The Totem-Maker: I Am the Cause (part two)
Come the morning, I had left Madla’s counting room.
She might fairly suppose me returned to my master’s house…carry on, then, as Cime no doubt had given her permission. Lom would be sent for burning. With no ceremony I knew of that a friend, a brother or sister, was at the death of a slave called to perform.
For strength, I’d eaten the food set out the night before.
I’d got inside the stable of Mumas, no one awake and about to resist me. The horses stirred, snorted, not caring their early visitor was strange…this hour, and any bustle of humanity, meant food to them. I found the creature I was certain Mumas had ridden—goaded to do an evil, not at fault for it—and stroked its nose. It stood calm in its stall.
A groom turned up then, toting a pail of mash, and when his sight adjusted under the roof, he started at me.
“You get out!”
At once, I could see his master’s ways with him gainsay his first judgment. He peered towards the narrow opening giving light and air to the stall, and through which the horse could thrust its head to find the water trough. Mumas’s servant looked at me again, and his calculations seemed apparent enough.
“You don’t want me to go,” I said. “And I advise you not to waste good water, for foolishness. I have not poisoned it. Take me to your master, and let him dispose of my trespass as he chooses.”
The law of challenge required that I touch the person of my adversary. Thus, were I taken prisoner and delivered to Mumas, it would suit. He might in his house kill another of Cime’s slaves. But I was astray, and Cime, of superior family, had the higher right of disposition. And so I deemed Mumas wise enough to see himself as he was, slidden to the cliff’s edge, clinging to the root of the leelaye. He had never wanted a feud with the powerful.
The groom found me too reasonable, and suspected me. “Did you get hold of something?”
He scanned round, at rasps, and picks, and mallets, at tackle hanging from the walls. I spread my arms, smiling a little. My garments were thin summer ones. “I’m sorry. But I have something to say to Mumas. Do you find me unworthy to speak to your master?”
“Me…I don’t care.”
“Better, if I make my way in from the yard? If I have done this myself, and no one else to blame?”
He pushed hair from his forehead, in the way of reluctant agreement.
Discovering Mumas on his dining porch was as easy as pricking my ears. The slave attending his breakfast table was underfoot, apparently—too sudden to proffer the water pitcher, too slow stopping the clatter of its fall, mopping the spill. I doubted Mumas had slept, and I doubted his agitation could calm itself.
How to enter…
Though if he glanced over his shoulder, he would see me lingering at the threshold. The servant looked up and saw me, and in his brooding Mumas missed the twitch and quick effacement. So, I thought, do they hate him? I pitied him, and hadn’t guessed then—thinking of myself, my own grievances—how thoroughly I was to play nemesis.
I entered by walking in. Mumas heard the sound of my feet; perhaps he smelled Lom’s blood staling on my tunic. He breakfasted without arming himself beforehand, sensibly enough, and so only leapt from his bench, tamping away panic even as I watched his face.
It drew into itself, bitter. “You bring a message from Lord Cime. Yes. Such would be his humor.”
“Of my own,” I said. “Please keep still a moment. You,” I spoke on, approaching him, holding his eyes, so that he would keep still, “will choose the weapon. That is your right, by the law, as you know. You see I have none.”
He gave no order to his slave. Knights were expensive articles, and Mumas might support no household guard. I put my hand on his belly…which, you have guessed, reader, was symbolic in these matters, and if the challenge followed, it must be answered.
“I charge you as assassin. You have killed my friend Lom. You will fight me, Mumas. I, Cime Decima’s slave. I have never heard the law forbid it.”
The law did not. It was not done.
As to this city, that I had not lived in for very long, I learned its ways at times I was told a new thing. A slave (even a sort of jester of the games, bought for novelty) hasn’t business affairs…and errands to run only as commanded. Only when I’d found myself wandering lost, cursed for stupidity by shopkeepers, or by stewards of Cime’s clients, blockading their lords’ empty villas, had I been cured of any misjudgment. My early life in the shadow of Lotoq was my book of law and custom. I was wrong often enough in my guesses.
The prince had taken one such villa for his palace, its owner going sourly to the sea. He was there in the town, the prince. His glittering guard rode, in a bored way, through the quarter, most often under the walls of the fort. Our militia, never horsed, jeered at them from the towers, in veiled fashion, dumping down rinds of fruit…playing a light, comic air, on a reed.
Mumas had thrown me out. He had not become less convinced, but more so, that I acted on Cime’s instigation.
“Tell your master, if the Emperor’s justice won’t suit him, to make his petition before Lord Sente’s new relative.”
And in this, do you note my difficulty?
Mumas, a citizen, might have gleaned a fact. The family of Darsale might be true kin to the house of the prince. Mumas again might only class these northerners—who, under the rind, likely classed themselves as pith, and meat, and seed—mere orange to our own apple, indifferent to whether they redeemed a favor or performed one.
I’d expected to be taken seriously. Scorned and deplored, loathed, but comprehended. I would have to think of a greater provocation.
I Am the Cause
(2018, Stephanie Foster)