IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!



Chapter 10

THE PEOPLE UNSEEN


Monday, February 17, 2708, continued

(I run, I run, I run, I dodge around stones, twigs breaking under foot, I push through the broad catawlpa leaves and leap over the creek it grows by.  I move fast because crashing through the leaves betrays me--I must be gone before anybody checks out the noise of my going.  I run because I still can, because they haven't crushed my legs like they did Uncle Beto's, because I don't have shackles on my ankles to keep me where the work is, where the stones crushed down on Uncle when he dug too deep, because I'm so young they don't even know I'm here yet.  Only people like me can serve in Cyran's army. 

I run with Cyran's message in my throat, thick lump of orders wrapped in codes.  I swallow but it doesn't go away.  Plans change.  I don't understand them all, I just spit them out and let the leaders decipher them.  But that doesn't unburden my throat; the lump remains until I visit every leader in every village in my circuit.  Only then can I fully breathe.)

* * *

“...nobody...”

“But if they knock...”

“...won't.  Jee can...”

“...even so...”

“Relax.  Look at her, she's...”

“...could use a little of that, myself...”

“...in your dreams!”

Slowly, gradually, I wake up so confused that I don't even know how much I hurt till I try to move.  Hands push me back down.  I can't see anything but sparks of light through cloth, then I remember the blindfold, but this doesn't feel tight, it just lays wet across my face--a cold compress, redolent with herbs.  I lie in a bed, and no nature-sounds or breezes stir around me, so I believe we must have gone indoors.

I hear Cyran say, "I really hate it when we have to beat you up."

"I know," I mumble through swollen lips.  "Ruins th’merchandise."

"It's not that!"  Footsteps pace around me, making the bed spin even more.  "I hate every move that imitates our oppressors.  How much like them do I have to become to fight them?"

"Oho!  So the terroris’ has a conscience?"

"I am not a terrorist!"  The steps rush close. 

"You almos’ hit me for sayin’ that," I tell hir, "din't you?"

"I am not a terrorist," e says more calmly.  "I don't run around blowing up innocent people.  I have never targeted anything but military or government installations."  A sweet smell of pie wafts in, as though e spoke of common kitchen things.

"What about me?"

"An ambassador's aide belongs to the government--you knew that when you signed on."

"You made a mistake."  Boy, do my lips hurt!  "Wrong gov’ment."

"Ah, but I know that the Tilián don't take assignment outside of their own country without signing away their citizenship.  Like it or not, you made yourself part of the Charadocian machine."  Hir politics feel so distant, nothing I can handle or see or taste.  The scent of pie smells much more real.  Yet the bruises on my face feel real enough.

"You know an awful lot for a peasant leader."

I could almost hear hir grin.  "Yeah.  I steal books."

I groan, but they can blame it on my physical condition.  Untrained brilliant minds, feeding on whatever information they stumble across without educated discernment, building theories without academic discipline, basing action on information with major parts missing—oh, the trouble they’ve caused us agents, throughout our history!

"You still in pain, huh?"

"No kiddin’!"  I curl up on the bed, appreciating sheets as long as I have them.  For some reason I picture them a delicate primrose yellow--but why would anyone waste dye on sheets uncovered only in the dark?

"Lucky for you we stoned you right before we beat you, or you'd really be sore right now."

* * *

(“Who has the baby?”  The hoarse whispers of other scared, excited boys give the only sense of direction in the absence of all light.

“The Changewright–who else?”  Snickers in the dark.  “You think he’d let anybody else keep her?”

“I thought he said he’d keep her moving around.  Safer that way, he said.”

“And you thought he meant...” More snickers, but hushed, with that strangled sound of kids trying desperately to remember the unsafety of laughter.  “The Changewright has his own way of moving things.”

No one says anything more for awhile.  The silence now hangs so thick I can hear every fidget, every creak of old wood, even someone scratching, still not used to his wool uniform.  Out-Island hick, probably the same one who asked the stupid question.  Susurrations suggest something other than uniforms also in the room, something long, sweeping, luxurious.  And sometimes I hear the faintest clink of things picked up or laid down, slowly.  Ritually.

I try to hold back my shivering; the others sometimes brush against me; they might notice.  I'm not at all afraid, not at all.  It's just colder than normal, with the snow piling up and all, and we don't dare light a fire.

“How many know?” someone says at last.  Nobody laughs.

“That’s something you don’t need to know.”

“Hush!” somebody else hisses.  “Footsteps!”

Now I can't even hear the faintest noise at all, until the old, limping steps come near...and pass, unknowing.)

(I return to my bed, annoyed with myself for wandering out into the night, giving in to the unbearable notion that I must patrol the school, that I have something to check up on, something worthy of the attention of the Headmaster of the Toulin Academy for Young Gentlemen.  Sometimes I worry that my rationality leeches away with age.  Sometimes I wonder if anyone else has noticed.

I toss in my bed, weaving in and out of dreams.  I bear the curse, sometimes, of sleeping lucidity, yet I never seem able to change the outcome of anything.  They unsettle me, these dreams, they bruise my sensibilities with vistas of lush, steamy tropics, far from the biting cold of Toulin. 

The scholar in me studies the lines of the mountains and recognizes the geography of the Charadoc, far away south, below the equator.  Yet no textbook ever told me that the jungle flowers would overwhelm the senses with their scent, disturbingly like the perfume of...well, I can't remember of who or what, right now, and quite rightly so.  “I shall be punished all the same,” I think, even as I wonder at the thought.

And sure enough, I suffer the punishment of witnessing my worst nightmare, here in this paradise:  Young boys stagger out of the jungle, much the same age as my own charges, clutching wounds that their fingers cannot staunch, the blood bright on the rainforest green.  I cry out, try to run to them, but I might as well have become a ghost; they march right through me.  One collapses directly at my feet and I can do nothing.

I wake all alone in the dark, and almost remember why I should mourn my aloneness.  I listen to the snow pile up against the wind, softest whisper, almost not there at all.  I can't shake the nagging thought in my head:  “Something has gone wrong.”)

 

Tuesday, February 18, 2708

I hated to lose yet another day, but without Soskia's support I needed to dispense with my possessions.  Not that much left to me, now, just what can fit in a pack and a couple of saddle-bags.  I sold all the rest of it, whole crates of the stuff: clothing, games, décor, the trinkets of an indulgent life, and books and books and books on trade information, political appraisals and many other topics that I no longer need.

I sold them through Magar--a fellow on the edge of Society, not dignified by any measure save his birth.  The old man's power sinks its roots entirely in the shadows--someone to whom people must go now and then, to intercede for them in dealings with a darker world. 

To do this I had to push my things in a cart through the streets, rented on the spot, like a vegetable vendor.  Heavy—how did I come to weigh myself down with so much?

All around me people ran mad with pleasure on this, Fat Tuesday, given license by their masks to prank about in ways beneath their dignity all the rest of the year.  They started in last night at midnight, and by the time I trundled through them , in the pre-dawn blue, they had reached fine form, stinking of liquor and sweat.

Officially nobody knows anybody.  You do not recognize the magistrate shrieking with laughter as he climbs the courthouse pillar like a schoolboy up a tree.  You do not recognize Madame Patron of the Symphony, flouncing about in a merry dance, in a fairytale-peasant's short-sleeved blouse, waving her naked arms.  You do not recognize the rogues who pinch the bottoms of squealing wenches similarly masked. 

I didn't need a mask.  I trundled along unrecognized by anyone, just as I was.

Not my holiday, anyway.  I believe I used to be a Muslim.  Yes, that's the one thing that I do believe, at least, the verity of a past.

Years ago, when I first came to the Charadoc, I expected many coreligionists because of the high Arabic content of the populace.  I didn't expect Assyrians instead, all good believers in what they fondly consider the Assyrian Catholic Church, no matter how changed by Greek and Roman missionaries, come to fill in when the old priests died.  And what true Arabs I found traced their roots to Christian Lebanese colonists, in search of a land where they wouldn't be the minority anymore.

Funny thing, though, I didn't miss having anyone to share religion with.  I didn't think about religion at all.

Horns and whistles hooted and bleated around me, firecrackers whizzed over my head, shouts and drunken off-key singing reeled around me, but the creak of my cartwheels could only answer with a melancholy groan.  At last I brought myself and my earthly burdens up to Magar's house, entering per agreement by the back door, left discreetly ajar.  There I parked my goods in the shadowy gardener's alcove to which it opened--servant's entrance.  After the noisy streets it seemed a haven of respectability.

They don't keep bureaus stocked with little hospitality-gifts back there.  They never do by the back door.  I was not exactly a guest.

Magar is not as crass in person as I had been led to believe.  Indeed, his manners exaggerated propriety.  In one of the many little courtesy-rooms, where he might discreetly entertain several at once without their knowing of each other, he poured me tea with clean hands, solicitously squeezed an orange slice into my cup, and then dabbed his fingers fastidiously.  But his elderly eyes held an improper twinkle, his lips twitched just on the edge of a smirk.  Magar loves it when people have to come to him. 

"About the clothing," he said.  "It is, as you say, top quality.  And since, fortunately, you haven't had a chance to wear most of it in public, no one need know where it came from.  But the blousing you wore to the New Year's party will need taken apart and resewn to a different cut--everyone saw you in that.  That requires a skilled and discreet seamstress.  That costs money, which I fear I must deduct from your fee." 

"I understand," I said.  "But I'll keep the sportswear."

"Of course.  You will have to travel far under..." he sniffed and dabbed at his immaculate fingers, "...uncomfortable conditions."

"You don't have to think about that," I told him.  "Just tell me how I can contact the Purple Mantles."

* * *

(In my dream I have become a grizzled old man.  I can see my cracked and hardened hand by the light of the lantern that it holds, till I deliberately raise the light and blow it out, feeling my mustache stir as I do so.

Then I turn to the other grizzled old men around me and nod to them--silent advice to do likewise.  I close my eyes till I no longer see brilliant expanding blotches of color on the lids, then open them again, my eyes adjusted to making my way by what little starlight sinks through the matted leaves.  I lead the rest of the village elders by a deer-track through the brush--the children have left their footprints plain wherever toes hit dirt, but their weight crushes the grass no more than the step of a deer.  Fortunately, none of the rich know how to track such signs, and they don't know enough yet to send the Purple Mantles here.  I hope.

I find me a little cache of children, all crammed under the same bush, by the double glints of staring eyes.  "You kids'll have to learn to hold your eyes half-closed when you hide yourselves in the dark," I say with a chuckle, hoping that some of them live long enough to benefit by such knowledge.  The bush rattles as they all start at once.  Then I give them Cyran's signal, saying “Neither and both,” before they even ask, so they’ll all know I'm on the up and up. 

"Come along," I say, giving my hand to them one by one as I help them out.  "We can't go missing much longer, but we can hide you and feed you till you get your work done."

The eldest, a pimply stick of a boy, asks, "And the payroll truck?"

"Rerouted.  Cyran sent us the word.")






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