The Totem-Maker: Winter Alone (part one)
I came by the outside steps, drew back the curtain from the door, saw in shuttered dark the sleeping porch, the quarters of Cime Decima’s slaves, and sniffed the air of it, by myself. Stol and Larsa were about some business…Larsa, set at work in the nursery now, guarding the infant, it might well be.
My eyes and throat betrayed a weakness to shed tears. I had made mission of Lom’s being gone. I had begun a thing; I had played, with no grasp of its nature, into some inspiration of the Prince. I’d done nothing for my friend.
As far as the gate of Cime’s villa, the strange servant had followed us. He spoke once, and courteous:
“Stol, Mero, I have heard this…it was he sold himself to you. He is no longer of the order.”
Cime’s face grew fixed in choler and he answered the Prince’s man no word, would not turn, even, to eye him in reply. The gate closed. I had learned a morsel of Stol’s history. Yes, the very poor, free men and women, broken in health, aged, unlearned in any trade, might sell themselves into bondage. They did, for tokens, now and again, and allowed themselves to be worked to the death…but died under a roof, allotted their bread, enough to make their labor of value.
Lom’s pallet was not there. Mine was, and my basket where I kept my clothing and my bag of tiles, my tablets. My candle was here also, but I had no other to light it at. No fear, in those few months I had been wanted and liked here, would have kept me from going into the villa.
And so, this I would put aside, and be brave. I also was soon to die.
All along the passageway were the same arched windows, the skins of sheep over the same wooden shutters. The candles burned on bronze stands going down the center, flames dancing in such drafts as snaked round edges, but far from touching pillar or hanging. And Stol was here, lighting the last of them.
I could not properly call him Mero, though I wished to.
I bent at the knees, in the posture of humility, a slave’s.
“Go fetch your pallet. Leave your basket. There is decent light here in the hall, and we will have to start now, at once. The Prince has given you four days, has he not?”
Four days, in which I’d expected, shunned and alone here, to pray, to meditate with a mind emptied, hoping did the gods wish for anything I possessed, will anything I might do, they would grant me the great charity of revelation.
“We will start…” I said.
He laughed. The laugh was angry, not altogether with me, and satisfied. “Yes. A thing you have not suspected, Gifted One. I was of the order, myself. But you see…” He pointed to that I had first noticed about him, the stamp on his brow where a heavy blow once had misshaped his skull. And then I saw, as I ought to have, that this order he and the Prince’s man spoke of, was Caeluvm, the Order of the Knights of Cause.
“Each chapter of our order is dedicated to a virtue. You know the virtues.”
“Honor,” I said. “Faithfulness. Love.”
“No, Stol, I guess. I don’t know them.”
“If Pride were a virtue, that you would know.”
“Do virtues save then, as sins destroy?”
“I won’t waste your hours of life,” he answered. “And yet one day—why suppose not?—you…you…will debate in the Senate, perhaps, and if sauce is wit, you will find an appetite for yours. For this day, for all this night, and all tomorrow, we will play a game. Not a game of fortunetelling. The War-Maker’s game.”
He directed me with a finger, and when I had rolled my pallet, and shouldering it scurried back, a board, I found, was laid on the floor. This was polished slate, etched with lines, twenty squares to a side, twenty rows of squares. The pieces were pebble-sized dobs of glass, as the glass-blower drops in the sand.
“Lay them out. Blacks on your side, whites on mine.”
I scooped from the bowl and sorted, again and again, it needing two hundred of these pieces to fill the squares on my side to the center, where Stol’s met them. He produced, or rather, called my attention to, by scooting it closer, a wheel, a sort of spool on a spindle. The spindle was marked with an arrow, and the wheel in squares of red and gold, each numbered.
Thus, the War-Maker’s game.
“Do you suppose it matters who goes first?” he asked me.
“You shall, and I will learn.”
“You expect to have that luxury. In battle. In warfare. Do you grasp at all what we are doing?”
I cooled myself, centering two or three pieces that sat imperfectly. “No. I can bear harsh teaching, Stol. That I had from Elberin. Tell me what you would like to see me do. If I do it badly, shout at me, or sneer. Do you suppose I care?”
I knew that these orders of knighthood enjoyed themselves so, putting postulants to absurdities of ritual, mysteries made grand by just such posturings, and that each next step must be guessed, and the guess be always wrong. I did not aspire to it. I could not see my future suffer should I enrage my tutor. And no, reader, this defiance did not break some spell, and earn me Stol’s admiration.
(2019, Stephanie Foster)