The story so far: Far away from the City, a mysterious force, which will become described as a ‘wall’ takes the life of a Dometian peasant girl in front of her intended, a boy called Ripero.
Meanwhile, Alanee is questioned by the High Council, again perplexed by her immunity to their control. Later, Alanee’s mentor Sala expresses an interest in her that implies much more than friendship. When Alanee rejects her advances, Sala storms out. Disgusted and a little afraid, Alanee decides she must escape the City…
Alanee has no idea how long she has been sleeping. After Sala’s angry departure she lay upon her bed for hours, trying to plan a means of escape. At some time those plans must have been interrupted by sleep, for now her brain is so fogged she can think of nothing clearly. Her head aches, her stomach cries for food.
Beyond the window wall of her living room, the palace is bathed in a gentle rose pink which speaks of approaching sunset. A day – she has slept for a day? Never in her life has she slept so long!
She surveys herself in the mirror. A gaunt, sleep-feathered face returns her stare. A black fleck upon her shoulder reminds her the strange ant-like thing she had taped there the day before is still there. The tape has gone, yet the little device sticks to her skin; the tiny wires cling. With a hand-mirror she sees how determinedly they have buried themselves into her flesh! Panicking, she rushes to her kitchen, pulls a knife from her drawer, tries to slither its blade beneath the body of the device, only to find its grip is too tight – what is more, as she works to prise it loose, she feels certain it begins to dig deeper, almost as though it were a real ant, intent upon burrowing into her. Angry now, she grabs a larger, heavier knife and uses the blunt side to swipe at the thing, sending it across the kitchen to land somewhere on the floor. Blood streams from her shoulder: she staunches the flow with a cloth from her sink, and surveys the damage. Her shoulder is punctured with a tiny hole which courses blood, and two of the fine metal tendrils remain in her skin, prompting a further ten minutes of probing with tweezers.
“Habbach! What manner of demon was that?” She demands out loud, of no-one in particular.
When at last her blood-flow has ceased, Alanee dresses the wound. Some time is required to find the minuscule invader and when she does discover it behind a waste-bin she will not touch it with her fingers, but picks it up with the tweezers instead. Close investigation reveals nothing. It does look slightly broken, but there is no explanation for its apparent tenacity. She throws it disgustedly into the sink and witnesses its satisfying little flash of electro-static protest as she flushes it away.
Time, now, to take a breath. Her stomach reminds her once more of the necessity for food, and, obligingly, it seems someone has loaded her kitchen worktop with a fresh supply of batter for xuss-bread and tsakal leaves, together with a small platter of meats. There is also a neatly-wrapped package. Of her two needs, hunger is more pressing than escape, so while griddling some xuss batter Alanee occupies her time, by opening the package to discover a wad of two thousand credits inside!
Two thousand credits! Comfortably a thousand credits more money than she has ever seen in one place! The shock is physical. She takes her food and the package of money into her living room and slumps upon a chair, staring at it. Is this really meant for her? She pours herself a draught of the yellow liquor that has become her favorite drink, sipping it slowly as her head clears, letting an escape plan form once more in her mind. The money will be useful: a browse through the bazaars will help her to work her way across the City without arousing suspicion. Her aim, she decides, must be to find Dag, the aerotrans pilot who brought her here, and who, she is sure, she can persuade to fly her out.
Her shift is bloodied: in her bedroom she removes it, arranging the courtier’s robe about herself then, with a wad of credits safe in her clutch-bag, quits her apartment for the wide thoroughfares of the City.
Alanee is unaware she has been watched by Councillor Portis and Lady Ellar on screens in the Mediant’s office, Screens which have blanked, as they do each time Alanee leaves her apartment. The street cameras will follow her now. Ellar remarks upon Portis’s obsession with vigilance. “She is very alluring, don’t you find?”
Portis grunts. His enjoyment of the female form is no more than is natural, in his opinion, but he is aware of the jibes that are aimed at him. “Very.” He assures her. “But we have heavier considerations: how do we proceed now she has rejected the limiter? Nothing will induce her to wear it again.”
“Perhaps she won’t need it? If she does she will beg to put it on.” Ellar rises from her chair. “Now I have wounded egos to soothe. Who, Sire, would be a Mediant?”
“I take it you refer to Sala-mer? She was not a good choice, Lady Ellar.” Portis may speak frankly. They are alone in the room.
“Their quarrel? It was an inevitable result. Sala is of a…” Ellar chooses her words… “of a passionate nature. Yet she is a true friend.”
“Surely there are other type-matches? Someone less partial to laskali, perhaps?”
Ellar considers: “Seil-mer, maybe?” She smiles. “Sala is not a devoted laska. She has preferences in either direction.”
“You seem reconciled to the little storm we witnessed yesterday? How so? Did you not notice the Domo’s reaction? Lady Ellar, he was not amused. Of all who sit in upon this decision, the Domo must be the most convinced. He already harbors doubt – today’s conference was not easy.”
“Really?” Ellar has wondered why Portis has chosen to catch her alone. For all his proclivities, it seems unlikely he is drawn here entirely by voyeurism. “Well, Sire, I cannot be privy to the affairs of High Council. The Domo will make the right decision I’m sure. It’s his duty to question and his right to be afraid.
“As for Sala, a good mediator must be more than just a guide: she must become a friend, a confidant, and yes, if necessary, a lover. She must have the acumen to achieve this as quickly as is asked. You think she moved too fast, I do not. Sala has great gifts, Sire. Trust her.”
Portis has a habit of avoiding eye contact when he speaks, but although this irritates Ellar she does not let it blind her to the significance of his words. So when he stares at the blank screens she listens intently. “Have you considered, Lady, where you stand in this matter? Where might be the safest place?”
Ellar has, but she is not about to divulge those thoughts. “I stand with the will of High Council, Sire.”
“Come now, Lady, you are versed enough in politics to know the High Council is not of one will. There are those who dissent; always. There are those who would advance themselves by one means, those who favor another….”
“Sire Portis, you take me where I would not wish to go. My work is to interpret the decisions of the whole Council, not the whims of individuals.”
Portis challenges her. “Is it? This is meant kindly, Lady Ellar. Do not take it ill. Your handling of the Braillec affair, though skillful, has been questioned.”
Ellar knows it. “I had no time to consult the High Council: I did consult one of its members.”
“In the eyes of some you controverted Sire Hasuga’s will. In the eyes of some that is blasphemy.”
“I averted a war.”
“Yes. Woman, do you not hear what you say? Your use of the word ‘I’ betrays you!” Portis grasps her shoulders; he is looking directly at her now. “You altered Hasuga’s will by a trick, by cunning, and that is blasphemy. His will must not be changed. If he wishes a war, a war must happen. Whatever you do, and I say this as a friend, do not use those words again – to anyone, do you see?”
For all her self-possession, Ellar is affected. “Yes Sire. Though please understand I was following a High Councillor’s instruction.”
“What were your words; ‘My work is to interpret the decisions of the whole Council, not the whim of individuals’?. Great Seer though he is, Cassix does not have the confidence of the whole Council, especially certain members whose relatives await preferment. Now you have given them ammunition, and a further worry. Those who do not thoroughly believe in this young woman mention your curious ability to ignore a limiter.”
“Indeed? Do they?” Ellar flares. “And these doubting Councillors, do they like to see their people dying by thousands in an adolescent game? Have they never thought what the effect would have been on Mother when her family was murdered? I did not ignore the limiter, Sire, I merely resisted it a little. As I often do – I have to.”
“The Mother is devoted to her cause. She would not have thought of it. That is the function of a limiter. You instilled that thought, you vied with a system that has served us throughout the whole of our history. That is a crime, Lady Ellar!”
Though she seethes inside, Ellar understands Portis’s argument. She speaks levelly: “The limiter has been with us for all of history too, has it not? I have faith in it. It allowed me just as much latitude as I needed, no more. Either your judgment has to accept that, or concede that my work has no value. Hasuga becomes increasingly impulsive and he no longer waits for meetings of High Council. I consulted whoever I could find – in this case it was Cassix. Perhaps the Council needs to dwell upon this. I certainly am.”
Sire Portis nods. His gaze is again focussed upon the darkened screens. “Very well; I return to my fellow Councillor’s issues, then. You have faith in your limiter. We all share its defense. But this new woman – this chit – won’t even wear one!”
As he wanders back towards his apartment Portis contemplates Ellar’s arguments. He knows how capricious the newly pubescent Hasuga can be: it is as if the chrysalis of childhood he bore for so long had become a prison, and Portis fears more than he will admit how strong Hasuga’s wings of youth will become once they are stretched and dried. The Mediant’s task, so difficult now, may become untenable in generations to come. How many war games will there be – must he decimate the population before his wisdom has grown? Yet even to permit these questions in his own head is a blasphemy, is it not? The word of the child is incontrovertible – the Third Principle. Which is why the Inner Council, by bringing the woman Alanee to the Consensual City, are themselves acting blasphemously. She will not wear the limiter, and the deeply, deeply disturbing argument he must now face is the question whether she should wear it!
“We set ourselves upon a furious ride.” The Domo had said in Council that morning. Portis begins to believe he is right.
The High Councillor’s summoner buzzes at his hip. “Sire, you are summoned to Council.” Valtor the Convenor intones. “Sire Cassix has called an emergency session.”
“Blast him! What is it this time?”
Beyond its residential corridors the Consensual City at night is a sparkling pool with ripples of light and sound that flicker and dash so brilliantly Alanee is at first quite afraid. She weaves her way through the groups of rowdy, laughing people who gather in the colonnades about the Great Square, or converse in twos and threes around doors of opalescent blue, the color, as Sala has already informed her, of nightspots – places where entertainment happens. Extra alleyways seem to have opened up, reinventing the bland, relentless walls of the day, links between avenues shrouded in diffuse light of blue, peach, or amber. Those who gather in these seem closer to one another, almost intimate: but for all the vital pulse of the place, there appear to be few devoted pairings. Many such as she walk alone, or drift from group to group. Women walk with women, men with men. There is a fluidity with which she might easily join, were she not so timid.
Alanee’s inhibitions are compounded by her mode of dress, for now night has fallen all formality is forgotten. The young wear form-fitting styles in myriad shapes and colors; some flirtatious, some seductive, some quite formidably beautiful. The more gifted girls wear tabards reminiscent of her country clothes, though expensively immodest. Men are similarly extravagant in close-cut one-piece garments, while their elders, bedecked in robes or suits of matching hue look benevolently on, commune and mix freely, often seeming to vie playfully with one another.
There are no children: the hour is not too late – where are the children?
Alanee is unprepared. This odd creature has come upon her in a crowd: singled her out, it seems. He (is it a ‘he’?) has exaggerated limbs that weave a peculiar, angular dance, a starved scaly body clad loosely in a shift and a wart-disfigured brown face, upon which all features are implanted on a single plane so his eyes are without sockets, his nose completely flat and wide, and his mouth as lipless as it is formless, working around his words like a thin snake wrapping itself about a rock. Alanee gets ready to run.
“Nay, nay!” There is a strange intoxication in that high voice that steadies her nerves. “You should not fear me!” The big eyes scrutinize her. “Now I think of it, though, I have not met you before, Lady. Are you new to the City my dear?”
To her alarm, Alanee feels those thin scaly fingers on her arm. Yet she does not push them away – why? Instead, she finds herself glancing guiltily about her, for in her own village acceptance of such familiar behavior without invitation would bring disgrace. But no-one spares her, or her curious companion, a second look.
“You are sad! So, so so sad! Oh, my child! Do you know I am three hundred years old?”
For the life of her she can think of no reply.
“Yes three hundred. I have been sad lots of times, yes?” This seems to amuse the creature immeasurably, for he flails his free arm around at everyone in the avenue and blares out: “Sad a thousand, thousand times! Suicidal! Habbach I wish I was fucking dead! But then…” His voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper: “I am fucking dead – have been for two hundred years!” He shakes with mirth. “Lucky – yes?”
“Yes.” Alanee fervently wishes he would go away. She wonders at whose expense that virility was lost. Are there more of these, these things, in the City?
“One of a kind, my dear.” Has he read her mind? “Besides, I never could work out which side I was on!”
Before she can stop it the hand is moving, probing towards a much more intimate destination. Outraged, she slaps it away and her eyes fly about her for help. It seems, though, that this too has gone unnoticed.
“Don’t be offended child;” The creature croons, in that same hypnotic note. “You are in the Consensual City, not at home in your village. We behave more freely here. This you will learn.” He has resumed his odd, twitching dance. “You are sad, my dear. I have something to give you. Take this from me.” Again the hand is quick. Before Alanee can brush it aside it has touched her temple on her left side – the imprint of three dry fingers.
“Remember me! Seek me out if you are sad again. I shall be your music man!” With this, the music man’s dancing limbs whirl into rapid departure. In seconds he has vanished in the crowds. Oddly, as Alanee thinks, she is almost moved to try and follow him.
She is mystified, but there is nothing for it but to walk on, feeling much as before, with her destination of the aerotrans port firmly in her mind, yet with the impression of those three fingers on her head, almost as if they had not left her. When she reaches to touch them, though, there is nothing; no indent of her skin, no physical evidence of the warmth she feels. From nowhere and scarcely audible at first, music begins, a soft, inveigling melody that is in her and around her – a sweet, mysterious song that pours over her like a tincture of roses; with it, a scent so subtle and indefinable that her mind is emptied of all but the mystery of its presence.
Now it is much louder, so she stares around at passers-by, sure they must hear it too, wondering how they can avoid exhibiting the same stupid smile she has on her face. But no, this music is entirely for her. As she walks she finds herself wanting to dance: little involuntary skips enter her pace, she even twirls – this time to the amusement of a pair of middle-aged men. She hears their sotto-voce ‘Music Man’ as they pass.
Where was she going, now? Alanee can’t remember; neither knows nor cares. The sounds in her head are so utterly her master that when at last the song has faded, it is as much by chance as anything that she finds herself outside the red and pink-lit door of an emporium specifically for women’s clothing. She tries it, enters it with the lightest of hearts, alarming the proprietor with an impromptu dance.
“I want evening clothes!”
Some half an hour later she emerges, in a mood of illogical optimism and a short, short dress of glittering silver cut almost to her waist at the back.
“And not a credit left to my name!” She admits to herself cheerfully, swinging the large incongruous bag that holds her robe dangerously.
All at once the delirium of her music is gone; the incessant mill-race of people and the grand proportions of the avenue close in on her. Women with high-born looks stare disdainfully in passing; men show a kind of interest that she feels rather than sees. The dress is a mistake – a mistake! Suddenly afraid that exposure of so much flesh is considered vulgar in this foreign place, Alanee’s color rises. Her discomfiture does not go unseen.
“Your pardon, Lady. You look a little lost?” The voice is hesitant, suppressing a nervous squeak. “I wonder are you….I mean, may I …help?”
A deferential figure has detached from an indifferently-dressed group of both sexes engrossed in conversation at the far side of the avenue. The other members of his group scarcely seem to notice him leave, and pay Alanee no attention at all.
“You look lost.” The man repeats. He is shorter than Alanee by almost half a head, pale-skinned and fair, hair as fine as powder flopping lifelessly over his high, domed forehead in a fringe. His features are small, his chin delicate and pointed, a face altogether feminine in appearance but entirely redeemed by his eyes; black, flashing coals set in snow-clear whites that might have their own light-source, they seem so bright. A blue tunic drapes his body. His bare arms are slender, his feet so tiny they almost defy the act of balance.
“I am Celeris, at your service, Lady. You seem distressed. May I help?”
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