IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!
Just When Things Seem Most Hopeless
Friday, April 3, 2708
Oh God, I am so sick of Chaummin! I don't even want to think of the stupid stunt I pulled that made the landlady turn me out on the road. How could I forget an essential article of clothing when I can't ever forget anything I want to?
Yet here I sit in another cantina, just down the road in this godforsaken village that sells more booze than food, drinking the same brown stuff all over again. You drink it because you hurt, Jonathan, even though it causes more hurt, but it's sort of like getting in debt, borrowing money here to pay a debt there, and the debt gets bigger and bigger, but for the moment you get by. You get by. You drink because you hurt, and then you do something stupid, and you drink so that that won't hurt you, either, and then you do something even stupider and have to drink more to cover that up, till pretty soon you forget how it all started but that was the whole point but it doesn't do you any good anymore.
Except I haven't forgotten--I almost do, now and then, but it always comes back. I just don't care anymore, I feel too low and dirty to care about anything--what's one more sin? I can keep my peace if I just don't care, don't think about what I used to be, what I used to believe in, it might all come back if I ever stopped drinking and that would hurt even worse than this ulcer gnawing me to death from the inside out.
So why'd she have to come into my life and make me care? Pretty little thing, dark hair cropped to just above her shoulders, flat as the beer they serve around here but who has curves anymore in this gnawing-hungry world? Wears too much eyeliner, makes the blue eyes look as hot as an alcohol flame. Calls herself Cici. Shared a drink with me, but only one.
"I hear you've been looking for Cyran," she said. Where'd she hear that? When did I let that leak out? Mercy of God, but I might have said anything, on any number of nights. Sanzio had the right idea--I'm a goddam security risk; it's a wonder I'm not dead.
I didn’t answer her, just looked at her over the rim of my glass, trying to size her up.
"I can lead you to Cyran, if you pay me well enough." She eyed my wallet lying right there on the bar in front of me and I mentally kicked myself--another thing I haven't kept secret enough. I couldn't even remember leaving the stupid thing out in the open like that, but there it lay.
"We'll see," I said, trying to shape my face like a hard bargainer. "First you tell me what makes you an expert on Cyran."
Brazenly she stared me down, without a blink, and said, "I share his bed."
"Oho!" I laughed, "So Cyran's a 'he'! That alone is more news than I've gotten from anybody else."
"No one knows Cyran like I do," she said.
"And you'll betray your lover--for what?" Again she eyed the wallet, but I slipped it away this time. "No, don't try and tell me that that's the whole picture; you wouldn't even think about the money unless you'd had a falling-out. Now tell the truth."
That disconcerted her. Her lip actually quivered for a moment before she said, "Maybe he wants to meet you. Maybe I win both ways."
"And maybe I'm the King of Candy Hill." I handed her a bill and slapped her rump. "Here, go buy yourself a dinner--a good sized one; you need meat on your bones--and I'll think about it."
"How 'bout if you buy me dinners along the way, but no more payment than that till we reach Cyran?"
"I said I'll think about it. Now get over there to the grill before I change my mind." Whereupon she proceeded to order a feast that made my stomach hurt just looking at it. I haven't been able to stand the sight or smell of food for a couple days, now. It didn't help that she also came back puffing happily on a cheap cigar.
"Hey!" I cried. "Who said you could spend my hard-earned cash on tobacco?"
"It's my cash, now," she said with an insolent twitch of her hip as she blew smoke rings at me. "You gave it to me."
"That stuff'll kill you," I told her, but she just looked at the refill in front of me and laughed. She's right, of course--I certainly have felt better. In fact, I'm going to turn in, soon as I finish this entry. She already has, hours ago.
Maybe I'm being a fool to even consider following this tramp around, but hey, that's my modus operandi lately--playing the fool. And what other leads do I have? What else can I do with my time? And what's the harm, if a crop-haired doxy gets a few good meals in at an old agent's expense? At least I can spend my last few days pretending to do what I set out to do, salvage some bit of dignity in that. I never really had any hope, anyway.
* * *
I stroll the (stony beach of paradise, scoured by the wind.) Bare, windblown rock of a paradise, but I see, over the brow of the bank, the orchard trees in bloom, and I know that a little further on a rich garden thrives, full of wintered-over root crops and the sweetly blossoming vines of beans and peas. My mouth waters (with the thought of those potatoes and parsnips and the deep gold carrots, and I catch the scent of sweet peas and apple blossoms intermingled with the ocean tang. I turn towards home…)
But thunderheads roll over me, rumbling and flashing with anger. I hear Eve wail, “We’re going to Hellllll!” And the storm whips down on me, raking me with claws of hail and scourging me with wind, dragging me down into the surf (and into the salt waves I tumble, drowning in my outcast state, in a sea of tears, an endless ocean of remorse without a shore!)
But then I wash up onto hard, cold cobbles. Gray coast, frosted rocks; I know that (everything will always be gray from here on out, without my) Eve, whom the snake has slain. High above me a stone wall rears; I figure that if I can just crawl up to it, pass its gates, it will keep me (safe from all storms, though the cold will never leave.)
But then I turn my head, and see another way. The lighthouse of Winnait Point, in Til Institute! If I go there (if I dare such a dangerous direction) I can find real hope! I turn to it; the lamp’s light bathes me in a wonderful (terrifying) rosy (bloody) glow, that I revel in (shudder in) revealed! My rescue (soon must come.)
(In my vision I stand at Winnait Point, tall, taller, taller than that, taller than any building around me, on the very brink of the cliff over the stormy sea, its moist wind tumbling in my hair. And I raise up my arm, my magentine focus gripped in my hand, cold but quickly warming as indeed I warm all over, one with it, and it throws out a sunrise glow far, far, across the ocean, and I feel so radiant and good, doing something so very, very right, putting all of my Til training to good use. My rescue soon must reach them.)
I wake up hungry, but full of hope. (I wake up shivering.) My Til training will see me through. (Could I ever even consider such an outrageous solution?) I turn over, reassured, and go back to sleep. (And yet I feel this strange comfort, as I turn over and try to go back to sleep, though the old school seems draftier than ever, and the quilt no help. As a last resort, if the strangeness gets too much, I suppose I could send a message to the legendary Tilián. The fantasy eases my heart. They have come to the aid of nations more remote than Toulin, or so I’ve heard. And with that last, impossible thought, I relax into better dreams.)
(My mood shifts downward as I come back out of the trance. “Soon” is relative, from the perspective of, say, a cave-painting. And with that odd thought I finish weeding Randy’s garden.)
Wait a minute. Wake up. Did I just dream of being male?
* * *
"Over there! Look!" Rashid frantically shrugs off everything he carries except for a machete. He stumbles almost like running to a stubby little palm poking up through a crack in rock, half-choked in rattling vines, and hacks at it like a madman.
"Slow down!" Alysha protests. "You'll faint before you finish at that speed--here let me help." She lays Branko down to drowse in the ferns of a dust-pocket, and pulls out her own machete. Marduk joins them as soon as he realizes what they're up to, and the three of them manage to chop enough of a wound into the sapling till they can throw their weight against the trunk and snap it open the rest of the way. Even I can see the oil well up in the palm's delicate heart.
"Cooking palm," Rashid says with satisfaction, licking oil off his fingers. Already his eyes light up with new energy. "I've never seen it grow this high up before." The small ones sit up and rub their eyes at the hopeful words.
"A bird must've dropped a seed this way," Alysha says as she cuts out the heart and distributes its delectable petals to each of us. I nearly swoon over the subtle taste, the silky, oily texture on my tongue, this most caloric of all vegetables.
I shake my head, smiling. My Til training had nothing to do with our rescue after all. (I throw open the shutters, smiling. A bright and beautiful morning, warming in the spring sun, awaits me, full of flowers in the garden, fresh-faced students walking to their classes, brimming with innocence and joy, and no need of rescue after all!) And then I frown. Dreams don’t come for no reason. I will need all the training I have in the days to come, I feel, even if (even if I do deserve to go to hell) if…I don’t know what.
"You're all going to feel sick in a minute," Alysha warns us, "But do what you can to not throw up. You need to keep it in." Nausea and cramps hit my stomach almost before she finishes speaking. Of course--we've lost all tolerance for food this rich.
Kiril, revived, says, "Fix your eyes on something that don't move. That always helps on ship. And press your wrist...here." I do as she says and the queasiness abates a bit.
"We'll rest until the cramps subside," Alysha orders, "but no longer than that. We're almost home." She turns to ginger-hued Rashid and nods to him gravely. "Smart boy, Rashid," she says. "You may have saved our lives."