IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
Out on the Town
Thursday, May 21, 2708, continued.
“That’s the road, up there.” I see it first as light, sunlight pouring through the trees, unobstructed by any other trees competing for the sun. In a few steps we push through and reach it—a long expanse of normalcy, the route by which non-guerillas get from town to town—easy, clear, and exposed. And it frightens me.
(Merrill just has to join in the competition. Two idiots face each other, against nicked-up sheets of plywood, and each takes turns throwing knives at the other. Whoever plays the target must spread his arms and legs, to the satisfaction of a barmaid. Whichever moron hits closest to the other, in ten throws, without drawing blood, wins. A direct hit forfeits the game, if you threw it. So does moving, if you’re the target.
I have no reservations about betting on Merrill. But I wouldn’t play. I see the stains on the wood.)
Before we leave the shelter of the trees, we give each other one last check for bloodstains on our clothes; it wouldn’t do to go in looking like revolutionaries. And Chulan insists that I rebraid my hair before we take one step further.
As I do so army jeeps roll by, and we pretend not to care. It seems to take forever, with so many of them. It gives me time to admire the patchwork of old and new paving, in just about every material that might come to hand, from tamped-down earth with a whey binder (still smelling cheesey) to cobbles, concrete, keepcrete, gravel, and patches of what might have been actual asphalt from Earth, formed from the sap of premammalian vegetation, transmuted by eons on another planet—to think that people walk on this, that their beasts of burden dump on it, without a speck of awe!
(Sighs of awe fill the room after Merrill’s fourth win; I turn from the spectacle of a customer mooning Ms. Merc-Medic to receive an injection, to pay attention to the competition. Some folks, I notice, eye our winnings with suspicion. I finish what turns out to be Randy’s drink, choke, then quickly gulp down my own beer to wash Lizzie’s Gizzard Grater from my throat. Horseradish does not belong in beverages!)
It takes no time at all, on the open road, to reach Chicamoq. The bright buildings all wear paint in different colors, the flowerboxes overflow, and pretty clothes flutter like banners on the lines overhead, drying in this precious sunny-spell.
Soon we enter the marketplace: a maze of fruit-heaped carts, street-food smells and flashy stalls, thronging with dickering shoppers, hollering children, singing buskers, bellowing livestock, sizzling skillets, hucksters who advertise at the top of their lungs...and soldiers on leave. With a few expert shrugs, Chulan’s blouse sinks down her shoulders as if by accident, and she struts like a tail-swishing cat. I don’t know if she does this on purpose or not; sometimes the streets you’ve walked remember your old habits, and they seep back up into your soles.
(By habit I reach for my mug, not taking my eyes off the knives. Contestant number five steps up, and he has not been drinking cocoa. The first two throws hit hilt-first and drop to the floor. The third goes wide. On the fourth he nicks Merrill’s arm. Merrill grimaces so fast that the others might have missed it, and then he grins. “Automatic lose,” he says with a nod, and the crowd cheers his panache. Don steps up to bandage Merrill, from his own pocket-kit, before Merc-Medic can arrive with gauze of doubtful provenance.
A hand grips my shoulder. “Oh, sorry!” I say. I must have grabbed my neighbor’s beer by mistake; Merc-Medic took my empty away while I had my back turned. She replaces them, though, and I pay for both, face burning. The man seems mollified.)
“Hey, Chulan!” a man calls out. Oh monkeydung! “We haven’t seen you for ages—where’ve you been, girl?” And others sitting around an outdoor bar concur. She saunters over and I want to die, following reluctantly behind, feeling my face heat in the tropic steam. Chulan murmurs, “And the game goes on...”
(The game goes on. Number six steps up, doesn’t hit anywhere near close, and so on the last throw, just to show off, Merrill pins his pantsleg to the wood. Inside, high up, close to the goods. I recall what I thought before about Merrill’s mood, and my scalp prickles. People laugh, but uneasily.)
“Allow me to introduce my sister-in-law” says Chulan, changing our plan on the spot. “Deirdre Keller.” I giggle faintly, making a nervous finger-wave.
They frown. “What kind of a name is Deirdre Keller?”
She winks, and bends over salaciously to whisper (yet I can hear her) “A rich foreign daddy who doesn’t know better than to marry Mountainfolk can name his daughter anything he wants. I told you I could make good at the harbor.”
(The umpire makes a show of bending to examine the throw, wiggling her rump a bit. I think she feels the tension, too, and wants to distract the patrons.
“Not a scratch,” she declares, and the crowd goes wild. Not just for Merrill. When the loser bows, the applause drowns out the music. Randy leans over and murmurs in my ear, “Too drunk to flinch, but they’re calling it courage.” I nod.)
“Rich, ha!” A man smacks her hindquarters. “That’s why you dress like that, is it?”
She pouts, saying, “Maybe I’m just slumming.”
“Nawww. I know you, Chulan. You’d come back in truesilk if you had it, with sleeves a mile wide, just to show us all.” He puts an arm around her, and she lets him. Only I notice her hand slipping into his pocket.
She giggles suddenly. “Alright! So he’s not rich, but he’s doing okay. And just to show you all,” she says with a nod and a wink, “I’m going to buy drinks for the lot of you.” Which she proceeds to do, with his money.
(Before number seven can step forward I grab Merrill by the arm and pull him out of there. I notice men gathering to grumble. “Have one on me!” I say in a loud, cheery voice, and then mutter for his ears alone, “You are drawing way too much attention!” Merrill glares, but then nods.
“One Cocoa Diablo and one Scotch Hop coming up.” Says Ms. Merc-Medic. I hadn’t meant another for me, too, but why argue?)
I hang back shyly while they laugh over old times. I don’t have to feign embarrassment over some of the things said! But while they do, and as Chulan keeps the drinks coming (while keeping her own portion modest with the discretion of a pro) I pick a few pockets out of her reach—thank you Don, for teaching me how!
(Thugs surround us, while we finish our drinks. I see Don pick the pocket of the handsome little ringleader, as the man growls, “Sooner or later you boys have to leave the bar, you know.” Shortest but toughest, and all defer to him—nice. Blonde, too. I nod and smile like I don’t have a clue, saying, “Sure—as soon as you pay off your debt.”
He gives me a dark smirk back, “Oh, I’ll pay up all right—for now.” And he reaches for his pocket. Surprise and outrage fill his face. “Hey—where’d my money get off to?” And he glares suspiciously at us.
Don drawls, “You left your wallet on the bar. I’ve been keeping an eye on it for you.” And hands it to him.
Chief Thug blushes; I like that. “Oh. Uh...thanks.”)
Chulan says, “It’s been fun, boys, but we’ve got shopping to do.” And we slip out of there before they notice anything missing besides their wits, melting into the crowd. Chulan slides her blouse back up her shoulders and suppresses her habitual sway, as painfully aware as I of how much of the crowd wears olive green with purple piping.
Now we have enough cash not only for eyeliner, but also bean cakes, salt-paste, onions, dates, tangerines, a few small squashes, and a jar of pickled sososka. And we listen to the soldiers talk.
(The boyishly handsome rascal-in-chief takes the wallet and leafs through it. Outlaw scrip, still surviving the Outlaw Cult. Still handy to keep transactions off the books. “It’s all here,” he murmurs.
I throw my arms wide, grinning. “You know what? You can keep my winnings—I don’t need the money.” Good—now he’s beholden. “It’s a lovely night, and you’re just too damn cute to deprive.” Did I just say that out loud?
In the stunned silence, Randy asks, “Jake, how many beers did you have?”
Cutie shouts, “We’re taking this outside!” And two thugs apiece grab our shirts and haul us out the nearest exit.)
While Chulan haggles for stapleseed flour, I eavesdrop on some soldiers standing nearby. General Aliso wants to mobilize them for a major action not too far from here. With my eyes downcast, I drop an onion and get down on hands and knees to find out where it rolled. Down there where nobody will notice, I do a quick scan of the crowd, sizing up the army-boots among the sandals and bare feet. Way too many. I retrieve my onion and stand.
“Thieves! Thieves!” The outcry ripples through the crowd towards us. Chulan throws the last of our money at the vendor, tosses the flour into her backpack and takes off. I run right behind her. A glance back shows how the flour-vendor “accidentally” rolls a barrel in the way of our pursuers.
“Rebels?” several soldiers shout, scrambling for their guns. Dung!
“No, whores! Poxy pickpocket whores!”
Amid the laughter we dive through a perfume stand, roll under the tables and come out tangled up in a weaver’s stall on the other side. We barely claw our way free of ikats before we hear an officer shout, “After them, men! It’s our duty to protect the law-abiding citizens!” Double dung!
Soldiers come straight at us down one corner, so we hairpin-turn right into another bunch.
“Follow me!” Chulan cries. We scramble up a cart mounded with melons, sending rolling chaos behind us to bounce and smash fragrantly all over everything, but by then we’ve leaped to a pole that we shinny up as fast as monkeys, bullets whizzing past us.
“Cease fire!” the officer shrills as we leap for a balcony. “You idiots! Do you want the ricochets to hit bystanders?” Meanwhile we dart past an indignant man in a bathtub and the woman soaping his back, shoot through to the room on the other side, past a couple staring children, and leap from that window to the next, catching the windowsill just in time. I so wish I had a flit!
“No bystanders down here, Sarge!” comes the shout from the street below. I never saw two women tumble into a window so fast! Bullets pound the wall behind us as we sprawl on the floor, gasping. “Surround the building!” someone shouts outside.
We fell, it turns out, smack dab into an opium den—just as Chulan planned. I shout through the smoke, “Get out! It’s a raid! Get out!”, while unbraiding and teasing my hair as fast as my fingers can fly, same as Chulan. On the run we grab handfuls of dust to smear on our faces as we join the stampede, looking like we’ve forgotten personal hygiene for days on end. It also gives us that druggie grayish pallor.
We burst into the light and gulp the fresh air. The Charadocian army has its hands full trying to sort through a mob of hysterical dope fiends for the entrepeneurs. Behind us we hear the officer proudly declaring arrests; pushers trump pickpockets in the local law, but they don’t really care if some of the addicts escape.
Thank you, patron saint of thieves, whoever you are!
(“Listen, lads, no hard feelings, all right?” Don says politely to the wreckage in the alley. A man groans and spits out a bloody tooth. “I’m sure Jake meant no disrespect to your leader for his height—our own short friends have saved our lives a number of times—isn’t that right, Merrill? Randy?
“A few times,” Merrill says, feigning modesty, and Randy nods.
Don makes sure that none of them need urgent medical attention, that each can stagger to the nearest clinic without much trouble. He does break off a piece of rotten fence and splints Cutie’s arm, so fast that none of them have time to climb to their feet before he finishes. I didn’t mean to do that, but his grip on my throat might have made me overreact a little.
“Self-defense, lads,” Don says as he stands up. “If it came to a trial, I for one would be happy to submit to telepathic interrogation—would you?” And with that bluff, we head out in search of public transportation.
“Now that,” Merrill declares, “Is what I call a splendid Boy’s Night Out!” And I just roll my eyes.)
* * *
Deep into the night we go. On hearing our report, Lucinda declares an all-night march, to scramble out of there before the coming clash sweeps us up; we have a different mission, she says, and we’re not outfitted for full-on battle. I never did get a clear shot at nicking a pistol, but Lucinda’s too glad of the food to care. All in all a splendid outing, even if we do have to pay for it now.
Kief carries Aichi, but the others soldier on, even little Lufti trying his best to look hard and brave. I’ve had twenty-fours in my training, so I manage okay, though my feet feel a bit battered and my shoulders weigh a ton. I just keep focused on following Lucinda’s broad back, pushing through the dew-drenched ferns, faint sparkles in the dark, chewing on my crumbly-dry bean-cake and wishing I had some butter for it. But it could be worse. I find myself smiling as I chew.
Then worse happens, but not to us. We hear the artillery in the distance—artillery! Somebody’s getting a pounding tonight. Fatima crosses herself, saying, “They only pull out the big guns when they’re wiping out a village. A whole village. They must have decided it’s a rebel enclave.”
“Was it?” I ask.
She shrugs. “How the hell should I know?” And we march on.