The Totem-Maker: Jealousy (part eight)
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 my ordeal was ended, 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.
Gueddu Treiva was gone with the ravens to the clouds, leaving his widow, a second wife (by a handful of years older than Gueddu’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 a trial, 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.
(2018, Stephanie Foster)