In the last episode:
Alanee, now officially the city’s Seer, is introduced to Cassix’s old apartment, and its peculiar array of wooden structures, artefacts, and mirrors. She is sad to discover how her promotion has altered her relationship with Sala, who makes it plain she must act as Ellar’s eyes and ears. In the midst of her depression, Celeris visits her, raising her mood, and they spend the night together.
Meanwhile, beside a river far away…
Dag Swenner’s body is healing well; a heat that spreads within him brings balm to each organ and limb, making each torn place whole, as though by needle and thread it is stitching him back together. Although he was on the brink of death, by some mechanism he cannot understand he is no longer dying: He has felt stronger, true, but minute by minute his vitality grows.
The stench has been intensifying, drifting upriver on the wind for more than a mile now, so the discovery of Ripero’s remains, though hardly recognisable from the scavengers’ touch, comes as no surprise to Dag. His first instinct would be to seek a burial place, but here among rocks and tree-roots, lacking any appropriate tools, he would find none: so he comforts himself with the evidence that Nature will take his rescuer to herself. All he can offer is a prayer for a soul already departed and this he does. He clambers by, greeting the new air thankfully.
Beyond the river bend the valley widens, where hills to either side sweep back, and tree cover is forest no more, but tranquil woodland. There is no tread of civilisation yet, but Dag expects it will not be long before he finds ground given to fields, a trodden path, the creatures of domesticity: he wonders then what sort of welcome awaits him – whether those who slaughtered the Dometians on the plain are intent upon his death, too. Whose company may he safely seek?
Alanee’s disappointment at waking to find Celeris’s space in her bed unoccupied is brief: after all, he was with her into sleep and she is sure he honoured his promise. She has slept late upon her draught of paia and loving contentment – now there are the challenges of a day to be met.
Tsakal in hand, she taps out the bookseller’s number on her summoner. He sounds chagrined. “Lady, you are a hard task-master. Yes, it is ready, but the glues must dry and the lock must be added. I shall have it completed by three.”
“Very well – thank you. Please place it in a plain box, then wrap it and have it sent up to the Seer’s chambers. No-one must open the wrapping or discover what is inside. I want it as a surprise for my coupling.” She knows this last excuse sounds lame, but she despises the need for artifice and is beginning to be careless of it. Besides, with Celeris so fresh in her thoughts, Hasuga’s schemes have suffered something of an eclipse.
Thus, with the matter of the faked book in hand, Alanee has time to reflect upon her night with Celeris. The warmth of his memory remains with her: his way of touching her, his consummate skill as a lover – how quickly he has learnt! A door chime disturbs her reverie. Sala stands outside.
“Are you going to admit me this time?”
“Yes, I’m sorry. Do come in, ba.” Alanee adds, defensively, “He isn’t here.”
Sala nods, dourly, “I know he isn’t.”
“You know? You saw him leave? I thought we agreed there were no cameras in here!”
“There are none in the chambers. But there are several in the corridor outside and one cannot move about the upper levels without surveillance. That’s nothing new – simply the way it’s always been.”
“I see. What time did he go? I wasn’t awake.”
Sala is looking at her curiously, as if she is trying to apply reason to something that doesn’t quite fit. All the evidence before her is of a woman who has passed a night with a man; and yet….
“He hasn’t left. He hasn’t left because he never came.”
Why does the cheap response in Alanee’s head make her want to smile? She avoids it. “Well, I’m sorry you missed him then…”
“I reviewed the surveillance after you turned me away and again this morning.” Sala puts her hands on Alanee’s shoulders; “Shortly after I left yesterday, you came to the door again. You opened it, but you did not step outside. You shut it. Later, drabs came – to clean for you, I assume. They left two hours before midnight. Meantime you had food delivered from the Caldeg Restaurant down the corridor. Then I came to see where you were and you shut the door in my face. No-one else has been here, and nobody has left. I’m the first one through that door since the drabs left you last night.” Sala exhales, as though she has expended all the breath in her body. “Now I’ll have a cup of your tsakal.”
Alanee cannot resolve the confusion in her mind. In the kitchen, she stumbles around clumsily as she puts the tsakal together, unable to think.
“That can’t be,” She protests: “Celeris was here.”
“Alanee! The truth?”
“Why would I lie to you? He must have some way – he must be able to deflect the cameras. The drabs: ask the drabs: they saw him here. The food delivery man; ask him.”
“Yes, we did ask him. You accepted the food at your door: he saw no-one else.”
“But Celeris was standing right behind me…”
“As for the drabs, there is something odd there, I admit. They were all personal servants of Sire Hasuga, not normally the grade of worker assigned to cleaning duties.”
“Did you ask them?”
“We can’t. They’re nowhere to be found.”
“They’re Sire Hasuga’s own complement, so he may dispose of them as he wants. He seems to have – well – disposed of them. We can’t track them down anywhere in the city.”
In Alanee’s mind there is a truth too awful to contemplate. She is so preoccupied she fails to notice how Sala’s pallor, as she stands in the doorway facing her, has changed. She does not see the mediator’s colour drain from her cheeks, or her wide, disbelieving stare.
A soft voice speaks from behind her left shoulder.
“You see me now.”
For a second time in a day, Sala’s self-assurance fails her, as a young nobleman, dressed in all the formal regalia of the city, materialises from empty air. At just this moment Alanee realises how she has brought Celeris to her: she, and someone else. And that someone….
“It is you, isn’t it?” She says.
Celeris answers: “You already knew that.”
“A hologram!” Sala snaps triumphantly. “A bloody hologram!”
Celeris smiles. He takes the cup of tsakal Alanee has prepared and brings it to Sala. He offers it to her shaking hand, and when she seems about to drop it he closes his own hands around hers, steadying her.
“Can a hologram do this?”
Agape, Sala cannot speak. She cannot look at him. She sinks back against the jamb of the door, trying to find her legs.
Alanee says, quietly and levelly: “Sala ba; greet Hasuga in one of his more attractive disguises. He also does a Music Man, if you’ve ever met one of those?” And of the beautiful man, she asks, stone-faced: “How did this happen?”
“You thought of me. You are troubled.”
“I make you appear?”
Celeris’s smile is suddenly quite child-like. “You and I, together. Part of me may be Hasuga, but Celeris is how you prefer to see me, so I am partly you.”
“You found your way – into my mind?”
“We both knew it would be so. Lady, I am The City. No-one is immune, not even you.”
“And so,” Alanee voice trembles: “You can turn my own mind against me? You can just use me? You can do that and I will just lie there and…and….you can violate me and nothing can stop you? You can make flesh that isn’t real?”
“I am real enough. You could have rejected me. You did not.”
“This morning, you deviant, I was debating in my head how I might be in love – in love – with you!” She spits out her words: “You made me love a fake, you bastard. From the fake bloody music in my head to the tailored-to-fit body to the marvellous bloody mind – all fake, fake, fake!”
She hurls the tsakal cup that she has made for herself. Celeris catches it calmly. “You would not accept me in Hasuga’s body. You are uncomfortable with that. This body is defined by the image in your mind. You chose it. Do you know that for each of my thousands of years I have never once thought how my body must look, until these last two cycles? Do you know how it feels to experience so many new sensations?”
Sala – where is Sala? She has retreated. She sits upon the edge of Alanee’s bed amid the ruck of unmade linen with head in hands.
In her kitchen Alanee is in full spate, somewhere between fury and bitterness, mortification and pure depthless misery: “Oh! And I’m meant to sympathise, am I? I’m meant to understand? Suppose all I see is the spoilt brat who gets what he wants? Who always gets what he wants? A spotty adolescent who plies my heart with tricks because he can and because it doesn’t matter to him – I’m just another ‘good game’.”
Out of breath, Alanee has to pause, clutching at herself to squash the emptiness inside. After all, how can you teach propriety to a child who has been pampered and spoilt for millennia? Where do you begin?
The dark-eyed figure is of Celeris, but the words are clearly Hasuga’s. He asks, without artifice: “I have done wrong?”
Alanee replies in crystals of ice. “I think that’s been the essence of the conversation so far, don’t you? Hasuga, you deceived me! You made me believe I could become close to someone again.”
“As in ‘love’? That is some special thing? My Mother often spoke of it.”
“No. Not that kind of love. Adult love; mature love.” Oh why is she explaining this? What on earth difference can it make?
“Procreation, then? That I understand.” Something in his reply does not balance with the unfeeling expression on his face. Alanee sees it. Has she struck a chord at last?
“You know it’s more than that.”
But he shakes his head and turns away. Perhaps to hide some manifestation of guilt, though Alanee cannot know it, and the moment, as so many of the great moments in her life since she entered The City, passes
Her fury has calmed, leaving a cavernous rancour in its wake. She is probing through darkness she experienced once, three years ago, and which she had wished never to revisit. Now it is here, closing around her, such that she cannot avoid the bitter edge in her voice. “Well, at least Sala’s convinced of your veracity now, and she’ll not keep the information to herself. How are we going to explain that away to my enemies in The City, Hasuga?”
“I am not Hasuga.” Celeris insists. “Hasuga is separate from me. I am a creation of you and Hasuga together. Hasuga may speak through me, and you may speak to Hasuga the same way, but we are not the same physical entity.”
“Somehow that seems to make very little difference.”
“Very well. Sala will not remember me when she leaves here. The memory remains yours alone.” Celeris takes Alanee’s hand. She snatches it away.
“Don’t touch me!”
“Is touching so abhorrent?” He frowns. “As you will. This message, Alanee, does come from Hasuga. You must bring him the book. The matter is urgent. If you do not believe this, see as only you can see. Look at the sky.”
“The book! The book! All that matters, then, is that I bring him this book that he is not supposed to read. If you can materialise as real people and blank Sala’s memory for her, why for Habbach’s sake do you need me to fetch your bloody book for you? You can dream up a High Councillor to just walk into the Inner Library and take the thing, can’t you? Or an army? Why not an army? You like war games, it should be simple for you!”
“No, not simple. You, Alanee; you alone must bring that book to Hasuga. When you do it, you will understand.”
Alanee says dully: “There is nothing I understand any more. Tell him…you…whichever you are, I’ll get the book. As for Celeris, I’d like him to leave now. I don’t want to see him again.”
She turns her back on him, unable to look at his innocent expression for another second. When she turns again, he is gone. Inside her head, though, his image remains: is it also still inside her heart?
She discovers Sala in her bedroom, seated on her bed. She feels compassion for the woman who was briefly her friend, although she believes she may never cross the wasteland that separates them again, because Sala is clearly ruined in spirit. Her incomprehension of what has passed haunts every word she speaks.
“Who – what was that? Man, machine, what? Have I just seen Habbach come to earth, Alanee? Is that what I just saw? I mean…” She spreads her hands, lost for speech.
“You met with Hasuga, or a least a part of him.” Alanee sits beside her, taking her cold hands in her own. “Sala-ba, when you walk away from here you’ll leave the pain behind, but maybe, I don’t know, you’ll see how things are. How they must be. Maybe that, if you can retain it somewhere, will be just enough to persuade you to think better of me. That’s all I can hope.”
Sala inclines her head, takes her hands away. The distance is restored. “My life is simple, Lady Alanee. There are things I do not want to see.”
Sadness upon sadness, then. Alanee nods, helps her rise, sees her to the door of the chambers. There she stands to watch Sala walk away, wondering if Celeris’s promise can possibly come true: after all she has heard and seen, will Sala remember nothing?
Left alone, she goes to the kitchen, needing the distraction of some functional thing to dissociate from thoughts that are not welcome, places in her mind she feels she may not go. So she makes tsakal for herself, cleaning up the mess she created when she threw her original drink at Celeris, preparing xuss bread even though she has no appetite, and nibbling at it as if it were a comforter. She makes her bed with fresh linen, takes the sheets she shared with Celeris into the kitchen. There, she drinks her drink and she contemplates the soiled linen for a while, as though it might give her answers to those elusive questions loitering outside the gates of her consciousness. Then she takes a knife and shreds the sheets methodically.
Returning to the forbidding, unfriendly reception room she ponders that silver orb upon its stand before the window.
‘Think of it as a sort of exercise for the psyche.’ Celeris had told her: when she had commented on its extreme weight, he had said, ‘Not for you’. But whose words are whose, now? Are they her own, from some inner ear? She does not want to go there: instead, she sits before the ball upon one of those unyielding chairs. She thinks of the Book of Lore at its station in the Council Room: how, merely for interest while Portis and Ellar were talking, she raised it from the surface of the table with just the power of her thoughts, then lowered it again.
“So now you.”
Without any particular effort of concentration, she makes the orb rise from its stand. It hangs, suspended, as if waiting for her command.
“Easy. Too easy.”
Now she focuses her thoughts upon it. She makes it spin. Gaining in confidence, she moves it laterally, away from its resting place, across the room. This is more difficult, as though some relationship exists between ball and stand that may not be easily severed, but she finds a thought – resentment of the misfortunes of the past hours – that releases it. Of a sudden it flies, leaping high into the ceiling of the room, darting towards the window.
“Whoa!” Alarmed, she shoots out a defending hand, making the orb stop instantly. Another discovery: the hand is a sensitive, precise tool; by pointing at the orb, she can make it obey. Alanee guides it back to its stand and as it settles, the wood flexes beneath its weight. Still she cannot believe what she has done. She wraps her arms about the orb, tries to lift it physically. It will not move.
“Was that me or you?” She pokes the question at empty air, but she knows Hasuga will answer. He does.
“It was you.”
The voice is so close, so immediate she glances around, convinced that Celeris has returned. The voice, though, is unmistakeably Hasuga’s. “You are here? Where are you?”
“Wherever you want me to be. We need not share the same room in order to communicate.”
It dawns upon Alanee that Hasuga’s replies do not come to her through her sense of hearing. She says aloud. “So now I can move things with my mind?”
“Telekinesis; a cheap party trick. Nevertheless it took Cassix twenty years to achieve a fraction of your success. That is just a beginning.”
“Oh, yes. A beginning? Where is this going Hasuga? Am I learning from you, or are you controlling me? Like the book in the Council Chamber?”
“You are learning. I told you I had given you power, didn’t I? Now you are gaining the knowledge you need to use your power. Meanwhile I am learning from you. You can have no idea how much I have to learn; or how little time there is to learn it.”
“Why such an obsession with time?” Alanee, from the Hakaan, has never been disposed to rush.
“Look at the sky, Alanee.”
“I’m looking at it! I’m just seeing sky.” The view from the window is of grey cloud. There are rain-flecks on the glass.
“Look in the mirrors. Gain their trust. I must leave you now.”
The feeling is of a switch being thrown inside her head. Suddenly she is alone and aware of it, left with the room’s cold echoes. The walls rise about her like the damp rock flanks of a deep chasm, a fissure in the construction of the City. She might even imagine the scent of moss, or the rhythm of dripping water.
Freedom of choice; if she really has power she has the strength to step aside from the path they, Hasuga, the High council, Sala, even Cassix would have her follow. She stares at the triptych of mirrors. With great deliberation, she turns her back.
© 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.