In the previous Episode:
Ellar doubts Sala’s loyalty, as the mediator seems unable to elaborate upon her encounter with Celeris. Alanee employs a friend of Toccata’s to ‘remodel’ Casix’s old chambers. Finally left to herself, she is able to study the mirrors. They reveal a doorway to the wooden room and an ancient figure sitting within it, then show images of her home village, ruined and deserted. Before she can turn away, they force her to witness reflections from an apocalypse in which thousands die.
While the High Council meets to discuss Trebec’s report in The City, Dag finds civilization in the river valley, only to be captured…
Trebec’s report has been heard in solemn silence. While the High Council ruminates, The old General himself sits contemplating the fold of his fingers across his ample belly. At length, the Domo asks: “How many?”
“Ten thousand,” Trebec mutters into his chins.
“Ten thousand.” Leaden words. “And the injured, the unhomed?”
The Domo murmurs, “It is dispensed with, then. Let the matter rest.”
“Sire! No, Sire!” Carriso’s protest echoes among the vaulted hammer beams of the Council Chamber: “This can never rest!”
“Carriso,” The Domo soothes. “It is all that could be done.”
“They were people! They were injured, burned, deformed by grief, and we slaughtered them like pigs! That is a crime of unforgivable immensity!”
Trebec raises eyes in which each blood vessel may be traced, like distributaries of an arcuate delta. “You, Carriso, you have no blame in this – it is my sleep that will be sacrificed, not yours.”
Carriso snaps back. “Aye – but my people, not yours, who were condemned.” He rounds upon the Domo. “How do we justify this deed; how?”
Remis intercedes. “If a citizen is deprived of Word even for a day his loyalty will be affected. For a cycle…” He shrugs his shoulders. “They were irretrievable, Carriso. Nothing could be done.”
Carriso is far from placated. “Nothing? How should I accept ‘nothing could be done’? We must ‘accept’; always, always ‘accept’. Death is a price we pay, in our thousands and tens of thousands, for our unquestioning acceptance!’.”
Trebec shakes his head. “If it consoles you at all, and I know it won’t, those who died by our hand were few in comparison with those eradicated by the actual event. This evil, whatever it was, turned the whole of the North Dometian Plain and the Kaal Valley into a wasteland, a grey desert. I cannot imagine how anything will ever thrive there again.”
Selech, who Cassix once named the ‘Continuum Dissident’, asks. “Was it a volcanic event, an earthquake?”
“Cassix would say, indeed Cassix did say, it was the Continuum,” Calvin the Ancient challenges: “We have a new Seer, do we not? Why is she not here?”
The Domo says; “She is too fresh in her position to be of value. We need not trouble her with this.”
“But if the affair concerns the Continuum?”
“Continuum, Continuum, Continuum!” Selech vents his frustration. “Has anyone apart from Cassix seen this damned Continuum? Or is his departed word all we have to vouch for its existence?”
Ellar says quietly: “I have seen it. Cassix showed it me.” She rises to her feet. “It does exist, sires; and in Cassix’s last days he was deeply concerned at its growth, both in size and strength.”
“This Hakaani stripling….” Trebec returns to the conversation. “Was Cassix delusional, or does she have even a fraction of his gifts?”
“I do not know, Sire. She certainly appears to have visions.”
“And we must be content with that.” The Domo says, with an air of finality. “She is not here, so we must move on. Are there any other matters concerning Sire Trebec’s report?”
“Yes.” Carriso has been tapping his frustration upon the edge of the Council table. Now his anger bursts out in speech. “I ask that Sire Trebec’s conduct be investigated by the Criminal Court.”
The Domo nods. “I expected no less. Your charge?”
Trebec looks up sharply. The Domo draws a breath. “Very well. A little strong, though, sire, wouldn’t you say?”
“What else was it?” Carriso asks. “And to you, sire….” This in Trebec’s direction: “For your crime against my people, I withdraw the hand of friendship.” He turns back to the Domo: “I also demand that the Seer be summoned. There is no precedent for a meeting of High Council without that office, and I suggest it is dangerous. She may be able to prevent another similar tragedy.”
The Domo sighs. He has no choice.
Valtor’s nervous buzz is a surprise to Alanee, though not entirely an unwelcome one: four glasses of paia and the arrival of Sala have raised her mood to a point where she would entirely erase the manner of her friend’s last departure from her mind, yet Sala is unresponsive to her acclamation of Prinius’s improvements; “See how much he has done already!” and after waving at the obstinately hideous wooden ‘shed’ “Even he can’t think of anything to do with that!” she is lost for words. Sala’s conversation stares like an old blade – monosyllabic replies, devoid of reactions.
“They want me at the High Council. Oh, Habbach, now what have I done? Sala-ba, you will have to take me. I don’t know the way! You know it, don’t you?”
“Valtor will come for you. You should wear the robe.”
Alanee rushes to the bedroom. She calls through: “You don’t want to be here, do you?” And when Sala doesn’t respond: “They’ve instructed you to be here. To watch me, yes?”
The door chime sounds. Alanee returns, her robe hurriedly thrown about her. “Do I look alright? No, don’t answer that. Sala, while I’m away, dearest, get drunk, will you? Paia there, look? Get horribly, revoltingly drunk and when I come back we’ll talk. OK? Love you!”
She breezes out into the obsequious gale of Valtor. “May I say, Lady, how wonderful it will be to have a lady as our Seer? We are truly blessed by Sire Cassix’s percipience, although I lament his passing; I do, of course. Of course, very sad. A great loss. So noble…”
“Yes, Valtor dear. You can stop now. We’re all very sad.”
The Convenor leads her deceptively quickly along softly carpeted corridors to an elevator the interior of which is as lavishly appointed as any wealthy noble’s reception room. Gilt-framed chairs upholstered in plush blue velvet, a series of masterfully executed graphics depicting rural scenes around its dark red walls, subdued, honeyed light. The only mild surprise is an artistically drawn and very buxom nude on the rear wall (Alanee thinks she can guess at whose wish that was included).
Valtor nods in a manner which contrives to look as if he is bowing. “The picture was of his selection, yes. The others show each of the great nations: Mansuvenia, there; there Braillec…”
Alanee stops listening. After a brief descent, the elevator passes beneath the courtyard of the palace; and ascends once more. The doors open directly onto the council ante-chamber.
“Lady, are you prepared for their Sire-ships?”
“Sire-ships?” Alanee tries to dispel the image that instantly forms in her mind of the Domo as a galleon in full sail, but she is still stifling laughter as the Convenor throws open the doors of the Council Chamber, and sixteen expectant faces turn in her direction. At the sight of the seated Domo looking exactly like the prow of a large ship her laughter breaks through.
“Sires greet you.” She splutters helplessly. “You…oh, Habmenach! You sent for me?” Behind her, Valtor has disappeared. The doors have closed.
A murmur returns to her from the assembled Councillors. The Domo tacks in her direction. “Greet you, Lady. You find us amusing?”
“Sire? Oh, Sire, no: it was him – Valtor. He cracked a joke. I’m sorry.”
Sixteen unconvinced faces: perhaps contemplating the unlikely idea of a joke from Valtor.
“I’m sorry.” She repeats. “How can I help?”
The Domo rumbles: “Lady Alanee, you are of the High Council now. You are a ‘Sire-ship’ too.” Discovered, Alanee blushes. The Domo nods to an empty chair at the far end of the long table. “Please, take your place and be welcome.”
It is an upright chair worked in gold gesso, with well-padded seat and arms of red brocade. She treasures the moment, feeling some pride at her reception into that somewhat severe, privileged place. When she is seated, the Domo continues.
“Lady, there was an incident in Dometia recently concerning which, I am given to understand, you may have some knowledge. Do you know what I am talking about?”
Alanee feels the stares turned upon her. She feels the paia in her head, relentlessly working. In a moment they will discover her – she is drunk. No; no, not drunk, but light-headed, certainly. She replies with as much gravitas as she can muster: “I know something has happened, Sire. The aerotran pilot who brought me to the city crashed there, and there are stories; but what exactly it was; no, I don’t know that.” Then she adds brightly: “I suppose if I am a good Seer I should, shouldn’t I?”
Trebec grunts expressively. It was the wrong thing to say. Nervous, stupid: tongue running away with her. All at once she finds herself badly needing a friendly face at that august table. No-one wants her here: Cassix’s choice was not popular here, either, and she will find no sympathy in these hostile stares. To this worthy gathering, who once called the old Seer their friend, she is a bumpkin from the plains of the Hakaan – a worthless dullard without any contribution to make. Their collective look is one of disdain.
No, not so High, my lords of the High Council: not immune to the baser instincts of normal men.
“I suppose;” Alanee says slowly, and with great deliberation: “It must be a change for you all, seeing me with my clothes on?”
“Young woman!” Portis expostulates.
“Especially you, Sire.” Alanee knows what she is saying: she no longer cares for the effect it may have.
“Gentlemen!” To her surprise it is the dark rumble of the Domo’s voice which cuts across a rising clamour: “Lady Alanee has cause to be offended with us. The blame for the animosity we all feel does not lie with her. Sire Carriso, you demanded the Seer’s presence? Would you care to proceed with the explanation?”
“If you wish.” The aggrieved Councillor begins nervously, reluctant to put his tragic story into words: “Lady, many lives…”
As soon as he starts to speak, Alanee’s eyes are drawn to Carriso, seeing at once he is a Dometian: hearing instantly the emotion in his voice. From that point, from his first few words, she gains all she needs to know, though what within her has nurtured this kernel of knowledge is a mystery to her. Hakaan in the mirrors – it has happened! It happened to Dometia!
“How many?” She cuts across Carriso’s tale before it is begun, though she hardly knows what part of her speaks. “How many died?”
The cynicism of the High Council floats away like a cloud. The eyes that turn to Alanee now share an altered expression. Taken completely aback, Carriso murmurs: “All those of my people who lived in the valley of the Kaal, Lady.”
Dust, empty streets: the Terminus in unattended flames: that was why!
“The same!” The unsourceable voice that inhabits her cries: “The same for the Hakaan. Balkinvel, the northern uplands; the same. Get the people out, Sires! Save them now!”
Those stares that fix upon her face! They might well dismiss her words as drunken raving, ridicule her, scorn her, but they do not. For her face is pale and possessed, her eyes not the eyes of a Hakaani widow. They are those of a Seer in the throes of a vision.
“Sires! They must run!”
The gathering is dumbfounded. No-one speaks for seconds that seem to stretch into minutes. Trebec breaks the spell: “You have seen this? Is this true?”
“I have seen it.” Alanee answers to herself as much as to the gathering, as if she must affirm her own belief in her gifts. “And yes it is true.”
Carriso rises to his feet: “If no-one else will….”
The Domo recovers himself. “Yes: Yes. Carriso, you see to it, will you? Evacuate the whole area! Sire Selech, will you organise Word and camps for the displaced population? The Council will excuse these Councillors?”
The Domo delegates these tasks without moving his eyes from Alanee’s face. “Lady, can you answer me a question?”
“Sire?” She is barely aware of him; all of her thoughts are with Shellan-mer, with Carla, Paaitas, old Malfis. They must be saved! Yet a calmer part of her inner self is saying they will be, that she has done her work. Balkinvel’s streets will be as she saw them and though she might grieve for her friends’ loss of their homes, she must rest content.
“Have you seen the Continuum?”
“Yes, sire. Cassix showed it to me first.”
“What is it, Lady? Do you know?”
“No. I know it isn’t important, of itself. The important thing is behind it, hidden. When something happens to that, the skies are thrown into some kind of fury. It isn’t anger, though: more like pain – agony….”
“And this ‘thing’, can you describe it for us?”
“A white light. A white light that floods everything so brightly your eyes can’t look at it.” Alanee replies: then she adds, though she can’t put a meaning to what she says: “It isn’t now.”
Portis clears his throat. “Explain?”
“I can’t, sire. It has no place in time.”
“It seems;” Sire Calvin says quietly: “That Cassix chose well.”
“But what is the meaning of it?” Vast and ungainly as he is, Alanee sees and hears: the Domo is pleading with her. He is no longer fearsome, no longer in control: beneath the vast exterior of this calmly authoritative man boils a ferment of superstition and doubt. He is like a great bird feeding from her hand.
“I do not know.” She says with truth. “I must study the Lore.”
The Domo nods. “It shall be arranged. Valtor will take you to the Inner Library in the morning. Perhaps you might persuade him to tell you one or two more of his jokes? We will convene again tomorrow afternoon. In the meantime, thank you, Lady Alanee.”
The Council moves to disperse, each with their own agenda (for evacuating the population of an entire region is no minor task), each with their own message in their hearts. In the elevator Alanee finds herself in the company of Trebec; though he offers little conversation, standing apart with fists clenched as if he would beat himself in the intensity of his rage. Alanee, who was not present at the earlier part of the meeting does not understand this, but despite her instinctive dislike of the man she feels his guilt and an honesty; a vulnerability she can respect.
Sala is sprawled upon Alanee’s new couch, her white silk shift in disarray and stained with pink paia. By the half-emptied carafe she clutches to her chest Alanee can see at once that her friend has obeyed her orders to the letter, but inebriation does not seem to have lifted her spirits; in fact, she guesses that Sala has been crying.
Without a word, she takes the carafe from Sala’s grasp to pour a measure for herself; then goes to the kitchen to brew a mug of strong, treacly tsakal.
“Oh my; we have worked fast, haven’t we?” Alanee says gently. She places the tsakal in Sala’s hands. “Try and drink it, darling. Do you know, I made quite an impression tonight? I believe I may even have made an ally or two.”
For a while that is all that is said. The pair sit in silence, sipping their drinks while rarely meeting each others’ eyes. At last Sala says, in a voice quite clear and succinct: “I met Cassix a few times, you know?”
“What did you think of him?”
“I liked him.” Sala glances inside herself: “Yes, I liked him. Strong personality – steady, commanding eye: artistic hands….I’ve always been rather impressed by men with artistic hands. And he was a Seer, you know – a Seer.”
“Yes. Yes, I do know.”
“One of the best the City has had, they say. Now…” Sala places her mug of tsakal down upon the table with elaborate care, pressing her finger-tips together. “Where was I?”
“Best the City…”
She gazes up at Alanee helplessly. “He never made a lover appear out of empty air; not’s far as I recall. Never. I didn’t know him that well, you see? Alanee – what are you?”
Alanee sighs: “I wish I knew, ba. I know who I thought I was; before Cassix saw a part of me I hadn’t dreamed of. All that time I was just living my life and they were watching…” She pauses. “This I know. I am your friend; no matter what you think of me. I need you; I really do. All this other stuff” She gestures at empty air, “It isn’t anything to do with you and me.”
Sala does not speak; not immediately; because within her the clockwork is grinding to a stop, the mechanisms of her training and dedication are breaking down as the gentle fingers of alcohol pull at those strings which still tie her, loosening the bonds, exhuming the entombed. “And suppose…” She picks up the words one by one, little pieces that shattered and are lying there waiting: “Suppose I still needed you?”
Alanee grips her hands: “That would be wonderful, ba!”
But Sala shakes her head. “No. I mean needed you, Alanee. Putting aside all my ‘stuff’, suppose I was an insecure, emotional child who has just by chance met the one person I could selflessly love, only to find she doesn’t love me – love me, Alanee. Suppose I wanted you so badly and I couldn’t turn and walk away because of my work and my…..” Sala pauses: “Because of my bloody work. Suppose that, my darling. Suppose that.”
Hopeless, helpless, more than a little drunk, what else can she say? Sala turns her head aside, knowing tears will come again and not wishing, this time, to be caught. Alanee, who perfectly comprehends, will not let Sala hide herself. This much she can do for her friend.
“Oh my dearest! Come with me, ba.”
Taking her, raising her, holding her: embracing her as only a lover would, or could: leading her to bed, accepting no protest, laying with her in a sacrifice of love: who is to say what Alanee wants or feels tonight?
Perhaps in the lyricism of a very private music she finds a harmony that is new to her, perhaps she does not. For this night, for this person – for Sala – it doesn’t matter. To see a smile on the face of an angel, a smile the innocence of which has been interred for so long, is all she could ever ask. And to hold so closely one who means that much to you, as together you drift above the lapping waves of sleep, is all anyone in any life should desire.
For tomorrow, all things must change…
© 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.
Council Chamber roof: Ron Porter, Pixabay