IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
Girls Like a Little Fun
Thursday, May 21, 2708, continued.
Lufti holds the basin as I wash off Gaziley’s red eyes. Not that I can see much of the actual eyeballs, the way he keeps squinting. I have to position him to face into the sunlight, which doesn’t help him, either, but I have to get a good look to see how bad it is. “Man, that homemade eyeliner is not doing you any good at all!” Little bumps of irritation rim the lashes, on upper and lower lids alike, but so far none have gotten infected.
(I like to put on the eyeliner especially thickly when I give the orders for battle.)
(“She really piled the eyeliner on thick,” Merrill says, walking beside me in the unlit dark between the warehouses, shadowed from the gibbous moon. The little guy fairly seethes; one dark curl bounces on his brow as he walks. “She always does that when she intends to say or do something cold.”
Randy just shakes his head. “Not the black stuff, I hope. Blondes look terrible in that. Did she try the charcoal blue like I recommended?”
Merrill snarls, “That’s not the point!”)
Gaziley shrugs. “I don’t care if I’m beautiful or not—that’s not the point.”
“Do you care if you go blind?”
(Merrill would blind me if he knew how beautiful he looks to me—that porcelain skin, those flashing eyes. I guess I’ve just got a thing for shorter men.
No. He wouldn’t hurt me. He’d feel like the queer one, to harbor such a bias. He’d hate himself for wanting to. We keep the pretense of a closet door between us more to protect him than me.)
Damien says, “I know a story of a blind warrior...”
“...but I’d rather not have anybody lose their sight in my band,” Lucinda interrupts. “Not if I can help it.” She puts an arm around my shoulders, and another around Chulan. “Listen, we’re not that far from Chicamoq, and I’ve got a little bit of cash on me—we need more food to go around, and I’ll trust you to get your denar’s worth on that, yet it won’t take but a dab to buy a stick of real eyeliner. Chulan, you’re good at finding the best make-up for cheap; see what you can do. Deirdre, you go with her and cover her back.”
(They can think what they want of me, but they can’t turn a blind eye to strategy this good. We can send reinforcements from Chicamoq to cover the main assault force...here. Yes. Right into the rat’s nest. Right where they breed.)
(Competing thumps and growls of music increase in volume as we walk through the factory district, most of the businesses closed for the night. We stop at the loudest point, under a sign that creaks in the wind: “The Rat’s Nest.” Removable, on the wall of an old, burnt-out factory—a large-scale bakery, I’d say. They look ready to pack up and hide whenever policia sniffs around.
I turn to Merrill and ask, “Are you sure?” It smells like Rhallunn—not his kind of place.
He shrugs. “Boy’s night out. This looks about right. Zanne would hate it.”
Don winks at me. “I hear they put chili in the cocoa.”
“Hey!” Merrill protests. “It’s not my fault if I can’t drink alcohol. If you lads hadn’t made me so desperately ill when I was young and trusting...”
I grin. “You seemed to like it at the time.”
“Until I threw up all over the ice rink!”
Randy says, “Don’t worry; I doubt they’d serve onion wine, here.” Merrill turns green to hear it named.
Don points out a playbill. “Hey, Wound Culture’s playing at the Soldier of Fortune Saloon, downstairs. Let’s check it out.”)
Chulan leads the way, considerately pointing out various trees as landmarks for the way back to camp, should we get separated. This one here has an intricate network of roots, with all manner of animal cubby holes tucked into it; I won’t likely forget it.
(Merrill leads the way down the stairs, into not so much a dive as a whole network of dives, separated by mildewy sheets of wood (portable, I notice) and doorways strung with bone-bead curtains, into distinct theme bars, all based on sociopathic subcultures throughout history. Each one snarls out its own jangly brand of music, clashing with each other around the edges, shaking the rough, black rafters that look as if the building inspector has never laid eyes on them.
Merrill leads us through a speakeasy, a pirate’s lair, an opium den, and a cheap but detailed miniature of the ballroom of the Murder Palace of Kalorcabori. “And yes,” he tells us, “they do serve chili-spiced cocoa—not everybody wants to risk an unsteady hand in the knife-throwing competition.”
“Dang!” Don exclaims. “We should have brought Lisa!”
Randy concurs. “I’ve never seen anybody beat Lisa at mumblety-peg with all their toes intact.”
Merrill grumbles, “You can make it your next date destination. But not tonight.” Randy and Don blush simultaneously, not certain which of them he answers. I center myself on the alert; Merrill in an unkind mood could lead to anything.)
Chulan explains, as we slip through the jungle, in a light rain mist, under an umbrella of birdsong, “Be ready for anything. Everybody for miles around comes to Chicamoq to trade. It’s the closest thing we’ve got around here to city life.”
“Something of a destination, huh?”
She nods, waiting for an especially fat snake to finish crossing our path, then continues. “Uh huh. Some of the oldest paved roads in the Charadoc lead to it, and people still maintain some of them, especially the one to the coastal towns, where the ships come in.” We navigate around a fallen tree. “They say that at Chicamoq you can find everything you need and half of what you want.” She blushes, saying, “I used to work at Chicamoq, before my pimp did me a favor and died. Then I went down that ol’ seabound road, and got me a better position.”
I step around a couple trees dripping with moss, and tread carefully across some stones above a tinkling little waterfall. “You mean that place where you met Lucinda and Fatima?”
She nods. “Yep. The Happy House.” She smiles. “I feared at first it’d be too classy for me, but I think they took me in because, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m really Chinese. So I settled right in, tended bar a few weeks until I got a feel for the customers, and then got to the real work.”
(We settle in at at a bar with a mercenary theme, under the wails of Wound Culture. The waitresses wear camouflage bras, olive shorts and combat boots. They vary, though, in their tattoos and props, such as the weaponry strapped all over their bodies, which may or may not be fake. The barmaid who takes our orders wears a dirty army-nurse’s cap and a stethoscope, with a low-slung holster over each hip; her eyepatch, too, might be real or not.
I like their beer list. I order the Scotch Hop. Then somebody down the bar calls for “More of what the medic ordered” to the laughter of his peers; she smiles sourly at what must have become a tired joke to her.
“I’ll have the South-South Tropic Ale,” says Don.
I raise a brow. “That stuff is not ale.” I look to Merrill for corroboration, but he just points to the Cocoa Diablo without a word.
The band takes a break; we can hear ourselves think. Randy downs a gulp of Lizzie’s Gizzard-Grater and after theatrically gasping, fanning his mouth and grinning, asks, “So, Merrill, what’s up with you and Zanne? Why’s she putting on her war-paint for you?”
Merrill broods over his mug. “She wants us to go on separate missions. She wants to prove that she can do it without me.”)
“So is that why Lucinda split you and Fatima up?” I ask, as we pull ourselves up an embankment by the tree-roots that hang from it. “Because two women from the same brothel might bring the wrong kind of attention?”
Chulan shrugs. “Maybe. And maybe she wants to give you a chance to go out a bit, separate from most of the band, to show her trust in you. Is it true you used to be a captive?”
I grin, and she looks relieved to see it. “I won’t deny it. But I saw the error of my ways.”
(“It gets worse,” Merrill says, barely audible above a fight over the pool table. Waitresses pull guns and knives and everything suddenly quiets down, just in time to let the whole room hear Merrill raise his voice over the nonexistent din. “She wants to vacation in Darvinia first! All by herself!” Laughter bursts out all around. Everybody knows Darvinia’s reputation. The band starts up again while Merrill sinks his head to the bar.
Ms. Merc-Medic leans over our way. “Now honey, did your sweetheart actually say she wanted to go alone?”
Red-faced, Merrill looks up and says, “Well that’s what it means when somebody says ‘I think I’ll go to Darvinia first’.”
Merc-Medic laughs, the stethoscope clicking against the bar. “Don’t take a woman so literally, honey! She wants to aggravate you into inviting yourself along. Otherwise she’d conceal her plans till the last minute.”
Randy laughs and raises his glass to her. “Looks like we found the right bar for Boy’s Night Out after all!”
Merc-Medic straightens up and, at my nod, draws me a refill. “Girls like a little fun, but not all by themselves. She’s giving you one last chance, honey—I suggest you take it.”)
“But just because I don’t want that kind of attention, doesn’t mean I can’t have a little fun while in town.” Chulan pushes through a red and pink flowering vine that smells like spiced rum, plucks a blossom to put behind her ear, and says, “You don’t know how to flirt, do you?”
My face burns as I step over a log. “Is it that obvious?”
She smiles, kindly. “Not to everyone. I learned to watch for things like that in my last profession. That’s okay.” She pats my shoulder. “You can play the shy card, too. Men love the challenge.”
“Uh...maybe I’m better off not knowing how.” Just how long before we get to that dadburned village, anyway?”
She takes me by the shoulders and turns me to face her, stopping right there in the middle of the ferns. “No. You have to know. Chicamoq is kind of, well, a pick-up town.”
As hot as my face felt before, it now feels dead cold as the blood rushes out. “You mean they’ll wonder why a couple of unescorted women have come into town if I don’t...flirt?”
She laughs. “It’s not a death sentence, Deirdre! Listen—you can play the innocent country cousin, curious about a bit of excitement, but not likely to go too far, and I’ll play the worldly one, showing you life beyond the chicken-run. That way I can beg out of anything that could get too sticky, saying it’s not your thing, and I have to watch over you. But girl, you’ve got to flirt at least a little.”
(“I don’t know,” Merrill says into his cocoa. “Honorably, I’ll still have to give her the chance to go without me, unless I actually hear her tell me that I’m welcome to join her. I won’t play her games. Let her flirt with whomever she wants. Let her have affairs, for all I care.”
“Merrill,” I say, “Sometimes I can’t fathom what you do and don’t call honorable.”
Don finishes his “ale” and says, “Anything that confirms his low opinion of himself,” before ordering another. “Because he’s so proud of being humble.”
“Why would I expect either of you to understand?” Merrill sighs.
Randy says, “Because, oh, I don’t know, maybe because we know you better than you want to know yourself?”)
Chulan sits me down on a log. “It’s simple, really, when you play the coy card. Just catch a man’s eye a bit longer than usual, then glance down, embarrassed, as if you just realized you were staring, and then, shyly, sneak a peak back. If he smiles at you, smile back, tentatively, a little bit shocked at yourself. Let him buy you a drink, but act flustered if he goes any further than that. Then I’ll step in and rescue you.” She kisses me on the cheek . “I won’t let anybody eat you alive. I promise.”
You never know what you’ll learn on a mission.
(Merrill doesn’t respond. Instead he turns on his stool to survey the set-up for the competition. He says, “Let’s throw knives.”)