Alanee joins in the City’s celebrations greeting the dawn of spring. She encounters children in the City for the first time and prohibited from speaking to them. After hours of drinking and dancing in one of the main squares she finds Celeris again, and in a somewhat drunken attempt at seduction appears to frighten him away…
Alanee wakes not knowing what hour it is, only that she has spent a day, or misspent one. Her stomach gives her a sharp reminder, sending her weaving to her rest place where she stays for another while, rebuking herself for her brazenness and fervently wishing the world would go away.
At last she discovers (in her kitchen between doses of stomach grieve and tsakal) that it is early evening. Below her living room window the courtyard of the palace, now free from snow, is littered with detritus of a more human kind. Drabs move discreetly among figures in various stages of prostration, cleaning up.
Turning her back on this unappetising scene she slouches on the sofa, sipping her tsakal and observing the dap fishes’ serene ignorance of occasion as they swim around their tank. Thus another hour passes, until darkness comes and she returns to her bed for a sleep that will take her to morning.
Her summoner buzzes. It is Sala. “Well?”
“Well, that gorgeous young man. Did you?” And, before Alanee can reply, “And don’t say ‘did I what?’ You know what I mean!”
“I might have.” Why is she so defensive?
“That means you did, or – or, oh Habbach, you were so drunk you can’t remember! Ba! I’m am ashamed of you!”
“Believe me, drunk or not, I’d remember.”
“Then you didn’t? What was wrong with him, he must have been at least seven feet tall!”
“Delfio? Ah, no, he was boring. I didn’t stay with him.” Alanee changes tack. “Enough about my evening, Sala-ba, how was yours? I saw you with at least three different hunks. How did you fare?”
“Oh ba! I’m still faring!” Sala’s voice is treacle-rich. “He’s in the rest-place rebuilding his strength. I think I’ve worn him out, poor boy!”
“So who is he? Or haven’t you been introduced?” As she talks on her summoner, Alanee’s fingers probe absently at the tooth-bites she made in her pillow after Celeris’s dramatic departure.
“Naughty! His name is Vel, and he is a merchant: he’s tall and he’s blond and he’s a perfect darling. I think we might just stay in bed forever! You’re very good at changing the subject! If not the Hakaani, who did you end up with – not alone, surely? Tell me you didn’t go home on your own Alanee!”
Her fingers pick at the stuffing of the pillow, drawing it out through the ruptured cloth. “No, not alone.”
“Oh, thanks be! And after I abandoned you, too! My guilt would follow me to my grave!”
The stuffing is fibrous. It is mostly soft and yielding. Mostly. But some is wire; very, very fine wire.
“I met Celeris.” Alanee says.
“Celeris? Don’t you know him?”
“If there was a Celeris in the City, ba, I’d know him. Must have given you a false name, the rat! It goes on all the time. Is he a rich rat?”
“Don’t know. I think so.” Alanee replies absently. The wire seems endless. “Listen, Sala-ba, I’ll call you later, yes?”
She goes to her kitchen, where there are knives. She puts the pillow on her cutting block, then attacks its cover. It resists her stoutly; the material, though thin, is far from flimsy, but at last she succeeds in slitting it from end to end, so the stuffing inside is exposed and she sees how it is interwoven with an intricate web of bright metal joining onto what was a tiny central capsule; was, because in her anger at Celeris’s flight her teeth have bitten it almost in two.
Alanee has worked at her village Terminus for many years. Although her remit was transport she gained a working knowledge of electronics, but this device is not within her compass, nor does she have equipment to study micro-circuits as tiny as those the capsule contains. She must resort to educated guesses, the most seductive of which would be a form of transmitter – the wires could be an aerial, the capsule some sort of speaker – though one so tiny could scarcely be heard by the human ear. Puzzled, she returns to her bedroom. Three pillows remain: did she find the ‘wired’ one by chance, or are they all the same?
This investigation might have taken wings at the expense of three further pillows, if her summoner were not buzzing insistently. The name that flickers up at her from its screen will brook no denial. Lady Ellar wishes her to attend the High Council Suite. Could she please come at once?
High Councillor Trebec stands within the aperture to a high, gothic window, a fissure in walls so thick four of his girth might fit within this space and not intrude an inch into the room behind him. From its glass he may overlook a rolling aspect of northern land which will lead, should he be able to see far enough, to his beloved City. “Is it never warm here?”
“Sir?” Commander Zess is preoccupied. He has not heard.
“Does the sun never permeate these confounded walls?”
“Maybe in summer…” Zess says.
“The work is done, then?” Trebec expects an affirmative answer. A final aerotran of crack troops landed an hour since. His own transport is waiting to whisk him away from this cold Braillec Castle with its frigid stone and its accusations. Who was it who said you can never turn your back on guilt?
“Yes, Sire Trebec, almost.”
“An end to tie up, Sire, that is all: the aerotran pilot from the City hasn’t been found. His aerotran has, but not him.”
Trebec wears a frown to make the highest commander in the forces tremble at the knees. “Was he not burned with the rest?”
“No, Sire, I don’t believe so. I mean, yes, there are so many bodies we can’t account for because they were just burned to powder, but this flyer didn’t reach the incident itself. He got caught in the magnetic storm it created. He survived long enough to leave his pod. He’s vanished.”
“He can’t just vanish! You have heat-seekers, you have bio-trace, you have Habbach-damned extro-visuals. Find him!”
“We’ve tried them all, Sire. They sought out everybody else, all the other dissidents, but not him. I’ve requested a field search strato-craft from the City: when I get that I can pan the whole country if I have to. We’ll find him.”
“See that you do.” Trebec does not like the Commander’s solution: it is inconvenient that a strato-craft crew from outside should have to be brought in on so covert an enterprise. “Make sure they take the oath before you brief them.”
“It is already done, Sire Trebec.”
“Very good.” The land beyond the window seems so innocent of wrong; impervious to judgement. “They are out there, aren’t they? How many?” Trebec asks.
“We buried ten thousand, Sire. As to those totally consumed, who can say?” Zess shrugs, “The census will reveal all, in time.”
Trebec catches sight of a tear that runs unwarded down his commander’s cheek. “Never doubt, Zess. Do not question. What is done is done in the name of the State. And, harsh though it may be, the State invariably affords us the best answer. You have followed orders, no less and no more.”
“Yes, Sire.” Zess’s voice is expressionless.
Trebec turns away again, casting a final look across those tranquil hills. “I am flying back to the City. I take ten thousand ghosts with me, do I not? Sleep soundly, my friend.”
Zess watches the High Councillor leave, seeing in his broad back the incredulity, the sheer unbelief on thousands of faces that, thinking they were rescued, suddenly realised they were about to die. Privately he knows he will never sleep soundly again.
The Lady Alanee, Ellar would have to admit, has learned how to make an entrance. Remembering the gauche, slightly angular figure of a woman who entered the City no more than a cycle since she cannot help a reflective smile: how the place has changed her – and how quickly! Not only has she learned to adopt the court robe as formal dress, but she has learned how to move in it, how to accentuate the natural grace of its lines. Her golden cascade of hair disguises shoulders that might otherwise seem rather wide, and frames a face of unfathomable mystery. Her eyes challenge. This woman, Ellar thinks, is no longer afraid of anyone.
“Lady Ellar, greet you.” Alanee is formal, cool. “Sire?” She cannot remember Sire Portis’s name. She recalls he was one of those who questioned her on her first day here. She also remembers how his stare never left her chest.
“Lady Alanee, this is Sire Portis.” Ellar says.
“Greet you.” Alanee responds, tugging at the hem of her robe where it crosses her bosom, a move which does get Portis to raise his eyes to her face, though only for a moment.
“Please, sit down. Shall we request drinks?”
Alanee dismisses this with a wave of her hand. She has had sufficient alcohol in the past twenty-four hours to sustain her for a cycle, at least.
“Why am I here?” She keeps her voice as level as she can. This stateroom is the one where she was first introduced to members of the High Council, but she does not remember a book resting upon the sideboard that dominates one wall of the room. It is a very old book.
“What book is that?”
Portis answers, “It is an extract of the Book of Lore. The Book is always present if a meeting of High Councillors constitutes less than a quorum, so we do not forget the higher cause.”
“I’m not just here to talk about the Spring Rising, then? Why am I here, Sire Portis?”
“Ah, now that is the question.” Portis says. “And taken in its most limited sense, that is why you are here; to answer that precise question.”
Alanee looks perplexed, “A riddle, Sire?”
Portis sighs. “No, Alanee, an answer; though not, I suspect, a solution. Lady Ellar, would you like to proceed?”
Ellar leans forward, as she is wont to do when she is about to speak, though not before Alanee has detected the chill between these two nobles. They have their differences. “Lady Alanee, when you first arrived I told you that you were about to embark upon a journey. As matters stood then, it was thought better that you find your own way: now, however…..” She pauses for breath. “Now you have met Sire Hasuga. It is time you learned a little more of your duties here. It is time you learned who Sire Hasuga is.”
Ellar relates the tale of the City and its history. Alanee listens to it open-mouthed, for history in any form (memory beyond the human span) does not exist within the culture of the State. No-one speaks of the past beyond a generation or two.
In Alanee’s head it is as if a book were being opened; her thoughts fly to the book on the sideboard. Her inner self flicks over pages of manuscript written in old characters, a forgotten tongue. And when she comes back to the cover it slams shut and locks, and will not admit her again. She would see its title, but that too is hidden from her. She rises suddenly; walks across to the book intending to open it physically.
“Do not touch The Book!” Portis snaps. “Lady Ellar! I will not have her near it, I warn you!”
His command stops Alanee in her tracks. She shrugs, then says, without knowing what she is saying, or why she is saying it: “It’s alright. That’s not the book I’m interested in.”
She returns to her chair. Ellar is staring intensely. “Lady Alanee; which book are you interested in?”
“It has a lock, that one has none. It is very old, with a cover of red and gold leather. The words inside are in some strange language or other. I was reading it. Anyway, it doesn’t matter.” She comes to herself, to see Ellar’s face, drained of all colour.
“You’ve seen inside this book?”
“Yes, just now.”
Portis cuts in. “Young woman, have you been listening to anything the Lady Ellar has been saying?”
“Intently, Sire Portis; as I have been observing the chemistry between yourself and Lady Ellar while she was saying it. I take it you don’t approve?”
“You take it correctly.”
“Of me? Never mind, don’t answer that. So, if I have listened to your satisfaction, let me be sure I’ve understood. Sire Hasuga’s mental powers are so strong that his thoughts and whims reach all of the nations. When he wants honey-cakes, everyone eats honey cakes. When he wants a war in a certain region, that region goes to war. Somehow you’ve managed to conduct affairs for two thousand years on the basis of childish caprice. And now he’s gone and growed up!”
Portis nods. While she is speaking, Alanee’s eyes do not shift from the book on the sideboard. She finds herself searching deep within it, as though there is something specific she must find.
“And now he wants different stuff; not quite so innocent anymore, eh Sire? You’re afraid you can’t control him: he might go mad, get everybody killing each other, or – you know -making babies? You can’t blame him, can you? He’s just being a boy, isn’t he? One thing though, I don’t quite follow: there are lots of essential functions needed to run the State that are a bit more important than honey cakes. Plant more wheat this year because the granaries are low; discourage child-bearing in the Hakaan to keep the population stable, and so on. Not the things a child would think of. How do you get the meaningful stuff done?”
The answer falls to Ellar. “Once it was just as volatile and unformed as you describe. We learned, we had to learn, to manage Sire Hasuga’s thoughts. We discovered a way to interrupt the thought-stream and channel it, without Sire Hasuga’s knowledge. The High Council could add necessary edicts to the stream as it was being broadcast. It needed a more predictable system of distribution, but once it was achieved, we could conduct affairs of State effectively.”
“So you can shape his will? Isn’t that – to coin your word – blasphemy?”
“No. Think of his stream of thought as a real stream, or river if you like. We can add water to it; we can apply a sluice to restrain it. But we can’t stop it or fundamentally alter Hasuga’s part of its composition. In the end, his message must reach the people as the water must reach the sea.”
“And you do that here, in the City?”
Across the room and out of Lady Ellar’s and Sire Portis’s range of vision, Alanee is making the ancient book rise a few inches from the sideboard. Satisfied, she allows it to settle again, quietly. She thinks to herself ‘I don’t know how I did that’. Portis’s fixation with her breasts is becoming profoundly irritating.
“And this river flows out to the people each night as they sleep – through a little speaker concealed in their pillows.” That reaches you, doesn’t it, Sire Portis! That makes you lift your eyes!
Ellar nods, “Yes.”
“Whispers in the dark. The reason it is only possible to buy a replacement pillow from a state-owned emporium. And now your system is breaking down?”
“That’s something of an exaggeration.” Ellar’s smile is grim. “True, Sire Hasuga’s emanations are ever more powerful, and – well, you’ve already cited a few undesirable consequences. Lady Alanee, you are apparently immune to Sire Hasuga’s control. You can get close to him; you can treat with him, in ways his Mother never can.”
“Then Hasuga is right. I am his next ‘Mother’.”
“His Mother is ill at the moment.” Portis interjects. “When she recovers we would, of course, like you to work with her. Look, this can be either be very simple, or very difficult: we (the High Council) will issue you with a list of target behaviours to pursue in concord with Sire Hasuga. This list will be with you in a few days. All that is needed is to moderate some of the temporary excesses of his pubescent stage. If you follow the list you will discharge your duties satisfactorily. It shouldn’t be beyond you.”
Alanee visualises what she suspects will be item one on that list. “You can’t give teenagers ‘lists’. It’s their nature to rebel.”
“Sire Hasuga is no ordinary teenager, and you seem to have a detachment none of us share. You can guide him Lady Alanee. For the stability of the State, for the sake of all our futures, this is a responsibility you must accept.”
“I’ll do it, because I have no choice.” Alanee senses the interview is over. “Whether it will work as smoothly as you say, is another matter.” She gets to her feet. “In the meantime, please will you remove all the cameras from my apartment? I don’t think you need to spy on me now. I could always find them myself…” She adds helpfully.
Portis is looking questioningly at Ellar.
“She dissected one of her pillows.” Ellar explains. Then, to Alanee: “How did you know there were cameras?”
“I didn’t until now; although I suspected as much.” Alanee replies. “You just confirmed it. So from now on, Sire Portis, whenever you want to stare at my body you’ll have to ask me in person.”
Alanee bridles, ready for Portis to flare back at her, but the councillor merely replies, with icy control: “You are a presumptuous and wilful young woman, Alanee Have a care what you say.”
“Oh I will, Sire. Now, can I ask to speak to Sire Cassix?” She has no idea where the question came from, or even why she should ask it. From the beginning of this interview, Alanee has felt distant and detached: it is as though something other than herself is controlling her tongue.
Portis looks at her sharply: “Cassix? Why?”
“I think he can help me.” Without waiting for a reply, Alanee leaves.
Ellar and Portis stare after her.
Ellar says: “Tell me I did not dream that?”
Portis says: “The impudence of the woman!”
Lady Ellar smiles: “You were caught out, Sire. You do stare at women’s chests; even mine. More importantly, how did she – how could she – know of The Book?”
“As importantly, perhaps;” Portis’s tone is dangerous: “How do you?”
© 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.