IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Friday, September 18, 2708
I have nothing to fear by sending Bijal into town, a full-grown man like him, raised in the revolution and not some half-crazed reject of the adult world. He's probably put more years into serving the Egalitarians than most of this troop has spent alive. He wears the scars of experience all over his face. He's got the maturity to put what little money we can squeeze out of our last few lumps of wax to the best possible use, and not spend it all on beer and women.
And if he can do a little recruiting, so much the better. We don’t have anyone local in our band, yet. We need someone we could count on to know the terrain and the people better than the army. Bad news for guerillas—we should have picked somebody up last time, our numbers notwithstanding.
(Captain Deirdre has nothing to fear by entrusting me to go into town for supplies. I keep telling myself that. Already my beard grows back, thick and bushy, everywhere that the scars allow; it's time to leave that horror in the past where it belongs, to pull myself together and move on.
That Molotov accident wasn’t my fault, after all; I just had to bring out a raw recruit on a fire mission, and he just had to freeze up right there, crouching next to me with the damned thing in his hand. Well, he won’t make that mistake twice.
And will I? That explosion didn’t just make a hash out of my face. I keep second-guessing myself, ever since. Do I really have what it takes to lead soldiers in the Revolution anymore? I used to believe that I could size up recruits, and know what they could handle when, better than anybody short of Cyran hirself, but that confidence blew apart like so much flaming glass. Right in my face.
And what kind of leader am I, without my confidence?
Good enough for errands, at least, good to send to that general store over there, to stock up on corn and potato meal, tobacco and beans, good enough even to make first contact on possible recruits, without giving too much away too soon, then hand them over for someone else to train. Level-headed, everybody says—not the sort who’d panic and let a bomb blow up in his hand.
Of course Miss Cleavage slouching over this way doesn’t know anything about my level head, or the fact that I feel a lot more temptation for that cigarette dangling from her ruby-painted lips than for anything under such a dirty skirt. It doesn’t take long to figure her out; a face like mine only draws smiles like that from pros. Doesn’t take her long to figure me out, either—she probably assumes that I’d thank her handsomely for anything I can get.
“Far from home, stranger?”
“Not so far, now,” I say. “Got a wife over in the next valley.”
She puts a friendly hand on my shoulder. “Oh yeah? Devil’s Valley? Nobody lives there.” She stands close enough for me to smell her. “Nothing there but rock and an old salt pan.”
I chuckle bashfully. “Okay, maybe I am far from home.” Idiot! Look at a map, next time—we’ve got some literates to point out names and places. “What do you call this town, anyway?”
“Lyanfa,” she says breathlessly. “The name means ‘Sanctuary’ in the old tongue.” She giggles a little. “I guess that means that you and I walk on holy ground.”
She plays with my beard. “You’ve seen some pain on your journey, poor baby.”
“The scars? Yeah. Oil cookstove blew up in my face.”
“Mm hm,” she says noncommitally, and hands me the cigarette for a grateful puff. “So—you traveling on your boss’s business?”
“Something like that.”
“And who is the man or woman that you serve?”
I nearly swallow the cigarette—she’s one of us? “Neither and both.”
“Thought so. People alone in the world don’t recover from burns like that. What’s your name?”
“Bijal. And you?”
“Around here they call me Rosebud.” Why does that ring a bell? “Or they did when I was younger.” She takes the cigarette back for a long drag. “You can stay at my place, free of charge, but perks’ll cost ya.” She winks. “What are you in town for?”
“Supplies.” I make the gesture for recruiting, too.
“Ah.” The smoke of her sigh fades on the breeze. “Well, Bijal, I’d lie low, if I were you. Purple Mantles have been snooping around. Tell you what—I’ll take your money out to buy whatever you need, and you can recruit discreetly among my customers. You can play the bartender for tonight.”
“Sounds good,” I say, “except that it’s wax to barter, not cash.”
“Fine with me—I deal in all kinds of currency, honey, and nobody thinks twice about some of the strange gear I’ve paid my bills with.”
She links her arm in mine while I ignore her odor, and sashays off towards a ramshackle house on the edge of town. Actually, I find I don’t mind the stink—reminds me of times huddled together with the troops against the cold, taking comfort in each other. It only disturbs me because it’s not healthy for someone living in town, with plumbing and shelter.
After a deep drag of tobacco, glancing down at the end reddened by her lips, she gives my arm an extra tug closer. “Say, I could use some of that beeswax, myself. Not much, just a dab to make lipstick with. Berries don’t grow this time of year, and I’ve got to make a living.”
“Fine,” I say. “Just not too much.”
“It only takes a bit.” She tosses off an easy laugh like I’d told her a joke, as she reaches up and toys with my beard again. “You’re old for this business,” she says. “A survivor.”
“Aren’t we all?”
“Uh uh,” she says, and her eyes burn as she looks away. “Most of us are ghosts.”
She says nothing further till we reach her place, the red lamp cold and lifeless in the wan daylight. She keeps a surprisingly clean establishment for a lone player busy all night—looks like she’s crocheted herself some pretty curtains, gathered fresh flowers for the vase, and polished all the mirrors. And the floor shines enough to show reflections by itself, suitably enough. Why would she keep such clean quarters and neglect her own hygiene? “You don’t work alone, do you,” I say.
“I’ve trained a couple girls with nowhere else to go.” She sucks hard on her cigarette and her eyes narrow. “They won’t interfere with our business.”
“So that’s why they don’t call you ‘Rosebud’ anymore—Madame.”
She shrugs sourly. “Bar’s over there,” she says. “We’ve got chaummin, corn beer, pome cider, pear cider, rubyberry brandy, ‘tater spirits, Stovaki port, whiskey-blend, Segunda, and Primera for the high rollers.” She points out the bottles with jabs of her cigarette. “Mixers are coffee, laren, juegarroz, hibiscus punch, tamarina, and straight club soda.”
I whistle. “Not bad.”
“Can I pour you a drink, Bijal?”
“Thanks, but I only drink on special occasions.”
“How dull,” she sniffs. “A cup of tea, then?”
“Tea works for me.” I settle into one of the overstuffed chairs—nice bit of patchwork here on the arm, looks more like design than necessity. In contrast I notice anew how uncombed my hostess’s hair looks; the light from the window illuminates a dirty halo of frizz around her head.
As she brings me a cup she asks, “Ever tend bar before?”
“Nothing I can’t learn.” I breathe in the aromatic steam (hauntingly familiar scent) as I warm my hands on the cup.
“Can you read?” She brings out a notebook from behind the bar.
She sighs and clunks it back down on the wood. “Then the recipe book won’t do you no good.”
“You really get customers that fancy?”
“Sometimes. When we’re lucky.”
“When the army comes to town.”
She glares at me suddenly. “When anybody with real cash comes to town.”
I raise my hands. “Easy, lass. I’m sure you’ve heard a lot that Cyran appreciates every time the army rolls in.” I pick my cup back up—this tea tastes delicious! And reminiscent of something...
Mollified, she stubs her cigarette out in an ash tray already full of ruby-stained butts. Then she lights up another like she doesn’t even notice what she does.
“I wouldn’t mind one of those, myself,” I say. “You can take the cost out in wax.”
This time her shrug looks more friendly as she smiles around her smoke. “Help yourself, free.” She lights another and hands it over to me. “Help yourself to anything you want, except me or the other girls—that’s all I meant by ‘perks’, soldier.”
Gladly I light up and treat myself to a long, loving drag. Balances nicely with this herbal tea—and where have I tasted it before? Seems associated with some comforting memory...
“Sure you won’t have a little firepower in that cup?” She flirts a little with her smile and posture. “Don’t I qualify as a special occasion?”
“I like to stay quick on my feet when I’m far from my band,” I say, “but thanks for the thought.” Actually I don’t feel all that quick, right now, just luxuriously relaxed here in this safe harbor, with a good smoke, warm tea, and the softest chair I’ve settled in for years. “So,” I say, “Since we both work for ‘neither and both’, what have you learned that you’d like to send back to our employer?”
She leans down on the arm of my chair with a hungry grin, her eyes burning on me, and suddenly all that cleavage looks like some dreadful gulf that I feel dizzy to stare down, like I could fall in. “Tell Cyran...” she says, then suddenly laughs. “No. Tell me first, how do you feel, Bijal?”
“Fine. Maybe a little tired.” Maybe a lot tired. “Why?” Maybe too fine. My heart beats way too fast as I struggle to recall where I last tasted this tea.
“Maybe a little tired?” She mock-pouts. “This chair can recline, you know.” She runs her fingers through my beard once more and takes the cigarette from my lips. “Would Bijal-baby like a nap?” But the chair feels like it moves even before she touches the lever on the side.
I push the tea away from me and distantly hear the cup shatter on the floor.
“I just cleaned that,” she snarls, then says brightly, “No matter, Bijal-baby. Are you nice and comfy?”
Suddenly I remember that tea—Rashid brewed it to kill the pain. “What have you done?” I try to say, but my jaw won’t move the way I want.
She leaps onto the chair, straddling it on all fours like a panther; her scent overwhelms me. Very bright shine her eyes and grinning teeth, while all the room spins ‘round behind her. “You want my message to Cyran?” she asks. “Tell hir I hate hir twisted guts!” And she plays with my beard, then digs her nails into my face, laughing, laughing, I fall into her laughter, scared to death because I can’t really feel her nails. Not yet...)