IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!
CHINESE NEW YEAR,
February 14, 2708, continued
Soskia declares, "It is a tribute to our celebration of diversity that we observe the holidays of every minority within our borders, with all the gusto that only The Charadoc knows how to enjoy!"
A maid at my elbow presses a beverage into my hand that looks like fruit juice. I take a big gulp, then choke; it's not just juice. Jonathan fusses over me with a handkerchief, whispering, "It's just a wine cooler, Deirdre." To Soskia he says, "She's not what you'd call an experienced drinker.”
(Good! I've positioned myself perfectly. If I keep her glass filled she probably won't realize how much she's drinking.)
I watch a troupe of acrobats whirl and twist their way down the street, in and out of shadows, the lamplight sharp upon the glittering threads and sequins. My mouth falls open like a child's as they break all the rules that I thought pertained to human anatomy, each in perfect time with the others and the nearest company of drummers. Then comes a marching band of teenagers, led by one who spins a torch lit at both ends in dizzying patterns while her peers blast out a martial music. Then come Asiatic men and women in ancient garb of long-lost Earth, performing wild stunts on horseback, in perfect synch. Then, just to throw in an egalitarian touch, a group in kilts of red and gold plaid dance a lively, kicking jig to marchers playing bagpipes, "Chinese for the day," Soskia drawls. I sip at a drink that never seems to empty as I watch another dragon, then jugglers, then dancers, then yet another dragon, then a, then a, then so much I feel like a child watching my first fireworks show, so overwhelmed with beauty and marvel that I almost want to cry with an exhaustion of happiness.
Finally a float rolls past for Miss Chinese Charadoc. A heartbreakingly beautiful Asiatic woman rides at the very peak, waving, her arm disguised in a swirl of streamers, her gown so elaborate that it merges with the entire float, ladies-in-waiting sitting all around her in the folds. After them comes only the paper tatters of old firecrackers skittering in their wake, till the crowd closes in.
"Wait," Soskia tells me just as I stir to leave. "Now comes the Bailebelde--the national dance."
Musicians shove through spectators onto the balconies above the shops, where they push big instruments into position, or smaller ones with great, big speakers. People on the streets organize into circles within circles and take each other's hands. As the music sweeps them up they raise their arms, hands still clasped, and begin a series of steps forward and back, in and out, complex at first, but soon repeating the pattern.
"I get it!" I cry, excited that I could catch on so soon. I put down my glass and start to mime the first move, the swing of the foot before, a feint, to not actually touch the ground till it comes behind instead. The circle swells nearby just now, and a laughing man reaches out to me and takes my hand.
Now I find myself in the circle, making the stately rounds, (Look at her out there!) but soon we pick up vigor as the music speeds up. (Oh, Deirdre, they're gawking at you!) I feel coils of sweating braids slide down off my head till they slip into my face and I peer between the loops, but the warm hands hold me firm and the dance goes faster still, all the silken petals fluttering around me, wind cool on my bared arms as the fabric slides down to my shoulders. (What, after all, can you expect of Mountainfolk?) And faster still it goes, till we leap to make each step, my breath as swift as thrills, more loosened braids now whipping around me with ornaments tinkling at the ends. (Ladies don't do this, Deirdre. You reinforce their prejudices. And I have fought so long, so hard against those prejudices.)
And the firecrackers punctuate the crashing music, and we laugh and dance around the sparks like we could live forever like burning couldn't hurt, the smell of gunpowder and incense and perspiration and night-blooming jasmine as heavy as the heat upon us but our feet so light, our hearts so light, the music lifting us to heaven like each and every one of us could fly! (Yet isn't she lovely out there, the wild little thing?)
Flushed and panting I stumble back to Jonathan and Soskia, trying not to grin, but I just can't help it, the whole night sweeps me up. (Yet you looked so lovely out there, my apprentice, my daughterling.) Servants towel my arms and neck and then quickly tuck me back inside the clothes, fanning me and putting a cooler to my lips. (I have so much I need to teach you.) They wear shocked expressions as they coil my hair back in place, yet their eyes sparkle on me. (I have so much I wish I never had to teach you!)
Before I have time to catch my breath, still dizzy from the dance’s gyre, the lava-flow of highborn folk carries me back into the palace, into a ballroom wreathed in red and amber flowers, food heaped high on golden plates, between gold candlesticks set with scarlet candles. Rows of roasted chickens with the heads still attached stare out between the piled fruit and plates of fine, black seaweed noodles. Musicians strike up harp and flute for a more sedate music than what thundered outdoors.
(Fatigued already? This is too easy!) I feel a cold, moist glass pressed into my hand, and drink thirstily--then sputter and say, "This is stronger than the last. It must be."
"Nonsense," Jonathan tells me. "It's only wine, and diluted with juices at that." (Except for the shot or two of Chaummin that I added just for her.) "If you hadn't danced so hard it wouldn't burn your throat at all."
I see the raised eyebrow of reproach and hang my head. "I made another mistake, didn't I?"
Jonathan tips my chin back up to face him. "You mustn't treat The Charadoc like other countries. Here you must not merely imitate the people, you must imitate the right people."
I sip quickly at my drink, embarrassed. "I hope I haven't ruined your mission." I still have some cooler left--good, for the dancing left me parched.
Jonathan strokes my neck. "Don't worry, dearheart. Polite society makes allowances for foreigners. And Soskia circulates even as we speak, performing damage control--she's quite skilled at that." He smiles with memories. "As I have good cause to remember--I was once as naive as you, you know."
Embarrassed, I sip at my drink--and didn't I have this much before? I must not have gulped it like I thought I did--just nervous, I guess. (Everything about this goes so easily--the saints and all good ghosts must indeed be with us. I didn't expect to get a position directly waiting on the fine folk so soon, but the girl who had this slot before me got such a beating, for losing a towel, that she lies in bed below with ice packs on her bruises--not ornamental enough for a night like this. I know well, very well, how to make myself as ornamental as you please. But not the eyeliner, not this time.)
Men and women banter with Jonathan and me, made imposing by the enormous volumes of fabric draped upon them. The conversation turns to poetry. My friendclan-sister, Zanne, can recite pre-migration poetry by the hour, Byron and Shelley and Keats, Dickenson and Sundstrom, Neruda and Lorca, and the more daring of the sensual/mystical Mistresses of Haiku. It surprises even me how much I'd memorized without realizing it, how much more I could intelligently comment on just by remembering Zanne's impassioned face and the passages she emphasized. They chuckle and glance at each other like they share in the unexpected wit of a clever child, and praise me till my face heats up and I giggle half in embarrassment, sipping just to hide behind my glass.
Then I decide that I like the attention and the heady verse from men and women reckless enough to dare fling poetry at a dangerous world. I throw myself into recitation as wildly as Zanne, as if my own friendclan stood before me and I could take any risk, my heart as bare as Soskia's bosom. Heads turn at my raised voice. More people gather. Indulgent smiles give way to intent expressions, people listening for something bigger than this party, more startled than by firecrackers, more captivated than by any jugglers or acrobats that went before.
(What? Aunt Soskia invited someone interesting, for a change? And hot—that woman is definitely hot.)
This time they applaud me long and solemnly, till the roar of it could lift me in the air, I feel like my feet don't even touch the ground anymore, and exaltation flushes all through me till the perspiration breaks out anew. (Too bad she’s also Mountainfolk. Ah well.) I curtsey, Charadocian style, trip on my hem, and recover just in time on Jonathan's arm. He beams as proudly as if he really did father me. (Still, we need only worry about bloodlines in formal arrangements. And if her dance says anything, she’s ripe for an informal arrangement. Here’s to you, Wild One!) They raise a toast to me and I raise one back, and if ever before I felt this happy, I surely couldn't have been happier.
(Aha! She's completely lost track and all judgment on how much drink she's had already--much, even if they'd been mere wine coolers.)
(And Mountainfolk, they say, do informal sooooo well!)
Now Jonathan takes his turn, to recite from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, his voice softer and deeper and more droll than mine as he extols the pleasures of wine and company--even though he rarely drinks, himself. Poetry can make anything seem real. Encouraged, he launches into his own efforts at translating into Charadocian the less well-known but even more decadently delicious verses of the Khamriyyat of Abu Nuwas. I've always loved the breadth of Jonathan's education.
I smell smoke--not the scented smoke of candles or incense, but something sharper. "What're they doing over there?" I ask as I point to sparks of light out in the courtyard.
"Burning money," Jonathan says with a smile. "It's good luck on this day. The common folk burn paper and pretend it's money, but for real luck you need the real thing. Shall we join them?"
"Sure." The thought of the evening's coolness out there entices me; I'm broiling in here, cocooned in too much silk. When he pulls me through the crowd I realize that I still feel dizzy from the dance. How much of a fool did I make of myself out there? A servant follows us with a fresh cooler for me. A second wouldn't hurt, I decide--maybe I'll feel better once I rehydrate. (Out here in the dark I can increase the Chaummin—they won't notice the discoloration--three shots per glass.) Something else must make the drink taste so strong, some flavoring that I'm not used to yet. Sternly I make myself sip at it--I must accept this culture, if I'm going to accomplish anything here at all.
(Going outside? I might as well, myself. And I wonder—do Mountainfolk girls thrill the heart and challenge the body the same way mountains do, made of the same stuff, so to speak? Would you be the only one unimpressed by my exploits on the peaks? And wouldn’t that make you still more exciting--another peak to conquer?)
Smoke blurs the stars above as people crowd around the braziers, their faces as gilded as their clothing in the firelight. Jonathan puts crumply paper into my hand. “Make a wish,” he says. I wish for a chance to help The Charadoc transcend caste, and then I shove the bill into the coals, but I slip and burn my fingertips. With a cry I recoil and dip them into the drink that the maid hands me, against the ice, then just before I lick them Jonathan gives me another raised eyebrow, and so I let the maid wipe them off instead. Sparks fly up, particles of ruined money, as people laugh and send up their own hopes for the coming year. As I gaze up after them whirling overhead I lose my balance and fall against Jonathan, then hold on for dear life as the courtyard spins.
"Are you all right?" he whispers.
"I...I don't know. Maybe a little queasy."
He helps me back from the others to a bench. I press my glass of ice against my forehead, trying to cool it, then finish the last of the juice within.
He takes the glass from me and waves off a refill. "Maybe even wine coolers are a bit too much for someone as slender as yourself," he speculates, "when you danced as hard as you did."
"Are you calling me drunk?"
"Shhh--not so loud. It can happen to anyone, under the circumstances." He helps me to my feet. I realize that I need him to help me to my feet. "I think you'd better call it a night. Nobody's noticed yet." He signals over a nearby maid. "I'll tell the others that you tired early, after a long day acclimatizing to a new land."
"Tha's not far from true." (Keep the face neutral--betray no emotion! He won't remember a neutral face, with downcast eyes, the color obscured by lashes.) Minute by minute I realize Jonathan's wisdom in this, as everything seems to hit me at once.
"Help Ms. Keller to her quarters," he tells the maid. "And manage it discreetly." (Oho! He slips me a tip! And a hefty one, at that, so smoothly that none but he and I know that our fingers even brushed. He really does want discretion! Have no fear--I'll hide her better than your fondest hopes.)
(Alas! Leaving so soon? And I never had the chance to show you these mountaineer muscles, hidden under all of this detestable silk that custom requires in the public view. We could have climbed a mount or two together, you and I, once we’d shed these stifling layers of formality.)
The maid moves me swiftly and surely through the partiers and I feel giddier and giddier, as the coolers in my stomach hit the bloodstream. Entering the house smothers me with heat.
"...when I said 'national dance of The Charadoc’," I hear Soskia say somewhere, "the poor silly thought I meant everybody danced it." Chuckles break out, then the maid whisks me out of hearing. Bodies come at me and pass on by, smiling glances, crush of sweaty silk. Now they block us, now they open up in unexpected directions, so that straight travel becomes impossible and the maid has to tug me this way in that, swirling and swirling through the fire-colored bodies. The volume of my clothing helps conceal how I lean against the maid, as the vertigo gets worse and worse.
When I see the banquet table I realize that like an idiot I hadn't eaten a thing yet. Then I see all those chickens with their heads still attached amid the plates of black noodles disturbingly like hair; I swallow hard, and decide I'm not going to eat now, either.
A dark door opens before us. "Shortcut," the maid mutters. Now we pass through the unpainted corridors of the servant's quarters, a dizzying warren of blurring angles and unexpected doors. I start to protest that this doesn't go near directly enough for a shortcut, but then we go faster, harsher, the maid jerking me through turns till my head spins worse than ever. Now we go so roughly that she bumps me into walls, her fingers hard upon my arm.
"Please slow down," I plead as she shoves me out into an alleyway and the braids slide over my face again. We almost run; I stumble and lose a slipper. She drags me on without it. I keep banging into fences and walls but she hurtles faster still. "Please! I don't feel well--please slow down!"
"Shut up, bitch!" She slaps me! Alarmed, I work a twist I know on the arm that grips me, so that her shoulder, elbow, and wrist all dislocate at once. Then I stagger back against a wall, trying to figure out my next move. We are not going anywhere near my suite. The maid looks up from clutching at her arm, her own black hair in her startling blue eyes, an evil grin of sudden respect upon her face, but she is not my friend, I finally realize--and how could I have missed it, idiot, idiot! She recovers from the pain enough to approach me with caution, so I start to slide away to the left with the wall to my back to keep me upright, but then the last of the wine hits my bloodstream and I fall into a great dark rush of seething, spinning nowhere...
* * *
(I know that whistle, like a bird. Cyran taught it to me only yesterday, when I found the rebel children. I hear it like all other sounds fall away, where most folks hear only the clashing music of a thousand parties, the loud voices and the firecrackers, with the odd crash of a breaking bottle. I run as fast as my bare feet can take me, skipping around the bottle shards and the glowing ash of "money" fires.
"Over here," e whispers. I dart into the alley and there Cyran stands, hunched over, wearing a maid's uniform, one shoulder against a wall while e holds the other arm against hirself. "We'll need full reinforcements--and quickly. Where's the rest of the band?"
"Behind me," I gasp as I catch my breath. The patter of feet soon proves me right.
"You're hurt!" I hear Alysha's voice behind me. The teenager runs to Cyran, her blonde hair flying. "What happened?" I hear she got that hair from the father who fired her mother for getting pregnant on the job–‘cause she's really Mountainfolk.
Cyran grins. "Dislocations: shoulder, elbow, and wrist." I'm almost blonde, myself, from Hierry Valley where everybody looks like that, but a fat lot o' good it does me. "Lufti, Marduk, Kiril, and Rashid--carry our prize."
"I could carry her by myself," Marduk, the tallest kid, grumbles.
"I heard that," Cyran snaps. "You'll work with the team or not at all." I join the others to take up the woman--fortunately a slim one, not like some of the rich. She smells of liquor and perfume as I turn her over. I gasp when I see the face, with the make-up half-sweated off--she must be at least part Mountainfolk, too! Also weirdly familiar; didn't I see her somewhere before? Just a glimpse, maybe?
Three times Cyran stifles an “Oh!” of pain as Alysha resets hir joints. Then, as she binds hir up, e says, "Can you believe she did this to me while so drunk that she passed out seconds later? I hear she’s fought in wars."
"Great," Alysha grumbles, Now she and Cyran run behind us, my shoulder under the captive woman's, her braids against my cheek, blue-black braids as glossy as snakes. "All we need--an enemy warrior in our camp. The sooner we ransom her off the better."
"Maybe, maybe not." I hear pleasure in our leader’s voice. "A good general can always change plans at a moment's notice."
"So can a bad general, with no good coming of it." I hear Alysha yelp as Cyran smacks her butt with a sharp laugh.
"A bad general would've cashiered you for insubordination years ago, Alysha," e says. "But I value your feedback--within reason."
One braid flops against my nose and it smells like a shampoo that my ship transported crates of once—the scent got into everything. "Hey!" I exclaim. "She washed her hair today."
"So I heard," Cyran says with relish. "Washed all the luck out on New Year's Day. Bad for her, good for me.")