Satan’s Rock

Part Twenty-five

Among Stones

Morning had advanced some few hours: the sky, which promised much at first light, now contained a threat of dreadfulness to come.   Melanie, who had worn no coat when she set out to explore the seafront at Seaborough the previous morning, struggled with oilskins twice her size as the plucky little trawler thrashed into a mounting sea.   Despite the restrictions of those clumsy garments it was good to be topsides now, safety line clipped to the rail, spray misting and spattering her face:  nobody seemed concerned that she should stay there, braced against the starboard thwart, as long as her companion stood with her.   This the boy seemed happy to do, as if she were in his personal charge.

“Would you call this a storm?”  She asked, lifting her voice above the wind.

“Nah, noothin’ this.   Not yet.   Be fierce later, though, I reckon.  The’s looky we’s pottin’ the’ ashore, lass.”

A headland loomed large, a backcloth of gaunt cliffs almost black against the chopping grey water.   They seemed to be heading into a small bay or river- mouth, Melanie could not tell which.  “What’s your name?”   She asked the boy, aware their time together was almost over: she would miss his reassurance.

“Daniel.  I’m Dan’l.”   The boy shouted back.

“Pleased to meet you, Daniel!”  And she was.  There was no anger, no resentment in her heart for being stripped of her possessions and plucked from the quayside at Seaborough:  it was almost as though she had expected, even hoped it would happen.   Wherever this was, this tiny cove, her music was telling her she was meant to be here.

Both watched in silence as the cliff-face became closer, ever higher.   Gradually the fervour of the open sea subsided, until their vessel chugged against no more than a light swell, its engine echoing against the bare stone.   Rounding an outcrop, the inlet became a tiny harbour, part natural, part man-made, hewn from the rocks.   The faceless figure in the wheelhouse reversed the little boat’s propeller to deaden all speed before a burst of throttle pivoted it almost ninety degrees into its narrow mouth.   Daniel leapt from stern to shore, then shore to prow and back again, tying off lines to rusted iron rings set in the wall.  He grinned down at Melanie, proffering a hand to help her from the boat.

“The’ll be glad o’ this, I reckon!”

After such time on a pitching deck, Melanie nearly fell over as her feet refused to accept the unmoving concrete jetty.  Daniel held her arm while she found her balance.

“Foony feelin’ tha, the foorst time.  Soon passes.”

She had never seen a harbour this small.   They had come ashore in a refuge sandwiched between dark and oppressive cliffs so restrictive there could be room to berth no more than three small boats. Grey was the colour of everything, fading to black in those large expanses of cliff-face where no light penetrated or would ever penetrate.  Crumbling paths and crazed concrete in the wall seemed to suggest that the harbour had been unused for many years.  No other boats were moored here, the only evidence of previous occupation being a stack or two of rotted lobster before a rough stone cottage built against the cliff, beside which a rotten row-boat, its name still readable as Daisy-May, languished.  The hovel, the harbour, the whole place reeked of abandonment and decay.

“Oh, my god!”  Melanie groaned.

It began to rain.

“’Tis a special place, this.”  Daniel said quietly:  “There’s not many as cooms here, now.”

Stamping against the cold, Melanie searched about her for a reason why she should be one of the few who did. “So what do we do now?”

“The’ll be met.  Oop there.”  The boy waved towards a set of stone steps that had been carved into the cliff face. Below them the boat’s engine revved impatiently. “Sorry lass, but us’ll need the’ skins: us can’t afford te lose ‘em, like?”

“You’re just going to leave me here?” She protested.

“You’ll be met.”   Daniel repeated. “This ‘ere’s a tidal harbour, see?  An’ we’re right close to the end o‘t tide?   Now lass….”

Meekly, she complied, dragging the stiff, oilskin cape over her head.   It had not been a warm garment, but she felt its absence instantly and keenly.   Left with just a thin sweater which fell fashionably short of her jeans, the chill on her bare midriff was like an electric shock.  

Daniel grinned apologetically: “Good luck, eh?”

He loosed the lines from their rusty hold, tossing them onto the trawler’s already cluttered deck.    Then he moved from shore to ship as the trawler instantly backed out of harbour.   Minutes and a final wave later it was gone, passing from sight beyond the outcrop,.   leaving Melanie to face a loneliness so frigid and profound it settled upon her like an icy cloak.

Heavy with ice, raindrops spattered onto the stone jetty where they refused to melt, but lay in a carpet of half-hail ready to hurl her from her feet.   These same raindrops ignored the thin cloth of her sweater and bombarded mercilessly straight through to her skin.   A swirling gale was driving, moaning among the rocks like a banshee chorus.

Quitting the harbour wall was not a difficult decision:  sandwiched between those frowning cliffs, moving as briskly as she dared in  inappropriate shoes she made, slipping and gripping, for the comparative shelter of the cliff.   If shelter was what she craved, the cottage seemed a logical choice.   She headed there first, but there was, she quickly realised, no ‘welcome’ mat.   The window-glass, though intact, was crusted with age-old grime and the plank door weathered clean of paint.   A red-rusted padlock held it shut.   Peering inside yielded only bleary darkness.   Nothing human lived in there, though she feared other things might.

A voice.  She was sure she heard a voice, mournfully intoned in the gale.   There was an incentive, if no other existed!  Weather or no weather, she had to find a way out of this place.

A narrow track followed the foot of the cliff toward the stairway Daniel had indicated.   Obviously the fisherman or men who had used this refuge must have had access to the outside world:  this track was apparently  their only means of escape and now hers, therefore she should follow it to its conclusion; but the closer to it she became the more it convinced her it was a stairway to certain death.   Melanie who we have already seen was an adept and relatively fearless climber knew her limitations, and this was far beyond acceptable risk.  Some steps had completely crumbled away, others were worn steeper by the boots of generations, all were coated with hailstones willingly coagulating into sheet ice.  No handrail existed, or ever had, and no grips or stages in the sheer cliff wall offered to steady her slight frame against the ravages of that gusting wind.

So intense was the storm’s bombardment she might have missed it.   The path did not end at these steps:  a narrow ledge, battered by the sea, passed them by.  It might lead nowhere, it was perilously thin yet almost welcoming as an alternative so she accepted it gladly. 

Fifty or so metres from the harbour, this track turned a corner to the left, disappearing into a natural fissure in the cliff.   With high grey walls to each side this seemed as though it must be its finality.   She prepared herself to accept failure, but the track did not end there.   It became a tunnel, short and unlined, which plunged straight through the cliff into daylight at its further end: and standing at the further end was a tall, broad figure.  

 “Now here you are!”   The figure cried in a hearty, indisputably feminine voice.  “And I was thinking you might have missed the tide!”

 “You can call me Agnes.”   Said Agnes, striding forward through the tunnel to identify herself.   “Save us, child, you’re soaked through!   Did they not give you a coat, at least?”

“I’m glad to meet you,” Melanie returned the introduction politely, “I’m Melanie Fenton.”

“Yes, my dear.  I already know that.  Why, you’re shaking!  You must be frozen!”

“I thought I was going to have to climb those steps.”

Agnes to boomed with laughter, a loud,  pleasant, unthreatening sound.  “Save us, Melanie, I’m really glad you didn’t.  I’ve never had the courage to go up or down those.  They would kill me, I should think!”

There was little to see of Agnes, Rain-washed spectacles protruded from a bundle of protective scarf topped by a sou’wester hat.   A massive waxed coat, layered over who could tell how many sundry jackets and cardigans cocooned the remainder of her, with only Wellington boots showing beneath its dripping hem.

“Come along, dear.  We have to get you inside.”  She encompassed Melanie’s shoulder with a huge gloved hand, ushering her roughly into the hole through the rock.   But the gesture was not violent or ill-meaning:  there was a kindness about the muffled Agnes, Melanie thought.  Anyway, she had no alternatives in mind – once again, that inexplicable sense of mission prevented her from offering resistance to whatever befell her; this seemed to be the way fate intended.

Elsewhere…

The cathedral cloister was a cool and quiet place to walk, or to contemplate, on a hot September afternoon.   Other than an occasional marauding crow, the bird sound from the green was of blackbirds, of finches and sparrows.   Water poured in plainsong over a central fountain.  An odd tourist or two, meandering between photographs, struggled by on a guidebook and a prayer.   A well-furbished middle-aged woman rubbed at an interesting brass.

Two men of God strolled here, although only one, a Bishop, wore The Cloth.   Ronald Harkness was he.  The spry tee-shirt and jeans guy on his left, although appearances would have deceived, was a Franciscan monk.  Neither, in appearance, represented the most acceptable face of their shared faith.  They looked like a pair of bedraggled crows.

“If your information is accurate,” The monk was saying; “We must move quickly.”

They came to a place where a wooden bench faced the quadrangle.  “I do not think we should act in haste:” Bishop Harkness said, seating himself.  “Essentially, we have matters under control.”

A chaffinch which had been feasting a few meters away upon some seed scattered by a tourist, edged carefully back for a venturesome peck or two, one wary eye on the newcomers. 

“My Lord Bishop, never was there a time when it was more vital that we act, and act with speed.”   The monk perched beside Harkness, on the edge of the wood:  “This boy is a wild card.  If he is what our people say he is, who can imagine what his capabilities are!”

“No.”  Harkness shook his head.  “I am not inclined to think he will interfere with our plans. I do believe to restrain him now will stir up too much unwanted silt.   Too many others are interested in him and he is young, untried in his arts – if art he has.”

“You seem doubtful about the boy.   I am not sure I share your doubt.”

“I met him.  He seems very ordinary to me – and very young.”

“He found the vault at Crowley.”

The Bishop shrugged.  “There was nothing to find, surely – we sanitized that site two years ago, didn’t we?”

“We are in no way certain,” The monk replied:  “Yet if they are what we believe they just might be, this young couple, how can we be complacent?”

Frowning, the Bishop flicked with his foot, putting the chaffinch to flight.  “If, and it is a very big ‘if’, they get together.   Even then, I wonder whether these old legends have any credibility in a modern world…”

“We have old legends of our own.”  The monk reminded.  “Some of those are true, are they not?  You are watching the boy?”

Harkness nodded.  “We are.   The girl has dropped from sight, but I have no doubt she will turn up again.   However, without each other they are nothing more than the nuisance we have had to endure for years.  Divide and subdue?”

“But the boy has dropped from sight, too, has he not?”  The monk asked.

The Bishop registered mild surprise.  “Now, how did you know that?”

“We have our sources.”

“Ah, your ‘sources’.  So I have to terminate the employment of another perfectly good secretary.  Very well, yes, you are right, he has gone off the radar for a day or so; but we shall get him back.   Our girl picked up with him in Manchester, but then he performed some sort of Houdini trick.  My guess is they have him and he is being briefed.   We couldn’t stop that if we tried.”

The monk raised an eyebrow:  “And by ‘they’ you mean….so you do think he is Toa?”

“I did not say so.  They may think he is, and I intend to find out.  The Toa are interested in him, which is all I know.”    Harkness shrugged.

The monk spread his hands.  “You see?  My Lord Bishop, we cannot know.  We tacitly acknowledge that there are rats in our basement which need extermination, but we also favour improvements to our hygiene that are taken delicately and at our own pace.”   His voice dropped, his intensity increased.  “If these people are given rein that could be out of our hands; things are moving towards a crisis.   In my view we have to take positive action.   We have to stop the boy, and to stop him now.”

“I cannot agree.  Just suppose what you say was true:  we have always been able to talk to the Toa.  We have always negotiated.  If we declare war, as you suggest, we only exacerbate the problem.  Leave us to handle the boy, and to find his girl-friend.   This is our mission, after all?”

The monk considered this.   “You might negotiate with them in their weakness, certainly.  But if they find their strength?”

“I do not see it as a problem – you do.  We must agree to differ.”

Conversation lapsed, as conversation will on such sunny days, into silence.  At length the men went their separate ways; Bishop returning to his See, the monk to his monastic duties.  But the subject would not end there.   Later that day, the monk made some calls.  A meeting was arranged.

#

Fortified with hot coffee and some of Estelle’s special pancakes (“We have to fill you up, you need your strength”) Peter stood on Vincent’s pea-beach drive, waiting for the car which would transport him back to Manchester.   His hosts waited with him, huddled in coats against a fresh morning breeze.

Since parting with the one he knew as Simeon, he had struggled in his private thoughts.   Supposing, he reasoned with himself, all the conversation, the manipulation and hallucination of the last twelve hours were true?   Suppose he and Melanie really were all that stood between the world and a fatal error – what  –  a nuclear war, famine, some kind of plague?  The permutations were endless.

He knew with certainty now that, however much he might wish it, there was no turning back.  Promises that he would be able to live comfortably in the care of Simeon’s cult while he shared with Melanie the care of the ultimate computer hung around his head like the corpses in a game-keeper’s parlour: so much less desirable than the things he must leave behind.  This so-called ‘gift’ was always going to take more from him than it gave – Melanie’s friendship, already gone;  Lesley’s love, Lesley’s gentleness, Lesley’s sweet voice, her bright, clowning smile – they would be next.   He was marked and almost certainly his fate was decided not just for now but for all his years.

Peter’s miasma was dispelled by a crunch of tyres on gravel and the toot of an impatient horn.    Parting with Vincent contained an implicit promise: that their next meeting was not far away.

“We’re close, Pete, man, OK?  If we’re needed, we’ll be there.   Watch your mail now, and try to be comfortable with yourself.   We’ll see you soon.”

Stepping into the car, Peter looked up to see a seagull perched upon the ridge tiles of Vincent’s house roof.   Even at that distance, he was able to pick out the yellow diamond mark on its neck.

He spoke inside his head, knowing his words would find their target.  ‘If I can get the Truth Stone to reply to me,’  he asked,  “How do I perform the reset?”

‘I was hoping you would work that out, Petie-Pooh,’ the seagull replied.  ‘Personally, I don’t have a clue.’       For a split instant, the gull became Simeon again; then it reformed into a gull and flew away.

© 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 Credits:

Featured Image: Freefoto from Pixabay
Trawler: Andre Costargent from Pixabay
Cloister: Peter H. from Pixabay

.          

Encounter

“If you were to pin me down on this, I’d say it has all to do with names.”  His eyes drawn to the row of beech trees beyond his friend’s rain-sodden garden, Kevin was in a reflective mood.

“What are you saying now?”  Christian asked.   “Names?  I thought we were discussing relationships?”

“Listen to that rain!”  Kevin exclaimed, as the wind thrashed a tattoo against the window.  “It is. Names strike at the very fabric of a relationship.  I mean, ‘Kevin’, you know?  The hard ‘K’?  Women just don’t value a Kevin.  And it isn’t exactly a superhero’s name, either, is it?”

“Oh, I don’t know. You’ve got a Clark batting for your team.”  Christian adjusted position in his armchair,perching his glass of whisky on the arm whilst reaching for a poker from the hearth.  He stoked the fire that burned brightly there into a profusion of sparks.  “Take my name.  I’m living a lie.  I’m agnostic at best.  You can’t seriously hope to convince me that these misfortunes of yours are attributable to your parents’ dismissive choice of name!”

Kevin turned away from the window and the depression of greys crowding his view.   “Dismissive.  You couldn’t know how accurately that describes my parents, could you?  Did you ever meet my father?”

“Once or twice.”

“Which was about as often as my mother met him.”

“Oh, come on!  But still, I believe your mother was his third wife?  Not strong on the whole bonding for life thing, was he?”

“Like father like son, is that your inference?”  Kevin shook his head.  “I thought I’d laid that ghost long ago.”

“They say the luck runs.”

 “No.”  I don’t believe that.  I mustn’t.  After all, we’re much the same, you and I;  I don’t see myself as particularly ill-favoured, or you, forgive me, as particularly handsome.  We’re roughly the same height, the same weight; our personalities are similar, even if I get a little more fired up at times – yet here I stand, left on the runway of yet another failed relationship, without the faintest idea where I went wrong.  And here are you, in this immaculately kept house with Svetlana who is, you have to admit, exquisite…”

“You could add clever – daunting insightful, formidably intelligent.  Yes, she is certainly visually pleasing, although she can be a little – shall we say – eccentric at times.”

“I will stick to exquisite.  After fifteen years she still looks as beautiful as the day you introduced me to her.  And you still dote on her, I can see that.  Fifteen years!  Can I tell you my experiences of those fifteen years?”

Christian chuckled sympathetically.  “There was Melissa.  She was a lovely girl!”

“With some lovely friends.  Lots of lovely friends, mostly male!  Then Claire, and Michelle…”

“Six months later.”

“Alright; that was brief even by my standards.  But Alicia…”

“Ah  Alicia!  She tore shreds, didn’t she?”

Kevin gave a grim nod.  “Literally.  I couldn’t go out, sometimes, with the scars and all.  And now…”

“Now Sophie.”

“Yes, Sophie.  Absolutely Sophie.”  Feeling his eyes smart from a revisited sadness, Kevin crossed to his friend’s sideboard, responding to the call of a whiskey glass that awaited him there.  “What’s the secret, Chris?  What do you have that I have not?  Where in the universe is there a Svetlana waiting for me?”

Christian’s finger traced an imaginary picture on the arm of his chair as he tried to frame an answer for his friend.  “I don’t know, Kev.  I could say there’s someone waiting for you out there, someone you’ve never met; but that wouldn’t hack, would it?  I think it’s just fate – no more and no less.”

“Fate!  That fickle digit!  No, I have no belief in luck, my friend.”

“Alright, let us say a ‘conjunction of circumstances’, then.  Will you settle for that?”

“Ah!  I suspected as much.  You have a secret, and it’s one I should share.  It’s time you publicized!  I want answers, before age and bachelorhood place my assets beyond recall.  Come on, give!”

” I have no treasures to impart!  Svetty and I were one of life’s chance encounters, no more, no less.”

“You met her on the Internet.  She posted on a dating site.  Or, wait – YOU posted on a dating site!”

Christian laughed.  “I did not!”

“I used to believe she was a mail order bride.  For years I was convinced you were holding out on me, in spite of her perfect English.”

“Oh really; you know that isn’t true.  She came to this country when she was ten.  Her parents live here.  He’s a ‘something’ with Debrette Cooper – the bankers?   Okay, I never told you how we met, did I? So I will.  It was pure chance.  I was in the middle of an aisle in the middle of a supermarket in the middle of an evening, trying to discover the location of the Cornflakes so I could replace an unwanted packet when this glorious woman just walked up to me and said: ‘Hi’.

“Amazing! “

“Amazed was I!  What could I do?”

“I suppose you could have hidden behind the Cornflakes.  But obviously you didn’t.  What did you do?”

“I said ‘Hi’ right back at her.  I wasn’t going to be intimidated, you see.”

“Heavens no, why should you be?  And?”

“And.  Ah yes, and!  She gave me the first of those quirky smiles she does, then she took this little blue card from her purse.  She came right up close to me, slipped it into my shirt pocket – bold as you like – and just walked away.  But oh, the quick touch of those fingers slipping into my pocket; and what a walk!”

“Stop it, you’re embarrassing yourself!  So let me guess, her ‘phone number was on the card?”

“A soft blue colour, that card.  It was nothing special – I mean, she hadn’t had fifty printed, or anything like that.  I think it was a business card for a hair salon, or something.  Point is – you’re right – she’d written her number on the corner.  And her name.  We both know her name.”

“That was how it all began?  Yes, of course it was.  You called, you dated, you lasted.”

“It was the way we all like to think it should be.  We matched perfectly.  Over a dinner table, at a bar, walking beside the river, it was like we read each other’s thoughts without ever really needing to speak.  We were married within a month, we’re still together.  We still – love – each other.  And I never told her.”

“Oh, my god!  Intriguing.  There’s a secret between you?”

“I didn’t say it, did I?  I never have.  When she told me her side of the story I could have reacted, I suppose, but  when you have everything in life you ever wanted, why break the spell?  Svetty knew.  She knew on Tuesday nights in that supermarket, on that particular aisle, if you carried a hand basket containing just two items it said you were looking for a companion.  It was a code, but the point is Svetty only knew because her friend had put her up to it that very evening.  She was feeling low after breaking up with someone so this friend persuaded her to give the supermarket ‘Singles Night’ a try.  And on that one night, the only night, possibly, she would ever do it I happened to be there.  I stumbled into it.  Fate, you see?  Apparently she was carrying the two significant items, but I didn’t even think about that.  How could I have known?”

Kevin  frowned.  “But that’s not a secret, not now.  Although it is likely to guide my feet towards that particular supermarket next Tuesday, it’s information you both share.  What’s the story?  What’s the big, humongous confidence you have kept to yourself for fifteen years?  How are you – even as we speak – deceiving your beloved Svetlana?”

“Well, it isn’t a deception, exactly….”

“What, then?”

“Just one small detail – in that supermarket, all those years ago – which means nothing now, of course…”

“Oh, no!  Of course not.   But you never told her…”

“I was  shopping with my aunt.  My amazing aunt.”

“This would be your Aunt Babs, would it?   A grainy old soul, God bless her.”

“Of sacred memory, yes, the same.  You see, after Uncle Henry had his stroke, I used to go shopping with her, to help her carry the weekly haul and to drive her, because she was getting on a bit herself, even then.  Anyway, dear old Aunty Babs knew all about Tuesday Singles Night – she heard about it at her Bridge Club, probably; most of the Singles Night clientele were of the card-playing persuasion.  We were in the adjoining aisle, Aunt Babs leaning heavily on her cart, me with my little hand-basket so I could pick up a few odd things for myself, when she suddenly snatched my few bits and pieces from my basket!

“I’ll look after these for you, dear,”  She told me,  “I’ve changed my mind about this cheese and these Cornflakes, so could you put them back for me?  They were just in the next row!”  She thrust said cheese and breakfast cereal product into my little basket, then gave me a brisk push on my shoulder to send me on my way.  Which was how I came to be in the same row as Svetty at the auspicious moment.  I wouldn’t have been there otherwise.  I would never have met her.”

“I see,” acknowledged Kevin, sagely.  “As accidents of fate go, that has to be an absolute corker!”  

“On the face of it, yes,absolutely.  Aunt Babs confessed much later (at our wedding, in fact) that while we were shopping she’d spotted this tall, statuesque woman navigating towards the Singles aisle.  She said that the moment she saw this woman she just knew we were meant to meet.  And she was right, you see.  She was absolutely right.  Dear old Babs, I really miss her.”

“So,”  Kevin said, giving Christian one of his most censorious looks,  “To return to my original premise, your meeting was not entirely fate.  Other forces were at work, there.”

“Well, you may say so, yet no trick or sleight of hand on my part was involved, unless you think I had Aunt Babs concealed in my hat like a white rabbit.  She acted without my corroboration.  Even fate needs a helping hand, once in a while. The truth is a succession of random events put two complete strangers, with neither background nor history in common, in the same place at the same time.   I don’t know about you, but in a land of sixty-odd million people, that speaks to me of something beyond yours, mine or anyone’s control.  We’re merely the pieces on the board.  The game, the strategy, if you like, belongs to someone, or something, higher than us.  Which is what I mean when I use the word ‘Fate’.”

Kevin smiled, staring deep into the red embers of the fire.  “If that’s agnosticism,”  he murmured,  “I’ll take it.”

© 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.

Feature Image credit: Marco Pomella from Pixabay

The Continuum – Episode Twenty-Three: Impostor

From the previous episode:

Alanee has learned from the dying Cassix that she is to be Seer to the High Council, and she has been shown the Continuum that is Cassix’s greatest fear.  After she has left him, Cassix summons his fellow Councillors to tell them of his choice of successor.

Lady Ellar remains at the old Seer’s side until he dies.

After so emotionally exhausting a night, Alanee has slept only fitfully, beset by dreams.  She rises early to pump her veins with all the tsakal they can retain and dresses herself in her formal robe before venturing into the City.  She would slip anonymously through the shopping avenues to a small emporium she recalls noticing on the day of her first shopping adventure with Sala.

“Lady greet you in your good fortune!”

She has scarcely closed her door.

A woman in her forties confronts her, thrusting a face caked with makeup into hers:  “May I prevail upon you to consider my husband as your assistant?  He is so gifted!  You may remember him – he was….”  Alanee, ducking back to evade a gale of sour breath, does not catch the rest of the sentence.  A small bundle of blankets is stacked against her wall.  The woman has clearly been here for some time.

“I hadn’t thought…”  Alanee protests.

“I will not accept refusal; simply won’t accept it.  He has such talent.  And you will need him, my dear.”

There is a keen edge to the woman’s voice.  Gathering herself, Alanee realises she should have been prepared for encounters like this, but part of her still believes her meeting with Cassix last night was a dream.  Obviously word has already spread.

“I’m sorry, I’m not thinking of any assistance just….”  She is uncertain how to finish her sentence.  “But if you would like to give me your summoner tag, I will call you.”

“I urge you to give this your immediate attention, my dear.”

Now the woman’s voice has definite menace.  Alanee bridles:  “I’ll give it attention, then.  No, thank you.  I will not need your husband’s assistance.  Now, will you leave me alone?”

Like a viper the woman rounds upon her.  “Leave you alone?  No, Lady Alanee I will not do that.  No-one in the City will leave you alone – not now!  Every step you take, Lady!  Think well!”

The woman is glaring at her, snatching up her bundle.  Alanee is confused by this sudden ferocity.  Is the woman mad?

“Lady Alanee?”  From across the avenue comes a rat of a man with irregular teeth, scraping along on ragged sandals.  “Is this her?  Oh, Lady Alanee!  I can’t believe my eyes!  So exquisite a Seer the City has never known!  A pretty face, Lady!  An inviting body, eh?  How far can you get, do you think?  How long before the High Council finds you out?”

“Yes, this is her – the Hakaani peasant!”  The woman snaps.  “We can see it!  It doesn’t take a Seer!”

“Take a Seer to bed, more like!”

Alanee has turned away, walking down the avenue.  Behind her, others join the string of sotto voce comments that are yet just loud enough:

“Cassix’s whore!”

“Poor old man.  Too much for him, I shouldn’t wonder!”

There is studied casualness in Alanee’s step. 

“Look at that!  She even walks like a courtesan!”

“Busy night, I expect.”

Alanee increases her pace, and as the avenue opens out onto the Grand Park there is another shock awaiting her.  At the far end of the lake, The City has raised a painted portrait of her, a salacious facsimile in garish colour at least fifty feet high.  Across its upper edge a banner proclaims:

“The Lady Alanee – newly-elected Seer of the Consensual City”

Her first thought is for the artist who worked so dextrously through the early hours to produce this likeness, albeit a rushed and unflattering one.  Her second identifies Portis as its probable instigator, for she is depicted clad in a low cut dress unlike anything in her wardrobe.  Her lips are made to pout provocatively, her cleavage is heavily emphasised.

Small groups of early morning walkers are staring up at her likeness.  As she passes, an agitator hurls a ‘bomb’ of green paint at the picture, quickly following up with further packages of red and blue, to onlookers’ encouraging laughter. 

The agitator sees her.  “There she is!  Habbach, there she is!  Nice going, Lady!”

Heads begin to turn.

“Sire Cassix’s lucky successor!”

“Successor!  That’s a new word for it!”

“Our Seer!  What do you see for us this morning, Lady?”

“Lady?!  Shouldn’t we consider a new title?”

Someone hurls a missile:  no more, perhaps, than a clod of earth from the Park, but it strikes Alanee heavily on her back.  She starts to run.  Something whips past her ear, smacks into the wall to her right; something harder and more injurious.  The taunts have given way to angry shouts.

In flight she has little time to think; all she can do is race for her original destination, a little book store on the Avenue De Grange, but to get there she must pass all kinds of emporia, and nearly every window displays that picture.

‘Lady Alanee – newly elected Seer to the Consensual City’.

On one picture someone has fancifully outlined her breasts, daubed with livid red nipples.  Another shows her with her pursed lips rendering an obvious service to a crudely sketched male appendage.  All the while her hostile pursuers are multiplying.

The little book emporium is so unobtrusive that by ducking inside Alanee hopes to shake off her pursuers.  Shutting the door to the avenue she leans back against its jamb to regain her composure.  The clamour from outside has dwindled briefly, giving her the hope her plan has worked.  Not for long.

A shout.  “There she is!”  The features of the agitator leer at her through the glass.  In moments there are a dozen faces – the banging begins.

“Get her!”

“Drag her out!”

“The door has bolts.”  The shopkeeper says.

He stands in a doorway at the far end of his shop, a diminutive male figure of considerable age, his bald head fringed by a disorderly tumble of white hair, eyes blinking behind rimless glasses.  His upper body is wrapped in a woollen garment so stretched and faded it might be as old as he: voluminous trousers drape his shrunken thighs.

Needing no second bidding, Alanee throws the big iron bolt in the centre of the door, a second before a first shoulder from outside charges the wood.  There are two further bolts above and below.  She slams them home.

“You excite them.  Come into the back room.”  The old man shouts to make his voice heard.

His emporium is as small (a single narrow aisle with high shelves of books to either side) as it is dark; its subdued light shrouding rows of upper titles in mystery.  Somehow, though, its warm smell of leather is comforting:  even rushing through it Alanee feels its assurance wash over her; quelling her fears.

Whereas the shop is of the books, the back room is of the man.  As she shuts its door behind her, putting a second barrier between her and the noise from the Avenue, she enters a space not much larger than the rest-place by her apartment kitchen.  The shopkeeper’s imprint is everywhere:  a muddle of shelves and tables with, at its centre, a leather armchair as old as any of the books outside.  Walls the colours of an apple, red and green, a ceiling with a single light.  Papers, books, boxes, wrappings, a few rudimentary tools, a stretcher, a guillotine:  items relevant to the bookbinder’s trade, strewn over any horizontal surface that will accept them, including the floor.  Many of these haphazard piles are teetering on the verge of collapse.  All are dusty, even the viewing screen (the room’s only other source of illumination) on a desk beside the chair.  Alanee, already deeply shaken, tries not to imagine the creeping things that might lurk in these neglected creases and ravines.

“A customer this early?  A fine lady too; and so many friends.”  The old man squints at her:  “You are a customer I trust:  or am I merely safe haven?”

Alanee has gathered enough breath to bid him good morning, at which irony hiss eyebrows knit so tightly it seems his whole face might shut like one of his books.  She is sure the odour of ancient parchment attaches itself to his wrinkled flesh.

“I came to you with a purpose.  All these people!”  She shrugs helplessly:  “I don’t understand how…”

“No?”  For all his years the old merchant’s eyes are too quick and bright for his spectacles to subdue them.  “But then you are not of The City, are you?  No, you wouldn’t understand,.  The wrath of the people is a tolerated instrument here, all too often:  tweaked strings, I shouldn’t wonder.  As to who tweaks them….”  It is his turn to shrug.  “You have an enemy, Lady, a puppeteer.  Now, we are able to talk, so how may I help you?”

“I thank you for that;” Alanee is regaining her composure.  “I want a book.”

A dry cackle of laughter.  “I have several of those.”  The bookseller leans forward confidentially, putting his weight on a precarious stack of papers and disturbing, Alanee fancies, a thin waft of dust:  “Few read books these days:  every year, fewer.  Any particular kind of book?”

“Yes.  A red book.”

“Does it matter what the book contains?”

“Not at all.”  She makes a shape with her hands:  “A book so by so, and of roughly this thickness.  It should be bound in old red leather, and secured with a lock.”

“Intriguing.  Do I know the title of this book?”

“It has none.  There should be nothing on the binding.  I want this book to be made, and its cover distressed to appear  ancient.  No-one ever need open it.”

“Ah!”  Sighs the old man:  “A shelf-filler.  Very well, would you demonstrate those sizes to me again?”

‘No, not just a shelf-filler: this book will be an impostor’,  Alanee thinks, as she repeats the dimensions.  In her mind she already sees it so clearly she is sure the bookseller must share her vision, and it appears he does, for he asks for no more detail concerning the volume itself;

“Now; the lock?”

“Old.  Do you have paper?”   Alanee draws a quick sketch.  

The bookseller nods.  “I know someone who can make me such a lock.   Let me be certain:  the pages may be blank, or printed in any fashion – it does not matter?”

“No.  It will not be opened.”

“Then it will be the more convincing, for I can use old pages from another source and rebind them. So many old pages are never opened.  I can have your book ready in three days, my Lady.”

“Tomorrow.  I need it tomorrow.  I’ll send someone to collect it.  Give me your number.”

This merits more blinking from those fevered eyes:  “I will do what I can.  It will be quite expensive, to make a book like that.  There will be window cleaning to be done, too, you know.  Very pricey, that is, in the city.”

“Yes.  Yes I know.  I will not forget your kindness.”  Alanee reaches in her purse, astounded at how sententious her own voice sounds.  She pulls out a wad of credits:  “Will this suffice?”

“Amply.”  The shopkeeper’s eyebrows arrive a short span from the top of his moonlike dome where they find further cause to remain, at the sound of a tooth-grinding siren from the Avenue.  “And here, right upon cue, as it were, is the cavalry.  Let’s see if they can afford you protection?”

#

Returned to her apartment, with a guard outside, Alanee can no longer hear the ribald invective from a throng who already view her as a source of entertainment.  They will not disperse until the same security squad that ensured her safe return put in another appearance, this time protecting Ellar the Mediant.  Alanee admits her, trying to disguise an episode of tears.  Successfully perhaps, for Ellar makes no attempt to commiserate.  Her news is starkly simple:

‘Sire Cassix is dead.  By his wish you are elected Seer to the High Council.”

So it is real.  In a few cycles of the sun she has been adopted by the fairy castle of her childhood dreams, and succeeded to one of its highest offices.  The Hakaani widow whose greatest ambition was to become manager of her Terminus and earn more than a hundred credit pay check is now a public figure.  The thought should make her swoon.  Why, then, is this cup so difficult to accept?  A thousand shouted reasons in the street; a million un-rebutted insults, insinuations and false claims?  Her tears express a yearning to return to simpler times when no-one but her neighbours knew her name.  The days before her are days she will face with dread.

“You must move to the Seer’s residence.” Ellar advises her.  “Although this initial hysteria will die down, you will suffer constant importuning from the citizens of the Lower City.  Only in the Upper Levels will you get any peace.”

Ellar is sitting stiffly across from Alanee on her living room couch, a drink clenched in her hand.  Alanee watches her with feline curiosity; for she recalls Hasuga’s words:  ‘Ellar cannot resist you now’, and she no longer fears this dominant, imposing woman.

“You should be aware,” Ellar warns her; “Your election is not a popular choice.  The majority of your fellow Councillors were very much against Sire Cassix’s decision.”

“If I am a Councillor now, where does that leave you?”  Alanee asks.

Ellar raises an eyebrow.  “In immense difficulty.  You see, I, too, wish he had chosen otherwise, but as Mediant my task is to intercede for you with the High Council.  Fortunately Cassix moved my election also; otherwise my position would be completely untenable.  Even so, it is not a task I relish.”

“Are you telling me you wish to step down?” 

“Can you convince me I should not?”

Alanee considers this.  “You are a good Mediant, I think.  I will need guidance.”

Ellar nods.  “I believe that your coming here was a bad idea.  I accept, though, it was not of your making.  I do not blame you, Lady.  Now Cassix has placed you where you apparently can see the shape of things to come:  however, he has also given you to Sire Hasuga.   Henceforward have no illusions as to who controls the fate of this City.”

 “Suppose I was the one to resign?”  Alanee suggests.  “Suppose I didn’t want to be your Seer?”

This draws a wry smile from Ellar.  “Yes, indeed – suppose that.  In a way it would be all we could wish, wouldn’t it?  Except that Cassix was a great Seer, and no matter how onerous your nomination must be for us all, you were his choice.”

“Which doesn’t stop me from taking my own decision?”

“No. The law of blasphemy does that.  Sire Hasuga has ratified your appointment; if you reverse it, he will not be pleased.”

“You make it sound as if it was really Hasuga’s decision.”

“Wasn’t it?  Sire Hasuga will have been uppermost in Cassix’s thoughts when he made his choice.”

“That’s it, then,”  Alanee sighs with the resignation of one whose fate has passed to other hands.  “You must work with me.  I have a great deal to learn.” 

“Work with you?  Work alongside you, perhaps.”

“What exactly is your price, Lady Ellar?”

Ellar takes a sip from her drink before placing the glass carefully on the table.  “Price?  Believe it or not, yesterday Portis and I completed the list of duties we saw as befitting your service to Sire Hasuga.  Oh, have no fear….”  She waves a hand airily; “I do not expect you will even read them now. 

“If Cassix planned this, placed me on the Council, made you his successor, it was because of your of immunity to Sire Hasuga’s will.  He had not that gift, and neither have I.  But as a Mediant I am not afraid to commit blasphemy in the City’s cause…

Alanee interrupts:  “I don’t see what ‘blasphemy’ means.  If it means you mustn’t question anything Hasuga does or says he can stampede all over you.  That’s never been the way, though.  You’ve always adjusted, filtered, altered his will in subtle degrees:  so where does that stop and blasphemy begin?”

Ellar allows herself to smile.  “Perhaps when it is stated out loud?  Alanee, my ‘price’ is this.  Now Sire Hasuga has the power to overwhelm those subtle adjustments of which you speak, persuade him it is still in his interests to maintain the wellbeing of this city, and I will help steer the Council to accept the best options you can negotiate.  We can work together – shall we say, as a team?”

“You think he has other plans for The City?”

“I fear he has.”

“Or suppose he is a child just growing to manhood who knows less than any of us where the future lies?  If we are on his side we can guide him, give him responsibility – work with him and we will all learn – maybe not at his pace, but we will learn.”

Ellar says grimly.  “We once mistakenly allowed an aerotran to enter the airspace above The City and Sire Hasuga saw it.  He played with it for an hour, throwing it about the sky like a toy.  Its pilot never flew again:  Beware of Sire Hasuga, Lady.  You have a tiger by the tail.”

Alanee is deflated for the moment.  She gives a dismissive shrug.  “Meanwhile, I have to move into Sire Cassix’s chambers, do I?  Can I view them?”

“Certainly.   I will send a guard with Sala to conduct you there.”

The retort is quick as a thrown knife.  “Has she clearance?”

Does Ellar betray her surprise ?  “Yes, her status has been raised.  She is now a member of the Inner Court.”

“A courtier.  So she knows of Hasuga?”

“She has not met him yet.  Will not, unless he desires it.”  Ellar replies without a flicker of expression, though Alanee cannot help but wonder if she knows from whom Sala first learned of Hasuga.

“And;” Alanee continues:  “I shall need to study, the Book of Lore, as well as any other histories.  That was Cassix’s wish.”

Ellar gives her a curious look, but merely assents.  “Of course.”

Both women will leave this meeting with something new.  Ellar has further developed her appreciation of Alanee.  In spite of her reservations concerning Cassix’s choice, she now sees a clearer picture of the adventure before her and comprehends its inevitability.  Meanwhile Alanee, tidying the debris of their meeting, senses she has within her grasp someone who can be both enemy and ally, foe and friend.  She has not lost her mistrust of Ellar, but she has opened a window deeper into the Mediant’s soul.  So she loved Cassix, did she?  That, at least, is something Alanee understands.

© 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.