Continuum – Episode Twenty-Five: Apparition

In the last episode:

Alanee, now officially the city’s Seer, is introduced to Cassix’s old apartment, and its peculiar array of wooden structures, artefacts, and mirrors.  She is sad to discover how her promotion has altered her relationship with Sala, who makes it plain she must act as Ellar’s eyes and ears.   In the midst of her depression, Celeris visits her, raising her mood, and they spend the night together.

Meanwhile, beside a river far away…

Dag Swenner’s body is healing well; a heat that spreads within him brings balm to each organ and limb, making each torn place whole, as though by needle and thread it is stitching him back together.  Although he was on the brink of death, by some mechanism he cannot understand he is no longer dying:  He has felt stronger, true, but minute by minute his vitality grows.

The stench has been intensifying, drifting upriver on the wind for more than a mile now, so the discovery of Ripero’s remains, though hardly recognisable from the scavengers’ touch, comes as no surprise to Dag.  His first instinct would be to seek a burial place, but here among rocks and tree-roots, lacking any appropriate tools, he would find none:  so he comforts himself with the evidence that Nature will take his rescuer to herself.  All he can offer is a prayer for a soul already departed and this he does. He clambers by, greeting the new air thankfully.

Beyond the river bend the valley widens, where hills to either side sweep back, and tree cover is forest no more, but tranquil woodland.  There is no tread of civilisation yet, but Dag expects it will not be long before he finds ground given to fields, a trodden path, the creatures of domesticity:  he wonders then what sort of welcome awaits him – whether those who slaughtered the Dometians on the plain are intent upon his death, too.  Whose company may he safely seek?

#

Alanee’s disappointment at waking to find Celeris’s space in her bed unoccupied is brief:  after all, he was with her into sleep and she is sure he honoured his promise.  She has slept late upon her draught of paia and loving contentment – now there are the challenges of a day to be met.

Tsakal in hand, she taps out the bookseller’s number on her summoner.  He sounds chagrined.  “Lady, you are a hard task-master.  Yes, it is ready, but the glues must dry and the lock must be added.  I shall have it completed by three.”

“Very well – thank you.  Please place it in a plain box, then wrap it and have it sent up to the Seer’s chambers.  No-one must open the wrapping or discover what is inside.  I want it as a surprise for my coupling.”  She knows this last excuse sounds lame, but she despises the need for artifice and is beginning to be careless of it.  Besides, with Celeris so fresh in her thoughts, Hasuga’s schemes have suffered something of an eclipse.

Thus, with the matter of the faked book in hand, Alanee has time to reflect upon her night with Celeris.  The warmth of his memory remains with her:  his way of touching her, his consummate skill as a lover – how quickly he has learnt!    A door chime disturbs her reverie.  Sala stands outside.

“Are you going to admit me this time?” 

“Yes, I’m sorry.  Do come in, ba.”  Alanee adds, defensively,  “He isn’t here.”

Sala nods, dourly,  “I know he isn’t.”

“You know?  You saw him leave?  I thought we agreed there were no cameras in here!”

“There are none in the chambers.  But there are several in the corridor outside and one cannot move about the upper levels without surveillance. That’s nothing new – simply the way it’s always been.”

“I see.  What time did he go?  I wasn’t awake.”

Sala is looking at her curiously, as if she is trying to apply reason to something that doesn’t quite fit.  All the evidence before her is of a woman who has passed a night with a man; and yet….

“He hasn’t left.  He hasn’t left because he never came.”

Why does the cheap response in Alanee’s head make her want to smile?  She avoids it.  “Well, I’m sorry you missed him then…”

“I reviewed the surveillance after you turned me away and again this morning.”  Sala puts her hands on Alanee’s shoulders; “Shortly after I left yesterday, you came to the door again.  You opened it, but you did not step outside.  You shut it.  Later, drabs came – to clean for you, I assume.  They left two hours before midnight.  Meantime you had food delivered from the Caldeg Restaurant down the corridor.  Then I came to see where you were and you shut the door in my face.  No-one else has been here, and nobody has left.  I’m the first one through that door since the drabs left you last night.”  Sala exhales, as though she has expended all the breath in her body.  “Now I’ll have a cup of your tsakal.”

Alanee cannot resolve the confusion in her mind.  In the kitchen, she stumbles around clumsily as she puts the tsakal together, unable to think.

“That can’t be,”  She protests:  “Celeris was here.”

“Alanee!  The truth?”

“Why would I lie to you?  He must have some way – he must be able to deflect the cameras. The drabs: ask the drabs:  they saw him here.  The food delivery man; ask him.”

“Yes, we did ask him.  You accepted the food at your door:  he saw no-one else.”

“But Celeris was standing right behind me…”

“As for the drabs, there is something odd there, I admit.  They were all personal servants of Sire Hasuga, not normally the grade of worker assigned to cleaning duties.”

“Did you ask them?”

“We can’t.  They’re nowhere to be found.”

“What?”

“They’re Sire Hasuga’s own complement, so he may dispose of them as he wants.  He seems to have – well – disposed of them.  We can’t track them down anywhere in the city.”

In Alanee’s mind there is a truth too awful to contemplate.  She is so preoccupied she fails to notice how Sala’s pallor, as she stands in the doorway facing her, has changed.  She does not see the mediator’s colour drain from her cheeks, or her wide, disbelieving stare.

A soft voice speaks from behind her left shoulder.

“You see me now.” 

For a second time in a day, Sala’s self-assurance fails her, as a young nobleman, dressed in all the formal regalia of the city, materialises from empty air.  At just this moment Alanee realises how she has brought Celeris to her: she, and someone else.  And that someone….

“It is you, isn’t it?”  She says.

Celeris answers:  “You already knew that.”

“A hologram!”  Sala snaps triumphantly.  “A bloody hologram!”

Celeris smiles.  He takes the cup of tsakal Alanee has prepared and brings it to Sala.  He offers it to her shaking hand, and when she seems about to drop it he closes his own hands around hers, steadying her.

“Can a hologram do this?”

Agape, Sala cannot speak.  She cannot look at him.  She sinks back against the jamb of the door, trying to find her legs.

Alanee says, quietly and levelly:  “Sala ba; greet Hasuga in one of his more attractive disguises.  He also does a Music Man, if you’ve ever met one of those?”  And of the beautiful man, she asks, stone-faced:   “How did this happen?” 

“You thought of me.  You are troubled.”

“I make you appear?”

Celeris’s smile is suddenly quite child-like. “You and I, together.  Part of me may be Hasuga, but Celeris is how you prefer to see me, so I am partly you.”

 “You found your way – into my mind?”

“We both knew it would be so.  Lady, I am The City.   No-one is immune, not even you.”

 “And so,”  Alanee voice trembles:  “You can turn my own mind against me?  You can just use me?  You can do that and I will just lie there and…and….you can violate me and nothing can stop you?  You can make flesh that isn’t real?”

“I am real enough.  You could have rejected me.  You did not.”

“This morning, you deviant, I was debating in my head how I might be in love – in love – with you!”  She spits out her words:  “You made me love a fake, you bastard.  From the fake bloody music in my head to the tailored-to-fit body to the marvellous bloody mind – all fake, fake, fake!

She hurls the tsakal cup that she has made for herself.  Celeris catches it calmly.  “You would not accept me in Hasuga’s body.  You are uncomfortable with that.  This body is defined by the image in your mind.  You chose it.  Do you know that for each of my thousands of years I have never once thought how my body must look, until these last two cycles?  Do you know how it feels to experience so many new sensations?”

Sala – where is Sala?  She has retreated.  She sits upon the edge of Alanee’s bed amid the ruck of unmade linen with head in hands.

In her kitchen Alanee is in full spate, somewhere between fury and bitterness, mortification and pure depthless misery:  “Oh!  And I’m meant to sympathise, am I?  I’m meant to understand?  Suppose all I see is the spoilt brat who gets what he wants? Who always gets what he wants?  A spotty adolescent who plies my heart with tricks because he can and because it doesn’t matter to him – I’m just another ‘good game’.”

Out of breath, Alanee has to pause, clutching at herself to squash the emptiness inside.  After all, how can you teach propriety to a child who has been pampered and spoilt for millennia?  Where do you begin?

The dark-eyed figure is of Celeris, but the words are clearly Hasuga’s.  He asks, without artifice:  “I have done wrong?”

Alanee replies in crystals of ice.  “I think that’s been the essence of the conversation so far, don’t you?  Hasuga, you deceived me!  You made me believe I could become close to someone again.”

“As in ‘love’?  That is some special thing?  My Mother often spoke of it.”

“No.  Not that kind of love.  Adult love;  mature love.”  Oh why is she explaining this?  What on earth difference can it make?

“Procreation, then?  That I understand.”  Something in his reply does not balance with the unfeeling expression on his face.  Alanee sees it.  Has she struck a chord at last?

“You know it’s more than that.”

But he shakes his head and turns away.  Perhaps to hide some manifestation of guilt, though Alanee cannot know it, and the moment, as so many of the great moments in her life since she entered The City, passes

Her fury has calmed, leaving a cavernous rancour in its wake.  She is probing through darkness she experienced once, three years ago, and which she had wished never to revisit.  Now it is here, closing around her, such that she cannot avoid the bitter edge in her voice.  “Well, at least Sala’s convinced of your veracity now, and she’ll not keep the information to herself.  How are we going to explain that away to my enemies in The City, Hasuga?”

“I am not Hasuga.”  Celeris insists.  “Hasuga is separate from me.  I am a creation of you and Hasuga together.  Hasuga may speak through me, and you may speak to Hasuga the same way, but we are not the same physical entity.”

“Somehow that seems to make very little difference.”

“Very well.  Sala will not remember me when she leaves here.  The memory remains yours alone.”  Celeris takes Alanee’s hand.  She snatches it away.

“Don’t touch me!”

“Is touching so abhorrent?”  He frowns.  “As you will.  This message, Alanee, does come from Hasuga.  You must bring him the book.  The matter is urgent.  If you do not believe this, see as only you can see.  Look at the sky.”

“The book!  The book!  All that matters, then, is that I bring him this book that he is not supposed to read.  If you can materialise as real people and blank Sala’s memory for her, why for Habbach’s sake do you need me to fetch your bloody book for you?  You can dream up a High Councillor to just walk into the Inner Library and take the thing, can’t you?  Or an army?  Why not an army?  You like war games, it should be simple for you!”

“No, not simple.  You, Alanee; you alone must bring that book to Hasuga.  When you do it, you will understand.”

Alanee says dully:  “There is nothing I understand any more.  Tell him…you…whichever you are, I’ll get the book.  As for Celeris, I’d like him to leave now.  I don’t want to see him again.”

She turns her back on him, unable to look at his innocent expression for another second.  When she turns again, he is gone. Inside her head, though, his image remains:  is it also still inside her heart?

She discovers Sala in her bedroom, seated on her bed.  She feels compassion for the woman who was briefly her friend, although she believes she may never cross the wasteland that separates them again, because Sala is clearly ruined in spirit.  Her incomprehension of what has passed haunts every word she speaks.

“Who – what was that?  Man, machine, what?   Have I just seen Habbach come to earth, Alanee?  Is that what I just saw?  I mean…”  She spreads her hands, lost for speech.

“You met with Hasuga, or a least a part of him.”  Alanee sits beside her, taking her cold hands in her own.  “Sala-ba, when you walk away from here you’ll leave the pain behind, but maybe, I don’t know, you’ll see how things are.  How they must be.  Maybe that, if you can retain it somewhere, will be just enough to persuade you to think better of me.  That’s all I can hope.”

Sala inclines her head, takes her hands away.  The distance is restored.  “My life is simple, Lady Alanee.  There are things I do not want to see.”

Sadness upon sadness, then.  Alanee nods, helps her rise, sees her to the door of the chambers.  There she stands to watch Sala walk away, wondering if Celeris’s promise can possibly come true:  after all she has heard and seen, will Sala remember nothing?

Left alone, she goes to the kitchen, needing the distraction of some functional thing to dissociate from thoughts that are not welcome, places in her mind she feels she may not go.  So she makes tsakal for herself, cleaning up the mess she created when she threw her original drink at Celeris, preparing xuss bread even though she has no appetite, and nibbling at it as if it were a comforter.  She makes her bed with fresh linen, takes the sheets she shared with Celeris into the kitchen.  There, she drinks her drink and she contemplates the soiled linen for a while, as though it might give her answers to those elusive questions loitering outside the gates of her consciousness.  Then she takes a knife and shreds the sheets methodically.

Returning to the forbidding, unfriendly reception room she ponders that silver orb upon its stand before the window.

‘Think of it as a sort of exercise for the psyche.’ Celeris had told her:  when she had commented on its extreme weight, he had said, ‘Not for you’.   But whose words are whose, now?  Are they her own, from some inner ear?  She does not want to go there:  instead, she sits before the ball upon one of those unyielding chairs.  She thinks of the Book of Lore at its station in the Council Room: how, merely for interest while Portis and Ellar were talking, she raised it from the surface of the table with just the power of her thoughts, then lowered it again.

“So now you.”

Without any particular effort of concentration, she makes the orb rise from its stand.  It hangs, suspended, as if waiting for her command.

“Easy.  Too easy.”  

Now she focuses her thoughts upon it.  She makes it spin.  Gaining in confidence, she moves it laterally, away from its resting place, across the room.  This is more difficult, as though some relationship exists between ball and stand that may not be easily severed, but she finds a thought – resentment of the misfortunes of the past hours – that releases it.  Of a sudden it flies, leaping high into the ceiling of the room, darting towards the window.

“Whoa!”  Alarmed, she shoots out a defending hand, making the orb stop instantly.  Another discovery:  the hand is a sensitive, precise tool; by pointing at the orb, she can make it obey.  Alanee guides it back to its stand and as it settles, the wood flexes beneath its weight.  Still she cannot believe what she has done.  She wraps her arms about the orb, tries to lift it physically.  It will not move.

“Was that me or you?”  She pokes the question at empty air, but she knows Hasuga will answer.  He does.

“It was you.”

The voice is so close, so immediate she glances around, convinced that Celeris has returned.  The voice, though, is unmistakeably Hasuga’s.  “You are here?  Where are you?”

“Wherever you want me to be.  We need not share the same room in order to communicate.”

It dawns upon Alanee that Hasuga’s replies do not come to her through her sense of hearing.  She says aloud.  “So now I can move things with my mind?”

“Telekinesis; a cheap party trick.  Nevertheless it took Cassix twenty years to achieve a fraction of your success.  That is just a beginning.”

“Oh, yes.  A beginning?  Where is this going Hasuga?  Am I learning from you, or are you controlling me?  Like the book in the Council Chamber?”

“You are learning.  I told you I had given you power, didn’t I?  Now you are gaining the knowledge you need to use your power.  Meanwhile I am learning from you.  You can have no idea how much I have to learn; or how little time there is to learn it.”

“Why such an obsession with time?”  Alanee, from the Hakaan, has never been disposed to rush.

“Look at the sky, Alanee.”

“I’m looking at it!  I’m just seeing sky.”  The view from the window is of grey cloud.  There are rain-flecks on the glass.

“Look in the mirrors.  Gain their trust.  I must leave you now.”

The feeling is of a switch being thrown inside her head.  Suddenly she is alone and aware of it, left with the room’s cold echoes.  The walls rise about her like the damp rock flanks of a deep chasm, a fissure in the construction of the City.  She might even imagine the scent of moss, or the rhythm of dripping water.

Freedom of choice; if she really has power she has the strength to step aside from the path they, Hasuga, the High council, Sala, even Cassix would have her follow.  She stares at the triptych of mirrors.  With great deliberation, she turns her back.

© 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.

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.

Hallbury Summer – Episode Sixteen.   The Cuckoo’s Child

The story so far:

Joe’s experience at the hands of the ‘witches’ and the vandalism of the village church convince him that his brother Michael is involved.  When he tries to see Michael he is told he has been removed from Maddockgate hospital.  His aunt and uncle admit that Ian, his eldest brother, has been financing Michael’s care.

Emma visits Joe and it is clear that she is tormented by her feelings for him.  It shocks her to learn how openly he has been questioning the village matrons and she urges him once more to move away from Hallbury. 

After Emma’s departure Joe could not drive her from his thoughts.  He saw her face, heard her voice, even imagined he still held  the hand that had taken his.  It needed the telephone’s blare to bring him into focus.

“Joseph?”  His brother Ian’s voice was formal, “I need to talk to you.”

“And I to you.”  Joe said. “So who goes first?”

“Neither of us, right now.  Pay attention.  I’m staying at The Bull in Braunston.   There’s a car coming for you in half an hour.  Be ready.”

The receiver was replaced before Joe could protest.

Precisely thirty minutes later a black Bentley drew up to the Masefield’s’ front gate.  Alfred, Ian’s personal chauffeur, greeted Joe amiably and held the door for him to climb into the back, then wheezed himself into the driving seat.  As the limousine glided into silent motion, Joe treated neighbour Bess Andrews to a regal wave.    She made no attempt to disguise her curiosity.

“Is this supposed to be low profile, by any chance?”  He asked Alf; “Because if it is, it’s failing dismally.”

Watching the miles slip by, Joe recounted to himself all he knew of Ian’s meteoric rise to prominence, concerning which there were many unanswered questions.  How, for example, did Ian the graduate become successful in so short a time – little more than five years after leaving Oxford he was managing director of his own importing company, with a six-figure turnover and connections in the City.  Ian maintained a story which left certain very fundamental details out.  There were always questions about him, only ever answers to a select few.  Of all the things Joe had learned about London he knew the City did not like ‘upstarts’; it was inherently suspicious of anyone who rose quickly in the system.  Why was Ian so readily accepted?  Yes, he had the gift; everything about him made you want to trust him, to invest in him, to buy from him:  but Joe knew better.  The Ian he had grown up with was far from trustworthy, and he could not believe that those whose perspicuity had brought them wealth would have the wool pulled so easily over their eyes.

One aspect of Ian’s nature could not be questioned – especially now Joseph had learned how generously he financed Michael’s care.  Ian was supportive that night when Joe, suitcases in hand and with the memory of Marian’s dead body in his arms, had knocked upon his regal Hampstead door.

Caroline had answered.  “Joseph.  What do you want?”  (As if that was not obvious).

Caroline was tall – a reed of womanhood who had come to Ian’s bed by a process of very careful selection.  She was of good Home Counties stock, intelligent, and with the sort of fragile looks that transcend any social finesse.  She was also as hard as nails, and, when she chose, devastatingly rude.  That night, dressed carelessly in jeans and sloppy sweater, she still contrived to appear as though she had just completed a fashion shoot.  She looked disparagingly at Joe’s suitcases.

“I suppose you had better bring those inside.”

Ian’s house was a nineteen twenty’s villa in the ‘Deco’ style, its central hallway surrounded by doors to living and dining rooms, a study, games room and kitchen.  Stairs wound up to a mezzanine and bedrooms, then a further flight to a solarium, gymnasium, and roof.

Joe stood on the polished parquet, wondering if he was visibly shaking.   “I’m sorry, I know I’m not observing the proprieties….”

Caroline cut him short. “Joseph, where proprieties are concerned, I don’t think you have a clue.”  She opened the door of the study:  “Ian, that disgusting brother of yours is here.  What do you want to do with him?”

Ian had emerged, dark hair tightly brushed and looking as he always did – irritated.  He saw the suitcases.  “No.”  He said abruptly.

“Ian, I wouldn’t ask, but…”

“You’ve been evicted again.  Joe, I can’t just keep putting you up at a moment’s notice whenever you decide to stop paying your rent.”

“No, Ian, I haven’t been evicted.  But there are reasons I’ve nowhere to stay tonight…”

Ian glared.  “Oh, all right.”  Caroline gasped as if wounded.  “You can sleep in the solarium.  But tomorrow….”

“I’ll look for somewhere else.  I promise.” Joe said.

He had stayed for a month.

When his brother revealed he had reserved a room in The Bull, Joseph had been mildly surprised.  The Mansion House Hotel was Braunston’s finest, and he might have expected the status-conscious Ian to have put up there.  The Bull was a little old-fashioned, advertised as ‘homely and unpretentious’.  Caroline would have been more scathing.

Alf conducted him directly to Ian’s room on the second floor.

In sampling from the Palliser gene pool Ian, it was often said, had taken more than his fair share of his mother’s genes and very few of his father’s.  In looks, in manners, even in intellect, he was arguably superior to either of his siblings.  This is not to say that he was perfect, far from it; he was prone to petty dishonesty, was certainly inclined towards arrogance, and from the age of thirteen had done all he could to disassociate himself from what he perceived to be the dysfunctional Palliser clan.

The Ian Joe expected to greet him was the Ian whose hospitality he had abused just a few weeks before, but there were subtle differences.  He was as irascible as ever, yes – Ian had always been, in Joseph’s recollection, short-tempered; but he was tired, too; fractious, rather than strident.

“Drink?”  He was seated at a desk overloaded with documents.  He waved perfunctorily at the mini-bar.

“Yes, please.  Scotch would be good.”

“Help yourself,”  Ian grunted.  He slapped his pen down onto the desk – he had been writing something as Joseph entered the room, “This is for you, Joe.”

He spun a cheque-book across the room so that as Joe sat on the edge of the bed it almost landed in his lap.  Joe caught it before it fell to the floor.  “Throwing your money around, Ian?  That’s not like you.”

“Open and read.”

Joe did.  The freshly-written scrawl stared up at him from the page:  ‘Pay to the Order of Joseph Palliser the sum of Five Thousand Pounds’:  “What’s this?”

“It is part of a package.  A fairly minor part, actually:  other elements include a first-class ticket on Brittany Ferries to France, a little villa near Dinan (you’ll like it there), and a hire car for as long as you want.”

Had Joe’s jaw dropped open?  “My god, Ian, I know I deserve a holiday, but…..”

Ian gave a passable imitation of a smile:  “Brittany in summer: very beautiful, I assure you.”

“And the catch is…?”

“No catch.  Just remain silent.  Telephone no-one; write to no-one for a couple of months.   Then you can spill your heart out and you can come home, though I’d much prefer if you stayed away from London, for Caroline’s sake.”

In truth the penny had dropped two conversational exchanges ago, but Joe had wanted to run with it, see where it led.  He got to his feet, crossing to a window which overlooked the hotel courtyard, which was just busying up for the evening trade.

This made Ian edgy:  “Could you keep back from the window?”

“Someone’s onto you, aren’t they?  Found out about those depraved orgies in Pimlico?  You want me out of the way until the election is over.”

His brother sighed indulgently.  “There are no orgies, Joe; of course you know that, don’t you?  You always like to provoke me.  But you are right in one respect: I do want you somewhere you can’t readily be found.”

“Why, what have I done?”

“What you always do, Joe.  You stir up trouble:  you are trouble!  I seem to spend an inordinate proportion of my life covering your mistakes; first London and that nymphomaniac sugar-mummy of yours, and now a crusade to obstruct investigations around a murder at home.  I don’t need a Poirot in the family right now, or a gigolo.”

Joseph winced at having this sobriquet attributed to him a second time.  “Or a madman?”  He suggested.

“Yes, well:  I assume you refer to Michael, and that’s another issue.”

“It’s the issue I wanted to talk to you about.  I take it you’ve spirited him away for similar reasons?  We’re just closet skeletons to you, aren’t we?”  He had stopped beside the desk, standing over his brother.

Ian chose his words.  “If you hear from Michael, you’re to let me know as soon as you can.  Okay?”

“So he’s not completely incommunicado, then?  He can smuggle messages out through the bars?”

“He’s gone.”

“What?”

Ian shifted uncomfortably.  “I made arrangements for him to transfer to a very nice, comfortable home in South Wales where he could be, shall we say, closely supervised?  He never arrived.”

“Oh, my Lord!”  Joe unwittingly borrowed Emma’s favourite exclamation.  “Whatever will you do now, Ian?  An election imminent and an insane brother on the loose, ready to tell all!  I should say I’m the least of your troubles!”

Ian sighed.  “I knew this wouldn’t be pleasant.  See here, Joe; all I want is an easy ride into Parliament.  This country is about to get itself a new leader, I think a great leader, and he’s specially requesting that I be by his side.  He wants me for a very important job, Joe, and I want to do it!

“Now, Michael is something I will take care of:  please, just take that cheque – your tickets are waiting at the ferry port, Alfred will give you an envelope with the other details on the way home.  The boat sails tomorrow at ten.”

“Twenty-four hours, huh?”

“More like eighteen.  Go home.  Pack.”

Joe stared at the cheque.  It was tempting: he could leave the torture of Emma, the suspicions of the village, and the dread result of that autopsy behind for a while.  He could renew acquaintance with his beloved France.  But was he simply running away again; failing to confront his problems?  What would happen to Jack Parkin, if no-one was there to champion his cause?

A knock at the door of Ian’s room interrupted his thoughts.

“Mr Chapman?”  Enquired a voice from outside; “There’s a message for you, sir. from your London office.”

Ian hustled to the door, opening it a crack, and the porter passed an envelope through.  Ian glanced briefly at the note it contained.

“I must get back.”  He said.  Joe was regarding him with some amusement.  “What is it, Joe?”

“Mr Chapman?”

“Yes, an assumed name; something I often do.  What of it?”

“Five thousand pounds!  So much money, just to put your brother out of the way for a few weeks!”  Joe tossed the cheque book back onto the desk.  “No.”

Ian’s shoulders slumped. He sat down on the edge of his bed with a world-weary sigh:  “Why ever not?”

“Because I’m your brother, Ian.  Oh, I’m feeling guilty because you’ve been kind to me:  you gave me shelter – if a little grudgingly – and I’m unable to repay you.  But there’s a higher moral lesson here, because although you might be able to buy your way out of all kinds of problems, you should never try to buy off your own family!  Sorry.”

Joe slumped too.  He had just turned down a small fortune, something he did not know he was capable of doing.

Ian nodded, said at last:  “Very well.  I see that.  I’ll get Alfred to drive you home.”

Perplexed, Joe said, “A couple of days?  Let me think about it?”

“Afraid not.  It has to be now, or…”  Ian shrugged fatalistically.  “All right, the truth.  You’ll have to know, anyway.  You were correct; someone is ‘onto me’.  So far, the damage is limited to one reporter for one tabloid newspaper; unfortunately the one with the biggest circulation.  Head office is very good at detecting this kind of thing, and to a limited extent they can deal with any problems, but Michael?  I had to move him very quickly somewhere he couldn’t be found; otherwise who knows what he might have come up with?  He’s still as mad as a hatter, isn’t he?”

“He’s unwell,” Joe had to agree.  “And me?”  He asked.

“You.”  Ian got up, moving to the window, concealing himself by means of the curtain.  “Apparently, Joe, the same newshound has been chasing you all over London.”

“So that’s why I’m a problem?”

“I should say so.  Abysmal failure to make your own living, other than as a gi…”

“Don’t use that word again!”

“Alright, but how else do I describe someone who has spent the last several years being kept by a rich married woman?  A woman who dies, incidentally, in what her husband is claiming are suspicious circumstances. In other words, he thinks you murdered her.  You didn’t tell me about that, Joe, when you came asking for shelter that night.”

“I was desperate, Ian.  If I had you wouldn’t have let me in.  This reporter; why hasn’t he found me yet?  It isn’t as if I’ve been hiding.”

“Oh, he will,”  Ian assured him.  “You moved from London, so you dropped off his radar for a few days.  But he’s got your scent now, apparently.  I’m told he’s in this area.  Tomorrow, or the latest Wednesday, I should think.”  He turned back to his desk.  “He’s tied you to me, of course; hence the interest.”

“Hence twenty-four hours?  Sorry, eighteen.  So I’m escaping!  But did you seriously think a little old ditch like the English Channel would put him off?  Try Brazil!”

Joseph could not help but feel sympathy for his brother.  Ian’s air of resignation was foreign to his nature; a precursor, perhaps, of greater burdens to come.  This was a world-weary figure, tried by circumstances.  There was a haunted – no, a hunted look in his eyes and he, Joseph, was its miscreant cause.

“Let’s get our stories straight…”  He said.

Throughout his homeward journey Joseph had nothing to do but stare at Alf’s massive shoulders and dwell upon the matter of Michael’s whereabouts.   Somewhere out there was Ian’s real loose cannon, someone with the firepower to sink them all. Over these last few days and against his will Joe’s suspicions had been forming.  And the question that must follow was ‘Why?’

The day was not yet over.  One more shot remained to be fired.   At supper with his aunt and uncle he discovered why Dot Barker had not been among those gathered outside the church that morning.  Her husband Ned Barker, landlord of The King’s Head, had died the preceding night.

“How?”  Joe asked.

Owen raised an eyebrow:  “No idea, I’m afraid.  He was getting on a bit, wasn’t he?”

The King’s Head was closed until further notice.  The village’s social hub and the axis of its rumour mill was stilled.  Whatever secret Michael was so insistent Joe should elicit from Ned would go with the old publican to his grave.

On the following morning Joe kept an appointment to view the Lamb house.

He was unprepared for that house. Was it because he never had a roof of his own, but was always the cuckoo’s child, living where fortune next abandoned him, forever at risk from the night and the rain?  As he wandered through those empty rooms he felt as though he were turning handles to unopened doors in his life.  There was gladness, a warmth which reached out to embrace him.  In each bare room he already saw furniture placed as he would have it, carpets, colours of his choosing.  He saw a fire in the hearth and giving his fantasy wings, two people sitting before it.  He saw a bedroom he imagined she would like, a familiar smile of greeting, a dog stretched before the hearth.  It was a tour which might have stopped in the hallway, for in just that short acquaintance Joe knew he was born to be there.  All his reservations, all the petty hostilities and fears were cast aside.

“How much?”  He asked the agent.  The specification sheet quoted a price of four thousand pounds.

“As you see it.  Rather expensive, I’m afraid.  However, it is in a superior state of repair – really just ready to move into and I do believe the owner is looking for a quick sale, so…”

“So I’ll let you have an offer by tomorrow.”

At a ‘bus stand by St. Andrews’ desecrated church, Joe awaited the ‘bus that would take him, by a series of changes, to Wilton Bishop and his recently acquired car.  Aaron Pace was engrossed in the work of repairing the churchyard.

“Mind, I got some work to do ‘ere.”  He called over,  “Tidy this bugger up by tomorrow!  What do ‘ee think o’ that?”

Joe made sympathetic noises:  “Why tomorrow, Aaron?”

“Poor Violet!  We’m puttin’ ‘er under at last.  A’topsy, see?”

Joe wondered how appropriate it would be to lay Violet to rest in a Christian churchyard.  He concluded that Owen was right; that neither she nor her companion witches took their heathenism too seriously.  After all, hadn’t Violet customarily laundered ‘Vicar’s bliddy surplices’?

“Be you lookin’ at the Lamb’s ‘ouse?”  Aaron asked, drawing a cynical smile from Joe.  This village missed mothing.  Aaron stared down at his spade.  “See, you could be a brave man, or you could be a fool.  Not sure which.”

“Nor am I,”  Joe replied.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  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.