer.”

“He will hold off attacking for, perhaps, a season. Or let me say, for the remainder of this season. By autumn’s end… But far sooner, if his men begin to squabble and steal, will he curse you and send his army to the Citadel’s gate.”

“Madness. The Emperor may dispatch the whips from coast to coast and never raise such a force, as to throw life after life into the flames. Any foothold gained would be self-imprisonment.”

“Yes, but you would counter the Emperor’s plan with no plan at all.”

“Because! Who controls the Citadel controls all the known country hereabouts, but why does the fact of power justify the seizing of it?”

Castor left me, laughing, for this.

By day, snowfields on the mountain flanks making for me a fine reading light, I sat Cuerpha and studied Noakale’s gift. When my head wanted a rest, I exchanged her book for needles and yarn, and knit myself new entries for my dictionary. The tales, I recounted in camp to my companions, so to fix them well in memory.

We slept in twos and threes, and we did not tether our animals. Too often in the dark, and especially then (though I suspect it was loneliness and quiet…by day we could see, and our guides sang sweet ballads to chase away the gods’ anger), terrible splinterings, or rumbles well-disguising their source, would wake us and we would roll tight against the rockfaces where many before us had left signs of their sheltering.

 

 

 

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We passed a place with the road gone, and no help for it. The mountain in her rage had half-leveled herself here, a great tonnage of boulders, spiked with trunks of trees. A few lived, of trees…

But Castor pointed to me, just as I’d started a remark on the worthy quality of resilience, that this fall of rock was haunted. A landmark for wayfarers, a warning.

He pointed, and I saw; quite several of a travelling company could be discerned…their bones. Portions of flesh, where flesh sits thin, had mummified, but next to a desiccated arm, an open cavity between ribs…

Of course, the dead men, and women, perhaps, had been food for scavengers.

Their faces—for, yes, they had them, the shape and suggestion of faces, so human after all—were pitiable, and not frightening.

“But you see, had they been wise… They were caught, all, none free to free his friends. A long death. We do not hope for that!”

No. Castor was ushering us, at our distance from one another, down and up a makeshift road the traders had ploughed out for their wagons.

I took some dismay, that beauty so rich, air so cleansing, sounds so echoing of all times, as though each eagle’s cry froze a fresh note upon the last, should lie in a land so perilous. When we reached a cavern, allowing us to gather, to rest our animals, fill our waterskins, send out foraging parties, I had even less chance to feel at peace, to listen and see with all senses undisturbed.

“Yes, we fill the skins,” Castor had told me. He enjoyed introducing new fears. “In some places, there is no snow. Water flows here underground, if it flows at all.”

 

 

Now, I will speak to my reader of thoughtful things.

Once before, I have told how it came to me, leaving the first country of my birth, arriving on the shores of the Balbaecan plain of the Alëenon, that strangers knew not our gods. They had raised there gods of their own. My years were but twenty-two, and often I had seen impiety, I had known men and women to laugh at the rituals, give alms with a sportive wink… I had felt offended by this. I was of the priestly class. I was a being like no other, granted of my Father-God, Lotoq, the powers of a seer.

I wished always to be pleasing to Lotoq, and tried to cultivate humility. Too easily small authority, a gift, becomes a possession. Purity in self-effacement is pursuit, not achievement. I say this, because if you have attempted it, you will guess the trap. Can I love Lotoq for the power I hold, if I am not to recognize that I hold power?

But my wish to be godly was pride. I still could see, wanting not to, that impiety was never so roundly and swiftly punished as in stories we tell, to teach, what wisdom perhaps…

We must find in ourselves the reward of. Often, impiety is not punished at all.

 

 

 

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I return to the story of Bani. Those two of our party who were the Citadel’s, the traders’ people, came to me for nightly studies by firelight. They told me the zhatabe knew my book’s symbols, the strange lines of pictographs; that the learned lady (Noakale) knew them, and that writing, they knew, was the work of spellcasters. It must be so, for only such things as rare occasion demands could be forgotten.

“All this road, we could not know our own hands better. I can draw you any part of it.” The woman, Ba’ahn, whose furs and knitted overshoes were no different from the man’s, Diira, nor were her labors, with a wedge of stone on the cave’s floor showed me this. The map of her travels she carried all in her head. How to spot a hare against the snow, how a hawk differed from an eagle, were taught in furrows of sand. And these swift strokes were faultlessly observed. “Yes, I can tell you the signs…that place there, where the poor guardians sleep. I warn you not to pass unless you would leave bread for heaven.”

We had, made our due sacrifice, and of impiety, I could mention Castor’s contained mirth, feinting that he would restore the bread to his pack. He had not. To Ba’ahn and Diira, the guardians lived in twilight, and visited the gods they could not join. Our kindness ensured our luck…they would intercede and beg the mountain hold her temper, let us pass.

I spoke to our guides in the language I knew I must learn well. I framed questions; I accepted words as they pronounced them, begged their patience in speaking slowly to me. The zhatabe must have at least doubts I could be lied to. He must guess, from my having learned a little, that I had means to learn a lot, and that the Prince who had sent my embassy cared that it succeed.

Yet Castor had the truth of it; the Prince could not be at ease with his superstitions. He wanted me to be wholly magic, but having only me in whom to invest this wish—not a comfortable stone idol, but a small person—he would far rather see my plan fail. But see it…that was essential. He could not feel right unless certain I was wrong.

And that my reader see, I mention again the story of the flood. My Totem’s deeper meaning I had no power to discern just then. I had not passed those signposts along the way, which belatedly, I did interpret.

Not to meddle with powers too great for ourselves is ever the warning of the gods. But in our human taking notice of things, we intuit…more so as we age and remember, that many events of legend are not possible.

In ancient times miracles had been; in foreign places, they might be still. But a horse’s hoof cannot strike a spring to inundate the land. We do not witness this occur. And Escmar, of whom I’d told you, changed to a bird and wounding the moon in her frantic flight of grief…

 

 

 

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Well, if the gods were greater in knowledge than those they had animated (in my first country, humans were risen from the insects; to the northerners, we were created by Chos in his own image); if indeed they were foreknowledged of all things, why permit the world to suffer, or why punish foolish Escmar for a vanity she had not the worldliness to master in herself?

 

 

Bani’s father, and the men of the shantytown, putting skins on their feet, wrapping themselves in windings of tattered grey cloth, ventured to the mountain…ventured there when dawn had just lightened the sky. They knew that this, not midnight, was the hour of stealth. The strangers were not to be seen by the lake; at the other end of their tunnel, the Kale-Kale believed, lay their camp. And there they retreated after a day’s work.

The men saw wains piled with stone. They eased along the approach to the lake, apart from one another and crouched low to the cindered path. Spiny trees and thistly herbs grew on Lotoq’s toothed terrain, and creatures mouselike, so far as could be judged of them, scurried, leaving nested patterns of tiny jumping feet. Their camouflage the men trusted; light grew steadily and still, at their distance, and behind the many teeth of the god, they could not spot their fellows.

Sudden was the appearance from the tunnel mouth of a troop of laborers. Bani’s father thought these came in wariness, and yet thought it was Lotoq that frightened them. They fanned, to begin a curious action of toeing rounded stones that lay near the lake’s shore. Learning a thing by this, they would bend, lift, and weigh the rocks in their hands.

From the tension of their arms, Bani’s father deemed it the lighter, not the heavier, they sought. Each Kale-Kale was now islanded and helpless to confer or plan. Each had a skin of water. The sun, with the hours, poured a greater misery on the father of Bani; but not a stitch of the covering that disguised him could he remove. To take a drink must be a slow, cautious business.

Then, bringing his skin to his lips at last, he was startled by an outcry among the laborers. Their shouts to his ears were a jabber of staccato noise…

But one keened and moaned, and held a hand as though he would shake it free from his body. The others clearly said, no. No. They pointed to the bed of the cart. No, no. The man peered, and let himself be comforted. He went back to his work, but managed himself now in a feckless, timid way.

And why? Bani’s father wondered. Some stones of the mountain were airy; it was said among the Kale-Kale that these were birds caught in the wrath of Lotoq, diminished to a vague shape of what they’d been…

But birds valued for bearing away heat when laid in embers, good to dig into the soil of one’s garden. He told himself the troubled fellow was a halfwit.

 

 

 

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After long tedium, after a doze of minutes or hours, for which Bani’s father rebuked himself, the sun left in a wink. It seemed so to the men hidden on Lotoq’s flank; the rays reached only the rim of the bowl, gilded it, and left cold shadow within.

Noises from the workers were of scuffling and fastening, and a subdued humor.

Then, once more, the near-recognized voice of the halfwit: Aaaaaaaaaah!

Shut up! Shut up! Bani’s father knew the halfwit’s fellows said nothing other; and they smacked him with their hands. His cries…he had fallen to the ashy earth and curled there like a child, became incoherent speeches, resolving bit by bit into a repeated phrase, and open weeping.

The workers clustered away from the wagon. Their antics had much to teach, things the company of Bani’s father had come to learn. But the wagon bed…

Now the sky had darkened, they saw that it glowed, a line of green that glimmered as lightning will, far away. A lamp to itself, this stone of evil…it could not be named otherwise…showed among the rest a sinister split down its middle.

The Kale-Kale went to their homes for the night. Their disguises they sought to improve; they thought of hollowed reeds for their water skins, fleeces to rest their knees on, and foodstuffs their dreams had wandered to the day before.

Then armed they went, and doubled in their number.

For they had counselled late, until the stars told the hour of departure neared and they must sleep. This violation of the god’s fortress, the frightful stones stolen from him…

The signs read thus: the strangers meant to work some potent magic.

Sacred things are a gift from the gods to men. We know this, for the gods live in happiness without us, and did for uncounted time before they toyed with the creating of us. The gods allow us to breathe and touch holiness, to draw from it what we will. This is their mercy to us. They punish those who offend them, regardless, yet their powers are their own, as the garment of a giant must fall to folds around a man, leaving him undressed. So the bolts of the gods slay the righteous and the unrighteous alike, for they cannot temper their might to the size of humankind.

The chieftain of the Kale-Kale knew this. “This is why we must act in defense of our Lotoq, to allay his wrath. The mountain god will quiet himself if we please him. He will not wait long to shrug, if we do not.”

Bani writes how the fathers of the tribe then bemoaned that warfare should come upon them. “Such belongs to the Emperor. He has catapults and engines of fire, and we have only our axes and arrows.”

 Another replied: “No poor man sees the Emperor. In his courtyard petitioners wait for days, granted audience only when he takes a whim to it. The god cares nothing for the vanity of a foreign conqueror, and will not forgive this delay. When his flames fall from the sky, they fall on us—even at times do they spare the great men of the city. Yet, how much do we deserve this fate, if we tell ourselves that idling is acting, provided we intend a great result?”

 

 

 

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The fear of evil at length was enough. Fifteen men went, where five had gone before, and armed with weapons of three sorts: a weighted net to tangle feet; a light, feathered spear to strike from a distance; and a short axe for fighting hand-to-hand. Wrapped again in their dusty cloths, prepared for vigil or for combat, they padded onto the flank of Lotoq, with a greater confidence and a greater fear.

The day was cloudy. The lake of Lotoq danced with plumes of steam. Hours passed, while the orb that now and then pierced the haze rose to its midday post. The Kale-Kale watched, and the tunnel mouth yawned. A small mounted company at last nosed into view, their ponies’ hooves picking through the rough stone and ash. These men wore breastplates, and bound to their saddles carried casques and lances. The halfwit, with a lance, was prodded ahead. Today his attitude was of frozen doom.

Some order came from the headman, the poor fellow able to take only a step or two. The headman then commanded others, of the workers, now filing to the lake on foot, to seize him and walk him forth. At the wagon’s side, the halfwit shook his head in a waking fashion, and spoke to his escorts. They dropped his arms.

He bent to the bed, drawing out a stone…with no glow in daylight, therefore no crack to be discerned, but surely the green and evil one. To Bani’s father, and to a man called Rathinihama, the elder who led them, the halfwit’s task became apparent. He carried the stone slowly to the lake’s edge. He would submerge it, and the proof they needed to gain the Emperor’s ear be lost.

Rathinihama stood, and cried, “Halt!”

The man let the stone fall. Split in full, it exposed a wondrous crystal, faceted in yellows and emeralds. Steam rose and obscured the sight of it for seconds, then vanished on a sharp breeze. The legs of the halfwit gave, his body landing face to the sky, eyes astare. He seemed in some way stunned or overcome, for it was clear he was conscious.

The headman, his pony reined back to the tunnel mouth, his cloak held to shelter him, changed the start he’d given to a smile. He made an obeisant move, a lowering of his head, hand to heart. He spoke, and gestured, and his men put their weapons away, while the workers sat crosslegged—what must be this people’s offering of peace to a stranger.

Rathinihama climbed down, and Bani’s father behind him. The thirteen unhid themselves, and climbed down, too. Their spears they brandished.

“I have some of your language,” said another of the mounted men, nodded to it by his leader. “You think evil of us, but nothing so. We are thieves, yes.” His smile was engaging. “You have an enemy. Or you call him Emperor, but he is our enemy, yes…he is the enemy of many. The stone is beautiful, is it? Yes, and this Emperor will pay you well…you craftsmen of the Kale-Kale. Ha!” His eye twinkled, as he beamed at Rathinihama. “Down the valley we thieves gladly would steal your wares, I say it! They are finest. But, master, you suspect me.”

In his indifferent way with their tongue, he had meant, you suspect what I am going to tell you.

 

 

 

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Go! Finish! This does not concern you.

The headman ordered the halfwit so, but it needed another, armed with a whip, to force him to the task. He held the pretty stone at arm’s length, averted his gaze, and waded into the lake. He waded further…

Bani’s father viewed him with alarm. It was known the lake was hot; that the waters delivered to twisted limbs relief, and that some, weak in the chest, breathed afterwards with strength, if they lay near the edge and covered themselves only to the neck. Attendants would hold them, for the sulphurous smell soon sickened in its own right.

The deeper waters could not be touched. The foreign commander, complacent, stared after the halfwit. The halfwit whimpered, but held himself. Skin began to float to the surface from his body.

“Why!” Bani’s father blurted. No one spoke. Only the Kale Kale understood him. “Why! Why!”

The halfwit gave a cry, and vanished.

“But the god!” Bani’s father shouted. Rathinihama seemed to wake.

“This is a poor thing you have done,” he said to the interpreter. “Why should you? You surely know…”

“A fit, demala.” The man pointed to his temple. “No, true.” He hadn’t words for what he wanted to convey, and showed them in pantomime. The fellow, a demala, or afflicted with the condition of demala, had been meant only to put the rock aside.

“He killed himself!” Bani’s father felt still incredulous and fearful.

“Yes, yes. Demala. The rock was yours. You will choose other you like.” The interpreter turned, to speak to the commander. The commander rode closer to the wagon, and from the height of the saddle, studied the rocks in its bed.

He seemed to say no. He gestured widely, then jabbed a finger at the tunnel.

The interpreter shrugged. He spoke in a low, cunning way. The commander backed his steed then, and shouted. His soldiers withdrew; the workers clustered, with every appearance of nervousness, at the tunnel mouth.

“We have digging. But you are rich. I been to say, you know me…” He lapsed again, at this unsatisfying pass, and returned to pantomime. The round, light shells of these stones might or might not conceal green crystals inside. Only breaking them would give proof. “Rich and beauty,” the man said. “What the emperor will pay, huh?”

“We can’t,” Bani’s father said. “Lotoq…”

It was an error, born of rising panic, but Rathinihama gained from it one spot of certain ground—that Lotoq’s name was not to be spoken. Bani himself, in this telling, gives his opinion that the green had aroused what a coveted thing will, in the heart of the elder. With blame to cast, he had excuse for removing the stones. Otherwise, the act of defiling the god’s stronghold would forbid it. But Rathinihama said, to a Kale Kale trader who outranked Bani’s father, “The harm has been done. We must take these stones and break them, and have the priests’ reading, to know how the god would have us appease him.”

 

 

 

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In the village, constructed (as mentioned) on two sides of a deep ravine, Bani’s father, and other cloths weavers and dyers were housed near the stream. The potters, too, needing water in their work, lived low, opposite the clothmakers’ bank. The stone carvers were here, for their heavy craft needed its materials loaded and unloaded from rafts.

Above were the stitcheries, where garments and draperies were made, and the spinning wheels and knitteries. On a level at the height of the road, foodstuffs were vended; in the highest lofts were the fine arts of tile painting and jewelry making.

Three master cutters were summoned to the meetinghouse and offered the crystals unlocked from three of the stones. The others had crumbled under the hammer. Six halves of differing quality lay arrayed on the carpet. Allel, senior of the masters, picked as his eye discerned, not the largest of crystals, but the most varied of hue. One stone cup held yellow with the green; the other, violet red.

Takel’kale chose for herself the longest and most translucent of the crystals. Mafi took what remained. And each resolved to surpass the others, to learn these crystals, splitting the lesser of them this way and that; then to design glorious temptation for the Emperor and his court. So enamored were the elders of this hope, of wealth beyond all knowing, that celebration and feasting followed, igniting spirits from the heights of the village to its depths, where even Bani’s father gave a pig to the spit, telling Bani all sacrifice would be twice returned in the coming time of plenty.

The sickness seemed, in light of so much downing of wine and rich food, an untroubling thing, an inconvenience to the jewelers. They worked with the weight of the village’s expectations, all their people’s receipt of scorn and abuse by the great of the city…

At the hands of these masters, all to be redeemed. And each, secretive, kept cloistered in the workshop, eating less and less for the pains in their stomachs, yet Allel, Takel’kale, and Mafi found in isolation their separate reasons to dismiss the malaise, to count themselves better on this day than on the day before.

Takel’kale worked feverishly (Bani’s term, and I cannot say if his humor was dark), to embed her art into ring and bracelet metals, which must be purchased from the city guilds, for the Kale Kale were allowed no forges. She woke on her mat, ten days from first touching the godstones, in a terrible itch and sweat, and when she went to the roof of the house below, her own terrace perch, she saw her pots of herbs green in the rain that day falling, and saw the veins of her hands and arms spidering, broken under the skin, the skin blotched purple.

Her painful scratching, which yet she could not stop herself doing, had opened these injured spots; they wept and bled. She scratched on, and when the raw wounds flowed, fell to her side. Under her ribcage, the ache was intense. Rain fell, cooling her. Alas, rain enough fell to show Takel-kale her own face, in the mirror of a puddle.

 

 

 

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The sickness touched all who had been near the stones, all who had borne them in baskets, all who had bent their faces close to admire what had seemed only loveliness. The three artisans, their servants and their apprentices, were dead. Others died, though in these the sickness prolonged itself, and the attack of it was not apparent on the outer flesh.

Rathinihama, who had reached a hand to caress the crystals, saw that hand, next the arm, wither. As the limb blackened, already he felt the agonies of the bowels, and understood himself doomed; he did not have the surgeon brought, to axe his arm above the elbow and cauterize it with the iron, knowing he would suffer what had killed some for the pain alone, and be fated no more mercifully for it.

His wish at the last, perverse to his attendants, was to have the adornments meant for the Emperor, things of a beauty surpassing all joy and pleasure, carried to his bedside on a low table. They pulsed there in the rays of sun, with a promise of evil…which the eyes of the Kale Kale could now recognize.

The attendants, for piety, had dared it, masking themselves and gloving their hands. They, like Bani’s father, fell ill, but recovered within the month. Rathinihama was wrapped in fleeces, and sunk in Lotoq’s lake, as were Takel’kale, Allel, and Mafi. All the dead, eighteen of them, were made to vanish.

Bani’s father, and the men of the mission, met with the elder’s successor, Zetihama.

“Ilota, Falzi, you men of the water, what do the people say?”

“Some have seen the dead and most have not. Most believe a plague came from the god, and they have made their altars, and they have refrained from meat and things of animals.”

“Most is a troubling word.”

“Hama, the men of our party had no cause for silence.”

“I will give you cause.” Zetihama rang, and a servant crept in. The Hama gestured, and the servant, not containing his breathing or the small cries he uttered, took a stick and raised a cloth. Under the cloth was a box of lead.

“I had fasted for four days. For four days more I held vigil for Takel’kale. For four days more I held vigil for Allel, and for four days more I held vigil for Mafi. This was when the god spoke to me, and bade me have their bodies given him in sacrifice. Will it defile your holy place, father, if I command you the others? I lay prone before the altar and did not stir until the god had blessed me with the parting of the clouds. The sun struck the Cicerca. I sat then, took nothing to eat or drink, but prayed one hundred times. I fell into a trance. Morning came, and again the god blessed what he had put into my thoughts. The jewels were taken from the room of Rathinihama, and placed in this coffer. I have laid hands on it myself. The god speaks truly; he cannot speak falsely.”

Long minutes passed. Zetihama said to them: “A fairer vessel must be crafted, to contain this leaden one.”

“You will…”

 

 

 

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Ilota spoke. He knew himself out of turn. He had looked at his betters of the council; had seen their eyes fixed on the weavings of the mat under their feet.

“Make a gift of these to the Emperor.” These deadly stones, he thought.

“No. We will show them to the Emperor, and he will give us gold for them.”

“The Emperor,” said a man called Takel’kalem, the brother of the artisan, “will put us to the torch for this.”

“Who will?”

“I allow,” Takel’kalem answered the Hama, “that we may sow some confusion. We may have time.” By this, the council found themselves in the thick of their plot, without the stating of it in words.

A feast, again, would supply a first excuse, sickness the wages of drunkenness and gluttony; they must hold off until the full of the moon, the Rainmaker’s Moon, the casks of winter wines to flow…

The coming ceremony would give reason for the village to buzz, if spies were curious. The ladies of the city to have their robes and headdresses; the men their feathered cloaks, jeweled sheaths, circlets for their brows…

The stage where priests would conduct their burnings and auguries must be assembled and festooned within the amphitheater…there too, on the days prior to the feast, the throng of a holiday market, goods displayed along the lower seats…

“We will have riches. Even the smallcrafters who are cheated, who last year lost all their labor to a company of soldiers, will…”

Takel’kalem had by this time warmed to possibility. “Be compensated. For a man of the Emperor may be shown the stones in private. He will carry word these glories are too well hid to be discovered, and will be destroyed in the lake of Lotoq, if we do not get our price.”

“But we must be well on the road before the curse overtakes them. Here!” Another unfolded a cloth, a painted map of known ways to the borderlands. “The road east meets this coming north and going south. Two roads, no more. They will suppose us to make south, for the sea. It is wise to escape by sea. Then, if we go north, to the barbarous lands, I point out to you, that is but a second way of two.”

“Yet north it will be. One day’s march. After, away into the hills. We have no other hope. We will…”

Zetihama lapsed into thought. Bani’s father began to fear he sought the god’s blessing, and that they would wait without food or drink, for the Hama’s meditations to end.

But he returned. “We will raid the soldiers’ barracks, for forged weapons. We must gather the rosira seed.”

“We can’t. They always pour out a cup for the table slaves, when the drink is of our brewing.”

“Lightly,” Zetihama said. “A seed or two.”

 

 

 

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They were faced with the problem of loyalties. How to secure them, when no persuasion could be breathed. The council’s reasons were strong, but secret; what they proposed wanted utter abandonment, utter embracing. All that the people knew and were comforted by, they must leave behind. They must obey in faith, and only after, be told why they had. They could carry their artisans’ tools, their packed provisions, a blanket, warm clothes, a second pair of shoes, hardly more. Nothing of weight, no musical instrument for joy, save a reed pipe, no animal too slow or skittish to walk, no small finery such as the villagers treasured, having little such…

At length the plotters came to admit it, that none of the infirm could go, none of the frail elderly. Children of a certain age could not go, unable to walk at an adult’s pace, too big to be carried. It struck the council this plan must be too harsh, and that some, confronted with it, might betray them. A second plan was arrived at, a second means of escape, into the thick forests on the western flanks of Lotoq, where the seawinds dropped their burden of rain.

I will not, for Bani does not, expand on all the Kale Kale did in preparation. Whether they did right, or ought to have turned aside, buried the crystals and suborned themselves forever to the Emperor, I would count a false conundrum. Some few hundred years ahead, Lotoq, on the day of my birth, would have altered the fate of Toboro, the city so known to the Kale Kale; the city built on their backs, on their labor.

I do not believe our Emperor of my day was of the same lineage as theirs. Fortune, thus, had intervened, though the plague of the crystals did not kill all the citizens of Toboro. It did not confer the holiness of martyrdom on the ruler of that day’s house. His heirs’ failure to enrich the nation or to guard it well, was their downfall…

Chance, in the fullness of time, chance to escape, would have come to the Kale Kale. They might, for grasping at freedom, have found they could feel entitled to freedom. They might have sought it, in the steady way of small works and small footholds, and in the passing centuries have gained it.

Reader, I feel that Curiosity, which we take lightly, is our true besetting sin, and a grave one. Zetihama and the men of the council had postulated this chain of events, this dramatic break, this flight. They could not return their minds to a long patience, leave their mission a legacy for the generation to come, the one after, and the next. They wanted the knowledge, now, of what would happen.

Bani’s father was charged with leading the villagers who could not or would not take the road, and Bani parted with him on that night of the festival.

“But won’t the soldiers scour the forest? And the demon-men, the white-faced ones? Where have they come from? What if they live there?”

“They don’t,” Bani’s father sighed. He was heavy-hearted with misgiving, but his misgivings were not the fancies of a boy. “Those demons were no other than the strangers at the lake. They had decorated their faces. What did the sage tell you? You must always remember what you know, for soon I can tell you nothing.”

Bani’s father and the villagers he trusted made tracks into the forest for days, carrying food and skins, and other things by which a new village might rise—rolled mats to wall thin shelters, basins for catching rainwater, stores of goods that might be sold, if the exiles found a home over the mountains, and returned to lead away their brothers and sisters.

 

 

 

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In Noakale’s book (I may say so today, though it took me many years to fully translate), Bani does not recount the fate of the second tribe. Yet I was not wrong to feel my kinship to Noakale sing in the blood. I knew it, and she knew it. The destroyed city of my birth had been the lost ones’ home, so I guess. Whence my mother fled, and Lom’s grandmother had been sold. The disaster would have been a great winnowing, of a people born into slavery. For the Emperor’s soldiers, or the next Emperor’s, must, as Bani feared, have scoured the forest, but they would not have slaughtered the very young.

 

 

Yet I reasoned the matter poorly. Or too well, too closely.

I spoke to you of thoughtful things, godly things. I raised the question of a God, an all-powerful god; or of a minor god, a local one. I spoke of legends, miracles of great ages past, the diminished magic of our present days.

Stones that hatched crystals…yes, at times I had seen them. And what the jewel-makers did with such was to crush the pretty gems, then with that glue made from boiled skins, lay the shards into recesses of metalwork, shaped as flowers or heavenly stars. The gems were of no better worth, lovelier left alone, to enchant a child.

I had touched them, these crystals. In the desolate place of my early years, often I gathered rocks to build small fortresses; or pebbles, speckled, striped, smooth to caress in my fingers. I was taught the usefulness of those airy and sulphur-scented rocks that polish wood, or lighten clay. And far later, I dug my totems…these, I call seeds. While stones, in our mythology, also were seeds from which the gods grew mountains.

You see that the poisoned green gems of the strangers, which brought the plague of Lotoq, left me no awestruck believer. Bani wrote in the language of symbol and puzzle. He called the sickness a punishment, for meddling with the holy, for greed unbecoming to the Kale Kale fathers.

Now, a story is told of a terrible time, when the earth shook; when the seas departed. When the people, frightened by strange night auras that danced at the farthest horizon, made a caravan, they and their beasts, and all their possessions. The caravan after many months’ travel crossed the barren place where the sea had been. The people arrived (though the story is a long one, full of sorrows and strangeness, and I tell the least of it) at the ruins of a submerged city, where idols peered, their faces clustered with bleached shells, and bleached trunks of trees, grown centuries old, stood among staircases rising to empty air. Where myriad columns, carved with the history of these unknowns, lay like a felled forest…

And the mightiest of noises rent the air, and the sea returned.

The story is invented; else, some lived to tell it. I accept that it may have been. The barren city held coffers of treasures, never after to be seen on earth, and the people…so the story says…knew them evil and would not touch them. For those who dared, who would have carried away the shining gems, were struck with fire.

 

 

 

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Chapter Ten

The Citadel

 

 

Our road began to descend. The trees clung less precariously to banks that did not vault, but sloped; soon the trees’ variety had much increased, and the loneliness of the mountain crags gave way to vivid life, to darting small game, birds that flitted alongside us, dropping to probe manure pats; or, when we camped, to steal a bite of meat from the spit.

Rockfalls no longer menaced. The way grew to a thoroughfare, broad and pebbled, with many wagons and riders making for the mountains. I could understand, having endured that nervous passage, the irony I heard in our guides’ voices, and the strangers’ answers.

“Live and return,” were the words of Ba’ahn and Diira.

The traders said: “Live in humility, with an empty purse.”

I asked Diira what was this curse, as her good cheer belied insult.

“We fast half-days under a waxing moon, until it has grown a seven-span, if the gods have allowed us peace on their road, and we spend nothing we carry from the plains.”

“Nothing?”

Ba’ahn slowed his mount, and fell in with us. There was space in this valley, which in shape was like the split logs, hollowed, that in Monsecchers brought water from the hills, for our company to spread and gather, gossip with those whose talk amused us most.

Ba’ahn said: “A new marvel for you, Totem-Maker. We will visit the palace in time, and you’ll see it, our gold and silver emptied into the zhatabe’s coffers.”

“Why? Or how?”

“For, that coins are not needed. Who has use for them? I want food and drink, shoes on my feet, a bed to sleep in, a garden where birds sing.”

“Yes, and so do I. But if I hadn’t these things, coins…”

He stopped me, and just as he spoke, I grasped what the zhatabe’s coffers had portended.

“In the city…but I will not name it for you…”

“He cannot. Some of our names are forbidden foreigners,” Diira said.

“Are they? And if I find favor with the zhatabe?”

“That is in their mind.”

I was puzzled. Her finality told me that the mind of the zhatabe…

But their. Was the zhatabe not a person, a sort of king…?

That, at any rate, the mind of the zhatabe…for a citizen to presume this…was another matter of the forbidden. “The city, Ba’ahn,” I reminded him.

“In the city all wants are provided.”

“Happiness, then, is universal? You have no lowly caste, no wealthy ones?”

 

 

 

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“No.” But he spoke in a conditional way, and I felt he meant yes.

“You will see,” said Diira.

 

 

When the roadway had broadened further, and on both sides stone foundations supporting bright-painted wooden houses, showed a growing town, I craned my neck to see spires or domes, or any grandeur that might amount to a palace.

I asked a child’s question: “Are we there?”

“We are at the traders’ town. You see the signs for rooms and stabling.”

I’d seen and hadn’t seen, not knowing what the little flags communicated.

“It is permitted to name this town Aran,” Ba’ahn told me, smirking somewhat.

“It has a name you like better, but won’t tell?”

“Not I,” he said.

Think of that, I said to myself. The zhatabe will catch you in the same way, if you leave room for two answers. Tents came into view, at the bottom of the slope; guards stood where wings of cloth were drawn and corded, and others…officials certainly…walked the queues of waiting travelers. Who had something to declare, I surmised.

“Will we pass?” I asked, my face turned to Diira.

“How can I say? Where is your friend? He has disappeared.”

Castor, I counted a doubtful friend, if one at all, but (to my annoyance) he had disappeared; he had taken my mission under his own command, I could well believe, and appointed himself spokesman. Ahead the roads diverged into three, starring outwards across a plain. Grain waved, yet in plots separated by pathways, bordered by low stone barriers.

But from this busy place of hostelries and declarations, the plain was blocked by a circular structure of high, carved pillars, lintels perched on every two.

“A temple?”

“No… Not as you mean. True, each city has a god, and each god has an altar, where the road begins. For blessing, if you ever travelled these ways, you would leave your offering.”

She paused, and so I said…I, the mischievous one this time…

“But I have no coins. I have given them all to the zhatabe.”

“Why should the gods be pleased with a coin?”

“Or why anything? If, Diira, you really mean to raise the question. Why do the Divine expect our offerings? Don’t they pity us enough to leave our puny wealth, when their own is boundless?”

“They do pity us. They know that nothing to them means too much to us. And if you cannot pass their shrine without the wish to cheat…”

 

 

 

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“Then why is a poor traveler in greater danger than a rich one? You, here, in the City Without a Name must have at least one such story, of highest sacrifice. In my first country, the story was…in fact…”

(I addressed myself when I said in fact, for I thought of the Kale Kale.)

“Of a great plague. The noble houses, the lords and ladies, all had thrown their gold into the smelting pot, and massed their gemstones in a pile. Celebrated artisans made glittering effigies of all the pantheon, hoping to offend none…”

“But they overlooked Ioka, did they not? The troublemaker.”

Castor spoke. He had sidled up through the crowd, as we were by now dismounted and leading our ponies at a shuffling pace.

“Another story, Pravor Castor. Mine is that where the plague vapored off, in the shimmer of a rainbow, when the Two Beggars brought their parcel of roots, which they had dug all that morning for their only meal.”

I sounded unbecomingly sarcastic, and had wandered far from the point. Which was no concern of Diira’s. She had left me and our talk, when Castor arrived.

“What news…?” I was not far from ending, have you been ferreting after?

“None much. But I bade a messenger be sent to the palace…on your authority. We may save a day or two’s wait.”

“Why,” I asked, after those we stood behind had moved the length of half a storefront, and we had followed suit, and Castor, by raising two fingers and hooking them towards us, had undermined my steadfast refusal to buy a cup of whatever liquid the shop’s proprietor was pouring from her array of urns and basins, “do we wait, in any case? The weather seems gentle. We can provide our own lodging, and… Thank you.”

I nodded at a hopeful face, sipped a sweet and bitter something, placed a benign smile on a mouth that might have puckered. The woman made a bow of reverence.

“Castor,” I stopped him answering me. “That word, I do not wish to have go out. You have not been mystifying among the people here, on the name of Totem-Maker.”

He struck one of his poses, hand on chin. “Well…if you tell me so. I have not been every place in the world, certainly. Of lore, I have read little. If I were to invent a name for myself, I grant you, how could I guess the name were not identical to one of legend in another land? An embarrassment for you, to call yourself Totem-Maker, then travel to the Citadel and find they have been expecting such a person.”

“I ought to have questioned you sooner. When will we have a private talk?”

“We are having a private talk. The people here don’t know our language.”

“Of course, some of them do.”

“Yes.” He sighed at me. “If my jests must make you a tedium, who worries at all meaning. If the Totem-Maker dares be only serious. But in seriousness, it makes no difference what you say to anyone. Or are overheard to say.”

I asked him again for what reason we stood in this procession.

“The one they await is meant to arrive humbly, to regard itself as of the common lot. It looks well in you.” He backhanded me between the shoulders, which I bore with common patience; I accepted from the hands of a stranger some wafers, folded triangles of dough, fried…his greased fingers relinquishing them, mine growing oily in turn.

 

 

 

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“But pomp,” Castor finished, “will acknowledge you soon enough, when the zhatabe send their escort.”

“Tell me what that means, zhatabe. Is the Citadel ruled by tribunal?”

“The Citadel is not ruled. Not precisely. The zhatabe are not a tribunal.”

Knowing him, I said: “They are not a council. They are not a married pair. They are not an assembly of elders. They are not…”

“Yes, yes, Tedium. They seek signs, the present zhatabe, among the generations of every twelfth year, and these children are sent to the Citadel…to be educated, to be followed by scribes and their sayings recorded. None of these holy matters is the affair of a street gossip like myself, and so I cannot answer much, if you wish to know what manner of education, and what manner of sayings…”

I did, but I was not shy to ask this face-to-face of the zhatabe; one member of the group, or all collectively. The education must be a sort of priestly training, the children to be themselves zhatabe, and the sayings would be like my own—too much anticipated, too often repeated, too deeply studied.

Another stranger, a wizened person carried in a sling on the back of a son, approached me with downcast eyes, and a bouquet, of four-petalled blooms, orange-red.

“How nice these are!” I said. I could catch a direct look from neither, yet they watched, and so I fixed the flowers, one and another, in my hair among the plaits. The son said something marveling to the mother; the mother answered in a parched voice, and with a nod of certainty. The son bowed off, moving backwards, while the silent crowd behind made way.

“And you tell me…” I said, very low-voiced. “You don’t know this language, and can’t translate…”

“Have I ever said so?”

“But the townspeople here do not speak as the traders do, or I could have made out the words myself.”

He gave a shrug, greatly acted, and I felt somewhat at fault. I had not found the sensible questions; my accusation was unjust, my implication as well.

“Ahead you see the Arca,” Castor said.

“The stone circle that Diira and Ba’ahn had told me is a crossroads…more than a crossroads, a map almost…pointing the way to many cities.”

“I know of four languages spoken in this town of Aran. I can distinguish the sound of each, and I know what lands the speakers hail from.”

“Can you name them for me?”

“The lands? What the natives call themselves? How they call their speech?”

When I made to answer, he cut me short.

“All those things, yes. Will you remember?”

“Castor, I wish only to know if I was kind as I might be, to the poor woman. While also, I hope she does not find me holy.”

 

 

 

159

 

 


 

 

A person in livery came walking, two child servants beating his path with fans woven of feathers, and blowing warnings through reed whistles. Their labor fluttered garment hems, head-coverings; they struck gently and blew piercing notes at those who shifted feet, stirring from their preoccupations with scant alacrity, such as a general or king might command from fear.

When to the crowd it dawned that the green-and-red-clad retainer sought the Totem-Maker, their movements gained the shape of an audience, clearing the street with good vantage in mind.

The fellow’s eyes sped past my own and found Castor’s. Then he shooed the children behind him, strode to me to lodge a staff in the dirt, and with this prop, half-knelt.

“Will the Totem-Maker honor my master, who is Tanka Torin, priest of Chosi A’ra, and be lodged under his roof this night?”

“I will,” I said, not allowing Castor to play lackey to me.

“The Totem-Maker accepts the hospitality of Tanka Torin!”

Castor produced a voice of carrying resonance, with the effect of the Vestalites stationed tier by tier at religious plays, whose duty is to sing again the words, to the far heights of the amphitheaters. For this disgrace, he gained me a smattering of applause.

I heard much low chatter.

I faced the envoy of Tanka Torin, and he faced me. I had gestured him to his feet. That encompassed all I could guess of a grand visitor’s duty. To be humble, as Castor advised was (trusting him or not) my choice, and polite, as both habits can but serve to illuminate vanity and rudeness in others.

“What is your name?” I said at last. “You may address me as Nur-Elom.”

I saw him digest Jute’s old insult, and saw by this, that he knew my first language.

“Of fame, across the sea, was a landholder Lom,” he said. “Came word many years past, of the traders, that the wrath… That a god worshipped…”

“Chosi A’ra I presume the ancient father I myself worship as Ami. Ami had no jealousy of Lotoq, but called him son. Lotoq is the patron god of my destiny. The city of this Lom, who kept slaves, was destroyed, and lies buried forever.”

“Ah. These things are well to know. I am Torin’s blood son, Serdik.”

“Serdik, I have a question for you.”

One of the children had taken the reins of my pony; one, too small for the burden, offered to carry Castor’s bundle on her head. With a pat in lieu of it, he ushered her before him, and walked last. He might vanish again into the shops, or the tents at the back of them. I hoped Serdik would carry on being helpful, and his respectful way of answering what was asked, furnish an example.

“What gift is proper for me to give the zhatabe?”

“No, there is none. They accept nothing.”

“But… I bring a very great gift. One I have been told kings will barter for. Shall I say on the street? I have four totems.”

“With Torin you may speak of totems. I confess, I cannot picture one, and I would suffer to my grave such ignorance.”

 

 

 

160

 

 


 

 

Reader, my purpose in these accounts is to teach my journey to a modest wisdom, that I must allow to be revered (for the poor of the land have only the wise to spare them tyranny), and to recall for the generations what peoples once lived in those nations unrepentant, which the gods with sulphur and fire have laid low; for the city of Lom was not the only to be sunk in ash, whose traces at times emerge, but whose inhabitants are scattered, whose learning cannot be taught, for it is forgotten—

Whose music cannot be sung, whose beauties cannot be admired, whose glory is rendered dust.

Tanka Torin, with his fine house of lacquered pillars, polished bone and purple shell petalling their chrysanthemum capitals, and marbled floors, and rich, red carpets, had no grandfatherly ways of welcome and help. I was young. An elder, kindly and managing, was yet my longing. To be taught, as a promising acolyte; with Elberin, I had never had this…

With Torin, I was not to have it. Torin disliked the idea of me, and disliked that I must embody it. “How did your state come about? On what authority, if I may ask, were you sent to the tollhouse?”

“I believe my old master so counselled the Prince.”

“He takes counsel? He is a foreigner.”

“Well,” I said. I lied then (it is possible). “His wife is kin to the zhatabe. Do you want to see one of the totems and judge for yourself?”

In the way of a difficult man, he accepted this practical answer not at all. Rather, he took some nameless offense, withdrawing physically from my person, as though I might spring an asp from my cloak.

“They might be real, or they might be…”

A trick or delusion, I finished for him, inside. And this was entirely true. “Perhaps you will pray to Chosi A’ra, and he may change your heart in the night.”

We ate—his feast for me lacking nothing—in silence, while I imagined he brooded. Was this Totem-Maker innocent or insolent? But Torin was often called to his door. My own god put this in my heart: that a priest at such a thoroughfare, with a thousand travelers to guide and bless, might in all his years have given thought to few things. His thoughts were interrupted; he was praised, thanked, lavished with coins…it was enough.

Then I must cease my jealous wish to be as lucky as some other foundling, known only from stories. Already, as to innocence, I had lived too long, and few wise sayings could pass me unchallenged. In wives’ tales it is less the intellect of the sage, more the void in his pupil—to have wanted learning that tattlers tell, tempters tempt, fire burns.

 

 

 

161

 

 


 

 

Morning came, and I descried Castor, with the ponies, through a heavy mist veiling Torin’s lane. From discontented sleep, I had risen before the household.

I stepped outside, to give my usual greeting. “What news?”

As usual, he offered none, but took me astray. “Come away now, if you can roll your pack quickly. They would rather not feed you breakfast. We are expected at the Arca.”

I left him to gather my things, and didn’t until we were mounted, though the way to the Arca was short, ask: “How far to the Citadel from Aran?”

“It will depend on your choice.”

“Oh, fie! Enough of riddles!”

“No. The zhatabe are waiting. I do not dissemble with you, Totem-Maker. I give you the best advice I have.”

“Damp air at dawn is known to carry, but let me say it! False mysticism, senseless tests I am made to pass… I will cut through it, I promise you. I understand my mission, and it is not to waste my time on childish games, for the pleasure—which I would call beguilement—of a cowed people. They have no wealth, for the zhatabe supply all needs. They do not choose, for the zhatabe have chosen for them.”

I paused, having launched the sort of argument our minds construct in threes. A third eluded…and the space it might have filled told me my heart wasn’t in it.

“Stop,” said Castor. “You understand your own mission. You do not understand why the Prince agreed to send you here. Pity him. He believes in you.”

“Yes, he is superstitious. I know it.”

Castor shrugged. “It may be he believes you strangely wise.”

We arrived at the Arca, and I followed Castor’s lead in dismounting. The fog was dense, but pace by pace we climbed to the center, leading our ponies. The flagstones had a design of the heavens: the sun rendered in gold, the moon silver, the stars crystal.

Figures appeared, seven women.

“Zhatabe.” I gave a small, disgruntled obeisance.

“I am zhatabe,” said one. “My sisters are not.”

“Vlana,” I said, defiance now in my voice, lest the honor of my homeland be found provincial. “Do I learn I am to choose a way to the Citadel? Will you tell me the shortest?”

She gave me a hug; a ceremonial kind, hands on my shoulders, pressing her cheek to near touching mine. “Is it the shortest you prefer?”

“No, Vlana. I prefer the most magical, the way that will end all wars at once.”

They laughed, pleasantly, but all of them. However, Castor stood grim.

“You and I will play the War-Maker’s Game. I think you must enjoy it. I have one underway now with my brother Ami, four years’ long. But I may cheat him, having you. Say that in the northeast corner, your soldiers are thirteen, in the shape of a shorter ell, outside a longer one. Do I paint for you clearly?”

 

 

 

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I found, as she had my arm, that we were progressing, that we had reached a threshold, a post-and-lintel construction pointing the straight path to a city.

“Your brother,” I said, “is named Ami?”

“When we are affirmed, we take the name of a patron god.”

“But Ami?”

“Any of many hundred.”

“You have not told me yours.”

“Neither have you told me yours.”

“Lotoq, then.”

“Lotoq, does this way seem good?”

The six remaining sisters walked in graceful silence, and at our back had gathered. The warmth of my guide could not disguise the ceremony, again, in which I felt myself playing a prescribed role. But I thought also, that any of these impressions (impressions, in the truest sense) might be, must be, challenged.

“I am not affirmed,” I said “I revere Lotoq. I would not be called by his name.”

“Shall you be Nur-Elom?”

Somehow, I found I could not wish this either. The humor had gone flat. “Call me Meret. For I come to ply my trade.”

Parting the stairs, descending the way chosen for me, I wriggled free of the hand on my arm, and mounted again. This zhatabe (although the plural form could not be right), who had told me no name to call her, might mean to escort me on foot. Or the women might wave me on, myself and Castor.

What occurred was not precisely either. Cuerpha knew the pressure of my knees, and began a light trot. I did not leave them in anger, but wanted my movements rejecting of nonsense. True, I felt unsentimental about Castor’s matching my haste, or lagging so far behind as to be lost. The road would lead to the Citadel.

Bright sun crept on to bless the day, and a breeze of mountain coolness and fragrant meadow blew against my face, saddening me with nostalgia. I could not recall a time when I’d idly wandered such meadows. My childhood terrain had been Lotoq’s ashes, and the hard things growing there.

Then lessons, then Elberin’s refusal to care, whether his tasks were fair for my age, whether his corrections hurt me. And the old woman, and her chores, more of the house on my shoulders as the newcomers arrived, and she gave her days to bartering with them.

So what did this scent of the Citadel’s land make me long for?

I laughed at this, finding myself alone on the road. How sad for my race, if this longing affliction were as the gods had made us, raised by their other gifts of sun and gentle air! We must miss unhappy things; or things we had never had, and never would.

 

 

 

163

 

 


 

 

I cantered on for some time, Cuerpha in the mood for this run, our way sloping downwards. My totem had been seeking me, for the sensible thought came that I ought to seek it.

And with these words I addressed it: I know you won’t intervene. I ask only to be made conscious of my folly. I ask this pity I feel for myself to cease; or if it cannot cease (for, Totem, I have met many venerable ones who seem slave to it), then let it shout so loudly its warning, that it shames me to hear it.

I want no one to make me angry. I want a means of viewing Castor, who provokes me…

My mind filled with the sight of a window, stone-framed; not a tower vantage, but a close one. The land was forested, fragrant with mosses and the barks of trees dripping their balsams. Birds plumaged brown and green moved in and out of thick fern beds. Shafts of sun were like a potion of the gods poured from heaven, a glowing serpentine smoke, a yellow velvet.

A view. But this was Paradise, not—

Not a patch of earth symbolic of toleration, which my heart had wanted my totem somehow to craft. Unless I was to think of our gods’ rewards to their favorites… As, pleasing them, I might join them in their land beyond the stars. What would my totem have me understand? That these riches were earned by the love I found in myself for others? Others I would put aside unregarded, to pursue my course without…

Castor. My zhatabe, and her seeming ploys. I was dishonest to boast that I was even-tempered, calm and helpful, when yes, many times I had turned my heel. I possessed that aura, born from Lotoq, that made even Castor follow and plead with me.

You are not here to win; you are here to lose.

I halted Cuerpha. I had seen a glimpse of water, and knew I must not punish this uncomplaining creature, because my thoughts were deep and I had not puzzled them out.

The water, I saw, was gathered in a pool, the pool’s stream emerging from rock. Here in life were moss-laden trees, a more gleaming edge to their scent than in my vision; and their tops were below my toes. I pressed cautious feet to a precipice, leaving Cuerpha tied, trying the solid earth, never forgetting the fright I’d had at the tollhouse.

It was a hillside strewing boulders, which had slumped to make this shelter, but so long ago the trees stood with perhaps a hundred summers’ growth. I could hear the susurration of a waterfall. I might drink from the pool, but to step in it would be a great danger. Travelers, of course, used this road; their filling of skins had trampled out a footpath that marked the safest way down, hooves leaving rounds and crescents on dun-colored soil, thin and dry.

I led Cuerpha; finally I sidled behind and let him jog ahead. Was I nervous of thieves, or was it the cooking fires in the air, the encroach of mankind not far…? Winding through dense woodland I could see a vista opened and closed upon, blue sky and clouds, and a plain where an army camped.

 

 

 

164

 

 


 

 

Here to lose.

My puzzle needed this solving: What would I have done, were I to count myself the winner? How, failing, did I then achieve a better thing?

I heard a sudden chattering, a cat’s chattering when its prey is near. Air rushed, a thrill of strange sound, and a dark-furred beast, a muscled and graceful beast, sailed above me. I, the panther would have taken, but an arrow flew to cross the cat’s path. A magnificent twist midair, and he (or she) altered course, bounding into the trees.

“Hello! A lucky thing.”

I said it aloud. I said next what I meant by luck. “I hope the people here would not kill a beautiful creature. I am sure the gods would punish pride so misplaced.”

My voice was most censorious, but no person appeared to confess having followed me. “This is well and good, Cuerpha,” I said, with only Cuerpha to speak to. I descended making all the rustling and stomping noises I could. “I am weaponless and alone, and these woods hold perils I have not been warned of, and if anyone with a bow wished to show himself honestly, I would thank him for having meant to act in kindness. But the Totem-Maker, like all who live, profits from a lesson learned, or lives no more.”

In my defense, I offer merely that I had been puzzling, and at times I do, I value my peace; and that our poor Earth, since the era of cruel winters dawned with the Wrath, has fewer of its lovely panthers, its brown and green plumaged birds, its ancient and mossy trees… But that I had treasured them—truly, my Reader—more than myself. I had been distracted, interrupted, and was deeply peeved, to think that the people of the Citadel spied, hoped to gain a secret of mine, letting me believe only I and my pony traversed this road. I had been a possession, bought and sold; my choices and my freedom were one, and were I the very byword of Folly, yet I had the right…

Not to be steered by the head, by some guiding hand.

Lessons, lessons. Yes, Totem, I said inside. I asked to be humbled, and I am humbled. I asked for my mistakes to shout; and I am deafened.

I caught Cuerpha’s harness. From the bowl of the pool, I scanned the trees, and the rock face, and I knelt finally, cooled, to fill my skins. I unpacked my own bow and arrow, and my knife…even that, I hadn’t wanted the trouble of carrying.

Then I found my clay flute; began a simple melody. I had an ear for the prettiest tunes, and I invented numbers of them. I felt confirmed, at last, and less contrite for my temper. The ringing woods were stilled, and I sat alone. The archer must by now be certain I had no harm in me.

I ate, remembering I hadn’t yet. I led my pony back to the road.

And here Castor came cantering down to me. The seven sisters had acquired a wagon to ride in; flagbearers, and another wagon, followed. A shaggy sort of ox, with three on its back, ambled after. Then musicians on foot, playing bells on strings, instruments that looked like abaci, calculating changes in a temporal language.

 

 

 

165

 

 


 

 

And what was the Citadel, when finally I saw it?

Not for the first time. When long ago I had spoke to Wosogo, I had seen that odd configuration, the plain at the foot of vast stoneworks, the green valley safe on the other side, the tents of merchants from every land, arrayed there.

Yet truly they could not be called works, these cliff-faces. They seem even now beyond describing. They were pillars of a hexagonal shape, fissured at intervals, as ancient columns. But we know by edifices we have built ourselves, that the marble is shaped, hoisted by winch, by oxen team, and fitted to its tenon. Yet these of the Citadel rose tiered in a fat cone, truncated at its top, and must in time beyond human reckoning have been intact. They rose by a measurement easy to guess, at the center of sloping bluffs. For trees grew full-height here, and so the Citadel’s front vaulted the lengths of six great oaks, from earth to sky.

At the foot of all this were a mountain of rocks. But for that they were boulders, merely, one could suppose further of the pillars had collapsed in a heap. I learned soon that the road to the highest apartments of the zhatabe began between this mountain and the Citadel’s tunneled under-levels. Centuries of burrowing and building, of masoning rocks mined from the interior, into posts and lintels, walls, and the frames of houses, had riddled that monument the gods must have set in place.

But we approached by the road above. Our view perhaps was not unlike a god’s, for from heaven’s height we looked down on the conflicts of men. The Prince had not waited for my mission. The people of the Citadel for some time had known it. Noakale had failed to persuade him, and my own persuasions had come unfixed.

His cavalry and chariots were camped, and I dared think it was my Prince had marred the land, ordering these ugly terraced paths, fresh-scarred among the grasses, at the height of the slope descending towards the mound of boulders. The poor young men, the foot soldiers, were on the flat below, the earth seen to have an odd pimpled quality…

I intuited the cause, and said to Castor: “They have waterworks under the ground, these clever Citadelians. They can dissolve the soil to mud when they like. And that mire is what the Prince means to drive his battle through. The fallen will become the road his charioteers grind over.”

“It may not go as badly as that. I thought you came armed with clevernesses of your own, which you will use to knit these adversaries.”

“Together? As a blanket, or a neck-scarf?”

He laughed at me. “How can I know? All proceeds from your own plan.”

 

 

 

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“No,” I said, aware of interested ears surrounding me. “As, first, I haven’t got a plan. As second, if he thinks to threaten the zhatabe… Why!” I mastered some anger. “Even if he could conceive, gazing upwards at this magnificence the gods approve to the zhatabe and the people of the Citadel, or they would have cast them out, that a weak position looks stronger in the light of puny defiance…”

“You disappoint me. Please don’t, or what have I left to believe in?”

“Oh, I disappoint you? How can I serve you then, Pravor Castor?”

Not crestfallen, he said: “By hearing what I have said to you more than once. Do your affections, where you bestow them, cloud your sight in every case? Samatho acts by all he deems may please the Emperor, and do himself honor. He told you he would die here. His eyes may never see the slaughter he has wrought.”

“And yet, you mean the slaughter he may wreak. Nothing in his nature, none of those things he is able to think of, will turn him aside. He embraces the old, distrusts the new… He cannot count such expenditure of humanity as waste. He cannot see that life only too much goes on, after great death and sacrifice, and that his own death and failure, are as the ashes of his fires. The Citadel will make the terms of trade more punishing, and the Emperor will find his next prince.”

“Well. I suspect he won’t, as he has very little money. He will be overthrown.”

“Samatho wouldn’t rather bargain, and become the instrument of that overthrow? Retire, to a lovely province, which he might be given command of?”

“I think you know that cannot be at all.”

“And, Wise Castor, is it stupidity? When a man could have some of what he likes, be alive to have more of it later? He would—as the Prince does, I do know it—feel his loyalty to the Emperor a matter detached from any fondness for him. Of which he has none.”

Egdoah, I had been separated from on this journey, by Castor’s dispositions (you will recall how we spread ourselves along the mountain road, and recall the great confusion in the town of Aran). He at last had trotted up to ride a head behind me. On my right, in the trusted place Castor left untaken. Throughout our talk Egdoah made noises of agreement. I allowed he might even have progressed, for I had given him tiles to play with, told him words to name them by, showed him how their juxtaposition could form sentences.

In the northern language, I said: “Egdoah. Can you yourself carry a message to the Prince?”

He frowned for long minutes.

Thus, I gestured across the valley. “That is the Prince, camped below. He has counsel he prefers to mine, and has done what I warned him not.”

“I am yours, Meret. I will go if you say go.”

I smiled, pleased more than dismayed to know Egdoah’s ears had been somewhere at my back. Unless my choice of name were bandied all amidst our strange parade, which entered now, clattering with a great noise of hooves down a paved avenue, between walls of growing height, to the paradisical indulgence of the zhatabe’s garden.

 

 

 

167

 

 


 

 

My quarters were unremarkable. After my stay at the fortress of Lord Ei, I was versed in these eastern styles, where screens served for moveable walls, and woven pictorials were more often the shelter from drafts, than the skins we used at home. Winter approached, and so my chambers were dark and baffled in, the screens placed in pairs.

But I had a porch, and seated there I could view the gardens. The people of the Citadel, living inside a mighty chimney, worked their marvels with vents and steams. The shrubberies were green, flowers bloomed, trees seemed to bear continuous fruit, and creatures too exotic for the season slunk and scurried. This artificial warmth made mists, which by their arts the Citidelians enhanced, reflecting sunrays from silken cloths. These might be lean-tos, awnings, even paintings after their fashion, and the servants went out at particular hours to adjust them.

I was introduced to the servant who would be mine; an honor I, consulted, would have refused. She was a zhatabe apprentice, thus I dared suppose her of importance, as to family.

“Tell me, is it an exercise in humility?” I asked Adzja. “As pupils climb the ladder, to the level of the council, they are given tasks and trials?”

“Meret, I serve you gladly.”

“And if I ask for a thing, you will bring it to me? And if I desire some errand performed, my bidding is done?”

As a young one, she could not disguise her wariness. But she said: “Done.”

“And so when I require of you that you answer me in plainest terms, withholding no information your good conscience tells you I seek, whether your training tells you otherwise, you will obey?”

She laughed. “Meret, I will tell you, then, that as beginners we are given a place…”

“At the lowest rung, but not lowly. I have come here from slavery and service, and I have no parentage known. If you offend me, it will never be for words.”

“I call no one low.”

“I believe it. Now, find me whom I shall have dealings with. And tell this person, or these, that I have the Emperor’s conditions. I want those of the zhatabe.”

“You have been here hours.”

“I’ve eaten, though, and washed. My pony is stabled. And you are very nearly at war…”

She interrupted. We were on more suitable terms already. “No one can breach the Citadel. We can never be at war.”

“Adzja, I have breached the Citadel.”

I astonished her. But she composed her face, as an apt student ought, absorbing this. Then she left me.

 

 

 

168

 

 


 

 

“And how, when the day comes, will an enemy overthrow you?”

My three zhatabe gave me gentle looks, and the one who named himself Chos, and the woman I had ridden with, who called herself by a god I had never heard of, Rithrith, and another, naming herself Bashtat, who wore her face painted with stripes, and her eyes darkened like a cat’s, made busyness, of adding more sweets to my plate, more wine to my cup…

Bashtat adjusting some fault in my costume. And when she had fixed my sleeve at the elbow, she took one of her bracelets and slid it over my hand.

“Aha, better. We love pretty things.”

I was to keep it. I was being flattered and pampered to near docility, but I pursued.

“How, when the day comes.”

“Is the question serious? I don’t mind games.”

“I don’t play them, Chos.”

Rithrith quibbled, a playful wag of the finger. “But you are a great War-Maker. I hold you to your promise—Ami and I, and a newly laid board. Oh, I know, I presume the promise. Take it all back, as you like.”

“No…”

They were making my head hurt, with frustration. Now Bashtat took a preoccupation with changing my hair, and began to undo one of the plaits. Difficulties at this table, I had imagined as veiled anger, the rightful complaint of their peace being troubled, their time wasted.

Or contempt at myself, too paltry an offering.

To which I would say, the Emperor is a child. What else? His whims are not disputed. They are his whims and must be brilliant, applauded. Toadies surround him to give applause, to do his bidding. He knows of no time and place for remarks, but makes them as they occur. I have heard of him order his chariot halted, to summon a woman seller from the street, that he might ask what accident had made her so ugly. He wished once to buy a gamecock, and the man who got his living by it let dismay for an instant cross his face. The Emperor had a soldier dash the bird against the stones.

But of the Prince (should they ask), can you parley with the Prince? The Prince believes he will cut off your road and starve you, throw the tide of his army against you, and wear you to defeat by numbers. You might take such a man to Aran and show him the Arca, and all the trade roads that remain to you. You might wreak witness upon him, of terrible sufferings, with your engines of fire. But the Prince, being what he is, must be broken before he accepts he can be.

I thought they would not trouble, after this, to name ministers and lords one by one, but even as to these, even of Cime and Sente, I had crafted my reasons against.

Journey-long, I had prepared arguments. This stronghold was not impregnable; the day of the Citadel’s fall was ordained. This is so? For indeed, the gods themselves say no earthly thing shall last an eternity. Backwards from the worst of scenarios I would guide them, to one by comparison tolerable, one at the last acceptable.

The zhatabe would have minds to allow, at the end of our discussion, what they had flatly refused at first.

Then to begin negotiations in earnest.

 

 

 

169

 

 


 

 

“What games or contests do you have, then, to while your hours?” I asked them. “Do you race?”

Oh, certainly, they raced. The eagles, those I had seen in the garden, were trained to dive after prizes. The prizes, by elected citizens, were thrown from the parapet running the garden’s perimeter. Panthers the Citadelians kept, beasts trained to mount to the saddle from their private boxes, as their individual steeds (led by mere humans) circled the arena. These liveried feline knights charged mock-towers and destroyed them, by this performing feats of prognostication.

“How? What is the trick there?”

“No trick. The gods dispose. The fall releases pigeons, and the pigeons have names and signs, in scrolls on their legs. The cats drop their prey at their trainers’ feet, liking their bits of fish better. The criers read the fortunes, the secret names the players have called themselves, so that they alone know if it is blessings or evil of heaven commanded them.”

Chos answered me, and I said to him in turn: “These are entertainments.”

I spoke with an openness, and for the zhatabe it was no labor to find endorsement in my words. Each nodded and beamed.

“But leaving the War-Maker’s game aside, what might we play tonight?”

“Talents!” said Bashtat.

Carved sticks in a brass pot were brought, not by a serving apprentice, but by Rithrith, who lit away to a cabinet and rattled out the parts of this game. She laid before us each a wheel of wood, painted green, red, yellow, blue—eight cuts to the pie. Each slice carried its familiar symbol, of sun, tree, cat, fish; of Love, Death, Age, Youth. The rules bore on what the player before you had drawn, whether he or she would allow you the fruit of your own drawing, or deny it.

My mind, or my totem, told me, observe. They were wise, the zhatabe. They knew most languages and histories; they knew the map of the world, and all the gods of all the states and cities. They knew the stars and comets, the millennia of the heavens; which stars had gone, and which comets had come. They knew how temples were constructed; how weapons of terrible cruelty were stoked and discharged.

I supplied them a holiday, perhaps, the excuse of feasting, joking, pleasing their idea of themselves with generosities, engaging in mild rivalries over negligible diversions.

We played Talents and I lost well, sparing myself the acting of it. I ended with the Talents least welcome (to my three hosts), of Age and Fish, but saw no insult here.

“Yet I recall there is a saying of fish and guests.”

They laughed, and told me I was not a guest.

“We like you. You may stay.”

 

 

My porch, in the cool of the night, was utterly fogged. I preferred it so, for sleeping. But I would not sleep, not for a time, if my totem aided me. The Emperor’s arm-twisting I found a threadbare tool. No terms I could expect the zhatabe to regard, were priable by this, by appearing at their door with threats. They were wise.

 

 

 

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They were kind, eager, inquisitive…and I mistrusted them.

They could be goodhearted at every pass, and still prevent my ever broaching the Emperor’s aims. They could, and I knew it perfectly, offer me a place of honor, teach me to be one of them. Even, they might have perceived this—that I was not of the Emperor’s western blood, nor the Prince’s northern, and that I did not revere attachments.

I could feel safe in this unassailable fortress, affined to this life of scholarship, not shamed in the least to abandon old masters for new friends.

My loyalty lay one way, in completing a task I’d put forward myself, and in doing myself credit. Then which shiver, my Totem, of the universal clock, marks the wave of this small-statured large ego? I pictured the water-clock, in the square before the Palace of Justice, how when the wheel turned its convolutions, a ripple flowed to the end of the coffer.

Sundials could not account for minutes, and the law’s precision demanded more.

But the planets and the bright beings that strode the heavens at night moved in their spheres; they did not cross paths with one another, but free above all things, were yet enslaved. And the seasons moved, wheeling into the narrow winters, expanding again to the broad summers.

And where trees grew thick was forest, and could not be desert. And where fathers lived, sons could not inherit…

Why seek good or bad, or secret designs, in the zhatabe, or imagine that Lotoq had not set me on my path with a nature to fit every tile to its place? My pleasure in doing so could not be vanity…for it was assurity…

The fog above my head seemed to show me a great, blank board, on which the thousand times thousand pieces advanced, and advancing, repelled. Like the Talent a player held, and could choose the next player’s fate…

But could not.

The fate was Have or Lack. And even that choice existed only because the preceding Talent swayed.

Before me appeared a terrible prospect. I was driving myself to a supposition, that horrors were not the consequence of malevolence, but of benevolence unrealized. How could the all-powerful zhatabe comprehend their own natures, the goodness or efficacy of their works—

When trifles contented them wholly?

Treats and games, intellectual pursuits, days frittered into nights. All the while, this unshakeable faith they were mothers and fathers to the people of the Citadel…

Because they wished to be, liked themselves so, counted themselves at labor towards this end. An accounting that looped back, continually, within the shortness of time; a perennial belief that the future sat like a storehouse of accomplishments, to be arrived at.

 

 

 

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“Adzja, you may labor at your studies today. I am going down to the city.”

I looked at her, saying this, because I suspected her of being my watcher as well as my servant. But she finished cornering a cloth on my breakfast table, next choosing and arranging foodstuffs from a tray, while she said only: “Oh, that will be a help! Who’s taking you?”

“I will probably ask for Castor.”

“Then eat well, and I will go search him out.”

There was an upperhandedness here—and I had invited it, so could not complain. Adzja was of the nobility; I ought to remember. Her confidence would put me in the servant’s place, if I fell back to accustomed ways.

I didn’t want Castor… I had pictured myself alone.

But alone for the moment, I scouted my room for reminders, chose my pouch of totems, added my flute and tiles. These were the tools I would use in drawing strangers to me. The zhatabe—I had settled on this, dozing—were too mannered, too domineering. I was unable to read them, to know what calculations produced this charm. They were cheery, of course. Willing to aid me…by superseding any thought of mine with a better of their own.

I would gain a truer measure of the Citadelians by speaking to the Citadelians. A simple treachery might open doors; a bribe be enough. Else recruitment by the dazzle of magic.

Or a few kind words to the angry…

After which I had only to decide why I should want to; why invest my powers opening doors for the Prince, or to the Emperor’s ambitions. Perhaps I sought reason not to do this thing.

Castor, at the threshold, said, “Are you wearing what you propose to wear?”

I slung my pouch, placed a hat on my head. In this space of time, no answer superior to no answer occurred, and so in silence I descended by the porch. Along a graveled way none could walk side by side, I preceded Castor.

“Does a sentry prevent going out by the garden? Are you holding your tongue, just to see me look foolish?”

“There is a sentry, and he will stand aside in awe of the Totem-Maker, which by order of the zhatabe may do everything it pleases.”

“And is there a secret way out?”

“Yes. For the space of a minute, or less. But once you jump the wall, you have done a fatal injury to your plans.”

“Watch me laugh.” I turned to him deadpan. “Is it in the nature of the zhatabe to supply themselves secret spyways, or escapes, and to keep the knowledge of these from untrustworthy subjects, such as Pravor Castor?”

“Very much. Did you wish to stop in the garden? You must allow me to see you consult your totem.”

 

 

 

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He was right, in that my Totem was active already, and I was suspicious of the shrubs surrounding an octagonal platform, where votary statues were arrayed to some purpose… The shrubs were cut into a low hedge, but the hedge did not root itself in earth. The rims of a trough were visible. Servants would lift these, and underneath would be a passage. I believed it; I allowed that it was not true.

“Do you know what ceremony they practice here?”

“It is a game, I think. Another game of augury.”

“Do you know why they are reluctant to have me cast tiles, or show them the totems?”

“I know a form of question that tricks one into revealing things. Who is to say they are? I have not seen it.”

Here we fell quiet, as we approached the gate. The sentries, two, surprised me, observing blandly, then snapping to a complication of reverent gestures with hands and feet. I eyed Castor. His small smile said nothing, while he augmented his mischief by stepping two paces behind me, and dropping to one knee.

I chose to nod in passing, a cock of the head to imply I was not responsible for my companion. I read in the eyes of one sentry…again, I believed I did…a sort of wisdom. I told myself, assume now that every servant is zhatabe. They understood Castor’s joking, but also they guessed my interest in the platform.

Along secret ways, I took my mind’s eye, and deemed distraction, followed by overwhelming force, the means of entry. Deaths few, taking wartime’s need for deaths into account. They might have guardhouses along the passage…but these would be traps as well as strongholds. The tunnel might be a short one, feeding to a city street. They could not honeycomb the rock they lived within.

Our steps between high-sided ramparts fed us to a second gate. I noted a puff of colored smoke linger on the air. The gate opened, as though by a hand invisible. Yet it slid into a pocket between the stones of the wall.

I frowned. Castor laughed.

 

At once we were amidst a crowd…its human components disguised by the volume of souls milling here. I had seen a panicked shoving, that yielded only trodden toes, follow the crass legerdemain of the gate. I felt a fingering at my belt, and so rooted there myself and withdrew the Totem. Sun at this hour breached the fog, a ray igniting the purple gleam.

I held it high, and sang to them, from the diaphragm: Aantahah n’kare amitar-abla, Tophe oclwa zhatabe Thante.

Castor, who knew I invoked the Father’s despise…on this sham magic, meant to cow the poor ignorant, and that I commended particular souls to the care of their ancestors, as witness the dark god Tophe, kept his face straight. My audience fell into crouches and moans.

Now who, I felt certain Castor would say, is the guilty one?

 

 

 

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But this path I had made before me separated the individuals I was seeing. Many were beggars, many disfigured, many shy a limb. Sellers carried trays strapped around their necks…as at Aran, they sold potions, poultices, amulets. I saw even a tray of purple stones, plainly dyed…though the man wearing it stopped his cry in my presence.

I toyed with scattering the lot, shouting above the din, of their unclean practices…

I chose not—the gods had not asked this, that I reform strangers, name some criminals, rescue others as I saw fit. If the sign came not clear to me, I would continue at the Citadel a proper guest.

“Name this city,” I said to Castor. Rudely, I snapped my fingers at him. “Yes, Diira refused. Ba’ahn employed some cleverness to evade me, but I believe he feared in earnest to name it. But you, Castor, I beg will not try.”

“The name is Suma Fortesa. That, Totem-Maker, is what the zhatabe permit, how on tablets it is written. The people we walk among have languages of their own.”

“Why is this poverty allowed outside the Citadel gates?”

He raised a palm. “I do not try you, nor jest. But the answer is because they do not allow it inside the gates.”

But this I found fair. The zhatabe ruled by their whims, and counted their whims faultless. “How often does a zhatabe venture into the city?”

“Never, I should think.”

The way down the hill was a paved road, winding. By the third turn, the walls had dovetailed with the earth, our view grown expansive. A river ran, the same seen opposite the great cliff-face, troubling the Prince’s army. The zhatabes’ servants manipulated the waters in this valley as well—I counted eight terraced lagoons, waterwheels at work.

I saw no structures, however, no mills.

“They raise fish, or eels?”

“Ah, those? I believe only to avoid the stink.”

“But why have the lagoons?” Yet, as I asked, the highest on the side we approached sank, its waters vanishing. The lower lagoons shuddered, and achieved their levels. Now a stir went through the crowd, persons on the streets below, merchants in the doors of their shops, purchasers fingering fruits or cloths, freezing in their movements. Diners on rooftops laid down their cups, took up jugs and cradled them on their laps. Some, with smiles, shook awake sleepers. Some pointed at those left dreaming, and laughed.

All the time, a terrible smell of smoke was in the air.

A thunder, such as only Lotoq might make, a boom, not a roll, shook the pavement. The sleepers jumped to their feet, a colorful wave passed below, of blankets thrown aside.

“They build great fires,” I said. “They run the waters over them, in channels, to make steam. But this weapon blows fire into the ranks of the enemy. How is that?”

“See the ceramic works, there?”

A low building, like that of any factory, spanned the field above the highest pair of lagoons. The yard was filled with the detritus of firing clay, heaps of shards, neatly corralled into smaller and dustier piles, a few hammers discarded. The kiln was vast, the size and shape of a wealthy man’s crypt.

 

 

 

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“The steam feeds into the vessel, the vessel explodes. One end of the tunnel is blocked, and so the force of the explosion carries over the firepit.”

“It proceeds through a tunnel…? The flame goes but a short distance. The weapon is used, beyond fright, at times an army tries by force of manpower to achieve one of the…

“Passageways,” I decided. “That might lead them to the garden, from there to the houses of the zhatabe. Answer first, would the people surrender if the zhatabe were taken prisoner or killed?”

“So readily we might consider the card played.”

“Answer me second, how many such weapons?”

“Two.”

I digressed then, and asked Castor, “The city, as we leave the gates, appears well-ordered. The beggars congregate because they are rewarded.”

‘The young ones being trained for their ordination, are sent with food, castoffs, readings…”

“Readings! I feel sorry for them all.”

“But the poor are adoring of the zhatabe.”

“And they wait, never altering their lives, for this attention.”

“What, in the Totem-Maker’s scheme, ought we to do with the poor?”

“Arm them, Castor.”

He laughed, knowing I told no joke. “I feared it.”

I held this conversation, but in the back of my mind, I fixed a picture of the weapons. The tunnel of stone, that could bear so much fire, the vessel…raised into a chamber, I thought…the steam introduced by pinching its progression, through a narrowing way, until it billowed inside a mouth at the vessel’s base. The bursting inferno would run men mad, set their clothing aflame. The fire, fed its grim fuel, would spread. Yet not far, and this was all. Dozens, not hundreds, to die.

The kindling and the clay, the big logs needed to hold the heat, whatever use the Citadelians made of channeled winds, to bellow the flames white…the water, supplied by the river…

A party could make its way. Perilous work—but perhaps not so much. The zhatabe must first suspect it, that the river might be dammed upstream, that infiltrators might strike them here. I was not sure the zhatabe had the seriousness for long strategies.

I had for my Prince this much intelligence, then, that the vessels took time crafting, that seasoned wood must come from stocks, and these, for the greenness of new wood, could not at once be replaced.

Dare the dragon.

But taunt the dragon, coax the dragon. Feed the dragon no flesh, but have it spend itself.

 

 

 

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(more to come)

 

 

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