IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!
THE CHILDREN OF CYRAN
(I give the old woman a cup with which to rinse her mouth, then dodge because of course with her jaw half-numbed she misses the basin entirely when she spits. Except that she's not old, not really, no older than I. A hard life'll do it to you. And her hair isn’t actually graying, it’s just lighter than the general run; some Dutch blood in her, if the squarish bones of her face means anything. You see a lot of that in Hierry Valley.
"Where's Lufti?" I ask as I dig around in my bag for some analgesics to give her, for when the lidocaine wears off. "I want to see how his new teeth are coming in. At his age, they’ll be the last till he gets his wisdom-teeth."
She stares at me blankly. Her uncle limps up and says, "There's no one here named Lufti."
"But just last month..."
"There has never been anyone here named Lufti," he says with murder in his eyes. Lufti's mother looks up at me with fear behind that oh-so-carefully constructed blank stare.
"Ah yes. Of course." I pack up my equipment quickly, not looking at them. But then the stupid drill-arm just has to pick that moment to fall apart. Groaning, I bend for it, trying to manage it so that they don’t get too much of a posterior view, but I practically pin the man to his wall. Then I gather up the pieces, trying to tape it together rapidly while my face burns and they just stare at me.
They do that sometimes, kick the children out, hoping it’s for their own good. The overseers can't always keep track of the young ones--so many get born, so many die. They don't count till they're old enough to do the heavy work. So the kids run off sometimes, they join some person named Cyran, or at least they go looking for him. Or is it her? The name fits with either gender. Or is it anyone at all? Maybe they die the miserable death of runaways, in the brothels of the coastal towns or in the mountain mines.
My things gathered up in my arms, I pause at the bureau by the door. Sometimes they put a few nuts in there, a couple hard candies or a stale bit of biscuit, in case they have a visitor hungrier than themselves. Ashamed to even think of plundering it when I so obviously have less need than any of them, I make myself walk past without opening the little drawers, I squeeze through a hovel door that would pinch a man half my size, and escape as fast as I decently can.
Then I feel even more ashamed as I climb into the car--I just insulted my hosts, to not receive some token of their hospitality. I should've at least picked up a cheap little comb.
I hit the road, up the dirt way that curves out to pavement surprisingly soon. This valley lies very near to Alcazar, just the other side of these hills I climb, so the roads get some attention. Maybe Lufti's hiding out in Alcazar, stealing, begging, trying to do anything to keep from having to resort to the only professions actually available to the very young and very poor. Maybe I should look for him. Oh, if I could adopt everyone I wanted to!
Or maybe Cyran really exists, and has taken Lufti in. I get that old, familiar sourness in my throat, while the crazy hunger in me growls like it wants me to throw it some angry food, wants me to bite off the heads of everyone who has ever exploited children. From what I hear, this Cyran person takes in kids and trains them all for soldiers--the ones that even the overseers deem too young for the tough jobs. I rub my stomach till the grumbling subsides.
Maybe I'm fat because I'm fed up. Maybe I just want to bite, and it's not just food that I could relish sinking my teeth into. Or maybe the rottenness of the world hollows out such a cavity in me that I can't find the filling big enough to heal it.
I won't go all day without eating today. But I will not touch the food in the trunk. Instead I will drive to Alcazar and prowl from diner to diner so that nobody actually sees how much I eat. I will tear things with my teeth, I will gulp down my anger until at last I can digest it.
The road winds on ahead, looking sounder and sounder the closer I get to the capital. I'll confess that sometimes I've fantasized about revolution, myself. But if Cyran is any kind of representative, I'd sooner starve.)
* * *
Of course my legs hurt, marching uphill after such a dance. The hangover faded some time ago to little more than a nasty metallic pang, but my muscles have a longer memory. But it's not so bad--a hiking hobbyist like me can't lose that much tone in a mere month's idleness. Already my legs recall that they've done this before and liked it. In fact the slope helps stretch out the kinks. (Marching again! When are we gonna fight? At least on the ship I could get off my feet now and then.)
The hardest part, really, is not allowing Cyran the satisfaction of the least sign of weariness on my part. E did not, after all, kidnap some rich man's spoiled little princess, whatever e might think. (But now the thought of fighting scares the marrow out of me--I just imagine all these Purple Mantles coming straight at me, me alone, with knives and guns and teeth and things.)
Cyran says, "I suppose you're wondering why I brought you here."
"Ha ha," I reply. "It would be nice if you explained yourself." (But at least I'd like the chance to hurt them back for once.)
"I'm the Supreme Commander of the Egalitarian Army." E waved around him at the children and the teenagers. "These are my officers."
Figures. Revolutionaries never have rank and file--everybody's got a title.
E looks down at some of the smaller ones. "Of course, some of them are officers-in-training," e says with a wry smile. "Most." Then hir face brightens as e turns back to me. "You've heard about us, of course." (Who hasn't whispered of Cyran, in between the rows of corn, slave to slave, daring not to move lest a rustle of the stalks betray us?)
"A little." Jonathan told me that up in the hills a few misguided reformers tried to use violence to speed up the inevitable changes, but he also said that they didn't have popular support. (Who hasn't passed glances in the factory between the shadows and the glare, a lift of the eyebrows that say "Cyran!" to those who know?)
"I'm calling a halt." Cyran and I and a dozen weary little "officers" find seats on a fallen log and a couple mossy boulders. "Rashid, throw together a lunch for us--but only use the perishables." To me e says, "You'll get breakfast if we have it, lunch if we're really lucky, but don't expect dinner--we can't afford it."
"I'm not a big eater," I say. (I could eat the moon!) Good--a week or two of this should be all it takes to work off the flab of a one-month cruise. "You said you'd tell me why you kidnapped me."
"Ransom, obviously." A boy who looks like a racial mix of black and white brings us hot sausages wrapped in bread and greens. Cyran smirks at hir sandwich and says, "Luxury food--don't expect meat at every meal."
"I never eat meat with every meal." Except on that stupid cruise ship. "So avarice motivates the Egalitarians?"
E jerks my chain till I fall off the log, my sandwich in the dirt. "Don't get smart with me. Survival motivates the Egalitarians--our own, and the nation's. We can't fight for freedom if we can't buy ammunition."
"Ah, so you don't spend it on the poor." I push my hair out of my eyes and look up at him defiantly. The hangover made me docile this morning, but by now it only makes me mean.
"We are the poor. But food we can beg, steal or scrounge, usually. Bullets come harder, except the ones they fire at us, and they don't do us much good."
"You can't recycle the slugs?"
"You try gathering slugs like spring flowers while soldiers shoot at you. We do loot what we can from the enemy, when we get the chance—but only when we get the chance" In other words, they don’t see many victories. Good to know. E kicks my sandwich over to me. "Now eat your lunch--if you faint from hunger we'll have to drag you, and you won't like that."
I dust it off as much as I can. "I'm not the fainting kind," I say with my mouth full. The dirt grits my teeth, but you can't fault Soskia for the quality of her sausages. "You know, you've cheered me up considerably--that ransom note'll clear my name."
"Why? You don't screw sailors? Only studs with blood-lines?"
"I don't 'screw', period." I tug Alysha's skirt on me to make sure it doesn't expose too much leg. "I'm a proper Catholic girl."
E looks at me thoughtfully. "So'm I--after a manner of speaking."
I swat a mosquito on my ankle. "Liberation theologian, huh? You've only got one pope out of three on your side."
E tucks a bit of bread away in hir sling and says, "Hey, you're no pacifist yourself--that mosquito didn't need so much blood from you."
I actually laugh. "I wouldn't mind if they didn't spit in the wound--wouldn't itch, wouldn't spread disease. Don't tell me you don't kill mosquitoes yourself."
E rises to hir feet and pulls me to mine by the chain. "Halts over," e declares. "No, you're right. I kill high-caste bloodsuckers all the time."