The Totem-Maker (part eighteen)
We heard murmurs. Louder, from Nyma: “Everyone is wise in his own way, dear.”
Someone else: “He will let his house to their cousins. Spare us if we don’t see hordes! Ah, Madla!”
Lom and I looked at each other. A gesture? A face…
Some laughter and throaty sounds of ruefulness. Pytta’s friends’ chatter, low and giggling. A scornful, “Ha!” heard above all, Caleyna Treiva’s.
A space of dishes clattering, then a freighted silence, making Lom and I sit up. Bless him, he would not say it, but I did, leaning to whisper: “Will our lady burst the dam?”
He smiled…and she did.
“Maybe Mumas thinks he will surprise them. Maybe, for all we know, they can be surprised.” Pytta stopped for a moment. She went on. “Are the northern men virgin on their wedding night, do you think?”
We slaves, moving invisibly even through bedchambers, could not be surprised…at the vulgarity of the jokes. And to the House of Decima’s advantage, Madla came down pleased with herself.
But pleasure ebbed, as the sun dropped. Pytta wanted her nap. Madla had by then sat an hour at Nyma’s side, and the two come to a price. Pytta’s maid rose to gather cushions; Pytta’s friends found their excuses, and left us one by one.
Nyma called over the railing, and beckoned to us. Lom and I climbed to where Madla and her helper knelt ordering their belongings. I did not know the woman’s name, and she knew of none for me, but I bent at the knees, straightened, and said (as addressing a free-woman): “Mera, allow me to follow with your burden.”
She lifted to me a pair of wood-bound books. Lom held his arms stiff until she had piled on another three. He bobbed, and said: “Mera, many thanks.”
And here Mumas enters, by a rear gate.
He was the lesser scion of an ancient family, having an income rather than wealth; his inheritance was a house and stables in the Anse Cerbe, the Old City. That, and the right…not of appointment, but to be appointed.
Most gentry of the Anse Cerbe accepted the middle plane with pride. They had reward enough, enjoyed the public virtues of competence, service, diplomacy; and even humility, if the ruse suited. Their sort pulled the levers of governance—for outside debating halls, the mechanics of a nation must shift and roll at a practiced touch.
Mumas felt the back gate of Vlanna Madla’s workshop a rebuff. His nature urged him towards the villas; the city’s commerce stood firm between.
First, change…as to turn a tile, and find the sun’s promise shadowed, so slightly, by the sign of the cat, whose tail may flick one or another way…took flight and caught wind.
We heard, at Cime’s house, the clanging bell.
(2018, Stephanie Foster)