Excerpt, The Liars

Dissent is dangerous. . .

The Temple’s jail takes up four floors under the 7th’s building. Once I walk through the 1st floor’s locked door, an Enforcer leads me to an elevator. We descend quickly, and the doors open into a dingy, poorly-lit corridor that smells of urine, boiled food and despair. My shoes beat out an authoritative rhythm as we walk by the tiny six-by-eight foot cells. I glance through the bars and see thin, greasy-haired men in grey, lying on small wooden and canvas bunks or sitting and staring into space.

We reach Evan’s cell, where he, like the other inmates, is lying on a cot. He’s still wearing his blood-caked brown robe. One of the sleeves has been ripped off and his injured arm, wrapped in a bloody, grey bandage, is stretched out next to him. His other arm covers his eyes, as if simply closing them is not enough to shut out the misery surrounding him.

“That’s him, High Priestess,” the Enforcer says and gives me a small electronic device. “Press this button when you’re ready and I’ll come running.”

“Thank you,” I say with a gracious smile. He leaves as Evan slowly—painfully—sits up and circles his stomach with his uninjured arm. That’s when I see the deep purple and blue bruises on his face. His left eye is so swollen it’s almost shut. I suck back a gasp.

“Priestess,” Evan says in a rough, dry voice. It sounds wrong, like his throat’s been injured. He frowns and then winces. Any little twitch of his battered face is going to hurt. Grasping the bar of his cot, he tries to slide off it. It takes me half a minute to realize he’s trying to kneel.

“No!” I burst out.

He lifts his head to look at me. Where it’s not colored by bruising, his face is as grey as his bandage. His too-long hair, which I remember as having a light curl to it, hangs limply around his face. His one good eye narrows in pain as his arm tightens around his stomach. Even so, he glances briefly at something up to my left, in the corner of his cell. Judging by the expression on his face and the way his eyes move quickly back to me, he doesn’t want me to acknowledge it. All the same, I see the small black camera out of the corner of my eye. We are being watched. Cameras and listening devices are everywhere in Temple City, but they aren’t always recording. Here, though, in a jail cell with a dissident, it’s certain everything we say is being carefully watched and recorded.

“You need not kneel to me today,” I say.

He nods, then slowly rises. He shuffles the few feet to the barred door like a man forty or fifty years his senior. When he reaches me, he lifts his uninjured arm over his head and leans his forehead against the bars for support. And smiles. His face is battered and God only knows what’s wrong with the rest of him, but for all that, his smile sets butterflies loose in my stomach. He is still Evan, a grown-up version of the boy I knew before I left for Temple City. With his brown contact lenses removed, his one open eye is that same soft green, and his smile has the same sweet warmth that caught girls’ hearts and eased my teenage angst. I expect he’ll have it until the day he dies.

Which will be three days from now.

His uninjured eye runs over my blue jacquard gown, accented in gold, which I chose because it’s his favorite color. It’s a slow, quiet perusal, as if he’s trying to commit me to memory. When he’s done, his gaze rests on my face again. “You shouldn’t be here, Priestess.” In spite of the harshness of his voice, the same gentle lilt of those long-ago days rides in it.

“You saved my life.”

He lets out a dry, pained chuckle. “Yeah, see the good it did me?”

It’s my turn to wince. “They’ve accused you of being a dissident.”

“Which is why you shouldn’t be here.”

“You threw yourself on top of me. . . . ‘Thank you’ doesn’t seem like enough considering. . .” Considering that it guaranteed his capture.

“The debris would have killed you instead of that woman behind you.”

“Yes . . . but I don’t understand. When you planted that bomb, you meant to kill—” My husband. The Prophet. “People. You must have known I’d be nearby.”

He just stares at me. Agreeing with me is a confession. He doesn’t argue, though, and isn’t that a confession in itself?

He’s right; I should leave. I should never have come. I’m not making this better. Jarvis’s friends are arranging for a merciful end. That’s the best anybody can do for Evan. My spending time with a criminal, a dissident, will only look bad for me. Still, a thank-you followed by accusations, specifically accusations that have just forced him into making a not-confession confession, is hardly enough.

I run my eyes over his injured arm, over his battered and bruised face and the thin mattress on the bunk against the wall. It’s speckled with blood. Evan saved my life and then took a beating for it. Lord only knows what else they’ve done to him. The Order has developed ways to torture and kill people that leave no marks on the body—clean and sterile. They can aim FET beams at you that penetrate your skin to burn your insides black, or rip your internal organs to pieces. They can do it gradually until you’re dead or they can mend you and then start all over again. FET stands for focal energy therapy, and was originally designed as a medical tool. We sometimes call it focal energy torture, but mostly we just call it laser.

When they discipline like this, battering Evan’s face, it’s to send a message.

Still, just because they beat Evan bloody, doesn’t mean they’ve abstained from using those other methods. He could be dying right now, could be dead before the scheduled execution. Could he have escaped it all if he hadn’t saved me? Had escape ever been part of his plan? Or had he planted the bomb knowing his life would be forfeit anyway?

It doesn’t matter, any more than the reason he did it. What matters is that for a few minutes I am going to be the Emoter he knew years back, the one that may still exist behind my wall of lies. “I can at least get you medical treatment, something for the pain.”

His arm across the bar starts to tremble and he takes a breath. “Don’t bother, I’ve been worse.” He pauses. “Thank you for coming, Priestess.”

“I have to bother,” I say before he can turn away. I lower my voice to a whisper and pray that no one hears me. “You know I do.”

His one good eye flickers and that long ago sadness enters it, along with an all too familiar longing. Deeper, stronger than I remember. “No, you don’t. You shouldn’t be here,” he says again. He lowers his voice to a quivering whisper. “You’re in danger, Neri.”

Damn. His warning wasn’t just about the bomb. He has something more he needs to tell me, but he can’t. And now he’s used my name and they’ll know he knows me, too.

But don’t they already? We’re from the same parish. We were in the same Sectioning. Surely those records are in the archives. Surely as soon as they learned his name, they examined his background. Discovered his mother’s subversion, maybe even wondered if he and I have maintained a secret connection through the years.

His eyelids start to droop. The tremble turns to shaking. As he loses his battle against unconsciousness and slides to the floor, I spastically press the button and wonder if they think I am a dissident too.