IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
Wednesday, December 23, 2708, continued
(His blankets still smell like him, like tobacco and weeds and warm summer days, but he’s not here anymore. I stare helplessly at the pistol in Jake’s bed instead of him. I pick up the cold thing and pull the bit of rolled-up paper out of the barrel with a shaking hand. I will a tiny bit of light, hidden from the sleepers with my body.
I expect to read “Bang” or something tasteless like that. Instead it says, in George’s hand, “I didn’t need this. He came willingly.” In this moment the wind moaning outside the window cannot ache more than my heart.)
The inductions don’t take much effort. The inn has firewood already set aside for the Christmas bonfires, and of course they have no lack of drink on hand. Damien does the honors, adding stirring songs to the ritual words.
(The walls of this cellar cell might seem strong, yet music can flow right through them. Or maybe they well up from a crack in the floor; I’ve suspected for some time that there must be a crack. Somewhere, waiting to trip me up.
The song moves through me. I can’t decipher the words with my mind, but I can’t help but pay them heed. I couldn’t write the notes, the sharps and flats, though I feel them pierce and soothe. The notes flow through the particles of my being, loosening things up, making...things...possible.)
The corncob pipe, passed among so many new recruits, uses up several people’s pouches of tobacco, for which I will myself to rejoice, because it means that Kiril shall have to keep her promise, even if it also leaves me without as well. And it almost doesn’t matter. It feels so warm and good, right here by the blaze, with a quilt tucked around me and the chair carried out for me. The chill mountain breeze feels fresh on my face, and the smoke of this first bonfire almost tastes like tobacco.
(It almost feels like tobacco, this bittersweet tea left for me as the only thing to drink. Or rather, like how tobacco felt that first time, back in Til. How do I remember, when I forgot everything else of that strange night? Yet this illuminates…differently.)
“Let’s illuminate the night!” Lufti cries as he helps to ignite a whole row of fires. Soon I see our newborn Egalitarians leap over the flames, all of these brave, triumphant silhouettes against the orange blaze. Sparks fly up like laughter, and the crackling sounds like laughter, too. Everyone passes the Test of Fire without a hitch, and the Test of Blood already went before.
(George told me he’d leave me in the dark, but a fire leaps up, orange all around me and burning through my brain, dancing to the music, racing through my veins as though an oil flows in me instead of blood.
Or is it orange? Isn’t it green? Or magenta, maybe magenta...no, it’s the unnamed color that rats can see...no, it’s...bright. Bright and colorful and shifting with each breath.
But yes, this glow not withstanding, I feel the darkness build up beyond the crackling flames...no, given off by them—a deep smoke roiling up, stinging in my soul, clouding my thoughts, sending off black sparks of fear that run together till my teeth chatter, worse and worse and WORSE!)
And now comes the celebration, I watch the antic dancers, black against the bright, but my eyes stray to their shadows: spiky, elongated, mutated and flickering yet still dancing like the damned who can’t kick off accursed shoes that burn them, dancing without rest.
A sudden fear rolls over me at the blood-red drink now held before me by some stranger’s hand, a fear so visceral that I almost cry out and dash the cup away! Instead I clamp down my will, smile and accept it. The recruits don’t need me to mar the last chance that they might have for happiness in who knows how long. I taste the cup. Mere wine.
(But I have not trained as an oracle for nothing. I rise to shaky feet and remember the movements of my discipline, a blend of exercise and dance, and though I stumble, though I have to catch myself against the wall again and again, the movements anchor me. The floor feels solid underneath my feet once more, the walls define my space. I feel my muscles and recall that I have a body, and that this body responds to my will, and my will responds to reason.
Sweating, I drop to the floor again. I thirst.
I reach for my tea and gulp at it.
It feels in my veins like I gulp down wine.)
(And here I meet him once again: Alroy, as a monstrous cinder, flames still shuddering around him, or as a tragically beautiful carving all in jet, I can’t tell which. Why which? Witch, witchery, they think that that’s what they do here, guessing at whatever they’re taught to abhor, and Alroy could always use that, couldn’t he?
Softly he says, “They always forget the ghosts, Jake.”
“I never did,” I say in reply. “I’ve always expected to meet you again.”)
I remain content to do no more than soak in the revelry around me, till Lufti dances up, smiling, to hand me a flask of some sort of fruit brandy. Oh well, one more drink won’t hurt. Firelight leaps in his eyes when he says, “Watch out for the herbs.” I toast him with the bottle, take a pull and…
(Alroy laughs sadly, painfully. “Well, here I am: weakened, wrecked, and now at the beck and call of an adolescent rat who is, himself, ultimately powerless no matter how much power surges through him—even as I was myself, I suppose.” He quirks a wry smile. “A handsome rat, I’ll give him that.”
“Then you didn’t engineer all this?”
“Me?” He smiles, shaking his head, and so softly I almost don’t hear him, he says, “No.”
“Oh, I played my part. I thought I did plan all of this, at first. But then so did George. So did Consuelo. So did Amari, Cyran, Dolores, Arigo, Ronald, Crystalia, Manuel and Crespus. So will my son, Merrill. And you yourself, and Joey after you—not the student here, the dwarf not yet born. And many others, before and after them. Each of us duped in our turn, past and future and even sideways in time.” He winks, black lashes against black orbs with hearts of fire. “But then we wanted to be duped, didn’t we? All of us.”
For a moment he laughs. “I came in handy. I knew how to tap into many people all at once. And I knew how to gull one simple nation and destabilize another sophisticated one, so that they wouldn’t notice what happened until too late. Did you know that the feminine cooperative instinct, when driven into Shadow, turns into bigotry and mistrust of outsiders? But Toulin must have its shadow to complete it, and I knew how to draw on that.”
He shakes his head. “Divide and conquer—one of the oldest of strategies, yet an innovation to anyone older than strategy itself, older even than fully conscious individuality, who takes cohesion as much for granted as air. Alroy the Outlaw God boiled down to that—a mere procurer of other people’s energy for an ancient naif.”
The all-black eyes glisten with burning hints of red; they make me think of the insides of wounds. “Time rips, Jake. You cannot hold back what’s coming. A baby will tear the flesh of the mother in hir urgency to come forth. We are but scalpels, crudely sharp but to the point: we make the best of the inevitable with our episiotomies, slashing through the overstraining muscles of reality.”
I feel his burning, charcoal fingers grasp me by the shoulder. “You ask who, Jake. Perhaps you should ask what. Why did this planet grow crystals that puncture through the normal walls of time and space? Why did we find no transfer world hospitable to most of us but this? And how could it have grown so exceptionally compatible, in so much detail as we’ve found, even to the point of producing proteins we can eat, vitamins we need, phytochemicals that we almost could have evolved for?”
He gazes out across a landscape of flame, green burning bushes, pain-bright orange coals the size of mountains, and pitch-pine taking fire. “I yearned for that other world; I thought it meant renouncing this one. But they didn’t compete, they interpenetrated. I couldn’t fight that. Neither can you.”
“Are you telling me to just give up, pack up and go home? It’s a bit late for that.”
He licks his blackened lips with a tongue of flame. “I’m telling you to go with the flow, Jake. You can’t hold it back. And you certainly can’t reverse it.”
“You have never given anyone good advice, Alroy.”
He sighs smoke and backs away from me, with a little bow. “In this realm I am compelled to tell the truth. But don’t believe me, if you don’t want to. Cut yourself, or let yourself be rent wide open; she’ll have the same result.”
The sound of an opening door, a clank, and the door closing, wakes me to the dark. The flames have begun to die down, and they don’t show me anything useful in the material world, anyway. So blindly I crawl towards where I heard the sounds, groping for my supper, knowing that it will do more of the same to me as lunch did, and that I have to eat it anyway, because for what’s to come I shall need all the strength that I can get.)
“C’mon, then, le’s carry her to bed.” I hear Damien’s voice, genially blurry with drink, as gentle arms—one thin and stiff, one firmly full and flexible—take me up floating through the air. Voices murmur around us:
“Out after only two drinks? What a lightweight!”
“Lightweight, aye! I’ll bet my old ragdoll weighed more than her.”
“Shame on both of you—after all she’s been through for us! Can’t you see the bruises all over…” They pass out of earshot as we bob up the stairs. The sudden warmth indoors feels almost too good; I start to sweat again.
(“Kimba’s gone all sweaty,” Raif says anxiously. “But she felt cold just a minute ago.” Pauline goes to the child, tucked into one of the many musty old guest-rooms in this wing that Guaril and Tsura keep hidden from surveillance.
Pauline takes her temperature. “She’s slightly feverish, but that’s all right. She’s sweating out the poison. Poor child—she’ll feel worse before she feels better.”)
“I don’ need your help, Damien. My arm won’t give way. It can’t.”
“I know that. I’m jus’ comin’ along to make sure you don’t trip on the stairs on the way up. You can suit yourself as to how you come down.”
Tanjin grumbles, “You’re twice as drunk as me.” Damien just hums a tune in reply.
I hear my door open. Tanjin says, “I’ll take it from here.” I tumble onto the sweet, soft mattress. I feel hands shift me considerately into a better position.
Damien says, “We need a woman to get ‘er ready for bed. I’ll see if I can find Kiril.”
“Kiril slipped off with Lufti at the firs’ chance she saw. You’d better not find ‘em.” I feel him fumble at the buttons on my blouse. “It’s okay, Damien. I’ve seen her naked before.”
A whistle. Then I can almost feel the imagined frown chill the air. “But I thought you two…shame on you, man—she’s your superior officer!”
“It’s not like that!” Tanjin protests as he eases off my skirt. “I’ve taken care of her when she’s been sick an’ injured an’…all sorts of situations. I don’ think she even r’members all the times I’ve tended her. She drives herself hard, Damien.” The damp washcloth feels so nice, so cooling. “At first I felt shy, but I got over it. Especially since she helped me dress before I got use’ to the bad arm.” And the towel—how soft, how gently he strokes my body dry. “Sure, I have feelings—I’m not made of wood! But…”
“You could’ve fooled me. Better untuck your shirt before you go back out, or you’ll scare the ladies.”
“But I would never…oh you just wouldn’ understand! You jus’ sing songs about her, Damien. But I’m the one who cares for her.”
Things grow muzzier by the minute; I can hardly even feel it, now, as Tanjin tucks me in. His breath smells sweetly flammable when he kisses me on the cheek. “Sometimes you don’ break open a jewel for the ore in it, no matter how precious,” he says softly, slurrily. “Sometimes you just let’r be a jewel.”
And then he slips away from me, as everything else has been trying to do, and finally now succeeds. And I pass through fire as another wave of fever takes me. And then I…then I…and then…