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.”
“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