A novel set in the Culture universe created by Iain M. Banks

Contingent Move

"What's wrong?" Yasline demanded, rising from her favourite seat in the salon in great concern.

She had never seen her husband so visibly angry and upset. Normally, Triss Higolter was a paragon of benign self-control and intelligent good humour, astutely knowledgeable about the state of the world and seemingly able to smile at everything and everybody.

He shook his head at her, apparently unable to speak for the moment. Unprompted, he crossed the salon to the little cabinet which held a small supply of bottles of strong spirits, pour a generous measure into a glass and swallow it in one hard gulp; it was another thing Yasline had never observed: her husband in real need of a very strong drink.

Higolter subsided into his favourite chair, placed the now-empty glass on a side table and put his face in his hands, rubbing his eyes and massaging his forehead. Yasline knelt in front of him, gently taking one of his hands in her own.

"What's happened?" she asked softly, "What has caused you this upset?"

"My dear Yasline," he muttered, straightening in his chair and grasping her hands in both of her own, "I may have a problem, and I am not sure what to do about it?"

"What problem? How can I help?"

Higolter smiled wanly.

"Things," he said darkly, "May be about to change. And not necessarily for the better."

She frowned, obviously confused. He squeezed her hands reassuringly.

"You deserve an explanation, at least," he said, "So, why don't you refill my glass, pour yourself a little wine and sit yourself?"

Yasline did as she was asked. Higolter took his refilled glass and placed it untouched on the little table while she returned to her chair. She sipped daintily, merely wetting her lips as something to do while her husband composed himself.

"I have always been truthful with you, about by life," he began, "Everything I have told you, about my travels in many lands, adventures and experiences of all kinds. All these things really happened to me."

Yasline nodded. She had often listened raptly to Higolter's stories, told with flair and aplomb, usually in bed between bouts of energetic and imaginative sex. She had, naturally enough, plenty of practice of listening to men's post-coital talk; his tales were always self-deprecating, amusingly told and, she had to admit, the unmistakable ring of truth.

But," Higolter went on, "I have not told you everything about myself."

This too did not entirely surprise Yasline. Men, in her considerable experience, tended to keep secrets from others, even their closest friends and most intimate lovers. Many men were experts in compartmentalizing their lives: one set of truths for their friends, another for their family, and yet another for their mistresses. Besides, Higolter had always struck her as a man of some internal complexity and sophistication.

"What kind of things?" she asked gently.

Higolter sighed.

"For one thing, I am a lot older than I look," he said slowly, adding immediately, "I'm actually nearly three hundred years old."

Yasline was taken aback.

"Three hundred years?" she exclaimed, sitting back, "Are you some kind of wizard?"

"Not any more," he answered, smiling weakly, "At one time, I really could do things which would amaze you. But I discarded those powers when I arrived here."

"In Brunanburh? Why would you do such a thing?"

"No, not Brunanburh," Higolter answered. He stood, stepped over to the ornate sideboard and picked up the expensive globe he had purchased and set it down in front of Yasline.

"This is a model of the world we live on," he said, "Actually, it's not very accurate, but that doesn't really matter now. We are about here" - he pointed to a spot painted to suggest a medium-sized island off the coast of a large continent - "and I have travelled over much of this part" - he indicated the continent itself - "during my travels."

He paused, staring intently at the glass sphere.

"But I have travelled much further than that," he went on darkly, turning the globe with his hands, "This spinning world, with its moons which shine at night, themselves all turning about the sun which provides the light of day. A huge ball, tens of thousands of leagues around... but still a tiny mote in an even more vast space, the endless blackness in which the stars shine."

He looked up, straight into Yasline's eyes.

"The stars in the sky, they too are like the sun, just a great distance away, their brilliance dimmed by distance to tiny points of light in the darkness. And some, a few, they too have worlds like this one, circling their warmth and brightness, with plants and animals and, sometimes, people not unlike you and I."

Yasline had been listening intently, her eyes wide and shining. She could not but believe the absolute truth in his words.

"You have been to these other worlds?" she asked.

"Some of them," Higolter replied, "There are too many for anybody to visit them all."

He sighed deeply.

"I have long hidden myself here, on this world which some call Epsilona. But now I will have to leave."

"Why are you hiding?" Yasline demanded, taking his hands in her own, "And why must you go so suddenly?"

"I'm hiding because, um, well, it’s complicated," Higolter replied despondently, "But there is a group of people out there" - he gestured at the ceiling with his chin - "who want to talk to me about something I did to another group of people, on behalf of a third group."

Yasline looked understandably confused.

"Like I said, complicated," he went on, "But the reason I must go now is that I spotted what I believe is an agent of one of these groups in a tavern, this evening. He did not, I think, see me but, if he is here in Brunanburh, it is only a matter of time before I will be identified and, well, taken away against my wishes. So, I must leave now, this evening."

Yasline looked aghast.

"Must you really leave so soon?" she demanded.

Higolter nodded sadly.

"Where will you go? And how will you get there?"

"I don't know where I will go, although it doesn't honestly matter very much," he replied, "As for how, I still have a few friends who will help, I hope, one of whom I should be able to summon to my aid. But first I must get out of Brunanburh, right now."

She squeezed his hands gently.

"If you must go," she said softly, "Take me with you. Please."

Higolter looked at Yasline for a long moment.

"Do you trust me?" he asked eventually, "And are you quite sure you would you accompany me to a place, perhaps many places, far away and utterly unfamiliar to you? For ever?"

She nodded. "Yes, I will."

For the first time since his return, Higolter smiled broadly, his normal demeanour of intelligence and good humour seemingly returned.

"Well, then," he said, sipping from his drink, "We need to travel for many days before I can summon my friend. We will have to abandon almost everything here, I'm afraid - all the comfort and luxury we have both put so much effort into achieving, we will have to leave it all behind. Still, if we get away, neither of us will want for much, at least for a while."

He stood and looked around sadly.

"To action. Send the boy to the stables on the south side of the market to engage a coach and pair for a long journey, starting tonight. Tell the housekeeper we must go away for a few days, immediately, to visit a sick relative on his deathbed. Give her money to last for a month or two; they will have to fend for themselves after that."

Yasline nodded and hurried out to find the servants. Higolter gathered various papers together and pulled several purses of silver from assorted hiding places, placing them in a satchel which he slung over his shoulder. When Yasline returned, he guided her through to the boudoir and pointed at the door to her dressing room.

"Pack a bag. Warm and dry clothes, and stout shoes you can walk in for long distances," he directed, "Take no more than you can easily carry."

"Can I take my jewellery?" she asked plaintively.

"Whatever you can wear discreetly," he suggested, "Nothing too obvious."

He stepped in the direction of his own dressing room then turned on his heel.

"This is not going to be an easy journey, I'm afraid," he said sadly, "Be prepared for that."

In less than half an hour, the couple and their luggage were aboard a well-sprung coach drawn by a matched pair of beasts. Higolter had reverted to the heavy hooded cloak he had used for travelling and his stout walking stick was wedged into one corner of the cabin.

They did not yet know it, but Higolter and Yasline were not the only people leaving Brunanburh with some urgency that evening.

*

A week and a day later, Higolter and Yasline were to be found hiking their way up a vertiginous mountainside many leagues from Brunanburh. It was a steep climb over rough tracks, and it would be easy to get lost, Yasline thought, although she was reassured that Higolter seemed confident of the way. A few hours strenuous exertion saw them emerge onto a high moor, an almost flat grassy area set with occasional irregular boulders and rocky outcrops. They followed a meandering trail which skirted peat bogs and dark pools of standing water heading more-or-less directly to a circle of stones.

In the summer time, with the sun shining in a clear sky and a gentle breeze blowing, the high moor had its own rugged, even brutal beauty, Yasline considered. Even in this season, there was an occasional chill in the air; gusts of frigid wind swirling off the glaciers and corries of the permanently snow-topped mountains clearly visible in the distance. The winter here, though, would surely be terrible; no man could survive up here for long.

Their objective was a large circle of tall stones mostly still standing, although a few had fallen to the grass or were leaning drunkenly. Once, the stones might have been carved into polished columns or perhaps obelisks; now they were etched and pitted by lichen, fractured by ice and weather and softened by wind and rain. There had been a taller column in the centre of the ring, now fallen and broken into pieces; Higolter guided Yasline to one particular menhir still standing, as far as she could see, perfectly upright.

"What is this place?" she asked, reaching out and touching the standing stone as if drawn to it.

"A calendar," Higolter said matter-of-factly, "It's a device for determining the season from the position of the sun and therefore a guide to when crops should be sown and harvested."

Yasline nodded. As the daughter of a farm worker, she understood the importance of knowing when to plant seeds, when frost or rain could be expected, when animals should be brought in for the winter or guided to the higher pastures for the summer.

"Who built it?" she demanded, "And why did they build it here?"

Higolter shrugged.

"It was built by an ancient people, now long-vanished, thousands of years ago," he explained, "They chose this place carefully. Here, the sky is often clear, even in the winter, so that the rising and setting of the sun can be observed closely. Even though it can be bitterly cold, and there are occasional violent rain and snowstorms, this is an excellent place to observe the sky."

"So why are we here?"

Higolter grinned widely. He took the staff which he had been using as a walking stick and jabbed it a few times at the base of the great stone. After a few attempts, the point slid deeply into some hidden opening, almost as if it has been designed to do so.

"Stand back!" he warned.

He gripped the very top of the staff with both hands, pulling himself clear of the grass. Slowly, without any fuss, the stone toppled to the ground, ripping the turf and landing with a dull thud. He wriggled his staff free then turned to Yasline with a smug look on his face, then look she knew well from when he did something which was supposed to impress her.

"That, believe it or not, is a message," he said, "To my friend who will, I hope, come here and take us away."

"Now what do we do?"

"We wait. For a few hours, hopefully. Exactly how long I cannot say."

He sat in the lee of the newly-fallen stone, tugging her gently so that she collapsed gracefully into his lap.

"But we must be very close the entire time. Our bodies must always be touching."

Yasline squirmed, twisting so her face was close to his.

"Perhaps that's not such a hardship," she said, kissing him, "But then what?"

"Everything will be different, for both of us. You will find it entirely strange, but I will be there to look after you."

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