IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
The Power of Information
Sunday, May 17, 2708, continued.
Lucinda doesn't always stick by Cyran's rule about skipping supper unless there's night work--especially when Gaziley comes back with a full-grown jungle-hog that has to be eaten right away before the meat goes bad. And all the hungry teenagers with us rejoice!
(Soskia serves a divine paté, from the liver of a wild jungle-hog, hunted by her groundskeepers for the occasion. Almost too rich; if I ate here regularly I wouldn’t fit into my uniform! But a little on a cracker wouldn’t hurt.)
He hunted it by spear, to save us the bullets, he said, and I can see by his scratches and scrapes that the hog didn't make allowance for his tender age. In silence we help him skin and butcher the beast as the sunset bleeds into the night. Aichi knows the routine as well as anybody, though Fatima sometimes has to slap her hand and say "dirty!" whenever she licks the blood from her fingers.
(The old woman laughs nervously as a maid brings us drinks. “I feel a little dirty,” she admits. “Don’t you?” I relish her discomfort as much as the hors d’oeurves.
“Maybe just a bit,” I say with a wink, “Delving into the men’s world of war. But my dear, doesn’t the very naughtiness of it appeal to you? That, and the power!”
“Ooh, I like it when your eyes flash like that, Layne!”
“Too long have we left men to run everything, and they’ve made a pretty tangle of it, haven’t they? Our first president, after all, was a woman, and she set things up nicely, all in proper household order. The country ran well under her watch.” I take a sip and say, “Besides, darling, it’s not like you yourself dive in up to your elbows in machine grease. You simply finance the operation, and come up with brilliant inspirations now and then.”
She smiles coyly. “It’s not original, really. But you needn’t tell anyone that.”
“Still inspired, to dig deeply into what everyone else considered the least interesting shelves of your family library.”
“Everybody just assumed that the mechanics section of the collection must have become outdated by now—can you imagine? As though we had already rediscovered everything that the Ancients understood! But, to be honest, I just couldn’t stand to see those old books crumble from neglect. I gave orders to include them in the restoration—and imagine my delight when they turned out to have military applications!)
As we roast our hog over the campfire (thank you, Kiril, for finding such savory herbs to go with it!) safe within our golden shell of light, Lucinda briefs us on our coming mission, her voice soft, hardly louder than the sizzle of the meat. She has an action planned in Sargeddohl: dart in, dart out, do as much damage as possible. (Together we pull meat off the spit and divvy it up, to go with the roots roasting in the coals.) Kief will lead the twins, plus Imad and Teofilo. I'll get Kiril and Lufti, of course, as well as Damien and Kanarik--my just reward for picking all greenies. (Oh Heavens this tastes good! I’ll have to ask Kiril what herb gives it that garlicky touch.) Chulan and Fatima, as always, will serve directly under Lucinda, and she'll take Aichi and Gaziley under her wing as well.
(Time to get down to business. “So when will you have my order ready, Soskia my dear?”)
I finally slow down my feasting enough to ask what our target might be.
"What's the biggest threat to us in Sargeddohl? The tank factory, of course."
I choke on memories and suddenly the aroma nauseates me. I hand my rib over to Aichi unfinished, and she squeals with delight. With noisy enthusiasm she gnaws the meat off the bone, as I say, "An excellent choice. Especially since Peshawr Productions hasn't built enough heavy-duty engines to go around." If we stop them now, I might never have to fling another Molotov into a cockpit full of human beings.
(I excuse myself to powder my nose. Gratifying, what Soskia said. I’m glad that somebody in this pathetic country takes my opinion seriously. She put the plan into operation even before my promotion, she told me. It made sense then, and more so now.
I stare into the mirror, dismayed to see a couple lines, about the eyes, that hadn’t been there before. As I daub at them with make-up, I overhear the servants talk in the bedroom beyond this restroom, laying out all the little things that make a guest’s night comfortable. They don’t know that I’m in here. They speak freely.
A rat skitters across the rim of our campfire's light. Aichi stops her gobbling long enough to chuck a rock at it, hits the skull dead-on and drops her bone to clap her hands at the sight of the rodent corpse. "Aichi good girl, Aichi good girl," she chants, eyes sparkling bright in firelight. "Aichi did good!"
Monday, May 18, 2708
Fatima teaches the younger recruits, as we push through rain-damp foliage. “Always, after a battle, every chance you get, loot the guns and ammunition off the soldiers. That’s where weapons come from. Cyran can talk all he likes about buying as much as he can, but the shops ask too many questions when we’re not the right caste to hunt legally, and the smugglers don’t much like to sell us the means to raid them.”
(“The changing-tiger,” I read out loud by will-o-watt, “is a large feline, native to the Island of Bortatoulin, probably kin to the lions of the mainland.” The sand of Our Cave feels familiar and supportive at my back, and the light dances on the folded colors of the water-polished rock. I can hear the echo of the ocean-growls beyond the old, warped door.
“Still fascinated by the region, eh?” Randy asks, as he tries to strum some simple chords that I’ve shown him on guitar. But they don’t come easy; enhanced neurology can’t compensate for stubby fingers.
“Borta, Toulin, Kinnitch or Vanikke. Something draws me there.”
“I’ve heard the situation’s tensing up in Vanikke. Maybe you’re picking up on a coming mission there.”
I shrug, sitting up. “And maybe I’m picking up on the beauty of the fauna. Listen to this. ‘The stripes of this feline change according to the season, triggered by shifts in temperature.’”
“Mmmm.” He almost has the D chord down, but has trouble shifting it to A. “And what do these creatures eat?”
“I dunno. I haven’t read that far yet. Meat, I imagine.”
“Just so it’s not mine.”)
“Know which side your bread is buttered on,” Fatima continues, her hands folded before her as she speaks primly, her eyes straight forward. “No revolution succeeds without mass support from the people. We do not rob them, we do not bully them into making donations, we do nothing to make them take against us in any way, shape or form.” With her straight posture and her even stride, she could almost be a nun, going through the rounds of her rosary, if I didn’t know any better. I stifle a giggle.
Maybe I didn’t stifle it fast enough, because she glances over with one arched brow and I feel like a kid in trouble.
(“Go on,” Randy says, pausing in his strumming. Why do I feel like a kid in trouble, just because I paused to reflect on…I’m not sure what. “You were saying about the changing-tiger?”
“Throughout most of the year it has reddish brown fur, streaked in black shading to chocolate at the edges. In the first frost the fur between stripes starts to bleach, going through phases of burnt orange, orange, amber-gold, straw, and ivory, eventually paling to pure white by first snow. The dark stripes remain unaffected. The fur also thickens, becoming downright shaggy. Thawing reverses the process.”
“Sounds lovely.” His fingers slip discordantly. “Dang! I know this! I should get it!”
“The tiger may change his stripes, Randy, but you’re not going to change your hands quite so easily. And why should you care? You’re an excellent drummer.”
“Ah, but the guitarist gets all the action.” He laughs at my startlement, and says, “I didn’t mean it that way! I mean the music always follows his lead.”)
“In any action,” Fatima pronounces, “make sure that at least one person in your band knows the terrain well, and make sure that this person keeps the rest well-informed at all times.” She smiles faintly and nods to her best friend. “In this part of The Charadoc, that would be Chulan. Soon we shall enter a region best known to me.” And the smile slips from her face. For many paces we hear nothing but the birds and insects and the rustle of a thousand, thousand leaves going on for miles all around.
(For awhile I just listen to him getting better and better at shifting from D to A to G and back to D. The simple repetitions sound sweet to me, because they come from him. Then I turn back to my book.
“Oh here we are,” I say, turning the page. “You asked what the changing-tiger eats. ‘A predator not to be trifled with, it actually derives most of its diet from fishing, but will not turn its nose up at a lamb or child.’”
“Lovely!” Randy exclaims, his fingers slipping on the strings again.
I grin. “Somehow I don’t think you meant quite the same thing by that ‘lovely’ that you did before.” )
After awhile I notice Fatima’s lips moving faintly, her hands no longer clasped before her, and I catch how her thumb moves from fingertip to fingertip, first on one hand, then the other. She really is praying a rosary, and her eyes look haunted.