The Totem-Maker: The Recalcitrant One (part three)
His society was nine days the thorn in my side.
Under his eye that first night I put away the coins, shaking them into a chest, a disposition I mistrusted. Their embossments and metals were not the same…logic suggested different meanings. Over my shoulder I gave him a daring look.
There! A fortune, is it not?
He smiled, knowing…but not as a wolf to the lamb.
“And here,” I said, noisy setting the jug before his plate. “Have the most of it, if you like.”
And here, he sighed. “How am I to think of that? Do you wish it, or will you be angry if I do? Totem-Maker, I can tolerate very well leaving you alone.”
How I’d become as bad a host as Jute had been a servant, I didn’t know. Or did, perhaps. Pride, pride…myself I chided this time. Yet scarcely mollifying was this alteration, that he dropped a scale of his armor.
Peddler, you’ve come to teach the Keeper, so you think. To be so very patient with me in my ignorance…
In the morning, when without invitation he was there to see me wake, he’d covered my table with articles; a cheese, eggs, ground meal, pots of crystallized syrup, some aromatic cuts of the traders’ venison, cured in their fashion. Fleeces, dyestuffs, a distaff and spindle. Three knives meant for weapons, the blades prettily traced, hilts jeweled. And jewels as well for my arms and ears, if I’d liked them. Jeweled slippers, and a jeweled girdle. Cloths of silk, carried west to us only by the traders’ road.
I slept dressed, no longer feeling myself so unlikely to be disturbed that I didn’t half expect it…
The display was his seller’s way of enticing me to purchases. I sat upright, and reached for the poker to stir the fire’s embers. To stand would be the first yielding.
“Take your time. You have no competition this day. Soon you will.”
“I will have those things for my larder.” It seemed to me he might like me to go wrong; he might be a Prince’s man after all, a traveling spy, wanting to measure the depth…to which I’d plunge my arm in the Collector’s trove.
“Some of your sheep will soon be lambing.”
Piqued, I stiffened. Be rid of that, I told myself. “Well, I know nothing about it. Do they need help to lamb?”
He laughed. “Unlikely. But you’ll need to milk them. Can you do that?”
“I never have.” I’d known it to be done, though…had seen it done.
“And do you know how to make cheese from milk? And do you know how to spin yarn from fleece?”
“Peddler. I believe I am in need of a servant.”
I hadn’t expected to answer this way. So many pictures crowding to me, of chores added to chores…
Disappointed (it seemed), he said: “You may find labor in Balbaec.”
“I doubt I will, as I don’t speak the language.”
We bickered, but I saw my path clear. “You are an old visitor here. You have spoken to the Keeper before me. That is no mystery, is it?”
He shook his head.
Meek, now? I don’t believe it. I said this to myself, and crossed my arms. “Then will I be an offender, to go down to the city? I have no one to mind the post. Or, does the Keeper have duties there? You may as well tell me,” I added, not letting him lapse so soon into smartness, “whether all this shepherding and spinning is how I live, whether I trade with the traders?”
“If you trade with anyone, it is you set the rules. You may sell such goods as you see profit in. Go gather the flowers from the meadow…there are flower sellers in the town. Ride your pony down and trade him for an ass.”
I thought of a rejoinder. But my rude guest spoke with some justice. “No. I see all that. I can do as I like. I can do my own thinking, too. What, though, with the coins? I have been told they go to the Collectors. The Collectors are of the Alëenon? Or they are of the Prince?”
“They are of the Tollhouse.”
“Instead, would you have me teach you a thing or two of archery?”
His teachings were mathematical, a way I much liked to understand things. The arrow cannot fly straight from the bow…and the creature you aim at moves also. Each bow has quirks of its own, no two alike; the archer must know the instrument.
The peddler found a mossy trunk and fixed it standing; with his knife scraped a round patch from the moss. And in the dirt he showed me a diagram, the arc of a circle, the arrow flying this way, that way. Where it might hit its mark.
He drew me to a close distance, the length of a fallen tree. Six arrows I sent flying, one of which struck the round.
“Fetch them and we’ll begin again.”
“Oh, you and I…?”
For this, a shooing hand, languid. A camaraderie growing, that I told myself I would not allow. My legs carried me back and forth many times that day, while the peddler watched, instructing. But I let part from my reserve a modicum of respect for him. For when, six times together, I’d struck on target, he moved me back.
Now I came to learn both how I’d succeeded, and how I appeared to fail. I made informed adjustments; in one day’s work, I’d gone from talentless to capable.
The Recalcitrant One
(2020, Stephanie Foster)