The Story so Far: Alanee, widow of a successful sportsman, has been transported from her village to the seat of the High Council, the Consensual City. Believing she is to be punished because she does not follow her village friends’ slavish conformity, she finds herself installed in a luxurious apartment and mentored by Sala, a beautiful Mansuvene woman.
The day after her arrival Sala tells her she must wear a ceremonial robe, for she is to be employed in the City Palace.
“Suppose,” Alanee says slowly; “I do not want this work. Will I then be free to go home?”
Sala knows the shock her answer will induce. “No, my dear. No-one ever leaves the Consensual City. This is where you will live for the rest of your days.” She sees that Alanee’s is close to tears: “Oh come! That’s not so bad! Life is very good here – especially when summer comes!”
She pats Alanee’s knee. “Enough despondency. We have a city to explore, you and I. But first, we need to dress you in one of those robes, I’m afraid.”
“Laskali!” High Councillor Trebec glares at the screen, his cheeks flaring purple outrage. “Is that the sort of language we must expect from our mediators? What manner of woman is this Sala?”
The Lady Ellar protests mildly. “You would be hard put to find a woman anywhere within the court circle who has not at least experimented, Sire.” She catches the look in the florid old general’s eye. “Oh, yes, even me. Sala is a very accomplished mediator: the best, perhaps, of my current brood. The woman Alanee could not be in better hands.”
Four are gathered in Lady Ellar’s office, viewing live cameras that display Alanee’s apartment on screens; High Councillor Portis, a tall man of middle years, not always fragrant, his iron-grey hair slicked back to streamline a pointed nose and the pinched features of one immersed in life; Trebec the campaign-hardened soldier and Ellar herself are three. The fourth, impressive for his sheer size is the Domo, or leader of the High Council. Together they observe as Sala helps Alanee to shed her personal clothes before dressing her in a formal tunic and robe.
“How think you, Portis?” Trebec asks. “Does she please you?”
“She is certainly a temptation.” Portis acknowledges. “Cassix has a discerning eye.”
“Also the opinion of Proctor Remis, I believe,” Trebec says.
Portis concedes with a nod. In this august company he will not profess his weakness. It was he who tussled with Ellar concerning the placement of the concealed cameras that spy on Alanee now. Ellar prevailed, so none are trained upon the rest-places in the apartment. Alanee has that much privacy at least.
“High Sire; may we know your thoughts?” Ellar asks.
“Thoughts, Ellar-mer?” The Domo speaks with jaws so fleshy they follow rather than accompany the movement of his small mouth, like wavelets around a sinking stone. His voice is deep and resonant – the voice of one who can command attention with a word, for all that his weight suggests. “I have no thoughts at this time. I have reservations; I have severe doubts. No thoughts.”
“By all accounts she is a remarkable woman?” Trebec ventures.
“She is dissident, and by no means unique in that regard. Cassix interviews two more such today.” The Domo says. “Once, we would simply have dispensed with her. Now…” He heaves a shrug from the mighty yoke of fat about his shoulders: “Severe doubts.”
The others wait until his cheeks stop moving, lest they should interrupt.
“She received the Word last night?” Portis enquires.
Ellar answers him. “Yes. She has received the Word all her life. It has no detectable effect on her.”
The Domo raises two stubby hands. “A dissident, then. There is no more to be done here. We wait for Cassix and Remis to return. Tomorrow we shall interrogate this young renegade and see where our future lies with her, or whomsoever else they bring us.” He labors to his feet. “Sires; go well with you.”
One by one the distinguished company depart, until Ellar is left alone to watch as Alanee moves before her, a figure on a screen – two dimensions, without reality, without a soul. A dissident. How brutal was the Domo’s choice of phrase? “Once we would simply have dispensed with her…” and how harshly truthful; the icy heart behind the fondant warmth of ‘The Dream’; the steel blade that sleeps beneath.
How else could it work, this Utopian world of theirs? Once, just once, she has seen the world’s cold heart; the Book of Lore, where Cassix left it opened upon a table. A chance acquaintance and a brief one, for the Book is only open to the High Council. Outside their aegis, few even know of its existence. Yet that book rules them all, from courtiers to drabs, from the towers of the fortress of Braillec to the smallest Proteian village thousands of miles away.
Did Cassix know what jar he opened when he left her with the Book for an hour one autumn afternoon? How he had also opened a window in her mind? Did he foresee how quickly she could learn? Was it his intention that she, Ellar the Mediant, should join those honored by the truth? Well, she had learned. She had gained the gift of history: she knew how the world turned, now, and was the richer for it.
The Book of Lore described a time when it had seemed the world might end; when humanity was imbued with an arrogant, aggressive spirit that drove it close to its own destruction. She read how belief in a super-being and peculiar differences of opinion as to how this being must be defined had drawn men close to self-destruction; how they had devoted their lives and their minds to inventions for the sole purpose of killing. And when they finally succeeded…
Out of the ashes had risen a very few Chosen People. Burned and molded in the furnaces of death these creatures (you could barely call them men) foresaw a better future. But of all who survived, they were least equipped to implement any future at all: they were stunted and weak. It took the vision of a normal one, an unscathed survivor, to see how their gifts might transform his world.
Christophe Carr-Villoise had risen from the fire itself. Before the Great Conflict, he had been no more than a hill-farmer; a mountain man. In the barren world created by The Conflict, so legends tell, he found a fertile valley where his skills raised green crops from barren soil. He taught those who followed him to live from the land, and they, in turn, gave him their allegiance. He rose to prominence through new follies of skirmish and conflict, but he was wise. He sought a better way, and in the Chosen Ones he found it. He saw how these pathetically mutated beings spoke without words among themselves; sometimes even communicating their unuttered will to him. He saw how slowly their own world turned and how they lived to great age: yet because they could only rarely reproduce themselves he saw how, in the end, they were doomed.
A captain with a high purpose does not always have a ship to sail. Fortunately, however, among the Chosen there was one who shared Carr-Villoise’s vision. The creature history would remember as Karkus unified The Chosen behind a cause – a dream he, together with Carr-Villoise, would draft into the Book of Lore. They would work upon The Chosen’s slow mortality, they would develop those telepathic powers so from their ranks when the time came a child imbued with the essence of all their strengths might be created,. When he came, such a child would rule them all – all the peoples of the world – with unblemished innocence.
In a hot Arcanian summer two millennia since The Dream became reality. Hasuga was born.
Ellar sighs. Why had Cassix wanted her to know all this? By reading the pages of that ancient book she had become privy to first principles Carr-Villoise and Karkus had composed five centuries before Hasuga’s birth. Both those great visionaries would be dust and Carr-Villoise’s original valley consigned to myth long before their dream was realized. But their predictions were clear and the High Council they set up for their perpetuation did its work. Knowledge of those edicts was a privilege shared by very few, because the first principle was incorruptibility.
Knowledge of the child shall be kept among his wards: never should the people know how, or by whom, they are ruled.
The second principle:
The child must be protected as a child, his innocence must be inviolate.
And the third:
The Word of the child must reach all of the people, and all of the people must live according to The Word of the child.
Success was gradual. Although the High Council had long years of waiting in which to prepare, Hasuga’s birth marked a beginning, rather than a conclusion. At first the distribution of his Word was clumsy, ineffective. Where today there is the merest scattering of dissidents, then there were battalions of them, far from complacent at having their minds occupied by infantile occupations such as the building of snowmen or feasting on honey cakes; people not given to unquestioning obedience, with no understanding of how they were being manipulated. Those were fierce, bloody times.
Stabilization took a thousand years, but when it came, as Karkus had foreseen, a population whose consciousness was shaped by a young unblemished mind no longer sought aggrandizement or power; and meanwhile, the High Council was promulgating the fourth, most vital of the principles written on that first page of The Book of Lore.
Production and consumption shall remain in balance. Maintenance of this level shall be the High Council’s responsibility alone. The words ‘progress’ and ‘growth’ are blasphemy. Those who espouse them must be dissuaded or removed. This is intrinsic to the Lore.
It was a good principle, maybe the key to the comparative success of the last millennium. Out there in a world united in purpose the citizenry goes to work each morning and returns each night with no thought of any but the most menial of ambitions. To become foreman, or to be elected as Domo of their community, these are the highest pinnacles to which anyone can aspire. And it brings happiness. Broadly, there is balance.
There have been flaws, crises when fears for Hasuga’s life sent scientists into furious huddles of activity, frantic searches for a missing component, a slight adjustment, a life-saving inspiration. Hasuga is not quite immortal. In just this last year, the High Council has been forced to concede to his puberty. After a thousand years as a child he is child no longer. Karkus had foreseen all this. What else had he foreseen? The Chosen Ones are long gone now, rendered extinct by their own biological failings. Must Hasuga, their last progeny, eventually fail? If so, what lies beyond? What will happen to The Dream?
No surprise then, that Ellar is troubled, watching Alanee move about her new world. Ellar believes Cassix harbors the same concern and he wants her mind focussed as he is focussed, upon answering that question. Cassix is a Seer, a great one, honored within the Court. His gift gives him the ability to detect a breeze unfelt by others, and the panache to sail close to it when he has the inclination. She believes such an inclination may be guiding him in this.
The Mediant’s curiosity concerning Alanee is exhausted. She turns off the cameras that spy upon the Hakaani girl. Sala’s body-language as she drapes the formal robe over Alanee’s form has not escaped her notice, but she treats it philosophically: after all, one can never stop laskali.
“Try these! You must try these!” Sala, insistent.
“Oh no! No, I can’t!” Alanee – shocked. Although she has known Sala only a few hours, already they giggle as if they have been together for years. “It’s – it’s disgusting!”
There is no mistaking the shape of the candy Sala has dropped into her hand. “Come, you’re only offended because you’ve never seen a blue one!”
“I have!” Alanee protests. “On a cold night!”
“Bite the end!”
“What…?.” The vendor is watching Alanee, leering all over his face. She feels a blush rising in her cheeks. “No!”
“Alright…you!” She waves dismissively at the vendor. “This is personal. Look the other way.” She bites, as Sala looks on suppressing a rising gale of laughter. A hot flood of intense methol flavor explodes into her mouth.
“Oh Habbach!” At the change in Alanee’s expression, Sala all but collapses with mirth. “Now is that realistic, or not?”
“It tastes better.” Alanee confides when she has finished choking, out of the vendor’s earshot. “How much are they?”
“Oh, Alanee-mer! Shame on you!” Sala turns to the vendor: “She’ll take twenty.”
“I will NOT!”
In the noise and bustle of the bazaar the pair move from stall to stall, sampling this, commenting upon that. Sala’s infectious humor reaches through the shroud of Alanee’s depression and draws out the child beneath so effectively that soon she has forgotten where she was just a day before. They stroll through avenues of fountain colors; bright cloth, facetted glass, tinted light. Vendors bark for their attention, passers-by in the robes of court greet them. Alanee is introduced to a hundred names, may only remember a handful. Morning passes into afternoon.
“Do you never eat?” Alanee asks at last.
“Habmenah I forgot! Oh you poor darling you must be famished!” Sala cries, genuinely distressed, “Come on, I know a really nice little place.”
Alanee has already learned that journeys between Sala’s ‘nice little places’ can be long. This morning she has been led it seems forever through the labyrinthine fabric of the city. Rarely outdoors (a couple of times they have braved the open air, shielded their faces to rush through snow) they have gone from ‘nice little’ emporium to ‘nice little’ emporium, stopping at a view of the Phoenix Square with its statue of Carr-Villiose above the central fountain, pausing to look up at the Watchtower’s lofty extended arm stabbing an accusing finger at heaven. Alanee, footsore by now as well as hungry, will be glad if this ‘little place’ is not too far.
“Not far at all. Just along here.” Along here, up some stairs, around a corner, more stairs. A door lit by rich green light. “I do hope you will like it. It is quite special to me.” Alanee will welcome anywhere she can rest. Her brain is too befuddled to discriminate, but appearances do not suggest any more than a thousand other doors. A simple plaque above it says ‘Toccata’s’ and there are no windows to betray its purpose; so what will she find within?
Well, first is fragrance; the sweet tang of tsakal, a leaf so rich, a blend so strong she can almost taste it. Then there is ambiance; deeper, darker, enriched by red hangings and brown shadow, flickering gently as tallow does when it plays upon a dim twilit room. And next there comes the sound, a low plainsong of subdued voices, the falling inflections of earnest conversation. Sala leads her between booths screened by silk or velvet. Words waft out to them as they pass, laughter greets them softly. Much of that human sound seems to come from nowhere at all.
“There’s a lot of red!” Alanee whispers. She is unsure why she is whispering.
“Why yes!” Sala seems surprised. “Do you not just love red?”
By a white counter stands a man of uncertain years, tall and erect of bearing. As they approach his eyebrows arch to an expression of delight and he greets them, hands outstretched.
“Sala-mer my dearest; now who have you brought me today?” His voice is not the voice of any man Alanee has known; his kiss upon her cheek a familiarity that surprises her. “Oh, such bone-structure, such divinity!” He whispers confidentially in her ear. “You have the power to make old men regretful, sweet child. Take care of your dear, dear soul.”
Sala has been watching this exchange with amusement. “This is Toccata, Alanee-mer. You be careful of him, he’s not as disinterested as he sounds. Toccata-meh, we want my best table today?”
“Sala-mer, sublime one, it goes without saying.” Toccata leads the way. He walks with tiny steps through the forest of drapes which stir with his passing like willows in a breeze.
The café is quite small. Ten effete paces later Toccata draws aside curtains of amber velvet, revealing a low bleached wood table between two over-stuffed settles. Yet it is not the furnishing of this snug hideaway that draws Alanee’s breath, but the window it offers to the outer world; another spectacular view, within a more modest frame than that which dominates Alanee’s own apartment, but awe-inspiring nonetheless.
Sala sees her admiration. “The countryside beyond the City – the Balna Valley, and beyond, those are the Pearl Mountains. On a clear day you can see Kess-ta–Fe, the great needle. Magnificent, is it not?”
Toccata brings them tsakal with a platter of fruits and cheeses far stronger, and more piquant, than any Alanee has tasted. And they fall into conversation about small things the day has brought them while snowflakes drift past the window, sometimes pausing, eddying by the glass, as though they would gaze inside.
“It is quite private. These curtains are excellent for deadening sound, and we will not be disturbed unless we ask it. That is why I like this place so much.”
An hour passes; maybe more. As a second cup of tsakal comes and goes, the dark leaf works its magic: does Alanee notice how Sala’s hand touches her – lingers a little longer with each touch? Maybe she does, maybe she does not. Everything is hazed and a little confused. All except one thing.
Sala senses her mood: how Alanee’s eyes are drawn back to a place in the far-off sky, somewhere beyond her own seeing.
“What are you looking at, Alanee-ba?” When did she begin to use the familiar suffix to Alanee’s name? “What do you see out there?”
Alanee smiles wistfully. “It’s so hard to believe this is the same sky that looks down on the Hakaan. I guess I’m just dreaming of home.”
“It will pass.” Sala’s fingers brush Alanee’s thigh. “You have so much to discover, ba.”
Alanee nods. She will not divulge the truth, that there is something in that sky which speaks of wrongness, something fearful in its menace. There is a warning voice in her head – a whisper not for Sala’s ears to hear.
Instead: “Do you never feel a longing, Sala-mer? To go beyond these walls, walk to the river? Play in the snow?”
At the formal use of her name Sala withdraws her hand. “I have no taste for snow.” She says primly. “But I do go out there, and so may you. I hope we will, when spring comes.”
“I thought we were never to leave the Consensual City?”
“That’s true. But the city boundaries extend across the Balna River, so we need no-one’s agreement to go there. And we may wander further, even into the mountains, if we have permission. We just have to promise to return.”
Alanee sighs, pleased to know her punishment, which she remains convinced awaits her, may not hold her a complete prisoner here. What would she do if she knew? How would she react, had she been among the little throng of villagers who gathered that day, curious to see the strangers in white overalls pulling her house apart, piece by piece – packing her possessions into sealed cases for transport? And when it had gone, her house – all gone, every brick, every tile so there was nothing in the street but an empty space – would she have gazed at her precious vista of the plains with Malfis’s rheumy eyes for as many hours as he, or turned her back and walked away with the Domo’s heavy heart?
© 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.