IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
In the House of Rosebud
Saturday, September 19, 2708
(“Look at that,” Cybil says, pointing down an alley towards a red back door. Men loiter around it, not looking at each other.
“Disgusting,” I agree. The alley smells like old fruit peels, male urine, and mold, and the indyan-summer heat doesn’t help; I would like to move on.
“No, wait. Watch.” The door opens. A brown, slender arm reaches out, beckons, and a brown man kicks off from the wall that he’s been leaning on, and enters. “Now. Wait some more.” A pale arm reaches out, beckons, and a pale man rises from squatting, rubs his sore back, and enters. A freckled arm beckons next, and a man whose ethnicity blazes in his red hair responds.
“I see what you mean,” I say. Brothels, in most countries, are usually the one place where people can get away with breaking rules of ethnic separation. Even that has broken down in Vanikke.
“I’ve seen enough,” Cybil says. “Let’s get out of this filthy place.”)
(“I have some filthy desks for you to clean,” Headmaster Wallace Weatherbent says in a reproachful drawl, sweeping along ahead of us, “commensurate with the filthy stunt that you pulled in the cafeteria.” Students eye us, smirking, on their way to Saturday sports. I give them a wink to let them think that I hold the prank well worth the price.)
I come to myself suddenly, having fallen asleep waiting for our man to return to the appointed place, this cracked boulder with a tree springing from the split—now full of chattering birds nestling in together. And still he hasn’t reached us, and the day moves close to the chill of dusk. Tanjin stands over me, guarding me. Embarrassed, I rise and dust myself off.
(When we reach the empty classroom we close the door and drop our facades. Yet Wallace still hands us spray bottles of cleanser, scrub-brushes and sandpaper. “Open up the desks,” he says quietly. “You will see what I mean.”
Of course we recognize the graffiti, all three of us at once. Reversed religious symbols and other blasphemies. Jake looks at us each in turn and says, “This is not entirely coincidence.”
The Headmaster sighs in relief. “You have seen such things before, I take it.”
As brightly as I can I say, “Of course. It’s our job.”)
It’s not like Bijal to miss a rendezvous. I send Tanjin to tell the kids to go on ahead without me; we must keep pace with our chosen troop, after all. But I double back to Lyanfa to learn what I can hear. You don’t abandon a trooper if you want the rest to follow you, not when he vanished while following orders. But it’s more than that. Bijal knows more than I do about the revolution—he’d be quite a prize in the wrong hands.
(Wallace gestures to the desks. “Clean as we speak. I can’t abide the presence of these…obscenities…anymore.”
We set to it, but almost immediately Don sinks to the ground and puts his head down on his knees. “Sorry,” he gasps. “I feel a little faint.”
Concerned, the Headmaster hastens to kneel beside him. “Cleanser fumes?” he asks. “Are you allergic?”
Don shakes his head. “Psychometry.”
Wallace pulls back, blushing. “I’m sorry, I forgot. That, uh, too, is part of your job, isn’t it?” Then he gets a strange, avid look in his eyes, as a respectable man might who secretly consults a fortuneteller. “What do you…that is to say…how exactly does this work?”
“It’s just a sense,” Don says with a shrug, and stands up, shakily. “But it…this time it hits close to the bone.” He turns to us and says, “I don’t know how this could happen, but these scrawls and carvings aren’t just parallel symbols drawn from Earthian folklore—they reek of Alroy’s cult.” And then he sits down, abruptly limp.
“Roger that,” Jake says quietly. And he sets to scrubbing with a vengeance. I do likewise, thankful to have not even a trace of psychometry. To the Headmaster I say, “Some of our past jobs are a bit more vivid than others. But don’t worry—experience counts for a lot in this business.”
“Ah, Randall, you are always the first to reassure me!” And with that Wallace rolls back his sleeves and sets to cleaning alongside us. “Don, I won’t require anything more of you, except that you share whatever insights you might have. Tell me of this cult of Alroy.”
Don fills him in about the Outlaw God, his perversion of all faiths, his efforts to “complete” all things good and beautiful with their demise, and our private war with him. I think Don goes into rather too much detail for our audience, but then I didn’t get sucked into the cult the way that he did,)
I pass a cleft in a cliff between two foothills. It looks like a waterfall used to flow there, quite a tall one, smoothing out a now-dry pool. The old hill-cults used to treasure sites like that. But I see a dam now, and rusty ancient pipes, dripping ice here and there from the odd leak. Somebody turned the sacred waters into a utility to wash dishes and flush toilets.
I feel more and more depressed, or wary, or something, the closer I get to town. I feel as if something terrible happened here, something worse than the blocking of a waterfall. The ruddy rocks look blood-drenched in the setting sun. The rocks remember something.
(Headmaster Weatherbent sits down, lost in thought. “That is…well, appalling! But why here, why now?”
Jake says, “I don’t think anybody fully understood Alroy’s scope or methods beside Alroy himself, if even he did. Although,” he adds darkly, “I know more than most, having battled him mind to mind.” The Headmaster frankly gapes. Jake sands away at a shallow carving for a moment in silence before adding, “ And I would hazard that some rift opened a way for his influence to leak through, some wound that happened while he still lived, that could draw an infection of his poison along a natural fault line. That poison now lingers after he has gone. He might not have even known.”
Weatherbent blanches, but says, “I wouldn’t know anything about that.” And somehow, the instant he says it, everyone in the room can feel the lie.
He pulls himself together, rises, and says, “You will be approached, and soon. I can feel it—nothing unnatural, mind you; experience brings a sense for these things.” Another lie. “I want you to infiltrate whatever cult has arisen in this school.” And with that obvious statement, he hastens out of the room, slamming the door behind him. Jake and I finish the clean-up.)
By the time I arrive, the last traces of the sunset streak the sky in red like fresh-clawed wounds, made vivid with volcanic particles in the air. Shabby little town, Lyanfa, like a hundred others, aside from a nice post office. But I don’t know where to begin.
Yet...here and there I see a house kept up with fresh paint, nice furnishings glimpsed through the windows. Certain individuals have significantly more money than their neighbors, at more than a postal wage. Now why is that?
(Do you want to know what I used to do for Cyran? Do you really, really want to know, Bijal-baby? Will you ask me nicely?)
A man steps out of a shop, eating pistachios from a bag. My heart skips a beat when I see the purple mantle—full-length winter issue—fluttering around him in a cold, cold wind. I also notice that nobody else seems surprised, though they do look on guard. Oh my Lord. What have I sent Bijal into?
(Oooh, did that hurt, Baby? The tea must be wearing off—good! You’d think a man with your face would know all about pain. No matter, though; I can freshen up your education for you.)
At least it’s not ol’ Whitesleeves. Someone just as young, though. His strong, handsome features show mountainfolk bones, and he didn’t get that coppery color entirely from the sun, but gray eyes mark him as mixed as I am—probably a lot more of us around than anybody’s ever counted, caste system notwithstanding. I wonder if, when he enlisted, he thought he had nowhere else to go?
(I used to have a husband, Bijal, handsomer than you ever were. He named me Rosebud, back when I was young enough for the name to fit. He had from me what a maiden gives but once. A mad priest wed us in a secret grotto, behind a sacred fall. I still remember the water-music of that fall, the liquid light pouring through its curtain, the fragrance of the jungle-flowers that Man wove in a wreath for me AND WHO ARE YOU TO SURVIVE WHEN MY BELOVED BURNED?)
I work at walking as casually as possible in the other direction, a headache trying to pound its way out of my skull—the last thing I need right now. Weird images crowd my head, of beauty and horror intermingling like blood in water, like Imad dying in that sanctuary pool, but with old symbols from the Cult of Alroy carved into the rocks. I stop, hold onto a boardwalk post, and try to massage the pain out of my temples. Weather must be changing or something.
(Feel it—remember the pain. You would suffer so much and still go back and serve hir more? Are you crazy? Yes, yes, as crazy as myself, who still served long after my darling’s death, throwing myself into wantonness in my grief, worse and worse between each battle, sometimes going at it with a newfound friend while the blood still spattered my breast. Tell me, Bijal-baby, is there any sanity in the Revolution? Any at all?)
Something tugs at me. I want to walk the other way—back the way the Purple Mantle went. Maybe it’s my close ties to my old friend, Jake the Oracle (I wonder where he works, these days?) or perhaps my trace of telepathy, but sometimes I get these really powerful hunches that actually work. I can’t shake the feeling that I’m supposed to head towards that big, decrepit old house at the end of the row. Unfortunately, Gray-Eyes thinks so, too.
(Nice blade, isn’t it? Cyran stopped trusting me with sharp objects a long time ago, but I don’t listen to hir anymore. E said that as long as I was going to behave like that, we might as well both see a profit from it—oh, not that way! Cyran would never pimp. But e sees the use in everybody, even if they’re too crazy to trust with a knife or gun.)
I enter a candle-shop, cloying with the scent of honey, to calmly peruse the wares awhile as I burn with impatience. A clerk in back unwraps a new packet of wax...and don’t those wrappings look familiar? Bijal must have already transacted his business, then. When nobody looks particularly in my direction, I casually exit the back door into an alley parallel to the street out front.
(First I just seduced for free and got hir information, and then more information, and then, like e said, I started to profit on my own. Not a coin of it supports the Revolution—Cyran wouldn’t have that. Let people starve, let ‘em die without bullets or medicine before that. All e wants from me is what I learn—knowledge is clean, right? Right? Say “right!” Bijal-baby, or I’ll play with you some more.)
Twilight settles blue around me, slowly dimming tree and shop and slush upon the road...except for that red glow up ahead. Of course a brothel would light lamps both front and back; not everyone would stride right up to the front door and knock. Oh no—not another establishment like that! I hate the very smell of them, the perfume and the liquor and the sweat.
(So here I’ve settled, in this sweet little town where the Purple Mantles keep a kind of informal base—oh, but you’re not supposed to know what goes on here, or my part in it. Rebel cells shouldn’t know each other’s business. Bad security, oh my, yes! Of course, we mustn’t hint that our illustrious leader might ever, ever feel shame at the business e finds for some of us! So can you keep a secret, baby? Shall we...no. We must leave you your tongue for now. We have a conversation ahead of us.)
I slow down, trying to assess the best approach. If I’d known, I’d have sent a man to this work—what business could I have to knock on either door, front or back? Well...I could pretend to seek work. Oh, right—a virgin my age? That would show up on the first inspection. How many questions would that stir up! And I can’t pretend to be an irate wife in search of her errant spouse, not in a town this small, that knows all wives and husbands. Think, Deirdre! There must be some way.
(Has he arrived yet? Yes—I hear him chatting with the girls that he brought to work for me, just outside the door. Hear him, Bijal? A new friend for you to meet—a kind of doctor, really, a surgeon who cuts into the body to scrape out the corruption from sick souls. He taught me all about the madness of working for Cyran, he has the cure for you, too—be a good little boy and answer his questions nicely, and he’ll help you out just fine. Be bad and he’ll still cure you—oh, don’t I know!—but it might hurt more than anything I’ve done so far to soften you up. Oh, do be bad, so I can watch! So we can prove that the soldiers of Cyran are no better than hir whores!)
I can become a woman traveling in search of her runaway sister—that’ll explain a lot. I wrap my muffler up over my head, hiding most of my face, as one ashamed would do, then I go up and knock shyly on the back door, glancing around nervously. But as soon as the girl opens the door to me I shove past, crying out “Zanne? Zanne? Are you here? Has anybody seen my sister, Zanne?”
“Ma’am, please, we don’t have anybody by that n...”
“She might have changed her name. She’s shorter than me, and blonde...uh, bleach-blonde, you know, lots of curls, too.” I start opening doors and poking my head in. “Zanne, honey, are you in there?” Men scramble for their trousers while naked women stare from the beds.
“Ma’am, you can’t go in there!”
“Zanne, please, Momma forgives everything! Come home!”
A male voice asks, “Is there a problem, here?” The gray-eyed man doffs his mantle quickly as he steps out, trying to pass himself off as a common bouncer, but he still wears blood-stained rubber gloves. I stare at him fatuously as if I couldn’t make a quick decision to save my life, then duck under his arm so fast he almost loses his balance grabbing for me—straight into the room he came from.
Bijal lies strapped to a bed inside, staring at me wild-eyed, while a disheveled harpy bends over him but snarls back at me. I quickly scan his injuries—shallow cuts, cigarette burns, nothing but scary preliminaries so far—before I spin to lash out at the returning torturer. He tosses my kicking foot over my head, but I roll with it and pull him over me into the wall, which he barely hits before flying right back at me, but I dart up over the bed and table, feet skipping along the wall when I grab his head and try to wrench it from his neck. He flips me over him and grips my neck with both big hands, but that leaves his groin open to my knee, but he dodges just in time as the room starts to go black, but dodging loosens his grip long enough for me to yank his hands off and gasp for air. My, but it’s bracing to spar with a professional! I half-feign to swoon and he falls upon the bait, leaving both his feet in my reach to jerk from under him in a fall so hard that it shakes the whole house. Now I hurl on top of him, now we wrestle on the floor, me then him then me on top, the floorboards thumping fit to fly apart—the harpy who stands by with a vase to brain me with doesn’t know when to hit. I finally get the chance to break his neck, then swoop up to smash the vase before the dirty little woman knows she’s already lost.
We stand there panting, regarding each other. She makes for a knife on the table, but I grab her and break her wrists before she tries anything more. She sinks to the floor moaning as I untie Bijal, and then she starts giggling hysterically.
“They know,” she chatters, her broken limbs cradled to her breast. “They’ve known the bird-calls and the gestures now for years. They don’t tell the common soldiers—oh no, that might spook the rebels, let the common soldiers die! But the Purple Mantles know everything. They’re like gods.”