Bishop Sonje held his flimsy before him, watching a playback of the the High Sage’s most recent non-death: a drowning, the standard second.
Were they always this gruesome? Before, when murder — no, not murder — when Severe Unction had been only an abstract idea, a mere possibility so unlikely as to border on the impossible, he had consoled himself with the thought that, should he ever be faced with ordering this most desperate of rites, he could live in the knowledge that the deaths were not permanent. In fact, they never happened; not in this time steam. Every sentient in this room would leave in that same condition: living, breathing, thinking.
The deaths never happened.
And yet they did, for here was evidence of those deaths, held limply in his hand: proof against his every denial. He had overseen this creature’s death. He had ordered it and sat still while men carried out the execution.
Murder was in him.
Sonje switched off the recording before the Sage’s final, jerking death throes, a sour taste in his mouth.
Tock, who had watched the screen over his bishop’s shoulder, swallowed audibly, but said nothing.
“May I ask a question?” said the High Sage. His voice was no longer cool and commanding, but soft and shaky as a lamb.
Sonje nodded. He didn’t trust himself yet to speak.
“Does it go on forever? The deaths I mean. If I refuse to join your Church, do you kill me for eternity?”
“No,” said Sonje, his own voice hardly above a whisper.
“I’ve said too much already.”
Sonje glanced at the flimsy. Its screen was blank, but he could still see the Sage’s useless struggles as he drown in a ridiculously small amount of water.
“And then what? After nine?”
Sonje met the rabbit-faced man’s pink eyes.