In the previous episode:
After her drunken attempt to seduce Celeris at the Spring Rising, Alanee accidentally stumbles upon a tiny speaker concealed within her pillow. Portis and Ellar summon her to a meeting in which she learns some of the City’s history and discovers The Book. She asks to meet Cassix, the Seer.
Meanwhile, in his vantage point at the edge of the Dometian disaster zone Councillor Trebec, discusses the genocide of those Dometians who escaped the destructive wall, and learns from his commander, Zess, that one aerotrans pilot is still missing…
In the deep forest a steady rain falls. Dag Swenner has lost all sense of time, lying where he fell when he could no longer cling to the tree bough that had been his refuge for a while. Beside him, cheek by jowl, the monster that so nearly took him from the world; his adversary then, companion now on his lonely road to death. His ancestors are gathered in his Heaven, sombre-faced, waiting to welcome him home.
He knows he cannot not keep them waiting long.
High in the canopy of the forest a raindrop finds a leaf and runs its length, following a vein until it ends, then drips and falls to a blue, serrate leaf that waits below, and thence downward over half a hundred different shapes and colours on its descent to the forest floor. From each leaf it takes a little substance, a savor so delicate and subtle it will look unchanged, taste unaltered. It falls finally upon the lips of the man who lies dying, and its moisture comforts him.
Alanee is in the ante-rooms of the High Council Chambers when Valtor the Convener intercepts her. Valtor is a small, pallid Protean with a confidential air.
“My Lady.” He treats Alanee to a sweeping bow, making her take two surprised backward steps. “He would grant you an audience.”
“Yes, Lady. He! Great Sire Hasuga.” Valtor articulates these words in a reverent whisper.
“Oh, him. Tell him to give me an hour. I’ve got to collect some clothes in the City.”
Such colour as Valtor has leaves his face and his jaw drops open. His hands, effete at best, fly to cover his ears. “Lady Alanee! I did not hear that! I did not hear that! He is the Great Sire Hasuga; our sovereign benefactor! If I take such a reply back to him my life will surely be forfeit!”
Alanee leans in towards him. “Mister whoever you are, if he is the Great Sire Hasuga you say he is, he already heard it. No harm will come to you or him in waiting.” She turns on her heel and heads for the Courtyard, leaving Valtor speechless in her wake.
In her defiance of Hasuga, Alanee is not merely being self-willed. She needs time before she confronts the strange, unnatural boy, time to assimilate all she has heard and learnt. Ellar’s few simple explanations that should have been all she needed to join the pieces of the jigsaw her life has been, that made everything fit so neatly, will now throw up a multitude of new questions. How in the name of the Great Habbach is it possible? How can the deeds and actions of mankind be decided by the thoughts of a small boy? Yet she sees it to be true, just as she sees The Book, and all the thousands of lines of unreadable language that now rest somewhere in her head, has provided her with answers – if only she could read them.
A riddle, then; but not the most confusing riddle, Alanee thinks. How did she move The Book, lift it from its place, and why, when she did so, had she the feeling that its progenitor, its ancient father, belonged to her? From the moment in that chamber when her eyes rested upon The Book she felt an insipient presence, another mind, another knowing, melding with her own. It had left her now, as precipitately as it had come – where did it originate? In The Book? She knows she was not alone in her mind while it was with her, possessing her. In fact, a part of her wonders if she was there at all?
She calls Sala.
Sala’s voice is ragged: “Oh, Ba, I swear I could sleep for a year!”
Alanee says: “I’m going to see the demon child.”
Then Alanee remembers. Sala will never have heard of Hasuga. She does not know that he exists.
“I have made you powerful, haven’t I?” Hasuga is perched upon the edge of his bed, his little face creased in a leer.
Alanee stares. “Powerful? How?”
“You have learned about The Book. Ellar cannot resist you now, Portis cannot match you! I have given you power.”
“Are you telling me it was you inside my head, in that room?”
“Did you enjoy the sensation?” Hasuga asks. There is a vibrancy about him that is unpleasant. His young features are twisted in a way that no longer speaks of innocence, but of bitterness and pain. His bedchamber, too, is greatly changed. The complex machine which consumed so much space last time she was here has grown yet more. Rampant, it spirals about the room. There are no street scenes to augment its composition now, it is a structure of obsession, a homage to Hasuga’s apparent fixation with snakes.
Alanee prods it. It is cold and unyielding. “What does it do, this thing?”
“What I want.”
“Yes, you said that last time. It occupies most of your room, so it does something important. What can this ….”
Hasuga cuts her off. “Watch!” With one tendrilous finger he points. As if his spark has given it life, the machine transforms instantly into a serpent, a boa constrictor of whipping tail and rainbow colours that rears its head to heaven then glares down upon Alanee with cold yellow eyes. Jumping back, for a frozen second she fears its strike, but it plays a different game. In a rasp of friction its endless body wraps and wraps again into a tightly-wound coil at Hasuga’s side.
Alanee’s heart rediscovers its rhythm. She forces herself to look up at the snake’s broad head which regards her evilly, wearing an expression very like a smile. The smile of the Music Man and his gently inveigling tune, with an enticement only the eyes of a serpent can bring. What is within its protection? What do those coils hide from her? She is consumed by a wish to see what it holds within. And as if in answer to her wish the image of the snake that was only ever in her mind fades.
Two life-sized figures materialise in its stead, each so real she might reach out to touch them and be met by flesh; and this is the more disconcerting because one of the figures is herself, her partly-clothed image engaged in some awkward, almost mannerly form of dance. So mortified is she by this violation she does not at first identify the other figure; a man clad in a robe, as Celeris. Celeris grotesquely aroused For a moment she believes he might actually be real, so substantial does his image appear. He is dancing too. The images are close to one another, almost touching. It is clear that Celeris is in distress; as if he is in a vortex from which he cannot escape: his face is puckered, tears roll down his cheeks; he tries repeatedly to cover himself, to hide his shame.
“Stop it!” Alanee rounds angrily upon Hasuga, “It’s disgusting! Switch it – turn it – whatever you do – off!”
“You do not like Celeris?” Hasuga has been watching her with what she will remember as his ‘dungeon face’; enquiry, curiosity, absorption, an utter lack of compassion. The images vanish.
“My feelings concerning Celeris have nothing to do with – with that! That was voyeurism, exploitation. You’ve been watching me, haven’t you? You’ve seen me with him!”
Hasuga does not answer. Those first emanations of malice seem to have dissipated. Once more she believes he is emotionally uninvolved, that he sees her reaction as nothing more than a missing piece of information. He says quietly, his voice a sibilant hiss: “Then perhaps this will better please you.”
Beneath her feet the grey texture of the floor is altered to green. Her toes touch the cool inquisitiveness of grass. All around her a crowd, roaring and hungry and from somewhere – from nowhere – an agile figure in red and black appears; her man! Kalna-meh, across the years, so real she might grab him now and hold him, stop the moment she already sees must follow; but no.
Hand-springing upwards upon muscular arms to catch a disc of 12 inches diameter between his feet, her husband’s arm eludes her as he turns to deliver the perfect pass, a thrust that will send the disc up-field where a second identically-clad figure waits, plucking it from the air then ducking as an opponent in blue and brown-striped clothes flies above his head. With a sweeping movement of his foot, the red and black figure launches the disc so it spins with awesome speed towards two posts in the distance. The crowd-sound reaches a crescendo. A foot-game is in full swing.
Now the whole field is opened up for her to see. Feeling the gorge rising in her throat Alanee chokes out in her fury: “No! Don’t do this! NO!”
She stands amidst it all. The twenty players in their contrasting strips, the vast banks of humanity that watch them,, the green of the pitch, the blue disc that never falls to earth unless a player pins it there. And there he is, in the red and black of his Hakaani team, his dear features set in that deep, concentrated stare she knows (knew) so well! As the disc is re-launched he is running, leaping, twisting to intercept. He takes it on the catch-stud at the tip of his right foot, already poised for the answering shot, not seeing the blue-striped adversary who has committed to the same target, the same position. Mid-air, mid-twist they meet foot to head, and her beloved Kalna crumples and falls to earth like a doll made of rags. The crowd is reduced to stupified silence. The rag-doll twists and twitches for a few last seconds in the grass, then is still. The scene is lost in misted grey, fading until the room is normal once more..
Alanee cannot speak. In white horror she just stares at the place which showed Kalna-meh’s final moments.
“He was your coupling?” Hasuga’s eyes have never left her.
“Yes. How did you…?”
“I am Hasuga.”
“You are a bastard.” Alanee says, with gravitas.
“I know the meaning of that word. I am not a bastard.”
“Alright then, you’re a ghoul, a monstrous little fiend!” Alanee cannot restrain her tears. “I loved him. Do you understand ‘love’? Like your love for your Mother, but much deeper, much more personal, and – and how could you show me that? How?”
“I am Hasuga and I am learning.” His voice remains completely dispassionate. “Go now.”
“Go? Leave?” Alanee can think of no riposte, no revenge she can wreak upon this creature, though she would take his evil machine and twist it around that scrawny neck if she could. So she forces her embittered soul to execute an elaborate curtsey and drags the ruins of herself from his royal presence.
In the elevator, then later in the gardens beyond the city where she can be alone, she might weep, and does, for the images she has been shown will last with her, perhaps for all of her life.. But although the gardens are busy with the first miracles of the coming summer, no fresh green shoots can lift the djinn of grief from her soul. Her footsteps lead her by the riverside, where few City-dwellers will see her hammer and hammer furious fists upon the guardrail until her white flesh is bruised and broken; or hear her wounded soul declare itself at one with those great white floes which snarl like wrestlers in the fast-running current. In the maelstrom below the bridge a luckless boat left loose-moored by its painter, a workers’ boat, no more than a skiff probably used to dredge for crayfish when summer comes, is punched and crunched against the bank.
There is little enough, Alanee feels, to distinguish her own fate from that of the tiny craft. A farmer’s girl untutored in the ways of the big city, tossed and turned as she clings to a slender thread that must at last give way…..
There is a marble bench where she sits, seeking an answer in the deep black waters, until late in the afternoon. There were times in the hours and days that followed Kalna-meh’s death when she had thought about the value of her continued life. If the mucous jaws of the melting river should open to invite her in, is she tempted? Who would see? The rail is low: the desired result is certain. A minute, no more, in that frigid gateway to better things beyond, to a place where Kalna-meh’s open arms wait to greet her. And Dag – is Dag there, too? Her thoughts are confused. Grieving, she stares into the turbulent darkness and dreams of home.
Is she sleeping? There is a leaf – just there – upon a tree that overhangs the water: one she has not given credence before. A tree made peculiar by gnarled and tangled branches as though it stood upon a windswept moor. She plucks the leaf, toys with it in her hands, not questioning how she reached it without moving from her seat upon the bench. Then another strand of foliage, much different from the first: she takes this frond from a fern-like source at the riverside. Then more: she sees each leaf, each plant minutely, she knows what each will bring to her, their proper sequence. A blue serrate example – surely out of season? Three – four – five – six – soon twelve contrasting samples of spring growth rest within her grasp. Such is the depth of her knowledge she can remember them all.
Now the rain; a heavy beat upon her back. When all the leaves she holds in her cupped hands are wet from the downpour a sudden compulsion makes her clutch them to her stomach and hold them there. Although the evening air is chill a radiant warmth rises like a vapour around her
The voice at her shoulder stirs her. Instinctively she glances down at her hands, resting empty on her lap. They are – she is – dry. No rain falls. Was it really just a dream?
“Lady Alanee you look unwell!” Celeris is there. Celeris, a mirror of concern; his clear brows puckered, eyes a-brim with anxiety.
“Celeris! Oh, Celeris it is so good to see you!” Alanee’s delight is undisguised.
“I could not pass by.” His hesitancy reminds her of the awkwardness of their last encounter. She reassures him.
“I am glad you didn’t. Come, please, sit with me? Talk to me?”
“Talk. Of course, I will try.” He sits beside her on the bench, and the careful way he arranges the hem of his toga lifts her heavy heart. “What shall we talk about?”
“Oh, of the coming of spring, of life and stuff – just talk!”
“Very well. The coming of spring is very – regenerative.”
Alanee cannot help laughing. “Lots of plants and flowers; you know, growing things.”
Does he colour just a little? “I suppose so.” Then he notices: “Your hands! What have you done to your hands?”
“Oh nothing.” She has already forgotten the bruising she inflicted upon herself. “They don’t hurt me.” Unspoken, the words: ‘Only people can hurt me’ bring forth a truth. Physical injury is a consolation, a way to expiate the pain inside.
The gardens are quiet. A few older couples idle on the bridge while an odd drab or two can be seen beavering among flower-beds on the hill.
“You know, back in the Hakaan when I was a girl, spring was a season for new friendships. After the winter rains, just to come outside and sit on a riverbank like this, maybe with a boy you’d not really talked to before, was a great adventure. You might see something in his eyes that you liked, and he’d be shy, and neither of you could find much to say at first. But there’d be that instant when your arm might brush with his, and your hands might touch….” Scarcely aware of what she does, Alanee takes Celeris’s hand in hers… “Then you might turn and find your lips were close to his, and it would be so easy to kiss; but of course….” She turns, offering the invitation, then corrects herself swiftly, “This is not the Hakaan, and such behaviour in the Consensual City would be completely inappropriate, wouldn’t it?”
“Lacking sophistication.” He agrees.
“Quite uncouth!” Finally, with a laugh: “Are your eyes really black?”
“I do not know.” Celeris murmurs, his eyes seeming to get even blacker. He returns his gaze to the racing river. “The things you describe sound very attractive to me, Lady Alanee.”
For a while neither speaks. Alanee cradles his long, sensitive fingers in her hand.
They are alone. Even the drabs have shouldered their tools and departed for the evening. Her mind has a gentle music. She thinks of the treasures she might discover were she to delve deeper into her affinity with this enigmatic man; of the secrets she might find; the pleasures she might teach. At last, sighing, he asks if she has eaten: she shakes her head.
“I’m not hungry.”
Nodding as though he is conscious of the gravity of this moment, Celeris says: “Then I shall escort you to your door, Lady.”
“No.” Alanee declines. “I can’t go back there. There are cameras spying on me. I can never go back there again.”
Celeris registers no surprise at this – which Alanee can forgive: after all she imagines voyeurism is probably common practice in this loathsome place. He says quietly: “Very well; but you must have somewhere to sleep. The hour is late. Could I….dare I ….offer you my hospitality? I would not intrude.”
“Aren’t there cameras in your apartment too?” She reasons: “They’re everywhere, aren’t they?”
“My poor Lady!” His eyes are mirrors of her sadness. “You would be my honored guest. You have my word no-one will observe you!”
How quickly Alanee’s expression alters to one of open gratitude! “Then I would be honoured, Sire Celeris.”
“The honour, Lady, is all mine.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Not ‘Lady’ – ‘ba’.” Alanee takes his hand firmly, to be rewarded instantly by his powerful, confident grip – so much in contrast to the diffidence and uncertainty in the man – as he leads her back into the City.
© 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: Jan Kopriva on Unsplash