Through Fire – Snippet 23

What Mad Universe

“How did you recognize me?” I asked.

There had probably been very little thought involved in his dragging me back to the same hotel room we’d first rented. The strange thing is that Alexis still had the codes for it. “Rented it for a week,” he explained. “I always do. It’s a habit that’s seen me through more than once.” I didn’t want to think of his past of conspiracy nor what it might mean now. Nor what he was playing at now.

I sat on the plastic-looking bed spread, and looked at him. I felt suddenly very tired, and it occurred to me that other than the catnap I’d caught while Royce Allard changed my appearance, I hadn’t slept in over twenty-four hours. But the tiredness went beyond physical. After all we’d done, after all I’d tried, we were back where we’d been when the ball had been interrupted and the palace attacked.

I realized I’d said something like that, when Alexis shook his head. “Not… exactly,” he said. “Oh, sure, we’re back here physically, but we do know more. We know that the Good Man is prisoner, we know who is in charge of this. We know–”

“We do?”

“I have a pretty good idea, at least,” he said. “That’s what I was doing in Olympus, while you were — What were you doing, precisely?”

There was a tone of amusement in his voice, as though I’d done something funny. It made me grit my teeth. “I was making preparations to rescue Simon. What else would I be doing?”

The amusement changed to something sharper edged as he said, “Perhaps being sensible. Who gave you the idea that you could do this? On your own? And … Who helped you change your appearance?”

“How did you recognize me?” I asked, heating to my theme. “Who told you where I was? Did you follow me? How did you ambush me?” And that last was more material than I could tell him, since I could hear much better than normal humans. But I hadn’t heard him.

He shrugged. “It’s stupid and suicidal,” he told me. “For you to think you can rescue the Good Man on your own or, in fact, at all. You will go back to Olympus. I will escort you off the seacity and some way on the way. And then you’ll promise me that you’ll go back. That you’ll not try to return here. That you’ll leave me to rescue the Good Man, a job for which I’m far better equipped than you are. That you’ll stay in Olympus until I bring him back safe and sound, or until we both die.”

For all I was sure — almost sure at least — that he didn’t belong to the same class as Keeva and Simon, he spoke with the sort of easy authority that assumes it will be obeyed. It was much like being a toddler and being told that I was going to be a good girl, and what being a good girl entailed. It never occurred to any of the adults that a three-year-old would not merely disobey, but say no and mean it, and set another course of action. I wondered if that was where my relationship with my foster parents had gone wrong; if that was why I’d never truly been their daughter, even if they’d had the raising of me since birth.

And now I was all set to do it again. I looked up into the dogged, homely face, and into the dark brown, confident eyes, and I said, “No.”

It took him a moment to absorb it, as though I were speaking some long-forgotten language. “No?”

“No. I will not go back to Olympus. I will not promise not to return. There is nothing I can do or get in Olympus that will help Simon. There is nothing I can say that will persuade them to risk whatever balance they think they’ve achieved to come to our rescue. And I will not go back. No one wants me there. No one wants me here, either,” I added, with scrupulous honesty. “But if I am here, at least I can perhaps do something to help Simon. I owe him that much.”

“I promised him I’d keep you safe. You owe him to let me keep you safe.”

I shrugged. “That was when the palace was attacked. He told you to keep me safe and get me out of there, both of which you’ve done, thank you. Now your duty is done. You kept me as safe as I could be kept. Now is the time for you to go and do whatever it is you’re meant to do — look after yourself or your family, or whatever. That thing you said that most people were doing: enjoying a holiday. Your job is done. Go.”

He looked as though he’d very much like to murder me. He said something under his breath. It was probably “merde.” For reasons that could make no sense to anyone, and least of all to me, his expression cheered me immensely. Perhaps it was that you don’t get that mad at people you don’t care for.

Then he sighed, and he said, in a voice of deep and heartfelt loathing, “I do not know why the Bon Dieu thought it necessary to create females, unless it is to drive men to despair. Of all the nonsensical, stupid creatures–”

He stopped sharply because I asked him a question. He frowned. “What that has to do with anything, I don’t know. Or what business it is of yours. But no, Madame. Or at least not that I ever felt any attraction to the male of the species. Which doesn’t stop me wondering why the species must be saddled with women.”

I glared back at him. “You’re not saddled with me,” I said. “You’re not obligated to stay with me. I will be fine on my own. I have been fine since I was three and able to look after myself, and if you think Earth is any stranger than the world I grew up in, then you–”

“I don’t want to discuss it,” he said. “I can’t convince you to leave, and you can’t convince me to leave you. I suggest we call a truce and go to sleep.”

I glared at him. “We’re supposed to be rescuing Simon.”

“You’ve been awake how long?” he said. “You’re supposed to sleep. I don’t care how tough or how capable you were designed to be, you’re not made of dimatough. You’re still made of human flesh, and you should go to sleep.”

We’d reached the point in the procedures when I’d have argued if he’d told me I was supposed to breathe oxygen. And there was really no good reason for it. Well, there wasn’t any reason for it, good or not. It was just that I didn’t like this man, I didn’t like that he’d constituted himself in authority over me, and I hated that he was trying to keep me safe in a way that denied me both thought and autonomy, and everything an adult is supposed to have.

All my life I’d been told I was more capable than normal human beings, and now I was being treated as though I weren’t capable of anything at all. And by a man who was a servant, a menial–

At this point in my thought, I stopped because I gurgled with laughter. You see, in its own way, the world I was brought up in was as egalitarian as the sans Culottes. It’s a different type of equality, though. Instead of a majority enforcing that everyone should be equal, it is assumed that the individual has the right to tell the majority to take a flying leap. And also the right to ignore any authority, duly constituted or not, who tries to tell him otherwise. Which meant that every citizen of Eden was equal to every other citizen in the ability to be free and take the consequences.

“I’m not more than human,” I told the very puzzled Brisbois, as he shook his head at me. “I never thought of myself that way, and certainly not in the Earth sense, and damn it, I don’t need bodyguards or servants. What I’m proposing, Monsieur Brisbois, is that you let me leave and go about what I think I must do. And then you can do what you please.”

He shook his head, in mute, stubborn refusal. “No. I was told to protect you and I will protect you.”

“What are you?” I asked, and for the second time in a very short time made an exception to my rule against rudeness, “Simon’s dog or his slave?”

His mouth contorted in a sneer. If his smile made him look younger and much more pleasant, this expression made him look older and as though he’d rather kill me than look at me, “What I am, Madame, is a disciplined fighting man. Disciplined fighting men take orders and obey their superior officers. Which St. Cyr is. If I stop obeying him, then I’m nothing but a hoodlum, a… a violent criminal. Which I was once, I grant you, but which I do not wish to be ever again.”

“Well, I am not a disciplined fighting man!”

This brought the sneer into a guffaw. “Well, no. Madame Sienna, please, stop being foolish. We’re both very tired, and nothing can be gained by us screaming at one another. You take the bed. I shall lie down on the floor and sleep. And when we wake we shall revisit this topic. I don’t think anything productive can be said or done by two people as tired and frustrated as we are now.”

I glared at him, searching for an answer, when it hit me that if I stayed awake even a few more minutes I was likely to fall on my face with tiredness. Then it occurred to me that I should offer to sleep on the floor instead, but a look at the stained carpet convinced me this was a very bad idea. So I glared at him some more and said, “Fine.”

In my mind, I was sure that while I needed sleep, I would recover faster than he did. I thought this as I lay down lengthwise on the bed and closed my eyes. I would sleep a couple of hours, then get up, step over the sleeping Brisbois and go off into the city to find out how to rescue Simon.

I woke up an indefinable time later, in utter darkness. For a moment I was puzzled as to what had woken me. Then I realized it had been the opening of the door.

I leapt off the bed, half expecting to trip on Brisbois. But he was not on the floor, where he’d laid down. And when I rushed to the door and opened it, I saw him some distance away walking down the street.