IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!
The transcriber selected a peppermint toothpick before beginning the next entry. She considered actually dipping one in pepper-sauce, some flavor so strong it hurt, to distract herself with burning in the mouth so that the words wouldn't burn her brain. Then she told herself that she had a mind much too strong for that, she shouldn't even pay attention to what passed from the page to Archives. So she propped up the crumbling diary and fit her fingers to the smoothed-out keys with the letters long ago worn off, one more thing that she no longer needed to make note of.
Monday, March 9, 2708
I woke to a searing headache and a pool of molten metal in my belly; I can't say which hurt worse. I went to roll out of the nauseously swaying hammock, and out tumbled a flask, shattering on the floor in pain-bright shards. The sound tore like shrapnel.
I looked down there at the twinkling mess and I realized that I couldn't step down there in my bare feet, but my stomach surely wouldn't let me stay here any longer. Gingerly I stretched my foot to where, if I stood on tiptoes, I could position myself to reach my shoes. Then the fumes of chaummin wafted up and I remembered the whole aching day and night before.
I struggled with excruciating precision for my shoes, suffered one cut, then limped to where I could take care of it while sitting in an old wooden chair. I left blood on the floor, probably a lot more blood than the few drops we spilled yesterday. I repeated that to myself several times, as if it would do any good.
Ah hell! Why break the Law of the Prophet if it doesn't block the memory like it's supposed to? I pulled a sock on my bandaged foot. I'm inexperienced at drinking, that's the problem, sips for social occasions, keep up appearances, but never much and never strong, no faith to keep me from it anymore, more propriety than anything, though at first I told myself that it was no real sin, not if one avoids intoxication. Well, I certainly avoided nothing of the sort last night, for all the good it did me. It takes time and effort to dissolve the memories.
I eased the foot very carefully back into the shoe. Appearances don't matter now. Nothing counts but pain.
When I looked up again Sanzio stood in the doorway, eyes gentle on me this morning. He glanced at the floor. "I'll send the girl around to clean that up." Another white shirt gleamed unstained upon him; the girl must have done his laundry. Glass crunched under my shoes as I joined him for a cold breakfast, waiting outside on the veranda--fruit, bread, and cheese. I wondered if I could eat.
He cut a slice of cheese, then bread, and handed them together to me. "You'll feel better for it," he said softly. I kept staring at that big, ugly knife, gleaming in the morning sun. Just a smear of cheese on it, nothing worse. He kept it as clean as his white, white shirts.
The cheese and bread tasted surprisingly good, comforting. I felt the coal in my belly cool down to a nagging little smolder. I didn't touch the fruit; I didn't recognize that coral-red drupe, but it had dimples on it that might, if I looked too closely, resolve into a face, a cruel, inhuman face, and I did not feel ready, yet, to eat the scalding fruit of Hell.
Sanzio ate several in a row; they smelled like honeysuckle when he bit in. "The first time," he said at last, "everybody makes mistakes. It's okay." He cut more cheese, surgically precise. "You’ve got to learn sometime."
Learn? I've got to? I cut myself another bit of cheese, a wavering line, an uneven slice. "Did this bring us any closer to Deirdre?" I asked him, my voice cracked to my own ears. "Did that poor bastard know one tiny crumb of anything?"
"Him? No." He poured himself a glass of water. "He was exactly as he said, a passing thief--wandered into the wrong town, robbed the wrong kid." My stomach clenched all over again, like every word of his blew on the coal below my heart. "But that's a clue, you know. That's useful." He put a hand on my arm, kindly. I couldn't afford to flinch away from his torturing fingers; I needed him to find Deirdre. "We know that a child had Deirdre's opal, and we know what village she passed through. Cyran recruits only children, don't you know."
I needed his kindness. "No. I didn't know." I needed the sympathy of a fellow torturer.
"Yes." His eyes glinted as he licked red juice from between his fingers,slowly, deliberately. "Even little girls. That's one obscene little fact to keep in mind about our enemy." He glanced inside, towards the basement door visible from out here. "That man we dealt with yesterday? At least he was a man."
* * *
Even weary children will play, given the chance. They dart around like hungry little birds; they even shrill like birds. Marduk, Alysha, and I have our hands full keeping them steered away from the trenches where our future rations steam, wrapped now in moist leaves and buried under coals. I'd step livelier at it if the chain didn't drag upon me so, clattering and clanking on every root and rock. (Even here, in Toulin Academy, children will play. Organized games, all things in their proper turn, no indulgence in anything so chaotic as the sort of pretending that I used to do in my preschool days, fancying myself a colonist, a pirate, a hunter, an agent of the distant Tilián. Odd thing for a man in my position to recall—odd and dangerous. But then I had no idea of the dangers of imagination then, and my naive parents never guessed. Ai—how long since I've even thought of my father and my m—no more of that. A headmaster must not allow himself to wax maudlin over anything.)
Periodically we sweep the coals to one side, carefully pour more water on the leaf-wrapped paste, flinching away from getting nasty steam-burns as we do it. Then we pile more branches on top of the hissing mess, and shovel the coals back on. Pity the rain has stopped, for now; I wouldn't mind leaving this task to nature. (The rain has begun; no more snow for awhile. They dance about the uncontrolled and spreading puddles, or splash right through them, perilously wild in the spirit of the game, almost as if abandoned to nature, one with the ungovernable skies. Perhaps I should step in, remind them to return to their studies and save their energy for the classes in physical culture. But I stand as rooted as if nature has gotten hold of me, as well, and turned me to a tree.)
Alysha says we have to do this final steaming before the actual drying, an extra precaution that she learned to make the stuff safer to eat. Alysha can read; her grandmother taught her in secret. The old woman used to sneak her all kinds of goodies and kindnesses until her son got her a legitimate heir. (How they sneaked in the ball, I don't know. I don't think I want to know, when it comes right down to it. Harmless thing.
But what goes on, over there? In that corner? A knot of students parts for a moment; I catch a glimpse of larger boys holding a smaller one against the wall. I hear the laughter. Wild, untamed laughter.)
Catawlba's a terrible bother to prepare, not commercially worth the effort and so left to the poor. But Alysha teaches me everything we need to make it food. Once you grind it to a pulp, she says, boil and leech and steam the paste, roast it dry, and then crumble it again to a fine meal, it can survive the rainforest impervious to moth or mildew. Alysha gives me a taste of some left over from the old stores, not enough to bake into a single chip, a mere dab upon a fingertip. It does indeed have a slightly bitter, turnippy flavor, but if it had status attached to it, if it didn't grow in such abundance, I could see the rich making a gourmet relish out of it, I could see parents teaching their young debutantes to like it. Alysha says that no one ever gets the toxins out perfectly, and they can accumulate over time, but starvation kills you faster.
(“We'll teach you to like it!” someone shrills. Time to intervene. Their parents pay me a considerable salary to intervene, to tame these beasts and make them gentlemen. I shove through the mob and liberate the little first-year student, spitting out the worms that his peers had stuffed into his mouth. I should have stepped in sooner. All kinds of things can go wrong when you let the children play.)
Tuesday, March 10, 2708
We hit the road again, always the road. I find it cleaner out here; the monsoon washes us continuously. I just let it pour down on me, naked to the waist like a peasant myself in the torrid weather--I could use shower after shower after shower. Sanzio keeps his shirt on like it's the only thing left to hold his soul in place, even here with just the two of us.
Everything I own now rattles and bounces in the saddlebags on my mule--a weary rhythm, the pace of something tired moving home,except I have no home. A change of clothes, a knapsack, some cooking gear, a handful of books--and this diary, and my pen. Money, more than enough to see me to my objective, by Magar's grace. A machete and a knife. I shudder when I think about the knife, yet I used nothing so sharp on that dreadful, dreadful day.
Oh, and a bottle of chaummin. We mustn't forget the chaummin, the first time in my life that I ever actually purchased liquor myself, not merely sipped it at another's behest. Sickening stuff, sweet and harsh, but it's cheap, it's plentiful, it's sometimes all you can get around here.
I must learn how to drink. I shall learn, if it kills me. I will never get to Paradise, anyway. There is no Paradise even if I could. For so long I've merely pretended faith; now I don't dare believe. So I shall drink every night, maybe even mornings if I feel like it, if I can get used to the choking swill. You don't get blackouts till you've been drinking for quite some time.