The Last Witness

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  • Audio Excerpt - August 31, 2015

When you need a memory to be wiped, call me.

Transferring unwanted memories to my own mind is the only form of magic I’ve ever mastered. But now, I’m holding so many memories I’m not always sure which ones are actually mine, any more. Some of them are sensitive; all of them are private. And there are those who are willing to kill to access the secrets I’m trying to bury…

The Last Witness is a classic K.J. Parker tale with a strong supporting cast of princes, courtiers, merchants, academics, and generally unsavory people. Available in paperback, ebook, and audio format October 6th from Tor.com!

 

 

 

 

1

I remember waking up in the middle of the night. My sister was crying. She was five years old, I was eight. There was a horrible noise coming from downstairs, shouting, banging. We crept to the top of the stairs (really it was just a glorified ladder) and I peered down. I couldn’t see all that well, because the fire had died down and the lamps weren’t lit. I saw my father; he’d got his walking stick in his hand, which was odd because why would he need it indoors? My mother was yelling at him; you’re stupid, you’re so stupid, I should have listened to my family, they said you were useless and you are. Then my father swung the stick at her. I think he meant to hit her head, but she moved and he caught her on the side of the left arm. Oddly, instead of backing away she went forward, toward him. He staggered and fell sideways, onto the little table with the spindly legs; it went crunch under his weight, and I thought; he’s broken it, he’s going to be in so much trouble. Then my sister screamed. My mother looked up at us, and I saw the knife in her hand. She yelled, “Go to bed!” She yelled at us all the time. We were always getting under her feet.

I also remember a night when I couldn’t sleep. I was about six. Mummy and Daddy were having a horrible row downstairs, and it made me cry. I cried so much I woke up my brother. Forget it, he told me, they’re always rowing, go to sleep. I couldn’t stop crying. Something bad’s going to happen, I said. I think he thought so too, and we crept to the top of the stairs and looked down, the way we used to spy on the guests-for-dinner. I saw Daddy knock Mummy to the ground with his stick, and then Uncle Sass (he wasn’t really our uncle) jumped out from behind the chimney corner and stabbed Daddy with a knife. Then Mummy saw us and yelled at us to go back to bed.

I also remember the night my husband died.

I remember that job very clearly.

*  *  *

I remember, when I was growing up, we lived on the edge of the moor, in a little house in a valley. About five miles north, just above the heather-line, were these old ruins. I used to go there a lot when I was a boy. Mostly the grass had grown up all over them, but in places the masonry still poked out, like teeth through gums. It must have been a big city once—of course, I didn’t know about cities then—and there was this tall square pillar; it stood about ten feet and it was leaning slightly. Between the wind and the rain and the sheep itching against it, there wasn’t much left to see of the carvings; rounded outlines that were probably meant to be people doing things, and on one side, where the slight lean sheltered it a tiny bit from the weather, there were these markings that I later realised must have been writing. I can picture them in my mind to this day; and when I became rich and had some spare time I searched the Studium library, which is the finest in the world (the memory of the human race, they call it) but I never found anything remotely like that script, or any record of any city on our moors, or any race or civilisation who’d ever lived there.

*  *  *

I remember the first time I met them. When you’ve been in this business as long as I have, clients tend to merge together, but these ones stand out in my mind. There was an old man and a younger one; father and son or uncle and nephew, I never did find out. The old man was big, broad and bony, with a long face and a shiny dome of a head, nose like a hawk’s beak, very bright blue sunken eyes, big ears sticking out like handles. The young man was just like him only red-haired and much smaller; you could have fitted him comfortably inside the old man, like those trick dolls from the East. He didn’t talk much.

We heard all about you, the old man said, the stuff you can do. Is it true?

Depends what you’ve heard, I told him. Most of what people say about me is garbage.

I think he expected me to be more businesslike. Is it true, he said, that you can read people’s minds?

No, I told him, I can’t do that, nobody can, not even the Grand Masters. That would be magic, and there’s no such thing. What I can do (I said quickly, before I tried his patience too far) is get inside people’s heads and take their memories.

They both looked at me. That’s what we’d heard, the old man said, but we weren’t sure if we could believe it. And anyhow, isn’t that mind reading?

So many of them say that. I don’t know how I do it, I told them, and neither does anyone else. None of the professors at the Studium could explain it. According to them, it’s not possible. All I know is, I can see my way into someone’s head—literally, I stare at him hard, and the wall of his skull seems to melt away, and then it seems to me that I’m standing in a library. On three sides of me there are shelves, floor to ceiling, spaced about nine inches apart; on the shelves are thousands and thousands of scrolls of parchment, like in the Old Library at Marshand. Each scroll is in a brass cylinder, with a number and the first line of the text embossed on the cap. Don’t ask me how, but I know what’s in each one. I reach out my hand—I actually have to lift my arm and reach out physically—and it seems to me that I pull down the scroll I want from the shelf and unscrew the cap; then I walk over to the window (there’s always a window) because the light’s better there, and there’s a chair. I sit down and unroll the scroll and look at it, at which point the memory becomes mine, just exactly as though it had happened to me. Then I roll up the scroll and put it under my arm; the moment I’ve done that, the whole illusion fades, I’m back where I started, and no time has passed. The memory stays in my head, but the client or the victim will have forgotten it completely and forever; won’t even remember that he ever had that memory to begin with, if you see what I mean. Anyway, I said, that’s what I do. That’s all I can do. But I’m the only man alive who can do it, and as far as I know, nobody’s ever been able to do it before.

The old man was dead quiet for maybe five heartbeats, and his face was frozen. And you do this for money? he said.

I nodded. For a great deal of money, yes.

I could see he didn’t believe me. That’s pretty remarkable, he said, and it does sound quite a lot like magic. Is there any way—?

I can prove it? I gave him my unsettling grin. Sure, I said. I can’t prove it to you, of course, but I can prove it, to someone else who you trust. I’ll have to damage you a bit, I’m afraid. Up to you.

He actually went pale when I said that. He asked me to explain, so I did. I told him, think of a memory you share with someone else. I’ll take that memory out of your head. Then I’ll describe it, and the person you shared it with will confirm that it’s authentic. Of course, you’ll have forgotten it forever, so please choose something you don’t particularly value.

He gave me that horrified look. You’re sure you don’t read minds, he said. I told him, I was sure. Can’t be done, I told him. Not possible.

Well, he whispered with the young man for a moment or so, and then he told me about an afternoon in early autumn, twenty years ago. A boy falls out of an apple tree and cuts his forehead. He starts crying, and the noise disturbs an old black sow asleep in the shade; the sow jumps up and trots away snorting; the boy stops crying and laughs.

I recited what he’d told me back to him, slowly and carefully. He gives me a worried grin. Will it hurt? He’s joking. I nod, tell him I’m afraid so, yes. Before he can answer, I’m inside his head.

(This is where I’m uncertain. What I see, every time I go through, is always the same. It’s very much like the Old Library at the Studium, except that the shelves are a much darker wood—oak, I think, rather than red cedar—and the window is to the left, not the right, and the ceiling has plaster mouldings, but vine and grape clusters rather than geometric patterns, and the line of the floorboards is north-south, not east-west. Maybe it’s just that my mind has taken the Old Library as a sort of template and embellished it a bit, and that’s what I’d prefer to believe. Another explanation, however, has occurred to me. What if someone else once found themselves in this place I go to, and it made such an impression on him that when he got given the job of designing the Old Library, he based his design on what he’d once seen?)

The usual. I always know which scroll to pick, which is just as well, because although there’s writing on the scroll-caps, it’s in letters I can’t read, though I do believe I’ve seen something similar before, on a worn old stone somewhere; anyhow, they’re no help at all. I grab the scroll, undo the cap, tease out the parchment with thumbnail and forefinger; over to the chair, sit down; a boy falls out of an apple tree—ah yes, I remember it as though it were yesterday. There are dark clouds in the sky and I can smell the rain that’s just about to fall. I tread on a windfall apple and it crunches under my foot. The cut on the boy’s head is on the left side, about an inch long. I feel contempt, because he’s crying. I roll up the parchment, and—

It does hurt the client, so I’m told. Not as bad as amputation or childbirth, but much worse than having a tooth pulled.

The old man had gone white, and was leaning back in his chair as though he’d been spread on it, like butter on bread. I ignored him. I turned to the young man and described the memory, slowly, in exact detail, stuff that wasn’t in the old man’s summary. His eyes opened very wide and he nodded.

You sure? I asked him. Quite sure, he said. That’s just how I remember it.

I’d left out the contempt. I have my faults, but I’m not a bad person really.

I turned to the old man. He looked blank. I don’t remember that at all, he said.

*  *  *

Indeed. Memory is such a slippery thing, don’t you think? You think you remember something clear as daylight, but then it turns out you’ve been wrong all along; it was autumn, not winter, the horse was brown, not white, there were two men, not three, you heard the door slam after he came out, not before. Unreliable; but my unreliable memory is good enough to get you condemned to death in a court of law, provided I sound convincing and nobody spots the inconsistencies. And, furthermore, after a while memory is all there is—once a city stood here, or hereabouts; once there was a man called such-and-such who did these glorious or deplorable things; once your people slaughtered my people and drove them out of their own country. Only forget, and who’s to say any of it ever happened? What’s forgotten might as well never have existed.

Think of that. If there are no witnesses, did it really ever happen?

You know, of course. Even after the last witness has died, you still remember what you did.

That’s why you need me.

*  *  *

So I told them my terms of business. I remember the expression on the old man’s face when I got specific about money. The young man gave him an oh-for-crying-out-loud look, and he pulled himself together. You must be a rich man by now, the old man said. I just grinned.

Right then, I said, tell me what you want.

The old man hesitated. Just a minute, he said. You can take the memory out of someone’s head, fine. So, do you remember it?

Of course, I told him. I just proved that.

Yes, he said, but afterwards. Does it stick or just fade away?

I kept my face straight. It sticks, I said. I have one of those special memories, I told him. Show me a page of figures, just a quick glance; five years later, I can recite it all perfectly. I remember everything.

He didn’t like that one little bit. So I pay you to get rid of one witness, and in his place I get another one. With perfect recall. That’s not a good deal.

I scowled at him. Total confidence, I said. I never tell. I’d rather die.

Sure, he said. You say that now. But what if someone gets hold of you and tortures you? They can make anybody talk, sooner or later.

I sighed. Oddly enough, I said, you’re not the first person to think of that. Trust me, it’s not a problem. It just isn’t.

He was looking extremely unhappy, but I couldn’t be bothered with all that. Take it or leave it, I said. That’s how I do business. If you don’t like it, don’t hire me. I couldn’t care less.

The young man leant across and whispered something in his ear. He whispered back. I could tell they were within an ace of getting really angry with each other. I made a big show of yawning.

The old man straightened his back and glowered at me. We’ll trust you, he said. It’s like this.

*  *  *

Believe me, I’ve heard it all, seen it all. I remember it all. Everything. If you can imagine it, I’ve got it tucked away in the back of my mind somewhere, vivid as if it were yesterday, sharp and clear as if I were standing there. Murder, rape, every kind of physical injury, every variation and subspecies of the malicious, the perverted, the degrading, the despicable; sometimes as victim, sometimes as perpetrator, surprisingly often as both. And, given the slippery nature of memory, does that mean I’ve actually suffered those things, done those things? Might as well have. Close enough, good enough. Do I wake up screaming at night? Well, no. Not since I learned how to distill poppies.

*  *  *

Turned out all they wanted me to fix was some trivial little fraud. There were two sets of accounts for the Temple charitable fund, and by mistake the younger man had let the auditor see the wrong ledger. No big deal. The auditor had told the old man, thirty per cent and I’ll forget I ever saw anything.

I was relieved. The way they’d been carrying on, I expected a triple murder at the very least. I remembered to look grave and professional. I can handle that for you, I told them. But—

But?

I smiled. The price just went up, I said. And then I explained; as well as a really good memory, I’m blessed with an aptitude for mental arithmetic. If they were stewards of the White Temple charitable fund and they stood to save thirty per cent of their depredations through my intervention, the very least I could charge them was double the original estimate.

The old man looked shocked. So much dishonesty and bad faith in this world, his face seemed to say. That wasn’t an estimate, he said, it was a fixed fee. You fixed it.

I grinned. It was an estimate, I said. Maybe your memory’s playing tricks on you.

We haggled. In the end, we settled on three times the original estimate. When I haggle, I haggle rough.

*  *  *

They hadn’t asked how I would go about doing it. They never do.

Actually, it was a piece of cake. The auditor was a priest, and it’s easy as pie to get a few moments alone with a priest. You go to confession.

“Bless me, Father,” I said, “for I have sinned.”

A moment’s silence from the other side of the curtain. Then: “Go on,” he said.

“I have things on my conscience,” I said. “Terrible things.”

“Tell me.”

Oh, boy. Where to start? “Father,” I said, “do we need to have this curtain? I don’t feel right, talking to a bit of cloth.”

I’d surprised him. “It’s not a requirement,” he said mildly. “In fact, it’s there to make it easier for you to speak freely.”

“I’d rather see who I’m talking to, if that’s all right,” I said.

So he pulled the curtain back. He had pale blue eyes. He was a nice old man.

I looked straight at him. “If I close my eyes,” I said, “I can see it just as it happened.”

“Tell me.”

“If I tell you, will it go away?”

He shook his head. “But you’ll know you’ve been forgiven,” he said. “That’s what counts.”

So I told him, a round half dozen memories. I think one of them was actually one of mine. He kept perfectly still. I think he’d forgotten to breathe. When I stopped talking, he said, “You did that?”

“I remember it as though it were yesterday.”

“My son—” he said, and then words must have failed him. I could see he was suffering. I’m no angel, but I couldn’t see any point in crucifying the old boy any further. I did the stare, and there I was inside his head, and it’s never easy but these days it’s nice and quick. I got what I came for, along with everything I’d just said to him, and then we were sitting opposite and he had this blank look on his face—

“Father?” I said.

He blinked twice. “My son,” he said. I felt sorry for him. He’d just come round out of a daze, with no idea of who I was or why the curtain was drawn. “Well?” I said.

“Say six sempiternas and a sacramentum in parvo,” he replied, without turning a hair. “And don’t do it again.”

I admire a professional. “Thank you, Father,” I said, and left.

Excerpted from The Last Witness © K.J. Parker, 2015

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