Totem: To Be and to Choose (part three)
“The case is that known to some of you, of the slave Hanit. She had been sent to bear a gift of wine to the marriage feast of Vlan Androchas. This wine was poisoned with the seeds of the rosira tree; another of the kitchen slaves had tasted of it, unbidden—
“He had died of the sickness. Hanit was told by her master Lord Tahme, go in his stead, seal your lips, and do as you are told. She feared he would kill her, having no use for her, and she knowing of his ill-intent towards a rival. Thus she confessed to Androchas; Androchas tested the wine, pouring it into a pool of fish, and found that Tahme’s slave spoke the truth.
“You will stay with me in my house, he said to Hanit.
“Now we grant to Hanit, that she owed the greater obedience to the law; the law that states above all that we cannot take what we cannot give, that the gods give life and by their will only does life end. Hanit chose rightly; but she chose so with no counsel, by the guidance of her wit alone.
“Citizens, the Petitioner would act, not with the thought of sparing, but of avenging life. There is no question, as to this matter, of obedience, for Cime Decima makes no claims, and has so, before you all, averred. Does a slave have the right, the duty, to intervene, to refuse to perform an act of evil, whether or no the slave has been ordered to perform it by he who regards the slave his property, and does the court accept the verdict of Hanit as precedent; it must then follow, that this case we consider today is the mirror of Hanit’s. The slave has not been ordered, but of self-will desires to perform an act against the life of Mumas Martas; the act in question is not a crime, but one sanctioned by the very law created to resolve such disputes as the death of a loved one through the recklessness or malevolence of another.”
Lady Nyma proposed, and my mind found this fitting, that day is not more true than night, our rains of winter not more true than our droughts of summer…that the justice in Hanit’s act must be somehow inherent in my own, yet unrealized act.
“Vlanna,” she said to a minister at her left. “I ask you now to speak.”
The woman stood. Her face was scarred; her arms alike bore the grooves of knife wounds, healed over, accenting sinew and muscle.
“I am called Pyrandtha. I am a Knight of Caeluvm, a challenger. I fight no longer, but still I serve, my life pledged to the virtue of honor, and have been named by the emperor, Minister of Causes to the city of Montsecchers. I am asked by Lady Nyma to state for the court those rules appropriate to the cause of the Petitioner, for many of you are strangers, and many have never challenged.”
She used such formal cadence in her speech. She paused here, and made me look her in the eye. And with each of these, occasions when someone of importance exercised the dignities of high office, rituals of a tradition I never had believed touched me, I felt a bit more ashamed.
“The challenge must fall into one of three classes of grievance: Sauta Umos, insult to the person; Sauta Maitos, insult to the house; and, Sauta Faibe, insult to the weak. The law holds that a person of lower lineage or place cannot insult a person of higher; that one without citizenship cannot insult the family or reputation of an Elector—but…for this, to the law of challenge, is the very foundation…any person may issue challenge against another, to charge him as having preyed upon one weaker than himself.
“The Order of Knights of Caeluvm exists for this, that many of the rightly aggrieved have not the capacity to meet an opponent in combat. We are a charitable order. We swear a vow of Service above Self, even unto death, if this the gods will.”
She came to a stop. I felt hopeful and wanted to tamp away this stirring. It was the first I knew in myself, that I was not ready to be winner—in this cause of my own choice. For to win would grant me only the chance to lose all. But she had stopped, not to address me; not to offer her order’s charity to me, but because the Prince had been playing at something.
I’d seen him ogle…so from the corner of my eye, I perceived…this phenomenon, our Minister of Causes; I saw him shift in his seat and nudge with his knee one of the guards who kept close by him. Pyrandtha and Nyma with serene faces gazed above the heads of the royal bench-sitters.
“The form of challenge, which by the account even of Mumas Martas, had been done correctly, in accordance with the law, it is this. That the insult must be stated, its being and its reason; that the hand be placed on the belly, the seat of trust. As we do when on pilgrimage, as at the shrines, where the stonecrafters who lived in the time of the gods carved their images by arts unknown, and where the priests fasted, the earth burned day and night, and where the blood of the impious ran as a river in the streets, to consecrate and make holy the living rock. When we pass in procession, and when we say our prayers, we place our hands on the belly of the god, but our eyes we cast down.”
Her words were cast at the Prince. Our mid-winter time of pilgrimage would come soon enough; many hearts would pray in those weeks, many more of our people walking the procession than before the days of the Prince…
Pray that the emperor be toppled from his throne. His paid vassal, unsanctioned, would then sail away. Or march his army over the mountains. Or, if the gods, the Children of the Father of Lotoq, heard our prayers, he would never leave this land.
To Be and to Choose
(2018, Stephanie Foster)