The story so far:
Alanee continues to revel in the luxury of her City wonderland, unaware how her interactions with Hasuga, or even her dreams can have consequences in other parts of the country.
This morning, Sala has woken her with news of the first sunrise of Spring, and in their favorite haunt, Toccata’s, suggested there is a possibility that Dag, the aerotran pilot, may still be alive. Now, Sala further suggests, might be a time to celebrate the portentous dawn.
Alanee cannot quite see what all the fuss is about. She has seen the sun rise; not a sight she has too often greeted before, but just a sunrise, nonetheless. But then, she reasons with herself, she is used to Hakaani summers, long hot days when often she might wish for snow; a change of colour; relief from the breath-sapping heat. Snow never comes to the Hakaan. Winter is grey, winter is wet with monsoon rains that turn streets to rivers, every open space into a lake. Those rains drive life into shelter, create their own kind of hibernation. Yet winter is also short, so when spring emerges it is not so great an event: here though, in the Consensual City, she can see how they might welcome release from the bonds of snow.
She might also attune to a sense of gratitude, for this dawn has been a harp-string of superstition so taut the air itself twanged in its thrall. And that has snapped now.
Sala leads her along avenues lit by smiling faces, through tumults of greeting and exchange, past a rowdy queue of fur-swaddled young adventurers by the express elevator. Their humour is infectious. Alanee begins to join in.
The Grand Park bustles with people of all ages; more frivolous adults, in spite of the hour, gathered in groups around bars that have been set up on the pathways and already drinking freely. And yes, there are children here too – the first she has seen in the city – maybe a hundred, boys and girls alike, parties of them dressed in yellow uniform jackets and pants that finish just below their knees, singing and dancing in an area to the west side of the park. Leaders in blue cat-suits watch them, accepting the admiring glances of the adults, but fending off any closer attention. Clearly, there are boundaries.
“We would ask you not to speak to the children, Lady.” An official-looking woman in blue steps deliberately between Alanee and a fair-headed boy who has strayed too close.
Alanee is struck by a sensation of wrongness; a hollow place behind the child’s eyes evincing not infancy but great age. As he watches her, and he does, avidly, as though she has some special meaning for him, his face does not change expression. He begins to join in with the words of a song struck up by some of his near neighbours, but even that fails to dispel the sense of utter void.
“Move along, Lady.”
The blue woman’s voice bears an authoritative edge. Sala grabs Alanee’s hand. “We’re not allowed to communicate with them, ba. Come on, she’ll get upset.”
At the far end of the water that runs the length of the Grand Park the drabs have erected a structure like a great honeycomb resting on its edge. It towers perhaps a hundred feet into the roof of the city. If Alanee wonders at its purpose she is not kept waiting long. While Sala gets drinks from a nearby bar she watches a young man emerge above the throng, stripping off his white toga as he begins to climb the symmetrical staircase of cells. When he has reached about half-way he throws himself backward – to loud cheers from a certain section of the crowd – probably his friends – and plummets, legs waving inexpertly, into the lake. No sooner has he splashed from view than others take up his challenge, half-a-dozen naked forms both male and female, shinning like monkeys up the frame to dive, with greater or lesser grace. The cheering becomes widespread.
“They’re mad!” Sala shouts above the clamour as she hands Alanee a glass of green liquid. “Someone will get hurt – it always happens! This way!”
Jostling and jostled, the friends push through the throng and out into the South Avenue, away from the Park. Alanee is inclined to protest, but mollifies almost instantly when she hears music.
South Avenue, the communicating link between the higher level apartments of the residential city and the commercial area, is the conduit Alanee took the first time she ventured out alone. Here she met the Music Man, and fears she might meet him again: the embarrassment of his intimate approach remains with her. It is a highway with many tributaries, a maze of side alleys and twisting lanes that contain mysterious, un-coloured doors, blanked windows and precarious ladders. Sala tows her into one of these alleys where the music – ribald, raucous, Mansuvene dance music – beckons loudest.
Carousing in this narrow passage is at its most advanced: Alanee suspects that for many citizens the dawn celebration started rather earlier than warranted. Yet there is no disapprobation evident in the steady trickle of humanity moving through, over, and around various acts of debauchery that obstruct the length of this confined space. All propriety is suspended. Everyone, it seems, is enthralled by the music, in volume so intense it is almost physical. Beyond a final corner they are confronted by an open square some fifty yards wide. It is filled with people; young people, dancing people, people given over to rhythm. On a dais at the centre of the square, beneath a small pavilion, a group of musicians are playing for all their worth.
“Dance, Alanee-ba! Dance!” Sala is already swaying to their fast, pulsating beat. Glass in hand, Alanee joins her; hips bucking, head and soul surrendering to sound. Around them are men and women, Mansuvene, Dometian, Proteian, Hakaani and many other races Alanee does not recognise, all on one mission of unselfconscious joy.
A hand from the crowd reaches out, takes Sala’s arm. She turns and squeals a delighted greeting: “Rabba! Darling!” to a slender Mansuvene man whose embrace is already too close for dancing. “Alanee ba, this is Rabba!”
Alanee waves her glass, spilling most of its contents: “Greet, Rabba!” She drinks the rest.
Fingers close around her own forearm. She turns to find herself looking straight into the eyes of a tall, broad-shouldered Hakaani man with a smiling, strong face and body to match. She allows her eyes to scan his full length. “Wow!”
“Greet, Lady – dance?”
“Greet, …whoever you are.” She dances.
He is Delfio, he is from the plains, he shouts above the din.
“Alanee – Balkinvel!” She shouts back.
“Greet you, Alanee!”
“Greets you too, Delfio!”
He has a sense of rhythm – his body interprets the music. His eyes are brilliant and kind. She does not know him – she does not need to. Everything about him calls to her and she is content to be within the moment, to indulge in the ritual. Two people tugged by a single wire for a time – they dance on.
“It’s you. I should have known it would be you. You found me here.”
Lady Ellar looks down into Cassix’s eyes and smiles. “You are the Seer. Where else would the Seer be but in the Watchtower on such a morning?”
She kneels so her lap may support his head, cradling him. She did, indeed, find Cassix here, but not leaning upon the sill of the great window gazing out into the firmament as she had expected. No, she found him prostrate upon the cold flagstones of the floor with his face ashen and no sign of movement, none at all.
“Are you ill, my Cassix? Is there a wound we may heal? What is wrong?” She cannot betray all the care she feels for the man: it would be inappropriate, not only because of their high position in the State, but also because she is fairly sure he feels nothing in return. He is a Seer, and that is all one human frame can absorb. He has no space for the other things, the vin ordinaire of life.
He struggles to sit. “No. No, I have a thirst, no more than that. I will recover in a moment.” Yet so simple a struggle is almost too much for him; air comes to his lungs in gasps, veins throb in his temples.
Ellar sees how his eyes avoid the window; how he stares at the floor, or down into his own lap. “The Continuum?” She asks quietly.
He meets her look. “Yes.”
“But it is a good spring dawn. This will be a wonderful year, will it not?”
Cassix does not reply.
“Another drink? Yours was Cassene, wasn’t it?”
They are edging towards the bar. There have been several ‘another drinks’ and Alanee’s head is hazed with the alcohol. She and Delfio have become much better acquainted. He knows she was married once, a widow now – she, that he is a materials technician who works in the bowels of the City – one of those unseen protectors who keep wheels turning, cold from the door, light in the world. He believes he once lived in Parnisfae, a village on the Plains some hundred miles from Balkinvel. No, he has never seen her village.
When Alanee asked it he requested the band play the Talleh, national folk-dance of the Hakaan. Its steady sledgehammer beat threw the whole crowd into a frenzy, not least Alanee herself, for whom the memory of the tune was so poignant she danced her heart out, and cried too – unashamed: why not? The words spoke of her home, the music the same she once danced to with Kalna-meh, on the night of their coupling.
Now, with another drink of impish green liquid in her hand, she is tired of Delfio. She does not know why. He is warm, and caring, and quite funny in his way. She has kissed him three times; drunken, hungry kisses. He realises, because she told him, that she can never re-marry (‘that’s the law, isn’t it?) so there can only be one course for their encounter to take. In a way, a very present way, she wants that. Her body is awake: her skin is moist with a heat she recognises, not just part of the effort of dancing. But she is tired, and inebriated, and in another way she would be rescued, taken somewhere else. Sala has passed her a few times, each time with a wave and a knowing look, each time in someone’s arms (not Rabba – he has been superseded not once, but twice to Alanee’s knowledge) and anyway she would not interrupt her friend. With increasing desperation she casts about her – and sees him.
Like a pale cloud, Celeris moves through the thick of the revelry unsullied, apparently untouched: white robe, white face, that astonishing albino hair. He passes easily within her vision, so she could not miss him if she tried.
“Excuse me! Someone I know!” Alanee shouts – Delfio raises an eyebrow, though he recognised the signs some while ago. “I’ll be right back!” She lies.
He walks quickly: the crowd divides for him, she struggles to make a path. Before she can finally catch him he has left the square, striding down a side alley different to that which brought her here.
He turns, his dark, dark eyes light up to see her, “My Lady Alanee! This is an unexpected delight!”
“Yes,” She says, “It is.” Then, with humility: “Sire Celeris, would you very kindly rescue me?”
He switches on his mischievous smile. “Rescue you?”
Alanee shrugs: “A true Lady should not admit that she is a little the worse for wear?”
“Ah!” Celeris strokes his chin with long fingers. “Tsakal, I think. I know the very place.”
“You’re not in too much of a hurry?”
“For you, my Lady? And on such a day? Never!”
He comes to her, feeds a supporting arm around her waist and she, giggling at the difference in their heights, rests a hand on his shoulder, which, however poor in flesh is rich in understanding. There is comfort there.
They find a café on the South Side, not far from Alanee’s apartment: “It is a short distance to run, should the need arise.”
They sit on firm, Spartan seats. The café is quiet, almost deserted, because everyone is out in the yards and squares of the City drinking. He buys tsakal, placing a small shot-glass of perl beside Alanee’s cup. Alanee looks at it doubtfully.
“A parachute, a soft landing. I would not want you to feel miserable or ill. Drink it slowly, take the tsakal at the same time.”
Conversation flows easily. He had some business in the financial quarter, it could wait: was she enjoying the Dawn Celebration?
“Yes, I am. Parts of it I don’t understand, though. Why does everyone seem so feverish? It is only another spring: it comes every year?” She thinks she has explained herself badly: “I mean, they act as if it was their last spring ever. Or is it just me?”
“Parts of our history have been swathed in darkness.” Celeris says mysteriously: “There have been dark ages in our time when the sun never rose. Although they were long ago, the mark of those times remains upon my people. They never wake expecting a day, they are just grateful when it comes.”
Alanee shakes her head, sips at her tsakal. The café overlooks South Avenue, with its constant movement of people: people who are less purposeful now, stopping to hug one another and to renew acquaintanceships. From above, this too is a form of dance, a passing of hands, a dignified, slow gavotte.
“Do you like it here?”
She has drifted away in her mind: “Sorry?”
“Last time we met you were waiting to know your fate. Do you know it now – is it a good fate?”
“I think so. I really have no idea.” She feels she is in a dream; a place from which she cannot return. His presence is bewitching her somehow, she feels sure. “Why are you so kind to me?”
His laughter is sweet, a music in itself. “How would I not be ‘kind’, as you put it? Lady Alanee, surely you must comprehend – you are a very pleasing, very attractive woman. All the world, I’m sure, would have you as their friend if they could!”
So flattered, she should blush, yet doesn’t. “I don’t know anything about you! Who are you? What do you do? Why do so few people know you?”
“Who am I? I am Celeris. You can call me Sire Celeris, if you wish, though I don’t wear my titles on my sleeve as some would. What do I do? Well, I suppose the answer must be nothing. I conduct a little business to pass the time, though I do not need to; I read, I become very learned and I pass my days convincing myself I have a role to play in the City – which may or may not be true. Why am I so little known?” He pauses to breathe at this answer. “Could it be I am not worth knowing?”
“Oh, I didn’t mean….!”
Celeris holds up a hand. “I’m very sure you didn’t. Believe me, Lady Alanee, I have a realistic view of my place in this world.”
“Call me ‘ba’.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“All this ‘Lady Alanee’ stuff. I don’t want to be ‘Lady Alanee’. Call me ‘ba’.”
He laughs, but he colours, too. “All the drink….”
“Yes, and it may be I am a little the worse. But I am never uncertain about these things. Celeris, you are ‘ba’ to me.”
What does she see in his coal-black eyes then – amazement, puzzlement, wonder? Her next words are quite deliberate. “When I needed you, you came to my side. When I think of you, I think of all that is good in a man. I am tired now, Celeris my ba. Take me home.”
Obediently, this pale young man guides her from the tsakal-house and along the avenue to her apartment. They walk slowly, he supporting her waist, she with her arm about his shoulder as before. At her door he would turn away but she restrains him with a persuasive hand.
“Don’t leave me here.”
“You live here.”
“Don’t leave me, ba.”
She draws him inside, leading him with her hands about his wrists. She leads him thus through the inner door to her living room. As the door slips closed behind them her arms encircle him, inviting him to kiss her but he does not respond, so she goes to him, taking those cool, thin lips in hers and making them open to her, and now he does respond, but clumsily, like a child. Like the child in his face.
“I’m sorry. You must forgive me.” She steps back, confused, embarrassed. “I’m drunk. I said that already, didn’t I?.”
Celeris’s hand detains her. It is thin yet surprisingly strong. “Please, do not apologise. I am curious. Would you….do that again?”
Curious? Alanee returns to the kiss, this time with hands behind his head, draping the length of her body against his own spare frame. And this time he responds willingly, almost expertly. His kiss is as powerful as hers is compliant.
She draws back, a dark chuckle rising in her throat. “Curious now?”
Her own boldness surprises her, and without the confidence of liquor she is sure she would not, should not be doing this, yet she needs him with every fibre of her being. She scatters her message in kisses over his sallow cheeks, his brow, his eyes – returns to his lips, plying them, nipping, gently biting. His breath is hot. The arousal she seeks in him is beginning, begins.
Celeris’s hands grab her arms. He wrestles her away – pushes so hard she almost falls.
“No! NO!” His face, normally so pale, is red as damask; his expression one of pure, open-mouthed horror. He stares down at himself, sees Alanee’s eyes follow his, and turns quickly away.
The mood is shattered to a thousand shards and lies unswept. Habbach! Has he never…? She wants to go to him, to explain something he clearly does not understand. He will not afford her that chance.
“Lady, I have to leave!”
He is gone, through her door at almost a run. Disarranged, she may not follow him. Instead she can only stare at the empty space he has left.
Amazed, confounded, Alanee storms to her room and throws herself onto her bed where she pounds her pillow and kicks her mattress in frustration, then bursts into cynical laughter at the thought of Celeris racing through the City in so obvious a condition; then screams and bites the pillow in fury once more. Her teeth close upon something small that yields with a faint crunching sound. She spins into sleep.
© Frederick Anderson 2020. 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.
Photo Credit: Levi Guzman on Unsplash