I leaned forward to look up through the windshield at the clouds overhead. They were a definite slate gray which did not bode well for any overtures that I hoped to make with the ruling body.
I laughed at myself. Omens and portents were not my talent, and trying to read them would simply get me into a deeper mess than I was already in. It didn't matter what I was escaping from at the moment, it only mattered that I had entered this district without prior passport.
Tearing my eyes from the clouds required a force of will, but I did it anyway. I needed to find the sentry before he found me. Not that he would do anything to me directly, but letting him know I was here on my own, and not at the behest of my former masters would, hopefully, go a long way toward smoothing my transition into this society.
I also needed to pay attention to the other drivers on the road, most of whom would have no knowledge of me or the world that I lived in. This same oblivious attitude to the danger I represented was likely their only saving grace. There are times, especially when I've had to deal with the whims of those I left behind, that I wish that the darkness that inhabits this world did not exist.
Many will think at this point that I am insane. I only wish I were so. Insanity would be such a nice explanation for everything I experienced on a daily basis. Not that it is a bad place to live, my world, but that it is simply more complicated.
I call it my world, but I do not own it.
That is just a conceit I use to differentiate it from the world that you live in. The normal world. While I won't go so far as to say that my world is better than yours, since it is only our perceptions of the same world that differentiate it, I will say that I prefer my world, blemishes and all.
I was stopped at a light, looking around, trying to see the sentry, when he found me.
He seemed to be one of a number of men, all holding spray bottles and squeegees. I only assumed that they were one of the number of different types of panhandlers that were rife in the city.
Posing as a homeless person, or a panhandler, was a common practice for sentries in any city, let alone this one. They tend to be over-looked which allows them to scrutinize you without being seen themselves.
A pitfall I'd just fallen into myself.
"What organ rules you?"
"We are ruled by an elected council, m'lud."
"I am no high lord. I am nothing but a simple Enhanced." for those of you reading this, and not having it read to you, that is pronounced En-han-sed. Emphasis on the second syllable. Same word, different pronunciation. Don't ask me why, it's just one of the things I accept about the world.
I slight widening of his eyes showed his fear, but he quickly got a handle on it.
"You will have to be bound."
"You will have to make a statement of your crimes against this district in front of a Veritas."
"Still using the old name for a Truth?"
"We like the old ways here, assassin."
I expected his change of attitude as well. Many of my kind were assassins.
"Look, can you climb in and we can drive somewhere so you can bind me? I would like to get this over with today if possible."
He looked at me suspiciously, and then at my possessions in the back of the SUV. He thought for a moment, while people began to drive around us, and then nodded once.
He walked around to the passenger side door, which I unlocked for him, and climbed in.
"Take a left at the next light."
We went on like this for a couple of minutes, and then he had me pull up in front of a hotel. Not what I expected.
I've been shown to residential homes, libraries, warehouses, empty lots, and forested parks. More places than I can count, more styles than I care to remember. Never before had I been taken to a hotel.
Well, there's always a first time for everything.
There was evidently a convention going on in the hotel, and I wondered whether it was cover, or simply serendipity.
I think I expected to be led to a conference room or some sort of ballroom. Instead, the Sentry lead me around the side of the building to the service entrance.
The sentry took me by the hand. "Repeat after me, I bind myself body and soul to the district and the body that rules over it."
"Why don't you include heart while you're at it?"
"You want to meet the Council?"
"I bind myself, under duress, body and soul to the district and the body that rules over it."
A bit of my will passed from me. The sentry was unhappy at my change, but there was no way I was binding myself that completely without a loophole. There was something wrong about this whole situation. Even the old ways did not allow for the treatment of guests this way. Temporary bindings of fealty only. Not something open ended and all consuming like had just been offered me.
"I don't think. . ."
"I am under no obligation to swear away two thirds of my being to this Council. Many would consider the very act of asking a guest to be lacking in proper forms of respect. That you have asked me to suggests that you aren't as open as I'd hoped you would be. Do you have something to hide, Sentry?"
He glowered at me, which suggested to me that I was on the right track, but I didn't pursue.
When I failed to continue, he spoke again, "You aren't a high lord, by your own admission. We don't need to treat you anything other than the lapdog you so obviously are, Enhanced."
He sneered and opened the door for me, and we walked in. We passed through the kitchens and into a sort of staff gathering area. Three men and three women sat in chairs watching us. I assumed that they would be one each of the six disciplines.
Apprentices ruling over talents. Was that what I'd sunk to? Not a single High Lord among them? I almost turned at that moment and left, but one of the men commanded, "Sit."
I felt my binding take hold, and I chose not to break it yet. I sat before the Council.
"Who have you brought before us, Welter."
"An Enhanced. No name asked or given. Says he wants to speak with you. Offered no other explanation."
"The Sentry oversteps. He never asked why I had come. He volunteered that I would need to be bound to sit before you. He volunteered that I would sit before a Truth."
A girl stepped out of the shadows. "He speaks the truth, as far as he knows it. The Sentry however lies."
"I was not lying."
"He knows that the Enhanced never ask to speak to the Council. He assumed by a question about who ruled, clearly answered, that the Enhanced wanted to speak to the Council."
Sentry Welter went beet red at this, and glared at me. I wondered what exactly I'd done to earn his ire. For the moment, however, I chose to ignore the little man.
The Truth on the other hand was worthy of my attention. Few were the Truths that could correctly discern a half truth from an full. Nuance was apparently difficult. This one, however, knew what had been said. I would not be able to slip a nuanced truth past her. . .unless.
"You are very pretty." She looked at me and tilted her head slightly. She blushed a little.
So, she was very sheltered. That could work. I smiled at her, but happy in my knowledge, and a bit of a continued flirting. They would have been better to send a male Truth against me, even if he would have, invariably, been weaker in his ability to discern.
Then, I stopped smiling. I was no longer working in my previous job. Old habits were so hard to break.
"I apologize, Truth, for I was preparing to lie to you. Telling things straight is something of a difficulty for me."
"You can't lie to me."
"My dear, no Truth is absolute. Especially in the middle of the night, as it so obviously is now."
"It is the middle of the night in Moscow, Russia."
"That is a cheat."
"But no less true for that. You could tell that I felt what I was saying was true as far as I know it. For free, I give the esteemed council a word of advice: instead of wasting your one opportunity so you could bind my will, you should have bound my word. I swear on my soul that I will neither harm nor lie to the Council. That is what you wanted, but instead you thought to be sneaky."
"Do not move."
"The problem with that command, is that it requires a loophole. I have to breathe to live. You can't command me to die."
Fear began to grow in the eyes of those who sat across from me. I turned to the Truth.
"Come here, child. I will not allow any harm to come to you."
Wonder showed on her face for a moment before she spoke, "Truth, although I am no child. You simply perceive me to be so."
"You are younger than I am, and I feel myself to be no adult. You are therefore a child."
She laughed at this and came over to stand next to me. She was actually smiling at me.
"Well, if you don't want me to call you 'child,' then what should I call you?"
"Lies do not come easily to you, do they?"
She winced, but shook her head, "no, they don't."
"I will call you Alice, then, even if the name is not truly yours."
"It is not my intention to lie to this Council," at Alice's nod, I continued, "I will, however choose to keep certain things to myself."
The Councilor who'd spoken already glowered at me. The other Councilor's faces seemed to become a caricature of the lead person.
I kept this to myself. There would be time to pull back the curtain later.
"I have never been an assassin, thought I have killed men."
"He was an executioner."
"I was sent to people like this Council who had overstepped their authority."
"The high lords have no authority but that which we give them."
"The high lords have the authority of power."
"Might makes right?"
"No, might commands and the weak obey. This is neither right nor wrong. Correct behavior is instead decided by those of the society where the behavior is committed."
Alice looked at me a little shocked.
Welter spoke before I could continue, "so there is no good or evil, is there? No absolutes?"
I glared at the small man, "of course there are absolutes. We were talking about right and wrong, which are determinations of correctness. Those are defined by society. Good and evil are something else entirely. . .and we're getting off topic here."
I looked at Alice, "I have no master. I am not here at the behest of anyone else."
She nodded toward the man sitting behind me, "it is the truth as far as he knows."
I turned back around and faced the man sitting there, "all I ask is permission to live. Here if possible, elsewhere if I have to."
"I will have to discuss this with my colleagues. In the mean time we can find a place for you upstairs."
The point of the hotel became apparent to me. This was their garrison. I'm sure they had their soldiers situated in the rooms around me. They would be keeping me honest. The binding would last for the next month, and it would be doing the same. It seemed that they had enough man-power to be redundant. Or they simply did not trust their binding, even worded as it was.
"Fine, I will stay here as long as Alice shows me to my room."
I knew she was worried about why I wanted her to show me the way, but I was tired of the lies. At least I knew that she would tell me the truth. How was it that a group with one of the most powerful Truths I'd ever met insisted on so much deception.
"That will be acceptable. Alice? Would you kindly lead the Enhanced to his room?"
She nodded to me, and I followed her from the room. The trip through the intensely lit back ways of the hotel was quiet except for the buzzing of the fluorescent lights, and the sound of our muffled shoes on the carpeting.
It was strange to potentially be at the end of my journey. So many hours on the roads hoping that they would not notice I was gone. So many stops where the ruling body had simply told me to move along. At least they had heard me.
Whether or not they listened was another thing entirely.
What had brought me to this point in time?
A better question was whether the districts that had simply kicked me out were right.
I felt something begin to push on my mind. Alice was staring intently at me. Everything began to recede a bit, and I knew that's she'd jump started a memory. I've always hated it when a Truth does this.
"Sebastian, you've got to wake up!"
I cracked an eye open. The sun hadn't yet peaked over the horizon, but the gray of predawn filtered past my thin curtains. It wasn't as if the pallet I had to sleep on was comfortable, but I preferred to get what sleep I could.
"I've done my testing already, Neema. I know which talents I don't have."
"They've chosen you, Sebastian."
"Yes, I know that too. Can I get a couple of hours more sleep before I wake for the day."
"You have been commanded into their presence. Now."
Grumbling I got up from my pallet, and pulled on my shirt. Well, it was more a vest than a shirt. It was all that was left of the t-shirt that I'd worn in here that first day. I wasn't sure how long it would even last in its present condition. Even the smallest holes were big enough to pass two or three fingers through without touching the sides.
"Hurry, Sebastian. You're needed now."
Some of the urgency in his voice infected my feet, and I followed him quickly out of the room. My bare feet slapped on the concrete of the walkway that lead from the dormitories to the main building.
I didn't have the time to spare a thought to the formal Japanese garden that surrounded us, even though on similar mornings it had been enough to calm me. Being called out this early in the morning could mean one of two things.
I doubted I was about to be executed if I were the only person heading toward the chamber.
Neema floated in front of me as I was about to open the door.
"Remember: speak only when spoken to, do not utter a sound unless permitted, and try not to be scared."
The spirit floated away, allowing me to open the door and pass inside. It always amazed me that the doors, big as they were, could be opened with the gentlest of touches.
I closed the door behind me and then walked exactly five yards into the room and went into a full prostration. I did not look around.
I waited there, patiently. I was here at their whim, and I would not in any way make a move that would bring their wrath upon me.
"Sebastian." Said the voice of the First Great High Lord. Taking this to be a statement, and not a question, I made no sound.
"Sebastian." Said the voice of the Second Great High Lord. Again I made no movement or noise.
"Sebastian." Said the voice of the Intermediary High Lord.
"We have brought you here, Sebastian, to receive your talent. Are you ready to receive it?"
"Yes," I said silently.
"Then you shall receive."
The pain was intense. It felt as though my body were tearing itself to pieces. I clamped down my jaw and struggled not to utter a sound. The high lords were adamant in the following of their edicts by anyone of a lesser order.
The pain began to lessen somewhat, and I began to relax, but then it intensified to an even greater level than before. Fire was pouring through my veins, lighting me up from the inside. The pain paled in comparison to my fear, so still I did not make a sound.
There was no lessening before the final stage of pain began. Oh, how I wanted to scream at that point, but I no longer had the capacity for it. There was no description of this pain. It went on for an eternity. I had always been in pain. I was pain. There was no end to the pain and it consumed me completely. The promised darkness only came as the pain itself retreated.
I awoke in a bed. The sun outside shone through a brilliant blue sky. I'd been dressed in a silk garment, and I rested under the first sheets I'd had since my arrival.
I relaxed and fell back into the comforting arms of sleep.
Coming back to my senses, I staggered against the wall in the hotel. It had been years since I'd last thought of the day I received my talent. Alice looked at me in horror, but worse than the horror was the compassion I saw in her eyes.
"Do not do that to me again."
"I'm sorry, Sebastian, I didn't mean. . ."
"Sebastian died long ago. I am Treyvor now. I have been, and will be."
"I'm sorry, Sebastian. I will try to remember in the future."
I wanted so much to apologize, but for the moment the remembered pain stopped me. I had been in that moment again, and felt everything like I'd been there. As I lay there I felt the woven rope pallet that had been my only cushion from the moment I entered their realm until the day they gave me my talent.
I felt the rough wooden floor of the audience chamber. I felt the cold of the concrete on my bare feet.
Alice had moved on, and was waiting for me by a white fire door.
"I'm sorry, Alice. I shouldn't have snapped at you."
"I'm sorry too. I shouldn't have. . .done that without your permission."
She opened the door for me and we stepped out into the hotel lobby. We walked over to the elevators and rode up to the third floor. I was in a room just a couple of doors down from the elevator. Again, Alice waited for me by the door, and opened it as I approached. I stepped inside and she left without saying another word.
The bed was hard, as most hotel mattresses are, but I was tired enough that I didn't care. Sure, I could go without food, water, or sleep for up to a week, but I paid for it afterwards.
I ate the food that had been provided and then fell asleep on top of the covers, hoping for a little extra padding between me and the mattress.
I chuckled at the thought. I'd grown so soft compared to the boy who'd gone seeking a magical gift.
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