IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!



Chapter 16

UNCOMFORTABLE NECESSITIES


Friday, March 6, 2708

I hold in my hand three pieces of cherry red taffeta, as soft against my hands as fond memories, as frayed as memories, too.  I can make out stitch-holes along the edges where some rough hand ripped out the trim--look, there, even a bit of golden thread remains.  Sanzio scouts for more.  They distribute over a range of village rag-shops, but they show us a general direction that Deirdre's captor has taken--northeast. 

We got one piece before the shop even had time to wash it up for sale.  Sanzio took a sample of the dust on it, but it turned out merely to come from the alley behind the Peshawr Mansion.

I hold it to my face this very minute, to stem the streaming tears, to smell again the scent of her perfume that night, and also the sweat of her beautiful, beautiful dance that I'd judged so harshly, the moment which might've been the last time I will ever see her blithe.

But now I smell something else--strong.  I know that odor from somewhere, that distinctively harsh molasses/resin heaviness.  It has been so long...Chaummin?  The potent liquor of the peasant folk?

I couldn’t help it.  I crumpled the fabric in my hand so hard that my nails tore through.  Some low-life deliberately spiked my little girl's drinks right under my nose!

 

The transcriber unfolded a single square of taffeta.  She sniffed it, but it didn't smell like anything now save mildew.  Soft though, still delicate to touch despite the stains and moldering–and yes, the little tears from Jonathan’s grip.  And what happened to the other two?  The manuscript specifically said three.  She shook her head, tried not to think about it, but...and she just had to have brought cherry-flavored toothpicks, today, worse luck.

* * *

Dappled light on my eyelids slowly wakes me up.  I sway comfortably in a hammock, and find myself in perfect contentment until I move my arms.  (Ooooh, my arms!  I haven't done that in so long!)  I'm no weakling, but all of my upper body exercise has involved lifting weights, not hours and hours of pulling a heavy grindstone across resistant roots.  I should've worked out more at rowing or something.  (Why did I ever think that revolution would put scullion drudgery behind me forever?)  I mustn't show my stiffness, however; the others probably do this sort of thing all the time.  (If Cyran asks us to march thirty miles I'd rather do that than scrape a single root--but it'd be just our luck we'd have to cross hand-over-hand through vines or something.)  I make myself rise with a great yawn and a stretch, declaring, "Oh, what a beautiful morning!" 

Groans break out all around me.  A glow of satisfaction suffuses me; I scored this round.

"Good news, troops," Cyran declares.  "We'll have to spend all morning leeching the root-paste, then boil it all afternoon.  Maybe tomorrow as well.  Day after that we spend the whole time drying it over fires."  E looks up as yet another pattering of rain just starts to hit the leafy awnings that we wove the night before.  "No use trying to air-dry it in monsoon season."  E looks around with deep satisfaction at the impenetrable jungle that we’ve somehow penetrated.  "We've got a good location, with clean water nearby, and no one within sight or smell of our smoke.  I think we're going to have to stay put for awhile--everybody rests."

A cheer goes through the camp.  It hurts even to braid my hair, but I can't stop grinning, myself.

 

Saturday, March 7, 2708

I had to spend all day in a filthy hovel waiting for a message to catch up with me.  No modern means of communication exist out here on the trail of Deirdre's captors.  Of course not.  The slovens who own this shack claim that they never have time to clean their own quarters, especially in the tail end of summer, with the days so long and harvest coming on.  Excuses--decent people make the time to take care of their surroundings.  Who could be busier than an ambassador?  Why did I ever bother trying to elevate such shifty, chaummin-swilling scum?

I checked out the hospitality-bureau by the door out of custom, not from any desire.  It had nothing to offer but cast-off junk--a rusting razor, some unclean-looking bits of soap, a handkerchief whose history I did not want to learn, and what looked like a good (probably stolen) watch till I discovered that it didn't work.  I saw no "gift" in there that I wanted to dirty my baggage with.

I had to sit there, breathing mildew fumes and scratching flea-bites, until Magar's messenger caught up with me, scented handkerchief fastidiously pressed over his nose; he looked down on me just for occupying such quarters, even though a mere servant, himself.  I didn't waste time correcting him; I tore open the message while he complained that I should tip him first. 

I tossed a few bills in the grime for him, as I read what Magar had learned from Soskia's household.  A maid, hired only that day, had disappeared the same night that Deirdre did.  Only no one remembers her face, and she doubtless didn’t use her proper name.  She could well have been the one that I paid to discreetly remove Deirdre from the party.  I don't remember her face, myself.  Acid burns in my stomach till it feels like my ulcer could eat up the entire room. 

Maid.  Figures.  Low-life.  Why'd I ever bother?

* * *

First we dig a trench.  I do most of the work, as the largest.  Strange, to connect largeness to myself; I'd always enjoyed my diminutive status among my beefier friends.  But next to ill-fed children, stunted all their lives, I loom like a behemoth, this great, muscular thing clattering around in chains, heaving a pit out of the dirt for them.  (Farmer had a dog like that, in the days before the ship.  Big ol' shoulders moved just like hers where she's rolled the sleeves away.  Big ol' thing--Farmer said he'd feed me to her if I didn't move along and get out of Papa's way.)

And why don't they unshackle me again like yesterday?  Where could I go?  Is it that my labors make them realize just how strong I actually am, that they didn't kidnap some mere debutante?  It heartens me, that I scare them just a little, that I make them reevaluate.  All the same, the chain gets in the way.  (I can see the ol' bitch now, straining against those chains, growling and whining like a hundred dogs, barking like the sound itself had teeth.)

I find the labor easy, other than that.  It works the kinks out of my arms with a more familiar motion; my muscles remember archaeological digs--my second favorite hobby.  The shovel practically falls into the soft, damp earth, and the fragrance almost nourishes me of itself, richer than the clay and sand of home.  Birds sing overhead, darting bits of color in the leaves.  Blood pumps tingling through my limbs and the sweat unclogs my pores and I feel happy, actually happy.  (I fooled Farmer, though.  Farmer never pet that dog, maybe never dared.  I brought her bits of my own supper--bet he never thought I'd spare enough for that.  I made a friend of that dog.)

Cyran walks by, a pack on hir back.  Only then does it dawn on me that e hasn't joined me as the only other adult.  "I have business to attend to," e says, "alone.  Alysha will lead you all to Home Base."

The teenager snaps to attention and salutes hir way too stiffly, eyes wide and distant, a crease troubling her brow. Marduk tenses, then gets back to work, his face studiously averted.  The rest seem perfectly content with this arrangement.  I keep on digging, too.  I laugh when I realize that I dig in squares, like on a site.  (Some cold nights I'd sneak into her doghouse, to sleep against her warm and heaving side.)

"That's deep enough, Deirdre," Alysha tells me in a voice firm to the point of brittleness.  "Now let's pile in the firewood.





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