IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
Laying the Groundwork
Monday, February 15, 2709
Long day, Late night. All the meetings blur together, but at last I stumble-land upon a level-space beside the camp that happens to nestle closest to the Stovaki border. Lamps light up, and someone sets some soup to heat despite the hour. I smell chicken, and my stomach rumbles, disregarding my lack of appetite completely. Between gulps of lukewarm tea I jot down a letter by firelight to Cyran, detailing the lay of the land, our troop locations, my plan to take the pass, everything.
I have it all down (with cross-outs and corrections) by the time the soup arrives, and I pass it off to the burly, thinly-bearded mountainfolk captain of this band, a fellow named Cantunta.
“Funny you should mention a letter to Cyran,” he says with a slightly evil smile, “since e’s sent us one for you.” I can tell by his expression that he can read, and that he has read this. Naturally, it has no seal in evidence. The outside has my name on it, but inside it addresses me as
Since you plainly don’t put as much value on your life as I do, and seem bound and determined to end your service to the Egalitarian Cause prematurely in a blaze of glory, I might as well make the best use I can of your self-incineration–why waste a burst of energy like that? You and I both know you haven’t had enough down-time to recover.
“Cyran always loves hir own way with words,” I remark with a grin.
I want reports. Daily, if you can remember to distinguish night from day. Come back to Cantunta’s base regularly, as messengers can pass to and from it fairly easily. And I want you to eat when you can. However suicidal your passions, you owe it to me to at least stay alive long enough to blow a huge hole in the Meritocracy before you depart the flesh. I know that I can count on you for at least that much.
“Thank you,” I say, nodding to the letter. But the next paragraph robs me of my smile.
Kiril’s bleeding has increased, but she will live. She tells me that she followed you entirely against your will, and the others corroborate this. I asked the smugglers if they can get what we need to test for blood types, but that lies outside their expertise, not to mention our own, so no transfusion for her; I’ll just have to keep her resting if I have to break her legs to do it, and feed her foods rich in iron and vitamin C if we can get them.
“Give me back my letter,” I say. When Cantunta complies, I scribble, “Ask the smugglers if they can get tanks of oxygen. It’ll help Kiril and anyone else suffering from blood loss. And whatever you do, don’t let anyone smoke or light a candle anywhere NEAR the tanks! They turn into fireballs rather easily.”
I busted Damien’s rank. He’s a bard, not an officer, and I should have kept that in mind. I should bust you down, too, but none of this mess really came from any command of yours. When you do lead you do a good job–for everybody but yourself.
I shrug at that. What can I say?
At least the intelligence you gathered will do us good. I’m not sure if it’s worth the price of Betany and Ambrette, but I’ll take what I get and make the most of it, so they won’t have died entirely in vain. What’n'erth possessed Betany to follow Damien, anyway, when she had ten times his common sense? But I suppose if I want a bard to entice people to run into gunfire, I can’t always guarantee that he’ll do it at the right time and place.
For that matter, why did I follow him, come to think of it? I immediately push back several possible answers before they become uncomfortably conscious.
Good luck, Deirdre. Maybe I’m asking too much, but do try to survive. May all the angels, saints, and ghosts be with you! Try not to fight their protection too hard.
–Cyran the Lawbreaker
I fold the letter back up and stuff it into my shirt, behind the strap of the body-flit. Already the sky grays. Break’s over.
(So close! I breathe in the crisp, pure air, staring up and up at the mountains as I arrive at Abojan Pass. I look over at my friends and laugh–we’re really going to do this! Pawl has lusted after Mt. Maitreyya since he first learned about it as a little boy. Jiaolong had the mountain tattoo’d on his chest–his mother will never forgive him for that, but oh well. Mehti has written poetry about mountaineering that has made it into books sold abroad–but he tells us all that he will write his greatest poems now, upon this trip; he feels it tingling in him, waiting for the exertions of the climb to release it, the exhaustion and extremity driving the soul into a purity of trance. So few can understand!
General Aliso gives orders, and the graveyard watch carries our gear indoors. Thanks to her hospitality we shall enjoy one last night of comfort before the challenge begins in earnest. That makes everything perfect. I well remember that Layne has excellent taste in wine, and she supplies the game for the table, herself.)
Tuesday, February 16, 2709
Alexander never asked anything of his troops that he wouldn’t take on himself–that’s a big part of why they would follow him to climb to heaven or charge into hell if he commanded it. And that included the grit of labor. (Layne smiles sardonically from the bed at my preening as I wash up from our amorous labors—mmm, last chance to enjoy hot water fresh from the tap! But that’s not why she smirks.
Can I help it if I admire my nude reflection? People who think my caste effete, who think that our blousing hides slack arms, who imagine that none of us have the grit necessary for the more arduous triumphs, has never reckoned with a Peshawr.)
Who am I to do any less? For yesterday and tonight and tomorrow and it seems forever I follow the orders of taskmasters once enslaved deep beneath the soil. In glaring summer sun sparking off the mica, or by the wavering light of lanterns where candleflames huddle and shiver behind their cheap little panes of ripply glass, I wrench up rocks and put them where I’m told, knocking off irregularities where ordered, shove them into place, tamp down the makeshift mortar, then wipe the sweat and dust out of my stinging eyes and school my aching muscles to do it all over again.
(Mountain-climbing takes muscle, and I have had the ambition to build whatever it takes to get to wherever I want to go, hiring the best of personal trainers and submitting to them slavishly. Pity to cover all that up with cloth come morning, but I must get dressed sometime or miss my breakfast. They think us effete? I laughed at the aches and pains inflicted by my trainer–I laughed!)
In different places I do this, over and over again. Nobody would believe it if I said, “Oh, I put in my labor over at some other camp that you can’t see.” If I propose to command the largest army ever fielded by the Revolution, I can’t afford to omit anything that can win their trust.
(I will not omit anything that stands in the way of me and my ambition–that’s what puts the “merit” in “meritocracy”. If I say that I can climb the highest mountain in the world, then I shall climb her!
Speaking of which, I clasp the shoulder of My Lady General and turn her back to the bed for another round—I feel inspired! Hard shoulder, but I have gripped rock as eagerly; perhaps she’s of the sisterhood of Mountain Maidens that my nanny used to warn me about in her spooky fairytales. I bury my face once more in the warm fragrance between Layne’s breasts. Ha! Does a Peshawr fear anyone, mortal or immortal? Take me, “maiden”, into your stone embrace!)
And the clasps upon my sore shoulders, and the earnest eyes upon me, show that I’ve made the right decision. These men and women (or too often–still!–boys and girls) with their hardship-ingrained faces and work-rough hands, have all agreed, if necessary, to die at my command.
So I work some more. And fly to the next troop and work some more. And again...
(Dawn already? Revelie penetrates the curtains and my Valkyrie has already put on most of her uniform, crisp fabric outlining her limbs in the dim gray light most scandalously. I pull on my own clothes piled on the floor. She doesn’t have to share in the morning calisthenics, but she always does, as a good Meritocrat should.)
Die at my command—it will come to that, for many of them. When Cantunta gave me Cyran’s last letter, it approves my plan, but e adds one twist of hir own–the one that I didn’t dare imagine. I chew another leaf sooner than I’d planned because I do not, oh Lord I do not want to feel what I’m feeling right now! We must still send some troops on the roads, from both ends, first from the Charadocian side, and then from Stovak, as though this was the best strategy we could come up with. We must appear to need to muscle our way in, daring the cannons, having no other option.
(I grin, tying my sash at a rakish slant. Fortunately custom allows leeway for formal athletic exertion, so I can muscle my way in among the soldiers, strip off my blousing down to the stretchy, skin-tight undershirt beneath, and join the men in their at exercise–let them see what sort of Meritocrats command their loyalty!)
Labors pile on top of labors like the stones we stack atop each other, flight after flight, as the sun scales the atmosphere and climbs down the other side of noon. Sweat drips off my hair into my face, but the chill mountain air dries it again swiftly enough. The work becomes mindless enough that Cyran’s orders, and the reason for them, play around and around in my spinning head.
We have no choice but to make an obvious attack. Otherwise our first troops to rappel down will alert the soldiers to all the rest too soon. They must seem to have broken through from among the road-marchers. We must take pains to keep our enemy too distracted to even glance at the unlikely cliffs.
(We can’t leave as planned. No one has prepared anything we ordered—not one thing! I can find Layne nowhere, and the lesser officers are no help at all.
Everyone seems quite distracted, all in a fuss and a flurry. It’s hard to get anyone’s attention long enough to secure so much as a bottle of water. Inquiry reveals that the rebels made a pathetic little foray against the base just a few days past, but not to worry, sir, they tell me, they have spied out all of the enemy’s secret passages by now, and have everything secured.
“I should hope so!” I tell them sternly. “I have family in Stovak right now conducting business, and I have a right, I think, to demand safe passage from the army that relies so heavily on my tax denars.”)
Which means that I will lead one of the armies on the road, and Cyran will lead another on the other side. Alexander would do no less.
(Cowards. Afraid of a scattering of undisciplined, poorly armed women and children! I shall have to set an example, I’m afraid, as the upper castes must always do. Now I have more reason than ever to conquer that mountain!)
I drop in on the camp by the border, but no letter awaits me. I’ve lost track of time and Cyran hasn’t had time to send me another.
I don’t wait for Cantunta’s “chicken” soup (which actually stews whatever critter—feathered, furred, or scaled--that his folks happen to snare that day.) I fly out into the night to bring everyone Cyran’s modification, so that they can separate off their cannon-fodder and start the climb up with the rest at the first light of dawn. In the vast, black skies, the stars seem tiny and bright and cold.
Tanjin, are you really here?