IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!
In another room of the debriefing complex, a businesslike woman took her shift at typing the battered old diary into Archives. "Looks like you've been through a war," she said to the dog-eared pages, then she noted the red-brown stain along one side and wondered how uncomfortably close to the truth she came. Agents didn't go to untroubled corners of the world.
No drugs bothered her attention to duty as she noted where the last transcriber left off, and switched her own console on. She hadn't a spot of psychometric ability, and wouldn't have known what to do with it if she had.
Psychometrists had already held the book and sent the emotions streaming from it into Archives; now it remained for a pragmatic soul like her to insert the words, the context. She didn't pay attention to what she typed, even; they traveled in a loop from the page to her eyes to her fingers then onto the screen below the propped-up book, barely brushing the brain. Words might not drive you crazy like the direct, concentrated flow of information could, but she looked at the zombies that she worked for and didn't take chances. She never needed any sedation past an occasional belt of Molchian Single Malt at the end of the day, and that's the way she liked it.
Til didn't like it this way, though, she reflected as the keys clicked a soft staccato under her fingertips. They hated having to take a report from a dead agent's diary--agents weren't supposed to keep diaries, for one thing. But this old gent had retired and earned a little leeway, in fact had never intended to come back to Til alive, anyway. She shrugged, her fingers still flying, lips curled around a cinnamon toothpick that she chewed on to distract herself. They'd just have to settle for good ol' fashioned print--better for them, she thought, and better for her. Enough documents came back in script alone to keep her employed, and that suited her just fine. She looked forward, in fact, to transforming the weatherstained, faded words into something clear and black and legible, something that one could print, at will, on crisp, white sheets of paper with the edges flat and square.
"Well, Jonathan Sulieman Kaskin-Drury, let's see what you have to say."
Saturday, February 15, 2708
It disturbed me in the morning when Deirdre didn't join us for breakfast. When I didn't find her in her bedroom, Soskia laughed in that loud and irritating way she has sometimes, and said that "the little tart" must have found someone else's bed to sleep in. I told her that Deirdre wasn't like that, but she just raised an eyebrow and said that all men think that of their daughters.
I have a lot to do today. More of my luggage has arrived in port, and I have to get the office presentable by tomorrow for all of the notables that have already lined up appointments to talk to me--Til has neglected the trade situation in these parts for far too long.
Yet I keep thinking about how helpless Deirdre seemed last night, naive and making glaring errors, too lovely in the very midst of those errors for her own good, and so vulnerably intoxicated on nothing more than a couple of wine coolers and a wild dance. Could some young grandee have swept her off her feet before the maid got her to safety? Did someone watch the situation and come in after? I wouldn’t be much of an agent if I didn’t notice that Soskia’s nephew, Cherone, for one, had an eye on her. Still, the servants seemed in complete control of the situation--they must've handled this sort of thing before. Yet if milady wanted company, who were they to question it?
I worry too much. She's a grown woman, and can't remain a virgin forever. I will have a few sharp words with her, nonetheless, when she shows up again. It is completely irresponsible of her to simply disappear and not leave me so much as a note--not on our second night here, before we even have the embassy set up. She must have been even tipsier than I thought; she would not have dealt with me this way otherwise.
I would handle it even better if I hadn't overheard some anonymous voice behind us mutter "Blood will tell."
* * *
(Ohhh, she's so pretty.) (She's scum off the nobleborn cess.) (She's better than us.) (She has aligned herself with monsters.) (She's this frail little play-toy of the rich and powerful.) (She's combat-trained and dangerous.) (She's Mountainfolk like some of us.) (She's half something else, something we don't know, but it’s tall and it smells like rich.) (She's probably smart, well-educated.) (They have taught her many, many lies.) (She looks so helpless sprawled there in the dirt with her hair in her face, she looks smaller than her chains.) (She's bigger than us, older, better fed.) (She dislocated Cyran's joints in three places at once.)
I try to pretend that I haven't yet awakened. If I move I will hurt. My skull pinches my brain evilly and thirst sickens me, but my bladder insists that I can't lie here another minute without attending to its needs. The first thing I notice when I stir is that my legs hurt even worse than my head; they don't want to hold me up, not when I danced so hard after a month of idleness on ship-board. The second thing I notice is the chains. Memories crowd back till my headache redoubles. Did I really believe that a little muscle-cramping could compare?
"Oho! She's alive!" I open my eyes to rainforest, no human construction in any direction. I blink and focus on the maid who’d dragged me out into the alley--arm in a sling, hand bound up. She wears male clothing mismatched in caste, in flag-bright colors, and heavy eyeliner that makes her blue eyes blaze in her dark, Mountainfolk face. I hadn't noticed any eyeliner last night, but I could easily have missed a lot.
"I need to pee," I say humbly. "Could you let me off my chain?"
"Not quite," she (she?) says, "But Kiril here can take you over on a leash." A little girl with bare arms and dun-colored hair undoes the restraints upon my hands and feet, and takes up the remaining chain that fastens to a leather collar on my neck.
"I recognize you!" I exclaim. "I saw you on the ship that brought me here." She freezes, a wary animal look on her face, where the bruises have reached full color, (and her eyes so dark in the injured flesh) but the cuts on her hands look pink and healed. I brush my own slightly-burnt fingertips in sympathy.
"It's all right, Kiril," my captor says. "She's in no position to make you go back to Cook."
Kiril gives my leash a jerk and leads me to a bush where I at least have privacy from the others, but she keeps me in line of sight, with a knife in hand. I could easily overpower her, but what then? She’d cry out, and her leader wears a gun. Maybe others, too. For that matter, I don’t know where I am…yet. I need more information before I make my next move. When she leads me back my captor offers me a gourd.
"Water. I daresay you could use it."
Gratefully I gulp it down and my hangover subsides a bit. Then I wash off all the Caucasian makeup. Carefully I watch my captor as I do so, out of the corner of my eye. Jonathan drilled me in the sumptuary laws of the Charadoc: men wear this, women wear that, don't ever mix them, but I see the maid pull on men's sandals over women's hose. I set the gourd down beside her. "Any food to go with it, Ma'am?" I ask. "I'll feel better still if I force myself to eat something."
My captor laughs harshly at that. "Food? I give you water and now you want food, too?" She turns to those around us--entirely children and teenagers--and says, "Isn't she typical of her class?" They all laugh with her.
"I didn't get supper last night," I say meekly.
"Most of my soldiers hadn't eaten for three days until I brought them what I could loot from Peshawr's kitchens. You miss one meal and you're falling apart."
"I didn't say I was falling apart, Ma'am." I hold up my head. "I just thought I should explore my options."
"I'm not Ma'am." Even saying this my captor starts to put on feminine jewelry, struggling with one good hand: a diamond and emerald locket much too rich for a serving-girl, and a seed necklace from the hill country. "I'm not Sir, either." Now come bangles of metal and of wood, holding a bangle in the teeth to slip it on the good hand. "I am Cyran."
I assess the strong but slender chin, the tiny breasts, the lean hips only slightly flared, the hint of mustache. "Memsir," I say in Tilianach. They have no honorifics for hermaphrodites in Charadocian.
E shrugs on bandoleers, lifting the necklaces over them, tucking the sling around with a little help from an adolescent blonde. With bitter relish e says, "Sometimes it takes a freak, forced from birth to live outside society, to see what's wrong with it." Guns go into holsters; then e dons the dangerously impractical earrings--several in each ear. "So my fine lady will have to endure the company of a freak for this stage in her education."
I look on hir with compassion. "I had a very dear friend, Julie Quorentin, neither male nor female, who died three years ago. I've missed hir ever since."
Eyes widening in rage, e slaps me like last night, but this time the chain jerks me back, choking, before I can dislocate the other arm. Now a big kid and two smaller boys wrestle me down to cuff my hands again. "I don't need you to patronize me! Everyone has a 'dear friend' who turns out to be some bootwiper or privy-cleaner that they deign to associate with for their own benefit." E waves hir arm with its too-wide flaglike sleeve and calls out, "Time to move, troops! Pack up camp and let's get out of here."
"Can I get out of this ridiculous petal dress first?" Ruffles drag frazzling gilded embroidery in the dirt. "It doesn't seem designed for travel." Why should I, a captive in disgrace, endure these sweltering trappings of status?
E grins, then suddenly slashes my clothing off with a knife. I don't give hir the satisfaction of flinching; anyway my head hurts much too badly to care.
"Waste of a saleable dress, Cyran," Alysha says.
"Not at all." Hir eyes glint appreciatively as e gathers up the tatters. "We can sell each petal separately--with the embroidery picked out--to rag-shops in the next big town. It's good material, even in pieces. The whole dress would've led the Purple Mantles right to us."
"We'd best do it soon, then, get 'em scattered before they start to look for her--otherwise we'll leave a gold and crimson trail."
I toss frayed braids out of my eyes. "They're already looking for me, by now," I say.
Cyran just loves to chuckle, though the bitter current runs through and through. "Not when plants of mine among Peshawr's servants swear they saw you leave with a handsome sailor-boy. Kiril noticed how you'd blush and smile to watch them work." My face turns hotter than the tropics all around me. "They'll believe it of a Mountainfolk girl, however her make-believe father tries to dress her up." (Nobody sees me filch a piece of that silk, as sweetly red as berries. Nobody sees me slip one torn petal inside my shirt to slide against my skin. Until last night I never touched anything like it.)
Cyran then turns and says to Alysha, "Find something for her to wear in your gear--you're about the same size." As the blonde pulls from her pack a peasant's long gray skirt and an undyed shirt with narrow sleeves, Cyran glances at my feet, which lost the other slipper sometime in the night. "Shoes you'll have to do without until we can steal or make you some. Oh, and one more thing." E rummages in the gear till e comes to a thermos full of seaweed noodles. "We do have a little something left for your breakfast." I wolf down their salty, mineral tang before I can even ask myself whether I like the taste.