IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
Secrets in the Dark
Friday, May 22, 2708
The dark seems brighter than usual as we steal across a landscape increasingly mowed and pruned. The swelling moon shines down like a searchlight to highlight our every move, and the stars--how intensely do the stars blaze forth tonight! They gleam more brilliantly than...than what? It dawns on me that I see a whole spread of sky for the first time in months, entire constellations all at once, not just a glimmer here and there between leaves or clouds, as we travel through the clearings of the rich estates.
(The dark seems brighter as we steal down the old stone steps, past the narrow windows full of stars. A scent of spring wafts in where the loose glass rattles in its sash. For a moment I long to run out there, beyond the school building, out under the sky in the middle of the night, with nothing between me and the stars, no roof, no glass, no wool, naked to the heavens!)
(I run right behind Deirdre, holding Kiril's hands so tight, and I pick up something, some tingle deep inside. The stars—something weird about the stars? And I feel scared.)
(I can almost feel Lufti's emotions, the way I feel the sweat of his hand in mine. And it's not the normal kind of fear, and I don't know why.)
We fear--oh, acutely, almost deliciously we fear. We trespass where we don't belong. We listen, our muscles tensed, for barking dogs--sleek, groomed killers raised from birth to sniff us out and shred us. And so, like dogs, we roll in every aromatic herb we chance upon to hide our scent, our very chemistry.
(Oh, delicious terror! The crystal that he gave me warms in my hand, sticking to my sweat, even in the cold. The Changewright teaches us to embrace terror, and I try, I really do try. We listen, our muscles tensed, for a creak on floorboards, an opening door, anything.)
(I stop in my morning walk, suddenly afraid, here in the safety of Til Institute. I feel layers of the terror of different people, all at once, enmeshing me. I feel as though somebody plucks at threads in the fabric of space and time, puckering them, trying to snap them, just to see what might lie beyond the rip. And they have entangled me, with others, and now I entangle Deirdre, with others still...and I don't know where it ends! And the perspiration beads all over me, icy in the autumn wind.)
We flit from tree to tree, dwarfed by an ancient orchard planted before half our ancestors migrated, old ladders grown into the branches, parts buried in the bark. The perfume of the year's last windfalls rots sweetly in the air; we trample the peels, hollowed from within by slugs and insects who feasted long before we ever could.
(We flit from pillar to corner to ancient cabinets of dusty old trophies, dwarfed by our school.)
(We flit from shadow to starlight to shadow in the old orchard, and I feel something begin to change inside me.)
(Lufti doesn't look any different in the moonlight, he doesn't do anything different—so why do I feel a shift? And how do I know him from the inside?)
(Autumn leaves skitter across the sidewalk in front of me like frightened things, darting about in search of shelter, hiding from...what? Stars? In broad daylight?)
Now back again, into the dreadful open spaces, living carpet underfoot, not even tall grasses to hide us. An owl moans overhead in search of mice as exposed as us in this naked waste. We cringe in sympathy, half-expecting claws to pounce on us and carry us away.
(Now quick, down into the cellars, down to the absolute black. Changewright says that some things require that darkness.)
(I put my arm around Lufti as he runs, and feel him shivering all over.)
(I can't stop shaking. God help me, I need an arm around me. I turn towards Randy's place, but no, he went out bird-watching today, I will not find him there. I grab a tree and hold on tight to fend off the dizziness, watching all the yellow leaves flee from the wind. Then I look up and realize that I've gripped an apple tree, and for some reason that dizzies me all the more.)
Now we dart across flagstones interplanted with thyme, sharp and fragrant with every step (pray that it disguises us from dogs, sweet Mother of God!) Now we climb stone stairs to another terrace, sandals scuffing the same places where the famous and powerful have trod. Now Lucinda, on a higher terrace, makes a handsignal silhouetted against the stars. So we push forward Aichi, Lufti, and Kiril--our smallest, most harmless-seeming soldiers. Aichi's eyes gleam wide, a finger pressed to her lips as it has been for hours; hard lessons must've drilled into her the need for silence in times like these. Lufti clings to Kiril like we'd ordered him into a lion's den, and Kiril looks as protective as a lioness, herself. Lucinda disappears with them off into the well-trimmed hedges.
We sit on the steps and wait, huddled in the moon-shadows of the carven marble banisters. And we wait. And we wait some more. We long to hide somewhere less apparent, but the hedges and topiaries offer nowhere safe to crawl. We say nothing, do not cough, hardly dare to stir. Silently we curse the ungovernable belly-sounds, for the bean-cakes and vegetables did not last long among such hungry adolescents.
I turn towards the splashing sound that I'd been hearing for awhile, and gaze upon a fountain, a pale stone maiden bathing in cold water as she has for centuries, her well-fed curves and rounded limbs draped in a poetic version of wet peasant garb, her stony smile so like a smirk to us whose bellies growl. Now, I have always valued art as something beyond politics and the petty concerns of passing days. Yet for just this moment, looking at her smile, I understand those who would want to smash a beautiful thing like that.
Lucinda returns alone. At her gesture we follow to a shed half-veiled in late-flowering vines. The perfume almost drugs me when I brush them, as I enter a gardener's shed big enough to house three families, with well-cared-for tools hung neatly all in place. Lufti and Kiril have already settled onto big, soft bags of peat, while Aichi sits and spins an upended barrow's wheel 'round and 'round and 'round. Someone has brushed her hair to gleaming ebony and tied it back in a sweet, pink bow.
Lucinda tells us, "The gardeners will let us shelter here for the night. I've talked to them."
“Gar’ners good,” Aichi says softly.
Kief whistles as he examines a sharp-edged hoe. "These tools live better than we do."
He begins to take one off the wall, but Lucinda says, "Put it back. We need all the good will we can get."
"Even if we can use damn near everything in this shack? Look over there--I just bet that's ammonium nitrate, whole bags of the stuff."
"Yep," Fatima says. "That's what the label says." So she can read--good to know.
"And look--jugs of fuel for the mowers side by side with it. Now that's practically an invitation."
"We don't steal," Lucinda growls. "We leave that to the rich." I feel myself blush.
"Why not?" Kief grumbles. "We leave them everything else." But he sits down and lets Aichi climb into his lap. She snuggles close as Kief gently unwinds the ribbon from her hair, but she whimpers when he tosses it aside. In a surly voice he asks, “What about Chulan picking pockets in Chicamoq?”
Chulan tosses her hair out of her eyes and says, “They don’t know me as a rebel, there. They know me as a whore.” Fatima suppresses a giggle, smirking at Kief. “Everybody knows that whores steal. They’ll blame themselves for dropping their guard.”
“And what about Deirdre?” he counters.
“They think she’s just another like me.”
My face burns all the more as I say, “It...it all happened so fast. I got swept up. I’ll do better next time.”
Lucinda pats me roughly on the back. “Don’t worry about it. Nobody could trace it to rebels. This time’s different.” Except...why did Chulan have to go and introduce me by name?
(Ohhhhh! It all happens so fast, I just start floating, and realize that I can see in the dark, the whole cellar and Changewright and everything, the chalice and the flask and the crystal-pommeled knife, and all the other things hidden from me before, even the designs in the carpet. And I see my body down there, the surprised look on my face, the blood spreading from my throat, falling right onto a pattern of pink crystals laid out on the floor. I can see the crystals like they glow!)
(Ai! I feel it, a sharpness across my throat! The first thread snapping. I have to hold onto the apple tree with both arms to keep from keeling over.)
(Ai! My hand flies to my throat—somebody died!)
(No! Lufti, no—but he’s all right. He’s right here, holding my hand, hot and slippery, our sweating hands. I can feel him tremble, and the dead don’t tremble anymore. So why do I feel like something just died in him tonight? And something just got born?)
(I wake up suddenly, sit straight up in bed, sweating like it isn’t a cool spring and the fireless room gone cold, like Hell has blasted spring away. I must have had a bad dream, yet I remember no dream. Headmasters have no business dreaming, anyway, as I turn my pillow over and force myself to settle back onto it again. So why do I feel, with the old hair stirring on my neck, that somebody just died?)
I stumble before I can sit. Something just happened. Something just…I feel for my throat, quite intact. Wild, random imagination, then—get over it, Deirdre! Don’t you have enough real dangers to feel for and listen for in the blindness of the night?
(I can hear, from where I hover, Changewright saying, “You all know how homesick he was.”
Jordy snickers, saying, “Always going on about his...his...m,m,m...”
Aaron cuts in, “His mother!” And Changewright beams.
They all laugh. “Yes,” The Changewright says, “Exactly! He picked himself for this sacrifice, really.” I can see him rub his hands together, sparks between his palms in the more-than-night. “So, between us we can open the Gate.”
“The Gate,” kids sigh. “The Gate between all worlds.”
“And the gate through the wall that we see everyday, with eyes,” says The Changewright, in a voice somehow both pragmatic and mystical. “It all ties together, one symbolizing the other.” Now excitement fevers him. “We can remember things! We can leave the School. We can step beyond it, and its rules, and it’s all part of the same continuity.”
Now he caresses what used to be my hair. “And we can take care of Seamus, here. We can bury him out there. They will search, but they will not go outside. They have forgotten how, and we have not. And he will miss his m...mother no more.”
Mother. I had forgotten her, actually, in recent months. I hadn't “gone on” about her for some time; not since my initiation, when Changewright seemed strangely pleased to hear it. But I think I will visit her, now. Yes, I think I can visit her, in a dream, before I move on.)
Whatever just happened, whatever I imagined, I can move on. People die all the time, all over the world, so…wait—what was I just thinking? Nonsense, probably. This gunny-sack over here seems stuffed with something soft enough to sit upon. Yes, mulch I think. Soft, shredded mulch.
When we've all settled in, Lucinda says, "I had word from Petro before we left. I didn't want to tell you immediately, but I think you should know. Malcolm lives..."
"Oh, thank God!" Lufti sighs.
"...with the rich." Our jaws drop. "Yes, with the rich. Shermio saw him stepping out of the finest mansion belonging to the bloodiest butcher of ‘em all, saw him wiping his greasy jowls on a fine linen napkin. He mends the rich men’s teeth for generous wages and gourmet meals."
"No!" Lufti and Gaziley both blurt out, while Imad spits out a string of curse words intermixed with "Traitor!" and I just feel sick inside.
Lucinda holds up her hand. "Hush! Do you want the world to hear you?" Then softly, conspiratorially, she whispers, "Never mind that hog and his groaning table--I have good news, too. Cyran has planted a spy amid the servants of the enemy--someone who began to recruit a network while we hid in Petro's Cave. It can bring us advance intelligence and fix us up with refuges like this."
"Who?" I ask.
She glares at me. "You should know better than to ask a question like that. Some domestic or other with leave to visit other mansions on her master's business. I have no idea who, nor should I--and nor should you. I can't even guess if it's a man or a woman."
"Or other," Damien murmurs sleepily as he nestles into a heap of burlap sacks.
(Out of all the deaths…)
(…why did I feel that one, like my own?)