IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
Saturday, May 16, 2708, continued
No night falls so black as in the jungles of the Charadoc, canopy under canopy under clouds. No one could've invented astronomy down here. We have only the constant twinkling of sounds for stars, the drip of water here and there, the night-hawk and the chittering bat, the cricket and the cheeping poison-frog. By ambient sound we steer towards a clearing at last, dead tired, groping past trunks, through vines, till trunks and vines all finally fall away and we step into the faintest glimmer of mist-veiled stars, still beyond distinguishing face from face.
Lucinda whistles "Friends!" and other bodies, barely guessed at, emerge from shadows of shadows. Hands lift our packs and weaponry from our shoulders. I hear a liquid sound and find my fingers guided to bowls of cool water to wash my travels off of me. Now someone unfurls my sleeping bag for me; with a groan of relief I strip off my clothes, unbraid my hair, and sink down into it.
Now, half-reclining, we pass the pipes around, sharing a tobacco communion. The glow gives hints of old and new faces, nothing clear enough to need introductions all around as yet, just tantalizing glitters of eyes or gleams of cheeks in fiery orange-gold.
Dark--but nothing at all like the dark of the cave. Dark rioting with scents and textures and living sounds and human touches anonymously kind--a kind of brilliance of all the senses save for sight. Contentedly at last we tap out the spent ashes, then snuggle into our covers for the night. Lucinda stretches herself out onto the hard ground with an extravagant sigh, murmuring, "Who needs pillows? Y'can get soft like the pillows, if you don't watch out. Gimme the good dirt under me--makes you sleep light, sleep safe.”
Sunday, May 17, 2708
In the morning we get potato mush for breakfast and a good look at the people that we slept beside the night before. Two boys and a girl--I thought they'd all been girls in the dark.
"Gaziley!" Lufti blurts, then ducks his head like someone would hit him for his outburst.
"It's okay," Damien tells him, smiling wryly. "I don't think Cyran'll punish you for recognizing anyone who's already a rebel."
"Oh, Gaziley!" Lufti abandons his breakfast to leap up and hug the other boy, who just stands there with his arms at his sides. "I ran away because of you, Gaziley--you inspired me--I knew we'd meet again in Cyran's bands!" Then he sees the kid's eyes up close. "See, Kiril? I told you it's all right for boys to wear eye-liner when we're rebels."
Then he sees the look in those eyes and he steps back, confused. Gaziley pushes him away. "Little idiot!" he hisses, his glare as blackened as the jaquar's. He hugs himself and stalks away, unconscious of how he sashays, just as he'd been trained, no doubt.
Without turning to face us he says, "I wear it so that certain...certain persons will recognize me when I kill them. Whenever I find them. Whenever the chance crops up." He storms away to brood.
Gruffly Lucinda says, "He didn't find Cyran right away, Lufti, anymore than I did. Madame dragged him out of an alley, bled half to death from what he wasn't shaped for, nursed him back to health, and taught him safer ways for little boys to please big men. But he'd already joined The Profession when we'd found him."
For awhile we hear nothing but the birds. Lufti stands there uncomprehending, and I don't want him ever to comprehend, but he must if he ever hopes to understand the fury in his friend. "Chulan," I ask, "can you take Lufti aside and find a gentle way to explain it to him?" She nods, takes Lufti by the hand and leads him into the brush.
Our tallest host--Teofilo--stares after them a moment, and then says softly, "I had it easier." The handsome youth, of a height with me, picks up a couple buckets on ropes and hands one to me. "I started my career much older than Gaziley." He laughs and says, “And it wasn’t like I was a virgin to a man’s embrace--or like I minded.”
He glances down, suddenly shy. Those long lashes must've added to the price. I follow him to the well as he says, "It's the lack of love that got to me, after awhile--the condition of being a thing." Such a beautiful sculpture of a man, though, with those high Mountainfolk cheekbones.
Together we struggle with the stone that caps the well, and even now, straining at the weight, he seems graceful in every move, muscles curving within the slender sleeves. At last we shove it off between us. "That's when I realized that my entire training from birth had shaped me to be just this--an object, a commodity." He lowers his bucket down and draws it back up full, grunting a little with the effort. "No matter how I educated myself, hoping by some miracle to get a scholarship, go to a real school, get myself some votes. Things don't vote--everybody knows that."
"And so that's why you became a rebel," I say as I lower down the second bucket.
"That's why I became a rebel."
"And you?" I say to the black-haired little beauty who follows us. She's still so young that she only hides her face in her hands and giggles. "Why did you join Cyran's cause?" We walk back carefully, trying to keep our buckets from slopping over, and she tags along behind without a word, just another giggle every time I glance back at her.
At last the youth tells me, "Aichi never had to go to Madame's, at least." She loses interest in us to climb a tree and investigate some orchids in a branch's crotch. "We intercepted her early on--starving but unmolested." Teofilo glances up to see if she's listening, then leans over and whispers to me. "She's simple, okay? And not near as young as she looks, just stunted. Happens, when they're born hungry and stay that way."
I look over my shoulder. Up in the tree, now a ways behind us, I can hear her make a cooing sound as she plucks an orchid and tucks it behind her ear. Teofilo says, "Yet you tell her where to shoot, and she'll hit her mark every time."
I turn so fast I splash half the water from my bucket. "How dare you!" is all I manage to gasp.
"Use her?" he asks. "Would you like us better if we left her for others to use--like what happened to the rest of us?" Aichi shinnies down her tree and scampers after us, shouting, "Hey! Hey!" in a deeper voice than I expected. "We have no safe place to send her, now that they're shutting down the orphanages."
Fatima comes up unexpectedly and takes my bucket from me. She smirks and says, "Shutting down--is that how they're putting it, Teo?"
"Blowing up, whatever." The shock hits me like a blast--I visualize something so vividly--nuns and children hurled into the air--that I almost could've sworn I'd seen it, choked on the very smoke of it, felt the sting of flying gravel hit like shot.
"What a pretty orchid, Aichi!" Teo says, as she sort of dances before him, laughing, the flower bruised and dangling face-down from her ear. Suddenly she darts away again and disappears into the rainforest, as lightly as a fairy-child. To me he says, "We can't send her away, and we can't keep dead weight. So we taught her how to shoot." Oh great. An idiot savant at killing. And what, pray tell, do they intend to do with her if they ever actually win the revolution?
Fatima piles the wood around the basin as we fill it up with water, then tucks tinder into the chinks. Aichi crashes back out of the foliage into our clearing, laughing and chanting, "Fire! Fire!" in her strange, deep voice, as she flaps her hands excitedly.
"Yes, Aichi," Fatima tells her. "We're going to light a fire."
"Boom! Boom! Boom!"
"No, Aichi. We won't blow anything up this time. We're heating wash-water, that’s all."
Aichi sulks, her lip stuck way out, and walks away, but soon the smoke and the crackling draws her back. She lies down on her tummy to watch the flames rapturously as we boil our pots and cutlery.