“So what’s the problem?” Matson didn’t bother to conceal his yawn. “I did silence the plane, although it’s technically against regulations, but I still can’t sleep properly in those seats. I want my bed, boy.”
Leonard was reasonably certain that, despite appearances, he was nearly ten years older than Professor Matson, and the boy bridled a little, but he was beginning to appreciate that perhaps he’d never appreciated Professor Matson before. “You silenced a whole plane? How many people was that?”
“About two hundred. I’ve had bigger audiences for lectures, so it’s not a big deal. Now what’s the problem? Spit it out, I’m leaving in two minutes.”
“I need a letter of referral from you,” said Leonard, getting straight to the point.
“For who, for what reason, to where?”
“For a man who has no eyes, and no obvious reason for having lost them,” said Leonard. “To a place I’m told is a hospital of some kind, called Our Lady of the Rocks, and because there are people there who might be the only people who can help him now.”
Professor Matson sat in silence for a moment, and Leonard suddenly realised that he had mismatched eyes; one was green and one was blue. Matson steepled his fingers together and leaned back in the chair, resting his chin and nose on his fingers. When he spoke his fingers jerked as his mouth moved, and it looked rather odd.
“Belladonna is Our Lady of the Rocks,” he said. “She’s kind of the opposite of a goddess for drowning sailors; instead of beseeching her to save them, or bring them driftwood, or wash them ashore, they pray to her that the ocean take them instead. She’s rather darkly aspected most of the time. You won’t have come across her much in the standard literature, she’s pretty much only discussed on stone tablets and temple inscriptions, and there are many scholars who think that she’s immoral and shouldn’t be discussed anyway.”
“Can people call themselves scholars if they think that?”
“Certainly. Especially when their tradition of scholarship is deeply intertwined with their religion and their holy book explicitly deals in morality and ethics.”
“She’s not European then?”
“Hard to say. But she is Our Lady of the Rocks, and the building with that name is more of hospice than a hospital, as you might now have guessed.”
“What’s the difference?”
“A hospital seeks to cure you, a hospice seeks to make you comfortable while you die. It’s an oversimplification of course, but I’m tired and want my bed. There are six beds and one nurse at this hospice, and I believe only three of the beds are filled, so there will be space for your patient. How did he come to lose his eyesight?”
“Not his eyesight, his eyes. We don’t know. He is lucid, but when we ask him about it he gets a bit hysterical. There seems to have been some woman he approached, or who approached him; it’s not clear from what he’s saying. Either way, he seems to have spent an evening drinking with her, and then left with her in a taxi. And at some point during that journey she removed his eyes and left him. The taxi driver seems to have panicked and dumped him at the side of the road and driven off. The police were called by some students passing by who’d been out clubbing, and then he made his way to us through the usual channels.”
“Ah.” Professor Matson unsteepled his fingers and suddenly looked very tired indeed. “I’ll write you your letter now, if you have pen and paper?” Leonard passed them across the table. “You have a bigger worry, I think, Leonard. The people in the hospice are academics; they’re people who research… well, the kinds of things that we then un-research if you like. They are all people who’ve studied a device called the Silver Carillon that was returned from an expedition that may or may not have ventured on to the Plains of Leng. This device appears to steal senses from people who learn how to use it; sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. After that it steals something else that leaves them a semi-comatose husk. However, it doesn’t take their eyes or their ears or their nose. But there are creatures that do, and they are called the Ilmatu. And they are normally confined to the far north of the world, as they are creatures of ice and cold. If you have one on the loose down here now, that will be a serious problem, and it will have to be contained. I suggest you contact an old friend of the department’s and talk to her. Because you will need her help. There you go.” He pushed the letter across the table and stood up.
“What’s her name?” asked Leonard, reading the letter. It seemed all in order.