IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VII: The Burning
Easter Sunday, April 18, 2709
Even this far from the Burnt Lands I can still smell smoke upon the air. The light still has that amber, filtered quality, and the shadows look blue-green. I still see ash on this respectable street, piled up between the sidewalks and the walls, limning out the cobbles. People ignore it on their way to church; nothing to remark on anymore.
My skin tingles with scrubbing, and my hair still feels damp upon my neck. The bloodstains only show upon the weave if you know to look for them. We have purified ourselves as much as life allows.
Easter Sunday, and I have come home. Or at least I can pretend. I feel a strange relief to see that the church has a more traditional form than what I normally see around here: a globe half in earth, half in sky, consisting of the round bowl of amphitheater seating, and a round dome overhead, with the altar in the middle. I grew up with that kind of church. Much of the world builds that kind of church. But the Charadocians mostly build rectangular chapels with a three-arch facade over the door, and a bell tower at the other end, like a flashback to dead Earth. But what else can you expect of a haunted land?
Of course I despise myself for such sentiments. Agents should not indulge in nostalgia for the ways of their native land. What has happened to my cultural immersion? Yet this homey sanctuary reminds me of a cleaner time, snuggled up securely in Godís will as a favored daughter drowsing in her Fatherís arms. As I enter (my band behind me, looking around as at an oddity) I stand a little straighter, remembering an innocence that once belonged to me, and a confidence in Godís blessing that I once thought nothing could cleave from me.
Skylights in the dome cast the shapes of angels in light upon us, a north-to-south strip and and east-to-west strip forming an equidistant cross, all flying to the center. Mosaics in between show the emblems of the Four Evangelists: the bull, the lion, the eagle, and the man. Every church does different things with the dome.
We sit high up in the back, with the others of our caste, because no one wants to bring our battles into this sacred space. Let the rich landowners, for now, take their seats below, cupped close around the altar. Maybe they need even more prayer than we do.
I kneel and pray, but all the unshed tears inside just wash my prayers away. I suddenly feel stabbed by homesickness for St. Harrisonís Chapel at Fyvel Pier, the earth-half vertically built right into the sea-cliff, seats reached by doors behind through a dim corridor, to suddenly emerge into dazzling light, and before us a bubble of Istislan crystal hung out over the sea, showing us water and sky, the crucifix suspended in its middle and the altar down below, oh breathtaking beauty! I wonder if Iíll ever live to even see it again?
(I wonder if Iíll ever live to see another Easter service? I always think that when this day finds me on a mission. Wallace, Don, Jake and I break bread, and pass some raisins around in lieu of wine, as George looks on, the sea-wind in his hair. Then he shrugs and sits down with us, rolling up his sleeves in the unseasonable warmth.
Wallace smiles, saying, ďOur past belongs to Good Friday. Our future starts today.Ē And then he passes the bread and fruit.)
A young woman comes over and kneels next to me. Only when I feel her nudge a folded square of paper against my arm do I turn and see her. She wears a patch over what once had been an eye; itís almost cruel how lovely she looks otherwise.
I know her. She fought under my command for awhile. I just canít remember her name.
Thank God for custom! We canít talk here, so she wonít learn about my lapse of memory. I nod to acknowledge her, then accept and palm the little slip of paper before anyone else takes note.
She gets up to light a candle at one of the statues lining the high perimeter walkway. St. Teresa of Avila, I notice. Then she moves on to St. Adra the Wanderer. Then finally St. Luke. By now I can see a faint quiver run through the church, people straightening and looking around; she has signaled to every rebel present that I have arrived, by honoring my patron saints. When she takes a pew again, she sits in another quarter, presumably with her own band.
Why did she have to do that? Why did anybody have to know about my presence here? What good would it do? Why endanger me like that? I know the answer, and I donít like it, and I hate the part of me that also likes it way too much. They need the boost of morale. Even knowing all they know about me.
It doesnít take them long to spot the taller-than-average, mixed-blood mountainfolk woman with the premature streaks of silver in her long, long hair. (They canít see, while I kneel, that it barely crests my hips, these days.) I feel their eyes upon me, now.
Maybe I should hack my hair off entirely! What ridiculous, unprofessional vanity holds back my hand? But itís more than that. I feel as though I would strike my colors, let drop the banner that has flown over too many battles to discount. Ah hell, I am their banner!
Oh dear God hear all of the prayers that I canít concentrate on enough to pray. Give me all the grace that Iím too sin-drunk to comprehend the need to ask for. Forgive me everything that I havenít the mother-wit to ask forgiven. Guide me, guide me, dear God, for people pay me too much heed and multiply my every decision, good or bad!
I sink my head forward into my hands. There, shielded by the appearance of prayer, I tap my thumb in my palm in a certain rhythm, then open and scan the paper. Instructions on where to go to meet my contact. I nod, and swallow the paper (surely this wonít break my fast?) My training lets me memorize it all at a glance.
The priest arrives, and incense prevails over the smoke of the ravaged countryside. We stand up for his procession, down to the bottom of the bowl, then watch him climb up the spiraling steps to his pulpit, beneath the dangling cross.
The lector reads the scriptures. Itís the common form, the verses that would fall on this date were it not for Easter; sometimes they do that, when they canít get up-to-date missals. I shrug; who can say how well or ill the calendars of Earth translate to Novatierre? I sing along with the congregation when he comes to the Psalm:
How can the rich down there, below, hear this and not tremble? Or do they believe that it pertains to them? But then we move on to other scriptures and I lose my train of thought.
The priest now sermonizes on the resurrected Christ asking of Peter for three assertions of love to make up for his three sins of betrayal, and bids him nourish the flocks. Is that what I must do? Feed the lambs? Oh, poor lambs that I have shorn of innocence and led down to the slaughter!
Who am I to point a finger at the rich?
Suddenly I feel one with them, like they think the same things that I do, down there. I can feel souls grasping at that hope: Feed My sheep. Feed My lambs. Feed My ewes.
My stomach growls around the undigestible lump of paper that I have given it. My communion with rebeldom, my communion of secrets.
I hesitate before going up to the other communion of Godís flesh. Can kneeling in a forest without a priest for miles really count as a confession? Do I even believe in confession anymore? I feel, most of all, the eyes of the new recruits upon me. I must do this. They must not doubt themselves now, not so soon after the Test of Blood. I must do this, even if I swallow my own condemnation. And they follow me down the aisle, like lambs indeed, and all who know about me watch me, and my stomach burns around that little chit of paper.
Kiril has gone ahead of me. On the way back she gives me such a look of sympathy that it nearly stops my heartĖhow can she know so much? Oh child, child, child, what would I do without you? It gives me the courage to accept the body and blood, God feeding me of His own wounded flesh, such a tiny mouthful to my brute stomach.
A rich man catches my eyes as I turn back towards my pew, the skin of his old face puddling in jowls like the folds of his blousing, arms lost in the silken cascadeĖno mere gentleman farmer, but a major landowner, he. And he looks so, so sorry, and his eyes follow mine as I walk past him, and then he crosses himself. My contact, Iíll just bet.
[Angel brushes by Midnightís Touch]