IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Songs, Stories, and Other Truths
Friday, October 2, 2708
I like the jaunty sound of coins jingling in my pocket, the feel of them swinging on my hip. Thank you, Kiril! No one in this traveler’s town makes anything of me going from shop to shop, checking out the cheap but durable children’s clothes in various sizes, sniffing out the bargains. Any number of hard-faced women, as weather-beaten as I, pass through this town, to or from their distant jobs, picking up the cash they need for the children left back home. Often they shop for more than one family, too, a group pooling their funds together, their master authorizing only one to go for all. As for my own kids, I’ve left them at a hidden base upslope a ways; we’ve descended below llama-herd terrain where nobody would’ve remarked on so many young ones on the move.
Have I gotten everything I promised? Replaced every worn-out shirt, skirt or stocking, every outgrown boot and threadbare blanket? Restocked the salt-paste and the stapleseed meal? Got the new twine we need, the packs of matches, the papers and tobacco? And still I have coins left!
Great streaks of clouds converge on the setting sun, but the air’s so pure up here that they shine in delicate pastels, abalone swirls, silver and pearl more than gold and fire. Thank you for this day, O Lord. Now comes time for the night.
I find a likely tavern, relatively quiet, a nice mix of ages, not a pick-up parlor or a dive. I’ve put in a good day’s work; I think I’ve earned a beer. I check my pocket—yep, just enough for one.
While the barkeep draws it I notice the thambriy on the wall. Jonathan had taught me its ways long before I ever became an agent—quite close to other instruments I’ve played, once you adjust to the ten-note western scale, and you can make your music by plucking, hammering, fingerbowing, or alternating between them. I motion the barkeep to bring it down to me. Faces perk up, chairs swivel to face me, as I tune it up. No fingerbows available, but these mallets will do just fine. I take a deep swallow of beer, sigh, put the mug down, and then look around at all the expectant faces as though I just now became aware of them. “Anybody want a song?” I ask.
Heads nod all around. I smile slyly, just like Damien would, pluck a few bars, pause for another drink while my audience begins to fidget: make sure they really, really want it, he said. Then suddenly I bring the mallets down hard and fast on the strings and they all jump as one, their hearts beating just as fast. Oh yeah. I’ve got them, now.
I’ll start with something heroic but short, innocent of any overt political content yet stirring all the same. Then I shall insist on finishing my beer before I continue, just as Damien taught me to do. Next I shall swing into something slightly more subversive. Then I’ll wait. If somebody buys me another beer, and if nobody else looks uneasy, I’ll hit ‘em with the heavy-duty stuff.
You never know when you’ll need friends, or where.
(You never know when you’ll need a friend on a solo mission. I am so glad that I have Cybil! It comforts me to lean on her arm, just a tiny bit, as we walk down the street. And last night’s rest on her couch, plus the loving meals she’s prepared for me since she found me, have helped a lot. Not to mention that I feel much more human in the jade dress that Cybil loaned me, not to mention the new clothes in the shopping-bag upon my arm—even if I do look dramatically worse from the darkening of my bruises overnight. And even if today’s chief effort has turned out futile.
“I’m sorry, Zanne,” she says, shivering as the temperature drops with the fading light. “You’d think at least that the battered women’s shelters wouldn’t fuss so much about ethnicity and religion.”
We reach a light at a rounded streetcorner, and wait for it to change. “My fault. I should have studied the local options better before coming here—I should never assume that I wouldn’t need to infiltrate.”
“If I’d known they’d quiz you on Dutch Reform, I’d have...is that Meg across the street?”
“Oh Gates, you’re right—it is!” I wave. Perpendicular to our path, the light favors her, so she steps smartly this way, carrying her metal briefcase and herself as though her slept-in clothing still met professional standards, her hair still tidy in its pair of ponytails.
“I know what happened,” she says as she sets her briefcase clanking on the curb, before stepping up. “We can fix this. I know lawyers who can...”
A speeding white sportscar runs the light and hits her, just like that. Blood explodes everywhere! The car races on, hardly slowed. Cybil waves frantically to stop traffic, but my efforts can’t save Meg with such massive injuries, and the sirens howl up too late, and I get nothing from her lips except for more blood.
I stumble to my feet, then stand there in more shock than an agent should allow as they load the body onto the ambulance—it all happened so fast. What good are speeded reflexes when things can still happen too bloody fast! I stare helplessly at the red dripping all over me, horribly bright against the jade dress in the glare of headlights. What am I even an agent for?
Only later do I realize that somebody grabbed the briefcase when I wasn’t looking. They left the shopping-bag behind.)
Saturday, October 3, 2708
(Why’d I enlist? Because somebody’s got to fight the good fight, uphold law and order. Yeah, a day doesn’t go by that I’m not scared for my life, with the rebels fighting dirty and picking us off like the sneaky little cowards that they are. But I’m no coward—I’ll see my duty to the end.)
(Why’d I enlist? I must have been out of my skull. It seemed the cool thing to do at the time, but nowadays it just seems insane.)
(I enlisted because that’s what my family does, how the men come of age. How could I hold up my head among my brothers and my uncles and before my father and grandfather, if I didn’t put in a tour of duty?)
(I enlisted because I had nowhere else to go—no money, no food, not even a roof over my head. It was join the army or become another street rat, stealing and begging and losing my humanity day by day.)
(Me? I enlisted because my girlfriend thought I looked fine in a uniform. But the joke’s on me; she couldn’t wait as long as boot camp to see me wear it. I hear she’s married now, to a postman; I bet her husband will have no better luck with her fidelity than I did.)
(I got tired of getting bullied for being gay. Nobody put on muscle in training as fast as I did. Now I can kiss my boyfriend right in public, whenever I’m in town, and nobody says anymore, “You must be rebel scum, you pervert!” All I need do is growl, “What are you staring at?” and people move on. He just loves it when I do that.)
(I made a promise to my mother to do anything but continue one more day working for Farmer Jori. Well, this is about as “anything but” as you can get, I guess.)
(I signed up because my big brother almost did, but then chickened out at the last minute. I thought I’d show him. Yeah, I showed him, all right.)
(I heard that doing a stint in the army could get you votes, and I got so damn sick and tired of feeling powerless.)
(Hey, this wasn’t my idea—I got drafted.)
(I joined because I’m a policeman’s son and the rebels kept stealing the payroll—damn their wormy souls!)
(You really want to know why I enlisted? Oh my soul, must you ask? I like the power. I like it when another guy dies and I’m still standing, I’m the stronger one. Every time I kill a rebel, I feel like his strength goes into me.)
(When the recruiters came to town, the other young men ran faster than me; I got caught.)
(I heard brave old songs about war and glory and I wanted to be a part of that.)
(I did it to spite my old man—him with his gimpy leg from fighting for the rebels. I didn’t want to hear another fornicatin’ story about the glorious revolution and how we should take our whippings like men because his discipline was nothing next to sweating it out where the bullets fly.)
(I dunno why—the promise of regular meals, I guess.)
(A rebel got my sister pregnant and then just disappeared. No note, no nothin’. I plan to kill ‘em all.)
(I joined because everybody kept saying women can’t get the same number of votes for the same achievements as men, because if they gave us that, they’d have to send us to war, too—at which cue we’re all supposed to squeal, “Oh no! Not the war! Anything but that!” So I got tired of hearing it. I cut my hair and bound back my breasts and signed on with the ID of my stillborn brother. And they still haven’t figured out what I am!)
(I wanted to own a gun. Legally. I just like the feel of it in my hands.)
(I am not without sympathy for those in the lower castes, but we must have law and do things properly. My mother nearly fainted when I joined the rank and file of the army, not the military records bureau like the rest of my class, but I believe that the upper castes should inspire our inferiors by our example, and that we should take an active role in supporting what we believe.)
(I heard you could get away with damn near anything as a soldier.)
(This guy came into our village, said he would teach us all to read if we would just sign some papers for him—the first thing he did was teach us how to sign our names, for free, kind of a proof of his good intentions. How were we to know that those were enlistment forms?)
(I’m here to kill rebels because I can’t kill the mine-boss who left whip-scars on my backside.)
(I joined up because I want to protect the innocent countrymen from the depredations of those murdering outlaws skulking in the woods and waste spaces.)
(I joined because you can’t trust the low-caste bottom-feeder Mountainfolk scum out there that rebels recruit from—not a man, woman, or child of ‘em! Maybe my caste doesn’t go so high up and in civilian life I wore my sleeves a bit on the thin side, but hey, I’m miles above them, at least! And okay, so we’ve got Mountainfolk marching with us, too, but the army housebroke ‘em, whipped them into shape so they’re almost human beings. They’re not like your average run. Some of them are even friends of mine.)
(I have a duty to God to support my government, right or wrong, and for that reason I have taken up arms in righteousness.)
(I just grew up, didn’t have a trade, didn’t know what else to do, saw the recruitment office, end of story.)
(I’m not as old as I look. I’m a runaway, I lied about my age. Anything out here is better than one more night of laying there in bed worrying about whether my stepdaddy’s gonna come in and molest me again.)
(I felt inspired.)
(I still haven’t figured out how I wound up in the army. I’d been drunk for a week solid after my girl left me, and somehow woke up in a barrack with some sergeant screaming at my poor, sore head.)
* * *
(“Why Meg?” I ask Cybil as she puts stinging, sharp-smelling antiseptic on my cuts and scrapes. And why can’t I think?
“Shhhh. Just rest, Zanne. You need rest.” She pushes me back down on her couch. Why do I let Cybil take care of me instead of managing for myself?
“But Meg...she wasn’t like me.” I fight to think through the pain and shock and...whatever. “She never signed on for a life of adventure and risk.”
“Risk just finds you sometimes, no matter what you do. And you don’t have to want it to decide to be brave anyway.”
I hear the Truth in her words, unvarnished, pure. And somehow that comforts me.)
* * *
Ooooooo. My head feels about as splintered as those roof-beams up there. I try to remember who paid for my lodgings last night; I can summon back a face, just not a name. That’s all right—it’s dangerous to know names.
Another little town subverted—good work, Deirdre. Gingerly, I lever myself upright and grope for the pitcher of water for a throat so parched I feel fit to die. I sang myself raw, didn’t I; I’ll be croaking all day. Did I remember to whistle the “Staying here tonight” signal before falling into bed, though? Yes, I recall that distinctly. No use worrying the children in the hills, and the mantles be damned. The whistle’d only lead to me, not them.
I pull my skirt on up to my armpits, to let me stumble to the common restroom down the hall. Damien once said that a good bard can measure his success by the size of his headache the next day. I must be a dadburn star, then. If they’d bought me one more beer I’d have been a falling star.
Back in my room again, I dress, wash my face and feel a little better, despite the tunes that keep circling in my poor head, over and over. Next village, though, I’m finding some other way to subvert the masses.