The Totem-Maker: Jealousy (part ten)
Under the pavilion the women lounged, Lom and I fanned, and Madla’s servant carried samples to each, for rubbing between fingers, for admiring the shades of woven thread…two or three, or several…to the effect of one shimmering hue. From her book came samples, many of these half-embroidered to show the fineness of her shop’s handiwork; half-inked, to show the designs in their intricacy.
But pleasure ebbed, as the sun dropped low. Pytta wanted her nap. Madla had by then sat for an hour at Nyma’s side; the two come to a price. Pytta’s maid rose to gather cushions, and Pytta’s friends found their excuses, leaving one by one.
Nyma gestured to me; nodded to Lom. We laid down the silk, edged round to where Madla and her servant knelt restoring order to their books. I did not know the woman’s name, and she knew of none for me, but I bent at the knees, straightened, and said (as addressing a superior), “Mera, allow me to follow with your burden.”
She lifted to me a pair of heavy, wood-bound books. Lom held his arms stiff until she’d piled onto these another three; then bobbed also, saying, “Mera, many thanks.”
There is always a street in any city, lined with the finest shops. Along a neighboring street, small leaseholders and vendors’ carts…yet further off, a tannery or slaughterhouse, stinking. And poor alleys near these, where things not for sale are sold, under cloak. Perhaps below, a square, the awnings of an open market. At the hilltop, then, houses…of a particular quality, both that of being in the thick of things, a first-hearers’ privilege; and a ceilinged constraint, desirability in decline.
Mumas was lesser scion of an ancient family; which in his case, meant neither wealth nor invitation—only this inheritance, house and stables, in the Anse Cerbe, the Old City. That, and the right…not of appointment, but to be appointed.
Most small nobles of the Anse Cerbe accepted circumstance with pride. They had their own…reward enough, I mean to say…and the virtues of humbleness, of competence, of public service, of diplomacy; their sort the levers and inclined planes of governance…for outside the debating halls, the mechanics of a nation must at a practiced touch shift and roll.
But Mumas took the back gate of Vlanna Madla’s workshop abutting his property as rebuff. His nature urged him towards the villas; the city’s commerce stood firm between.
Change…as to turn a tile, and find the bountiful sun’s promise shadowed, so slightly, by the sign of the cat, whose tail may flick this way or another…took flight and caught wind, fanned by coincidence, first. Then by a crueler convergence. We had heard, at Cime’s house, the clanging bell.
One of Madla’s own lofts, it proved—a drapery caught fire.
This spread fearfully for minutes, during which a chaotic fleeing from neighboring lofts netted and locked itself with her manager’s courageous marshalling of buckets. The fire was out; Madla, apprised by her own eyes and ears, met him as he pushed to the fore, halfway already to grasping the whole of it.
“Have them take all those things…any the fire has so much as warmed…and carry them to the street. The room must be swept clean. Someone will go on the roof…”
Lom and I could do nothing; we had been forgot, Madla’s woman sent at once on this errand upstairs. We moved aside and outwards, helpless and still burdened, as those following orders came down with their rolls of burnt cloth, bowing the arc of the throng. So much shouting was too much altogether for conversation, and so I may suppose Lom had resolved within, as had I, to listen and learn. Lady Nyma would expect our intelligence.
Now a horse appeared, forcing way down the alley, going three beats to the pace, it seemed, restive and under the whip. The alley met a lane, and the lane met the street on which Lom and I waited. The tide had carried us to its center.
The rider was Mumas.
He shouted, and only his anger made itself heard, words blending in and out the general hubbub. I knew he’d driven close when his whip licked my bare arm, his voice rose suddenly distinct, bellowing, “Useless!”
I stood in his path…though it seemed he’d willed the entanglement upon himself. In worse language he berated me, bent on riding me to the wall. Madla’s books were slipping…I did not like letting them go. I felt Mumas would trample me, and meant to, if I stooped. Lom for a moment had edged off, to lay his own load down; unencumbered he was back and reaching round to steady my elbow.
And Mumas, drumming with the whip and kicking with his heels, urged his mount to frenzy, clearing two half-circles round either flank. All this began to draw notice, a wary quiet spreading from the creature’s orbit. Its master might easily have charged onwards by now.
I say this, to paint the picture. It was much faster, of course. Lom’s head near mine, his arm supporting mine, then a flash and a blow that glanced my ear. And blood that bathed, where that from my arm had trickled.
(2018, Stephanie Foster)