The Story so Far:
In his eyrie high above the City, the young Hasuga begins a snowy morning by building a snowman, while his mother bakes some honey cakes, while in the watchtower that is even higher than Hasuga’s home Soothsayer Cassix watches a threatening sky with grave concern. His colleague and friend Ellar discovers him there and gives him the news that Hasuga, already tired of his outdoor pursuits, wishes everyone to join him in a game of war.
Entering the Great Hall, Ellar brushes white snowflakes from her gold and burgundy robe, clothing she must wear as one who attends the Inner Sanctum. Hasuga is waiting for her. It amazes her how tall he has grown. His shoulders are wider, there is determination in his face, yet his voice, though deeper, is still a child’s voice, his words still those of the little boy he has left behind. And in his haunted eyes the same frailty that is window to the churning leviathan of his mighty, intimidating mind.
“Ellar! Ellar-mer, we are going to play a war game! Hurry up!” Hasuga skips ahead of her to the elevators. “We are going to attack a fortress! Come on!”
The elevator rushes them skywards. Already, Ellar is feeling the limitation of her immunity chip, the implant in her brain which is all her Sanctum membership will allow as a control. She is becoming enthused – yes! A fortress! That would be so much fun! A battle at the walls, siege engines, storming the gates! Kill them all!
Hasuga’s games have consequences: such are his psychokinetic powers the game he plays here, in the safety of the city, will be reflected in reality somewhere else.
“Which fortress shall it be, Hasuga?” Ellar concentrates hard to keep her thoughts in train.
“Why, Braillec City, with its great high walls!” Hasuga’s look infers that she is stupid even to ask. “The Proteians are going to attack them!”
Ellar thinks of the people of Braillec (how many in that city, three, four thousand?) who are going to be slaughtered for no better reason than they have high, medieval walls. And Hasuga is taking possession of her mind so swiftly she will be powerless to stop it happening.
Alanee’s morning is dominated, as she anticipates, by discussion of honey cakes. Soon after the Makar’s departure, she leaves her house to join the general migration of village women to The Terminal at the hub of their community. As she closes her front door – she need not lock it – Malfis the old bell-ringer is admiring the heap of mud he has piled in his garden, and Merra, from the bakery, compliments him upon it.
“Fine work, Malfis. Always the craftsman!”
Alanee struggles: “What is it?”
Merra, never shy of expression, rewards her with a look bordering on disdain. “Of course, you not having a man…”
“I may not have a man but I do have a memory. There was nothing I recall that looked like that about my man. It’s a lump of mud!”
And Merra replies: “Now remember my husband….”
Alanee giggles, “That’s so unfair! Where are the men? Did they start work early today?”
“Arms training!” Merra makes a face. “It’s long spears this time, apparently. Habbach knows where we are going to keep that!”
The Terminal is busy. There has been heavy snow in the north, blocking a number of major arteries which, as her village is one of the group of communities responsible for co-ordinating transport, particularly affects Alanee’s work. She is assistant to Carla, the manager, a responsible job for one so young. Paaitas the village Domo is watching her progress with interest. It was he who secured her early promotion and there are those who snidely suggest that his attention is not entirely focussed upon her abilities. Alanee accepts the jibes with equanimity. She is a good motivator, broadly liked, though not always understood – for example, in her open distaste for honey cakes.
“They are wonderful, Alanee!” Carla is a bouncing, vital woman with enthusiasm enough for the entire village. “I’ve been looking forward to baking them all year!”
From their nest at the top of the circular building they look down on the ring of women workers at their stations, each making their separate input to the mainframe which fills the centre of the Terminal floor like a huge, flat drum.
“I’m concerned about Namma, Carla-mer.” Alanee says (each has their protégé, and Namma is hers). “She seems distracted today.”
“I should not tell you this, perhaps.” Carla leans a hand on Alanee’s shoulder: “She has had her proc request turned down again. The word came this morning. She was in tears earlier. I think she despairs of ever having a child.”
“How so? In Dometia they are begging for more fertiles. If the rumours are correct the one-child edict has been lifted there.” Alanee shakes her head. “It seems so cruel!”
Carla does not reply, and Alanee thinks of Namma-meh, who is desperate to be a father.
And so the morning passes.
At mid-meal Alanee and Shellan walk home together. The five children of the village pass them by. After their morning at the seminary they have eaten early and are on their way to work in the potato field.
“Good day, Widow Kalna!” They greet Alanee with respect. She tries to smile in return, although just the sight of them revives the pity she feels for Namma.
“A fine boy, the Domo’s son, is he not?” Shellan-mer suggests; and Alanee admits that Pattan, a sturdy-looking child now so near to youth, is all a father could want.
In Malfis’s garden the mound has gained a ball of clay for a head, a hat of woven straw and some button eyes.
“It is a man!” Shellan crows her delight. “Don’t forget now, you are coming to tea today!”
In the day’s heat Alanee draws out an awning that is stored above her kitchen door. There she sits in its shade upon her step, pecking at a salad as she watches sun-mist shimmer over the Hakaan. Dreams come easily in such all-pervasive peace.
These are times when she remembers her childhood on the plain, the farm with its bright white gate and penn-fowl in the yard. Her father’s walk; the way he clumped his boots into the soil as though they tasted it, his rough skin as real as dry clay, the smell of the land in every crack and fissure. Her mother’s tired eyes, the love in her smile, dust in her hair; and how she worked, and worked, and worked, yet still had time, always, for the impudent girl-child her husband had prayed would be a son.
Although every childhood has its joys they were not such happy days, in those growing years. And a future of labour, the endless demands of sowing and reaping, the constant disappointment: yes, that may well have engendered her rebellious spark. So that when, at seventeen, she chanced to meet a foot-player at a local dance, she did not hold back. She set her cap at him, poor Kalna, quite outrageously, and it was not for love, not then. Love came later, love grew.
Alanee thinks of Namma in her pain and reflects that she too might have been a mother once. Her thoughts drift to a memory of Kalna-meh, that constantly quirky grin of his: the things they would do together, the games they would play, the touch of his lips on her neck when he wanted her and, yes, those pleasures too. Then, always at the height of these reflections the sudden words upon the screen, just as they were on that dire evening: ‘Foot-player fatally injured. Hideous tackle kills Hakaani hero’.
One chance, one man, and the knowledge that by decree there can never be another. Three years ago. Three lonely years.
Deep in reminiscence she does not hear the aerotran at first. Only when it is passing, almost overhead, does she look up to see the teardrop shape of the flying machine, with government colors of black and gold striping its sides. Even then it does not concern her greatly: an official, probably, delivering some new mandate to the village Domo. The sky is cloudless; there is no breeze to dissipate the fire of the sun. Wearily, Alanee gets to her feet, ready for the drudgery of her afternoon.
On the street all talk is of the visit from the aerotran, which is now perched on the landing pad atop The Terminal like a watchful hawk. The Village Domo’s colours hang there too, a white and blue ensign draped above the doors of the building.
Who can this be? Why is Domo Paaitas here?
“Now I bet you wish you ordered that honey!” Shellan shouts above the whistle of the aerotran’s engines. It is an intended joke, but Alanee, already nervous, shrinks inside. Has the Makar reported her?
Her feeling of timidity is reinforced when she gets inside the Terminal. Her name is on the entry board, with an instruction to go to the manager’s office. Now her heart begins to pound, for her duties in the afternoon normally would keep her on the floor of the Terminal, with her workers.
“Will you look after the floor while I am gone, Namma-mer?” Namma accepts her briefing board with a surreptitious smile. She knows something, Alanee thinks! What is going on?
At the head of the stairs she knocks nervously upon Carla’s door. This rewards her with a pause, while male voices from within confer in subdued tones. If there were somewhere to run to, she would run with pleasure now. Carla, her face serious, opens the door.
“Come in Alanee-mer. These people wish to speak to you.”
There are three men in the room, only one of whom, Paaitas the Village Domo, Alanee recognizes; the other two, she must suppose, arrived with the aerotran. But what could they possibly want with her?
Behind her, the door has closed. Carla is no longer at her shoulder – must have withdrawn, Alanee assumes. She quickly detects her own anxiety reflected in the face of her Domo, who is really a shy and reclusive man only picked for high office because of his very individual scribing talents. His heavy brows are set in a downward scowl, and his lips work constantly, as though he were chewing upon something with an acid taste. To his right a thin figure with a raptor’s nose and brown teeth who is tall even when seated, to his left a much older man whose eyes are young: they glint like wet steel. Both visitors are richly dressed in silken burgundy robes, and have a great distinction about them, as though they were set upon a high purpose. She is overawed.
“Alanee-mer, come, sit down,” Paaitas mumbles, by way of introduction. He waves at a chair. “These are very special visitors, Alanee-mer.” He introduces the thin man to his right as Proctor Remis, he who sits to his left as High Councillor Cassix.
A Proctor and a High Councillor? To see her?
“You have snow in the north, Sires.” Alanee murmurs, her voice barely above a whisper. “How was your journey?”
The one her Domo has introduced as Cassix smiles, though his eyes are unchanged: they bore into her, so she thinks that they are hurting her head. “Our journey was untroubled, Alanee-mer.” His tone is rich but stops just short of familiarity. “You live in a much friendlier climate, do you not?”
She nods, dumbly. Her knees are shaking.
“Now we must ask you questions, and you must answer them with honesty. Will you do that?”
“Of course, sir.”
The Proctor’s voice cuts the air, sharp and dry as a knife. “You did not order honey on your mand-card today, did you?”
His words fall like blows from a hammer. Now Alanee’s heart really sinks! Her mind races through all the punishments that are meted out to those who fail their citizenship requirements, most of whom are never heard from again.
“No, sir – Sire. I did order it, though, when the Makar reminded me.”
“Will you use it?”
“Yes Sire.” She answers without thinking – a reflex.
“You were warned of the necessity to be truthful, Alanee-mer.” Remis clips his words. “At the beginning of the year you ordered Kell Water (after the Makar reminded you) and that is still on your mand-stock; as is the wholemeal cereal you ordered last month. I could quote you any number of items in a similar vein. You have the largest mand stock in the whole region. I frankly wonder that your chill room is large enough to accommodate it all.”
So that is it! The Makar said they would be watching her, and the Makar was right. Alanee feels the tears coming, bites down on her lip. “What should I do, Sire?”
“Why, eat it – drink it, one supposes.” The Proctor replies. “Do you feel no need to do that, Alanee-mer? Are you not tempted by today’s honey?”
“No Sire. I don’t understand. I have never liked these things, even though it seems everyone else does.” Alanee strives hard to keep the sob from her voice, but despite herself, her eyes are filling.
Cassix cuts in. “Alanee-mer, last year you missed The Gathering, did you not?”
So they found that out, too, did they? Oh, Habbach! “I was forgetful.”
Remis and Cassix are exchanging glances.
“You had to remember?” Cassix asks. “Nothing…inspired you to go?”
Alanee is mystified. “No sir – I mean Sire!”
For a moment it seems as if Remis will ask more, but Cassix raises a hand and, with a nod to Paaitas, says: “Very well, Alanee-mer that will be all. Thank you for your honesty.”
She quells an urge to run from the room, to put these three weighty visages behind her before they reduce her to tears. What should she be feeling – relief? The Domo’s next words explode upon her like a thunder flash.
“Go to your home, Alanee-mer. Namma will take your responsibilities. You should pack a bag of belongings for your immediate needs. Leave by the cargo door. Speak to no-one.” His voice is lowered, severe.
She knows now.
Somehow her feet find their way to the door; her shaking hand turns the latch. There, she must turn back, because it is pointless to hide the tears: “Please….tell me what I have done wrong?”
The one she knows as Cassix smiles at her. His eyes do not alter their incisive brilliance, yet it is not an unpleasant smile. “Sometimes, it is better not to know reasons. Go now.”
Beyond the door, a uniformed guard in the colours of the High Council is waiting to takes her arm. The upturned eyes of every woman in the village follow her as she is led, gently but insistently, along the gallery to the cargo doors. Everyone can see how freely she is weeping.
As soon as he is confident that Alanee is beyond earshot, Remis turns to the Domo.
“You are sure the usual inspections have been done?”
The village Domo nods. “Every month, Sire, according to law. We have a very good inspectorate.”
“And they found nothing wrong?”
“Nothing. Her house is clean and well-kept, despite her widowhood. The censors described the usual features. She is an exemplary worker, extremely intelligent and a manager in waiting. I just don’t understand.”
The walk; how she will always remember this walk! The silent street, everyone at their work, the guard at her shoulder, the desire to run – run anywhere, get away! She might hide among the poor people of the plain, find work as an illiterate, change her hair, her clothes…but the guard remains close behind her, and he is armed.
It is late afternoon. Alanee has packed those few things she possesses which must travel with her. Then she has waited. No armed squad has come to drag her away, the guard is expressionless, and beside essential communication, deaf to her questions. Now the sun is low over the hills and soon the workers will return. She stands at her kitchen door (that favourite place) for what all her instincts insist will be the last time, one last cup of tsakal warm in her hand.
“Your view is exquisite.” The voice surprises her. She turns to find that High Councillor Cassix has entered. He says gently. “You must be sorry to leave it.”
“I am to be taken away, then?” Alanee is no longer afraid of him. Acceptance has come.
“Where?” She has her back to him, drinking in that last vision of the Hakaan.
“That I cannot say.”
All at once she feels like crying again.
“We are waiting for an aerotran to transport you; it should be here soon. We would use ours, had we not another person to interview in a village south of here. We shall be detained until tomorrow, I fear.”
As if by his command, a rushing sound in the eastern sky foretells the second aerotran’s coming. Alanee, who has no way of knowing how transgressors are removed from their communities, has expected maybe a horse-wagon of the type the stonemasons use, or an older, more primitive flying machine; not this. The aircraft which stoops earthwards to the street shares the livery of the High Council. It is small, no more than an air-taxi, but its approach is rapid.
“Time to go.” Cassix says. “I will escort you.”
He supports her arm much as the guard has done, leaving that individual to follow at a respectful distance as he guides Alanee from the home that has been hers for all of her adult life. At her street door she pauses, resisting him, overcome by the enormity of the moment. The aerotran waits, its squat black nose pointed to the dust of the street, engine subdued to an unobtrusive hum. To Alanee’s right all the women of the village stand in ragged silence, detained upon their homeward walk from the Terminal by the landing of this beast. A double line of eyes all watching, all accusing; all she thought were friends, who treat her as a stranger now that she is dangerous to know. Merra is there, Carla, and Namma, already wearing the Managers Assistant tag that Alanee has lost. Shellan too, though she shows Alanee no sign of recognition.
“Come,” Cassix prompts; “This is best done quickly.”
Alanee nods, takes a firm grip upon her small bag of effects, and steps forward. “I should lock my door.”
© Frederick Anderson 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.