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Incensio

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Carmel, California, October 1772.

The fog rolled in from over the Pacific after dinner, shrouding the grounds of the Mission Carmel in a gray cloak not unlike the drab woolen habit I wore in my current guise as a Franciscan priest. This was just as well because it meant no one would see me sneak out to the vegetable garden to the presence wandering through the cabbages--a Company operative, and a familiar one at that.

She hadn't aged a day from the last time I'd seen her seventy years ago, but then we never do. That's the whole point of this immortality business, isn't it?

"Mendoza! Nice to see you! It's been a while," I said, waving her over from her contemplation of the (so far paltry) rewards of honest labor. "What brings you here today?"

She shrugged. "I had to go into the Company outpost in Monterey to drop off specimens that needed better long-term storage than I could manage in my field kit. I figured I'd stop in and see how you were doing out here in your new digs."

The Carmel mission was the second outpost founded by the Franciscans after the Jesuits got themselves kicked out of Alta California; its original location, within spitting distance of the capital in Monterey, was nixed after some very nasty politics between the church fathers and the military governor in favor of a nice plot near the mouth of the Carmel River, where the farming was better anyway. We celebrated our first mass at the hastily renamed mission a few months later, racing to build as much as we could before the winter rains arrived to baptize us all with floods and mudslides. I was here to keep an eye on the Company's affairs in the region and in the Church, which was a nice change of pace after my other assignments, even if there was a lot more austerity and asceticism and way less Theobromos than I preferred.

But I held my tongue, because Mendoza had no patience for either the day to day minutiae of mortal affairs or the big picture stuff, and none of the stories I had to share would convince her otherwise.

"Oh, you know me, just puttering along," I said, which was true enough, if a bit of an understatement.

"Pity you had to ditch the fur and the tail from the Chumash assignment," she said, eyeing me up and down. "That was a good look for you, even if playing god went to your head."

I grinned at her. "Cute, but I'm pretty sure you didn't come all this way just to insult me."

"That's right, I brought you a present," she said, digging into her pack and slapping a little cloth bundle into my hands.

I opened it to reveal a sticky amber lump that reeked of pine. "Uh, Mendoza, what is this stuff?"

"It's Abies bracteata resin!" she said proudly, as if this was supposed to mean something to me.

"What's that? Some sort of spiky fir?" I hazarded. 

"Close enough." I braced for impact as Mendoza shifted into lecture mode. "Abies bracteata, also known as the Santa Lucia fir, is the rarest conifer in North America, found only in scattering of rocky, high-elevation canyons with the Santa Lucia mountains and a few outlier populations further south. They're named for the cones, which look like spiky sea-urchins balanced on the branches, except infinitely more fragile. I've been collecting seed from as many populations as I can for future restoration projects."

"Oh, yeah?" I said, doing my best to feign interest. If you want to get a Preserver on your good side, ask them about their area of research, and remember to smile and nod every once in a while to look like you're paying attention--though most of them won't even notice if you fall asleep once they really get going.

"Yes! It's been surprisingly challenging. Mature trees range from sixty to one-hundred fifteen feet in height, with distinctive pyramidal tips for the last dozen feet or so, which is where all the female cones are located. They're extremely delicate when they reach maturity, making it almost impossible to collect sufficient quantities of seed on the ground--the only way I've managed is to climb up and harvest them by hand. As if that weren't enough, many seeds aren't viable due to inbreeding, and a certain percentage of every seed crop is parasitized by chalcid wasp larvae--up to one hundred percent in bad years. But I finally collected sufficient samples from the last holdouts in the San Carpóforo Creek population down near San Luis Obispo, which means I'll get a special commendation from the Company for maximizing genetic diversity."

"That's great, Mendoza!" I said enthusiastically, and this time I meant every word of it. "But what am I supposed to do with this?"

"Oh." Mendoza blinked. "In 1830, the Scottish botanist David Douglas will make a botanical excursion from Monterey to Santa Barbara, stopping in to visit the Mission San Antonio de Padua out by what will eventually become the town of Jolon, where he will be welcomed by one Friar Cabot, who regales him with tales of a hithertofore unknown conifer he calls Incensio--the first mention of Abies bracteata in the historical record. Cabot will claim he and the others at the mission burned the sap for incense during mass, so I figured you could use it in your line of work. To be honest, I'm surprised none of your native converts have mentioned it yet."

"Huh," I said, oddly touched. Between you and me, Mendoza is the closest I'll ever come to having a daughter of my own, but the fact that she didn't actively hate me was a novel experience. Stopping by like this, let alone offering a gift of her own free will, meant that she'd eased up on her resentment of me over certain unpleasant incidents, and it meant a lot to me.

That said, I still had no idea how I was going to get the stickiness off my hands.

"Use oil or alcohol, not soap," she said, as if she'd read my mind. "Comes right off."

"Oh. Right."

Awkward silence fell between us; she didn't exactly repent of her gesture, but it was clear that she'd done what she came to do and as far as she was concerned, the conversation was now over.

"Well, thanks for thinking of me," I said quickly. "I don't suppose you want to stick around for evening prayers?"

"God, no," she laughed, staring past me towards the mountains with that fey, feral expression I knew so well. "I've got to get back to work. Good to see you, Joseph. Take care of yourself, all right?"

"You too, Mendoza. Vaya con dios."

And then she was gone, swallowed up in the fog again as if she was a ghost.

Sure, it would have been nice if she'd stayed a bit longer, but I was just glad she was finally happy, you know? When you're immortal, the only safe thing to love is your work, and if nothing else, taking this assignment in California had given Mendoza something to obsess over that wasn't that dratted Englishman. Sure, it she'd hate it when the Yankees started tearing these mountains apart in a few decades when the Gold Rush began in earnest, but she was saving what she could, and that would have to be enough. And she'd always have her precious maize cultivars or whatever to coo over at the Company bases scattered through history.

She'd assumed I would burn little lump of resin, but after I scrubbed the residue off my hands with some butter filched from the mission kitchen, I wrapped it up as best I could and stuck it in the little pouch attached to the cincture of my habit instead as a reminder that Mendoza didn't hate me anymore, which was a miracle in and of itself. Sentimental of me, I know, but as I've said, she wasn't the gifting type, and this was the only present I'd ever gotten from her after two and a half centuries of surrogate fatherhood. By luck or chance, she'd given me something almost as immortal as we were--resins don't rot, they just fossilize and turn into amber after a while. 

I kept it even after she disappeared in 1863, though I never could bear the smell of pine after that.