IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Points of Culture
Tuesday, June 23, 2708
The stony ground pitches so steeply that my knees seem to push at my pounding heart with every step. We make rapid altitude, now passing the first drifts of snow. Frost rimes the rocks and crunches in the gravel, and the trees grow low and twisted in some eon-slow dance that bows perpetually to the mountain wind, their fanned-out branches rippling in the thin, pine-scented air. They moan and whistle all the while; I wouldn't dance to their music, but I might make a couple soldiers do it, with a little rope.
"Deirdre," Lufti says, "Look down."
"Behind you." I turn back and see the bloody footprints. "You cut your foot on a stone." My bare feet have gone so numb that I didn't even feel it.
"Halt," I say softly, but they freeze as though I shouted. "Relax—I'm just calling a break." Untangling the hammock, I shrug off my pack, my heavy bandolier and the rifle; the pistol on my hip should suffice for any surprises. Then I nestle the hammock around my shoulders once again, and sit on a rock to take care of my foot. At least I don’t have to worry about jungle sepsis up here; already the various little swellings that I’d picked up have begun to subside.
Some of the greenfire murk has lifted from my heart. I gaze out, stunned, at the view from here, across from our height to a whole range of others like it and yet no two really alike, raw sculptures of the seasons, cold beauty so ancient that the existence of life itself seems but a passing phase to all that rock. Light shatters off the ice so brightly that it pains the eye as must the face of God. Clouds march on beyond this stone magnificence like floating mountains, themselves, of weightless ice and pearl. We've marched before it all this time and only now do I see it in its fullness—what else must I miss, day by day?
We sit and stare out at the tumultuous horizon, trying to eat the beauty, since we have nothing else to fill us. Quietly Damien begins to talk.
"Up here they speak a legend of stone women who dwell in the mountains, who step from peak to peak, who can grow higher than the thunderheads and then dwindle back to human size, or smaller." I sigh and lean back against the coolness of a boulder to let the storyteller's spell weave over me. “You might even have met one without knowing it.” He gazes away for a moment, before adding, “A stone woman lived near Koboros, where I came from, and doubtless lives there still—nothing kills a Mountain Maiden.”
“Did you ever see her yourself?” I ask.
“I’m not sure,” he says thoughtfully. "She can deceive you." He peers at the boulder-strewn heights as though trying to recognize a face in the jumble. "She doesn't look like stone till you see her close up, they say, the chiseled and eroded face, the hard, hard eyes. She has pine-shadow hair as ragged as raven-feathers in a stiff wind. She wears snow and moss and timber-felt. She weeps poison tears. The tears are for rage."
I shiver and rummage in my pockets for tobacco, but we've run out of that, too. Great going, Damien—this doesn't exactly sound like one of your morale-builders.
"She hates miners—all Mountain Maidens do. They break open her mother's veins, they split her children's heads." He must still have a soul full of smoke, I guess. "So she poisons the miners by embracing them and weeping; then they kiss her bitter-tasting tears. It happens in their sleep; they don't always remember—but when they do they wake up screaming. They get the metals in their blood no matter what precautions they might take. She puts it there."
Hesitantly Gaziley says, "None of us ever worked the mines, right?"
"No," I say, and hope it's true.
"Okay, then." But even as he says it, we all can’t help but think of how often we’ve used metal, how much of it we carry even now.
Damien concludes, "Mountain Maidens aren’t evil—they even do us a good turn now and then. They’re just the guardians of the mountains, and they’re hard."
I stand up, dizzy with hunger, and pull out my pistol. "Hand me some bullets, Damien."
He frowns, puzzled, but unloads some from his bandoliers. I load my gun, aim at the ground and fire the full chamber while the others jump at the sound. I hold out my hand to him, load up again, and fire some more arm-jolting shots, the blasts echoing off the rock faces below. "There," I say when the echoes finally die. "One bullet for each of us. Metal. Tell the Mountain Maidens that we've brought it back, and could they please let us pass in safety?"
He nods and hums a tune as it comes to him, reloading his bandolier from mine. Honestly, I should have used my own, but I just did not want to bend over for it. Or maybe the ghosts told my soul that the bullets had to come from Damien, if he would sing to the Maidens for us. But now I must bend anyway, to shoulder my heavy things once more.
"Come on," I say wearily, "On your feet—break's over." Then a few heads surface from behind a boulder to join us. Damn it all—I counted wrong! Stupid superstition—move on, Deirdre.
* * *
(“Oh man, these uniforms look like a pain!” I exclaim, studying our purchases with the other three over cocoa at the Mulberry. I finger the scratchy, dark-brown material. “They even make the underwear from wool.”
“Not all of it,” Lisa points out, running a finger along a starched collar on a linen shirt, white and upright and clerical-looking, high enough to irritate the chin. The shirt-cuffs match. She shakes her head over the double-breasted, wasp-waisted jacket and accordion-pleated trousers, abruptly tightening again at the knee. “But these clothes—the way they shape—will make it that much harder to conceal that I'm a girl.”
Jake rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Don't feel singled out. We'll all look like girls.”
Don studied the collars and cuffs again. “Will we have to iron those, ourselves?”
“Nope,” I say. “They’ll probably have help for that. Leave it to the students and we might try to sneak by without starching them at all.”
“You’re wrong,” Jake said. “I studied the school rules last night. We iron, starch, and wash everything ourselves. ‘Young gentlemen must earn the privileged life ahead of them,’ it said. And they will watch to see if we skip the starch.”
Lisa says, “And we’ll have to keep the brass buttons polished, too. Even the ones at the ankles. The brochure says that they inspect for that.”
Don picks up the socks and the white wool stirrup-hose with distaste. “Won't all these layers get awfully hot?”
Lisa smiles, shaking her head. “We're hardly going to the tropics, dear. Look, the uniform comes with gloves. Since the rules say that we're not allowed to wear them while writing, I’ll assume that it gets cold enough indoors for students to want to.” She picks up a dark leather belt. “See, when you don't wear the gloves, you tuck them in on the left side—and this belt goes over the jacket, by the way. The buckle goes to the right, and you slide your student I.D. into the buckle itself.” She lays the belt down. “Oh, and the stirrups of the hose go over these little leather slippers that are supposed to pass for shoes.”
Jake picks one up. “They don't expect us to go outdoors much, I take it.”
Don shivers. “Which means that it must get pretty darn cold, even indoors.” For somebody born in a country with more snow-days than not, he sure hates chilly weather.
“We do get galoshes,” Lisa says. “I just didn’t get a chance to pick them up yet.”
I pull out the sleeves, also accordion-pleated, and ask, “Why do they have to have such tight zigzag-stitching at the elbow-joints?”
“To make us miserable,” Don suggests. “The culture likes to drive adolescents out of their bodies, to keep them pure.”
“Speaking of misery...” Lisa murmurs, gazing over my shoulder, while Jake, across from me, suddenly chokes on his cocoa.
Behind me a singsong voice says, “It doesn't work, though. Forced purity never works.” Zora sits, with Incense's help, down at the table with us, handing her crutches over to Jake, knowing full well that he'd dearly love to club her with them. “They designed the fullness of the upper pants to conceal any bodily betrayal of...impurity. They do love their pretenses.”
Incense says, “Which brings us to your backstories. Boys traditionally, though informally, tend to pair up in this academy. Ostensibly they're ‘as pure as David and Jonathan' as they like to put it, but in reality everybody just takes it in stride, as they also put it (when they mention it at all) that ‘boys go through a phase'.”
“Institutional homosexuality,” Zora drawls, “Though they won't call it that. They unofficially expect the students to sexually experiment with each other, so long as they remain discreet.” I don't like the way she stares at me when she says it.
I swallow cocoa and say, “We're agents. Professionals. We can feign whatever role we have to.” Toulinians aren't the only ones who can play the 'discreet' game. Of course everybody at this table knows except Don, and I strongly suspect that he might have figured it out, as well.
“So,” Incense says as Zora helps herself to Jake's croissant, “Randy, you and Jake will be a couple, as will Don and Lisa. And you will also pose as Don's brother. That will explain why the four of you hang out with each other so tightly.”
“Peeechy,” Zora says, getting crumbs all over herself. She drops the crumpled remains of the croissant back on Jake's plate and tries to brush pastry-flakes off of her blouse, but falls against Jake's shoulder trying. “Evvverybody shoul' be happy abou' how it alll works out.” Incense finishes cleaning her up as Jake shoves her back to upright.
“And you,” Incense says, “Have let yourself get way too tired again. Come on, let me get you home.”
“Feed her,” Jake suggests, staring in dismay at the mangled, half-eaten remains of his croissant.
Incense manages to get Zora back on her feet. While she holds her up, Jake and I put the ex-outlaw's arms into the crutch-cuffs, as she says, “Dansssslessns. They hold all-boy waltzes...sort've. You'll havta learn to waltzzzzz.” And she nods off in Incense's arms.
“I'll call you a cab,” Don says, and steps outside. Lisa holds out some water to Incense, with which to dab at Zora's face. Incense gives up and sits Zora back down, leaving her arms sticking out to either side with the crutches still attached, her head sagged to one side.
Incense says, “She needs more sleep than most, but she hasn’t been getting it. She's been working a whole lot harder on this case than she lets on, expediting tickets and transportation to jump you ahead on the waiting list, getting those uniforms made for you, everything. The urgency beats down on us like the sun gone nova.” She looks to Jake. “And you, of all people, understand.”
Looking slightly ashamed of himself, Jake nods.
Don comes back in. “The cab will arrive in about ten minutes. And you, Incense, are one brave woman.”
“Not really,” she says, though she dimples. “Zora takes care of me, too. She keeps me anchored in this world. We need each other.”
“Absolutely,” I say, and look meaningly at Jake. “Oracles should not live alone.”
When the cab comes, we pack up our stuff to leave, too. I pretend not to hear Lisa whisper to Jake, “Don't worry, I won't tell the others what you were thinking.”
“That was none of your business, telepath!”
“Can I help it if you broadcast it louder than a cracking glacier?” Then she splits off for her own home, smirking.
“What did you think?” I murmur to him.
“Just that I’d wished you'd have smacked her harder. Zora, I mean. Three years ago.”
“Yeah, I felt sorry I thought it, too.”