IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VII: The Burning
Not To Treat Children
Wednesday, April 26, 2709, continued
Every so often, when nobody has shot at us for days at a stretch, I remember what a beautiful country I walk in, the rainforests that open up to reveal the majesty of the mountains or a waterfall, and then closes again to embroider my view with a rainbow of parrots, a cascade of flowers, or the luscious and exotic fruits (when we can find them) which pour sweet juice down my throat, made thick with sugar. The sun feels as warm as the camaraderie of these young ones at my side, all pressing down on me like a touch of kindly hands...or a touch of fever.
For this land has infected me, with more than the microbes of its waters living in my blood. It has heated me with the passions of delirium, and forever changed my chemistry...
“That's not true,” Deirdre murmured, before she even realized that she had begun to awaken from her trance. “Already I'm not that person anymore. And I don't even know for sure, now, that I caught draggin' fever in the Charadoc. It might have been some similar-acting but completely different infection.” She recalled hiding in a ditch full of dirty water with a frightened, juvenile king, a world away from the Mountains of Fire. At one point in their crawl she'd slipped and landed mouth open to heaven knew what.
Deirdre opened her eyes, to see Justín standing by the window, fidgeting, smoking like he'd suck the truth out of the tobacco or kill it trying. “I caught a similar fever in Camelot,” she explained, “a mission so soon before this one that I never did find the time to have a real doctor check...Justín, tell me you're not trying to do this unsedated again.”
“I might have shaved my dose a little close,” he admitted, between puffs. “How do you do it, Deirdre? How do you bear it all?” He turned fierce eyes on her. “I want to be you!”
“No you don't. Anyway, in the trance you are me.”
“But not wholly. A watered-down, drugged version. I want your strength!”
She leaned her head back against the chair's cushioning and closed her eyes, murmuring, “I don't have any strength left. I don't endure, I'm just too worn down to get out of the way.”
He stubbed his cigarette out. “You have more than you realize, Deirdre. A pity neither of us can marry, really. I'm still interested, you know.”
“Give me a cigarette and go take care of yourself.” She inhaled deeply as he left the room. It fit, warm and savory, into her body like a blossoming of new life, even though she knew that it quite possibly killed her slowly. Who was she to judge addiction?
And she was wrong about being wrong, she admitted to herself. Yes, she had reverted, in many ways, to her former identity here in Til Territories, no longer, for instance, praying to ghosts to watch over her. At the same time she realized that the Charadoc had transformed her deeply, left scars etched upon her bones, so that even after recovery she could never really be the same Deirdre who cruised into Sargeddohl with Jonathan. And invoking her loved ones or not, she would stay forever haunted.
All too soon Justín came back, serene and sleepy-eyed once more. Reluctantly she set aside her smoke. “Sorry about interrupting the session,” he told her. Shall we continue?”
She gave him an ironic nod. “By all means.” And the music lured her back once more, morphing into the seductive songs of jungle birds singing their dear little birdbrains out, like they don't believe in anything except for nuts to crack, skies to fly, and nests full of fluffy babies. Far below the waterfall we cross a pool by way of a well-crafted bridge of arching construction, vine bedecked on either end. We approach the prosperous lands once more. Curtains of moss waft around us from the branches that bridge the water in their own way, and down flutters an endless dance of falling leaves, quickly replaced, here in these rainforests without seasons, to drift like little boats on the waters below. I feel so dreamy that I wonder if my fever has returned. Maybe just a little.
On the other side we search our packs for tatter-free gear. I have decided to take with me those most experienced in dealing with the customs of the wealthy: Chaska, Braulio, and Kiril. Barrahab might have cut us some slack, but he had isolated himself from most of his kind. We swap clothing between us, from everybody's packs, till the four meant to meet our contact gain roughly the proper attire.
“Lefty, you're in charge,” I say. “Keep everybody out of trouble, and for God's sake don't steal anything.” Then I put my hands on Lufti's shoulders and gaze into his kohl-rimmed eyes. Is it just the way that fragments of sun break through the forest canopy, or do I see stars in those dark pupils? “Look out for them, Little Oracle. Kiril will want someone to come back to.”
The boy nods solemnly. “Living or dead, I will wait for her.”
Kiril gazes on him a moment, then suddenly embraces him and kisses him full on the mouth. How tenderly he holds her. After the long, gentle kiss, they press cheek to cheek, eyes closed, swaying together slightly. I can feel the strength build up between them, the recharging.
Then she pulls away, straightening herself, giving us each a brief, hard look, as if to warn us to never dare use this revelation in any way against them. I can't imagine how one would. Yet I can understand how any exposure of softness at all might frighten her—and how strikingly she has trusted me this past year.
We go down the road, we four. “Do you realize,” Kiril says, as if to change a subject never broached, “That we've practically come all the way down to the sea?” She points down the road. “The town ahead of us--Buning--has its own port, smaller than Sargeddohl, less prominent and commercial.” Then she smiles cynically. “Which makes it perfect for all manner of smuggling operations. We used to anchor there briefly on our rounds, to load up on better wares more cheaply had than the law might have allowed, back when I sailed.”
Braulio has gotten freckled by his travels in the sun, where his sister has tanned to a more even golden hue, still lighter than most of us, sort of the color of fresh-baked bread. I notice because he has paled till every freckle stands out dark in contrast. “Where will we meet our contact?” he asks in a high, cracking voice.
“At a restaurant in town, on the edge of an amusement park. Someplace called The Labyrinth.”
“No!” He shouts. “Not there!” He digs in his heels but his sister takes his hand.
“It's all right,” she tells him. “You're not a little boy anymore. You're a warrior and they can't do anything to you.”
“But I can,” I say grimly. “I'm your commanding officer and where I say you go, you go.” I shove him forward; he stumbles and glares, but I don't back down. “You. Don't. Ever! Tell. Me. You. Won't. Go. Where. I. Send. You!” I give him a thump with each word, propelling him on. I feel brutal even to myself—some terrible memory obviously haunts him, but I can't allow him to second-guess me. What if our lives depend on ordering him to run straight into gunfire?
“Mortification,” Kiril says suddenly. “I feel your mortification. Something happened there that shamed you past words.” And hearing her say it, I feel it, too. “But Braulio, if Deirdre ordered me to set foot on the same ship where I got raped, I'd do it—only this time I'd do it as a free woman. It makes all the difference.”
I look on her, feeling my blood drop, I swallow, and then I push on, leading them, and the blood rushes back to my head, igniting in me. I burn at the thought of anyone doing such a thing to my Kiril! I knew about it before, of course, yet somehow I know it more, hearing it said out loud right now, than I ever thought I could imagine.
(We burn. We burn. Father Man is Ash even after his long Lent has passed—we all are, especially her, ashes to ashes and dust to dust and somebody must die. Oak, Ash and Thorn in the ancient tongue, we daren't go a hunting for fear of Little Men. The Oak can produce both male and female flowers, the thorn pricks himself more deeply than any he might thrash. They aren't like us, and yet they are. It's all there, if you look at it. And will my own Lent ever pass, or will I fast and fast and fast till the last of me blows away, a cloud of ashes to veil the sparkling tears of stars?)
Something crawls in my brain, insisting that I should send Braulio back right now. But if I do that he'll get the wrong idea about the chain of command. He's still so new at all this; I can't relax discipline until I've established it in the first place, however special the circumstances. Besides—don't we all grow by facing what we fear? And if he breaks down over a mere embarrassment, what good will he be in battle? He has barely brushed the surface of what's out there waiting for him.
(Oak, Ash and Thorn. And one was born all right, and one was born very, very wrong. The priest had nothing to do with it, yet their branches intertangle all the same. And all the fairy trees went up in ashes long ago, on the planet that's forgotten. The elves don't keep that calendar anymore. We sailed a sea beyond the mortal world, but this sure ain't no Undying Land!)
The forest thins out as we walk, enough to make room for the structures of men. Now the road beneath us feels well-trod by many feet before my poor, sore limp. Indeed, we soon reach actual paving, with sea-cobbles, and my foot likes it even less, but what can you do? The place still feels lovely, homier than the woods outright, yet plenty enough trees still crowd in around the buildings to keep the air fresh and fragrant, seasoned by the smell of spicy lunches frying. We can hear Kiril's tummy growling, and we all laugh, even her, though she blushes.
“Hang in there, kidita,” I tell her. “We'll have a fine meal, soon.”
We find the place soon enough, with Chaska directing us: a splendid, Chinese-influenced establishment of pale faux paper, raised up on pylons, surrounded by a reflecting pool. Braulio looks about ready to faint, but one glare from me and he nods back, takes a deep breath, and joins us crossing the bridge to the dim interior, lit here and there by paper lanterns dangling from the timber buttresses of carven wooden pillars everywhere.
We don't actually leave the bridge when we enter. Indeed, the entire place, instead of a floor, sports a maze of bridges and causeways that lead to various platforms with tables on them, with more lanterns as the centerpiece of each. You can hear the rushing of the many fountains everywhere, and somewhere the tinkle of glass wind chimes. Where the lamplight illuminates the waters below, you can see bright koi down there, matching the scarlet-laquered pillars, darting above the river-polished stones. Young Chinese-ethnic waitresses skip along the narrow, rail-less causeways as nimbly as gymnasts would on glossy ebon balance-beams.
Me not so much. I tread carefully on the slippery wood, gingerly putting my weight on the injured foot with every other step. Chaska stops Kiril from offering me a hand. “Don't,” she says. “It's a test. They think that the wealthy have gotten too soft, here, and won't serve anybody who can't navigate the bridges all by themselves. It's all about earning Meritocracy.”
“It's okay, Kiril,” I say. “If I slip I can always compensate with my levitating.” Only then does it dawn on me that I don't have to set foot on this maze at all. Even without my flit I can hover a few inches off the wood if I concentrate hard enough. I just hope nobody notices.
The help does. The faces stay forward, but the eyes keep sliding my way. None of the guests look up from their plates or each other, however. One waitress, not paying attention, slips and catches herself on a pillar just in time, paling, hoping that nobody saw her besides me. Fortunately for her, I've caught the attention of anybody not already oblivious. Still, while a welcome respite, it's too risky. I go back to limping.
“That's cheating,” Chaska murmurs with a smile.
“No it's not,” Braulio murmurs back. “It's a special power. Nobody's inferior who has special powers. Like Kiril. A peasant who can read minds? Shows how unfair the system is.” Kiril turns bright red, but says nothing.
A waitress leads us to our seats, on a platform close to the surface of the water and, I notice, considerately placed to cause me the least grief getting there. She brings us iced tea to start us out (down near the shore iced tea always tastes welcome) and menus, saying that our party will meet with us shortly, and has paid for everything.
I notice a children's play area nearby, on its own set of platforms and little bridges, with rails. A brightly-colored paper-maché dragon catches my attention; a child could crawl through the open mouth to enter a sandbox beyond. For some reason I shudder. And I look at Braulio, who trembles where he sits, staring at the same thing, his fists clenched till the knuckles whiten. Then I notice the crime-scene tape roping off the whole playground. Then I don't see the dragon-head anymore, as though it vanished when I turned my head.
“Ah, you've noticed that,” says a woman in a pink and avocado petal-dress, her brass-blonde hair piled high in loops of curling braids. She sits down beside us. “I am so sorry to have this unpleasantness staring us in the face while we ought to enjoy our lunch.” Then she extends her hand for me to shake. “My name is Maigrette duFestin, and I will be your host today” She shakes hands with each of us in turn as we say our names. Braulio takes his turn diffidently, looking wounded or confused.
Maigrette orders the Rock Salmon in Tamarind Sauce with Sosoka. Kiril chooses the same, I think to cover her difficulty with the menu, but then she does puzzle over it and tells me to have the Chevon Terrine with Baby Potatoes. “You can use it, Deirdre,” she tells me. Without looking, Chaska asks for the Coney Piccata with mixed vegetables, and Braulio requests the Venison Stew.
“European influences,” I murmur. “I would have expected something more Chinese.”
Magrette says, “The community might be mostly Chinese, and the restaurant built to their tastes, but the owner of the restaurant—my husband, you see--comes from Mountain-French stock, and earned his way up the meritocracy the hard way—the classical way that our forebears intended, to win considerable local power.” She smiles at the arriving food. “I am sure that he will soon shrug off the nonsensical charges against him. He can afford the best of lawyers.”
Braulio stares at her like she struck him. But then his own meal comes and he wolfs it down savagely. Suddenly I get in my mind the image of a beefy, redheaded man in a chef's apron with cruel, appraising eyes.
Only after the heaping plates begin to look a little bare do we finally start to talk. “My husband and I sympathize with the rebel movement,” she says, as though reciting something taught for her to memorize. “Too many unworthy people dominate the so-called meritocracy, sustained at the top from born privilege, instead of rising on their talents as they ought to.” I can feel the tension in her, maybe even fear, but not of guns. “It particularly breaks his heart that the Egalitarians must recruit so many young children.”
I almost feel Braulio scowl before I see it. Gripping the table, he asks her. “Why have they roped off the children's area?” I hear the snarl unmistakable when he says, “Tell us all what happened there.”
She laughs falsely, fidgeting in her chair. “Oh, a misunderstanding, I'm sure.”
“Is it?” he barks.
She drops all pretense of a smile. “Of course. It must be. He, uh, my husband screens the children carefully. It will all come out in court, in his defense.”
“How does he screen them?” Braulio's voice rises and I kick him under the table but I might as well kick the table-leg. Stupid reflex; I clench my teeth to keep from screaming at what I just did to myself.
“Oh, well, he had a brightly colored paper-mache dragon's head, hollow, you understand...”
“I remember the dragon's head.” Oh no. “It led into the sand-box. One crawled through the mouth into the sandbox.” I look again at the sandbox. I can almost still see it there, or feel it like a ghost.
“...anyway,” the matron presses on, “he says that he can prove that ninety-nine percent of all children who would climb down a play dragon's throat enjoy bondage-games. It's not at all traumatic if...”“LONG LIVE THE REVOLUTION!” Braulio roars, whipping out his gun.