Down, down, down.
Down they went, down the narrow spiral starecase, spelled that way because it was hewn from living eyes staring at them as they went, two guards in front, then the prisoner, then a bunch more guards in back since if a prisoner gets away and tries to escape they generally head back the way they came cause what could be down a freaky starecase? You don’t want to know.
The sounds of the city faded quickly and were replaced by water dripping, distant screams, whips cracking, like that.
Sort of like the beginning of a guided meditation, only way scarier.
The prisoner didn’t remember much after that. They tied him up and started torturing him, that much he knew, but after that things grew fuzzy cause he did what any intelligent person would do, he passed out immediately. One twist of a thumbscrew and that was it, over and out.
He regained consciousness. Someone had tossed a bucket of water in his face. He heard the sounds of boots on the stone floor, hewn from the living rock.
“He’s one tough customer, I’ll grant him that, your Lordship,” said a guard to the boots.
The prisoner spat water, pfff!
The prisoner’s name was Mark.
“No information at all?” said the boots.
The guard shook his head. “Nothing. Thumbscrews, rack, Iron Maiden. Quiet as a judge.”
“Which Iron Maiden?”
“2 Minutes to Midnight.”
“We’ll have to up the ante,” said the boots.
It was easy for Mark not to reveal anything. He was passed out and didn’t have a clue what they wanted anyway, or he would have told them, but they weren’t interested in his explanations.
“The Inquisitor will loosen his tongue,” said the boots, who then left the room amidst the chuckles of the guards (evil chuckles).
Mark didn’t have long to wait and worry about what the fellow had meant. The Inquisitor must have been waiting right outside the door, cause there he was, quiet on his feet, cheerful. A small man, but wearing black. Black boots, black cape, black hood.
“Okay let’s get started,” said the Inquisitor.
“Okay,” said Mark.
“Get-rich-quick ideas. Those have driven stronger men mad than you. Think up three get-rich-quick ideas. Now. On the spot.” He waved a red-hot poker in Mark’s face.
“Artisinal honey, e-books that you actually buy, mobile phones that protect your privacy, manly baby equipment bags for fathers, reasonably-priced wet plate cameras, software that comes on a DVD and installs itself and doesn’t require a month of back-and-forth with customer service to register.”
“He’s good,” said a guard.
“Silence!” said the Inquisitor, who was losing his temper, because normally thinking up three get-rich-quick ideas on the spot like that drove prisoners mad.
“NANOWRIMO is coming up,” said the Inquisitor. “Give me a plot that won’t make you sick after a month. Right now.”
“I, uh,” stammered Mark.
“Now we’re cooking with fire,” said the Inquisitor to a guard. “See? Everyone has a weakness.”
“What sort of book?” said Mark.
“Any sort,” said the Inquisitor, because what was harder than coming up with an idea when you had total freedom?
“That’s a tough one,” admitted Mark. “Do you ever wonder, when things are slow, down, down here, what book the world really needs?”
“What?” said the Inquisitor.
“I mean, life is finite. We can only read so much, all of us. Different people need different books, naturally, but for you, from your point of view, what is the book that is lacking when you go into a bookstore and leave unfulfilled, even if you leave with an armload of Staff Picks?”
“You mean, like, genre?”
“I mean everything. The exact book. I can see mine. Hardbound, ornate cover, of medium size and thickness. Containing all I need. A book smarter than me so I feel uplifted, yet not so clever as to be irritating. Frightening and reassuring in turns, a book that purifies both by example and by fire, so to speak, annealing the reader, and which leaves one back in love with language, thought, perception and humanity. You know what I mean?”
“No, actually,” said the Inquisitor, but he was starting to wonder, although he hadn’t read many books lately. He was so busy! But he had read a lot as a kid.
“Maybe someone can fly,” said the Inquisitor. “Maybe. But it seems realistic.”
“A book like a secret life. A book that reconciles us with our secret lives, the secret lives we all lead but cannot express or share, as much as we may try. A book that rewards us for them!” said Mark.
“Perhaps with dragons,” said the Inquisitor. “Or at least dragon eggs. Or even dinosaur eggs.”
The Inquisitor stared at Mark. Mark looked at him. The guards watched the two of them. The eyes of the starecase beheld the whole group.
“Perhaps with a whale. Perhaps a library or a linguist. Perhaps crows cawing in the fog in a forest the color of autumn. Perhaps a man hiding in a fisherman’s hut on the bank of a river, under a large willow. Perhaps a couple kneeling at the edge of a deep hole in the woods, freshly dug, with another man standing behind them with a Saturday Night Special in a gloved hand. Perhaps a child. Perhaps someone standing in a field in winter, watching their breath and the long grass, turned white with ice crystals in the night.”
“Perhaps,” said the Inquisitor.
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Down, down, down.