THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
VIII: The Final Conflagration
Travels Outside Civilization
Thursday, May 8, 2709, continued
Baruch pushes through Kiril and Lufti to hug me, saying, "You're looking better,"
"I think I feel better, too," I answer.
That gets a rare smile from him. "No more greenfire, huh?"
"No more greenfire," I say, then use lighting my cigarette as an excuse to not look at him. The word does kindle desire, but the relief in my body pushes all thought of it away. I shake out the match, face him again and smile back at him.
"Well, I think you look terrible!" a glad young voice says behind us, laughing. I turn around to see Khouri. Somewhere along the way the party picked up this muscular little imp of a mountainfolk-boy, his grinning brown face framed in thick, black curls. Didn't he used to bring supplies to the infirmary, back in the campus camp? Was his breath as bad back then as it is now? And where did he steal that navy-pinstriped white business-shirt with such fancy wide sleeves?
"I've seen a few things since we met a year ago," I tell him.
"Yeah, back then you were a spoiled little princess!" And yet he says it in such a friendly way, his black eyes sparkling, that I can't actually take offense at him.
"Yes, I suppose I was." I didn't notice his breath back then. I guess I was too busy looking down my nose at all the smokers around me, I think guiltily as I knock some ash off my homemade cigarette.
"Let's get going," says Alysha. "The sooner we reach Mayuraq, the better."
"Yeah," Cyran says weakly. "We need to shed at least half this mob--I don't need a freakin' army to escort me to Koboros."
We have gotten most of the way down into the valley, thanks to that zipline. I had expected horses, but at the base of the hill coracles and shallow boats await us, and a swamp. The waters have sunken considerably, but we're not quite at the end of the wet season just yet. The river still flows through the trees of this flood-forest, high overhead, buttressed on enormous roots accustomed to this cycle. It shimmers as far as I can see between the trunks, and sparkles drip from the leaves and branches, and high above our heads the sunlight flickers in and out, rays dancing with the shadows of leaves and clouds.
"Pearl and Plata play on their way to their own stable," Lufti tells me while gathering handfuls of fairy-globe and handing me some. "Starlight shimmers in their manes, but I like moonlight better, and a stout ship under me." I crush the ruddy herbal beads against my skin and rub it all over me, its oregano-like scent covering me in protection against insects. "All sea creatures love the moon, but not all love wisely," he says and he begins to cry. Kiril drops off rubbing where I can't reach with my dodgy shoulder to put her arms around him, so Baruch takes over and does a workmanlike job of it, like he'd scour something off of me.
Rebels help us into vessels. Damien leads in a coracle with the cobbler children, showing Kuchi how to pole; he seems painfully sober and attentive, his hands gently guiding the boy's on the wood.
Marduk has learned the way of coracles, himself, in his travels; he takes control of one while Alysha kneels at his feet, holding Cyran in her arms. I see that she has made up hir face for hir, making hir more like a woman than ever, though without jewelry; e looks like the weight of so much as an earring would break hir. I also notice that Alysha's nose is no longer as straight as it had been when I met her--why didn't I notice that before?
Pacay takes charge of a boat and Baruch and Khouri ride with the stout old man. Chulan leads the rowing in another boat with Hekut, Luka and Diomedio--we really have grown into too great a party--and all to escort one wounded soldier swapped out for another who's practically healed already? And of course I ride with Lufti in the coracle that Kiril commands. She navigates much more smoothly, in these still waters that barely ripple between the roots, than she did on the rapids where she first learned how.
I look at my hand, the closed red mark on either side. (The scar at the base of my thumb, from Alonzo Valley looks so tiny in comparison.) Lufti took good care of me. Really, I'm just going to Koboros for a bit of a vacation, though I daresay Rashid will find work enough for me when I get there.
And maybe that's okay. Maybe I should spend the rest of the Revolution as a medic, recovering Lovequest while I recover in...in all of the other ways that I need to. The more that I think about it, the more I like the idea.
I've turned a corner. I feel real happiness, not the frenetic mania of greenfire. I had forgotten what it feels like, this quiet peace, traveling with people I love through the looping, fluttering, soaring loveliness of the Charadoc's rainforest, just taking it all in without having to make decisions about it, feeling the gentle rocking of our vessel, the sun and shade alternating over me, the kindly pressure of Lufti leaning against my leg. I listen to the birds, the water, the soft rustles and the conversations around me.
"Do you know the change of plans?" Chulan asks.
"Some," says Baruch. "Khouri knows more. I don't think it's that far off course."
My heart sinks, thinking about the mountain ranges that frame the sky where we float. "How much farther will we have to go?"
"Not far," they all hastily assure me. I sigh with relief. Whatever they're talking about, I don't need any extra strain.
(How long will this take, I wonder? We drive for miles and miles through the farmland of Vanikke, looking for the people with an intact taste for fashion and bright dyes, but farm after farm stands empty, the roads overgrown and unused, the fields full of thistles and feral livestock grazing. I drowse in and out, safe between my two big, strong men. Darling, I could handle myself in a fight--you know that, Tshura. You've seen me when I had to. But it's just so nice to not have to--not fight, not walk, not forage, just luxuriate in clean clothes on Anselmo's pleasantly padded truck-seat, even if the stuffing does poke out a little here and there.)
(We've been walking for miles through Vanikketan farmland when Jake unexpectedly breaks the silence. "This reminds me of the journey to Ganshu," he says.
I smile. "Because these green fields and forests look so much like sand dunes."
He crooks a lopsided grin at that. "Not that. The walking. Getting up in the morning, packing up the tent, and walking till we stop to eat or drink, then walking again, then stopping again, then walking some more, till we reach a good place to camp for the night. Now and then taking a day off to replenish our supplies, when we can."
I laugh. "Good thing we all hiked for fun when we were kids!"
Wallace seems dumbfounded. "You hiked...as children? They let you hike as children?"
Don's smile comes from fond memories. "Some of our classes required it. We thought ourselves very brave, but I daresay the adults never went too far away in case we messed up."
I burst out laughing. "Remember the time they had to rescue Merrill? Because he just had to check out that mysterious mine-shaft that was supposed to be haunted, even though our teachers expressly told us not to."
"He wasn't looking for ghosts," Don replies. "He'd heard that it held buried treasure."
Jake speaks up. "They planted both rumors to see who had impulse control. Merrill didn't."
Don bursts out laughing and nods, while Wallace packs in all the shock in his face that a headmaster can muster.
George smiles with us. "I'd like to meet this Merrill. I think we'd get along."
Philosophically, Don adds, "He did get points for surviving."
After an appalled stare, Wallace says, "Well, I didn't grow up hiking. I spent my childhood on an island smaller than Toulin Academy and I have had quite enough of walking for now!" And with a groan he sits down on the jutting keepcrete pier of a wire fence. I almost cry out to stop him, then remember of course that electricity doesn't arc through it anymore, or through anything. Don passes him some water. After wiping his mouth, Wallace says, "They gave you boys quite a bit of freedom, it sounds like."
Jake smirks. "Too much, probably. We got in a lot of trouble."
"Not Don, though," I add, unpacking some bread and bean-butter for lunch,,,hmmm, we're running low on safe supplies. "Don didn't run away with us to Alonzo Valley."
"Oh, I got into plenty of trouble while you rapscallions went off to scandalize the farm folks." He lays out the cutting-board and cuts us some sausage and cheese, while George scans about for edible weeds, but not venturing too far--he's enjoying our reminiscences way too much to leave hearing-range. "Did I ever tell you about the time Merrill talked me into exploring roofs with him?"
"Why?" George asks, filling the cupped front of his sweater with the broad, oval leaves of cribber-lettuce, still quite soft with spring.
"Because. Merrill never needs a reason to explore anything. He'd have probably gone down that mine shaft without tempting rumors...just because."
Jake smacks sandwiches together and passes them around. "Merrill never likes anything to get too familiar. He was born to be an agent."
"Not quite," says George, suddenly staring at nothing.
I drop my sandwich in the grass. "Oh no no no no no, George! Don't tune back in to him again!"
Suddenly George stares at us aghast. "You...your friend...the son of the Outlaw God?"
But before he can run from us Jake grips him by the shoulders. "None of us have to follow in the footsteps of our parents." They meet each other's eyes for the longest time before George suddenly trembles and relaxes.
"He's gone," the boy says. "He...he pushed me away. What happened...it was an accident."
"God spare us any more such accidents!" I say with my pent-up breath released, stooping to retrieve my sandwich and pick the grass off it. "Let's just eat our lunch and enjoy the sunshine while we have it.")
A disturbing thought comes over me. I look at my hand once more. I can't remember his name. The farmboy for whom I cut my hand, so many years ago, pledging myself to be his blood-sister. I can't for the life of me remember his name.
"Accidents happen," Lufti murmurs, "He didn't expect the old timbers in the mine to fall, but his father expected everything, to win by losing, the way we always do, year after year, following in the footsteps of ghosts, proud of our scars, our stars, our starry scars till even the old gods tire of dragging heroes up into the sky to look down on the rest of us, even though they always shiver with the cold they know they're higher than the snowiest mountain, but I got tired of being a god, even one day of it tired me out all over again." Then he gives me the most pleading look. "Please heal fast, Deirdre. It tears me trying to be your stitches."
"My wound's all closed, Lufti. See?" I wave my hand at him, and force my fingers to wiggle in ways that hurt. I'm going to have to do that anyway, to get the flexibility back.
He just looks on more darkly still. "Stigmata isn't half your problems. Stop trying to climb up to the stars without even waiting to die--they'll burn you to a crisp!"
"You're probably right."
"I'm always right," he grumbles, looking ahead again. "That's what madness is, you know--always being right."