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.