The Doctor leaned over the desk and opened the curtains and the shutters to the mid-eve Seigen glow. In the faint wash of light from the windows I noticed the small plate of biscuits and cheese at the edge of the Doctor's desk, on the far side of the journal. Her old, battered dagger lay also on the plate, its dull edges smeared with grease.
She picked up the knife, licked its blade and then, after smacking her lips as she gave it a final wipe on her kerchief, slipped the dagger into the top of her right boot. "Come on," she said, "mustn't keep the chief torturer waiting."
"Is this really necessary?" the Doctor asked, looking at the blindfold held in questioner's assistant Unoure's grubby hands. He wore a long butcher's apron of blood-stained hide over his filthy shirt and loose, greasy-looking trousers. The black blindfold had been produced from a long pocket in the leather apron.
Unoure grinned, displaying a miscellany of diseased, discoloured teeth and dark gaps where teeth ought to have been. The Doctor winced. Her own teeth are so even that the first time I saw them I naturally assumed they were a particularly fine false set.
"Rules," Unoure said, looking at the Doctor's chest. She drew her long jacket closed across her shirt. "You're a foreigner," he told her.
The Doctor sighed, glancing at me.
"A foreigner," I told Unoure forcibly, "who holds the King's life in her hands almost every day."
"Doesn't matter," the fellow said, shrugging. He sniffed and went to wipe his nose with the blindfold, then looked at the expression on the Doctor's face and changed his mind, using his sleeve again instead. "That's the orders. Got to hurry," he said, glancing at the doors.
We were at the entrance to the palace's lower levels. The corridor behind us led off from the little-used passageway beyond the west-wing kitchens and the wine cellars. It was quite dark. A narrow circular light-well overhead cast a dusty sheen of slatey light over us and the tall, rusted metal doors, while a couple of candles burned dimly further down the corridor.
"Very well," the Doctor said. She leaned over a little and made a show of inspecting the blindfold and Unoure's hands. "But I'm not wearing that, and you're not tying it." She turned to me and pulled a fresh kerchief from a pocket in her coat. "Here," she said.
"But -- " Unoure said, then jumped as a bell clanged somewhere beyond the flaking brown doors. He turned away, stuffing the blindfold into his apron, cursing.
I tied the scented kerchief across the Doctor's eyes while Unoure unlocked the doors. I carried the Doctor's bag with one hand and with my other hand led her into the corridor beyond the doors and down the many twisting steps and further doors and passageways to the hidden chamber where Master Nolieti waited. Halfway there, the bell rang again from somewhere ahead of us, and I felt the Doctor jump, and her hand become damp. I confess my own nerves were not entirely settled.
We entered the hidden chamber from a low doorway we each had to stoop under (I placed my hand on the Doctor's head to lower her head. Her hair felt sleek and smooth). The place smelled of something sharp and noxious, and of burned flesh. My breathing seemed to be quite beyond my control, the odours forcing their way into my nostrils and down into my lungs.
The tall, wide space was lit by a motley collection of ancient oil lamps which threw a sickly blue-green glow over a variety of vats, tubs, tables and other instruments and containers -- some in human shape -- none of which I cared to inspect too closely, though all of them attracted my wide-open eyes like suns attract flowers. Additional light came from a tall brazier positioned underneath a hanging cylindrical chimney. The brazier stood by a chair made from hoops of iron which entirely enclosed a pale, thin and naked man, who appeared to be unconscious. The entire frame of this chair had been swivelled over on an outer cradle so that the man appeared caught in the act of performing a forward somersault, resting on his knees in mid-air, his back parallel with the grid of a broad light-well grille above.
Copyright © 2000 by Iain M. Banks
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