Exhaling Memories

Inti strode into the hall, her limbs as hale at six hundred and thirty-two as they had been at thirty. She smoothed her skirt and cape, woven from the softest baby llama’s wool, then knelt before the only other living person in the room. Her gold bracelets tinkled softly.

“They found a suicide note?" she asked.

“Or so they claim." The Divinity, her great-grandson, sat on the fourth throne, scowling. The thrones to his left held the previous Divinities—Inti’s grandson, then son, then husband. They all sat as they had in life, with emerald-eyed golden masks over their mummified faces.

Inti stared at her husband in his regal feather crown and intricate red and yellow robes. “My husband didn’t kill himself."

“Yes, but the priests are looking into it. Cocui claims he found the note in your old chambers, sealed inside a clay pot. We never should have moved to a new palace."

A cool breeze swirled through the high, narrow windows. They didn’t admit much sunlight, but the gold overlaying the floor, walls, and ceiling reflected the sparse rays, casting everything in a cold, metallic glow. “Cocui is merely jealous."

“Jealous? I am certain." The Divinity glowered, eyes as dark and hard as obsidian. “You do realize what would happen if the priests validate this claim?"

She was old, not senile. Suicide was an unholy crime, capable of tainting not only her husband, but all of his descendants. Inti’s throat tightened. Coucui would cast them out. They’d both face enslavement or execution, depending on how paranoid Cocui was feeling. “I won’t let Cocoui destroy my husband’s legacy.”

“I’m glad you understand. You were there for The First Divinity’s death. I will work with the Council of Priests to dismiss this slanderous claim, but I need you to inhale your memories and—"

“We could not find my husband’s murderer when his blood was fresh on the stones of his chamber!" Inti snapped. “Reliving his death will accomplish nothing."

The Divinity stared at her. Inti wasn’t sure how it happened, how cooing babies transformed into grim men, sitting on thrones of gold next to other children, grown and dead. “I am The Divinity. I command it."

Inti clenched her skirt, but respectfully lowered her head. She wanted to shout that a young man of merely a hundred and two had no right to command the woman who bore his ancestor. “Of course, Divinity."

He stared, face rigid, then waved a hand. “You are dismissed."

Inti sat in her memory room. She’d insisted on a large window, despite protests for her safety from robbers and assassins. Who would steal her memories, after all? She was the only one who could read them. The terraces outside the palace tumbled down deep, narrow valleys, like stairs for giants. Churning mist masked the river that lay below. She hadn’t seen the reverse view, from the bottom of the mountain, since she was a young woman of sixteen. It was one of the few memories she kept from her early years—steps rising into the heavens, topped by the City of Gold, hiding its cerulean Fountain of Youth.

Inti sighed. The fountain was actually flat gray, like the sky before rain, but she’d imagined it so vividly as a girl.

Inti turned from the view to stroll through her library. Shelf after shelf displayed neat rows of silvery bags made from tanned llamas’ stomachs. Strings sealed the top of each bag, the ends dangling with patterns of knots that described the date and contents.

Running her fingers across the strings, she located the month before Mancos’ death. I exhaled these for a reason. She gathered a few of them and brought them to her gold-inlaid desk. The bags rose and fell a little, almost like sleeping guinea pigs.

Inti rubbed the back of her neck. Which memory to lose? A mind could only hold so many. She wanted to exhale her meeting with The Divinity, but she doubted Cocui’s claim would disappear on his own. He was too shrewd to display anything but the best forgery.

Three days ago, she’d mostly sat at her window and watched the rain—that could go. She had other memories of rain streaming down the terraces.

Inti pulled a string from the desk drawer and carefully knotted the date, a descriptor, and her reason for storing it. She pulled a bag from the drawer as well—soft, but with the lingering, acrid smell of tanning tea—and placed it just above her left ear. A pale scar still rested there, from when the priests cut a triangle out of her skull.

Focusing on the memory of the rainy day, Inti filled her lungs, then exhaled slowly. Something warm seeped from the opening in her skull. The bag grew heavier. When her breath was gone and she couldn’t remember what she’d exhaled, Inti grabbed the string. She glimpsed the viscous, gold-jade strands as she tied it shut.

She ran her fingers down the thread. A rainy day. She sighed—sighing was a skill that only improved with time. She loved rainy days, with their swirling mists and cool air.

Inti set the pleasant memory to the side and picked up the first of the silvery bags. Cracks ran along the centuries-old leather, though the string was new; she must have knotted it to replace a decaying one, but she couldn’t remember. The contents of the bag swished, sluggish at the bottom.

Inti unwrapped the lashing, placed the bag to the triangle into her mind, and inhaled.

Inti remembered—Mancos’ chambers in the old palace. Gold traced the joints between the massive gray stones. With only an oil lamp burning, it looked like a spider-web box, holding her in the air. Mancos, the First Divinity, sat next to her on his mat.

She ran her fingers over the scab where the priests had carved a triangle from his skull. “You seem ill at ease."

“Perhaps I am." His baritone resonated into her marrow.

“You’re over a hundred. You should have started exhaling memories long ago."

Mancos gently pulled her hand from his head and threaded his fingers through hers. “Perhaps I should have let the fountain run its course."

Inti peered at him. “You’re The Divinity. You can rule this people forever."

“Am I? I’ve lost part of myself. If I lost all of my memories of you," he said, cupping her face, “I would not be the same man. Our memories are part of us."

“Your memories will kill you," Inti said. The Fountain of Youth did grant a perpetually healthy body, but it couldn’t change the mind to match. “I helped clean up your father, when his memories overflooded his mind and exploded through his skull. I refuse, Divinity, to scrub you off the floor."

“I’ve already lost a memory. It would not be me." His face was mostly shadow; the lamplight lined only the long slope of his nose.

Inti lightly kissed the scab on his skull and let her mouth drift to his ear. “You’ve been listening too hard to your brother. Just because Apichun insists on exploding doesn’t mean you should join him. I rather like your ear exactly where it is."

“I fear Apichun may be right."

Inti nibbled his earlobe and trailed her hand across his chest. “I fear that you worry too much."

Inti laid her string before her and knotted its full length with notes. By the time she finished her hands—still just as young as they were in the memory—ached. She flexed her fingers, then pulled her cape close around her shoulders. The cape was softer than Mancos’ hands. Warrior’s hands. She wished she could hold them now.

Inti pursed her lips at the row of silver bags, rising and falling softly on her desk. Each likely contained a Mancos morose over lost memories. Once Mancos latched onto an idea, he never let go. Stubbornness won him the City of Gold and its Fountain of Youth.

One of them might contain a hint to his murderer, but Inti didn’t reach for them. Mancos sat dead and dried on his throne. Nothing would bring him back.

But Cocui’s lies could destroy his dynasty. Inti sighed. Perhaps she could bear the next memory if the first didn’t burden her. Inti placed the ancient silvery bag to her temple and exhaled. Warm strands of memory oozed out, then Inti tied it shut.

She ran her finger down the thread of notes and her stomach twisted. This would not be pleasant work. No wonder she hadn’t kept any memories from this time.

Inti looked to her window. Rain fell. The soft sound and the fresh smell soothed her. She left the silvery bags behind for a moment to stare down the massive terraces, disappearing into the fog. She smiled and breathed in the sweet scent. It seemed a long time—too long—since she’d last watched the rain.

Over the next four days, she inhaled and exhaled another ten memories. She rubbed the aching spot between her eyes, and trailed her fingers over her notes, all attached to an anchor thread labeled Trial Research. Her stomach clenched. She couldn’t keep doing this.

Her door banged open.

“The priests—" The Divinity paused, staring at her. “You’re just sitting at your desk?"

Inti managed not to scowl at his rudeness. “I’m resting, Divinity."

“There’s no time for rest. The priests checked their dry archives in the desert. Cocui’s faked suicide note has the same thickness, fibers, and knot-style as the First Divinity’s writing. Did you know he knotted left-handed?"

She didn’t. She hadn’t watched her husband knot often, or perhaps watching him write hadn’t been worth remembering. She nodded at her anchor thread and notes. “As you can see, I am working on the problem."

The Divinity glowered. Inti had told her grandson not to marry a lowlander; the current Divinity had inherited her unnerving, thin-lipped scowl. “You must work faster. The Priestly Council has opened a court to hear the matter out."

Already? Her throat dried. She gazed over her shelves, laden with hundreds of bags of gently breathing memories. If they held an answer, finding it could take months, years.

The Divinity sighed—he wasn’t very good at it—and took one of her writing-cramped hands in his. “Great-grandmother. You’re the only one still living who was there. Please hurry."

He stared at her, as if she didn’t understand the consequences. Exile or death. The mummies of her husband, son, and grandson cast out and burned. She shook her head. “I’ll work faster. Leave me."

The Divinity kissed her hands. Inti remembered him as a boy, rolling on her rug, laughing. How had that child’s smile transformed into scowls? “Thank you."

He left. The thick, golden walls soon muffled his footsteps. Inti was grateful for the quiet. She looked over the silver bags rocking softly on her desk. Mocking her.

When she proved her husband guiltless, Inti swore she’d forget the whole trial. She picked up the next memory and inhaled.

Inti remembered—the terraces sloped broader than in present day, falling away from the balcony she stood on with Mancos. Vermillion flower-vines twisted through the gold railing.

“You should exhale the memory of Apichun suggesting you weren’t yourself," Inti said. “Then exhale this conversation, and everything tied to that awful idea."

“And then what? Exhale half my life? All of my life?" Mancos gazed across the land. It was a clear day; the silver thread of the river flashed at the bottom of the valley. “Perhaps it would be better if I destroyed the fountain. It wouldn’t save me, but it would spare my descendants."

Inti placed a hand on his shoulder, but he jerked away. The edge of one of the hundreds of mirrors on his cape nicked her thumb, drawing blood as bright as the flowers. Inti stifled a gasp and clenched the cut to her palm. “It’s a gift to exhale things you’d rather never think of."

“I could keep only pleasant days, but I’d be lying to myself about who I was. Am. Should I take the opposite course, and purge all pleasant memories? That, I think, would make me a better sovereign."

He turned, so Inti only saw his black hair, glistening in the full sun. “That...would make you miserable."

“I already am."

Even whispering, his voice penetrated her bones, fluttered her stomach. He could have won the empire with the depth of his voice alone.

“Be reasonable. Do you need to remember what you ate at midday? Bathing? So much of life is redundant."

“Perhaps I will be reasonable tomorrow," Mancos said. He paused. “I’ve poured out thirteen memories now."

Inti smiled. “See? That is not so much."

“I asked a priest to calculate it. I could combine those memories in ninety-one different ways inside me. I am ninety-one different people, Inti."

She pursed her lips. “Mancos, you look like just one man to me."

“Then I’m lying to my wife, as well as to myself."

Inti knotted her notes, sighing. She certainly favored pleasant memories, but she kept in others as reminders. A day of pacing Mancos’ war tent, pregnant, during the campaign. The betrayal of a general when Mancos first acceded. Mancos’ concubines fawning over her, thinking their false adoration would earn her respect, and thus the ear of The Divinity. She kept all the deaths of family members, except Mancos’. Bathing the face of her son, The Second Divinity, in the Fountain of Youth, hoping it would ward the feverish infection that attacked him when the priests cut the triangle from his skull. The body of her grandson, The Third Divinity, riddled with arrows after a tour of an outlying province. No, Inti kept her share of unpleasant memories—she was the same person she’d always been.

Knotting finished, Inti exhaled the conversation with Mancos and tied it shut. She ran her fingers down the string and shook her head. If Mancos had spent his last days improving the guard, perhaps he’d still be alive to argue about how many people he was.

She picked up the next bag, gut tightening at its sloshing weight. She wasn’t any closer to finding Mancos’ killer. Had his brother, Apichun, planned it? The priests investigated that thoroughly when Mancos’ blood was fresh. Perhaps the priests did it, because Mancos threatened to destroy the Fountain of Youth? She reread her notes, but as of yet, he hadn’t confessed that idea to anyone but her. She hadn’t been foolish enough to repeat it.

Maybe there was no clue. Mancos’ assassin was never seen, never traced. Inti knew she’d woke from a blow on the head to find her husband’s corpse. She glanced at the last bag on the table. At least she didn’t have to relive that. Yet.

She slept restlessly in her new chambers, then returned to her memory room.

Inti remembered—sitting in her personal chambers in the old palace. Mancos insisted on a room deep inside. She’d tried to alleviate the lack of windows with bright tapestries, potted plants, and a caged scarlet macaw from the north. The air never smelled like rain, though.

“I’m worried about him, Mother," said Huampa, her son. His round face still made her think of him as the baby she’d swaddled up the warpath to the City of Gold.

“Your father is...unsettled. It will pass."

He pursed his lips. He had soft eyes, nothing like the current Divinity, though their ears were identical. “Father’s been melancholy for weeks. I think he’s exhaling good memories. He’s angry at himself—he claims there are a hundred seventy-one of him."

“Sometimes, I worry you’d make a better king. Perhaps he would name you a ruling regent."

Both of Huampa’s fat eyebrows slanted upward. “In this mood? Never. Perhaps if he were calm he could set pride aside...but if he were calm, there’d be no reason to take rulership from him."

Inti laid back on her orchid-perfumed cushion. “You’re right. Your father..." Stubborn. More stubborn than stone, more stubborn than the mountain empire he’d conquered. “Perhaps it will right itself."

“If he keeps exhaling good memories, I fear it will worsen."

Inti scowled as she knotted her notes. Had Huampa taken it upon himself to remove his father? She shivered. Her child was not a murderer. A usurper.

The door burst open. Why couldn’t The Divinity learn to knock?

“Do you have anything?"

Inti’s chest tightened. “No."

“The priests are halfway through an official trial for Cocui’s claims! If you do not find a counter argument soon, I fear—"

“I know," Inti said, hands clammy. Her feet itched to run. If her son was guilty of patricide, she didn’t want to know it. Nor did she wish to see his mummy dethroned. Her grandson and great-grandson would be removed, too. She couldn’t even remember which concubine’s child would accede in such a case.

“You must work faster," The Divinity hissed.

Inti looked at her desk. Only a handful of memories remained until Mancos’ death. Then she’d have to gather up the ones from afterwards and try to make sense of everyone’s actions. Especially Huampa’s. “There is much left."

“We don’t have time."

Immortal, but bereft of time. She smiled wryly—an old strategy to prevent tears. “Then I suggest you stop chiding and let me get back to work, little one."

Init remembered—Mancos’ chambers again. The oil lamps burned brightly, glittering off the web of gold. A cold, bronze knife rested in her hand. It glittered, too, as if trying to hide its sharpness with its splendor.

Mancos held out a hand. “Give it to me, Inti."

“No." Her knees trembled. She clutched the knife to her chest, and stepped back. “Mancos, you’re not yourself. You need to stop insisting on pouring out everything good. Can you even remember the day we met? The day of Huampa’s birth? The day you took the throne?"

“The throne? Yes. That was a curse. I should have stayed in the valley." His eyes were obsidian—just like his great-grandson’s. Something wild stirred in them, under his frayed hair.

Inti shifted a step towards the door.

“Stop Inti. Give me the knife."

Her hands shook. Should she call in the guard? Mancos would be forever disgraced, when she tried to explain. “I’ll give it back, once we’ve gone to your memory room. Once you remember how I love you, how you love your son. You’re..." Her throat constricted—her voice was a dry whisper. “You’re not yourself."

“Give me the knife." Mancos picked up a vase.

For two heartbeats, Inti contemplated what to do. To shout? Her throat was a lump. She turned to run. Perhaps he would follow. Perhaps she could make him see reason, if they weren’t alone.

She wouldn’t let him slit his own throat.

A crack. Pottery tinkled to the floor like rain, pain blossomed at the base of her skull, and the memory turned black.

Inti’s hands shook. She started to knot, then stopped, her breath ragged, her hands slippery. She wiped them on her skirt. Cocui’s suicide note was real. How quickly had she purged that memory? She’d searched for the murderer for years, heartbroken and angry.

She swallowed the lump in her throat. How could he? To her? To the children? To his empire?

Mancos was guilty. But she wouldn’t see her descendants disgraced because of one long-ago choice. She wouldn’t let the empire fall to Cocui’s schemes.

She had served this empire for centuries. She would serve it one last time, by rewriting its history. She knotted herself a lie to discover later.

Pulse fluttering in her throat, Inti ran to the shelves and snatched pleasant memories, tagged with red string. She shoved everything else off her desk, then pulled an empty silver bag from her drawer and pressed it to her temple.

She gathered the memory of the day her husband died and every conversation with the current Divinity about the trial. She gathered together the funerals of her son and grandson, conniving concubines, her grandson’s wedding to that lowlander, and every argument she’d had with Mancos—everything unpleasant—and exhaled it into the bag until it was taut as a drum.

She dropped it into her desk drawer and slammed it shut. She couldn’t remember what it contained, but her gut knew she loathed it. One by one, she inhaled the pleasant memories. Her, Mancos, and Huampa watching a master trainer display his talented monkeys. The thousands of flowers filling the throne room when Mancos became The First Divinity. Mancos, squeezing her hand under the table at a dull feast.

Inti meandered to her window and clasped her hands behind her back. It was raining. The drops filled the air with music and turned the terraces emerald green. She breathed in the sweet air. Had anyone ever lived such a pleasant six hundred years? She’d had a kind husband, loyal children, and afternoons filled with the lingering scent of flowers and the taste of honeyed fruit. She brought a chair to the window and watched the rain, reliving long, pleasant days.

Until The Divinity burst into the room, scowling. “I thought you said you were working on the trial!"

“Trial?" Inti asked, turning slowly.

The Divinity gaped at her. His mirror-studded cape hung askew on his shoulders. “With the priests? Cocui claiming The First Divinity committed suicide?"

“That’s preposterous!" Anyone who’d spent a day with Mancos would know him incapable of such a heresy.

“The trial ends imminently, unless you have something to testify. The priests are convinced!"

Inti stifled a yawn and rose from her chair. “I must have needed a rest. Let me see what notes I left myself."

She frowned at her desk—when did she let it become so messy? She found a row of strings, tied to an anchor thread she’d labeled Trial Research. “Just a moment, please."

She ran her fingers down the threads, frowning. She told Huampa he’d make a better ruler? Had she planted the seeds of murder in him? Her fingers touched the last string: I was holding the knife. I murdered Mancos.

Inti’s breath caught. She ran her fingers down twice more. The words didn’t change.

She hadn’t planted dissention in Huampa; she’d voiced her own intents. She’d killed Mancos and tossed her guilt away. Into the bag in the desk drawer? She staggered, catching herself on the chair. Had she hoped this trial would pass? Disappear?

She swallowed, hard. Mancos, The First Divinity—he’d been a glorious, almost flawless man. Her stomach felt like worms. She couldn’t let the council destroy Mancos’ name, his lineage, his dynasty.

She remembered his fingers on her cheek, gentle as the afternoon’s rain. She wanted to carve the knowledge of her guilt out of herself—then realized she’d already done that once.

I’m living a lie. Soon, it would be at the expense of the best man she’d ever known.

“You have to come now," The Divinity said.

Inti glanced over her mahogany shelves, filled with thousands of gently rocking, silvery bags. When they executed her, the gold-jade strands inside would all turn to black sludge. Maybe that was fitting – they belonged to a murderess, after all. What kind of person had she been when she attacked him?

No, she didn’t need to know that. Didn’t want to know that.

Inti straightened her cape of baby llama wool and her brightly colored skirts. Then she clasped her hands in front of her, gold bracelets tinkling. It was time to set history straight. “I’m ready."

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