Parfitt’s Island – a chronicle in four parts: Part Four.

Author’s note:  this episode contains some eroticism and political incorrectness, so it probably isn’t for everyone, but I did warn you about that, didn’t I?  All dun in fun (or done in fone).  I hope you enjoy.

In Julian Parfitt’s ‘Oval Office’, an agreement with the UK Government was finalised with almost indecent haste.  After everybody had expressed their admiration for everybody else, A.J. Poulson, on the ‘phone from the Ministry, wrapped the deal up.

“I’ll have the papers prepared.  If your legal people are happy we’ll be signed and sealed in a few days.  You keep your sovereignty, we pay your rate for the gas, and we rent the pipeline from the Republic of Aga.  Toodle-pip!”  He rang off.

“That was amazingly easy!”  Julian enthused.  “Willoughby, you’re a genius!”

Willoughby blushed.  “Now, Julian!  Come on.  Let’s get in that exercise I promised!”

Skaeflint’ae Beach was at its best that summer forenoon.  Very early in his explorations Willoughby had discovered the cove with its honeycomb of caves and tall cliffs, hidden away from the gas wells on the other side of the headland.  The little apron of sand was large enough to tempt bathers and private enough to be exclusive.  In their first days on the island – in those times Rowena remembered so wistfully – she and Julian had bathed uninhibitedly here.

Today it was Willoughby who accompanied Julian to the beach.  Rowena had to stay behind – a consultant and an Iranian cook had arrived on the early tide to help prepare for the Iranian delegation due that afternoon.  They had set up most of their equipment at the harbour, ready to transport to the house, which they began to do at around eleven am. They were nice people, and they brought with them some knowledge of a surprising nature.

“Your clocks;” said the consultant.  “You do realize they’re two hours adrift?”

“Are they?”  Rowena was at first disbelieving, then astounded.  “My watch, too.  How could that be?”

“I guess too long away from the mainland?”  the cook suggested.  “It is of no importance – we can finish our work in very little time.”

“Julian!”  Rowena exclaimed.  “He won’t know!  Can you find your own way around?  I must warn him!”

Even as she set off up the path to Ben Adderhochie, Rowena recognised the futility of her task.  The walk to Skaeflint’ae was at least forty minutes, and the Iranians would be with them within the hour.  However, as she hurried, a few dark corners began to open in her mind; a few vital tumblers began to click into place.  As the sinister import of these deliberations took shape, Rowena began to increase her pace.  She had not missed the faun-like conspiracy in her husband’s look that morning, or Willoughby’s devious smile…..

“Isn’t this truly beautiful?”  Cried Willoughby, standing at the water margin.  “Doesn’t it just fill your heart, Julian?”

Julian, staring at Willoughby’s back, admitted that it did.  As they had clambered down the steeper section of the cliff path, Willoughby had removed his shirt to expose that back and every rippling muscle in it.

“Let’s swim!”  The rest of Willoughby’s clothes seemed to magic from him, so all of a sudden Julian was plunged into his dream of the previous night:  these were not the tropics, but Willoughby’s virile nudity was all it promised to be, running towards the deeper sea.  Laughing at the ice-chill of the waves, Willoughby turned to offer a view that certainly filled Julian’s heart, and did much to stimulate other organs too:  “Come on, my little water-baby; get in here!” 

Julian tried a modest compromise, removing his shirt and trousers.  Willoughby was hysterical:  “Oh, what?  Underpants!  Get them off you, man!”

So Julian did.  The sea was so bollock-freezingly cold it precluded all innocent play.  Willoughby did not mind this – he saw it merely as the setting of a stage.   Swiftly back upon the beach both men laughed and stamped and shivered while Julian made the point that, in this wet condition, they had no hope of regaining their clothes.

“I’m going to catch pneumonia!”

“Lie down on the sand,”  commanded Willoughby.  “It’s warm in the sun.”

Side by side in the more yielding stuff above the tide-line they stretched themselves out to dry.  Gradually Julian’s shivering stopped, but he did not cease to complain of the cold.  Not, that is, until he felt Willoughby’s arm across his chest – then he began to experience a warmth which wasn’t quite rational.

“Not a bad body, you know, Julian,” said Willoughby; “for a City gent, hmm?”

Julian should have resisted, but he found himself quite liking that irrational warmth.  There was still time to step back, then; to turn away – before Willoughby slithered closer to him, so they were flank to flank, and certainly before Willoughby’s hands began to explore him in areas where even Rowena was reluctant to go, unless offered a bribe of fine vintage Bollinger.

“I’m afraid I’m not very…”  He heard himself stuttering.  “I’m not hung like a…well, not like you.”

“Like a donkey?”  Willoughby laughed.  “Don’t worry, I’ve heard it said.  But I think you’re rather sweet, dear Julian.  And size isn’t so important, is it?”

To be fair to Julian, he did tense up a little at this point:  he did recognise the Rubicon he was crossing, that this was an aspect of sexuality which had always made him feel uncomfortable in the past.  But he did not feel uncomfortable – not at all.  In fact, Willoughby’s attention was making him feel very comfortable indeed.

He would have been less relaxed if his ears had picked up the faint chug of a diesel motor, or if he had been looking out to sea at this particular moment; for a yacht was passing the open mouth of the cove with its complement of three Iranian diplomats lined up, like three wise men on a Christmas card,  upon its deck.  Unlike the three wise men, though, they each had binoculars.  Alas, he was not looking, and he did not see.  He did not see even when, five minutes later, the same yacht and the same three diplomats passed by again, travelling in the opposite direction.  This time only one diplomat was looking through binoculars – the other two had cameras.

“I know what we need.”  Willoughby murmured in Julian’s ear.  “I’ll be right back, love, Okay?”

“Oh, don’t go!”  Julian was nervously affected by the prospect of any interval in his further education, inasmuch as he feared a premature conclusion, exacerbated by the sight of Willoughby’s taut buttocks stalking away from him up the beach, to disappear into one of the caves. Fortunately, Willoughby’s return was almost immediate.  He held a packet of white powder in one hand while he twirled a drinking straw in the other.

“A little stash I set up yesterday, especially for us,”  he explained, as he plunged into the pockets of his discarded trousers to produce a small mirror.  Using that magnificent torso to shield them from any breeze, he nicked the corner of the packet, allowing a thin stream of powder to settle in a line upon the mirror.  “Here we are, darling boy.  Something else you haven’t tried.”

Now there was truly no turning back. The Rubicon was a distant memory; Julian was well into Italy and his feet had dried.  The white powder filled his world with little clicking sounds and flashing lights and unable to withstand any further delay he thrust himself awkwardly at Willoughby, who chuckled his indulgence:  “No, sweety – that works with women, not with us.”

Then he showed Julian exactly what to do, and Julian followed his instructions with alacrity, and Willoughby said a rather curious thing. 

 He said:  “All right boys – in for the close-up.  Not all at once, now!”

‘Close-up’?  Julian relished this strange terminology, knowing there would be many new words to learn.  It was a whole new world, one he had denied himself for so, so long.  As he let the waves of fulfilment roll over him he ruffled Willoughby’s hair and opened his eyes to ask its meaning.  He did not have to ask; nor did he need to ask about the clicks, or the flashing lights, because they were still happening.  They were coming from the ring of photographers standing around them.

“Julian old chap!”  Said Willoughby, disengaging himself.  “Let me introduce you to the gentlemen of the Press.”

The misery of the next ten minutes would remain with Julian all his life.  His struggle to get through the ranks of paparazzi to recover his clothes, the break into an undignified run with his trousers still down around his knees, the raucous cheer when he fell flat on his face in the sand.  Then there was the second raucous cheer when, halfway up the cliff path he met Rowena coming down – or, more correctly, ran onto her fist.

If the gentlemen of the fourth estate had lacked quotes to spice up their articles Rowena gave them plenty.  But Rowena was never a woman to be taken, or quoted, lightly – she also gave weight.  The one redeeming act of that whole mortifying afternoon was when she kicked Willoughby off the cliff.  The man who wrestled with crocodiles was no match for Rowena scorned, and Rowena was never one to leave an advantage without pressing it home.  She pursued Willoughby to where he had fallen, clutching a number of compound fractures, and jumped on him until four sturdy press men restrained her.  By that time she had ensured that Willoughby would trouble no-one of either sex for a very long time.

#

“He invited them in early that morning,” Julian explained miserably, after he and Rowena had negotiated an uneasy truce and they were browsing the websites of the national dailies in their kitchen the following day.  “They were hiding in the caves all the time we were there.  He set me up.  The coke, the whole thing.”

Dismally, they scanned pages full of pictures with little black squares all over them.  Rowena featured as much as Julian, for the camera Willoughby had set up on the grandfather clock had done its job well.

“I got a phone call from the Iranians;” She said.  “They don’t want your alliance.”

Julian nodded. “You should have heard Prince Fuisal.  Apparently what I was doing in those photographs is punishable by death in Al Flaberri.  Daddy’s told him never to speak to me again.  The tankers all sailed early this morning – there’s going to be no pipeline and no deal.  We’re just waiting for the landing craft.”

Rowena rested her chin on her hands:  “Or maybe not.”  She said. “No, maybe not.”

Julian gave her a quizzical look.  “Unless you know something I don’t…”

“Exactly.  Let me explain: last night while you were licking your wounds, so to speak, I made a few calls of my own.  Then, this morning while you were watching the tankers sail away, I called A.J.  It took me a long time to get through, and even longer before he stopped laughing.  Then I told him he had to negotiate with me now, and he did stop laughing.  The deal’s back on.”

“I don’t understand.”  Julian admitted, staring blankly at his wife.

“You don’t. Do you?  Oil is oil, my dear:  gas is gas.  That, and the opportunity to get one over on the British are incentives too great for the King of Al Flaberri to turn down.  And fortunately, the sweet old King has a more liberal attitude to dealing with women than his stuffy little squirt of a son.  We had a lovely chat – he’s going to come and visit me next summer; isn’t that nice?”

Rowena’s husband’s expression was changing rapidly from bewilderment to sheer open-mouthed admiration:  “You’ve struck a deal with the King!  You’re a genius!”

“It has been said.”

“And with reason!  But, wait, what about the Iranians?”

“I was never too keen on them.  We’re exchanging diplomats with Saudi Arabia instead.  Lots more ‘planes!”

“Diplomats!  But we haven’t got an embassy!”  Julian protested.

“I thought the woodshed, with a few alterations of course.  I did explain and the chappy’s quite prepared to rough it, as long as he has a garage for his two Ferraris and we promise to build a road for him to drive them on.  I mentioned the grouse moors, of course.”

“Oh, now why didn’t I think of that?  A sheik in the woodshed – an essential talking point for parties!  And who, pray, have you in mind as our ambassador?  I’m sure you’ve got somebody!”

“Yes!”  Rowena said brightly; “I have!  I believe a certain A.J. Poulson is going to apply for the job.  He seems to think his career at the Home Office is over.”

Julian was completely overawed.  “You bloody little miracle worker!”  He cried:  “It was a day of days when I married you, my love!”

“Ah.”  Rowena said heavily.  “There’s something I ought to tell you, Julian, my sweet.  Let me see, how does it go?….Yes.  I divorce thee, I divorce thee, I divorce thee.  There!  I can say that because I’ve changed the constitution.  And we’re Moslems, remember?”

Julian’s expression changed profoundly for a second time.  “You see;” Rowena said; “the King would only agree to revive our contract if you were completely out of the picture.  His family would never accept any association with – what was the charming term they have for it in their language? – I forget exactly, but I remember telling him you didn’t wear that type of shirt.  Anyway, I’ve staged a coup!”

“He’s made you take over the Presidency.”  Said Julian, staring in mystification at his ex-wife.  He shook his head in despair:  “I’m going for a walk.”  He made to rise from his chair.

“I’m awfully afraid you can’t.”  Rowena apologised.

“Why?”

“Well that’s the other part.  You’re under house arrest.”  She gave Julian one of her gentle, consoling smiles.

“What?”  Julian growled.  

Rowena repeated her words, in response to which Julian added a few thoughts of his own, largely in words that are unprintable, inducing Rowena to tut.  “Language dear!  You know, you’re dreadfully sexy when you’re angry.”

“You’re mad!”  Julian spat the words through gritted teeth.

“No, no; I’m perfectly calm.  You, however, are getting redder and redder.  It’s all completely civilised.  You know the portacabin the drilling crew used?  I’m having it moved this morning to the top of Ben Adderhochie:  there’s an oil heater inside so you’ll be quite warm – it’s a perfectly acceptable place to live until I can arrange to have you exiled.  I might come and visit from time to time, like I used to at your flat before we were married; won’t that be fun?  Or have your tastes changed?  Would you prefer someone more masculine?”

Julian exploded.  “Exiled?  I won’t do it!  You can’t make me do it!  All I have to do is call security, and we’ll see who gets the charming hilltop bungalow, you scheming, devious, blousy bitch!”

“Thank you.  I learned from the best, my darling.  Now, if by security you mean your half-dozen alcoholic Glaswegians they’ve sworn allegiance to the New Republic, because I’m paying them now – they’re waiting for you outside.  They’ll escort you to your new home.  I should go straight away, if I were you; we’re quite finished here.”

There was a moment Rowena genuinely feared; the critical few seconds when Julian was close to putting his thumbs to her windpipe and squeezing.  But his shoulders slumped and he stood up wearily.  At the door, he turned:  “One thing I don’t understand.  I wasn’t the only one Willoughby caught.  There are just as many photos of you with your knickers off – how come His Royal Majesty is prepared to overlook those?”

“Heterosexual love isn’t illegal in Al Flaberri.”  Said Rowena with an indulgent smile.  “In fact, they positively encourage it.  The old King was very impressed with the pictures – in fact, he’s asked if I have any more.  You recall the ones you took on our honeymoon?  You wouldn’t happen to know where they are, would you?”

The End

© 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 Twelve Thresholds

The story so far:

Alanee has met Hasuga, the man-child so revered by the High Council f the City, and been warned by Ellar the Mediant never to divulge what passes between them.   Sala discovers Alanee in the wake of that meeting, sitting out in the snow, and angry rather than afraid of what has passed.

Meanwhile Dag Swenner and his rescuer Ripero struggle to find their way back to civilization after the devastation caused by the mysterious ‘wall’ of cold fire.  Out on the scorched earth of the plains they see a bunch of survivors heading towards them, only to have their hopes dashed as a flight of aerotrans savagely gun the survivors down…

With unsteady hands, Dag turns his new friend away from the dreadful scene and edges him down into a crevasse where he hopes they will both escape notice, if the aerotrans have not already sought them out.  As they press their bodies into the rock the only word Ripero can manage is:  “Why?”

Dag shakes his head.  “I can’t tell you.  I wish I knew.”

In his heart the grief is deeper, because in all his life he has never seen violent death.  Yes, he has known it happen:  in the meaningless, motiveless, so futile wars that drop from a capricious heaven once and again, wars that cripple, and kill, and pass for no reason.  Thousands, he knows, have died.  But now he has seen it.  Now he knows how it looks, how it feels to see a life extinguished.  He knows the next life must be his, because there will be no rescue, and the future in this one is a void.

#

Sala’s summoner chimes as she is making breakfast.  It is Alanee.

“Sala-ba, I want to go to the river.”

“What, in this?” Beyond her window a gentle snow still falls.

“I want to see the City from the outside.  I want to breathe real air.”

“Aye, well!”  Sala sighs resignedly.  “We’d better go, then.  I shall bring you boots and furs, lots of furs!”

After her previous day’s ordeal, Alanee had been too exhausted to want for anything but a bath and sleep.  Eventually she had accepted Sala’s vehement protestations that she had no part in her abduction.  Seil’s actions had been as much a shock to her as to Alanee herself.  Alanee wanted to believe Sala, how she had struggled with Seil in trying to follow Alanee through that impossible door.  So, conditionally forgiven, Sala had tempted her to a drink at Toccata’s.

Back in her apartment, having wished her friend goodnight, Alanee – she did not know why- had checked her summoner to see if Celeris had called her (and been piqued to discover he had not) before running herself the hottest, deepest bath and sleeping in it until it was cold enough to wake her, at which time she had crawled into her bed and slept again.  There her alarm found her in the morning.

“Your wrists!”  Sala exclaims, as she assists Alanee into a fur coat which is large and generous enough to make her apprehensive, lest she find the animal still inside:  “Who could damage you so brutally?”

Sala has not asked what happened to Alanee after she was pushed by Seil through that door, though she berated Seil afterwards:  “She’s on my unspeak list.  I never did like the woman.” – and Alanee is thankful, for she does not want her friend to be subject to Ellar’s threats.

“Come on!” She urges:  “Show me the way out of here!”

“Very unwillingly!  My skin will be ruined!”

Sala continues this gentle complaint along the length of two corridors.  At the end of the second she stops before a silver hemispherical door, a feature Alanee has seen and wondered at on her previous adventures.  “You press here, see?”

The door slides upwards, revealing a spherical pod with seats around its inner sides.  Straps hang from a rail above their heads.

“Sit down, hang on!”

“Wheeeee!”

In a single operation the sphere closes and turns through ninety degrees, then descends, not with the slow grace of an open elevator, but with the speed and fervour of a racing aerotran.  Alanee feels herself physically lifted from her seat by the rush.   Almost as soon as it has started it is over.   With a hiss of compressed air they are slowed, the doors slide open.

“There!  Five hundred feet in sixteen seconds!  Impressive, huh?”  Sala laughs at Alanee’s open-mouthed expression.  “Oh Alanee!  You aren’t going to be sick, I hope?”

It is not the rapid descent that has stupefied Alanee.  It is the view before her.   She has expected a hall of some kind, a foyer:  instead she is gazing out at the unfettered world beyond the City walls.  They have only to take a few steps to be walking in snow.  And such snow!  It drifts about them, soft, caressing flakes that idle in an irresolute breeze.  It crunches underfoot: it loads the trees that flank them as they walk; it clothes the entire world in bridal white.  A child of the Hakaani Plains has never seen this transformation, this sheer weight of nature.

Alanee is moved to skip:  Sala giggles fluffily from behind the concealment of her furs.  She takes Alanee’s first snowball in good part, her second as a call to battle.  Soon they are so smothered with the stuff they look like a pair of burst pillows and helpless with laughter, and Sala, hands clutched to her sides, begs for a truce.  Arm in arm the pair walk down terraces, using paths kept open by the drabs:  and drabs are the only life they meet:  two solemn men in habitual flannel grey, seemingly impervious to the cold, pushing snow-boards mechanically, repeatedly.  Neither young or old, happy or sad.

As she passes, Alanee sighs to see them so.  “Don’t they have something warmer to wear?  They must be frozen stiff!”

Sala shakes her head:  “Theirs is a punishment detail:  they will have done something wrong, like creating a blasphemy, or slacking in their normal work.  A punishment for them, and a punishment for me, Alanee, haven’t you had enough air yet?”

“You can’t be cold under all those furs!  I want to see the river.”

“The river?  Habmenach, that’s miles!”

It is perhaps half a mile.  As they walk, they speak of general things, of Sala’s life in the City, how she came to be a mediator for the High Council.

“I have always been here.  I am a city child.  I was educated at the Porstron, learned the classics – picked for higher office when I was sixteen.  Then university, some time as a probationer, and…”  Sala spreads her arms.  “Here I am!”

“So your parents – they live here, in the City?”

“No.  I’m a seminal.”

“A what?”

“When the elders want to fill a position in the City, they pick the best from the whole of the land; in the case of mediators, for example, they want good social skills, intelligence, beauty…”  She rattles off the attributes like a list, without conceit.  “So they select from all the population.  I was brought in from Oceana Levels, a Mansuvine child from some village or other, I don’t know which, when I was three or four years old.  I have no memory of my parents.”

“Oh my!  Doesn’t that make you sad?”

“No.  But your sympathy is sweet.  You have parents of course.”

Alanee tries to remember her parents; to recall a time so long ago now, and so far away.

“I had parents once.”  She turns so she may see the Consensual City from the outside for the first time.  Not for nothing does it stand upon a mighty spear of rock, high walls tinted by the pink of a weak winter sun:  they do not a prison make, yet now she knows it is a prison:  sumptuous, luxurious, well-padded, but a prison nonetheless.

Something she has wanted to ask for some days now.  She has wondered – where, in this vast place, are the children?  Sala provides her answer:

“In the Children’s Village.  There is a suburb to the north of the city where the children are taken.  I grew up in the Academy there, The Porstron for gifted ones.”

“We never see them; the children, I mean?”

“Oh, of course!  They are brought to us for socialisation.  It is quite an event, once every fourth cycle.  I think they are adorable, the little ones.”

“You’re talking about them as though they were separate from you, though:  almost as if you never mixed with them.”

Sala’s brow furrows:  “That’s true, we (the seminals) were always kept apart.  I suppose because we had to learn faster than they – we never questioned it.”

Alanee thinks to herself it might be time to ask a lot more questions, but she sees that Sala does not have all the answers.  She changes tack.

“Now, Sala ba, do you never wish that you had….?”

“Oh, Habbach!  Had a child of my own?  No, never!  Habbach!”

“You have never made a couple with anyone?  Never wanted to?”

Through these dribbles of conversation they stroll, kicking through the snow until  they reach the Balna River.  Here they lean upon a rail, gazing out over the wide, ice-locked water, listening to the silence.

“I have wanted to.”  Sala says:  “Yes, I have that.  Don’t please believe of me that I do not get on with men.  But it is not consistent with my work to couple.  My career, you see?”  She snaps a twig from a frozen branch and throws it so it slithers across the ice.  “Please, Alanee, can we go back now?  I think my toes are dropping off!”

Sala’s face is hidden, smothered by her furs:  Alanee cannot see, yet she can hear the break in Sala’s voice, as if somewhere beneath that sophisticated front a tear is waiting.

With a sigh, for she is happy here, in the freedom of this sharp air, Alanee turns away from the wide black water and the mystery of its further side, trying to imagine how life will spring from those frozen banks when spring comes.  She links arms with Sala, and together they begin the climb back to the immensity of the City.

#

It is early afternoon.  Alanee and Sala have lunched together at one of Sala’s favourite haunts, then walked and talked amid the flowers and trees of the indoor Grand Park.  Since they returned from the Balna their conversation has been stilted, bitty, conspicuous in the subjects it has avoided, rather than those it has embraced.  When at last they are ready to rest weary feet Sala invites Alanee to her apartment.  This is the first time.  Alanee has never seen Sala’s home.

Sala lives on the east side of the City, in a small two-roomed flat with outside windows that overlook the bend in the valley where the Balna stretches down to Farland Bridge, and the way to the river is rocky and steep.  This gives the view an added loftiness, a cliff-edge feeling Alanee imagines she could find uncomfortable, if she were reminded of it every morning.

Sala’s taste in décor is as close to perfect as Alanee could have expected, although there are touches of quirkiness, like the Arbaal tribal masks that adorn her bedroom wall.  There are deep, comfortable cushions everywhere, so many that a visitor might feel they could fall in any direction and always land softly:  colours are dark and warm.  There is a delicate scent of spice.

They lounge together in the declining winter light from the window – they take Absient, savour its peppery taste on their tongues, let its hot blessing warm their throats.  They say little.

In the long minutes between droplets of conversation Alanee wonders at their friendship.  She still knows so little, really, of Sala’s past and that she does know only confirms how different they are.

“What was it like, being one of a couple?”  Sala asks.

The question drops suddenly into the still pool, so that Alanee barely hears it until the ripples start to spread.

“Fine.  I mean, more than fine: wonderful, I suppose.”  From understatement to overstatement;  what does she really mean?  The question crosses the lines of difference, breeches Sala’s defence; she is unready for it, the subtle note of envy.  An image of the man from her library shelf of closed memories falls open: who was he, in fact, that person who came into her life for so short a time, who left so unexpectedly?  And what can she say that will possibly encompass such a space?

“He was moody once in a while.  He had a way of making life seem pointless sometimes, then other times he was the only thing that made it worth living.  He was funny, he was loud, he was…”  She tails off; she sees the futility of what she is trying to say.  It isn’t working: it isn’t a description.  Nothing could be, really.  “Then he died.  He just died.”

They stare through the window, watching long shadows as they creep across the valley.  Soon there will be only darkness beyond the glass.

Alanee asks:  “Have you ever….been with a man?”  Then she says quickly:  “Oh, I know; that’s a foolish question – I mean, with your job you must, I mean, sometimes…”  She would stumble on, but Sala’s touch on her arm stops her.

“Yes.  Not just because of my work, either:  sometimes through companionship, once even, I believe, because of love.”  Sala sighs. “Ah, the best stories are never told.”

“What happened to him?”

“He’s still here, in the City.  It wasn’t possible, you see?  Not possible.”

“And you still see him.  Are you friends?”

“We try to avoid each other when we can, but we are bound to meet sometimes.  This is not a large community.”

Sala’s fingers stroke Alanee’s arm and Alanee takes them between her own so they interlock.  Sala turns her hand to draw their arms together, flesh on flesh.

“Am I?”  Alanee says.

“What, ba?  Are you what?”

“Part of your work?”

She turns so she may look at Sala, her free hand brushing long hair back from her face.  Sala’s eyes are far off, gripped by something, and she is shaking, gently shaking.  She says in a tremulous voice, barely more than a whisper:

“No, Alanee my ba.  Oh, no.  When we first met, perhaps, but no longer.  No.”

Alanee tilts her friend’s head to see the real tears there, and kisses each one.  Then she takes her lips and kisses them too, in a joining that is deep and long.

The friends linger together at a threshold; in a stillness of time, touching and touching – cheeks, foreheads, fingers, lips.  Neither wants to make the step, but Sala must.  When she pushes back Alanee’s robe Alanee does not resist, and holds her hungry eyes until the moment Sala bends to take her nipple in her mouth.  She cradles Sala’s dark head against her breast as though she were a suckling child, feeling her own hunger rising in spite of herself, and at this moment is ready to accept the hand that slips so softly down:  but though she waits, and though she tries, there is no wild awakening, there in the twilight.  No fire, no insanity of need.  She reaches for her own desire and finds none.  Yet she would help her friend, ritualise a feeling she does not share, if Sala should wish it.  But Sala knows the truth.

After a while of futility, when the heat has subdued and they sit side by side once more, Alanee simply says:  “I’m sorry, ba.”

And Sala sighs with a fathomless sadness:  “It’s all right, my dear.  It’s all right.”

#

Any night in any city there will be those who cannot sleep:  those whose thoughts are troubled, who cannot fill the hours until morning.  Alanee, who has parted with Sala, wanders home with heavy heart.  The hours will be long before she rests.

Sala, meticulously tidying her little apartment, struggles to find the equilibrium she lost not an hour since. 

Sire Cassix, in the watchtower, gazes at the further sky, alone until Lady Ellar comes to interrupt his peace with her concerns

“He wants more screens; more screens all the time.”

Cassix would be taciturn.  “Then he must have them.”

Ellar demurs.  “The Nursery Apartments are full of them – screens on the walls, on the tables; there’s even one…”  She adds emphasis; “In the bedroom over his bed.  He’s obsessed.”

Cassix shakes his head:  “Twenty-four hours does not make an obsession.  This is normal; to be expected.”

“Normal ?  Well possibly, but desirable?  Can you imagine the sort of auto-suggestion that would have been transmitted today if we had not filtered it?  Can you countenance the behaviour of the populace if his emanations get too strong for us to contain?  Incidentally, he has tried to link with our young lady; tried quite hard, and I don’t believe she as much as noticed.  It is incredible.”  Ellar pauses.  “You look ill.  You must take more rest, Sire.”

Cassix’s features are drawn and pale.  His voice has lost a little of its edge.  He shrugs. “It will pass.  Ellar, Hasuga is monitoring his body’s changes far better than you or I could do.  It is just curiosity.  Again, though, let me remind you who is arbiter of what is considered normal?”

“Originally we weren’t going to let him have screens of her.”

“He would have demanded them.  The crux of the matter is whether we should have spied on her at all.  If Portis had not insisted… But I still think you are over-reacting.  We are seeing a passing phase, nothing more.”

Ellar’s shrug seems to say:  ‘Very well.  If you cannot see the dangers I see…’  But then, Cassix is the Seer – she should accept his analysis; and would, if he was not so impossibly benign at times.

“Can I at least address the issue of Mother’s concerns?  She is frantic.”

“I imagine she is.”  Cassix has turned his head and his mind back to the skies.  He knows there is something he should understand; that the upheaval in the heavens is telling him something, but he cannot grasp what it is.

Ellar follows his eyes, although she cannot see anything tonight.  Her skies are dark and unremarkable.  She sighs; murmurs: “I begin to sympathise with our honoured Domo’s distaste for this.  I do not have your gifts, Cassix, but with my untutored eye I foresee chaos.”

Cassix does not answer for a long time.  Perhaps his thoughts lie out among the stars.   At last he says, equally quietly:  “Deal with it, Ellar.  In our deliberations you are very much a part of the equation – the balance.  We stand often in your capable shadow.  But in dealing with it remember if you can:  maybe chaos is part of the equation too.”

   Mother, awake at the habbarn as her baby sleeps, exhausted at last.  Above his head the flickering mayhem of a screen, upon it Alanee’s prostrate figure, gazing down on him.  Any night in the Consensual City:  or anywhere – in any world.

© 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.