IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VII: The Burning
Easter Sunday, April 18, 2709, continued
He doesn’t live on a farm, himself. He owns other people’s farms and charges rent. Maybe he sets a fair price, and maybe he exploits farmers down on their luck for all they’re worth. Maybe he’s done some things that he’s ashamed of and wants to set them right, or maybe he’s stayed true the entire time and wants it to keep it that way. Or maybe Cyran’s just another politician to ride if e gains the ascendant. I really don’t know anything about this man that I’m supposed to cut a deal with.
I don’t have much trouble finding him; he lives in the biggest house in town. In Sargeddohl, he’d lose himself in the smallest of Soskia’s parties, but out here no other man for miles around has the legal right to hide his arms in yards and yards of blousing. I can feel all of the currents of power that pour out from that house right over there, the mansion of bricks laid in patterns of burgundy and beige, with so many windows you could probably house the entire market inside with rooms left over. The dragon weathervanes atop the green bronze roof make an interesting touch, all pirouetting slowly together like a reptilian ballet. A change in the wind, indeed.
Braulio and Chaska start towards the front door, but I wave them over to the side; they only look surprised for a moment. We duck under a lovely, vine-clad arch, and soon pass down a narrow corridor between brick walls, all in the same beige color without design. The pavement cracks here and there, veining the passage with moss and the occasional weed; the servants don’t maintain their own territory as strictly as the formal grounds, and I kind of like it that way. It takes quite awhile to make it all the way back, to where the servant’s door opens up in between the trash bin and the toolshed.
A maid comes out to empty a dust pan, aimlessly whistling...something almost familiar...she catches our eye, and the tune unmistakably shifts to The Bullet Dance. Damien swings the harp down off of his shoulder and softly strums the chords that go with it, adding grace notes and harmonics that only the one who wrote it could weave in so flawlessly. The maid nods, smiling grimly, and says, “Master Barrahab is expecting you.” She lets us in, and tells us to leave our packs and weapons by the door. We comply with all visible weaponry, but I am sure that our host will understand our reticence to let go of all insurance entirely.
“I know this place!” Chaska gasps when we enter the paneled interior. “We’d come here sometimes with Grandpa.”
Lufti whirls on her so fast he moves like one of my own friendclan, clapping a hand over her mouth. “Rebels don’t blurt!” he hisses, his eyes glinting but his voice almost sane. “Not for dentists, not for grandfather’s friends, not for anybody! You could get us all killed.”
We all hear wheezy laughter in the room with the door left open. “Is that Chaska Gerush I hear? It didn’t take the little tart long to turn on everything her family ever stood for.”
Swallowing down my nerves, I lead my band in calmly. And then I see the shiny brass humidor on the sideboard, and all else blanks from my head. My feet beeline for it. My hand helps itself to one of its little dark cigars, almost cigarette-sized. Cutting the end the way Kief once showed me, I say, “It did take her long.” I stare down the little old man with the puddling jowls that imitates the gorgeous waste of fabric encasing him, where he lounges on a chaise. “She and her brothers hovered just this side of death by the time we found them.” I light the cigar, rotating it appreciatively, breathing fire into it, tasting the smoke in my mouth. I shake out the match and tell the old man, “Your kind didn’t do a thing to help them when the Charadocian army burned down friend and foe alike.”
Chaska looks pale, with tiny spots of color on her cheeks, but she holds her head up, trembling so slightly that I doubt that most could see it. A glance at Lufti’s glare makes her tighten her lips against what she might have said.
The old man says, “Sit! Sit–all of you,” and he gestures at the velvet furniture crowding the close, stuffy room. Slightly threadbare, out of fashion in Sargeddohl, but impressive enough for the hinterlands, these seats. Lufti hesitates, then grabs a handful of cigars and passes them out to all of us who smoke, and then sketches a curt bow to our host and hands one to him, too. Master Barrahab gives him a nod and an ironic smile, accepting the “gift” of his own property as we all settle into the surprising softness–my bones had forgotten the joys of overstuffed upholstery.
He waves at a tray on the low table before him, with a decanter and many little cups. “I suppose there’s no point in inviting you to partake of my sherry, since I daresay you will help yourselves anyway, but consider yourselves invited.” Lefty and Damien start up, but I gesture them back down.
“Thank you, sir, but I wouldn’t recommend it on stomachs as empty as ours.” Damien cuts me a look; I can almost hear him think, “But it’s fun especially on stomachs as empty as ours!” But then he’s not the one doing the negotiating, here.
“Of course, of course–what was I thinking? And on a feast day, no less!” He picks up one of several bells from a side-table—the brass one molded with a crown of fruit--and gives it two sharp rings.
I crack my knuckles and lean forward, saying, “I have accepted your invitation to your home. You wished to discuss something with me. You know who I am. And I can see enough about you to know that I risk my life passing even your back door. What do you want with me?”
His manner becomes serious, now. “I want whatever you want, Ms. Keller.”
“Explain,” I say, but just then maids enter with trays overflowing with bread, cheese, fruit, cold sausage, a variety of hastily chopped raw vegetables, and several dishes of premade sauces and jams to dip them in or spread upon them. (I get the impression that peers never get prepackaged stuff, and the help rushed it to the kitchen from their own quarters–knowing that we could hardly care about the difference.) My folks leave their seats before the trays hit the tables, reaching for food without waiting for the silverware or napkins.
Master Barrahab chuckles. “Help yourselves,” he says.
For awhile we can’t say a word for all of the gobbling. It takes several swallows before I can even register how good it tastes; my body feels too desperate to bother with taste, for though we ate fairly well two days ago, we hadn’t filled ourselves for far too long before that, and have some catching up to do. But soon I close my eyes with bliss and moan sounds of approval, just like the rest of my band. Eventually, though, I master myself to ask the old man, “You were saying?”
He quickly hides the look of pity that had passed over his face. “I want whatever you want,” he repeated. “I want to offer aid and comfort to the Egalitarians.”
“Why?” I ask with my mouth full. I want to hear him say it.
“You’ve seen why. Civilized people cannot tolerate such...oh why pretend? The Meritocracy has become bad for business. Have you any idea how many acres, how many farms I lost in the latest military temper tantrum? And lives...” For a second his cynical facade falters, as he gazes past my shoulder.
Again he pulls himself together as though caught at something embarrassing. “I am not a sentimental man, Ms. Keller. Dead tenants don’t pay rent, and charred wastelands don’t attract new tenants. I think you will find my practicality kinder than sentiment, however, for I have heard too many well-placed fools declare such excesses worth the vanquishing of a foe that has offended their sensibilities too often for their comfort.”
He lights his own cigar, puffs on it for a moment, and then leans forward with stern eyes and a sharp smile that makes me feel uncomfortably like his co-conspirator. “Let Cyran institute whatever reforms it likes. My family will prosper whether it calls its new government meritocracy or egalitarianism, democracy or communism, monarchy or anarchy or any other name. Because no one rises in any court without funding, whatever system might prevail, and supporters get support in turn to make more funding. Oh, the showy, frontline rich will rise and fall with each regime, gilded trash like the Peshawrs and Comorels, but those of us who quietly retire to the outskirts of society always know when to shift our allegiances before the others notice. Level heads never roll.”
We talk some more as we eat. Right in front of us he fills out requisitions, and tells us about drop-points long in the planning. I memorize everything in the manner of my training.
Once we eat our fill, and lean back half-stunned with satiety on the velvet cushions, we do share in the sherry. I know, I should consider myself a ripe fool, ready for the plucking. I know that I should stay on guard for a trap. But somehow I also know that he sincerely means us no harm, and I have come to trust my hunches.
And then Master Barrahab (who drinks two for each of mine) does get all weepy–shedding tears that I have felt quivering just under the surface of his sneers--about favorite places gone up in smoke. I wait him out; that’s not the whole of it, but he doesn’t know I know it. Then, after a drink or two more, he cuts to the heart of it.
He tells us of a mistress, a wife of one of his debtors whom he believes really did come to love him, she knew all his secrets and used none of them against him, not even to cancel out her husband’s debt. She didn’t even ask him anymore for anything beyond a lightening of the terms--as it so happens, a longer, easier time to pay. Because, Barrahab admits, she knew that once they’d paid it off in full the affair would have to end. The husband would no longer turn a blind eye, convincing himself of comforting untruths.
The revelation hangs in the smoke-thick air a moment between us, before Barrahab husks, “She died horribly, didn’t she?” Then his eyes screw up tight and his mouth goes slack, and next thing you know he blubbers against Chaska’s breast as she cradles him in her arms, cooing tipsily over him. “You’ve seen what it’s like out there,” he gasps, wrapping his arms tight around the girl. “She must have died hor, horribly in flames.”
“Smoke stunned many before they burned,” I say, reaching over and patting his knee. “Maybe she only fell asleep and never woke again.”
“Maybe you’re right. I pray to God you’re right. Or whatever angel answers the prayers of adulterers.” Suddenly he cries out, “Let her tell God that I forced her, I coerced her with the debt, let my sad-eyed angel go to heaven without me! I will confess it all, I will endure whatever hell awaits me, if only she comes through all right. Oh, I am too old for such grief!”
We let him cry himself out. Some of us join him just a little, just a tremble of a tear on the lids, a slight catch in the throat, all the mourning that we can afford, for too many dead, too many to die tomorrow, just barely letting the pressure off, telling ourselves that it’s all for a rich man’s half-willing mistress. Then Master Barrahab stares owlishly up into Chaska’s eyes, and his voice comes thick, as though the last of the liquor hits his blood, though he enunciates slowly and clearly. “I’d ask you to put me to bed, my sweet, but I fear I would be no use to you tonight. Ring the blue-enameled bell over there, will you please? Ah, there’s a dear girl! My people will know what to do.”
It doesn’t take long for a husky butler to come in and pick up the Lord of the Manor like a baby, carrying him off. Right behind him comes the maid who first let us in. Silently she gestures us to follow her back to the servant’s door. On the way out of that chamber I see what our host stared at past my shoulder: a hand-crocheted doily of homespun llama-wool, simple in pattern like many an adornment that I have seen on the clothing of the poor. A similar pattern edges a homemade handkerchief that I still carry, though not precisely the same; each hand makes a little variation. Not at all like what the rich buy for themselves, however.
The corridor out seems long and dark, and night now lies beyond the door. I didn’t think that I had that much sherry, but I admit that my feet do feel a little bit distant from my head. Still, I register the maid’s wink and the knowing glance that follows, and I nod to it, and we understand each other. The servant network will get the word to Cyran, drop-points and everything. All I have to do is put a face on the revolution–a scary, charismatic face in more places than Cyran can go all by hirself.
She lets us out the way we came in, into a world sparking with starlight and cricket-song and the tingle in our veins. No hospitality-bureau awaits by the back door, yet against the wall outside we find our packs stuffed full of every kind of provision, and our waterskins and bandoliers have magically refilled.