Totem: To Be and to Choose (part five)
The Prince said:
“Mumas Martas agrees to the challenge. He will fight. He will fight the slave upon the mustering grounds of the fort. What else?” He fingered his chin, artificial in manner. Mocking still, if not more so. “Knives…shall we have shields?”
I went home.
Cime, at the court’s adjourning, caught my eye, tight-smiled; he pushed through the crowd to myself and Banque, pinching my counsellor’s tunic at the shoulder (this was respect, in our land, to touch the clothes, not the body), and steered us to where we had been making, one of the row of standing desks in niches, adjacent to a table where clerks sat; where, when a man of law had found an empty place, a clerk would rise, and come with tablets and seals, writing instruments.
We had an important air, our group; we had gained a fourth, Sente, and a fifth, a man who served the Prince closely. We had no name for this one. He seemed not a knight, almost a Keeper of Acts…however, the northerners recorded their bargains in tattoos and burning brands, in disfigurements of ears and noses. Their naked arms told history, their cheeks and brows raised beads of flesh, colored with indigo or charcoal. Some of these were familiar constellations, some were runes. This man’s head shone bald in a plucked circle, a blasphemous mountain sculpted at center with bone slivers, blood congealed to color them, tiny ribs thrust up in a spider’s crouch.
But he was quiet, listening. His eyes were studious, taking in what we did, and I felt he knew our language.
My question for Banque, if I had not, in this company, swallowed it, would have been, am I free? At liberty, I should say. Will I be told where to go, will an officer fetch me? Will I be marched to the mustering grounds, a knife placed in my hand? Will I stand at some distance from Mumas, will he look at me, eye to eye, will I pity him still, too much to wish him dead, yet will we kill each other…at the last, for I know I will fight to live?
Have I been wrong, have I done wrong, am I wrong?
But, blinking my eyes against the sun, I walked the colonnade of the Villa Montadta’s porch, blinded and blinded again, Cime’s hand on my shoulder, teaching me the way. The way of our future. This was all I’d feared. That I could not, as consequences weighed, be forgiven.
If the mother who bore me, and died for it, had won free of Lotoq’s execration…if her home had been the city of Lom’s grandmother, so angering to the god…then my flowering into promise in this way must seem, to a clever man—to Cime, to his friend Sente—that warning shudder under the feet we called the Giver’s Laughter.
Lotoq, unnamed but in thought, gave well. He had purpose in me, it was Montsecchers he loathed today, and the ordinary, gay laughter of untried souls…kind, unworldly souls, the young of the houses of Decima and Vei, pleased him. He liked that they welcomed in their midst his deep, iron-wrought designs, sped them, paved avenues for them.
Cime could not laugh now. Pytta had come to it, Sente had.
The touch on my shoulder was a warden’s. We were down the steps, into the sunset shadows of the tall city houses and steep-pitched streets, down from the hills overlooking Sech-apla, the green plain cut by the sea, a crescent of empty terrace, where in famine times of old, so they said, numbers had been made to live…to wait, and be sacrificed. It was known strange tides arose, tides with no moon—known that the Sech-apla could not be inhabited for that.
We had come down and were quiet and far from the others.
“You will go back to your quarters. I won’t need you for any chore, nor Pytta. I think you were no friend to Stol.”
He put it that way. Had I been too preferential to Lom, or been above myself withal? I thought now, why not? I had been proud enough. Stol and his wife must suppose so, and Cime, I foresaw, was placing me in their hands.
To Be and to Choose
(2019, Stephanie Foster)