Master, it was in the evening of the third day of the southern planting season that the questioner's assistant came for the Doctor to take her to the hidden chamber, where the chief torturer awaited.
I was sitting in the living room of the Doctor's apartments using a pestle and mortar to grind some ingredients for one of the Doctor's potions. Concentrating on this, it took me a moment or two fully to collect my wits when I heard the loud and aggressive knocking at the door, and I upset a small censer on my way to the door. This was the cause both of the delay in opening the door and any curses which Unoure, the questioner's assistant, may have heard. These swear-words were not directed at him, neither was I asleep or even remotely groggy, as I trust my good Master will believe, no matter what the fellow Unoure -- a shifty and unreliable person, by all accounts -- may say.
The Doctor was in her study, as was usual at that time in the evening. I entered the Doctor's workshop, where she keeps the two great cabinets containing the powders, creams, ointments, draughts and various instruments that are the stock of her trade as well as the pair of tables which support a variety of burners, stoves, retorts and flasks. Occasionally she treats patients in here too, when it becomes her surgery. While the unpleasant-smelling Unoure waited in the living room, wiping his nose on his already filthy sleeve and peering round with the look of one choosing what to steal, I went through the workshop and tapped at the door to the study which also serves as her bedroom.
"Oelph?" the Doctor asked.
I heard the quiet thud of a heavy book being closed, and smiled to myself.
The Doctor's study was dark and smelled of the sweet istra flower whose leaves she habitually burned in roof-hung censers. I felt my way through the gloom. Of course I know the arrangement of the Doctor's study intimately -- better than she might imagine, thanks to the inspired foresight and judicious cunning of my Master -- but the Doctor is prone to leaving chairs, stools and shelf-steps lying where one might walk, and accordingly I had to feel my way across the room to where a small candle flame indicated her presence, sitting at her desk in front of a heavily curtained window. She sat upright in her chair, stretching her back and rubbing her eyes. The hand-thick, fore-arm-square bulk of her journal lay on the desk in front of her. The great book was closed and locked, but even in that cave-darkness I noticed that the little chain on the hasp was swinging to and fro. A pen stood in the ink well, whose cap was open. The Doctor yawned and adjusted the fine chain round her neck which holds the key for the journal.
My Master knows from my many previous reports that I believe the Doctor may be writing an account of her experiences here in Haspide to the people of her homeland in Drezen.
The Doctor obviously wishes to keep her writings secret. However, sometimes she forgets that I am in the room, usually when she has set me the task of tracking down some reference in one of the books in her extravagantly endowed library and I have been silently doing so for some time. From the little that I have been able to glimpse of her writings on such occasions I have determined that when she writes in her journal she does not always use Haspidian or Imperial -- though there are passages in both -- but sometimes uses an alphabet I have never seen before.
f0 I believe my Master has thought of taking steps to check with other natives of Drezen regarding whether, in such instances, the Doctor writes in Drezeni or not, and to this end I am attempting to commit to memory as much as I can of the Doctor's relevant journal writings whenever I can. On this occasion, however, I was unable to gain a view of the pages she had surely been working on.
It is still my wish to be able to serve my Master better in this regard and I would respectfully again submit that the temporary removal of her journal would allow a skilled locksmith to open the journal without damaging it and a better copy of her secret writings to be taken, so allowing the matter to be settled. This could easily be done when the Doctor is elsewhere in the palace or better still elsewhere in the city, or even when she is taking one of her frequent baths, which tend to be prolonged (it was during one of her baths that I procured for my Master one of the Doctor's scalpels from her medicine bag, which has now been delivered. I would add that I was careful to do this immediately after a visit to the Poor Hospital, so that someone there would be suspected). However, I do of course bow to my Master's superior judgment in this regard.
The Doctor frowned at me. "You're shaking," she said. And indeed I was, for the sudden appearance of the torturer's assistant had been undeniably unsettling. The Doctor glanced past me towards the door to the surgery, which I had left open so that Unoure might be able to hear our voices and so perhaps be dissuaded from any mischief he might be contemplating. "Who's that?" she asked.
"Who's what, mistress?" I asked, watching her close the cap of the ink well.
"I heard somebody cough."
"Oh, that is Unoure, the questioner's assistant, mistress. He's come to fetch you."
"To go where?"
"To the hidden chamber. Master Nolieti has sent for you."
She looked at me without speaking for a moment. "The chief torturer," she said evenly, and nodded. "Am I in trouble, Oelph?" she asked, laying one arm across the thick hide cover of her journal, as if looking to provide, or gain, protection.
"Oh no," I told her. "You're to bring your bag. And medicines." I glanced round at the door to the surgery, edged with light from the living room. A cough came from that direction, a cough that sounded like the sort of cough one makes when one wants to remind somebody that one is waiting impatiently. "I think it's urgent," I whispered.
"Hmm. Do you think chief torturer Nolieti has a cold?" the Doctor asked, rising from her chair and pulling on her long jacket, which had been hanging on the back of the seat.
I helped her on with her black jacket. "No, mistress, I think there is probably somebody being put to the question who is, umm, unwell."
"I see," she said, stamping her feet into her boots and then straightening. I was struck again by the Doctor's physical presence, as I often am. She is tall for a woman, though not exceptionally so, and while for a female she is broad at the shoulder I have seen fish-wives and net-women who look more powerful. No, what seems most singular about her, I think, is her carriage, the way she comports herself.
I have been afforded tantalising half-glimpses of her -- after one of her many baths -- in a thin shift with the light behind her, stepping in a coil of powdered, scented air from one room to another, her arms raised to secure a towel about her long, damp red hair, and I have watched her during grand court occasions when she has worn a formal gown and danced as lightly and delicately -- and with as demure an expression -- as any expensively tutored season-maiden, and I freely confess that I have found myself drawn to her in a physical sense just as any man (youthful or not) might be to a woman of such healthy and generous good looks. Yet at the same time there is something about her deportment which I -- and I suspect most other males -- find off-putting, and even slightly threatening. A certain immodest forthrightness in her bearing is the cause of this, perhaps, plus the suspicion that while she pays flawless lip service to the facts of life which dictate the accepted and patent preeminence of the male, she does so with a sort of unwarranted humour, producing in us males the unsettlingly contrary feeling that she is indulging us.
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.
The chief torturer Nolieti stood between this apparatus and a broad workbench covered with various metal bowls, jars and bottles and a collection of instruments that might have originated in the workplaces of a mason, a carpenter, a butcher and a surgeon. Nolieti was shaking his broad, scarred grey head. His rough and sinewy hands were on his hips and his glare was fastened on the withered form of the encaged man. Below the metal contraption enclosing the unfortunate fellow stood a broad square tray of stone with a drain hole at one corner. Dark fluid like blood had splattered there. Long white shapes in the darkness might have been teeth.
Nolieti turned round when he heard us approach. "About fucking time," he spat, fixing his stare on first me, then the Doctor and then Unoure (who, I noticed, as the Doctor stuffed her kerchief back into a pocket in her jacket, was making a show of folding the black blindfold he had been told to use on her).
"My fault," the Doctor said in a matter-of-fact manner, stepping past Nolieti. She bent down at the man's rear. She grimaced, nose wrinkling, then came to the side of the apparatus and with one hand on the iron hoops of the frame-chair brought it squeaking and complaining round until the man was in a more conventional sitting position. The fellow looked in a terrible state. His face was grey, his skin was burned in places, and his mouth and jaw had collapsed. Little rivulets of blood had dried under each of his ears. The Doctor put her hand through the iron hoops and tried to open one of the man's eyes. He made a terrible, low groaning sound. There was a sort of sucking, tearing noise and the man gave a plaintive moan like a kind of distant scream before settling into a ragged, rhythmic, bubbling noise that might have been breathing. The Doctor bent forward to peer into the man's face and I heard her give a small gasp.
Nolieti snorted. "Looking for these?" he asked the Doctor, and flourished a small bowl at her.
The Doctor barely glanced at the bowl, but smiled thinly at the torturer. She rotated the iron chair to its previous position and went back to look at the caged man's rear. She pulled away some blood-soaked rags and gave another grimace. I thanked the gods that he was pointing away from me and prayed that whatever the Doctor might have to do would not require my assistance.
"What seems to be the problem?" the Doctor asked Nolieti, who seemed momentarily nonplussed.
"Well," the chief torturer said after a pause. "He won't stop bleeding out his arse, will he?"
The Doctor nodded. "You must have let your pokers get too cold," she said casually, squatting and opening her bag and laying it by the side of the stone drain-tray.
Nolieti went to the Doctor's side and bent down over her. "How it happened isn't any of your fucking business, woman," he said into her ear. "Your business is to get this fucker well enough to be questioned so he can tell us what the King needs to know."
"Does the King know?" the Doctor asked, looking up, an expression of innocent interest on her face. "Did he order this? Does he even know of the existence of this unfortunate? Or was it guard commander Adlain who thought the Kingdom would fall unless this poor devil suffered?"
Nolieti stood up. "None of that is your business," he said sullenly. "Just do your job and get out." He bent down again and stuck his mouth by her ear. "And never you mind the King or the guard commander. I'm king down here, and I say you'd best attend to your own business and leave me to mine."
"But it is my business," the Doctor said evenly, ignoring the threatening bulk of the man poised over her. "If I know what was done to him, and how it was done, I might be better able to treat him."
"Oh, I could show you, Doctor," the chief torturer said, looking up at his assistant and winking. "And we have special treats we save just for the ladies, don't we, Unoure?"
"Well, we haven't time to flirt," the Doctor said with a steely smile. "Just tell me what you did to this poor wretch."
Nolieti's eyes narrowed. He stood up and withdrew a poker from the brazier in a cloud of sparks. Its yellow-glowing tip was broad, like the blade of a small flat spade. "Latterly, we did him with this," Nolieti said with a smile, his face lit by the soft yellow-orange glow.
The Doctor looked at the poker, then at the torturer. She squatted and touched something at the encaged man's rear.
"Was he bleeding badly?" she asked.
"Like a man pissing," the chief torturer said, winking at his assistant again. Unoure quickly nodded and laughed.
"Better leave this in, then," the Doctor muttered. She rose. "I'm sure it's good you enjoy your job so, chief torturer," she said. "However, I think you've killed this one."
"You're the doctor, you heal him!" Nolieti said, stepping back towards her, brandishing the orange-red poker. I do not think he intended to threaten the Doctor, but I saw her right hand begin to drop towards the boot where her old dagger was sheathed.
She looked up at the torturer, past the glowing metal rod. "I'll give him something that might revive him, but he may well have given you all he ever will. Don't blame me if he dies."
"Oh, but I will," Nolieti said quietly, thrusting the poker back into the brazier. Cinders splashed to the flag stones. "You make sure he lives, woman. You make sure he's fit to talk or the King'll hear you couldn't do your job."
"The King will hear anyway, no doubt," the Doctor said, smiling at me. I smiled nervously back. "And guard commander Adlain, too," she added, "perhaps from me." She swung the man in the cage-chair back upright and opened a vial in her bag, wiped a wooden spatula round the inside of the vial and then, opening the bloody mess that was the man's mouth, applied some of the ointment to his gums. He moaned again.
The Doctor stood watching him for a moment, then stepped to the brazier and put the spatula into it. The wood flamed and spluttered. She looked at her hands, then at Nolieti. "Do you have any water down here? I mean clean water."
The chief torturer nodded at Unoure, who disappeared into the shadows for a while before bringing a bowl which the Doctor washed her hands in. She was wiping them clean on the kerchief which had been her blindfold when the man in the chair cage gave a terrible screech of agony, shook violently for a few moments, then stiffened suddenly and finally went limp. The Doctor stepped towards him and went to put her hand to his neck but she was knocked aside by Nolieti, who gave an angry, anguished shout of his own and reached through the iron hoops to place his finger on the pulse-point on the neck which the Doctor has taught me is the best place to test the beat of a man's vitality.
The chief torturer stood there, quivering, while his assistant gazed on with an expression of apprehension and terror. The Doctor's look was one of grimly contemptuous amusement. Then Nolieti spun round and stabbed a finger at her. "You!" he hissed at her. "You killed him. You didn't want him to live!"
The Doctor looked unconcerned, and continued drying her hands (though it seemed to me that they were both already dry, and shaking). "I am sworn to save life, chief torturer, not to take it," she said reasonably. "I leave that to others."
"What was in that stuff?" the chief torturer said, quickly squatting to wrench open the Doctor's bag. He pulled out the open vial she had taken the ointment from and brandished it in her face. "This. What is it?"
"A stimulant," she said, and dipped a finger into the vial, displaying a small fold of the soft brown gel on her finger tip so that it glinted in the light of the brazier. "Would you like to try it?" She moved the finger towards Nolieti's mouth.
The chief torturer grabbed her hand in one of his and forced the finger back, towards her own lips. "No. You do it. Do what you did to him."
The Doctor shook her hand free of Nolieti's and calmly put her finger to her mouth, spreading the brown paste along her top gum. "The taste is bitter-sweet," she said in the same tone she uses when she is teaching me. "The effects last between two and three bells and usually have no side effects, though in a body seriously weakened and in shock, fits are likely and death is a remote possibility." She licked her finger. "Children in particular suffer severe side effects with almost no restorative function and it is never recommended for them. The gel is made from the berries of a biennial plant which grows on isolated peninsulae on islands in the very north of Drezen. It is quite precious, and more usually applied in a solution, in which form, too, it is most stable and long-lasting. I have used it to treat the King on occasion and he regards it as one of my more efficacious prescriptions. There is not much left now and I would have preferred not to waste it on either those who are going to die anyway, or on myself, but you did insist. I am sure the King will not mind." (I have to report, Master, that as far as I am aware, the Doctor has never used this particular gel -- of which she has several jars -- on the King, and I am not sure she had ever used it to treat any patient.) The Doctor closed her mouth and I could see her wipe her tongue round her top gum. Then she smiled. "Are you sure you won't try some?"
Nolieti said nothing for a moment, his broad, dark face moving as though he was chewing on his tongue.
"Get this Drezen witch out of here," he said eventually to Unoure, and then turned away to stamp on the brazier's foot-bellows. The brazier hissed and glowed yellow, showering sparks up into its sooty chimney. Nolieti glanced at the dead man in the cage-chair. "Then take this bastard to the acid bath," he barked.
We were at the door when the chief torturer, still working the foot-bellows with a regular, thrusting stroke, called out, "Doctor?"
She turned to look at him as Unoure opened the door and fished the black blindfold from his apron. "Yes, chief torturer?" she said.
He looked round at us, smiling as he continued to fire the brazier. "You'll be here again, Drezen woman," he said softly to her. His eyes glittered in the yellow brazier light. "And next time you won't be able to walk out."
The Doctor held his gaze for a good while, until she looked down and shrugged. "Or you will appear in my surgery," she told him, looking up. "And may be assured of my best attention."
The chief torturer turned away and spat into the brazier, his foot stamping on the bellows and breathing life into that instrument of death as we were ushered out of the low door by the assistant Unoure.
Two hundred heartbeats later we were met at the tall iron doors which led into the rest of the palace by a footman of the royal chamber.
"It's my back again, Vosill," the King said, turning onto his front on the wide, canopied bed while the Doctor rolled up first her own sleeves and then the King's tunic top and shift. And we were in the principal bed-chamber of King Quience's private apartments, deep within the innermost quadrangle of Efernze, the winter palace of Haspide, capital of Haspidus!
This has become such a regular haunt of mine, indeed such a regular place of work, that I confess I am inclined to forget that I am honoured indeed to be present. When I stop to consider the matter though, I think, Great Gods, I -- an orphan of a disgraced family -- am in the presence of our beloved King! And regularly, and intimately!
At such moments, Master, I thank you in my soul with all the vigour that is mine to command, for I know that it was only your kindness, wisdom and compassion that put me in such an exalted position and entrusted me with such an important mission. Be assured that I shall continue to try with all my might to be worthy of that trust, and fulfil that task.
Wiester, the King's chamberlain, had let us into the apartments. "Will that be all, sir?" he asked, bending and hunching over as well as his ample frame would allow.
"Yes. That's all for now. Go."
The Doctor sat on the side of the King's bed and kneaded his shoulders and back with her strong, capable fingers. She had me hold a small jar of rich-smelling unguent which she dipped her fingers into every now and again, spreading the ointment across the King's broad, hairy back and working it into his pale gold skin with her fingers and palms.
As I sat there, with the Doctor's medicine bag open at my side, I noticed that the jar of brown gel which she had used to treat the wretch in the hidden chamber was still lying opened on one of the bag's ingeniously fashioned internal shelves. I went to stick my own finger into the jar. The Doctor saw what I was doing and quickly took hold of my hand and pulled it away from the jar and said quietly, "I wouldn't, Oelph, if I were you. Just put the top back on carefully."
"What's that, Vosill?" the King asked.
"Nothing, sir," the Doctor said, replacing her hands on the King's back and leaning forward on to him.
"Ouch," the King said.
"Mostly muscular tension," the Doctor said softly, flicking her head so that her hair, which had partly fallen across her face, was sent spilling back over her shoulder.
"My father never had to suffer so," the King said morosely into his gold-threaded pillow, his voice made deeper by the thickness and weight of fabric and feathers.
The Doctor smiled quickly at me. "What, sir," she said. "You mean he never had to suffer my clumsy ministrations?"
"No," the King said, groaning. "You know what I mean, Vosill. This back. He never had to suffer this back. Or my leg cramps, or my headaches, or my constipation, or any of these aches and pains." He was silent a moment as the Doctor pushed and pressed at his skin. "Father never had to suffer anything. He never -- "
" -- had a day's illness in his life," the Doctor said, in chorus with the King.
The King laughed. The Doctor smiled at me again. I held the jar of ointment, inexpressibly happy for just that moment, until the King sighed and said, "Ah, such sweet torture, Vosill."
Whereupon the Doctor paused in her rocking, kneading motion, and a look of bitterness, even contempt, passed briefly over her face.
Copyright © 2000 by Iain M. Banks
On a backward world with six moons, an alert spy reports on the doings of one Dr. Vosill, who has mysteriously become the personal physician to the king despite being a foreigner and, even more unthinkably, a woman. Vosill has more enemies than she first realizes. But then she also has more remedies in hand than those who wish her ill can ever guess.
Elsewhere, in another palace across the mountains, a man named DeWar serves as chief bodyguard to the Protector General of Tassasen, a profession he describes as the business of "assassinating assassins." DeWar, too, has his enemies, but his foes strike more swiftly, and his means of combating them are more direct.
No one trusts the doctor, and the bodyguard trusts no one, but is there a hidden commonality linking their disparate histories? Spiraling around a central core of mystery, deceit, love, and betrayal. Inversions is a dazzling work of science fiction from a versatile and imaginative author writing at the height of his remarkable powers.