Dolores J. Nurss

Volume VIII: The Final Conflagration

Chapter 29




Wednesday, May 14, 2709, continued

       (Long after an exquisitely seasoned spit-roasted goat, served up with some splendid root-vegetables and cabbage, the smoky aroma still lingers in the air. So do traces of music, but as quiet strumming some distance away from us, nothing that would keep the children awake, the hour being somewhere past midnight.
       Samir has long since gone to bed in his own camp, richer by a horse, a colt, and a fat wad of feral tobacco, since he threw tonight's dinner into the trade. He's missing out on some fine and complex homemade brandy, but I think that that's on purpose.
       Lijeh, Anselmo, Ozwald, Dayin and I sit around a campfire, along with a nodding old matron named Mariya who thinks I need a chaperone. She finally gives up and falls asleep with her head nestled in my lap, making sure that at least I can't do anything untoward with it without waking her.
       Ozwald blinks his one eye, swaying slightly where he sits, plainly not used to alcohol and seemingly surprised by the fact, as though he expected to have a naturally good head for it by birthright. Of course nobody enforces age restrictions anymore. Even as I think this, Lijeh looks straight at me and says, "If he's here to discuss a man's business, of course I must treat him as a man."
       I raise my glass to him and smile. "Telepathy must come in handy for a horse-trader. Let's see. That makes you, me, Anselmo, and Dayin. Ozwald must feel positively outnumbered." Indeed he does. His mouth suddenly forms an O as he looks around at all of us.
       Lijeh now ponders the fire, saying, "I understand that his talents lie in a rather different direction."
       "What, you know about tha...oh." Ozwald looks more befuddled by the minute, but I can't tell in the golden firelight whether he blushes or pales. "Uh, but that could prove useful, couldn't it? Once I get the hang of it?"
       Lijeh pokes at the embers, moving an unburnt end of wood closer to the center to make the flames leap up high again, sending orange sparks up into the sky. "You Gadje have no idea how much you ask of me, that Ozwald and Dayin should join us. Even before the confusion we Romani have always preferred to keep to ourselves."
       Anselmo briefly turns his hands palms-up as he says, "I have already traveled farther than my usual circuit and must turn back. Yet these young ones still yearn to travel. And somebody needs to spread the antidote." He gives Ozwald a playful shove, interrupting the boy's reach for more brandy. "And somebody needs to keep an eye on these rascals till they grow into the job." He sighs and stretches out the leg that he'd had tucked in under himself. "But not me. I'm a homebody by nature. I want to create a secure base so that if my family lives they can find me again."
       Earnestly Dayin leans forward, his eyes glinting with reflected fire. "And don't we need nomads now more than ever, what with all the division craziness? Travelers who can stitch us back together. Someone should link communities, even if they don't like so much to live together. Someone to spread trade farther than a day's journey, to carry news and new songs, someone to keep people mixing as they should, when they're too scared to mix at all, or the entire country will turn into a desert of inbred idiots." When Lijeh starts to open his mouth, Dayin bursts out, "And who better than the Romani, who have cross-pollinated cultures for centuries? Yes, I've read about you from what's turning into the best library in Vanikke--your excellent people have always fascinated me, not least because we have some history together, the Romani and the Jews."
       Lijeh blinks, for the first time taken aback. "So you know about that, do you? Most people forgot almost as soon as that terrible war ended, back on Earth, if they ever knew at all." Lijeh shakes his head with a rueful smile. "But wasn't that the point? Teaching the Underground the secrets of, well, secrecy, guaranteed that the history books left out all mention of us."
       "Not all histories." Dayin smiles warmly. "Like I said, I had access to a good library."
       Do I detect an extra glitter in Lijeh's eyes?
       Dayin presses on, waving his glass. "Let us be frank, my friend, since you've doubtless provided the brandy with just such a thing in mind. Not everybody trusts the Romani. Not everybody trusts the Germans. Not everybody trusts the Jews. But for each community that mistrusts one of us, they might risk it with another kind. And when they see us all trusting each other, well then maybe they might just relax a bit." He shrugs with an engaging smile. "I mean, what's to lose, right?"
       Lijeh smiles back, but skeptically. "And what makes you think that I can trust you?" The rest of us stare awkwardly into the fire, quite sure that we ought to be more sober than this.
       "Tshura!" Ozwald says, snapping his fingers. "Tshura will vouch for me!" He stumbles to his feet. "Come on, Zanne, bring her out. You've been telepathically linked to her all this time, surely someone else can link in, too."
       "But she's, uh, delicate!" I cry, rising clumsily to block Ozwald from heading for the truck, while Mariya pulls away and blinks up at me blearily. "Delicate! She can't, uh, she can't, I mean she shouldn't, uh…"
       "I detect deception," Lijeh says wryly.
       "Well if you're so almighty telepathic, you should know that you can trust us in the first place!" I snap.
       Lijeh shrugs. "I needed a baseline to see what your mind's like when you want to deceive. I'm not as practiced at this as you are...agent of the Tilián." And my jaw drops and so does my fanny, right back down where I sat before. "I have also plied you with brandy to crash your shields, in case you haven't figured that out already."
       Mariya throws one end of her shawl protectively around my shoulders and glares at the men all around us. She has no idea what's going on, but she's bound and determined to defend me.
       I feel my own lip trembling and I can't stop it. "I just...I...there is nothing left in me but my mission...to...to try and save something of Vanikke from this whole, big, awful mess!" and I burst out bawling, which would doubtless have humiliated me if I hadn't been so blessedly drunk and if I hadn't already humiliated myself plenty of times this way in front of these my friends while stone cold sober. I just don't seem to have any self-control left, and right now I don't care.
       Lijah leans practically into my face. Mariya puts her arms around me, spits to one side and scowls at Lijah like he's nine years old and will be in so much trouble as soon as the company leaves. "You feel guilt," he says. "Intriguing."
       "Of course I feel guilt! I came here to, to smooth over some political naughtiness and restabilize the government while enjoying a fabulous time workationing in a, a, a sophisticated country for a change, and instead the whole damned nation collapsed! And I couldn't stop it, and, and, I should have been able to stop it! I'm Zanne, for truth's sake!" Anselmo reaches out to my shoulder while Mariya shifts her glare to him. "Zanne," he says gently. "Is that the burden that has weighed you down all this time? You think that the Confusion is all your fault?"
       "Yes. Yes it is. I should have seen something. I should have figured something out. I'm enh...I'm special. I should have known what to do."
       "A bit more deception, there," Lijeh observes.
       With sudden, deadly calm, I say, "You do NOT get to know how I am special." Mariya is a novice at glaring compared to me. I straighten up, shrug off the shawl, pulling my clothes into their best order under the circumstances.
       Just then Ozwald, whose departure we hadn't noticed, staggers back as fast as he can manage, carrying my leatherbound antique radio. "Here, Lijeh--Tshura will tell you everything you need to know." Anselmo sighs too loudly, sinking his face into his hands, and I feel all the blood drain from my head. I just feel my body freeze into place as Lijeh accepts it, puzzled.
       "What am I supposed to do with this?"
       Ozwald grins tipsily, saying, "Tshura's in there, what's left of her. We, uh, well, it's a long story, but we rescued her from her murderers, who had locked her spirit into a machine."
       Lijeh stares in horror at what he holds, gripping it as if it shoots an electric charge through him and he can't let go. Mariya jumps to her feet, shouts a stream of what I'm sure must be cusswords in her own tongue, and runs away.
       Lijeh starts to say, "You had better tell me the whole…" but Mariya returns at a stout trot, tugging along several sleepy but rapidly waking elders, two women and a man, in their night-clothes and robes. And now, so help me, being still overloaded with magentine and now thoroughly uncorked with brandy, the entire tale shoots out of my head and into theirs, but all jumbled up as symbols and emotions, as Ozwald tackles me and loses his balance, dragging both of us down to the ground again. And not just them--the camp suddenly fills with gasps, wails and swearing, as everyone wakes into a shared nightmare.
       And I live it, I live it all over again! I see Tshura and Guaril sucked into the stone itself, I feel the blast of grief and fear and horror and rage strike out at those who shot at us, and all the guilt and shock that followed, I see Tshura and Guaril's faces in the stone and all the cables crucifying them, I watch Magda die to at least partly free them, I feel them guiding me in the days that followed to undo the evil workings of their enemies.
       "Children are crying, Zanne," Ozwald slurs into my ear. I hear it too, now: the sound of screaming, sobbing children and adults trying to soothe them. It finally breaks through to me and enables me to cap it all up again. I pull back from him and see his own tearsoaked face. The others still stare in shock. It all happened in seconds.
       "Can't you see?" I cry out to Lijeh, "I don't want to deceive you, but I carry too much to share with you!" I shake all over, but I push myself up to reclaim Tshura...but Lijeh refuses to let go of her.
       Yet his voice sounds gentle, if shaken, when he says, "No, Suzanne. She is ours, now. You brought her home. Thank you. You brought...what's left of her back to her own people." He hands the box over to a sturdy old man who runs sensitive fingers over the ancient leather.
       Dayin says, "Oh! You're like my brother! You read things by touch!" The man ignores him, then says, "It's very faint, but I detect the woman named...and two others? A young man and an old woman?
       Ozwald says, "That would be her fiance, Guaril, and her elder-cousin Magda."
       Hardly able to breathe, I say, "I didn't realize I had the whole family."
       The psychometrist says, "Fragments, at least. All three spirits have faded to almost nothing by now…" and I bury my face in my hands, overcome.
       Lijeh nods, wide-eyed. "So we shall give them a proper funeral and release them entirely. And hope that their spirits don't seek vengeance for all that has happened to them."
       "Oh, they had that already." Shut up Ozwald. "They protected us from their captors and then Zanne, Oh gods, and then Zanne…" He chokes up.
       Quietly Anselmo says, "They had their vengeance, Lijeh. They couldn't possibly want more."
       And there I huddle. I can't breathe for sobbing. No dignity left. None. Not even the illusion that I'm a sane woman, let alone a competent one. And alone, so unspeakably alone!
       Anselmo pats my back where I fold in on myself. "Noooo, dear lady, you are not alone."
       "Tshura…" But I can't say more.
       Gently he says, "I've known for awhile, Zanne, but I also knew that you weren't ready to hear it yet. It's okay. Tshura saw you through something nigh unbearable."
       I force my head up, my hands dropped into fists. "You're right. She is not here," I grate. Somewhere over the months and miles her voice had faded into my own, and I didn't want to see it. I didn't have the confidence to believe it. "This is the truth. I. Must. Face. Truth." And they all stare at me like I have become terrible. And that's fine, that's just right. Truth is terrible. I worship an awful god. My face feels raw with tears and that's fine, too, raw is real, and the drunken numbness overlaying the rawness is also real, fine! I don't even care that the night wind bites my wet face with its cold. Or I don't care that I do care, or...Gates but I really need to pass ou…)

       I (wake) in (the) night (with) a (headache) that (I) weirdly (know) isn't (mine.)
       "Kiril?" I croak.
       "What are we going to do without Lufti to stitch us together anymore?"
       ("I don't think we need the Mad Boy to stitch us together anymore, Randy," He doesn't understand,)
       Kiril doesn't understand, but she just makes soothing sounds and tucks the blanket back around me against the mountain chill.
       (Randy hasn't a clue of what I'm talking about, but he doesn't have to, he just nestles into my shoulder, warm in the darkness, shrugging off whatever the others might make of it.)
       But we don't always need so much to be understood as we need to be loved.



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