Dolores J. Nurss

Volume VIII: The Final Conflagration

Chapter 5




Saturday, May 3, 2709, continued

       (His name is Finn, and no he isn't Finnish. He's Irish. "The Confusion", as he calls these dark months in Vanikke, left him with nobody to take care of him, after his mother died in some way that he never could figure out, in a world where the old routines of mobility no longer applied, where most writing didn't come in braille and the machines for reading print no longer worked.
       Nobody's happy about me limiting the poor boy's food intake, but we don't want him to get too sick to reap any value from it, when starvation's gone this far, and we have to accommodate a shrunken stomach beside. We stop frequently to heat broth for now, steeped from our carne seca and some pulverized vegetables, every couple hours, and each time seems to bring a little more color to his face. By noon I can give him the solids with it, and a tortilla to dip in it.
       He doesn't know that his hair has tuned white. He doesn't know where he is. He doesn't know that he killed people. All that must wait until we can stabilize him. Then we will have to train him and Ozwald both on how to master their fire. How I miss our Randy!
       And how I thank the Truth of my own eyesight! Everywhere we go the snow melts and the icicles drip and sparkle in the sun! Just for now I don't want to think about the untimely weather blighting crops so desperately needed, but now that I've just thought it, I do have to face that this is also true. T
       he root crops will survive. So will the brassicas. Most of the legumes will recover, as will many of the greens. Many of the fruit crops are done for, I'm afraid, before they've had much of a chance to begin, but not everywhere.
       And maybe that's a good thing. It will force trade with areas farther from the blighted region. Hunger can overcome a lot of prejudice.)

       The old man from Buning boosts me up into the saddle, while I struggle to get my balance with my wounded hand and wrenched shoulder, shoving bare feet into the cold stirrups and trying to ignore the puckering scratches on them, in fact over every inch of exposed skin I have. He's a stout fellow, this woebegone grandfather. Plainly prosperous, but his sleeves show that he only has a few votes under that ample belt, his skin shows more than a touch of brown to it despite an indoor life, and I've felt the calluses in his muscular hands. I can see why he made trips to the Labyrinth to see if he could raise his status. But he didn't expect it to cost him a grandson.
       (I can't help but notice, when I bring my emptied plate and cutlery to the dish station, that everyone on KP is Mountainfolk, and most of the men sitting around tables, laughing with each other, are not. I slip out of there quietly, my gaze down about my feet, as always works for me in infiltrations. The paths all have a well-worn core, more recently expanded; far more people occupy the farm, now. I risk a glance up, hearing nobody near me. The jungle starts to encroach upon weedy fields, and all the pens stand empty. I wonder if I helped eat the last of the oxen. At least we rebels do farmwork for anyone who shelters us.
       All plantations have a similar layout. The Head Butler always has his own cottage, next to the main building yet discrete, small yet comfortable, with a bit of garden around it. It doesn't take me long to find it. A window stands open, and the netting stretched across it is tacked outside, to make it easy to open the window from within, in an upward-sliding arrangement. I'll have no trouble prying up a few staples in complete silence.
       I creep up to the side of the house. I pull out my knife to begin. But I stop. I take a deep breath. It has been so many years!)

       The rhythm of the horse feels soft yet jarring, hurting my tailbone. I try to hear birds and the rustle of leaves, I try to see colors, but I feel so old, so utterly worn down that if a landmine went off under me right now I wouldn't mind a bit. I hardly recognize my own voice when I rasp, "What year is it?"
       "2709," says the fat man on the horse nearby. I laugh silently. Only a little over a year! All of this...all of this whole other life, totally breaking me as I never thought I could break before, and it's been a little more than a year.
       "I never did ask your name," I say. "What is it?"
       "Pacay. Pacay Tong."
       "Thank you for sharing my road, Pacay."
       "How can I not?" His round face works like an uneasy baby's, if babies sported gray stubble on their chins. "I'll allow that I wouldn't have, if your lot had accepted the help that the DuFestins offered."
       "So you already suspected what they had done?"
       "Well, I didn't quite know for sure. With a reputation like theirs, you know, and a grandson I'd caught in a lie or two before, I doubted it for a long time, till Conor ran away. Then I got to thinking that he'd never lied about anything at all like this before." He scratches his bristles thoughtfully. "I'd come into the restaurant to try and find out the truth, I don't know how, maybe bribe the help for information, but then they'd tell me whatever they thought I'd want to hear...well, I just guess I thought I could figure it out somehow as I went. When that young lad shouted 'Long live the revolution' I suddenly knew that I had to join, too--that was the last evidence I needed."
       I nod to that, unable, quite, to feel thankful that I had helped to open another person's eyes to just how rotten the world could be. I let him talk without me; mostly I just make "mm" sounds at the right intervals; that doesn't take much energy. I feel my fever in the contrast with the breeze that flutters on my skin, much too chill for the jungle air.
       He's going to travel with us till we reach Mayuraq, a river village. Cyran has decided that since Pacay isn't physically fit for combat, and since he makes barrels for his trade, he could best serve the revolution there, helping to build boats under a shipwright's son already at work in Mayuraq, to try and give us a navy for the many rivers of the Charadoc. Pacay already knows how to make slats of wood watertight, and that's the hardest part. They'll have to be light, sturdy, easily hidden and taken up again, but Cyran has confidence that we can do it.
       "It's what my boy would have wanted," Pacay says, and falls silent.
       I already know the rest. Damien will then train sailors on underground grottos near his old home. I hope he gives better lessons, in less of a rush, than what he taught to Kiril and me last year! I look up ahead at Damien's back, a boxy homemade fiddle slung over his shoulder. How many instruments does the boy play, anyway?
       And why didn't he greet me? We took our vows the same night. Is he ashamed to associate with me? Was he there when they carried me in, fouled with days-old birth mess and tweaked out of my mind?
       And the horse continues to hurt me, as I steer her with my knees, but I suppose I'd be better off riding than walking at this point. "But I can't fly," Then, more loudly, "I can't fly! I lost my focus--I can't fly!"
       "Shhh, shhhh," Kiril pulls up her horse beside mine. "It's okay, Deirdre. It's not good for you."
       "No, no, not like that--my magentine! It fell from me, and then I fell, and it's lost, somewhere out there in the jungle, I lost it, I...I can't fly!" I remember now the glinting, rosy stone tumbling down from my breast and then me tumbling soon after, crashing and bruising and helpless. "Kiril, I can't fly."
       I see her reach out, but she can't clasp either of my hands right now. "Then we will march," she says, her hand falling short. "Together as we used to do, back in the old days."
       "Old days," I try to laugh. "It's only the year 2709."
       (I can't believe it--I actually feel faint. After all I've seen, all I've done, in the years since we parted company, I feel lightheaded, almost nauseated, at prying up a handful of staples to visit an injured man. Get a grip on yourself, Cyran! You know what you have to do.
       The staples come loose easily. I pocket them and then slip my body between the netting and the sill, then up over it, through the billow of brown curtains, more stealthily than I ever have in a career of secretive movements. I lower myself down so softly that even the heavy military boots don't make a sound.
       And there he lies, his back to the window...his lacerated back, gleaming in ointment. We used to talk about this, but I never thought he'd actually...no, not really.
       "Oh Saza," I whisper, "What have you done to yourself?"
       He stiffens. He doesn't dare turn. "Cici?" he asks. "Is that you?"
       "I had to come," I say. "In St. Dymphna's name."
       "Have you come to kill me?"
       "No, brother," I say. "We already had each other in our sights, and neither could pull the trigger."
       The pattern of the scars and welts expands and contracts in a sigh. "I have no brother."
       "That's right. You have two sisters."
       He struggles to sit up, without the bedding touching either back or wounded side, one hand groping under the pillow to try and find a bearable angle of leverage . I want to help him, but I know how he'd probably interpret me laying a hand on him. He crumples forward, away from me, groaning, hands drawn to his chest. But then he tries again, that is so him, till at last he can turn by himself and stare at me.
       "You look older," he finally says.
       "So do you." It was dark on that New Year's night when we pointed guns at each other and then lowered them. I couldn't see him as clearly as I can now, the lines between the eyes and under them, the scowl-lines on the mouth.
       I come closer, cautiously, my hands open and away from my body. I pull up the chair that doubtless his doctor uses when dressing his back. "I had to come, Saza. I swear I wouldn't have killed your son, not once I knew. I would have scarred him, sure, marked him so that he couldn't infiltrate again, but I'd have sent him back to you. But the pain would've been brief, not as bad as…" and suddenly the truth hits me.
       "Don't you dare judge me!" He starts up, then the stitches catch him and he sinks back down, his hand on the bandages. "Don't you dare judge me, you freakish exploiter of children!"
       I feel only pity when I say, "What a twisted, mixed-up family we come from--how could I judge you? Maybe I'd have been no better, if I could have had kids."
       "No. You take other people's children," he rasps. In a higher, tearful voice he says, "You took my
       "I didn't know! He changed his name. He looked diffferent, he…"
       Mirthlessly he grins. "It was always so easy to yank your chain, Cici."
       "Yet you also meant it." He always masked his torment as a joke.
       "Yes," he says, defeated when for once I don't want to defeat him. "I did."
       We both fall silent, as if by agreement, when the sound of troops tramps by. I sit there thinking that at any moment he could shout for help and have me shot for being there, and none of them would suspect any reason for my presence except the obvious one. All these years I've kept my last name a secret--most assume that I don't have one.
       When the boot-beats fade Sanzio softly says, "You know you broke her heart, joining the rebels, following in his footsteps."
       "Yeah, well, you broke her nose."
       I expect him to rise up and break mine, but instead he cringes in on himself, and in a cracking voice he says, "She kept asking for you. After all these years, I was right there for her, but she kept asking for you."
       I stare down at my own hands. "You can't take a madwoman's opinions to heart, Saza. For all we know, the only thing that draws her to me is pity."
       "No. She doesn't even admit your...difference. She still calls you her brother."
       Now it's my turn to wince. I can barely say, "I know."
       "Do you still visit her, then?"
       "When I can. Not often enough."
       "They won't let me see her anymore." Before I can say anything he raises his hand and says, "Yes, I know why. I agree. I understand. That's why I don't visit my own children anymore, or my own wife."
       It dawns on me "You didn't recognize Jason either." And he looks up with bleary red eyes, and we both stare at each other over that terrible, fatal truth that we share.
       Slowly he says, "It seems we can't escape our fates, no matter how hard we try." He sighs again, and says, "We both broke her heart, you by following in his footsteps, me by rebelling against him."
       "We both rebelled at first. It just didn't last with me."
       "So similar, yet never identical. You and your blue eyes!"
       We both chuckle at the old joke. "Yes, right from the start I could never quite conform to anything.
       But the laughter hurts him and doesn't really suit him anyway. "Maybe Mama bore twins from the two different halves of her own shattered heart." His eyes look liquid with darkness when he says, "How could we ever do anything right when we both were wrong from conception?"
       "At least I try to make things better, Saza. I couldn't bear the misery, the, the starvation all around, the.."
       "You think I
don't?" he cries, then grabs his chest, regretting it. "They starve because of your war, you idiot!" He has to gasp before he can continue, and I can't speak while he gasps, I can't say or do a thing. "I will do anything, anything at all in this haunted land to set right the damage that your kind, his kind, has done to it!" For an instant his eyes flash a purply-rose red--for an instant we both almost know something, as he tries to lurch to his feet and I reach for the gun in my uniform's holster. But then he clutches his side with a gasp and sinks back down to the bed.
       All I can say is, "Saza, I think we
are the wound in the Charadoc."
       Calmer, he says, "Careful, you're starting to sound as crazy as our parents." He shakes his head. "And so am I. Well, then, have you any other business to attend to in this meeting that doesn't entail assassinating me?"
       "To offer my con...but condolences are empty, aren't they?" I stare down at my interlocked fingers. "There's...there's one other, uh, matter," I say, hesitantly. "For years now I've wanted to talk to you, to thank you for one thing."
       "Thank me?"
       The words feel like they twist out of my throat. "For killing our father."
       "But I didn't do it!" He looks genuinely shocked. "That was you!"
       "Well, it wasn't me, I didn't even draw my gun."
       Then we both stare at each other, and as one, the way we used to sometime speak, we both say, "Mama." It must have been Mama. And we both start to weep with grief, with relief, with exhaustion at the entire hopelessly tangled mess of our lives.
       With one arm still clutching his wounded side, he extends the other for an embrace. I don't hesitate to lean into him, and feel the searing sharpness cut into me, but I twist in time to keep him from stabbing deeply; he only shears off flesh. But that's enough!
       "Did you think I could let you go unpunished," he grates, while I struggle to break free, "after what you made me do to my son?" And his eyes look as mad as Lufti's under the beading sweat.
       I manage to kick away from him, and he falls back, wheezing and gray-faced, no strength left in him. I give him one long stare but no, a brief glance, really, everything I do now feels like slow motion as I escape out the window, stripping off my shirt and balling it against my searing wound to keep from leaving a blood trail as I stumble out of there. Idiot, to not even notice the bulge of the blade hidden in the bandages!
       Somehow I manage to dodge past all the guards, though I feel more lightheaded by the minute. Some ghost must guide me--but whose?)



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