The story so far:
Alanee’s transportation in the aerotran has reached a conclusion. She faces the immediate prospect of landing she knows not where. Dag, her pilot, although kind and understanding, can offer no information about her future.
The eyes in the mirror watch her: “Now there’s a real morning person!” Dag says.
The aerotran’s engines are different, they run in surges of sound. Alanee feels that they are descending but by stages, as though dropping over a series of downward sills. Dag is talking to someone on a communicator, being given instructions, she thinks. Below the window and rushing past there is a bright tapestry, an almost distinguishable pattern although she cannot discern details; houses, maybe: or larger buildings – factories or offices. Then suddenly all this is lost in darkness, and the sound of the engines is an echo, while the aerotran tracks a line of red lights which pass beneath it one by one. It is difficult to guess its speed, but the nose is up and in another second there is light ahead, bright blue light that grows from distant dot to shining arc. Almost immediately the aerotran is in the midst of that light, and forward motion has ceased.
“There we go!” Dag says cheerfully. “We’ve arrived!”
Arrived where? From the window, Alanee sees only a solid grey wall.
“We’re on a lift-deck.” Her young pilot explains. “It’s a sort of elevator. You are bound for…” He glances at his console “….My, level five! You must be quite important!”
Dumbstruck, Alanee stares at the grim, uncompromising wall as the aerotran ascends. For a brief while she actually entertains an idea of diving back into the rest-place and locking herself inside. Within this aerotran, this womb, within the care of the gentle Dag with his soft, deep voice she has gained solace to such a degree she now fears what may happen when she steps outside it: after all, she has only the pilot’s opinion that she is not to face some form of punishment for being who she is. What if he is wrong?
Dag explains: “The docks are all inside the hill. The place they serve is built on the plateau above. So the lift-deck is taking us up to it. We’re just about there now.”
As if at his prompting, a black number ‘one’ scribed on the wall slips into Alanee’s view, then passes beneath them, swiftly followed by numbers in sequence. At ‘five’ the lift-deck’s upward motion stops. There is a sensation of moving rearwards, a sudden emerge from entombment into soft ambiance. She finds herself looking at a chamber as large, though more sumptuous by far than the ‘best room’ of her own house, with foam-carpeted floor, couches upholstered in red satin, a table and flowers.
A wood-panelled door on the further side of this space opens. A woman of near her own age or a little older steps into view, a woman whose poise and elegance takes her breath away.
“Time for us to part,” Dag rises easily from his cockpit seat. “Alanee-mer, can I say it has been a privilege to have met you?”
He is tall, so very, very tall. She feels intense regret. “Shall I not see you again?” She asks.
He shrugs. “If you need a pilot you might get me. You might even ask for me. If I am available I’m sure I would be permitted to fly you.”
Wondering at these words (why would she need a pilot?) Alanee nonetheless has presence of mind to say: “You may be sure I shall. Dag-meh, would you take your helmet off for me?”
Dag’s eyes give that smile again. He removes the golden dome that has concealed his face, and what she sees makes Alanee’s heart shine. Yes, she will remember this man.
“Thank you, Dag-meh, for looking after me.” She leans forward on an impulse to kiss his cheek.
Dag slides back the door and the aerotran depressurizes noisily. “Thank you for being such an unusually lovely passenger. Be lucky, Alanee-mer.”
With reluctance Alanee steps out of the aerotran, leaving Dag behind in the cocoon that has been her sanctuary for a few precious hours. Her feet are greeted by the soft warmth of deep carpet, and there is a scent of roses. What sort of a world is she entering?
“You find all this awfully confusing, don’t you?” The woman, a slender, dark-haired creature with large green eyes and the bronze pallor of a Mansuvine, a race of seafaring people from Eastern Oceana, steps forward to greet her. Her resplendent gold and burgundy tunic drapes over her body so perfectly it must surely have been made especially for her, and she moves languidly within it as only one with the absolute confidence of privilege can move. The ring upon her finger bears a large emerald that speaks of wealth, yet her smile is open, her greeting sincere. She clasps Alanee’s hands in hers.
“Come! You are Alanee, are you not; from Balkinvel on the Hakaan? Is it very hot there at this time of year? My name is Sala, Alanee my dear. We are to be companions, you and I.”
Alanee does not answer, fearing any reply she makes to that kindly smile will reduce her to tears. Behind her, the aerotran has slipped quietly away, taking Dag and her last contact with any part of a world she knows with it. Sala understands at once.
“You must be so tired! Come, we can talk tomorrow.”
She leads Alanee through that paneled door into a brightly lit passage lined by graphics of aerotrans along each wall; then beyond that to join a wide, green-carpeted walkway with high walls of waxen cream bathed by concealed, gentle light. They are amongst people now, some introspective and hurried, some entering or leaving doors of richly polished wood which are the only features of this thoroughfare, others idling or talking among themselves, men and women in equal measure. Sala exchanges casual greetings with some as they pass.
“Good even, Sala-mer!”
“Greet-you, Fra Perris.”
Alanee is used to walking amongst Hakaani, but there are all races here, light-framed, bird-like Oceanics, swarthy Braillecci, taciturn Proteians, dark mysterious Mansuvene. All, or nearly all, are richly dressed, and many wear Sala’s colour scheme of burgundy and gold. The exceptions, dressed in fatigues of grey drab, seem subservient and rarely speak other than among themselves. Alanee, feeling shoddily-dressed and unkempt, aligns herself with the grey ‘drabs’.
They walk a long way for weary legs, passing row after row of doors and arches for the most part in silence because Alanee is intimidated by Sala’s splendour, and overwhelmed by the sheer size and scale of this place. She has simply never imagined anything like it could exist. What is waiting for her at the end of this walk?
“Where are we? What is this place?” She ventures at last.
“Oh Habmena! Of course, they haven’t told you! They couldn’t. No-one may speak the name of the City outside its walls. Such a stupid conceit!” Sala chuckles sympathetically. “My dear, this is the Consensual City, the seat of the High Council! Not far now – see? This is our door.”
At another anonymous doorway (Alanee is sure they must have passed a hundred), Sala touches a circular plate that exactly matches the size of her hand. The door opens instantly, sliding back into a recess in the wall.
“Come! You’ll be able to rest now, I promise.”
They enter a lobby area about ten feet square, impersonally decorated and furnished with full-length closets, a small table. To their left a further door stands open, and beyond it a large room sumptuous in the extreme, high-ceilinged, its three inner walls hung with brightly-coloured tapestries and silks. The fourth wall is wholly dominated by a vast, undraped window overlooking a courtyard some sixty feet below, and faces the front elevation of a great building which, lit by blue iridescence, seems to float in the darkness.
“Don’t be concerned,” Sala reassures; “It is one-way glass. You can see out, but…”
Alanee feels her feet cosseted by thick floor-foam and her weary limbs tempted by long, low couches of soft hide. A central table, edged by an ebony rail, is a fish tank filled with illuminated blue liquid. Brightly colored Dap fish swim in the soft light that precisely reflects that of the stately mansion across the courtyard. Alanee is dumbstruck at such opulence. All this: is this how people live in the Consensual City?
“This must belong to someone very important!”
Laughing, Sala acknowledges: “Yes, I suppose one would think that.” Then quickly sees how Alanee is overcome. “Let me show you somewhere you can sleep.”
By another door then, to a bedroom, or at least a room with a bed, which by now is all Alanee can or would wish to see. She is too tired to take in any more of her surroundings. It is a wide bed – very wide – and comfortable enough: Sala leaves her to stretch upon it with the briefest of instructions: “There’s a summoner” (a touch-panel on the wall) “if you need anything. Call me on it tomorrow, when you’re ready. There is no rush. And that…” She points to a pen-sized object which lies on a table beside the bed; “Is a homer. If you go out exploring and are lost, activate this and it will guide you back here. The door will know you, so never worry about getting locked out. Sleep well and long, my dear.”
“I may go outside?”
“Of course; if your legs will carry you. But first you should sleep, Alanee-mer. You look completely worn out!”
So Alanee sleeps. And deep in dreams she is flying once more with Dag strong and safe at her side. Below is the sun-mist on the Hakaan, and the plains stretch away on every side forever. Together with the wild birds they swoop, hover, turn, climb and dive, companions upon the long, long journey into the mountains of morning.
When she opens her eyes again there is music somewhere, honey-sweet music. Though she has slept fully clothed she cannot recall a time when sleep has been sweeter, or when she has felt more refreshed. Poised on the edge of slumber she almost believes everything was a dream, that she will find herself back home again and making ready for work, in her own village, among the people she has known since she was born.
The air is sweet and vital. She has woken in a bedroom with no windows to an outer world, that is yet filled with mellow daylight: the décor that surrounds her is intensely feminine; smooth curves of furniture, tints of apple and white. Her feet find soft rugs, that same deep floor-foam. She is shocked that the rest-place, beyond an elliptical arch, is otherwise unprotected by any door – what if someone should see? She uses it quickly, shy of discovery; but then spies the pressure bath with its scents and toiletries, whereupon she reasons with herself that people rich enough to own a bedroom like this would not be so crass as to spy upon her, would they? So she bathes for almost an hour, much longer than she intends, seduced by that unobtrusive music, drifting close to sleep.
At last she must rise from the water, throw a robe about her and venture out. She puts a head shyly around the bedroom door: “Greet you?”
No-one answers. She is alone. Assuming her host must be otherwise employed, she slips hesitantly from the bedroom into the living area’s sumptuous space. Here she must pause, losing all sense of herself, for the view through that transparent wall is beyond believing. The mansion which was bathed last night in phantom blue is, by the light of day, an ornate building of great and blackened age with doors and walkways between forests of pillars at its lowest level. Two further storeys are punctuated by high, arched windows, balconies and statues of dignified pedagogues who pose in alcoves, impervious to the snow. One of these (she cannot tear her eyes away) glares censoriously back at her, as though she was his reluctant pupil. He carries a book beneath his arm and where his fingers clasp around it huddles a bird, tiny and forlorn, sheltering from the winter chill. Alanee’s heart goes out to this little creature. For all her uncertainty about her own future, his is no more certain.
Courtyard and walkways are busy with hurrying figures, clad in the same dark red robes so much in evidence last night. Although Alanee can see that greetings are being exchanged no-one dallies, everyone has a purpose. They move with an air of business to be done, importance, almost arrogance.
She has heard of The City, of course. Throughout her growing up it has been the stuff of legend and in her dreaming it has always featured as a faery castle somewhere on high, frozen in a land of ice.
“It is a city where the sun never shines, Alanee–tes!” Her mother had said. “There live the Wise Ones who rule us, and keep us from harm.”
“Can we go there, Mummy?”
“No. Neither you nor I will ever see it. Few people even know exactly where it is, it is so closely guarded. Those who dwell there are apart from us. Their emissaries visit us from time to time, and you may see one. That is as close as you can hope to get.”
Oh mother, remember your daughter? I am here! I am inside the Consensual City!
When Alanee has had her fill of the ancient building’s glory there are more discoveries to be made: across the living space and through a portal at its further end she discovers another rest-place (this time dignified by a door) and opposite, joy of joys, a kitchen! But such a kitchen! Gleaming cabinets, basins and faucets, spicers and mixers all in matching metal, all spotlessly kept. The opulence of this alone should sap her credulity, were it not for a single touch: neatly set out on a counter adjacent to the hot plate are a tube of tsakal leaf crystals, a drinks-maker, and a mug. Next to these, a packet of xuss mix is propped against a pat of Hakaani sil butter.
At first she does not consider this too deeply, beyond gratitude for Sala’s thoughtfulness in providing her favourite breakfast. But after baking a pancake, idling as her tsakal brews Alanee begins to wonder. Her morning meal is not typical of all Hakaanis: these provisions cannot have been selected by accident or good fortune; does Sala perhaps share her taste, or is that too great a stretch of coincidence? And where in this lavishly appointed space is the chill room, or a slot that might accept a Mak-card? That or any other sign of the world she has left?
Plate in hand she completes her exploration by returning to the lobby, where the small bag of her possessions that she packed so hurriedly the previous afternoon sits as she left it. Unaccountably, the sight of it makes her burst into tears.
“You haven’t unpacked.” The apartment door hisses and Sala enters, responding to Alanee’s call on the summoner. Alanee expects her to be dressed differently but no, she still wears the same coloured tunic.
“I didn’t think it worthwhile,” Alanee responds. “Not until I know where I’m going to end up, at least.”
Sala’s laugh is musical, as much a delight as her speaking voice. “Oh, come; don’t be so tragic! There are drinks in this cabinet, have you found them yet?” A disguised cupboard in a side unit opens. Arrays of glasses and decanters wait inside.
“I’ve just had tsakal!” Alanee protests.
“Not tsakal. I mean drinks. Try one of these.” Sala pours two measures of a yellow liquid. “Come, we have nothing to do today, either of us. And I’m here to answer your questions.”
She sits opposite Alanee, surveying her approvingly. “Isn’t it so refreshing to see someone dressed differently? (Alanee has donned clothes from her bag; a tabard, calf-laced sandals, a bangle she likes) Have you ever considered laskali at all, my dear?”
“What is laskali?”
Sala smiles. It is more than a smile; it is at once mysterious and a confidence, an intimation of friendship. “No matter. You will find out in time. Now, questions!”
The sweet and instantly warming drink dispels some of that latent dread, even inspiring a certain bravado.
“All right. I was tired yesterday and very frightened. Now I’ve recovered, where am I to be taken?”
“Alanee-mer, I’m sure I told you! Maybe you were too overcome to listen. You are going nowhere.”
“Nowhere?” The word’s sinister implications bring an onset of trembling.
“My dear, dear Alanee, you have nothing to fear.”
“I fear a lack of answers…”
Sala bites her lip and nods. “I tend to be indirect, sometimes. I admit I like the drama. It is, shall we say, to my taste? I am being obtuse. Console yourself, Alanee-mer, you are not here to be punished, at least as far as I know. This is your new home. This is your apartment.”
Alanee is incredulous. “I stay – here?”
“Indeed. Make it your own. There are merchants, traders, vendors who will supply you with any little favours you like. Re-furbish it completely if you wish, within your means of course.”
“But I have no means? At home, at my village I had work: I have nothing here unless there is work for me. Am I to work here? What would they have me do?”
“Tomorrow you will learn more. I cannot tell you I’m afraid, that is not for me to discuss. You will have means, Alanee-mer.”
Alanee has the feeling of being surrounded by doors: each time she opens one, she discovers two more inside. “Why me? Why have I been selected to do this – this work?”
“Nor can I answer that question. I simply do not know.” Sala sees the despondency return to Alanee’s face. She stretches forth a cool hand to cover Alanee’s own. “Let me see, what can I tell you? Well, Alanee-mer, you must have been brought here for a reason. Rarely are new people brought to the Consensual City. Those who are usually come in grey drabs (that is the uniform of the court servants); only a very few are accorded the robe.”
“The robe of court, like mine. You will be a member of the Sanctum. Your work will take you within the Palace, I understand, so you must wear one.”
Sala waves airily at the window. “Over there. That is the Palace.”
Alanee follows her gesture, to be transfixed by the sightless eyes of the stone pedagogue, whose scornful expression withers her inside. She feels instant dread. What could she possibly offer within those walls?
The little bird has gone.
© 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.
Picture Credit: Aaron Munoz on Unsplash