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A Memory Game

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At times, the mind of the Reigners' Servant reminded him of the punishments that had been visited upon him for failing to correctly fulfil the Reigners' commands.

At times, his mind suggested to him several things that the Reigners might do to him if he failed in his duties, but these suggestions were drawn from the years of his training, from things the Reigners had ordered him to do to punish other people, and from punishments he had witnessed the Reigners carrying out on other people. These were all only suggestions, because he had never yet dared to draw from his masters anything but mild displeasure, and if they ever really found themselves disappointed in him, their choice of discipline would exceed his imagination.

He managed to carry both of these ideas in his head, that he knew what it was to be punished, and also that he did not know, that he had frequently fallen and would again fall short of the Reigners' expectations, and also that he maintained a desperate, fragile perfection in his duties, without allowing himself to notice the paradox.

It amused Reigner One to force his Servant's mind to protect itself in this way. He didn't want his Servant to become numbed to agony, and so the forgetting was useful, but it posed a challenge - the best kind of challenge, the sort that allowed Reigner One to play a game against himself. Could he devise a punishment so severe that Mordion would remember it, even at the expense of the preservation of his own sanity? Or had he designed Mordion so well that after experiencing something truly devastating, Mordion would find a way to avoid thinking about it, and indeed avoid admitting that it had happened?

*

There were rules to this particular game. Reigner One had to put Mordion in a situation where he would fail. He didn't always do this when testing out a punishment on his Servant, but in this case, it was useful to establish the link between failure and punishment, in order to make it harder for Mordion to forget the latter.

Reigner Three frequently had good ideas. "He didn't want to kill that doctor on Vebald Three," she mused. "Tell him that we've discovered the man was about to, oh, I don't know. Something involving saving people. And now those people are dead and production is down and we're very unhappy with him."

Reigner One understood her, but to nettle her, he said, "But he carried out his order, my dear."

"Of course he did," Reigner Three said, with irritation that satisfied him. "That doesn't matter. What matters is that we are unhappy."

"Very well," Reigner One said, adding a whine of doubt to his voice. He left Reigner Three's chambers knowing that she would throw her cup at the closing door.

*

Reigner One explained the situation to the Servant briefly. "You have merited punishment," he concluded, reminding himself not to sound too ebullient. The Servant nodded slightly, respectfully.

"You will kill the person you find at the location I give you," Reigner One ordered him. "Once you reach the outer limits of the city, you will..." He thought of Reigner Three's cup. "You will kill every fifth person who is holding an open beverage, and also every second person whose index finger is longer than their middle finger."

This time, Reigner One saw the wince that he had been waiting avidly for. Most of all, the Servant hated to terminate lives for what seemed to be no reason at all. It was an ineradicable arrogance: ipso facto, a decision made by a Reigner was not spurious.

The Reigner reminded himself to choose one or two people to watch and see whether the Servant was accurate in ascertaining every fifth person carrying an open beverage, and every second person with a long index finger. He had a list of those who were friendly to, or at least not frightened of, the Servant. He had a dozen amusing ways of shortening that list.

"That is all," he said, encouragingly, and left the Servant to it.

*

The city that Reigner One had sent Mordion to was very loyal to the Reigners. His appearance had been met with cautious pride, now changed to outraged loathing. He had arrived at his location, which meant an end, for now, to killings by lottery, which had numbered sixteen. He felt absolutely no relief at that thought.

There was a door. He went through it.

Behind it was Kessalta.

No, the Reigner's Servant thought, and remembered: Kessalta was dead. This woman was younger than Kessalta would have been, though older than Kessalta had lived to be.

"Mordion," said the woman who wasn't Kessalta. "I know all about you. I've been waiting for you..." She looked hopeful, but her voice trembled. "You don't have to kill me. It was only a test. Reigner One says so."

He killed her quickly.

"I wonder," Reigner One gloated at him, greeting his return, "what you've managed to deduce. Not a clone, of course, far too valuable. This person was natural-born, no genetic similarity, just a touch of skin-shaping - no anaesthetic of course - and work on the vocal cords. And some harvested memories, implanted."

"I see," Mordion said neutrally, his head bowed, his only defiance being to say nothing further. He understood, as he was meant to understand, that his victim had been tortured to be made ready for him. He understood that although she had not been the person she appeared to be, the person he had cared about, his victim had been closer to that person than any other person alive was, because of the memories, whose quality and quantity Reigner One left to Mordion's imagination.

Reigner One stood gloating over his Servant's silence for almost a full minute, then tired of it.

"That is all," he said again, and left his Servant to pain or to self-preservation, whichever should occur.

Mordion forgot, of course. It hurt to forget, but it would damage him even more to reconcile himself with the death of Kessalta's surrogate. Another year later, Reigner One visited the same scenario on his Servant, with minor changes, merely for the pleasure of seeing Mordion realise that it had happened before. Mordion forgot that too.

But he remembered that he had killed. He remembered the banality, the enormity, and the vanity of the deaths. He remembered that he had caused them, but he never forgot where the weight of the guilt should fall; the House of Balance, and how righteous, when it fell, that fall would be.