Someone landed hard on top of me, and the patch of light slammed out. For a while my personal darkness was alive with sparkles, while I got my breath back. By the time I succeeded, the other fellow had rolled off and was lying nearby, cursing feebly.
My main problem with all this was that I had been unconscious till now, and had no idea how I had got here. The noise of the door opening must have roused me. When I could breathe again, I started thinking back.
I had left the shop that morning with a consignment of cakes for the College of the Nine Swooping Kestrels' annual banquet, a parcel of rolls for the Head of the Order of the Blue Immaculates, and the regular deliveries. I had jogged quietly down Sard Street, turned into College Square, and--
Memory confronted me with a pair of leering metal masks, with rough gauntleted hands pulling me from the cart, and with a sudden white-gold impact that knocked me spinning away from it all and down into darkness. I wondered briefly if anyone had returned the cart and horses to the bakery. Probably not: I had seen someone taken by the Sable Guard once. Their possessions had simply been left in the street for anyone to grab. I still had the copper cloak pin. Correction: I had still had it. Now it would go to Geven, or Saranna if she was quick...
By this time I was crying, noisily, painfully. That phrase "taken by the Sable Guard" had hit home. Someone had informed on me, or I had been incautiously talkative in public, and I had been removed from society. My family would be under suspicion themselves by now.
That thought stopped my weeping cold. Somehow I must protect them. When the torturers or the jailers or whoever came to do whatever they did to people in here, I must tell them that Geven and the children were completely innocent, that they knew nothing of my treason. The fact that I knew nothing of it myself was another problem.
A door opened somewhere, letting in another patch of light, cool and bright like daylight. A figure appeared and came towards us. My companion had fallen silent some time ago.
"Please, sire," I found myself blurting, "please spare my wife and children. They knew nothing, they are innocent, hard-working, they honour the Law--"
"Shut up," said the figure pleasantly. "I have some important talking to do. Your family can wait for a while. First, why do you think you are here?"
I racked my brains for some specific crime. Had I maligned one of the Orders? Had I spoken slightingly of the Law? There were those late-night discussions at Semrit's tavern, but surely--
"All right, try another. Who do you think rules this city?"
That was easy. "The Orders of Knighthood and the Colleges of the Wise govern us under the Law."
"Ah yes, of course. And the Sable Chamber?"
"Exists to detect and punish those who are a menace to the peace and order of society."
"Good. Now, in what way are you a menace to the peace and so on?"
"Honestly, sire, I don't know." I was starting to blubber again. I wished he would just tell me what my punishment would be.
"All right. How does one become a member of an Order or a College?"
"The--the competitive examinations." I could not fathom this crazy catechism, but he wasn't going to catch me out. "Physical and mental for the Orders, specialised and academic for the Colleges. There are fifty-seven grades of achievement in the Order of--"
"Yes, yes. So the Knights and the Wise spend a lot of time studying and exercising for the examinations. What else do they do?"
"They--um--attend the theatres and concerts, and take part in the games in the Grand Stadium, and--" Swagger around the streets a lot, I started to say, but caught myself.
"A pretty full life, in fact." I was startled when my questioner changed the subject completely. "What happens to people who are taken by the Sable Guard?"
"No-one knows," I said, my fear returning. "Presumably they--we are tortured and killed."
"For what? Talking freely in taverns? Publishing broadsheets? Orating on street corners?" A laugh came out of the darkness. It didn't sound like a torturer's laugh. "Tell me, friend, do you honestly think those swaggering popinjays of Knights or those cloistered intellectuals in the Colleges are really competent to rule a city this size?"
"But the tests--the studies--"
"Oh, they can be useful in administration, and they brighten up the streets no end, but they all have one flaw." The figure leaned closer. "They want power, my friend. They seek it avidly. That's why they do what they do. They want power, and they get it, as much as they can handle and no more." The voice dropped to a whisper. "How would you ensure fair and honest government in this city?"
I thought a moment. "Find someone who has never sought power," I said. "Pick someone off the street, and--"
"Exactly," the figure said, while I was still trying to cope with what had just hit me. "Not just anyone, of course. Someone who has ideas, who thinks. The sort of person who could be a menace to the peace and order of society." He helped me to my feet. "Come and meet the other prisoners. It's a quiet life here, but comfortable. Oh--are you sure your family are above suspicion?"
"Actually," I said, "I think they might bear watching." A thought struck me, and I indicated the other new arrival. "What about him?"
The other bent over him. "Dead," he said. "Poison. Must have been a genuine traitor. We do get them sometimes." He straightened up. "Come along. There are decisions to make, and we could use a new perspective."
I followed him into the light, out of the Sable Chamber.