The Totem-Maker: I Am the Cause (part four)
Now, to speak further of law and custom.
I found myself imprisoned in a cell of Lord Sente’s. The noble houses did for the Emperor this service, quartered his knights when with his entourage he entered their city, guarded his prisoners in their dungeons. These were made as each house saw fit to construct them, below ground or in towers, kept wholesome or wretched, and used when some great breach of the public order had occurred. For you have seen that from class to class, many disputes were confined to their sphere—noble, tradesman, laborer, slave.
This was expected. There was no assize to adjudicate some spat over courtship, over preference, as might be between myself and a fellow slave; over cheating, as to weights of grain, watering of beer or milk, purity of gold, as among sellers and purchasers. And soldiers at the fort fought continually, over courtship, preference, cheating of rations, cheating at dice, among others…over novelties of their own invention…for sport, for boredom. Lady Nyma’s sessions were convened only to resolve matters that challenged the law, as understood.
Sente had applied to the Emperor’s governor for the price of my maintenance, and I, loosely checked by the Prince’s man who’d arrested me, was made to stand awkward, in a contrivance of chain and metal bands looped round my neck and wrists, while the Prince questioned Lord Ulfas, with a northern show of baffled curiosity.
“I cannot keep this prisoner for myself?”
“In justice,” Ulfas began.
“You have here some quaint scheme that serves for the enrichment of the small nobility? Hence, no doubt, the bankruptcy of your Emperor. Your master, I apologize.” He bowed his head, very slightly, to tender in respect this insult to Ulfas.
“In justice…” Ulfas began again.
“Have I done wrong? Ought I to have denied this fellow’s request?” A nod, that did not find Mumas, though Mumas in a corner waited with his man of law, thumbs hooked on his belt, hands working forward and back. “I am strange to your customs.” (As though the serpent in the bird’s nest should remark, “Now these are dainty eggs”, the Prince passed this observation, otherwise deprecating.)
“I have only been asked to array my army and my navy such that your enemies cease their piracy, that the gold of commerce traffic your harbors to fill the Emperor’s barren coffers, that your people be not seized into slavery along the highways…”
“Uncle,” said Lord Sente. “I yield to you, if it pleases you.”
And Sente knew more of practicalities than I could, informed only by rumor. The Prince must of his land’s courtesy be so-called, having calculated the binding of our wealthiest houses by ties of blood.
“Ao-bahcan Darsale…” He inflected this honorific, if it were such, with potent accents and condescending smile. Sente, who’d got the “uncle” out with a bland enough face, did not allow himself to flinch. “I don’t want a prisoner, and I don’t need a slave. I make the creature a gift to you, then.”
He might mean this. He might so easily seize the property of Cime and bestow it on his own house, by proxy. He’d tired himself, it seemed, and left us. But as the Prince had reminded our governor, his authority was greater than our laws.
The cell was over the stable. It was clean, well-scented by manure, my own straw fresh…and I less alone this way. I had both the odd snort and nicker from below, which—for I loved horses—I might fancy an encouraging word, and visits also from two or three sociable cats, who ventured up by vine to squeeze through the bars. In truth, I could probably have escaped. The entry was a hatch in the floor. When food and water came, it was brought by a sole unarmed servant, and my ears caught no jangle of weaponry at the ladder’s foot.
I was curious myself, as was the whole city, how Lady Nyma would explain her ruling, and what that might be.
Sente arrived one evening, toed away straw in a circle, and placed a lantern.
“You bear it all calmly,” he remarked. He sat, cross-legged, on the floor.
“Lom told me he’d seen his fate. I am a teller of fates. Do I tell myself, then, that I have played my role, and that it can’t be helped? Nothing ever can be helped. But we are all here, are we not? And if the gods mean us pebbles in some rushing stream, with no power to rise or sink or come to shore, why have they made us at all? What is the use of us? We die in agonies…we starve, we burn, we drown. We seem sometimes to please them.”
“Yes. You have thought all that.”
“I have thought,” I said, “that I cannot wash my hands of Lom. He befriended me. Did some deity who willed him dead devise he do a good and kind thing…a very great thing, my lord, for I am very much without friends…will this also, that the heart of Mumas kindle with jealousy, that Lom, and not I, pay the price, for that it answer some godly ordination, some implacable story, plotted to the end of time, of event following event?”
He was silent, and so I said, to finish, “I don’t think it. I believe they would like us to rise, to be angry perhaps, to not bear responsibility…but seize it.”
“Now you touch me nearly,” he murmured. “Mumas, you see…why will you not have guessed this? I told Cime, don’t give the post to a Cerbaner. The tax-collector’s deputy…” He studied the lantern’s flame, and began in a different way. “I could have taken it. It would not be out of keeping. I would sit idle in my house and bargain with the bargainers. The withholders…Cime and I and our knights would ride roughshod over one or two new-sprouted fields. Then the scofflaws’ money would come unstuck…and in truth, for us, all a bit of fun. Or, being another sort of villain, I might inflate the assessments and pocket the surplus. But, Cime is Nyma’s son. He believed he would follow tradition…his idea of wisdom. Why not, if in old days, Mumas would have received the honor, and if he has two causes of complaint—upon which we have all heard him harp—that he is denied his right, and that we, our sort, are unfit…as Cime says, why not give Mumas a thing to prove, instead of a thing to grudge? He might do well, and the Emperor be pleased. He might do poorly, and then must go away and say no more.”
“Well,” I said, “is that not wisdom?”
I Am the Cause
(2018, Stephanie Foster)