The Totem-Maker: Jealousy (part six)
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—had 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 belief; 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 breathe the fumes of Lotoq and babble 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.”
(2018, Stephanie Foster)