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.”
“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…
“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!”
“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.”
“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?”
“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?”
“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.