IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VII: The Burning
Wednesday, April 28, 2709, continued
We run down the afternoon and trample all the light
away, and then run deeply into night, worming our way into
rainforest, but it grows less densely here, pursuers keep
getting a bead on us and shooting, as we trip and tangle on the
roots and vines, thorns and whipgrass.
I catch glimpses of different liveries, their colors
flashing into view whenever their lamps reflect back onto
well-to-do household has turned out their personal guard to
Braulio growls back, “Maybe, just maybe because she pandered TO AN OBSCENE MONSTER?”
“Keep your voices down,” Baruch hisses. “Don’t go greenfire-crazy!”
“Listen to Baruch--I'm not sure we've outrun them yet.”
“But everybody loved her!” Chaska protests. “She was really, really popular. Grandfather even heard of her clear into the Midlands. Why, her charitable work with childr...oh.”
“Yeah,” Braulio answers.
(Just a child, really. Why does Cyran always send such work my way? Should any wonder why I've come to hate him?)
We don't run anymore, just walk very, very fast, catching our breaths, trying to burn off the leaf till we can sleep, and increase the miles behind us while we're at it.
I clasp Baruch’s shoulder. “Thanks for keeping your head despite the leaf. I don’t want to go down that rabbit-hole again.” Oh but I do, I do! I know that right now I can make no mistakes I know that I lie to myself and I love the lie.
“You’ve always got one foot stuck in it, don’t you?” he grumbles back.
“Maybe.” I glance also at Kiril and Lufti when I add, “And maybe I need good folks around me to keep me reminded of that.”
We say nothing more for the next mile, just feeling the fire slowly cool in us, the heavy gray ash settling into its place, choking every step and every breath.
It’s hardest on the cobbler’s children and the old man; they have no experience with this. After awhile Braulio says to me, not looking at me, “The middle castes knew about The Labyrinth for miles around. We made a special journey just to dine there. Grandfather said it would be good for business, that if you could pass whatever tests of merit Gorin duFestin set up for you, you could see your status rise faster than anything. Master duFestin believed in merit, he said, and everybody's right to try to better themselves.”
I nod. “So when you tried to tell him what, uh, happened, he didn't believe you.”
The boy spat. “For all I know, he thought it one of the tests.”
(He looks so innocent! But we shall test that, he and I. I have no faith in innocence anymore.)
“Braulio, no!” Chaska cried out. “Grandfather would never, ever...” but then her brow crinkled. “But why wouldn't he tell me anything about the man he wanted me to marry when I'd come of age?”
(I harden to my duty. He must not come of age steeped in lies. I must think about his future, as well as my country. And it won't take as long as some; tears already run down his cheeks and I haven't even applied the coals yet.)
Unexpectedly, Kuchi blurts out, “Grandpa cried.”
“Huh?” both his siblings ask, one after another.
“Grandpa cried. I saw him. He told me, 'It's a dark, dark world out there, Kuchi. I have to think about your futures. And, and, he said, he told me to not hate him if he sometimes did things that seemed bad, that hurt, because much worse could happen to us kids if he didn't.”
Braulio muttered, “I wonder what he considered worse?”
Kiril said, “Starvation. Enslavement. Sinking down to our level. Maybe the cobbler shop didn't do as well as he'd hoped.”
“I would rather starve!”
Kiril shook her head. “You say that now, but you only tried starvation for a little while.” And suddenly I remember the ship again, where I first saw her with her sleeves ripped off. Only somehow I see it as though from her point of view—the leers, the scary sailors so much bigger than herself.
(“I'd rather starve!” the pimply young fool spits in my face, when I try to entice him with food, though I have fasted him for three days. Blood in the spit, but I see now that we've got a ways to go yet before I can break him, tears notwithstanding. He cries like a girl—which is to say right before his fiercest effort.
His red eyes burn at me when he growls. “I've made great sacrifices already, you fool—this torture is just one more.” Oh, the bravado! I almost wish we could stop right now, and leave him the illusion. I wish I could believe in it, myself. But Truth is a brutal mistress; she has flagellated me for less. This whelp knows nothing of real sacrifice.)
Braulio persists. “I know enough of it by now to figure what I'd choose.” He thumps his chest and cries, “Look at me! I'm here right now, aren't I? Didn't you realize, Kiril, that Chaska and Kuchi and I could have thrown ourselves on Master Barrahab's mercy more'n a week ago?” His eyes squint so hard that he almost looks evil when he says, “The old goat would've found some price for us to pay, eventually, but he'd have taken us in, for our Grandfather's sake. We could have had fine meals, hot baths, all of it since then. But I don't want any of that!” Tears course down his dirty, freckled face. “I want you folks, here, now, crazy as you are, honest as you are. I don't care how hungry I get. I don't care how tired. I don't care that my sister's become a rebel slut, ‘cause she's her own slut, and not somebody's bedroom pawn like that pathetic Maigrette duFestin.” He glares at Chaska, who's suddenly gone pale. “I don't want to even guess who he wanted you to save your virginity for. I'm glad you threw it away and ran for freedom rather than barter it for a shiny chain. I hate that world!”
“Deirdre's a virgin,” Lufti puts in, from Marduk's shoulder as the teenager carries him. “And she will never, ever promiscu—she has too many children of the heart, all the world's children, to ever need children of the flesh, even if she does die young, young and old both at once.” Lufti sighs. “Her spark will go out alone, in a cold and snowy land, but it will shine brightly before then and show us all the way.”
A crack rings out in the night. “Run!” I hiss, handing the old man another leaf as he huffs and swears, trying to comply. And we all pound on, too wired to feel the thorns we tear through, wired and scared and vibrating with life so pent-up huge that it could burst through our skin just like that if only a little bullet-sized hole would let it out.
(So much life in this one, but I've dealt with that before. Sooner or later they all come 'round. Another spoiled brat. I have to remind myself of that, when I hate my job the most. They're not children anymore, I tell myself. That perversion of a human being who leads them saw to that. Nobody's who they seem. So I strike him twice as hard precisely because something about this one in particular breaks my heart, the way he looks at me, almost a ghost of something pure and precious in his eyes, almost reminding me of something long, long lost.)
Thursday, April 29, 2709
The greenfire leaf does something to time, stretching it out unbearably. We run but never seem to get anywhere, the same forest around us, the same night, feeling no hope of dawn.
“The cold stars rule,” Lufti says as Marduk passes him to me, too winded to continue with him five more leaps. I chew extra leaf just to give me what it takes. “Really balls of burning gas, the stars, but you mustn't remember I told you; it's impolite. They write our fate in blaze on black, and turn it ugly if we tell them that they're just hot air. Their hearts run cold even as their skin burns bright, and strange things live there.”
(Hot air, rehearsed lies, blah blah blah. I make his skin burn for it, and a bit below the skin. I've heard it all before. The kids must rehearse it together, to know what to say if caught. This night wears on forever; even if I loved my job I would weary of it. As it stands, I'm not sure which of us feels more tortured.
There is another nerve, right here, very close to the surface. I have done this wretched work so long that I practically see a map of nerves on every body that I lay eyes on. I can't blink it away anymore, not like the sweat of our exertions together. And another nerve right here. And this, most exquisite one, down here...
“Stop! Stop!” he cries. “Enough!” Finally!
“Do you admit that you're nothing but a spoiled charlatan?” I demand, wrenching his head back by the hair, turning his face straight up into the lamp. “Do you admit that it's all a mere game of rebellion to you? No ethic, no ideology, no great and noble cause, just a nasty way to strike out at your parents?”
“Yes, yes, it's all true! I see it now!”
And I see it now, too. The realization washes through him, that he's not just making this up to say whatever I want, he suddenly knows that he has no high ground to stand on, that he never did, he has given up way too much for a lie spun out of control. I release his hair.
He turns to me, his burnt face contorting on the truth that struggles to come out, his eyes on fire. “I hate my father! I hate the government because I hate him working for it! He never comes home, he's too goddam busy running around doing God knows what, whatever they want all over the country, and who cares if he has a family? All he ever sends back home is money! ”
“Good. Good lad. Now you're telling me the truth. Confession sets all right again.” I wish it did. I finger the cross around my neck, wishing that I still believed in that, the sweetest lie, that confession could wash me clean. But now I know that it takes much penance, to start my hell right here on earth, to burn away the weight of so much sin. I put the earnestness of my desire into my voice though; wishing it true almost counts for faith. “You can become pure again.”)
Dawn begins as a suggestion, black gradually paling here and there to blue, as though the night has grown too tired to keep it up anymore. The leaf has just about worn out of our systems, again; we could really use a place to crash.
(The lies have worn out of him. He looks young again, so very young! I sit astraddle a chair opposite him. I offer him a cigarette; I noticed the nicotine stains on his fingers right at the start. Denying him tobacco, in fact, helped hasten the inevitable. I light it for him, now, and free one shaking hand for him to hold it.
He takes several long drags before he asks, shaky-voiced, “What do you want me to tell you?”
Everything. This one volunteered to help coordinate that obese monstrosity's spies, which I now suspect has planted its agents in more major households than even General Aliso had uncovered. This little fool before me could drive from manor to manor, out in the open in a fancy car that he obviously didn't earn. His stupid parents probably bought it for him, a reward for good grades or some such rot. Yes, I want to know everything, all of it! I wouldn't go through so much pain for trivia. But let's start simple, and the rest will flood out of him.
I smile. “You could start by telling me your real name. We both know that Jaydee Salinger's an alias. I've read a book or two myself, you know.”
He looks smaller by the minute, curling around his smoke as much as the ropes allow. “I don't want my father's name. Do I have to pick it up again?”
I gentle my voice. “We all must face the truth, son, however terrible. This one isn't so bad, is it?”
He turns pleading eyes to me, as much as the swelling will allow. “I haven't seen him since I was a baby. I hardly remember him. I don't want to remember him.”
“I wasn't exactly thrilled with my own father, either. He did despicable things. Yet I still carry his name.”
He nods, shakily. “No, you're right.” He takes a deep breath, staring far beyond me, then says, “Jason. Jason D'Arco.” And I feel my blood drop at the realization that I have tortured my own son.)
We have no time to rest. I pass out more leaf. Chaska chews, Braulio chews, and God forgive me little Kuchi chews. And Lufti, son of my wicked heart, Lufti sleeps in my arms, unable to keep up with us because I taught him how to poison himself.
(He spills everything to me. One single great, all-encompassing servant network festers in the land, like one of those fungal infections that can go on for miles, sinking unseen tendrils into everything, covering far more territory and far more souls than I ever imagined. No major household has escaped, and many a lesser manor that I would have passed by, unsuspecting. They don't always just betray their masters, either; sometimes they seduce them. They have persuaded even some of the higesth caste families to turn on their own government.I should feel outraged. And I clearly should pay sharper attention to every detail so dearly bought. But all I can think is, Father, forgive me. Please forgive me, Father, for hating you so horribly! I joined the Purple Mantles out of sheer rebellion, I see it now, the ugly truth. I have no high ground to sustain me.)