IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Wednesday, October 7, 2708
(The boat has sunk! I thrash through the water looking for Jake, icy cold chaos in the dark, but instead I find someone I should know, someone with long, pale hair drenched and hanging over wild eyes, someone battered and abraded, with a black eye and a swollen lip, clinging to the flotsam—and there’s Jake, too! He shoves the flotsam hard, crying, “Go! Escape! Follow the Unexpected Path!” I watch the person paddle away. Someone bruised beyond recognition, who ought to have been beautiful.
I wake in the darkness of the dormitory. Jake tosses in his sleep, mumbling about water. Don’s arm hangs off the edge of his cot, pale in the dimness, but his fingers twitch at whatever he dreams as well. I miss...Oh God how I miss...the sea?)
(The ship has sunk! The...what? Silly me. I wake up on Cybil’s couch, perfectly dry. I make the mistake of moving wrong, and groan. No wonder I felt like drowning; I can hardly breathe. Not deeply, at least. How long does it take for a cracked rib to heal, anyway? And by now the bruises must have reached their fullest bloom—I dare not look in a mirror.
I close my eyes again, wondering if Cybil has anything in the kitchen with which to mix up a nice painkiller. No, not really. I sigh.
Carefully I sit up. It’s still dark outside. It took forever to pack, even with Cybil’s help. Am I strong enough yet to take up my dufflebag and slip out of here, before she stirs? I had better be. I shouldn’t endanger her; I can’t stay here. Not with the Ship of State about to capsize.
Then I lay back down. I’m not going anywhere just yet.)
(The ship has sunk! The ship has sunk! As the terrifying cries ring out the galley floor smashes open and I plunge deep into the choking waters, burst up gasping again, but the next wave shoves my head down, but I fight back up for air, but it keeps happening and happening all over again and I just know I’m gonna drown! I grope at crate after crate of our food floating by, but they sink as soon as I clutch at them, I’m too heavy for them.
Is that Cook over there? Has she found something to hold her up? I flounder towards her, though the waves dash me about and it seems hopeless. And what if I do reach her? Will she save me? Will she smack me away and let me die? I feel so, so afraid of the strangling dark beneath the waves!
“Kiril! Wake up!” Sarge grabs me and pulls me upright as I fight for air, the blanket-curtain draped across his back where he’s rushed in on me. “Oh God, Medic! Medic! Come here—it’s the girl! She can’t breathe!”
Feet pound running towards us and soon the medic dives into the tent with a blast of light, his kit and his medic’s wind-up lamp in hand. He yanks open my shirt, popping off the buttons, then he pushes some cold metal thing against my bared breast at several places, listening to tubes in his ears.
“Asthma,” he says in a cool, professional voice. He puts an L-shaped tube in my mouth and says, “Inhale, Kiril” as he pushes something at the end. I get a lungful of bitterness, then he does it again. My wheezing subsides to normal breath, though I feel kind of jumpy, like greenfire became a mist and I gasped in a little bit of it. The medic says, “Spring can trigger it.”
Sarge asks, “Is it dangerous?”
After a long pause, the medic says, “Probably not—with a regular doctor to follow her case.” And then I read something in Sarge’s eyes, not at all relieved, and the medic sees it there, too, and sighs. Damn them! They know perfectly well that I’ll have no such thing the minute I leave them, and on that day they won’t go through any trouble to get it for me. Sarge grimaces and turns his face away, and he looks as old as he did on the night of the fire. He feels so, so bad about this...and too bad for him!
The medic takes Sarge by the elbow and makes a motion with his head towards the outside. When they go out there they think that I can’t hear them through the thin canvas walls. They can convince themselves of many things. The medic says, “Maybe you should reconsider bringing her down into the lowland pollen.”
“Or do what?” says Sarge. “Leave her where the shootings going on?”
“Shooting goes on everywhere, these days. It gets even worse downslope—you should know that better than anybody.”
“And what’s a little kid going to do up here? Doc, a grown man can go for miles without finding anything to eat! You saw what a scrawny little thing she was when we first found her—you think she was really after those tasper buds just for spice?”
“You’ve given her a chance to last awhile longer—and good for you. But Sarge, you can’t save the world.”
He sighs and says, “I know.” He does? “But I’ll protect her as long as I can.” As he can? Does he ever let himself think about how much he could really do? “Besides, her cooking’s good for morale. And the men behave better with a little girl in camp.”
“You’ve made her a target for the rebels—did you think of that?”
“They were already robbing her before we found her. That’s all the more reason for me to protect her.”
“You’re living a dream, man,” the medic says, and I hear him walk away.
“Maybe,” Sarge says to nobody. “But isn’t that what we’re fighting for?”
Some of you, Sarge. The rest of us are fighting to save the world.)
Thursday, October 8, 2708
Tanjin’s wound heals pretty cleanly so far, though I wish I had a stick of silver nitrate to hold back the proud flesh a bit—he’s going to have a wicked scar. And where’d a medical term like “proud flesh” come from, anyway? What’s so proud about flesh naked of skin? I dab on some more of the pungent dressing and bind the wound back up.
“Can you make a fist for me, Tanjin?” No problem. Good so far. “Now raise your arm for me, dear.”
His arm quivers helplessly, but does not rise. “I...I’m sorry,” he says, mystified. Oh no.
“Let’s try it from the elbow. Can you move your forearm?” He does, in all directions. “Good, good. You’re doing fine. Can you rotate your arm from the shoulder?” A twitch of motion, not near enough to call rotation.
Something else disturbs me, something I’ve been ignoring, I think, for days. I dip my finger into the antiseptic, checking first to make sure that my nail’s perfectly clean. “See Lufti over there? What’s he up to?”
Tanjin turns his head to see, and chuckles. “I think he thinks he’s dancing—but Betany’s idea of keeping time doesn’t help matters, either.” He shows no sign of knowing that as he looked away I jabbed his wound as hard as I could without physically jarring him. He has not shown any pain in the wound site since the first day.
Hekut laughs, sitting nearby. “Kanarik herself couldn’t dance to that beat.”
Tanjin laughs, too, saying, “Now that, I think, is supposed to imitate the flight of a bird,” he says as I lightly prick with my scalpel all around. “Now it looks like—ow!” His head whips around to me. “Whatcha do that for?”
“Just testing the extent of the nerve damage,” I say as coolly as I can, staring sternly into his widening eyes. “Not very far, fortunately. You’ve still got at least half the use of your arm—enough to hold a gun.”
Friday, October 9, 2708
(The men bicker, bicker, bicker, all the time. I hear them while I dice up carrots for a stew. Sarge has to keep punishing them for fighting, but when he does, his voice sounds all shrill, too. They all got shadows under their eyes, and they start at every noise, and they cuss too much. Funny thing, though—I’ve seen Sarge actually hit men for cussing in my presence. I never have to do wash-up after meals anymore, he’s got so many men on KP duty; I’ve got more help than I need.
I don’t know what I mean to them, quite. Not a cook—this has turned into something like no cook-job I’ve ever had or heard about. At first I thought they could see me, a servant, as a human being for the first time ever, they treated me so nice. I thought maybe they’d turn out all right, we could make rebels out of them and not have to kill them after all.
But it’s not that. It’s something weird. They see me, yeah, but not like a human being. They treat me really, really good, but something feels all wrong about it, scary. Not like sex, not that kind of scary. It’s even more than I thought that first night in Sarge’s tent. It’s like they worship me or something, like all the goodies they keep slipping me are offerings, and all the kind words plead—like if they can placate me they won’t have to pay for all their crimes against the rest of the low-caste people.
And I let them do it. I do. I feel like a swindler, but they deserve it, I keep telling myself. They hold up the system that starved my mother and cost me my father and made everybody I know suffer so bad. They’re supposed to go to hell.
“Kiril?” The redhead they call Freck, for all his freckles, brings me a fragrant bouquet of wildflowers and puts them in a cup beside my chopping-block. “I just thought you’d like a bit of color here, you know, brighten up your work.” Then sometimes they just have to turn around and do something really sweet and special just for me, and I want to pray for them all.)
* * *
I’ve come to really like the fragrance of this balm that I brew for wounds; it tells me that I’m doing something, that I can heal and make a difference. And I’ve come to like the feel of silky scars beneath my fingertips, and their dawn-pink flush—they tell me that wounds can close. You learn to like strange things in war.
Hekut brings me more boiled water as I perform the morning dressing changes. I say to him, “I didn’t know you knew Kanarik.”
“Know her? Kanarik?”
“Yes. Yesterday you referred to her dancing.”
“Is she a real person? I thought she was just somebody in a song.”
* * *
(We corner George in the library. He doesn’t even see us, so rapt is he in a warped old book that the school probably forgot they even had. “Mysterium Coniunctionis.” I had no idea that anybody had ever translated such a thing into Toulinian. And I almost remember what it means, too.
He starts when he sees the three of us grouped around him. He laughs, a little nervously, as he sets the book aside, on top of papers with illegible notes scrawled on them. “Just as well you boys came around,” he says. “Every time I try to read this I keep falling asleep. It’s like a spell infects the ink or something.” His voice trails off as we answer not a word. “What can I do you for?”
Don pulls out the ancient book of pranks, and flips it open in front of George. “Who wrote in all of these recipes in the last half?”
“You,” George says.
I ask, “Who sent a bully twice his size skidding face-first down the second story hall?”
George Winsall breaks into a grin, saying, “You, of course.”
“You’re wasting us,” Jake says. “We want in.”
“In on what?”
Jake gives each of us a glance. We shrug, and turn our backs with him. “Have it your way,” Jake remarks as we start to walk away. “Your loss.”
“Wait a minute,” George says. “Plainly you know something, and…and somebody will regret he ever spoke loosely in your presence, I’ll see to that.”
We stop. Jake turns and raises one brow. “What makes you think,” he asks, “that anybody told us…with words?” And then we walk away, this time for good.)
(They ask what’s wrong but I can’t breathe enough for words. Doc gives me the inhaler, then tips back my head, forcing drops into my swollen eyes. “Who brought her those flowers?” he demands.)