IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
A Conversation with Sanzio D'Arco
Monday, December 21, 2708, continued
(“Not Kiril!” Lufti cries. “Never Kiril! The stars all lied–she never, ever betrayed us!” Yet I feel all the more helpless, to hear myself defended by a lunatic.)
I shield Lufti with my body as the blows rain down. (First comes the tenderizing.) He doesn’t deserve any of this. He has already paid too much. (They rarely talk at this stage, yet it shocks the body to feel impact after impact without any reflex doing any good. It teaches them a lesson on a cellular level that later reaches consciousness.) I can bear the hurt, thinking of him, the flashes of pain across the skin, here, there, wherever the baton can find, new strikes layering over the older throbbing.
(“How else would they know?” Dosh cries. “How the hell would anybody know?” He grabs me by my shoulders, hurtful-hard–for a moment I think he’s going to rip my sleeves off. “What did you tell them, you sow?”)
“Don’t tell him,” I whisper in Lufti’s ear, where I curl over him as much as the ropes around my ribs allow. “Don’t tell Sanzio anything. I will take the blows. Don’t tell him.”
“You will tell me everything you know eventually, so you might as well save us both a lot of trouble and do it now.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I whisper to Lufti. “He already knows everything that we do. Our intelligence is already his.” (“Who else spent months feasting with the enemy? Who else would know what signals to give, even in the middle of nowhere?”) “No one has to tell him anything.” (Tanjin shoves in between us, punching him in the face, though Dosh packs twice his muscle and has two good arms. “Who do you think you’re speaking to?” Tanjin shouts in Dosh’s face.)
A hand grabs my chin and pulls my face up. “Who are you speaking to?”
I smile through the salt-taste in my mouth. (“She’s put her life on the line for Deirdre already–have you? Have you ever gone so far?”
And Dosh wipes the blood from his mouth, saying, “You have no idea how far I have gone for the Cause.”)
“Open your eyes, Ms. Keller, or I shall pry them open with wires and pin your lids in place.”
I do as he says, staring into that face with the faint, soft mustache. But I see how much he has aged, belying that youthful facial hair: lines have formed below his eyes, and stand sharp between his brows. Scowl-curves frame his mouth where some have laugh-lines. I can see that he doesn’t like his life.
“Do you see anyone here to whisper to?” he demands of me.
And so earnest! Poor man–I think he really believes that he has to do this.
*Slap!* “Answer me! Do you see anyone here to whisper to?”
“No, not really,” I say, weariness making the words drag. “You couldn’t hear me even if I shouted.”
He paces around me, occasionally glancing my way, occasionally smacking me with his baton, too. Per my training, I distract myself on anything else in the room that I can focus on. Like that bureau over there. Smack! Rich. Beautiful burlwood. Smack! Swirling grain, worth more than pain. “Do not imagine that you can escape into delirium from me.” Smack! But I wander along the burlwood grain far, far away, curving in and out, following its red-brown landscape. “I can invade your nightmares.” Smack!
And then he holds up a magentine crystal in his hand, and forces a cruel smile. (She knows of such things. Let her think that I can use it.)
I surprise us both by laughing. “If you knew how to read minds, you’d have never become a torturer!”
That hits too close to the mark! He pounds on me now, no finesse about it, no calculation, just his eyes gone wild on all the hurt. Two can deal out pain, here.
I stop laughing, and look on him with all the compassion in me; even when he knocks my face away I turn it back to him. “When...did you first...realize,” I ask him between blows, “this thing...that we have...in common?...This damnation?”
“I have nothing in common with you!” This time the blow knocks the chair over on its side, and me with it, hurtling my head straight for the edge of a step. My reflexes whip my head to the side just in time to stop most of the blow, but he sees the blood gush from my temple and turns as white as though he bled, himself. I rest my head upon the cold keepcrete step, rough enough to have given me the scrape that stains it. From here, between my lashes, feigning unconsciousness, I can see the peeling edge of the burlwood veneer—not rich after all, then. Oh well.
I hear his steps approach me, almost timidly. I watch him through half-closed eyes. I see the tremor in his fingers. I see reason flood back into him, terrified at how he lost control. How long can I play dead before he catches on?
Better not to let him catch on at all. I moan as though coming to. I open my eyes all the way, yet unfocused, and let my words slur as I say, “We both meant well, Sanzio. Neither of us knew what our ideals would someday make of us.”
And I know him, staring into his face. I know that he can use pride, he can use pretenses, he can shatter rationalizations and drive the shards into the quick.
He clears his throat, unsure of himself. He seems almost gentlemanly as he sets my chair upright again and inspects my injury. By now the blood has sheeted down the side of my face spectacularly, but brow cuts will do that, without much to them. All the same, he cannot estimate the extent of the damage to the skull behind the scrape, not on such a cursory examination. And from the guilt of his unprofessionalism, how he almost ruined an interrogation with emotion, his other guilts gain access to him.
Oh ghosts, cool the fever enough to let me think this through! Blow on me with your grave-cold breath!
D’Arco sits down opposite me. “You meant well, you say. Yet you no longer believe that you do well now? You feel damned? Let us start with that.” I watch him pull himself together, trying to take control again.
“Yes. We both meant well, didn’t we? I wanted to save the poor from injustice, and you wanted to save your country from the lawless.”
“Leave me out of this,” he says, but I read the hesitation there. He craves understanding. He craves the sympathy of a fellow in damnation. He has gotten so little over the years.
“But you are in it, even as I am–we have both become embroiled in a gregor-force so powerful that it keeps both sides locked in war, for generation after generation.” Ah. I can see in his startle that he knows about gregor-forces. Self-educated, like I suspected.
“I can offer you a way out,” he tells me. I stare into his eyes, so meltingly sad...and strangely familiar, despite being brown, not blue. “Say the word, and I can send you off to Sargeddohl, where an Istislani ship will take you to their shuttle, and thence to your home.” He leans forward. Where else have I seen such a hard little chin? “Your real home, Deirdre. You never have to deal with any of this again.”
“But who will give you a way out, Sanzio?” My hands twitch against the ropes, wanting to take his.
For whole minutes we just stare at each other. And now I know his secret, and he knows mine.
He laughs a little, nervously. “We both really mean it, don’t we?” He walks over to his table, picks up a small, curved blade from among a collection, hesitates, then lays it back down again.
Smiling hurts my swelling lip. “Those are wax-sculpting tools,” I say. “I used to play with a set just like them as a child.”
“So did I,” he answers, almost shyly. “But for some reason small and odd-shaped instruments frighten people more. They guess at specialized uses, I suppose. I prefer a paring knife, actually. Easier to sharpen.”
“What information could you gain from me, anyway? We both know that we must all converge on Abojan Pass. And you know that I haven’t got a clue as to my own troop’s movements from the moment I took fever.”
“It’s not really about information,” he mutters.
“Is it punishment, then? Very well, then–get it out of your system. Lord knows I deserve it.”
He looks up, hope in his eyes. “Do you renounce Egalitarianism, then?”
“Not that, no. Never that.” Did I just hear a shout outside? “I only regret that neither you nor I could find better ways to serve what we believe.”
Anger flashes across his face, giving way to despair. He cannot attack me, now, so long as I admit my common ground with him. “Punishment you will deal out to yourself, for the rest of your life, even as I do to myself.” He paces again, a leonine stalk that again seems familiar to me. “No, I have other plans for you.”
He would break me. I must give him nothing that he can break. He would convert me. I must allow him no higher ground–nor lower, for then he could shatter my pedestal under me. He would neutralize me–aye, now there’s the danger.
“You could kill me right now,” I say. “No more ‘Tilián witch’ to frighten the soldiers.”
It takes a moment for him to laugh at that. “Good try, Ms. Keller–but no. Songs about you would still infest the land–and they would grow all the stronger without your all-too-human presence to keep them in perspective. And my soldiers, superstitious brutes that they are, would only fear your ghost the more. You have made quite a name for yourself, Ms. Keller, equally among those who love you and those who hate you.”
“But if I ran away, that would suck the life out of my legend, and leave you, for once, feeling merciful at the same time.” I watch his face fall. It destroys the magic to say the hope out loud. “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Sanzio. No more than you could run away, yourself.” Some sort of commotion thumps around in the background, but we both ignore it.
He pulls himself up straighter, becoming remote once more–did I just overplay my hand? He walks over to a cupboard, and pulls out a small apothecary jar full of an ash-white powder. “Or I could assist you on the road to ruin that you have already chosen for yourself.” He sets the jar down on the table in my view. “Pure concentrated essence of greenfire. I believe that in the slang of your homeland you’d call this ‘conchy-sharp’. It will give you a lot more mileage in the service of your cause.”
“Until it helps me destroy it. And with it my legend.” I bite my lip before I know I do it. He has trumped me, for he has already lost all reputation and that at least he can break in me.
He opens the jar. “But knowing that will not save you, will it?” He picks up the wax-tool that resembles a tiny spoon, and dips it in. “You no longer have much choice in the matter, do you?” He walks towards me. “Once I force a sample onto you–not your fault, really–you will need to come back for more.” Somewhere I hear gunshots, but I don’t care. “Always more.”
He holds the spoon under my nose. I try to breathe as shallowly as possible, though the desire nearly overthrows my mind. But I should have watched the other hand, the one that suddenly twists a nipple so hard that I gasp–and inhale the powder.
Glory explodes through me! I soar so far, so far beyond the pain and shame and duty, I become already a hero without any further effort needed than to breathe–oh beautiful, blissful moment!
And I deserve no such bliss! Let me feel every ache, every weariness–let me embrace my damnation!
I see his face, studying mine, and I laugh, pulling all the power in the room to me. “Is that what you think can ensnare me?” I chatter, rapid-fire. “After what Malcolm resisted at your hands? It is just another hunger! I have done without food, Sanzio! I have done without tobacco, I have done without sleep, I have done without light in the bowels of the earth, I have done without heaven’s blessing and I have done without self-respect. Do you think you can lure me by a powder that I need even less than any of these things?”
I laugh because I see it in his eyes: his envy of those who can throw themselves into the oblivion of vice, that he has that one fragile pride left, one thing that still at least can break; nothing else remains to him, and his one possession causes him such pain and longing that he knows someday it must crack beyond repair. Already he has made little forays, experiments...I see it all in his eyes!
And hilarity keeps on shaking me like the most violent of fevers. “My troops already know my weakness! They already help me guard against myself. You cannot further hurt my reputation there.”
And just then, homing in on my laughter, Kiril bursts open the door with all the weight in her, and shoots Sanzio in the neck with a dart. He has the presence of mind to dash out another door. “Damn, I wish I had a gun!” she growls, running towards me. “I had to give yours to Lufti.” Rebels crowd past Kiril after him (one in a red shirt and a vest of bright brocade) but I know that Sanzio must have already staked out a bolt-hole where he could collapse undetected if compromised, and I saw him pull the dart out before he could take in the full, fatal dose. Ah well, rebel ghosts forgive me if I wish him at least a few hour’s peace in the stupor, full of visions of some happier day.
For my own part, my mind still spins and my nerves still jump as Kiril and Lufti untie me from the chair. “He forced pure powdered concentrated greenfire on me,” I chatter, quivering and grinning, to Kiril. “No choice on my part no siree but you get one cigarette tonight, that’s our agreement right?”
“Powder’s worth a pack, at least,” she says, nodding slowly. “But thank you for your honesty.” As I make my way shakily to my feet, Tanjin hands me a tablecloth to throw around me. I tie it into a toga.
Hekut appears upside down in the window, before dropping and entering it; apparently he’d scrambled to the roof to take better potshots. “All dead or fled,” he reports to Kiril.
“Good. We’ll have time to find Deirdre’s clothes and boots, then, and loot the kitchen and armory–yet not take too long at it. But then we must scatter the troops again.”
“How’d you find me?”
“Blamed if I know.” She smiles in a troubled way at Lufti, who loots the desk of shiny paper clips. “Lufti led us to you. While the rest of us argued about...something else. He took hold of that crystal of yours and just took off into the storm, chirping like a whole forest full of birds until every band for miles converged on us, wondering what the devil happened.”
And just like that my plunging heart knocks the high right out of me. “He’s becoming an oracle!” I wail, and start to weep uncontrollably.
She studies me, and I notice keenly how overly adult her eyes have grown. “Are you ready to take back command yet?”
I brace myself against the table, drying my eyes, feeling the high surge back into me when I don’t want it, I don’t ever deserve to feel this gay. “I think my fever broke I’m not sure of course but it surely feels that way–but give me one more day to sweat this poison out of me.” I laugh, hearing my own hysteria in the laughter. “I feel like ordering our warriors to scale the rainbow to besiege the moon!” And then suddenly I have a view of everybody’s feet, and the sound of their tramping rattles in the board against my ear. “Did I just keel over?” I ask with purely objective interest.
“You don’t have enough reserve in you for greenfire powder,” Kiril tells me sadly. “Daia, we need food over here, or we won’t move Deirdre anywhere.”
* * *
Deirdre opened up her eyes. “I knew.” She moved her lips, not even whispering. “Deep down I already knew my resemblance to Sanzio, even then!” She glanced over and saw Justín’s eyes briefly open, too, regarding her, the sweat now streaking his face and running, droplet after droplet, to darken his collar in spots. “I had forgotten. I had not wanted to remember. Thank you for helping me to remember anyway.” But then the music pulled them both back into the trance again.