scratching at the smooth wall, giving a squeal of terror. You stupid, stupid bastard! His cane clattered to the floor, his clumsy feet wrestled with the stones and he found himself at the bottom, by some miracle still standing.

And here it is. That horrible, beautiful, stretched out moment between stubbing your toe and feeling the hurt. How long do I have before the pain comes? How bad will it be when it does? Gasping, slack-jawed at the foot of the steps, Glokta felt a tingling of anticipation. Here it comes…

The agony was unspeakable, a searing spasm up his left side from foot to jaw. He squeezed his watering eyes tight shut, clamped his right hand over his mouth so hard that the knuckles clicked. His remaining teeth grated against each other as he locked his jaws together, but a high-pitched, jagged moan still whistled from him. Am I screaming or laughing? How do I tell the difference? He breathed in heaving gasps, through his nose, snot bubbling out onto his hand, his twisted body shaking with the effort of staying upright.

The spasm passed. Glokta moved his limbs cautiously, one by one, testing the damage. His leg was on fire, his foot numb, his neck clicked with every movement, sending vicious little stings down his spine. Pretty good, considering. He bent down with an effort and snatched up his cane between two fingers, drew himself up once more, wiped the snot and tears on the back of his hand. Truly a thrill. Did I enjoy it? For most people stairs are a mundane affair. For me, an adventure! He limped off down the corridor, giggling quietly to himself. He was still smiling ever so faintly when he reached his own door and shuffled inside.

A grubby white box with two doors facing each other. The ceiling was too low for comfort, the room too brightly lit by blazing lamps. Damp was creeping out of one corner and the plaster had erupted with flaking blisters, speckled with black mould. Someone had tried to scrub a long bloodstain from one wall, but hadn’t tried nearly hard enough.

Practical Frost was standing on the other side of the room, big arms folded across his big chest. He nodded to Glokta, with all the emotion of a stone, and Glokta nodded back. Between them stood a scarred, stained wooden table, bolted to the floor and flanked by two chairs. A naked fat man sat in one of them, hands tied tightly behind him and with a brown canvas bag over his head. His quick, muffled breathing was the only sound. It was cold down here, but he was sweating. As well he should be.

Glokta limped over to the other chair, leaned his cane carefully against the edge of the table top and slowly, cautiously, painfully sat down. He stretched his neck to the left and right, then allowed his body to slump into a position approaching comfort. If Glokta had been given the opportunity to shake the hand of any one man, any one at all, he would surely have chosen the inventor of chairs. He has made my life almost bearable.

Frost stepped silently out of the corner and took hold of the loose top of the bag between meaty, pale finger and heavy, white thumb. Glokta nodded and the Practical ripped it off, leaving Salem Rews blinking in the harsh light.

A mean, piggy, ugly little face. You mean, ugly pig, Rews. You disgusting swine. You’re ready to confess right now, I’ll bet, ready to talk and talk without interruption, until we’re all sick of it. There was a big dark bruise across his cheek and another on his jaw above his double chin. As his watering eyes adjusted to the brightness he recognised Glokta sitting opposite him, and his face suddenly filled with hope. A sadly, sadly misplaced hope.

“Glokta, you have to help me!” he squealed, leaning forward as far as his bonds would allow, words bubbling out in a desperate, mumbling mess. “I’m falsely accused, you know it, I’m innocent! You’ve come to help me, yes? You’re my friend! You have influence here. We’re friends, friends! You could say something for me! I’m an innocent man, falsely accused! I’m—”

Glokta held up his hand for silence. He stared at Rews’ familiar face for a moment, as though he had never laid eyes on him before. Then he turned to Frost. “Am I supposed to know this man?”

The albino said nothing. The bottom part of his face was hidden by his Practical’s mask, and the top half gave nothing away. He stared unblinking at the prisoner in the chair, pink eyes as dead as a corpse. He hadn’t blinked once since Glokta came into the room. How can he do that?

“It’s me, Rews!” hissed the fat man, the pitch of his voice rising steadily towards panic. “Salem Rews, you know me, Glokta! I was with you in the war, before… you know… we’re friends! We—”

Glokta held up his hand again and sat back, tapping one of his few remaining teeth with a fingernail as though deep in thought. “Rews. The name is familiar. A merchant, a member of the Guild of Mercers. A rich man by all accounts. I remember now…” Glokta leaned forward, pausing for effect. “He was a traitor! He was taken by the Inquisition, his property confiscated. You see, he had conspired to avoid the King’s taxes.” Rews’ mouth was hanging open. “The King’s taxes!” screamed Glokta, smashing his hand down on the table. The fat man stared, wide eyed, and licked at a tooth. Upper right side, second from the back.

“But where are our manners?” asked Glokta of no one in particular. “We may or may not have known each other once, but I don’t think you and my assistant have been properly introduced. Practical Frost, say hello to this fat man.”

It was an open-handed blow, but powerful enough to knock Rews clean out of his seat. The chair rattled but was otherwise unaffected. How is that done? To knock him to the ground but leave the chair standing? Rews sprawled gurgling across the floor, face flattened on the tiles.

“He reminds me of a beached whale,” said Glokta absently. The albino grabbed Rews under the arm and hauled him up, flung him back into the chair. Blood seeped from a cut on his cheek, but his piggy eyes were hard now. Blows make most men soften up, but some men harden. I never would have taken this one for a tough man, but life is full of surprises.

Rews spat blood onto the table top. “You’ve gone too far here, Glokta, oh yes! The Mercers are an honourable guild; we have influence! They won’t put up with this! I’m a known man! Even now my wife will be petitioning the King to hear my case!”

“Ah, your wife.” Glokta smiled sadly. “Your wife is a very beautiful woman. Beautiful, and young. I fear, perhaps, a little too young for you. I fear she took the opportunity to be rid of you. I fear she came forward with your books. All the books.” Rews’ face paled.

“We looked at those books,” Glokta indicated an imaginary pile of papers on his left, “we looked at the books in the treasury,” indicating another on his right. “Imagine our surprise when we could not make the numbers add up. And then there were the night-time visits by your employees to warehouses in the old quarter, the small unregistered boats, the payments to officials, the forged documentation. Must I go on?” asked Glokta, shaking his head in profound disapproval. The fat man swallowed and licked his lips.

Pen and ink were placed before the prisoner, and the paper of confession, filled out in detail in Frost’s beautiful, careful script, awaiting only the signature. I’ll get him right here and now.

“Confess, Rews,” Glokta whispered softly, “and put a painless end to this regrettable business. Confess and name your accomplices. We already know who they are. It will be easier on all of us. I don’t want to hurt you, believe me, it will give me no pleasure.” Nothing will. “Confess. Confess, and you will be spared. Exile in Angland is not so bad as they would have you believe. There is still pleasure to be had from life there, and the satisfaction of a day of honest work, in the service of your King. Confess!” Rews stared at the floor, licking at his tooth. Glokta sat back and sighed.

“Or not,” he said, “and I can come back with my instruments.” Frost moved forward, his massive shadow falling across the fat man’s face. “Body found floating by the docks,” Glokta breathed, “bloated by seawater and horribly mutilated… far… far beyond recognition.” He’s ready to talk. He’s fat and ripe and ready to burst. “Were the injuries inflicted before or after death?” he asked the ceiling breezily. “Was the mysterious deceased a man or a woman even?” Glokta shrugged. “Who can say?”

There was a sharp knock at the door. Rews’ face jerked up, filled with hope again. Not now, damn it! Frost went to the door, opened it a crack. Something was said. The door shut, Frost leaned down to whisper in Glokta’s ear.

“Ith Theverar,” came the half-tongued mumble, by which Glokta understood that Severard was at the door.

Already? Glokta smiled and nodded, as if it was good news. Rews’ face fell a little. How could a man whose business has been concealment find it impossible to hide his emotions in this

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