The Totem-Maker: The Recalcitrant One (part twelve)
“Share with me what you know to be better than conquest.”
“Have you ever lived in a time of peace?”
To his mind he had the better of me, but his argument was no argument at all. “Elder,” I said. “You ply a trade, and war suits it. It does not, most. And…”
He wished to cut me short, but with an upraised hand I quieted him instead. If his mood were receptive, if he were entertained by my choice of insult…if he would then allow me this intimacy, I might sneak off, as it were, with the power inherent.
If I kept that bemusement, that half-smile on his face.
I indulged a small performance. “My dear, you understood me to say that I would go…I, travel to the Citadel. Find the Peddler, if you will, and ask him to be my guide. Oh, your soldiers may be forced to linger here another few months, but you have some way of explaining that to Lord Ei…nothing so footling, I doubt, as mere words of persuasion. Let us suppose the hosting of a foreign army delights the Balbaecans…”
I failed to charm. He answered me a long sober silence.
Then: “I will want Wosogo. I should summon Lord Ei as well…”
I myself wanted Wosogo. He had listened when I spoke, been inclined, of information, to give me useful things. The useful thing I must know was whether the Prince could find dishonor in the work of spies…dishonor and cowardice. For I felt, was it only an enemy to be undercut, that the worm enters the apple and tunnels weakness through the heart; and the hand that plucks it from the tree, however light of touch, finds the flesh yielding. But a rotten apple, he does not covet…
It might be rather, that asses trample the fence and devour the good fruits of the orchard, the gleaners left to salvage what they may…
Else it may be the farmer, to his friends, makes trade, and there is no spoilage.
Where good was to be found in strategies of war, I saw it only in the spending of each soldier, each animal, each weapon, each drop and crumb of confiscated goods, sparingly…a match near exact to purpose.
My Prince would like to strike a great blow and after count consequences; strike another, and for this alone interest himself in numbers. Fewer dead, the new way best pursued; more dead, the first.
“Will I let you go? Are you only my prophesier when I allow you all liberties? Because I cannot have made you think you please me. Waiting is too costly. I hadn’t planned it.”
He was, though, saying yes to me, not no.
Crafter Becomes Maker
I was given to Noakale to entertain, or to be entertained by. Please allow me, I told her, to share in the needlework. For as Shenath’s visit will have had you guessing, Reader, the household prepared for a wedding.
“Do you do such things? You?”
“I do any chore, as need be. And then, I am happy to learn…happy always to be of help. Vlanna, you do not find me grand?”
“Not at all.” Teasing.
The women I sat with were Noakale and her two maidservants, her cousin Darsale, and Darsale’s sister, Jute. The company being so, you must also guess that Jute was to be bride. I was curious to know Darsale, and what I could know, for she sat mostly silent, was spoken in her frosty coloring, and her armored trimmings. The phrase rose inside me, sarcastic…I thought of Sente, and saw no joy for my friend here.
Noakale, strong bones to her face, wore her dark hair plaited, singly, a furred skin falling from her shoulders as tunic over her gown, and her feet bare indoors. Darsale’s hair sat woven through a golden cage, a headdress not of our people…one I supposed of the north, her particular tribe. It gave her height yet more inches. Her wrists were metaled and her neck collared in metal.
“She should not by rights hold this place,” Jute said to me. I had taken a cushion beside her, in case she would confide. It was Noakale she meant.
“You mean to say the Prince, because she is good and generous, is truly fond of her…and has married for love, not birth.”
I said this, hard with Jute in my determined naiveté, because she invited me to dislike Noakale’s antecedents, for such reasons the northern people disliked one another. I knew none of it, and would have none.
“Oh, is that so, wise creature? Her father paid his price. It is all the price, to gain or to lose, and the bit more, if the bargain comes too readily. The Prince has agreed to take…”
I was in thought, and when I’d sorted her pause, said: “Take? Some other father’s purse of gold…his cattle, soldiers. You are not grateful.” I tested, saying this. I did not think she ought to be grateful.
“At my age! But then, there are old men also who rule countries. Yes, his soldiers are needed. Their blood is hungered after. His younger wives I will put aside.”
“Bless you, then.”
I was not surprised that she made a face as though I’d said curse you.
(2020, Stephanie Foster)