In the previous episode:
Dag Swenner’s health is improving as he follows the wild river, seeking first signs of civilization.
Meanwhile, Sala’s insistence that Celeris is a figment of Alanee’s imagination has induced him to materialize, and Alanee learns that he is Hasuga, dressed in a form she finds attractive. His appearance is too much for Sala, so Hasuga blanks her memory of their meeting.
Alone in her chambers, Alanee discovers her powers: using telekinetic energy, she can move the heavy silver ball, and now the mysterious mirrors beckon…
“Well?” Ellar settles an ebony statuette she has been examining on her desk. “What is the explanation?”
“There is none, Lady.” Sala shrugs her shoulders. “She insists the man she calls Celeris bedded her last night.”
They are in the part of Ellar’s apartments the Mediant calls her study, a small offshoot of her main reception area. Here she spends most of her waking hours, working at a large oak desk and admiring the collection of effigies and small busts that adorn the walls.
“There was no man with her?”
“So what conclusion may we draw?” What ails Sala? Ellar’s mediator stands sullenly before her, a recalcitrant schoolgirl called before her principal. There is no flicker of challenge, no answer in her eyes.
“That she imagines him, Lady.”
“That is an explanation, then, is it not; an imaginary bedfellow? The strain, one supposes. She is under a great deal of stress. She insists upon it?”
“Very well. Thank you Sala.”
“I may go?”
“You may go. Return to Lady Alanee later, say, at six o’clock. Stay with her then, if you can.”
“Oh, and Sala?” Sala is already on her way to Ellar’s door. She turns. “You are wise enough in the ways of the world, I am sure. You would be able to tell if Lady Alanee had, in fact, spent her night with a man, wouldn’t you?” Sala does not reply. “Well, I am asking your opinion: did she?”
“I cannot be sure.”
Sala departs, with Ellar’s discerning eyes scrutinizing her every step. The alteration in the young woman’s posture, her voice, even her look is inescapable: where now to place her trust? While Sala is watching Alanee (will that still be possible?) who will be watching Sala? These questions may not detain her: Valtor’s insistent message on her summoner is calling her to High Council. Sire Trebec, recently returned from his mission to wrap up the Dometian affair, has prepared his final report and she, as a member of the Council, must attend. She does so with some misgivings, knowing that on the Domo’s recommendation Alanee has been excluded from this gathering, which is setting something of a precedent, for it will be the first time in history that a full Council has convened without a Seer.
Alanee, meanwhile, is occupied with matters far removed from her station as Seer. She is quickly acquiring the trappings of a member of The City’s privileged inner circle. Unable now to walk freely in The City and shop for herself, she has no difficulty in selecting a reputable interior designer to attend her.
Prinius, it transpires, is a friend of Tocatta – a very close friend, if Prinius’s perspective is to be believed. And certainly everything about his manner and bearing would seem to confirm that perspective, for he is dressed with the same careful precision, the same elaborate care. His perfume is intense, his eyes warm, their earnest stare almost hypnotic. A crescent moon of long grey hair flies about the fringes of his red fedora, for he is not young, and his long nose is purplish in hue and inclined to drip: yet he illustrates his suggestions with expansive, eloquent gestures and he motivates like a heavy rainstorm, so that within a very few hours the inexplicable white suits have gone from Cassix’s grim walls to be replaced by brightly coloured hangings, while druggets temper the severity of the flagstone floor. A pair of comfortable red leather couches have discovered space for themselves, adjacent to a low table in warm rosewood, above which naked lighting has been sacrificed to something altogether friendlier and more responsive.
He can do nothing immediately for the stone walls themselves: “All that writing to be scrubbed off, then plaster panels, my dear Lady, are absolutely essential! I will attend to it. And graphics – something rather pretty I imagine?”
Or for the more idiosyncratic furnishings of the room: the mirrors: “Oh my dear!”
The large spinning disc of undecipherable purpose: “A certain brutal charm. One could always persuade the unwelcome guest to recline there.”
The silver orb: “Quite impressive, really, though I would imagine completely useless?”
– or the doorless wooden edifice that dominates the inner side. “That! Oh Habbach! I couldn’t even begin! One might cover it with something; a tent, perhaps?”
On the whole Alanee is sufficiently pleased: when she surveys the beginnings of Prinius’s transformation over a late lunch ordered in from an exorbitantly pricey restaurant, she feels a certain satisfaction: it may never look like a home, but at least Cassix’s old cave is a little less habitable to bats.
Left to herself once more, allowing the clouds of loneliness to close in, she greets a summons from her door chime as a welcome sound. She answers it half-expecting Sala to be standing there, rather than a deferential young man with a parcel in his hand. It is the book she ordered the previous day.
Alanee tips the young man for his trouble and thanks him. When unwrapped, the book nestles cosily in her grasp; leather cunningly distressed into eloquent age, blank unlettered pages mellowed at the edge, roughly cut, a lock not rusted, but so convincingly worn it might easily trace its ancestry through two thousand years, all exemplars of the forger’s art: a book which until now she has only seen inside her head, made manifest. It is so deceiving as to give her mission substance and purpose, and new hope for its success. She conceals it beneath a chair in her bedroom for the moment, while she plots her next move.
Is it the book that draws Alanee’s thoughts back towards Cassix’s mirrors? She is suddenly reluctant to sit on that ancient leather chair, to face the three angled reflections that fill one end of the wall. Whether the three further, smaller mirrors behind the chair deter her, or whether there is some more obscure reason she cannot know. Nevertheless she takes her place in their midst and once seated she can find no justification for fear. The whole thing looks and feels like a museum piece – they are mirrors, no more, no less. What were Hasuga’s words? ‘Gain their trust.’ Without the slightest clue what that may mean, she studies the large centre glass.
At first, the images she sees seem no more than different aspects of the room created by angles in the glass; however, it crosses her mind that she is looking not at first-hand reflections, but deflections from the mirrors behind her. Yet, if that is so, why does her own reflection not appear anywhere? She is sitting between the smaller and the larger mirrors, so how can her image be missing? The answer may never have come to her had she not chanced to direct her gaze upward to where, concealed by changes of level in the ceiling, are more mirrors: not just three but a whole battalion of them! So…. the reflections she sees are being thrown back and forth, up and down, between all of these surfaces. It is a wonder after so many journeys that they bear any resemblance to reality at all!
‘Gain their trust.’
Half-consciously using her new-found kinetic sense she finds she can fractionally change the attitude of one of the glasses. Instantly the images alter. In one glass now she sees a reflection of the city gardens; in another Prinius’s new wall hangings show up perfectly, in the third the strange wooden room with no door appears.
Alanee alters the angle of one after another of the glasses, fascinated by the finesse she can achieve, and their effortless synchronisation. In part she is playing, revelling in her new-found abilities: yet there is rightness in each adjustment, a process that seems to involve switches within her mind. And something more…
Her fingers stroke the old leather of the chair. Does she imagine it or is there a worn indentation where her hands rest on each arm? On a whim she goes to a bag of items the drabs retrieved from the watchtower, selecting from among them those two stones Cassix gave her. She seats herself with a stone beneath each hand.
There are no revelatory flashes of insight, no journeys to the stars; just a tiny white spot upon the spinning metal of the disc on the wall beside her, and the micron-thickness beam of light that creates it, lancing straight from the mirrors above her head. In the third mirror before her, the wooden room appears. One end of the room has somehow acquired a door, and the door (a whole carved panel hung upon great iron strap hinges) is opened wide. So little should be distinguishable in the gloom of that windowless interior, but one thing clearly is. Upon a simple chair inside the door sits a very old, very thin man in a hempen smock. This man’s gnarled and twisted limbs speak of age as an old tree speaks – of weathered suffering; of the ravages of the seasons. The sockets of his eyes are hollowed, his skin as dry as ash. He is unmoving: his bones of fingers clasped before him, his head bowed.
Shocked, Alanee turns to look directly at the wooden room. There is no open door. It looks as unassailable as ever. So, the combination of stones and mirrors can transform their reflections and the stones provide the switch. Setting her teeth, she tightens her grip upon the stones.
She does not instantly recognise what she sees. The Balkinvel reflected in the glass bears little relationship to the village she once, not long ago, called her home. And she does not expect to see such a picture – why should she? She is several thousand miles from the Hakaan – it cannot be a true reflection. Yet she sees it: it is there.
The Terminal is there: there and burning, with the roof half-gone where flames lick through and a pall of black smoke rising into the angry sky.
Look at the sky, Alanee!
No-one douses the flames: there is no bucket-chain, no anxious crowd. It burns unattended – it will burn to the ground. A village street that might be deserted were it not over-run by rats, creatures not given to exposure yet so frightened they run in the open, running for their lives, and cottonweed everywhere, un-swept, neglected.
The gap where her own house once stood; the house of her friend Shellan, its windows broken and door swinging in the wind. Old Malfis’s immaculate garden overrun with weed; so quickly! Did the old man die? House after house empty of life – where are they all? The Makar, Carla, Paaitas, Namma? A pain stabs at her heart. Her village; her life, destroyed. Why?
“Hasuga! Did you do this?”
“I? No, Alanee, not I.”
Then, before eyes becoming attuned to horror, the curtain falls, if curtain it be. Some veiled nemesis descending from that sky, spinning and purging as if culling a memory. Alanee sees it in the mirror; sees what Ripero saw, in that second when the love of his life was taken from before his eyes.
Look at the sky, Alanee!
Do the mirrors move by the insistence of her thoughts, or upon some impulse of their own? They tilt towards the heavens – not greatly, but enough; dragging her awestruck eyes above that scything whirlwind, high into the atmosphere, through the jagged, ragged lightning and the black moil of rage into a calmness of the palest blue. She sees the cloud-base as another country: white mountains with black anger at their base, rolling hills, pleasant valleys basking in a gentle sun. And before the mirrors’ eye they take upon themselves a life, so for an instant she might be gazing down upon fields, rivers, brave little towns clinging to those insubstantial wisps of vapour as if they were real: chimneys smoke, men go out with ancient tools to till the red soil, and children! She has never seen so many children! They play in the streets, follow the plough, shout and laugh among themselves as if they have no cares at all!
Only for an instant.
The white line begins as a livid dot of such intensity it burns her eyes, spreading laterally, a swinging blade to level everything, scythe everything away. Its signature screech obliterates all other sound, drowns the cries of those who, in the seconds before the coming know it is the end of all things. From its epicentre white death rises to a cone, a burning ball: then silence.
Alanee can bear to see no more. With all the force of her mind she snatches her grip from the stones, turns the mirrors back into her own world. The white spot on the disc disappears. Her heart is so full it can hardly stand the excess of compassion and pain exuding from the glass: the mirrors seem to have some kind of empathy, some sort of life-force of their own. They seem to be regretful, but surely that cannot be? She remembers that once as a child she believed inanimate objects such as carvings or even farming machines could feel and move. They never did, until now.
For a while she paces, pours herself a drink, then two. With every step she tells herself the things she witnessed cannot be true. Balkinvel cannot have been destroyed so fast; the work of a thousand years undone in a few cycles. She was in such a low state she saw predictions of doom. If she can change her own mood, the predictions will become more optimistic too. Alanee knows nothing of Ripero, or how his village and his life was wiped away. So she has no precedent for the horror she has seen befall Balkinvel, and the cloud-land vision is so preposterous she must dismiss it as fancy.
With the aid of a couple more drinks, by the time Sala visits Alanee’s humour has changed completely. Paia, she has decided, is a very acceptable spirit: she applauds Cassix’s choice, not guessing that it was a choice made for very specific reasons.
A first citrus tint of sunlight feels its way across the valley, casting the spark that will turn the waters of the river into a necklace of gold. In long shuffling shadows night creatures bury themselves, finding tunnels into wombs of safety. Dawn is chill of a depth no other chill can match. It sends icy tendrils into bone.
From his perch behind a veil of acacia Dag has a panorama of all the river basin spread out before him. Last night he began to climb, having made a decision to leave the river and gain the summit of a hill that rises behind him. When he first heard the voices, he had yet another thousand feet to go.
He has followed the river for days now; hunting or fishing for food. In all that time he has seen no sign of occupation, though the land is fertile: there is no track, no tell-tale smoke haze in the sky; nothing. Then, suddenly last night, pushing his way through a thicket of bracken on the green hill, he heard sounds, distant chatter, undistinguishable as any form of language, but certainly, as he thinks, human. Remembering his fugitive status, the acacia became his inhospitable bed for the night. Now, in the dawn, he listens; he watches.
Yes, the voices begin again with the rising of the sun. Few at first, then a rising clamour. Whoever these people are, they are obviously neither hunting for food nor afraid of discovery, whilst he, Dag, cowers behind his cloak of foliage suppressing shivers as best he can. Here, the wide bowl of the valley is some six miles across with mountains to the further side, their snowy peaks already blushed by the rose of sunrise. The trees no longer reach to the waterside, for the river has grown languorous. It meanders now, lazy amid bogs of poppy-rich meadow grass and reed, host to fronds of willow, a footing too uncertain for the stalwarts of the forest. Colour is everywhere; hydrangea and cyclamen, Acacia and tulip, rhododendron and cornflower. And still of the owners of the voices there is no sign, no life other than that of a dappled deer on the opposite river bank, far away and oddly so much bolder than he, as it takes dancing steps towards the water’s edge.
Almost beyond Dag’s powers of sight, the river turns southward around a gentle hill which juts out into the widest part of the watercourse: a promontory topped by a random scattering of trees; a tulip or two, a walnut, an umbrella pine. As the light of morning gathers it reveals some detail of this higher ground: there are features there which, even from this distance, seem strange to Dag’s discriminating eye – the grass is more evenly spread, there are no bushes or rocks to break up the line. He tries a simple trick: closes his eyes, turns away, then turns to look again; and yes; there is a movement there, two far-off figures so small at this distance they are little more than dots! They move as children might in play, to and fro about the grassy slope; running, perhaps? They are minute, but not so little that he cannot distinguish the human touch. People! For better or worse, good or ill, he cannot avoid civilisation forever. The time has come.
Glad of action, Dag thinks he will move closer: stay hidden until he learns more. Who are they? They should be Dometians, but he is unsure how far he might have travelled, whether he might have strayed into the higher valleys of Eastern Braillec. Whoever they are they must have heard what happened to their fellow citizens, so they would know and understand whence he came. And this is his concern, for with Ripero he saw too plainly the fate of those refugees on the Dometian Plain. Though his heart would guide him back to the Consensual City, in his head there is a warning. Does the City wish him dead?
He has no time to do more than form his plan before choice is taken from him. From nowhere, it seems, a figure rises before him, a figure with bright feverish eyes tearing aside the branches of acacia. From behind him other unseen hands snatch and pin his arms. A loop of thick twine binds them into captivity. By the strength of many he is thrust face forward into the sun. And what he sees draws a cry of disbelief from his lips…
© Frederick Anderson 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.
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