From the previous Episode:
Alanee is summoned to Hasuga’s presence once again, and she finds him in unpleasant mood. He forces her to watch a grotesque hologram performance of her intimate moments with Celeris, and shows her in life-size detail the accident that caused her husband’s death. Reeling from the repugnance she feels she seeks solace in the quietness of the gardens by the River Balna. She is contemplating a plunge into the icy waters when Celeris finds her.
“There has been a crisis.” Over the summoner Lady Ellar’s voice is dry and abrupt.
Sala drags herself upright in her bed, pushes her hair back from her face. “Alanee? Why, what’s gone wrong?”
“Don’t concern yourself with that. Just find her. And Sala?”
“You may acquire certain knowledge. Try to stem any indiscretions, but if necessary special status will be given to you. You need not fear repercussions if you bring the things you learn directly to me. To me alone, do you hear?”
Sala closes the connection before she punches the pile of bedclothes beside her. “Come on big boy, time you went home!”
From the fortress town of Braillec there is a road which unites that great bastion with its fiefdom and, ultimately, with the outside world. This thoroughfare links the ten villages that are the Braillec nation and which, by the sweated labour of their slightly proportioned yet physically very tough citizens, supply iron and precious metals to the Consensual City itself.
It is, therefore, a road of some consequence: its paving is conscientiously tended, its length rigorously patrolled by Braillecci police. Convoys of wagons pass through constantly, vying for space with transporters, bicyclists and animal herds in an unceasing cacophony of shouts, hoots and bellowing rage. There is no remission in winter or summer, night or day.
The Braillec Highway, for so it is known, is no easy route. All of Braillec but a few paltry square miles to the Country’s east is mountainous, so of necessity the Highway must be mountainous too, with high passes, precipitous cuts along canyon walls, dark tunnels and hairpin turns that constantly challenge the senses: gradients so sharp the summits are provided with winding engines for the heaviest loads, that in a matter of minutes can turn into glacier or river in winter snow or spring rain. The steeper reaches of that section of road which rejoices in the name of ‘Wagoner’s Edge’ are littered with shrines to departed travellers whose bodies are never retrieved, so deeply unreachable are the canyons through which it must pass. At intervals along the way the ten villages, often clinging to slopes little better than a rocky scree, with their houses or businesses carved into the mountainside, or perched on precarious trestles that may have defied centuries but threaten every day to be their last, offer rest and refreshment.
There is, in truth, little of either to be had. The citizens of these snake-and-ladder townships are of mining stock, gritty moles who burrow in rock for ten-hour shifts and whose morals are subject to erosion by night, daylight or liquor Their diet of wheat-porridge and mutton is not to everyone’s taste, nor is their hobby of nocturnal thieving. Whoever stays in one of the wayside inns that lie in wait beside the Braillec Highway should bring his own lock for his door and never ever turn his back upon it.
Small wonder, then, that all who can travel by air when they enter or leave Braillec. Only the poorest, the bravest and the most foolish take the land route. No women travellers use the Highway, though there are women on it, women who make their living from it. And the men who choose to hazard their fortune on the journey do so for their own reasons. Which is why, perhaps, on this afternoon at the height of the spring rains Commander Zess is to be found in Turkalar, fourth of the ten villages, slumped over a bar known as Kapper’s.
Kapper’s with a hole in the roof which leaks; water on wood: “Drip – drip – drip.”
“Who are you, my friend?” The barman is wiping out a glass with a towel that has wiped too many glasses.
“I? My name is Zess. Commander Zess. I am a Commander, you know?”
“Oh certainly!” The barman smiles. “The stamp of authority is unmistakeable. The moment you fell through the door, I knew.”
Drip – drip – drip. Rainwater; gathering on the pinewood bar-top, seeping through a split in the wood. Ebbing away; all thought, all feeling, all future. Drip – drip – drip.
“I am the Commander!”
“Yes Sah!” An old man with a glass eye and glassier stare from his good eye does his best to snap to attention. Two younger men in leather porters’ aprons further down the room laugh loudly.
“Take ne notice of Pashi, Commander-sir. He don’t know his chair from his arse.”
Drip – drip –drip.
Zess eyes these jesters through his misted lens of cheap perl. The stuff of the ranks. Proteian whippets both: lean of sinew, receding foreheads befitting those who have no need of brain. Neither clean, nor soiled, but blackened by life: one with a livid scar like a lightning strike across his cheek; the other with lips plastered against his face, thick and flat, as though applied by a coarse inexpert brush. Strange that these should be his chosen: strange, but right. They will not know how carefully he has picked them – they have not mind or sight for that: but that does not matter. They are chosen.
“’Spect you’ll be sleepin’ here tonight?”
Until now the enigmatic young woman has not spoken. She was there when he entered an hour since, seated at the bar, watching idly the contents of her glass, swilling the reflections so they stir to fire once in a while, then taking a sip – one sip.
Black hair in a thick fringe, a wig fringe. White skin, glossy lips, dressed to undress, fabric straining about full breasts, fuller hips. Red shoes – he will remember the red shoes.
An offer that is simple, direct: a woman not accustomed to negotiation – not among the herders of oxen, the wagoners, the drivers of sheep.
“You’ll think me brazen.” Dying eyes raised to his. “I’m not a fool, Commander. I was not born to be here.”
“I know that.”
“Do you? Do you know?” She moves in. “Manda. That’s my name, Mr. Zess. I was a courtier once.”
This brings a cynical bray of laughter from the other end of the bar. Manda ignores it. “Buy me a drink?”
The drink she holds is unfinished. This is a ritual: an enunciation: by this drink I thee procure: to have and to hold for a period not exceeding eight hours and subject to such further fees as shall be accrued in representation of services rendered…..Zess accepts the contract with a glance, signs his name by a purchase.
“What are you drinking, Manda?”
“Sumthin’ to cure the spots that weep!” Says the thick-lipped Proteian, and the barman laughs: but neither misses the wad of credits Zess produces from his pocket. “Oh, the’s picked a good ‘un here, Manda! Treat un’ special tonight an’ you’ll be able to retire!”
“Aye! Start that seafood business you been plannin’ fer.”
“Where’s your place?” He asks. He would not delay.
“Come on.” The jesters exchange glances; nod.
The deed is done. In Manda’s professional grasp Commander Zess is led to the street where sentence will be carried out. Those he has selected as his executioners will follow distantly at first, like hyenas; pacing, vulpine. In dark shadows, under dripping eaves where none may see Manda steps aside: the blow is fell and merciful. The last sight with which Zess departs his world, the exculpation for the ten thousand souls he has sent before him, is a pair of red shoes.
It is a dark night, and long. A profitable one, for two young men in leather aprons and a nervous, hungry woman with ashen face who stares disbelieving at the badge concealed beneath Zess’s coat.
“Je-Habba! He really is a Commander! ‘Tis only Commander Zess, that’s all!”
“The’s jokin’!” The thick-lipped man glares at the body with linx-like suspicion.
“No I aren’t.” Manda shows him the evidence; “Oh Habba – Habba -Habba meh! We’re done for now!”
The scarred man is counting Zess’s credits. “In Braillec he was Commander. Here he’s just a mark.”
Manda’s eyes are wild with fear: “What to do? What to do? There’ll be a manhunt!”
Unperturbed, or seeming so, the scarred one offers her a share of the Commander’s wealth but she shies away.
“I’m not touchin’ that!”
“Don’t be a fool to yerself! Look at me! Was he ever here? Was he? Them in there won’t say nowt, not if the’ dun tell ‘em.”
Manda falls silent, trembling.
“Strip ‘un!” The scarred man says. “Strip everythin’ from un an’ burn it in yer grate tonight, girl. Will the’ do that?” He takes her shoulders, shakes her roughly. “Will the’?”
She nods, struck dumb by terror.
“Ah. An’ us’ll get Passa’s old cart and have ‘un up to Wagoner’s Edge. Wor’ll throw ‘un in the canyon: ‘E’ll never be found girl. Never. An’ you’ll say nothin’, do the’ hear?”
A frantic Sala has called at Alanee’s apartment to find the door ajar. A squad of City Service drabs are working, mysteriously, upon the tiles of Alanee’s bedroom ceiling. “What are you doing?”
“Official work, Lady.” The gang leader is non-committal.
“Where is the lady who lives here?”
“Don’t know. Haven’t seen her.”
Alanee has no limiter, therefore she cannot be tracked. Sala calls her summoner several times – it does not answer. For an hour she probes the main avenues, but there is no sign of her friend. She attends Ellar in her surveillance suite. The screens for every camera in the city are displayed before them.
“She walked to the river this afternoon, before I learned there might be a problem.” Ellar tells her. “I know she returned to the City, but since then I haven’t been able to find her, she doesn’t appear anywhere.”
“I imagine the Grand Park is too obvious?”
“There it is.” Ellar waves a hand at a dozen separate screens. “No sign of her. She seems to have completely disappeared.”
“Oh, Celeris, this is beautiful!”
They are together in his rest-place and he is bathing Alanee’s wounded knuckles, his delicate fingers smoothing healing comfort into her livid flesh. And each stroke brings a tiny shiver of pleasure as she imagines those soft hands caressing all of her body. Too soon he is finished, towelling her gently dry, and that sets her imagining, too.
“Come, I will show you your room.”
How had Alanee imagined Celeris’ apartment would be? Small and intimate, or vast and echoing? As warm as his touch, or as cold as his eyes? It is neither.
Beyond the door of one of those characterless lobbies that seem to be shared by all apartments in the City is a mezzanine overlooking an elliptical room. Steps lead down, following a wall hung with pieces of expensive graphic art.
The living space is furnished with formal seating dressed in vivid colour. Art dominates: handmade furniture ornamented by vases and figurines that are perfect exemplars of the potter’s craft; tiny holograms add movement to the static feast, a green fish lazily swimming in its own ghostly mist of ocean about the floor, a dancer cavorting with balletic grace upon a high table at the far wall, three white gulls making noiseless circles overhead.
Portals lead to bedrooms, a rest-place, a kitchen, a darkened passage. Windows are high up: they afford no view, only light. Even now, although Alanee knows it must be dark outside, they beam down in an imitation of setting sunlight, bathing everything with the tranquil ambience of dusk.
“You must be exhausted!” He exclaims.
The room to which he leads her is so perfectly attuned to her taste she feels almost as though she were back in her Hakaan homeland. Two imposing terra-cotta vases stand each side of a wide, grey bed, its covers trimmed with rich damask. Furniture – a dressing table, chairs, a side table – in silvered blue arrayed against corn-yellow walls. Projected white clouds drifting lazily across a ceiling of summer sky lift her depression from her like a veil, such that she finds herself laughing with sheer delight.
“You are pleased?”
“How could I not be? It’s just so…it’s magical!”
She kisses him chastely on the lips, thinking perhaps the kiss will be lost in the spontaneity of the moment. Those mysterious eyes betray his thoughts as he lets his finger-tips gently play across her mouth. They linger close. His breath is so sweet, almost honeyed, that she cannot resist tasting it once more; this time for much longer.
Celeris draws back hastily, “I will, of course, give you every privacy…”
With a finger to his lips, Alanee stills him. “No.”
He is awkward, apprehensive, “Some drinks perhaps?” Resting her forehead to his she can feel the tension in him, the trembling of instincts more powerful than he can understand.
“No.” She tells him kindly, “Thank you, ba, but no.”
“Then I must leave you!”
In whispers, “Not this time.”
Her mind is filled with music, as undeniable and compulsive as the Music Man’s song. “Help me to forget, my ba. There are things I have seen today, dreadful, cruel things. If I go to sleep with them in my head they will be with me forever. I need you to drive them away.”
“To my shame…if I stay here longer…” Celeris’s voice drops to a timbre of despair. “When I am near you…”
Alanee does not let him run from her, not this time. “I know, darling. Yet you shouldn’t be ashamed. You don’t understand, do you? Let me help you learn.”
“Learn.” His voice has suddenly steadied. “Learn to suppress what I feel?”
Alanee grins wickedly, “No, no – rather the reverse.”
Alanee guides him to the bed, where she sits, cradling him in her arms as she might a child, and child he becomes, mewling in infant parody, curling into her, so needing comfort that she would hold him to her breast if she could, but as manhood swiftly overcomes the child she cannot resist his impatience. Everything inside him is triggered to explode in one climactic act and, with resignation that the lesson will be brief, she contents herself with gentle guidance.
The time for restraint is past. Everything is past almost before it has had time to begin and yes he has cried out in ecstasy and pain and yes, he was clumsy – a little too self-indulgent maybe – a little too rough: a little too proud in conquest, his black-eyed face a mask of triumph. Alanee has not seen it, though. Whether act of love or desperation, she could only feel – her eyes closed, her back arched, she has taken to herself a seed as hot and electric as its sower, while her head dreamt of the Hakaan Plain and birdsong in the summer sun.
When they have surfaced from their dreamt-of union and Celeris is lying beside Alanee while her fingers are playing light as eider-down over his pale cheeks; as her sweet mind-music fades, she seeks a promise: “Never leave me?”
He responds: “I won’t.”
Alanee holds his shoulders, so he must look at her. “I mean it. Don’t die on me Celeris! Never die!”
And he replies with all the honesty in his being: “For you, Alanee, I will never die.”
But now, in the silence after the music has gone, the honesty she doubts is her own. What did she truly seek; protection, care, even love? A few seconds of fulfilment and a falling back, contentment on the sheets, away from the cruelty, the artifice of The City? Is that worth words like ‘never’? The years of slumber have vanished from her, the closet of her desires has opened to him, but the nagging guilt remains stubbornly inclosed. Because of a dead man’s memory? No, because despite her determination, she cannot forget.
Celeris turns his head, speaks: “Now that is a very, very good game.”
The words take time to permeate, But they do.
“A good game?”
She stares, almost doubting whose form she will see lying at her side.
A very, very good game.
Alanee takes a few seconds to gather herself, telling herself that nothing should shock her anymore. Then, sighing, she slips from the sheets, feeling his eyes on her back as she goes naked to the rest-place.
In the shower she knows he is watching, as she dries herself, too. As she dresses his eyes never leave her, yet she does not feel threatened by him. His look expresses curiosity, not hunger.
“You are going?” He sounds surprised. “Have I not pleased you?”
Alanee manages a smile. “Almost too much, ba.”
He does not ask when he might see her again. He does not even say goodbye as she drifts aimlessly from his door.
Sala finds her in the Grand Park, dawdling by the water where ornamental birds roost. Dark little shadows in the artificial blue of a moon-orb that tracks across the domed roof, they scuffle and cluck annoyance at her pale, intruding feet,
“Alanee-ba, thank Habbach! Where have you been, my darling?”
Alanee greets her concern with vague surprise. “You’ve been looking for me? Why?”
“You just went missing. I mean, vanished! Everyone’s been going mad looking for you!”
“Ah yes. I’m not meant to vanish, am I?”
Sala looks at her curiously. “Someone has done something to you. Alanee, are you hurt? What happened, ba?”
“Nothing I shouldn’t have expected, I suppose. I was with Celeris, in his apartment.”
“Celeris. Celeris the non-existent,” Sala says, frowning. “Alanee, there is no such person. I looked through the census. There is no Celeris listed in the City. Now, where does he live, this man?”
‘Over there’. Alanee is about to say, to wave with an airy finger at the avenue by which she has just returned, but she fails to recognise it in the darkness. “Somewhere over there.”
She cannot focus. Sala is gripping her shoulders with a fierce expression. “You’ve been drugged. Habmenach! I am too trusting of this place! I should never have left you to its mercies. Come now, ba; we’ll get you home.”
“Not to my apartment. No. Not my apartment. Cameras.”
If Sala finds the remark odd she does not question it. “Then mine. You must rest.”
This night Alanee finally spends in Sala’s bed, nestled in the arms of her friend who, despite her pain, asks nothing in return.
© 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.