Totem: To Be and to Choose (part two)
“Be seated, vlan.”
Lady Nyma rose, and the Prince obeyed her, even the hauteur falling from his face, but contempt in the hand waving off sitters across the aisle. In this way, I was beside him, though separate, and began to dread being called to speak.
The court officer shouted, “Cime Decima!”
My master strode forth kicking aside, cheer enough on his face, the feet of the Prince’s knights.
Lady Nyma drew down a tablet, topmost of several at her right hand.
“This, as you have here set in writing, you swear before the court, Cime Decima. That, you ask nothing in reparation from Mumas Martas; that, you will put no price on the dead slave Lom. That, for your part, you withdraw from the case altogether, will press no claims, will speak no word in future.”
The clerk who sat beside her gave to Cime the chip of obsidian here used to mark the unfired clay. He signed before this room of witnesses; the clerk inked the tablet and pressed it to a stretched cloth. This, by another clerk, was carefully removed for drying.
“Citizens and guests, Petitioner and Respondent, Counsel.”
She placed, and studied, a second tablet.
She lifted her eyes, looking over all the crowded room, and the northern chatter began a slow dying. I, under cover of this, glanced at the Prince. I wondered if she’d angered him, calling him guest.
His profile offered me only the clue of pursed lips.
Banche rose; I rose quickly at his side.
“Asks the court to consider whether the laws which pertain to dispute by challenge, pertain to the slave as to the master. The Respondent charges the Petitioner with trespass in his house, and with assault upon his person, and asks that the court dismiss this request of the Petitioner; that the session be closed upon this resolution; that Cime Decima be made to offer reparation to the Respondent; reparation which the Respondent’s counsel states his client will accept, in form of the Petitioner’s being bonded over to Mumas Martas, by Cime Decima. The court dismisses the Respondent’s charges, and will hear the Petitioner’s request.”
Now I wanted badly to peer at Mumas. I’d known nothing of his seeking such recompense, and was glad of its dismissal…
But I was beginning to feel myself the walker, high on the mountainside, who dislodges the pebble.
“For thirty days, I have weighed one question, upon which all other questions the court shall consider in this case, must of necessity hinge. From Dal Ruggia, where otherwise this assize might have been opened, and where the archives with those verdicts relevant to the matter are to be found, I have returned, after many days’ research.
“We do not question that a slave is regarded property of his master.
“The court is asked to consider whether, as property, a slave can be a person of will, can choose his actions independently of his master’s will. If we determine that this is so, we must determine whether the court’s authority, applied in balance…that is, the law being the same law, its weight accorded in the same case and degree to every person; and in justice to its own principle…that is, the law itself deriving from natural right, this right being apparent, and when applied without caprice, its fairness manifest—can withhold reward if it mete punishment. For to apply the law in such a way that it thwart its own purpose, is to apply no law at all.
“Let us then consider so many instances as will illustrate what a slave is, and what a slave is not, whereupon those at this hearing who have objections may at the close of my remarks, raise them. Suppose that the Father of Lotoq shake the earth.”
She paused, gauging us all, for she had boldly spoken the name of the nameless, the god we dreaded. Nor did Lady Nyma herself make the sign…but many others touched their fingertips and bowed their heads.
“If the guest of a householder be injured by the fall of a pillar, we do not curse the god. We allow that we live only by the will of the Holy One; and that a god shall dispose as he chooses. But if the house were ill-constructed, we do not blame the pillar. The householder shall be held to blame; she may in her turn hold the builder to blame.
“Suppose that a neighbor plant his corn, and that her chickens, for being let to roam free, eat the seed and deprive him of his harvest. We do not blame the chickens; and yet, we do not blame either he who sold to her the chickens. We rule that fowl must be penned, the loss reimbursed…and by this we acknowledge that fowl, left to themselves, will wander and peck.
“Suppose she does not pen them, and he set his dog on them. We do not blame the dog, but yet we acknowledge that the creature performs the will of its master, a thing we do not accuse fowl of doing. In such cases, the magistrate will order the parties come to terms, recognizing fault on both sides. But, if the master set the dog on a fellow citizen, and do him bodily harm, a sergeant must confine the dog and destroy it. This is so, and is written so in the law, because we will not trust the dog to be safe, when it has proven itself dangerous. Heed, Citizens, that here, and well established, we make a distinction; we acknowledge both status of property and autonomy of action.
“Now if the master have a slave, and if he send the slave to injure bodily an enemy, the master is at fault, but the slave does not escape the law. According to the injury done, he may be put to death. He may be sent otherwise to serve in the galleys. But, say the enemy meet the slave and beg that the slave not harm him.”
Here, Lady Nyma silenced herself for a long moment. We sat, and thought, of what she wished us to think. I heard a grunt from the Prince, a noise that conveyed something of admiration grudged to our High Magistrate.
To Be and to Choose
(2018, Stephanie Foster)