IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
A Split Infinity
Tuesday, September 22, 2708
I find the money buried right where Kiril’s bird-calls told me to find it. Amazing how much directional information you can convey in a few choice whistles—but oh, the danger, now that we know! My heart shivers in fear for the girl. What if that band rates a Purple Mantle traveling in their midst? But she has given us no such intelligence.
Oh God, God guide me!
I take a deep breath. I’m on my own. I must consult my own guidance.
Okay, think. The men don’t know. We’re just going to have to risk the whistle codes for awhile longer—we have no other way to communicate. But something’s afoot, something more important than hurrying back to Abojan Pass—the rumor of the land, and our own eyes and ears, tell of troops massing like seldom before.
I dig my hand into the bag and pull out coins. Bright little things, once I rub the cold dirt off. And what’s this? Bills! Soil-damp denars with a whiff of mildew about them, soft in the hand, but you can make out every number and curlicue on them, and that’s all the merchants care about. I hope she had wits enough to rob just a few from different tents at a time, so they won’t be missed. Of course she does—we’re talking about Kiril, here.
I pocket the money gladly, wishing that the rebels had wasted a birdcall on the word, “Thanks!” It adds up to a handsome sum for the prices up here—much more than the worth of the wax that we lost. God knows we can use it.
(“I’ll pay for that,” says a cool, familiar voice as I pick up the bill for my vinehen pie. Meg Cantor slides into the seat across from me in the banquette, her metal briefcase clanking softly against the table. (I notice a few dents in it.) She pulls out some scrip, and leans across the table with an attempt at a genial smile. “Tell our sister that I’m doing just fine,” she says, though her make-up doesn’t quite conceal the black eye when she leans into the window’s light, and the pucker at the shoulder of her blazer shows the inexpert stitches of someone not used to repairing her own clothes. Her hair, still pulled into two tight ponytails, looks lank, washed under less than ideal circumstances. Still smiling brightly, she says, “Sorry, sis, I can’t stay. I have errands to run for Mother.”
She did not give me nearly enough scrip to pay for dinner. What I took for money turns out to be a folded note inside a single bill, that says, “Last papers on their way.” But she has left already, and I can’t tell her that it might not matter anymore.
I slip the note into my purse as I bring out the correct payment. I shall buy some lucky incense on the way, to provide a reason to burn something out on my balcony tonight.)
Wednesday, September 23, 2708
We have officially tipped over into spring, but winter lingers in the mountain like a hoary old guest who doesn’t know when to leave. Here in this stretch where the traveler’s huts don’t go, we’ve gotten pretty adept at erecting quick shelters of branch and earth that insulate us decently, aside from the smoke-hole, and for that the fire wards off the draft, small though we must keep it. And is it just my imagination, or are the patches of bare, useable earth getting larger and more common? Midlands, here we come.
In fact, I think, we’ve already reached the upper mesas, judging by the deciduous trees that have been increasing around us for some time, now, mingled with the conifers. Midlands: the realm of farm and orchard, pasture and woodlot, plentiful little villages dotting hilly mesas that look like the meads of gentler lands, except for the peaks and plunging canyons fencing them here and there. A whole great chain of bucolic sky-islands and mountain-shelves. Places to grow fruits and vegetables that need both snow and sun, places to raise children far from the government’s attention, places to lead the kind of good life that everybody dreams about, except that the slightest upset in the balance can topple paradise into a nightmare you might not survive. Here grows a life as sweet and precarious as a mountain flower rooted in a scoop of rock.
Oh, they have plantations, too, here and there. Whole villages and their populations can belong to single families. But we skirt around those towns. Ever since Lyanfa I’ve managed to find someone in our overlarge band from each locale. I should have done that all along, skirting around each unfamiliar community, but I get tired, I get sloppy. Sometimes I just plain can’t seem to focus anymore.
(Oh what a tiring, miserable waste of time! My eyes go out of focus from sheer boredom. Is there anything quite so tedious as a Vanikketan post office? Beige walls, ceiling, floor, with matching utilitarian furnishings. Oh, and beige uniforms—how utterly coordinated! No posters here to advertise exotic stamps, foreign or domestic. The Vanikketan stamp has nothing on it but the picture of the president du jour, by way of dating it, in monochromes of six colors for six different values, scaling through the spectrum from cheapest red to most expensive purple. Philatelists the world over are not intrigued.
And ooh, the long lines! My poor feet regret wearing high heels today. And these boxes weigh heavier with every minute. But I do want to get as much of my hard-earned loot back to Til Institute as I may, before this job ends prematurely and the expense-account dries up. Ah well, weightlifting burns calories, and I could use a bit of that.
I suppose it could be worse. I hear that Toulinian stamps are all black and white, marked with the price and nothing else. But at least they use personal seals on the wax.
My turn at last. I fill out the forms, smile as the clerk approves my excellent packaging skills, pay postage, and turn to leave.
“Ms. Charlotte? Wait a minute, please.”
“Yes?” I smile charmingly instead of groaning over one more delay.
“We have a letter for you.” The wan-faced clerk smiles, embarrassed at breaking protocol. “We might as well give it to you now, rather than wait for the post office to deliver it tomorrow.” Then, anxiously, “Is that all right with you?”
“By all means! Thank you very much!” She hands me a delicate paper envelope, standard for Vanikke. Their excellent postal system makes our sturdier cylinders unnecessary for the local post, bless their hearts. So I suppose I shouldn’t rail against them too much for their drabness.
Outside I study the envelope. Could Meg have sent it? I can’t tell much from the stationary, though the cancelation on the stamp shows it mailed locally—not much of clue in a city this size. For a return-address it shows only an eternity-symbol split with a zigzag line. Firm, dark strokes, slightly jagged, not Meg’s thin hand, nor Cybil’s dainty grace. Curious.)
Laying the last bough of our shelter in place, I bend to scrub sticky sap from my hands with snow and dirt, then quickly pull the fingerless gloves back on. That pungent scent reminds me that I’m supposed to remember something about the gum’s medicinal properties...um...a superior wound-wash, that’s it, when dissolved in alcohol, then boiled into water. Good thing to recall—the evergreen still grows plentiful around here, and will for many mesas yet. I straighten my back with a couple pops, then hear the “Where are you?” whistle.
Kiril has escaped! “Here,” I whistle back. After that one or another of us gives out the “Here,” whistle every so often as we load our stuff into the hut for the night. I stay outside, last of all, watching till Kiril finds us, rifle in my arms just in case it’s not Kiril. The stars already begin to glitter the sky by the time she peeks out from the woods, an enormous pack on her back.
“I can’t stay out too long,” she says as I whisk her inside.
Kneeling before her in that low space, I smooth her hair from her face. “Are you so afraid of the soldiers, Kiril? They can’t get you here—I won’t let them!”
“No. They all treat me good.” Indeed, her face has rounded out a bit; she looks rosy and healthy.
“Better than on the ship?”
“Oh, much better!”
I laugh with relief and say, “At least they’re feeding you well, I can see that much.” She blushes and turns her face away. “It’s okay, honey. I’m glad.” She swings around the backpack and spills the whole heavy thing out onto our dirt floor. Firelight glints on can after can of meat of every kind, plus yams, potatoes, rustling bags of beans, every kind of treasure. How strong, this dear, small soldier, to have carried it all! We gasp as one and crowd around to admire the loot, pictures on the labels giving the good news to those who can’t read.
“They made me cook—I get free access to the food stocks,” Kiril tells us. “I’ll get you more, whenever I get the chance.” And with that she accepts the order that I didn’t want to give—that she should go back to spy upon our enemy for us.
“Do they abuse you in any way, any way at all?” I don’t have to make that order official, if I can find an excuse. “You can tell me, Kiril.”
“No. They even talk kindly to me. They think I’m a little girl.”
I stare into her big, dark eyes and wish that I, too, could see the child in them. “I’ll always stay with you,” I promise again. “I’ll never go too far away.”
“Me, too!” Lufti asserts, and all the others nod.
I swallow, then ask her, “Does a Purple Mantle march with you?”
“The whistle code has been compromised. The Mantles know it, but the common soldiers don’t.” As she takes that in, I say, “So we won’t drag this on forever. We’ll find out what we can, then rescue you back to us. In the meantime, do you have any intelligence that we can use?”
“They call their leader Sarge, but he’s had so many officers die ahead of him that he’s probably field-promoted to lieutenant or captain or something by now—all of those troops march under somebody not trained to manage so many. Some of the soldiers fear that you’ll put acid in the water bladders next. They keep ammunition in the tent with the patch over the ridgepole. They keep pigeon-cotes in a tent that they always put on the highest ground. The soldier that hangs a luck-doll by his door-flap fears ghosts and has a guilty conscience about something—I’ll try to find out what. The soldier in the tent with the patch shaped sort of like a horse’s head has a crazy fear of bugs. They store lamp-oil in a tent with buckets by it at all times for throwing on snow if it should ever catch fire.”
“Whoa! Take a breath!”
“That’s all I can remember for now. Oh, wait—don’t free the pigeons just yet—they’re on their way to some base, and they’d just replace them before they had much time to feel alone and scared.”
“Same goes for ammo, then. And Kiril, try to find out more about that base. How’s morale?”
“Down the sewer and going lower all the time. They’re afraid to sleep and none of them can function at their best.”
“Sounds fortunate for us.”
“More than that—all the troops spread fear to each other every time they connect—don’t free the birds till they get to spread fear to the next base, even if it takes months.” She grins at me. “Egalitarians must be busy all over the place!”
I laugh with delight and stand up. “Excellent! Kiril, I am so proud of you! You turned what could have been a disaster into a victory for the revolution.” But she looks uneasy again and pulls me aside from the others, who still run their hands through the groceries.
“Deirdre,” she asks me in almost a whisper, “Am I bad for feasting with the enemy?” She crosses her arms over her tummy as if to hide it.
“No, no, honey. It’s good. Think of it as stealing their food—as they’ve stolen food from the poor for generations. You’re just taking back your own.” I give her a hug and she does, indeed, feel just a tad softer than she did. “Your father would have given you all that food, and more, if he could’ve—he’d want you to have it, Kiril.”
She nods, thoughtfully. “I gotta go, now,” she says, and ducks back out of our hut before I have time to say goodbye.
* * *
(The leaves have turned, I see, gazing out the library window. The trees on the campus flaunt their fire-colors in the face of all our grays and browns, and sometimes they even fall too fast for the gardeners to scoop them up before we see their disorder loitering on our fading lawns. My red hair fits right in for a change. We have entered into a saucily disheveled time, that reminds me of something...gone. It’s almost worth the added chill to the old stone building. And indeed I smell a whiff of woodsmoke, and hear a welcome crackle, and turn to see my fellow students, at last, permitted to build a fire in the fireplace.
I leaf through my workbook, blotting things out and scrawling substitutions here and there wherever I can squeeze them in, some of them deliberate mistakes. I keep having to remind myself to maintain an A- or B+ average—bright enough to impress (and to counter anti-Lumnite prejudice) but not freakishly so.
Don has already finished his homework, and curls up in a window-seat, adding to the Book of Pranks a recipe for an invisible ink that will stay liquid for a long time, and will turn a bright blue after a few second’s contact with skin.
“Better add a reminder,” Jake tells him while rummaging through the Common Room bookcase, “That they have to write backwards for it to come out the right way on imprinting.”
“Already got it,” Don answers with a smile, “In the intro, explaining what it’s for.”
“Hello,” Jake says. “The books won’t go all the way back, here.” But he says it so quietly that only the two of us overhear him amidst all of the students struggling over algebra and Toulin History.
Silently we leave our seats to join him. Don pulls out a few books, and we see the hidden one, behind and perpendicular to the rest. Another student workbook in its binding, much like the Book of Pranks, but this one has a symbol on it instead: an infinity loop, split by a lightningbolt.
Jake opens it, saying not a word. I peer over his shoulder. It holds rituals. Diagrams, scripts, recipes, choreography, all of a magical nature. The earlier writing, in fading ink, doesn’t seem bad at all, a rather innocent sort of nature-cult, and not without possibilities for integration into the locally preferred Christianity, or even winning acceptance as a standalone. But later annotations, oddly enough in the texting shorthand of ancient Earthian English, modify these increasingly towards darkness; they become what I can only describe as evil.
Jake flips the pages, one by one, and we psygraph each and every one, triggering memorization responses, deeply implanted in all agents, by a few quick taps, in a certain rhythm, of our fingers on the same hand’s palm. Forewarned is forearmed.)
(I can’t wait till I get home to read this letter. I take a seat in that lovely fudge shop that Cybil first shared with me, and while I wait for my hazelnut brownie I tear the mysterious envelope open. It contains a verse in Tilianach. Archaic Tilianach, such as I used to speak in my youth.
“Oh take me, Byron Lord, to tan and freckle on thy distant shore,
“Just thee and me, for more would be a bore.
“Oh take me on a steamy beach, with wild trees for canopy
“And teach me all the art of love, just between thee and me!
“Let me lick the febrile sweat from off thy poet brow,
“And let me learn the ways of passion as only thou knowst how!”
I stare in horror. I wrote that “poem” as a stupid adolescent. How could they...of course. Some evil telepath, untrained in ethics in this psi-ignoring culture, has plucked this from my mind, and sent it to me to embarrass me. Doubtless someone in the government who does not approve of my mission here. They’re trying to rattle me.
I crumple the paper in my hand. How dare they!
How dare who? No ordinary telepath could break through my shields, let alone an amateur. And suddenly my white-hot anger plunges to a cold, cold fear.)