Satan’s Rock

Part Sixteen 

Pieces of Silver

Jeremy Piggott felt the sneeze approach as certainly as he had felt the cold itself coming:  an onrushing tide of mucus that was irresistible, although he tried his best to suppress it.  He patted desperately at pockets, knowing the wet mess of his handkerchief would not be there.  He had discarded it in disgust on his way here; thrown it into a bin on the street. 

Foolishly. 

Oh god, what could he DO?  

As the last and biggest wave broke, frantic inspiration betook him to snatch his hat down over his face, just in time to control the explosion.   Reprieved, he mopped the copious residue with the hat before hesitantly replacing it on his head.   His vision cleared.   The young woman across the table from him, with an expression on her face which was difficult to read, was proffering a paper serviette.

“Oh t’anks.   B’oody code.”   Jeremy said.   He took the serviette and blew his nose noisily.  The café was crowded – people noticed.    “Right!  Bus’ness.”

Producing a large envelope from his briefcase, Piggott passed it to the woman, who opened it carefully, avoiding wet fingerprints.

“Dis is who you’re involved wib.   His nabe is Mahennis Bourta, and he’s Moroccan.  Nice, middle incomb flabbily, father wab a chemist: they moobed to Lyon when he wab very young, so there’s little to fide in the Borth Abrican connection.  Seebs to have been recruited at udiversity, trained in Afghanistab.”

Alice Burbridge, for it was she, studied the photograph with her dark, searching eyes.   “Bourta’s his real name: no aliases?”

Piggott nodded.   “He seebs to be a facilitator, a’d maybe a bit of a policeban.  He does what he says he’s doi’g at the moment:  helpi’g to discober what was on dat piece of paper.”

“He can’t get to the photograph?”

Piggott shook his head, reaching for another serviette which an understanding waitress had thoughtfully placed in a glass in the centre of the table.  “Nobe.”   He blew his nose with great thoroughness.   “Bud he may be able to tap into the chain furber down.  We hab the boy under surveillance. Maybe, just maybe, he can find a way in.  Whad’s he said to you?”

“He says he can.”  Alice pursed her lips.  “These people are serious professionals.  If he says he can I’m inclined to believe him.   I’m worried for the boy.”

“The girl too.  There are two ob them now.”   Jeremy caught Alice’s surprised look.  “Oh, nothi’g to worry about – well, nothi’g new.   She’d the one who compode the picture, we believe.   Our operative’s got her covered too.   Thi’g is, we aren’t sure if the Amadhi are aware of her:  obviously we’d rarber dey weren’t.”

“So far as I know they have no idea as to the identity of the boy, and no-one has mentioned a girl.”   Alice frowned.  “If you don’t mind, Jerry, I will worry, just a bit.  I know what they do to girls when they have no other use for them.”

“Which is why you should be watching your own back, Alice,  But carry on doi’g what you’re doi’g for the mobent.  We don’t want to hab to pull you out, yet.   Just try to gib dem as little as possible.  Now, take a look at the seco’d photograph.”

Alice started then quickly recovered herself as she turned over the sheets, revealing a photograph of a man entering a restaurant.   Though taken from some distance away, the likeness was undoubtedly that of Yahedi:  “He was at the meeting.”

Jeremy availed himself of another serviette.   “He’b dangerous.  Watch out for hib.   De point ibs, Alice, we know he’b in town.   We strongly suspec’ he’s the trigger man.   If he and Bourta get together – they’re old associates – if you even see them together you’re to bail out, do you understa’d?  Don’t hang around, get yourself to a safe house and call the boys in.   We’ll take it from there.”

“Fine.”   Alice nodded:  “Is there anything else you particularly want from this Bourta guy?”

Jeremy was thoughtful.  “I dink I want to know the sabe things they do.   I want to know how the b’oody hell this boy and his girlfr’e’d managed to bugger up a professional assassinatiob wib a sheet of A4 and a bird.   I want to know who else is involved, apart from your rocker person, and what they’re after.   So if the Prince and his Amadhi know more than I do about that, I’d like to be up to speed.”

Jeremy sat back and sipped his coffee as Alice read through the notes he had given her concerning first Bourta, then Yahedi.   She memorised the important parts carefully, page by page.   Of Bourta:  “Oh goodness!  He’s into that, is he?”

Jeremy nodded seriously:  “Not all fun and frolics, is he?    The only time anyone got close to making a case stick on him was after he butchered a prostitute in Italy.  He managed to wriggle out ob it with a stro’g alibi, but we know he did it, id’s sort ob a signature ob his.   He can’t hab sex without it – and I saw photographs ob the girl afterwards: it was grim viewing, I can tell you.”

Did you get anything on the Arab?”

“The one at the meeti’g?”    Jeremy pulled another envelope out of his pocket, extracted a photograph.  “Is this him?  Dis is frob  a separate file we hab on the Prince.”

Alice looked at the photo and nodded:   “Think so.  It’s not very clear.”

“No.   He keeps in the background a lot.  He’b one of the Prince’s personal frie’ds, quite wealthy.  Mohammed Al Fait; better known as Marak.  English education.   Got his money as a mercenary soldier, back in the African wars, and was possibly in Bosnia too.  He’s a strange one.”

“Strange?”

“Deep into mysticism, heads up a little spiritualist sect of his own – The Portal, I think it’s called – meets each month in Cairo.  An unusual combidation, dat – Arab mercenary and spiritualist.”

The meeting over, Alice Burbridge returned Jeremy’s envelope to him and rose from her chair.   Her brief handshake would have seemed to anyone who chanced to see it the natural conclusion to a business meeting, perhaps a deal.   She would leave first, Jeremy watching her tall figure as it melted through the crowded bar.  Then he would call for the check.  Through the window beside their table he saw her make the street, huddling her coat around her against the onset of April rain.   Instinctively   he scanned road and pavement to see if anybody else was watching her departure, but there was no sign she had been followed.  He suppressed a small shudder; a premonition maybe?  It was a sensation he had felt before and did not like it: yet there was nothing he could do to help or protect this woman – she had made the choice to live with danger – thrived, excelled within it.  If she had run one risk too many, if she had said one wrong word or stepped, however unknowingly, out of line, she knew what the price would be. 

Jeremy Piggott sighed a fatalistic sigh, because that was the nature of the game they both played.  As he prepared himself for the seasonal gale that was blowing outside he realised his hat had stuck itself fast to his head.

At around the time of Alice’s meeting with Piggott, Peter and Lesley were lounging in the college library with browsers at full stretch. Peter had European History galloping around in his head; Lesley was unashamedly checking out the Dolce and Gabbana homepage.   An item in the Microsoft news section drew Peter’s attention.

“Wow! See this?  Adrian Hettman’s dead.”

 “So?”   Lesley did her best to sound bored. “Like, who was Adrian Hettman?”

“He was big cheese at Hettman-Patton: American tech giant – into the hardware for integrated defence systems.  Building a factory near Bristol next year.  There’ll be some cool jobs!”

“Riveted is what I am.   And Adrian Hettman is the cheese thingy of Hettman-Thingy, right?”

“Was.”

“You know, I get to learn a little more with you every day?  How snuffed he?”

“You’re just dying to know, aren’t you?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Heart attack.    Found dead in his hotel room in New York.     He was sort of a hero for me when I was into tech stuff.   I had his picture on my wall. Jeez Les, he was fifty-four! He seriously didn’t look it.”

“Surgically enhanced:  they’re all at it.  I’m depressed now.  Do you think I’d look good in these?”

A few days after this Peter dropped by the church of St. David’s, hoping to catch his father ‘at the office’. His actual motive was an attack of financial embarrassment not unrelated to the higher costs exacted by Lesley’s companionship, but between college pressures and work he realised he hadn’t actually talked to Bob Cartwright in the best part of a week, despite sharing the same roof.    In childhood Peter had often helped his father, performing some of the menial duties necessary to his Living.  He had grown into St. David’s through Sunday School, learning the craft, as it were, at the pulpit.  Now he rarely took any interest in religious affairs:  almost never came to the Church, or plied the streets with the Parish magazine.

“Dad, the ‘Big Issue’s’ got better street cred.”

‘St. David’s’ was an unimposing structure, wedged between commercial buildings like a bride at a football match.  A couple of sad saintly statues gazed down from alcoves, a meek spire poked apologetically from the roof.  Nevertheless its brick blandness attracted a loyal band of worshippers, more, maybe, to hear Bob Cartwright’s inflammatory sermons with their appalling jokes than out of a duty to God.

Entering the main door Peter nearly collided with a woman and her child.

This was unremarkable in itself (a steady trickle of visitors might pass this way on a Wednesday afternoon, Bob’s day for a ‘surgery’ ) had there not been something about this couple which stuck in Peter’s mind.  The woman, though she was middle-aged and malnourished, her features underscored by the heavy lines of experience, had an aura of energy about her, deep sadness, febrile hope:  the child following in her wake,although he was very, very young, reached for Peter’s hand and grasped it, fleetingly, as he passed by.   When they had gone, Peter stood in the aisle for several minutes, overwhelmed by the emotions emanating from those two people.

He discovered his father in the sacristy.

“Who were they – the pair who just left?”

Bob looked puzzled.  “Pair?   No ‘pairs’ been in for more than an hour, old lad.

Just Marilyn Glossop.”

“Wasn’t she the car accident woman?”

“That’s her.  Lost her husband and two children.   Tragic lady.”

“And she still has faith.”

  “Brilliant, isn’t it?”  Peter’s father smiled, sadly.  “Or it would be.  But I think maybe faith, for Marilyn, is just the bit of flotsam she clings to.  Like her new partner – they cling to it together as they cling….look, son, I shouldn’t discuss my parishioners’ personal lives with anyone, not even you.   What do we want then – a few pieces of silver?”

“Notes will do, Dad.  Just notes.”  Peter did not know quite from where his words sprang – even what compelled him to say them.  “If you have her ‘phone number, Dad, you should call her.   Tell her before – I don’t know – before she does something.   Tell her she has the child she needs – it’s a boy, and it’s in her now.   Tell her that.”

Once the words were out he recoiled, anticipating his father’s reaction – annoyance, amusement, sarcasm?  No, none of these.

“Now there’s an odd thing.   I was worried, too.   Something about the things she said…..”  Bob came to himself.   “So, it’s fortune-telling now, is it?  Or gynaecology?”

Peter shifted uncomfortably.  “You don’t seem too amazed.”

Bob smiled gently: “Well, it’s a bit of a surprise.  Sometimes, I’ve found, faith manifests itself in odd ways.   But it is faith, nonetheless.  And I will ‘phone her, son, just as soon as you’ve bled me dry for another week.”

In the process of delving into his wallet, his father raised the matter of a new Bishop appointed to the Diocese.

“Ronald Harkness.   He’s going to drop in tomorrow:  address the foot-soldiers, pep-talk, and all that.  He wants to meet you.”

Me?  Why would a Bish want to meet me?”

“Haven’t the faintest.   It’s most peculiar.  He was quite insistent: something about engaging with the family as well as the churchman; didn’t seem to be worried that Lena is away, though.   Perhaps he’s measuring you up for a collar.  Ten-thirty.  Can you make it?”

“S’pose.”

#

Some cruel twist of malevolent fortune directed Melanie’s feet to the Esplanade that morning.   Of late she had taken to avoiding the wild days when she and Peter had once loved to walk to college this way together, with salt spray in the air and the gale whipping  waves to flagellating fury against the sea wall.  

So why today?

So why today, when Peter was there, facing the storm, and Lesley was with him, rapt in him, staring out to the Rock as she had once done, lost in the moment – lost in each other?

She had never seen Lesley looking as disordered as this, with her naturally silky hair frizzed around her face, careless of clothes rumpled about her; or Peter looking so tall, so broad of shoulder, so happy.   There was no mistaking the change, no mistaking the fondness in Lesley’s eyes as she turned his face to hers, or the lingering sensuality of her kiss.  

Her original destination forgotten, Melanie spun on her heel to walk, to half-run away from the thing she had dreaded seeing, and could stand to look upon no more.  As she staggered through her crumbling world, as she blindly went from street to street she fought back unreasonable tears – why was she so angry?  Why should she want to cry?   Was it not inevitable this would happen?  To know Lesley was to love her, and now Peter clearly – oh, that look in his eyes! – loved her.   Yes, loved her: and that was that.   They were bloody made for each other, weren’t they? 

Later, much later, she returned to the  Esplanade.  Sitting beneath the burden of her guilt in the shelter where she and Peter had rested together so many times, Melanie gave way to all of her jealousy, all of her pain, and broke her young heart.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  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.

Hansel and Gretel

 “Bettina has farrowed.”  The letter said in my Uncle Owen’s stilted terminology.  “Ten perfect little piglings, four boys and six girls.”   I was shown the picture.  A cluster of grinning faces sniggered back at me.

“Ten!”  I was impressed.  Lots of things impress you when you are six.

“Poor Bettina!”   My mother sympathized. “Perhaps Emil will take you to see them when we visit next month.”

Emil and Mitzi, his wife, were the bailiffs at Uncle Owen’s farm in the New Forest.  The German couple were nice people, and the congenial Emil, particularly, always had time for me.  

Owen’s ‘farm’ had few agricultural references, which set it as much apart from the farms surrounding my home in the West Country as a monastery from a hermit’s cell.  Yes, there was a herd of cattle, and there were tumultuous chickens, irascible geese and implacable ducks.  And there were pigs, of course.   But all these were a backcloth:  the star performer was the farmhouse.   The farmhouse was Uncle Owen’s showcase.  

Uncle Owen was ‘Something in the City’ (the City of London, that is).   He had bought the farm for weekend entertainments to enhance his business, so the house reflected this.  A long, thatched building with exposed timbers, it gazed serenely out over an acre of manicured lawn towards two sagacious chestnut trees. To the east a driveway lined by firs and rhododendrons, to the west a tennis court – my uncle’s preferred sport was tennis, at which, despite his large frame, he was a formidable exponent.

On hot days we would lunch beneath the panoply of the chestnuts, on wet days in the brown heat of the farm kitchen.  I would eat frugally and say nothing.  And on this particular afternoon Emil took me to see Bettina’s litter.

“You see they are not little piglets anymore.”  He said, lifting me so I sat on the wall of their yard.  They weren’t.

Twenty little eyes looked up at me, assessing me instantly.  Ten healthy mouths muttered conspiratorially. 

“We are weaning them.  Really they are already weaned, I think, but for a few days more they stay with Bettina.”  Emil informed me.  “We have to get them back to her now.  Would you like to help me do this?”

I needed no second bidding.  Inside the yard, with its gate closed behind us, I watched as Emil opened a loose box to reveal the recumbent Bettina, still massive with milk, resting within.  She did not bother to rise.  Ten healthy pig-children regarded me with renewed interest. 

“We go each side, I think.”  Emil advised.

The pig-children would not give up their freedom easily.  I remember my enjoyment of the chase, and I am sure the pigs were having just as much fun.   Furthermore, they taught me respect.  They showed me their skill in evasion, their fleetness of foot, their wicked sense of humor.  As Emil and I cornered one group they split into two, then into pairs.  They teamed up, then divided again.  They twisted, they turned.  They made dummy runs to wrong-foot us, and one even became cheeky enough to push my legs from under me so I fell flat on my back.  After a few seconds of uninterrupted view of an azure blue sky, the face of a triumphant piglet appeared, grinning down at me.   Several minutes of pure entertainment later, during which Emil and I were comprehensively out-maneuvered, Bettina’s delinquent children finally consented to be herded to her bosoms.  It was their decision, not ours.

I needed washing.  So did my clothes.  How somehow I avoided censure I can’t recall, but probably it was because Emil came to my defense.  Anyway, upon learning of my adventure my mother laughed for at least five minutes, and that evening when I wafted in to dinner everyone very pointedly sniffed.    In that and other ways I think the memories of my chase stayed with me for a week, not least because next day I was made to ride home in our car beside an open window.  It was a cold journey.

Family crises arose even more frequently than usual that year, so we were back at the farm no more than a month later, recuperating from the debt collector wolf-pack which frequently set up camp outside our home.

I asked to see the pigs.  Emil and Mitzi exchanged glances.  Eventually, Emil gestured to me.  “Come.”  He said.

The yard, scene of our epic chase, was deserted.  A farm was a business Emil explained: selling young pigs was one of the ways it made money, and I think I understood his euphemistic use of the word ‘selling’ sufficiently and was as yet young enough to need to choke back my regret.

“But these two we keep!”  Emil said grandly.

The little building, with its open space at the front surrounded by a low wall, was designed for pigs and, to my joy, two young pigs occupied it.  Two young pigs who seemed as happy to see me as I was to see them, full of squeaky eagerness as they shoulder-barged each other to the wall to greet us.  A boy and girl both well on their way to adolescence now, I swear they remembered me, just as I swear the boar was the very same one who looked down upon me from the sky on the day of our epic game.

Emil and I leaned upon the wall, communing with them for a while.  Then he said:  “You know we have no names for them.  You can name them if you like.”

I must have spent most of that day there, just talking to those pigs; and they, in their turn, talked of their view of the world, one strangely reminiscent of my own:  they expressed sadness and understanding for the loss of their brothers and sisters, and lamented that Bettina, now returned to the field with the other pigs, seemed to have no time for them.  They accepted my gifts of apples with magnanimity.  I became their friend.

You do not – and this is important to all those of you who do not know – make a pet of a pig.  You befriend him.  If he doesn’t like you he can be quite fearsome, and he is never yours to do with as you will.  He has a mind of his own, and he meets you on your own intellectual level.  He will happily discuss matters of import with you but he will have opinions of his own, and though he may be far too courteous to freely express them, you will know by the little give-aways in his attitude when he disagrees with yours. 

“Did you think of their names?”  Emil asked me as we prepared to leave.

“Hansel and Gretel” I said, remembering my bedtime story of the two lost children.  “We’ll call them Hansel and Gretel.”

At home I kept their picture on my wall.  Each night in the instructed ritual of prayer I mentioned the two pigs.  I talked to them from the threshold of sleep, vividly dreamt of them, drew them in my exercise book.  

It was Christmas before I would return to the farm – a family Christmas with a small host of guests, most of whom I have forgotten now, and several of whom I never really knew.  Through the beery greetings and the waves of conversation I sought the only two friends who were special to me.

The little pig-pen was empty.

Panic-stricken, I plunged into the forest of humanity in search of Emil.  I found him with Mitzi in the kitchen, operating the machinery of food.  As I tried to enter he barred my way.  “For little boys it is dangerous in here.”

“Where are they?” I demanded, tearful by this time.  “What’s happened to Hansel and Gretel?”

I could not miss the solemnity in his tone.  “Ah, little man!”  Emil said. “They grow too big to be together in the pen now, you see?  Your Gretel, she is with the other pigs but you may not recognize her.  Pigs, they grow up fast, you know?”  He smiled indulgently.  

I swallowed hard.  “And Hansel?”

“Hmmm?”  

“Hansel.  Where’s Hansel?” 

Emil sighed, and a wisp of cloud dimmed the bright blue of his eyes.   “Hansel is gone.”  He said.

Gone?  The big kitchen table was prepared for dinner, a bright red and white gingham cloth laid crisply across its knurled wood top.  The brasses which lined the kitchen walls flickered in red sympathy with the fire burning in the open hearth, a fire before which a spit was slowly turning.   Busy elsewhere, Mitzi spoke sharply to Emil in German.  With a pat on my shoulder the big man stood aside so I could see – so I could watch, as with a cup of its collected juices he basted the creature that was turning on the spit.  And I knew.  Although I was just a child I saw and felt through all my heightened senses the tragedy of men’s greed, in the rich smell of meat in that big room and the expressions the bailiff and his wife could not conceal, I knew.

So I saw Hansel just one more time.   I saw him in the humiliation of death, those philosopher’s eyes sightless, disported on a bright red and white gingham cloth before a raucous, baying audience of salivating revelers who laughed at my distress, rebuking me when I ran from the sight.

There would be other visits to the farm, visits which, as a child, I was forced to make, but they were not made willingly.  I never got over a feeling of revulsion whenever I entered the farm kitchen, or the spark of disgust which grew in me with the years for Uncle Owen‘s over-indulgent friends.  The memory of a brief acquaintance is evergreen, and though they are long departed, I keep Hansel and Gretel alive in my heart.

Continuum – Episode Twenty-Four: The Seer’s Lair

Newly elected as Seer to The City, Alanee finds she is the target of popular dislike.  Pursued, she takes refuge in a book store where she orders a very specific book to be made.

Lady Ellar advises her she must move to Cassix’s old apartment in the Upper City.  Accompanied by Sala, she arrives at the door of her new home…

Alanee looks about her with eyes ready to believe almost anything; open-mindedness, after all, is usually the key to understanding.  Somehow though, in this instance, it is not.  Whatever she had imagined Cassix’s chambers might be, the world which admits her by an unassuming blue door is in every way outside her experience and challenges her acceptance of Cassix’s sanity, because it is so out of character.  How could she have expected, for instance, that the cavernous reception room’s severe walls of dressed stone would be strewn with graffiti taking the apparent form of mathematical equations, or that these would be linked by arrows and speech-bubbles in a language she does not recognise?   How should she explain the overall suits in strange white fabric hanging each side of a window which does nothing to blunt the room’s austerity, albeit commanding a fine view of the Balna Valley?  What could prepare her for the grim wooden shed-like structure with its intricately carved strings of acanthus and frieze of demonic figures that occupies so much space to her left? Like a room within a room, she thinks, yet lacking, despite a maze of knobs and panels, a door by which it may be entered? 

To her right a triptych of mirrors, each higher than wide, focuses on the window.  An image projector and behind that a chair face the mirrors; and behind the chair, though less than one-eighth their size, three further mirrors reflect partially their larger brethren, partly the wall on their left.  This wall is dominated by a large, perfectly circular, black metallic plate.

In the centre of the room a polished silver orb rests upon a stand of very dark wood.  In diameter this orb is almost half Alanee’s height, and as perfectly reflective as the mirrors, so wherever anyone moves within the room it picks up and distorts their image.  Two chairs made from tubular steel with hard red plastic seats flank its either side.

There is nothing here consistent with the incisive, clearly-spoken man Alanee met so briefly in life.  There is evidence of the constraints of age: the flagstone floor is littered with discarded papers, the tiny kitchen with stale or half-eaten food, and a small cold-room reveals unnamed horrors.  A  light gauze of dust veils everything.

Alanee expresses her thoughts in terms she has learned from Sala:  “Oh my dear!  I believe a little remodelling will be necessary.” She enters the bedroom, instructing two melancholy-looking drabs who have brought her personal effects.  “After you’ve cleaned this, fetch the bed and bedding from my apartment,” and she waves towards jumbled grey sheets on Cassix’s Spartan pallet.  “Throw that out, please.”

Sala, her eyes completely lacking their usual iridescence, merely looks on.  She has spoken little since she collected Alanee from her guarded apartment and led her, together with substantial sentries and a sad little entourage of dejected porters, to the secure elevators that allow privileged access to the upper city.  The ride up, and the struggle through less familiar corridors, was conducted in silence.

As soon as they are alone, Alanee asks:  “Sala-ba, whatever is the matter?”  Her friend is visibly trembling.

The reply is strangely subdued.  “Why, nothing, Lady.”

Lady?  Oh, Sala!”  Alanee would hug her, but Sala steps away.  “Ba?  Don’t you turn against me!  You must tell me!  What’s wrong?”

Sala avoids her gaze, speaking slowly and carefully:  “It has been made clear to me.  I did not realise the true extent of your eminence. I was foolish, mistaken; I had no idea.”

“Eminent, me?  Sala, they think I slept with him.  The Council are convinced I’m Hasuga’s whore!  Everyone believes I seduced Cassix to get this job!  Hardly the stuff of eminence!”

“I am to serve you.”  Sala says as though she is repeating a mantra:  “I am to attend to your needs.”

“And?”  Alanee, suspicious, studies those austere stone walls with closer attention.  “Sala, my ba, who demands this of you?  Are we watched in here?”

“I am to watch you, and to report….”

“Ah, Ellar!  Not the more recognised form of servitude, then.”  Alanee casts about her forlornly.  “Are there any drinks in this tip?”

“I will see what I can find, Lady.”

“The ‘Lady’ stuff again!  Sala, stop this!  Just stop!

Expressionless, Sala goes to a cupboard that looks as though it might harbour alcohol.  Alanee goes on.  “I think I see; she dares not set up surveillance in a Seer’s chambers, so she wants you with me all the time, is that it?  And she’s prepared to reduce you to the status of a drab to do it?  What’s that?”

Sala holds up a bottle half-full of pink liquid.  She removes its stopper and sniffs.  “I believe it may be paia, Lady.  Drinkable.”

“Anything.  Are there glasses?  And enough of the ‘Lady’!”

“There are glasses,”   Sala holds aloft two small receptacles.  “But they are a little personalised.  I’ll wash them.”

“No you won’t.  Just bring the bottle.”

Sala brings it.  Alanee wipes the neck on a corner of her robe and says:  “You first.”

Sala demurs.

“I’m not drinking until you have.  You’re my food taster, if you like – if that’s what you want to be, ba.  Drink!”

But Sala hesitates even now.  She stands with the bottle at her chest, eyes downcast in utter discomfiture.  At last she drinks a very little of the paia, and passes the bottle to Alanee, who takes a huge swig which instantly chokes her.  She staggers back, laughing.  “Habbach!”  She exclaims when she can speak again:  “I think that may kill us both!”  A tear rolls down Sala’s cheek.  Oh, ba!”

Alanee can do no less than throw her arms about her friend, refusing to set her free and kissing her forehead and cheeks until at last she feels Sala’s rigid, trembling form relax just a little:  then she kisses her lips.

“You’ll never be servant to me, dearest Sala.  I wouldn’t let that happen to you.  I couldn’t!”

Sala says, between sobs:  “I’m so sorry; what am I to do?  You, I love; my work, I love.  Ellar has shown me how vital that work is, now you are Seer to the Consensual City!” 

“All Ellar wants is control,” Alanee growls.  “You are her eyes.  I am not the city’s most popular choice of Seer, from the evidence so far, and she wants to have a clear idea on which side of the fence she should land.  But it makes no difference to us, dear one.  We are friends, whatever our fortunes.  Now are you going to stop crying?  You’re embarrassing me!”

Laughing at herself, Sala wipes impatiently at her tears:  “I can be over-emotional, you see?”

“Darling, I never doubted it.”

 “But I am assigned to you as Mediator and governed by certain rules, especially about getting too involved with my project.  Ellar trusts me.”

“I know, ba.  I know.  And Lady Ellar does not trust me.  It is a field of brambles, isn’t it?  We can cut through them though, I’m certain.”

Together, the pair wash some glassware so they can drink together more elegantly.  Then, perched upon the two hard red chairs which are the only companionable seating in the room, they dispatch the remainder of the paia.  Alanee learns that, as part of her elevation to the status of Courtier, Sala has been moved from her apartment in the lower city.

“I have rooms next to you.”  She jabs a finger:  “That way.  They are a little more acceptable than these.”  And Alanee is immediately sympathetic, for she knows how much Sala loved her little nest.

“It doesn’t matter, I can soon get the new place into shape:  but poor you!”  Sala looks about her.  “What on earth?”

“I’m not meant to be comfortable here.  Although this…”  Alanee slides into the big leather armchair which faces the triptych of mirrors:  “Is homely, at least.  What do you think of the vanity set?  And the big metal disc; what’s that for?”

Sala studies the plate of dark metal.  “I don’t know.  It could be just hiding a hole in the wall?”  And she cannot resist a turn before the mirrors; a critical self-examination, an adjustment of hem, a pat at a rebellious curl, drawing a smile from her companion.

“Merciless, aren’t they?”

Then Alanee feels – sees – what?  Something else reflected there, something quite different.  For a few seconds she cannot speak, so unexpected is the image.  Then…

“Oh, Sala!”

“What?”  Sala thinks Alanee has seen something wrong with her appearance.

“Nothing.  It doesn’t matter.”  The reflection has gone.  “I’m tired:  it’s been the longest day.”

“Paia can be very tiring.”  Sala reminds her primly:  “If taken in excess.”

Alanee says nothing more; after all, she sees now only what Sala sees in those mirrors:  yet the image that came to her remains imprinted on her mind, for standing beside her friend was the figure of a military man, a leader of soldiers.  Not tall in stature, but great in presence, the man she saw was ill or in some kind of distress.  No matter: the moment has passed.

“ Sala-ba, I’m thinking.  Ellar wants you to spy on me, yes?  Well, that’s fine.  You can, but as my friend, not as my servant.  Tell her that.”

“She’s my patron.”

“And you have to do the work you are employed to do.  So I’m the one who has to be careful – I won’t divulge any of my discourses with Hasuga, or any other members of the Council.  That way there are no conflicts!”

Sala shakes her head.  “Lady Ellar is no-one’s fool.  If I can’t get some useful stuff….”

“All right then, let me think of some useful stuff you can give her!”

“Fictitious?”

“Well, maybe a little bit fictitious.”  Alanee frowns.  “I’ll think of something.”

Alanee does not reveal all of her thoughts to Sala, although she would, if the politics of The City were not already etched so deeply in her psyche.  She can see there are ways in which this channel for information can be useful; especially if she is selective in the titbits she allows to pass through.

The conversation ends there, as drabs return with fresh bedding from Alanee’s former home.  She instructs them to provide cleaners for Cassix’s chambers, which they promise to do immediately.

Sala takes her leave.  “Stay with me tonight, ba.  You can’t sleep in this mess.”

Alanee watches her depart in the certain knowledge she will report to Ellar, for Sala has made plain what Sala is and what Sala does.  Sala is firmly Ellar’s woman; has she, Alanee, any right to ask her to swerve from that loyalty?

In the cold stone loneliness after Sala’s departure she feels entombed, even a little panic-stricken.  The deep twilight of Cassix’s existence cloaks itself around her, so she imagines she can hear him pacing the floor in those sandaled feet, murmuring to her.

Breathy whispers: a draught, or something more?

Her summoner’s urgent buzz blares across the echoes like a trumpet call and she jumps so much she nearly falls over.

“Celeris!”  Just the sight of his face on the little screen makes her glad.  She asks, lamely:  “How are you?”

“You could find out.”

“How?”

“By opening your door.  I’m outside it.”

She is overjoyed to see him.  He has barely time to close the door behind him before she has thrown her arms around his neck, although her welcoming kiss is restrained, for she has learned his sensibilities;  and he rewards her with a gentle kiss of his own which might set her music playing, no matter how oppressed and uncomfortable she feels.

“You are Seer now, Alanee.  Do I congratulate you?”

“And you are a mystery.  How do you move so easily between the levels?  Oh, but don’t answer that:  I’m just so happy you’re here!  What do you think of my new abode?”

Does she expect a hint of bemusement in those black eyes?  There is none.  He almost shrugs off the contrast between this and her previous apartment.  “So this was Cassix’s home, was it?  I have never visited here.”

“It’s a nightmare!  It frightens me!  Look at it all – look at the writing all over the walls!  How will I ever live in this?”

“You are Seer now – you must learn the lessons your predecessor has left you.”  He almost glides across the room and Alanee is captivated by his grace:  a man – very much a man – with the felinity of a woman.  His attention has been drawn by the scrawling on the stone walls.

“Does it mean anything?”  Alanee asks.

“Of course!”  Is there a nuance of impatience in his tone?  Celeris points to a figure written in a bubble at the centre of a dressed stone.  “This is the weight of the block.  These arrows show the stresses it exerts upon the stones next to it and beneath it.  The calculation is the density of the stone.”

“Why would he go to all that trouble?”

“Cassix was an engineer.  Clearly he had a theory about how density of stone is affected by the weight placed upon it:  these values are just raw information; somewhere, no doubt, you will find the source calculations.  Those will probably lead to a conclusion concerning the stress placed upon The City’s foundations.”

“Those suits, then?”  Alanee nods to the white overalls hanging on the wall.

“Now they are interesting.”  Celeris says, as though the calculations really weren’t.  “There might be some form of headpiece somewhere.”

The door chimes toll.  Four drabs stand before the door in a listless semi-circle, cleaning implements arrayed about them.  She turns to Celeris helplessly.

“The place must be cleaned.”

“Certainly it must.  Do you wish me to leave?”

“Not if you don’t want to.”  Alanee feels like imploring him to stay, but she will not betray herself so completely.  “You can tell me about some more of this stuff.”

“If I may suggest…”  Celeris murmurs as if he does not want the drabs to hear him:  “Don’t let them throw any of these papers away.  They might be of use to you.”

Alanee notices the drabs each bear the insignia of Hasuga’s personal staff and are well chosen, because they set about their task efficiently.  One will pick up and tidy the strewn-about papers, the others dust and clean, change linen, virtually disinfect the kitchen and the rest-place.  Meanwhile Celeris explains:

“Cassix’s approach was concerned with logic and proportion.  The wooden room is the epicenter; the mirrors the key.  To get into the room you must first find the key.”

“It has a door then?”

“Without doubt.”

“What does the room contain?”

“That is for you to discover.  I cannot tell you.”

“And this?”  Alanee waves at the silver ball resting on its stand between the two chairs.

“Think of it as a sort of exercise machine for the psyche.  See how substantial that stand is?  Have you tried the weight of the ball?”

Together, they get a grip upon the ball and try to lift it, but it will not so much as move.

“It must be fastened down.”

“No, nothing is holding it.”

“Then it’s very, very heavy.”

Celeris says:  “Not for you.”

They pass the time together while the drabs perform their miracles.  Alanee studies the disc of dark metal and asks its purpose:  “An ornament, I suppose – some sort of wall decoration?  It’s in very poor taste, though.  Still, that would be no surprise, would it?”

Celeris smiles.  “Cassix was not a man given to ornaments.”  He takes up Sala’s discarded glass of paia and splashes the liquid at the centre of the disc.  Centrifugal force disperses it instantly.  “Something more than decoration.”

Alanee, wide-eyed, watches:  “How does it do that?”

“It spins.  It is spinning – very fast.  Yet it is so perfectly polished and balanced its movement is virtually undetectable – unless you lean your weight against it.”

The more Alanee sees of Cassix’s chambers the more she sees evidence of his madness.  What if he had accidentally tripped and touched the disc – what if she should?

Celeris makes a further examination.  “How is it driven, I wonder?  It is very heavy, certainly; a flywheel?   If so, for what?”

He appears to tire of unanswered questions, turning instead to Alanee’s welfare, reminding her she is hungry.  They send out for for food, and they dine together perched on the edge of her newly-installed bed.   Her new bedroom has an intimacy she would gather about her, the man is so near, so kind.  It is easy to share her fears.

“All this,” she gestures towards the open space of  the reception room,  “is distant to me, far beyond my horizon where I cannot ever hope to see it.  Why in Habbach’s name did Cassix want me to be Seer?”

Celeris replies seriously,  “Because you can see.  Cassix was wise:  he knew who he was choosing and he chose well.  Do not put yourself in his shadow.  He had his way of coming to prophecy:  you must find yours , if you haven’t already found it.”

“I wish we were alone.”  She finds herself saying.  His hand reaches out to hers.

“Aren’t we?  The drabs have finished and gone.”

She hadn’t noticed.  Inside her head that melody begins to play for her again and at last she understands the Music Man’s gift:  how it was not a one-time thing, a brief pleasure, but one that will always return to her when she has need.  And she is needy now.

A door-chime interrupts her song.  “Don’t move, Ba.”  She presses his thigh.  “I’ll be right back.”

The drabs have locked the door as they left.  Alanee opens it no more than a crack.  Sala is standing anxiously outside.  “Alanee, are you alright?  I was expecting you sooner.  I made food…”

“Sala, I’m sorry, ba.  I hope you can forgive me.  I won’t be coming tonight.”

Sala’s sixth sense is well primed.  “You’re not alone, are you?  You’ve got company.  Is it Celeris?”  Alanee’s silence is an affirmation.  Instantly Sala advances, makes to push past Alanee through the door:  “Can I meet him?  I’ve been dying to meet him!”

Although she does not entirely know why, Alanee resists.  “Not now, no.  I will introduce you, I promise, but not now.  He’s…”  By gesture she tries to suggest that Celeris is in some unfit state.  “Tomorrow, maybe?”

“Oh, Alanee!”

“Tomorrow.”  And Alanee closes and locks the door.

She returns through the museum of Cassix and his life to the man she knows will be waiting for her.  She takes his hands, raising him to his feet then helps him as he takes the clothes from her body in a way no man – no man at all – has ever done for her, then undresses him in her turn.

“Will you stay?”   She whispers, hoping.  He says that he will.

When she wakes the next morning he has gone.

© 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.