IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume V: Sharing Insanity


Chapter 24
What Is and Is Not Food


Thursday, November 12, 2708. continued

(“Me?” the gaunt man under my heel cries in a gravelly voice, “What about you?  Why do you stalk my mistress?”

I slip my nail file back into my pocket.  “I weary of standing here.  Bind his hands and ankles.”  Minerva and Tshura  perform this office with a couple old stockings; since forced out of employment, we’ve found a wealth of new uses for these tough, lightweight, stretchy garments of Vanikketan bureaucracy.  With a sigh I remove my foot.  “Start talking,” I tell him.  “Who are you, and who is your mistress?”

The man twists his neck with a crackle, putting back in place what we knocked out of line.  “My name is Elmer Van Geel, formerly in the employ of Belen Montoya...”

Dalmar hisses.  At my raised eyebrow he says, “A client of my old lab.  The Junkfood Queen.  Her company manufactures, among other things, the cookies that poisoned Kimba!”

Raif rushes forward but I trip him.  “Ah, impetuous youth!  Please restrain yourself till I find out more about what happened to your sister.”  He draws back sulkily, rubbing his knee.  “If I decide that Elmer needs to die, I’ll let you do the honors.”)

I wake briefly to what sounds like gunshots.  Then I remember, no, it’s just fireworks, go back to sleep, it’s been a bit too much of a party and I need my rest, for doubtless Jonathan will want me early in the morning.

(Gunfire wakes us again, twice in one night.  This time Sarge leaps up so fast, cussing like a devil, that he tangles in the curtains between our beds.  I skitter out of his way.

“Stay DOWN, Kiril!”  He grabs his rifle and runs out.  I lie as flat as a fat girl can, knowing that bullets can go right through tents and blankets and pillows, no problem, but if I keep this pillow over my head at least the guns won’t sound so loud.

Then I hate my own cowardice—I’m a spy, and spies have to listen all the time.  I push the pillow aside.

“It’s snipers, sir,” I hear someone shout.  “They’re picking off the oxen one by one!”

“How many down so far?”

“Five, sir.”

Sarge says really, really bad words.  “That’s enough to stop us in our tracks, right there!  And we’re already running late.”  The gunfire dies down, but not all the shouting and commotion.  I venture out of the tent.  The air smells like fresh beef.)

No, wait.  I’m not in that world.  Or...whatever.  What was I thinking, anyway?  World?  Who..Dolodrekirizanjin or...just sleep.

(I yawn, really wishing that trouble didn’t have this nasty habit of interrupting sleep.  “Former employee of Belen Montoya?  Did she fire you?  Or did you quit?  Either way, why?”
            “Don’t you have all that in my dossier, you murderous thugs?”

“Cybil, have we murdered anybody lately?”

“We’ve been trying to keep from getting murdered.  No, of course we haven’t.”

I bend down to him, hands on my knees, batting my eyelashes, and ask, “Who, exactly, do you think we are, Sugarplum?”

“Assassins for the government!  It’s not enough for you to imprison my mistress, not enough to force her factories to poison people in her name, no, you have to kill her, too!”

I straighten, smiling.  “This just got a whole lot more interesting.”)

“Aaaaaaaaaa!”  I jump out of my bed at the scream, grabbing my gun.

Oh.  It’s just the baby.  Must’ve had a nightmare.  Hearing distant battle’ll do it to you.

“Deirdre,” Zofia calls out, “I really hate to disturb you, but can you take over with Kurmal?”  I see her, looking disheveled, with the child in her arms, who sobs into her shoulder.  It occurs to me that the toddler is quite old enough to speak and yet I have never heard a word from her.  Malnutrition or trauma?  Either way she cannot share her nightmare with anyone.

“Sure,” I say, pulling on the clothes laid out, that Zofia laundered for me yesterday.

As I sit down by Kurmal, for some reason I study my nails.  A ragged mess; Zanne would not approve.  But that doesn’t stop Kurmal from wanting to hold my hand.  He does that sometimes; I think it eases the pain.

(“I know a short-cut down the line, sir.  I’m from these parts.”

“Jared, you’re a marvel!  What sort of short-cut?”

“A cow-path through a series of farms, not a real road.  It’s trespassing if you’re not one of the families who live beside it, so no signs mark it, but no one’s gonna bar the Charadocian Army.”

“Excellent!  You’ve given me the first hope I’ve had all night.  I’ll have to find a way to reward you.”

“Can I go off K.P. duty, sir?”

“Uh, what did I have you on K.P. for?”

“Foul language, sir.”

“Oh.  Um, sure.  You’re off K.P.”  After a pause he says, “Jared, if you’re from around here, you know where we can get replacement oxen, right?”

“Sure.  It’ll take some searching—not many people can afford the big kind we need, and then only a single pair, but I know where to look for the likeliest prospects.  Now mind you, some of these farmers can trick you into paying good coin for a sickly calf, if you don’t pay attention, but...”

“Paying?  Who said anything about paying?”

A long silence before Jared says, “Yes, sir.”  I know what he’s thinking.  He’d hoped to go home to these people after his tour of duty.  He doesn’t want the name of ‘Rustler’.

“It’s only fair, Jared.  Most of the people up here don’t pay any taxes at all.  They owe their government ten times over for the protection we provide.”

I hear gloom in his voice, but Jared says, “Yes sir.  It’ll take some time, but I can get you your oxen.”

“How much time?”

“Some days, maybe a week.”

And Sarge says more words that’d put him on K.P. if he wasn’t Sarge.)

* * *

            I don’t hear anymore gunshots.  Nothing flashes in the windows but the distant starlight.  What do my soldiers do without me?  Are those even mine, fighting out there?  I’ve screwed up my priorities.

            Yet when I try to rise, Kurmal’s grip suddenly becomes stronger on my hand.  I cannot let go now.  One soul or hundreds, Lovequest doesn’t always go by the numbers.

* * *

(In the morning I get all fixed up to salt down the beef, get the water boiling and the spices gathered, and I sharpen up my knives, whisk whisk whisk.  I’ve got a good tree picked out to hang the carcasses from, but when I go to recommend it to Sarge he looks at me oddly and says he already had the men drag the oxen off and dump ‘em down some ravine.  I stare at him, dumbfounded.  You mean he doesn’t know where beef comes from?

“They’re not beef cattle, honey, they’re working animals, all tough and stringy, not bred for the table, nor softened up in feedlots.”  I turn and stare at where the corral stood before the men moved it so the surviving oxen won’t get even more skittish than they already are.  Flies buzz over the blood-darkened grass.  You mean to tell me that nobody’s getting the benefit of all that meat except the BUGS?)

* * *

(As soon as night falls I watch the people climb down by twos and threes, strangers in the dark, clinging to rocks and roots, moving just as quiet as they can under a sky full of stars, with knives in their belts or in their teeth, down to get a chunk of that good, juicy flesh.  I sit helplessly up on the ravine’s ledge, watching Dosh and Turin going down to hack off our share, my half-dead arm crooked up against my side.  They all look like bugs down there, swarming over the carcasses, but so what?  As my Grandma used to say when she’d find rats in the pantry, “All God’s children gotta eat.”  And then she’d put out the traps anyway, but at least she’d sigh.)

(Elmer hunches forward staring at the ground, little twitches jolting his head and arms now and then, his fingers trembling.  “Once upon a time,” he says in a gravelly voice, “Ms. Montoya made good cookies—her grandma’s own recipe, expanded for production, but decent stuff in it, real cinnamon from Olovrmn, not that inferior Istislan cassia, nutmeg all the way from Burong, only the best of everything.”

“And magentine from where?” Dalmar asks.

“Nowhere!” Elmer snaps.  “She never put anything like that in her food!  Not by her own choice.  Sure, her financiers pressured her to use cheaper and cheaper ingredients over time, and they weren’t as tasty anymore, not the cookies, not the breadsticks, not the jam.  But she tried to make the changes more nutritious, not less, and she sure as hell didn’t ever try to poison anything.”

“Yet they are poison,” Dalmar snarls.  “The new ingredients combined to make dangerous compounds—don’t tell me otherwise!  I was the one who discovered it—I was the one she had fired for learning of it.”

“She did not!”  Elmer tries to leap up, but Guaril shoves him back down.  “That wasn’t her!  Reading your report’s what got her imprisoned in her own home!”

I finger the magentine pocket in my belt.  “He’s telling the truth, Dalmar.  I can read him.”  And I can tell that he can read me—but haphazardly, in snatches out of context.

Elmer smirks at that.  “You a telepath?  I’ve heard of your kind.  Why don’t you just read my mind, then?  Why pretend to question me.”  And he doesn’t even know he does it.

I roll my eyes.  “You obviously haven’t heard enough.  I don’t have time to wade through a sea of your symbols.  It’s enough to tell when you’re lying.”  He doesn’t know that that’s how he tracked me, how he knew that I sought his mistress.  He’s too far gone to even question it.  “And...you don’t even know about the magentine, do you?  That was added after you...got fired, but not by Ms. Montoya.”

“No, she didn’t fire me.  She couldn’t pay me, so she’s not my employer anymore, but I stood by her.”  He looks sadly up at me.  “She would never, ever have poisoned her old Elmer.”  And I look at his spasms, and I understand.  I also notice just how underweight he is.

“Elmer, when was the last time you had a full meal?”

“I...hard to say.  Three days ago?  Four?”

“Cybil, could you fix him something?”)

Do I smell cooking?  At this hour?  Ah, but it smells like meat, bona fide mouthwatering meat!  I think Kurmal smells it too, for a smile spreads on his face.

(I smell a scrumptious cookfire burning somewhere; somebody couldn’t wait to get themselves a taste of steak.  Somebody else curses and the sparks fly up when they stamp the fire out.  We shouldn’t draw attention to what we do, in case the army realizes its foolishness and comes back for what they left, or shoots us just on principle of owning those dead steers, even if they won’t eat ‘em, themselves.

My mouth waters as I watch Turin wait his turn for a hack at the hind flank.  If the farmers knew we’d killed the cattle, they’d let us get first pick.  They’d let us have the heart for sure, and thank us kindly, and maybe give us ale.  But they can’t know that we’re anything but people passing through, looking for better fortune like dozens of others every month.)

(“It all started with the death threats,” Elmer Van Geel tells us between gulping down Cybil’s porridge.  “Don’t know why, we just made cookies.  Crazy stuff, calls and letters about devils talking in the polvorones , visions trapped in bags of crisps, brain-eating worms in the gingerbread, all kinds of oddball things.”

“I’m not surprised,” Dalmar muttered.  “Irrational attempts to explain what destroyed their rationality.”

“ Anyway, Ms. Montoya had to hire security guards—dozens of ‘em.  They trickled in from all over, and my mistress took in all kinds—no offense meant.”

“Look around you, dearie.  If we’re not ‘all kinds’, I don’t know what is.”

He nods almost spastically.  “Good.  I never understood that modern nonsense anyway.  We thought none of these guards had anything to do with each other, we just looked for sturdy bodies with street smarts, but soon they started following orders that my Belen never gave ‘em, and then they started bossing us around, and everyone else in the factory fell right in with ‘em like they had one mind.”

“And you believe that the government set this up?”

“Who else could do it?”  He quivers before me, maybe with emotion, maybe with neural damage.  Who else indeed?  I wonder...)

(Dosh looks excited, then drops his machete to hug some sturdy person, who squeals and hugs him back; I wouldn’t know her in the dark and distance if that sudden giggle didn’t carry clear up here.  Or maybe I would—a big-boned gal like her.  So Dosh finally found his Nishka.  That’s good.  I’m glad something’s going right.

“What’re you lookin’ at?” some farmer growls loud enough for me to hear.  Turin murmurs something and turns away, concentrating on stripping back some hide.  I know what he’s looking at, or for.  Deirdre’s face, somewhere under all the twilight-shadowed hoods.  That farmer stands about her height; she’s a tallish one for a girl, at least around here.  But Turin comes up at last alone, even as Dosh and Nishka make the climb laughing softly to each other, their bloody bags of meat upon their backs.  Turin looks me in the eye and shakes his head.  I stare down at all those people scavenging below, hoping somehow that maybe my distant sight might catch something that his eyes missed close up.  You’d think Deirdre’d show up for something like this, good fresh meat.  But no, nobody but strangers mill around down there.

Maybe she died.)



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