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Continuum – Episode Nineteen: Wagoner’s Leap

From the previous Episode:

Alanee is summoned to Hasuga’s presence once again, and she finds him in unpleasant mood.  He forces her to watch a grotesque hologram performance of her intimate moments with Celeris, and shows  her in life-size detail the accident that caused her husband’s death.  Reeling from the repugnance she feels she seeks solace in the quietness of the gardens by the River Balna.  She is contemplating a plunge into the icy waters when Celeris finds her.

“There has been a crisis.”  Over the summoner Lady Ellar’s voice is dry and abrupt.

Sala drags herself upright in her bed, pushes her hair back from her face.  “Alanee?  Why, what’s gone wrong?”

“Don’t concern yourself with that.  Just find her.  And Sala?”

“Yes, Lady?”

“You may acquire certain knowledge.  Try to stem any indiscretions, but if necessary special status will be given to you.  You need not fear repercussions if you bring the things you learn directly to me.  To me alone, do you hear?”

“Yes Lady.”

Sala closes the connection before she punches the pile of bedclothes beside her.  “Come on big boy, time you went home!”

#

From the fortress town of Braillec there is a road which unites that great bastion with its fiefdom and, ultimately, with the outside world.  This thoroughfare links the ten villages that are the Braillec nation and which, by the sweated labour of their slightly proportioned yet physically very tough citizens, supply iron and precious metals to the Consensual City itself.

It is, therefore, a road of some consequence:  its paving is conscientiously tended, its length rigorously patrolled by Braillecci police.  Convoys of wagons pass through constantly, vying for space with transporters, bicyclists and animal herds in an unceasing cacophony of shouts, hoots and bellowing rage.  There is no remission in winter or summer, night or day.

The Braillec Highway, for so it is known, is no easy route.  All of Braillec but a few paltry square miles to the Country’s east is mountainous, so of necessity the Highway must be mountainous too, with high passes, precipitous cuts along canyon walls, dark tunnels and hairpin turns that constantly challenge the senses: gradients so sharp the summits are provided with winding engines for the heaviest loads, that in a matter of minutes can turn into glacier or river in winter snow or spring rain.  The steeper reaches of that section of road which rejoices in the name of ‘Wagoner’s Edge’ are littered with shrines to departed travellers whose bodies are never retrieved, so deeply unreachable are the canyons through which it must pass.  At intervals along the way the ten villages, often clinging to slopes little better than a rocky scree, with their houses or businesses carved into the mountainside, or perched on precarious trestles that may have defied centuries but threaten every day to be their last, offer rest and refreshment.

There is, in truth, little of either to be had.  The citizens of these snake-and-ladder townships are of mining stock, gritty moles who burrow in rock for ten-hour shifts and whose morals are subject to erosion by night, daylight or liquor  Their diet of wheat-porridge and mutton is not to everyone’s taste, nor is their hobby of nocturnal thieving.  Whoever stays in one of the wayside inns that lie in wait beside the Braillec Highway should bring his own lock for his door and never ever turn his back upon it. 

Small wonder, then, that all who can travel by air when they enter or leave Braillec.  Only the poorest, the bravest and the most foolish take the land route.  No women travellers use the Highway, though there are women on it, women who make their living from it.  And the men who choose to hazard their fortune on the journey do so for their own reasons.  Which is why, perhaps, on this afternoon at the height of the spring rains Commander Zess is to be found in Turkalar, fourth of the ten villages, slumped over a bar known as Kapper’s.

Kapper’s with a hole in the roof which leaks; water on wood:   “Drip – drip – drip.”

“Who are you, my friend?”  The barman is wiping out a glass with a towel that has wiped too many glasses.

“I?  My name is Zess.  Commander Zess.  I am a Commander, you know?”

“Oh certainly!”  The barman smiles.  “The stamp of authority is unmistakeable.  The moment you fell through the door, I knew.”

Drip – drip – drip.  Rainwater; gathering on the pinewood bar-top, seeping through a split  in the wood.  Ebbing away; all thought, all feeling, all future.  Drip – drip – drip.

“I am the Commander!”

“Yes Sah!”  An old man with a glass eye and glassier stare from his good eye does his best to snap to attention.  Two younger men in leather porters’ aprons further down the room laugh loudly.

“Take ne notice of Pashi, Commander-sir.  He don’t know his chair from his arse.”

Drip – drip –drip.

Zess eyes these jesters through his misted lens of cheap perl.  The stuff of the ranks.  Proteian whippets both:  lean of sinew, receding foreheads befitting those who have no need of brain. Neither clean, nor soiled, but blackened by life:  one with a livid scar like a lightning strike across his cheek; the other with lips plastered against his face, thick and flat, as though applied by a coarse inexpert brush.  Strange that these should be his chosen:  strange, but right.  They will not know how carefully he has picked them – they have not mind or sight for that:  but that does not matter.  They are chosen.

“’Spect you’ll be sleepin’ here tonight?”

Until now the enigmatic young woman has not spoken.  She was there when he entered an hour since, seated at the bar, watching idly the contents of her glass, swilling the reflections so they stir to fire once in a while, then taking a sip – one sip.

Black hair in a thick fringe, a wig fringe.  White skin, glossy lips, dressed to undress, fabric straining about full breasts, fuller hips.  Red shoes – he will remember the red shoes.

“Want company?”

An offer that is simple, direct:  a woman not accustomed to negotiation – not among the herders of oxen, the wagoners, the drivers of sheep.

“You’ll think me brazen.”  Dying eyes raised to his.  “I’m not a fool, Commander.  I was not born to be here.”

“I know that.”

“Do you?  Do you know?”  She moves in.  “Manda.  That’s my name, Mr. Zess.  I was a courtier once.”

This brings a cynical bray of laughter from the other end of the bar.  Manda ignores it.  “Buy me a drink?”

The drink she holds is unfinished.  This is a ritual: an enunciation:  by this drink I thee procure:  to have and to hold for a period not exceeding eight hours and subject to such further fees as shall be accrued in representation of services rendered…..Zess accepts the contract with a glance, signs his name by a purchase.

“What are you drinking, Manda?”

“Sumthin’ to cure the spots that weep!”  Says the thick-lipped Proteian, and the barman laughs:  but neither misses the wad of credits Zess produces from his pocket.  “Oh, the’s picked a good ‘un here, Manda!  Treat un’ special tonight an’ you’ll be able to retire!”

“Aye!  Start that seafood business you been plannin’ fer.”

“Seafood?”

“Crabs.”

“Oh.  Ah.”

“Where’s your place?”  He asks.  He would not delay.

“Come on.”  The jesters exchange glances; nod.

The deed is done.  In Manda’s professional grasp Commander Zess is led to the street where sentence will be carried out.  Those he has selected as his executioners will follow distantly at first, like hyenas; pacing, vulpine.  In dark shadows, under dripping eaves where none may see Manda steps aside:  the blow is fell and merciful.  The last sight with which Zess departs his world, the exculpation for the ten thousand souls he has sent before him, is a pair of red shoes.

It is a dark night, and long.  A profitable one, for two young men in leather aprons and a nervous, hungry woman with ashen face who stares disbelieving at the badge concealed beneath Zess’s coat.

“Je-Habba!  He really is a Commander!  ‘Tis only Commander Zess, that’s all!”

“The’s jokin’!”  The thick-lipped man glares at the body with linx-like suspicion.

“No I aren’t.”  Manda shows him the evidence; “Oh Habba – Habba -Habba meh!  We’re done for now!”

The scarred man is counting Zess’s credits.  “In Braillec he was Commander.  Here he’s just a mark.”

Manda’s eyes are wild with fear:  “What to do?  What to do?  There’ll be a manhunt!”

Unperturbed, or seeming so, the scarred one offers her a share of the Commander’s wealth but she shies away.

“I’m not touchin’ that!”

“Don’t be a fool to yerself!  Look at me!  Was he ever here?  Was he?  Them in there won’t say nowt, not if the’ dun tell ‘em.”

Manda falls silent, trembling.

“Strip ‘un!”  The scarred man says.  “Strip everythin’ from un an’ burn it in yer grate tonight, girl.  Will the’ do that?”  He takes her shoulders, shakes her roughly.  “Will the’?”

She nods, struck dumb by terror.

“Ah.  An’ us’ll get Passa’s old cart and have ‘un up to Wagoner’s Edge.  Wor’ll throw ‘un in the canyon:  ‘E’ll never be found girl.  Never.  An’ you’ll say nothin’, do the’ hear?”

#

A frantic Sala has called at Alanee’s apartment to find the door ajar.  A squad of City Service drabs are working, mysteriously, upon the tiles of Alanee’s bedroom ceiling.  “What are you doing?”

“Official work, Lady.”  The gang leader is non-committal.

“Where is the lady who lives here?”

“Don’t know.  Haven’t seen her.”

Alanee has no limiter, therefore she cannot be tracked.  Sala calls her summoner several times – it does not answer.  For an hour she probes the main avenues, but there is no sign of her friend.  She attends Ellar in her surveillance suite.  The screens for every camera in the city are displayed before them.

“She walked to the river this afternoon, before I learned there might be a problem.”  Ellar tells her.  “I know she returned to the City, but since then I haven’t been able to find her, she doesn’t appear anywhere.”

“I imagine the Grand Park is too obvious?”

“There it is.”  Ellar waves a hand at a dozen separate screens.  “No sign of her.  She seems to have completely disappeared.”

#

“Oh, Celeris, this is beautiful!”

They are together in his rest-place and he is bathing Alanee’s wounded knuckles, his delicate fingers smoothing healing comfort into her livid flesh.  And each stroke brings a tiny shiver of pleasure as she imagines those soft hands caressing all of her body.  Too soon he is finished, towelling her gently dry, and that sets her imagining, too. 

“Come, I will show you your room.”

How had Alanee imagined Celeris’ apartment would be?  Small and intimate, or vast and echoing?  As warm as his touch, or as cold as his eyes?  It is neither.

Beyond the door of one of those characterless lobbies that seem to be shared by all apartments in the City is a mezzanine overlooking an elliptical room.  Steps lead down, following a wall hung with pieces of expensive graphic art.

The living space is furnished with formal seating dressed in vivid colour.  Art dominates: handmade furniture ornamented by vases and figurines that are perfect exemplars of the potter’s craft; tiny holograms add movement to the static feast, a green fish lazily swimming in its own ghostly mist of ocean about the floor, a dancer cavorting with balletic grace upon a high table at the far wall, three white gulls making noiseless circles overhead.

Portals lead to bedrooms, a rest-place, a kitchen, a darkened passage.  Windows are high up:  they afford no view, only light.  Even now, although Alanee knows it must be dark outside, they beam down in an imitation of setting sunlight, bathing everything with the tranquil ambience of dusk.

“You must be exhausted!”  He exclaims.

The room to which he leads her is so perfectly attuned to her taste she feels almost as though she were back in her Hakaan homeland.  Two imposing terra-cotta vases stand each side of a wide, grey bed, its covers trimmed with rich damask.  Furniture – a dressing table, chairs, a side table – in silvered blue arrayed against corn-yellow walls.  Projected white clouds drifting lazily across a ceiling of summer sky lift her depression from her like a veil, such that she finds herself laughing with sheer delight.

“You are pleased?”

“How could I not be?  It’s just so…it’s magical!”

She kisses him chastely on the lips, thinking perhaps the kiss will be lost in the spontaneity of the moment.  Those mysterious eyes betray his thoughts as he lets his finger-tips gently play across her mouth.  They linger close.  His breath is so sweet, almost honeyed, that she cannot resist tasting it once more; this time for much longer.

Celeris draws back hastily, “I will, of course, give you every privacy…”

With a finger to his lips, Alanee stills him.  “No.”

He is awkward, apprehensive, “Some drinks perhaps?”   Resting her forehead to his she can feel the tension in him, the trembling of instincts more powerful than he can understand.

“No.” She tells him kindly, “Thank you, ba, but no.”

“Then I must leave you!”

In whispers, “Not this time.”

Her mind is filled with music, as undeniable and compulsive as the Music Man’s song.  “Help me to forget, my ba. There are things I have seen today, dreadful, cruel things.  If I go to sleep with them in my head they will be with me forever.  I need you to drive them away.”

“To my shame…if I stay here longer…” Celeris’s voice drops to a timbre of despair.  “When I am near you…”

Alanee does not let him run from her, not this time.  “I know, darling. Yet you shouldn’t be ashamed.  You don’t understand, do you?  Let me help you learn.”

“Learn.”  His voice has suddenly steadied.  “Learn to suppress what I feel?”

Alanee grins wickedly, “No, no – rather the reverse.”

Alanee guides him to the bed, where she sits, cradling him in her arms as she might a child, and child he becomes, mewling in infant parody, curling into her, so needing comfort that she would hold him to her breast if she could, but as manhood swiftly overcomes the child she cannot resist his impatience.  Everything inside him is triggered to explode in one climactic act and, with resignation that the lesson will be brief, she contents herself with gentle guidance.

The time for restraint is past.  Everything is past almost before it has had time to begin and yes he has cried out in ecstasy and pain and yes, he was clumsy – a little too self-indulgent maybe – a little too rough: a little too proud in conquest, his black-eyed face a mask of triumph.  Alanee has not seen it, though.  Whether act of love or desperation, she could only feel – her eyes closed, her back arched, she has taken to herself a seed as hot and electric as its sower, while her head dreamt of the Hakaan Plain and birdsong in the summer sun.

When they have surfaced from their dreamt-of union and Celeris is lying beside Alanee while her fingers are playing light as eider-down over his pale cheeks; as her sweet mind-music fades, she seeks a promise: “Never leave me?”

He responds:  “I won’t.”

Alanee holds his shoulders, so he must look at her.  “I mean it.  Don’t die on me Celeris!  Never die!”

And he replies with all the honesty in his being:  “For you, Alanee, I will never die.”

But now, in the silence after the music has gone, the honesty she doubts is her own.  What did she truly seek; protection, care, even love?  A few seconds of fulfilment and a falling back, contentment on the sheets, away from the cruelty, the artifice of The City?  Is that worth words like ‘never’?  The years of slumber have vanished from her, the closet of her desires has opened to him, but the nagging guilt remains stubbornly inclosed.    Because of a dead man’s memory?  No, because despite her determination, she cannot forget.

       Celeris turns his head, speaks:  “Now that is a very, very good game.”

The words take time to permeate,   But they do.

“A good game?”

She stares, almost doubting whose form she will see lying at her side. 

  A very, very good game. 

Alanee takes a few seconds to gather herself, telling herself that nothing should shock her anymore.  Then, sighing, she slips from the sheets, feeling his eyes on her back as she goes naked to the rest-place.

In the shower she knows he is watching, as she dries herself, too.  As she dresses his eyes never leave her, yet she does not feel threatened by him.  His look expresses curiosity, not hunger.

 “You are going?”  He sounds surprised.  “Have I not pleased you?”

Alanee manages a smile.  “Almost too much, ba.” 

He does not ask when he might see her again.  He does not even say goodbye as she drifts aimlessly from his door.

Sala finds her in the Grand Park, dawdling by the water where ornamental birds roost.  Dark little shadows in the artificial blue of a moon-orb that tracks across the domed roof, they scuffle and cluck annoyance at her pale, intruding feet,

“Alanee-ba, thank Habbach!  Where have you been, my darling?”

Alanee greets her concern with vague surprise.  “You’ve been looking for me?  Why?”

“You just went missing.  I mean, vanished!  Everyone’s been going mad looking for you!”

“Ah yes.  I’m not meant to vanish, am I?”

Sala looks at her curiously.  “Someone has done something to you.  Alanee, are you hurt?  What happened, ba?”

“Nothing I shouldn’t have expected, I suppose.  I was with Celeris, in his apartment.”

“Celeris.  Celeris the non-existent,” Sala says, frowning.  “Alanee, there is no such person. I looked through the census.  There is no Celeris listed in the City.  Now, where does he live, this man?”

‘Over there’.  Alanee is about to say, to wave with an airy finger at the avenue by which she has just returned, but she fails to recognise it in the darkness.  “Somewhere over there.”

She cannot focus.  Sala is gripping her shoulders with a fierce expression.  “You’ve been drugged.  Habmenach!  I am too trusting of this place!  I should never have left you to its mercies.  Come now, ba; we’ll get you home.”

“Not to my apartment.  No.  Not my apartment.  Cameras.”

If Sala finds the remark odd she does not question it.  “Then mine.  You must rest.”

This night Alanee finally spends in Sala’s bed, nestled in the arms of her friend who, despite her pain, asks nothing in return.

© 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.

Continuum – Episode Seventeen: Whispers in the Dark

Previously:

Alanee joins in the City’s celebrations greeting the dawn of spring.  She encounters children in the City for the first time and prohibited from speaking to them.  After hours of drinking and dancing in one of the main squares she finds Celeris again, and in a somewhat drunken attempt at seduction appears to frighten him away…

Alanee wakes not knowing what hour it is, only that she has spent a day, or misspent one.  Her stomach gives her a sharp reminder, sending her weaving to her rest place where she stays for another while, rebuking herself for her brazenness and fervently wishing the world would go away.

At last she discovers (in her kitchen between doses of stomach grieve and tsakal) that it is early evening.  Below her living room window the courtyard of the palace, now free from snow, is littered with detritus of a more human kind.  Drabs move discreetly among figures in various stages of prostration, cleaning up.

Turning her back on this unappetising scene she slouches on the sofa, sipping her tsakal and observing the dap fishes’ serene ignorance of occasion as they swim around their tank.  Thus another hour passes, until darkness comes and she returns to her bed for a sleep that will take her to morning.

Her summoner buzzes.  It is Sala.  “Well?

“Well what?”

“Well, that gorgeous young man.  Did you?”  And, before Alanee can reply, “And don’t say ‘did I what?’ You know what I mean!”

“I might have.”  Why is she so defensive?

“That means you did, or – or, oh Habbach, you were so drunk you can’t remember!  Ba!  I’m am ashamed of you!”

“Believe me, drunk or not, I’d remember.”

“Then you didn’t?  What was wrong with him, he must have been at least seven feet tall!”

“Delfio?  Ah, no, he was boring.  I didn’t stay with him.”  Alanee changes tack.  “Enough about my evening, Sala-ba, how was yours?  I saw you with at least three different hunks.  How did you fare?”

“Oh ba!  I’m still faring!”  Sala’s voice is treacle-rich.  “He’s in the rest-place rebuilding his strength.  I think I’ve worn him out, poor boy!”

“So who is he?  Or haven’t you been introduced?”  As she talks on her summoner, Alanee’s fingers probe absently at the tooth-bites she made in her pillow after Celeris’s dramatic departure.

“Naughty!  His name is Vel, and he is a merchant:  he’s tall and he’s blond and he’s a perfect darling.  I think we might just stay in bed forever!  You’re very good at changing the subject!  If not the Hakaani, who did you end up with – not alone, surely?  Tell me you didn’t go home on your own Alanee!”

Her fingers pick at the stuffing of the pillow, drawing it out through the ruptured cloth.  “No, not alone.”

“Oh, thanks be!  And after I abandoned you, too!  My guilt would follow me to my grave!”

The stuffing is fibrous.  It is mostly soft and yielding.  Mostly.  But some is wire; very, very fine wire.

“I met Celeris.” Alanee says.

“Who?”

“Celeris?  Don’t you know him?”

“If there was a Celeris in the City, ba, I’d know him.  Must have given you a false name, the rat!  It goes on all the time.  Is he a rich rat?”

“Don’t know.  I think so.”  Alanee replies absently.  The wire seems endless.  “Listen, Sala-ba, I’ll call you later, yes?”

She goes to her kitchen, where there are knives.  She puts the pillow on her cutting block, then attacks its cover.  It resists her stoutly; the material, though thin, is far from flimsy, but at last she succeeds in slitting it from end to end, so the stuffing inside is exposed and she sees how it is interwoven with an intricate web of bright metal joining onto what was a tiny central capsule; was, because in her anger at Celeris’s flight her teeth have bitten it almost in two.

Alanee has worked at her village Terminus for many years.  Although her remit was transport she gained a working knowledge of electronics, but this device is not within her compass, nor does she have equipment to study micro-circuits as tiny as those the capsule contains.  She must resort to educated guesses, the most seductive of which would be a form of transmitter – the wires could be an aerial, the capsule some sort of speaker – though one so tiny could scarcely be heard by the human ear.  Puzzled, she returns to her bedroom.  Three pillows remain:  did she find the ‘wired’ one by chance, or are they all the same?

This investigation might have taken wings at the expense of three further pillows, if her summoner were not buzzing insistently.  The name that flickers up at her from its screen will brook no denial.  Lady Ellar wishes her to attend the High Council Suite.  Could she please come at once?

#

High Councillor Trebec stands within the aperture to a high, gothic window, a fissure in walls so thick four of his girth might fit within this space and not intrude an inch into the room behind him.  From its glass he may overlook a rolling aspect of northern land which will lead, should he be able to see far enough, to his beloved City.  “Is it never warm here?”

“Sir?”  Commander Zess is preoccupied.  He has not heard.

“Does the sun never permeate these confounded walls?”

“Maybe in summer…”  Zess says.

“The work is done, then?”  Trebec expects an affirmative answer.  A final aerotran of crack troops landed an hour since.  His own transport is waiting to whisk him away from this cold Braillec Castle with its frigid stone and its accusations.  Who was it who said you can never turn your back on guilt?

“Yes, Sire Trebec, almost.” 

“Almost?”

“An end to tie up, Sire, that is all: the aerotran pilot from the City hasn’t been found.  His aerotran has, but not him.”

Trebec wears a frown to make the highest commander in the forces tremble at the knees.  “Was he not burned with the rest?”

“No, Sire, I don’t believe so.  I mean, yes, there are so many bodies we can’t account for because they were just burned to powder, but this flyer didn’t reach the incident itself.  He got caught in the magnetic storm it created.  He survived long enough to leave his pod.  He’s vanished.”

“He can’t just vanish!  You have heat-seekers, you have bio-trace, you have Habbach-damned extro-visuals.  Find him!”

“We’ve tried them all, Sire.  They sought out everybody else, all the other dissidents, but not him.  I’ve requested a field search strato-craft from the City:  when I get that I can pan the whole country if I have to.  We’ll find him.”

“See that you do.”  Trebec does not like the Commander’s solution:  it is inconvenient that a strato-craft crew from outside should have to be brought in on so covert an enterprise.  “Make sure they take the oath before you brief them.”

“It is already done, Sire Trebec.”

“Very good.”   The land beyond the window seems so innocent of wrong; impervious to judgement.  “They are out there, aren’t they?  How many?”  Trebec asks.

“We buried ten thousand, Sire.  As to those totally consumed, who can say?”  Zess shrugs,  “The census will reveal all, in time.”

Trebec catches sight of a tear that runs unwarded down his commander’s cheek.  “Never doubt, Zess.  Do not question.  What is done is done in the name of the State.  And, harsh though it may be, the State invariably affords us the best answer.  You have followed orders, no less and no more.”

“Yes, Sire.”  Zess’s voice is expressionless.

Trebec turns away again, casting a final look across those tranquil hills.  “I am flying back to the City.  I take ten thousand ghosts with me, do I not?  Sleep soundly, my friend.”

“Farewell, Sire.”

Zess watches the High Councillor leave, seeing in his broad back the incredulity, the sheer unbelief on thousands of faces that, thinking they were rescued, suddenly realised they were about to die.  Privately he knows he will never sleep soundly again.

#

The Lady Alanee, Ellar would have to admit, has learned how to make an entrance.  Remembering the gauche, slightly angular figure of a woman who entered the City no more than a cycle since she cannot help a reflective smile: how the place has changed her – and how quickly!  Not only has she learned to adopt the court robe as formal dress, but she has learned how to move in it, how to accentuate the natural grace of its lines.  Her golden cascade of hair disguises shoulders that might otherwise seem rather wide, and frames a face of unfathomable mystery.  Her eyes challenge.  This woman, Ellar thinks, is no longer afraid of anyone.

“Lady Ellar, greet you.”  Alanee is formal, cool.  “Sire?”  She cannot remember Sire Portis’s name.  She recalls he was one of those who questioned her on her first day here.  She also remembers how his stare never left her chest. 

“Lady Alanee, this is Sire Portis.”  Ellar says.

“Greet you.”  Alanee responds, tugging at the hem of her robe where it crosses her bosom, a move which does get Portis to raise his eyes to her face, though only for a moment.

“Please, sit down.  Shall we request drinks?”

Alanee dismisses this with a wave of her hand.  She has had sufficient alcohol in the past twenty-four hours to sustain her for a cycle, at least.

“Why am I here?” She keeps her voice as level as she can.  This stateroom is the one where she was first introduced to members of the High Council, but she does not remember a book resting upon the sideboard that dominates one wall of the room.  It is a very old book.

“What book is that?”

Portis answers,  “It is an extract of the Book of Lore.  The Book is always present if a meeting of High Councillors constitutes less than a quorum, so we do not forget the higher cause.”

“I’m not just here to talk about the Spring Rising, then?  Why am I here, Sire Portis?”

“Ah, now that is the question.”  Portis says.  “And taken in its most limited sense, that is why you are here; to answer that precise question.”

Alanee looks perplexed,   “A riddle, Sire?”

Portis sighs.  “No, Alanee, an answer; though not, I suspect, a solution.  Lady Ellar, would you like to proceed?”

Ellar leans forward, as she is wont to do when she is about to speak, though not before Alanee has detected the chill between these two nobles.  They have their differences.  “Lady Alanee, when you first arrived I told you that you were about to embark upon a journey.  As matters stood then, it was thought better that you find your own way:  now, however…..”  She pauses for breath.  “Now you have met Sire Hasuga.  It is time you learned a little more of your duties here.  It is time you learned who Sire Hasuga is.”

Ellar relates the tale of the City and its history.  Alanee listens to it open-mouthed, for history in any form (memory beyond the human span) does not exist within the culture of the State.  No-one speaks of the past beyond a generation or two.

In Alanee’s head it is as if a book were being opened; her thoughts fly to the book on the sideboard.  Her inner self flicks over pages of manuscript written in old characters, a forgotten tongue.  And when she comes back to the cover it slams shut and locks, and will not admit her again.  She would see its title, but that too is hidden from her.  She rises suddenly; walks across to the book intending to open it physically.

“Do not touch The Book!”  Portis snaps.  “Lady Ellar!  I will not have her near it, I warn you!”

His command stops Alanee in her tracks.  She shrugs, then says, without knowing what she is saying, or why she is saying it:  “It’s alright.  That’s not the book I’m interested in.”

She returns to her chair.  Ellar is staring intensely.  “Lady Alanee; which book are you interested in?”

“It has a lock, that one has none.  It is very old, with a cover of red and gold leather.  The words inside are in some strange language or other.  I was reading it. Anyway, it doesn’t matter.”  She comes to herself, to see Ellar’s face, drained of all colour.

“You’ve seen inside this book?”

“Yes, just now.”

Portis cuts in.  “Young woman, have you been listening to anything the Lady Ellar has been saying?”

“Intently, Sire Portis; as I have been observing the chemistry between yourself and Lady Ellar while she was saying it.  I take it you don’t approve?”

“You take it correctly.”

“Of me?  Never mind, don’t answer that.  So, if I have listened to your satisfaction, let me be sure I’ve understood.  Sire Hasuga’s mental powers are so strong that his thoughts and whims reach all of the nations.  When he wants honey-cakes, everyone eats honey cakes.  When he wants a war in a certain region, that region goes to war.  Somehow you’ve managed to conduct affairs for two thousand years on the basis of childish caprice.  And now he’s gone and growed up!”

Portis nods.  While she is speaking, Alanee’s eyes do not shift from the book on the sideboard.  She finds herself searching deep within it, as though there is something specific she must find.

“And now he wants different stuff; not quite so innocent anymore, eh Sire? You’re afraid you can’t control him:  he might go mad, get everybody killing each other, or – you know -making babies?  You can’t blame him, can you?  He’s just being a boy, isn’t he?  One thing though, I don’t quite follow:  there are lots of essential functions needed to run the State that are a bit more important than honey cakes.  Plant more wheat this year because the granaries are low; discourage child-bearing in the Hakaan to keep the population stable, and so on.  Not the things a child would think of.  How do you get the meaningful stuff done?”

The answer falls to Ellar.  “Once it was just as volatile and unformed as you describe.  We learned, we had to learn, to manage Sire Hasuga’s thoughts.  We discovered a way to interrupt the thought-stream and channel it, without Sire Hasuga’s knowledge.  The High Council could add necessary edicts to the stream as it was being broadcast.  It needed a more predictable system of distribution, but once it was achieved, we could conduct affairs of State effectively.”

“So you can shape his will?   Isn’t that – to coin your word – blasphemy?”

“No.  Think of his stream of thought as a real stream, or river if you like.  We can add water to it; we can apply a sluice to restrain it.  But we can’t stop it or fundamentally alter Hasuga’s part of its composition.  In the end, his message must reach the people as the water must reach the sea.”

“And you do that here, in the City?”

“Yes.”

Across the room and out of Lady Ellar’s and Sire Portis’s range of vision, Alanee is making the ancient book rise a few inches from the sideboard.  Satisfied, she allows it to settle again, quietly.  She thinks to herself ‘I don’t know how I did that’.  Portis’s fixation with her breasts is becoming profoundly irritating.

“And this river flows out to the people each night as they sleep – through a little speaker concealed in their pillows.”  That reaches you, doesn’t it, Sire Portis!  That makes you lift your eyes!

Ellar nods,  “Yes.”

“Whispers in the dark.  The reason it is only possible to buy a replacement pillow from a state-owned emporium.  And now your system is breaking down?”

“That’s something of an exaggeration.”  Ellar’s smile is grim.  “True, Sire Hasuga’s emanations are ever more powerful, and – well, you’ve already cited a few undesirable consequences.  Lady Alanee, you are apparently immune to Sire Hasuga’s control.  You can get close to him; you can treat with him, in ways his Mother never can.”

“Then Hasuga is right.  I am his next ‘Mother’.”

“His Mother is ill at the moment.”  Portis interjects.  “When she recovers we would, of course, like you to work with her.  Look, this can be either be very simple, or very difficult:  we (the High Council) will issue you with a list of target behaviours to pursue in concord with Sire Hasuga.  This list will be with you in a few days.  All that is needed is to moderate some of the temporary excesses of his pubescent stage.  If you follow the list you will discharge your duties satisfactorily.  It shouldn’t be beyond you.”

Alanee visualises what she suspects will be item one on that list.  “You can’t give teenagers ‘lists’.  It’s their nature to rebel.”

“Sire Hasuga is no ordinary teenager, and you seem to have a detachment none of us share.  You can guide him Lady Alanee.  For the stability of the State, for the sake of all our futures, this is a responsibility you must accept.”

“I’ll do it, because I have no choice.”  Alanee senses the interview is over.  “Whether it will work as smoothly as you say, is another matter.”  She gets to her feet.  “In the meantime, please will you remove all the cameras from my apartment?  I don’t think you need to spy on me now.  I could always find them myself…”  She adds helpfully.

Portis is looking questioningly at Ellar.

“She dissected one of her pillows.”  Ellar explains.  Then, to Alanee: “How did you know there were cameras?”

“I didn’t until now; although I suspected as much.”  Alanee replies.  “You just confirmed it.  So from now on, Sire Portis, whenever you want to stare at my body you’ll have to ask me in person.”

Alanee bridles, ready for Portis to flare back at her, but the councillor merely replies, with icy control:  “You are a presumptuous and wilful young woman, Alanee  Have a care what you say.”

“Oh I will, Sire.  Now, can I ask to speak to Sire Cassix?”  She has no idea where the question came from, or even why she should ask it.  From the beginning of this interview, Alanee has felt distant and detached:  it is as though something other than herself is controlling her tongue.

Portis looks at her sharply:  “Cassix?  Why?”

“I think he can help me.”  Without waiting for a reply, Alanee leaves.

Ellar and Portis stare after her.

Ellar says:  “Tell me I did not dream that?”

Portis says:  “The impudence of the woman!”

Lady Ellar smiles:  “You were caught out, Sire.  You do stare at women’s chests; even mine.  More importantly, how did she – how could she – know of The Book?”

“As importantly, perhaps;” Portis’s tone is dangerous:  “How do you?”

© 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.

Continuum – Episode Fifteen: The Spring Rising.

The Story so Far:

While the High Council’s misgivings concerning Alanee’s relationship with Hasuga grow, Alanee is beginning to realise their worst fears as she finds the embyo of a friendship with him.  She joins Hasuga in his ‘games’, blissfully unaware of the mayhem they can cause.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the wilderness, Dag Swenner, her aerotrans pilot friend, is injured and close to death.  Ripero, the Dometian who saved him from the wreckage of his aerotrans has left him, hoping to find help but only to be killed in a bizarre confrontation with a lone soldier…

After her morning encounter with Hasuga, Alanee’s day has been spent idly, wandering through the gardens and bazaars of the City.  Affairs of the last two days have relieved many of her worst fears: whatever the City wants from her, she no longer believes she will be punished for her misdemeanours in the years at home in Balkinvel.  Although she remains the little girl in wonderland, she is gaining some grasp of the realities around her.  She is free to notice the brightly-coloured birds that flit between the trees in the Grand Park, the way the illumination from hidden places in the roof above the park ‘travels’ across its firmament in imitation of a real sun, and how the tiny mechanical mice that scuttle about the paving, gathering up rubbish then vanishing with it into carefully disguised slots at the grass’s edge even squeak like real mice.  She sees that those who attend the Palace do not always wear those dreadful, formal robes.  A woman whose face she recognises from the courtyard passes her, clad in a lemon halter dress of fine chiffon.  Men commune in togas around the drinking house doors – other women walk about in elegant slacks, light blousons, skirts and dresses of different hues.  There are still robes of course – they are everywhere – but there is room for variety, too.

With this in mind Alanee seeks out a little dress-maker’s emporium among the fashionable shops on the East side of the Grand Park where she commissions three outfits in her choice of fabrics and designs;  then, with her shopping hat jammed firmly over her ears, she launches into a minor frenzy of purchasing.  She is not without a plan – everything she orders will go towards the remodelling of her apartment – but it is the thrill of spending in a volume she could never have dreamed of, of running her fingers through soft silks, abundant satins, rich woollens, that enthuses her.  It is an orgy that continues long into the evening, and when she finally returns home she is exhausted by it.  Scarcely troubling to eat, she falls into a deep sleep.

She is dreaming of a jungle, thick undergrowth tangled around her arms and legs: she launches forward, striving against her bonds.   Birds screech in the canopy, snakes hiss and slither about her feet, great bugs squat, shiny black, upon the trunk of every tree.  An odour of decay, a sweet death-smell clings to her throat and clogs her breathing.  She must go on, she must never turn because what follows her, she knows, is worse than in front.  It is dark, becoming darker.  Tired, so tired.  The light is dying in her soul.

She will not hear the cougar:  suddenly it is there!  It crouches on a tree bough within a leap of her head; long teeth yellow and dripping, crimson hate-eyes glowering.  It wants her, it will spring!

A bow is in her hands.  An arrow is drawn.  Pull!  Pull until the string hums, until her arms have no strength left to pull.  Let it snap!  Hear the hiss of the flight, the spit of death!  See it, the hate-thing, as it springs, see its claws flash towards her face:  hear her arrow’s cleaving thud – the gasp of failing breath, the bubbling  black blood from a ruptured heart – and see it fall.

Alanee awakes in her own echo, knowing she has screamed.  Perspiration drenches her, hair wet, clinging to her scalp, the silk of her shift clammy on her skin.  Why is Dag’s image in her head?  She must pause to grieve for him, though she did not know him well.  Someone has to be there to remember, her mother had told her, the week after Kalna-meh, her man, was taken from the earth.  That is what death really is; the journey from life into memory.

Her summoner tells her it is two in the morning.  Reminding herself that she has no way of knowing what family Dag might have to mourn him, she rises, throws the sweat-laden shift from her, and goes to her rest-place to bathe.   

A time-zone away Alanee’s home village, Balkinvel, is waking.  Shellan, her friend of many years, rises from her bed, shaking her husband’s shoulder into the world while she prepares for the Makar’s call.  She stands, as Alanee once did, on her back porch, tsakal between her palms to warm them, watching the hot sun rise over the Southern Hills.  The front door will slam as her man goes for his work – he is an agrarian, a worker of the land, and it is the time of sowing – when he has left, she will dress for work at the Terminal.

And all seems well – except that it is not.

As she dresses, Shellan avoids her mirror, for she knows what she would see.  Old Malfis, the bell-ringer; what hidden talents did he display, when he made the iron masks for all the village? The village men queuing up to take one, and her man, Shellan-meh, among the first.  She probes her face with reluctant finger-tips for wounds that have not healed, places where the spikes pressed home:  at least her eyes were spared.  Shellan knows how they must look.

The Makar’s call draws her to her door, Mak-card in hand.  The little man does not meet her stare, has no remark, no word.  He takes her card in silence, withdraws.  In the street, the migration to work has begun; the lame, wounded, disfigured women, making their way to the Terminal. Shellan, as one of the few with sight, leads a train of those less fortunate than she.  Malfis, a man with agony inside, watches as they pass.  How could he have done all this, yet still suffer the appetites he has?

They are fewer, these women.  They limp with damaged ankles and they massage livid, itching wrists compulsively as they walk.  They do not speak, either to old Malfis or among themselves – they dare not, lest they share the thoughts that ferment inside their heads.  A sharp breeze finds its way through the gap in the street where Alanee’s house once stood, ruffling unkempt hair, scratching unhealed skin with the Hakaan Plain’s red, unforgiving dust.  Here, where Carla walked, there will be a new manager now.  Here was Merra’s sister’s place before her man drove a spike through her brain.  They, with a dozen more, were buried in the dead-field last night-fall.  Namma alone lies unburied.  When her body was examined she was found to be pregnant, and that is a damning sin.  She will be exposed for the crows on the Terminal roof come evening.

This breeze can never again freshen heads clouded by fear, hearts besieged by doubt.  No-one who returns to their home tonight will go without turning to listen or watch as a little party of elders bear Namma to her rest, and no-one goes through their door to face their man without some measure of dread.  There will be no honey-cakes for tea.

#

Dag’s mind is wandering now, his pain dulled by the narcosis of hunger, he hovers in time.  Is it day or night?  There are raindrops on his lips which he drinks, though not knowingly.  He can then feel the roughness of the tree-bough upon which he lies, the stub of a minor branch in his back, probably impaling him, certainly keeping him from the terminal agony of a fall.  He can remember that somehow he hauled himself here, driven by a survival instinct he did not know he possessed, in the belief that the tree would keep him safe through the night.

He drifts.

His music.  He is dancing.  It is Celebration Dawn and he is dancing.  And she – the woman – what was her name?  She is opposite him, and she is going through her moves, following the choreography of attraction – hair about her shoulders, slow undulation of hips, arched back, fluid beneath a shift of thin, clinging blue; but she is bored, disinterested….at any moment she will move away, find another partner…

His eyes open sharply.  Dag is back, the pain is back, the present is back.  The memories are back.

Last night, when he thought to have been safe; after the anguish of labouring for an hour against his failing strength and the fire inside him; lying exhausted here, still no more than two metres above the ground, he had dropped into unconsciousness or sleep.

What slight movement, then, had stirred him?  When did he know he was not alone on that bough, that something large and heavy, with flaring red eyes and hot scentless breath shared it with him?

Wood is a tensile, living thing.  He can feel it flex and bend beneath another’s weight.  He felt it then, knew the creature behind those eyes was coiled to spring.  Moving his head he saw it, too, saw the fangs in the light of an unkind moon.  Fumbling for his knife: wet cloth of his pocket clinging to him, stopping him from drawing it cleanly, and the creature back on its haunches, front paws with their raking talons raised.  The bouncing release of the branch as it leapt – the end?

The merciful, the inevitable end?

A hiss and a thud:  reverberation of a taut string.  A great bestial yowl as an arrow took the life from the monster so powerfully and decisively it twisted back upon itself in mid-flight, then the brush of its flank as it crashed past him into the undergrowth below: sounds of brief convulsive moments on the journey to an afterlife, then stillness.

Trapped by his pain, Dag could only move his head enough to catch a glimpse of his saviour, the incongruous soldier figure at the foot of the tree.  By moonlight it was only possible to see an outline; epaulettes of a uniform, the bow that had delivered the arrow.  He had no voice for his gratitude and it seemed his saviour wanted none, for he turned and marched away with the stumbling ungainliness of a string puppet, the sounds of his blundering and crashing progress diminishing into the night.

And now it is morning.  He cannot move, or clamber from the tree: he cannot eat.  All Dag can do is stare up into the canopy and the grey skies beyond, listening to the roar of the river, the songs of the birds.  Everything around him is eternal.  Soon he too, will be a part of that eternity.

#

Alanee’s summoner drags her from a fitful sleep.  It is Sala.

“Alanee-ba.  Come and watch the Spring Rising!”

“The what?”

Still little more than half awake, she greets Sala at her door.

“Come on, ba, get dressed,”  Sala gives her a perfunctory hug, kisses her cheek.  “We must hurry, or someone will pinch our place at Toccata’s.”

Despite the hour (the sun has not yet risen) the corridors, the avenues, the squares of the City all seethe with a sort of industrial hum as people bustle to and fro in determined mood, their faces set between purpose and joy.  Passing couples fizz with expectant dialogue, muttered, earnest words which betray serious concerns.  In the Grand Park a screen has been raised, and comic short films are being shown to entertain a gathering crowd.

Sala explains:  “This is a very important time for the City.  The sunrise this morning is considered a prophecy for the year to come:  all the younger ones will turn out to watch.  It’s quite an event, if only because we never know when to expect it!  It is really early this year, Alanee-bah.  I’m not sure if that is a good sign or a bad one.”

“How do you know when it’s coming?”

“The temperature.  Last night the land did not freeze – the snow began to melt.  The Balna is almost in flood, apparently.   Oh, don’t worry!”  Sala says when she sees Alanee’s look of concern:  “It’s the same every year!”

They discover Toccata amidst a small riot of importunate clients.  He is beside himself and looking almost dishevelled:  “Oh darlings, you’re here!  Such relief!  I am being mobbed, my dears; mobbed!  At this Habbach-forsaken hour – I ask you!  Come quickly now – I kept you your seats, aren’t I a sweetie?”

They follow as he minces at speed among the curtained booths:  this place is as wired as anywhere in the City – there are burbling conversations from every direction and Alanee wonders how many covers Toccata can cram in.

“It’s much larger than it looks.”  Sala confides as they settle themselves before their window.  “I don’t know how he does it.”

Tsakal arrives, with perl chasers (Alanee’s tastes are growing in their sophistication), as promptly as ever.  Beyond the window the world is still in darkness, though a ribbon of blue lies across the distant mountains, harbinger of a rising sun.

Alanee tells of her nightmare.  “Really strange.  That terrible creature!  Somehow I know it had something to do with this aerotran pilot – the one who brought me here?  Dag his name was.  I don’t know why I dreamed of him, I really don’t know him very well at all.”

Sala looks grave.  “Dreams at a time of prophecy have great meanings, ba.  Dag Svenner, would it have been?  He’s missing, you know.  His aerotran crashed somewhere in Dometia.”

“Oh, he’s dead, I know.  I was sorry when I was told.  How did you hear about him?”

“The whole of the lower city is a-buzz with the story.  Something very odd is going on in Dometia, though nobody will say what it is.  I think I met Dag Svenner once at a party on the West Side.  Very handsome – a nice man.  You have good tastes, my ba.”

There is a reproachful note to Sala’s voice Alanee cannot miss.  She sips tsakal from her cup for a moment, then says, half to herself:  “It isn’t you, Sala-ba.  It honestly is not.  You are my friend, maybe the best friend I have had in all my life.  But I think I know now what laskali is, and I don’t think it is for me.”

Sala reaches over to clasp her hand.  “I do see that, Alanee.  I do.  Please, don’t be afraid of hurting me?  Love doesn’t always travel the same road.”  She pauses, unless a catch in her throat should give her away.  “Anyway, Dag is quite exceptional.  He would make a good coupling for you.”

“Well, he would.”  Alanee allows herself a cynical laugh:  “Being dead is a bit of a problem, though.”

“If he is.”

“If?”  Alanee’s heart misses several beats.

“He’s listed missing, not dead.  They discovered the wreck of his aerotran in a ravine, but he wasn’t inside it.  They’ve been looking for him – quite hard, as it happens: unusually hard.  Some ration wrappers were found, but then the trail went cold.  How do I know that?  Well, yesterday I was in the company of another rather nice man, the aerotran controller for the eastern sector.  I’m not a complete laskal, you see!”

“He’s alive!”  Alanee does not mean to let her face light up so obviously.

Sala laughs.  “So you are just a tiny bit interested?  I didn’t say he was alive, only that he wasn’t killed by the crash.  That was three days ago now, nearly four.  He could have been injured badly, in which case he wouldn’t survive long out there.  The place isn’t exactly hospitable.  This guy doesn’t hold out much hope.”

“Just how well do you know this aerotran controller?

“Somewhat better after last night – that’s all I’m prepared to say.”  Sala grins conspiratorially:  “Except perhaps that his areas of expertise are not entirely confined to aerotrans.”

“Can you find out more for me, I mean, like where he crashed?  I would like to know.”

“Darling, you’re asking me to lengthen what ought to be a blissful but brief relationship.  I’ll do what I can.  Still, now!  Dawn is coming!”

Both women direct their attention to the glass and the drama that lies beyond.  For between two eastern mountain peaks the sun’s livid hemisphere is creeping into view, scoring its first rays with a draughtsman’s certainty straight to the windows of the Consensual City.  In minutes a dawn mist cloaking the Balna valley is painted scarlet, within which the spectral silhouettes of treetops amid and beyond the gardens; elegantly dressed spruce, naked elm, plane, lime, slivers of acer and rowan spell out a message of Cyrillic mystery.  Finally the sun, fully risen, draws aside the curtains of mist to find the virgin snow of the meadows, painting them with a delicate blush.  The message here is brilliant and unmistakeable, for all who wait for new birth.  As it climbs higher above the mountains this bold sun declares its colours, shines through melting sheaths of ice that case each branch and twig, wakens the sap in everything that has hope enough to grow.  The sky is clear and, as yet, remains the ice-blue of winter.  But a warm prescription for the coming day is written upon it, and – not for the first time this morning – Alanee’s heart is filled with optimism.

Together the friends watch the coming; they do not speak.  They do not speak until the sun is too bright for their eyes, until their faces feel its touch upon them.  Then a consensual murmur of mutual relief rises among all of Toccata’s clients, and at last Sala can trust herself to pronounce the prophecy; “It is a good year.  Oh, Alanee-ba, it will be a wonderful summer!”  Her face is almost as radiant as the light itself.  “Celebrations!  Come on!”

“Celebrations?”

“Yes, yes, yes!  Drink up now and hurry, the party will be starting already!”

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo credit: Janosch Diggelman on Unsplash