Continuum – Episode Twenty-Four: The Seer’s Lair

Newly elected as Seer to The City, Alanee finds she is the target of popular dislike.  Pursued, she takes refuge in a book store where she orders a very specific book to be made.

Lady Ellar advises her she must move to Cassix’s old apartment in the Upper City.  Accompanied by Sala, she arrives at the door of her new home…

Alanee looks about her with eyes ready to believe almost anything; open-mindedness, after all, is usually the key to understanding.  Somehow though, in this instance, it is not.  Whatever she had imagined Cassix’s chambers might be, the world which admits her by an unassuming blue door is in every way outside her experience and challenges her acceptance of Cassix’s sanity, because it is so out of character.  How could she have expected, for instance, that the cavernous reception room’s severe walls of dressed stone would be strewn with graffiti taking the apparent form of mathematical equations, or that these would be linked by arrows and speech-bubbles in a language she does not recognise?   How should she explain the overall suits in strange white fabric hanging each side of a window which does nothing to blunt the room’s austerity, albeit commanding a fine view of the Balna Valley?  What could prepare her for the grim wooden shed-like structure with its intricately carved strings of acanthus and frieze of demonic figures that occupies so much space to her left? Like a room within a room, she thinks, yet lacking, despite a maze of knobs and panels, a door by which it may be entered? 

To her right a triptych of mirrors, each higher than wide, focuses on the window.  An image projector and behind that a chair face the mirrors; and behind the chair, though less than one-eighth their size, three further mirrors reflect partially their larger brethren, partly the wall on their left.  This wall is dominated by a large, perfectly circular, black metallic plate.

In the centre of the room a polished silver orb rests upon a stand of very dark wood.  In diameter this orb is almost half Alanee’s height, and as perfectly reflective as the mirrors, so wherever anyone moves within the room it picks up and distorts their image.  Two chairs made from tubular steel with hard red plastic seats flank its either side.

There is nothing here consistent with the incisive, clearly-spoken man Alanee met so briefly in life.  There is evidence of the constraints of age: the flagstone floor is littered with discarded papers, the tiny kitchen with stale or half-eaten food, and a small cold-room reveals unnamed horrors.  A  light gauze of dust veils everything.

Alanee expresses her thoughts in terms she has learned from Sala:  “Oh my dear!  I believe a little remodelling will be necessary.” She enters the bedroom, instructing two melancholy-looking drabs who have brought her personal effects.  “After you’ve cleaned this, fetch the bed and bedding from my apartment,” and she waves towards jumbled grey sheets on Cassix’s Spartan pallet.  “Throw that out, please.”

Sala, her eyes completely lacking their usual iridescence, merely looks on.  She has spoken little since she collected Alanee from her guarded apartment and led her, together with substantial sentries and a sad little entourage of dejected porters, to the secure elevators that allow privileged access to the upper city.  The ride up, and the struggle through less familiar corridors, was conducted in silence.

As soon as they are alone, Alanee asks:  “Sala-ba, whatever is the matter?”  Her friend is visibly trembling.

The reply is strangely subdued.  “Why, nothing, Lady.”

Lady?  Oh, Sala!”  Alanee would hug her, but Sala steps away.  “Ba?  Don’t you turn against me!  You must tell me!  What’s wrong?”

Sala avoids her gaze, speaking slowly and carefully:  “It has been made clear to me.  I did not realise the true extent of your eminence. I was foolish, mistaken; I had no idea.”

“Eminent, me?  Sala, they think I slept with him.  The Council are convinced I’m Hasuga’s whore!  Everyone believes I seduced Cassix to get this job!  Hardly the stuff of eminence!”

“I am to serve you.”  Sala says as though she is repeating a mantra:  “I am to attend to your needs.”

“And?”  Alanee, suspicious, studies those austere stone walls with closer attention.  “Sala, my ba, who demands this of you?  Are we watched in here?”

“I am to watch you, and to report….”

“Ah, Ellar!  Not the more recognised form of servitude, then.”  Alanee casts about her forlornly.  “Are there any drinks in this tip?”

“I will see what I can find, Lady.”

“The ‘Lady’ stuff again!  Sala, stop this!  Just stop!

Expressionless, Sala goes to a cupboard that looks as though it might harbour alcohol.  Alanee goes on.  “I think I see; she dares not set up surveillance in a Seer’s chambers, so she wants you with me all the time, is that it?  And she’s prepared to reduce you to the status of a drab to do it?  What’s that?”

Sala holds up a bottle half-full of pink liquid.  She removes its stopper and sniffs.  “I believe it may be paia, Lady.  Drinkable.”

“Anything.  Are there glasses?  And enough of the ‘Lady’!”

“There are glasses,”   Sala holds aloft two small receptacles.  “But they are a little personalised.  I’ll wash them.”

“No you won’t.  Just bring the bottle.”

Sala brings it.  Alanee wipes the neck on a corner of her robe and says:  “You first.”

Sala demurs.

“I’m not drinking until you have.  You’re my food taster, if you like – if that’s what you want to be, ba.  Drink!”

But Sala hesitates even now.  She stands with the bottle at her chest, eyes downcast in utter discomfiture.  At last she drinks a very little of the paia, and passes the bottle to Alanee, who takes a huge swig which instantly chokes her.  She staggers back, laughing.  “Habbach!”  She exclaims when she can speak again:  “I think that may kill us both!”  A tear rolls down Sala’s cheek.  Oh, ba!”

Alanee can do no less than throw her arms about her friend, refusing to set her free and kissing her forehead and cheeks until at last she feels Sala’s rigid, trembling form relax just a little:  then she kisses her lips.

“You’ll never be servant to me, dearest Sala.  I wouldn’t let that happen to you.  I couldn’t!”

Sala says, between sobs:  “I’m so sorry; what am I to do?  You, I love; my work, I love.  Ellar has shown me how vital that work is, now you are Seer to the Consensual City!” 

“All Ellar wants is control,” Alanee growls.  “You are her eyes.  I am not the city’s most popular choice of Seer, from the evidence so far, and she wants to have a clear idea on which side of the fence she should land.  But it makes no difference to us, dear one.  We are friends, whatever our fortunes.  Now are you going to stop crying?  You’re embarrassing me!”

Laughing at herself, Sala wipes impatiently at her tears:  “I can be over-emotional, you see?”

“Darling, I never doubted it.”

 “But I am assigned to you as Mediator and governed by certain rules, especially about getting too involved with my project.  Ellar trusts me.”

“I know, ba.  I know.  And Lady Ellar does not trust me.  It is a field of brambles, isn’t it?  We can cut through them though, I’m certain.”

Together, the pair wash some glassware so they can drink together more elegantly.  Then, perched upon the two hard red chairs which are the only companionable seating in the room, they dispatch the remainder of the paia.  Alanee learns that, as part of her elevation to the status of Courtier, Sala has been moved from her apartment in the lower city.

“I have rooms next to you.”  She jabs a finger:  “That way.  They are a little more acceptable than these.”  And Alanee is immediately sympathetic, for she knows how much Sala loved her little nest.

“It doesn’t matter, I can soon get the new place into shape:  but poor you!”  Sala looks about her.  “What on earth?”

“I’m not meant to be comfortable here.  Although this…”  Alanee slides into the big leather armchair which faces the triptych of mirrors:  “Is homely, at least.  What do you think of the vanity set?  And the big metal disc; what’s that for?”

Sala studies the plate of dark metal.  “I don’t know.  It could be just hiding a hole in the wall?”  And she cannot resist a turn before the mirrors; a critical self-examination, an adjustment of hem, a pat at a rebellious curl, drawing a smile from her companion.

“Merciless, aren’t they?”

Then Alanee feels – sees – what?  Something else reflected there, something quite different.  For a few seconds she cannot speak, so unexpected is the image.  Then…

“Oh, Sala!”

“What?”  Sala thinks Alanee has seen something wrong with her appearance.

“Nothing.  It doesn’t matter.”  The reflection has gone.  “I’m tired:  it’s been the longest day.”

“Paia can be very tiring.”  Sala reminds her primly:  “If taken in excess.”

Alanee says nothing more; after all, she sees now only what Sala sees in those mirrors:  yet the image that came to her remains imprinted on her mind, for standing beside her friend was the figure of a military man, a leader of soldiers.  Not tall in stature, but great in presence, the man she saw was ill or in some kind of distress.  No matter: the moment has passed.

“ Sala-ba, I’m thinking.  Ellar wants you to spy on me, yes?  Well, that’s fine.  You can, but as my friend, not as my servant.  Tell her that.”

“She’s my patron.”

“And you have to do the work you are employed to do.  So I’m the one who has to be careful – I won’t divulge any of my discourses with Hasuga, or any other members of the Council.  That way there are no conflicts!”

Sala shakes her head.  “Lady Ellar is no-one’s fool.  If I can’t get some useful stuff….”

“All right then, let me think of some useful stuff you can give her!”

“Fictitious?”

“Well, maybe a little bit fictitious.”  Alanee frowns.  “I’ll think of something.”

Alanee does not reveal all of her thoughts to Sala, although she would, if the politics of The City were not already etched so deeply in her psyche.  She can see there are ways in which this channel for information can be useful; especially if she is selective in the titbits she allows to pass through.

The conversation ends there, as drabs return with fresh bedding from Alanee’s former home.  She instructs them to provide cleaners for Cassix’s chambers, which they promise to do immediately.

Sala takes her leave.  “Stay with me tonight, ba.  You can’t sleep in this mess.”

Alanee watches her depart in the certain knowledge she will report to Ellar, for Sala has made plain what Sala is and what Sala does.  Sala is firmly Ellar’s woman; has she, Alanee, any right to ask her to swerve from that loyalty?

In the cold stone loneliness after Sala’s departure she feels entombed, even a little panic-stricken.  The deep twilight of Cassix’s existence cloaks itself around her, so she imagines she can hear him pacing the floor in those sandaled feet, murmuring to her.

Breathy whispers: a draught, or something more?

Her summoner’s urgent buzz blares across the echoes like a trumpet call and she jumps so much she nearly falls over.

“Celeris!”  Just the sight of his face on the little screen makes her glad.  She asks, lamely:  “How are you?”

“You could find out.”

“How?”

“By opening your door.  I’m outside it.”

She is overjoyed to see him.  He has barely time to close the door behind him before she has thrown her arms around his neck, although her welcoming kiss is restrained, for she has learned his sensibilities;  and he rewards her with a gentle kiss of his own which might set her music playing, no matter how oppressed and uncomfortable she feels.

“You are Seer now, Alanee.  Do I congratulate you?”

“And you are a mystery.  How do you move so easily between the levels?  Oh, but don’t answer that:  I’m just so happy you’re here!  What do you think of my new abode?”

Does she expect a hint of bemusement in those black eyes?  There is none.  He almost shrugs off the contrast between this and her previous apartment.  “So this was Cassix’s home, was it?  I have never visited here.”

“It’s a nightmare!  It frightens me!  Look at it all – look at the writing all over the walls!  How will I ever live in this?”

“You are Seer now – you must learn the lessons your predecessor has left you.”  He almost glides across the room and Alanee is captivated by his grace:  a man – very much a man – with the felinity of a woman.  His attention has been drawn by the scrawling on the stone walls.

“Does it mean anything?”  Alanee asks.

“Of course!”  Is there a nuance of impatience in his tone?  Celeris points to a figure written in a bubble at the centre of a dressed stone.  “This is the weight of the block.  These arrows show the stresses it exerts upon the stones next to it and beneath it.  The calculation is the density of the stone.”

“Why would he go to all that trouble?”

“Cassix was an engineer.  Clearly he had a theory about how density of stone is affected by the weight placed upon it:  these values are just raw information; somewhere, no doubt, you will find the source calculations.  Those will probably lead to a conclusion concerning the stress placed upon The City’s foundations.”

“Those suits, then?”  Alanee nods to the white overalls hanging on the wall.

“Now they are interesting.”  Celeris says, as though the calculations really weren’t.  “There might be some form of headpiece somewhere.”

The door chimes toll.  Four drabs stand before the door in a listless semi-circle, cleaning implements arrayed about them.  She turns to Celeris helplessly.

“The place must be cleaned.”

“Certainly it must.  Do you wish me to leave?”

“Not if you don’t want to.”  Alanee feels like imploring him to stay, but she will not betray herself so completely.  “You can tell me about some more of this stuff.”

“If I may suggest…”  Celeris murmurs as if he does not want the drabs to hear him:  “Don’t let them throw any of these papers away.  They might be of use to you.”

Alanee notices the drabs each bear the insignia of Hasuga’s personal staff and are well chosen, because they set about their task efficiently.  One will pick up and tidy the strewn-about papers, the others dust and clean, change linen, virtually disinfect the kitchen and the rest-place.  Meanwhile Celeris explains:

“Cassix’s approach was concerned with logic and proportion.  The wooden room is the epicenter; the mirrors the key.  To get into the room you must first find the key.”

“It has a door then?”

“Without doubt.”

“What does the room contain?”

“That is for you to discover.  I cannot tell you.”

“And this?”  Alanee waves at the silver ball resting on its stand between the two chairs.

“Think of it as a sort of exercise machine for the psyche.  See how substantial that stand is?  Have you tried the weight of the ball?”

Together, they get a grip upon the ball and try to lift it, but it will not so much as move.

“It must be fastened down.”

“No, nothing is holding it.”

“Then it’s very, very heavy.”

Celeris says:  “Not for you.”

They pass the time together while the drabs perform their miracles.  Alanee studies the disc of dark metal and asks its purpose:  “An ornament, I suppose – some sort of wall decoration?  It’s in very poor taste, though.  Still, that would be no surprise, would it?”

Celeris smiles.  “Cassix was not a man given to ornaments.”  He takes up Sala’s discarded glass of paia and splashes the liquid at the centre of the disc.  Centrifugal force disperses it instantly.  “Something more than decoration.”

Alanee, wide-eyed, watches:  “How does it do that?”

“It spins.  It is spinning – very fast.  Yet it is so perfectly polished and balanced its movement is virtually undetectable – unless you lean your weight against it.”

The more Alanee sees of Cassix’s chambers the more she sees evidence of his madness.  What if he had accidentally tripped and touched the disc – what if she should?

Celeris makes a further examination.  “How is it driven, I wonder?  It is very heavy, certainly; a flywheel?   If so, for what?”

He appears to tire of unanswered questions, turning instead to Alanee’s welfare, reminding her she is hungry.  They send out for for food, and they dine together perched on the edge of her newly-installed bed.   Her new bedroom has an intimacy she would gather about her, the man is so near, so kind.  It is easy to share her fears.

“All this,” she gestures towards the open space of  the reception room,  “is distant to me, far beyond my horizon where I cannot ever hope to see it.  Why in Habbach’s name did Cassix want me to be Seer?”

Celeris replies seriously,  “Because you can see.  Cassix was wise:  he knew who he was choosing and he chose well.  Do not put yourself in his shadow.  He had his way of coming to prophecy:  you must find yours , if you haven’t already found it.”

“I wish we were alone.”  She finds herself saying.  His hand reaches out to hers.

“Aren’t we?  The drabs have finished and gone.”

She hadn’t noticed.  Inside her head that melody begins to play for her again and at last she understands the Music Man’s gift:  how it was not a one-time thing, a brief pleasure, but one that will always return to her when she has need.  And she is needy now.

A door-chime interrupts her song.  “Don’t move, Ba.”  She presses his thigh.  “I’ll be right back.”

The drabs have locked the door as they left.  Alanee opens it no more than a crack.  Sala is standing anxiously outside.  “Alanee, are you alright?  I was expecting you sooner.  I made food…”

“Sala, I’m sorry, ba.  I hope you can forgive me.  I won’t be coming tonight.”

Sala’s sixth sense is well primed.  “You’re not alone, are you?  You’ve got company.  Is it Celeris?”  Alanee’s silence is an affirmation.  Instantly Sala advances, makes to push past Alanee through the door:  “Can I meet him?  I’ve been dying to meet him!”

Although she does not entirely know why, Alanee resists.  “Not now, no.  I will introduce you, I promise, but not now.  He’s…”  By gesture she tries to suggest that Celeris is in some unfit state.  “Tomorrow, maybe?”

“Oh, Alanee!”

“Tomorrow.”  And Alanee closes and locks the door.

She returns through the museum of Cassix and his life to the man she knows will be waiting for her.  She takes his hands, raising him to his feet then helps him as he takes the clothes from her body in a way no man – no man at all – has ever done for her, then undresses him in her turn.

“Will you stay?”   She whispers, hoping.  He says that he will.

When she wakes the next morning he has gone.

© 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.

Continuum – Episode Twenty-One: Prisoners

In the last episode:

After a night in her friend’s apartment, Alanee still cannot prove to Sala that Celeris, her diffident and secretive lover in The City, exists.  Frustrated by her friend’s doubts, Alanee returns to her own apartment to find some leaves intrinsic to a dream of the previous day await her.  When she grasps them she is wracked with pain which she attributes to healing, though she does not know it is Dag Swenner, critically injured in a far-off forest, she heals.

Meanwhile, Sala has obeyed a call to meet Ellar, her patron, who prepares her for a greater weight of responsibility by emphasizing Alanee’s importance to The City.

In the evening, Hasuga summons Alanee.  He seems excited and unstable, urging her to evade the council’s spy cameras and accompany him to a summer house trysting place in his gardens.  Too late, Alanee sees the danger and tries to leave but he forcibly prevents her…

She is sprawled on the hard wooden bench of the summer house, Hasuga’s hideously distended cranium a dark moon looming over her, his hand on her chest, with all of his weight behind it, pinning her down.  She struggles for breath.

“Is this how you think of me?  Do I repel you so much?”  His tone is fierce.

She spits out a riposte; “After what you did to me?  Remember your little floor show last time we met?  Do you?  Am I supposed to forget that?   Let me go, Hasuga.  Let me go!  Out of this squalid little hut, out of your pathetic life, out of The City.  I don’t belong here!”  Her unmitigated fury so surprises him that he eases his grip somewhat, enough to allow her to add, in a more moderate tone, “Let me return to the Hakaan. That’s my home.”

“You can never go back.   Do not hold out any hope.  You can never go back.”  He draws breath, as though he wants those words to sink in.  She, gasping for air, has not the wind to snap back at him, so after a space he asks her; “Who am I, Lady Alanee?”

She scowls, “Hasuga.  You’re Hasuga, I’m Alanee – we both know who we are.  And for Habbach’s sake forget all this ‘Lady’ stuff, because we both know why I’m here.  You wanted a new ‘Mother’ who could double up as your concubine – and I’m it.  Very well, so I’m destined to remain your prisoner, for the time being, at least.  But I’m not going to share a bed with you, Hasuga.  Do you understand?”

“Am I not a prisoner too?”  In the darkness she may not see his expression, and the renewed calm in his voice gives nothing away. “Have you thought of that?  I have never left this palace.  Only courtiers and the High Council are allowed to look upon me.  For me this is the most oppressive of prisons.”

“Nonsense!”  She makes a determined attempt to remove his hand from her chest, “You’re the supreme being!  If you wanted, you could just walk out of here; commandeer an aerotran, or something.  Who could stop you?”

“Where would I go?  On the outside no-one even knows I exist.  Can you picture me among normal men?  Imagine what they would do to me – what I would have to do to dissuade them.”  He relinquishes his grip on her, slumping onto the seat at her side as if he is suddenly exhausted by his efforts.  “This is the Consensual City and its stability depends upon my remaining invisible.  It depends upon their ignorance of the truth!”

“So these people, the Councillors, are your gaolers, then?  They really do control you.”

“We have a consensual relationship.  Alanee, I have been a child since beyond memory.  Children learn everything and reason nothing.  They learn how to play and they learn the norms of human behaviour without estimating the worth of the things they learn.  Now, unwillingly, the Council has given me the keys to a part of its wisdom:  it has allowed me to grow – opened a door for me it wished would remain closed, so I have to learn afresh what I may or may not do.  I am at the dawn of my understanding.”

Alanee rearranges herself,  “The High Council can see how fast you’re learning, and it fears what you may become.  I’m meant to stop you.”

“The hope is that you will help the Council to control me, not teach me.  They see that as their prerogative, not yours.”

“Yes, well!”  Feeling she has a better grasp on the situation, she admonishes him:  “You can control yourself.  Isn’t that what you are learning?  Isn’t that what you should be  learning?”

“Because of the way I am made, I am fearful that may not be so.”

Alanee decides it is safer to change tack.  “Ellar believes you can’t direct my thoughts.  Is that true?”

“You doubt it, don’t you?  So do I.”  Hasuga raises his hands to his immense bowl of a head, as if he needs their support to keep the weight that bears down upon his body from crushing him.  “I wish it was otherwise, but I am able to read them, at least.”

“I thought as much.  Alright: if I can get over how intrusive that is; and, yes, come to think of it, how insulting that is; it must seem pretty good to you.  Why do you wish it was otherwise?”

“Because of who you are.  I do not want to manipulate you, although I need to learn about you.  Cassix believes he knows who he has brought to me, I do not – not yet.  It was so easy to give you power, Alanee – too easy.  It was no trouble at all.”

 “What you want from me doesn’t tally with the High Council’s idea of my role, either, does it?”  Alanee reasons.  “This is beginning to sound as though you want me to conspire with you against the Council.  They wouldn’t let that happen.”

“We are already conspiring.  They can’t stop it.  Can you not sense that?”

She shakes her head.  “I can understand how you must hate them, keeping you cooped up here for longer than I can even conceive, but…”

“Hate is a human frailty.  I do not hate.”  Hasuga grips her hand, and she because she no longer feels threatened by him, she does not resist; “Your psyche compliments mine –  if we worked together our collective will would be insuperable.  This is more exciting than any game!”

 “The Council might not be able to stop our collusion, Hasuga, but they can stop me.  I’m only flesh – I don’t have your gifts.  A knife-stroke will be all it takes, believe me.”

“And so you must be careful, for a while.  Until, perhaps, you grow stronger.  But what an adventure, Alanee!”  He slaps his elongated palm on his knee.  “We must make a start.  Now you know of The Book, I want you to get it for me.”

Get it for you?

“Steal it.”

“Habbach, no!  The Book of Lore?  You can’t want me to risk that!”

“No, not the Lore Book, I learned every sentence of that before I was two hundred.  The book I mean is one you have only seen in your mind.  This book has no name.”

“With a red cover, locked so I may not open it?  Yes, I have seen it.  You want me to steal that?  Where is it kept?”

“Where could it be but in the Council’s Inner Library; where they have tried for years to x-ray it, to rifle it, to persuade it to open, but never succeeded?  I will succeed.  But first I must have it in my hands.  Bring it to me.”

“Oh Hasuga, how?  I won’t be allowed anywhere near the High Council’s library.  Sire Portis even stopped me from taking a peek at the Book of Lore, and that wasn’t the original, either.  How will I do it?  I can’t do it.”  Alanee decides.  “Ask me something else.”

“You will not try?”

“No!   I’ve no appetite for conspiracy!”  She may not mean to snap back at him again, yet the anger inside her must express itself.  “Hasuga, you are using me. You say you learn from me, you don’t want to manipulate me?  But you don’t care how much you hurt me, how deeply you humiliate me, how small and wretched you make me feel.  Collusion, deception; danger, it’s all a game to you:  why should I put myself at hazard for that?  The High Council have given me my duties, I am here to look after you.  If I do that as they wish, even though it tears them in half, they will have no excuse to dispense with me.  You want me to steal from them?  I won’t do that – I won’t!”

 “Very well.”  Hasuga has studied her curiously throughout this tirade.  Now he nods.  “You agree I am to some extent inside your mind and your thinking, and you will remember that I am unwilling to manipulate your thoughts, although I could.  I would rather you reconsidered, and for that you will require time.  Time is limited, Alanee.  Do not take more than is due.”

He stands.  “Come, we should return before our absence gives concern.  When you are ready to speak of this again, we will meet.  I will be waiting.”

Alighting from the elevator on the ground floor of the Palace, Alanee nearly collides with Ellar, who is obviously on her way to Hasuga’s apartments. 

“Lady Alanee!”  the Mediant’s voice sounds starched.

“Lady Ellar, greet you.  Were you missing me?”

“Perhaps.  Lord Valtor claims he summoned you several hours ago.”

“Hasuga needs someone to look after him.  That’s not me, at least for the moment.  Why does his ‘Mother’ not attend him?”

Sire Hasuga is in your charge, Lady.”  Ellar reminds her, dryly.  “You can cook, can you not?”

“I can, but I’m sure his drabs are feeding him sufficiently well.  I asked to see Sire Cassix:  did you relay my request, Lady?”

And Ellar replies, shortly:  “No.”  then steps into the elevator, returning Alanee’s questioning look with a stony stare, until the doors close.

Outside the palace, is the evening breeze in the courtyard suddenly a little stronger, a little colder?  If not, why does Alanee feel a prickle of winter on her neck?  Around her, courtiers and servants wander in couples and threes, taking in the spring air.   Many wear robes of a lighter fabric, socialites intent upon an evening in the city dressed as gaily and as briefly as the season permits.  In those islands of greenery the drabs have created, ornate stone troughs and planters that break up the void of the yard, are early flowers, buds, promises of growth.

Alanee badly needs someone with whom to share her concerns, someone untouched by the fears and jealousies of those around her, yet the buttons on her summoner provide no answer, even though, mysteriously, Celeris’s name has reappeared; why could she not find it before?

As she walks back towards the city, preoccupied with her thoughts, she pays no heed to the young man who cuts through the sprinkling of late promenaders with determined stride.  She does not see how unerringly he heads in her direction, how his hand is now reaching, gripping, beneath his robe.  At the last, the very last second she looks up – is faced with the cold intent in his eyes, the hand that has found what it seeks and is returning to view, clasping something, turning it in her direction and she almost screams…

And he has passed her, a file of papers filling his hand and now pressed against his chest.  In his wake, Alanee’s knees come near to failing her.  Her lungs once again are forced to gasp for air, a tear finds its way to her cheek.  She snatches up her summoner, stabbing upon Sala’s name.  This time Sala answers.

Tocatta is effusive:  “Darling Lady Alanee; so gorgeous you look!  Such radiance!”

Before visiting Tocatta’s intimate café, Sala’s favourite haunt, Alanee has stopped briefly at her apartment to change into one of the outfits she had made for her in the city; a well cut, svelte version of a side-laced Hakaani tabard in white shot silk with an emerald braid.  Sala eyes her a little enviously.

“For once the old fraud isn’t exaggerating.  My Habmenach, Alanee!”

They wait until Toccata has brought Tsakal with the perl chasers Celeris taught Alanee to enjoy.  When he has withdrawn and in the protection of the sound-deadening hangings, Alanee at last feels she can speak.  With her gaze firmly fixed upon their reflections in the glass of the big window (for the blackness of the night beyond is impenetrable) she says:  “I need a friend.”

She feels Sala’s hand on hers.  “You know you have that.”

“There are things I have to tell that friend, things she might get into trouble for.”

Sala does not say anything for a while.  They sip at the heat of their drinks in desultory fashion until they are ready to look at one another.  When Alanee meets Sala’s eyes they are solemn.

“There are friends, if they are true friends, who will take that risk.”  Sala says.

“Can we be overheard?”

“Perhaps.”  Sala presses the buzzer that will summon Toccata.  When he appears, she asks:  “Are there cameras here?”

Toccata smiles his understanding.  “No, Lady Sala, I clean these curtains daily.”  He withdraws.

So, with hesitant beginnings, and always watching Sala’s face for an expression that might deter her, Alanee tells her tale.  She tells Sala of Hasuga, all she knows about the reasons she was brought to the city and her relationships with Hasuga and the High Council.  Only the mission Hasuga has set her escapes mention, not because she mistrusts her friend, but for fear of the danger that knowledge may bring her.  Sala doubts at first – this, after all, is a Hakaani girl she has known scarcely longer than a cycle: a girl with an imaginary man-friend:  yet she has long suspected the existence of an entity like the one Alanee describes, and now, as the explanation develops, Sala finds the pieces and clues of a puzzle that has thwarted her all her life falling into place.  When Alanee concludes her account she cannot find words for a while, but stares into her tsakal as she assembles the finished image in her mind.

Finally she breaks her silence.  “As it appears to me, you walk a very thin line indeed.  Nobody knew what to expect when Sire Cassix brought you to the City, and now they are finding out. 

“Alanee-ba, not everyone likes Cassix.  Seers are never popular, though they are very powerful and their will is respected.  Right now it seems there is a faction, Cassix’s faction, who would let matters proceed naturally, and there is everyone else.  Everyone else probably subscribes to my patron’s opinion.”

“Which is?”

“You will get this list of targets she has promised you which I’m sure will clarify the picture, if clarification is what it needs.”

“Feed him, flatter him, fuck him.”

“In essence.”

Alanee puts her head in her hands.  “And what if the worst should happen?  It’s unthinkable!”

“There are measures…”

“Of course there are.  I like him, I really do.  I can’t exactly explain why, after everything he’s done, but sleep with him?   Oh, Sala-ba, you haven’t seen him.  I can’t do that.  I just can’t!”

Sala nods, and her face is pale.  “Then, oh my darling, you had better be ready to run.  You were probably an experiment very few of them wanted to try in the first place.  It would be good to know where the Domo stands in this, but I imagine everyone is thinking of damage limitation, and only the Cassix faction preserves you.  I suppose the real issue is how your presence affects Sire Hasuga’s ability to rule, if that is really what he does.  It’s such a pity Sire Cassix is so ill…”

“Ill?  Is he?   Oh Habbach!  Now I have to get to see him!  What do you mean ‘if that is really what Hasuga does’?”

“Well, from your description it sounds as though the High Council use Hasuga’s telepathic strength to keep order.  That’s rather different from ‘ruling’ in the regal sense.”

“But he sees, he hears.  From that apartment up there on the top of the Palace, (and he never leaves it) he can see and hear the whole city.”

“Including ourselves then?”  Sala says seriously.  “Bless you, Alanee, for that.”

“He will be listening, I suppose.  Somehow though, I don’t think he could object.  He seems to want to gain my trust.  And if they were able to use him before, I don’t think they will for much longer.  Every time I meet him he has grown in power.  Today he seemed so confident, so self-assured:  a young man, in fact.  I don’t know who I will meet tomorrow.”

“Alanee…”  Sala collects herself.  “Alright, look: you were brought here; why?  Because the High council saw what was happening to Hasuga and they knew they couldn’t control it.  What did they think you would do?  Because of this gift of yours to resist telepathy and because you’re such a nice, undemanding sort of girl they believed you would calm him down, help him to a maturity he does not yet have.

“All they want is for Hasuga to continue to rule as he has before.  Show them you are doing the job they selected you to do, and they’ll leave you alone.  Persuade Hasuga to resume his old role – see if you can placate him?”

“I’ve already tried.  I can’t see it happening.  He’s rampant.  He has schemes, dreams of change, and all the time I am with him I can see those schemes take shape. They’re right, Sala, I am part of the problem.  I fuel him.  I make him grow.”

The pair talk this through for a while, turning over the same essential issues.  In the end, as Alanee perceives, their discussion has no merit; for Sala does not have any more answers than she.  With resignation in her heart she bids her friend goodnight and wends her way to home and bed.  She will not have long to sleep.

The hectoring of the summoner is like a blare of a bugles lashing through the early morning stillness.  Alanee gropes for it, swears at it, slaps it down in front of her on a pillow she has not bothered to scrutinize, intent upon switching it off.  The name that flickers green on its display stops her.  ‘Cassix’.

“Sire?”  She offers little more than a sleepy murmur.

“Lady Alanee?  Come to the watchtower.  Come now.  Tell no-one you are coming.”

© 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.