Dolores J. Nurss

Volume VIII: The Final Conflagration

Chapter 28

Trades and Trade-Offs



Tuesday, May 13, 2709, continued

       I labor in an old hospital, and never mind the worn plaster, the chipped paint, it's a real, bona-fide hospital! I don't have to deal with wounded children twisting in pain, here in the back room where all I have to do is put surgical tools in their proper places, in tidy built-in drawers and plenty of other storage. I clean the blood off of instruments in an actual steel sink with running water, then run them through a real autoclave powered by the same electricity that lights the room for me as the storm darkens outside over a whitecapped sea. I see a bit of insulation poking from around a ventilation tube in the ceiling--but hey, it's real insulation! I feel almost disturbingly comfortable here.
       Malcolm opens a door. The rain drives in at a forty-five degree angle. I see the sea now more clearly. The tide has risen dangerously. I barely have time to think that when a wave rushes in, icy-cold on my feet!

       I wake up in the night, on the mountain road, and notice that my feet have poked out from under my blanket. I kick it back into place, briefly disturbing Kiril but not quite enough to wake her, and I try to go back to sleep, trying to forget once again that we no longer have our oracle to guide us through the storms.

Wednesday, May 14, 2709

       Our way dips down and then dwindles to a beaten track headed into a small cup of a valley between peaks, too rocky to farm, boulders jutting up here and there but with an open space in the center. I know that the cliff-defined road will pick up again on the other side...because I have been here before. Last Christmas, in fact.
       "He will always dance here," I say, and Damien rides closer to listen to me. "Lufti said so, before he died. Every Christmas his ghost will dance right here."
       "Mmm? And what else did he say?"
       Suddenly remembering, I look towards another youth. "He said to tell you, Braulio, that you did what you had to do, but to not kill anyone else till we reach Koboros, or he can't protect you."
       "He did?" Kiril says, surprised. " I didn't hear that."
       "Oh wait--you're right. I dreamed that part."
       Braulio snorts and looks relieved. "A fever-dream." Then he pauses. "Still, how could you know that I was the one who shot down those who'd attacked us?" Seeing Kiril and I look at him, he suddenly turns red. "I...I just had the best position, that's all, lying near the brink, with them trying in vain to shoot up at us. The geometry favored me." And he repeats, "How did you know, Deirdre?"
       I look out over the valley. I can almost see Lufti down there now, whirling madly, bravely, just the way he used to...but it's only fallen leaves spinning in the wind, and just as briefly blown away. "I guess...yes, that must be it." I turn my eyes back to Braulio. "I can put together a lot of from a handful of clues, without even realizing it. I've heard you shoot enough times to know when it's you, I guess. Everybody has their rhythms."
       "Chulan couldn't see," he says, as if he needs to explain further. "Everybody else had taken cover but her. So Damien and I darted out to pull her down to the ground where it'd be harder to shoot her." His young jaw hardens. "So there I was, the only one fit to shoot straight." He cuts Damien a glare. "You're damn right I did what I had to do."
       Damien glances down, then up again. "And I will write a"
       "Don't say it!" Braulio snaps.
       In a quiet voice Alysha says to Braulio, "I joined you as soon as I had Cyran secured, and Hekut and Khouri came with me."
       "By then half of them had already...I felt so alone. I felt so godforsaken alone and scared and it seemed like an hour before you came out to back me up."
       Kiril speaks up. "It had only taken minutes. I heard the whole thing. First I heard one gun firing from our side, then soon after others. Battle plays tricks with time, Braulio, but you were never abandoned." She reaches a hand out to him across the space between their mules. "You can count on us Egalitarians. Didn't we see you safely out of the Burnt Lands?"
       He nods, still visibly shaken, but not looking quite so angry anymore.
       "Thank you for saving Chulan," Kiril says. "You're a true Egalitarian, yourself."
       "Am I?" He tries to smile, but his eyes look too wide. "I...I guess I am. Yes. I am."

* * *

       (The city park could have been a campground, with all of the tents circling the improvised pasture, populated with Romany currying their steeds, washing clothes in tubs, pounding old car parts into household tools in a sort of portable smithy, sitting at picnic tables to make or repair various handy things, or chasing after running toddlers without one word of reproach for the giggling escapees. I see several different clusters of encampments; it looks like different bands have come together. Food sizzles on grills, sending up the most scrumptious aromas. People shout and laugh and sing and curse and the whole encampment feels so vividly alive!
       "You'll want a nimble quarter-paint," says silver-haired Lijeh, leading up a black horse wildly splashed with white, smaller than the breeds for pulling carts or plows, yet muscular in a compact way; the little stallion reminds me a bit of Merrill. "Fast enough to head off a flock in a panic, strong enough to pull back against an obstinate ram, with the stamina to work through a long summer day, and a level-headed temperament that can take surprises." His smile deepens the lines around his mouth in an appealing sort of way.
       Laughter interrupts us. Ozwald apparently, while he tightens a nut in the wheel of his skateboard, tells something funny to a couple of maidens who have adopted the colorful garb of their ancestors--and why not? The boutiques don't set the fashions anymore. Lijeh grins uneasily; Samir looks scandalized.
       "Anyway," Lijeh continues, rubbing the horse's shoulder, "He's worth at least four goats."
       "Two!" Samir protests. "Earlier you said two!"
       "That was before I found out about your specialized needs. Not every horse can ride herd, you know. But I'll drop it down to three."
       "That's still robbery--but I could part with two and a half."
       "Beg pardon?"
       "A billy, a nanny, and their kid. You wanted milk, didn't you?"
       "It's a deal!" and they shake hands on it. By their flashing teeth and the glints of their eyes, they both always meant for negotiations to end here, anyway.
       Ozwald whizzes by amid a pack of skateboarders, swooping up and over a makeshift rise. A bright coral scarf now wraps his neck, streaming behind him like his hair as he gracefully turns and curves down and around again, and then uphill, and makes the skateboard jump onto a handrail on a walkway upslope of us, shoots off, barrel-rolls and drops back to ground again, his skateboard still beneath him. The youths and maidens with him cheer him on, calling out "Zbor, Gadje, zbor!"
       Ozwald jumps off the skateboard and pops it up into the air but Lijeh catches it. The man throws his other arm around Ozwald, genially enough, but leads him rather forcefully aside. And my heart breaks for my dear friend, knowing what he's about to hear.)

       And so once again the road takes us higher, the valley of last year's interrupted Christmas soon vanishing behind us like a memory that no one wants to talk about. Back we climb into the precarious places, winding in and out, up and down, used by now to precipices, jaded to vast, windswept vistas, hurting too much to sing with the view, not even our bard sings much anymore.
       "Oh God," Kiril whispers. "Oh God. Oh God."
       "What is it?" I ask, my good hand on the reins to keep her from using the broken arm.
       She points silently before she can find her voice. I see a pleasant farm district lying far below us, golden with grain, broad enough to let in ample sunlight, a glinting river wandering down the middle. "Hierry Valley. That's where Lufti came from."
       Khouri rides up beside us. "That's Hierry Valley?"
       Kiril nods, struck dumb again.
       "I read about it," Khouri says. "I found papers about them when I looted the soldiers that we'd killed. I already shared them with Cyran." He shakes his head. "Arrest warrants. The soldiers headed there to arrest the mayor and about forty other people. That town looks like it can barely hold fifty."
       I can't help but gasp. "Lufti saved his home."



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