In the previous Episode:
Alanee has pacified Hasuga after what she thinks was a sexual attack, and learned that he wants her to steal one of the High Council’s sacred books for him. Sensitive to her own danger, she has discussed Hasuga with Sala, who tells her Cassix the Seer is very ill.
When she returns to her apartment, Alanee gets a summons to the watchtower…,
The arched entry to the watchtower is flanked by a pair of rampant stone lions at least three metres in height. A planked oak door bars the way. Alanee knocks, a latch creaks and the door elbows itself out of its jamb. A face fills the gap thus created.
“Ess?” The questioner is in military uniform. He has the blunt head of a Proteian, the missing consonants of an Oceanic, and the hostile look of one who is unappreciative of being disturbed. “Ess ‘Ady?”
“I have come at Sire Cassix’s bidding.”
“Ave ‘ou now? He’d be ‘sleep I think.”
Alanee persists. “He called me less than half an hour ago. I believe he might be quite annoyed if he learned you’d been difficult. Let me past.”
“Ess,” The Proteian with Oceanic tendencies acknowledges: “’e would.”
“Ess,” The Proteian concedes: “Go on, ‘en.”
Alanee shuffles warily past the bulk and odour of the sentry, to embark upon the first of seven flights of stairs. Worn stone treads punish her sandaled feet as she climbs, cold walls induce her to shudder in spite of the warmth of her exertions. By the time she reaches the top she will have counted one hundred and forty steeply raked, sparsely lit stairs. She will have risen high above the roof of the City.
Her breath is short when at last she ascends into an unfurnished hallway. Lights made to resemble burning brands are bracketed to naked stone walls, the furthest of which is broken by another door as dauntingly uncompromising as one Alanee remembers all too well, in the vaults below the palace on the day of her introduction to Hasuga. But this one answers to her hand upon the iron ring of its latch; it creaks open to reveal a few last steps, and what lies beyond would, if she had any left, take her breath away.
The observatory of the watchtower is not large, an area no more than a dozen paces to either hand, a dish, in simple terms, the rim of which is around three feet in height. The rest; roof and upper walls, is one transparent dome, an eyeglass to the night sky. And such a night! A black starscape in which each galactic smear, each delicate pinpoint of light has perfect integrity. No moon, although she might imagine the brighter planets to be almost as bright, no earthly interference – just heaven, in absolute and utter majesty.
There is little artificial illumination within the watchtower to guide her. So she hears him first.
“Come here. Join me.”
That clear, crystalline voice has a resonance she remembers, and it speaks slowly, brittle with pain.
“Sire Cassix?” A cluster of textiles is heaped on a mattress at the centre of the floor. Around it, the basic essentials of living: chairs, a shelf with plates and drinking bowls, a ewer.
Closer now: standing over him; her eyes accustoming themselves to the dim light, seeing the muddle of fabrics resolving itself into a shrunken ghost of the man she met in Balkinvel, skin pale, lips cracked, hair in soiled disarray. Is there nothing left of him?
“My heart, Alanee, has failed the test. As you see, I am not well.” A weakened hand pats the mattress at his side. “Join me, please?”
She does as she is bid, arranging herself so that laid upon her back with her head next to his she must look up into the marvellous vista of night; and this a night she is part of, at one with, floating amidst.
“Is it not? Eternity. Depthless, endless: distance and time beyond our knowing.” Cassix shifts his body laboriously.
“You should be in a warmer bed, Sire.” She tells him.
“This is warm enough, warmer at least than my next bed. And here I may contemplate the voyage to come. There is very little time to prepare. So I called you at this hour. I hope you are not too annoyed with me?”
“Annoyed with you?” Alanee replies with a trace of irony, “How should I be that? Anyway, I asked to see you, did I not? Lady Ellar passed on my message?”
“Ellar? No. I summoned you for my own reasons. Tell me now, how do matters proceed with Sire Hasuga?”
She sighs. Her answer will displease him, she supposes, but there is no point in denying the obvious. “He is not to be placated, Sire. I see no way he can be controlled by me. He is young and set upon asserting his manhood.”
“You aren’t angry?” She is surprised by Cassix’s mild reaction. “I am not succeeding in the task you set me.”
“Really?” Cassix shifts himself once more. “I wonder, Alanee, could you fetch me a little water? The ewer is full. My lips and mouth are so dry….”
“Yes, Sire, at once.” Hurrying to her feet, she takes a cup that stands by Cassix’s shoulder, filling it from the ewer.
“You see the two stones beside the jug? Bring them, too.”
Two ovoid stones, each in length about five inches; one a refulgent green that shines even in this sparse light, the other a colourless crystal. She juggles them about with the filled cup until she can carry all three before returning to moisten Cassix’s lips with water. She helps him raise his head so he may sip from the cup.
“Alanee, I did not expect you to control Hasuga’s will. Even to contemplate such a thing would be punishable by exile or death. We should have moved on from those times, but frightened people have scant regard for progress. The High Council are very frightened, so they employ the phrase ‘kerb his excesses’ as a compromise: no more nor less than they have done since time immemorial. But with Hasuga’s added maturity those excesses will become unmanageable. For the whole history of time Hasuga has been the player of our music: now he is the composer.”
“They think he will become a despot.”
“Lady, they know he will.”
“So why did you bring me here? If not to pacify Hasuga, then what was your reason?”
“One which until now has remained closed in my heart.” Cassix hoists himself onto his elbows. The water seems to have revived him a little. “Take the stones and go to the window; you will see two cradles there.”
On the sill where the dome and low foundation wall of the Watchtower meet rest two small brackets of black metal, a fraction more than a yard apart. Each bracket is topped by a horizontal cup about four inches in diameter.
“I see them.”
Alanee, who has an instinctive dislike of heights, has been avoiding this giddy edge, yet it does not occur to her to disobey. Tentatively she edges towards the glass, then tests her weight upon the ledge, leaning forward so she may peep over. For the first time she sees how far above the city she has climbed: below a mass of lights refract and waver in the rising air.
“Do exactly as I say – exactly, now, do you hear?. Place the larger end of the clear stone in the left-hand cup. Have you done that?”
She affirms that she has.
“Now remove your hand from the clear stone. Place the green stone in the other cup. Do not touch both stones simultaneously – do you understand?”
Bemused, she does as she is told.
“Be very careful. I want you to look out into the eastern sky, Alanee. Look deeply, find texture, find detail.”
Texture: what is he talking about? Has the old man’s mind gone – is he senile or fanciful? Yet there is a sort of vague meshing effect, a kind of weave – and yes, odd though it may seem, she can see something.
“You have found it? You can see the vortex?” Cassix knows that she can. “Now put your right hand upon the green stone.”
Alanee does so.
“The other hand upon the clear stone.”
The universe becomes alive – or so she will describe it in some future time when her memory returns to this moment. A current shooting through every physical and mental corner of her, a charge of such voltage her whole frame is rigid within its grip, as though some infernal angel’s long fingers are reaching in to grip her heart. So extreme is the sensation her mind is seared free of the watchtower, of Cassix’s distant voice, of the City and all its sights and sounds.
Through her arms, her hands, the stones and far, far outwards an intense flare of herself is joined with the firmament: for a blinding instant she can comprehend what it means to be at one with the stars. Alanee is the sky – Alanee is the earth – Alanee is melting…melting….
And then – she sees! The sky is not clear, or majestic, or free. The heavens are a stirring, rolling ocean of light, waves that flicker and stab, expressing their instability by small flashes of discharging lightning. There are clouds there; clouds that whirl and twist and there is burning – burning that flares from the dark recesses between the galaxies, hungry orange tongues consuming, devouring, withdrawing once more into mouths deeper than infinity. A battle of flame and thunder, filled by cries of tortured souls. She must observe: a spectator at the corrida when the sword strikes home and the horrid fascination as the blood spurts forth; she may not avert her consciousness, may not redirect her inner eye. She stands mesmerised before a window. She watches Armageddon.
The experience will end as unexpectedly as it began, whether within a few seconds or an hour Alanee has no idea. Her hands are released; she may lift them from the stones. Though her body feels enervated and her knees shake she cannot feel that any harm has befallen her. When she comes to herself the sky is calm – once again a tapestry of innocent stars.
“What was that?” Is all she can think of to say.
“I have named it the Continuum.” Cassix answers. If she could see his face from where she stands she would see that he is smiling the smile of one whose theory has just been vindicated. “The Continuum as only you and I may witness it, Alanee. Every day it grows: a disturbance in the ether that began less than a generation since, and until a cycle ago no more than a distant maelstrom in the skies of the south-east. Now – well, you saw its immensity.”
“So, it’s what: a kind of solar storm, or some form of illusion? It’s gone now.”
“It is no illusion, and no, it has not ‘gone’- though few can see even a small part of it and none at all without the presence of a Seer, it is real enough: it is a prophecy. You saw it: how did it speak to you?”
“I believe it cut across time. I don’t know whether I was watching the present, the future or the past. Is that an answer?”
“A part of an answer.” Cassix acknowledges. “The rest will come.”
“I must watch it again?”
“And again, and again and again. Alanee, now do you see why I brought you to the City? Do you see what the High Council has missed, what is so far above their heads both physically and conceptually they could never hope to understand?”
“No, Sire.” Alanee is mystified. She is sure any reasoning so obscure as to defeat the learned Councillors must be incomprehensible to her poor brain.
“No-one in the City has this gift; no-one attuned to Hasuga’s huge telepathic powers can follow me. He is in my head now, wrenching, tearing at my inner vision. You – you can resist that, give him the clear balance he needs and, as we both just witnessed, you have the gift of sight. Alanee, you are my successor: you are the next Seer.”
Alanee staggers, almost loses all sensation in her legs. “Me? Sire, I am honoured, but….”
“Please do not consider this an honour!” Cassix’s voice rises. “There is no honour in this! There is a great task, a momentous task that comes upon us quick as thunder and neither of us has time to ponder it as we should. You must accept it and meet it alone.
“The Continuum and Hasuga are associated – linked – one and the same. I am certain of that. He must be shown what it will do to the City, Alanee. It is destruction and it is upon us!”
“Sire I cannot…”
“Don’t try to say no. You have no choice. Even from this lofty perch I see the cauldron stirred by those poor, frightened colleagues of mine. They are not pleased with their new Hasuga, Alanee, and they are equally displeased with you. Whereas they are compelled by Lore to suffer one, they can dispense with the other.”
Cassix’s voice now has a tired finality. His strength is failing. “I knew when I first met you: I knew you were the only possible way forward. I had planned to take so much longer in training you, in showing you ways through The Lore to grow in your craft. But Hasuga would not have it so, and my health is forfeit. You must study the Lore for yourself and you will learn as he wants you to learn, which is how it should be. Now go. Take the stones, for although you will not always need them you must keep them close to you. I have to use what time remains to me to ensure your election.”
She would stay, protest further, but one look at that ashen face is enough. She quietly takes her leave, and with feet scarcely finding the treads and sometimes clinging to the rope that serves as a rail Alanee makes her way down from the sick-room in the sky.
“’Een un then?” She passes the sentry without noticing, or smelling, his presence – back into the city.
Watching her pass, the sentry scratches himself reflectively, wondering what business so beautiful a woman can have with a sick old man in the early hours. As she disappears into the bright maw of the Avenues he settles to his nocturnal routine, the pacing discipline which is all that will keep him awake through the watches of the cold hours. A visitor on this shift is an event: at least now the stillness has returned and he can attune his ears once again to that distant music from the bazaar – music which always plays, no matter what the hour. The night has not long to go, now. There should be no more such interruptions.
But out there in the official residences and the resplendent salons of the High Councillors, Altor the Convenor is busy. Behind the superficial calm a rising tumult; summoners buzzing; mighty heads stirring from their sleep. Before much longer the sentry’s night will become very eventful indeed.
“You have done what?” The Domo’s face is purple with anger. Actually it is also purple with expended effort; the protracted climb to the Watchtower is one he rarely makes, and then always with the assistance of two drabs. He is not alone in his reaction. The others present have also vented their disbelief.
“I have nominated the Lady Alanee as my successor to the office of Seer.” Cassix has been propped up so he may face the assembled gathering, though he is so weak his head can hardly support itself. “It is my duty and my right.”
“NO!” Portis cries. “Seer is an office of the High Council, for Habbach’s sake! Sire, what on earth possesses you?”
For Trebec the climb has also been an arduous one, and now, in the presence of so many High councillors in so small a space, the heat is stifling. “This is intolerable.”
“Really my Lord, why?” Though weak, Cassix’s words command attention. He has prepared for this battle. “She alone among you can see The Continuum for what it truly is.”
“This Habmenach-forsaken bloody Continuum again!” Such expressions of intolerance from the Domo are rare. “You are not well, Cassix. You realise we must question your mental state?”
Cassix assents: “I do. In a total absence of precedent, though, should you even try? I have already published my intent and taken the required test for my sanity.” He nods towards a screen that has been set up beside his pallet. “The whole city knows, My Lord Domo.”
There ensues one of those pauses wherein no-one feels free to speak, yet such a volume of thoughts fills the space that whole philosophies are wordlessly exchanged. At length the Domo breaks the silence.
“Well then, we must ratify your choice, Sire Cassix.”
Trebec sounds as if he might explode: Remis grunts, Ellar says softly: “Oh, Cassix!”
“It is the Lore.” The Domo says. “We must observe the Lore. Clearly, this is Sire Hasuga’s wish.”
“And where is that wish to take us?” Ellar demands, ignoring Portis’s warning glance. “Where?”
The Proctor cannot ignore this. “Lady Ellar, you are guilty of a blasphemy!”
“Sire Remis!” Cassix intercedes: “The lady is a High Councillor elect! Of course we should – no – we must question where Hasuga is leading us! I am no longer able to fulfil a role which is vital to us all; a role Alanee can play. She will show you Hasuga’s intentions Ellar, if you let her. She might even be able to moderate them, though maybe not in the way you wish. I repeat to you: I nominate Lady Alanee as my successor. She shall be Seer to the High Council.”
There is no more to be said, and if there were Cassix no longer has breath to say it. His task complete, he sinks back into the cushions that prop his torso erect for this meeting, deflated, spent. The sight of his decrepitude affects the Domo especially, who lumbers across to him, placing a gentle hand on his forehead with the quiet words:
“It shall be done. Goodbye, old friend.”
For the others, too, this obvious sign dispels any further wish for argument and each in their turn pay their respects to the great man who has served with them for so many years. Ellar, last to come to him, feels his touch upon her arm. Sees, rather than hears him whisper:
So she waits, listening as he does to the receding quarrels as the rest of the High Council makes its laboured descent back to the City. Then she sits upon the floor beside him, cradling the man who has loved her, in his patrician way, ever since she met him in the womb of the Palace so many years ago.
“My Lord?” She asks him softly.
For a moment she thinks he has already embarked upon his journey, but behind the parchment skin a candle of life still flickers. After a while he speaks. “Lady. Take care of Alanee. You alone. Understand?”
“That will be hard, Sire.”
“You disapprove of her.” It is not a question. He has not time or energy for questions. “She will need you. The world will need her.”
“If you wish it, I will do all I can.”
Cassix allows a ghost of a smile to play across his dry lips. “I know you will. Ellar?”
“Yes, my Lord?”
“You’ll stay, won’t you?”
“Cassix my dearest, I’m with you always.”
With her arm about his shoulders and her hand clasped over his, Ellar sits with him to wait for the sunrise. And in the first warm rays of morning, Cassix dies.
© 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: Pexels from Pixabay