Dolores J. Nurss

Volume VIII: The Final Conflagration

Chapter 34




Friday, May 16, 2709, continued

        br>     ("Jaaaaake…" I growl, but I can't do it as effectively as he could. "I thought we agreed that you wouldn't smoke anymore." On such a beautiful spring day, hiking through a mountain meadow bright with fragrant flowers, with air so fresh that it practically laughs all by itself, who wants to breathe burnt poison? He looks sinister when he takes a long drag on the cigarette as he walks, the way his cheeks cave in and his eyes narrow, and then the smoke swirls out of him. Something cloying about the smell--it must be one of those flavored tobaccos...cherry, is it? God knows where he found it, or how oracles find anything that they need. And then I understand. "Why do you need this, Jake?"
     "She needs a big target," he says as he passes the cigarette over to George. I glance at Wallace, but the old man doesn't seem the least inclined to object, he just keeps on pushing the rattling shopping-cart that holds our goods and also holds him up, though he's getting fitter than he's been.
     "Who, Jake?"
     "A friendclan sister. Zanne, I think. She's not that far off."
     "Or Lisa?" Don asks, with sudden interest.
     "No...I'm sure, now. It definitely feels like Zanne.")

     I want to help, but I'm not Lufti. And I feel tired, so very, very tired, but so does she, congruity, something like that, I don't know what I'm thinking.
     Don't think.
     Sense, even if none of this is real. Breathe deep the perfume of the flower in which I nestle. A bit like cherry, isn't it? Yes, more than a bit. Exhale a fume of cherry and it'll help them link.
     (I can't hear the Romani camp behind me anymore. The road's still in good condition leading from the railway station, an important highway on which my pushcart's wheels go squeakity squeakity squeak. I feel just a wee bit forlorn, but I've seen worse griefs than this. It was a happy parting, after all--how often do we get those in Vanikke these days?
     Still, a girl needs a little something to cheer her up on a day like today. The broken lock on this cosmetic shop tells me that it has surely already long since been looted for whatever the fridge in the employee room once held, not that anything that needed refrigeration would be any good by now anyway. But here I can find plenty of cosmetics still untouched...but I shouldn't use them. No, seriously, I really think that that would be a bad idea.

     Don't think. Tune in. Flow with the current.
     A little bit won't hurt, surely. Here's a lovely cherry-red, and it smells like cherry, too, and oh, it actually tastes like cherry! I wipe dust off a mirror and luxuriate in its buttery feel. My reflection looks a touch more worn than the last time I saw myself, thinner, but I could afford that, and I see just the slightest hint of texture to the skin that almost amounts to wrinkles, but surely a vacation in a luxury resort will fix that up nicely after this mission, I know of a fine one right in Til Institute itself, I can practically feel the sea-moss masque just thinking about it. Yes, a touch of lipstick is just the thing to remind me of who I am, and even if it does exaggerate my telepathy somewhat, I don't think there's anybody nearby anymore, not for miles; the Romani and my men all headed south.
     I frown at my reflection, and see still more lines. Why do I head north? Istislan's the other way, silly. And yet, in a curiously pleasant, dizzy way, I feel more certain by the minute that I must head northeast. And didn't Anselmo and Dayin say as much? Yet I pick up a bit more: not back into the mountains, but towards a plain at their feet.
     I glance one last time at the mirror. I see a bit of worry in that face. I'm still me, aren't I?)

     Total blank. No sense of identity, whatsoever. Vague feeling of exhaustion, a distant thing, a rhythmical motion, a sense that I have a body and that it flops about in an uncomfortable position.
     Now the smell of a mule comes through, overpoweringly. The feel of rough fur, coarse-woven yarn, of leather and a buckle that pokes me. I sense them, but all distorted, disoriented; I can’t tell what I feel where.
     Somebody has slung me clumsily across the back of a mule that travels on a winding down-grade. Someone has layered other garments over my regular clothes, thick, close-woven, coarse. I feel a woolen something-or-other thrown over me, too, but cold wind hits parts of my body left exposed. I’m beginning to identify the parts.
     I find that the ache gnaws into my right calf. Tight bandages bind it, and I feel crusted blood in the cloth and on the skin. Have I been wounded?
     The rhythmic motion keeps jarring something increasingly unpleasantly not-leg but somehow sharing the same space. I like it less and less with every jiggle, but I don't yet fully feel the...pain. The pain.
     The weirdness in my head must come from some drug imposed on me while still in shock. I taste sugar in my mouth, flavored with something like fermented musk. Oh lord, not muras! That stuff doesn't agree with me!
     Now I can make out noises clearly enough to identify a hollowness to them, a sound-swallowing effect that indicates a huge emptiness on the side towards which my head points—the mule’s left.
     I moan, not so much from hurt as because it seems the simplest way to signal my return to consciousness. Almost immediately I feel a hand upon my shoulderblade. A very hot hand.
     “You’re going to be all right, Deirdre,” Cyran tells me.
     “I know,” I manage to whisper. “Help me sit up.”
     “I don’t think that’s so wise...”
     “I am bouncing on my stomach,” I gasp. “I am about to throw up on your boots.” That gets action. In a whirl of motion e tugs and prods me to a sitting position. I find it even more nauseous to sway here, holding onto straps for dear life. I open my eyes, but double-vision doesn’t make my stomach any steadier.
     “Don’t you ever drug me against my will, again” I groan.
     “Would you rather I...”
     “Yes! I could have controlled it.” Why does the mind find nausea so much harder to control than pain?
     “You didn't--not while in shock.” Hir voice harshens. “You've still got shrapnel in your leg. You started to scream. I’ll drug you any time it keeps our position secret.”
     I make some conciliatory gesture. I forgot that my enhanced neural system doesn’t do the pain-trances anymore. For that matter, I suppose the greenfire would’ve blocked a trance, anyway. Except I gave that up...didn't I? I can't even keep it all straight. Necessities of war...heaven knows what I feel about anything anymore.
     I mentally prod my wound. I discover that it suffices to incapacitate me, but temporarily so. Shrapnel pierces the muscle, all too near to bone but not nicking the artery. Thank God. A centimeter over and I’d have bled to death in minutes.
     I retch. Instantly e hauls me off the donkey and holds my head over the cliff as I empty myself. Good, because we’d have a long way to travel with the stench if e didn’t. Then it hits me that one wrong jolt could have nicked the artery, and I'd be off with the ghosts. Well, that wouldn't be so bad, would it? Some of them love me.
     Getting the last of the pastry out of my stomach seems to clear my head, that and the feel of the long breeze as it swoops down the mountainside straight through our clothes. I open my eyes and get instant vertigo all over again to see that distance below me. But I prefer psychological vertigo to the physical kind.
     I feel clearer by the minute. Pain comes into focus, but I can deal with it. Interesting, in my hand as well as my calf. Oh yeah--that's why I don't chew leaf anymore.
     Cyran lifts me back onto the donkey, Now I can seat myself properly, move with the animal’s motion and not sway helplessly against it.
     “Is this Honeydew?” I ask.
     “Honeydew took a bullet awhile back. This is Blossom.”
     “Hi, Blossom,” I say, ruffling the fur. May Honeydew’s ghost run free with Nishka, over the meadows of springs long past.
     Wait a minute. I should remember something about Cyran...
     Aaaand my head clears a notch further. I notice that e doesn't just lead the mule, e leans into the beast for support. I ask, “How secure’s the haven ahead?”
     “The best. A convent.”
     I stare at him. “A...convent?”
     “Nobody would fight nuns in the Charadoc,” e says a little too proudly. And I suddenly remember that Cyran shouldn't be lifting me off and on mules or anything. And where are all the others?
     “Cyran,” I ask, “Did I just hallucinate what I thought I heard you say?”
     E turns to me and frowns; at that moment I see fresh blood staining hir shirt. Now e looks away, brooding as e walks, or rather stumbles, holding onto Blossom. At last e says, “I had a few doubts like yours, I’m ashamed to admit it. But I recognize greenfire paranoia when I come across it. It’s impossible for a Charadocian to shoot anyone on holy ground. I have to keep reminding myself of that.”
     “Ever hear of overcompensation?”
     “Deirdre,” e says, eyeing me sidelong, “you have an evil mind.”
     “Cyran, listen to me! How many nuns and monk have already starved to death?”
     “But not shot.”
     “They went into the Penitential Monastery and massacre’d every monk on the grounds!”
     “That was different! They, they were peder...”
     “Penitents. They were penitents.”
     “Doesn’t anything slow your mind down?”
     “I wish.” It all comes back to me--too fast. Cyran is wounded, and I'm wounded, and we ought to be on our way to Koboros, not some convent.
     The overlay of narcotic fungus slips from my senses like a disintegrating rag. Enough remains in my system, though, to hold me over till I can re-establish basic bodily control, but I can’t seem to manage quite as well as my pride would like.
     My eyes completely focused now, I watch birds spiral downwards towards a complex of stone buildings below—in the lowest, least defensible point in the whole bloody valley. Or canyon. It's not wide enough for a true valley, is it? And here I ride, my leg too ripped up to take me away from here, my hands too weak to turn the mule around. Can’t e understand the idiocy of this move?
     And then I see the fever in hir eyes--and the bronze upon hir teeth as e grits them to push on. Anemia can cause fever, even after the infection has passed. No, this is no time for Cyran to push on with the help of greenfire!
     (We go on, following Jake, even though we all know that he has no business smoking those magentine-laced cigarettes, one after another. I take a turn pushing the rattletrap. We've passed a saddle of the mountain and now the road leads downhill--something for which I can't help but send up a few prayers of thanksgiving!
     Sometimes, between the trees, and when the mountains fold away just right, I can glimpse the golden miles of farmland way down below. It must have been peaceful there, once. I hope that when we get there Jake will slow down on the smokes.)



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