In the previous Episode:
While Alanee is making love to Celeris in his apartment she is hidden from Ellar the Mediant who, fearful what Alanee can do when she is not on her radar, sends Sala to search The City for her. Sala discovers her friend in the Grand Park in an apparently drugged state and takes her to her home so she may rest.
In Braillec, Commander Zess, deeply affected by the genocide of thousands of Dometians has abandoned his post, to seek expiation at the merciless hands of robbers on the highway, a fitting death sentence, as he feels, for his actions in the chain of his command. The robbers will throw his body into the canyon below Wagoner’s Leap.
Meanwhile, the one escapee from Zess’s purge lies helpless and dying on a forested riverbank, watched by scavengers eager to devour him…
Dag Swenner has lain motionless for many hours now, while the carrion creatures move ever closer. That drip of water which found its way to his pale lips ceased long since: the warmth from his body is all but gone. Cold is a friend, for it admits the sleep of death with quiet dignity, and this is neither a quiet nor a dignified place to die.
The snapping and snarling amongst those closest to the feast, wild dog and serval, tree rats and hyenas, is unceasing. The big cat is long dead, the man beside it defenceless: the bravest might rip an arm from him and be gone without fear, yet no creature will touch him. They sneak and creep in the cover of the woods, afraid of something, some other presence lurking there, something unseen. It is this way until morning comes, when first light dapples through the trees.
In Sala’s northern bed, Alanee stretches herself in sleep, dreaming of something – something she will not remember in the morning; of a forest, far away. And in that forest the eyes of a dying man blink open.
Day is well advanced when she wakes. A thought has entered her head that she would share, so she shakes Sala to consciousness.
Sala groans. “Him again!”
“I can prove he exists. Of course I can! He left his number on my summoner the other day.”
She jumps from the bed and searches through her jumbled clothing, producing the instrument triumphantly. “Here, see? Stop looking!” She throws her robe about herself to avert Sala’s hungry stare. Giggling, she stabs buttons. The giggling stops. “Only I can’t seem to find it? Sala – what can have happened to it? Could it be erased? Who could have erased it?”
Sala shakes her head sadly. “I’ll get us some breakfast.” She slides from the bed and then the room, not troubling to put on a robe for herself.
“No. I’m not hungry, really. I must get back to my apartment. There are some new clothes there I have to try on.”
Sala’s expression conveys her belief that this is the lamest excuse she has ever heard. “In front of those cameras?”
“Maybe they’ve gone. I told Lady Ellar I wanted them taken out. I have to think. This afternoon perhaps we could look for a new place?”
Sala contacts Ellar as soon as Alanee has left, a loyalty she owes her patron. But Ellar’s reply to her summoner – “Say nothing now. We will meet in the gardens.”- is a surprise.
The gardens beyond the city walls greet her with the bright optimism of spring. Ellar, formally attired in her court robe, waits where a bridge of weathered redwood crosses one of many brooks which feed the ornamental ponds as they descend, step by step, to the river.
“You discovered her, Sala.” Not a question: just a statement of fact. “Is she stable?”
This choice of adjective takes Sala aback. “She seems well enough, Lady. We stayed together in my apartment last night. She left just before I called you.”
“Where was she? How did she evade us?”
Again, that curious choice of phrase; “Evade, Lady?”
“Come Sala! You know very well how closely she must be watched. Where was she?”
“She was with a man. A man she claims she has been with before; at the spring celebration.”
“Who? With whom?”
“A bit of a rogue by her account. He upset her.”
“Who, girl? Who?” Ellar’s impatience is not typical of her.
“He called himself ‘Celeris’. I checked. No such person. Whoever he is, he’s using a false name. If we could catch him we could charge him with that offence at least, but in that perverse way of Alanee’s she seems inclined to defend him. And she was vague about where he lives, or what he does in The City. Very strange.”
“Merely a liaison, then,” Ellar sounds relieved, “She is found. That is good. I will investigate this ‘Celeris’.”
Both stare down at the water. “Sala, you hold a position of great trust. Greater than you know.”
“We meet here so we are not overheard; our words may never be repeated, you understand?”
“In my work, child, I have to constantly reconstruct a bridge – just like this bridge – between two worlds; The City on one side, The Land on the other. And whether I like it or not, Alanee has become the pier upon one side of the water: she holds the stability of the city in her thrall. My difficulty, but at the same time my great relief, lies in her ignorance of her true position. My fear is that she may, unwittingly, put all of us into danger.
“So, you are her friend: are you her lover? No, I thought not. But you are her confidante. Encourage this, Sala: talk to her, elicit her thoughts, lend her your arm, your shoulder, whatever she may want from you. And bring all you learn back to me, do you understand? All. It is vital, Sala.”
“No more than is my duty, Lady. Of course I shall.”
Shocked by Ellar’s evaluation of Alanee, Sala’s thoughts fill with the memory of a figure. He sits across a desk – a big, pedagogic desk of shiny red burr-cherry upon which he plays a little table game among his papers with sticks and a ball. Professor Leitz, a small, rotund man with a short white beard and kind grey eyes has gone now, died some years ago, but his image and his words never leave her. Today, as he sits behind that desk, his stubby fingers running thoughtfully through the white hairs at his neck, she is eighteen, ready to leave the Porstron for the greater world.
“Sala my dear you always had a penchant for the divisive, didn’t you? Argue, argue, argue! Passion, too, I shouldn’t wonder. So why do you choose to train as a Mediator? The challenge to your intellect, I suppose. Well, you have that challenge: you will be constantly forced to make the choice between loyalty and love when the two should be on the same side but aren’t: you will sacrifice friends, colleagues, everything to the cause of expediency. Is it for you, do you think? Should you devote your life to betrayal, simply as an exercise? Think profoundly, Sala. Think long.”
Well, she did think long. She accepted her challenge, and it has come to stab her through the heart time after time. Now Alanee; so is she, should she be, intrigued by the importance Ellar places upon her friend – or is Alanee just another knife? Whatever the truth, she sees her role has changed. She must take care.
Ellar watches her turn back towards the City with a new weight upon those graceful shoulders, feeling reasonably content because she knows Sala is her best, the recommendation of Professor Leitz all those years ago, and because the girl’s inspired excellence was honed to perfection by her own hand.
Ellar could not define precisely when her feelings concerning Alanee began to change, only that they are very much changed. Reports reach her hourly, tales of excitable activity from Hasuga: wild thoughts so dominant and inviolate the customary filtration process of The City can no longer moderate them. Alanee’s influence is surely responsible for most. Out there (she looks towards the distant horizon of the mountains) the people are paying her price. Whatever follows, Sala’s abilities will be put to the supreme test.
Alanee neither knows nor understands why she has to be alone that morning, only that it must be so. The compulsion to take leave of her friend has its own momentum, as if she is driven by some force outside herself. The clothes she collected from the dressmakers the day before have no bearing upon it: they are just the excuse Sala supposed them to be, but something makes her run through the blocks of the city until she reaches her home avenue, and that same insistent impulse overcomes her revulsion at any thought of spying lenses. Still she pauses within her street door, to read a terse note that is pinned above her mirror in the foyer.
‘All cameras removed. By order of Lady Ellar, Mediant’.
The clothes are much as she left them, hanging on the wardrobe wall. Someone has moved them, but they are all there. Her bedclothes, her furnishings, though slightly altered in arrangement, are clean and tidy. Although everything has been disturbed, nothing is missing, nothing is soiled; unless she considers the small pile of leaves lying upon her coverlet an exception – the same leaves she gathered at the riverside the day before! The very same leaves she has dismissed as a dream, exactly as she dreamt them, still damp from the rain!
Not a dream, then, but how did they come to be there?
They are real enough. She picks up each of them delicately and in a sequence. From where her guidance comes she has no notion; any more than she understands why she must press the foliage to her as she did at the river. The urge is fierce, undeniable. Immediately, a fire ignites inside her; a flame so intense she must respond by pressing the poultice to herself harder and yet harder, as if to extinguish it. The heat expresses itself in dart-like needles, sparks that fly about her body, burning sharply, deeply. Not today the gentle permeating warmth of the afternoon before – this is agonizing, searing, cauterizing: though all the while, through each torso-wrenching lance there is an otherness, a separation. That feeling alone keeps Alanee from screaming aloud, for although her flesh is tortured she is certain the damage is not hers, and somehow her strength will heal another’s wounds, though she does not know who, or where, that other may be.
For a writhing hour the pain consumes her. Morning becomes afternoon before the effort of healing abates: until, in a bed soaked with her perspiration, she may sleep, exhausted, for much of the remaining day. In this time Sala will call and receive no answer: Lady Ellar will page her insistently; but Alanee will not stir. Only when Valtor the Convenor’s insistent buzz wracks her inner ear will she wake, and only to Hasuga’s summons will she answer.
“Are you stronger now?”
Hasuga sits with his back to her in his bedroom, his misshapen silhouette distinct against the evening light from his window. Around him, the machine has grown again and Alanee is more than a little nervous of it: she has seen what Hasuga can make it do.
“Stronger?” She no longer addresses him as ‘Sire’ for she does not respect him. Ascending through the Palace to this place she has wondered how she will face him, after his cruelty.
“The task you have performed requires strength and fortitude,” He turns to her swiftly; “You will have been tired, weakened.”
“Explain.” She can outface him, she feels: “What ‘task’, Hasuga?”
“Healing is a task. To heal others you must first experience their pain, share their wound, take it upon yourself. That weakens. Now you must share the recuperation.”
“Truly?” Alanee returns his scrutiny blankly, “So you think I was healing someone? How would you know? I told Ellar I wanted the cameras out – are you still spying on me?”
“I do not need cameras, although they are fascinating, I admit. I do not like the ‘spying’ word. I have to learn, Lady Alanee.”
“About me?” Alanee snaps bitterly, “You’ve stripped me bare. I’ve no secrets. No secrets and no dignity.”
Hasuga manages a wan smile, “The things I have to learn about you are things you do not know yourself. Come.” He reaches for her hand. She snatches it away. “Let us walk outside.”
“If you command it I suppose I must,” She will not disguise the loathing in her voice: “Just don’t touch me!”
She follows Hasuga’s loping stride through the marble-pillared room with its colourfully decorated murals. They still warm the chill heart of this immense space, though there are subtle strokes of an artist’s brush here and there, hints of incipient change. The fantastic machines have grown in majesty, high of gantry and noble of spire.
Those animals so cosily humanised when last Alanee saw them are pure now, their anthropomorphic features over-painted with fleet, graceful features that depict their own natural beauty. They run, rest, or feed on landscapes so brilliantly real she feels the breeze from distant tempura mountains upon her cheek, even thinks that once or twice those sleek antelope heads lift to watch her pass.
But it is within the body of the room that the greatest alterations have been wrought. No more the dolls houses, models and toys of a few days since: now the basic furniture plays host to a bizarre collection of ephemera more suited to Hasuga’s student phase. There are several anatomical models, including a human skeleton which reclines upon the chaise longue with its metacarpals riveted convincingly about a wine-glass. A flight simulator for an aerotran occupies one corner, exercise machines that would be the envy of any private gymnasium and a climbing frame scatter randomly about amid antique instruments, shards of broken pots, diagrams and print-outs of illimitable complexity.
The garden, by contrast, is no longer bathed in the summer heat of her last visit. The plants have returned to their proper cycle, as yet only budding themselves for the coming summer, while the fountain plays into a chill spring sky where sunset is already fading. Alanee cannot suppress a shiver.
“Must we be outside, it isn’t exactly warm, is it?” She growls, “Or are you going to perform your summer garden trick?”
“No. That would attract notice. If we do not draw attention to ourselves we may speak more freely here. But there is a warmer corner; we can talk there, if you wish.”
Beyond rows of immaculate borders where crocuses and sun-daisies are already shutting up shop for the night, and past newly-planted beds towards the lower end of the lawns, in a corner of the garden’s high wall, there is a summer house, a small, hexagonal wooden hut with lead glass windows and a pagoda roof. Hasuga invites her to sit within it: its benches are hard, worn and devoid of paint, but its shelter, Alanee will admit, does offer warmth.
“We are unobserved in this place.” He explains, and Alanee thinks she detects a leer in his voice. “In the city everybody watches everybody. Now you have insisted upon the removal of your cameras they must find another way to observe you: they will do it. In the meantime you – we – have some space.”
“Why do we want space?” It is dark in the summer house; she can hear his breathing though she cannot clearly see him. “Why don’t you want them to see us?”
“Because there are things – intimate things we must speak of together.” His breath is strong and rapid. He has moved closer in the darkness.
Where does it come from, this sudden feeling of threat? And why does she feel powerless to resist it? Is she so tired? She should not have answered his summons, not tonight. “You said you wanted to talk,” she reminds him, coldly. “I don’t want you close to me, Hasuga. Do you understand?”
“Am I so repulsive in your eyes? If I asked your forgiveness would you…”
She cuts him off. “Cold or not, I think I would rather be outside!” Her heart is pounding and her words come in a rush. She is on her feet moving purposefully towards the door when his arm shoots out, detaining her. “Let go of me, Hasuga! What are you doing?”
His grip is invincible as steel and she is being drawn back into the gloom. For the first time in his company she can feel the pulsing heat of his flesh pressed to hers, hear the feverish excitement in his sharp command. “Sit down! Now!”
Upon a wooded river bank far away a hyena has waited patiently for a day and a night. It is characteristic of her breed, this persistence which has no quality of stillness and is by no means restful for the beast. She has cubs to feed. Pacing, whimpering, yapping, she has passed the hours in a torment of indecision: should she attack or should she flee? And now it seems both the sources of meat in front of her are lifeless and cold, why does she still hang back? Why do the hairs on her brindled spine bristle with fear? What is wrong?
The dogs, the wild cats, the rats – they all sensed it. In the night they slunk away, seeking other game. But that is not the hyena’s way. Where there is meat….
The smallest creatures of the forest are aware of it too. Although an unmoving demi-corpse, a massive hulk of protein lies across their path they have contented themselves with just the cougar’s carcass. No leach has attached itself to pale human flesh, no worm or louse has found a path of entry: the man-figure that lies so motionless beside the cat is somehow inviolate, in the protection of something unseen.
The hyena decides the time has come. Hunger draws her forward, terror holds her back. In distant cries of her cubs far away, the demon hunger wins the battle round by round, step by step. Snarling, snapping yellow teeth inches now from Daag’s face, stale dog-breath hot on his cheek – ready for the bite, the ripping, tearing bite…..
Perhaps the hyena has not seen the corpse’s fingers move, or its hand close around the gun; or perhaps it moves as she moves, when she is already committed to the lunge. She hears the explosion, though, feels the missile searing through her scrawny chest. And before she expires she sees the food she should have spurned glare with flaming eyes down upon her, as Daag Swenner, reborn, rises from the floor of the forest.
© 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.
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