IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!
Not Bad, for Slavery
Saturday, April 4, 2708, continued
Kiril stands guard on every move I make. They have given her a pistol. I've seen her at target practice. I feel more concerned that she'd blow off her own toes than anything of mine.
Fed and rested, I sweep out classroom after classroom, as the afternoon light wanes towards twilight. I dust them, too, and scrub the windows to a fine, clear polish. Some rooms have turned into workshops of various kinds, or dormitories, or storage, or whatever a well-appointed revolution might need. I notice that they even use some to teach classes.
As slavery goes, it's not too bad. I hum a little, dancing with the broom, waltzing the dirt into place, the chain tinkling to my steps. Kiril laughs, before she remembers that she ought to look stern and guardlike.
I remember a teacher I once had, a snarky old beast who taught the art of sleight of hand. Whenever I fumbled over my lessons, she used to tell me that I might as well give up my ambition to become an agent and settle for a career in domestic service. (She didn't know that I had recently survived a complete neurological overhaul, and hadn't quite readjusted my coordination yet.) She’d said that Til Institute could better use a maid than one more agent-wannabe. She later attributed my sudden, dramatic improvement by the end of term to her own prowess as a teacher. I grin to wonder what she'd think of me right now.
Just when the room-cleaning begins to get old, my feet and the small of my back quite done with it, the promised dinner-bell clangs, and Kiril takes off for the ramada—rows and rows of tables underneath a canopy of fronds—my chain in tow like she walks her own pet dog. After a few steps she starts to skip; she's still quite young, after all. And what the heck, so am I—so I skip, too. And thus we arrive at our meal together, as though we play a game, the chain more like some toy between us. The others stare, while we catch our breath and laugh.
Sunday, April 5, 2708
I wake before anyone else, lazily swaying in my hammock, eyes half open as the titles on the dusty books around me slowly become visible in the predawn light--civil engineering texts, in this section. Obviously our little revolutionaries couldn't care less about actually engineering the civil order that they intend to revolutionize--the dust lies thick and undisturbed on every volume.
Then again, come to think of it, maybe some of the kids would want nothing better than to untangle the mysteries locked therein, yearn for it so badly that it breaks their hearts, if only they could master the prerequisites first--like literacy. I reach out and stroke the dust off a gilded line of text. Pity--they have everything they need, right here, right in their very stronghold--and it might as well be on Earth.
* * *
No chores today. No breakfast, either. Kiril hooks my chain to the branch of a tree on the edge of the forest, bushes all around. She leaves me with a tin pitcher of water and a matching battered cup. Then off she goes to join the rest, talking softly to each other, as they all pour down a path not far from here.
Time passes. I study the bushes. Pale, peeling, shaggy bark, needle-like leaves (yet kind of soft, not prickly at all) giving off a piney scent, with lots of resin crystals exuding from the cracks here and there: fidimeshka, probably. Burning the bark makes a dark and greasy ash, which dissolves in alcohol to make a nice ink.
I find an old tin can. A few blows with a rock separates off the rim around the top, which I bend into a lock-pick, just to keep my hand in. I free myself, poke around the bushes a little, and watch something small and furry gathering seeds for awhile. Then I lock both the latch to my collar and the one holding the chain wrapped around the tree. Why get Kiril in trouble for overlooking the can, when I have nowhere to go, anyway?
Well, I do, I suppose. I could navigate in a more or less straight line west, and either hit sea or a village. I know enough by now to find whatever meager food the wilderness can offer. But, well, I might as well stay on awhile as a spy. After all, didn't Don do the same once, with captors of his own?
Okay, so that didn't turn out so well, but then I'm not Don. He's a sweet enough guy, my friendclan-brother, but his housemothers worried so much about the risk of him someday returning to his native Neyth (the country that “sacrificed” their prince at birth) and laying a claim to the throne, that they sort of accidentally trained him into a remarkably easily-led young man, absolutely appalled at the thought of becoming king of anything. No. I'm definitely nothing like Don.
(Zora moans in her sleep. I reach across the gap between the beds and shake her, trying to wake myself at the same time. “What’s the matter, Soulsister?” But we both already know that I begin to know already.
“Donnnn. N…not a gooood one for a c…cult case.” She always has trouble speaking when she first wakes up. “Eazilllily led.”
I run my fingers through my hair, trying to scratch some blood flow into my head, and yawn. “Now you know that’s not the real issue, Soulsister. That’s logic trying to make sense of a nervous feeling. Our doctor’s not in any danger, not past the usual run.” She nods, her eyes wide in the dim light from the streetlamp just outside. Then I blink and say, “Cult case?”
“Think so,” she yawns, herself. “But…but…right. You. You’re right.”
I nod, knowing that we both know, deep in, where we all connect.
“Jaaaake,” she says, and falls back asleep, exhausted.)
More time passes. I wake from a doze. I make designs out of pebbles and twigs. I spring up and do some calisthenics, rattling the chain and startling birds into flight.
And then I take another nap, enjoying the rest while I can get it, under a lazy sun, caressed by a fragrant breeze, serenaded by the jungle’s birds. I slap biting bugs—so much for the joys of nature! So I lie there with my eyes wide open for awhile, soaking in the tlomi rhythms of dancing leaves overhead, the ripples of soft wind upon my skin, the rustles and the wild song…but I have no particular focus for a tlomi trance and soon grow restless again.
I test how far I can climb the tree on my leash (not far.) I liberate myself from the chain again, and climb high enough to get the lay of the land—the university, the woods, some stony hills in the distance, and everybody gathered in a clearing not too far off, holding hands and singing. I slip back down before they see me, and resume the chain.
Then, trying out a different sort of meditation that I’ve heard about, one that blanks the mind, I sit back down and contemplate where my navel would be if I hadn’t dressed. My stomach growls back at me, but I'm used to ignoring it by now. It doesn’t work for me. You’re supposed to fold your legs up some way, or something like that.
I consider picking the locks one more time and sneaking off for a book—and wouldn't that surprise them, to come back and find me reading! So I lean back against the tree and entertain myself with imagining new twists on memories of old books.
Finally they return, looking fresher, happier. Yet Alysha winces when she sees me.
“Kiril, what's the matter with you? Why did you leave Deirdre here like this?”
The girl looks puzzled. “I left her with water and shade, didn't I?”
I tell Alysha, “I'm fine. I had a nice, lazy morning, nothing to complain about.”
The teenager frowns at Kiril. “Prisoner or no, she's still a Christian lady. She should have gone to Mass with us. What do you think we are, barbarians?” And suddenly I feel like an idiot—that’s what I should have meditated on: prayer.
Lufti pipes in, “But what if she scared Father Man? She's big and fierce.”
Alyshan shakes her head. “Don't let appearances fool you. It takes a lot more than her to frighten Father Man.”