IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
The Pranking Gets Serious
Tuesday, September 15, 2708
A small farm takes us in, the day after the army swept through and provisioned itself on everything they could grab in cupboard, cellar or barn. But the country people have gotten used to digging second, secret cellars and stocking them, too, and the army didn’t take the time to find it. And they completely overlooked one of the hot-boxes behind the midden-heap.
So tonight we eat parched-corn soup with bits of sausage and turnip-greens in it, while the daughter of the house spreads blankets on straw for us in the barn out back. We spare a rifle for the man who isn’t supposed to bear one, while his chuckling wife pulls up the floorboards under her bed and lifts out the keg of home brew. My throat having healed well by now, I teach them a few of the songs that Damien taught me, and we have a fine old time, celebrating each other’s company. Then at last we all toddle back to our lodging for the night, in with the genial animals, their presence warm and rank and comforting.
* * *
(Another night in the Toulin Academy student quarters. I hear soft thuds all throughout the dorm, as we punch at the sides of the straw mattresses to try and fluff them up a bit, make them a little more comfortable. I do, too, though I’ve done my share of sleeping on the bare ground.
I see Jake stop, a smile spreading on his face. I go over to see what he has pulled out between the mattress and the frame. A student composition book, much smudged with handling, written with different colored inks in different handwritings.
It seems to contain blueprints and recipes for various pranks. Peering around Jake’s arm, I read a formula titled, “Fart In A Bottle”.
Joel just happens to bump into us, giving us a wink and mouthing, “Your turn.” Of course. Students must have passed this around, among a few chosen initiates, for generations.)
Wednesday, September 16, 2708
I watch him dwindle against the snow, even as the light dwindles, all things turning to a rich, cold blue, pale or deep, navy-dark stripes of tree-shadows dyeing the crystalline mounds of moonlight-hue. My nose hurts in the cold; Spring should come soon, but nobody’s told the mountains. I take deep drags of tobacco-smoke to warm me up, and cough, and then turn my back on Tanjin and rejoin the others.
(Kiril means a lot to Deirdre, I can tell. Now comes my turn to sneak into the enemy camp to help avenge the girl. The guards get harder to slip past every night we terrorize them—especially since we killed two yesterday—but they have their gaps, they can’t post a human wall around themselves and still function.
I can’t help but leave a trail, with the snow so thick again, so I circle around the camp many, many times, trampling an ominous girdle around them as Deirdre told me to, a prowling threat to witness come the morning. I spiral in and out often, so they can’t tell which direction I came from, originally. I dance out my fear, to send it on to them.
Watch for the gap...now! Crawl in between the tents, heart beating fast, fast.
We still have toad poison, and Kiril left most of her darts behind. Slowly, carefully, I reach into the tent of some guy whose loud snores comfort me. With a few gropes I find the boots by the flap.
The soldier grunts and turns—did the draft of my invasion wake him? I freeze. I listen for any sign of him falling back asleep. My arm aches from not moving, stretched out from my crouch, holding onto that boot, concealed by nothing but the darkness.
I stay there so long, tuned into his every breath and rustle, that I begin to feel like I know him. Almost. Not any knowledge of him that you could put into words, no history or anything like that, just that I start to breathe with him. I almost believe that our hearts match beats after awhile.
Finally I hear the snores start up again. Trembling, my fingers creep into the boot, I drop the dart, tip the boot so that the dart will slide into the toe, out of sight, unknown till my victim pushes in his foot. Now, with excruciating care, I pull out my hand again slowwwwly and seal the tent back up.
Cowering in the cold shadows between the tents, I wait for the watch to pass, then scramble for my gap out. He’ll go mad before the poison kills him, I know that much. He’ll jerk and twitch and froth at the mouth, and he'll have visions. Will he have a vision of my mother before he dies? Will he see some other victim? Will he then repent? If he turns out to be my father, will I have saved his soul?)
(“You’re being an idiot,” I tell Jake, as we cower together against a cold wind in a corner out of sight. We still have some days of summer left, according to the calendar, but that doesn’t count for much at this latitude.
He lights the cigarette anyway. He’s not the first to use this cubby for such an illicit activity—ground-out butts speckle the ground. He takes a deep pull on the thing, causing its tip to glow with extra fire, and then he exhales eerie swirls upon the air.
“I have to,” he says with smoky breath. “It clears my head or something, helps me focus.” He stares out as though he could see some distance, but a brick wall blocks the view in all directions soon enough. “And it helps with the students, too. Bad boys smoke together. I’ve heard some interesting things, joining them.”
“Well, there’s no bad boys here except us, and I won’t light up with you!” Then I make myself laugh, saying, “What sort of guardian would I be if I did?”
He gives me that vulnerable look that few see from him save me. “There’s something else. When I smoke, I…I almost remember…”
“Remember what, Jake?”
His brows knit, and he puffs some more. “Somebody.” And when he says that I feel a quiver in a secret thread, something that he entrusted to my safekeeping, a strand to hold onto at all costs.)
As I smoke, I feel a deep longing well up in me, for…somebody. Not quite placing it, but pretty sure it has to do with a failure in cultural immersion, I pull my attention back to those I live among now. Not that it helps.
Could I…no. It would be the height of idiocy to fall in love with Tanjin. I must not go there. No. Absolutely not.
All the same, I wish he’d hurry up and get back soon. For professional reasons. People have to see that when I give orders the people who obey them do come back, at least for the most part. And they must especially see that I’m willing to send out somebody who…who everybody else can see matters to me. I don’t play favorites, and at the same time it can’t be too perilous if I send him out, at least by rebel standards it isn’t.
I light the next cigarette from the last, then grind the butt out on the ground. Spendthrift of me, to smoke two in a row like that. But I have to do something with my hands. Or something like that. Anyway, it seems to clear my head.
When will that dratted boy get here, anyway?
(“I had a feeling I’d find you here.” I jump in my skin and then look at the Headmaster who has just come around the corner. He raises an eyebrow at Jake’s cigarette, then shrugs and says, “You really have immersed into the role, haven’t you?”
Jake draws himself up and says, “It’s what agents do.”
“Good, because I need to talk to you in a more secure, more prolonged setting than this. I want you to set up a prank, right under my nose, which will require all three of you to come to me under detention.” And with that he abruptly turns and hastens away, more afraid of being caught there than any student.)
The time drags on. Did Tanjin get caught? I hear no gunfire. Are they interrogating him? Should I go in after him?
And then I see a movement in the distance, a speck of snow heading back to me. Soon it resolves into a hunched-over form camouflaged in a sheet, and I breathe again.
(Jake drops his cigarette and grinds it underfoot, asking, “Time for the rubber snake in a boot trick?” Then he frowns. “No, that’s getting old.”
“How about fart-in-a-bottle?” I counter. “Don’s been aching to try it out ever since he heard of it.”
He laughs and smacks me on the arm. “Let’s go tell Don”)