The Totem-Maker: Jealousy (part one)
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 suspicions.
“…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 the right of tax-collection, 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…to make the numbers come to account…but I had been 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 Gueddu 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.)
(2018, Stephanie Foster)