The Totem-Maker: I Am the Cause (part one)
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 cracks 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 broken 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?
I Am the Cause
(2018, Stephanie Foster)