IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume IV: Braided Paths

Chapter 26

Bittersweet


Sunday, September 20, 2708

(“Here,” Cybil says, picking out a sticky bun from the smorgasbord’s dessert section.  “You’ll like it; they make them with honey.)

I daub sticky gobs of honey onto Bijal’s cuts and burns.  “What am I going to do with you?” I sigh.  “Here I thought I could trust you more than anybody, and I find you trussed up in a brothel of all places, your security compromised, a Purple Mantle drooling all over you and ready to open you up like a Christmas-present, and your barter-goods all spent with nothing to show for it.”

“It wasn’t—ouch!—like that!”

“Oh, then what was it like?” I ask as I wring out boiled strips of cloth to bandage him with.

“She gave me all the right signals.  She said that I could recruit from the shelter of her, uh...”

“Brothel,” I prompt.

“I’d be the bartender.  I’d recruit restless and dissatisfied...”

“...young wastrels, likely either to go into battle drunk and blow their own toes off, or fry their brains on whatever diseases they’ve picked up from your hostess.”  I tie off the last bandage.  “Really, Bijal, you know what they say about things that seem too easy.”  He looks so dejected that I decide to relent.  “Want some honey?”

He takes up a golden fingerful, but the taste doesn’t make him smile.  “She did know all the signals,” he insists.

“I know.”  I shake my head, wondering why I feel that I’ve known all along, or should’ve.  “I’m going to have nightmares about that for some time.”

Actually, I already have, come to think about it.  I’d whistle down birds that clawed and pecked me.  I’d try to pull them off, and wake with my own fingernails in my face. 

So that’s what they meant.

“We’d all better have nightmares about it,” he mutters.

(We find a seat way in the back, near the dishwashers.  “I’ve got most of the paperwork done,” I murmur under the clatter of dishes and flatware.  “Already I can tell you precisely who bribed who, for how much, and with what results.  We’re ready to start cleaning this mess up before the whole economy collapses.”

“No Zanne,” says Cybil, her brown eyes round and wide.  “We aren’t.”

“We aren’t?”

“My supervisor went over the edge this morning.  I’m unemployed now.”  And she pushes up her sleeve, to show the bruises just beginning to darken.  “I don’t know who’s left in authority sane enough to trust.”

“What about Meg Cantor?”

“Miss Dependable hasn’t been in for days.”

What the hell is going on?)

* * *

            (I walk down the hallways of Toulin Academy, doing my evening patrol, listening to the comforting, ever-present pulse of waves upon the shore just outside the building, when I come across a trail of shells.  Intrigued, I follow it into a classroom where, written on the board, I read, “Here is your first clue:  What has Innocence on the outside, and Knowledge inside?”

            “Easy!” I cry, though I know that the riddles will get harder as they progress.  So I go to plunder my first treasure, inside the nearest desk.  I raise the lid, and there it gleams, scintillating in the flickering candlelight:  A large, wine-red crystal.

            I wake up screaming like a schoolboy.)

I know this path.  I’ve walked it before.  Rhallunn.  It sticks to the boots, each step a sloppy snap.  It invades the body with every breath redolent of stagnation.  I push through rag curtains and squeeze past the ruin of plank and cardboard shacks rotting in the fog.  For miles all I can see is taupe and gray, and the faded ghosts of dye or peeling paint.

I follow the shells that glimmer, pale, in the sinking gloom.  I hear ocean in my ears as they sing to me.  I follow them down stairs deep into the ground, past the decay, down to the layer where it turns to fertile soil, down through the mycelium mat, and then deeper, deeper, clear into the bedrock that upholds it all, where primordial ochre figures stand witness in the rock.

And there, as I expect, I find my mentor, Jonathan, waiting for me: disheveled as last I saw him, but better, like he’s finally sobering up.

“You know the way out,” he says, “Though you may not realize it yet.”

“I know,” I say.  “Find my mother.”

“You are the mother,” he says, and I wake up.

 

Monday, September 21, 2708

So many children.  So many mouths to feed, but we still have some stores left.  I mingle the mountain rye with catawlba to stretch it out, and potato-flour to make it tender—an old hill recipe that I’ve learned from One-Eyed Chianti.  It’s not too bad, sweetened with a little honey stretched with chaummin-sugar.   I make ash-cakes of it, inhaling that homey, roast-bread scent all mingled with the campfire-smoke, and feel a deep longing for Kiril, who always used to do our cooking.

I start at sudden noises, hoping that her foot just snapped a twig on her way back to us.  I keep catching myself searching the shadows beyond the fire for the sight of her weary face, smiling to return.

 (As I serve the soldiers hot sandwiches, all they can talk about are the deaths and injuries in camp, almost every night, by ones and twos, no more than that, but none of them can sleep.  The men glower over the coffee that they drink all day long, as they talk about similar problems in other companies, all over the country, and they start at sudden noises.  Things happen to give them fear by day, too—carts that collapse unexpectedly, gear that catches fire, things that seem set up special for them.  I feel guilty listening to them—ashamed that I haven’t set up anything like that, myself.  I think that’s what I feel.

 “We shouldn’t have to suffer such blows without the chance to fight a single battle,” a man grumbles.  I ladle steaming gravy onto his sandwich and move on to the guard with the bad case of frostbite.

“I think they made the water-balloon with the bladder of some animal,” he says to the guy beside him.  “A kid’s toy.  They can take the most innocent things and turn them into a weapon.”

 “Oh, there’s no innocence in that bunch—you can’t even trust the littlest rebel among them.  Just be glad they didn’t fill it with acid or something—you never know what they’ll come up with, next.”  Good idea.  I should remember that one.  Indeed, their fears bring me more ideas than I can keep track of, though I try to memorize everything.  I wish that I could write.

“Hey, water was bad enough, in this weather!  I felt like I’d rather die!”

I move through the ranks and the conversations change.  “They fault us for the harsh measures that we have to take sometimes, but when do the peasants ever give us a chance to show them mercy?  The rebels have filled whole graveyards with the merciful,” says the man who keeps a luck-doll dangling from the entry to his tent every night. 

His redheaded companion agrees, wiping gravy from his chin.  “Ingrates, all of ‘em!  You never know who’s a rebel and who’s a simple peasant anymore.  You can’t trust anybody.”

“Hush, all of you—you’ll scare the kid.”  Sarge glares them all down, then forces a smile in my direction.  “Don’t let their talk bother you, Kiril.  We’re the ones with all the power in this game—we’ve got the weapons, the supplies, the training, and the smile of God behind us.  Don’t worry—we’ll see you safe, whatever comes.  Here, eat by my side—come on.  You’ve earned it—we haven’t had vittles this good since we enlisted.”

I already had a bite before serving the rest, but I only hesitate a minute.  I wouldn’t be a good chef if I didn’t like my own cooking.

“Here,” he says, “don’t pour the gravy on just yet.  Let me show you a trick that my mother taught me.”  He reaches into his pack—they all keep gear handy these days, just in case—and pulls out a purply jar.  “Dulcina jam—my mother’s care package just arrived.”  Darkly he adds, “I told her to tell Lyanfa to send it one village farther, and hang the delay.”

“Sarge!” someone calls.  “Not sharing with the rest of us?”

“Rank has privilege,” he says with a smile, “And you dogs have already been eating better than you’re used to, thanks to Kiril, here, so you’ve got no cause to complain.  Anyway, Kiril, you spread the jam on the ham, like this, let the heat melt it a bit into the meat, then put the bread back on and pour the gravy over.  I know, it sounds odd, but it tastes delicious, actually.  Here—this one’s for you.”

I take a bite and, oh, heaven!  I’m going to remember this one.  I devour it in ecstasy as he fixes another for himself.

“Slow down!” he laughs.  “You don’t have to starve anymore.  In fact,” he says, as he pulls me giggling into his lap, “you might be getting just a little bit chubby here, and here, and...here!” I gasp and squirm gaily at his tickles.  He lets me go to finish his own sandwich.  “That’s fine, though,” he says.  “A kid your age should run a bit on the chubby side–it helps you on your next growth-spurt.  You can have all you want—right, men?”  They all assent gladly, relieved to have something to think about besides their fears.  “In fact, men, this is exactly what we’re fighting for—the freedom of little girls to have their fill and thrive, without the fear of rebel bandits preying on them.”  They are?  They really believe that?  I see new courage straighten out the slumping postures all around me—they do believe it!

Sarge leans over and whispers in my ear, “Dessert in my tent, later.  My Mom sent chocolate brownies, too, more’n I could finish by myself.”  Oh, chocolate!  I have tasted it before—and I get to taste it again?  Oh my!

I must remember, must never ever forget: Malcolm did not betray us all for food.)




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