The Totem-Maker: Jealousy (part three)
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, and 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…as it seemed, 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 moreover 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.”
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(2018, Stephanie Foster)