The prosecutor sat at her desk in the Grand Palace of Justice. Dusk was falling outside. The lamp-lighter strolled along the grand promenade, lighting the flickering streetlamps to ward off the darkness. The town-crier strolling leisurely through the streets behind him, calling out the time from his exquisitely crafted timepiece. Reassuring the world that all was well, in rich, sonorous, tones. The curfew, that had been in place since the trial began, had just been lifted and a few adventurous souls were taking in the still warm evening air.
She twiddled her pen absent mindedly. She was lost, deep in the labyrinth of her own private thoughts. Trying to tease out the nagging doubt, that lay hidden, deep in the back of her mind. What if the man in the dock had been telling the truth?
The jury hadn't believed him. She was sure the defence council, appointed for him by the state, hadn't believed him either. It was after all a poison chalice. A successful defence would have been a one-way ticket to the gallows along with the defendant. So why should she, the state prosecutor, doubt the case she had been duty bound to present? It was after all her job to secure a conviction for the greater good of the people.
Perhaps it was the unseemly haste with which the sentence had been passed and was due to be carried out? Ryles, Professor Martin Ryles, that was his name, was due to be executed, hung at dawn. No appeals, no prospect of a pardon. A quick, brutal, judicial killing. Barley twenty-four hours after his conviction he would be hanging from a gibbet on Hanging Hill.
It was almost unheard of, particularly in cases of treason. Especially when they involved well-known public figures, former pillars of the community. These were normally full-blown dramatic productions. A necessary distraction for the masses from the drudgery of their daily lives. The build up, to the very public execution, would drag on for weeks. The masses never knowing, until the trapdoor opened and the traitors neck snapped, if the Emperor would show mercy. Spare those guilty of plotting against him and commute the sentence to a life of hard labour in the glass mines.
But this had been a very different trial. Conducted behind closed doors, with no publicity.
She tossed the pen on the desk, lent back in her chair, and sighed. She stared impassively at the ceiling looking for answers, but found none. Her eye caught sight of the thick slab of memory-glass, nestling high up in the corner of the room. It stared back impassively at her. Angled in such a way that it could observe everything that happened within the confines of her office.
Memory-glass was a unique volcanic silicate, according to the royal courts scientists who testified at the trial. It had been the bedrock of their legal system for at least two centuries, underpinning the security of the state and its citizens. Its translucent surface had the unique ability to record everything that crossed its field of vision. Over time it would gradually transition to an opaque milky white block as it filled up with passing memories. A skilled reader could, by sending small carefully modulated currents of electricity through it, replay the stored images. Modulating the charge to fast forward and rewind the images at will, over and over again. A primitive, but effective, unalterable record of events.
A whole industry had grown up around it. Its manufacture and distribution. A small army of well-paid, highly trained, and respected memory-glass readers were employed by the courts, to assist in the serving of justice. They made a handsome living from playing back and interpreting what they saw. All attempts to improve the image quality, add sound or otherwise demystify the process, and there had been many over the last two hundred years, had failed. They were no nearer to unlocking its secrets than when it had first been discovered.
Yet despite these limitations, or perhaps because of them, it remained an indispensable tool for the courts. An indelible, irrefutable, record of past events.
It had become an ubiquitous object in the public sphere. It could be found on buildings, inside and out, hanging from lampposts on public concourses, everywhere people might gather and conspire against the established order of things. All seeing, all knowing, it recorded everything that came under its unflinching gaze.
In much the same way that the lamp-lighters did their rounds so, periodically, the glasser's did theirs. Checking and replacing the milky white blocks of glass with fresh ones. The full panes being carefully packaged, preserved, and labelled. Then stored in the vast vaults of the archive, beneath the Grand Palace of Justice, for future reference.
She'd lost count of the number of people who had been condemned or exonerated by an inanimate slab of memory-glass. Never questioning the veracity or value of the evidence the reader extracted from it, until now. Till Professor Ryles, the heretic, entered her cosy little world of power and privilege.
His premise was a simple one. Memory-glass was a carefully crafted lie. The images could be manipulated, forged, altered at will, either consciously or unconsciously by the reader, to suit the needs of the viewer. His views had been quickly suppressed. The man arrested, his materials confiscated, publication of his work forbidden.
She'd been given the job of securing his conviction for the greater good of the people. Charged with maintaining order and stability, the smooth functioning of their highly ordered society. If his views gained wider currency who knows what might happen? The whole basis of their legal system might unravel, thousands of jobs would be placed at risk, civil unrest, perhaps even a revolt against the Emperor himself might ensue.
It was her job to ensure that confidence in the system was maintained at all costs or so the Emperor had told her. Given only a handful of people knew about his theories before they were repressed, that the trial and subsequent execution were taking place behind closed doors, it had occurred to her to wonder who's confidence she was maintaining. She'd decided however that it wouldn't be a wise career move to put such a question to the Emperor. He was after all the honorary chair of the Guild of Memory-Glass Readers. His regime funded by the Royal Association of Memory-Glass Manufactures.
She looked again at the letter she had received shortly after the trial had concluded. The broken pieces of the wax seal scattered carelessly across her desk. A breathless royal courier had delivered it. She'd tipped him and dismissed him before locking herself in her chambers and opening it.
A personal letter of thanks from the Emperor himself, congratulating her on the manner in which she had conducted the most difficult of cases on behalf of the state. It concluded with an offer to take up the suddenly and unexpectedly vacant office of Minster of Justice at the Royal Court. The previous incumbent had been forced to take early retirement due to unspecified 'heath reasons'. It was an offer she couldn't realistically refuse, not only because of the wealth and status attached to it, but, as she'd told the Jury when summing up. "One simply does not question the wisdom of the Emperor and his court, to do so is an act of high treason."
It had been a devastating conclusion to trial, she though as she recalled her speech. One that by implication clearly implied that they the jury would find themselves on the gallows with Ryles if they found him not guilty.
"An act of high treason that brings the whole legal basis of the state itself into question. If as the defendant contests memory-glass is false, then the whole legal basis of the state is false. This court is false, every decision it has made a lie, every conviction unsafe, everyone who has walked free a potential criminal, everyone we have executed potentially innocent. In short every act of this court for the last two hundred years has been unwarranted."
"It is the conspiracy to end all conspiracies. A collusion of wealth, power and the state against the people, to suppress the truth, punish the innocent and reward the guilty. To what end even the defendant appears unsure, other than to maintain the lie. The edifice of wealth, power and corporate influence atop which the Emperor sits. Taking all of this into consideration I put it to the jury that to find the defendant not guilty would be act of treason. It would validate his preposterous theories and lead to the unravelling of the foundations on which the empire is built. It would call into question the legitimacy of the emperorship itself."
"So I ask you members of the jury, are you ready to commit the ultimate crime, find this man, this heretic, who questions that on which civilised society is built, not guilty?"
It was one of her finest summing-ups of any trial. Short, concise and clinical. No member of that jury wanted to be implicated in a plot to overthrow the Emperor. It was dangerous enough to be implicated in the trial itself simply by sitting on the jury. All they wanted was to leave the court alive and return to their families. Thus the verdict had been swift and unanimous in the hope of avoiding any gratuitous retribution, as had the sentence.
"Would the juries compliance spare them?" she thought. "Or were they along with the rest of the officials in that court just so many lose ends that needed to be tied up?"
The little people could always be pushed aside and disposed of at will, but as the old saying goes 'You keep your friends close and your enemies closer'. So what did that make her in the eyes of the Emperor? The new Minster of Justice. How long before she was forced to retire due to ill-heath?
Ryles had seemed strangely unperturbed by it all. He'd just sat in the dock and smiled passively as the verdict was passed down. Shrugged his shoulders and she fancied suppressed a giggle when the judge donned the black cap and decreed sentence. Either he was resigned to his fate or had one hell of an ace hidden up his sleeve. There was a nagging doubt at the back of her mind, she was missing something that should have been staring her in the face.
There was a polite knock at the door. She got up, turned the key and opened it. It was George the wizen old night-watchman.
"Forgive the intrusion madam, but I'm securing the building for the night. Do you need some more time?"
He looked incapable of securing himself, never mind the building. Still she couldn't help thinking he'd outlasted most of the people who'd served in this building. She picked-up the Emperor's letter, stuffing it into her pocket, before brushing the broken crumbs of wax off her desk and into the waste basket.
"No" she said smiling, pulling her cloak off the stand behind her and wrapping it tightly around herself. "I was just leaving."
"Off to celebrate?" he called after her.
"Well its true then." she laughed. "Good news travels fast."
"Not as fast as bad news." came the reply, as he shuffled off down the dimly lit corridor, to lock up the other offices for the night.
She felt a cold shiver run down her spine, as she stepped out of the building and felt the first chill of the night. She hailed a black, horse-drawn, government carriage. One of the many perks of the job.
"Where to minster?" said the driver as his horse neighed, snorting a cloud of steam out of its flared nostrils into the rapidly cooling night air.
"The cells at Hanging Hill." she replied. Then, muttering under her breath to herself. "It seems old George was right." as she stared at the small slab of memory-glass mounted securely in the carriage.
It was a dark, moonless night. By the time they arrived at Hanging Hill storm clouds were gathering, blotting out the stars. The first heavy drops of rain already beginning to fall as she alighted and made her way to death row, the lonely mile as it was also known. She pressed some coins into the solitary guards hand and whispered something in his ear. He nodded and locked the door behind her leaving them alone.
"Come to gloat? Admire your handiwork?" said Ryles, smiling at her.
She shook her head.
"Don't worry we're all alone." he said gesturing to the empty cells beside his. "Just us and the good old, infallible, memory-glass."
She noted the slabs of memory-glass fixed in the top corner of each of the six cells. A further single slab atop each of the heavy, locked, iron doors, at each end of death row.
"I know." she said. "I paid the guard off."
"Really? Penny for your thoughts?" he flipped a small brass coin out of the iron barred front of his cell at her. "Guess I don't need it where I'm going."
She watched it bounced on the cold, lifeless, flagstones between them, before coming to rest. She bent down to examine it. It was decorated with strange, unfamiliar designs, she didn't recognise.
"It doesn't look like any penny I've seen before." she said without touching it.
"Oh, I doubt someone in your elevated position has much call for pennies." he said sarcastically. "But your right it's not a penny, it's a good luck talisman."
She picked it up and stood up straight flipping it over with her fingers, examining it closely, trying to decipher the strange markings on it and laughed.
"Fat lot of good it did you."
Her curiosity had got the better of her now. She raised the coin to her lips to bite it, taste and test the metal with her mouth.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you."
"Let's just say, unlike you, I know where it's been to keep it hidden from the guards."
"Gross." she snapped pulling it away from her mouth.
"And the lie you serve isn't?"
"In case you haven't noticed you're the one being hanged tomorrow for treason, not me."
"Really, well don't worry your time will come soon enough. Do you think when they record it on the memory-glass, they'll splice the cheering crowds in afterwards, for you like they will for me?"
She shook her head and laughed at his pitiful mind games.
"You know they say if you repeat a lie often enough people will start to believe it? Well has it ever occurred to you that some lies are just so big, no matter how many times you repeat them, no one believes you?"
"Yes, but have you ever considered that some truths are so hard to swallow, it's easier to keep on believing the lie?"
She was getting exasperated now, her patience running thin.
"I don't know why I wasted my time coming to see you."
"Perhaps you wanted the truth?"
"The truth Professor Ryles? I'll tell you what the truth is. Its whatever the Emperor tells us it is. That is secret of a long, profitable, and happy life. That is why I'm out her and you're in here. Why you're being hung tomorrow and I'll carry on living."
"But living a lie."
"Perhaps." she said. "But at least I'll be living, which is more than I can say for you."
She turned to bang the door and call the guard .
"Give my regards to the Emperor when you see him tomorrow." he called after her, mockingly.
She stopped and lowered her fist before turning around and marching up to the front of his cell. She gripped his hand and slapped the talisman back in it.
"Take it." she said. "Put it back wherever it came from, for all the good it'll do you. Perhaps your luck will change tomorrow, although I doubt it."
She felt a tingling sensation run through it, into her body and back into his as she spoke.
He smiled softly at her.
"You know what? I think it already has."
When the guard came back she was standing impatiently by the door ready to leave. Ryles was curled up in ball on the bunk in his cell. The guard looked worried, anxious as to what would happen to him if there was no hanging tomorrow. He looked at her, back at the cell and Ryles.
"What's the matter with him? Is he alright?"
"The prisoner is fine. I have merely impressed upon him the seriousness of the situation. Removed the last vestiges of hope from him. He knows now there will no reprieve from his fate." she said coldly as he locked the door behind her.
The following morning she stood beside the Emperor on Hanging Hill, as Minister of Justice, to witness the sentence being carried out. They watched impassively as they marched him out, towards the gallows and the fate that awaited him. He struggled in vain with the guards and the executioner, pleading his innocence, begging, sobbing for mercy.
"It's strange." said the Emperor. "How they all crack in the end. He seems to have lost his mind in the cells overnight."
"Really?" she said. "If you ask me, he lost it a long time ago."
He didn't reply, but watched silently as they tightened the noose around his neck. He'd stopped protesting now, seemly resigned to his fate. The trapdoor opened beneath him, his body twitching and dancing like a broken marionette. Slowly the twitching ceased, his lifeless body spinning slowly round in the still morning air. The executioner checked he was dead. Then nodded and called the guards over to cut him down. The Emperor turned to his new minster.
"My spies tell me you came to see him last night, after the trial. Interesting conversation?"
"Not really." she replied. "I hoped he would recant, offer up some grounds for mercy, allow me to start my new career with a grand gesture. A benevolent act of clemency."
"Really now?" said the Emperor. "You would do well to remember that Emperors reign and minsters serve. That there are many things that it is not in your gift to give, such as leniency, mercy and compassion. That is the key to a long and successful career as a minster."
She bowed her head, nodding silently.
"Besides that is not what the memory-glass says happened."
"Then the memory-glass..."
"...is lying?" he finished the sentence for her.
She shook her head and smiled softly.
"Actually I was going to say then the memory-glass is in need of a better reader. After all as honorary chair of the guild, and as Emperor, you should have the pick of their finest. "
"He was their finest."
"Till he met with an unfortunate accident." he tossed her the newspaper he had been carrying. "There's been a few unfortunate accidents over-night, you may recognise some of the names."
She looked at the papers obituary column, the judge, defence council, and several members of the jury seemed to have encountered sudden and unfortunate demises last night.
It was the Emperors turn to smile, as they nailed Ryles body into a crude wooden coffin and loaded it onto a rickety old handcart.
"Is that how you plan to dispose of me then? An accident?"
He watched as they slowly wheeled the body away and shook his head.
"If that was the plan I wouldn't have made you Minster of Justice. I need someone like you. Someone who's not afraid to do what needs to be done. Someone who..."
It was her turn to finish his sentence.
"...doesn't let truth get in the way of justice?"
"Exactly, someone who can see the bigger picture. The greater good for which sacrifices must be made."
She stepped closer to him as they watched the guards, executioner, handcart and coffin disappear from view, leaving them alone on the hill. She pulled something from her pocket rolling it between her fingers.
"His heresy when a lot deeper than you can possibly imagine. There were a lot of things he never recorded in his writings."
The Emperor raised an eyebrow.
"Should I be concerned? None of this was in the evidence you presented, the transcripts of the trial or his interrogations. Perhaps your talents are wasted as a minster?"
"He only told me last night."
"Ah, the confessions of a condemned man."
"Yes, he wanted to go to the gallows with a clear conscience. It was quite revealing."
"More likely the ravings of a lunatic, a broken man, you saw him at the end, sobbing on the gallows."
Still, despite his words, she could see the hunger in his eyes, she had his undivided attention now.
"So then, what exactly did he tell you? What did he confess?"
"That he knew the truth about memory-glass."
"Perhaps, but one man's truth is another's lie."
"Its impure, imperfect, corrupt, a pale shadow of its true form. Its capable of so much more than we use it for. He also knew how a skilled reader could manipulate the images, make us see what isn't there. Something our scientists and philosophers have tried and failed for two hundred years to understand. Their souls are attuned to the glass itself, a rare and special gift, allowing them to manipulate the soul shadows trapped within it."
"Nonsense, utter and complete nonsense. A desperate man bargaining for his life with knowledge he doesn't have. You do know you're starting to sound like him? If you repeat a single word of this, if for one minute I think you believe it, I will have to dispose of you."
She nodded and gave a cold smile that chilled him to the bone.
"But I have the proof, incontrovertible proof, of his theories."
She held the strange coin, Ryles given her the night before, aloft. It caught the first rays of the early morning sun, glinting in the cold, harsh, light.
"What? That worthless piece of brass."
"It's not brass and its priceless. The distilled essence of the active ingredient of thousands and thousands of panes of memory-glass. Ryles had access to the archives. I believe he made quite a dent in the old records no one, well hardly no one, looks at. That how you caught him I believe?"
"This is its true potential realised, a soul catcher, and only I know its secret."
The Emperor took a step back, looking for the guards, but they were nowhere, to be seen.
"You're crazy, mad like Ryle's. You've spent too much time on this case. Perhaps the royal physician can help."
"With what? This?" she said, slipping a small stiletto blade out of her cloak and driving it into his side, under his ribs.
He gasped and stared, horror stricken, into her eyes.
"Hurts like hell doesn't it?" she said smiling back at him. "But don't worry, it's not fatal, I have plans for you."
She slapped the hand holding the coin against his cheek. He felt the cold metal pressed against his cheek, followed by a tingling sensation, like a current, run through it. Surging into his body and back again into her hers. He pushed her away and she dropped the stiletto, falling backwards onto the floor, screaming for the guards. He kicked the blade away and clutching the wound bent down to pick the coin from where it had fallen on the wet grass. The pain made him gasp for breath as he straighten himself up and slipped it discreetly into his pocket . He looked down at the blood oozing between his fingers and smiled.
"A bit deeper than intended, but I'll live, which is more than I can say for you."