The Totem-Maker: Jealousy (part four)
It had been uneasy, my trailing after Mumas, charged to serve him…and to never mind him.
“You will sort it out,” Cime said, with his good cheer.
Yes. My hand, so careful, was not legible to Mumas. I scribbled, and ought to copy it all out again. I was his lord’s slave and foisted, not requested…
And so, prettily, Mumas could introduce himself to high-born men. But I merited no acknowledgment.
I bore all that, and that no speech of mine could be answered by other than a snap, or a sneer, or a long quiet space of busyness, of attending to the important…a bit of lint on his sleeve that wanted picking, a question of whether he’d heard his name called, a craning of the neck, this way and that. Absently, then (perhaps with a mild start), what was I staring at?
My Lord Deputy, shall I repeat myself?
Yet never would I have complained.
I had a fondness for Cime and Pytta. I should have been sorry…crushed, I own it…if something I had done, or that they feared I might, reduced our exchanges to a rubbing friction. But what had I ever expected of Mumas?
This was as I saw it. That we walked together for a time, and that I would soon walk another way. That my stolid bearing of his companionship was a stepping stone, in its fashion.
My lady had given me Lom…that is, my fellow slave’s freedom for the afternoon; she spared him, who had taken back my role of sweeping the garden walk, and my broom.
“Cime,” she told me, “puts his faith in you.”
These were modest words. Her sideways look and rueful mouth said more. We were sharing a joke…to a degree…but also she counted, and hoped to counter, the possibility of her husband’s failure.
“Yes, have Lom!” She laughed now. “And tell me if you need any other thing.”
I was not certain I needed Lom, but Cime had suggested a foil. I thought this sound. I trusted Lom, both for his sense, and his good heart. He was that one I had told you of earlier, the first to speak to me the day I was wedged into my new quarters.
“I’ll teach you letters, if you like,” I said. “As a way of passing time.”
My plan was to make a memory story to suit each figure I would draw for Lom on my tablet. To include him actively, without his knowing of my other purpose. I had learned several means of divination that depended on the arrangement of characters; I had a bag of tiles with all of them. One etched a design, a hex, a circle-in-square, or arrangement of triangles, then drew a tile for each point, each intersecting line.
The game was irresistible enough to me, and for Lord Sente, I hoped…for I’d guessed (in the ordinary way) that he had debts, or secret expenses. A forecast of his prospects must tempt him out-of-doors.
We came to the bench under the olive tree. We petitioners were dwarfed here also by the porches of the four manor houses, all connected by a running colonnade, transiting from style to style. The tiling underfoot, for those invited to mount the steps, was first a plain black marble, columns crimson (a potent combination that thrilled me, though I knew nothing of the owner); next, a glazed terra-cotta, stamped for the treading upon with a smiling sun, a verdigris sun in bronze over the portico, columns all trained with vines. Then came the house of Oc’Marasas, carved on every surface with stories of the general’s great battles won, stern bone-colored marble withall…and Sente’s house, aloof in unadornment, mere fieldstone.
Sente’s servants, whom he would call as he liked through the open window, waited on the porch above us, fanning themselves. In the center of the courtyard a fountain bubbled, and water flowed from spouts cut on four of its eight sides, draining away as the fountain filled, ever replenished by a pipe laid under the flagstones.
I topped my canteen, and Lom his.
We slaked our thirst and wiped our faces in the shade of the olive. I rooted in my basket for a tablet. I knew of a pattern, one of six triangles that together formed a larger, with many others that could be traced within. Eight at center, five base-down, three base-up; only these so arrayed calling, in this game, for a casting. There were other games played on this template, and I will never know…
But I had chosen this.
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(2018, Stephanie Foster)