4. Winter Alone
(more to come)
The Little I Can Tell
I would not have asked to be born under a portent. The day of my arrival on earth began, at daybreak, with a fearsome one.
I knew the story so well, I could for years picture the event vividly; I believed even, alone most hours with my imagination, that this vision was not of my own conjuring. I was despised, and cherished all it promised.
I have come to know the world better. If I were chosen specially for anything, it was at the agency of men, and the thing was to shoulder the thankless task at hand. If I’d possessed any gift, I had by then been well taught not to nurture it, but let it die…envy bites hardest those uneasy hearts for whom glory must walk hand-in-hand with the debasement of others.
The story I recounted, though, in times I call helpless, not innocent, was one the old woman who stirred the pot…who it was always my place to serve…and who would not have me call her mother, had told first, rebukingly. She wanted her days of labor to end in rest. She dreaded the intervention of a god, tidings of great change to come.
“Lotoq,” she said. The name was allowed to be spoken, because it was thought to be a word of the old tribe that lived at its feet when there had been orchards on the flanks, green forests of pine, herds of game. This was known. But she kept her back to the mountain. Only I stared at it, ran to the open door to take a bold look. Lotoq, living mountain, god or devil, was shaped like a crouching spider. The image the more imposing because of the black ribs of rock that buttressed the snow-covered peak, the web-like wisps that spun above it.
A highway connected our town to the next, and the next after that; it also, like the temple that had risen in a mysterious way when the flood subsided, had been built by these prosperous, forgotten ones. The pavement was sound, the stones surely a thousand-weight each, and cunningly fitted. Almost no grass would grow between.
But nearby it ended, the great stones thrust up from below, as it seemed, splintered and heaved in all directions. It ended at a crevasse, deep, foul-smelling. However the rains fell, this never filled.
That month before my birth, cruel signs began to show themselves. Birds fell from the sky, sudden, and in such quantities as to block chimneys. A terrible groaning shocked the soles of the feet, coming whence none knew…but a glow, burning light in colors no fire of peat or charcoal could produce, seemed to hover, turning the snows of Lotoq to a metal-hued, steaming cloud.
Something awful and tragic had occurred, not long after, somewhere below the opposite flank.
“I cannot go near the place,” a traveler brought word, meaning of a town that had once thrived there. “I think we will never know. I think none escaped.”
And then the scouring flood, that islanded our own town, once situated on a rise, now a barren plain. Many weeks of deprivation followed this, and I was protected from sacrifice, for being born to a mute, a woman who had come with no means of telling: What was her home? What had she seen?
Thus the priests said wait, wait for another sign.
Here was our strange condition. Other deluges had come, kinder rains, rolling pebbles into channels with the relentlessness of falling water. They had carried off the ash.
The ash was insubstantial, and the new streams, that became rivers, grew fast. The land found its depth again, and waxed fertile, spreading outwards from the banksides, still in the years before I knew myself a being, in a place—this place.
The old woman spoke to me only to correct, to give orders. I had nothing then to teach me that adults feared at all, or what they might fear. This doing for myself, doing chores, perfecting them that I not be punished, was all the world held in my knowledge of it.
I hadn’t known it, but learned, how this village from that day of my birth had withered on the vine. Nearly all had survived, but none wished to stay. Under such a vastness of devastation it seemed odd, but it was true…only a day’s march and one came upon green fields, wells that yielded pure water.
They had had to go bind themselves to the land, and do labor, as the holdings skirting Lotoq belonged to three lords. One overseer who kept the vineyards and the cornfields in his master’s stead, was called a fair-minded tyrant; another called brute. The third had refused to welcome any of the refugees.
So they had worked off the price of their keep, and one by one began to return. Why had the old woman and the priests remained, and why did messengers in those years bring food, kindling wood, jugs of water for our sustenance?
It was the foundling.
On a hot afternoon, I followed Elberin, who, the old woman had said, was now my master, through one of these forests…slim-trunked trees, that within a decade’s time had thickened in their numbers.
They were of a type, where to dig one for the sake of moving it (which for the shade, the builders of new houses did), meant safeguarding the trailing root that tangled with those of the next tree, and the next. It must be severed at an arm’s length measure, or the tree would die. They had all reached perhaps twice my own height. Their shade was a thin grey veil over gritty earth; the sun beating on their leaves drew out a green, brothy smell.
I do not mean to dwell on trees, but to say I remember the smell, and the bitter flour ground from the seedballs that came to maturity at the end of summer. The flour I knew intimately, as among my chores had been all parts of the cycle: gathering them, culling them, kilning them, grinding them when they were very dry and brittle, sieving the powder through a cloth—this also I had to weave…and it was made from the leaves of these trees.
I do not mean to dwell on them, but to say they were not native to our land. So I’d been told. They came, as a burdensome gift, the gods’ familiar humor…even the bark stripped from the lower branches was woven into baskets; even a piney-flavored sap that had some sweetness about it, we used in feast offerings, and the fermented drink we called sap-wine.
And so I made the flour. I put the flour away in jars. I made the bread and the cakes.
I was most content to be always busy at something. Thus when I saw the priests at the door with their heads together, I would have the chore at hand to excuse myself. I was meant to come at once to any adult who had not yet instructed me; to give obeisance, and to ask, “Vlan (which was our way of calling an elder), what would you have me do?”
She had put me over into their hands by stages, the old woman, and never in our time together had we spoken but face to face; and so to me she had no name, and I no name to her.
With my hands, then, clutching some implement—a broom, a mallet, the palette of clay our bread was baked on—I was in a ready state of apology. But their rebukes were always a sort of scorn. I ought by now to have prophesied, or to have manifested something…fits, a clouded white eye…any sign that had some whiff of holiness.
Elberin decided I would be taught to write letters. He’d taken me from the old woman’s house into his own…and an anxious severing from my usefulness. Now I sat after breakfast, an hour or more, and waited.
I was to carry a tablet on our walks, soft unfired clay, and mark down the names of things he pointed to along the way. Over my shoulder was slung a heavy basket, with many of these small tablets (that I made myself).
It was his way, when I’d scratched down mistakes, to seize the clay from my hands, send my flint flying, and smash my work to pieces. He did this with a great dispassion, and rarely a word.
I have never known my age…but only that, at some age of awareness, I began to mark the seasons. By my unhappinesses I could count these as different, one to another, a chronicle in fault and shortfall. My early years gave only the mildest of joys. When I could be alone working the furrows of my garden, that had been one—the maturing of seed into flower and fruit.
We kept a cat and a dog, as against rats and rabbits one must, and I loved them. I believe I did. These innocents never came to me with any other than a welcoming face. And I was never cruel, as the old woman; never at my hand were the good creatures swatted, never chased with a broom.
But there were bad seasons, blights in the crops, dearths in the harvest, for which I was held wanting…and there were my myriad mistakes with Elberin, when I had only his taskings of me, for time spent, and no garden to tend.
I was as tall, at length, as the elders. By now our town had doubled in size, from the enclave in which I’d lived alone with the priests, and the woman once my mistress; it had doubled again and again. And now, from that prince who never had deigned to shelter refugees, came sent a snaking throng, seen all along the road into the distance, towards haze and his border.
A mammoth beast of work came, shod hooves clapping the old pavement laid by the forgotten race of Lotoq’s plain, a long-maned beast of such breadth, that one must be harnessed before another; and they drew their burden in train, catching all eyes. Iron bells tolled from the collars that circled their necks. The wagon bore a statue. The second wagon its massive plinth.
Two days’ labor with trunks of trees, and wheels and ropes…and the prince’s slaves had raised the monument. That we would know our land had been claimed, and know our prince by his visage. The skin of the face was done in gilt; the robes enameled in brilliant blue…a hue stronger than the sky, such as I’d seen at the heart of a small flower.
By this time I’d supposed that I also would be a priest. I had copied out all of the scrolls, and so my histories—my genealogies and my miracles—were established in memory. Any Father or Mother I met would speak a name to me, and I could recite the lineage. I had been set to work particularly on signs. I knew the size of spring leaves…when this boded ill; or when it boded over-bounteous…when mortifying sacrifice was needed, as envious gods demand. I knew the meaning of a grasshopper, a double-yolked egg, a blood moon. The types and colors of clouds. I clipped the wing of a moth, drew the divining circle in ash, and read the pattern, that in dying it scattered there.
They hoped…they had invested pride in the hope, and held to it…that my gift would show itself in this. And so the prince’s seizure of our city, and the fertile fields outlying, proved a portent indeed—for me. The puniness of my oracular talents was made plain in failure.
A host of strangely dressed men, testified to by sentries of the night watch, seen in moonlight swarming like insects, in and out of the thin trees that covered the flanks of Lotoq, had been the culminating sign.
“What does it mean?”
I answered her, the priest Burda, “That our borders are crossed, that ones foreign to us passed in the night, that they are gone now.”
She smiled, and looked at Elberin. I knew I’d said nothing, really. Nor had I foreseen the next day’s news, or I might have invented a wild prediction, one that could hardly be proved or disproved.
But you will note that preserving my place meant caring for my place. I had not come, then, to care for anything so worldly. Or it may be fairer to say, to feel that anything might care for me.
And so I sat, on a cold evening; a spring evening that promised frost—as it seems one piece of ill-luck must come in company with another—at work by dim hearth-light. If no one wanted me, I liked this hour between dusk and dark for repairing my few garments, my rug and blanket, my shoes and tools. I had never in my life asked that any new thing be given me. The old woman had treated my outgrowing of clothes as a willful act, vaguely embarrassing…as though I might by stealthy trading, aim for a rise in status.
I sewed, and paid no mind to voices at the door.
I heard one say what I was called, the foundling. The sneer was there; a joke now, those expectations I would have proved a blessing, a prophet to inspire pilgrimage—to make the locals rich.
Someone peered at me, through the door, and withdrew his face.
“Yes, tonight is better,” he said, to Elberin, or to Elberin’s servant.
“How much of your own do you need to gather?” This stranger stepped into the room. He lunged for my basket, but only to snag the handle on one side, lift and drop it. “Is this yours to take away? Will your things fit?”
They would, I told him…because I would make do with whatever could be thrust in the basket, and yes, it was mine. This was my station, not to offer protest, never to query. My confusion would waste his time, and I saw already in these evidences, that he was my master now.
My place was on a sleeping porch where all the slaves of the house had their pallets. I had traveled for a day, then half another, forced to do this blindfold; allowed to see my bread and leg of fowl by the campfire, but in the morning before full day, blinded again.
The kinder of my three companions told me this was because slaves try to escape. “And truly, a master who has had the bargain of selling one, may willingly enough take him back…to have both money and man.”
“Did you…” I thought about my questions, how to catch out what I hoped to know, raising no suspicion.
“…belong to a good house? Was your work pleasant to you?”
One other of our friends, a sun-scorched fellow older than we, whose brow bore a bowl-shaped indentation, had warning in all his speech (of which there was little), and his looks. The third was a woman…these two went together…whose tasks I longed to shadow, the kitchen being my native place.
But then, it proved the writing had made me desirable to this man, Cime Decima. His family had been granted tax-collection rights, in this quarter of this city unknown to me, and he did not himself make records on tablets. By which, you will suppose, he could not—but I was servant enough, all my years to that time, to have asked nothing more.
“I belong to the family,” my companion said. “I was born in his mother’s house, our master, and he was made a present of me. There is a ceremony, which you may not have in your old place, wherein the mother of the groom chooses those gifts the bride will bring to the altar. Nyma Decima collected a dowry from Guerin Treiva, and traded for coin a slave, an altar-bowl of alabaster, a team and chariot.”
I understood I might do well to note these names, remember them if I were able, and that demurely, my companion suggested this.
“Then given in return to her son,” I said. He had not told me what I wanted to know, if the Decima were just in temper…or mercurial. But he had told me they were of rank, and followed tradition. And that here, traditions of the great families were self-serving and binding.
It was my lady Pytta whom I attended at the first. I was given a livery to wear. I was given a broom as my staff of office, and when she strolled her garden, I preceded her on the path, to swipe at spiders’ webs and clear away fallen leaves…snakes and worms, droppings of birds…
These last were signs, though, to be read; I had done so in my old life, and found it difficult not pausing for a hurried divination.
“You see what an odd creature it is,” Lady Pytta remarked to her waiting-woman. “It will not trouble itself over a serpent, but the dung of a blackbird balks it…”
I bent to one knee, and rose at the tap of her fan.
It seemed politic to share my thought. “Cime’s wife, the gods favor enterprise just now…as I interpret, may you forgive me. There is a change of fortune on the horizon.”
(These were forms of address one used, to charm away rebuke.)
My predictions earned me status in the Decima household as a prodigy. Or, if nothing more, a jester. Divorced now from any shadow of belief…which for myself I had never had (had wanted only, for the sake of those to whom I belonged, earnestly to will into being), I waxed a hint histrionic…I shaded my words, to color their interpretation with wider and happier possibility.
I had no usual work-mate. I shared quarters with the others, and was called for alone. Lady Pytta was full of laughter; she enjoyed paying her visits…her circuit of the high houses, of which to make, as a young wife, she had the duty. And novelty to carry in her train…and so I was given the hood of a priest for a lark.
The other servants were sent away on pretense of concealing my revelations from gossip. It was sainted secrecy, this drawing of the veil of mystery; it made fun for these idle wealthy. I was given the importance of making my preparations and declaring myself ready…flattered to be attended, to have silence fall at the sound of my own voice. I was played upon—kindly I do think—to an even higher pitch, asked to choose, as the women could not among themselves, whose fortune would first be read. The game lasted the spring and summer, and I suppose in all it was only camaraderie, sport.
I had been isolated in childhood; I had not known what rivalry was.
Now autumn must come, following one cycle of the moon, and I was put in that place designed; ordered to accompany on his rounds Cime Decima. I received to complement my livery a pony, indifferently named for his brown coat, Cuerpha. The sun was low and burned in the afternoons. I wrapped a cloth around my head and neck, and sweated under my cap.
“In the planting season,” Cime said.
He was speaking to me, because he had raised his voice. Because his voice had a note of duty; duty done with resignation…and because his deputy, riding beside and not behind, did something with his shoulders on these occasions. Something that suggested an inward laugh.
“We will ride to the fields and take measure of each planted hektar, each left fallow, what grains are sown. Also we inspect the vineyards, the new leaf. The landholder pays in that portion determined, and if the harvest fall short, he is free to make appeal. But there is no appeal if he has not paid his taxes.”
“And in the harvest season…” I said, to prompt him. To show I listened.
You, who read my tale, heed: I had been taught to be well-spoken; been by exigence made well-read. In these manners my faith was perfect, for all the men and women I had known—those whose orders I obeyed, who met my eye now and then, conversed with me—were of this kind. But the world is a large place. Here was a lesson I had not learned: that servants and slaves could, must belong, in the eyes of some, among the brutes. That for a man like Cime’s deputy, Mumas, I—myself, my being, my looks, my voice, my sayings—grated.
All these things taken together, at the mere parting of my lips, sparked in him ire. To appease this man I could not have debased myself to a low enough humility. (Nor, then or later, would I have done so.)
He found me out of place. He found me grasping.
“Again we see how the crops stand in the fields…and nothing, if I have not certified its quality, can be taken to the exchange. You guess how it would be, giving too much license to these farmers. Even as close as we watch, there is not one, I promise you, doesn’t keep aside his stash, to sell over the border.”
“Because,” I said, still in innocence, “we are so near the border, it is not much effort to them.”
He laughed, and shook his head. “I did that work at one time, riding the boundary road, before my present honor.”
Cime was of the knightly caste, as you have surmised, his education all in arms; and what he had got from his tutors, he scorned. He found it easy to employ me in the jotting of figures. And then, for I wanted to do well at anything I undertook, I had thought of chart-making.
My success with Lady Pytta in mind, I’d said so aloud, this brainchild also, that grain and grapes grow with the weather, that in a fine year like this, we would expect a fine yield.
Next year, we would see.
“And the year after, Lord Cime…because by then…”
“How you let it prate!” Mumas said.
Cime rebuked him, with another of his laughs. “Why, Mumas, it costs me nothing!” And he said to me, “The office requires that I appoint a deputy, and his duties are another expense on the landholders.”
This, to Cime, was light humor, bantering with an equal, making foil of an inferior. To Mumas, the words held threat.
Now, the owners of these fields were townsmen. The town, behind its wall, sat central to the plateau, sited high in a bowl among fertile slopes; these descending from a naked peak leagues off, and trimmed by Cime’s boundary road. This, for a space, ran alongside a broad river, the Dagosse…the small branch of which had broken itself from the mud of Lotoq, to become again the Edagosse, native river of my old home.
It was not much in minds now, that fear I would gain my bearings and so flee to Elberin. No, for a spring and summer, a week or two of the autumn, I did truly count myself content. I believed I had the grace of my lord and lady. I’d thought I had work to do, and that I would grow in giftedness…in this mastery of tasks which came easily to me…to ornament the house of Decima, and find myself valued there.
The town—I will give it a name: Montsecchers—was quartered, as are most. Each quarter was governed with a degree of independence from its sisters, under rule of its own militia. It was Lady Nyma, Cime’s mother, sat as judge above the marshal in our own quarter.
Typically the villas shared a courtyard, and the courtyard was a place for visitors to wait. This dull chore of meeting with whomever might be given, or in some cases prefer (there were lords disputed the hundredth part of a single sovereign), stewardship over the household treasury, was not Cime’s. It was—you have guessed it, no doubt—Mumas the deputy’s place to cool his heels thus.
“We may win them over,” Cime said to me, on one particular day. I was somewhat clever, and gave answers that amused him. He spoke to me for that, confidingly. “You understand, Foundling, that the tax collector’s share is sheared by all he can’t pry loose. But…blame your lady…”
He broke off, and so I tried, “Thank her, rather…?”
He grinned at this and said, “Where do you imagine you’re going?”
Now I might take this as a frank inquiry. I did not serve at table, nor tend to private chambers. Cime first collected me, and I followed, walking or riding. We would begin at Mumas’s stable, for here he always waited, eager. In truth, I think he arranged this excuse not to have me cross his threshold.
I chanced it. “To the house of your deputy, and thence to a bench under Lord Sente’s olive tree.”
This jest Cime took in gratifying spirit. My misfortune was that we had, at the start of our exchange, turned onto the street where Mumas kept his house, and my master’s laughter, his hand on my shoulder, were heard and seen by Mumas idling outside his stable gate. He regarded me with daggers.
Cime’s deputy then took his place, being sure to crowd me aside, and began his complaint…that once more Sente had deigned not to see us; that his dispute with the emperor’s taxes must redound upon Lord Cime, whose man for three days had been left disemployed.
“You have clients yet I ought to have carried your assessments to… Two days more, and the month ends. They will make their own excuses…”
“Yes, they will feel entitled to start the bargaining afresh.”
Cime’s mood I had never seen other than sanguine. That he could be disgraced in office, and by the worst of charges—incompetence—by no sign troubled him.
“For Lord Sente, Mumas, I have a plan…you needn’t fear the wasting of your time. Two days will do for the others. To hang between the poise and the fall will sharpen their wits…and if they balk, that which serves Sente will serve them too. You read and write, do you not? You do not require the company of a scribe?”
Mumas, silent, shook his head.
The words were sufficient in what they revealed. This was why Cime had been telling me (and I protesting), that my cunning in augury, my priest’s hood his wife had gaily given me, had power to charm. “Waylay one of Sente’s servants…or a fellow supplicant…and ply him with your arts. Make a show of it. Sente is a superstitious man, by all accounts.”
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. 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?
I would never 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, reduce 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. For Lord Sente, I hoped, guessing (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.
Any fortune indicated within a base-up triangle was taken reversed; and the four directions of the wind were the houses into which one’s spirit had been born: the north, of the intellect; east, of love; the south, of concealment; west, of the flesh.
I put that letter we call fish before my comrade, to explain to Lom the nature of the telling. “You see, a thing under water symbolizes wealth. If the water be still, your wealth be safe; if it flow out to sea, you must be bankrupted rain by rain; if it flow inland, you will gain. If the fish fall here, under dark of night, which we read left, though it sit right…then, my Lom, it will not be luck for you to have a water sign fall on the right above. You will pray, if you turn that one, that it fall in the center.”
“Ah!” said Lom. “Where water pools and does not flow.”
I smiled. “You have got ahead admirably. I will put the fish away, and draw another.”
I shook my bag of tiles, and with some flair in placing them one by one, laid out Lom’s fortune. I meant to tell it truly. The tiles could not lie, but the teller had freedom to interpret. For friendship, tempered by this necessary undercurrent of design, I would tell Lom a tale of redemption, and of hope.
And here was fish again…and so such gods as there were must demand it. And here was eda, the diminutive. Lom gave a sigh. He had nearly spoken, then stopped himself—showing me an unearned reverence—as I turned for him the first. The last three up-tiles were tre, bega, and sun.
The down-tiles were fal, rain, and wev.
“Will it be bad?” Lom asked.
“It! Your fortune?”
“Kire,” he said to me…the name an endearment, “I know my fortune. I read signs also…those my grandmother knew, sold from that place behind the mountain.”
He meant that vanished city under Lotoq the traveler had spoken of, and…as did we all…kept silent a moment for having mentioned it. “She saw it.” He held my eye. “That would have been the day you were born, her people carried away. At dawn a flight of ravens, and you know…”
He made me unhappy, saying this. I would have to tell him.
Ravens were said to carry souls to the clouds, to the realm of the gods. He had got both fal and rain, and these being down, meant up. He had got bega, which was the sign of the raven. He had got it in the center, thus it touched all other signs, drove them like the hub of a wheel.
But if he had not told me his story, I’d have made light going of all this, for Sente’s sake. His two servants were at the rail. Their bodies threw shadows over my work, but their mouths were shut; they did not jeer. I sat, faltering, and my lengthening muteness brought a nod of the head from Lom.
I heard…in my betraying voice…a brokenness. “A small legacy will come to you, unexpected.”
“Interesting. I’ve seen you, Cime’s servant. Always in the company of Mumas.”
Lord Sente said this.
My next choice had been the better one. Although when Sente beckoned me indoors, and his servant—that officious sort, inevitable, who elevates himself wherever two or three are gathered to one purpose—brandished a flat palm at Lom (making…only feebly…to stand), I had been inclined to a slave’s meekness.
If Lom weren’t asked, I must follow unaccompanied, acquiesce. But Sente and his man offended me. I felt in the wrong, also, in a way I hadn’t the burden of guilt to relieve myself of…not then. Later, I picked at it, nightly when I might have slept, and tried to find if I had done anything excusable, anything at least I might forgive myself for.
I said, “My Lord Sente, I wonder…”
“You had better not.”
“I wonder,” I said on, “if it interests you…interesting was your word…to have a game, at all? If you would have a game, I must please have Lom.” If Sente, superstitious man, had very often been read his fortune, he would doubt me, and I’d need at once to think of a role for Lom.
But we passed unspeaking down a dark and cool hall, the secret pomegranate nature of Sente’s taste in things apparent, the tiles of a green stone I had never seen, polished into streaks of lightning, matrices of amber…yes, truly, a deep water hue blazed with a glassy gold. I marveled at the tiles alone. But the walls also were tapestried; at each jutting pilaster, a pedestal, sporting bust or figure, goddess or beast.
We descended steps, to a sumptuous room for sitting. Opening onto a hillside view curved a terraced porch, with awning to protect benches snugged against a balustrade. The air was rich in scent, small gusts of wind moving languid, buffeting white flowers on vine-laden trees. A little fountain played here too, sunken, half-moon in shape. Before us, a flock of blue-feathered birds eyed our approach.
Sente was shirtless, wearing only a flowing cloth knotted at the waist; I, in my tunic and sandals…the creatures unconcerned to stir themselves until the movement of our garments made its own breeze.
“Tell Cime”—he paused at the scattering of wings, then sat—“that the gambit is a clumsy one.”
I sighed. To me, my master had seemed clever enough.
But now a servant, belonging to some other part of the house, mounted steps from the basement level to our terrace, bearing a tray of sugared fruits and wine. Sente, on his face a sort of encouraging sneer, gestured for me to take the second cup, and to eat as I liked.
He ought, if he had seen through it all, to have played his own usual gambit…of leaving Cime’s envoys to stew (in such weather, probable enough). Sente wanted something of me.
I ate a single berry, and took a restrained sip. “My Lord Cime has sent me here only…”
“To do the work of his deputy.”
And did he mean to disparage Mumas, I was receptive enough. Sente stared, measuring me. I had likely shown my smile…we do, when our lips are still, and our eyes downcast. A weakling unarmed would leap to flattery, speaking out of place. But, however false-hearted, I repeated myself merely, in full.
“My Lord Sente, I have brought in writing the demand of the Emperor, not of my master, and I will give it to you. My Lord Cime asks that I do, and I cannot take it upon myself to do more.”
“You are a slave. If Cime will not give you your freedom, I will buy you and I will give it to you. Mumas… Why anyone has use for him!”
“My Lord, will you bid Lom indoors?”
At Sente’s right hand, resting on the tiles, was a gong. He pressed the lever that struck a clapper against it. I had won the only point I had to win, that my dear Lom not be made inferior even to me, but allowed to share Sente’s wine.
The porter led Lom to the sitting room’s threshold; Lom preceding a second visitor who had silenced the man’s cheek, and for whom Lom rightfully served as vanguard…my Lord Cime. Sente did not rise.
“Can I fairly suppose, Sente, that the law touches you at last?”
Yet it was me Cime looked in the eye. I could hardly convey to him Sente’s remarkable words.
Sente gave the porter his orders to carry down to the kitchen. I, sharing the bench, stood, giving place to my master. But Cime stopped before the fountain and let the spray of it splash over his feet.
“If the day is an auspicious one, I will of course take gold from my treasury. To part gold from gold on an inauspicious day, is to pay the penalty twice.”
To this Cime’s face replied with an obvious calculation. The countermove made difficulties…we were all in these lands bound to the old superstition; Cime must respect Sente’s reluctance. He laughed in private…but would not himself have spent money without a casting, and had I told him fortune forbade, my lord would rather fall in debt to a man than be an offense to the gods.
He crossed now, to take my vacant seat. “Do your work at once,” he told me.
“My Lord Sente, have you any preference?” I sank cross-legged, and drew a tablet from my bag.
He spoke through a smile of disdain. “Ought I suppose Cime, who shared my boyhood tutor, and shined by his efforts a favorable light on my own…that is, what we call, next to nothing…?”
They grinned at each other. The kitchen man brought more wine, more fruit. A smell of roast pig came to us, and Sente said, “Of course, dine with me.”
Cime prompted: “Suppose…?”
“That you would have trained your servant to cheat me?”
“I wouldn’t know how, with these arts.”
“Well, that is the better answer. If you’d said you wouldn’t do it, I would flout the lie by sending to Elcade. It would take a day or two, and you would be formally in dereliction of duty.”
Elcade was a hermit, a fortune-teller of that sort who breathed the fumes of Lotoq and babbled visions.
“Choose for yourself, as the fates dictate.”
I felt they dictated, on this day, Lom’s triangle. “My lord,” I said to Sente. “Will you trouble to draw the tiles, or…”
“No, creature, I say choose.”
Sente got nothing from the gods as to wealth.
Of course, my master’s humor must break the solemnity at least once…he quipping in low voice that his friend could hide gold so cunningly, even the gods did not perceive it. But I pleased Sente, for drawing mostly dry signs; the least auspicious reversed. An easier sort of luck than rain, so given to come in deluge, drain to drought.
The dove, bearer of gossip, sat center. Sun, below, to the left. For glancing up now and then to meet a frown of discernment, the versedness in tiles I’d expected, I felt it was myself dealt with gentle-handed by the gods. I would not be hated for the fortune I cast Lord Sente.
This, whose reading he could himself anticipate. He was cautious, a man thoughtful of possibilities. Not merely that he liked an omen before acting…
Sente kept his finery from envy’s sight, and he kept his counsel.
“There is talk of marriage… This will speed.”
His tile opposite sun, always that most personal to the subject, was swan, the bride. Sente might have a bride. I was soon to follow him to his dining hall, and might sit embarrassed, for fear of meeting an inconvenient eye. Sente himself seemed abashed at my words, and put a daring face to Cime; who knew, by his own, the answer…
But whether the secret were open among the nobles, or ill-concealed in Sente’s heart, I could not know.
“I believe…on this assurance…of the excellent, most reverend Fates,” Cime said slowly, flickering a smile; stopping it. “I shall ask you to put our little matter to rest at once. Why let money weigh on conscience, when we would rather be merry?”
“I had rather be merry.” Sente stood, and bent over my tablet. “Will speed…?”
“Talk,” I told him. Gossip, of course.
“The anthill falls to dust at an ass’s kick.” He spoke an old saying.
I understand the mind of my enemy. Proud men, struck in their natures equally with a grudging suspicion; men who have risen a little, gained somewhat in their small reputations…but who never can be lords of this world, must always land in service to the scions, the Cimes…hang on praise-seeking; stub their toes on open defiance. Mumas would have liked the emperor, or Lady Nyma in his stead, to discern a petrified merit in his will to perform his office.
The performing of it was another matter.
Mumas despised Cime; he supposed Cime to despise him. Thus all gifts to Mumas were unwelcome, almost insults; and yet he felt no less insulted denied them.
In that frame of mind, as I suppose him, Mumas had busied himself on this day serving assessments. I may suspect a sporting rivalry—I was closer to Cime and Pytta, of their household. I’d seen distance, varieties indulgent and austere, with elders; comradeship with Sente and a handful of the young…all of these came to the villa and went, making their visiting rounds, as had I, accompanying my lady. Her enchanting novelty…the foundling, the reader of destinies.
They played with one another, I felt, at catch-me-if-you-can… But as to causing harm, they meant none. I think my freedom was not a thing that had occurred to the Cimes; the notion I would be better off for having it…
But I digress…
Trouble sprang from this, that Mumas preened himself on bringing the delinquents to bay. He’d done so much—a day’s success for him—and felt he could do more.
The porter came to announce another of Cime’s servants.
Lom and I were served our meal on the steps leading to the dais on which the lordly ones reclined. Fully laden tables were carried above stairs, crouched into place delicately before the divans; and emptied, carried away below. Lom and I, among all who waited on these steps, had privilege to sample from Sente’s kitchen and enjoy, merely, being not ourselves in employment.
We kept our heads low. We offered profuse thanks at every new plate and cup, and we were loftily ignored. Sente’s guests were parents brokering a daughter’s marriage to him…this the embarrassment.
Sente held back not much of reluctance and disdain. They, wronged, but pleased to have the upper hand, commented…the wine in this country had for many years now a sulphurous under-taste…well, it was the water…unfortunately, the soil itself… Sweeter could be found in the north… And its being a month’s journey; of course there could be no occasion to wait for the mid-winter fairs…
The gist of these remarks we could grasp. Often, careless, they used words of their own; often they put heads together and conversed to the exclusion of the party. Sente answered by striking up talk with Cime.
“What else must we send for? My poor Darsale. But…she will grow used to it. Are you familiar at all with our sort of food, Sente?”
These two, the palest man and woman I had ever seen—they had spots to their skin, a russet pattern dotting their arms, and for the bareness of these, they were more clothed, too, than anyone I had seen, under and over garments, bonnets on their heads, and shoes that came above the ankle—made me pity all the more this daughter.
To be such as that, and to come alone, and to have been supplanted beforehand by some other love…
I was struck by the porter’s manner. He knew something…that in his private thoughts gave entertainment. He was bold enough, this smile in his voice, to ask Lord Sente if the applicant ought not be summoned from the courtyard, after the dinner was ended?
Bold enough to state: “But, he is Lord Cime’s man.”
Yes, Mumas had done an offensive thing to Sente; and Sente’s household was loyal.
When I was put on trial, a letter entrusted by Mumas to a servant of his own—instructed it be brought to light upon his death—exposed a secret that will not very much astonish.
Contracted marriage was the way in our land, of safekeeping fortunes. Every person of substance had a vote in the government, and the right of appointment; the militias of every quarter were raised at direct cost to the rulers there, and this was how order was kept.
Children of marriage inherited the great properties.
Husbands and wives often produced two or three, as barring accident…and then took up their separate domiciles. Children born of paramours had no part—or rather, theirs was that of the parent. If he were a slave, the child was born to slavery; if she were a wine-seller, the child was reared in her trade. A juggler, a refugee, a soldier, a horse-thief, a fortune-teller, these comings and goings produced such as they produced. But the law was iron, keeping them in their place.
And yet…the world is wide. Before my exile I’d known little of it.
Our prince from the north came bargaining with his mercenaries. His occupation—his plundering, if you like—of our land, was the price the Emperor paid to hold his old realms intact; to be held still in name their Supreme Sovereign. If Sente concealed his wealth from the gods, he had not concealed it from the prince.
Guerin Treiva was gone with the ravens to the clouds, leaving his widow, a second wife (by a handful of years older than Guerin’s daughter, my Lady Pytta). The prince nullified Sente’s contract to the House of Treiva; he introduced the family of the northern woman, Darsale. The northern horsemen, with their strong arms and long bows, the armor they bore even in our southern heat, made pitiful our own foot-soldiery and short blades. They were stern in love as well, great martyrs to it, as though, having made obedience an ordeal, all their pleasure lay in the pride of suborning themselves. They sang sagas of Death for Love.
Sente, one of us, hadn’t proposed to sacrifice his passion at all…only to be discreet.
And the tragedy…for why should small, scheming men’s lives not end, as well as do kings’, in the Fates’ laughter?…was that Mumas had not attempted blackmail. In his heart he might have known himself dishonorable—but dishonest, he was not. He had merely his jealousies, of Cime first; then of me, for the favor I’d gained in Cime’s eyes; at length, of Lom, for becoming my companion.
Being pity for oneself and envy of others ill-joined, jealousy makes the most vigilant of watchmen. Jealousy’s regard never strays from the place, the wealth, the luck in love (the luck, even, in misfortune, if this draw the sympathy and open the purses of the great). Jealousy’s regard is on the street corner word exchanged with a man of higher office than jealousy’s host. Jealousy’s regard is on the beggar before the hated door; on the envied one’s dog and his cat…on his slave.
And Mumas’s eyes regarded…
Who was great in our city, who greater still.
Mumas entered, and a face of sums jotted, lists completed, on some interior tablet, gave way to one of discovery. He hadn’t come to speak to Cime; Cime, being here, astonished him. For his part, Cime, expecting the interruption must be word of the child Pytta bore (and that would arrive while I waited my fate in jail; and that, for want of her trusted Lom to send, she herself came veiled to have its future foretold), hadn’t guessed this visitor.
“I give you leave…” Sente tapped his friend’s arm with a wine cup, devil-may-care, and nodded, indulgent in the boredom of accommodating servants, down towards Mumas. Yes, he made a show of this for the parents of Darsale.
“Mumas,” Cime said.
“Or,” Sente cut in, “perhaps your man’s business can wait an hour. If he will, then, he may take his place at the foot of the stairs.”
It was the only place he might have stopped. The northerners had their servants; waiting women and armed esquires, a small rebuking crowd on the right. Sente had his, casual in retort, on the left. Lom and I had been deferred to, allowed by the pride of Sente’s retainers to sit well up, as though we served at table, a distinction too high for our rank…almost a joke (but played very soberly).
The intelligence of Mumas was seen to grasp something. He began to speak, and another illumination intervened, choking back his words.
Then at last: “My Lord Cime, I am surprised… I find I have made an error…” With these changes, his mind busy behind them, Mumas worked his strategy. “My Lord Sente, you have my apology. I will return to my own house.”
His accent was crisp. He made the point that he was an equal, not a slave. He left, glancing once, where my eyes would have met his, boldly enough. But he looked at Lom.
It was full autumn, when winds blow from seawards, and dells ringing our land at the height of a long, descending pitch from the mountaintops, yield scents of change, mineral exhalations from the chimneys of the earth, the let veins of dying greenery, misted in the morning fogs. Streams here cascade ridged flanks becoming waterfalls, making hollows scooped in the metalworker’s pattern of a gourd. Along this line, colors are glorious, the leaves of trees like linked feathers; trees we called colebot, and gathered sweet pods from, their strong cerise like a sunrise viewed through this same mist.
The withering of green rolled slow in our lowlands, and in the gardens, fern and vine, salt pine and orchid, were never much changed, only less fecund, going out of flower. Lady Nyma had come to her son to order his house. Cime was free of duties, other than sit in the chambers hearing speeches.
Pytta moved from the breakfast table to the garden pavilion, dressed daily in her suirmat, that garment which is one long cloth folded over, sewn from calf to armhole, cut at the head in the shape of a fan. Her friends came for her solace, draping themselves over cushions. From post to post in the women’s pavilion were hung targets: the serpent, the cat, the dove, the sun, and the ship…and when anyone felt moved to do so, small bags of cloth stuffed with the seeds of another podded tree, the bitter rosira, were hurled to strike them.
This game also told fortunes. But it was lightly played, and desultory. Pytta had her feet in a basin of cold water. Lom and I had two ends of a cloth, painted with the story of the young lovers who’d confounded the gods…he, held prisoner to be sacrificed; she, having begged her father allow her a parting word, throwing herself from the tower in his stead. The lover, it is told, seeing this, gave a cry that reached the heavens, then wrested away the bowl of entrails waiting on the altar, for the priests to read in the smoke of their burning, the gods’ continued wrath or appeasement. He dashed this into the flames. He then followed his love.
And the gods gave the sign of transforming them into palmeini, small hawks (who, in truth, hunt the songbirds). Such cloths of fine silk, and fine craftsmanship, moved the air, up and down, side to side, wielded by the hands of slaves such as we.
Vlanna Madla owned a large workshop, its lower hall all looms staffed by weavers, and dyeing vats; its upper story and attic let to drapers, tent-makers, upholsterers; their sewers and embroiderers, their artists of the brush. The counter over which money changed hands was on a half-closed porch at the building’s front. But only servants on behalf of their masters came to pay here, or deliver to Madla the request, as Nyma had sent her own woman to do, to dine, and to bring her samples.
The meal was necessary; it was custom. Important merchants and proprietors made an under-layer of gentry in our land. They were never, unless family, guests at weddings, or at celebrations of appointments; and their guilds honored holy days in ways peculiar to each trade. But the Decima order, for the nursery, for the Emperor’s—he would come mid-winter—entertainment, meant asking a favor…that Madla take this job, occupy her people with it; give, quite possibly to her lasting loss, others to competitors.
I had been at loose ends, while above the great ones sat. As a form of politesse (respecting Madla’s status; pretending for a time there was no business to discuss), they spoke only gossip…billows of which, in those days of the prince, passed from mouth to ear. It was Sente’s affairs were most powerfully interesting; but Madla knew well not to speak of them at the table of Cime Decima.
Lom and I sat on the rim of a water tank (that from which the launderers and scullions drew theirs), in the courtyard under the dining porch. It was cool in this spot, and we were silent, listening.
Madla, her deep voice honed to carry, had just broken off from a gambit…and began again, having reached a topical frontier. She ventured a toe. “Those leelaye…some of them, paid a call on Mumas. I don’t know if they are ignorant.”
(Leelaye was a pale-rooted plant that grew among the heights, crawling over rock where water fell. Step on one, and its thin skin peeled to a slippery gum…treacherous. Yet the very poor would boil them, through changes of water; sugar them and wrap them in leaves to ferment; boil them again, with the poison out, and the taste palatable, for a tea. The hungry ate and drank leelaye in abundance, as no one else wanted it. You see, reader, why the name lent itself, in denigration, to the northern newcomers.)
There were murmurs. Someone said, “Everyone is wise in his own way, dear.” It would not do to make a fault of Madla’s words. Nyma, as elder, answered.
“He will let his house to them. At the time of the wedding…ah, Madla!” Some laughter, and throaty sounds of ruefulness; and Pytta’s friends’ chatter. Some shared Pytta’s circle complete, and would see this princely scheme to its fruition, the bride Darsale and the groom, Sente, joined. Others did not know Sente, but knew the widow-lover. And a harsh, scornful, “Ha!”, above all making itself heard, was Caleyna Treiva’s.
A space of dishes clattering, freighted silence, made Lom and I exchange a sideways look. He, bless him, would not say it, but I would. “Will our lady burst the dam?”
He smiled…and she did.
“Maybe Mumas thinks he will surprise them. Maybe, for all we know, they can be surprised.” Pytta stopped for a moment. She went on. “Are the northern men virgins on their wedding day, do you think?”
We, of course, slaves often moving invisibly, even through bedchambers, could not be surprised…at the vulgarity of the jokes. And to the House of Decima’s advantage, Madla came down pleased with herself.
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.
I Am the Cause
If in life, the Fates were not indifferent to us, and did not record in their Book merely the start and end of each wayfarer’s journey; if our sorrows, petty to them, were guided rather by a kind and just deity, a mother’s hand turning our blind eyes to the light, our stubborn hearts to humility, while the flame of the candle yet burned…
A death would be as a bedside story that ends when the hearer drifts off.
And all is well.
If Lom had opened an eye…if he had been able to speak…if he had said, I am resigned to it, I saw the signs of it, Kire, we spoke of this…
The wound was grievous. The hoof had struck him above and behind the ear. As the rim of a bowl, so this weak place in the skull breaks easily. I had stood for a stupid moment not understanding or believing. And Lom, though gone, stood too, in the thick of those fleeing Mumas’s mad charge. The blood flowed like water from a cracked vessel, and all of us nearby, whose bodies had pressured him upright, jumped with horror, or edged away in shock. He fell.
I spun, and saw Mumas had won his cowering deference. No one delayed him now, all parted before him, and he was soon ridden from sight. It was only then, when Vlanna Madla came running with a set, furious face, that I fell myself, to my knees, and clutched at one of the rolls of burnt cloth.
He was gone, he never would know another thing done to his uncaring form, but he was not wholly dead. Such things often are. The blood came through the ball I’d bundled and pressed, with force enough only to tamp the flow.
It seemed no use. Another roll of cloth was folded to make a stretcher. Madla directed this into her counting room. Here, I shook off tears and stupor…
I was not the sufferer. “Mera, if I may…I’ll wait.”
Her chin trembled, and she did not answer. But in the hours after, I learned she’d given orders for quiet and comfort, Lom’s and my own.
The room fell into darkness, and I sat resting a hand on Lom’s chest to feel him breathe, until the numbness in my legs became insistent. Or, perhaps in truth I should say to feel him stop. I wanted to say soothing words and nothing came to my heart…none of what I had been taught of the next world struck me as that a man’s soul would wish to hear.
I stood, and turned to the windows along the back wall, giving onto the unlit alley. Madla had bade her servant leave the shutters open. She’d conversed with him over my head and had not troubled me. Once, he’d returned, cradling a candle flame; then left the untouched supper dish, and Cime’s slaves, alone.
I thought of this, looking over rooftops at stars, listening to hoofbeats, dim voices, lowering my gaze to see lamplight flare in a downstairs room of Mumas’s house. I ought, false shaman that I was, to have kept a blank mind, and let the gods speak…if they would. Deign pity me with wisdom. But I thought of my master, how deeply in defiance of ordinary rules I was now, whether I was forgiven…whether I, of less value than Lom, would be held at fault.
I might be held unlucky, unsafe to keep, as I had in my old home.
And it was Cime I heard speak, shouting for Mumas. Cime, the growing light of torches in the lane and alley making plain, had gathered his household knights, and they had concealed themselves in the dark. They had surrounded Mumas, and allowed him to enter his home.
He came out. From the window, many lengths distant, I could see in the light of his doorway, his hand tremble. He raised a purse, and flung it to the foot of the steps, where Cime gripped his sword unsheathed.
“I suppose the slave is dead. It ought to have been the other. But there, my honored Lord Cime, my purchase. Or, if you won’t take my gold, you may take one of mine.”
They faced each other, silent.
Mumas, bold in his terror. Cime, quivering with insult. But the law held each in check.
“There is no recompense for what you’ve done. Don’t bother with it!”
Cime said this, at last…stooped to take up the purse, hurled it, striking Mumas in the belly. A ripple of speech passed the ranks of his knights. They wondered—among themselves, but for their lord’s ears—if by this he meant challenge. If he would order them into the house of Mumas, to take blood vengeance.
But Cime was Lady Nyma’s son; he was the Emperor’s tax collector, and he couldn’t.
Lom was dead. I knew this, crouching to him once again.
Challenge, I thought of it.
I thought of the law, under which I had no right of being. But the Balancers, who stalk the guilty, are there where justice fails.
Tell me, I asked them, am I wrong?
Come the morning, I had left Madla’s counting room.
She might fairly suppose me returned to my master’s house; carry on, then, as Cime no doubt had given her permission. Lom would be sent for burning. With no ceremony I knew of that a friend, a brother or sister, was at the death of a slave called to perform.
For strength, I’d eaten the food set out the night before. I’d got inside the stable of Mumas, no one awake and about to resist me. The horses stirred, snorted, not caring their early visitor was strange…this hour, and any bustle of humanity, meant food to them. I found the creature I was certain Mumas had ridden—goaded to do an evil, not at fault for it—and stroked its nose. It stood calm in its stall.
A groom turned up then, toting a pail of mash, and when his sight adjusted under the roof, he started at me.
“You get out!”
At once, I could see his master’s ways with him gainsay his first judgment. He peered towards the narrow opening giving light and air to the stall, and through which the horse could thrust its head to find the water trough. Mumas’s servant looked at me again, and his calculations seemed apparent enough.
“You don’t want me to go,” I said. “And I advise you not to waste good water, for foolishness. I have not poisoned it. Take me to your master, and let him dispose of my trespass as he chooses.”
The law of challenge required I touch the person of my adversary. Thus, were I taken prisoner and delivered to Mumas, it would suit. He might in his house kill another of Cime’s slaves. But I was astray, and Cime, of superior family, had the higher right of disposition. And so I deemed Mumas wise enough to see himself as he was, slidden to the cliff’s edge, clinging to the root of the leelaye. He had never wanted a feud with the powerful.
The groom found me too reasonable, and suspected me. “Did you get hold of something?”
He scanned round, at rasps, and picks, and mallets, at tackle hanging from the walls. I spread my arms, smiling a little. My garments were thin summer ones. “I’m sorry. But I have something to say to Mumas. Do you find me unworthy to speak to your master?”
“I don’t care.”
“Better, if I make my way in from the yard? If I have done this myself, and no one else to blame?”
He pushed hair from his forehead, in the way of reluctant agreement.
Discovering Mumas on his dining porch was as easy as pricking my ears. The slave attending his breakfast table was underfoot, apparently—too sudden to proffer the water pitcher, too slow stopping the clatter of its fall, mopping the spill. I doubted Mumas had slept, and I doubted his agitation could calm itself.
How to enter…
Though if he glanced over his shoulder, he would see me lingering at the threshold. The servant looked up and saw me, and in his brooding Mumas missed the twitch and quick effacement. So, I thought, do they hate him? I pitied him, and hadn’t guessed then—thinking of myself, my own grievances—how thoroughly I was to play nemesis.
I entered by walking in. Mumas heard the sound of my feet; perhaps he smelled Lom’s blood staling on my tunic. He breakfasted without arming himself beforehand, sensibly enough, and so only leapt from his bench, tamping away panic even as I watched his face.
It drew into itself, bitter. “You bring a message from Lord Cime. Yes. Such would be his humor.”
“Of my own,” I said. “Please keep still a moment. You,” I spoke on, approaching him, holding his eyes, so that he would keep still, “will choose the weapon. That is your right, by the law, as you know. You see I have none.”
He gave no order to his slave. Knights were expensive articles, and Mumas might support no household guard. I put my hand on his belly…which, you have guessed, reader, was symbolic in these matters, and if the challenge followed, it must be answered.
“I charge you as assassin. You have killed my friend Lom. You will fight me, Mumas. I, Cime Decima’s slave. I have never heard the law forbid it.”
The law did not. It was not done.
As to this city, that I had not lived in for very long, I learned its ways at times I was told a new thing. A slave (even a sort of jester of the games, bought for novelty) hasn’t business affairs…and errands to run only as commanded. Only when I’d found myself wandering lost, cursed for stupidity by shopkeepers, or by stewards of Cime’s clients, blockading their lords’ empty villas, had I been cured of any misjudgment. My early life in the shadow of Lotoq was my book of law and custom. I was wrong often enough in my guesses.
The prince had taken one such villa for his palace, its owner going sourly to the sea. He was there in the town, the prince. His glittering guard rode, in a bored way, through the quarter, most often under the walls of the fort. Our militia, never horsed, jeered at them from the towers, in veiled fashion, dumping down rinds of fruit…playing a light, comic air, on a reed.
Mumas had thrown me out. He had not become less convinced, but more so, that I acted on Cime’s instigation.
“Tell your master, if the Emperor’s justice won’t suit him, to make his petition before Lord Sente’s new relative.”
And in this, do you note my difficulty?
Mumas, a citizen, might have gleaned a fact. The family of Darsale might be true kin to the house of the prince. Mumas again might only class these northerners—who, under the rind, likely classed themselves as pith, and meat, and seed—mere orange to our own apple, indifferent to whether they redeemed a favor or performed one.
I’d expected to be taken seriously. Scorned and deplored, loathed, but comprehended. I would have to think of a greater provocation.
I sat on the steps to his porch, so far delinquent now, I felt a peculiar reunion with my early life, under the old woman’s care…when I had sometimes been free, finished with chores.
She had called me Fate’s child, not her own…
And so I’d been allowed to walk the ashy countryside until nightfall, numbering the small green things that willed to live, and no one wanted me.
I did suppose Cime wanted me, and expected me. I had every sense that he indulged me; little fear he would not excuse me. But for a few days, it seemed, I could please myself.
The shutters of a window folded back, someone yelling, “Why are you loitering there? Go to your master!”
I waved in good cheer, and said, “Tell your own master he has not answered me.”
This servant snorted and withdrew, I doubted to give my message to Mumas, rather apprise him I had not gone. Thinking again of the Balancers, dogged forms their quarry must see forever, if he dare look back…and never shake, until to their satisfaction he has atoned, I made my decision.
I saw the man I recognized as Vlanna Madla’s manager come up the street. He spoke as he approached.
“Lady Pytta sent that the other’s ashes be scattered upon the Dagosse, to flow as the gods will by the Edagosse, to the place. That of his mothers and grandmothers.”
“Of them all, his people,” I said. “Who on the other side must see no change, but in their ways live on. Only a strange visitor now and then, brings to them a strange tale.”
He made a gesture of piety…though I had not so much favored him with a seer’s vision, as shared a fancy I’d long held, in contemplating the vanished city.
One or two hours passed, and the house of Mumas sat closed behind me, silent. As you may surmise, I was less comfortable now than I had been, and the exigencies of keeping vigil began to tell. I might not succeed alone, for even a full day.
But a minor ruckus burst at the back of Madla’s establishment, louder than the hammering in the lofts, and someone skipped across to mount the steps beside me. She brought a water jug, a basket of bread and fruit.
“Eat if you like. Or go to Vlanna’s courtyard first, you know. She tells me to hold your place. Will Mumas come out, do you think?”
I’d made for myself a rise in status, never expecting it. Of this enterprise, at least, I had charge. I thus instructed: “Forestall him. Even if he would like to order you off, and have nothing more to do with me. You know his temper.”
She thrust up her chin and flapped a hand, dismissive, having her mistress’s weight behind her.
“Mumas knows what the law demands,” I finished. “He can give answer only to me.”
He hadn’t come out. I made myself content with jug and basket, sent the girl back to Madla…who, seeing to my lunch as well, sent her again at midday; again to play deputy, keeping my post. By now, behind the shutter, symptoms had begun to manifest.
The lane and alley carried a busy traffic as the day wore past noon. Not many knew me to speak to, but of the merchants’ clerks and porters, most cast an eye over affairs at the house of Mumas—returned my salute, gave greeting. So much tacit support from the buyers and sellers beneath him, so much bold condemnation from his neighbor, a woman of ordinary birth, but held in better esteem; so much effrontery from mere servants…
He brooded, probably. A man of law would have to advise him, but he would have to summon one. He jibbed no doubt, at not only that I cost him money (that Lom did), but that my stand gained credence for his spending of it, for his consulting upon it. The shutter edged back and knocked into place, the third time within an hour or two.
A small man, in the square-crowned hat of a lawyer, stoic also under the black cloth draped and belted, that told his profession, traversed the parting crowd. Yes, they stood off to let him pass, some moving their hands with a sardonic flourish. It was a fresh act in the day’s theater.
“There,” he said to me, mounting the steps, “sits the conundrum.”
“I don’t think I have made a very difficult puzzle. Can Mumas not kill me if he likes…only that there is some ceremony to attend…”
“I think you know well enough how you’ve placed him.”
He would not tarry to debate, perhaps give his advice for nothing, but feeling in his pouch for a scroll on which some tenet of the law must be inscribed, met the servant already holding the door.
I did not know it, though.
I own myself a bit puffed up by the crowd’s amusement, that they seemed to take my part. I would not turn over in my mind the matter of dying, since this prospect cannot improve for a closer study.
Lawyers were disliked…and so this one’s sympathies may have woken on the side of the unpopular Mumas. The man of law disapproved of me, at any rate, and was not charmed by me. I’d grown too easy in Cime’s and Pytta’s company, finding myself winsome, as reflected in the eyes of others.
Where had I placed Mumas? Where he could not win, I guessed now… Either to address me or not was humiliation.
A servant came round from the stables—my friend the groom, mounted on a horse. He pulled back on the reins, and before me nosed ahead.
“You are to be arrested. Will you run?”
“No, you won’t.”
He rode on. If he were pleased with me, or if he sneered at me, I couldn’t tell.
(more to come)