IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
Tuesday, May 26, 2708
The night stretches on. Again and again I start to nod off where I sit, only for the timer's ring to call me back to my duties. Curse the chaummin that clouds my...no, I refused that. I remember now. Again. Check temperature. Adjust room. Hydrate. Reset timer. Wait fifteen minutes.
I must stop this skipping on the surface of sleep--it neither rests nor refreshes me. I try to occupy myself by studying what I can make out of the cellar in the dark. A faint glitter in the corner turns out to be sequined g-strings and other costumes on hangers--those must hurt between the cheeks, especially that rhinestoned one over there. And that menacing bristle nearby turns out to be nothing more than a fluff of marabou, the shadows lengthened and made spiky in the flickering candlelight.
Over there, stacked on shelves, I see seasonal decorations. Santo Nikki's sleigh overflows with surprising toys, drawn by a chain of reindeers naughtily engaged. A New Year's dragon rears up, wickedly endowed. Skeletal figures for the Day of the Dead give new meaning to the phrase, "Gonna roll them bones." I giggle in embarrassed amusement, then feel sad, so sad, for the inmates of this place, where all the changes of the seasons come down to the same tired meaning.
Then I weary of peering into shadows and the night drags on. Teofilo livens things up a bit, briefly, by asking for a bedpan, so I improvise something from the summer banquet china, put away down here for the fading of the year. Good--he still has kidney function. But, holding the bowl near the guttering candle, I can see how dangerously dark his urine has become. Hydration must go on.
At last a faint glow of dawn outlines the door that we came in by and effulges through the vents. I hear steps stumble down the inner stair and turn to see Gaziley. The boy has gotten so very, very drunk, but that only half explains why his steps go wide. His black-lined eyes glare huge and mad.
He totters over to Kief and wakes him with an incoherent burst of cusswords. I know I should stop him from disturbing my patient, but I don't. I had forgotten how a boy-soprano voice could sound so menacing, so...inhuman. (My cringing mind goes back, long ago, to a nightmare boat in the middle of the sea, where we made our own storm, once upon a time.) Slurred by drink and by the sudden gush of kohl-stained tears that wash his face, I don't know how I manage to hear every word, as sharply as if pain incised them in my brain, but I do.
"Because of you," he says to Kief, then sobs. "Because you got too stoned to have good wit, because you--damn you!--got your soldier too mother-rapin' screwed to escape your idiocy, he got himself crisped and I had to pay the price!" I gasp--I can't help myself. But what did I think would happen here? "I had to pay for the cost of all those sheets torn up to repair your work! Me, an' Chulan, an' Fatima--Oh, God damn you, Kief! We paid your price for you." Oh God forgive! "And some day," he leans precariously over Kief, weaving, and I can smell him across the room, "Sommmmmeday--you gotta pay us all back!"
* * *
With hardly a word of my direction, Kiril makes a nutritious puree that Teofilo can suck through a straw for his breakfast. To my great relief I learn that she spent the whole night in the kitchen, cooking cruise-ship delicacies for Madame's guests, while Aichi and Lufti bore drinks and trays of her work from room to room, seeing, no doubt, more than they ought to at their age, but at least not compelled to participate. And who among us has not already seen more than we ought to at our age?
Over in the corner I see Kanarik in a bathrobe and I swallow back a gasp. She looks exhausted. Her hair has grown out enough to braid, I see, because a pro now braids it up for her. With beads. That girl is much too young to wear her hair in beads!
Madame puts a solicitous hand on my arm. "Now go get some breakfast for yourself, dearie; I'll take care of Teo." I stiffen. I cannot turn to look her in the eye.
"Ah. Is that how it is?" she asks easily. "Well, I've been judged by better than you, honey, so don't put yourself out."
"Just tell me one thing," I manage to grate through my teeth. "How did Kanarik and Damien pay their way?"
"Oh, them? She danced for the gentlemen, and he played the music." She laughs coquettishly and says, "My but that little girl can dance the Nasty when she gets the proper tune!" I scowl at her. "Don't worry so much. You'll get frown-lines. I sent nobody but veterans to the boudoirs. "
I swallow back a sob that I didn't know I held back in my throat, seeing Lucinda drag the last drunk out the door, while the twins come in, wearily brushing off straw, smelling of the stables. “Imad?” I ask.
“Him? He searched the guests as they arrived, and made sure that everybody checked their weapons at the door.” She sniffs. “He’s not a very pretty boy, in any case.” She leans over and whispers, “Did you know he has whip-scars crisscrossing all across his back? Hardly an aesthetic view.”
“How did you…no. You don’t have to tell me.” I sigh, shakily, and find myself leaning against the doorway to the dining room.
"Come," she urges me. "Eat, and tell me how to take care of Teo."
"But you've been up all night, too," I say as she leads me to a table.
"Oh, pooh! I always stay up all night. Listen--you did your twenty-four, I'll do mine."
Stiffly I ask, "And at what price?"
"You've already paid--you saved dear Teo's life. Every able one of you put in a good night's work."
I stare dully at the empty space in front of me, the bare squares of the tablecloth. "Do you actually care about Teo all that much?"
She laughs. "My dear, he was the best Ganymede I ever employed." Breakfast arrives--beans, fragrant and silky with ham-fat. It's hard to stay stiff when your mouth waters.
Seriously, then, she tells me, "You have no idea how much each and every one of my darlings mean to me." She presses a hand to her bosom. "Did you imagine that a heart of gold beats here? Well, maybe so, but pure gold dents and nicks--it can't stand up to hard use. I've had to alloy myself with sterner metal over the years--purity is something that I can't afford."
"Can't afford sheets, either," I mumble with my mouth full.
"Not when forced to buy all my dry goods from the police chief's brother," she says amiably as she pokes at her own bowl of beans. "Not till I earn a pretty penny more than this night's work. But you've all made a fair start at paying off the price, so I'll count it paid in full when you win the revolution."
She chews thoughtfully a moment, then says to me, "I'm not as hard a woman as I could be, Medic. I do anything I must to keep my charges sheltered and fed, and less badly handled than they might find elsewhere--and that takes money. Now and then I even pay enough taxes to win a few votes and make a difference. More you cannot ask of me."