(more to come)
The Little I Can Tell
I would not have asked to be born under a portent. The day of my arrival on earth began, at daybreak, with a fearsome one.
I knew the story so well, I could for years picture the event vividly. I believed even, alone most hours with my imagination, that the vision was not of my own conjuring. I was despised. Despised yet untouched, as are prophets, and I cherished all my suffering promised.
I have come to know the world better. If I were chosen specially for anything, it was at the agency of men, and the thing was to shoulder the thankless task at hand. If I’d possessed any gift, I had been well taught not to nurture it, to let it die. Envy bites hardest those hearts for whom triumph must walk, hand-in-hand, with the debasement of others.
The story I recounted, though, in times I call helpless, not innocent, was this the old woman sang, stirring the pot. My place had been to serve; she would not have me call her mother. She longed for her days of labor to end in rest, she dreaded the intervention of a god…
And tidings of great change to come. “Because you are small, Lotoq keeps quiet, he listens for you,” she would say.
This god’s name could be spoken, as it was thought a word of strangers, an old tribe living at the mountain’s feet when orchards, forests of pine, had greened its flanks, when game teemed so, bright-feathered birds filled each morning’s nets. This was known. The old woman kept her back to the mountain. Only I stared at it, rushed to the door for a bold look. Lotoq, living mountain, god or devil, was shaped like a crouching spider, the more imposing for the black ribs of rock that buttressed the snowy peak, and the web-like wisps that spun above it.
A road connected our town to the next, and the next after that; it, like the temple columns risen when the flood subsided, had been built by these prosperous, doomed ones. Their pavement was sound, stones surely a thousand-weight each, and fitted with cunning, that no grass could grow between.
But nearby the road ended, its slabs thrust from below, splintered and heaved all directions. It ended in a crevasse, deep and foul-smelling. However the rains fell, this never filled.
The month before my birth, cruel signs had begun to show themselves. Birds fell from the sky, in such quantity as to block chimneys. A terrible groaning shocked the soles of the feet, a glow, a burning light in colors no fire of dung or charcoal could produce, hovered, turning the snows of Lotoq to a metal-hued, steaming cloud.
Something awful and tragic then occurred to that city, that place of might with its golden gates locked, not long after—somewhere below the mountain’s opposite face.
“I cannot go near the place,” a traveler brought word. “I think we will never know. I think none escaped.”
Soon after came scouring floods that islanded our village, once situated on a rise, now a barren plain. Deprivation followed, and I was protected from sacrifice, for being born to a woman with no means of telling: What was her home? What had she seen?
Her agonies were heard at the old woman’s door, and she was found fainted there. She awoke in her throes, her shrieks all her speech…
I was born and my mother died.
Thus the priests said wait, wait for another sign.
Fresh deluges came, kinder rains, rolling pebbles into channels with the endless push of running water. New streams recarved the ways of old rivers. The land found its depth and waxed fertile, green spreading outwards from banksides, still in the years before I knew myself a being, in a place.
The old woman spoke to me only to correct, to give orders. I had nothing to teach me that adults feared at all, or what they feared. Doing for myself, doing of chores, perfecting them that I not be punished, was all the world held in my knowledge of it.
I had not known how this village from the day of my birth withered. Nearly all had survived, but none wished to stay. Under such a vastness of devastation it seemed odd, but it was true…only a day’s march, and one came upon planted fields, wells that yielded pure water, houses in prosperous gatherings at crossroads, caravans of traders, passing. Tidings arrived, and the limits of Lotoq’s wrath were believed at last.
But the people were forced to bind themselves to the land, to do labor, as the holdings skirting the mountain belonged to three lords. One overseer who kept vineyards and cornfields in his master’s stead was called a fair-minded tyrant; another was called the son of a goat. A third refused to welcome any of our refugees.
They worked off the price of their keep, and one by one returned. Why had the old woman and the priests remained, why did messengers in those years bring food, kindling wood, jugs of water for our sustenance?
For that the god’s sign did not appear. Had not, though my years became ten.
On a hot afternoon, I followed Elberin. The old woman said he was now my master. Our feet made dust fly among slim-trunked trees, that had within their decade’s sprouting gained many in number. To dig one for the sake of moving it (which for the shade, the builders of new houses did), meant safeguarding the trailing roots, tangled with the next tree’s, and the next’s. Each must be severed at no less than an arm’s length, or the tree would die.
Their height was twice my own. Their shade was a thin veil over gritty earth; the sun beating on their leaves drew out a brothy smell.
I do not mean to dwell on trees, except to say I remember the smell, and the bitter flour ground from the seeds that matured at summer’s end. This flour I knew intimately, as among my chores were all parts of its making: gathering the seeds, culling them, kilning them, grinding them when they were browned and brittle, sieving the powder through a cloth…which also I had to weave, and it was from the leaves of these trees.
I do not mean to dwell on them, but to say they were not native to our land. So I had been told. They were come as a burdensome gift, the gods’ familiar humor…and even the bark stripped from the lower branches was woven into baskets; even a pungent sap with some sweetness about it, was used in feast offerings, fermented into a drink we called sahin, sap-wine.
And so I made the flour. I sealed the flour away in jars. I baked the bread and cakes.
I was most content to be always busy. When I saw the priests at the door with their heads together, I had the chore at hand to excuse myself. But I was meant to come at once to any adult who had not yet instructed me; to give obeisance, to ask, “Vlan (or Vlana, which was our way of calling an elder), what would you have me do?”
She had put me into their hands by stages, the old woman. Never in our time together did we speak but face to face, and so to me she had no name; and for her superstition would give none to me.
With my hands clutching some implement—a broom, a mallet, the stone our bread was baked on—I existed in a state of apology. I exasperated; I ought by now to have prophesied, have manifested…fits, a clouded white eye, any sign with some whiff of holiness.
Elberin decided I would be taught the symbols, and employed when he took notions, to record them. He ushered me from the old woman’s house into his own, to an anxious severing from my usefulness. Now after breakfast I sat, it might be an hour or more, waiting. Fearful that my idleness would be flown at, for a fault.
I was not to touch Elberin’s things, to tidy, to mend. I was to carry a tablet on our walks, soft unfired clay, and to mark down the names of things. Over my shoulder weighed a basket filled with many of these small tablets (that I made myself).
It was his way, when I had scratched down errors, to seize the clay from my hands, send my etchstone flying, smash my work to pieces. He did this with a great dispassion, and rarely a word.
I began to mark the seasons. By my punishments, I could count these as different, one to another, a chronicle in mistake and shortfall. My early years gave only the mildest of joys. Joy I felt when alone working the furrows of my garden, thankful to my god for this secret, whispered in the slow certainty of fruitfulness. You will grow, you will break from these roots, you will be whole unto yourself.
We kept a cat and a dog, as against vermin and vagabond one must, and here too, was joy. I loved them. These innocents showed me none but a welcoming face. And I was never cruel, as the old woman, as Elberin. Never at my hand were the good creatures swatted, never chased with a broom.
But there were bad seasons, blights in the crops, dearths in the harvest, for which I was held wanting. There were myriad quibbles with Elberin, when I had only his tasks for time spent, and no garden to tend.
I was as tall, at length, as the elders. By now our town had doubled in size; it had doubled again and again. And from that prince who hadn’t deigned to shelter refugees, came a snaking throng, seen all along the road into the distance, towards haze and his border.
A mammoth beast of work led them, its shod hooves clapping the pavement laid by the old race of Lotoq’s plain, a long-maned beast of such girth that one must be harnessed before another. They drew their burden in train, catching all eyes. Iron bells tolled from the collars circling their necks.
The wagon bore a statue. The second wagon its massive plinth.
Two days’ labor with trunks of trees, and wheels and ropes, and the prince’s slaves had raised this monument. That we would know our land was claimed, and know our prince by his visage. The face was done in gilt; the robes enameled in brilliant blue, a hue stronger than the sky, but as I’d seen at the heart of a flower.
By this time I believed I also would be a priest. I had copied out all the scrolls, and so my histories, my genealogies and my miracles, were well-established in memory. Any Father or Mother I met would speak a name to me, and I recite the lineage. I knew the size of spring leaves, what their veins boded, when mortifying sacrifice was needed, as envious gods demand. I knew the meaning of a grasshopper, of a double-yolked egg, a blood-red moon. The types and colors of clouds.
I clipped the wings of a moth, drew the divining circle in ash, and read the pattern that in dying it scattered there.
I had been set to work particularly on signs, for the elders hoped…they had invested pride in this hope, and held to it…that here my gift would show itself. And so the prince’s seizure of our city, and the fertile fields outlying, proved a portent indeed—for me. The puniness of my oracular talents was bared.
A host of strangely dressed men, testified to by sentries of the night, had swarmed like insects through the thin trees of Lotoq’s flanks—by moonlight seen; by morning gone. It was the culminating sign.
“Elberin’s.” [I was called this way, as his possession.] “What do you say?”
I answered her, the priest Burda: “That our borders are crossed, that ones foreign to us have passed in the dark hours, that their business is not to stay.”
She smiled, and looked at Elberin. I knew I’d said nothing, really. Nor had I foreseen the next day’s news, or I might have invented a wild prediction, unable to be tested or shown false.
But you will note that to preserve my place meant caring for my place. I had not come, then, to care for anything so worldly.
And so I sat on a cold evening, a spring evening that promised frost, at work by hearthlight. If no one wanted me, I liked this hour between dusk and dark for repairing my few garments, my blanket and rug, my shoes and tools. I had never in my life asked that any new thing be given me. The old woman had treated my outgrowing of clothes as a willful act, vaguely embarrassing—as though I might by stealthy trading aim for a rise in status.
I sewed, and paid no mind to voices at the door.
I heard one say what I was called, the foundling. Joking of tone; expectations I would become a prophet to inspire pilgrimage, to make the locals rich, had long been a joke to Elberin.
I raised my head at a rustle of fabric, a young man peering at me round the curtain of Elberin’s chamber. He withdrew his face.
“Yes, tonight is better,” he said.
He then stepped into the room, reached to snag my basket, to lift and drop it. “Is this yours to take away? Will your things fit?”
They would, I told him…because I would make do with whatever did fit, and yes, the basket was mine. This was my station, not to protest, never to query. My confusion would waste his time, and I saw already in these evidences, that he was my master now.
My new place was a sleeping porch where all the slaves had their pallets. I had traveled for a day, then half another, forced to do this blindfolded; allowed to see my bread and leg of fowl by the campfire, but in the morning before full day, blinded again.
The kinder of my companions told me this was because slaves try to escape. “And truly, a master who has had the bargain of selling one, may take him back…to have both money and man.”
I thought about my questions, how to catch out what I hoped to know; how I must be stupid to them, here at the start. “Did you belong to a good house? Was your work pleasant to you?”
Another, sun-scorched and older than we, whose brow bore a bowl-shaped indentation, had warning in all his speech (of which there was little). He listened, and the third listened, a woman, whose tasks I longed to shadow, the kitchen being my native place.
But it was my writing that made me desirable to this man, Cime Decima. His family held the right of tax collection, in this quarter of this city unknown to me, and he did not himself make records on tablets. By which you may suppose he could not, or could not make the numbers come to account, but I had been servant enough, in my years, to ask no more.
“No, I belong to the family,” my friend said. “I was born in Gueddus Treiva’s mother’s house, and Cime was made a present of me. There is a ceremony, you may not have this in your old city, where the mother of the groom chooses gifts the bride will bring to the altar. Nyma Decima collected from Gueddus Treiva a slave, an altar-bowl of alabaster, a team and chariot.”
I understood I might do well to note these names, remember them if I were able, and that demurely, my companion suggested it. He had not told me what I wanted to know, whether the Decima were just in temper…or mercurial. But he had told they were a family of rank, and followed tradition.
It was my lady Pytta I attended at first. I was given a livery to wear. I was given a broom as my staff of office, and when she strolled her garden I walked ahead, to swipe at spiders’ webs and clear away fallen leaves, droppings of birds…
But these made patterns that were signs; I had read them in my old life, and found it tempting to pause for a divination.
“You see what an odd creature it is,” Lady Pytta remarked to her waiting-woman. “It will stomp and sing at a serpent, but the dung of a blackbird balks it…”
I bent to one knee, and rose at the tap of her fan.
“Cime’s wife, the gods favor enterprise just now…as I interpret, may you forgive me. There is a change of fortune on the horizon.”
My predictions earned me status in the Decima household. As a prodigy; or if not that, a jester. Divorced now from any shadow of belief, I shaded my words, colored each hope with wider and happier prospects. I shared quarters with others, but was called for alone.
Lady Pytta, as a young wife, had the duty of visiting the high houses. She enjoyed her peers: she pleaded my help with the matriarchs.
“The Treiva are easy, they,” she told me what I knew, “are mine. I can put them last, but I won’t. I need strength! And the Decima are easy, because none live here, none but Mother Nyma and Cime. But Runah Veii, do you think? The Veii are almost relatives, Caleyna…did you meet her? My father’s wife? She and I are such good friends, but…” A whisper. “She has a secret. We can’t be conspicuous, we have to tiptoe around a certain party… Oh! You’re making me die, Little Creature, because I’m going to tell you everything in a minute, and I must not. Cime would say, a slave! Pytta!”
(And did she hold to protocol? Not at all. I had her stepmother’s secret and many others.)
I was a novelty for Pytta to collect in her train; given the hood of a priest for a lark.
Other servants would be sent away, and dark lamps lit, incense burnt. They insisted on me the importance of preparing behind a screen, of declaring myself ready. I was flattered to be listened to, flattered to have silence fall at the sound of my voice. I was played with—kindly I do think—asked to choose, as the women could not among themselves, whose fortune would be read first. The game lasted the spring and summer, and was in all only camaraderie, sport.
I had been isolated in childhood; I had not known what rivalry was.
Autumn would come in one cycle of the moon, and at last Cime claimed me.
“This is no trouble to you, to ride a pony?”
“I can, with two hands. If I am to mark my tablet…”
“Patience!” He shook a sack of beads or marbles. “Yours. Take it.”
My pony was named for his brown coat, Cuerpha. The sun sat low, burning red, and so I wrapped a cloth around my head and neck, fixed this with a cap.
“Wait, I like that!” Cime sent his groom to Pytta for a scarf and cap of his own. “I ought to look like something…unexpected, citified. Priestly, even. When I say to the farmers, ‘on my authority’… What do you think, Mumas? The headgear carries a certain baffling weight?”
Mumas, his deputy, demurred with a smile.
We mounted, and Cime said: “Now, in the planting season…”
He was speaking to me, because he had raised his voice. And because his deputy, riding at his side, gave a hunch of the shoulders that suggested an inward laugh.
“We ride to the fields and take measure of each planted, each left fallow, what grains are sown. We inspect the vineyards, the new leaf. The landholder pays in that portion, and if for drought or blight the harvest falls short, he is free to make appeal. But there is no appeal if he hasn’t paid his taxes.”
“And when the emperor’s portion is taken, do your soldiers join you?”
I spoke to show I listened. You, who read my tale, heed: I had been taught to be well-spoken, to approach my elders as a student. I had sought, for that, to be quick and clever to them…useful, apt. I was alone in my status; they were many in theirs. But the world is a large place.
Here was a lesson I had not learned: that slaves could belong, in the eyes of some, among the dogs. That upon a man like Cime’s deputy, Mumas, I—my being, my looks, my voice, my sayings, the mere parting of my lips—grated. To appease this man, I could not have debased myself to a low enough humility, or silenced myself beyond the stirring of his fears.
“It would make a show,” Cime allowed. “But the farmers don’t resist openly, so threatening the mailed fist, when I ought to…” He grinned back from his saddle. “And maybe I will. Signal to them that the gods are wiser than they, and I have a creature who speaks to the gods. Ha!” He laughed for a moment, relishing the picture, and Mumas looked back at me, too.
“Well. Today we see how the crops stand in the fields. And nothing, if I have not numbered it, can be taken to the exchange. Close as we watch, I promise you, there is not one farmer doesn’t winnow by night, doesn’t sell over the border.”
“Because it’s not much effort to them, we are so near.”
He reined up, letting Mumas trail ahead. “Here. We have room for you at my left. I did that work once, riding the boundary road, before my present honor.”
“And what post,” I asked, after thought, “do you hope to rise to? If you don’t prove indispensable as a tax collector?”
“Emperor,” Cime said, very low. “I see your joke, creature. And that is the answer of answers, you’ll agree.”
The owners of these fields were of the Eight Houses, else the high merchant class; the farmers were their tenants. The town behind its wall sat at sea’s edge, high in a bowl amid fertile slopes. These slopes descended from a naked peak, leagues off…the great god Ami’s mountain, I learned. Cime’s boundary road ran alongside a river, the Dagossa, the small branch of which had broken from the mud of Lotoq, to become again the Edagossa, the native river of my old home.
No one feared now that I would gain my bearings and flee. No, and for those months from spring to autumn, I counted myself content. I believed I had the grace of my lord and lady. I had work to do, and would grow in giftedness, to ornament the house of Decima.
Each quarter of the town—I will give it a name: Monsecchers—was governed with some independence from its sisters, under rule of its own militia. The militias were the Emperor’s, whose army obeyed his mercenary Prince. But matters of justice belonged to the Houses; Lady Nyma, Cime’s mother, sat as judge above the Marshal.
The villas were built to face the four directions, and shared a courtyard, where supplicants waited their summoning. This dull chore of meeting whomever held stewardship over household treasuries (there were lords who disputed the hundredth part of a single tree’s fruit), was not Cime’s.
It was the deputy’s place to cool his heels.
Walking or riding we went down from the Decima villa to the merchants’ square, to the stable of Mumas; for here he waited…punctilious in duty….
One might think. But he arranged this excuse not to have me cross his threshold.
“I have a trick in mind,” Cime said, one particular day. I gave answers he found clever, and so we spoke nearly as friends. “You understand the tax collector’s share is sheared by all he can’t pry loose. Blame your lady…”
“Thank her, rather?”
“For liking me out of the house?”
I chanced it. “A bench under Lord Sente’s olive tree for your servant. But I believe I’ve seen you climb his porch and enter.”
Pytta had told me…Cime was saying this… It was very possible she had, and if her husband guessed, he would not, might not, break her confidence…
The humor had its elaboration, its diction, due to the mischief involved.
We turned onto the street where Mumas kept his house, and Cime’s laughter, his hand on my shoulder, were heard and seen by Mumas idling at his stable gate.
He crowded me aside, walked next to Cime and began his complaint. Yesterday, a third day, Sente had refused us. Sente’s dispute with the Emperor’s taxes would redound on Lord Cime, whose deputy had—for three days—performed no other task.
“You have clients I should have carried your assessments to. Two days more, and the month ends. They will split hairs on it…”
“Yes, they’ll feel entitled to start the bargaining afresh.”
By no sign did the import, that he could be disgraced in office, trouble Cime.
“For Sente I have a plan. You needn’t fear the wasting of your time, Mumas. Two days will do for the others. To hang between the poise and the fall ought to sharpen their wits…and if they balk, what serves Sente will serve them, too. You read and write? You do not require the company of a scribe?”
Mumas, silent, shook his head.
Cime turned his back, leaving Mumas to stand, to step away, to linger…
To decide, finally, to stride up the street, shoulders set.
“And you,” Cime said to me, “will waylay one of Sente’s servants, ply him with your arts. Find the lady in his fortune, make a peril and a glory of it. Sente is a superstitious man.”
It had been uneasy, my trailing after Mumas, told to serve him…and to never mind him.
“You’ll sort it out,” Cime said, with his good cheer.
Yes. My marks, so careful, were not legible to Mumas. I scribbled; I had better copy it all again. Mumas before the high-born wished me to merit no acknowledgment. But they knew. I was Cime’s curiosity.
“See, it writes everything down. What do they call you?”
“Foundling. Creature. Scribe,” I answered.
“Read my words back to me!”
“Wait.” Another spoke. “Let me find a chair, I may suddenly sleep. Here!” [To a servant.] “Fill my cup.”
“Lord Arima,” I read, “blames his foreman, who ought to have avoided bribing the Emperor’s Guard.”
Laughter, and Arima, to his friend: “There you have a record! History will know us. We had some hope in the days Mumas’s memory held it all…”
I was not at fault; this idea of Cime’s (or his mother Nyma’s), of keeping proper accounts, was wise. But it was novel to this circle, fun for them.
And I think Mumas had not made himself popular.
No word of mine could be answered by other than a snap, a sneer, a long quiet space of busyness, of attending to the important…a bit of lint on his sleeve to pick, a question of whether he’d heard his name called, a craning of the neck. Then, absently (or with a mild start), what was I staring at?
My Lord Deputy, shall I repeat myself?
Fools and children, it seemed, the rich of Monsecchers were. But I loved…I nearly did…my own Cime and Pytta. I would have been crushed if something I’d done, or they feared I might, frosted our exchanges.
What had I ever expected of Mumas?
This was as I saw it. We walked together for a time, and I soon would walk another way. My stolid bearing of his companionship was a steppingstone, in its fashion.
Pytta gave me Lom…my fellow slave’s freedom for the afternoon. He had my broom now, and my role of sweeping the garden walk.
“Yes, take him! He has just cursed me with the sight of a dead snake in my birth month. Money I was saving for a good cloth must go to alms. I’m going to make Cime give you back! But tell me if you need any other thing.”
I was not certain I needed Lom. I trusted him for his good heart. He was the one I’d told you of, first to speak to me the day I arrived.
“I’ll teach you the signs,” I said. “As a way of passing time.”
My plan was to make a memory story to suit each figure. Through Lom, to satisfy my curiosity, without his knowing of my other purpose. I would use a hex, an arrangement of triangles that tellers call houses, and have him draw a tile to fill each room.
Petitioners here were dwarfed under the porches of the four manors, connected by a running colonnade that changed from style to style. The tiling underfoot, for those invited to mount the steps, was at first a plain black marble, with columns crimson (a pairing that thrilled me, though I knew nothing of the owner); the next was glazed terra-cotta, each tile stamped with a smiling sun, a sun in bronze above the entry hall, columns all trained with vines. Then came the house of Oc’Marasas, carved on every surface with stories of the general’s great battles, in stern bone-colored marble.
Next, Sente’s house, aloof in unadornment, mere fieldstone and painted wood.
Sente’s servants idled on the porch above, fanning themselves. A fountain bubbled at the courtyard’s center, its waters spouting from birds’ heads and falling to a gutter that fed the lower streets.
We topped our canteens. We drank and wiped our faces in the shade of Sente’s olive. I bent, then, to etch six triangles that formed a larger, with many others traced within. Any fortune matched to a base-up triangle was taken reversed.
Other games could be played on this template, and I will never know…
But I had chosen this.
The four directions of the wind were the houses into which one’s spirit might be born. North, of the intellect; east, of love; south, of concealment; west, of the flesh.
“Which house is yours?”
“I can’t say, Kire. My birth was not marked by the seers.”
“You are very dry, Lom. Are you innocent, or teasing? Have you never been cast at all? Ah!” I said, drawing tiles. “I choose east, may the gods set me right.”
I put that sign we call fish before Lom, to explain the nature of the telling. “You see, a thing under water symbolizes wealth. If the water is still, your wealth is safe. If it flows to sea, you will be bankrupted storm by storm. If it flows inland, you will gain steady riches. If the fish falls here, under dark of night, which we read left, though it sits right… Then, my Lom, it will not be luck for you to have a water sign fall on the right above. You will pray, if you turn that one, that it falls in the center.”
“Where water pools and does not flow.”
I smiled. “You have got ahead admirably. You may well be a spirit of the north, and I may be the fool! I will put the fish away, and have you draw another.”
I shook the bag of tiles, gave it to Lom; Lom drew with no eagerness. But with some flair in placing them, I laid out his fortune. I meant to tell it truly. The tiles could not lie, but the teller, by omission, could allow the light to glance here or there. I would give Lom a future of burdens eased, of hopes for rest and pleasure.
Lord Sente called through the window. His servants were at the rail, eyes on my mysteries, ears unhearing.
Again, I turned fish…
And so the gods must demand it. And here was eda, the diminutive. Lom gave a sigh. He had nearly spoken, then stopped himself, showing me an unearned reverence. The last three up-tiles were tre, bega, and sun.
The down-tiles were fal, rain, and wev.
“Will it be bad?” Lom asked.
“It! Your fortune?”
“Kire,” he said to me, the name an endearment, “I know my fortune. I read signs also, those my grandmother knew, sold from that place behind the mountain.”
He meant that vanished city under Lotoq the traveler had spoken of, and…as did we all…kept silent a moment for having mentioned it. “She saw.” He held my eye. “That would have been the day you were born, her people carried away. At dawn was a flight of ravens, and you know…”
He made me unhappy, saying this. I would have to tell him.
Ravens were said to carry souls to the clouds, to the realm of the gods. He had got both fal and rain, and these being down, meant up. He had got bega, which was the sign of the raven. He had got it in the center, thus it touched all other signs, drove them like the hub of a wheel.
But if he had not told me his story, I would have made light going of this, for Sente’s sake. His servants’ bodies threw shadows over my work, yet their mouths were shut; they did not jeer. I sat faltering, and my lengthening muteness brought a nod from Lom.
I heard…in my betraying voice…a brokenness. “A small legacy will come to you, unexpected.”
“Interesting. You are Cime’s servant. I’ve seen you in the company of Mumas.”
Lord Sente said this.
He opened the porch gate, beckoning me to climb the stairs. Put on notice by a finger snap from his lord, one servant lifted a palm. “The seer. Not you.”
If Lom weren’t asked, I had still my duty to Cime. But Sente and his man offended me. I felt in the wrong, in a way I hadn’t the burden of guilt to relieve myself of…not then. Later, I picked at it, nightly when I might have slept, and tried to find if I had done anything excusable, anything I might forgive myself for.
“My Lord Sente, I wonder…”
“You had better not.”
“I wonder,” I said, regardless, “if it interests you…interesting was your word…to have a game, at all? If you would have a game, I must please have Lom.”
But we passed unspeaking down a dark and cool hall, the secret pomegranate nature of Sente’s taste in things apparent, the tiles of a green stone I had never seen, polished into streaks of lightning, matrices of amber…yes, truly, a deep water hue blazed with a glassy gold. I marveled at the tiles alone. But the walls also were tapestried; at each jutting pilaster, a pedestal, sporting bust or figure, goddess or beast.
We descended steps, to a sumptuous room for sitting. Opening onto a hillside view curved a terraced porch, with awning to protect benches snugged against a balustrade. The air was rich in scent, small gusts of wind moving languid, buffeting white flowers on vine-laden trees. A little fountain played here too, sunken, half-moon in shape. Before us, a flock of blue-feathered birds eyed our approach.
Sente was shirtless, wearing only a flowing cloth knotted at the waist; I, in my tunic and sandals…the creatures unconcerned to stir themselves until the movement of our garments made its own breeze.
“Tell Cime”—he paused at the scattering of wings, then sat—“that the gambit is a clumsy one.”
I sighed. To me, my master had seemed clever enough.
But now a servant, belonging to some other part of the house, mounted steps from the basement level to our terrace, bearing a tray of sugared fruits and wine. Sente, on his face a sort of encouraging sneer, gestured for me to take the second cup, and to eat as I liked.
He ought, if he had seen through it all, to have played his own usual gambit…of leaving Cime’s envoys to stew (in such weather, probable enough). Sente wanted something of me.
I ate a single berry, and took a restrained sip. “My Lord Cime has sent me here only…”
“To do the work of his deputy.”
And did he mean to disparage Mumas, I was receptive enough. Sente stared, measuring me. I had likely shown my smile…we do, when our lips are still, and our eyes downcast. A weakling unarmed would leap to flattery, speaking out of place. But, however false-hearted, I repeated myself merely, in full.
“My Lord Sente, I have brought in writing the demand of the Emperor, not of my master, and I will give it to you. My Lord Cime asks that I do, and I cannot take it upon myself to do more.”
“You are a slave. If Cime will not give you your freedom, I will buy you and I will give it to you. Mumas… Why anyone has use for him!”
“My Lord, will you bid Lom indoors?”
At Sente’s right hand, resting on the tiles, was a gong. He pressed the lever that struck a clapper against it. I had won the only point I had to win, that my dear Lom not be made inferior even to me, but allowed to share Sente’s wine.
The porter led Lom to the sitting room’s threshold; Lom preceding a second visitor who had silenced the man’s cheek, and for whom Lom rightfully served as vanguard…my Lord Cime. Sente did not rise.
“Can I fairly suppose, Sente, that the law touches you at last?”
Yet it was me Cime looked in the eye. I could hardly convey to him Sente’s remarkable words.
Sente gave the porter his orders to carry down to the kitchen. I, sharing the bench, stood, giving place to my master. But Cime stopped before the fountain and let the spray of it splash over his feet.
“If the day is an auspicious one, I will of course take gold from my treasury. To part gold from gold on an inauspicious day, is to pay the penalty twice.”
To this, Cime’s face replied with an obvious calculation. The countermove made difficulties…we were all in these lands bound to the old belief; Cime must respect Sente’s reluctance. He laughed in private…but would not himself have spent money without a casting, and had I told him fortune forbade, my lord would rather fall in debt to a man than be an offense to the gods.
He crossed now, to take my vacant seat. “Do your work at once,” he told me.
“My Lord Sente, have you any preference?” I sank cross-legged, and drew a tablet from my bag.
He spoke through a smile of disdain. “Ought I suppose Cime, who shared my boyhood tutor, and shined by his efforts a favorable light on my own…that is, what we call, next to nothing…?”
They grinned at each other. The kitchen man brought more wine, more fruit. A smell of roast pig came to us, and Sente said, “Of course, dine with me.”
Cime prompted: “Suppose…?”
“That you would have trained your servant to cheat me?”
“I wouldn’t know how, with these arts.”
“Well, that is the better answer. If you’d said you wouldn’t do it, I would flout the lie by sending to Elcade. It would take a day or two, and you would be formally in dereliction of duty.”
Elcade was a hermit, a fortune-teller of that sort who breathe the fumes of Lotoq and babble visions.
“Choose for yourself, as the fates dictate.”
I felt they dictated, on this day, Lom’s triangle. “My lord,” I said to Sente. “Will you trouble to draw the tiles, or…”
“No, creature, I say choose.”
Sente got nothing from the gods as to wealth.
Of course, my master’s humor must break the solemnity at least once…he quipping in low voice that his friend could hide gold so cunningly, even the gods did not perceive it. But I pleased Sente, for drawing mostly dry signs, the least ill-boding reversed. An easier sort of luck than rain, so given to come in deluge, drain to drought.
The dove, bearer of gossip, sat center. Sun, below, to the left. For glancing up now and then to meet a frown of discernment, the versedness in tiles I’d expected, I felt it was myself dealt with gentle-handed by the gods. I would not be hated for the fortune I cast Lord Sente.
Whose reading he could himself anticipate. He was cautious, a man thoughtful of possibilities. Not merely that he liked an omen before acting…
Sente kept his finery from envy’s sight, and he kept his counsel.
“There is talk of marriage… This will speed.”
His tile opposite sun, always that most personal to the subject, was swan, the bride. Sente might have a bride. I was soon to follow him to his dining hall, and might sit embarrassed, for fear of meeting an inconvenient eye. Sente himself seemed abashed at my words, and put a daring face to Cime; who knew, by his own, the answer.
But whether the secret were open among the nobles, or poor-concealed in Sente’s heart, I could not know.
“I believe…on this assurance…of the excellent, most reverend Fates,” Cime said slowly, flickering a smile; stopping it. “I shall ask you to put our little matter to rest at once. Why let money weigh on conscience, when we would rather be merry?”
“I had rather be merry.” Sente stood, and bent over my tablet. “Will speed…?”
“Talk,” I told him. Gossip, of course.
“The anthill falls to dust at an ass’s kick.” He spoke an old saying.
I understand the mind of my enemy. Proud men, struck in their natures equally with a grudging suspicion; men who have risen a little, gained somewhat in their small reputations…but who never can be lords of this world, must always land in service to the scions, the Cimes…hang on praise-seeking; stub their toes on open defiance. Mumas would have liked the emperor, or Lady Nyma in his stead, to discern a petrified merit in his will to perform his office.
The performing of it was another matter.
Mumas despised Cime; he supposed Cime to despise him. Thus all gifts to Mumas were unwelcome, almost insults; and yet he felt no less insulted denied them.
In that frame of mind, as I suppose him, Mumas had busied himself on this day serving assessments. I could suspect a sporting rivalry—I was closer to Cime and Pytta, of their household. I’d seen there distance, varieties indulgent and austere with elders, comradeship with Sente and a handful of the young…all these came to the villa and went, making their visiting rounds, as had I, accompanying my lady. Her enchanting novelty…the foundling, the reader of destinies.
They played with one another, I felt, at catch-me-if-you-can… But as to causing harm, they meant none. I think my freedom was not a thing that had occurred to the Cimes; the notion I would be better off for having it…
Yet I digress.
Trouble sprang from this, that Mumas preened himself on bringing the delinquents to bay. He’d done so much—a day’s success for him—and felt he could do more.
The porter came to announce another of Cime’s servants.
Lom and I were served our meal on the steps leading to the dais on which the lordly ones reclined. Fully laden tables were carried above stairs, crouched into place delicately before the divans; and emptied, carried away below. Lom and I, among all who waited on these steps, had privilege to sample from Sente’s kitchen and enjoy, being not ourselves in employment.
We kept our heads low. We offered profuse thanks at every new plate and cup, and we were loftily ignored. Sente’s guests were parents brokering a daughter’s marriage to him….this the embarrassment.
Sente held back not much of reluctance and disdain. They, wronged, but pleased for this to have the upper hand, commented…the wine in this country had for many years now a sulphurous under-taste…well, it was the water…unfortunately, the soil itself… Sweeter could be found in the north… And its being a month’s journey, of course there could be no occasion to wait for the mid-winter fairs…
The gist of these remarks we could grasp. Often, careless, they used words of their own; often they put heads together and conversed to the exclusion of the party. Sente answered by striking up talk with Cime.
“What else must we send for? My poor Darsale. But…she will grow used to it. Are you familiar at all with our sort of food, Sente?”
These two, the palest man and woman I had ever seen—they had spots to their skin, a russet pattern dotting their arms, and for the bareness of these, they were more clothed, too, than anyone I had seen, under and over garments, bonnets on their heads, and shoes that came above the ankle—made me pity all the more this daughter.
To be such as that, and to come alone, and to have been supplanted beforehand by some other love…
I was struck by the porter’s manner. He knew something…that in his private thoughts gave entertainment. He was bold enough, this smile in his voice, to ask Lord Sente if the applicant ought not be summoned from the courtyard, after the dinner was ended?
Bold enough to state: “But, he is Lord Cime’s man.”
Yes, Mumas had done an offensive thing to Sente; and Sente’s household was loyal.
When my ordeal was ended, a letter entrusted by Mumas to a servant of his own—instructed it be brought to light upon his death—exposed a secret that will not very much astonish.
Contracted marriage was the way in our land, of safekeeping fortunes. Every person of substance had a vote in the government, and the right of appointment; the militias of every quarter were raised at direct cost to the rulers there, and this was how order was kept.
Children of marriage inherited the great properties.
Husbands and wives often produced two or three, as barring accident…and then took up their separate domiciles. Children born of paramours had no part—or rather, theirs was that of the parent. If he were a slave, the child was born to slavery; if she were a wine-seller, the child was reared in her trade. A juggler, a refugee, a soldier, a horse-thief, a fortune-teller, these comings and goings produced such as they produced. But the law was iron, keeping them in their place.
And yet…the world is wide. Before my exile I’d known little of it.
Our prince from the north came bargaining with his mercenaries. His occupation—his plundering, if you like—of our land, was the price the Emperor paid to hold his old realms intact; to be held still in name their Supreme Sovereign. If Sente concealed his wealth from the gods, he had not concealed it from the prince.
Gueddu Treiva was gone with the ravens to the clouds, leaving his widow, a second wife (by a handful of years older than Gueddu’s daughter, my Lady Pytta). The prince nullified Sente’s contract to the House of Treiva; he introduced the family of the northern woman, Darsale. The northern horsemen, with their strong arms and long bows, the armor they bore even in our southern heat, made pitiful our own foot-soldiery and short blades. They were stern in love as well, great martyrs to it, as though, having made obedience a trial, all their pleasure lay in the pride of suborning themselves. They sang sagas of Death for Love.
Sente, one of us, hadn’t proposed to sacrifice his passion at all…only to be discreet.
And the tragedy…for why should small, scheming men’s lives not end, as well as do kings’, in the Fates’ laughter?…was that Mumas had not attempted blackmail. In his heart he might have known himself dishonorable—but dishonest, he was not. He had merely his jealousies, of Cime first; then of me, for the favor I’d gained in Cime’s eyes; at length, of Lom, for becoming my companion.
Being pity for oneself and envy of others ill-joined, jealousy makes the most vigilant of watchmen. Jealousy’s regard never strays from the place, the wealth, the luck in love (the luck, even, in misfortune, if this draw the sympathy and open the purses of the great). Jealousy’s regard is on the street-corner word exchanged with a man of higher office than jealousy’s host. Jealousy’s regard is on the beggar before the hated door; on the envied one’s dog and his cat…on his slave.
And Mumas’s eyes regarded…
Who was great in our city, who greater still.
Mumas entered, and a face of sums jotted, lists completed, on some interior tablet, gave way to one of discovery. He hadn’t come to speak to Cime; Cime, being here, astonished him. For his part, Cime, expecting the interruption must be word of the child Pytta bore (and that would arrive while I waited my fate in jail; and that, for want of her trusted Lom to send, she herself came veiled to have its future foretold), hadn’t guessed this visitor.
“I give you leave…” Sente tapped his friend’s arm with a wine cup, devil-may-care, and nodded, indulgent in the boredom of accommodating servants, down towards Mumas. Yes, he made a show of this for the parents of Darsale.
“Mumas,” Cime said.
“Or,” Sente cut in, “perhaps your man’s business can wait an hour. If he will, then, he may take his place at the foot of the stairs.”
It was the only place he might have stopped. The northerners had their servants; waiting women and armed esquires, a small rebuking crowd on the right. Sente had his, casual in retort, on the left. Lom and I had been deferred to, allowed by the pride of Sente’s retainers to sit well up, as though we served at table, a distinction too high for our rank…almost a joke (but played very soberly).
The intelligence of Mumas was seen to grasp something. He began to speak, and another illumination intervened, choking back his words.
Then at last: “My Lord Cime, I am surprised… I find I have made an error…” With these changes, his mind busy behind them, Mumas worked his strategy. “My Lord Sente, you have my apology. I will return to my own house.”
His accent was crisp. He made the point that he was an equal, not a slave. He left, glancing once, where my eyes would have met his, boldly enough. But he looked at Lom.
It was full autumn, when winds blow from seawards, and dells ringing our land at the height of a long, descending pitch from the mountaintops, yield scents of change, mineral exhalations from the chimneys of the earth, the let veins of dying greenery, misted in the morning fogs. Streams here cascade ridged flanks becoming waterfalls, making hollows scooped in the metalworker’s pattern of a gourd. Along this line, colors are glorious, the leaves of trees like linked feathers; trees we called colebot, and gathered sweet pods from, their strong cerise like a sunrise viewed through this same mist.
The withering of green rolled slow in our lowlands, and in the gardens, fern and vine, salt pine and orchid, were never much changed, only less fecund, going out of flower. Lady Nyma had come to her son to order his house. Cime was free of duties, other than sit in the chambers hearing speeches.
Pytta moved from the breakfast table to the garden pavilion, dressed daily in her suirmat, that garment which is one long cloth folded over, sewn from calf to armhole, cut at the head in the shape of a fan. Her friends came for her solace, draping themselves over cushions. From post to post in the women’s pavilion were hung targets: the serpent, the cat, the dove, the sun, and the ship…and when anyone felt moved to do so, small bags of cloth stuffed with the seeds of another podded tree, the bitter rosira, were hurled to strike them.
This game also told fortunes. But it was lightly played, and desultory. Pytta had her feet in a basin of cold water. Lom and I had two ends of a cloth, painted with the story of the young lovers who’d confounded the gods…he, held prisoner to be sacrificed; she, having begged her father allow her a parting word, throwing herself from the tower in his stead. The lover, it is told, seeing this, gave a cry that reached the heavens, then wrested away the bowl of entrails waiting on the altar, for the priests to read in the smoke of their burning, the gods’ continued wrath or appeasement. He dashed this into the flames. He then followed his love.
And the gods gave the sign of transforming them into palmeini, small hawks (who, in truth, hunt the songbirds). Such cloths of fine silk, and fine craftsmanship, moved the air, up and down, side to side, wielded by the hands of slaves such as we.
Vlanna Madla owned a large workshop, its lower hall all looms staffed by weavers, and dyeing vats; its upper story and attic let to drapers, tent-makers, upholsterers; their sewers and embroiderers, their artists of the brush. The counter over which money changed hands was on a half-closed porch at the building’s front. But only servants on behalf of their masters came to pay here, or deliver to Madla the request, as Nyma had sent her own woman to do, to dine, and to bring her samples.
The meal was necessary; it was custom. Important merchants and proprietors made an under-layer of gentry in our land. They were never, unless family, guests at weddings, or at celebrations of appointments; and their guilds honored holy days in ways peculiar to each trade. But the Decima order, for the nursery, for the Emperor’s—he would come mid-winter—entertainment, meant asking a favor…that Madla take this job, occupy her people with it; give, quite possibly to her lasting loss, others to competitors.
I had been at loose ends, while above the great ones sat. As a form of politesse (respecting Madla’s status; pretending for a time there was no business to discuss), they spoke only gossip…billows of which, in those days of the prince, passed from mouth to ear. It was Sente’s affairs were most powerfully interesting; but Madla knew well not to speak of them at the table of Cime Decima.
Lom and I sat on the rim of a water tank (that from which the launderers and scullions drew theirs), in the courtyard under the dining porch. It was cool in this spot, and we were silent, listening.
Madla, her deep voice honed to carry, had just broken off from a gambit…and began again, having reached a topical frontier. She ventured a toe. “Those leelaye…some of them, paid a call on Mumas. I don’t know if they are ignorant.”
(Leelaye was a pale-rooted plant that grew among the heights, crawling over rock where water fell. Step on one, and its thin skin peeled to a slippery gum…treacherous. Yet the very poor would boil them, through changes of water; sugar them and wrap them in leaves to ferment; boil them again, with the poison out, and the taste palatable, for a tea. The hungry ate and drank leelaye in abundance, as no one else wanted it. You see, reader, why the name lent itself, in denigration, to the northern newcomers.)
There were murmurs. Someone said, “Everyone is wise in his own way, dear.” It would not do to make a fault of Madla’s words. Nyma, as elder, answered.
“He will let his house to them. At the time of the wedding…ah, Madla!” Some laughter, and throaty sounds of ruefulness; and Pytta’s friends’ chatter. Some shared Pytta’s circle complete, and would see this princely scheme to its fruition, the bride Darsale and the groom, Sente, joined. Others did not know Sente, but knew the widow-lover. And a harsh, scornful, “Ha!”, above all making itself heard, was Caleyna Treiva’s.
A space of dishes clattering, freighted silence, made Lom and I exchange a sideways look. He, bless him, would not say it, but I would. “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 virgins on their wedding day, do you think?”
We, of course, slaves moving often 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.
Under the pavilion the women lounged, Lom and I fanned, and Madla’s servant carried samples to each, for rubbing between fingers, for admiring the shades of woven thread…two or three, or several…to the effect of one shimmering hue. From her book came samples, many of these half-embroidered to show the fineness of her shop’s handiwork; half-inked, to show the designs in their intricacy.
But pleasure ebbed, as the sun dropped low. Pytta wanted her nap. Madla had by then sat for an hour at Nyma’s side; the two come to a price. Pytta’s maid rose to gather cushions, and Pytta’s friends found their excuses, leaving one by one.
Nyma gestured to me; nodded to Lom. We laid down the silk, edged round to where Madla and her servant knelt restoring order to their books. 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 superior), “Mera, allow me to follow with your burden.”
She lifted to me a pair of heavy, wood-bound books. Lom held his arms stiff until she’d piled onto these another three; then bobbed also, saying, “Mera, many thanks.”
There is always a street in any city, lined with the finest shops. Along a neighboring street, small leaseholders and vendors’ carts…yet further off, a tannery or slaughterhouse, stinking. And poor alleys near these, where things not for sale are sold, under cloak. Perhaps below, a square, the awnings of an open market. At the hilltop, then, houses…of a particular quality, both that of being in the thick of things, a first-hearers’ privilege; and a ceilinged constraint, desirability in decline.
Mumas was lesser scion of an ancient family; which in his case, meant neither wealth nor invitation—only this inheritance, house and stables, in the Anse Cerbe, the Old City. That, and the right…not of appointment, but to be appointed.
Most small nobles of the Anse Cerbe accepted circumstance with pride. They had their own…reward enough, I mean to say…and the virtues of humbleness, of competence, of public service, of diplomacy; their sort the levers and inclined planes of governance…for outside the debating halls, the mechanics of a nation must at a practiced touch shift and roll.
But Mumas took the back gate of Vlanna Madla’s workshop abutting his property as rebuff. His nature urged him towards the villas; the city’s commerce stood firm between.
Change…as to turn a tile, and find the bountiful sun’s promise shadowed, so slightly, by the sign of the cat, whose tail may flick this way or another…took flight and caught wind, fanned by coincidence, first. Then by a crueler convergence. We had heard, at Cime’s house, the clanging bell.
One of Madla’s own lofts, it proved—a drapery caught fire.
This spread fearfully for minutes, during which a chaotic fleeing from neighboring lofts netted and locked itself with her manager’s courageous marshalling of buckets. The fire was out; Madla, apprised by her own eyes and ears, met him as he pushed to the fore, halfway already to grasping the whole of it.
“Have them take all those things…any the fire has so much as warmed…and carry them to the street. The room must be swept clean. Someone will go on the roof…”
Lom and I could do nothing; we had been forgot, Madla’s woman sent at once on this errand upstairs. We moved aside and outwards, helpless and still burdened, as those following orders came down with their rolls of burnt cloth, bowing the arc of the throng. So much shouting was too much altogether for conversation, and so I may suppose Lom had resolved within, as had I, to listen and learn. Lady Nyma would expect our intelligence.
Now a horse appeared, forcing way down the alley, going three beats to the pace, it seemed, restive and under the whip. The alley met a lane, and the lane met the street on which Lom and I waited. The tide had carried us to its center.
The rider was Mumas.
He shouted, and only his anger made itself heard, words blending in and out the general hubbub. I knew he’d driven close when his whip licked my bare arm, his voice rose suddenly distinct, bellowing, “Useless!”
I stood in his path…though it seemed he’d willed the entanglement upon himself. In worse language he berated me, bent on riding me to the wall. Madla’s books were slipping…I did not like letting them go. I felt Mumas would trample me, and meant to, if I stooped. Lom for a moment had edged off, to lay his own load down; unencumbered he was back and reaching round to steady my elbow.
And Mumas, drumming with the whip and kicking with his heels, urged his mount to frenzy, clearing two half-circles round either flank. All this began to draw notice, a wary quiet spreading from the creature’s orbit. Its master might easily have charged onwards by now.
I say this, to paint the picture. It was much faster, of course. Lom’s head near mine, his arm supporting mine, then a flash and a blow that glanced my ear. And blood that bathed, where that from my arm had trickled.
I Am the Cause
If in life, the Fates were not indifferent to us, and did not record in their Book merely the start and end of each wayfarer’s journey; if our sorrows, petty to them, were guided rather by a kind and just deity, a mother’s hand turning our blind eyes to the light, our stubborn hearts to humility, while the flame of the candle yet burned…
A death would be as a bedside story that ends when the hearer drifts off.
And all is well.
If Lom had opened an eye…if he had been able to speak…if he had said, I am resigned to it, I saw the signs of it, Kire, we spoke of this…
The wound was grievous. The hoof had struck him above and behind the ear. As the rim of a bowl, so this weak place in the skull cracks easily. I had stood for a stupid moment not understanding or believing. And Lom, though gone, stood too, in the thick of those fleeing Mumas’s mad charge. The blood flowed like water from a broken vessel, and all of us nearby, whose bodies had pressured him upright, jumped with horror, or edged away in shock. He fell.
I spun, and saw Mumas had won his cowering deference. No one delayed him now, all parted before him, and he was soon ridden from sight. It was only then, when Vlanna Madla came running with a set, furious face, that I fell myself, to my knees, and clutched at one of the rolls of burnt cloth.
He was gone, he never would know another thing done to his uncaring form, but he was not wholly dead. Such things often are. The blood came through the ball I’d bundled and pressed, with force enough only to tamp the flow.
It seemed no use. Another roll of cloth was folded to make a stretcher. Madla directed this into her counting room. Here, I shook off tears and stupor…
I was not the sufferer. “Mera, if I may…I’ll wait.”
Her chin trembled, and she did not answer. But in the hours after, I learned she’d given orders for quiet and comfort, Lom’s and my own.
The room fell into darkness, and I sat resting a hand on Lom’s chest to feel him breathe, until the numbness in my legs became insistent. Or, perhaps in truth I should say to feel him stop. I wanted to say soothing words and nothing came to my heart…none of what I had been taught of the next world struck me as that a man’s soul would wish to hear.
I stood, and turned to the windows along the back wall, giving onto the unlit alley. Madla had bade her servant leave the shutters open. She’d conversed with him over my head and had not troubled me. Once, he’d returned, cradling a candle flame; then left the untouched supper dish, and Cime’s slaves, alone.
I thought of this, looking over rooftops at stars, listening to hoofbeats, dim voices, lowering my gaze to see lamplight flare in a downstairs room of Mumas’s house. I ought, false shaman that I was, to have kept a blank mind, and let the gods speak…if they would. Deign pity me with wisdom. But I thought of my master, how deeply in defiance of ordinary rules I was now, whether I was forgiven…whether I, of less value than Lom, would be held at fault.
I might be held unlucky, unsafe to keep, as I had in my old home.
And it was Cime I heard speak, shouting for Mumas. Cime, the growing light of torches in the lane and alley making plain, had gathered his household knights, and they had concealed themselves in the dark. They had surrounded Mumas, and allowed him to enter his home.
He came out. From the window, many lengths distant, I could see in the light of his doorway, his hand tremble. He raised a purse, and flung it to the foot of the steps, where Cime gripped his sword unsheathed.
“I suppose the slave is dead. It ought to have been the other. But there, my honored Lord Cime, my purchase. Or, if you won’t take my gold, you may take one of mine.”
They faced each other, silent.
Mumas, bold in his terror. Cime, quivering with insult. But the law held each in check.
“There is no recompense for what you’ve done. Don’t bother with it!”
Cime said this, at last…stooped to take up the purse, hurled it, striking Mumas in the belly. A ripple of speech passed the ranks of his knights. They wondered—among themselves, but for their lord’s ears—if by this he meant challenge. If he would order them into the house of Mumas, to take blood vengeance.
But Cime was Lady Nyma’s son; he was the Emperor’s tax collector, and he couldn’t.
Lom was dead. I knew this, crouching to him once again.
Challenge, I thought of it.
I thought of the law, under which I had no right of being. But the Balancers, who stalk the guilty, are there where justice fails.
Tell me, I asked them, am I wrong?
Come the morning, I had left Madla’s counting room.
She might fairly suppose me returned to my master’s house…carry on, then, as Cime no doubt had given her permission. Lom would be sent for burning. With no ceremony I knew of that a friend, a brother or sister, was at the death of a slave called to perform.
For strength, I’d eaten the food set out the night before.
I’d got inside the stable of Mumas, no one awake and about to resist me. The horses stirred, snorted, not caring their early visitor was strange…this hour, and any bustle of humanity, meant food to them. I found the creature I was certain Mumas had ridden—goaded to do an evil, not at fault for it—and stroked its nose. It stood calm in its stall.
A groom turned up then, toting a pail of mash, and when his sight adjusted under the roof, he started at me.
“You get out!”
At once, I could see his master’s ways with him gainsay his first judgment. He peered towards the narrow opening giving light and air to the stall, and through which the horse could thrust its head to find the water trough. Mumas’s servant looked at me again, and his calculations seemed apparent enough.
“You don’t want me to go,” I said. “And I advise you not to waste good water, for foolishness. I have not poisoned it. Take me to your master, and let him dispose of my trespass as he chooses.”
The law of challenge required that I touch the person of my adversary. Thus, were I taken prisoner and delivered to Mumas, it would suit. He might in his house kill another of Cime’s slaves. But I was astray, and Cime, of superior family, had the higher right of disposition. And so I deemed Mumas wise enough to see himself as he was, slidden to the cliff’s edge, clinging to the root of the leelaye. He had never wanted a feud with the powerful.
The groom found me too reasonable, and suspected me. “Did you get hold of something?”
He scanned round, at rasps, and picks, and mallets, at tackle hanging from the walls. I spread my arms, smiling a little. My garments were thin summer ones. “I’m sorry. But I have something to say to Mumas. Do you find me unworthy to speak to your master?”
“Me…I don’t care.”
“Better, if I make my way in from the yard? If I have done this myself, and no one else to blame?”
He pushed hair from his forehead, in the way of reluctant agreement.
Discovering Mumas on his dining porch was as easy as pricking my ears. The slave attending his breakfast table was underfoot, apparently—too sudden to proffer the water pitcher, too slow stopping the clatter of its fall, mopping the spill. I doubted Mumas had slept, and I doubted his agitation could calm itself.
How to enter…
Though if he glanced over his shoulder, he would see me lingering at the threshold. The servant looked up and saw me, and in his brooding Mumas missed the twitch and quick effacement. So, I thought, do they hate him? I pitied him, and hadn’t guessed then—thinking of myself, my own grievances—how thoroughly I was to play nemesis.
I entered by walking in. Mumas heard the sound of my feet; perhaps he smelled Lom’s blood staling on my tunic. He breakfasted without arming himself beforehand, sensibly enough, and so only leapt from his bench, tamping away panic even as I watched his face.
It drew into itself, bitter. “You bring a message from Lord Cime. Yes. Such would be his humor.”
“Of my own,” I said. “Please keep still a moment. You,” I spoke on, approaching him, holding his eyes, so that he would keep still, “will choose the weapon. That is your right, by the law, as you know. You see I have none.”
He gave no order to his slave. Knights were expensive articles, and Mumas might support no household guard. I put my hand on his belly…which, you have guessed, reader, was symbolic in these matters, and if the challenge followed, it must be answered.
“I charge you as assassin. You have killed my friend Lom. You will fight me, Mumas. I, Cime Decima’s slave. I have never heard the law forbid it.”
The law did not. It was not done.
As to this city, that I had not lived in for very long, I learned its ways at times I was told a new thing. A slave (even a sort of jester of the games, bought for novelty) hasn’t business affairs…and errands to run only as commanded. Only when I’d found myself wandering lost, cursed for stupidity by shopkeepers, or by stewards of Cime’s clients, blockading their lords’ empty villas, had I been cured of any misjudgment. My early life in the shadow of Lotoq was my book of law and custom. I was wrong often enough in my guesses.
The prince had taken one such villa for his palace, its owner going sourly to the sea. He was there in the town, the prince. His glittering guard rode, in a bored way, through the quarter, most often under the walls of the fort. Our militia, never horsed, jeered at them from the towers, in veiled fashion, dumping down rinds of fruit…playing a light, comic air, on a reed.
Mumas had thrown me out. He had not become less convinced, but more so, that I acted on Cime’s instigation.
“Tell your master, if the Emperor’s justice won’t suit him, to make his petition before Lord Sente’s new relative.”
And in this, do you note my difficulty?
Mumas, a citizen, might have gleaned a fact. The family of Darsale might be true kin to the house of the prince. Mumas again might only class these northerners—who, under the rind, likely classed themselves as pith, and meat, and seed—mere orange to our own apple, indifferent to whether they redeemed a favor or performed one.
I’d expected to be taken seriously. Scorned and deplored, loathed, but comprehended. I would have to think of a greater provocation.
I sat on the steps to his porch, so far delinquent now, I felt a peculiar reunion with my early life, under the old woman’s care…when I had sometimes been free, finished with chores.
She had called me Fate’s child, not her own…
And so I’d been allowed to walk the ashy countryside until nightfall, numbering the small green things that willed to live, and no one had wanted me.
I did suppose Cime wanted me, and expected me. I had every sense that he indulged me; little fear he would not excuse me. But for a few days, it seemed, I could please myself.
The shutters of a window folded back, someone yelling, “Why are you loitering there? Go to your master!”
I waved in good cheer, and said, “Tell your own master he has not answered me.”
This servant snorted and withdrew, I doubted to give my message to Mumas, rather apprise him I had not gone. Thinking again of the Balancers, dogged forms their quarry must see forever, if he dare look back…and never shake, until to their satisfaction he has atoned, I made my decision.
I saw the man I recognized as Vlanna Madla’s manager come up the street. He spoke as he approached.
“Lady Pytta sent that the other’s ashes be scattered upon the Dagosse, to flow as the gods will by the Edagosse, to the place. That of his mothers and grandmothers.”
“Of them all, his people,” I said. “Who on the other side must see no change, but in their ways live on. Only a strange visitor now and then, brings to them a strange tale.”
He made a gesture of piety…though I had not so much favored him with a seer’s vision, as shared a fancy I’d long held, in contemplating the vanished city.
One or two hours passed, and the house of Mumas sat closed behind me, silent. As you may surmise, I was less comfortable now than I had been, and the exigencies of keeping vigil began to tell. I might not succeed alone, for even a full day.
But a minor ruckus burst at the back of Madla’s establishment, louder than the hammering in the lofts, and someone skipped across to mount the steps beside me. She brought a water jug, a basket of bread and fruit.
“Eat if you like. Or go to Vlanna’s courtyard first, you know. She tells me to hold your place. Will Mumas come out, do you think?”
I’d made for myself a rise in status, never expecting it. Of this enterprise, at least, I had charge. I thus instructed: “Forestall him. Even if he would like to order you off, and have nothing more to do with me. You know his temper.”
She thrust up her chin and flapped a hand, dismissive, having her mistress’s weight behind her.
“Mumas knows what the law demands,” I finished. “He can give answer only to me.”
He hadn’t come out. I made myself content with jug and basket, sent the girl back to Madla…who, seeing to my lunch as well, sent her again at midday; again to play deputy, keeping my post. By now, behind the shutter, symptoms had begun to manifest.
The lane and alley carried a busy traffic as the day wore past noon. Not many knew me to speak to, but of the merchants’ clerks and porters, most cast an eye over affairs at the house of Mumas—returned my salute, gave greeting. So much tacit support from the buyers and sellers beneath him, so much bold condemnation from his neighbor, a woman of ordinary birth, but held in better esteem; so much effrontery from mere servants…
He brooded, probably. A man of law would have to advise him, but he would have to summon one. He jibbed no doubt, at not only that I cost him money (that Lom did), but that my stand gained credence for his spending of it, for his consulting upon it. The shutter edged back and knocked into place, the third time within an hour or two.
A small man, in the square-crowned hat of a lawyer, stoic also under the black cloth draped and belted, that told his profession, traversed the parting crowd. Yes, they stood off to let him pass, some moving their hands with a sardonic flourish. It was a fresh act in the day’s theater.
“There,” he said to me, mounting the steps, “sits the conundrum.”
“I don’t think I have made a very difficult puzzle. Can Mumas not kill me if he likes…only that there is some ceremony to attend…”
“I think you know well enough how you’ve placed him.”
He would not tarry to debate, perhaps give his advice for nothing, but feeling in his pouch for a scroll on which some tenet of the law must be inscribed, met the servant already holding the door.
I did not know it, though.
I own myself a bit puffed up by the crowd’s amusement, that they seemed to take my part. I would not turn over in my mind the matter of dying, since this prospect cannot improve for a closer study.
Lawyers were disliked…and so this one’s sympathies may have woken on the side of the unpopular Mumas. The man of law disapproved of me, at any rate, and was not charmed by me. I’d grown too easy in Cime’s and Pytta’s company, finding myself winsome, as reflected in the eyes of others.
Where had I placed Mumas? Where he could not win, I guessed now… Either to address me or not was humiliation.
A servant came round from the stables—my friend the groom, mounted on a horse. He pulled back on the reins, and before me nosed ahead.
“You are to be arrested. Will you run?”
“No, you won’t.”
He rode on. If he were pleased with me, or if he sneered at me, I couldn’t tell.
Now, to speak further of law and custom.
I found myself imprisoned in a cell of Lord Sente’s. The noble houses did for the Emperor this service, quartered his knights when with his entourage he entered their city, guarded his prisoners in their dungeons. These were made as each house saw fit to construct them, below ground or in towers, kept wholesome or wretched, and used when some great breach of the public order had occurred. For you have seen that from class to class, many disputes were confined to their sphere—noble, tradesman, laborer, slave.
This was expected. There was no assize to adjudicate some spat over courtship, over preference, as might be between myself and a fellow slave; over cheating, as to weights of grain, watering of beer or milk, purity of gold, as among sellers and purchasers. And soldiers at the fort fought continually, over courtship, preference, cheating of rations, cheating at dice, among others…over novelties of their own invention…for sport, for boredom. Lady Nyma’s sessions were convened only to resolve matters that challenged the law, as understood.
Sente had applied to the Emperor’s governor for the price of my maintenance, and I, loosely checked by the Prince’s man who’d arrested me, was made to stand awkward, in a contrivance of chain and metal bands looped round my neck and wrists, while the Prince questioned Lord Ulfas, with a northern show of baffled curiosity.
“I cannot keep this prisoner for myself?”
“In justice,” Ulfas began.
“You have here some quaint scheme that serves for the enrichment of the small nobility? Hence, no doubt, the bankruptcy of your Emperor. Your master, I apologize.” He bowed his head, very slightly, to tender in respect this insult to Ulfas.
“In justice…” Ulfas began again.
“Have I done wrong? Ought I to have denied this fellow’s request?” A nod, that did not find Mumas, though Mumas in a corner waited with his man of law, thumbs hooked on his belt, hands working forward and back. “I am strange to your customs.” (As though the serpent in the bird’s nest should remark, “Now these are dainty eggs”, the Prince passed this observation, otherwise deprecating.)
“I have only been asked to array my army and my navy such that your enemies cease their piracy, that the gold of commerce traffic your harbors to fill the Emperor’s barren coffers, that your people be not seized into slavery along the highways…”
“Uncle,” said Lord Sente. “I yield to you, if it pleases you.”
And Sente knew more of practicalities than I could, informed only by rumor. The Prince must of his land’s courtesy be so-called, having calculated the binding of our wealthiest houses by ties of blood.
“Ao-bahcan Darsale…” He inflected this honorific, if it were such, with potent accents and condescending smile. Sente, who’d got the “uncle” out with a bland enough face, did not allow himself to flinch. “I don’t want a prisoner, and I don’t need a slave. I make the creature a gift to you, then.”
He might mean this. He might so easily seize the property of Cime and bestow it on his own house, by proxy. He’d tired himself, it seemed, and left us. But as the Prince had reminded our governor, his authority was greater than our laws.
The cell was over the stable. It was clean, well-scented by manure, my own straw fresh…and I less alone this way. I had both the odd snort and nicker from below, which—for I loved horses—I might fancy an encouraging word, and visits also from two or three sociable cats, who ventured up by vine to squeeze through the bars. In truth, I could probably have escaped. The entry was a hatch in the floor. When food and water came, it was brought by a sole unarmed servant, and my ears caught no jangle of weaponry at the ladder’s foot.
I was curious myself, as was the whole city, how Lady Nyma would explain her ruling, and what that might be.
Sente arrived one evening, toed away straw in a circle, and placed a lantern.
“You bear it all calmly,” he remarked. He sat, cross-legged, on the floor.
“Lom told me he’d seen his fate. I am a teller of fates. Do I tell myself, then, that I have played my role, and that it can’t be helped? Nothing ever can be helped. But we are all here, are we not? And if the gods mean us pebbles in some rushing stream, with no power to rise or sink or come to shore, why have they made us at all? What is the use of us? We die in agonies…we starve, we burn, we drown. We seem sometimes to please them.”
“Yes. You have thought all that.”
“I have thought,” I said, “that I cannot wash my hands of Lom. He befriended me. Did some deity who willed him dead devise he do a good and kind thing…a very great thing, my lord, for I am very much without friends…will this also, that the heart of Mumas kindle with jealousy, that Lom, and not I, pay the price, for that it answer some godly ordination, some implacable story, plotted to the end of time, of event following event?”
He was silent, and so I said, to finish, “I don’t think it. I believe they would like us to rise, to be angry perhaps, to not bear responsibility…but seize it.”
“Now you touch me nearly,” he murmured. “Mumas, you see…why will you not have guessed this? I told Cime, don’t give the post to a Cerbaner. The tax-collector’s deputy…” He studied the lantern’s flame, and began in a different way. “I could have taken it. It would not be out of keeping. I would sit idle in my house and bargain with the bargainers. The withholders…Cime and I and our knights would ride roughshod over one or two new-sprouted fields. Then the scofflaws’ money would come unstuck…and in truth, for us, all a bit of fun. Or, being another sort of villain, I might inflate the assessments and pocket the surplus. But, Cime is Nyma’s son. He believed he would follow tradition…his idea of wisdom. Why not, if in old days, Mumas would have received the honor, and if he has two causes of complaint—upon which we have all heard him harp—that he is denied his right, and that we, our sort, are unfit…as Cime says, why not give Mumas a thing to prove, instead of a thing to grudge? He might do well, and the Emperor be pleased. He might do poorly, and then must go away and say no more.”
“Well,” I said, “is that not wisdom?”
“What do you see?” He asked me this, after getting to his feet.
When for minutes he had not furthered his point, I tried, “What is it like for me to see…? How do I know there is anything divine in…”
“A dream? Is that how it is? A trance that comes over you?”
“No…no. I read signs only by a certainty…a paltry gift, likely no gift at all. A sense no better I suppose, than to say…”
I looked over my guest, whose silhouette was framed by the barred window. I had always possessed one shirt, one tunic and one warmer robe, one pair of shoes, one of sandals. I did not make the sort of choice that had come to my mind. But Sente wore a cuff of silver, cabochoned with that amber-veined stone, that in his house I’d admired. “I will wear this adornment today. This is right. I don’t dream or swoon, no.”
Also I said, telling myself, I lose nothing by it… “I know the gossip, my lord. But my certainty is that you will thrive. Caleyna Treiva…”
“We have given each other up already.”
He kicked at the stone wall, willing himself this pain, stifling a broken noise. “That’s all,” he said, turning, stooping for the lantern.
But sat again. “No…I’m a fool. I came to confess to you. Please don’t now pity me and forgive me. But hear me. You recall that you and Lom were on the steps, and that Mumas came into the hall. Of course my servant would not have told him… His chief, your master…seated at my table. My new father and mother. You see, Mumas had been tale-bearing. I learned it. Or, I will say, he had been hinting. Or—”
I was inclined to pity Sente. I knew what his confession would be. I knew what stopped him going on. Mumas was an oddly uncalculating man. Yes, he could make trouble for others, and with all the pertinacity of a mole paddling away at her blind tunnel. And he would tell himself this was not making trouble. This was duty. That he felt himself alone performing it, must seem all the more reason to persist.
“You blame yourself that you belittled him. And before such guests! You belittled him because you saw it in him, how weak at that moment he was. Mumas, a man you’d had nothing to do with, who did not belong to you, or Cime, or the others…Whom you felt affronted you must care for, take time to speak to. More than that. You saw it plainly. For Mumas, the completion of a task, that honored the reputation of one he despised…”
My smile here was faint…showing in the eyes only, perhaps. Sente was in gloom, and would not himself have smiled, at even bitter humor. “For Mumas, this was principle…he would complete that task. He grew to wish harm to you, the one who thwarted him, to use what he knew, and what he thought was in his power to make use of. And you wished harm to Mumas. Which you could bring about easily enough.”
“Which I did. Yes, easily enough. You credit me with eyes to see…I doubt that of myself. Will the gods really allow me to thrive? I have killed a man. Without honor. Without malice. Without cause.”
Before the great day arrived, I had one more visitor. Sente did not require Cime’s wife, in her recovery, to climb ladders…or to enter his stable at all. And when I had been brought to a small chamber, a sleeping room mostly open to the air, one found along a gallery that led from the terrace where first I’d met him; and after Lady Pytta had done with me, he told me I would stay there.
“You won’t run. But feel free, if you like. I can make excuses.”
Escorting her away, she in her own melancholy, he’d caught Pytta’s eye, and they’d sighed together. The Prince, I read from this, and from my lady’s words, found such people as fell in his way immaterial to his plans. Until the marriage had come off, Sente could not offend. After, he must try very hard not to.
“Tell me about my Lord Cime’s heir,” I’d begun.
From a pocket amid the folds of the large garment she still wore, she drew my sack of tiles and tablets.
“Don’t tease. I have come to ask you the same.”
I did enjoy the games, and would the company…but of course, I did not presume. Nor did I trouble her to name which, but chose etching a pattern best suited to a newborn’s first forecast.
“Is he a morning child?”
She liked my guesses prescient, pretending to suppose this banter. Such commonplaces, of possibilities one from two, from four…
Yet because the game was fun, often they did not want badly to think. (I had seen crooked practitioners tease indeed, cast a wrong guess as merely the sly unfolding of their mysteries.)
A boy, born in the day’s first quarter, called for a pattern of rays, and a clean line beneath, divided in thirds, for the stages of life. Each third had an up-triangle, and two down-triangles. And in this game, all values were such as the tile revealed; there were no tricky reversals. Each down-triangle gave a negative, each ray of the sun-sign applied to a house: of riches, marriage, children, war, peace, friends, enemies, length of life.
I shook the bag and threw, selecting only tiles with their faces hidden, that had at their landing formed shapes of import. I took three from a right-hand arc, and laid them in the direction of the moon’s waxing. Riches, marriage, children. Two made the portion of a star, and these I laid, one at the center of the sun, the other on one of her rays not filled, that for length of life. I threw again, commenting to Lady Pytta, as I did when casting, keeping her apprised of my purpose.
And so I’d said, “I am throwing for war, enemies. Last, for friends, peace.”
“Put it all away.”
She said, “No, never turn them. Something is happening to us. This is not passing weather, foundling. I thought I would feel happier, knowing the future…and now I feel I trust you too much. I think it can’t be, can it? Peace and friends, long life. Can he come into his own…now? No. If my son’s father stays in favor with the Prince, still the Prince profits from war. And if he lives himself, he will only invite more of them, and they will only take more of…our fields, our houses, our knights and horses and gold, our sons and daughters. And you, you won’t tell me a lie… I’ll not bear it if I see you softening the blow, being kind.”
To Be and to Choose
Lady Nyma’s assize was all of a nature impressive, sober, ceremonial…for me, never-seen. I must be dressed, I discovered, in a blue and yellow garment, one with high collar and buttoned cuffs, ornamented fasteners down the chest, that designated me Petitioner. I had counsel, and I had not expected it.
Vranga-lan Banche, for three days’ visits to my cell, had showed a face of wonderful containment. I was sure he despised me…why should he not? By his title, and by his great stoniness of manner, and by these competent mysteries urged upon his charge, each task of which I could but agree to, his aid to me was a gift.
More a boon…or even a tribute. For Cime, Pytta, Sente—and likely enough, Caleyna Treiva—were in cause together. My counsellor was a price too high for me to repay; I must bear an eternal debt.
I would stand when ordered to do so, I would sit and keep quiet, I would allow Vranga-lan Banche to speak, and speak for myself only when Lady Nyma questioned me. He’d said that word, allow. I was sorry if I’d come to be known…it would be my fault…by a reputation. By this, and by other things, Banche was hemming me in, as did my shorn hair and stiff coat. He wholly expected I would surprise, I could see that he did…in some way disobey, seize on this chance to have my name known.
Not that. I have no name.
“What do you think? It is only the villa of Montadta.”
I thought Banche smiled a bit, whispering as we entered a pillared hall…this, serving for antechamber, so that I understood his “only”. Strange furnishings, skulls ensconced in burnished helmets, and hides of animals, were hung on the panels between. It must be then the villa of Montadta the Prince had made his home. This awfulness must be both a norm to the northern castle, and a laugh in our shrinking southern faces.
Mumas was there with his own counsellor. As Respondent, his costume was like mine in trim, but of brown cloth. As well, he was allowed a sash, to represent the colors of his family arms. I did not bear Cime’s, had not suspected such honors, and the solemnities of this great performance embarrassed me…embarrassed me again at the vanity of feeling so.
I will take a moment to explain what may puzzle you, Reader, about the ways of this first country. I have lived in others; I know scruples are not alike among all peoples. The first party to the case, called to make his statement before the court, following a confusion of echoes, of voices shouting for silence, steps in cadenced pattern, and the blowing of a horn…a rush of air from a curtain drawn back, a faint scent that reminded me of my master’s house on that day of Lom’s murder, was he, Cime. You may object. Yes, it was his mother who summoned him to the dais.
My counsel prodded me ahead, soured on all the world and blaming me.
I faltered into the great chamber, stumbled over boots, drew laughs and found myself misdirected. I whispered:
“My lord Vranga-lan, will I sit below the dais?”
His head inclined at an angle.
“No, slave! There!”
One of the knights took my arm, pushing me back from the steps. Banche flushed in anger as three others rose, and bowed smiling, moving themselves from a front bench to a leaning place, over the rail of the gallery. Mumas and his counsel scooted next to us, furtive, and no one corrected them.
I hoped, for Banche was sharp of eye, that I’d well-enough concealed my gambit. Yes, he was enraged with the Prince; the Prince had upended all proper forms of conduct…and no doubt for the first time in his career, Banche had not himself known what was expected. His pride would not confide this to me. A man like my counsellor felt legal tradition travestied as acutely as Mumas did loss of place.
In the Prince’s land, a Father-King dictated all.
The Prince entered, kept his feet, the heralds blew a salute and flourish. He spoke, informing us of this custom, and how, again a stranger to ours, he anticipated the enjoyment of witnessing these…opening the session with a mockery of pomp, where I understood from Banche’s careful rehearsals, now from his bitter frown, ought to have been a simple reading of procedure.
Somehow, to our mercenary ruler, the rigid steps by which one climbed in the north—houses rising on marriage-bonds paid in tribute, tribute money gained from fratricides, houses aligning in plotted assassinations, tumbling when such schemes failed—were just and right. He and his knights spread limbs over all the remaining benches laid before the seat and table of Lady Nyma and her ministers. Her authority to recreate in the Prince’s usurped house, a proper court, had won her this, since he would not trouble himself to ride for a day, and would not allow our people to administer our law without him.
I do not mean to digress, having said so much. Lady Nyma bore a role bestowed upon her line, the founding House of Delia, by the gods. The gods, who ordered all things, could not mistake their own purpose. To suppose or to suggest that Cime might influence his mother, was as mad as to claim a mortal could hold power over the divine.
“Be seated, vlan.”
Lady Nyma rose, and the Prince obeyed her, even the hauteur falling from his face, but contempt in the hand waving off sitters across the aisle. In this way, I was beside him, though separate, and began to dread being called to speak.
The court officer shouted, “Cime Decima!”
My master strode forth kicking aside, cheer enough on his face, the feet of the Prince’s knights.
Lady Nyma drew down a tablet, topmost of several at her right hand.
“This, as you have here set in writing, you swear before the court, Cime Decima. That, you ask nothing in reparation from Mumas Martas; that, you will put no price on the dead slave Lom. That, for your part, you withdraw from the case altogether, will press no claims, will speak no word in future.”
The clerk who sat beside her gave to Cime the chip of obsidian here used to mark the unfired clay. He signed before this room of witnesses; the clerk inked the tablet and pressed it to a stretched cloth. This, by another clerk, was carefully removed for drying.
“Citizens and guests, Petitioner and Respondent, Counsel.”
She placed, and studied, a second tablet.
She lifted her eyes, looking over all the crowded room, and the northern chatter began a slow dying. I, under cover of this, glanced at the Prince. I wondered if she’d angered him, calling him guest.
His profile offered me only the clue of pursed lips.
Banche rose; I rose quickly at his side.
“Asks the court to consider whether the laws which pertain to dispute by challenge, pertain to the slave as to the master. The Respondent charges the Petitioner with trespass in his house, and with assault upon his person, and asks that the court dismiss this request of the Petitioner; that the session be closed upon this resolution; that Cime Decima be made to offer reparation to the Respondent; reparation which the Respondent’s counsel states his client will accept, in form of the Petitioner’s being bonded over to Mumas Martas, by Cime Decima. The court dismisses the Respondent’s charges, and will hear the Petitioner’s request.”
Now I wanted badly to peer at Mumas. I’d known nothing of his seeking such recompense, and was glad of its dismissal…
But I was beginning to feel myself the walker, high on the mountainside, who dislodges the pebble.
“For thirty days, I have weighed one question, upon which all other questions the court shall consider in this case, must of necessity hinge. From Dal Ruggia, where otherwise this assize might have been opened, and where the archives with those verdicts relevant to the matter are to be found, I have returned, after many days’ research.
“We do not question that a slave is regarded property of his master.
“The court is asked to consider whether, as property, a slave can be a person of will, can choose his actions independently of his master’s will. If we determine that this is so, we must determine whether the court’s authority, applied in balance…that is, the law being the same law, its weight accorded in the same case and degree to every person; and in justice to its own principle…that is, the law itself deriving from natural right, this right being apparent, and when applied without caprice, its fairness manifest—can withhold reward if it mete punishment. For to apply the law in such a way that it thwart its own purpose, is to apply no law at all.
“Let us then consider so many instances as will illustrate what a slave is, and what a slave is not, whereupon those at this hearing who have objections may at the close of my remarks, raise them. Suppose that the Father of Lotoq shake the earth.”
She paused, gauging us all, for she had boldly spoken the name of the nameless, the god we dreaded. Nor did Lady Nyma herself make the sign…but many others touched their fingertips and bowed their heads.
“If the guest of a householder be injured by the fall of a pillar, we do not curse the god. We allow that we live only by the will of the Holy One; and that a god shall dispose as he chooses. But if the house were ill-constructed, we do not blame the pillar. The householder shall be held to blame; she may in her turn hold the builder to blame.
“Suppose that a neighbor plant his corn, and that her chickens, for being let to roam free, eat the seed and deprive him of his harvest. We do not blame the chickens; and yet, we do not blame either he who sold to her the chickens. We rule that fowl must be penned, the loss reimbursed…and by this we acknowledge that fowl, left to themselves, will wander and peck.
“Suppose she does not pen them, and he set his dog on them. We do not blame the dog, but yet we acknowledge that the creature performs the will of its master, a thing we do not accuse fowl of doing. In such cases, the magistrate will order the parties come to terms, recognizing fault on both sides. But, if the master set the dog on a fellow citizen, and do him bodily harm, a sergeant must confine the dog and destroy it. This is so, and is written so in the law, because we will not trust the dog to be safe, when it has proven itself dangerous. Heed, Citizens, that here, and well established, we make a distinction; we acknowledge both status of property and autonomy of action.
“Now if the master have a slave, and if he send the slave to injure bodily an enemy, the master is at fault, but the slave does not escape the law. According to the injury done, he may be put to death. He may be sent otherwise to serve in the galleys. But, say the enemy meet the slave and beg that the slave not harm him.”
Here, Lady Nyma silenced herself for a long moment. We sat, and thought, of what she wished us to think. I heard a grunt from the Prince, a noise that conveyed something of admiration grudged to our High Magistrate.
“The case is that known to some of you, of the slave Hanit. She had been sent to bear a gift of wine to the marriage feast of Vlan Androchas. This wine was poisoned with the seeds of the rosira tree; another of the kitchen slaves had tasted of it, unbidden—
“He had died of the sickness. Hanit was told by her master Lord Tahme, go in his stead, seal your lips, and do as you are told. She feared he would kill her, having no use for her, and she knowing of his ill-intent towards a rival. Thus she confessed to Androchas; Androchas tested the wine, pouring it into a pool of fish, and found that Tahme’s slave spoke the truth.
“You will stay with me in my house, he said to Hanit.
“Now we grant to Hanit, that she owed the greater obedience to the law; the law that states above all that we cannot take what we cannot give, that the gods give life and by their will only does life end. Hanit chose rightly; but she chose so with no counsel, by the guidance of her wit alone.
“Citizens, the Petitioner would act, not with the thought of sparing, but of avenging life. There is no question, as to this matter, of obedience, for Cime Decima makes no claims, and has so, before you all, averred. Does a slave have the right, the duty, to intervene, to refuse to perform an act of evil, whether or no the slave has been ordered to perform it by he who regards the slave his property, and does the court accept the verdict of Hanit as precedent; it must then follow, that this case we consider today is the mirror of Hanit’s. The slave has not been ordered, but of self-will desires to perform an act against the life of Mumas Martas; the act in question is not a crime, but one sanctioned by the very law created to resolve such disputes as the death of a loved one through the recklessness or malevolence of another.”
Lady Nyma proposed, and my mind found this fitting, that day is not more true than night, our rains of winter not more true than our droughts of summer…that the justice in Hanit’s act must be somehow inherent in my own, yet unrealized act.
“Vlanna,” she said to a minister at her left. “I ask you now to speak.”
The woman stood. Her face was scarred; her arms alike bore the grooves of knife wounds, healed over, accenting sinew and muscle.
“I am called Pyrandtha. I am a Knight of Caeluvm, a challenger. I fight no longer, but still I serve, my life pledged to the virtue of honor, and have been named by the emperor, Minister of Causes to the city of Montsecchers. I am asked by Lady Nyma to state for the court those rules appropriate to the cause of the Petitioner, for many of you are strangers, and many have never challenged.”
She used such formal cadence in her speech. She paused here, and made me look her in the eye. And with each of these, occasions when someone of importance exercised the dignities of high office, rituals of a tradition I never had believed touched me, I felt a bit more ashamed.
“The challenge must fall into one of three classes of grievance: Sauta Umos, insult to the person; Sauta Maitos, insult to the house; and, Sauta Faibe, insult to the weak. The law holds that a person of lower lineage or place cannot insult a person of higher; that one without citizenship cannot insult the family or reputation of an Elector—but…for this, to the law of challenge, is the very foundation…any person may issue challenge against another, to charge him as having preyed upon one weaker than himself.
“The Order of Knights of Caeluvm exists for this, that many of the rightly aggrieved have not the capacity to meet an opponent in combat. We are a charitable order. We swear a vow of Service above Self, even unto death, if this the gods will.”
She came to a stop. I felt hopeful and wanted to tamp away this stirring. It was the first I knew in myself, that I was not ready to be winner—in this cause of my own choice. For to win would grant me only the chance to lose all. But she had stopped, not to address me; not to offer her order’s charity to me, but because the Prince had been playing at something.
I’d seen him ogle…so from the corner of my eye, I perceived…this phenomenon, our Minister of Causes; I saw him shift in his seat and nudge with his knee one of the guards who kept close by him. Pyrandtha and Nyma with serene faces gazed above the heads of the royal bench-sitters.
“The form of challenge, which by the account even of Mumas Martas, had been done correctly, in accordance with the law, it is this. That the insult must be stated, its being and its reason; that the hand be placed on the belly, the seat of trust. As we do when on pilgrimage, as at the shrines, where the stonecrafters who lived in the time of the gods carved their images by arts unknown, and where the priests fasted, the earth burned day and night, and where the blood of the impious ran as a river in the streets, to consecrate and make holy the living rock. When we pass in procession, and when we say our prayers, we place our hands on the belly of the god, but our eyes we cast down.”
Her words were cast at the Prince. Our mid-winter time of pilgrimage would come soon enough; many hearts would pray in those weeks, many more of our people walking the procession than before the days of the Prince…
Pray that the emperor be toppled from his throne. His paid vassal, unsanctioned, would then sail away. Or march his army over the mountains. Or, if the gods, the Children of the Father of Lotoq, heard our prayers, he would never leave this land.
“Now he who is challenged may see fit to decline. If it be entered into the record that he has answered no, this is the same as to forfeit the right of dispute. Whatever is charged against him stands, though he pays no other penalty than in honor lost.
“If he will fight, he will agree to appear with his challenger at the offices of Cause; there record will be made of the dispute, its circumstances, who charges, who denies, where they will fight and with what weapons. He may, and his challenger may, employ as champion a knight…or a friend.”
She mentioned then, glancing down…though she spoke from expertise and had no tablet to consult…
She made of this summing up what struck me untrue, acted. She mentioned, I say, and somewhat hurried, that also they who seek charity may, counselled as to form by her deputies, apply to the Vranga-chae’m of her order, and that the law permitted any length of delay, but that his refusal meant the combat must take place within four days.
All this was a disturbance. Only to me. I had wanted to pay such close attention to these great ones, to trust with all my heart in this idea…
That the gods had ordered our world as a pyramid, my place in it so low, I need think of nothing for myself. I wished this, that I could sit with an empty mind, drink in grand-sounding phrases, gaze with wonder at the Villa of Montadta, at its alley of columns, every four the legs of a giant horse, a team to pull Lotoq’s chariot, to speed his wheels of thunder and fire…the high dais, its rich cloths, the handiwork of patient years…
And I was not so gifted, to be unwise. Nor so very wise. I understood it; Pyrandtha knew something of me, a thing decided in privacy…and I feared the friend was Cime. And I could not allow him to champion me, even if he was certain of himself.
The Minister of Cause took her seat, and the High Magistrate rose.
“In summary, I state the question again. The law was made, in large part to protect the property of citizens, in lesser part to protect their persons; within the tradition of the law our enquiry has uncovered two key principles. First, that the law must touch the slave, albeit the slave is not a citizen, albeit the slave holds no property, else the will of a slave shall be ungovernable, for the slave may then act by a will independent of his master’s, and do harm to either or both the property and person of a citizen. Second, that also a slave may do great good to a citizen by the exercise of an independent will, and that, as in the case of Hanit, and where a slave is regarded covered by the precepts of the law, we may fairly consider a word of warning, or bodily intervention where evil is intended by one against another, duty—duty to speak or to act—not mere privilege to do so.
“Then we must consider, as Pyrandtha has given you to understand, that the challenge requires an answer; that the answer may be no answer. There are consequences for declining combat; these to be borne or spurned as best the heart of the accused advises him. The objection may be raised, that if one slave challenges, many will challenge. I counter this with two points: One, that we allow marriage among slaves; we do not complain that if one slave seeks to marry, many will seek to marry. We uphold by custom the master’s right to place this slave in the stable, that in the kitchen, a third at his side; we do not cavil that if this one have a task different from that one, many will fall into jealousies and intrigues…and yet this we know to be the frequent result. If the court allow weight to an argument constructed on such lines, it cannot be lax in enforcement, or blind to instances of identical construction, for the sake of convenience.
“Two, the law is founded, the limits of the law expanded, upon this principle, that each new case introduces a new question. Were we ever to see the later arising of a petition wherein no single factor departs to the smallest degree, but all correspond precisely to those of the earlier, there could be from the court no issue, other than that previously determined…”
I will not give more of this speech, Lady Nyma going forward from this preamble, to restate the attestations of Mumas, of Cime, of my man of law, Banche, on my behalf. She spoke of the laws of property and of challenge.
The Prince’s men began to be difficult.
From nerves, I’d felt no hunger all day. But I supposed for these forced witnesses, pleasing their lord, here for no other reason…that which they found amusing and worthwhile beckoned, in reverie, to minds long since astray.
Lady Nyma’s officer bellowed now, in a voice to silence the room, cow the flouters of our assize’s dignity: “Rise, Petitioner! Rise, Respondent! All rise!”
The Prince reached across the aisle, surprising me, and hauled me to my feet by the collar, as he stood to his own. I hadn’t even the chance to be laggardly; his act was of contempt. I think only for the ceremony itself.
“Citizens. Honored guests. Counsel and client. My son, Cime Decima. Sente Vei.”
Sente also must be present. Standing with my head no higher than the Prince’s bruma, a half-breastplate in gold the northerners wore, a flared-nostrilled and fanged beast, bear or boar, molded upon the heart, I would not look back. I would not move in any way to suggest opinion, loyalty, even curiosity. But with great curiosity, I wondered. Sente had made an attestation of his own; Lady Nyma had not introduced it.
“The court rules thus: The challenge against the respondent, Mumas Martas, is in full keeping with the Law of Challenge, therefore Mumas Martas must make answer. That is all.”
All, but not simply. He had balked from the start, and for the pride of such a man, as already I have said, to give answer to a slave was to stoop low, and too far. Surely, Mumas would have come to it. He could not embarrass himself less making any of choices left to him…surely, he would have said no, and come to it. His imagination must torment him for a time…he would suppose himself laughed at; he would draw inward and grumble, when—most especially at this season, the pilgrimage needing weeks of filling jars and baskets for the journey, weeks away—his adventure would be only forgotten.
The Prince said:
“Mumas Martas agrees to the challenge. He will fight. He will fight the slave upon the mustering grounds of the fort. What else?” He fingered his chin, artificial in manner. Mocking still, if not more so. “Knives…shall we have shields?”
I went home.
Cime, at the court’s adjourning, caught my eye, tight-smiled; he pushed through the crowd to myself and Banque, pinching my counsellor’s tunic at the shoulder (this was respect, in our land, to touch the clothes, not the body), and steered us to where we had been making, one of the row of standing desks in niches, adjacent to a table where clerks sat; where, when a man of law had found an empty place, a clerk would rise, and come with tablets and seals, writing instruments.
We had an important air, our group; we had gained a fourth, Sente, and a fifth, a man who served the Prince closely. We had no name for this one. He seemed not a knight, almost a Keeper of Acts…however, the northerners recorded their bargains in tattoos and burning brands, in disfigurements of ears and noses. Their naked arms told history, their cheeks and brows raised beads of flesh, colored with indigo or charcoal. Some of these were familiar constellations, some were runes. This man’s head shone bald in a plucked circle, a blasphemous mountain sculpted at center with bone slivers, blood congealed to color them, tiny ribs thrust up in a spider’s crouch.
But he was quiet, listening. His eyes were studious, taking in what we did, and I felt he knew our language.
My question for Banque, if I had not, in this company, swallowed it, would have been, am I free? At liberty, I should say. Will I be told where to go, will an officer fetch me? Will I be marched to the mustering grounds, a knife placed in my hand? Will I stand at some distance from Mumas, will he look at me, eye to eye, will I pity him still, too much to wish him dead, yet will we kill each other…at the last, for I know I will fight to live?
Have I been wrong, have I done wrong, am I wrong?
But, blinking my eyes against the sun, I walked the colonnade of the Villa Montadta’s porch, blinded and blinded again, Cime’s hand on my shoulder, teaching me the way. The way of our future. This was all I’d feared. That I could not, as consequences weighed, be forgiven.
If the mother who bore me, and died for it, had won free of Lotoq’s execration…if her home had been the city of Lom’s grandmother, so angering to the god…then my flowering into promise in this way must seem, to a clever man—to Cime, to his friend Sente—that warning shudder under the feet we called the Giver’s Laughter.
Lotoq, unnamed but in thought, gave well. He had purpose in me, it was Montsecchers he loathed today, and the ordinary, gay laughter of untried souls…kind, unworldly souls, the young of the houses of Decima and Vei, pleased him. He liked that they welcomed in their midst his deep, iron-wrought designs, sped them, paved avenues for them.
Cime could not laugh now. Pytta had come to it, Sente had.
The touch on my shoulder was a warden’s. We were down the steps, into the sunset shadows of the tall city houses and steep-pitched streets, down from the hills overlooking Sech-apla, the green plain cut by the sea, a crescent of empty terrace, where in famine times of old, so they said, numbers had been made to live…to wait, and be sacrificed. It was known strange tides arose, tides with no moon—known that the Sech-apla could not be inhabited for that.
We had come down and were quiet and far from the others.
“You will go back to your quarters. I won’t need you for any chore, nor Pytta. I think you were no friend to Stol.”
He put it that way. Had I been too preferential to Lom, or been above myself withal? I thought now, why not? I had been proud enough. Stol and his wife must suppose so, and Cime, I foresaw, was placing me in their hands.
I came by the outside steps, drew back the curtain from the door, saw in shuttered dark the sleeping porch, the quarters of Cime Decima’s slaves, and sniffed the air of it, by myself. Stol and Larsa were about some business…Larsa, set at work in the nursery now, guarding the infant, it might well be.
My eyes and throat betrayed a weakness to shed tears. I had made mission of Lom’s being gone. I had begun a thing; I had played, with no grasp of its nature, into some inspiration of the Prince. I’d done nothing for my friend.
As far as the gate of Cime’s villa, the strange servant had followed us. He spoke once, and courteous:
“Stol, Mero, I have heard this…it was he sold himself to you. He is no longer of the order.”
Cime’s face grew fixed in choler and he answered the Prince’s man no word, would not turn, even, to eye him in reply. The gate closed. I had learned a morsel of Stol’s history. Yes, the very poor, free men and women, broken in health, aged, unlearned in any trade, might sell themselves into bondage. They did, for tokens, now and again, and allowed themselves to be worked to the death…but died under a roof, allotted their bread, enough to make their labor of value.
Lom’s pallet was not there. Mine was, and my basket where I kept my clothing and my bag of tiles, my tablets. My candle was here also, but I had no other to light it at. No fear, in those few months I had been wanted and liked here, would have kept me from going into the villa.
And so, this I would put aside, and be brave. I also was soon to die.
All along the passageway were the same arched windows, the skins of sheep over the same wooden shutters. The candles burned on bronze stands going down the center, flames dancing in such drafts as snaked round edges, but far from touching pillar or hanging. And Stol was here, lighting the last of them.
I could not properly call him Mero, though I wished to.
I bent at the knees, in the posture of humility, a slave’s.
“Go fetch your pallet. Leave your basket. There is decent light here in the hall, and we will have to start now, at once. The Prince has given you four days, has he not?”
Four days, in which I’d expected, shunned and alone here, to pray, to meditate with a mind emptied, hoping did the gods wish for anything I possessed, will anything I might do, they would grant me the great charity of revelation.
“We will start…” I said.
He laughed. The laugh was angry, not altogether with me, and satisfied. “Yes. A thing you have not suspected, Gifted One. I was of the order, myself. But you see…” He pointed to that I had first noticed about him, the stamp on his brow where a heavy blow once had misshaped his skull. And then I saw, as I ought to have, that this order he and the Prince’s man spoke of, was Caeluvm, the Order of the Knights of Cause.
“Each chapter of our order is dedicated to a virtue. You know the virtues.”
“Honor,” I said. “Faithfulness. Love.”
“No, Stol, I guess. I don’t know them.”
“If Pride were a virtue, that you would know.”
“Do virtues save then, as sins destroy?”
“I won’t waste your hours of life,” he answered. “And yet one day—why suppose not?—you…you…will debate in the Senate, perhaps, and if sauce is wit, you will find an appetite for yours. For this day, for all this night, and all tomorrow, we will play a game. Not a game of fortunetelling. The War-Maker’s game.”
He directed me with a finger, and when I had rolled my pallet, and shouldering it scurried back, a board, I found, was laid on the floor. This was polished slate, etched with lines, twenty squares to a side, twenty rows of squares. The pieces were pebble-sized dobs of glass, as the glass-blower drops in the sand.
“Lay them out. Blacks on your side, whites on mine.”
I scooped from the bowl and sorted, again and again, it needing two hundred of these pieces to fill the squares on my side to the center, where Stol’s met them. He produced, or rather, called my attention to, by scooting it closer, a wheel, a sort of spool on a spindle. The spindle was marked with an arrow, and the wheel in squares of red and gold, each numbered.
Thus, the War-Maker’s game.
“Do you suppose it matters who goes first?” he asked me.
“You shall, and I will learn.”
“You expect to have that luxury. In battle. In warfare. Do you grasp at all what we are doing?”
I cooled myself, centering two or three pieces that sat imperfectly. “No. I can bear harsh teaching, Stol. That I had from Elberin. Tell me what you would like to see me do. If I do it badly, shout at me, or sneer. Do you suppose I care?”
I knew that these orders of knighthood enjoyed themselves so, putting postulants to absurdities of ritual, mysteries made grand by just such posturings, and that each next step must be guessed, and the guess be always wrong. I did not aspire to it. I could not see my future suffer should I enrage my tutor. And no, reader, this defiance did not break some spell, and earn me Stol’s admiration.
He spun the wheel, and the number was ten.
“Your move then. Take ten of my pieces, and place one of yours on the tenth square.”
Rapid was the exchange of tests, up to perhaps the dozenth spin of the wheel. The board cleared, and I, ignorant as to any means of victory, rather willful as to fidelity, sparks of which I planned to snuff—Stol could have his game, I had only time—advanced my men every which way, taking such numbers of his as the wheel indicated.
But here were wide gaps on the board, and if I were to win seven steps, I might gain one captive…while if Stol won eight, he might take my lone patrol and move more dangerously towards some cluster of four or six…
I saw my way. The fewer men left, the more strategic every move.
“But there are players, you know, players who are at the game for days…the boards may sit while a man goes about his business, and when next he visits his opponent, he has thought of the best answer. But then, his opponent has thought, too. Players, I was going to say, because there are four hundred pieces altogether…who have in their heads great charts, great diagrams. Each possible move of each possible piece by each possible turn of the wheel. I am far from being so good.”
Stol, of course, beat me several times over, and allowed me at last to nap, when I’d grown too sleepy to attend.
We’d conversed, playing, Stol coming to nurture pride of his own in his protégé’s successes. Pride it was, I thought…but very secret about this…had won me his regard. I too was a maker of mental charts, young in the eyes of others, but old in the years I’d spent at it, those pleasant games of the fortune-teller.
I did know how to flatter and please. I had nothing other, of which to barter; I might easily be hated as a curse, driven in nakedness to the wild lands.
You see, that commonplace of condemning the flatterer is a luxury. Even Lady Nyma, of such high integrity, was courted, and did not need to court.
I woke to shutters banging open, fresh cold air filling the hall.
Stol said to me, “Eat your breakfast and come down to the water trough.”
This instruction, my head busy with the War-Maker’s game, I followed half-dreaming…the puzzle of whether it mattered much to plan, until the field had cleared, or were it true, so complicated as the numbers destined upon each piece be, that like the spheres of the stars, these numbers are written, and the wisdom to read them—to read them all—a matter attainable in deep study. All the slaughter of the early rounds could not be waste, then.
It meant much to me. I came heedlessly near the trough, moving glass soldiers through imaginary cycles…
And got a great surprise. I had passed Stol, not seeing him under the dining porch; he strode up behind me, and seizing my collar, dunked my head.
“Make yourself alert! There is almost nothing about fighting I can teach you in two days. Now tell me why we played the game.”
I mopped at my face, to take a moment’s time.
But why ought I care if my answer were the right one, or the wrong one? I gave what had been on my mind. “Strategy.”
“Well,” he said, “that’s something.”
The knife was weighty iron, but blunted. I was given a shield of wood—both together, too heavy.
“Could I not fight with only a shield, though?”
“Can you kill a man with a blow?”
This gave me thoughts of divine justice. But I hadn’t the strength of a rearing horse. “Suppose that I had knocked the knife from his hand?”
“Is this the way I teach you? Take those up!”
I took them up, my labor to stand perhaps overacted. I faced him, and he at once touched the side of my neck with the blunt edge of his own knife.
I said: “I hadn’t thought of that. I’d supposed it was the heart.”
“You may suppose any foolish thing you prefer. But you had better quicken your intellect. I will do that again…I want you to tell me anything you see that may be of use to you.”
He swung the blade, while I stood quite feckless for wishing, by the gods, to have my intellect quickened.
This time, as slowly, slowly, for my sake, Stol lifted his elbow, I moved my blade, and countered the blow…just there, at the elbow. My intuition suggested it, that the muscles moving the arm be severed.
“And why do you know what you know?”
“Because you were slow for me.”
At last, a smile.
Aching limbs, after our brief lunch…though Pytta, I believe, had ordered the best of her kitchen (and more than any delicacy, it bolstered me knowing her silence was not disdain)…taught me to make bolder choices.
Stol’s lesson for me, above all lessons, was this: a lunge with the knife was a movement that must complete itself. The weight would carry, the brain adjust an instant behind, but one or more instants were yet needed…
If to plan, not flinch.
Pyrandtha’s great stature in the order was due to her quickness, that greater thing than might.
“So then…I want to see you give me a sober look…if Mumas supposes you small and weak… If you struggle, as you did now, lifting your shield, he may give you the gift at the very outset, before you tire yourself.”
He was telling me to exaggerate, play on my enemy’s folly. And did I guess, so, that honor has its limits, I was not to twitch a lip. I took my sober eyes from his face, and when he raised his weapon, I let the shield slide to earth.
Caught by the impulse of his senses, for just that second, my seasoned tutor had left his belly clear for the touch of my knife…but then it shook a bit, with laughter.
The mustering grounds, within the ramparts of the fort, met my eyes dressed in the panoply of a fair day. I had never thought to see the inside of a garrison’s stronghold.
And could not imagine the fort in its sobriety…
The Prince had ordered entertainments, fights staged for joy, mounted men driving at each other, a melee fought with clubs. The injured carried off the field to cheers, half-melodious chants in the northern tongue, making of my death-battle with Mumas a triviality…not even the best of shows on the day’s ticket. The Prince had invited guests to sit with him, their couches (and the viands’ braziers, the roasting meat and spiced wine warming, the servants tending these noble spectators, their knights on bored alert) under a canopy, on the rampart at my right hand, entering.
Sited on its promontory, the fort had high and steep walls, outside…and far down among the rocks, secret ways, it was said, so siege could never defeat us, while our fort defended us; inside, the walls might be only twice my height, gained by stairways from the gallery of the stronghold itself, in whose warrens were housed the general quarters, weapons-stores, kitchens, stables, treasury.
And so the Prince had the magnificent view, seaward, if he preferred it. The sky was blue and cloudless, the sun kind, warm. The sea cared her least on such days as she wore her greatest beauty, her sapphire mantle…and sang songs of her own…for our brave banners, our jugglers, our pipes and drums.
“Bid it approach,” someone said.
I stood unseconded, unescorted. The voice was Elberin’s. Knowing him, quashing useless astonishment that he should be here, I obeyed my old master. I did not wait to be bidden.
“Will you bow before your Prince?”
I stood too far below. A stone wall draped in cloths stitched with insignia, loomed between myself and the eyes, hidden, that apparently could see me.
“I will bow. But I don’t know the form, so you will add that to my list of offenses. In the style of my own country, and yours, Elberin.”
I bowed, and a laughter which was the Prince’s rose above the others. I had not belonged to Elberin, and still he had profited by the selling of me. I had not called him Vlan, before these men of high rank.
“And so, Vlan, you see. Now, wait also for the outcome. This creature…”
Elberin had found his comeuppance for me ready to hand, as I might have guessed, in tendering his own humility to the Prince. His dry laugh cut abruptly.
“…enjoys the Giver’s guardianship. There will be some twist to the story.”
“Then let us have the end of it now.”
These words were enough for the Prince’s competent underling. I heard his running feet fade along the parapet, and soon he was crossing the field, tapping men on the shoulder. Some game with a ball, the object that this was not to touch earth, for its novelty played ringed by our own foot soldiers, was shouted into default, victory to the side that scurried away smug.
Nervousness seized me.
The field was mudded and pocked. I thought of Mumas and his bleached summer tunic; guilty, I thought that I had known him but one summer… Yet this must be habit, or character, so far as character were divined from habit. He cared for this in his appearance, Mumas, that his garments be white, as one who can have his horses saddled by a servant, a man of refinement…was it possible?
All this delving felt sick-making to me, taking what I could see of him in memory, subterfuge my aim, so that if I might prey on his weaknesses, I might destroy him. But, for the space of a minute or two, while these temptings and loathings flickered, I asked myself, is fastidiousness for clothing a thing, even, that goes deep in the grain? Would it catch at his attention, a lifelong disgust of dirt, if I worked him towards a miry patch, and then—
Stol, with his question, had made me think. Could I kill a man with a blow?
Could I play this war-maker’s game with subtlety enough, drop my shield, as we’d rehearsed, hit Mumas, ducking when he swung, at the knee, slicing sinews, my hand darting behind his leg? If I did this, would he fall, and the curved thickness of the shield’s edge catch him by the ear, as his horse’s hoof had caught Lom?
If I could ask so much of the gods, I thought. Mumas dead by a sort of fatefulness, not needing to be an act that I had done.
“What do you suppose all this delay is?”
Stol was beside me. The tone of his question seemed too conversational; he was speculating aloud, irritated that his groomed fighter be toyed with, that the Prince had such slight honor as to command this battle, and to not respect it. He had said enough to me in our time together that I knew this of his mind, while in fact he did not wait my answer, but moved to tackle a knight of the Prince, who wandered in our direction, helmeted face blank, as to offer encouragement or dismissal.
“Why do they not begin? Why have they not marked out the field and cleared those stragglers?”
The knight laughed. He came and put his hand on my head, in the way of someone measuring playfully, making conspicuous the puniness of another. But, and it did not surprise, he spoke none of our language. He drew his long knife and feinted it at me, and said something to Stol that ended in a shrug.
There was a shout, well down the field, the import seeming that the game was over. Not, I suppose, of the shout itself, but the head-hanging posture of those near the tower’s base, who stumped disorganizedly towards emptying stalls, where little refreshment was left to be purchased.
I said it myself, to Stol. “What now? The Prince has not ordered the combat off?”
“Your rival does not appear. I say you have won…and I don’t know what it is.”
It was a stranger expressed himself in this way, and not badly, for a northerner. For neither can I say what it was I won that day. I had expected a desperate hurling at my opponent all I had in strength, all I could conjure in cunning, all that my muscles, so sore and over-tried, could be driven to, to serve me…
And here, while the crowd milled disconsolate, while I, and Stol, and our comrade of a passing moment stood, facing in a circle, none facing the tower, a figure dropped from its crown…they said they saw it, some who were there.
I did not. I heard only, far off, a wet crunch, and shrieks.
A long ride over country, how next I found myself directed, gave contemplation of the end of Mumas…what I had done to him…free play in my mind. For I suffered a bit, without knowing what had befallen me. It was best to think of anything other than pain and malaise, and I was among indifferent companions. They offered food that I didn’t want; they offered drink that I did. Neither answer brought rebuke, nor coaxing.
No one, on that day of the contest, had had further use for me. And so, confused, certain with each step towards Cime’s house I offended the more unforgivably, I returned. Stol and Larsa were not there; my pallet was, and I lay on it. I was only tired. Then I woke, after a time, to hear a conversation below the window…my friend the Prince’s deputy, and Elberin.
“There have been signs, Wosogo. Everything had grown, lush, seeming a wonder…that the soil could so soon become fertile. The strange trees, though I believe those, they have among the hills you are about to cross… And so, if it pleases your lord, he will say the wind had delivered them. It is true.”
Elberin spoke this last, as cutting short a digression, affirming again a thing discussed. So was his manner.
The other, by name or rank Wosogo, said, after some noise of the metal things he wore on his face, a vigorous nod: “The foundling carries fortune. Such as plans, may I say, your Lotoq…I mean…” Jingling again.
“You mean, we were premature. My wisdom was not sufficient…well, I will never claim to know the mind of the Giver. But, I had warned them. He rumbles, it is not always ill-omened. Or not for those of us in this present life. They would have the creature sent away. And now the lake of sweet water has gone sour.”
My heart lifted, as I dared think Elberin had come to take me back, and that that would solve my crisis…
Or, rather, I had inflicted something of crisis on the city. Making my way, I’d seen how eyes were averted, while hands played at a gesture of appeasement. As with the people when I had been Elberin’s disciple. I had brought at my birth too much of taxas, the gods’ dark designs, and they feared to have me among them.
“I will call you Foundling. That is what many say.”
I took this, the voice of Wosogo, as a summons. I pushed from my pallet and went to the steps. If he had business with me, then perhaps I had but changed hands again.
“You are not wearing the only clothes Cime Decima has given you?”
And this was Elberin’s greeting for me, after so many months. I could have made a joke of the riposte…must I not be wearing the only clothes I had? But my old master, now and again, had used the back of his hand when he thought I’d answered him ill.
I was used to it, shouldering such treatment as I got, but before the Prince’s man I preferred to stand on dignity. “You know, Vlan, that I am yours, or any free person’s…”
I bent my knees to Wosogo. “…to be commanded. Can I make myself better suited to your purpose, I shall.”
“Well, there,” Elberin said. “What you will find yourself contending with. I believe the Prince calls it clever, and amuses himself regardless, with our superstitions, our little customs. This one will never show true humility. The words will always betray these forays into out-reasoning, so that thus, having got just what you’d asked for, you will be somewhat at disadvantage.”
He made to leave. Then, turning back, so that I could see he spoke to me, and see I was not worth a meeting of the eyes, said:
“Creature, your road goes one way, and mine another. And so we part.”
“As the Giver wills.”
He disliked this. More of my trouble, was his thought, expressed in the grunt before his pace became resolute, and the back of him passed Cime’s gate. For I could have said only goodbye. I could have said nothing…he would not have cared. I had mentioned Lotoq; and of course, for just that effect, just that small warning.
Trouble, no doubt.
But for Cime, for Pytta, Sente, for Stol or Larsa, my heart’s goodbye would have been sincere. Would be, as I learned at once.
“The Prince will have us start the road tomorrow. It is winter soon, and we have all this land to cross to the sea, where we are going.”
Wosogo had a frown of interior work on his face, and I supposed his fluency in our language ebbed, as he measured in his own what he wished to say next.
“The Prince makes you free. There are fortunes to be told on every man who journeys. Every beast, horse and oxen, every sun’s rise and set. It is always with our people to be at odds with the sea. That is an old curse upon us.”
“What sort of journey is this? Why are we going?”
“I…journey. But I think I have not the word. Balbaec is a town of the Alëenon, all they trade by the mountain road brought down from the fortress city. No one passes the gate…and there is on the plain a great bazaar at all times. Men even from over the mountains to the east.”
He put a picture in my mind, or the Giver did, and I saw walls buttressed in living rock, a puzzle of tunnelways, as our own small fortress boasted—but sinister, breathing, by means of cruel engines in the labyrinth above, bursts of fire; a great upwards road flanked in pines, a garden terrace in the clouds, planted in mosses…its captive birds eagles. And far below, a fertile rift between chains of peaks, terraced in vines, a green land with a thousand bright tents. I knew of nothing I’d seen to account for the invention. I knew also that the Prince hoped by some means to break this fortress, claim it, bottle all its lord’s trade into his own coffers.
“Why, though,” I said. A minute or two might have passed.
The look Wosogo gave me was as a man’s facing death in battle, who finds in his hand a spell-bound weapon. Thrilled, grim in purpose, both.
“Why so urgent?”
“That is a matter of the Emperor.”
Cuerpha was my gift from Cime, my pony, his saddle and tackle.
Pytta came to me, and said, “I should not. You, who know, know we have been warned, and by a brother of the Emperor. Word spreads far and wide, young fascination. You would not have thought how much trouble! But, however, I think your trouble is sometimes mischief. Yes…I think the Giver designs more upon you than you will humbly admit. Not good, my dear!”
She teased now, a bit arch with the dignity of motherhood.
I smiled, and she said, “Perhaps you will come by great fortune. I have none of the gift, but I fear for you.” Blushing then. “I’m sorry. To speak of luck, when you are riding off tomorrow. Curse me!”
“This,” she said.
And left me. And so I found this, the bundle, to be a folded vest of fleece. She’d taken of her jewels and given me chains in fat links, rings with the green and red stones most prized.
She’d sewn these, to silently keep their places…
And why… Perhaps to Pytta’s mind, it was sentiment.
She had thought the cloth, with the story of the lovers, held Lom’s memory. I found the memory harsh. I found the rebuke (though His, not hers) deserved.
I laced them, my trinkets, by which I might bribe advantages, into a pouch, made fast so that it would always be under my belt.
Stol, also, had put in my basket his bag of game pieces. A board I could craft…with a knifepoint and level patch of earth. Would it be a challenge? Teaching the game, finding others to play with me.
Wosogo was with his prince. The captain of our mission, having duties of command, had not been chosen to instruct me. For that burden, I mean, and for knowing any word of my language. But one of our company did, a master of intendance, who kept most with his wagons at the rear. His understanding was less than Wosogo’s, but he would pass me, trotting from rear to fore, and when he passed, would grip Cuerpha’s halter, grin down at this small-statured creature.
“Far there.” Flinging a hand.
And today another gesture, removal of an object from a bag. I made to reach behind me, wondering.
No, he shook his head. “Vlan seh’le.”
He gave a shrug. He questioned.
“The Emperor’s seals, yes. There is a lord, a general of the province. No…let me not say province…”
(It was a misconstruction I had fixed, never having cause to unfix, at an age when provinces, city-states, principalities, sovereign nations, had been all one to me.)
He laughed, a bit knowing.
My taking the word back a way of giving insult, he seemed to guess. I would, on my chaotic path, stir trouble on our borders next, dropping unwitting hints, sowing confused enmities.
Emphatically, I shook my head. This too brought laughter.
The general,” I said, “will receive the seals, and he will give us his hospitality. We will spend the night inside his walls.”
I was earnest, and caring enough to try at this, he threaded out sense—his face showed it—from seals, give and night. He would have ridden on then, but I’d taken a notion…
Of a thing imperative. We were to cross land and sea. This journey, this venture of plunder, as Wosogo would wish to correct me, would be a long one.
I patted Cuerpha’s neck. “Brei!” I pointed to Cuerpha’s neck, and spoke our word for pony again, with that same brightness.
He patted his own mount’s neck, and raised his eyebrows. “Habba!”
Now he did spur onwards, and I hoped I had learned…
Horse, and not the name of his horse. The beginnings of a language with alike no name I knew of, and no alphabet in which I could note it down.
The general’s land was far yet, as my friend said…and so we camped.
I was free, I had been told so. Wosogo had given me nothing as token of this. Slaves freed by their masters in our country had—I’d been prepared to endure it—the lobes of the ears clipped… For no ambition could this be forged, done with a ring of sharpened brass, in the hands of one, and a hammer; a block held in place by a second.
I had the luck then, if my luck held. I felt the gods might ignore Lady Pytta’s error, else that their irony (always they prefer irony) must do me good. I would mix among the small and the great, and never be so low in their eyes as an ex-slave, bearing his mark, and only nominally free.
Cuerpha’s coat and hooves must be tended when we came to our night’s rest. I would inch behind others at the hay wagon, fill my arms with the clutches that dropped from theirs. I had felt, sliding from the saddle three nights so far, weary, cold, weak on my feet. I resented none of my good beast’s needs, but I resented, somehow, that this was a task.
I could be tempted, bedeviled by an envious imp, to think it…
That the Prince, needing my help—to strengthen his men, bolster with certainty their wavering superstition, call by the gods’ verdict the venture blessed, might have made my comfort someone else’s chore.
It was only temptation, Reader. I set the thought down at this date to belay that same envy. Of demonic spirits, quick, as we know, to strike at pride. Thus, I do not conceal from you the faults of my nature. No, I had no servant; I had little of will, but I did this work, then rolled in my blanket to sleep.
I had slept at my first home in profoundest silence…fairly it might be said, that of the grave. Childhood dreams did not meander here from sound to sound, weaving a story of footsteps, caterwauling, morning birdsong; rather mine, I could now suppose, had been the god’s teaching. I knew I understood his language, that I could hear him at times, and receive his mysteries, as he chose to confide them.
Not so on my mountain, such a silence, though I and Cuerpha were at first the only beings at the toll house. From the deep earth that faint song in my ear always, the iron seeds astir with their rising power. And nature is not silent, excepting where the old woman had kept her house, in ash and barrenness, in that time after the wrath of Lotoq.
Our camps were never still.
The Prince’s army did not settle, but that they set their watches, and sent their scouts along the road ahead and into the countryside. Raiding parties afterwards, from the holdings thereabouts to carry away the cattle, sheep, hens, the stored grain, the butts of wine. We remained in the Emperor’s lands, and he permitted his mercenaries right of pillage.
I said that I was free. I could come and go…not at will, but so far as I did not cross the Prince’s will. And being without status (though wealthy, had they known, for Pytta’s great charity); being nameless, untied, but at the same time a talisman…something like, I’d decided, a wild lion taken up company with the soldiers, walking their road alongside them.
I was left alone, observed with both pleasure and wariness, avoided.
I felt eased finally, this night, of the abuse done my limbs in training against Mumas. That, and only a day between, and the riding, hours upon hours of it. I am grown stronger, I told myself. I lay awake and regretting that I’d bedded down to doze, long enough to have passed my chance for a meal. I rested my head on my hands, but for the torches could see no stars.
Who would have advised Mumas?
I tried to put words in the voice, the mind, so far as I could enter it, of Lady Nyma. Now the Prince has ordered you to fight, you will have to…
Merely, have to?
Did she ever entertain dishonor, as Stol did, where weight of consequence falls unequal, almost dishonorable itself—everyone’s hope for life being equal?
The Prince would then find his sport in the chase. Mumas a fugitive, stripped of citizenship, made slave and sent to the galley.
Or would he beg mercy, on some ground invented…illness, a distant, dying relation? I wished I’d thought of these questions, and that I’d seen Lady Nyma in Cime’s house, to put them to her.
Creature, why do you trouble me? she would say.
Because, Vlanna, there is no wisdom to answer this. The Giver offers me nothing. Would you have counselled him to fight? Would you have counselled him to lie? If I had gone to the Prince…
It must be his laughter, our great god, and behind this, his answer. I could not, of course, have gone to the Prince, told him, punish me for reneging on a vow, for shame, disloyalty. Ask the Balancers to torment me with Lom’s wraith…I will not fight. It can’t matter. What you desire my fate to be, so it must…how can I transgress, then, Vlan? Mumas, you could not seize from his house, lay bonds upon… But the foundling?
The world has not graced me. For this, I have all the world’s grace. I may spare even my enemy…
And the Prince might admire this. He might care for none of it, yet want me for the games. I hadn’t then, but could think now of glossing my reputation, while bestowing on Mumas favor, crushing him a little…a little more…by winning for him his life.
But the only lesson to be gleaned at this hour was, how heedless we are. How foreseeably familiar snares appear along our path, how eager we are, for that, to step in them.
Rising upon a morning when he saw…
I saw, degradation as a word made glyphic, as an actual grave chamber, that hollowed place our people by custom made, a dome of clay tiles open at the top for conversation, for gifts on feast days that our dead might share.
We loved our dead; we felt that, like grandparents, they took to their seats at the last, awaiting visitors, as was an elder’s due, but sat in kindness—sage advisors rewarding remembrance, asking no more. But well-wishers, too, who loved us when fortune loved us not, when the lordly men and women loved us not.
Mumas, though…forty winters old and not wise.
Not visited, as he had no kin and neglected his own ancestors. He might have seen himself a figure underground, hearing footfalls that only passed above his head. He would have killed me, and I had tried so hard, at such disadvantage, the crowd swayed to my cause…
A victory he could not live down. Or, he would have been killed by me…
For Lotoq is all-powerful.
Lotoq, or some god, or some demon, put this whisper in Mumas’s ear, here is all you can salvage of your place, as by rights it would be, all the joy you can snatch from the jeerers, from the Prince, from Lady Nyma and the Knights of Caeluvm…
And from the slave, the foundling, the hateful creature…
But Mumas, I have wished you well, only that.
That night I asked myself, is there any hopeful wish, is there any kindness towards others, of such purity to stop us hurting them?
Our road curved round the flank of the terrible mountain. Boulders sat here on earth where they’d fallen, house-sized, sconced and beaked, many…rude carvings of giants’ heads spat so-formed, from the mouth of the Giver. They stared, and we, on this stretch of evil reputation, averted gazes, fingered amulets. We felt their anger shiver underfoot, these wardens of Lotoq. We intruded at a helpless pace, worming forward stop-start as an army half on foot, half-mounted, drawing its wagons, its scavengers, its peddlers…of trinkets and bodies…must.
But myriads upon myriads of stones too had fallen, of size a slave or prisoner could carry. This is an efficient labor, dozens to lift them onto sledges, better privileged drivers of horses to whip these to a fort site. It is less efficient to chisel planes from the soft blue rock abundant here, and fit them with care, larger to smaller.
And I suppose, not efficient at all, when the rocks are of the god, and granite. The quarriers had an ingenious device, a thing new to my eyes. Wood for my people was a dear commodity, our metal-working land barren of old forest, and so we made machinery from rock and clay, from water, wind, and woven ropes.
Within a natural crevice was laid a chute, lined with glazed tiles. To protect these, women poured a stream from urns at a gentle angle, a trickle to speed one rock to the base, where was placed another. The first or both would split at the impact.
Thankful (half-thankful, it might be) that rain lowered on the seaward horizon only, far behind, we left the dusty track. Going by thoroughfare, it must be dust or mud. Our captain’s messengers who sped in relay along our flanks, did not hail the workers. The workers did not shout or point.
For it was a thing known for days, that we approached the fort. The stonebreakers were weary and we were weary. The way was uphill, the cadence beaten by the drummers unflagging. But this that parted from the track was a true road, paved; the men could fan out, doubling our pace forward.
Circling the slope…a long, long, gentle incline, making west…were earthworks. If the fort were attacked, the general would disperse his legions amidst these defenses; thus the road served to the limit of them.
And we were inside, by right. For having set foot upon his hill we were under the general’s protection now. Yet the earthworks had no archers mounted, no sentries.
Our country was at peace.
Under the wall ahead, we saw the open gate. The captain sent his seal-bearer with two other bearers, one of the Prince’s banner, one the Emperor’s. We drew up our reins, while a ceremonial parley began.
And then a messenger, cantering back aside the ranks, met my eyes—still from a distance, which suggested nothing to me. He carried something bundled under an arm; he steered his steed with his legs, as men who fought with spear and arrow learned. He halted, catching Cuerpha by an ear.
My pony expected well of people, was a contented beast and could not be startled. Only the smoke of fires made him raise his head, keen, more than alarmed.
I asked the man, “How may I serve you, Mero?”
The chance was there, but he did not know our speech. He gave me the bundle, and pointed to the gate.
I allowed my mind to be preoccupied with pace…not eager, not laggardly, with solemnness in my eyes, respect for what they wished me part of. To convey this to them, as I did not know what role I played. I hadn’t unfurled the cloth, banner, flag…garment, possibly. My doubts of this choice were strong by the time I reached the general’s men.
“Charmer,” they said to me.
One said it to me, the others murmuring. Reader, you will not suppose I had been paid a compliment. The name was given to the wandering caster of lots and spells; to many, it meant charlatan.
“Mero,” I said. “How may I serve you?”
“Dress yourself. You are to see the general.”
The general saw me, spoke to me, called me Charmer as well. He wanted the chore of greeting done. “I will give you what you need. You will ask for whatever lacks.”
He bowed, saying so, and left me.
You see that I was fallen between authorities. I did not doubt the Prince himself had directed what his deputy to me instructed. While here, for my new overlord found me, or the need to accommodate me, distasteful, I had none to order me about, no Elberin or Cime.
Seated in my chamber, I sorted tiles, and counted of my tablets broken ones. (There was in cracks and chips no omen, none I had been taught. Yet never would I lay such before a poor seeker, who surely would feel himself cursed.)
I had a servant. I apologized to her and began again, apology earning me a hard glance of contempt. “Jute, I don’t know if I am expected to wear this.”
A high-collared cape with a fringed edging had unrolled itself from the bundle. I knew every sort of office-holder in our land wore his or her dignity in cloth, in capes, in sashes, robes. The general had said I would dine on his couch. The great ones reclined at dinners in suirmats only, to comfortably glut, letting juices fall as they would.
She answered, in the accents of Wosogo. “How could I tell you?”
She had been brought to our land captive. Once, the Emperor’s fortunes won smiles from the gods, and his legions swarmed the North, the Prince’s country, seizing plunder and slaves. My servant did not merely wait on me; Jute was to tell me what the Prince’s men said, tell them what fate I read for them.
A thankless and frightening extra duty…I pitied her that.
For these mysteries, the being steeped in them, so much luck of ill and good escaping bounds, must confer a taint. Or I supposed this superstition to account for it…as those who tend the dying are feared for carrying home the sickroom air.
I wanted no mastery over her, but I wished to make her useful. “Jute, what have you seen of custom at table, in this house?”
Would she lie?
In an army stronghold, few who serve or fetch are not soldiers of low rank. I expected this woman had done every chore, at every beck and call, and could answer me.
“I do not own a suirmat. I would need to have one spared..by one of the general’s retainers, perhaps. Elsewise, I may enter his hall…to be stared at no doubt, wearing this cape they have given me. If I am wrong, you will tell me, but I know a little of banqueting. Now, I suspect I am a novelty to these men, that I unnerve them a bit. They may laugh. I forgive laughter. You see I have no great status in the world…I am not much more than the charmer they call me.”
All this I told her, even-voiced and eyes on my work.
“Do you bid me bring you the suirmat?”
Canny, these northern people. I must show myself good as my word. “Please do.”
She gave another of her angry looks—for the “please”.
Alone, I weighed temptation. I might cast my own fortune. I could see something honorable in this, if I were pledged to brutal truth. I would sow mayhem, play havoc with happy lives, while holding myself immune. I drew to center before me one of the broken tablets. I etched on it a simple wheel of life.
I laid out tiles, and turned that of the hub.
It was not the Raven. It was the Counsellor.
“Giver, may I not earn your favor? You play your jokes on the Prince, as on the Emperor. Yes, I think it. You will correct my error, Aantahah, Salo-Lotoq. This people, or this place, for Alëenon is a strange word to me…their own prince will displace ours, and I am to be the instrument of his undoing. I, whom he believes his charm. You will correct my error, Aantahah, Salo-Lotoq.”
I turned the tile for the First Hour of the Sun.
It was Raven. It could not be, of course, though the god had smiled this mystery upon me. For the First Hour of the Sun was the birth sign, and here I sat, born well living and not dead.
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.
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.
“Yes, call me that. Depwoto.”
I patted the couch. He sat next me with a simplicity that made me think better of his kind. Whom had I met in this place unbeset by that crippling haughtiness that troubled the general and Jute? Lom’s kind sister Dessa; the northerners Depwoto and Egdoah.
I thought, in that very minute, of a refinement to my art.
The tablets were too breakable. Each man would like something, though, some charm to finger and remind himself he was favored, that he brought no curse to the great undertaking…
And the answer, as the god had put Dessa in my mind, was the legacy. I bade Jute fetch it. “You know well what I mean,” I said to her. “You will please make haste, come again to your duties at once.”
I believed I saw what balked her, and what meekened her that day (poor woman, the indulgences of her life no richer than this). It was that she had grown used to her privacy; that words she spoke inside herself were such the men surrounding her, ordering her about, could not understand, so doubly cached away.
She could carry her contempt as a cage round her heart…
But here were two who’d discovered news of her. Of Jute, daughter of a house…a house of kings, perhaps…
Daughter long missing.
Two who, meaning no great harm, would tell this to their comrades—a curiosity, a phenomenon.
There were so many things you could not help.
I etched my wheel on the first tablet. I placed the tiles. The captain’s luck was doubtful, although—
“You have a son?”
I glanced at Jute, who stood below the steps, clutching the tapestry.
“The heritage of one will prosper. You are to travel and not return.”
A smile, at Jute’s translation, came slowly over his face. She told me he wished to know if there were any glory in his death. The sixth hour’s tile was the cat. It was quite fair for me to interpret this as success, as quarry bagged. I told Depwoto…I did not wish to look away from his eyes…yes, there is glory in it.
And he rose, and I used my etching flint to cut the thread, that bound a shining black stone with white specks.
Of what I learned from this gigantic enterprise, as it proved (as you may well have suspected it must), I will go into, only so far as such lessons came to benefit my understanding.
You know, Reader, that from thinking myself to be one sort of creature—
(Myself to the world, I say…as I dare to suppose the Holiest, the God of All Gifts and All Deaths, crafts us each sovereign, having each a particle within of that All, thus when for me, or for you, the pattern locks, and our sixth hour arrives, we may ourselves have become god…or yet be shrunk lowlier than a grain of sand…)
To discover myself another, regarded powerful; and of powers in their way unlimited. I said that I might, given vanity and recklessness—Lotoq forbid me the curse!—have demanded indulgences. I might use fire and music to bewitch and terrorize.
But the only thing I have ever wanted was my own life.
If you care to live, of course you do not make of yourself an envied obstacle. The closest counsellor to the Prince was Wosogo. Wosogo, cautious and wise, had no rival, none to my knowledge…and I would not desire his place. The wealthiest man in our land was a brother to the Emperor, who stood at the imperial elbow, winning for his timely praises, small gifts. Only a patch of land, a bit of coast barely arable; only a detachment of knights to protect it.
The Emperor made errors; his brother did not.
And the wealthiest man in our land had no ambition to take his brother’s place.
Cime, on one of our rides, had spoken of this brother, a visitor sometimes to the House of Delia, which is to say the quarter in which all of this lineage lived. The mother of Lord Teomas, the second wife of the last Emperor before my time, had been aunt to Lady Nyma.
Cime’s teaching was for Mumas to hear; myself wanted, for my ignorance, to pose useful questions.
“So bearing the weight of office on one’s shoulders,” I said, “is an honor, but a bond. Whereas…”
“Yes, just that. When cannot Teomas make free use of his brother’s house, and stable, and fleet? Of all he desires. A day ends, another begins, Foundling. And all a man has feasted on, all the music he has heard yesterday, he will never enjoy better.”
“If Lord Teomas had the wish, besides those things, to hold his brother’s title and seat, while enjoying them?”
Cime laughed and made some remark to draw Mumas into our talk.
And on a winter morning, making comfort as I could…chilled and damp under a tautened skin arranged for a roof of sorts, one of many roped across the high deck, giving shelter to our traveling company…I recalled that I had laughed, myself.
I was liked by Cime, disliked by Mumas; but Mumas, his love or hate, I scorned.
I would not have told you so, Reader, had we spoken then. I rode at my master’s side in good cheer. I was well housed, protected by an officer of state; I was servant to the great Houses of Decima and Treiva, dressed in new clothes and seated on my pony…where the least of our people had no mount and made their way by the labor of their feet.
I was proud. I was blind to this pride, and called myself humble. I aligned my thoughts with what I believed to be Cime’s. Thus, as I sat then, and as I sit now, so far from my youth, and my place of birth, I impart to you this first lesson. We are not well with the will of the gods; never, having not their eyes to see, but least when we are certain of it.
The work I had to do could not be finished. Not before our setting sail became urgent, no more to be postponed. The plain we crossed, from the general’s outpost at the foot of the mountain, to the fingering ridges that brought us to the sea, were scenes that weighed on me; unfamiliar, I need not say. We rode four days, the land flat and climbing. We camped two, above a river.
A steep way dropped here, of bare rock implacable, and a chain of soldiers was set filling skins, passing them up hand to hand. For neither under sail, nor for our remaining days crossing this desolate plain, would we come by water easily. Their gloved hands were encrystalized in ice, as was the fur trim of their boots, when the lowest men came again to the top.
Beyond this river, gazing back the way we’d come, I could see a plateau of black mud…or in appearance more a heavy sand, that sparkled. From this height and distance the rectangles of roofs, the path of streets between, seemed plainly to assert themselves. I had never wished to know it. I had never thought to trade the legend of the buried city, that the child I’d been, found thrilling, even magical, for truth in its pitiful starkness. There below lay the great tomb. There, the people of the city, posed as death had found them.
No one named this city any longer.
I had time then, and I studied it. I felt their wish to be named, to be risen from burial, allowed a fresh chance to appease Lotoq—and their doom stayed with me. We reached a harbor town. This was called Sianka. The Prince had furnished himself with translators other than those slaves taken with Jute. The Siankans said nothing I, or the soldiers, could understand. They lived, a sturdy people, terse of speech regardless, suspicious as to the looks they gave, behind a seawall.
They had hammered a gangway, years of pounding rock on rock, making of a natural cliff this protector. Tunnels, they had hammered too, traversing from the path to the village…only stone huts thatched in dried seaweed. The Siankans were poor in sheep, horses unknown to them.
But the sea they knew.
The Prince bought dried fish, and a fermented broth of fish. A type of oil that burned well in lamps, and thickened in the cold air, making sails stronger against the wind, ships faster.
The Prince and his knights, and a woman, her servants…
Indeed his wife, eager, I had been told, for battle…had a lighter craft of their own. This single-masted ship gave its commander some pains, to keep it from rocking in the wake of our larger vessels; to keep it from skimming off course. The winds on this sea, that to the Siankans was named the Zablenen, seemed relentless, never ceasing.
Two of our own sheep, skinned, as the Siankan rite did not forbid it, the brains out—for these were of value, pickled in wine—had been thrown to the waves from a Siankan tower (a sort of crow’s nest hewed from rock).
I watched, for as I played priest to the Prince’s army, this was my dignitary’s role. I stood with the Siankan priest, and neither of us could speak to the other. I shivered to see a monster of the Zablenen—a name, I dared suppose, of the god himself, who ruled these waters—come at his bidding, its white belly thrashing under grey waters, its maw thrusting, toothed extravagantly…
Fearsome meshing rows of teeth…the snout reddened with blood…
The creatures, the poor sheep, were dead, for what we’d done to them.
I could not swear this was true. I had had nothing in my life to do with butchery, or with physic, and wondered now for the first time, what is that threshold? What proof life has flown?
I therefore begged, in my own speech, but aloud for the benefit of my comrade, that Zablenen forgive me…first, that I knew not his proper name, nor whether I erred in addressing him at all; again, I prayed that he forgive us, our mixed party, of neighbors to his worshipers, and strangers; our clumsiness in this sacrifice, our ignorance of his will. That he withhold not from us his hand, in calming the waters of our crossing.
The waters showed no sign of calming. I was led to one of the transport ships.
It was of this construction. Two masts equally placed, if one took the bulk of the vessel as its useful whole, the bow quite long and thin, upcurving to a carven shape like that of a snail’s shell. This I did not imagine it to represent, as men and beasts at work upon some enterprise decorated both sides, shrinking into the infinite. The sleeping deck sat highest, tented from a constant spray by hides, closed by a few measures of planking. It was the place I must live for some weeks.
On the deck below was arrayed cargo in barrels, the weight made perfect, none more on the left than on the right. Lowest, and always airing freely, for the center was laid across with the split trunks of great trees, was the horse deck. The sides of this were raised and floored for the rowers, and also cargo was distributed here, the heavy engines of war.
Asea, she sat somewhat above the oars, and the men used to sailing engaged in marvelous acrobatics, without a care, skipping across logs from one side to the other. In my house, as it were, that space of my own partitioned by hanging skins, I had for company Jute and Egdoah. Egdoah and I worked daily on my learning his language, his learning mine.
We took our lessons together from a map.
A map must be no great marvel to my worldly readers, who like the northerners, have bent no doubt, and plotted, over such scrolls of woven cloth, painted with the shapes of nations and the names of seas, islands known inhabited, others barren, where no fresh water may be had. And coves where ships anchor safe; cities, of trading peoples giving welcome for gold, or of warlike peoples seizing the unwary adrift, to sell them: voyagers, ships, and all.
I had never seen a map…in my education I’d had no cause. Yes, Cime himself had pictured for me roadways, in dirt, crouching with his knife. I’d seen primitive representations of shrines on crossroad stones. But this quite astounded me, so unthought of, and so obvious a thing, that landmarks could prove the breadth of a shoreline, that by formula one could draw out a god’s-eye view of one’s own country.
Jute’s mind had altered, for finding herself included in the adventure.
She was no longer the general’s property, in a practical sense that Lady Nyma’s wisdom would recognize—for he had not sailed with us. The Emperor’s laws, upon the life of Jute, could never again bear sovereign. But a ship at sea is a precarious place to have choice at one’s disposal.
I was her only friend to rely on for simple protection.
The sea was not marked on the map as Zablenen, nor whatever my own people might have called it, the map being Depwoto’s from the Prince…
The sea was not marked at all, by lettering, but by signs like the symbols of my tiles. Only these made no depiction of a bird’s wings, or the undulation of a wave; they were only dots and lines. Egdoah shrugged, and said he did not read these runes. Princes and wise men used them, and could tell their meaning.
“But, you, Jute?”
“No, why would they have taught me?”
I pressed this near-admission. “Our written signs are not thought too high for even a slave. You have been helping me set down Egdoah’s words.”
She muttered, and with my ear tuned to the northern speech, I felt she had called ours a pig’s tongue. Perhaps not. Mild-faced, I turned to Egdoah, and said, “So?”
The syllable meant why. The rest I could not conceive, but I traced a finger straight across the Zablenen, a long, narrow body of water, between island-studded coasts. There were monsters, certainly, and in these depths they might reign. But Egdoah, understanding, said another thing.
“Pirates,” Jute told me.
And then, she made a gesture. “From the south. There is a great city not on this map, a great island, but very near the shore, bridged by land when the tide is low. And that country is feared by everyone…their ships are fast, faster and far more seaworthy than this.”
If I peered from under my ceiling, I saw only the swell, its rushing lacework of white foam. And sometimes failed to see forewarning, of the slap of saltwater in my eyes. Also a dizziness would upset my stomach, and only the sinking back into my little darkness restored equilibrium. But I made it one of my tasks, to stand and acclimate my feet…
For one thing, the view opposite held interest.
Our way was not straight, but we followed the coast, keeping both in sight of it and well out, for (as Egdoah had me to understand) currents made by the jutting rocks and the little coves between, and by the sea-devils whose cities were on the ocean bed, had strength to draw even a large ship abeam, her rowers and sails helpless to right her.
Having the coast within reach was in the Prince’s scheme; he in name admiral of this fleet…and nor was he virgin to such farings. We rocked upon a sea by which his legions had arrived at the great city of Hezhnia, a place far east from Monsecchers.
Never until my lessons known to me. The Hezhnians were another sort of people, Egdoah said. They had been conquered and gave tribute to the Emperor. They had wide beaches of sand; their harbor on the map curved like an implement our orchard-keepers used to snap twigs hung with fruit. My knowledge of things pictured it so, and I gave the name to Egdoah.
“Cimbel. There is a bird…that lives only among the gods, above the great mountain Ami, that dwarfs Lotoq. But Ami is quiet and kind, as no human sets foot there. We have a story how this came to be.”
I spoke too much, too quickly, as I would. But these two sayings, there is a bird, we have a story, were not difficult, given him at an easy pace. The northerners’ word for bird was juta, and so it seemed to me I had got the meaning of my servant’s name. You will know, Reader, that this pleased her ill.
“And what do you say for moon, Egdoah? You’ve told me, and I can’t remember.”
I made a gesture near my ear, two fingers flitting away, not unlike a bird, and this he understood.
Chos was the name, and he bowed his head, saying so once more.
“And is Chos a powerful or a vengeful god?” I asked Jute.
“You will never make a journey in your life if Chos despises you.”
Make, at all, or succeed at…I could not pursue this…I had promised Egdoah a story.
“The moon, Egdoah, once always showed his face, as does the sun. In a very green land, where the night was nearly as the day, lived a princess, whose name was Escmar, who had a gift from her grandmother…”
From my basket, while I held up a finger asking Egdoah’s patience; that also of Jute, and one of the young soldiers who had come to give his offering, I drew forth an orb of milky stone, which as I spun it for them showed its blues and yellows.
It was a luck totem. One made these…Elberin had taught me how. I’d spent hours happy enough wading in streambeds, searching out this soft rock that betrayed its translucence. From coarse stone a rounded bowl must be chiseled, smoothed, the perfection a matter of eye.
My eye was good in such finenesses, and my totems, turned and turned, and polished in sand, were round as the moon. “A gift like this,” I told them. “But mine is a poor thing, and grants me only hints. The grandmother of Escmar was a Seeress of the ancients, and said spells over hers…it had a power of wishing, and the girl, they say, lived in the forest alone. She was heedless of any hardship, for she need only wish into being those things she wanted.”
My northern friend sat absorbed. And I, not heedless, but teaching myself at every moment, saw that a comradeship could grow between strangers in this way. The soldier met Egdoah’s eye…his face said, yes, I know that, or, ah, wait and see. Even Jute took the fate of Escmar with a generous suspension of scorn, her smile merely arch.
A prince—a Hezhnian or Siankan, I might suppose, for having learned of them (though the Siankans seemed ruled by rough chieftains)—had set off to hunt on the Island of Birds, but his ship was blown to that where Escmar lived.
I won’t trouble my reader with their adventures. On a sea voyage, waiting dinner, such long tales don’t come amiss…
Suffice it say, Escmar grew angered at length, for she’d pledged herself, and for her prince’s admiration had wished a bounty of game teem her forest, and every day he hunted, and put the marriage off, and would not carry her home on his boat, to meet his father the King. She wished herself into a bird of surpassing loveliness. And in the wanton way of the ancients, she led her love a chase to a great waterfall, and there, leaping to net her, he plunged to his death.
She wished herself a woman again, and said, over her totem, “Now restore him.”
“Ha,” said Jute. “And he lay dead.”
“But,” Egdoah said, with a worried face.
Well, I hoped I had not erred, trodden on a word forbidden. I recalled I had no reason to tell this story, only I had wanted to explain why a moon-shaped implement was called for a bird. “No, friend, there is redemption.”
The soldier said: “She ran mad over all the world. She flew into the face of the sun, and the plumes of her tail caught fire. And then, blinded by the smoke, she crashed into the face of the moon. And then…”
This, while animated, was all too speedy for Egdoah’s grasping. Jute pushed in and spoke in a slow, condescending way—for after all, she spoke to him in his own language. What my pride would have borne with a grudge, Egdoah took as rare honor. Here the famous touch that confers virtue, that royal persons of high houses are gifted to bestow; the healing touch, as the northerners were said to avow…an attention uplifting to their poor hearts. Egdoah with downcast eyes thanked her, and called her Princess. I believe so.
Ami, the father of all gods, in wrath cast Escmar into the sea, and the waters doused her flames. The moon, so wounded, was not looked for to live. That, to the people in those times, seemed unendurable, their nights forever dark. A terrible age of cold and famine passed over the land. The people threw their dead into the sea, and prayed the god surrender up to them Escmar.
Among the dead Escmar met her grandmother.
“If it is the will of the people, then send me to them! Why should I live? I do not wish it.”
These words Jute spoke as though they were her own.
I approach the place I was put ashore…the place where my fortunes changed, and I understood that to the Prince I was slave after all. Or disregarded by him, thought without value, for I had not yet passed a test he had in mind. And if I could not pass, his mistrustful heart would see me a humbug, a clever pretender.
Or, there may be more truth in this—that he saw me as one gaining power, whom he preferred by his men be forgotten. But the test, without boasting I say, was beyond the achieving of any ordinary postulant, sent to the tollhouse to beg the gods’ mercy.
I exacted my price in time.
Yet, for that I did approach, I will tell you more about the northerners.
I could not end the tale of Escmar…who had relinquished her name, and was given a trial of her own to learn of what new name she might be deemed worthy.
Ships were cried by the lookouts. We squinted into a setting sun and made out the bulks of them, and the masts spiking black against orange, the sails reefed. We sailed with the wind ourselves, and coming towards us these rode the waves, the oars dragging them along their course. Which was to intercept. The soldier sprang to his feet and was away, and soon a great traffic of others passed my shelter, crouching to drop coins in the little shrine I’d made…
For of our people, few could be easy flouting Aeixiea, goddess of comeuppance.
At any crossroads, or by the hearth of any hostel, was placed such a vessel, made like a hut, with a conical roof and a ring of small windows. Setting forth in the morning, or passing by a place of destiny, the wise would appease her, the foolish be marked by her.
And what among the Alëenon, I asked myself, was I to do with so many coins?
“Nur-elom, wait,” Egdoah said.
The gesture of his hand showed he meant not stay where you are, but that a thing would happen, and I would by this understand…
The reason he did not himself brace for battle. The sailors began to pull on the ropes, to shorten the sails and slow our progress. It became clear, confusing, angering to the Emperor’s men, that the northerners would meet these ships—by night, no less—and not outrace them.
Did we, in our country, lay siege to a walled city, or make to waylay an enemy ship, there were elites among us. That you understand, I mean among the Emperor’s soldiery. They were called Asouta, and these were women. It was tradition, the advantage lying in litheness and quickness, as you may recall Stol had said.
The great gift of a fighter, of Pyrandtha the Knight.
Our Asouta needed no cumbersome ladders to leap walls. In the war games I had seen two mounted, with a sling of sorts laced to their right arms, and a third, given the speed of the horses, and the strength of the riders, fly…so it seemed almost…to a height astonishing. But this was only one of their tricks. The knife was their weapon, and very quick too, with this, when first they vaulted to the enemy’s redoubt. And by the Asouta were archers dispatched, and gates opened.
But the northerners wanted no women mixing among the men.
I had asked Jute, “The Prince’s wife, and some of the others of the nobles…?”
And because she sat with an air, as though I offended or trespassed, I said more plainly, “It was my understanding that the men would follow…”
I chose to say Vlana. I did not know this woman’s name or what her people called her, whether my choice were high enough. “It was my understanding the men would follow Vlana, if the Prince were killed.”
“Because, her father was Wolgan.”
“Who are these on the ships…are they Alëenon? Will they be our escort to their city?”
“I don’t see why you think I would know. What have I had to do with it?”
But I asked, both to see if she could answer, and to think a bit, in the silence that always came before her speech to me. I decided to be stupid. Jute found me despicable, in her queenly way, and could not be free of me, and could not disobey me. She must answer, and I could well bear with stony looks and clipped words.
“The Wolgan have godly powers, do they? They are descendants of some deity?”
“You don’t like that sort of story.”
Did I not? She assumed much. But I knew something of the northerners’ legends…
And they were not pretty, as my little fable of Escmar, and their gods did not forgive. Errant lovers were cast into cold prison, to grope in blindness, to know themselves failed, however courageous, however mere children of misfortune. While our realm of the dead was only a shadowed land of mists…
From which many souls had pleased the dark god Tophe, to be granted their freedom. “I don’t ask for one. I only ask, are you yourself Wolgan?”
She seemed lying. I ventured, as I had when guessing Wolgan a clan name and not the father’s (though he might be Wolgan Wolgan…some of the northerners were called such things), to suppose she counted herself banished.
Pride, pride, you are a foolish people, I wanted to say. Still it was of use to know that family lines were all to them. They could deny themselves help and young men die for it…
It was not a woman they feared; it was the vulgar, the low-born.
Night on the open sea often was alight in strange ways. The stars gleamed, clustered in places thick as crystals in a basilisk’s egg. I felt my eyes could drink this light and shine it before me…but the magic could not be performed by wish, and Lotoq my patron god, perhaps disapproved this path of mine. Perhaps his plan for me had been some other, and he found me vain and weak to have left his stronghold.
Lights green and dancing played across the surface of the waves. Egdoah said, “You must not look at them. They will spirit you down to the kingdom below.”
I smiled…I couldn’t help it. “Your sea devils.”
“I change my mind. You, I think, may look…it is for them to fear.”
We might banter, but his superstition did not allow much of this. I saw him try to hide the hand sign by which the northerners warded demons, four fingers out, and the thumb touching the palm.
I slept, as it seemed our rendezvous must take some hours to culminate.
And when the sky lightened, I woke from a dream of talking, talking all around me. I woke reminded I had never resolved my question of weeks past. I had never, after all, cast the Prince’s fortune. I had never cast twice my own. What was I, if I were born in the House of the Dead, but lived? A totem of protection to my charges, one come to earth to bear the sum of those thousand thousand spirits the god Tophe could not examine, in many years’ time, one by one…to learn if they had died in innocence, or with great works undone?
Tophe alone speaks of himself, no other god, not they, will raise his name. And I have heard said always, that one must look into the reflection of a still pool if one dare invoke him, to turn the curse. I thought the god of the dead had spoken to me in this dream. The voices, though, were from one of the Alëenon ships. To my surprise, when I stood and peered from under my skin roof, this had been lashed to ours, and the Prince had boarded.
I saw him with no head covering, hair in the wind; he seemed to me freed, unburdened. He had come to us knowing our language, and knew theirs as well. And his speech with a captain of theirs was confiding. They laughed, as though the joke were half-sad, yet shared. At me, he had always laughed with mockery. The captain…at any rate, a man marked out by his cap, glanced across. And when he saw my head, my plaits hooded in fleece, he invited the Prince to see. And when they had seen together, they agreed on some act, a thing to be done at once.
So with no breakfast, I was pulled from my shelter onto this vessel of the Alëenon. Jute was awake, and at the Prince’s command passed across my basket and the little shrine filled with coins.
“Am I wanted?” she asked.
“No. I am going to make a gift of you, to my kinswoman. She is the wife of Sente Vei.”
This was not for Jute; it was for me, who’d known Sente.
“Salo-vlan, Lord Prince, are you making a gift of me…?”
“It is your wise way of speaking, to turn my words, to praise me with high names. I see your laughter, creature. No. All along, I have had a task in mind…though true, the Alëenon will get the use of you in performing it. You see that this is a mountainous land.”
Mountainous, and cold. I could see and feel, too. The wind blew shoreward; and with no friendly breath of home in it. I shivered after an hour of our slow approach, and some one of the strangers brought me a different sort of skin, thick long fur of a lovely animal, that I would rather have met living.
“You,” I said. And, “Vlan.”
“Ha, ha,” he answered. “Nur. Nur-naache.”
It seemed to me this was, “No, I am nothing.” He understood me a bit, and a bit, I could make out his speech. Travel astonishes one. Here were cousins, an unsuspected pleasure, small dark-eyed people like ourselves, whose language was almost ours.
“What office will they have me fill, can you tell?”
He shook his head and raised a hand. When he returned, after leaping down a ladder, he had a wineskin for me, and bread. “Matemero,” I said. “But, what office?”
“Please, cease to interrogate our friends.”
The Prince shooed the one who had kindly served me. “As I am here to be asked, why should you not ask me? I know you have no fear.”
“Salo-vlan. Lord Prince…” I suppose I teased. He grinned at me, rewarding my mischief. I felt almost in love. For that is power to the powerless, friends. The sun shines, and the flower unfolds. “What office?” I said.
“An escort waits ashore. You will be taken at once. A day or two yet, a company may ride so high before the pass is shut. Wosogo has told you that we mean to seize the citadel there, to rule this highway and all the trade of the east. There is a crown I would have on my head sooner than my father’s. A tollhouse sits before a flat way between two peaks, two warring gods…but at times they lay down their arms. A caravan may cross there. I will show you the place, come with me.”
He shouted an order for our ship to be unlashed, and I saw, giving these things attention, that all the Alëenon fleet were making ready, that many of the Emperor’s men had been put aboard these vessels of our hosts, their soldiers aboard our own.
“Have we an ally in the Alëenon?”
“Trust your comrade as you trust yourself. That is a saying we have.”
He ushered me, drew me round to look to the mountains. And unprepared for it, I was struck a blow. Some person had flown at me, I saw it in a blur, falling backwards.
The Prince raised me to my feet, while Jute made display of fretting.
“Deliver me,” she whispered.
These words among astonishing clucks, and apologies, no less, her hands straightening my clothes, patting at the wineskin, which by luck had not burst.
“May my servant, who you see is so attached to me, not keep her place? Is there no other gift for the Lady Darsale?”
“Erjuta ohn knows well there is no comparable gift.”
She spun, and would have leapt again. The waters of the harbor teemed with boats. All this while I had wanted only to look and take it in, the landing of the fleet… The city whose white buildings shone in the sun, rising on terraces of rock that marched from the mountains to the sea.
“Might the gift…”
I knew of nothing more I could do. They’d caught Jute, who would for this passion, whatever its cause, have destroyed herself. Would she yet, left unattended…was this northern affair so not to be yielded upon…?
“Might the gift be postponed, promised for another time?”
“Why do you suppose not? Let me see you exercise your own gift.”
“Darsale carries a kingdom with her to her marriage. Lord Sente wants no part of it…that is not divination, but a thing you have marked yourself, and will use to his regret one day. But the tide turns, does it not, my Lord Prince? The kingdom was Jute’s, she was taken by the Emperor’s mercenaries. How many years ago, I cannot guess. The Lady Darsale is her young sister. They will scarce have known each other…and, I think, had been reared in the houses of different mothers. This despair of Jute’s is humiliation. But among your people I see a satisfaction in such endings. You are too proud to bargain with Fate. You are pleased to see it fall harshly on one even of your own house. There, Lord Prince.”
“Ah. We are very sober now. Perhaps Darsale will be kind.”
“And Jute will despise kindness because she does not ask for it.”
I heard a sob. It had left my mind, in this exchange, that she heard me speak of her.
“Away with that one,” the Prince said.
Then himself he took off, striding for the prow.
Jute’s hands were bound, and the men who held her arms, moved her to the ladder. I sent my servant a steady look, not a smile. What I wished her eyes to see was, I will not forget. Comes a time when I can help in some way, I will call it my duty…trouble myself, even do I rise to any height in this world. This magic too, to deliver thoughts heart to heart, was only within the power of the gods.
Trust me, Jute, or not.
My attendant among the Alëenon returned. He bent for my basket.
I waved a hand and pinched its edge, wanting not to be served any longer. Our tussle came to a standstill at once, for he was polite. But keeping hold, he explained a thing, made single-handed gestures…he and I, his hand and rapid words, a few that rang familiar, told…he and I, and others would sail yet, up the coast. Yes, to my bitter disappointment, I was not to set foot on land. I was to drop down a knotted rope to a rowing boat. This vessel bore a sort of housing at the front, a deck for the oars below and behind—and my pony, Cuerpha, forgotten by me this last day, I saw toss his head. None else of him could be seen. His shared stall was a crib at back of the cabin; two other ponies were there, pack animals of the general’s.
Our picking a way north through winds and currents and tiny outposts where stores were kept under care of lonely guardsmen, has no lesson in it, and I will not linger here. We rode, six of us, through twenty-one sunrises, an unslackening pace, and four of the riders were not Alëenon. They were traders, I thought myself to understand, of the race of the citadel. This by the word of Moth, my friend.
Moth had nothing much other to say to me. But he had said this:
“The tollhouse keeper is always alone.”
He tried as well to convey the fear of the place his people had, the unwelcome awe with which they prepared to regard me, for that I was sent to this task.
It is only the Prince who chooses me, not the gods, I’d said in return.
I was hurt, though my common sense warned—the Prince is not your ally. And if he should be…
Well, you have it from his own mouth. Never trust him. But cocooned from conversation, by urgency, ignorance, winter’s threat…I nursed pain. He ought to have bid me luck, finished the advice Jute had interrupted…said goodbye. As we climbed, snow began to blow in our eyes and blot the horizon, while the crushing peaks loomed dark grey. Certainly they were angry gods, worthy of each other, affronted at these specks mounting their flanks.
And then I was shown the house of logs and stone. And then my baggage was thrown on its floor—and wasting none of the day, my escort fled.
As no one came this way, I had time enough to be tutored, to learn a strange language…but records seemed not to be kept. I could, and of necessity, I did, draw near the fire, ladle water from the boiling pot, hold this steaming basin at my peril under the blanket, sitting very still. In that way I whiled my hours thinking, taking myself round the tollhouse grounds, listing for myself all I might do for my greater comfort.
At the spinning of wool I was no hand, had I known, even, how to fashion distaff or wheel. If traders crossed this pass, I would offer for their rugs, if rugs they carried—what…? I asked myself. What can I make or do of value? I can trap, and so perhaps have skins. And I had the stock of oddments the old keeper had left behind him.
My sheep lived in cave-like diggings, in the outcrop of rock that sheltered the tollhouse. And yet they were tame, they expected me, came to me wanting the fodder I strewed for them. So far I had sufficient of this dried stuff, found in the stable that made a second room of the house.
I calculated that the earth here, in its arable season, must be meagre and gravel-sewn. But winter hardened or no, still one could chip at soil as at a stone wall. Each day to dig my trench another fingernail’s depth, until perhaps in a month, I would begin to lay there the fire’s ashes. Sift the pebbles, and salvage the dust. And in the spring, I might lay seed in the barest patch of fair humus. The roots would prime the ground for the next season.
Then, would I demand the toll; and then, would I tender it back for goods, which I had no right to do?
Use for Use
The gods that ruled this country, and this strange prison of the tollhouse, said nothing to me. They sent snow, and I could hardly guess whether it were a gift of beauty, or a slow, suffocating torture. It was beauty to the eye and torture to the feet, at any rate. I had not been told their names, or in what way I might supplicate them.
The sheep, this breed, were very white of fleece, and soft. I had a plan to call the old keeper’s possessions mine, to take the meat and milk and wool…profit from it in a gentler season. But I entertained that I might do myself mortal injury if the animals were of rare type, sacred to the gods, kept here only for sacrifice.
“Is my language strange to you?” I spoke aloud, facing the peaks that pinched between them their storm clouds. “I am an obedient servant, and will do those tasks I am given to understand.”
Every morning, chores forced me to wrench free of skins and blankets, where I was content and could have lain all day. But I had basins to fill with snow, so as to have water. The people were rich in ores here, it seemed, those that color metals gold. What in my land would be shaped in clay, or hewn of wood, was here wrought, and with wonderful figuring, too. One of the legends I’d grown up with came to me, of the cat and the rooster, and the sons of fortune.
A prince’s ransom would Elberin call such gifts, if I returned to him bearing what in this new life were my daily vessels.
I dug out my doorstone, and even when I had all the water I and my pony could require, dug further. I felt warm from this exercise, which was something. And on clear days…I had discovered I must tie a scrap of my underlinen over my eyes, to see at all when the sun shone on the snowfields…I was able to note a valley. Or greater than that, a plain, as many leagues below as I and my escort had ridden from the mountain’s foot. Some pines of a crabbed shape overlooked the drop, which I thought must be perilous. But I would not go to the edge; I would keep myself back among the trees.
I carved out channels for an hour or two before I took a midday meal, and an hour or two afterwards. I spread fodder for the sheep. The stable opened into a yard, kept clearer of snow by a double line of pickets, one high, one low, pine branches laid on for a roof.
I noted the chore in this…but I would repair the gaps in time.
Also, the wind swept over some barrier, a hump of rock, and the snow gathered beyond. The house was sited to all the advantage this evil place afforded, so that for sunny days, a thin trail of bare grass showed, a path the sheep followed coming into the yard.
Of days, I had counted seventeen since my abandonment here. (You see that I was a conscientious user, in this way, of words to fuel my grievance.) The corner of my house held three great urns. The traders had carried these in sacks of straw, slung over the flanks of their own sort of horse, a beast great-footed and longhaired. The urns were filled with seeds and nuts. I had honey as well, though less of it.
I did this: mixed a handful from the urns with two fingertips of honey, then cleaned my hands in a bowl of water and drank it.
And by this time, already I thought desperately of meat and bread, of green leaves to chew.
I woke on the eighteenth day, having contemplated in a doze of how I worked ceaselessly, without method. I turned my pony into the yard for his short circling walks, and brought him indoors to his stall and fodder. I tended his coat and hooves. I fed the sheep. I built my fires and heated my pots of water. I wrapped my feet and went outdoors to dig. I forced hunger, the more easily to endure but one food at every meal. I might need to wash myself one day, or my clothing, yet in this cold I felt at peace with it all.
But how wonderful to have had a helper! How wonderful to have had a friend or servant, only to hear me speak. This was my morning revelation, Reader, that if I did not gather firewood soon…
I had probably wasted more of my supply than was wise. I knew, even I, that sticks want seasoning—and how to dry them unless I had built a fire?
And if one matter is most urgent, others must be less so. Yes, I was frustrated.
I saw there was a job, a higher task of ordering and arbitrating. I must play Elberin to myself. Besides this, were all my labors…and so I must play Jute. Then, as to me, the one meant to master some art, or overmaster some malevolent place-spirit; to make myself the key, or prove at last that the tollhouse held none for the Prince’s campaign against the citadel…
I would not solve the puzzle. I feared it. I saw in this equation of chores and time, defeat, demanding some magic or miracle to slot each piece into its proper place. And I would not live unless I solved the puzzle.
But the old woman had taught me also, when mastery of the smallest art was an hours’ long labor: “Do what you can. For now, child, do what you can.”
The gods seemed set to storm again, conjuring clouds, and the low sun himself was cowed, shining pale in colors not his own. First to the yard, to collect all that might be burned.
And out I burst, eager.
I had startled something. Its wings flapped against my face, and I shrank, covering my eyes. All that in an instant, so that when I looked again, the yard was empty of hawk or eagle. I heard its cry, from a place far among the cliffs. The hunter watched my own predation, or among the minor deities of nature, my fair claim of victory…did the rules work so.
The poor prey was like a rabbit, only short-eared, the fur white, the body warm.
Warm, and I dreaded much that it was not dead…again, I doubted I knew these matters well. And that my knife, skinning it, would do cruel harm.
If in conscience one can think of harm, already the choice is made. There are few harms we do in innocence. But I tried the blade, the tip of it along the belly, the creature seeping blood and cooling all the while. I took it in my hands and left by the front way.
Snow was falling.
I held the dead thing high in the sight of the gods, and said, Mighty Ones, Great is your Blessing, humble my gratitude, and boundless. Forgive me that I am ignorant. Show me, if I err, what is your will.
I felt better then, and finished my work, tamping down pity.
Thus I had meat for a meal, and was able to stretch a lovely, small pelt…to save, as I had no use for it. And by now the storm was on me, my plan to gather firewood, the firewood itself, traded for this other boon.
I bedded down, a maelstrom howling round my house, and framed the problem. Here was a day on which I’d had a chance. Chance, not I, had won. Tomorrow I would pay attention, make no choice at all until I’d asked myself: By sunset, where will I be, if I do this thing?
Came then four days of boredom. I brought Cuerpha inside altogether, letting him make manure in his stable. I was not lucky with my fires, my hands too stiff, the winds down the chimney snatching away the flint’s spark, my coals gone dead. I found the snows, piled over the very roof, kept the wind off at last…without it, my blanketed cave was tolerably warm. And bedding under every cover I possessed, against my pony’s belly, I did not suffer.
Only for knowing Chance had won four tosses against me since I’d lost the last. Strictly, though, I’d won back some of my store of firewood, for being not able to use it. I had won back some of my fodder, as the sheep were gone sheltering to their hiding places in the cliffs. I arrived, by this path, to thoughts of the War-Maker’s game. The champions played in their heads, moving pieces in every idle moment, as Stol had told me. My troubles became as such pieces arrayed on a board…
There were many ways to advance them to my ultimate disadvantage. I talked these stratagems out, Cuerpha pleased to hear my voice.
On the fifth day, sun again.
By now I had come to accept my early turns amateur. I wasted nothing in self-blame for what I could not have known—but to be coldly impartial, I had played wretchedly. I opened the door to the yard and surprise, at breathing a gentle air of spring. Terrific icicles columned the side of my house from roof to foundation. The patch that had been clear showed signs of clearing again.
Of course I had a sense of the seasons. This was weather, not the passing of winter. In my first days here, I might have wandered in such balm, bending to study curious plants, collect pretty stones. Today, I asked my question. Where by sunset? With my basins filled, my fire kindled, and bundles of sticks laid out to dry. Today, I took proper advice of myself: Finish these tasks. Do more if you can.
I decided also, being in a speaking mood, to address the gods…to address them as friends, to call this melting weather another of their kind blessings.
“The Prince—that man, I say, who holds such title in my land, Salo-Harpthok, though to you no doubt he is nothing…to me a vexation…”
As was well, I thought better here of complaining to deities, and warned myself to do no more of it. “Salo-Harpthok, he has gathered legends of the Alëenon people, but the time to share them with me he did not allow himself…”
I drew breath.
“I name you this thing in my own language, my dears, by which I mean high-born, to be revered. These are not insults, but yet if you have some name only for me to call you, my ears are open…”
I spoke, and I bundled sticks under one arm. I spread snow, heavy wet stuff, with a hearth-broom of split twigs. I found tangled in the grasses a waxy-leaved vine, dotted with red berries. I wanted to eat them. They looked capable of poisoning me.
I knelt, took up a stone, and crushed one berry against it. I put my finger to my tongue. The flavor was waxy itself, not sweet. Not bitter. I saw that the earth was of a yellow hue, mixed with flakes of grey rock.
The roots of the meadow grasses ran shallow, but were like the old salt-cured ropes of sailing vessels, my thoughts of steeping them coming to this end: a handful of twisted straw, utterly dry.
You are dawdling.
The voice…I hadn’t said it to myself, was of one interested…
For not having truly heard the words, I felt this. One curious of what I did, not kindly disposed towards me. I stood, took up the four corners of the skin my bundles waited on, carried them indoors, strewed them far from the fire, not to catch a spark.
I ate my disappointing seeds and honey. I had daylight left…what more?
I would take the hot ashes from below the grate, out to my garden spot. That would be to care for food (at least, in good time); I had cared already for warmth. Water gave me no troubles. Second to these foremost, should be my education. I chose this, though the move was of the speculative kind. Any implement I might craft, or means of shortening my tasks, producing more of what I needed more of, with less time spent in labor, must bear to the good of my three imperatives.
All I could learn about the lay of the land, then…the wild things that lived here, the people I would one day collect my news from, trade with, ask of for the tolls, would teach me what of my time was waste, what was not.
I weighed Lotoq’s inscrutable will, the caprice or ruthless purpose of my new gods. I wondered if I ought to pursue a different trade. I wondered if I were not free to go as I liked. Perhaps the caravans of the citadel, when met, would carry me off beyond the mountains. In a language I had yet to be taught, I would carve above my lintel: “I am Nur-elom, seller of…”
My little shrine filled with Aeixiea’s coins began to rattle, making a musical noise, until the clay hut itself rocked, and the jangling became a tocking. Afraid of insulting her, to sit and stare while a dedicated object’s sanctity was breached, I caught it up. The fire, stirred by this shaking, shot brown puffs of smoke, my precious wood burning over-quick…smoke the vents of the chimneypiece’s curious construction could not altogether dispel.
Some tool stored in the stable clattered down.
I coughed, and fanned, held the offering box steady on my lap, looked wildly here and there, had a moment’s time to worry the roof might crash upon me and leave me…
And my pony stood at peace in his stall, for Lotoq had expressed himself thus, often in our old home. Fear and despair came to me. How had I offended? With so much I could not do, what thing could I have failed to do? Would the gods not bear with me until spring came, and I had learned?
I went back to the yard in a wandering way, thinking to look at their shrouded faces and discover a sign. The red of the berries caught my eye. My gaze shied willingly enough from the angry mountain to the earth, where the ashes just strewn sat black and grey, softening the yellow soil. But this place I’d meant for my garden was fissured, split down the middle.
I saw some shining thing…and on my knees, peering, three or four others.
Now a wind came, gusting strong. Prudence warned me to go inside and see to the fire…
I held myself to this purpose, stayed picking up this and that. A fear the objects would vanish seized my imagination. If they were not living, it was impossible they should. And yet I felt so tested, that it seemed every choice would prove the misstep which would doom me.
The fire was fine. I had therefore been wrong to worry. I began to see my watcher, my god, as Game Master.
The warm winds blew through the night. In the morning the road from below could be seen streaking the meadow, ramping beyond to the mountain pass.
I thought they were leagues distant yet. I made out the red in their clothing and blankets over the haunches of their plodding horses. I felt braced with an unpleasant tension, awaiting duty…not knowing if all traders were courteous and spare of speech, as those I’d briefly met.
Or of the same nation, however they resembled one another. Part of my mind peddled to me the fear of being robbed, taken again in slavery. Part said in return: Be of faith.
First of my duties was the gate…it needed swinging closed. Once I’d barred them the road, the law of the tollhouse obtained in symbol.
They could of course, armed and strong, pass as they liked.
They could pay as they liked. But only either, for having chosen.
Tugging and shoving, I found my little strength insufficient. I was embarrassed under scrutiny, my struggles well in view. I heard no laughter in the lulls of the wind, only conversation.
I would have to mount Cuerpha, find a rope, fasten it…
Loop it round the top log. I could visualize this, but saw myself also gripping the two ends, trying to ride without reins, with knees, as the soldiers had been able. I saw my performance clownish; I was certain I would fall…that my mind’s engineering of this scheme was faulty.
I did mount Cuerpha, whose hooves were in a state to need this exercise. I rode him to the road, ahead towards the pass a short distance. The travelers hailed me and I heard them call a repeated phrase.
I waved, but called nothing. Of protocols, I knew none. Greetings I might shout would be meaningless to them. And I feared the sound of my voice, that it would ring young and small. I spurred Cuerpha into a tight turn and cantered him past my house. This was not wise…in more promising soil, the thaw would have made a mud-trap. Clown again, I would beg the travelers’ help freeing my pony. Instead, he sprayed a bath of clay over my garb and face, exuberant, almost disobedient to me.
My garb, I will tell you here, was a sight strange enough, no doubt, as all I’d brought was of thin cloth, and all of it I wore at once, with two skins draped over my shoulders and belted at the waist to make an ill-fitting coat. My feet were wrapped in wool that I’d contrived to pin, and that readily worked itself loose.
They were laughing, as they reached the open gate, and I reined my skittish mount, dancing my way to them. Two leapt to the ground…the traders did not saddle their horses. Their clothing was red wool, stitched everywhere in vines, rosettes, patterns like flakes of snow or stars. They wore leather helmets with plates of metal; over their wool, an apron-like covering fashioned the same.
Their weapons were hatchets, spears, bows and quivers of arrows. Their teams drew six wagons, two cabined, curved-roofed, painted in the designs of their clothing, showing a fondness in pigments as in dyes, for that rich, brownish red.
They spoke; they pointed…their fingers played the air with a trotting motion, so nothing but that I amused them could I conclude—a frantic, mudstained ragamuffin. And, I knew this of all peoples I’d met, it would be impolitic not to alight myself, to meet them with my face at their level…
I scrambled from Cuerpha’s back. The dismounted ones seized the gate, worked it to and fro. Whatever rust had frozen the hinges impeded no more, but the logs top and bottom swung at odds, threatening to torque apart.
Another thing to find time for, to figure the means of fixing.
There were women, too…one opened a shutter and put her head out, shouting. Her hand came next, bunching a circle of red stuff. A trader went to her, they bantered and scolded…he approached to stand toe to toe with me, bearing this he’d taken from her. Rough and good-humored, he caught my bare head in it.
I suppose I amused further, struggling free, pushing my gift hat from my eyes. But behind the laughing tail of the caravan, as the traders passed down the road, was dropped a sack. The sack had coins; it had also an earthen jug.
What was it meant for? Did I drink it?
I had not made up my mind the next morning. This fine weather meant my work table might be put to use…and were I to create a useful thing, I must think of what. By the rules, I had firewood yet to gather. I’d pulled from the earth two of the shapes…they were of a size to fit in the palm of my hand…my fist, I mean to say, might close on one comfortably, as on a clay flute. They were smooth to the touch, rumpled in contour. Their color was purple, they shined like burnished metal, the two ends were formed as seeds—here I mean the top carried a buff circular mark, and the bottom a nub, a filament, as though it would root.
I’d left the others part-buried, thinking they would sprout into some marvelous thing in the spring…but the leaving them left me uneasy. In some way these seeds made me uneasy altogether, and the thought growing in my mind, that as I had four, I could split one and discover what was inside, made me feel ill-counselled, as though the seed itself dared me, knowing better than I what malignity I might unleash.
I brought my orb from my basket and set it between the two.
Nothing moved or glimmered until I turned my back. Then I heard something…a knife blade pulled from a sheath. Not, I tell you quickly, a noise, much less any part of my real surroundings, only the sense of such a noise. I’d turned, deciding I would taste whatever was in the traders’ jug. I would at home have made a tea, the steam of which the orb was passed through. When this cleared in retreating patterns, a seer truly ordained, as Escmar’s grandmother, might read her answers there.
The heat perhaps awakened godly powers within the orb.
I did not attempt a tea from the berries. I did, with great caution, sip from the jug. And laughed a bit…the liquor was flavored entirely of honey.
Bhe! Bhe, I said, addressing any or all of them, seeds and orb. To speak the word against evil comforted me. It had always comforted the old woman, and even Elberin, who scoffed at my frequent terrors, who used his stick on snake and dog alike, saying to me, “I am old, and I will die when the gods run out of uses for me…”
Even he, at times, made the warding sign and spoke the dispelling word.
Bhe, I said, and went to my garden. I lay on my stomach and reached deep. The seeds had a certain tug to them, as with pulling-stones, those found on hillsides where sand has been rendered glass by lightning. I worried out the third, but lost the fourth, fingers slipping, the seed rolling deeper into its crevice.
And that, I told myself, is fair answer. Three will come out and one will not.
The orb was off the table.
I’d felt nothing, no tremor lying in closest contact with earth. The table had nothing in appearance out of level.
“Here,” I said to the seeds, “is your companion.”
No noise at this reunion, or movement.
“Bhekale, I am going to cut one of you open.”
I turned my back to enter the stable, listening with ears most sharply pricked. I heard the scree of the hawk somewhere above my house. I heard wind, and felt it billow through the shutters, fresh, heartening, fearful…
The weather would turn, of course. With my hand-axe, I came back to the table. I took the baking stone from the hearth. (A bitter thought at this, as so many good dishes might be made, had I only the makings of them.)
I placed a seed. I brought the axe down with all the strength my labors had built in me. My wrist jarred, pain shot through my arm and the blade flew from the shaft. But I drew myself up, did not flinch for the ache, decided neither would I stoop to search the floor. I touched the seed, I picked it up, I carried it to the window’s light, and turned it every which way. Not the least mark was on it.
I slept a first night with them in my house…slept to excess, the honey drink to blame. Sorry for my hurting arm, and for myself altogether, I’d swallowed two or three strong draughts. That day I woke not having dreamed it or thought it, but with certainty a crafted thing of my own must be puny in magic to the bhekale, its company an insult. I put the orb away.
Bhekale, I said to them, yet naming them evil, I need my axe, which one of you has broken. I went astray yesterday, and gave to him my attention, and never brought in the firewood, a thing I also need.
The air was cold, and only Cuerpha, restless for a jaunt along the road, stirred. The birds seemed silent. Yes, I know the signs, I told them. A storm is coming, and I am very hungry. For I might eat this mouse-fare day long and still feel a lack. My wrist is weak, and that will make a hardship…
Just here, midst this grumble, I saw myself in a play performed before my mind’s eye, toting a sledge, I the beast of burden, the sledge laden with sticks and logs. Yes, that was the answer, the one I’d failed to conceive…for having eight days now posed the question. A sledge there was, in the stable, fastened already with a rope; stacked, though, with sundry baskets and cloths…
And not needing these, I’d let the sledge become disguised to me. The Evil One seemed to answer me this, too.
I let denial float in my head unspoken.
I don’t need you. I am not here to serve you.
I went from my breakfast feeling taunted, to saddle Cuerpha. Then, after all, I turned him into the yard. Firewood above all. The Iron Seed was right…I chose this for a new name, telling myself also, to concede a wrong is reason. What the Prince would have me learn will not make me of use to him, if I am another Mumas, proud and stubborn.
My young pony had never been hitched to a vehicle, and the way to the pines looked to my eye pitched and rocky. I would tie the rope round my waist…my arm less trouble then. I remembered now that needles could be steeped, that the old woman had known of this as a medicine. At Lotoq’s foot no pines were seen, nor no patient wanting potions to ease the pain of childbirth. I had never tasted the brew (all her simples she had taught me the measure of by taste)…but any medicine might feel healing when one’s diet had been so dull for so many days.
Under the pines was snow, the surface ice formed into slickened gouges and jagged teeth. My foot broke crust; from pooling mud my wool wrappings soaked water. I discovered this crystalline stuff shrank both top and bottom, that small green flora sprouted sheltered—the winter world far from dormant. I had been stupid, I supposed, and might have found forage, if I’d known the mountaintop country…
If, my complaining heart said, I had been instructed at all…
I crouched and picked promising leaflets to chew, daring this without much fear. I cut needled branches and tossed them onto my sledge. I made my way closer to the overhang, drawn by the plain I could see so far below, by what at the very edge of distance might be the sea.
I had not gone within what looked twice my height, well back on the modest slope that fell to the precipice, thicker snow here blanketing…earth. Safe ground. My mind had no other thought as I worked round a trunk and spidering roots towards a better view.
The bird of prey’s shriek turned my head over my shoulder, angled my eyes to the sky. Uphill I saw a white hare start from where it sat camouflaged.
Under my feet the ground gave way.
All of it, everything. Only the tree stood anchored. All my salvation was in hearing the cry and spinning to follow the hare’s dash. My legs plunged, but my arms flung forward, my hands seized roots.
If I had not faced the path to my house, for turning, I’d have pitched flying over the cliff, with nothing to catch at. I used my hips to hunch inelegantly ahead, and ahead. My feet were weights; flailing them after footholds, I sensed…I knew, with no words or calculations framed as such…would harm the terrible precariousness of my balance. I wormed my way onto what felt solidity. I hooked toes then, and walked myself on my belly, further. I dug with freezing fingers into the mud and found other roots.
By now I could think a bit. But only when I came to where I’d left the sledge, did I push onto hands and knees.
Then I lay on my back and stared at the sky.
My heart was calm. I watched the clouds mass, and told myself, it doesn’t signify. You have work to do, get to it. You will bear the lesson in mind…you will not die the death of Mumas. Twice today I’d invoked his name. And so I stood.
But when I came to my door, I saw a horse was tethered outside. Another of the traders. I put my head in, and he sat there on my rug, busy at a practical task. Knitting…I knew of this art, but had never tried it. He had brought a dog into my house, that for wanting to growl me from my own threshold, quietened when the man clucked. My guest beckoned me in.
On such occasions, I’d chosen to speak, presuming all that accompanies words: expressions and gestures, friendly cadences, communicates to better advantage than silence.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here to take the toll. I was loading my sledge with firewood. I see you have started a fire.”
I bent to the hearth in exaggeration.
I patted the dog’s head.
My patron, not in the least unforthcoming, sat giving me nods, smiles, speaking syllables of agreement. I excused myself to the yard to fetch my pony, finding the trader’s arrows had landed him two hares. They hung by the feet in my stable.
I scurried, at a thought, indoors again.
The thought was unworthy of my new friend’s kindliness. And my purpose I had not concealed from him, rushing up short before the table. The Trio shone in their places; the trader’s eye, holding mine a moment, twinkled. The tone of his words was just as I’d have used, if I chided: “Don’t you worry.”
I apologized, and murmured, bowing out again for Cuerpha: “They are dangerous. They put ideas in one’s head.”
He came leading his horse through the damp little passage between rock face and stable wall, the rock curved like the half of a tunnel. Snow that fell blew clear of this gusty place or never entered. He pegged up tackle, laid aside bundles and bags slung across the horse’s flanks. And ahead of the tollhouse keeper, who stood staring, he went inside, with one particular bundle on his shoulder.
My pony stalled and blanketed, I joined him on a burst of wind, strong enough to slam the door at my heels. I made show of haste, hugging arms to my chest, darting a smile. I was chuckled at. Sunlight through the shutters streaked on and off…light of lead-gold hue, dying fingers of it piercing a blue bank of cloud.
His remark I read again by tone. “We’re for it.”
I hadn’t thought of this; this shy-making conundrum of days, perhaps, spent with a lodger. I unhooked the skin rolled above the shutter to cover the rear window, and my guest, learning his task at once, unhooked that at front.
After the chores of the fire, we spitted meat, dividing one hare. I offered him those foodstuffs that I possessed. I heated water and steeped the needles I’d collected. The result was not wholly excellent, but a brew much improved by the trader’s salt-stone. Such I hadn’t seen, this he unwrapped… And the unwrapping itself gave me study. His gear was in a woolen cloth, four triangles folded to make a smaller square, and four again. Inside the folds were a number of things, garments as I supposed, rolled to protect others. Soon he had created a bed for himself, having pulled out pans and utensils, small leather purses, filled each with necessities. One held his seasonings…and with a knife he shaved bits from what looked a frosted pink gem, into the pot. I tasted and understood.
Salt, got from the sea when I’d lived in the House of Decima. Salt for the meat, salt to make a soup of pine-flavored water, a handful of seeds thrown in to fatten…
I blessed the salt.
Now it seemed time to sleep, the room growing cold, the winds relentless. But my friend dusted ashes from the hearthstone. Over a space of the floor, he smoothed them with his palm. I guessed at first he was himself a fortuneteller, ash the medium of his people. But instead, he made a picture. He drew a wall and a road. The road arced downwards from a fortressed place, passed through mountains to what soon became a house. My house…he pointed to it in such a way. He palmed the dust again, and drew his road onward.
He drew a city, Balbaec…I could not know that it was. I pronounced the name, and he shrugged. Yet I guessed his story told of his living, the path he followed, the places he visited. I sketched an arrow back from the city, back, as the narrative had it, though erased, up the mountain highway to the tollhouse. I gave him questioning hands and eyebrows, and his head bobbed yes.
He lifted a finger, found coins in one of his purses, dropped these from left hand to right. He palmed the dust and drew the house again, laid a coin at its doorstone. But inviting me with a gesture that seemed to say, take it, he shook his head, snatched the coin, his smile…
Playful, perhaps. He rooted among his gear, bringing out a pair of short boots. I thought them another of his own: they were identical. But a moment more, and using the coin, the house, the boots, he’d wakened sense in my mind. Rather than accept his money, I would accept warm feet, a thing I needed. Very badly did I need these boots, but I did not feel the tolls to be a payment I earned. Aeixiea’s coins were not mine. The tolls were not mine.
But the trader placed the salt beside the boots. He unrolled another cloth and here were balls of yarn, such as he’d used knitting when I’d met him. He conveyed he would teach me this art, and I would buy the implements and materials. Again, so precisely what I sought…that practical task, the chore worth the time spent. The means of filling my free hours that would help me steal a march on my others—and give me more free hours to make more useful things.
When the warm winds returned, I knew them better, for my new friend’s instruction. I had confessed to him, as clearly as our created language allowed, how I’d fallen and might have died. He found this comic, and I will never know if I’d made it so by the telling. His willingness to laugh at me was lack of fear (a thing I expected to inspire in no one), and his disregard for an officer holding a post of import…if I were that officer. But he’d explained, if I had not well learned it, that these winter thaws and freezes made the clifftops treacherous.
And my earthquake had not been after all. The trader gave me news of a mighty rock fall, drawing for me the face of a broken mountain, gouged like a hunk of bread torn with fingers.
At the end of his stay I’d bought more of him, I don’t know how.
Or rather, not what any of it might reasonably have cost, and the trader seemed indifferent. Sewing kit, yarn, knitting needles, salt and some few of his herbs. Boots and the raw fleece to stuff inside until they fit. A bow and some arrows.
I tried to offer him one of the Seeds, wanting rid of it. My thought was that a pretty thing…
They were pretty. They might not, to wiser eyes, feel sinister…
Would go for a price, to a merchant in Balbaec.
The trader made a sign. Not ours, but easy to read. I realized then he’d kept well away from them.
The Recalcitrant One
Twice more before the spring, the winds came and thawed my garden. They had a name, these amiable winds, but my guest had not made me know it. As Balbaec to him, the sound of the word conjured nothing memorable in my own tongue, and I hadn’t yet hit on what I prided myself was a clever device.
I’d searched by now all corners of the small house, crawled the loft, wherein like the stable sat basins, bowls, and baskets, empty. As though some harvest, aided by servants—some to carry from the field, some to wash, some to pit or peel—had been the old keeper’s business. I puzzled on it, but this was not my object. Any sign he tallied his coins, I searched for, any formula he’d used to portion his share from that owed the collectors…
And this was to assume a share.
Perhaps my duty was to make my own living. I found it unfair; however, the Prince was not just in his dealings. He had favorites…I had hoped to be one of them.
But, as I’ve confessed to you, Reader, I was stealing his money. I called this a temporary state; I meant to replace what sums I must divine I had spent. I had not even the cost of things at home to compare, in Cime’s care having bought nothing for myself. Almost, I thought, I would need to make use of money to learn its value, and I came near deciding to steal openly on such a day I could afford a journey to the city below, to buy a few things with the coins I acquired more and more of—that, to my bemusement, no one would take from me.
But, cleverness. Noting how the knit stitches made wedge-shapes, like characters of writing, I tried the experiment of knitting figures in rows, to serve me for record-keeping. I hadn’t risked marking on my tablets, having so few. I’d tested a slurry of mud on the stable wall, but dampness dwelt in its blocks of stone; I feared my reminders in a months’ time would vanish. Evenings now I made my squares, forming a sort of cloak or blanket, each square a diary of my day.
When for twenty in a row (and I could say this with certainty, having memorialized it) the air was warm, and it had not rained, a large caravan passed the tollhouse. Now there were flowers, white spilling the meadow’s edges like seafoam, islands of orange and eddies of blue. I hoped this spell was of the goddess’s will, that the dry was not drought.
And, as for Her, she was of my imagination. Where I’d lived she was Trifesse, born of morning mist, under whose light tread the fields bloomed. These contemplations recalled to me a question I’d half-entertained on my travels.
Can there be but one grandsire, Ami; one mighty father-son, Lotoq; one great goddess, the wife who lives far, far, in a frozen land on the sea, its snows flat as desert, blackened by the ashes of her red fire? We call the mother of our race Aza. But legend has our faithless ancestors driven by the wrath of Aza on a long, terrible wandering. We had come, shrunken in numbers, from the east, to the gentler western lands of Ami.
Always, I’d taken these stories for truth. We were not like the northern people. Through all memory told in their songs, they had lived in their one place. They found us unbeautiful, or colored in ways that marked us for subservience. We were, of course, greater in wisdom, greater in our music and our arts. So great as to have crafted what they of the north could not, our stone sentinels, towering with the flame behind their eyes, guiding ships to the walls of our port cities, walls that defied the sea and made safe harbor where nature made none. Our skill with the flow of water, our fountains and pools, ours alone.
All this forged a pride I’d shared. I from an unknown parentage, not honored with a name. I had been feared at times, been sold, freed, raised to a height… If I counted this office a rise in status.
But I’d believed in the mightiness of our gods. I had not seen the boundaries of a god fade, a new god rise, one almost my equal, Salo-Ami, Aeantahah, spare me vanity. A border-god, who guards a patch of earth. To give way, a hundred miles hence, to some other.
And a lesser god ought be appeased with lesser sacrifice. The gods of these mountains had favored me greatly in sparing my life, sending the hare and the hawk. In Balbaec, though, could one defy them altogether? I calculated the rock could not crush and bury such a plain. It would roll so far and cease, and that place it ceased was the limit to which below the anger of these gods mattered. My cautious piety…I wondered. Could I take more on myself, choose more boldly?
Now, my friends, at odd moments, passing in from the yard, I had been trying rocks on the Iron Seeds. If I struck them as they lay on the table, not a thing altered. If I placed one on the floor, stood on the table myself and dropped the rock, it was this split or crumbled. (My guest the trader had repaired my axe…but never again did I think of using it on a Seed.)
Bold as I’d resolved to be, I had put one in the fire. Its purple deepened. I held it with tongs, turned it in the light. A rainbow danced. I put its fellows in the fire and left them baking in hot embers overnight. These too grew beautiful, even more so.
The caravan showed me evidences of a society among the trading families. I saw yellow wagons and green precede the red. I saw a roof of copper, windows framed into squares of thin horn. And this tallish house had an attic porch…up among pillows, a woman lay at her ease. Under her perch were openwork panels, every flowered join of them painted white, red-centered, the wood waxed to a gloss, exotic birds caged behind. Feathered in armor of shining green metal, so they looked to me, working peevish bills at their confinement, shrieking now and then like demons…
I wanted one. For no reason but that the thought of a tame, fabulous monster in my possession pleased…I began to see myself in a light, become famous for this or that particularity. Ways and wonders about this tollhouse keeper, tales traveling where I could not, inspiring awe…
I was not pleased.
It discontented me much, to feel rivaled by a legendary Other, adventuring forth while its poor shadow lay tethered. I reminded myself of my small list. Fresh-killed game, if they had it. Yarn. More arrows for my bow. (Attempting the use of it, I’d learned arrows were easily lost. As well, they did not go where you’d aimed them, unless the distance were short indeed.)
Elberin…I found I longed to tell the story…to have one of these visitors for a companion, just for hours enough to share something of my life, things I could share with no one… Elberin had taught me to set snares. I found the business heartless. Too often broken creatures lay in them not dead…
I collected my thoughts, spurred to the gate on Cuerpha, my custom…and for the usual reason of ceremony. The traders knew all states and manners in which tollhouse keepers past had greeted them. I hadn’t the language to ask that they teach me. I’d achieved nothing towards dignifying my role.
But this address, while meaningless, was in the tongue of my first country.
Said (by me) with the very least authority.
His hair was the hue of those orange meadow flowers…he was a northerner. But not a Prince’s man; one permitted the pass of the Citadel.
“Can you translate for me, then?” I asked. I had more to say…can you ask them if they’ll spare time to stay the night, now the weather seems gentler. Can they tell me their stories, can you, of sights along the roads and lands beyond the mountains?
I wore my knitted wrap—as by its present size, it served me. He jumped from a wagon. I dismounted. He sauntered close and looked this garment up and down, my question ignored.
How I found myself disliking him!
“Curious patterns. What do you make them for?”
“Because, stranger, I don’t know any better. Call me, if you like, Nur-elom. Why,” I added, “should you call me Totem-Maker?”
“Oh, I expect you’ll make your totems in time. You’ve unearthed the seeds. That’s a rare start.”
He waved the others onwards, half-turned, the gesture lazy. The lead rider whistled. Not to the fellow, unbudging where he stood. My wish granted, praise the gods; my asked-for companion…this arrogant stranger. Aza, can it be you paying me thus? Does your potency journey west with the easterners? Have I blasphemed, am I so rebellious and covetous?
The bag was tossed, and the stranger at his indolent pace stooped for it.
“But,” I said, feinting to left and right. He seemed to shift onto whatever foot put him squarely in my path. “I have purchases!”
“I can’t promise my wagon holds everything. But it holds most things.”
He was taller and making distractions with his hands; I (it was a lesson; in time, I absorbed it) angry with him, my mind rehearsing hard feelings…
I had not observed them leave a wagon off their train, and a beast—not a horse, but a frightening thing with horns—yoked to it.
“It’s springtime, Keeper. The people of Balbaec will be making their way up.”
“But the others, going down, and ahead…”
“Yes, the goods of Taqtan are one sort of thing. Mine are another. Now show me in. I want to see with my own eyes.”
I could hardly play at something devil-may-care, as though I had toured all the world, and chose living here, on a mountain road so lonely the law I enforced had weight only with the honest. I might have looked, to the stranger’s eyes, sadly wasted at the end of this hungry winter. I fumbled with the latch in nerves and eagerness, and promised him with too much chatter I did have a bit of jewelry, one or two stones of value, even if he had brought in his wagon only those plaits of dried, spiced meat the traders chewed.
He followed, to glance at the seeds I’d been working over as I have described, by a variety of tortures. “Now those…they are taking on the proper colors. One or two look nearly done.”
Well. I had no use for it, allowing myself to understand what I was not to be told. “You would like to buy them, all three?”
“No. Have they their faces?”
We looked at each other. I said, “You are my guest? Or do you live in your wagon?”
Why, or how, should they have faces! I hissed this through my teeth, but inaudible, as I went to stir the fire…to turn my back on him.
“If the weather is fine, yes. Tonight I’ll never trouble you. But we’ll take our meal together?”
He laughed. He’d been laughing the while, by the tone of his speech. Oh, I disliked him. I was tired of him.
“And what sort of fowl do you hunt in the treetops?”
“What sort of food can I get from you that you would prefer to eat?”
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.
He stood holding a Seed under the window’s light. Two hollows like eyes seemed to glint aware, each with its dot of white. The totem had woken in itself this visage, by charm or wickedness.
“Tell me your story.”
“They are only things I’ve found. You would rather suppose, what…that I’d dreamt of them, felt them sing through the soles of my feet?”
I was sure he wanted it, and I was sure he would cheat me.
“Found them…lying on the ground?”
“No, they were well buried. The earth is poor here. My duty is to make of it what I can.”
He laid the object down, turned to me from the table, no more of pretense that he half-addressed what he chose to call a totem. His face was oddly still.
With my story then, I cheated him…
I explained how I’d used the fire ash, laid it out warm, that I could dig my little fingertip’s improvement…how every day, I’d done this. I bent to touch the top of my boot, the depth of garden as I’d made it, before the earth split.
An event I let rest unspoken. The traders knew of the rockfall. If my friend were so clever, let him surmise, let him ask.
“You make me think. I doubt anyone’s done a lot of digging up here. How many seeds altogether, eh?”
“Why…? Do you mean to say they are—”
Here was the peddler I knew, lifting an eyebrow at my breaking off. “Fortuneteller, I shan’t supply your answers, to sit amazed while you read them back to me.” Derision colored his voice. “In the tiles…is that your art?”
“Relict. Of earliest times. I only sought the words. Answer me, then, what sort of flower makes them?”
“Perhaps it is in your fate to breach the Citadel. The zhatabe is said to own a great library, scrolls decorated by inspired sons and daughters of those godlings first cast to earth, when the dark of night had been dispelled by the fires of divine warfare that sheeted across the skies until the second darkness. If any mystery is not concealed there, it shall never be revealed. The people of Taqtan have a legend. You have yourself heard the story of the first tree, whose limbs upheld the heavens. And all creatures of earth lived among them, until by that battle of the gods she toppled, thus the waters were born of the firmament fallen, and the land was filled with creeping things of every kind, and only the birds, sheltered in those limbs still high as a mountain, were given the gift of flight.”
He ushered me to the door. He caught his staff, and me by the elbow, and off we went in silence to the road, where in full vista the peaks could be seen. I was of no mind to speak, worried that the peddler, with his lore of varied nations, his sometime majesty, his frequent disdain, was a Princely retainer of power…my Prince, or this zhatabe, emperor or king of the Citadel people.
I stewed inside, in defense of my fortunetelling.
Hadn’t I done good with it, given comfort and hope? I did not make sport…
Never would I have held a seeker in contempt.
He lifted his staff and showed me with a gesture the veins of white running in the shape of a branched tree through the scoured cliffs. Yes, I’d heard the story of the mighty Mother Oak, and I had seen this proof.
But seen it not.
“The seed may sprout one day,” he said.
I don’t know why, when he looked at me, I foresaw my own death in this word.
I made the reacquaintance of an older friend, young Moth. He arrived with the Balbaecans, whom I saw first in pilgrimage, winding afoot in a long column, myself perched at the spot I called Cliff-Head. (Caepfodthe, I give you the word, in my first language.) The road, gentle in descent beyond the gate, doglegged here, once, twice, three times, and a fourth. How did the traders get their wagons round? For curiosity I’d once followed to watch. The answer: they took the wheels off. Between planking on the undersides they gave to their vehicles, even the very tall ones, a host of human legs.
The traders, I began to surmise, would not return until the last of summer. What riches did they find along the coast to carry home to Taqtan?
I sighed with wanderlust.
The peddler, keeping to his place in the meadow, bought and sold. And the Balbaecans, passing the gate in parties of four or six, began to pitch tents in the meadow. They scavenged everywhere, digging my wildflowers’ roots and roasting them over fires. I found a pair of strangers in my back yard, taking wood from my stores.
Raucous, the Balbaecans played and sang much of the night.
I felt the peddler egged them on in their trespass. Yet sensible the house was mine but to tenant, and that I had never been told if the meadow belonged to it, I stifled (in ill-grace, perhaps) my indignation. How could I know if I were not at fault, if I owed better hospitality to travelers from below?
On that ninth day when the peddler was to leave me, though I did not know it, Moth, after a rap at my door, walked in.
“Is it you?” I said.
“Totem-Maker.” Round-eyed, he made signs with his hands, and stared at the Seeds.
Now, to go back…
On that night, before the peddler had discovered the face (which he’d predicted), I’d tried a new thought. No rock or blade could mar them, no fire burn them. If they were the strongest of all things, could it be they marred one another? I climbed on my table and dropped a Seed, striking the victim I’d placed on the floor. Still, I failed. I believed I had.
Bright sun through the shutters made obscure what might have terrified, the slow-blinking eyes, like those of a basking lizard. Moth took a stool in the corner and set his bag at his feet, still speechless. I had not myself studied the Seeds, stared at them as though to meet their gaze…with command. The impressions of glimpses I’d received, afraid to do more. But I understood—for the peddler’s visit, I was too well informed—that I would be expected to command them.
I had slept with them in my house, woken to them in the mornings; I had that much courage. Duty serves, where liberty shirks. For my visitor’s sake, I said:
“Don’t trouble over them if you can help it.”
And what do I know of Moth? Asking myself this (though the answer was, next to nothing), I decided on: “Are your mother and father at peace?”
Of the Balbaecans I recalled that cousinly link to my own people, and the question was always asked at home. Whether one’s parents had become protectors in the next world, or whether they dwelt in this, peace was most desirable.
Moth fingered a chain at his neck, and nodded to me, yes.
“Please. You have my assurance this work of mine is harmless to you. Are you sent to live in my house and be of help?”
Just then the thought occurred. I’d spoken this wish to the peddler; in saying the words aloud, as well to the Seeds. And before the gods. But I began to suspect what sort of vehicle these totems were.
“Are you a great magician, then?” Moth said at last.
“Well, Moth, are you? I mean no disrespect. But let us suppose you have within you any sort of greatness…and why think otherwise? You can’t name, you can’t feel, what you will do when the hour comes, when you achieve that deed above all, that destiny. And neither, for myself, can I. I do not know myself to be a magician of even small powers.”
Our similar languages, I doubted enough for him to grasp all this. His face was believing, though. He hugged his bag and tiptoed past the table, out to bed in the stall opposite Cuerpha’s. In the warm weather, I supposed I could allow it. I did not want Moth’s place to be so lowly. But if he dreaded the Seeds, neither could I force him near them.
The peddler, come to amuse himself, to laugh that I’d put Moth to work gathering my arrows, confided to me he would take his leave under that night’s moon. I urged on him two of the totems. He accepted one, and gave me a number of things from his wagon, not sold. I sent Moth to the loft for baskets, loaded them helter-skelter. I did not appreciate the chore.
Then the peddler sat to dine with me, and when the bowls were cleared, drew a carved box from the pouch of his tunic, having my fingers be those that touched the totem, to place it inside. These charms were nothing of value to me. I disliked their watchfulness, expected evil from it. But the peddler said even kings would barter for them, bestow titles and estates, if the return proved worthy, if the totem were the right sort.
“And I am going to leave you with your reward, though you don’t like receiving it.”
He dropped, one by one, a handful of bright gold on my table. “When I am back this way, you may like to buy of me something that catches your eye…something more than a sack of meal and a skein of wool.”
This idea of coins, though I knew they were exchanged in the coastal town, where foreign ships put in; and where such things were of great use, and yet of no immediate use…seemed to me a dubious magic. The world’s insistence on money confused me. That another would give a thing, a marker in a game…that at length I would give it back, and by this means have enriched us both…
He rummaged among the baskets, laughing aloud. He’d frustrated me; he was pleased to have done it. He drew out a cap, and like that early trader, placed this on my head.
“Now that’s no use, you not having a mirror. But see!”
Again he bent, found a round disk on a handle…of some white material, this, that flashed a glorious rainbow in the firelight. I saw a thing I never had, being somewhat shamed to study my reflection in pools of water. The hat was red, gold braid trimming its upfolded flaps. The face beneath was strained and dirty.
“It’s what you lack, and why you collect your tolls from pity, and not authority. A proper cap of office.”
Leaving me, then, with advice to make clothes that fit and wear them, he strode across the now-empty meadow. Under jeweled blue beams strong as dusk, I saw him busy himself at once with the harnessing of his creature.
The last of the Seeds, that for so long had refused to be shaped, kept its eyes closed. I knew the totems now, and knew it contrary. It formed itself, finally, when I decided to leave it outdoors.
You dislike the damp, perhaps. Cold dew may be your death, for all I know. For all I knew, since nothing I’d done yet angered or troubled them.
I bought through that season, spring becoming summer, with an eye to the future. A great luxury for me, this having of possessions for the enjoyment of them; this notion I might put a thing by, shelved in its new-made state, for one day. I need not defend my choices. As payment for service, this was fair, and enough.
And that same expansion within me, that growing faith in my own importance, made me bold in tossing my Recalcitrant One into the garden.
Draw up your fellows, I said to it. That much you can do.
Mornings I went out, as every sunrise brought change. Moth had been badly frightened by the emergence of two new Seeds, and left the patch to my tending. But skilled…at lying in wait, knife in hand, pouncing like a cat…he proved himself. I let him hunt for me. I let him have all care of the sheep. I bought chickens from the Balbaecans, having Moth, and a dog now, to keep guard.
I could not miss the eye. Its countenance had formed such that it seemed curled on its side asleep, but this powerful one’s magic sang in the air around it. The song was a thin, moaning whistle, melodious, unearthly…
A mockery of my sarcasm with the peddler. On my mountain the gossip of forest dwellers raised a cacophony; thus, lest I fall betranced, I exercised my mind on discerning of the calls I knew, birds I had given new names to.
For Moth was not in that way educated. As to how Alëenon sages ranked fowl in their compendia, he could impart nothing. I threw out seed. I would not have lured any bird to my bow, but wanted them close for study.
“We call that the redbreast. And that is the yellow-throat,” my servant told me, confident.
“And these small ones?”
“But, do you know, in my country we also have such birds. Yet ours are different in kind. Their breasts are striped.”
Moth watched me, patient to know my point, which I had made.
“There are many things,” I told him, saying an old thing. “Under the sun.”
My Recalcitrant One I kept now in a pouch at my belt, having it a personal totem for the time being. And I spoke to it.
“You have ambitions, I suppose. You count yourself stronger than your lessers, for you cause them to obey you. Yesterday I asked you to wake the faces, and you woke…I dare say you were able to wake…one. I wait, Creature, to see if it’s the sleeping one rules you, after all. And what may happen if I throw you in the fire, now you have your eyes? I will try it in a moment, or if you counsel me to choose that misshapen fellow with the mild face, him I will trial.”
The power is yours. But ask for nothing you will not yourself endure.
I credited this…but feeling a strange temptation to anger.
Rising an hour past, our sun at once had put his face behind a bank of clouds. I wondered how far Cuerpha could carry me if I took the traders’ road, how soon before the skies stormed? How treacherous the climb home, following the descent?
These plans were for solitude.
I hadn’t wanted the totem’s advice to be so duty-bound…
No one—as I weighed magic and meaning, I advised myself so—could be as dull as to miss the moral of Escmar’s tale. A totem, a talisman, a charm for wishing…what was this, really?
With Moth to shoulder half the chores, still each day I had more work than could be done. My work contented me…what more would I ask, but for time? And time, Great Ami himself cannot alter. With a chest of gold and no law but my own on this mountaintop, I might go the place, be the thing I liked—if gold, jewels, silks, were my longing.
I could not return to Monsecchers, where I was known, and be anything but a thief and a failure. Gold would not buy me birth. I considered, even, that Pytta and Cime might prefer the legend of me; I, finished for them, to an end satisfactory. If I came back, a disappointment, a seeming fraud…
And was there duty in that? Towards a story of yourself, a role to play at, fair or not: Fortuneteller, Keeper, Totem-Maker…Omen…
Being to the world what it said you were?
Then, can we wish for, any of us, more than we can imagine? The houses of the gods hold wonders beyond our minds to know, but we cannot ask…
Desire, yearn after…
You see, Reader, wisdom, as might have been sent me by the gods, lay couched where only the plod of my pony’s hooves and isolation…yes, from Moth’s asking me his next directive…would allow me to converse with it.
I rode from the cave where I’d sheltered from the first storm; then had to wait out a second, spent of its bluster too late in the day…
My pony and I were alone; this spreading plain, rich in purple-seeded grasses, quite empty. The road to Balbaec followed a watercourse, and what I’d taken, looking down, for shrubs with blue-grey needles, were fair-grown trees, the stream cutting deep to make a narrow valley.
Its pines, able to grow in thickets here, their sated roots laced below the bed, grew nowhere else within my sight. Cattle grazed the plain, a bearded, short-horned kind, mingled with deer, and I could not guess if the Balbaecans owned one herd, both, or none. I saw no marks but the specklings on the cattle’s flanks. All I met, my height measured now against these mountain walls, was more and greater than pictured. In this discovery, most commonplace of the unseasoned traveler, I gained my first, modest colloquy with wisdom.
The upward slope that reached the caves—and of these was a city street’s worth of dwelling houses, some with the charcoal of fires inside stone rings; some with only bones, no proof the devourer of flesh were man or beast—was rock, tablet-sized shingles of it, like a giant’s roof thrown down by wind. The climb for Cuerpha would have been impossible. My own legs were worn to stiffness, when for curiosity, I’d struggled up to peer inside one cave. But from this vantage I saw that, as with the grass and trees, the stone-field hid things. A road well-trodden ran the perimeter; athwart this, a broad highway of its kind had been patiently fashioned, stones stacked to form two angled walls.
After a rest, I walked down to fetch Cuerpha by the easy way. Constant labor seemed needed, and where I encountered fallen rocks, I lifted and threw them aside, feeling I owed this respect to all who passed this way. It did cause me something of fear, as I laid my camp from night to night, to have so much mountain overhead, such catacombs below.
The cave road carried to the foot of a hill, down to the sea-plain of Balbaec proper. I saw travelers now, far away, a small company. If they had dogs, Cuerpha’s scent (my own, for all I knew) would carry a warning.
And I wanted that loneliness I hadn’t yet found; I wanted to escape a hailing exchange. Hospitality required that strangers not unfriendly keep the road together for a time, until had been said all that could be of one another. I would then take up my path, or be persuaded to abandon it. Or be given a companion to guide me.
With what sort of fame did the name of Nur-Elom ring, in this city where certainly it was known? Was I well-described? Would they disbelieve, be disappointed, that I could be the peddler’s Totem-Maker…supposing the peddler had traded on this gossip?
I took the totem from its pouch. An hour, two hours…
To judge, from my perch, how far they were, how much of contemplation I might entitle myself to…
I’d been going to say, was beyond me.
But these tiny figures made a mixed company: two riders at the head, several on foot, a cart… Pulled by no beast, only at each shaft a man. The riders, making themselves so unhelpful, must be hired escorts.
This had not been the arresting thought. I saw the entourage pass a tree, an olive, always planted (in such lands I’d known) at particular intervals along roadways. The oil of the fruits was healing to the sores of the foot-weary. And each, having its own character, its own small deity, marked the way with familiar comforts.
I will deem the man a head taller than myself. In two strides he covers his own height, did he lie on the ground… When I see him pass the olive, I count his paces to the next. I know these trees to be planted at measured lengths, and of an age. If I try, I can do better. I can judge in a way that is helpful to my purposes.
And not be…but now I was sure it was the totem, mocking…
Not be frustrated, sorry for myself, that I was asked to use my head.
And so, though sacrificing the time it took, I discovered an hour before I must watch closely, and hope, if my mood were still sullen, they would pass me unnoticed.
Ask. What was it you wanted?
To fling you to the road, let the travelers find you. No, Totem. The strength of my arm falls short, I need not trial it. And for my lack of faith you will work on me some drollery, as the story of the Herdsman-King, who sought to cheat death.
This, Reader, though I suspect you have such stories in whatever land I find you, was of a free citizen named Alchas. He espied one day, whiling his hours plaiting a chain of wildflowers, an entourage approach, that of a beautiful princess. She beckoned, against the frowning looks of her chief courtier, and Alchas descended, the flower-chain held careless in his hand.
“Oh! I’ll have that!”
He bowed, and the courtier disdainfully placed this gift around his mistress’s neck.
“And who is the fellow? Ask his name.”
Smitten, Alchas bore these spoiled manners…he did not rebuke her in his heart, for that, mounted paces away, she demanded her servant speak to him.
But the courtier said, “The man is nothing. A keeper of cattle.”
The woman tossed a ring to Alchas, and the entourage moved on. The ring was a dull brown bronze, the stone grey…a token that, when pressed upon her by her father’s necromancer, she had despised.
Alchas placed the ring on his finger, and swore an oath:
“Would I were king! And she my wife, and that rogue brought so low as to beg a herdsman for his very life!”
Came a thunderclap, and Alchas heard a voice:
None can be happy in all things
For in their weavings the Balancers hide
By will of Ami his symmetry, he
Who has charted the ages of all mankind
The tide no more does rise than fall
The gentle seasons flank the cruel
The years turn ever like a wheel
Long leagues the journey of a fool
Choose now, the necromancer said. Alchas looked at the lowering clouds overhead, at the forest glade behind. He listened to the stream that chattered below the hillock where he stood.
“What choice?” he asked at last. “What devil art thou?”
“Will you have all you wish, or will you be happy?”
Alchas doubted; the voice to him seemed trickery. And what can be all one wishes for, but happiness?
“Make me king!” he said, and laughed.
And at first his new life went well. He ordered the courtier thrown into the sea. He was high-handed with his queen, though to save herself she smiled and made obeisance to this husband. But, for Alchas knew not much of palace intrigues, thus scarcely did she need to employ them, she had sent to a kinsman, begging he would bring an army to her city’s walls, and lay siege.
Now as with many walled cities…as with Monsecchers, I had once mentioned…here were tunnels having secret openings, passages where a single body might squeeze between jagged rocks, or wriggle free among tangled roots. And watches would not be set over these places, which seemed wasted, inhabited by only the wild. In this way, although the people of the city starved, and the King’s soldiers as often quelled riots as manned his defenses—foraging parties, embassies to the besiegers, at length the Queen herself, trafficked as pleased them…
And in the Queen’s case (and those of her own household), did not return.
The King had the palace stores to survive on. But he was alone, not merely for his wife’s abandonment, but that he’d never won the respect of his ministers, his courtiers. The nobles of his city felt their losses, and cared nothing for his. They conspired, made pact with one another; they arranged to deliver him up to the besiegers, asking by messenger whether his enemies would prefer him alive, or would his death make matters more convenient?
Yet the King as cattle-keeper had been a congenial man. He had found in his loneliness, even before the ranging of that army summoned by his Queen, solace in wandering down to the stables, the pens and the grazing yards. And for these visits, in all the city he’d made one friend, a milkmaid, a dull-witted girl (as was thought), taught and afforded a simple living.
In truth, her imagination was so full of so many things, that she looked lost and did not answer when ordered about. But the girl had noted the Queen’s escape, and the means of it. Without occupation, with the milk cows slaughtered for their meat, she’d been sent to a lowly place, to sweep the tiles and hearths of a nobleman’s house.
“What is your name?” she asked the King.
They were both at an early hour come to the meadow where grasses waved tall, now the cattle were gone. And for the same reason, for a wistfulness troubling each heart.
He’d been going to say, Girl, do you not know who I am?
Instead, he told her, “Alchas.”
“My name is Runen. Are you sorry that woman has left? Would you follow her if you knew the way?”
What could Alchas say to this? He would, and he would not. But he said, “Show me.”
And once they’d got as far past the tunnel’s mouth as Runen dared lead him, she whispered the conspiracy she had heard, a girl so little regarded they’d spoken with her in the room.
Alchas settled into a shepherd’s hut, desolate for the war that raged in the land. He made traps for birds and fashioned a fishing net, dug roots…and as the year waned, harvested wild fruits. Happiness grew upon him, in this simplicity of caring for only himself.
But mindful of the necromancer’s verse, mindful he had journeyed far to reach the home he’d left, he lived content and sorely discontent.
He had had it before, and had thrown it away, happiness. He knew he could not keep it now.
My friends, you have foreseen the end.
The Herdsman-King, having made his face known to so many, escaped for only a time. Soon the god of that world below, Tophe, gathered in what had been promised. Alchas was discovered and sacrificed. The invaders departed, the city gates were opened…and there was joy for some.
A fable, as I learned it. Though perhaps a King Alchas had lived among the Emperor’s ancestors… For this perversity, that had made me wish to quiet myself with a story, I remained at the mouth of my cave, easily spotted. The lead rider blew a note on his horn that rose and fell. Small exchanges with Moth and other Balbaecans, gave me to understand the notes spoke a language. I was asked to come down and name myself.
I went down to within shouting distance, sparing them the long wait, had I picked my way over stones to reach the road. “The tollhouse I’ve left in the care of my servant. He will collect if your business takes you there. You may call me Keeper, or I am called at times Nur-Elom.”
The riders sat their horses indifferent.
It was a merchant of Balbaec who stood yoked to his wagon, along with his son. He was in that trade of decorated cloth, as had been Vlanna Madla, the wagon thus not over-weighty. But goods so desirable could be sold anywhere. He had hired guards, the wise choice…while neither, these few leagues from home, felt impelled yet to don his armor. Helms and breastplates and shields were slung behind saddles.
“Come down, Nur-Elom, and take my hand. I will like to have your blessing. If you would honor me with a game, indeed… Any ill omen and I will turn back.”
He laughed, and I padded along, not to trip and tumble—if I were to be a local dignitary.
While I padded, he spoke on.
“Omens are in the air…we are soon to play host to an army. A man of the Prince has given him news they say pleases him. But no, I will not ride to the mountains. I take the straight road, onwards. Some women of his household have forced Lord Ei to vacate his own.”
The Prince’s household, I thought. I was better with the Balbaecan tongue for knowing Moth, but so much gossip all at once, my eyes busy watching my feet and my ears sorting grammar, made me lose characters in the merchant’s tale.
What I knew of the Prince I did not feel privileged to say, and so I arrived totem in hand and stood in polite silence.
The son said, “Oh, there”, and nudged his father.
“Dare you show it?”
“Oh,” I said in turn, “it is nothing to me.”
I held my familiar to the sunlight, so that it would shine prettily. I was shy of the face, allowing one could be deluded…
That, having the ambition to succeed, I might invent my successes…with only the timid Moth for company and no worldly friend to doubt me.
My immediate fate was as I’d predicted. The merchant, Tazt Shenath, begged my company that short way up the road, to the stronghold of Lord Ei. He had jested about the game, but was in earnest as to games and more, feasting and entertainments, once lodged under protection of the Prince’s guard.
And that wife, the woman I’d seen on my sovereign’s boat, whose glances for me were wholly indifferent, had brought against boredom, Shenath told me, her cousin Darsale. Sente, a friend whose news would delight me, had not come.
But if Darsale, then Jute. I had made a promise to Jute, to help her if I could. Arriving in this state, I would be to my old servant something new. I was sorry I’d embraced Jute’s mocking name for me, put Nur-Elom about as my preference. If I found no cause to speak with her, how would it seem?
Taztam Shenath, the son, saw in me a contemporary. This was true, we were of an age, though for so long now I’d abandoned youth. I had to counsel others, manage the tolls, conquer this object I carried, make it be for me. I knew it, and did not know what I myself would be, as Totem-Maker.
“They at the Citadel will know you have it.”
“But if they were frightened, they would send an embassy. Why be conquered? They must believe in their fire-weapons.”
“What do you say?” Shenath asked.
“I have been told it.” I had forgotten the teller was Lotoq. “By some means, by ductways we may suppose, as with any engine of fire, they make their roads impassable. To which I would answer, no magic about it, we will not fall upon them by road, then. We will learn the better way in.”
“The totem will tell you.”
This from his son did not please Shenath. He doffed his hat and struck Taztam a blow on the chest, harmless.
“No…but truly, Taztam, it is the Prince who makes war. I should hardly come into it.”
“But is it,” Taztam said, when we’d made camp and he no longer pulled a wagon, so closely quartered with his father. “Is it a wishing stone?”
I lifted a hand. The matter needed thought, the answer stating well; I did not want my hesitation to look like the concealing of dire things, a charlatan’s trickery. The answer, like the handy-come story of Alchas, was paid to me at once (wicked beast of a totem, how I would be rid of it!), couched in my moments-ago reflection. “Yes, Taztam, if you ever wish to wish for something…”
I smiled. “You may meditate for many years, like a player of the War-Maker’s game, threading out each effect of your desire to make one change in the world’s pattern. In Ami’s scheme.”
I mentioned Ami. Taztam, and others nearby listening, made the sign of piety. I did not; I hadn’t the habit. The priests did not, for priests were regarded of a caste with the lower gods. Elberin I had mirrored, growing up. I saw that I could not be a friend…no one’s ever, it would seem. They took this difference for a Totem-Maker’s semi-deity.
Now, what sort of home made a border stronghold in these lands? The clan of Ei had theirs on a promontory, perched in good defense, the winding way up unsuited to a large company.
Over the sea in the first country, our rock was soft. One type light as earth, crushable to sand with a few hammer blows. This mixed with crop seeds and broadcast over our fields kept off disease, made the soil black, the new leaves vivid. Another type made a clay that drank water, and when hardened, repelled it.
In this second country of the Alëenon, rock stood stark from the plain, deckling like leaves bound in a book, flinty grey, iron red. Sometimes the great tomes of the gods were flung on their ends. Sometimes they lay sprawled on their backs.
The rock was not much shaped by the natives. They came rather to its terms, as the Siankans had done. All the corner-posts of Lord Ei’s house were planted trees, forest lands being sparse on the Balbaecan plain…and the living trunks were studded with bone. This bone served for anchoring. That anchored, what the people had in abundance—grasses, woven into dense mats, hung in pairs, fleece stuffed between. Water flowed from the mountains, and was channeled under the flooring. The floor was snugged flagging, those myriad flat stones scattered the length of the cave road.
The plain-dwellers were herdsmen and burned manure for heat; their water-channels constructed to carry through furnaces, kept alight outdoors. And while the smells were strongly of hair and fat, and green ferment, the large unpillared rooms were swept clean, warmed with a heat that misted the skin, counter to the driving winds that had pushed us along the road, parched our throats.
At the start of our climb, the household came out bringing sweets and wines to refresh us, walking the way with us…this was the goodwill, the charm of the Balbaecan people. We entered a lower room…the levels of the promontory dictating those of Lord Ei’s house. Shenath met, and was ushered indoors by a household steward; a woman came also, who served Noakale, the Prince’s wife. We would eat with the servants and lesser retainers—an arrangement wholly contenting to me. Lifelong I had been of that quality. But Shenath himself betrayed me, though with kindest intentions.
“You must fly to your mistress and tell her our companion is the Foretold, the Totem-Maker. Mera, Lord Ei will not care to know the sal’nuhr-ostre had been under his roof, in any part denied its revered place. We should all be cursed.”
He said this, stressing all.
I did not know enough, but thought he winked at formality, put an air on for private amusement. The cursed one was not me (my impression strong that this was Jute), but I stood cursed in appearance, too odd to all eyes not to be known at once. And was I the Foretold, now, as well?
Noakale descended, herself. “Why it’s you! Such a mystery they make! And what terrible thing that cannot be named have you brought to us? Come, come…someone may like to have a talk with you.”
This fulsomeness of nature I would not have suspected. She took me up the steps with little pats and chuckles. I thought Jute had risen in fortune, that she was an intimate now of her mistress. I was daunted, but I was glad for her. I went further…it was not hard to ignore Noakale’s chatter…I hoped for Jute all the haughtiness in greeting me (refusing to do so, perhaps), that her heart seemed to feed on.
The person I was led to was the Prince.
His dwelling was a chamber made from screens and draperies; he had placed himself in his wife’s quarters, kept secret from the Balbaecans. Of their adopted tyrant’s presence, Shenath was not to be told. But Shenath stayed for hours only, and I must now stay for days.
Food was brought. That particular generosity never ebbed; among these people one did not move from outdoors to indoors, room to room, without sustenance.
Lord Ei’s cook ordered a stone loosed from the floor, a fire below fanned. A great, almost conical basin was mounted above, on four ornate feet of bronze. One servant brought a board, angled it against his hip and chopped at a slab of meat, pieces falling like tiles, sizzling out their fat. Another chopped root and leaf; from the basin’s two sides, these ingredients crossed in air, a showy dance…the cook herself finished the dish by pouring in a cup of wine.
I could not mind, as it smelled so good…but I was amply fed that evening! The rule, as in my own country, was to banquet when banqueting, show enjoyment of that given, invite no evil by speaking of evil. For such ingratitude, harvests might fail, cattle be stricken. If I must be the exemplar of the gods, then, I must be apt in manners, resting against these pillows on this carpet, tended by both households, the Prince’s own faithful, and Lord Ei’s…
Word would soon be carried to him, I thought, of the personage come to his house. Here was another I must not harm, bring anxieties to; while saying this, I confess I sat in mind of our purpose, and framed a question for the Prince:
“And so, soon you would have traveled on, in disguise as you arrived. You meant to see with your eyes this, and the others.” I withdrew the totem. I offered it, and he waved a hand. I longed for anyone to show me that courage of touching it, and my sovereign most of all. But I had not proved the opposite case, that his reluctance was cowardice.
“But,” I said, “do you see the face?”
Did he? I feared not, and that also sat with me badly. “We meet by fortune. I daresay you don’t believe it yourself. The Balbaecans are a kind and honorable people. Wise, no doubt, as regards their bargain. I have not met the ruler of the Alëenon. He trades with the Citadel. The risk is bitter, that he aligns with you, and the day will come… When he my friend the Peddler called the zhatabe will sue the gods for this land’s destruction. Well, you have seen Lotoq’s wrath. When a cause is righteous, the vengeance of those Ami’s hand restrains is more, loosed, than mankind can imagine.”
“What, again, do I not believe, my subtle young friend?”
Reader, I had set this snare, then placed my foot…his mockery I’d earned. Pride makes for temper, and temper had goaded sententious speech. “I apologize, my Prince. I’d meant to say, did you seek me at the tollhouse, the rumor would fly, though to your face they should pretend ignorance. The Balbaecans would conclude you marched with the summer.”
“I intend it. But I cannot make a secret of the seasons. It is the only time…sooner than that. I wait another muster, another fleet. The supply trains go to the first outpost, and the companies follow, when the scouts return.”
A servant poured wine. I could not know any longer, having bonded to this totem, if I acted, or was prompted to act. I sipped, wanting not to overdo…but wine or no, I resolved to leave Lord Ei’s house with the mastery. What I decided I would choose. These hints in my ear must cease, for I would hear them no more.
My advice was contrary to the Prince’s belief, that he could not spare to gather his forces over another winter, make his attack less in good, than in the best, of time. Hurry in warfare? Surely never advised…I wanted to ask, what will you do when you array your army there, when you see the Citadel rise towering to the clouds? You cannot besiege them, because you cannot get round them. Your soldiers are not your men. They are the men of three nations; they are not loyal to one another. Evil weaponry will rain agonies upon them…and what, shrinking in terror, haunted by the burned and maimed, feeling they gain nothing of worth to them now, by your promise of gold… What persuasion other than the iron fist? You will order them to keep to their camps, as though the camps could be redoubts, not doorstones for beggars. When most have deserted you, the Emperor also, because you have made yourself too weak to protect him, will ask some other Prince of your land to be his protector.
“And so, I impress you little. You sit with an arch face that disapproves. Yet in silence. Let me then repent, whatever I have done.”
Of course he was humorous.
With no formal plea for my counsel, he asked it. He, not in his own home resting more than a quarter of any year; he, the sagest of the battleworn, wanted what they all did. A magical person, whose notions about things were none such, not the equal of any thoughtful soul’s, but willed by heaven, mysterious. He would not consult his common sense, for having above mine the sum of two decades.
“No, I won’t rush you.” He had made to rise, but sank again, while the fingers of a hand concealed under pillow-fringe tapped.
I told him, “I am not a general. You do not want me for advice you had sought and trusted without…or long before…you’d known of my existence. You could name me now who travels with you, who sits with you, when you propose your attacks, when you hold that sort of council. I have at times been gifted by my patron-god Lotoq with vision. Vision tells me we do not know these people of the Citadel. My own mind says persuasion is better than brute force.”
He shook his head, and made me sorry. On his face was disappointment. “I ought to find the educated ones, the lawyers. And the talkers, the courtiers…convene a mission of dissemblers, offer sweets to the zhatabe. Forgo my attacks.”
He waited for my appreciation. That I had said something unmilitary, and with distaste, and that he mimicked this manner.
“Your aggressions,” I said.
Now he laughed aloud, but furthered his point. “Pass years in talk, make ceremony of deciding whether a line inked on cloth or paper…there! Decide that first! Shall we record these dealings by your means, or by theirs? My people record nothing. Every important matter of my life, of my charge, I can tell you now.”
“You gain something in memory from those things Wosogo keeps on your behalf.”
For this, he gave me a near hug, a hand on each shoulder, pulling me towards him. I felt my difficulty again, some wish outside propriety…
He was only telling me…
“Nur-Elom…will that do? You have a way, Nur-Elom, and it settles me. If you are this Totem-Maker as well, that is for Elberin…for Lord Ei perhaps, who, if you do not know, is captain over the city of Balbaec. For any such men as care for a thing I never have, to be thought clever.”
“They care to not be thought unclever.”
“You,” he said. “You see a difference.”
“But my Prince. All I am telling you lies…if I may be of some use…in what you took a moment ago for cleverness. You flatter me, and I like it. I don’t possess that holiness to hold myself above it…I can bed down, as it were, very cozily, in flattery. In sweets.”
I lifted one, a Balbaecan fried cake stuffed with milk curds. He took it, and returned me half.
“In admiration,” I listed on. “And in office, riches, at length in an idea of myself. I could be angry with you, or with any who sought my wisdom, and did not revere me properly. Withhold my gifts if you dared doubt my glory.”
“I do…I doubt your word. I reserve opinion as to your glory. But foresighted is foreguarded, is it not?”
“Well, yes…and I’ll not go that route. Foresight is a blessing, to be sure, but you see my meaning…I have a weakness. Lotoq loves me more than others, but he does not love me. Then, Vlan, are you only charmed, or do you understand that weakness of yours I ask you to consider?”
“Count me a poor student. We have talked too long, and I’ve forgotten.”
We lay on our cushions, alone in this room, sharing trifles and bantering. And I felt immensely flattered, teetering on my own prediction.
How many times, I asked him, are we certain in our lives of untested things? I favor the trying, when the risk is only the answer of no.
“And who is to refuse what?”
“The zhatabe. To receive a visitor. When I see him, I shall even tell him I am there to look and learn, and to carry my discoveries back to my Prince.”
“Because he’ll know it.”
“And because you are persuasive, he will surrender all to the Emperor. Thus we avoid bloody war.”
“Why…I ask you back…why war at all? Let me answer. I can live peacefully, with my tollhouse and my sheep, making and selling. I can live prosperously, may I know, at whatever time it pleases Lord Ei to tell me, whether I am a tenant, or an inheritor, or occupy my house by virtue of my totem-raising, wherefore I claim a share as mine by rights.”
“No one, I will end the mystery for you, knows what you are.”
But they had legends I seemed to belong to…
“My Prince,” I said, “name any trade other than that of soldier for which there is no need, no place, no duties…no… In fact, all these you’ve mustered for your invasion of the Citadel have trades of their own, and you’ve harmed everyone by taking them, leaving their work undone. Then, regard how the Emperor, in his endless wars, has enlarged his standing army. Here we have not the case of our fortress guards, our city guards, or the household knights of Decima and Vei…”
“Not true, I think. You are saying these guards keep order, patrol their masters’ lands, fetch and carry for him, at times. And the soldiers…”
“The Emperor’s soldiers,” I interrupted. “Don’t they…? Is your life so rarefied you have never heard the people’s complaint? Everyone despises the mercenaries. They seize the farmers’ harvests, and their good animals. Daughters become second or third wives of men who, yes, have the wealth to keep a guard of their own. Young men without fortunes cannot marry their loves. The soldiers steal wine, though they call this tribute. A bribe, in common terms, to prevent them breaking and burning. Our peasants flee to the hills, when wine fuels the army’s rampages. There is no portion for taxes, the poor farmer can’t be held to it, and if there were, that tenth of his grain and grape must go to feed the army. The Emperor wants to be rid of them, and to fill again his coffers…then, you know very well the sequel. You are living it.”
“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.