“You’ve seen Belladonna?” Dr. Rosendieb leaned forward in his chair, steepling his hands in front of his lips. His eyes were wide and he looked slightly maddened. “Our Lady of…?”
“Seen her, spoken to her, and regretted it every time,” said Phlebitis. “She’s marginally better company than Madame Sosotris, but most of the time you wouldn’t be able to tell.”
“But Belladonna isn’t real,” said Dr. Rosendieb. “All of the best authors – Crackell, Swithburn, Malakine – agree on this. She’s not real, she’s an archetype. There’s an element of the sea god in her, a shadow of Poseidon on her soul maybe, but she’s just a figment of the imagination of sailors starved or dehydrated at sea. A salt-dream, if you will.”
Phlebitis crossed his legs, resting one ankle on the other knee. It wasn’t a comfortable position, but no position in this plastic chair bolted to the floor was comfortable. He looked Dr. Rosendieb in the eye, wishing that the man would blink occasionally, and then wondering where his first mate was. The Doctor had ordered him brought here twenty minutes ago.
“She’s not a dream of any kind,” he said. “She’s not exactly real, I’ll give you that. She manifests herself through other people, but you have no doubt when you’re in her presence. She’s unmistakeable. And anyway, you’re here asking me about Paysmort which most people think is a fiction, listening to me tell you about the Unreal City which parents tell their children to scare them before bedtime, and you’re complaining that Belladonna isn’t real?”
Dr. Rosendieb lowered his hands and had the grace to look a little discomforted. His eyes stopped bulging so much, and he blinked much to Phlebitis’s relief. Then he rubbed his eyes with his knuckles, taking several seconds over it. When he opened them and saw Phlebitis watching him, he shrugged.
“They felt gritty,” he said. “Dry, somehow. Yes, ok, I get that you’re telling me ten fantastic things before breakfast, but there are other sources that corroborate the Unreal City, the Lilies from the Dead Land and other things you’ve said. Everyone says that Belladonna isn’t real.”
“Except the man who’s actually been to all those places,” said Phlebitis. “That should count for something.”
“Maybe….” It was clear that Dr. Rosendieb wasn’t about to give in easily.
“Where’s my first mate?” Phlebitis decided that he’d waited long enough. “I’ve told you quite a lot now, and I was promised the return of my first mate.”
“I don’t know.” Dr. Rosendieb pushed a button on an intercom on his desk, a squat little box that could be locked inside the desk when he was interviewing dangerous patients. The box squawked, and he spoke briefly to someone called Matthieu. The box squawked in response, but Phlebitis couldn’t make out enough of the words to understand what was being said. He avoided looking around the room, which seemed intended to make any madman’s condition worse, and to make any sane person think that they were actually mad.
“There seems to be a problem,” said Rosendieb, turning the intercom off. “Would you like to come with me?”
“No,” said Phlebitis, “but I’d like staying here by myself less. Where are we going?”
“To see your first mate,” said Rosendieb. “It seems that he’s refusing to leave his room.”
The corridors of the Tiergarten were empty. They were tiled with clean white tiles, and the walls were painted a bilious shade of green that was somehow both monotonous and calming. After his initial repulsion for a corridor and a half Phlebitis found himself quite pleased to each new uniform corridor, and found himself getting annoyed when a door appeared in the middle of a wall, disrupting the clear, blank expanse of wall. When they actually stopped in front of a door he felt irrationally angry for several seconds, and then he realised that Rosendieb was watching him.
“What is that?” he said, gesturing with both hands, trying to indicate everything that they’d just walked through.
“Institutional psychology,” said Dr. Rosendieb. “It’s a subtle neurological effect that tries to get the patient to co-operate in their captivity. If it’s bothering you, put your fingers in your ears. There’s a very high-pitched tone transmitted through all of the corridors that increases suggestibility in listeners. You get it at a lot of rallies, too.
Your first mate is in here. Matthieu thinks that he might be better suited to staying here.”
Dr. Rosendieb unlocked a small viewing panel in the door, which hinged downwards. Phlebitis stepped forwards and looked into a small cell with a jungle mural painted on all the walls that he could see. The bed was a flat slab of metal attached by one long side to the wall. There was a pillow and a blanket, and under the bed was a clay pot that he suspected was a chamber pot. A pair of shoes had been stuffed under the pillow. The room appeared empty.
Phlebitis stepped back and gestured to the viewport. “I don’t see anyone in there,” he said.
“What?” Dr. Rosendieb looked confused, and peered in. “I’m sure he is AAARGGH!” he said, his words suddenly transforming into a scream. He staggered back from the door, white-faced and one hand patting his chest. Phlebitis saw a pair of wild eyes staring out of the hatch and then they moved backwards to reveal more of a face. He waved once, and mimed putting his fingers in his ears.
“Are you alright, Doctor?” he asked. Dr. Rosendieb shook his head first, then bent over slightly, putting his hands on his knees, and sucked in a huge breath. As it came out again, he managed,
“Just. That was a bit of a shock.”
“Yes,” agreed Phlebitis. “Can I have my first mate back now?”
“He won’t… he won’t leave the cell,” said Rosendieb.
“Cell?” Phlebitis’s voice was perfectly innocent, but conveyed an impression of cold, unbending steel beneath his words.
“Room,” said the doctor. “Of course I meant room. Look, he won’t come out.”
“May I try?”
Dr. Rosendieb handed over a bunch of keys, one key singled out, wordlessly, and Phlebitis opened the door. His first mate, utterly naked, walked out with his fingers in his ears, and waggled his eyebrows at Phlebitis.
“I’m sure we’re free to leave, aren’t we, doctor?” said Phlebitis.
“Goddammit,” was all Rosendieb managed to spit out before they were out of earshot.