The story so far:

Following her rift with Sala, Alanee tries to conquer her loneliness in the big City and focus upon thoughts of escape, but focussing is hard.  She is offered help by a mysterious bystander called Celeris, and having been unable to contact Dag, her trans pilot friend, spends her evening in his company.

Meanwhile, Cassix the Seer has broken news of a devastating event in Dometia province to the Council,and the fear of what it may mean hangs over all in the City.

Alanee has not slept well.  Despite her experiences of the evening, she went reluctantly to bed and lay awake well into the early hours, her mind a turmoil of emotions and memories.  She is beginning to learn more about the Consensual City, and in doing so something more about herself.

Within her home village of Balkinvel there were, for all the mysteries and trappings of government rule, no doors closed to her.  The village Domo’s home would always welcome her, and Paaitas himself was approachable, if a little confused sometimes.  She would have free run of the Terminal, there were no hidden rooms, no cloistered apartments or glittering palaces there; whereas here the City’s boundaries are so many, the nobles impossibly aloof, their  rules stringent and mysterious.  But here, threaded through the gilded tapestry of lore and establishment there are strands which, in her country home, would set rumours screaming; make disgrace certain.  She remembers Shellan, her neighbour and her friend.  She remembers how they would laugh together, find jokes from their world that no-one else could see.  How, often, they might share a thought or a smile so intimately, or hug away tears, but never did that woman she had known since she was a little girl seek her lips with Sala’s passion; never would the Makar’s licentious hand, old devil that he was, have touched her as the Music Man did!

In that tragic summer when Alanee-meh her husband died; after some frantic solitary moments of grief she would prefer to forget, Alanee consigned her sexuality to unending sleep.  She locked it in a cupboard, put it from her never to be let out.  Balkinvel was a small community and a single woman of child-bearing age a threat, so she could not allow desire, could not dwell in male company.  Her friends were women, their husbands were out of bounds.

Is it this place that arouses her?  Is it Dag’s empathy, or Sala’s invitation, or the enigma of Celeris that stirs these things from their slumber?  Or was it the hand of the music man?  Last night when Celeris left her, she watched his parting with regret.  She tells herself her feelings were just those of one who needed companionship, that she liked talking to Celeris, that she would have talked on into morning.  But is this honest?  In the lonely dark she goes again and again to that locked cupboard knowing that she holds the key, and frightened of the self she might find inside.

Her summoner is insistent – a plangent tune.  When did she fall asleep?  She does not remember.  The hour on the summoner’s little window speaks of morning.  ‘Lady Ellar’ flickers in time with the rhythm of its music.

“Lady?”  Her voice is thick with sleep.  She does not know Ellar well at all.  They have met just once, in the company of the High Council.

“Alanee-mer, may I call upon you – say at ten-thirty?”

By the appointed hour Alanee has bathed and dressed in the robe Sala gave her.  To her surprise, Lady Ellar does not simply enter her apartment as Sala has done, but waits to be admitted.  This unexpected courtesy hints at the many contradictions in the Mediant:  that all the power she exerts she will not use, even when, sometimes,  necessity points the way.  But she is tall, and Alanee believes her future is clasped in the palm of her hand.  These things alone are enough to make Alanee afraid of her.

Alanee offers drinks, they are accepted.  They sit opposite one another upon the soft couches that furnish the apartment.  Is Alanee well?  Are her arrangements as she would wish?  Is she learning about the City?  Alanee replies politely and honestly, still unaware that these questions are no more than formalities, that every move she has made since she arrived here has been meticulously watched.

“Now my dear, it is time to begin unfolding the mystery.  You are about to set out upon a journey…”

Still misted with sleep, lulled by the gentle persuasion of her drink, Alanee struggles to understand: mystery?  Journey?

Ellar sees Alanee’s confusion and smiles.  “Your task , no, even that is a bad description, the life we have planned for you is not a job, in the accepted sense.  So there is no description, neither is there a schedule of work you must follow.  Instead, you will be guided through it stage by stage, experience by experience carefully and thoroughly.  You will not lack guidance.  It is…a journey; neither more nor less.”

This does nothing to improve Alanee’s understanding.  She says so.

“That will come.  This is the start point – here, this morning.  From this moment on you will be known as the Lady Alanee.  You have the status, to begin, of courtier, though for now you will live here, rather than within the Palace.  There are good reasons for that, which we need not go into now.  You will have an allowance of two thousand credits a day…”

At this Alanee is wide awake.  She sits bolt upright.  “Two thousand a day?”  In her work as assistant manager at the Balkinvel Terminus she was paid ninety credits a cycle!

“Two thousand a day, that’s right.  Now, I know you are short of money, so I made certain your first payment was lodged this morning at credmarket opening.  In addition you will enjoy clothing expenses commensurate with your position and certain special allowances.  There are details of these in your personal file.”  Ellar still wears that benevolent smile.  “I understand this is outside your experience, Lady Alanee.  You probably feel as if you have been given free run of the cherry orchard.  But please be clear on this:  in the society you will keep certain standards of etiquette and dress are mandatory.  If you are to succeed on your journey you must know them and follow them utterly.  You cannot do this alone; you will need a guide.”

“She’s told you!”

“Sala has mentioned something, yes.  We really thought you would become firm friends, you see, and Sala’s knowledge of courtly manners is second to none.”

“As upon the subject of underwear.”  Says Alanee drily.

Ellar looks mystified, or pretends to.  “I am sorry you quarrelled.  We shall have to find you someone better suited to your tastes.”  The Mediant leans forward as though she would grasp Alanee’s knee, but holds short; her hand reaching, not touching.  “There are many aspects of life here that are strange to you, Lady Alanee.  Many, I’m sure, will seem difficult or even offensive at first.  I hope as you learn you will not judge us too harshly.”

Alanee sees she is being chided.  She bridles instantly:  “I am mistaken, then?  I never considered morality a matter for judgement.”

Instead of responding immediately, Ellar lets the retort drop into a meaningful, silent eddy.   She studies Alanee with the intensity she might devote to a zoological specimen.  Then her face breaks into another smile, this time a smile of indulgence.  “Yes, possibly you are.  After all, different societies have different moralities, do they not?  Interesting, though, how passionately you feel these things.  Village life, I suppose – so straightforward, so…so…”

“Provincial?”

“Puritanical was the word I had in mind.  This is neither here nor there, I will find you someone you like better as your guide.  Now, Lady Alanee, begins the first step of your journey.  This afternoon an encounter has been arranged, in which you must take part.  You will be called for at three.”  Ellar rises to her feet.  “Thank you for the drink.”

“Wait!”  Alanee is shocked at her own boldness.  “Encounter – encounter with what?”

“Rather with whom, Lady Alanee.”

“Well whom, then?  I mean, what am I supposed to achieve in this encounter? What is supposed to happen?”

“That, my dear, we none of us know, nor is it for us to say.  That is what I meant when I described your task here as a journey.  It’s a journey for us all.”  Lady Ellar turns towards the door.  “Now I really must go.”   At the threshold she turns, as if struck by an afterthought:  “Oh, and by the bye; I believe last night you were enquiring after the pilot who brought you here, one by the name of Swenner?  I have some sorry news I’m afraid.  Master Pilot Swenner is missing, believed dead.  His aerotran crashed over the wild regions of Dometia yesterday afternoon.  The desk should have been informed.”

Ellar would not admit to the slight satisfaction she feels as she sees Alanee’s face crumple at her news.  Walking away, back into the world she knows, she has the faint sensation that she is leaving quite another world, one that Alanee has created within that apartment:  not with any accoutrement other than those that have been bestowed upon her and not with the assistance of anyone, but just by the force of her own personality, by the Habbach-forsaken freshness of that Hakaani air.  The smell of wheat-chaff is almost palpable!  She sees now what so attracts Sala to this girl:  she could be tantalised herself, if the girl was not so opinionated, even dissident, did Cassix not perceive that?  She begins to understand the Domo’s reservations; the nightmare scenario as it may be played out.  And once it begins, who may stop it?

Not you, Lady Ellar, Mediant, not you!

#

Heaven and earth are one, partnered, dancing with each other in flickering light.  Wind comes in rushes that blast anything still standing; scouring to the very bone.  It should be day.

The pod of the aerotran remains intact: that, Dag is sure, is all that saved him.  Yet the pain at the base of his spine assures him he did not escape entirely and he may not move without experiencing massive static shocks.  The carcass of his shattered vehicle moans in the excesses of the gale, crackles at every gust.  It was this tangible electric web that he could not fly through, which brought him tumbling helpless to the earth, and now it would drown him, blocking out his communicator, robbing him of instruments to such degree he does not even know which way he faces.  Slowly it will usurp his mind.  He cannot focus, cannot conjure the most basic thought.  He should escape, not sleep – yet all he wants to do is sleep.  He should try to keep breathing, but all he wishes is not to breathe……

A tree has transformed into a maniacal tumbling thing, torn from its roots, flayed into a skeleton of twigs and all but its trunk reduced to the thickness of wire.  Bowling before the storm Dag sees it coming, cannot do anything to avoid it.  The blow as it strikes the aerotran’s Pod throws him sideways, erupts his back in an agonising spasm, wakes him and at once extinguishes what light he has.  Sleep, if sleep it is, comes quickly and with mercy.

#

“Oh, sweet Lady!”  Taccata’s face positively radiates joy:  “How utterly delightful to see you again!”

Alanee accepts the kiss on her hand.  “Is she here?”

“But of course!  It is her hour…..”

“And alone?”

Taccata gives that slight assent of the head which is his manner:  “She is, my dear.  Come, now, we know our way, don’t we?”

Nevertheless he leads Alanee through the jungle of drapes and hangings, through to the place where the whole valley of the Balna forms one of the walls, to Sala languid among the cushions.  Sala who looks up to welcome her coming with solemn eyes…..

After Ellar left her Alanee retreated to her bedroom, throwing herself upon her bed.  She grieved for Dag in noisy tears which were as much for herself as they were for the man she had never really known.  She beat upon the pillows with anguished fists, she swore to the unhearing heavens; she wailed her fate to the echoing walls.  Thus for an hour, or maybe less.  Then, wearied by these exertions, she slept.  But not for long.

She awoke with a decision.  She reached for her Summoner and touched Sala’s call-button.

“Can we talk?”

The message which came back was short.  She could almost hear Sala’s clipped tones: “See you at Tocatta’s.”

And here she is.  And she has no idea what to say.

“Sit by me, Lady Alanee?”  Sala’s eyes are reproachful.  “Try this beverage, I believe you might like it.”

“Sala…”  Alanee starts to speak, then seizes up.

“I know.”  Sala’s tone consoles her.  “I know.”

“I was…you took me by surprise.  I wasn’t expecting…..”

“And I was impatient; desperate even.  Oh, I was so clumsy, Alanee-ba.  The fault is all mine!”

Alanee has come prepared to remain aloof, to keep a distance between herself and this beautiful woman:  now she is here, though, now she sees how small Sala looks, how she quivers with repressed emotion, almost at the edge of tears  – she throws her arms impulsively around her friend and hugs her.

“I’m sorry I hurt you, Sala-ba.  I’m so sorry!”  And now they are close, a breath apart.  This time it is Sala who seems uncertain, caught between desire and fear; her distress is in every fibre of the body Alanee presses to her breast.  It takes little courage, so great a step, little or none at all.  It is natural to kiss those wanting lips, to touch with tenderness; even to experience a wanting of her own.  It is a kiss brimming with awakenings.  It lingers.

Alanee whispers:  “I am so glad we are friends again:  so glad!”

They are forehead to forehead for a while, consumed with each other until the ridiculousness of the position reduces them both to laughter.  Then Sala returns the kiss, a second brief taste.

“Enough!  Now I must restrain myself!  Tell me, ba, when is this great occasion to take place?”

“You know of it?  Can you tell me what it’s about?”

“Whoa, whoa!  I know something of it.  But I cannot tell you more than you already know.  When does it happen?”

“In…..”  Alanee fumbles for her summoner:  “In….Oh Habbach!   In an hour!”

“Then we must shop!”

At the door of Alanee’s apartment stands Seil.   Seil is a large-boned woman of uncertain age who is clearly not given to patience.  By the time Sala and Alanee return she has been waiting for half an hour, and she is vexed.

“Lady Alanee this is impossible!  You have twenty minutes!  We need to prepare you!  Did not Lady Ellar acquaint you with the importance of this meeting?”

“Oh, it’s a ‘meeting’ now, is it?”  Alanee is in no mood to be outfaced; “It was an ‘encounter’, now it’s been elevated to the status of ‘meeting’.  Very well, twenty minutes.  I need ten.”  She spots the tiny package Seil holds in her left hand.  “And I’m not going to wear that.”

Seil protests, but not too insistently.  Ellar has warned her of Alanee’s aversion to the limiter.  Yet she is unprepared for Alanee herself.  Growing in confidence, the Hakaani girl feels equal to anything the City can throw at her now.  She is beginning to understand the politics of power, something Celeris has already given to her.  She knows she holds that power over Sala.  Sala wants to be her lover; and at that moment when Seil allows her to walk away without the limiter, she recognises she has status of another sort, too.

In her bedroom, alone, she prepares herself in her own way.  She has innate knowledge of her natural assets, her smooth skin, the way her bones subtly enhance the bloom of her cheeks.  The downy wildness of her hair, insubstantial as mist; her inviting body over which the thinner and much more richly gilded robe Sala has just persuaded her to buy falls in an essay of temptation.  No make-up, no enhancements.  She wears the simple sandals of her homeland on her feet, ruffles her explosion of hair, turns once before the mirror.

Radiant, Alanee frames herself in her bedroom doorway.  “Ready!”  She says brightly.  She feels herself capable of anything.

It is a mood that will not survive this journey.  The elevator she enters with Seil and Sala is small, a dark chamber with no seating, no cheerful colour or feature to augment its walls.  It goes down and down, descending through level after level – and though she misses the look of fleeting concern on Sala’s face Alanee’s heart descends with it.  When at last it stops, a cold draught seeps through its opening doors, and the grey stone-walled chamber beyond does nothing to lift her spirits.

It is into the dungeons of the Palace they go:  through labyrinthine passages, narrow defiles, dark alleys of stone.  Though Alanee tries to remember, their path quickly confuses her.  She glances towards Sala, but her friend appears to be as mystified as she.  Seil clearly has instructions that have been imparted to no-one else.

The dim light casts their fleeting shadows on walls of stone, old, old stone worn by the passing of countless shadows.  No floor-foam here, but flags that echo to their tread.  Little heating either:  Alanee’s arms are raised with goose-bumps.  Though she calculates she must be beneath the palace at least by now there are no voices, no sounds at all inside her head.  Perhaps the cold has seeped in there, too. The further they walk, the more her skin is crawling with fear rather than cold as she begins to wonder:  Are her original convictions to be confirmed and do these people indeed intend to put her in a prison?  A thought given weight by the heavy timber doors they pass, each one the bearer of a grim, rusty lock.

“Where are we going?”  She enquires, in a hushed tone.  “I should have worn a fur.”

“No further, Lady!”  Seil’s voice is strident.

They have turned a corner in a stone corridor.  Before them is a short flight of steps, at the head of which a black, forbidding door stands ajar.

Sala protests:  “No!”  She tries to intervene for Seil is suddenly behind Alanee, heavy hands on her shoulders, thrusting her forward.  But the element of surprise is too great, and Sala is no match for her stalwart colleague.  As she stumbles against the steps the door swings wide, and Alanee smells as much as sees the grim form of a huge man in leather clothes standing there.  His great hand reaches down, taking her robe by the shoulder to hoist her bodily through – she hears the rich fabric tear as its securing clasp rips through it and she cannot suppress the scream of horror that escapes her lips.

© 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.

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