IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume VI: The Rift


Chapter 9

Sharing Cigarettes


 

Wednesday, December 23, 2708

(Did I really give that order, yesterday?  I must have been out of my mind!)

Here we passed Summer Solstice during my imprisonment, and I missed it!  (No surprise, after such a hideous night, sweating out the rebel dart.  Horrors and hallucinations assaulted me, and awful memories stranger than any figment of the mind.)  At least what they call summer, this high up in the mountains.  Hey, Solstice Day nearly killed me with hypothermia!  (But no, the order had its strategy–nothing ever quite obscures my cold grip on reality.  Rape is just one more tool in the arsenal of breaking down the proud.)  All we get is more hours of sunlight for the overcast to water down–and now even those begin to diminish.  (I don’t get nice work.  I don’t get glory for the sacrifices I make for my country.  I gave the order that I had to.)

The men of the villages behind us would have set up their feasting-tables outside, under canopies bedecked in weavings of grain-stalk and vine, while the women created their own art sweating in the kitchens.  (In any case, it didn’t work.  The dog died before he could take her prisoner for me and do his dirty will.)  Sanzio D’Arco must have held me prisoner during the pre-solstice hunt.  I missed out on that, too.  I would have anyway, sick as I was.

(But shame on me, for feeling glad that she escaped!  It would have done the trick, I think.  Deprive her of the last anchor of her self-respect, and then, when she felt the pain most acutely, I could have offered her solace.  Maybe not the concentrate–she would be wise to that, and it does not comfort, anyway.  Better to revive her with it, every time she threatened to pass out, get the need well-rooted in the bloodstream, and the madness that goes with it, but then, when she broke, I could have offered her something soothing, something that could make the pain go away.  I could even have offered her the figleaf of obtaining a prescription for her.  I know a doctor who would do that for me.)

We take to the road, too few in our party for remark, now that we’ve gotten the heat off our backs and Kiril persuaded the extras to move on: Just me, Kiril, Lufti, Tanjin, Nishka, and Hekut.  Damien has gone to scout ahead, so once again I ride the burro’s back, on the insistence of the others, who try to impress me with their concern for my well-being by describing my looks in uncomplimentary terms.

(What would she care, then, about revolution?  What would she care about the devotion of her comrades in arms?  She would feel too filthy for the praise anyway.  As well she should.  I would have simply made her filthiness real to her.)

Up and up the road staggers, a broad streak of mud cutting through the trees in zigzag fashion, towards one of many passes into the deeper ranges: Micah’s Gap in this case, where Micah’s descendants keep a threadbare little town, blissfully oblivious to their lack of strategic importance.  A surprising number of others share the road, some alone, some by twos and threes, sometimes families on the move, hard looks upon their faces.  But no one talks much to anyone, and many pass us by, weary as we are.  (But I don’t actually make addicts, when it comes down to it.  I cure them.  I offer them a sort of methadone, that frees them from Glory–the most destructive drug of all.)

Kiril strides beside me, smoking, handing up food every so often for me to eat.  Damien’s gift included a number of perishables that need consumed in a hurry, not that anyone objects.  Others munch as they walk, too.  Kiril herself does not.

“Come on, there’s a good girl,” she tells me, handing up a bacon-avocado sandwich that she made at our last stop just for me.  “You need it to get well.”  Yet she doesn’t have to coax me, for I feel my appetite return.

“You too—at least eat some vegetables.  You need the vitamins.”

Lufti hands her a stalk of celery even before I stop talking.  She smiles wryly, raises it to me as if in a toast, and then takes a bite.

(As I wait on the ground floor of the tower within the tower, in a comfortable little lobby by the locked door out, I telepathically pick up on a craving for nicotine.  I remember that one smoke in Jake’s company, in that discreetly dirty little park behind the tobacconist’s shop.  I feel the memory in my lungs, the taste in my mouth, the dizzy zing.  And I laugh at the desire for more!  Guaril confirms that both guards keep looking longingly at the cigarette vending-machine in a nearby lobby, which he has blocked from working all morning.

I nod, all alone and not alone.  Biochemical urges can sometimes break through mind-control.) 

Nishka walks before us, bearing Lufti on her back.  Hekut takes the rear, with many a backwards glance, his little hand on his hip, not far from where I know he hides his throwing-knives.  Tanjin stays beside me, his good arm around the furry neck before me.

I find myself asking, “What’s the burro’s name?”

Ahead of me Nishka answers, “Honeydew,” without turning.  Dosh must have told her.

 (We listen to one of the guards step over and give the machine a frustrated punch.  Obligingly, Guaril lets it release several packs at once, and I feel Tshura giggle.)

On Nishka’s back, Lufti murmurs, “Honeydew, heaven-dew, diamonds from the sky.  It’s all right now.  Let me walk.  They have healed me some.  I am not as dead as I used to be.”  So Nishka lets him down and now he holds Kiril’s hand as we continue, taking her cigarette from her and puffing on it while she chews celery.

(Tshura gives me a psychic nod back when both guards have left the room to scoop up their ill-got tobacco, but the whisper of it flickers in my brain.  She’s deader than she used to be, and it’s only going to get worse.  Her consciousness can’t linger much longer in this twilight state, I think as I try to pick the lock, only to find no space for my hairpin.  Somebody has apparently poured molten lead into the mechanism.)

I feel like somebody poured lead into all my veins, but I don’t have to move much anyway, here on the donkey’s back.  I hold back the watering of my eyes to look around me at all my faithful comrades in arms, taking such good care of me—even after I have let them down with such stupid, weak, ridiculous cravings for a powder in the possession of my enemies!

Lufti looks up at me knowingly.  “Choosing not to be a god means more, the more you want it,” he says, and only I know what he means.

(So, Zanne, my dear, must you stay in the possession of your enemies forever?  Ah, but I am nothing if not resourceful!  I unscrew the hinges.  This will take some time, so Guaril makes the machine cough up more cigarettes.

I pry the wrong side of the door open enough to shove my pack through.  Before our smokers can return, Guaril triggers another short-circuit, arcing to an invading roach so as to offer an explanation for the malfunctions later, and the entire machine does some alarming smoking of its own, prompting the guards to frantic action.  I barely squeeze through the gap, cursing Cybil’s cooking with every scraping inch, and finally pop through with a gasp.

The door springs back to its original position…mostly.  May it be a Truth that when the guards return they won’t notice a slight increase of shadow.  Smelling smoke with that nasty burnt-rubber edge of frying insulation, I spit on my handkerchief and rub a bit of blood off of the wood, then hasten out of there before the fire-squad arrives to make my departure more awkward than it has to be.  Faster than anyone without speeded reflexes could move.

Because Guaril weakens, too.  He won’t manage anything more today; I’m on my own for the rest of the trip back to base.

“It gets harder,” wisps of Tshura tell me, in symbol-speak that by now I automatically translate into words.  “We’re less and less human all the time.”)

The sun comes out from behind the clouds, and I finally start to feel like a human being again.  I see more red trumpet, plus other wildflowers, blue and yellow and violet, varieties that I can’t name, in the glades between the trees.  My swift studies had reviewed the most utilitarian of plants and left the lovely ones out completely, more’s the pity.  The pitch-pines, both fair and useful, climb up tall to either side of the road, framing a blue and white stretch of sky, and their scent mingles pleasantly with the familiar savor of tobacco.

            (I need a smoke.  I do not need a study period.  I slip off to the old, familiar path, leading to the little nook screened by sheds, with all the holes in the snow from fallen cigarette butts.)

“Light me one,” I say to Kiril, and she passes up a cigarette to me.

She asks me, “Aren’t you going to scold me for smoking?”

“Nope.  You’re in command.”

“I am not.  You’ve got your wits about you again, just not your feet.”

“Then that’s worse luck for both of us.”  I take in a deep, fragrant drag.  “Tell you what–make this your last cigarette.”

She blows a ring and says, “Yes Ma’am!”

(I come around the corner and there stands George.  He says nothing at first, just offers me a cigarette, lights it for me, and then one for himself.  He shakes out the match and drops it in the snow.)

The smoke feels good in me, rough and homey.  All the wrong things feel good to me, these days.  And yet it doesn’t feel like enough–that’s the worst part.  I know what goes beyond it, now. I know what goes even beyond the wild greenfire.

            (We take several puffs, leaning on the wall together, staring into space, before I ask, “So how do you plan to celebrate Christmas, George?”

            “Why should you care?” he replies, exhaling fragrant, swirling smoke.  “Are you not a Pagan?”

            “I like to think of myself as a Christian, though not of the Chaplain’s variety.  Something more liberal.”

            George laughs softly, and his visible laughter puffs upon the icy air.  “Can there be such a thing, a Liberal Christian?  The Chaplain says that they’re competing religions.”

“The Chaplain was a drunk.”  And I take a long drag on my cigarette.  Funny how it can feel so good in the chest, when on another level my body recognizes it as poison.

“Oh, you might think yourself a Christian, but I know better.  You study dark arts, Jake.  You Lumnites have probably lived so long apart from Christendom that you don’t even realize how you have drifted into Pagan ways.”

            I regard my cigarette a moment, then smoke it again.  “You have your opinion on the matter and I have mine.”  And then I notice the gun, pointed right at me.  “Where did you get that, George?”

            He grins crazily.  “Sharpshooting is a noble art.  I found it in the cellar of the Married Teacher’s Quarters, still quite untouched by the flames.”

            I smash out the butt against the wall and drop it.  “George, for your sake, please don’t.  I don’t like what happens when I have to defend myself.”  His face changes, seeing mine change.

            “You really mean it,” he says, lowering the gun.  “You actually care about me.”

            I nod.

            “And yet you know what I know—that you must go with me anyway, whether I hold a pistol to your head or not.”

            I feel the truth in this.  Slowly I nod again.

            “It’s inevitable,” he says, taking my arm.

            “You plan to try and murder me,” I say, going where he leads.  We both now walk the unexpected path, a circuitous route that manages to find empty spaces, or pass behind people’s backs, so that nobody in this whole crowded campus sees where we go.

            “I plan nothing,” he replies.  “I foresee you murdering yourself.”

            “I am not Hulda, nor the Chaplain.  I will not become your lover.”  The words surprise me even as I say them.  The Chaplain, too?

            He glances up at me, longingly, but then says, “That won’t be necessary.  It would have helped if I could’ve persuaded you to betray your little redhead, but I can work without it.”  He swallows and says, “I kind of expected that, anyway.  You’re not lonely like the others.  I can complete loneliness.”

            I find myself thinking, I am even more complete than you realize.)

            “You’ve been to Micah’s Gap,” I say to  Hekut.  “What can you tell me about it?
            “That it’s basically an inn run by the descendants of Micah, complete unto itself.  Everyone in the surrounding village is related.  They grow their own food, raise their own stock, just never marry their own.”

            Nishka laughs, saying, “If they bother to marry at all!”  That’s the first laugh I’ve heard from her since Dosh died.  I’ve missed the hearty sound of it, but now it has an edge that it didn’t used to.

            “That’s true,” Hekut says with a grin.  “They sport with passing guests to get their children.  Sometimes they’ll persuade someone to stay and marry, but mostly of them are bastards and proud of it.”  He sounds rather admiring, himself.

            (We enter the main building, going down empty corridors, listening to the ghosts of voices behind closed doors.  The next period has begun, and all the good boys sit at their lessons.  Most of the bad boys, too.

            Softly he says, “Please don’t think me a bastard for what I’m about to do, Jake.”  Then he laughs oddly and says, “Believe me, my parents were all too married to please Ol’ Weatherbent.”

            “How long do you think you can hold me before my friends come looking for me?”

            “They won’t find you,” he says, opening the door to an old servant’s hallway.  “You don’t want found.”

            Surprisingly, I recognize the truth in this, too.

            “You think that you can save me.”  Now we exit again, and find ourselves on a landing of a certain seldom-used staircase, which we have, ourselves, tread too often.  We go down into the musty well of air.  “And you know that to do that you have to meet me halfway, in a ritual.”  And I know it as he says it.

            “You put something in the cigarette,” I say.  “That wasn’t just tobacco.”

            He shrugs, unlocking the door to the chamber where he has conducted so many unholy rites.  It feels cold and bare without the rug.

Too easy—my friends will check here first of all.  And then he opens another door that I hadn’t even noticed was there—how could I, even with my training, have overlooked a thing like that?  Then I remember how Alroy concealed an entire tower for at least a century.  We always had somewhere else to look, didn’t we?  And a little psychic misdirection did the rest.  No, my friends will not find me so easily.

George leads me in.   From the light behind us, I see a cot with a quilt and pillow on it, a chamberpot, and a basin with a pitcher and cup beside it.  “And that’s not just water,” he says.  “And later on I will bring you food that’s not just food.”

            I ought to attack him.  I ought to simply push past the little fellow and go up the stair.  But I find myself too drained, too distant from my body, to do anything but sit down on the floor.)

            Even riding drains me; I think longingly of the lodging ahead.  “I don’t care how they get their children.  I just hope they have tobacco!”

            Hekut says, “Yeah, they trade for it with handicrafts.  That and coffee strong enough to make your spine crackle.  Some say they put greenfire in it.  But I don’t think so; it’s not that bitter.  They just brew it strong.”

            (“Don’t worry.  I won’t overdose you.  But you will never quite clear your system, either, and it will accumulate, and you will adjust.  I need you to marinate for awhile.”

            I know a secret, though.  One that tips the tide my way, that makes this at least an even match.  Two can play at finding unexpected paths.

            “Have you gotten a good look around?” he asks, almost gently.

            I nod.

            “Good, because I need to keep you in the dark.”  And with that he blows out the candle, and locks the door on his way out.)





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