“The choice is yours,” Lelan was saying into his handset, as though reading from a script. “But the Church recommends a donation of six credits to erase short memories, and fifteen for longer ones.” There was a pause while he listened to the potential client on the other end. “There’s no exact number,” Lelan said. “In general we consider a memory under one hour to be short.”
I shifted my weight, fidgeting with the acolyte’s ring on the little finger of my left hand, still unused to the feel of the smooth metal on my skin. It was getting easier as the weeks passed, but this negotiation still made me uneasy. Whatever Lelan and the other Stewards said, it felt like we were selling divinity.Lelan glanced up at me, and I raised my eyebrows inquisitively. He gave me an exasperated look and held up one long, lean finger. Almost there, the gesture said. I’d always thought the man was born for this role; there was something serpentine about him, and not just the bald head and thin lips. He had a way of elongating syllables that made me think of a sidewinder undulating across the sand. The first time he spoke to me, I expected to find that his tongue was forked.“There’s no need to do any math, sir,” he continued, “Six credits will be just fine for that memory.” Another pause while he listened. “We prefer not to think of it as a price, sir. But no, the content of the memory you wish to relinquish does not affect the suggested donation.”
After one final pause, Lelan nodded and stabbed his bony finger toward the door, punctuating his victory. “Very good, sir,” he said. “Raul will be with you shortly to perform the sacrament. May the Lord of All Thoughts enlighten and preserve you.”
I was already halfway through the ritual by the time he placed the handset back in its cradle. Three pinches of cleansing powder: one on each shoulder to purify the body, one in the center of the forehead to quiet the mind.
There were those within the Church who wanted to diminish or even eliminate this ritual of departure, performed as it was by every acolyte before every sacrament. But I had always found it helped ground me, and invoking my powers was always easier after it than before.
Lelan began his brief part in the ritual as I retrieved the small leatherbound book from the pocket in my robes.
“Lord of All Thoughts, watch over your servant Raul,” he said.
I opened the book, which contained dozens of pages no larger than my palm, each one neatly perforated for easy removal. I tore out the 24th page and returned the book to my pocket. Every acolyte keeps count.
“Guide his body and his spirit,” Lelan continued.
I placed the page in the palm of my left hand. Ex tenebris Conscientia, it read in an ornate, flowing script. I focused on the ink and the paper, clearing my mind. I was well attuned, this time, and I felt the power flare to life within me almost immediately. I held on to it until Lelan finished the blessing.
“And open his mind.”
I touched the page with the index finger of my right hand, and the power flowed out of me. The paper ignited in a flash of ruby light, consumed in the space of a heartbeat. The Lord of All Thoughts had judged me worthy, and granted me leave to serve his will.
As the purple afterimage faded from my vision, a presence blossomed in my mind. Somewhere to the West, my charge waited for me, and there was no turning back.
Lelan made a deep bow, which I returned. The ritual concluded, I turned and strode out of his office, the white linen of my robe swishing in the air as I went.
The journey took the better part of an hour, the towers of steel and glass shrinking as I drove away from the heart of the city. The sky was layered in black and gray, and distant thunder filled the air with vague threats. I drove westward, navigating only by the pull of the presence at the edge of my consciousness.
When there was no more steel, I found myself on a broken and forgotten road through the poorest part of Madrid-Seville, lined on each side by stone hovels two or three stories tall. Every block I passed, every foot, every inch, the presence grew inside me, pulling ever stronger.
Was it different this time than all the last? The presence in my mind was difficult to describe, but every time before it had seemed somehow pure, and white. Now, though, it seethed at the edge of my perception. Chaotic. Red.
I tried to tell myself that I trusted Lelan. Didn’t like him, but I trusted him. Lelan was a priest of the Steward order. He would not have sent me into danger. He would not have sent me unless he was sure. It was too late to turn back in any case, so I drove on.
When the pavement ended, I got out of the car. Suspicious glances followed as I walked along the dirt road. My immaculate robes gleamed, defiant against the filth and dust kicked up by the approaching storm.
He was close.
I quickened my pace, resisting the urge to break into a run. Long years of discipline and training fought against the pull of my charge roaring in my head.
When at last I came to the right home, to the door that would lead to my salvation or my destruction, I pounded rather than knocked. The knuckle on my middle finger cracked open and a single drop of blood fell down the front of my robe, forming a red sunburst in the white linen over my heart.
After a torturous silence that seemed to last entire lifetimes, the door opened. Behind it stood a short man with graying hair and one eye, the only features of face or form that registered in my strained mind.
He ushered me inside.
I stood with my hands clasped behind my back, willing my body to stillness, waiting for the invitation to begin the sacrament. Mere inches from my charge, the urge to reach out and take that memory boiled through every vein. I resisted, as i had each time before, but I teetered on the knife’s edge.
Memory belongs to the Lord of All Thoughts. Whoso would steal from Him shall die the final death.
The man drew a deep breath and let it out in a slow rasp, meeting my unblinking gaze. He gave the barest shake of his head. “I’m sorry, acolyte,” he began.
No! I screamed in my head, and the churning chaos raged with me, fueling my own bitter fury.
I stepped toward him and thrust forth my hand, stabbing at his forehead with my finger. At the moment of our contact, the power leapt to life within me, an inferno no more under my control than the tides or the stars.
White light filled my eyes, centered on the connection between us at my fingertip. Waves of heat rolled through me as images flashed in my eyes, too fast to make out anything but blurs of color.
The power vanished all at once, and I regained my senses. I stepped back from the man, swaying slightly, as he doubled over and collapsed to the floor. I hoped he was merely unconscious.
I returned to the car on shaking legs, ignoring the same stares and whispers I’d gotten on the way in. The sky was dark, now. I guessed I’d been in the home for a half hour. The rain started almost the moment I sat behind the wheel.
I should be dead, I thought.
I did not waste time wondering why I had been spared the “final death” . I had to return to the Church and relinquish the stolen memory, or it would kill me as surely as failing my mission to retrieve it would have.
The drive back was more difficult. The headache came on bit by bit; the raindrops pounding against the hood like hammer blows. But my path, and my mind, were clear.
The Church of the Mind loomed, seeming somehow larger than the skyscrapers flanking it. It was the oldest structure in all of Madrid-Seville, made of white and gray stone, all sleek lines and sharp angles. I had considered the Church to be my home for many years, but as I passed through the heavy gate I felt like an intruder.
I took the spiral staircase as I had so many times before, all the way down to the Hall of memories, a rough cavern carved into the natural rock beneath the Church.
My head was a font of heat and pain by this point, but I stood in the silent line with the other acolytes, watching the shadows flicker in the torchlight and trying to keep my face neutral. Every time one of them looked at me, I feared they would detect some sign to give me away, but no one paid me any more heed than usual.
In the center of the great stone chamber stood the Reliquary itself, a rounded cube of pale blue stone twice as tall as a man, and half again as wide. One of the cube’s faces bore a carved handprint. One by one, the acolytes stood before the cube, placed a hand on the carving, and deposited the memory they carried.
When at last I came to the head of the line, I bowed neatly to Raina, the priest overseeing the Reliquary today. It was her scrutiny I feared the most. As a member of the Keeper order, she would know more about the nature of the memories we carried than any acolyte. And as a newly raised priest, she would be anxious to prove herself.
But she gave me the same slow smile she always did.
At her gesture, I took my place beside the reliquary and waited while she spoke the invocation. I didn’t even hear the words, just willed her to finish and take away this terrible weight on my mind. No small part of me hoped that my guilt would vanish along with the memory I carried.
An explosion of light in my mind, momentarily blanking my senses, and then it was gone. I drew a sharp breath as the heat faded to nothing. It felt cold and empty without that memory, but the guilt of what I’d done was still there.
I made an unsteady bow to Raina and turned to go, but she grasped my arm, causing me to jump in surprise.
“Thank you for your gift, Raul,” she said. “I know you wish to retire for the evening, but the Bishop would like to see you in his chambers.” She smiled again, but her delicate features did little to quell the sudden foreboding that filled me. I nodded, and she released me.
The great oaken doors on the top floor of the Church opened as soon as I stopped in front of them, swinging inward with the barest whisper of sound from the mechanism. The Bishop sat on a simple padded chair, dressed in the same robes as I was. The only thing that marked him as the highest Church official in Europe was the silver diadem balanced on his shaved head, a single sapphire set in an oval at its center.
“Come in, my child,” he intoned. His voice was deep and raspy, touched with an accent from somewhere in the East. “You have done a great service to the Church, and to the Lord.” He smiled at me, which spread wrinkles up to his tired eyes.
I blinked stupidly. This was not the tone I had expected this audience to take. I stepped into the center of the chamber and waited for him to continue.
“Whoso would steal from Him,” the Bishop said, his voice filling the small chamber, “Shall die the final death. I am sure these words have crossed your mind today, Raul. But, you are not dead.” He tilted his head to the side and continued to smile. “Tell me, how can that be?”
I shook my head. I don’t know, I thought. But of course, I could not say so. I’d given up my voice five years before, when I had started on the path to priesthood.
“You cannot steal a memory from the Lord of All Thought, Raul,” the Bishop said. “They all belong to Him, no matter who carries them.”
He stood and crossed to where I was standing, slippers swishing on the plush carpet. The Bishop placed his hands on my shoulders. His grip was surprisingly firm. “No more than one in a hundred acolytes can take a memory that is not freely given,” he said. “Any other sent in your place would have died today, Raul. That is why we encourage that particular interpretation of the precept.”
I nodded slowly, and the Bishop released my shoulders. “The Church has need of your gifts, Raul.” he said, his voice taking on a commanding tone. “There are dark corners of this world that we cannot see.” He glanced away momentarily, frowning, then peered back at me.
“You will no longer be working with Lelan,” he said. “From now on, you will receive your charges directly from me. And I already have your first one.”
I grimaced at the idea of going out again already, without a chance to recover. I wasn’t even sure if I could make it back to my chamber without falling over.
The Bishop must have noticed my hesitation, because he chuckled and said, “There will be no more rituals. You need no longer fear death if you fail to complete your missions quickly. Now go get some rest. Tomorrow, you’re leaving for Nairobi.”