Pranswat Passes Through

Les Sklaroff

"There is no such thing as Accident; it is Destiny misnamed."
Cherth Pranswat of Sirisulsor, Omnant Exemplary of the Order of Seven Streams.

Snoak was on the whole a secular community, benignly tolerant of visitors professing beliefs based on ancient texts or exclusive revelations of the divine, provided that such visitors did not disturb the peace by seeking to convert the unenlightened. Nonetheless some of Snoak’s own citizens still found comfort in practices many would think superstitious.

The redoubtable Ebby Blates, gossip-in-chief at the Multimart, drew confidence from her studiously embellished hats; objects of ineffable power and sometimes terrifying beauty. Equally garrulous though less conspicuous, Ched Pellet, a stalwart employee at Greeming & Trulph, would eat fish only when the moon was full. Even Tedor Safra, creator of piquant delicacies at The Cylinder in Gropp’s Market, appeared to resort to prayer before allowing any of his distinctive dishes to be presented to a customer, although it was suspected that he was silently repeating a mantra learned from his fierce maternal grandmother concerning the virtues of parsimony.

At the podport there was a brief flurry of excitement among the late morning shift, when a chartered overnight pod from Sirisulsor bound for Meheric reported a steering malfunction and was granted an emergency landing. While the pilot went in search of a mechanic the resplendently-robed passengers were safely conducted to a private lounge.

Cherth Pranswat of Sirisulsor, Omnant Exemplary of the Order of Seven Streams, regarded their unintended arrival in Snoak as a happy accident. They were now bound to miss an international conference on Preparedness, but he did not appear to be disconcerted. His characteristic air of amused composure was the product of years of meditative discipline. With quiet efficiency he contacted the organizers in Meheric to express his apologies and then arranged for their return home by public nightpod. There would be time for a little educational exploration. The Omnant and his entourage of ten Ferren wore the traditional grey-lined robes which on their outer surface bore a bright embroidered design of gold lightning above the seven interwoven streams of silver and blue. As it would be unseemly to draw attention to themselves he advised that they follow his example by wearing their robes reversed with the hoods down. Having made use of the podport’s hygiene facilities they set out to spend the intervening hours absorbing the ambiance of Snoak.

“For every place harbours its own peculiar brightness and its own particular breath,” the Omnant assured them.

There was indeed a certain indefinable brightness about Snoak City, imparted to some extent by the reflective qualities of the local stone, which was rich in silicates, and by the sunlight glancing off the Stirrow and weaving fluid patterns on the flanks of riverside buildings. Other contributing factors were landmarks such as Quanderpyre Tower, with its unavoidable flamingo pinkness, and the prismatic globe to the east which now hung over the art market. These remained luminous after the sun had set, adding their contrasting individuality to the chains of light along street and river, the glow above Praspafole Stadium and the softer illumination of Garrible Park.

Snoak’s exudations were multiple, and there was no specific area, other than possibly far above on a still day, where these might conveniently combine for the benefit of anyone interested in identifying what might be called its unique breath. Some of the contributory elements were distinctly unpleasant. A stagnant miasma still hovered over Gunder’s Bight, despite the clean-up programme which had received official approval after months of petitioning. Drainage from the nearby glassworks remained suspect, while the heady redolence of fermentation continued to flow from the brewery. Elsewhere one might encounter whiffs of hot glue and wood shavings, the tang of caramelizing onions, a wave of chlorophyll from mown grass mingling with complex floral scents from park and garden, oddly obscure chemical odours seeping faintly from the Neutrilax factory.

Maintaining a respectfully protective formation around the Omnant the grey-cloaked band slowly ventured south towards Central, following signs for crossing the river as pedestrians by the Hubbin Street tunnel. To most of the acolytes this was a new and fearful experience, and before descending into the comparative gloom of the stripway they turned to the Omnant for reassurance.

“The darkest night is no more than a passing shadow,” he told them.

Some minutes later they emerged into the bustle of streets surrounding the city’s administrative hub. Accustomed to a contemplative lifestyle, the acolytes shrank like startled tortoises into the anonymity of their robes as a bewildering stampede of noisy citizens swept past them. Cherth Pranswat stood with folded arms, waiting while his less experienced companions tried to adjust to the perfectly normal commotion of lunchtime in Snoak City. They would need to look for a more private space.

“Be calm, Ferren,” counselled the Omnant. “Though they seem like bats in a blizzard these good people are our unwitting hosts. There are many pathways to understanding, but we must first unlock the gates of fortitude.”

Ten heads bowed, acknowledging the probable wisdom of this advice.

In a self-effacing grey huddle the group gradually made its way round the octagonal perimeter of Central, through the cacophony of the street market. Among the stallholders was Pindo Arrik, whose many varieties of exotic nuts were set out in precise pyramidal towers which he rebuilt between his infrequent sales. The sales were infrequent partly because his prices were too high, but also because potential customers were reluctant to disturb the geometry of the merchandise. He kept a watchful eye on passers-by, and had seen this somewhat unusual group approaching. They appeared to be wearing dressing-gowns. He noticed that they seemed to show little or no interest in any of the wares displayed on either side. They glided by his own stall in a silent phalanx, only the flicking of their eyes attesting that they were observing their surroundings. He watched them move past the fruits and herbs and on towards the florists and the bric-a-brac vendors. Pindo returned his attention to his stall, where he was aghast to find that all but one of his meticulously built pyramids had unaccountably collapsed into crude random heaps.

They carried on past the crowded entrance to the auditorium where a small contingent of shy young autograph-hunters mistook them for the itinerant singing troupe Wohoko. The subsequent ripple of excitement spread through the queue, which had been waiting, admittedly without great enthusiasm, for an amateur recital on a flatwater harp. The queue fragmented into argumentative clusters of Wohoko fans and those with more liberal tastes. There were minor scuffles, quelled by the vigilant intervention of CenSec.

Meanwhile, Praswat’s posse had reached the relative tranquillity of Fountain Square. The long ornamental benches around the periphery were already occupied by people lunching alfresco, so they were obliged to find room on the steps leading up to the fountain, where a fine cold spray wafted over them at the whim of the wind. In an unspoken adherence to their principles they each strove to find this experience rewarding, an effort made more difficult as the day was not particularly warm, and with their heads uncovered they suffered the additional discomfort of moisture slowly matting their hair and trickling down necks and faces.

They sat quietly under this intermittent mizzle, ignored by the populace until one inquisitive child, a boy of about five, intrigued by this incongruous cluster of grey strangers on the fountain steps, ran up to stare at them.

“What you doin’?”

Fer Cargat, the nearest of the damp acolytes, looked down at him kindly. “We are visitors to Snoak from quite far away. Sirisulsor,” he explained.

A look of indignation wrinkled the boy’s face before he turned and rushed back across the square, asserting breathlessly: “I’m not, I’m not, I’m NOT a silly saucer!”

“A fledgling’s beak is seldom shut,” observed Pranswat, getting to his feet. He looked round at his bedraggled Ferren. “Come, we will move on.”

There were no objections. He guided them to the south-eastern corner of the square, from where holosigns indicated they had the choice of either re-crossing the Stirrow via the Yarp Street bridge, leading to what promised to be the gaudy extravagance of Gropp’s Market, or of continuing towards the imposing floral archway which was the closest entrance to Garrible Park. Immune to whatever expensive lures the Yarp Street arcades might have to offer, the Omnant led his Ferren into the welcoming expanse of the park.

In Fountain Square a small crowd had gathered around the irate woman who was complaining loudly that some strange men had made her little boy cry. Where they were now, or what they had said or done was not entirely clear, but there was general agreement that more should be done to protect children in public places.

As soon as they had entered the park the air seemed to lose its earlier chill and acquire an exhilarating freshness. They were unaware that the paths had been fitted with thermostatic tiles, and that among the border plants on either side the elegant stands of tropical grasses were genetically modified to increase oxygen production. These were among the innovations introduced by Garrible Park’s newly promoted design consultant, a resourceful young woman noted as much for her flame-coloured hair as for her creative landscaping.

They made their way slowly through the park, admiring the abundance of exotic trees, the subtle blending of colours and textures, the unexpected contrasts in foliage and blossom, dense ground-cover giving way to velvet-smooth clearings in which there might be a single whimsical flaunt or a cluster of enigmatic sculptures. The park was inhabited by the usual scattering of people, variously eating, reading, exercising, strolling, dozing, walking their modifidos or more outlandish paraPets. Horticulturalists formed knowledgeable groups around rare botanical specimens. Clinging couples sauntered, pausing to kiss. Young children pulled their escorting adult towards the play area.

A short distance away from one of the sculptures a solitary figure stood staring at nothing in particular, deep in reverie or contemplation. The Omnant and his group had quietly gathered round the construct: an arrangement of polished silvery dishes held in aerial suspension by a tracery of transparent rods and fine cables. Fer Muard, still learning to curb an instinctive impatience, began to pace round it, peering up and down in search of an inscription. The others waited until he had completed two such irregular orbits.

“I see no plaque,” he announced.

“Labelling is but an adjunct to identity,” observed Pranswat. “As much for that which is wrought, as that which forms without intervention.” Noticing a few uncomprehending looks among the Ferren he added quickly, “But perhaps some of you might like to suggest a suitable title?”

“’Accident in the kitchen’”, promptly offered Fer Nadfal.

“’The Ju… The Jug… Juggler’s Str… Str… Struggle?’” Fer Swoam blinked modestly, taken aback by his own temerity.

Fer Dilguar had been gazing blankly at the suspended discs. Not normally prone to leaps of the imagination, he believed he had spotted a theme. “’Stuck!’” he declared.

“Pardon me, gentlemen.”

The tall leather-clad man who had been standing nearby approached them. He looked to be in his twenties. His expression was slightly concerned, but his manner was friendly.

“Forgive the intrusion, but I couldn’t help overhearing. My name is Clage. I happen to be slightly acquainted with the designer of this construction, Irkel Upquap. It is one of a series he calls ‘Timepieces’. They do not have individual titles, but all relate to the perception of time.”

Pranswat turned abruptly from his examination of the sculpture, causing the hem of his robe to flap. “We are grateful for the information, Clage. Are you by chance also an artist?”

“No, I have neither the necessary skills, nor the required temperament. I am a humble student of philosophy.”

Pranswat smiled. “Then we have more in common than the outward evidence of our shared humanity.”

Clage hesitated before replying. He could be mistaken, but when the man had whirled round he had definitely glimpsed a flash of blue and silver, which could mean that for him this was a rare opportunity. He decided it was not a time for caution.

“Would I be right in thinking that you are members of the Order of Seven Streams?”

The Ferren were visibly startled. The Omnant’s smile broadened.

“You are most perceptive, Clage. We are indeed. These are my Ferren: Cargat, Muard, Jaulf, Bireng, Lebbark, Ruxis, Swoam, Nadfal, Trulkh and Dilguar.” He indicated each in turn. “I am Cherth Pranswat, Omnant Exemplary, of Sirisulsor.”

“It is an honour to meet you. I am not an adherent of any established set of doctrines, but the course I teach here at Sparagulan College includes a study of the principles of your Order. They have a clarity which I find is universally applicable.”

The Omnant spread his arms. “They are at everyone’s disposal. We are not hoarders.”

“May I ask what brings you to Snoak?”

“Our pod was bound for Meheric, but a mechanical fault persuaded the pilot that this would be a more appropriate destination.”

“Ah. ‘Accommodate, evaluate. Where needed, ameliorate?’“

“I see you are an attentive scholar, Magister Clage,” said the Omnant jovially. “As my Ferren well know, even the emptiest bowl is full of possibilities.”

Clage was not quite sure whether this was a compliment or a reproach. Perhaps he had been too familiar. Should he have used a more formal mode of address? Had he affronted the Ferren with his gauche lack of deference? He made a point of trying to treat others as equals, and was not intimidated by authority, but after all, he reminded himself, he was speaking to an actual Omnant - here in Garrible Park - a distinguished representative of a very select community. Pranswat interrupted his introspection.

“You appeared to be meditating as we arrived,” he stated. It was not a question, and Clage could simply have smiled and nodded, but in front of this eminent stranger he felt a compelling need to be completely honest.

“Not so much meditating, as reminiscing,” Clage admitted. “I used to come here with a good friend – a young woman. We were very close for a while, even though we didn’t always agree. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen her, and, well, I miss the arguments.”

The Omnant looked up at him, his deep-set dark eyes seeming to reach into Clage’s thoughts. “The arguments?” he echoed helpfully, steepling his fingers.

“I suppose I really mean that I miss the girl,” Clage confessed, astonishing himself with the plain truth of this revelation. There was no doubt that he used to relish their bouts of intellectual sparring. Tebbi had a lively mind, and a range of interests wider than his own. She was the radiance to his spotlight. Sudden wistful flashes of memory reminded him of intimate moments they had shared. No previous or subsequent relationship had been so volatile and yet so tender.

Pranswat was still watching his face. “Then of course you must act accordingly,” he said. “Though I cannot claim any expertise in these matters. When all leaves are shed, no twig remains hidden,” he added, turning to his acolytes. “Come, Ferren, we must not detain Magister Clage further. I believe he has a mission to accomplish.” With formal nods of acknowledgement the Omnant and his grey-robed group moved away from Upquap’s suspended discs in the direction of Thrissop Hill, following the path which led to the sunken garden.

Clage raised a hand in farewell, and stood watching them recede, feeling unusually calm. He wondered idly whether anyone – CenSec for example, kept a check on the identity of visitors to the park. Would Tebbi be surprised to know that he had met a genuine Omnant? If they did monitor visitors, he supposed that somewhere there could be a visual record of his own melancholy meanderings in all the many months since he and Tebbi had last been here together. He had not seen her since his final year as a student, when she was working as a researcher at Quanderpyre Tower. It was odd, but he couldn’t remember now why they had fallen out. If he could track her down, no doubt she would remind him; another risk worth taking, he thought. She used to live nearby with her friend Cendrel, and although he did not have Tebbi’s current address, he knew exactly where Cendrel could be found. Over a rise to his left he could just see the dome of the neatly porticoed building where she worked. He began to stride in that direction, swinging his arms with a certain rediscovered assurance.

Descent into the sunken garden was afforded by means of wide shallow steps, on either side of which, amid a diversity of mosses and ferns, twin waterfalls fed by hidden pipes tumbled over rocks down to a central pool. Ornamental bridges arched over each cascade, giving access to the mosaic paths on the other side. On these dry terraces of the elliptical hollow the park’s topiarists had created a fantastic tableau of animals and birds. Among these the Omnant and Ferren wandered with undisguised curiosity and occasional amusement, commenting on unexpected quirks of scale or capricious embellishments, such as the chain clutched in the talons of an eagle, or the jaunty hats perched on the heads of a troupe of otters.

In the depths of the pool, beneath flowering lotus and water poppies the Ferren observed sinuous flickers of movement; twists of scarlet, orange and glittering blue. Pranswat drew their attention to the series of regularly spaced spindly objects which stood around the pool. From a distance these had appeared to be saplings, but on closer inspection were more like elegant antique hatstands. From each of them hung several detachable acoustic helmets. Some were already in use by other visitors. The rapt expressions of those wearing them suggested there was evidently something worth hearing. Notices explained that the pool was stocked with piscoids – tonally interactive autokoi and goldfins from the Artifishery labs in Platport, and people were invited to ‘listen in‘. As the devices became available all the Ferren were able to experience the ethereal harmonies generated by the piscoids as they performed their untiring underwater ballet, continuously interweaving without ever colliding.

Having deferred his own turn, Pranswat thoughtfully replaced the helmet on its padded hook.

“Beguiling sounds indeed. The attentive ear responds to birdsong, thunder and the lapping of waves as well as any product of a composer’s mind, but what should we make of this intriguing hybrid music of piscoids?”

The comparative study of musical cultures was an integral part of a Ferren’s training. They left the sunken garden in deep discussion, and barely noticed some time later that they had walked half way round the perimeter of Garrible Park, and were now at the Prossing Street gate. By a happy chance this brought them within a few steps of Sparvey’s, Snoak’s most recently established eating-house, which, while not in competition with the more famous Cylinder, prided itself in serving wholesome food at reasonable prices. While the Ferren were by habit frugal, the Omnant saw no need to test their endurance unnecessarily. It was already late afternoon, and it would do no harm for them to be fortified for the journey home.

Sparvey’s welcoming door opened to the stately procession of grey robes. Their wearers were for the most part calmly impassive, as befitted the dignity of their Order. Chorren Sparvey had had a relatively quiet day, and was not averse to this unexpected arrival of custom. He personally ensured that the seating arrangements were satisfactory, instructed his staff to distribute menus and provide tempting bowls of complimentary appetizers. He wondered who they might be? A troupe of actors, perhaps, or residents of a local care home out for a spree? Whoever they were, to his experienced eye they all looked as though they would benefit from a decent meal.

An hour or so later, replete, rested and refreshed they set off for the podport, having established the most direct route from the map on Sparvey’s wallscreen. The sky, now a deepening greyish-violet, enhanced the hypnotic beauty of the globe which hung just to their left above the art market, like a huge coruscating marble.

“The creation of a Mr Weiger, according to Chorren Sparvey,” said the Omnant, who had learned this after paying for their very satisfactory meal. “Snoak’s private supplementary moon, lacking the scars of time, but pleasing to behold.”

They took the riverside path, skirting Praspafole Stadium. At this hour there was relatively little traffic on this stretch of the Stirrow; a few leisurely skimmers and the odd well-preserved commercial barge. Vehicles were officially prohibited along the pedestrian path, but there were occasional transgressors, usually in the form of adrenalin-fuelled teenagers, such as the whooping gang who came speeding towards them recklessly on their racing twindles on both sides of the path. Unperturbed, the Omnant raised one arm, his upright fingers signalling a straight-line formation, which the obedient Ferren adopted immediately, allowing safe passage in both directions. After a few moments there was a sound like the distant dropping of a bunch of keys, and the whoops abruptly ceased. The injuries turned out not to be serious, and Fex’s repair shop in the Scruttings never turned custom away.

Chorren Sparvey had made a discovery. Amid the bustle of food preparation he had not found time to ask his robed visitors where they hailed from, and was still thinking of them as he checked the daily takings before closing. He could see at once that the total was wrong. He went over the figures again, carefully, matching payments received against individual orders and time of transaction. There was no doubt. While he had been telling the gentleman with the amused dark eyes about the local landmarks, that same gentleman had unobtrusively added a startlingly generous sum in appreciation of service received.

Not long later, looking down on Snoak’s unique constellation of lights from the quietly humming security of the departing nightpod, Cherth Pranswat reflected that it had been an instructive day, fortunately with no mishaps. He turned to survey his Ferren. To most people their expressions would have seemed inscrutable, but as an Omnant he could read in each of them telltale signs, if not yet of the open-minded understanding which was the aim of their Order, then at least a lessening in perplexity. That, after all, was a step in the right direction.

© Les Sklaroff 2018 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 13:05 Sat 24 Feb 2018
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