The Totem-Maker: Winter Alone (part eight)
But the thought came.
As it does, when one feels put in the wrong. That I would fix this, I would sweep them all into their pouch, my tiles. Break the already broken tablet…that in false humility I ought not to have used!
Stomp my foot on it perhaps.
Cast a corrected fortune, then, cease with the striking of attitudes. For…I had been about to tell myself…to misvalue the Giver’s favored one, is to misvalue the Giver and his Gifts.
Temper ebbed, as another thought spoke. Weather, the roll of the seasons, was our taskmaster in this enterprise. Wosogo had warned me. For all the thousand things I was charged to prescribe upon, the time was short.
I saw it must be the Wheel of Life for each and every soul, from the personal slaves of the officers, to the Prince himself (and even this notion whispered another, that distracted me…) I might do twenty, I might do thirty a day. I might cast from the rising to the setting of the sun. For a month or two…and every morning in frost, and every north wind, blowing to our fleet’s ruin when asea, would worry and harry.
However it tired me, I must will this on myself, to show the same smile to everyone. To put myself in his shoes, each…for how would it be if the Charmer, that being of mystery and power, yawned at them and sighed? And mumbled, and tossed the tiles, bored with it all? Always there were soldiers who made their faces brave, but nursed terror in their hearts.
A thousand trials…and would the Raven not come up once, many times, in the First Hour of the Sun? I had twenty-eight, I drew ten for this game. Every third toss might have him; every tenth of these, the Raven there. I, with my wish to bedazzle, had ignored this simplest of games…little prestidigitator of complications, I had been. Fooling myself.
I thought of the other pouch in my basket, the War-Maker’s Game. Of what Stol had told me, its masters dreaming the math of it, trance-walking their lives, while in their heads each piece was moved to all possible places on the board, a layer in a stack four hundred high…
No, I thought. Four hundred times some number I could not guess.
My own games were not pure, in such rules of mathematics. The mechanical intervened…the Raven need not come up at all. I could finger the impurities of the tiles, bubbles of glaze, chipped edges. I could cheat, skirt my disquietude, disappoint Lotoq. He would find me coward, lacking faith in him, a worse fault than dishonesty. He would take his hand from me, and my enemies would know it.
Who were they, my enemies?
Even Jute…bitter against us all, against anyone she served. What feeling must assail her, mocked by this cracked mirror of her own fate, this freed slave who rose in the world, made instrument to her further degradation?
Elberin, on small provocation. He had made me, and he would see me unmade.
Jealousy. If I had courage, and would only lay the tiles and turn them, I would find it there, in the sixth hour, where fortunes have climbed their highest. All after is decline.
“Salo-Lotoq, forgive me. Make me strong tomorrow.”
“Atu. Marei capeddre’yhce.”
Here was another servant, humble…offering in response to mine that, by our daily prayer, she begged the god accept of her…and with a fleece draped over her arm. I was mildly irritated. With such unwonted fits, I ought to fast through the general’s meal, take a link of my gold to Lotoq’s temple.
“There is, dear,” I said to her, “a temple dedicated to the Giver nearby?”
Like so many, she took this friendly address, my unsurprise at her, for dispositions of holiness. She made the sign of piety, and knelt.
“There is a way to it. Only his priests go.”
“I may go.”
I told myself I might not. I had been thinking a thought, and she had interrupted me. Jute returned, with my dinner garment, and set up a great scolding of this woman. I thus caught her name—Dessa Lom. I caught also some sense that her place was in the kitchens; she was not (somewhat relieving to my embarrassment) another assigned to tend me, but to speak to me had dared transgress.
“Dessa Lom, remain. This is a matter of holy things, Jute. You may stay or go.”
Jute, flushing, left at once.
Now, on her knees the while, Dessa crept nearer. She dropped the fleece, to reveal a wonderful crafting in beads, in bright-hued thread, in the crested heads of an iridescent lizard, the sahreik, which we dried in the sun to make brilliant, and that were coveted against death on the road…all these things, and more my glance alone would not discover, woven in an old woman’s tapestry. Matriarchs of families too poor to possess gold, gathered stones and shells and shaped them, and sewed them, with many things of beauty given our earth by the gods, into these such hangings, these made to show the designs of the clan.
“My brother carried this, not knowing, and was told by a woman there, Larsa, Lom had named you. It was in that house a fear to speak of, and he was turned away from the master. You see, we had seen ravens three days, and at last gave them corn, and they flew.”
This brother had had no difficulty pursing me; the army, as I have mentioned, crossed our land with a great noise, leaving hardship in its wake.
“The fortune I cast for Lom was that he would receive a legacy. Was it your mother? We will pray then, together, for her soul’s comfort. If the god counsels me that your need is greater…”
“Oh! I pray he does not!”
I saw then, that for Dessa Lom, the wealth in this tapestry portended harm and death. Her family treasure could not be cured of omen, were I to say to her, keep it. She would find this, sense in this, wrong.
I confess it, friends, I’d had this small ruse in mind…and would on her devout heart have played. I would have her suppose Lotoq refused me this kindness.
I felt now it would be many days before I tried his patience again.
(2019, Stephanie Foster)