IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Lessons on the Art of Being Human
Tuesday, July 21, 2708, continued
I sit down on the cold stone bench with a groan of aching limbs. "We ask nothing warlike of you,” I tell the Don. “We have refugees who want to lay down their arms and lead lives as normal as possible, as herders in the mountains."
"The lands are vast. The llamas had a fertile spring. We can spare both flocks and pasturage."
"And training, too?"
"And training, too. But Cyran has more to ask of me."
I sigh and look away. "Not much." Too much—I know that. "We need provisions—wool and leather, in which you're rich, a lightweight bean-pot, and whatever food you can spare—which we know isn't much, but we'll gladly take whatever we can get, and the villagers seem willing."
"Ah...the villagers do seem willing, don't they?" He paces, not looking at me, a breath, a thought in candlelight. "Have you seen what a sanctuary I have created here?"
"I've seen," I say. "No caste. No prejudice. No meritocracy."
"Yet the herders hear of far-off war and their hearts beat faster. They have heard of us and them, and now they want us to murder them. You bring your soldiers marching into our midst and they remember old grievances that I thought I'd healed for them. So now we do have caste, and prejudice, and all the fears and angers that go with them, and some who believe that they merit more than others." He smiles and shakes his head, staring far off as though he can see history unfold in the heart of the rock. "Don't you see that it's exactly the same, whether the thoughts spring up in the oppressed or the oppressor? They are not us. We must protect us from them even if they die at our hands." He laughs sadly at the joke of it all.
"I can't dispute anything you say—in theory," I say carefully. "But the fact is that most of the people of the Charadoc can't retreat high into the mountains and let the ill opinions of others pass them by. Those opinions crush. Those opinions have the power to withhold food, to inflict pain, to blow up the holiest of sanctuaries." I shake my head and gesture futilely. "Believe me, if I could find any—any!—other way, I wouldn't kill, either. I think I hate them most of all for making a killer out of me."
For the first time he frowns and looks at me. "You attribute to them entirely too much power if you think that they can make you anything that you are not, Daughter of Cain." But then he spares me from his glance again. "Yet you speak this much truth—they can blow up even the holiest of sanctuaries. And they certainly will, too, if we go so far as to supply your troops." I stare down at my hands, defeated. Cyran only told me to try. "So that is why we must give you whatever you wish."
"Here there is no us, no them. But after a few years of studying under me, my disciples go back out there and fall into old habits. We need to make the injustice of such distinctions apparent. The high caste must not feel safer than the low if all are to truly recognize their oneness. If disciples of all castes, races, genders, and nationalities die together in this place, without raising a hand in their own defense, then people who never noticed before will cease to feel safe from injustice. And those who face injustice every day will no longer feel singled out; they might even come to love the privileged ones who stood with them. Perhaps that moment will bring the entire nation closer to recognizing their unity."
He laughs again, almost merrily, almost bitterly. "And why? Because an old man gave some blankets, some boots, and a little food to cold and hungry children, who fell on the wrong side of a political mess that should never have happened in the first place. My death, and the death of each of my disciples, will count for a hundred apiece of yours."
I stare at him stunned, unable to voice the gratitude so huge it almost bursts my breast, unable to smile, even, at so horrible a beneficence. Gently he reaches out and strokes a stray strand of hair from my face. "Go tell Cyran that I freely give hir everything e asks." Then he draws a pair of llama-wool socks from a hidden pocket in his robes and presses them into my hand.
(“It’s an odd addition to the skyline that I grew up with,” Merrill says as we approach the tower—skyscraper, I believe it’s called, this streamlined half-cone rising above the roofs. “but interesting, I’ll give it that. Aerodynamically shaped to withstand the strongest winds. I hear that the Earthian building on which they modeled it stood 606 meters tall.”
“Seriously?” I look at him.
“Historical fact. The Ancients knew how to build.”
I shake my head, laughing, then rearrange the curls upon my shoulders, in that lovely, icy blonde that most women need all kinds of nasty chemicals to attain. “When we came back from our last mission, darling, I thought it a particularly good bit of illusionism. But it didn’t go away.”
“Did you mean that Zanne?”
“Calling me darling?” He cups my chin and turns my face towards him. “Or is it just a fill-in word for you?”
“Sometimes,” I answer, finding myself almost breathless. “Sometimes I mean it.”)
A disciple knocks as I pull on the soft, heavenly-warm socks. The Don opens the door, and to my surprise brings in my pack. He hands it to me.
“Take out your flit, Deirdre,” he says to me, in a stern voice.
“I mean it, Deirdre Keller. Take out your flit, and do not feel shame for enjoying the talent God gave you.”
(“Do you still feel ashamed,” I ask, as we enter the steel and glass building, “of the talents that we gave ourselves?”
His hand brushes mine; I clasp it, wondering if this might be the last time. “I feel ashamed of what it made me do,” he says, and his voice thickens as he adds, “most especially what it made me do to you.”
I locate the arched way into the theater, all of its curves mosaic’d in blue and violet and white. “Don’t be silly,” I say. “I forgave you long ago.”
“Did you really?” And I let go of his hand. “Did you ever?”
“Did you ever think that the thing that really lies between us is that you won’t believe me?”)
Hesitantly, with many glances his way, I bring out my construction of twigs and leather, with the cross-etched square of magentine in front. The Don smiles appreciatively and runs his fingers over the makeshift thing. “This is amazing!” he exclaims. "I've never seen a design quite like this before. You strap it on directly? You made this?”
I nod, reluctantly.
“Don’t you believe me? This is wonderful! You are wonderful! Why hold back from who you are?”
“Because,” I answer, “Not all of my talents come from God.” Then I blush and turn my face away. “There are things that I can't tell you, Don.”
He lays down the flit and turns to me, smiling sadly. “No? Then you are a prisoner indeed.”
I shrug. “Luck of the draw, I guess.”
“No, no, sweet child! No. We don’t live in a world without options. We can always choose. Luck can't stand up to determination.”
(The owner of the theater greets us personally. His brown skin reminds me of Deirdre, only sallow. His hawkish nose reminds me of her father. But his oily manner doesn’t resemble her at all.
“Come in! Come in!” he urges. “We have saved the Lucky Seats for you!”
“Lucky Seats?” I ask, as he leads us up the dark stair to the balcony.
“Indeed, indeed! Over here, stage left—to the right you would say, of course. Many people covet these, the Lucky Seats. They say that sitting in them leads to answers to their questions.”
I shrug and sit down on the velvet. Sumptuous—as good fortune ought to be. We could use that sort of luck. We have an important decision to make.
“Regarding your desire to split our bank account,” says Merrill, “of course I agree that it would be for the best right now. But I will still pay for your ticket to Darvinia...if that is what you want.”)
“Put aside all important decisions, dear one, just for now,
just for the blessed moment. Strap on
your flit and come with me.” Startled, I