Warning: this episode has some erotic content.
In the previous episode:
Despite the Domo’s attempt to exclude her, Alanee is summoned to a meeting of High Council, where she predicts the burning of Balkinvel and converts many of the Councillors who did not believe in her.
Triumphant, she returns to her chambers to celebrate, and spends the night there with Sala…
Alanee has risen early. To avoid disturbing Sala, who sleeps sweetly and deeply, she has extracted her fake book from its hiding place and paged Altor the Convenor. They meet in the corridor outside her Chambers, from where, the book concealed beneath her courtier’s robes, she is guided to that elevator which last night transported her to the High Council. This time, however, the elevator is programmed for a different destination: it plunges deep; deeper, Alanee feels, into the soul of The City than she has ever been. She remembers when Dag first brought her to The City through a tunnel less deep in the rock than this. Counting the seconds, she endures Valtor’s stream of effusive flattery as they descend. The gardens, perhaps even the mighty Balna River, will be many feet above her now. She is in the bowels of the mountain, confined, perhaps trapped, beyond sight or hearing of the outer world.
She need only emerge from the elevator to see how limited is her means of escape. She steps into a small foyer with the usual couches that typify ante-rooms or waiting areas in The City. Other than the elevator by which she has arrived there is only one door – and such a door! She had expected grandeur, perhaps – timbers made mighty by age, ornate iron hinges, carved devils and hobgoblins in ancient oak. Not so.
The door before her is completely circular and fashioned from steel. Its central capstan is clamped in place by chromed stanchions thick enough to deter the most ardent assault for a month. The wall into which it is set is also steel, undecorated but for two staves which rest in brackets to either side of the door. These, or rather their illuminated heads, provide what little light the foyer has –imbuing it with a severe, mournful atmosphere.
Altor turns a mechanism at the locking point of the stanchions through a ritual of numbers before spinning the capstan. With a grudging hiss, the door releases, and by the humming effort of an electric motor somewhere, yawns reluctantly open.
“Lady, I may not pass through here. I am a poor Convenor, I lack your greatness or worth. You must proceed alone. I will await you.”
Alanee peers through the thickness of the steel aperture the door has left. She can see little beyond, but a narrow stair descending into gloom. “I’ll need time to study. I may be here all day!”
If Altor is at all discomfited by this, he shows no sign of it. “Then I shall wait all day.”
Alanee can be equally stubborn. “I don’t need you to stay. You’re the Convenor – you may be required elsewhere. Can’t I find my own way back?”
Altor’s face is set. He has clearly been instructed to wait.
Is there something in the demeanour of this obsequious man that should toll a bell of warning? Has he had other instructions too? She will learn nothing more from him, however, so with a shrug that says there is no more to be done, Alanee steps through the aperture.
The way is almost – but not quite – dark. This flight of steps is lit by torches at intervals along the walls. At each footfall an echo returns, speaking to her of great mass and weight. Here, deep in the bedrock, she is sure even the thoughts of Hasuga would be hard put to reach.
‘Did you think I could not hear you?’ The words flash inside her mind, and this time she greets them warmly, because she feels lonely and afraid.
‘Yes.’ Her mind replies: ‘I should have realised, shouldn’t I?”
‘I am always near.’
A glow spreads through her, a sense of protection and – almost – friendship. If he were physically near she might even be moved to kiss that grotesque head in sheer gratitude. ‘Don’t go away, then. This was your idea.’
Steps winding downward, on and on; Alanee feeling sure she is becoming closer to something, some indefinable thing that stirs inside her: in truth a descent probably no more than thirty feet or so before it ends. Here; another open space, another door.
This time there are no seats to regale the weary climber. The walls are rough-hewn from the very mountain itself. There is no colour here other than grey, yet the lighting is brighter: several stars of pinpoint light sparkle from above her head.
He sits in the corner, the man in the hempen smock she recognises because she has seen him before, in the wooden room that squats doorless within Cassix’s chambers, the room that will only open with mirrors. And he, hunched in the earnestness of prayer, is just as she remembers.
He speaks: “Lady Alanee?” His voice is of dry leaves trodden.
“Yes Sire.” She has no thought to address him by other than a regal title, though she has no notion how he might aspire, meanly dressed as he is, to any noble birth. His skin is as crimped as rough linen and he is of the parchment wherewith the books he guards are made. He is Karkus, as old, and as wise, as they.
“Thank you, Sire Karkus, I will pass.” Hasuga, how do I know his name?
Because you are who you are. Yours is the knowledge of all things.
This time a simple door of planks is all that must swing open to admit her: beyond, an archway, and beyond the arch a hall – a hall so unexpected by comparison with its ante-room that it takes Alanee’s breath away.
A perfectly circular chamber paved in white marble, it is lit by crystal white radiance from a high ceiling. Around the continuous white wall are arrayed books; thousands upon thousands of volumes neatly shelved ten layers high. At the very centre of this great library, upon a plinth of black granite, a tome larger than all the others lies open – its rich vellum spread flat by the weariness of use, its illuminated script greyed by age. Alanee recognises this though she has never seen the original until now: it is the Book of Lore.
Here she might pause; stay for a moment to read truths so very few of the chosen ones have seen: yet she does not go to the Book of Lore. Instead she moves toward a glazed case at the far side of this splendid repository, led straight towards it by the book that cries like a secret child beneath her robe. She passes over the myriad of titles that stand protected by the glass, some in languages she does not understand and some she does: though still a mystery to her because she has never read a book for its sake – ‘Catcher in the Rye’, ‘To Have and Have Not’, ‘Faustus’, ‘Endymion’, ‘A Jew of Malta’, Ulysses’.
Alanee is drawn only to a single, untitled volume. There, central upon a central shelf, the exact facsimile, the likeness. Its door of defensive glass should be locked – is locked – yet it yields to her as if her touch is expected; without effort, without complaint. She takes the one, puts the other, from its concealment in her robe, in its place. All the while behind her, in the doorway, the ancient guardian watches, but does nothing. When she turns towards him, a volume old as time within her grasp, his parched lips crack in a smile.
And when she takes the book in her hand, what happens then? What vision consumes her? It is as if the mysterious lock has no meaning, as if all the text of the work she grips so tightly is in her head without so much as turning a page, every word the instigation of a dream, a new story, a separate plot. Passing before her are peoples she has never met, tribes cast out, cruel persecutors, gentle victims. There are women faithless and faithful, engaged in their own pursuit of dreams, men generous and devious, wise and foolish, builders and slayers, workers and idolaters, wealthy and poor.
She does not mark her own progress, or see how she mounts the stairs once more; reaches the mighty door that has kept these truths so deeply buried for all the years; passes through. She feels the eagerness of Hasuga with her in the text and he is reading as fast as or faster than she. She feels the words bleeding out of her, to be re-joined by the millions already in his giant mind. She feels….
The elevator door stands open. But it is not Valtor the Convenor who awaits her. It is High Councillor Portis. She comes to herself, finding she holds the book openly in her hand.
Portis asks: “What do you intend doing with that?” His suspicions are confirmed, his fears realised. “That book should never leave its case, still less the Inner Library. You have scarcely risen to prominence, it seems, before you choose to abuse your good fortune. A grave mistake, my Lady.” His summoner is in his palm, the buttons already being pressed. “Guards?”
Ever since she accepted Hasuga’s challenge the possibility of discovery has been uppermost in Alanee’s mind. Her script is well rehearsed.
“Sire, the error is yours,” She speaks clearly. “Sire Hasuga himself gave me his permission to borrow this.”
Portis colours. “That is a palpable lie! Sire Hasuga has no knowledge of the book. How can he?”
“How can he?” Alanee attempts a laugh, though it sounds more reminiscent of a bray. “He is all-seeing, Sire. He knows of all your precious books! And…” She picks out her consonants like cuts of sharp steel, “he sees you now. He hears your every word.”
‘Hasuga! Help me!’
“Guards.” Portis repeats quietly. “You are required at the Council elevator. Lady Alanee is to be placed under arrest.”
He beckons. Where else should she go? At least when the elevator returns to the higher levels she will be closer to Hasuga, nearer to his power. So, heart pounding, she meekly follows the High Councillor into the chamber of the elevator. She is inside. The doors close.
Hasuga, oh, Hasuga! Where are you?
Is this a trap? Could Hasuga have deceived her? Suddenly she feels cold, very, very cold.
“I am curious, I admit.” Portis murmurs, indicating the book; “What can you want with that? I mean, to risk so much. You do know what you have done?”
She conjures a desperate reply, “I thought to take it back to my Chambers to study it, Sire. I didn’t intend any wrong.”
“But the book is locked, woman! It has been unopened for as long as anyone has memory.”
“I am meant to have the gift of sight. What if this book should contain the solution to the Continuum? What if I can unlock it?”
“Something you will never have the opportunity to discover. Theft from the sacred library is a capital offence, Lady. A high price for your presumption, is it not?”
Fearful now, Alanee has to swallow back a rising gorge to meet Portis’s stare. “Sire, it is just a book.”
What does she read in Portis’s face? What does that unopened book reveal? Is there a flicker of doubt there; a hint at hesitation?
“And you should have examined it where we are each allowed to read, those of us who are honoured to have that high privilege. There is no excuse, Lady.”
“I could not open it in there. Hasuga…”
“Sire Hasuga. Sire Hasuga, Lady!”
“Sire Hasuga then: he guided me to it. I am to glean the knowledge he wants from the book, so together we can unravel the mystery of the Continuum. But I can only open it within Cassix’s rooms. Sire, you have been inside there? You remember the mirrors? The mirrors can open things that are sealed, like that big wooden thing without any doors; they can show me inside there, as I am sure they can show me inside this book.”
“Together with Sire Hasuga?” Portis’s voice does not disguise his incredulity or his own lurking doubts. “Your arrogance, Alanee, defies belief! To assume such a thing in your private thoughts is blasphemy; but to utter it aloud, before a High Councillor!” He pauses then. Alanee wonders why the elevator has not moved and Portis, whose acuity she could never question, reads her thoughts.
“Curiously, you might think, there are no cameras here. Above us, in the city, they dog our every step. But within the library, and this elevator space, solely reserved as it is for members of the High Council, there are none.”
“We are not seen, here, Alanee.” Portis seats himself in one of the velvet upholstered chairs, leaning back into the rich cushions. “We are not heard here.”
Alanee stares at him. “So, you’re saying…”
“I’m saying that our conversation has been confidential. I am suggesting it might remain so.”
“How have you covered the theft of the book?”
“With a facsimile; a blank that looks exactly the same.”
Portis allows himself a smile. “Cunning! Therefore there is every chance the volume will not be missed?”
“Every chance, Sire. But the guards have been summoned, have they not?”
“Not.” Rising to his feet, Portis waves his summoner: “This is switched off.”
Alanee’s heart leaps with hope. “Then you believe me!”
“I will not say whether I believe you or not. But I am the only one who knows you stole that book.”
“What about the old man, the librarian?”
Portis studies her quizzically. “There was no one else in the library, Alanee: we do not have a ‘librarian’.”
At this reply Alanee at last asks herself why she felt no disquiet when she realised the old man had witnessed her substitution of the book: she had accepted his presence as though he existed on a different level. She begins to see a pattern, a circle. Karkus, a spirit from a distant past: (how can she be so sure it was he?) is part of that circle. He wanted her to take the book.
“Sire Karkus?” Portis’s interjects, and she realises she was reasoning aloud. “What do you know of Sire Karkus?”
“He was present, Sire. I took him to be the Librarian. Maybe in a sense that’s what he is?”
“Dead for more than two thousand years is what he is, Lady.”
“In one frame of time, maybe. In another? A ghost, then, if it suits you. He was there.” And she adds helpfully: “Probably still is.”
“Ghosts! Frames of time! Librarians!” Portis snorts: “You have a gift, young lady, I will concede that But a gift for imagination rather than second sight, I think!”
Alanee challenges. “I imagine, then, that a part of you does doubt, a little?”
“My thoughts are my own business. You are a thief. That is my view; but….” He weighs his words: “I believe you may not intend to be entirely dishonest. Therefore I am to be persuaded.”
Her stomach sinks.
“You have a bargaining chip,” Portis attempts a smile, achieves a leer. “You are an extremely lovely woman, Alanee.”
“So?” She says heavily.
“You are so young. You cannot apprehend how desperately we who are grown past our prime still want a share in such beauty. How we watch you, need you, as you pass us by, while you ignore us, pretend we do not exist? Our bodies may alter Alanee, but our needs do not. Do you see where this is going?”
“Oh, I do.” She does. There is a price to be paid…..
“You said once – what was your wonderfully apposite choice of phrase? Ah yes; if I wanted to ‘stare at your body’ I would have to ask. Well, I’m asking now.”
She cannot prevent the colour rising in her cheeks. She says slowly: “And is that all you are asking?”
“All?” Portis repeats bitterly. “No, Alanee, that is not all.”
Tears inside her; mad, affronted tears she will not shed: not for him. “And if I do what you ask?”
“Then no guards will be waiting. I will merely go into the Library for study of my own. You will keep your Book to do with it as you will. Now;” He rises to his feet, “Come here to me.”
His eyes have a hunger she cannot avoid: yet still she hesitates, hoping against hope there is some higher sense of honour in the man. “Do you not think, Sire, that a gift only has value if it is willingly given?”
“No, Alanee, I do not. Come here.”
“A minute, Sire. Allow me this one minute, I beg you?” She turns away, gazes up to the roof of the compartment for salvation. There is none there, no Hasuga with a thunderbolt of retribution, only Portis’s graphically buxom nude pouting seductively down at her from its place on the wall.
Hasuga, help me?
With her back to Portis she uses the minute he has granted her, steels herself. Taking a deep breath, she releases the brooch at her shoulder, shuddering to hear his gasp of gratification as her robe drops away. Now she turns so he may feast his eyes on her and with only the book to conceal her womanhood, she walks toward him.
Portis cannot stay the convulsive shaking in his hand as he reaches out for her, and Alanee has learned enough of men to know that control of the situation has passed to her at that moment. She must be in command, or she is done. She has arts, skills she can use. He must be hers, in her spell for just long enough, she hopes, that he will not notice how the elevator has begun to move.
Is there some perverse pleasure in this: no pleasure of loving, or giving, but the not unpleasing sensation of power? Portis it was, who controlled this scene; who wished it, dictated the terms: but who controls it now? Like a puppet, she can make him twitch or dance, hold or give forth, at the behest of a touch or a word. Profound though her inner self-loathing is, she has never felt (do you hear this, Hasuga?) more powerful than now.
‘I hear it.’
‘Where did you go?’
‘Nowhere. I am always with you. Portis cannot match you – I told you that, remember? You do not need me for this.’
Portis’s fingers would slip like fat worms, but this she will not allow.
“Not yet, Sire, not yet.” Instead she takes his hand and guides it, counting the seconds inside her head. “Come closer to me; let me tease you, just a little. See? We almost touch, yet not? Does this excite you, Sire?”
“Yes, oh yes!”
He is breathing, sweating heavily and she is counting – still counting seconds.
“Oh, Sire! No!” His touch is more aggressive now, his desire expressing itself in porcine grunts. He has her at a disadvantage. She has let herself be cornered. His lips are pressing roughly, biting, hurting her. She tries to thrust him away. “No Sire! NO! Leave me alone, Sire! Get your hands – off – me. NO! NO PLEASE! NO!”
Before Portis has noticed his change of fortunes the elevator door is open. Lady Ellar stands before it, open-mouthed: “Sire Portis!”
“Keep him away from me!” In purple fury, Alanee snatches up her robe to cover the book, and with both gathered to shield her she runs naked from the scene.
Ellar is too shocked. She does not try to stop her. Alanee’s summoner, with whose urgent fingers Ellar’s pager button was activated in those thoughtful seconds before she shed her robe, lies forgotten upon the elevator floor.
© 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.
Photo credit: Art Tower, from Pixabay