IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Enough Fooling Around
Saturday, June 13, 2708, continued
Frost covers us this morning, riming our hammocks, and the fuzz of our blankets, and the curls of hair that escape our close-clutched coverings. We all wake up stiff and shivering, though we had intended to sleep the day away, as the cold splits our skulls like frost in the rocks. We wear our blankets for cloaks, hunched like elders, breathing puffs of clouds.
Gaziley says, with a weary smile, "The weather just keeps on getting better and better for tapping."
"I don't want to hear about it," I groan. No mention, please, of anything remotely associated with our taverness's specialty. I go huddle over the coals of last night's fire.
Kief hands me a water-skin, which I gulp at greedily, though the ice in it sends a shudder through me. "Season's getting colder even at this altitude," he says. "We need to do something to get everybody's blood circulating."
"I'm in no mood for calisthenics," I grumble, and poke the coals into a thin little flame.
"I had something more vigorous in mind--like maybe a raid."
I stare up at him suddenly. "You're joking, right?"
"The test of blood has to come soon after the test of fire."
"Kief, the troop's hungover, cold, and hungry."
"Good--that'll make them mean."
"Couldn't we just have Bakr and Aziz slit a couple soldier's throats in their sleep?"
"That lacks heat. Cowards could do that and stay cowards still."
"Kief, we're guerillas, not bloody shock troops!"
He pulls up, suddenly inflamed by my sharp tone. "Don't tell me what we are, Killer-Virgin! You don't know the proper way to do anything." My face burns as the others suddenly stare at me. "You can't kill anybody in their sleep the first time."
I overhear Aziz whisper to Bakr, "Is she really a nun?" and I fume inside.
Kief motions our bard over, who'd spent the night for the celebration. "Damien, give them your report."
"Sanzio Whitesleeves holds Malcolm prisoner right under our noses. And he torments him."
"What!" Lufti and Gaziley both cry at once, while I drop the water-skin gurgling into the dirt.
“What about his lawyers?” the taverness cries. “He said he could afford lawyers!”
"I don’t know about any lawyers,” Damien tells us, “but I saw him myself, the night before last, when the soldiers wanted a musician for a birthday-party and they let me into the commissary. They cage him there like an animal, so they can eat in front of him while they give him nothing, hoping to make him betray us all for food."
"He'd never do that!" Lufti protests, but Chulan pales, remembering the rage with which he'd gobbled down dried beans.
"He won't," she says with her arms around the boy, "because we're going to get him out of there before they torture him out of his mind. Isn't that right, Kief?"
"You betcha. This puts the whole game beyond invisible harassment. But if we can't break him out, we'll have to kill him."
"No!" Lufti cries, but Chulan holds him back.
Damien turns dark eyes on the younger boy. "He'd thank us," the bard says. "He'd not only destroy us if he snaps, but his own soul, too--for the very thing that he hates about himself the most. I saw his face--if he had poison, he'd drink it now."
("Your uncle's time has run out," Sanzio says with a grin. I stare at those teeth, as white as his shirt.
"You've got quite an overbite," I tell him, hearing the rasp of my own voice. "You should see an orthodontist about it, before it gives you headaches."
He ignores me as he pulls on rubber gloves. "All your uncle's money has gone into your bank-account, as he’d arranged. In an Istislan bank, as I recall. But there isn't a banker in all of the Charadoc that will give you access to one penny of it--someone in Istislan will get very rich by investing money that the owner cannot claim."
He lays out the tools--common kitchen objects, for the most part, though I daresay he can find uncommon enough use for them, the sharp ones and the blunt, the ones to heat, the ones to leave as cold as vengeance. Then he smiles, shakes his head, and pulls the gloves back off. "How foolish of me to forget," he says. "The third breakfast shift should arrive at any minute. And soon after them comes the first lunch, without a decent interval between to really get things going. We mustn't spoil anybody's appetites."
Hoarsely I ask him, "Is this the one?”
"Is this the torture that will justify all the others for you? Do you hate me so badly that it could purify you to drag me down? Purify what you do?"
He shakes his head. "You're delirious. You flatter yourself." But he doesn't quite sound as fully in command.
"It will only work for a little while, you know. You'll go to bed content, all right, filled with what you think you want, but you'll wake up hungrier than ever in the morning."
"You're babbling, Dr. De Groot. You're talking, but you aren't telling me anything I want to hear."
I sigh. Isn't that the way it always goes?
He rises, but he leaves the tools right there. A sudden smile restores his poise as a thought overtakes him. He walks over to the kitchen, back again, and places a single, freshly baked baugette in amongst his implements. “One name, Dr. deGroot. One name, one mouthful. That’s all it takes.”
Just one? Somebody already known perhaps? Or somebody not important?
They’re all important. And once I started, it wouldn’t stop with one.
With care he breaks open the flaky crust, exposing the soft and steaming bread within, then slowly slides a golden pat of butter into it, so that I can watch and smell it melt. In response, without a word, I take out my dentures and set them down beside me. But his smile only falters for a moment.
"I'll be back," he says, "We can get started right after the third dinner shift, tonight. But I'll come by sooner if you care to talk. I want you to think about all of the ways that things can go, depending on what you say or don't say. Just remember, Dr. deGroot, my dear, dear friend: if you want anything, all you have to do is ask.")
“Kiril,” Kief calls, “Stoke up the breakfast-fire. “Cook everything we’ve got. Every crust, every crumb, every bean. We’ll either feast on the enemy’s fare tonight or have no more need of food.”
Our taverness brings out a jug of syrup. “And pour this on it—all you want. And anything else you’d like, for the asking.” She tosses a tube of eyeliner to Gaziley. “Here,” she says with an uneasy grin, braving herself to accept. “Put on your warpaint before you go.”
“But not yet,” Kief says, with a yawn and a stretch. “First we rest the day away, right after breakfast. I want us all in good shape for tonight.”
I feel myself smiling. “What about fighting meaner with hangovers?”
He gives me back an equally ironic smile and a wink. “Don’t believe everything I say.