The Totem-Maker: Winter Alone (part nine)
On the general’s dining porch, shuttered and hung with fleeces, hot–centered and smoky as would my master’s be…
As would be at Cime’s house. I entered the room lonely, being no one’s friend in this place, my servant Jute fading from me at the door. The general pulled flesh from a bird and glanced up at me. Nothing else. I ventured seating myself on his couch. Both I and my basket, that I’d brought foreseeing just this, unhappy meeting of formalities which the military man would not forgo, and the embarrassment I made to him.
I was given wine and a bird of my own, and bread. The bird had, filling its cavity, the spiced meat of some other creature, of reptilian flavor. (But in our land we ate snake quite often.) A fair repast. I wondered if I would have a loaf, or any small thing for comfort, left me in my room.
No, no one here would hail me as guest, rise to his feet at seeing me. A courtier’s hand was wanted, and such persons are not found at border forts.
What is this creature’s rank? What does one call it? They shied. For soldierly reasons, they disliked this in themselves; for shyness and pride at odds, they felt irritated…and knowing I had the Prince’s favor, constrained also to force such thoughts away. They chewed their meal with a rare concentration and wished the evening done.
I did as well. And hid my smile, that I might issue imperious orders, tell great falsehoods of invented titles and proprieties. Say I must have sweets and music. The Prince could not well have instructed otherwise…than that I was to be accommodated, allowed to do my work, a thing only I understood.
When I’d eaten; when the servant with the cloth had come, and I had cleaned my fingers, I moved from the couch to the steps below the brazier. I began idling with my tablets and tiles.
This drew every eye.
I did not feel nervous, though never had I spoken so to one of the great ones. He left his seat and came to me. It was for knowing no name to answer. And that he could not guess what I wanted, wanted no talk with me aloud, for his officers and retainers to hear his ignorance.
“My general, how do you propose to keep a record of all that is done, and all that remains to be done?”
Silence. “The word of my men.”
“But…the word of a horse? A quiver of arrows?”
Silence again. “Then, is it a scribe you need?”
“Yes. And a couch and low table. And, how do you suppose? Let us begin with twenty, each man, his weapon.”
“They are not mine to command.”
“No, general. As the Prince would have you do, you must do. But they are not mine.”
He did not have the luxury of expressing himself in a language untranslatable to me. He shouted up an adjutant, told him to have taken down what I had just said.
And avoiding any more of me, left altogether.
To the adjutant I repeated myself, willing to suppose I might repeat again these demands to a scribe. With luck, a scribe of my own—for this time.
His chief trouble, the general had solved, by making of his dining chamber my staging area. We need share meals no more. The Prince’s captain came next morning first, in company with my friend, the intendance officer.
“Habba,” he said to me.
My eyes might have gone dismayed. How badly, misunderstanding him so, had I insulted him? But he laughed, elbowed the captain’s ribs, always (and through our years together), willing to believe me a jester.
“Yes, we were getting somewhere…”
Jute interrupted me to say a quelling thing. She drew herself up, and cupped her right wrist in her left hand. The sleeve of her tunic fell to the elbow.
The men looked wary.
“Jute, give me their names.”
Depwoto, she told me. A light hand, flung at the captain. Egdoah. A scornful half-lift of it towards my friend. Egdoah also to be my scribe. Surely not, I said to Jute. As I could not help it, I stared at her forearm, that bore some sign troubling to her countrymen. A spot below the wrist had none of the strange, pale hair, seemed plucked clean of them, and inside the circle was a raised place—one of those they made, as I have said, from slivers of bone worked under the skin.
A family sign.
She held her arm stiff and let me read it, which I could not.
“Yes, he wishes this himself. You have a champion. He will like to stay by your side, and you will teach him this language.”
Great disdain for ours. As well for my curiosity, and for Egdoah, whose championing, for my part, I learned of with gratitude. He might feel nothing of the kind. Jute left my couch to sit on the steps with her back to us all.
“Egdoah. What will you like to call me?” I pointed to him, and to myself, and made my words distinct. I watched him pass with Depwoto some questioning remark.
Jute spoke up. “Nur-elom.”
“Nur-elom.” Egdoah said, in innocence.
She meant to name me this for insult. I was the little scion of the slave Lom…but scion only grammatically. I began to wonder, given such clues, if Jute were not herself of some grand lineage.
(2019, Stephanie Foster)