IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
Monday, May 25, 2708, continued
(I know what I heard, in Soskia’s very hall, when the servants whispered. I have a good idea who’s financing this revolution. I know where to wait…patient, patient, let him come to me. Sooner or later he must.)
Daylight still lingers over us when we reach the outskirts of town. The nuns have sewn some fullness to our sleeves, enough to make it a thing of no remark that we might have a little money, yet not so much that our rough manners would look too out of place. Even so, we take the candlesticks to a certain establishment that already knows exactly what sort of customer comes to their doors and they don't care. Silver and gold change hands for bills, as tantalizing odors and sizzles waft from a nearby cart.
Now we gobble down street-vendor sausages and sauerkraut, and bowls of potato-bits drowning in spicy vegetable sauces, the way that only starving teenagers can, while I try very hard not to remember some dream or other. We sit comfortably in the privacy of an alley cul-de-sac and spread out the map that we got from Tumblebugs. Fatima, who can read, pours over them with Lucinda, who can puzzle out the mesh of lines (once told their names) and between them they concoct different routes for our several crews within the troop.
(“Here, and here,” I say to my officers, pointing out the intersections of lines upon the map. “We shall need our cavalry at these two points, as soon as they roll out of the factory, to close on any enemy movements in the vicinity. Sooner or later rebels will have to come through this pass.”
“Out in the middle of nowhere, General Aliso? With all due respect…”
“Do you really believe, Captain, that the rebels would prefer to conspire in the middle of somewhere?” I nudge the little wooden tanks, so nicely painted in their camouflage whorls, about the map with this device almost like a strawless push-broom, scaled down at the end to sweep up little toy soldiers and tanks and things. “I have information, Captain, that you do not. I tell you, sooner or later they must pass through here.” I feel like I play, with the entire nation of The Charadoc for my dollhouse. Time to clean up.)
We shall scatter ourselves among different cabs, starting at different points, so as not to seem like a concerted movement. Cabs! Lucinda says we can afford it just this once, with cash to spare to fill our packs with supplies, so long as we confine ourselves to the cheapest wrecks. She means it--Lucinda wants us fully rested when we arrive. She lights up a cigarette and points with it to the different streetcorners where we’ll hail our rides, and then leans back against a wall with a satisfied frown just quirked up a little at the corners, smoking happily as Fatima rolls up the map. I’ve seen Jake with that look.
(I think this goes rather well. While my men study my map, I light myself a cigarette. The soldiers expect an officer to smoke, and so I must learn how. And yes, I do find that I like it. It smells and tastes like enemy encampments burning. The lipstick on the white paper tube looks pleasantly like blood.
Men don’t understand blood the way that women do. They see in it the death of the hunted, but they don’t see how it brings forth life, as well. No improvement can happen here, in this embarrassingly backwards country, except if, in birth, it passes through a ring of blood.
I weary of apologizing for The Charadoc to my friends in other countries.)
I round up my crew and go to hail our taxi. Soon we cram into a wheezing construct of rust and dents, teetering on bald tires, yet steaming with the noxious exhalations of a bioconversion engine badly out of tune—no doubt a prize import in its day, changing hands many times since. I take Kiril on one knee and Lufti on the other, with Damien tight against me and Kanarik folded onto his lap like a bony little spring ready to shoot out the moment the pressure lets up; she is none too fond of mechanical transportation, though not as phobic as the Twins.
I lean back into rough upholstery that bleeds stuffing from its gaping wounds, as we rattle away on axles that haven't seen alignment since Granny Shtara stirred her magic jar--and oh, it feels so good! So good to let a machine like this carry my aching limbs away, to bounce almost bonelessly propped up in this heated crush of bodies more congenial than any sauna, to be moved rather than to move!
For driver we have Speedy, a girl old enough to see over the dash but not by much, who chews tobacco and periodically spits it out the window while simultaneously applying eyeliner with one hand and wrestling the wheel with the other, as we skid and screech around various moving and immobile objects at terrifying speeds. I pity Kief having to manage the twins in some similar ride!
Now we bounce through an alley more cratered than the moon, with islands of surviving pavement here and there, making the drive worse rather than better. Now we veer into a plaza, sweeping pedestrians ahead of us as fast as they can scramble, and on to the road on the other side.
(I sweep more soldiers into place, and explain my strategy. I visualize whisking rebels off the map, over the table-edge, to make room for the birth of the new Charadoc—a birth that cannot take place without removing them as obstacles.
A woman will push till her own body tears, to make something worthwhile come through. Men think themselves brave, but how many, really, could do that?
It almost makes me wish I’d never had my tubes tied. Almost. The military, though, would have short shrift for a pregnant officer.
I pull a deep breath from my cigarette, feeling somewhat less than a woman for that, damning men, a little bit, for not wanting all of me. But who knows? Maybe, if I can make The Charadoc a safe enough country, I can adopt. The land abounds in urchins who’d be all too happy to grow up high-caste if given half a chance. And not all of them are brown.)
Half genially, half in challenge, our driver asks, "You got any problems with a woman in the driver's seat?"
"Nope--nor girlchild, either, if you get us there alive." I say in the same vein.
"Look who's talking--you couldn't fill a bra unless you strapped it to your butt." She glances back with a grin and says, "Even then you'd have some room."
"I take it you don't expect a tip."
She laughs. "From your kind? Spare me, sister!"
"Anyway, why should I care which sex drives the car?"
"No reason--'cept all these soldiers piling in and out of town these days bring strange notions with ‘em. Like they'd fight better or something if they wrench all the woman out of 'emselves, hate and fear the female inside and out."
Casually I say, "You know, I've heard that the rebels don't need notions like that. What have you heard?"
"That the rebels are too beat-down and thinned-down to care who joins their ranks." I restrain Lufti behind her back. "Still," she says, "I kinda like that idea." Then she giggles. "Of course the last laugh's on the soldier-boys. I hear they've all gotta bow down, now, to a new woman general, a blonde-haired LAYYYdee of the highest houses, got herself a grand foreign education in battle strategies that this little country never even heard of. All that trainin' the woman out of ‘emselves and now they gotta turn around and train it all back in." She laughs as she swings the wheel to dodge a donkey-cart, oblivious to the shouts and braying as the skittering beast shies into a fruit stand.
"What do you think? Expect she'll be more compassionate?"
"Ohhh, not this one, honey," she says and spits out the window again. "Killing you'd mean no more to her than chopping the head off a chicken for your Sunday dinner. It's all like mousetraps or pulling weeds to her--messy little jobs, cleaning house on the way to glory."
"You've met her?"
"I've seen her. And I've known those who've hired under her or run her errands. She's a cool one, lemme tell you. She knows when to wag her tail and when to bite, and none of it means anything to her except getting her where she wants to go. I can see how she got to be a general--I'd rather square off with any man than face her in a fight."
Speedy careens around a curve while chickens squawk and merchants curse. She says, "Thank God we're all patriotic citizens here and none of us'll ever have to deal with her that way."
"Amen," I say, and the conversation falls off.