Satan’s Rock

Part Eleven

The Crooked Prince

“I will dispense with introductions.” Against the brick echoes in the vaults of his father’s palace, Prince Shumal’s voice was high, sing-song, almost a falsetto.   Yet it was utterly devoid of any humility – a voice that could command.  “Those of us who know each other already know too much.     Those who can should remain strangers.”

There were murmurs of assent from around the circle.   All meetings of the Brotherhood began in this way.

“I will tell you;” Shumal went on; “that this place was swept for devices this morning.   We are free to discuss.   Now, our brother,”  He waved a vague hand towards the man in traditional Khubali dress,  “will explain a problem which has arisen.  A very serious problem…if you please, brother?”

“Highness.”  The man was an Arab.   His face wascreased by the scars of action, the badges of a soldier.   He spoke in measured words:  “As you know, a recent action initiated by one of us here did not go well.   A target survived.”

Yahedi met the man’s stare, which had singled him out as he spoke.

“You refer to the London target?”

The Arab inclined his head.

“The security cordon was warned.”   Yahedi stated.  “Such was my report.”

“But a target was missed, right?”   The American intervened.

Yahedi responded quietly:  “If you are suggesting the miss was any fault of mine, brother, you should take great care.”

“No-one here is accusing you,”   The Prince cut in hurriedly.   “Your efficiency is not in question.”

“The target was, indeed, warned.”   The Arab continued.  “The warning was given by one of us.”

“Really?”    Yahedi was surprised for the second time that morning.  “Why, can I ask?”

“I had to.”  This time it was the woman who spoke.  “The alert came through the embassy – a logged call.   If I had not passed the call on, my cover would have been blown.”

“And we have worked for many years to put our sister here in place,”   The Prince said:  “She has a grade two clearance with British Intelligence.   She was very clever, in fact.   Were you not, sister?”

“I gave the warning through the American Embassy staff line.  US embassy staff have a low opinion of British Intelligence, so they gave it little credence.    They allowed your target to present himself for you.   That insured you would still have a clear shot.  You just didn’t hit him.”

Salaiman Yahedi never flared, never lost his temper.   Whenever he felt himself at a disadvantage he would evince great calm.  But there were ice crystals in  his eyes that only the innocent or the stupid might ignore:  “The man simply ducked.”   He said with exaggerated gentleness.   “He was warned.”    His gaze was focussed on the woman, who flushed and looked away.

“He did not ‘duck’.”   the Arab said.

“He did move evasively;” The woman rejoined as levelly as she could, “But not because he knew a bullet was coming.”

The Prince took up the thread.  “You did not see, brother, because your gun-sight was focussed on the target, not upon what went on around him..  He bent to retrieve a piece of paper which fell in front of his face.”   Shumal’s voice rose to its most exasperated pitch.“A piece of paper from the sky, for love of Allah, blessed be his holy name!” 

True, Yahedi reflected, his gunsight had been trained closely upon the target’s head.  He had not seen any piece of paper.   Of the faces around him, Bourta, clearly, had known of this: the Indian, the American, they had not.   He had already pigeon-holed those two as the paymasters: presumably very generous ones, otherwise why would they be allowed to meet with such as Bourta and himself?   The Arab?  Salaiman was fairly sure he was not there because of his money.   The woman…he let his stare rest upon her once more.   She was ill at ease.   Why?   What anxiety caused those long, spidery fingers to be continually working?   He knew why he had been sitting in Hyde Park at that early hour of that particular morning, but why had she been there?

Bourta voiced the question in everyone’s mind,  “How could that happen – at the exact moment of the shot?    Did it drop from a tree, or something?”

“And to place it so exactly!”  the Indian chimed in.  “To drop paper on a precise spot?   Not possible, I think.”

“You know what I think?”   Asked the smiling American:   “Bullshit!   That’s what I think, Sheik.   Of all the half-assed crazy stories I ever did hear that has to be the craziest.”

“It happened.”  Said the woman.  “The paper does exist.  I understand it is A4, printed with a picture of a young white male, apparently enhanced in some way.  MI6 have it in their possession.  And no, there are no trees in that precise area.”

“We think.”  The Arab said, “It was dropped by a bird.”

“That is a very large piece of paper” Said the Indian eventually:  “For a bird.”

“Can we get to this paper?”    Yahedi asked.

The woman shrugged:   “I am trying, but my level of clearance does not go that far.  I only have the surveillance footage.”

“I got my own theory.”   The American’s voice had a steely edge.  “My theory is that I paid a cool half-million for a hit that didn’t hit.   And the agreement your target tied up with the British that very morning cost me another one hundred and fifty million, because they’ve accepted the JAN-net ground defence system not the Hetton-Patton version, and my Company’s fenced out for maybe the next fifty years!”

“We all have our reasons for wanting this target neutralised.”   Shumal said gently.  “It will be taken care of.”

“Why, thank you, your Highness!   But that’s no god-damned use to me now!”

“Peace, brother, peace! “  The Prince commanded:  “Did you think that our cause was to be so used, that you could treat us like contract killers?  You test our hospitality!”

There was silence, as each member of the group tried to assimilate what they had heard.  The American’s youthfully-tweaked countenance was becoming very red indeed, but he said nothing.  

At length Prince Shumal spoke:   “Let us examine this from an added perspective.  We need to take heed of a new and dangerous adversary.   Brother,”   He gestured to the Arab;  “ I think you have something to tell us.”

“YourHighness.”  The Arab addressed the whole group.  “We must accept that someone, or something, had forewarning of this execution.  Your informer was anonymous, yes?”   He glanced at the woman, who immediately (a little too quickly, thought Yahedi) nodded assent;   “And specific as to where and when the hit was to take place.   So, an insider, a mole?    But it was a further incident –apparently quite miraculous – which saved the target’s life.”

The Arab leaned forward, earnestly seeking to engage his audience:   “We are all professionals.  We move in a century of great human progress founded upon skill and scientific accomplishment.    That is why it will be hard to accept, for us, that this miracle was the work of a sorcerer.”

“A what?”   Said the American.    “What, like a wizard or something?   Oh, come on!”

The Arab spread his hands:  “Nevertheless….in our brotherhood, greater wisdom has taught us acceptance of these things.”

“It is the only explanation,”   Shumal cut in:  “Unless you truly believe in coincidence.   I am certain there were no leaks in this particular barrel.  It was a very important barrel.   And if it didn’t leak, and if he really was saved by a picture floating from the sky, then I take sorcery.   I do not believe in such coincidences.”

“Prince, you can’t believe this.”   The American was astounded.  “I cannot believe you believe this!”

“The pieces fit.”  The Arab said.   “In our history there are plenty of instances where one with the gift of sight used a bird as a familiar.   A bird would understand the action of an object floating in the air.   There can be no other explanation.”

“I’m damned sure I can think of one!”  The American muttered.

“Then I invite it.”

Prince Shumal got to his feet.   “We cannot change what has been.   But whether we believe the agent at work here to have acted at the behest of Allah or the Devil, we must find out who, or what it is, lest it should interfere with other projects.  Our brother here…..”   He indicated Bourta, “Will introduce himself to you, sister, and you will strive together to learn more: I want to see that piece of paper, and I want to know who telephoned the original warning.   Our brother has special skills:  he will be of great value to you in this.”

Again, Yahedi found his attention occupied by the woman.    There was a certain cast to her eye – only momentary, but unmistakable – an unguarded second which spoke of duplicity, perhaps even of betrayal.   And now he was convinced.   He glanced across at Bourta, knowing the Moroccan would have seen it too.  There was eye contact, a mutual understanding: the woman must not be trusted.

“This execution is deferred for a while.”   The Prince continued:   “We have generated too much interest in the target; but we shall return to him, at a later date.   In the meantime, brother….”   He smiled crookedly at the Indian:  “We have your affairs to sort out.  Never fear, no pieces of fluttery paper on this one!”

“That’s it?”  The American asked, coldly.   “We just let it go at that?”

“We will do all we can, my friend,”   The Arab said.   “We cannot change the past.”

“All this fatalism is very commendable,” The American’s voice was granite-edged:  “But you guys are in the business of changing things.   Now I have lost a contract because of your inefficiency, and I have put a cool two million into your god-damned ‘Revolutionary Fund’ and I want something changed.   OK, not the past – let’s discuss how we get to the guy who has my contract – but I want some guarantee here today:  I want something back.”

“Of course, of  course!”   The Prince was placatory:  “We understand this.   These are matters best discussed in confidence, between you and I.   We shall set up a meeting together, I will look to it.”   He spread his hands in a dispersive gesture:  the meeting was concluded.

There was a procedure to follow now:  discretion required that only a few might exit by the tunnel at one time – too many emerging onto the street outside the palace walls would invite suspicion.  So the Prince would detain those with whom he had further business, releasing others whose business was already done.  A brief word sufficed for the American, a promise to set up a meeting, then he was allowed to leave.   Bourta singled out the woman to pursue the mission given to them both by the Prince.  A great deal of verbal communication passed between her and Bourta: but the whole content of their discussion did not amount to a fraction of the meaning which Yahedi and Bourta exchanged between them with one momentary glance.   Had she seen it, the woman would have felt much less secure.   Bourta and the woman departed, more or less together.

 Yahedi wondered about the Indian, just as he wondered about the Arab.  Both were strangers to him, and though as far apart in character as two individuals might possibly be, each had another mystery about them which was unexplained.  It was the Indian who was next to depart, leaving Yahedi and the Arab to remain with the Prince.

 “Do you like the look of our brother?”   Shumal murmured, gesturing towards the Arab, who stood apart.  “I am convinced he is of great value to us. Takes one to know one, eh, Yahedi?   An exemplary man at arms, hmmm?    And a creature of such intelligence!   His organisation – this ‘Portal’ of which I am sure you have heard – is at one with God and our cause.   Walk with me.”  Prince Shumal took Yahedi’s arm, guiding him towards a far corner of the room.  “You see, killers, my friend, are twice a penny:  is that the expression?   They fall over themselves to work for us.   One is lost to us, another is there to take over… this is the way of things.”

“Children ready to die for a cause, Highness, are not killers.   They are food for killers.”   Yahedi responded.   “And many who are not children; though they pretend to much, do not have the necessary ice in their heart.”

The Prince patted his hand.   “I have faith in you, Brother.   I know your stamp.   There are those who feel that you are vulnerable, some say even that you are corrupted: they mislike your Jewish ancestry, mistrust your western affinities.    I say to them, no, we do not need to fear this.  Yahedi is our friend.    It is not true that he defers to the highest bidder, that his only god is the dollar.   I say this, Yahedi, my friend, because I trust you.  I believe you do work for us.   I believe that, but I and our brothers know our Arabian friend is loyal…”

“If you wanted him,” Yahedi cut in: “I would not be here today.   You would have sent him after me long before now.”

“How do you know the hunt does not start here?”   The Prince chuckled.  “Perhaps I shall give him your contract this very morning?   What do you think, Yahedi my friend: could he collect?”

Yahedi shook his head, recognising that however menacing the Prince’s words might sound, he was asking for an honest opinion.  “No. He is a man of arms, but he is not of our breed.  Send him after me and I will send you his head by return of post.   I do not doubt he is a good soldier, a devoted servant of Allah.   But it is a thing apart to assassinate a woman, or to take out someone who has no gun, whose back is turned, who is standing hand in hand with his children.”

“So be it.”  The Prince nodded. “The truth, brother, speaks of a time long delayed which cannot be delayed much further.  An hour when you will both be needed.  In the meantime, we must clean up this situation.”   He handed Yahedi a small briefcase. “Go now, brother.  Take this with you.  Allah keep you until we next meet .”

Back at his hotel, Salaiman Yahedi opened the briefcase the Prince had pushed into his hand.  It contained fifty thousand Dollars in neatly wrapped large bills, and a photograph of the American.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

Image Credit: Abuli Munaravi on Unsplash

Continuum – Episode Twenty-Nine: Time to Choose.

In the previous episode:

Acting upon Hasuga’s demand that she remove a book from the City’s Inner Library, Alanee takes the elevator deep into the rock below the city, where she finds the sanctuary of the Book of Lore guarded by Karkus, aged progenitor of  The City itself.   In stealing the book she is discovered by the leacherous Portis, who tries to compromise her in the privacy of the elevator in return for his silence.  She tricks him by summoning Ellar to call the elevator,and escapes, leaving Portis to explain himself to the Mediant.   Now read on…

Alanee knew she had only a few minutes lead on events.  While she put as much distance as she could between herself and the elevator, Portis would, with difficulty, be persuading the Ellar the Mediant of his innocence and of hers, Alanee’s, culpability – he may not succeed on either count, but Ellar, meticulous as she was, would want to cover herself very quickly, so swift pursuit with the object of investigating any possible theft was inevitable.

Later, were she given time, Lady Ellar might review these events and wonder.  Why had Alanee’s summoner message, tapped out blindly:  “Help call lib elev”, reached her rather than any other member of the Council?

  She might wish that it had not.  She will not know that Alanee’s inexpert fingers hit her call-button purely by chance, because beneath the folds of the robe that seconds later she would shed she could neither see what she wrote, or to whom she addressed it.  It was only essential that someone should call the elevator, bring it up to the high corridor.

The Book?  Ellar never saw the book.  It was beneath Alanee’s robe when she recovered it, concealed from sight as she clasped it to her, running away through the scattering of nobles who frequented the corridor at that time.

Later, Ellar might discover these things.  Just as she might investigate Portis’s frantic claim, made while he sought to cover himself:

“It is a device Lady!  She has stolen a book!   Detain her, for Habbach’s sake!”

She might believe him.  Anyone witnessing this scene in the corridor might, if Portis’s habits were not well known, if his tastes were not public knowledge and if the physical evidence were not so compelling.  It is a balance of probabilities, as all things are, and it weighs in Alanee’s favour for just long enough.

Alanee bursts into Cassix’s chambers, where Sala awaits her. Saucer-eyed, Sala takes in her friend’s undressed state.  “Je-Habba!  What happened to you?”

“Sire Portis got a little too fresh for his own good.  I’m all right, ba, don’t worry, or I will be as soon as I get some sensible clothes.”  She senses Sala’s nervousness,  “But you’re upset, aren’t you?  Is there something the matter?”

In the bedroom, Alanee throws her robe and the book upon the bed, quickly slipping into a Hakaani-style tabard she had commissioned from the dressmaker.  She shudders:  “I wish I had time for a bath, I don’t think I’ve ever felt this soiled.”

Sala stands in the doorway.  “What’s that?”  Her eyes have rested upon the book.

“I’ve no time to explain right now.  I’ve a head start on the guards, I think: no more than that.”

Sala’s stares at the little locked volume: her eyes follow it as Alanee picks it up and slips it into her clutch bag.  Alanee reads her thoughts.  The friends both pause in shared significance.

“Is that from the…?”

“From the Inner Library?”  Alanee is tying the thongs which secure the sides of the tabard;  “Yes, it is.”

Sala’s summoner is blaring:  she stabs at it, holds it up to the light.  “It is the Lady Ellar.”

“Don’t answer it!”

“Alanee, she’s my patron!”  Sala protests; “But it doesn’t need an answer, darling.  It’s an order.”  She displays the read-out for Alanee to see.  The message says:   “KEEP HER THERE.  You stole that book, didn’t you?  Alanee, they kill you for that!”

The pair exchange looks.  Alanee says:  “So, now.  Your patron or your friend?  Time to choose, ba.” 

Sala nods solemnly.  “That’s a choice I’ve already made.  I won’t keep you, but have you seen the mirrors?” Alanee is making for the door, intent upon completing her mission by placing the book in Hasuga’s hands; “Take a minute to look at this first.  Please, ba?”

She urges Alanee around the mysterious and, to her, a doorless wooden edifice, guiding her into the leather chair before the trio of mirrors.  They are alive with reflections; reflections of carrion birds circling, people racing blindly as deer before a forest fire; dying people with terror, mortal terror in their faces, muscles taut as steel hawsers, drooling mouths and bulging, sightless eyes.  There are thousands, the running and the dying, thrown into stark relief by flashes of brilliance from a furious sky.

‘Have you seen?’  Hasuga is in Alanee’s head again.  ‘Do you understand?’  Alanee does.  Now, before these images, she understands it all.  ‘Bring me the Book.  I must have it in my hand, Alanee.’

Fighting her fear, she tells Sala.  “The book must be returned to whom it belongs.  I have to take it to him.  If you believe in me you must wait for me here, ba.  Do you see?  I will return.”

Sala calls after her:  “This.  All this.”  She waves towards the mirrors.  “It isn’t real, is it?  It’s just necromancy, witchery.”

Alanee smiles kindly.  “Is that what you want to believe, ba?   No, the mirrors speak truly.  That is the Continuum, and our time has run out  Be patient now, I won’t be gone for long.”

“The guards will come.  Ellar will come!”

“Tell them you tried to detain me, but I fought you off.  Stay here if you can, darling.”

Since her arrival, Alanee has not had opportunity to explore the links from her high station to the lower city, and she knows of just one route to the Palace.  By winding her way through back alleys, past drinking halls and night club areas that are sweeping up from the business of the night before, she hopes to evade any troop of guards Ellar or Portis may send in her pursuit.  She loses herself twice before a chance diversion delivers her onto the forecourt of the great palace building.   Taking a deep breath and concealing the book as best she can, she steps into the open.  Although she may feel a hundred eyes boring into her back, she is safer than she expects.  In the event most of the city’s elite are about their daily tasks and word of her little drama with Portis has not yet reached this level.  Any remarks she overhears refer to her status.

“I believe that is Lady Alanee, our new Seer!”

“So young!  So young!”

“Exquisite!  Quite exquisite!”

When she steps into the Great Hall of the Palace, however, the atmosphere is quite different.  Here the hustle and bustle of the day is in full swing and seemingly more frenetic than its usual pace.  She is recognised here too.  A few greet her, some ignore her, all look curiously at her disrespectful form of dress.  When she reaches the private elevator that rises to Hasuga’s high rooms, this becomes an issue.  A royal drab steps across her path.

“Lady?  What business have you here?”

“I’m appointed to meet with Sire Hasuga.  You know who I am?”

“You are the Seer, Lady.  But your clothes are inappropriate to the inner sanctum.”

“The matter is urgent.  I had no time to change.”

“Nevertheless…”

“Step aside, man.  Lady Alanee has Sire Hasuga’s full authority.”  She identifies that voice immediately, spins around in some confusion.

“Celeris?  But how…?”

His smile is as placidly beautiful as ever.  “Lady, I am always at your service, surely you know that?  You must forgive our over-zealous friend here:  the place is in turmoil.  There is a rumour that Sire Portis is under arrest, and Sire Trebec is to be brought to trial for genocide.  The High Council is in utter disarray.  It is what you might describe as a ‘bad morning’ really.”

He steps closer, so she can inhale the sweet scent of his breath, whispers to her.  “You see?  Even a hologram has its uses.  Actually, my dearest memory, this is the last time we shall meet.  Be well, Alanee.”

The elevator doors are open behind her.  Before she has time to protest or give tongue to her anger, (or would it be love?) Celeris walks away, vanishes in the hubbub of the crowd, leaving behind him an emptiness of parting.

As the doors close and the pod of the elevator raises her to Hasuga’s royal apartments she tries to confront the riddle of Celeris.  Who, or what, was he?   Substantial enough, this she knows:  no ghost, no apparition.  Then what – a part of her that she might summon in times of hopelessness or hope?  How could a life be brought to existence purely by her need, then cease until next she needed it?  How could space be created in time for such a materialisation, and what would be left each time it departed?  The process of deduction begun before the mirrors is developing and each new revelation is another shock, another open mineshaft into darkness.

He is where he always sits, upon his bed.  The room is empty.  The serpentine machine is gone, the screens are still and lifeless.

“You have the book.”  It is not a question.

Alanee takes the book from her bag, offering it to him, arm outstretched.

“No, not yet.”  Puzzled, she steps back.  How pale he looks, how thin and drawn!  The mighty complex of his brain that always seemed to pulsate with inspiration is unillumined now, as if some part of him has already left his body.

“I thought you wanted it, you said you could open it, read what’s inside.  Now you don’t?”

“I know what is inside.  As do you.  You read it when you took it in your hands, and yes, you must give it to me, but not before you know its name.”

“It doesn’t have a name – not on the spine, not on the cover – look!”  She proffers the volume, and almost at once she wishes she could retract her words, for there is a name – embossed in gold letters, where before there was nothing.  In some wonder, she reads the title aloud.

“The Holy Bible.”

Hasuga says simply:  “We are done here.”

“You make no sense to me. This makes no sense, none of it.  There is some plan, some scheme.  If I am a part of it, shouldn’t I be told?”

“Alanee my dear one, I have said to you not once but many times that I am learning.  All the knowledge I have gained is in your head too, though you may not countenance it yet.  I do not know what will happen to you next, only that if you are given the opportunity, you will also learn.”

Hasuga rises to his feet and steps closer to her, so she may see his eyes, and the conviction within them, as never before.  “It is all there in your mind – all the history, all the reality.  As you need it and if you need it you will find what you seek, dredge it out.  Think of your mind as a great library filled with books , all of which you could not possibly find time to read.

“So, what now?”  His smile is suddenly so reminiscent of Celeris.  “Well, that is the next great discovery.  When my hand closes around that book, a circle is completed.  Then we shall both discover the truth.”

Hasuga extends a thin left hand, clasps her free hand within it.  “We shall not see each other again.  Go now.”

And with his other hand, he takes the book from her grasp.

The heavens scream.

Long ago, when Alanee was very young, the earth shook itself as a dog does when it clambers from the water.  Her mother pronounced it a ‘tremor’ and dismissed it, but to Alanee it was a fearful episode; a profusion of falling plates, rocking furniture, cracking plaster from the walls.  She remembers it.  So the feeling of the palace in motion beneath her feet is familiar, and were it not for the time and place, she might dismiss it as her mother did.  But there is a greater wrongness within it that speaks to her, something that demands she run.

“Quickly, Sire!  We must get away!”

Hasuga only smiles:  he smiles, then, like Celeris in her chambers, like Saleen before Ripero’s outstretched hands, he is gone.  The room is gone.  The apartments, the entire palace is fragmenting, with no cry, with no thunder of masonry or spike of flame – without any blinding fog of dust:  just a distant whine of something coming;   something absolute …..

Filled with horror, Alanee turns towards the door:  but there is no door, there is no wall.  For a fraction of a second the great hall of the palace is in its place (how is she here, rather than three storeys above?) but then that, too, disappears:  Toccata’s tsakal house materialises with Toccata standing within it, his face a white mask of despair.  His expensive hangings are falling in a whirlwind, yet he still reaches out to her, mouth moving in a soundless greeting.  In turn the ante-room to the council chamber, then the palace courtyard fly about her head – images of places she knows, faces she remembers, shuffling like cards in a deck.

Somehow she is running, she knows that, though her feet do not seem to move; passing through the courtyard, the Grand Park, the malls, her old apartment, all with the desperate desire to find her way back:  back to Sala.  The one thing, the one person vital to her.  She must rescue Sala.

Is it her?  Is she in some kind of dream?  Only that unremitting sound, growing steadily, seems real.  The City has lost its order, its structure:  it is coming to pieces.  Nevertheless somehow she is finding her way.  Something in her psyche guides her, makes sense of the moving maze in such fashion that she finds direction when all direction has been lost.  A thread within her follows a thread through the mayhem and that should be sufficient – would be – were it not for Mother.

Mother, cheated by her beloved child and screeching out her loss in a paroxysm of fury:  Mother with hyena-teeth bared and long knife aloft comes whirling from the mists of confusion with one thing only in her contorted mind; to take the life from the one who took Hasuga from her – Alanee’s life.

Before she can defend herself Alanee is thrown to the moving ground with time to no more than twist away from the first strike – the second she cannot avoid.  It plunges deep, it strikes like an rod of fire into her thigh and instantly her blood starts pulsing through the wound.  This is death!  She takes the third strike on her arm, catching the raw blade enough to turn it on itself.  With a strength born of mortal peril she thrusts the demented woman from her, grabs the hand that has the weapon in its grip.

Now a real struggle begins.  Mother has the knife, would thrust it into Alanee’s heart, but Alanee holds her by the wrist and is forcing it back.  Mother is finding her feet, trying to rise.  Alanee feeling her strength flowing freely from the gash in her leg has too little time.  It must be now!  The woman’s hand is pushing this way, her balance is swaying that.  Going with her movement, going against her poise, one thrust.  The knife goes where the knife chooses, and it chooses Mother’s throat.  The woman who devoted her life to care of the Hasuga child ends it by her own hand, by Alanee’s guidance.  Her windpipe severed and emitting bubbles of blood, Mother sinks to the floor, thrashes there for a second or two before dying.

Alanee’s rising vomit would choke her.  With no time for ceremony, she snatches Mother’s robe, using the bloodied knife to rend a strip from it.  She binds her leg tightly, so tightly she has to suppress a cry of pain.  Aghast at the pool of her own life that has already formed upon the switchback floor, she limps forward:  still hoping, still searching.  She promised she would not be long.  She promised she would return for Sala.  Her leg is ruptured, the muscle in her arm is slashed, disabled by the same knife; but she must find Sala.

The task is insuperable, random scenes passing before her so fast she can achieve no sense of direction.  In neither light nor darkness, she does not know where she is going, she cannot find anything constant to cling to.  The noise which pursues her is incessant now, an animal, an all-devouring thing.  People are scattering everywhere:  Ellar flits by, Trebec, the Domo.  And all the while her strength ebbs.

Utterly despondent, she ceases to try.  The hopelessness of her state, the certainty she will die before she ever reaches her friend overcomes her.  Whatever is happening to the city will consume her too.  There is no redemption, no answer.  There, amidst a rolling barrel of destruction Alanee drops to her knees and submits to fate.

Behind her the Continuum roars louder, a focussed beast sensing prey.

© 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.

Image credit: Kristen from Pixabay

Continuum – Episode Twenty-Seven: The Relief of Balkinvel

In the previous Episode:

Ellar doubts Sala’s loyalty, as the mediator seems unable to elaborate upon her encounter with Celeris.  Alanee employs a friend of Toccata’s to ‘remodel’ Casix’s old chambers.  Finally left to herself, she is able to study the mirrors.  They reveal a doorway to the wooden room and an ancient figure sitting within it, then show images of her home village, ruined and deserted.  Before she can turn away, they force her to witness reflections from an apocalypse in which thousands die.

While the High Council meets to discuss Trebec’s report in The City, Dag finds civilization in the river valley, only to be captured…

Trebec’s report has been heard in solemn silence.  While the High Council ruminates, The old General himself sits contemplating the fold of his fingers across his ample belly.  At length, the Domo asks:  “How many?”

“Ten thousand,”  Trebec mutters into his chins.

“Ten thousand.”  Leaden words.  “And the injured, the unhomed?”

“None survive.”

The Domo murmurs, “It is dispensed with, then.  Let the matter rest.” 

“Sire!  No, Sire!”  Carriso’s protest echoes among the vaulted hammer beams of the Council Chamber:  “This can never rest!”

“Carriso,”  The Domo soothes.  “It is all that could be done.”

“They were people!  They were injured, burned, deformed by grief, and we slaughtered them like pigs!  That is a crime of unforgivable immensity!”

Trebec raises eyes in which each blood vessel may be traced, like distributaries of an arcuate delta.  “You, Carriso, you have no blame in this – it is my sleep that will be sacrificed, not yours.”

Carriso snaps back.  “Aye – but my people, not yours, who were condemned.”  He rounds upon the Domo.  “How do we justify this deed; how?”

Remis intercedes.  “If a citizen is deprived of Word even for a day his loyalty will be affected.  For a cycle…”  He shrugs his shoulders.  “They were irretrievable, Carriso.  Nothing could be done.”

Carriso is far from placated.  “Nothing? How should I accept ‘nothing could be done’?  We must ‘accept’; always, always ‘accept’.  Death is a price we pay, in our thousands and tens of thousands, for our unquestioning acceptance!’.”

Trebec shakes his head.  “If it consoles you at all, and I know it won’t, those who died by our hand were few in comparison with those eradicated by the actual event.  This evil, whatever it was, turned the whole of the North Dometian Plain and the Kaal Valley into a wasteland, a grey desert.  I cannot imagine how anything will ever thrive there again.”

Selech, who Cassix once named the ‘Continuum Dissident’, asks.  “Was it a volcanic event, an earthquake?”

 “Cassix would say, indeed Cassix did say, it was the Continuum,”  Calvin the Ancient challenges:  “We have a new Seer, do we not?   Why is she not here?”

The Domo says; “She is too fresh in her position to be of value.  We need not trouble her with this.”

“But if the affair concerns the Continuum?”

Continuum, Continuum, Continuum!”  Selech vents his frustration.  “Has anyone apart from Cassix seen this damned Continuum?  Or is his departed word all we have to vouch for its existence?”

Ellar says quietly:  “I have seen it.  Cassix showed it me.”  She rises to her feet.  “It does exist, sires; and in Cassix’s last days he was deeply concerned at its growth, both in size and strength.”

“This Hakaani stripling….”  Trebec returns to the conversation.  “Was Cassix delusional, or does she have even a fraction of his gifts?”

“I do not know, Sire.  She certainly appears to have visions.”

“And we must be content with that.”  The Domo says, with an air of finality. “She is not here, so we must move on.  Are there any other matters concerning Sire Trebec’s report?”

“Yes.”  Carriso has been tapping his frustration upon the edge of the Council table. Now his anger bursts out in speech.  “I ask that Sire Trebec’s conduct be investigated by the Criminal Court.”

The Domo nods.  “I expected no less.  Your charge?”

“Genocide.”

Trebec looks up sharply. The Domo draws a breath.  “Very well.  A little strong, though, sire, wouldn’t you say?”

“What else was it?”  Carriso asks.  “And to you, sire….”  This in Trebec’s direction:  “For your crime against my people, I withdraw the hand of friendship.”  He turns back to the Domo:  “I also demand that the Seer be summoned.  There is no precedent for a meeting of High Council without that office, and I suggest it is dangerous.  She may be able to prevent another similar tragedy.”

The Domo sighs.  He has no choice.

Valtor’s nervous buzz is a surprise to Alanee, though not entirely an unwelcome one:  four glasses of paia and the arrival of Sala have raised her mood to a point where she would entirely erase the manner of her friend’s last departure from her mind, yet Sala is unresponsive to her acclamation of Prinius’s improvements; “See how much he has done already!” and after waving at the obstinately hideous wooden ‘shed’ “Even he can’t think of anything to do with that!” she is lost for words.  Sala’s conversation stares like an old blade – monosyllabic replies, devoid of reactions. 

“They want me at the High Council.  Oh, Habbach, now what have I done? Sala-ba, you will have to take me.  I don’t know the way!  You know it, don’t you?”

“Valtor will come for you.  You should wear the robe.”

Alanee rushes to the bedroom.  She calls through: “You don’t want to be here, do you?”  And when Sala doesn’t respond: “They’ve instructed you to be here.  To watch me, yes?”

“Yes.”

The door chime sounds.  Alanee returns, her robe hurriedly thrown about her.  “Do I look alright?  No, don’t answer that.  Sala, while I’m away, dearest, get drunk, will you?  Paia there, look?  Get horribly, revoltingly drunk and when I come back we’ll talk.  OK?  Love you!”

She breezes out into the obsequious gale of Valtor.   “May I say, Lady, how wonderful it will be to have a lady as our Seer?  We are truly blessed by Sire Cassix’s percipience,  although I lament his passing; I do, of course.  Of course, very sad.  A great loss.  So noble…”

“Yes, Valtor dear.  You can stop now.  We’re all very sad.”

The Convenor leads her deceptively quickly along softly carpeted corridors to an elevator the interior of which is as lavishly appointed as any wealthy noble’s reception room.  Gilt-framed chairs upholstered in plush blue velvet, a series of masterfully executed graphics depicting rural scenes around its dark red walls, subdued, honeyed light.  The only mild surprise is an artistically drawn and very buxom nude on the rear wall (Alanee thinks she can guess at whose wish that was included).

“Sire Portis?”

Valtor nods in a manner which contrives to look as if he is bowing.  “The picture was of his selection, yes.  The others show each of the great nations:  Mansuvenia, there; there Braillec…”

Alanee stops listening.  After a brief descent, the elevator passes beneath the courtyard of the palace; and ascends once more.  The doors open directly onto the council ante-chamber.

“Lady, are you prepared for their Sire-ships?”

Sire-ships?”   Alanee tries to dispel the image that instantly forms in her mind of the Domo as a galleon in full sail, but she is still stifling laughter as the Convenor throws open the doors of the Council Chamber, and sixteen expectant faces turn in her direction.  At the sight of the seated Domo looking exactly like the prow of a large ship her laughter breaks through.

“Sires greet you.”  She splutters helplessly.  “You…oh, Habmenach!  You sent for me?”  Behind her, Valtor has disappeared.  The doors have closed.

A murmur returns to her from the assembled Councillors.  The Domo tacks in her direction.  “Greet you, Lady.  You find us amusing?”

“Sire?  Oh, Sire, no:  it was him – Valtor.  He cracked a joke.  I’m sorry.”

Sixteen unconvinced faces:  perhaps contemplating the unlikely idea of a joke from Valtor.

“I’m sorry.”  She repeats.  “How can I help?”

The Domo rumbles:  “Lady Alanee, you are of the High Council now.  You are a ‘Sire-ship’ too.”  Discovered, Alanee blushes.  The Domo nods to an empty chair at the far end of the long table.  “Please, take your place and be welcome.”

It is an upright chair worked in gold gesso, with well-padded seat and arms of red brocade.  She treasures the moment, feeling some pride at her reception into that somewhat severe, privileged place.  When she is seated, the Domo continues.

“Lady, there was an incident in Dometia recently concerning which, I am given to understand, you may have some knowledge.  Do you know what I am talking about?”

Alanee feels the stares turned upon her.  She feels the paia in her head, relentlessly working.  In a moment they will discover her – she is drunk.  No; no, not drunk, but light-headed, certainly.  She replies with as much gravitas as she can muster:  “I know something has happened, Sire.  The aerotran pilot who brought me to the city crashed there, and there are stories; but what exactly it was; no, I don’t know that.”  Then she adds brightly:  “I suppose if I am a good Seer I should, shouldn’t I?”

Trebec grunts expressively.  It was the wrong thing to say.  Nervous, stupid:  tongue running away with her.  All at once she finds herself badly needing a friendly face at that august table.  No-one wants her here:  Cassix’s choice was not popular here, either, and she will find no sympathy in these hostile stares.  To this worthy gathering, who once called the old Seer their friend, she is a bumpkin from the plains of the Hakaan – a worthless dullard without any contribution to make.  Their collective look is one of disdain.

Yet?

Yet.

No, not so High, my lords of the High Council:  not immune to the baser instincts of normal men.

“I suppose;”  Alanee says slowly, and with great deliberation:  “It must be a change for you all, seeing me with my clothes on?”

“Young woman!”  Portis expostulates.

“Especially you, Sire.”  Alanee knows what she is saying:  she no longer cares for the effect it may have.

“Gentlemen!”  To her surprise it is the dark rumble of the Domo’s voice which cuts across a rising clamour:  “Lady Alanee has cause to be offended with us.  The blame for the animosity we all feel does not lie with her.  Sire Carriso, you demanded the Seer’s presence?  Would you care to proceed with the explanation?”

“If you wish.”  The aggrieved Councillor begins nervously, reluctant to put his tragic story into words:  “Lady, many lives…”

As soon as he starts to speak, Alanee’s eyes are drawn to Carriso, seeing at once he is a Dometian:  hearing instantly the emotion in his voice.  From that point, from his first few words, she gains all she needs to know, though what within her has nurtured this kernel of knowledge is a mystery to her.  Hakaan in the mirrors – it has happened!  It happened to Dometia!

“How many?”  She cuts across Carriso’s tale before it is begun, though she hardly knows what part of her speaks.  “How many died?”

The cynicism of the High Council floats away like a cloud.  The eyes that turn to Alanee now share an altered expression.  Taken completely aback, Carriso murmurs:  “All those of my people who lived in the valley of the Kaal, Lady.”

Dust, empty streets:  the Terminus in unattended flames:  that was why!

“The same!”  The unsourceable voice that inhabits her cries:  “The same for the Hakaan.  Balkinvel, the northern uplands; the same.  Get the people out, Sires!  Save them now!”

Those stares that fix upon her face!  They might well dismiss her words as drunken raving, ridicule her, scorn her, but they do not.  For her face is pale and possessed, her eyes not the eyes of a Hakaani widow. They are those of a Seer in the throes of a vision. 

“Sires!  They must run!”

The gathering is dumbfounded.  No-one speaks for seconds that seem to stretch into minutes.  Trebec breaks the spell:  “You have seen this? Is this true?”

“I have seen it.”  Alanee answers to herself as much as to the gathering, as if she must affirm her own belief in her gifts.  “And yes it is true.”

Carriso rises to his feet:  “If no-one else will….”

The Domo recovers himself.  “Yes:  Yes. Carriso, you see to it, will you?  Evacuate the whole area!  Sire Selech, will you organise Word and camps for the displaced population?  The Council will excuse these Councillors?”

The Domo delegates these tasks without moving his eyes from Alanee’s face.  “Lady, can you answer me a question?”

“Sire?”  She is barely aware of him; all of her thoughts are with Shellan-mer, with Carla, Paaitas, old Malfis.  They must be saved!  Yet a calmer part of her inner self is saying they will be, that she has done her work.  Balkinvel’s streets will be as she saw them and though she might grieve for her friends’ loss of their homes, she must rest content.

“Have you seen the Continuum?”

“Yes, sire.  Cassix showed it to me first.”

“What is it, Lady?  Do you know?”

“No.  I know it isn’t important, of itself.  The important thing is behind it, hidden.  When something happens to that, the skies are thrown into some kind of fury.  It isn’t anger, though:  more like pain – agony….”

“And this ‘thing’, can you describe it for us?”

“A white light.  A white light that floods everything so brightly your eyes can’t look at it.”  Alanee replies:  then she adds, though she can’t put a meaning to what she says:  “It isn’t now.”

Portis clears his throat.  “Explain?”

“I can’t, sire.  It has no place in time.”

“It seems;” Sire Calvin says quietly:  “That Cassix chose well.”

“But what is the meaning of it?”  Vast and ungainly as he is, Alanee sees and hears: the Domo is pleading with her.  He is no longer fearsome, no longer in control:  beneath the vast exterior of this calmly authoritative man boils a ferment of superstition and doubt.  He is like a great bird feeding from her hand.

“I do not know.”  She says with truth.  “I must study the Lore.”

The Domo nods.  “It shall be arranged.  Valtor will take you to the Inner Library in the morning.  Perhaps you might persuade him to tell you one or two more of his jokes?  We will convene again tomorrow afternoon.  In the meantime, thank you, Lady Alanee.”

The Council moves to disperse, each with their own agenda (for evacuating the population of an entire region is no minor task), each with their own message in their hearts.  In the elevator Alanee finds herself in the company of Trebec; though he offers little conversation, standing apart with fists clenched as if he would beat himself in the intensity of his rage.  Alanee, who was not present at the earlier part of the meeting does not understand this, but despite her instinctive dislike of the man she feels his guilt and an honesty; a vulnerability she can respect.

Sala is sprawled upon Alanee’s new couch, her white silk shift in disarray and stained with pink paia.  By the half-emptied carafe she clutches to her chest Alanee can see at once that her friend has obeyed her orders to the letter, but inebriation does not seem to have lifted her spirits; in fact, she guesses that Sala has been crying.

Without a word, she takes the carafe from Sala’s grasp to pour a measure for herself; then goes to the kitchen to brew a mug of strong, treacly tsakal. 

“Oh my; we have worked fast, haven’t we?”  Alanee says gently.  She places the tsakal in Sala’s hands.  “Try and drink it, darling.  Do you know, I made quite an impression tonight?  I believe I may even have made an ally or two.”

For a while that is all that is said.  The pair sit in silence, sipping their drinks while rarely meeting each others’ eyes. At last Sala says, in a voice quite clear and succinct:  “I met Cassix a few times, you know?”

“What did you think of him?”

“I liked him.”  Sala glances inside herself:  “Yes, I liked him.  Strong personality – steady, commanding eye:  artistic hands….I’ve always been rather impressed by men with artistic hands.  And he was a Seer, you know – a Seer.”

“Yes.  Yes, I do know.”

“One of the best the City has had, they say.  Now…”  Sala places her mug of tsakal down upon the table with elaborate care,  pressing her finger-tips together.  “Where was I?”

“Best the City…”

She gazes up at Alanee helplessly.  “He never made a lover appear out of empty air; not’s far as I recall.  Never.  I didn’t know him that well, you see?  Alanee – what are you?”

Alanee sighs:  “I wish I knew, ba.   I know who I thought I was; before Cassix saw a part of me I hadn’t dreamed of.  All that time I was just living my life and they were watching…”  She pauses.  “This I know.  I am your friend; no matter what you think of me.  I need you; I really do.  All this other stuff” She gestures at empty air, “It isn’t anything to do with you and me.”

Sala does not speak; not immediately; because within her the clockwork is grinding to a stop, the mechanisms of her training and dedication are breaking down as the gentle fingers of alcohol pull at those strings which still tie her, loosening the bonds, exhuming the entombed.  “And suppose…”  She picks up the words one by one, little pieces that shattered and are lying there waiting:  “Suppose I still needed you?”

Alanee grips her hands:  “That would be wonderful, ba!”

But Sala shakes her head.  “No.  I mean needed you, Alanee.  Putting aside all my ‘stuff’, suppose I was an insecure, emotional child who has just by chance met the one person I could selflessly love, only to find she doesn’t love me – love me, Alanee.  Suppose I wanted you so badly and I couldn’t turn and walk away because of my work and my…..”   Sala pauses:  “Because of my bloody work.   Suppose that, my darling.  Suppose that.”

Hopeless, helpless, more than a little drunk, what else can she say?  Sala turns her head aside, knowing tears will come again and not wishing, this time, to be caught. Alanee, who perfectly comprehends, will not let Sala hide herself.  This much she can do for her friend.

“Oh my dearest!  Come with me, ba.”

Taking her, raising her, holding her: embracing her as only a lover would, or could: leading her to bed, accepting no protest, laying with her in a sacrifice of love: who is to say what Alanee wants or feels tonight?

Perhaps in the lyricism of a very private music she finds a harmony that is new to her, perhaps she does not.  For this night, for this person – for Sala – it doesn’t matter.  To see a smile on the face of an angel, a smile the innocence of which has been interred for so long, is all she could ever ask.  And to hold so closely one who means that much to you, as together you drift above the lapping waves of sleep, is all anyone in any life should desire.

For tomorrow, all things must change…

© 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 credits:

Council Chamber roof: Ron Porter, Pixabay