IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!
February 14, 2708, continued
(Ah, perfect timing--they're so pressed for extra hands, with the holidays, that they'll hire anybody, sight unseen. I take the uniform issued to "my" quarters--a neat little cell, complete with its own door. Ah, privacy! I hadn't counted on such luck. I'd worried about how to conceal my body when the time came.
Ah, what a dread mistake you made, father mine! But you have paid for your sins.
I unfold the uniform from the crackle of the tissue--they had a whole shipment come in brand new; they must have planned on many new hires. I spread out the crisp, glossy chintz in black and white on the undyed blanket of the cot. Very wide sleeves--yet they cut short halfway down the upper arm--the garb of someone "nice" enough to wait upon the rich, but not actually possessed of any real status. How precisely they measure their distinctions! Ah well, at least it will feel cool in this summer swelter.
Has my hair grown long enough again? It brushes the shoulders, but anyone could see that I’d cut it once. I braid it, frowning, then unbraid the black locks again, deciding that it looks more feminine worn loose. So? Poor girls often sell their hair--that's what they'll assume.
I study my features. More like a boy or like a girl today? A strong girl, or a pretty boy; the high cheekbones could go well with either. Makeup will tip the balance. I like eyeliner, anyway; it adds fire to my gaze. I frown at the reflection. So maybe that's a bad idea, this time. Maybe I should emphasize lipstick, soft-peddle the startling blue eyes in the dark, dark face, camouflage them under smoky smudges and a downcast gaze, with no eyeliner at all.)
* * *
I pour water over Jonathan's hands into the basin; did the pitcher weigh this heavy for the maids who waited on me? "I didn't know this floor lacked plumbing," I say.
"Yes, it's true, even in the richest mansions of Sargeddohl the fixtures only reach so far. The city has grown immensely since its first days, yet they've built their entire plumbing complex on the same outmoded system that first served the founding colonists, and have terrible problems with water pressure."
The water turns gray with his dust and sweat as he splashes off all over. "I'm amazed," I say. "Such a mixture of primitiveness and sophistication."
"The same could be said of all nations," Jonathan replies, "Including Til Institute." He towels off, then hands me the towel as he struggles back into his blousing.
"The Ancients included homeless folk, sheltering in cardboard boxes as they ran their laptop computers off of stolen batteries. Nobody's immune." He opens the glass doors to the balcony and gestures me to join him there. I hesitate, suddenly uneasy, I don’t know why, but then follow him. He takes the towel from me and tosses it out onto the slope below. With a sheepish grin he says, "We wouldn't want anyone to ask how it got so dirty. It doesn't matter; Soskia has more towels than she can keep track of."
Weird—so familiar, so strange, this view I never saw before. The mosaic-work balcony, its parapet continuing the design in almost a giant filigree, floats over a steep slope that plunges into a valley deep, deep and then lost into morning mists, intricate with foliage in breathtaking variety. Mountains rise up beyond, surprisingly steep and near, so that I feel that I could practically leap to them even without a flit. I realize that Soskia's palace nestles into a foothill of that range. The air tastes so sweet that I could almost live by breath alone, chilled from perpetually frozen peaks that make a sorbet of the perfume in the banks of flowers below us. Birds sing in sudden quavers that tug the soul with melodies yearningly unfinished, enticingly distant. The morning light makes all colors richer, brighter than real, pastel-flushed.
A shudder of unease--or shiver of delight?--overtakes me as I say, "Everything you said on the ship, Jonathan--it's all so much more than that!" Or much less? Why do I think so much less when the evidence belies me, as though I looked merely at a play of lights through a stained glass window, figures to fall through if I attempted to embrace them? I stare down at the mosaic between my feet. "Yet people stared at our car, Jonathan, all the way here."
"Because you look so lovely."
I smile, fingering the petals of silk around me. "In orange and green?"
"We like clashing colors around here. They look exciting."
"But they didn't smile, Jonathan. And nobody wore anything like what we wear."
"Oh, them." He shrugs, flicking a fallen flower-petal off the parapet. "Envy is a vice in any nation." He turns to face me, one hip leaning on the mosaic'd lace of stone. "Speaking of things couth and uncouth, how did your last mission view the licking of fingers? You did that at the Captain's table, you know."
"Did I?" I smile with memories. "Well, the Camelotish don't officially approve, but they read in it such enthusiasm for an extraordinary meal that it surpasses the restraints of etiquette--finger-licking becomes a higher form of complement."
Sternly he says, "I see that you've done more homework for there than here."
"I know everything you taught me," I retort.
He sighs, leans on the parapet and gazes out into the chasm. "Too true. I omitted many an indelicate issue. I must correct that--and quickly." He affords me barely a glance as he says, "Don't you ever, ever lick your fingers, at a meal or any other time. People here construe it as an obscene gesture. The lower castes have an entire crude sign language of this sort of thing."
"Why? What does it mean?"
Curtly yet precisely he says, "Oral sex. To lick the fingertips denotes fellatio. In between the fingers means cunnilingus."
I feel my face turn hot. "Oh. And is all their sign similar?"
"Oh, I suppose." He looks out towards the mountains and I dare ask no more.
* * *
I spend the afternoon in idle diversions, working puzzles, mostly, since Soskia has quite a collection of them, some fashioned from exquisite materials, jigsaws of malachite and agate and mother-of-pearl. (Oh my oh my oh my, Aunt Soskia has quite misplanned our fund-raiser!) Yet all around me tension sizzles till I can hardly catch my breath in sympathy. (How could she even schedule it on the same month? People will feel all worn out by the holidays and miserly with their donations.) People bustle everywhere, steps just this side of running--surely they can't keep it up all the time. Slams of doors and drawers come to me muffled from other rooms. (And the need is so great, so very, very great! How could she!) Servants bear armfuls of hot-hued evening gowns and decorations, crates and crates of chickens squawking their way to the kitchen, elaborate, bobbing lanterns of gold and red of no design that I remember studying for this culture, and once I could have sworn I saw someone carrying what looked like a dragon's head! (Oh, I'm sure the dear old thing means well. But the timing! I mean this is perfectly insane! Why, the cost of reroofing the facilities alone could be met by half of what people tonight will squander on decorations. The old building won't stand up to the monsoons--already the leaks have become a disgrace.)
I fit a topaz into a mandala design and shake my head. I probably saw nothing more than one of those enormous bouquets that they've been hauling around lately, full of some kind of tillandsia that has petals like scales or tongues or spikes. (I mean, we should all be ashamed of how tight-fisted we've become to the Old Opera House.)
As I study the puzzle, I struggle to recall something about a dream on board our ship--because part of it came true. I know for a fact that I’ve looked out from that glorious balcony with Jonathan before, first a deep space plunging before us into rainforest, and then gazing up and up and up at mountains steeper than any I'd grown up with. I had smelled those same sweet flowers on the breeze, felt the same mosaic rail beneath my hands.
I know that I dreamed that before! I only just realize it now, after the fact, yet nothing could be more sure. I distinctly recall waking up gasping in my berth, sweat gluing my hair to my face; then I told myself, “It was only a dream, Deirdre, don’t worry about it.” I'd figured I must have dreamed of the mountains of Camelot, though none of those have such thick vegetation climbing up their sides. I had kicked off the hot blanket and let the motion of the waves slowly rock me back to sleep.
But what about the rest of the dream? What woke me in such horror? I frown over a leaf-shaped beryl, lay it back down unplaced in the pattern. Something about Jonathan donning a special protective suit? Somewhere in some basement down, down below the balcony--or maybe high in a mountain cave, or maybe on some other world entirely. But it happened in a darker space, a closing-in kind of place different from the start of the dream. No--the same place, somehow, yet not--oh, I don’t know! Stupid dream.
But I know that he pulled on that suit, of the old asbestos cloth that they used to make on Earth—a poison protection. Yes, I recall some more, now...admiring people watched as he pulled on and fastened the gloves, as he tightened the bolts that held the helmet in place; they assured me that he has done this many times before. He impressed the crowd with his expertise, a cavalier wave when he ducked to enter some kind of kiln or oven; heat beat out from it even to where I stood, and a burnt smell hung on the air. But just as he began to enter he discovered that somebody had tampered with the controls, turning the heat way up this time. He hesitated--I could feel his fear; it became my own. But then he went on in--the people required it of him! His normal protections wouldn’t work but still he went on in!
A tinkling sound tells me that my fists coming down on the table have scattered all the sparkling little puzzle pieces. I pick them up to start over again, embarrassed to let the fragments of a half-forgotten dream disturb me so. And yet...how did I dream of that balcony, before I had ever seen it?
"Milady?" I look up to see the same maid who did my hair this morning. "It's time to dress you for the Holiday."
"Holiday? And what holiday might that be?"
She actually smiles. "Oh, you'll see."
I surrender to her and two other maids who whirl me this way and that like children dressing a doll. They coo over the possibilities in so much hair, twirling it in their fingers while I try not to move my head. They hold up swatches of chiffon, first this color, then that, all different kinds of red or rose, then they despair and resort to cosmetics to lighten my face. They powder me in clouds of scent till I sneeze, then quickly wipe the mascara from my streaming eyes and start all over again.
It alarms me at first, but then I actually enjoy it. Not the messy feel of cosmetics, not the tangle of fabrics tugged over me or the breath-catching tweaks at my hair, but their pleasure, their eyes twinkling at this opportunity for artistic expression upon the person of a foreigner with absolutely no opinion in the matter.
I gasp when they stand me at last between two mirrors to witness their masterpiece. I don't recognize myself! No--really! I see a Caucasian princess with exotic eyes, her hair an intricate confection of darkest chocolate braids interlaced with sugary strands of pearls and garnet berry-clusters, looping up into a mound of filigree. Cherry mists drift around her, edged in gold, and rings glint on her fingers while a pendant of coruscating opal nestles in the notch below her throat, and her expression knows more than I could guess.
"Does it please my lady?"
"Please?" I gasp. "You both amaze me!"
They tense until they realize that I mean it in the best of ways, then they break into sudden giggles of relief. They bustle me out the door, crying, "Hurry! The parade's about to start."
The maids respectfully shove me into a stream of Charadocians all more fabulously arrayed than I have seen in any land, every man, woman and child of them in eye-stinging variations of red and gold, a river of fire, each person a flame in the flow to erupt out the double doors and into the streets as inexorably as lava. Now and then I cool my gaze on the servants at the perimeters, liveried in cinder-tones of black and white, as they fetch frosty drinks and fans for their masters and mistresses pressed into the sweating throng, all of the worthies unable to cool themselves by baring a little arm.
"Deirdre! Darling! There you are!" Soskia swims through the crowd, her face already shining through the makeup, the glitter melting off her cheeks. She drags Jonathan with her by an elbow muffled in fluorescent pink. "I thought we'd never find you!" I smell by her breath that she has started the party early.
She pushes me and Jonathan ahead of her, bawling, "Make way for the Ambassador and his daughter!" While Jonathan's face changes color to rival his garb, I trust the din of the crowd to cover my giggles--I've met my mother, and I know that she was the white parent.
Out into the night we spill, impelled by the crowd as much as Soskia, out under a thousand lanterns looped on garlands of wire up and down the street, light blazing off our colors with the deepest shadows all around.
"Out of the way!" Soskia shouts to everyone she shoves us into. "The ambassador goes up front!"
I hear gunfire and grab Jonathan, but the crowd won't let us dive for cover. "Relax. Relax!" He puts a fatherly arm buried in silk around me. "It's only firecrackers." He explains to Soskia, "She has served Til interests in several war zones these past few years."
"Oh! The poor little thing!"
(They needn’t know, of course, that she last did so in a revolution. She never shot anyone, herself, however. That matters. And of course her latest mission upheld a monarchy, after all.)
Jonathan smiles on me, overflowing with fatherly pride, indeed. So why did I pick up a flash of tension from him, just now?
As Soskia parts the crowd we stumble on the curb, the very edge of the parade. A dragon with a thousand human legs dances before us, the face a spiky double-mandala of all colors imaginable, eyes rolling insanely, incense steaming from the nostrils, fangs bared in the horrifying grin of one who loves you for your taste. Twists of paper and gunpowder whiz and crackle everywhere, sparkling, making the street magical and dangerous. Up and down the streets a crazy percussion of cymbals and drums pounds complex and conflicting rhythms from one team of cart-hauled musicians to the next.
"Welcome to Chinese New Year, Charadocian style!" Soskia proclaims with pride.