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And I Can’t Sail my Yacht…

How am I a lucky man?

I’m a natural ‘Lockdowner’ – an instinctive hermit!  It’s my nature to sit on the sidelines – it’s just that the sidelines are a little more to the side, these days.  Retired and retiring – that’s me!

Alright, time to stop gloating.  I wouldn’t presume to instruct anyone how to live their life, but if your toes are beginning to twitch and you’re picking fights with the dog, here are a few possibly helpful tips from an old head.

1.  Married Bliss:

If you’re young and in love, being in each other’s arms for every minute of every day will be wearing a bit thin by now.  If you have grown cynical with age, it probably never held a great deal of attraction for you.  Either way, avoid extremes: criticizing your partner as they go about their daily tasks will start to carp after a while, ‘constructive suggestions’ may induce violence.  If you must offer ‘advice’, pick upon activity with potential for a soft landing – when the blinds need to be drawn and when not will merely result in a broken blind; commenting on deficiencies in ironing technique could end in physical injury.

2. Give each other space.  When you agreed to live together you never agreed to twenty-four hours of actual proximity.   You were both working.  You met briefly,  morning and evening.  That’s all you ever agreed to.  Change that arrangement as little as possible.  If you can’t, plead ‘self isolation’ and go and live in the shed.

3.   Manage your space.   This is particularly difficult in the UK, as very few of us inhabit mansions or castles where sat nav is needed to find the bathroom.  For most, the standard three-bedroom house can still, with a little ingenuity, afford ‘office’ space for each grown-up.  Once achieved, that’s PRIVATE TERRITORY.     If you want to share, use the router.

4.  Manage the children.    You can’t manage children – don’t try.  However, if you have a household PET you can corral them together as much as possible (this works best with dogs and cats – Iguanas, tarantulas and snakes might yield less satisfactory results).

5.   Avoid ‘news’ as much as possible. 

In UK ten minutes twice daily is all that’s necessary to keep up with the latest rules.  The rest is mawkish repetition of slogans meant to subdue the most obtuse of us, and propaganda to persuade us we are doing everything better than everybody else (untrue).  

6.  Take the six-foot gap convention seriously.  Social distancing means a reappraisal of our subject matter, unless we can be sure our conversation with the added volume required won’t be overheard;

“Mervyn!”

“Fred!”

“How are yer, lad?”

“Fine now, like!”

“How are the warts?”

“Clearin’ up.  That ointment’s marvellous

“Helluva weekend, wasn’t it?”

Save conversations on personal matters for texting, or, if you prefer, confidential chats with your fridge, microwave, or dish washer (avoid discussions with the cooker, they tend to get overheated:  nudge, nudge).  I read of someone who was outraged to think he had started talking to his fridge – I couldn’t understand that:  doesn’t everyone talk to their white goods?   I’ve had some the best advice from my tumble-dryer down the years.  Try it!

7.   Keep yourself interested.  Read, but target your reading.  Research something you can learn from – become knowledgeable in the sleeping habits of the Pipistrelle bat, or study  Welsh, so the next time you go to Portmeirion, you’ll be able to discuss china with the girls in the shop. 

Remember, boredom is at the heart of this thing.   Boredom is more deadly than any virus.

Enjoy lockdown, and above all, STAY SAFE!

Picture Credits:

Sharon Mccutcheon on Unsplash

R.I. Butov from Pixabay

Omni Matryx from Pixabay

Banner: Omni Matryx from Pixabay

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 Eighteen: Venom

In the previous episode:

After her drunken attempt to seduce Celeris at the Spring Rising, Alanee accidentally stumbles upon a tiny speaker concealed within her pillow.   Portis and Ellar summon her to a meeting in which she learns some of the City’s history and discovers The Book.  She asks to meet Cassix, the Seer.

Meanwhile, in his vantage point at the edge of the Dometian disaster zone Councillor Trebec, discusses the genocide of those Dometians who escaped the destructive wall, and learns from his commander, Zess, that one aerotrans pilot is still missing…

In the deep forest a steady rain falls.  Dag Swenner has lost all sense of time, lying where he fell when he could no longer cling to the tree bough that had been his refuge for a while.  Beside him, cheek by jowl, the monster that so nearly took him from the world; his adversary then, companion now on his lonely road to death.    His ancestors are gathered in his Heaven, sombre-faced, waiting to welcome him home. 

He knows he cannot not keep them waiting long.

High in the canopy of the forest a raindrop finds a leaf and runs its length, following a vein until it ends, then drips and falls to a blue, serrate leaf  that waits below, and thence downward over half a hundred different shapes and colours on its descent to the forest floor.  From each leaf it takes a little substance, a savor so delicate and subtle it will look unchanged, taste unaltered.  It falls finally upon the lips of the man who lies dying, and its moisture comforts him.

#

Alanee is in the ante-rooms of the High Council Chambers when Valtor the Convener intercepts her.  Valtor is a small, pallid Protean with a confidential air.

“My Lady.”  He treats Alanee to a sweeping bow, making her take two surprised backward steps.  “He would grant you an audience.”

He?”

“Yes, Lady.  He! Great Sire Hasuga.”  Valtor articulates these words in a reverent whisper.

“Oh, him.  Tell him to give me an hour.  I’ve got to collect some clothes in the City.”

Such colour as Valtor has leaves his face and his jaw drops open.  His hands, effete at best, fly to cover his ears.  “Lady Alanee!  I did not hear that!  I did not hear that!  He is the Great Sire Hasuga; our sovereign benefactor!  If I take such a reply back to him my life will surely be forfeit!”

Alanee leans in towards him.  “Mister whoever you are, if he is the Great Sire Hasuga you say he is, he already heard it.  No harm will come to you or him in waiting.”  She turns on her heel and heads for the Courtyard, leaving Valtor speechless in her wake.

In her defiance of Hasuga, Alanee is not merely being self-willed.  She needs time before she confronts the strange, unnatural boy, time to assimilate all she has heard and learnt.  Ellar’s few simple explanations that should have been all she needed to join the pieces of the jigsaw her life has been, that made everything fit so neatly, will now throw up a multitude of new questions.  How in the name of the Great Habbach is it possible?  How can the deeds and actions of mankind be decided by the thoughts of a small boy?  Yet she sees it to be true, just as she sees The Book, and all the thousands of lines of unreadable language that now rest somewhere in her head, has provided her with answers – if only she could read them.

A riddle, then; but not the most confusing riddle, Alanee thinks.  How did she move The Book, lift it from its place, and why, when she did so, had she the feeling that its progenitor, its ancient father, belonged to her?  From the moment in that chamber when her eyes rested upon The Book she felt an insipient presence, another mind, another knowing, melding with her own.  It had left her now, as precipitately as it had come – where did it originate?  In The Book?   She knows she was not alone in her mind while it was with her, possessing her.  In fact, a part of her wonders if she was there at all?

She calls Sala.

Sala’s voice is ragged:  “Oh, Ba, I swear I could sleep for a year!”

Alanee says:  “I’m going to see the demon child.”

“Who?”

Then Alanee remembers.  Sala will never have heard of Hasuga.  She does not know that he exists.

#

“I have made you powerful, haven’t I?”  Hasuga is perched upon the edge of his bed, his little face creased in a leer.

Alanee stares.  “Powerful?  How?”

“You have learned about The Book.  Ellar cannot resist you now, Portis cannot match you!  I have given you power.”

“Are you telling me it was you inside my head, in that room?”

“Did you enjoy the sensation?”  Hasuga asks.  There is a vibrancy about him that is unpleasant.  His young features are twisted in a way that no longer speaks of innocence, but of bitterness and pain.  His bedchamber, too, is greatly changed.  The complex machine which consumed so much space last time she was here has grown yet more.  Rampant, it spirals about the room.  There are no street scenes to augment its composition now, it is a structure of obsession, a homage to Hasuga’s apparent fixation with snakes.

Alanee prods it.  It is cold and unyielding.  “What does it do, this thing?”

“What I want.”

“Yes, you said that last time.  It occupies most of your room, so it does something important.  What can this ….”

Hasuga cuts her off. “Watch!”  With one tendrilous finger he points.  As if his spark has given it life, the machine  transforms instantly into a serpent, a boa constrictor of whipping tail and rainbow colours that rears its head to heaven then glares down upon Alanee with cold yellow eyes.   Jumping back, for a frozen second she fears its strike, but it plays a different game.  In a rasp of friction its endless body wraps and wraps again into a tightly-wound coil at Hasuga’s side.  

Alanee’s heart rediscovers its rhythm.  She forces herself to look up at the snake’s broad head which regards her evilly, wearing an expression very like a smile.  The smile of the Music Man and his gently inveigling tune, with an enticement only the eyes of a serpent can bring.  What is within its protection?  What do those coils hide from her?  She is consumed by a wish to see what it holds within.  And as if in answer to her wish the image of the snake that was only ever in her mind fades.

Two life-sized figures materialise in its stead, each so real she might reach out to touch them and be met by flesh; and this is the more disconcerting because one of the figures is herself, her partly-clothed image engaged in some awkward, almost mannerly form of dance.  So mortified is she by this violation she does not at first identify the other figure; a man clad in a robe, as Celeris.  Celeris grotesquely aroused   For a moment she believes he might actually be real, so substantial does his image appear. He is dancing too.  The images are close to one another, almost touching.  It is clear that Celeris is in distress; as if he is in a vortex from which he cannot escape: his face is puckered, tears roll down his cheeks; he tries repeatedly to cover himself, to hide his shame.

“Stop it!”  Alanee rounds angrily upon Hasuga, “It’s disgusting!  Switch it – turn it – whatever you do – off!”

“You do not like Celeris?”  Hasuga has been watching her with what she will remember as his ‘dungeon face’; enquiry, curiosity, absorption, an utter lack of compassion. The images vanish.

“My feelings concerning Celeris have nothing to do with – with that!  That was voyeurism, exploitation.  You’ve been watching me, haven’t you?  You’ve seen me with him!”

Hasuga does not answer.  Those first emanations of malice seem to have dissipated.  Once more she believes he is emotionally uninvolved, that he sees her reaction as nothing more than a missing piece of information.  He says quietly, his voice a sibilant hiss:  “Then perhaps this will better please you.”

Beneath her feet the grey texture of the floor is altered to green.  Her toes touch the cool inquisitiveness of grass.  All around her a crowd, roaring and hungry and from somewhere – from nowhere – an agile figure in red and black appears; her man!  Kalna-meh, across the years, so real she might grab him now and hold him, stop the moment she already sees must follow; but no.

Hand-springing upwards upon muscular arms to catch a disc of 12 inches diameter between his feet, her husband’s arm eludes her as he turns to deliver the perfect pass, a thrust that will send the disc up-field where a second identically-clad figure waits, plucking it from the air then ducking as an opponent in blue and brown-striped clothes flies above his head.  With a sweeping movement of his foot, the red and black figure launches the disc so it spins with awesome speed towards two posts in the distance.  The crowd-sound reaches a crescendo.  A foot-game is in full swing.

Now the whole field is opened up for her to see.  Feeling the gorge rising in her throat Alanee chokes out in her fury:  “No!  Don’t do this!  NO!”

She stands amidst it all.  The twenty players in their contrasting strips, the vast banks of humanity that watch them,, the green of the pitch, the blue disc that never falls to earth unless a player pins it there.  And there he is, in the red and black of his Hakaani team, his dear features set in that deep, concentrated stare she knows (knew) so well!  As the disc is re-launched he is running, leaping, twisting to intercept.  He takes it on the catch-stud at the tip of his right foot, already poised for the answering shot, not seeing the blue-striped adversary who has committed to the same target, the same position.  Mid-air, mid-twist they meet foot to head, and her beloved Kalna crumples and falls to earth like a doll made of rags.  The crowd is reduced to stupified silence.  The rag-doll twists and twitches for a few last seconds in the grass, then is still.  The scene is lost in misted grey, fading until the room is normal once more..

Alanee cannot speak.  In white horror she just stares at the place which showed Kalna-meh’s final moments.

“He was your coupling?”  Hasuga’s eyes have never left her.

“Yes.  How did you…?”

“I am Hasuga.”

“You are a bastard.”  Alanee says, with gravitas.

“I know the meaning of that word.  I am not a bastard.”

“Alright then, you’re a ghoul, a monstrous little fiend!”  Alanee cannot restrain her tears.  “I loved him.  Do you understand ‘love’?  Like your love for your Mother, but much deeper, much more personal, and – and how could you show me that?  How?”

“I am Hasuga and I am learning.”  His voice remains completely dispassionate. “Go now.”

“Go?   Leave?”  Alanee can think of no riposte, no revenge she can wreak upon this creature, though she would take his evil machine and twist it around that scrawny neck if she could.  So she forces her embittered soul to execute an elaborate curtsey and drags the ruins of herself from his royal presence.

In the elevator, then later in the gardens beyond the city where she can be alone, she might weep, and does, for the images she has been shown will last with her, perhaps for all of her life..  But although the gardens are busy with the first miracles of the coming summer, no fresh green shoots can lift the djinn of grief from her soul.  Her footsteps lead her by the riverside, where few City-dwellers will see her hammer and hammer furious fists upon the guardrail until her white flesh is bruised and broken; or hear her wounded soul declare itself at one with those great white floes which snarl like wrestlers in the fast-running current.  In the maelstrom below the bridge a luckless boat left loose-moored by its painter, a workers’ boat, no more than a skiff probably used to dredge for crayfish when summer comes, is punched and crunched against the bank.

There is little enough, Alanee feels, to distinguish her own fate from that of the tiny craft.  A farmer’s girl untutored in the ways of the big city, tossed and turned as she clings to a slender thread that must at last give way…..

There is a marble bench where she sits, seeking an answer in the deep black waters, until late in the afternoon.  There were times in the hours and days that followed Kalna-meh’s death when she had thought about the value of her continued life.  If the mucous jaws of the melting river should open to invite her in, is she tempted?  Who would see?  The rail is low: the desired result is certain.  A minute, no more, in that frigid gateway to better things beyond, to a place where Kalna-meh’s open arms wait to greet her.  And Dag – is Dag there, too?  Her thoughts are confused.  Grieving, she stares into the turbulent darkness and dreams of home.

Is she sleeping?  There is a leaf – just there – upon a tree that overhangs the water:  one she has not given credence before.  A tree made peculiar by gnarled and tangled branches as though it stood upon a windswept moor.  She plucks the leaf, toys with it in her hands, not questioning how she reached it without moving from her seat upon the bench.  Then another strand of foliage, much different from the first: she takes this frond from a fern-like source at the riverside.  Then more:  she sees each leaf, each plant minutely, she knows what each will bring to her, their proper sequence.  A blue serrate example – surely out of season?  Three – four – five – six – soon twelve contrasting samples of spring growth rest within her grasp.  Such is the depth of her knowledge she can remember them all.

Now the rain; a heavy beat upon her back.  When all the leaves she holds in her cupped hands are wet from the downpour a sudden compulsion makes her clutch them to her stomach and hold them there. Although the evening air is chill a radiant warmth rises like a vapour around her

“Lady Alanee?”

The voice at her shoulder stirs her.  Instinctively she glances down at her hands, resting empty on her lap. They are – she is – dry.  No rain falls.  Was it really just a dream?

“Lady Alanee you look unwell!”  Celeris is there.  Celeris, a mirror of concern; his clear brows puckered, eyes a-brim with anxiety.

“Celeris!  Oh, Celeris it is so good to see you!”  Alanee’s delight is undisguised.

“I could not pass by.”  His hesitancy reminds her of the awkwardness of their last encounter.  She reassures him.

“I am glad you didn’t. Come, please, sit with me?  Talk to me?”

“Talk. Of course, I will try.”  He sits beside her on the bench, and the careful way he arranges the hem of his toga lifts her heavy heart.  “What shall we talk about?”

“Oh, of the coming of spring, of life and stuff – just talk!”

“Very well.  The coming of spring is very – regenerative.”

Alanee cannot help laughing.  “Lots of plants and flowers; you know, growing things.”

Does he colour just a little?  “I suppose so.”  Then he notices:  “Your hands!  What have you done to your hands?”

“Oh nothing.”  She has already forgotten the bruising she inflicted upon herself.  “They don’t hurt me.”  Unspoken, the words:  ‘Only people can hurt me’ bring forth a truth.  Physical injury is a consolation, a way to expiate the pain inside.

The gardens are quiet.  A few older couples idle on the bridge while an odd drab or two can be seen beavering among flower-beds on the hill. 

“You know, back in the Hakaan when I was a girl, spring was a season for new friendships.  After the winter rains, just to come outside and sit on a riverbank like this, maybe with a boy you’d not really talked to before, was a great adventure.  You might see something in his eyes that you liked, and he’d be shy, and neither of you could find much to say at first.  But there’d be that instant when your arm might brush with his, and your hands might touch….”  Scarcely aware of what she does, Alanee takes Celeris’s hand in hers…  “Then you might turn and find your lips were close to his, and it would be so easy to kiss; but of course….”  She turns, offering the invitation, then corrects herself swiftly, “This is not the Hakaan, and such behaviour in the Consensual City would be completely inappropriate, wouldn’t it?”

“Lacking sophistication.”  He agrees.

“Quite uncouth!”  Finally, with a laugh:  “Are your eyes really black?”

“I do not know.”  Celeris murmurs, his eyes seeming to get even blacker.  He returns his gaze to the racing river.  “The things you describe sound very attractive to me, Lady Alanee.”

For a while neither speaks.  Alanee cradles his long, sensitive fingers in her hand. 

They are alone.  Even the drabs have shouldered their tools and departed for the evening.  Her mind has a gentle music.  She thinks of the treasures she might discover were she to delve deeper into her affinity with this enigmatic man; of the secrets she might find; the pleasures she might teach.  At last, sighing, he asks if she has eaten: she shakes her head.

“I’m not hungry.”

Nodding as though he is conscious of the gravity of this moment, Celeris says: “Then I shall escort you to your door, Lady.”

“No.” Alanee declines.  “I can’t go back there.  There are cameras spying on me.  I can never go back there again.”

Celeris registers no surprise at this – which Alanee can forgive:  after all she imagines voyeurism is probably common practice in this loathsome place.  He says quietly:  “Very well; but you must have somewhere to sleep.  The hour is late.  Could I….dare I ….offer you my hospitality?  I would not intrude.”

“Aren’t there cameras in your apartment too?”  She reasons:  “They’re everywhere, aren’t they?”

“My poor Lady!”  His eyes are mirrors of her sadness.  “You would be my honored guest.  You have my word no-one will observe you!”

How quickly Alanee’s expression alters to one of open gratitude!  “Then I would be honoured, Sire Celeris.”

“The honour, Lady, is all mine.”

“Ba.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Not ‘Lady’ – ‘ba’.”  Alanee takes his hand firmly, to be rewarded instantly by his powerful, confident grip – so much in contrast to the diffidence and uncertainty in the man – as he leads her back into the City.

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

Photo credit: Jan Kopriva on Unsplash