Note to reader: Perhaps I ought to apologise for this story. I fully realise it will be disturbing. But imagine how you would feel if you'd dreamt it, with yourself in the title role, and perhaps you'll understand why I had to try to exorcise it in this way.
They’d prepared long and thoroughly for the day’s performance; they’d left nothing to chance.
The noonday sun, blazing down on the courtyard, shone in through the high skylights, so the chamber, despite its considerable size, was well-lit. The benches that rose in a horseshoe shape around the stage were clean and comfortable, and the air faintly scented with resin.
It was a cheery chamber, and a cheery time of day. This was not something that the High Order intended to hide in damp subterranean dungeons in the middle of the night; the idea was to make clear to everyone that it could happen at any time, to anyone at all.
It even had a cheery name; it was called the Chamber of Light.
The people who were to make up the audience knew what it was for. They came in slowly and reluctantly, their eyes moving fearfully from side to side as the usher at the door marked them off on his list and showed them where they were to sit. They – mostly men, but a few women as well – had been selected by lottery. It was a lottery that nobody wanted to win.
Down on the stage, the Master Torturer watched the usher, who wore the black robe and cowl of the High Order, and went over his plans for the day’s performance. In keeping with the chamber, the Master Torturer wore perfectly ordinary clothes, and in fact looked completely ordinary; nobody should be allowed to think that retribution could only come in the form of some black-hooded, monstrous figure out of the horror movies.
Most times, when the performance began, the Master Torturer would pull on a translucent smock to keep off the blood. He didn’t need it today, because the performance wasn’t intended to involve that much blood. Of course, sometimes things went wrong, with the apprentices, for example, but not with him. That was why he was the Master Torturer.
Outside, in the streets, traffic rushed by, and out on the beach tourists lay on the sand, and out to sea huge-hulled ships brought and took away the produce of the world; but here, in the Chamber of Light, the day’s performance was about to begin.
The usher marked off a name on his list and watched another entrant – a lumpy young woman with sagging breasts and a truculent expression – walk slowly up to her seat up in the second tier from the back. He then walked over to the Master Torturer and nodded. “All done.”
The Master Torturer was pleasantly surprised. “No absentees this time? Not one person suddenly discovered he was deathly ill?”
The usher’s pallid face did not change expression. “Are you ready to start? We’ll bring him in then.”
The Master Torturer glanced over his shoulder at the instruments lined up at the back of the stage – the cabinet filled with blunt and sharp knives of various sizes, the rack with the whips and batons, and the portable brazier which he’d had the apprentices light half an hour earlier and which glowed a dull red now in consequence. One of the apprentices brought in a bucket of water and set it down by the large chair with the straps. He nodded. “All done.”
The usher’s eyes bored into his. “This one needs to be worked carefully. You know why.”
The Master Torturer nodded, not pointing out that he didn’t have to be told this. He was only an employee, and held office at the pleasure of the High Order. Besides, the audience was looking at him with fearful fascination, and bickering would be merely counterproductive. “Bring him in.”
The usher spoke briefly into the microphone built into the cowl of his robe. The door beside the stage opened, and two other members of the High Order brought in the material, holding him by the arms.
The Master Torturer studied the material. This was the first time he’d actually seen him, which was unusual. Normally, the Master Torturer would have spent time learning all about him that he could, to decide which methods would work best. Not this time, though; this time the material would go through the whole, carefully choreographed performance. This one was special, as the usher had said. He would get it all.
The material was very young, little more than a boy; seventeen or eighteen, maybe nineteen at the most. He was stick-thin and pale, with an oval face tapering to a triangular jaw. He didn’t seem to know what was going on, not fully, and didn’t make any move to resist when they strapped him into the chair.
The Master Torturer glanced at the usher. “Has he been drugged?”
The usher nodded reluctantly. “He was given a short-acting tranquiliser. We didn’t want him to damage himself. It’ll wear off almost at once, don’t worry.”
“I’m not worried,” the Master Torturer said over his shoulder, and muttered under his breath, for his own ears alone. “If anyone should be worried, it’s someone else, not me.”
The material sat in the chair and tried hard not to scream.
He’d often imagined what he’d do if he were ever in this situation, the kind of imagining that felt safe simply because he’d known that it couldn’t happen, not ever. It was only fun to imagine. Like everyone else, he’d been certain that he’d never make a noise; he’d be the one the Guild of Torturers could never break. It was totally safe to believe all that, because, of course, it would never happen.
But right now it was no longer imagination. There were straps round his wrists and ankles, around his waist and chest, and one even around his neck, though not so tight that he could not breathe.
He still had no idea why he was in this position. He, after all, had never done anything against the High Order that he knew of. He’d never committed a single crime. But they’d come for him all the same, two nights ago, and nothing he or his parents had said had made the slightest difference.
Not that his parents had said much. He still recalled his mother’s face, frightened but still resigned, while they were taking him away. And neither of them had ever come to see him after that.
No. He had done nothing. But it made no difference, any more than it reduced what was happening to his hands at the moment.
There was a board balanced on a stand, placed over his thighs. His hands were fixed to them by some kind of glue, palms down and fingers spread out, so that he couldn’t move them. The Master Torturer had already gone over them with a baton, each blow sending liquid waves of pain flowing up his wrist into his arm. At first he’d gasped, and then he’d moaned, and tried to hold on as long as possible. Now, at last, he couldn’t do it any longer, and he opened his mouth to scream.
The apprentice standing behind the chair was ready for this moment. The thick gag in his hands was in the material’s mouth before he’d even opened it all the way, and his shriek vanished in the folds of padded leather. He bit down on it, as the Master Torturer struck again.
The usher looked up at the audience. “Watch carefully. Remember, this could happen to any one of you. Anyone at all. Watch, and remember.” He glared up at the lumpy young woman in the back, who wasn’t looking truculent any longer. She was just looking sick. “This is just the start. In a day or two, we’ll see what happens when you wrap him in a net and put him in water. It’s going to be an educational experience for everybody.”
The Master Torturer didn’t even look up. The apprentices had taken blunt knives from the cabinet and thrust them into the brazier, so that the blades were now incandescent. Lightly, as lightly as a butterfly landing on a flower, he applied the first blade on the back of the material’s hand, just for a moment to let the heat work, before removing it again.
“Don’t apply it for too long,” he murmured to the apprentice, taking the second hot knife from him. “We don’t want him to faint, do we?”
The material’s head was sagging by the time the Master Torturer took up the broad, thin sharp razor blades for the last part of today’s performance, and he was no longer trying to scream. But he was still fully aware. The Master Torturer was far too good at his job to let him escape into unconsciousness, and that, too, was why he was the Master Torturer.
This bit with the razor was the most delicate part of the job. Cut too shallow, and nothing would happen except a little bleeding. Cut too deep, and he might sever nerves and tendons; and it was not part of the plan to cripple the material’s hands totally, at least not yet. The idea was to create flat rectangular scars, which would not fade, which would serve as a reminder, even when all other functions of the hands were gone. The Master Torturer knew just how to do it.
“Watch carefully,” he said to the apprentices, and the thin razor blade bit into the flinching flesh, so smoothly that the skin peeled away like the rind of a fruit. “Watch, and learn.”
The evening’s long shadows had pooled down on the city as the usher walked past the guards into the High Order’s headquarters. The guards didn’t ask him for identification; he was well known to them.
His immediate superior in the High Order was waiting for him in his office. “How did it go?”
The usher sat down and slipped back the cowl. “As expected. Are you sure the material is the right one?”
“Of course. All the tests we did said so. We checked his educational performance, his personal behaviour, everything. He matched all the criteria. Why, do you have any doubts?”
The usher shrugged. “Not really. It’s just my first time with one like him, that’s all. What does the Leader say?”
“He wants a successor. That’s what he says. He wants one to be prepared, starting right away.” The superior tapped his thumbnail on his teeth. “Here, talk to him yourself.”
“What?” But the usher found himself taking the microphone the other man had handed him. “Leader?”
“It’s not easy, being the Leader.” The familiar rasping voice came into the usher’s ear as clearly as though the Leader were in the same room instead of somewhere in the maze of the city, perhaps far away. Nobody but the Leader’s closest advisors and bodyguards knew where he was. Not even the Leader himself knew. “One needs to be totally objective about everything.”
“Yes, Leader,” the usher said, licking his lips nervously.
“You can’t trust the input of your own senses, because that makes the data you receive subjective. Therefore you must be purged of the input of your senses. You can’t be soft-hearted, because you need to take hard decisions for the common good. You need to know what pain is, because only then can you have it inflicted on others with a clean conscience. Am I being clear?”
“Abundantly, Leader,” the usher said.
“Good. So you will have no further doubts about the material, and about the process he is undergoing. I am sure you agree fully.”
“Oh, I do, Leader,” the usher said fervently, not meeting the superior’s eyes. “Believe me, I do.”
The Master Torturer glanced across at the usher. “Ready when you are.”
The usher glanced up at the galleries, making sure everyone was in place. He spoke into his cowl. The door beside the stage opened.
They wheeled in the material on a stretcher, because after they’d finished with his feet yesterday, he could no longer walk. They no longer needed to strap his wrists, because he’d lost the use of his hands long ago. When they propped him up on the stretcher, all he needed was a leather strap across his chest.
Today, but for one item of clothing, he was naked. That one item was a black hood that fell over his face, featureless except for two round glass windows over the eyes. Under the hood was a gag, and tubes that ran into his nose to make sure he kept breathing, hooked to tubes pumping gas that was meant to make certain he stayed conscious, even when the Master Torturer got to work between his legs.
Sex, too, was something a future Leader could not afford to have on his mind, and getting rid of it was part of the process. The apprentices kept the head end of the stretcher propped up high enough to let him watch.
As long as he still had the use of his eyes, they were determined to make him see.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016