Galleons and Gold

                                     

Samuel Trimble visited the City with metronomic regularity.  On Mondays and Thursdays, his plump over-coated figure alighted from the ten-fifteen train, pausing on the station platform to lid his thin hair with a Homberg.  Then he walked – down the hill from the station, through the City’s narrow cobbled streets, beneath timbered houses which frowned and leaned above his head, sharing confidences with one another.

      Samuel’s destination was a coffee shop housed in a time-worn building, with timbers in its lime-plastered ceiling as craggily genuine as its little front door, which forced a stoop, even for one of Samuel’s diminutive stature.  At ten forty-five, having purchased a newspaper, Samuel Trimble could be found in his usual seat by an old brass bed-warmer in the corner.

“Coffee, sir?”  The waitress always asked.  She had brought him coffee without asking, once. 

Samuel had stared at it for a very long time before saying in his tight, lisping voice:  “I wanted tea.”

Screened behind his newspaper Samuel remained oblivious to the other regular visitors to the cafe: an old lady always asleep; head back, mouth open – so thin and pale a stranger might think her dead. Two men, thirty-something’s whose theatrical conversation was laden with ‘darlings’ and ‘Oh my’s’ at a big table by the counter:  a bickering young couple next to the window who made up quite physically before they left hand in hand, besotted. 

His ears were closed, too, to kitchen drama:

“What do you mean he wants Worcester sauce?  Worcester sauce on my cheese?   I don’t do.”

“He says he wants it.”

“Tell him no.  NO!  What is he – peasant?   Throw him out!”

“And his missus wants goat’s cheese and coriander.”

“That I do.”

“No point if you want me to throw him out.  She’ll go with him!”

“Don’t you get your cheeky with me, Miss!”

 The two theatricals gossiping, Sotto voce:   “Oh, my god!   She didn’t?

“In his face, my dear – right in his face I was mortified, I can’t tell you!”

 Samuel, who had shared this room with these people so often, never once exchanged as much as a greeting.  What was it, then, on this particular day, that made him lower his newspaper?

 “Young woman; we require a table for two.”   A grand dame with a thick film of slap on her wide, large-featured face and a voice that could re-route the ‘Nimitz’, she stopped every conversation in the café.   All eyes but Samuel’s turned upon the woman.  One of the theatricals gave a snicker of laughter, provoking a smack on the fetlock from his friend.

Samuel’s gaze was focussed upon the woman’s companion: much younger; of maybe twenty or twenty-five years – a girl dressed in a magpie’s nest of short imitation leather bomber, bee-stripe top and loose khaki cargo pants.  A pair of red thong sandals flapped beneath thin feet.  Her lank blonde hair hung to her shoulders, yet such a face!  A slender, porcelain oval with a small mouth and large, very dark eyes set in an expression of permanent wonder.     

The waitress indicated a table opposite Samuel’s. 

“It will have to do.  Bring us tea – two teas.”  Like a galleon, the big woman crossed the floor of the café in full sail and Samuel ducked as she swept past.  Her companion followed in her wake, a circling gull. 

The waitress brought them tea.  “Anything to eat?”

The woman glared:  “If we require food we shall summon you.” 

While the rest of the cafe’s interest in this pair had already begun to fade Samuel was completely absorbed.  He could not take his eyes off the slim, shy girl whose big eyes were cast demurely down into her teacup. She was the target of her bombastic companion’s bumble buzz of subdued conversation and clearly being castigated to a point, so Samuel thought, where she was almost reduced to tears!

He tried to divert his attention, he really did!   He concentrated fiercely upon his newspaper, shutting out the drone of verbal bullying; but a loud expostulation from the big woman put paid to all that.   Chair thrust back, look of thunder on her coarse features, the woman stormed towards the counter, trumpeting “waitress!” so loudly the cutlery tray rattled.  

“Yes, madam?” 

“Young woman, does this establishment normally allow standards like these?”

“What do you mean?”  The waitress’s voice was sullen, and a little shaky.

“This cup, girl.   It is cracked!  Well?  Replace it for me.  Come along now!”

As the offending item was exchanged Samuel Trimble’s eyes were drawn upward upon some invisible thread to be met fully by the eyes of the girl, whose lips moved to form a single word.  He could not hear the word, but he could read her lips:  there was no mistaking their meaning.  She had said, simply:   “Help.”

Behind him, the big woman boomed:   “And we do not expect to pay for our tea!”  The girl’s eyes dropped quickly.   The moment had passed.

How long did Samuel remain in the coffee shop?  He stayed longer, much longer than was his custom, determined not to leave until the girl, then to…then what?  He had no clear idea. 

“Another cup, sir?”

“No thank you.  No.”

“Pretty, isn’t she?”  Said the waitress, with a smirk.

Samuel made no answer – he could not.  Samuel’s ship upon the ocean of life, composed entirely of routines, each day planned so carefully he knew precisely what he would be doing on this day in another month, or even another year, had never tacked across the bows of a member of the opposite sex for more than the briefest  of encounters.  When women spoke to him (which was not often, because he could scarcely be called handsome or even interesting) he became tongue-tied.  He would be foolish or rude.  

Alone in the house bequeathed to him when his mother died, living on an inheritance eked out carefully from week to week he had never married, never worked for his living, and never loved anyone other than his mother.  So the waitress’s question, innocent as it seemed, was of such toxicity to Samuel that he quivered before it.

“I’ll get your bill.”  The waitress said.

And yet, when the two women rose to leave Samuel followed them!  Whether in an outburst of gallantry for the younger one’s plight, or merely to satisfy his curiosity he could not have answered.  He only knew he must not lose sight of the waif-like girl.  Every eye in the cafe watched him leave.  The old woman woke up;  the theatricals paused in their gossip to exchange conspiratorial smiles.

Samuel’s quarry followed the main street.  He kept well behind them, affecting nonchalance with such success that even passers-by with no notion of his purpose began to eye him with suspicion.  He held back so far that when they turned into an alley he almost lost them.

Samuel had never walked this lane before.  It was oppressively narrow – a twilight of overhanging tudor antiquity.  The girl’s slippered feet echoed noisily in front of him.  His own leather-shod heels clacked.

Did he notice when the large woman disappeared?    He was so intent upon the girl he missed her departure.  Had she passed through a doorway into one of these high old buildings?   He had no idea – any more than he understood how it came to be that suddenly the girl was standing right in front of him.

“You came then?”  Her voice was full of rich colours.  “I thought you would.”  She reached out to take his hand.  “Come on.”

Her hand was small and cool.  There was a doorway, then dark, dark stairs.  On a second landing, by milky light through leaded glass, the girl stopped.   Only one door, a very ancient door, led from the landing.

“These are my rooms.  You can come in if you’d like?”

 Samuel stammered.  “Your er…your mother.  Will she mind?” 

“Oh, her!  No, she isn’t here.”

“I thought you asked me for help?”

“Yes, I did.  I do need your help.”  The girls tone changed, so that somewhere (Samuel could not quite place it) a little sob entered her voice.  “It’s cold out here:  please, won’t you come inside?” It was quite cold.  Why had he not felt himself shivering before?

The door was heavy, so the girl had to lean against it before it would swing open.    She beckoned to Samuel, smiling for the first time; and her smile lit her face so sweetly that Samuel’s marble heart was instantly beguiled.  Mutely, he followed her. 

A warm lavender-scented room greeted him, with hangings of thick red brocade about its walls and bare flames licking at logs in a large open hearth.  The chimney piece was ancient, with its old-fashioned cooking equipment of firedogs and a spit still carefully blacked and in place.   A ceiling of unpainted beams frowned down upon a carpet so well worn it was mostly canvas, and a pair of upholstered chairs which stood either side of the fire.   These chairs, once richly clad in scarlet velvet were more distressed and threadbare than the carpet.  Two dusty leaded windows gave light to the room; a battered mahogany sideboard stood against the wall between them.  Other than the hangings, the only adornments upon the walls were five small paintings, each a portrait of some kind.

“Ancestors?”  Samuel asked.

The girl repeated her smile:  “Just paintings.”

For Samuel, the faded luxury of this room was familiar:  he had never the means to renew those items in his home which, by dint of long use, needed replacement.  So he was looking at a reasonable facsimile of his own sitting room. 

“Why me?”  He asked at last, gaining confidence.  “Why ask me for help?”

“You look kind.  You look…”  The girl moved close to him, gazing wide-eyed into his face:  “lonely.”

That word plunged, like a well–aimed arrow, into Samuel’s soul.  “Oh!”  he said, more in shock than anything.  Then:  “Why – I mean how – do you need help?”

The girl shook her head:  “I can’t tell you, yet.  You’ll think me …look, please sit down.  Can I bring you wine?”

“No, no thank you.”  Samuel responded, sitting down in one of the chairs all the same.  “Just tell me!”

“You’ll think badly of me.”

“I won’t!”  Samuel protested.  “I really won’t!”

“Very well then!”  The girl took the other chair.  “This is how it is.  That woman you saw me with, she isn’t my mother – she’s my landlord.”

Samuel began to wish he had not insisted.  Solitary though he might have been, he was not a fool, and the girl was right; he was thinking badly of her.  “Go on.”  He said, in his chilliest voice. “This is about money, isn’t it?” 

At once the girl’s features creased:  a tear formed quickly in her eye and toppled.  “Oh, you see?  I knew.  I just knew you wouldn’t like me!”

We have said that Samuel was unaccustomed to any form of intimacy with women, and the girl’s obviously genuine distress took him aback:  “Now, now!”  He tried to placate her:  “You are behind with the rent, I suppose:  by how much?”

“A thousand.”

Samuel stood up, brushed the front of his coat, picked up his hat.   The girl sobbed.  As he reached the door, her small form slipped in front of him, her delicate palms rested against his lapels.  “Please stay?  I didn’t ask you for the money.  Have some wine with me?”

“Young woman, I couldn’t help you with such a sum!”  Samuel protested.  “You should have budgeted more carefully, for heaven’s sake!”

“No, no!  I’m not behind with my rent!  My brother – he’s an artist – he came to stay with me for the summer, and she says I owe her double rent because he was here!   I don’t know which way to turn, I don’t!  She’s an evil, grasping woman!”

Large eyes, soft breath, quivering, slightly pouting lips – was it any surprise that Samuel wavered?   He had to step away from the intensity of that stare, wrest his eyes from the girl’s bee-stripe top and the gentle swell of her breasts.  He did so on the pretext of studying the small paintings on the wall – five of them, each a portrait of a different subject:  a warrior, a prosperous-looking Victorian grandee, a roughly-shaven priest with a strong jaw, a very regal gentleman with a posture of extreme hauteur, and a merchant of some sort in regalia festooned with jewels.

“What do you want?”  He asked when he had recovered himself. “You say you don’t want money; what do you want?”

“Why, your help – your strength!  The moment I saw you I knew!  You could stand up to her – tell her she’s wrong!   I need you to tell her she’s wrong!”

Samuel sighed.  “Where does she live?”  He asked.

The large woman’s green-painted door was near the entrance to the alley.  How long Samuel bumbled and fumbled outside it is uncertain: certainly to knock upon it took extreme courage. 

“Who are you?”  The woman boomed, filling the doorway with her presence. “I’m busy.”

Hesitantly Samuel entreated on the girl’s behalf.  The grand dame was dismissive: 

“That wastrel!   Don’t spend your sympathy on her!   One tenant, one rent; two tenants, two rents.  I believe that’s perfectly fair!”

If he was seeking a kernel of humanity within that obdurate painted shell, he did not find it.  “She owes me the money.”

“She doesn’t have it!”

Those needle eyes stared, rather as a cobra assesses a mouse.  “Do you?”

Samuel’s blood rose.  “I’m certainly not going to pay it for her!”

His indignant riposte brought forth a smile from the woman.  It did not have the same effect as the girl’s smile, but her tone altered.  “Why not, now?  A gentleman like you who comes to town regularly?  A nice little arrangement I’d say.  You pay her arrears, she repays you.  I’m sure you could think of some service she might provide?”

Samuel’s beige face turned as completely scarlet as was possible.  “How dare you!”  He stormed.  “Even to suggest such a thing of a young lady of reputation!  Even to suggest that I might be capable of…of…”

“Of what, dear?  Of needing what all men need?  Is that so bad?  And you might find your little angel to be a lot more demon than you expect.  But still…”  The grand dame shrugged:  “If that’s how you want to leave it..”

No, that was not how Samuel wanted to ‘leave it’. He was outraged, true, but he was also acutely aware of his failure.  He was failing to intercede with the dragon woman, and he was about to fail someone who had just brought a moment of beauty into his dull slab of life.  This monster was too free with her language, bereft of morality, for his dulled mind.  He shrank inside, and he turned away.

“I tell you what:” The woman said; “I’ll make you an offer, dear.  I know the girl has no money, and it’s only a matter of time before she skips; so here’s an idea for you.  I have a love of gold – I can’t account for it, I can’t excuse it, but I do.  Bring me two gold sovereigns for her debt.  Do that and I’ll clear her arrears.  Bring me one gold sovereign a month for her rent as well, if you like.  Think about it.”

Samuel could trust himself no more.  He stalked out of the alley and into the street where, having already outstayed his normal visit to the City, he headed briskly back towards the station.  But he did think about it.  On the train home, on the walk from the station, all through that night he thought about it; and by morning the ghastly woman’s proposition didn’t seem so bad.  It was only immoral, he told himself, if he took advantage of the girl.  If he was merely her benefactor it was an act of charity.

So the very next morning he returned to the City.   A numismatist in a tiny shop by the river who had never seen him before greeted Samuel like a long lost brother, and in no time at all Samuel, poorer by several hundred pounds, was knocking on the big woman’s door clutching two gleaming sovereigns in a desperate hand.

“I do so love that picture!  Saint George, God bless him!”  The woman enthused.  “Now remember – one of these a month!”

Standing on the landing of the second floor Samuel half-hoped the girl would not be at home, yet half of him was equally anxious she should answer her door.  She did.

“I’m so glad to see you again!  Come in!”  She said.

Only when he was inside the room did Samuel realise how little the girl was wearing:  a white shirt that looked very like a man’s shirt, bare legs and feet.  In a stammered sentence or two, he told her what he had done:  as he explained, her eyes became as wide as saucers, until she could restrain herself no longer.  She threw herself against his chest, her arms about his neck as she wept out her gratitude:  “Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!  There’s so much kindness in the world!”

Samuel had never experienced the emotions he was experiencing now. He had never felt the soft warmth of a young woman’s body against his own, and even the padding of his overcoat could not disguise the sensation of those unfettered curves.  

“It’s nothing; nothing!” He demurred, almost incoherent with embarrassment.”Your rent – um – I’ll – um – just until you get back on your feet, you see?  That’s all.”

Sensing his discomfiture, the girl stepped back:  “You’d do that for me?  You’d pay my rent?  I can’t let you do that!”

“Your landlord and I – we have an arrangement.”

The girl studied him in solemn silence for quite a while.  “You really are very lonely, aren’t you?”  She said.   “Will you come and keep me company sometimes?”

“I – I don’t know if I should…”

“Would you like some company now?”   Her nod towards the door at the far side of the room, the one Samuel assumed must lead to her bedroom, somehow contrived to be at once innocent and suggestive. Samuel coloured immediately.

“Oh, no!  No, I couldn’t – I mean, I wouldn’t…”

She smiled and squeezed his hand affectionately:  “You are very nice, you know; and you are very kind.  A lot of men….”  She left the sentence unfinished.

Samuel turned to leave with a thousand words of his own unsaid.  Where was his courage?  “But if…”  he blurted out,  “if I could come and talk to you sometimes – just talk?”

She laughed:  “Yes, of course.  I would like that!”

 “One thing…”  Samuel said.

“Yes?”

“Your name?”

“Miranda.”

If he had wings he would have flown those stairs; as he would fly them many more times over the coming months.  So light of heart was he that it never occurred to him to ask how Miranda had learned his name, any more than he had asked her landlord how she knew he came so regularly to the City. 

There were a lot of things Samuel Trimble would learn over the course of that winter:  he would, for example, learn to track the price of gold, because the large woman proved to be expertly equipped to do just that:  when the value of the metal fell, she would always take care to remind him of it, and she would accept nothing less than the extra full sovereign to make up her price.

“No half-sovereigns!  Can’t abide them!  No Krugerrands, either.  Don’t you try to get away with that!”

Yet when the gold-price rose the rent was never less than a sovereign.

“Trying to short-change me, are you?  Remember, this is a special price you’re paying!”

He would learn about love.  Gone was Samuel’s twice-weekly routine:  He was so often in the City now he scarcely saw his home.  His visits to Miranda grew more and more frequent, he stayed longer and longer.  It was only natural therefore, that such fast friends should greet each other with a kiss – only to be expected they would hug one another.

Then came the day he found Miranda in bitter tears, and the hearth cold.  She hadn’t enough money for firewood, she lamented, and he told her not to mind – he would pay for the firewood.  That was when, at last, it happened.  Samuel did not go home that night; nor did Miranda want him to.  It was daylight before he left, and when Miranda, with her hands clasped behind his neck, told him:  “You’re mine, now.”  there was something indefinable in her voice.

By February the need for firewood had spread to include food, by March clothing too.  Yet when Samuel gently suggested he might move in with Miranda permanently, or she should come to live with him, she rebuffed him firmly.

“You don’t see, do you?  You’re like an uncle to me: a warm, cuddly uncle who comes to visit!  It wouldn’t be right if you stayed.  I’d feel sort of tarnished if that happened.”

So the affair continued into the heat of the following summer, and the succeeding winter too. Miranda appeared never to have work of her own, though she seemed to have enough money for most of the time, and Samuel never enquired what she did to earn it.  As for himself, he had never been happier:  in fact, before he met Miranda it would have been difficult for him to define what happiness actually was. And yes, he was naive enough, or perhaps wise enough, to accept the course he was set upon without question.   But a financial storm was brewing: his incessant conversion of his scant resources into gold drained his account at the bank.  The numismatist, whose own wealth had increased considerably, began to turn back his cheques – when the numismatist didn’t, the bank did.

In the spring, a slimmer, more worried Samuel began seeking employment.  He tried, really hard, but there were few interviews and those there were went badly.  No-one wanted a self-important middle-aged man in an overcoat and a homburg hat. 

Finally, there came a day the anticipation of which had filled Samuel with dread. 

“There’s no money left.”  He told the large woman.  “I’ve given you all I have.”

The woman stared at him.  “Well then;” she said.  “It seems our little arrangement is at an end.”

Sadly, and a little more humbly than the first time he had negotiated with the gorgon, Samuel nodded and turned away.

“Of course,” The woman said; “The money isn’t quite all, is it?  There is still the little matter of your house?”

“My house?”  Samuel repeated stupidly.  “You want my house?”

“Let’s call it another ‘Little Arrangement’ – ‘Little Arrangement B’, so to speak.  Make over the deeds of your house to me, and we’ll say no more about rent.”

“But where will I live?”   Samuel was so lovelorn by now he would have gone through hell and barbed wire for Miranda, but the prospect of homelessness dropped a cold stone of reality into his over-warmed heart.

“With her, if she’ll have you.  Or you can still live in the house, for a while at least.  Just transfer the ownership to me.  You can be my tenant, dear.  It’s not an entirely unfamiliar status, is it?”

This night, Samuel did not go home.  Maybe in his desolation he hoped for wisdom from Miranda’s sweet lips, some encouragement that would help him find a way back to the surface of his troubled sea.  He found none.   Oh, she wept for him!  She laid her guilt before him, lamented how it had been she, and no other than she, who had brought him to this pass.  But answers?   No.  There were no answers.

“There’s only you.”  He told her:  “I live only for you!”

She said:  “And have you been happy?  Are you happy now, despite it all?  Did I not bring something to your lonely life?”

Samuel, through his tears, had to admit it.  She – she alone – had the power to make him happy.

The next morning, with a new resolve based upon nothing but unreasonable hope, Samuel confronted his solicitors.  Within a month, the dragon would have his house – the house his mother left him, his last ties with a miserable, solitary past.  And he left their chambers with a smile, because he was embarking upon a journey entirely new to him.

“This is my brother.”  Miranda said.  “He has come for the summer.  He’s an artist, you know.  He would like to paint you.”

Her brother was a cadaverous, grey figure with spiders for hands and sticks for legs.  He had a smell of dust and the grave about him, but Samuel sat for him that May, and though the portrait he produced was rather small, it was exquisite in form and detail, so that Samuel could almost see his living flesh move within it.

“He is ready.”  Miranda said when she answered her door one morning in early June.  Samuel had slept at his house the previous night and was not yet returned. 

The large woman nodded:  “He has no more to give us.  It is time.” 

Samuel’s greeting when he arrived that afternoon was not as he expected:  later the numismatist, the waitress from the coffee shop, the two theatrical thirty-somethings, the young couple and the old, old woman would be there too; for the party was in his honour, though he could not know it.  The logs burned fiercely in the hearth and the spit wheel turned.  

 A rich, delicious scent of roast pork wafted right across the City and the old buildings, the old timbered buildings leaned closer to one another, nodding with their own secret wisdom.

You would not find a resident of Samuel’s village who noticed when he disappeared.  Few of them recall when the young woman first arrived at the Trimble house; it is so long ago.  Yet she remains, her exquisite frail beauty unaltered by the years. 

Fewer still have entered that house: a young man or two may be seen there from time to time, but none have stayed more than a season or so.  The older, loud woman who she claims to be the mother holds everyone in fear, so there are not many witnesses to the striking row of little paintings, six in number, that adorn the drawing room wall.  The most recent of those depicts a vaguely familiar image of a plump man in a homburg hat.

Once in a while visitors from the City come.  Then there is feasting at the house and a delicious aroma of roast pork floats upon the envious air. 

© 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.

Featured Image: Tamegreaves from Pixabay

Continuum – Episode Twenty-Eight: Caverns old and Caverns Deep

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.

“Pass, Lady.”

“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….

“Lady Alanee!”

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.”

“Sire?”

“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.”

“Might, Sire?”

“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.

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